Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Random Acts of Kindness

Malawians are incredibly warm and considerate in such a gentle, unassuming way. My days are often peppered by random considerate acts or words, and today was no exception...

After work, I got on my bike to ride the 8ish km home, and the metal rung that I was using as a pedal fell promptly off. I tried to jam it back in, but it wouldn’t hold. There was no other option to push the bike in the blistering sun.
I figured that the walk will take an hour an a half and worried about walking with this shiny new bicycle (it puts me in a more vulnerable place because I don’t have any hands free and also draws attention).

I start pushing the bike up the first hill, then sit on the bike while I whiz down the other side, using gravity to take me to the bottom. This is the fastest method to get home and I continue this for about 30minutes when a man rides his bicycle past me.
He turns and looks, slows down and inspects my bike to see what is wrong. He gets off his bike and tries to fix it. When that doesn’t work, he offers me his bicycle to ride, saying that he knows how to ride mine. We try to switch but his is too big for me (I’m 5’2 with short legs) and I can’t reach the peddles from the seat.
Instead of continuing on home and leaving me alone, he pushes his bike beside me – the whole way.

Samson pushing his bike just ahead of me
At the top of hills we climb onto our bikes and ride down the other side, but other than that we walk and chat – him on the outside to protect me from the passing traffic. His name is Samson and he teaches me some Chichewa words and tells me about his children. When he drops me at the bike mechanic beside my place after a good hour of walking beside me he wishes me well, using the word ‘daughter’ as a term of endearment. Only when he sees me safe inside the gates does he get on his bike and continue home.  


Valentines Day

Today is Valentines day, a holiday that I don’t usually observe.

Like many of us, I get jaded by the sickly sweet commercialization of human emotion.
Yet behind the candy coating (and in Malawi, the Valentines Day sarongs that are being sold everywhere), this year I am wondering if there may be something that I can learn from this holiday?

When I was young, my Parents would always have presents waiting for us when we woke up on February 14 – pink clothing, chocolate, a recycled card.
They were doing that which we, as humans do to function. Codifying something that we feel inside and sharing it in a way that hopefully someone else will understand.

My parents have so much love for their children and they completely spoiled (and continue to spoil) us. Those Valentines Days past, I always felt special and enjoyed the treats.

Today, I am feeling a bit raw.

I said goodbye to my roommate who moved out today. Tyler has created a safe and fun space in our home this past 3 months. It has become a place that I look forward to coming home to - somewhere I feel like I belong. My home has been my lifeline during my time here thus far.

I hugged him goodbye, mumbled something and walked away quickly as to avoid the waterworks - I didn’t want to cry and make him uncomfortable. Tears or not, I will miss him.

Goodbyes have become a regular part of my life - a constant in the whirlwind adventure that I am currently living. It feels odd to find stability in departures.

In December it was the first batch of friends, a group of 4 women that we jokingly dubbed ‘the North American Sensations’. At the end of this month, it will be my dear friends Holly and Elsa with whom I travelled. Soon after, a few other friends will leave.

This myriad of goodbyes has almost replaced my calendar as a measure of time. ‘2 months ago? That was when Niamh and Loida left… Last month? It was Heather… Next week? That is when Uttara goes…’

All of these goodbyes have left me feeling opened. I feel simultaneously surrounded by love and alone.

(A quick apology to any frequent blog readers, but I have recently decided that I won’t hold back in my writing if I feel that I need to express something. Regardless of where I am, if I feel words coming, I put pen to paper. This means that you may get some sappy, half-baked poetry. At least today I have Saint Valentine as an excuse.)
This morning before yet another particularly difficult goodbye, I sat down on the floor and wrote:

Something that Africa has not yet taught me
Despite all her trying
Is how to say goodbye

People whir by and each connection is fleeting -
Transiting is a way of life but I can’t not feel

If I was divided before, I live fragmented now
 I will go to the earth as dust

This Valentines Day, instead of rejecting the commercial aspects of the holiday, I am ripping apart the red foil and sparkly cellophane and diving in to embrace the real stuff. Despite being undone by the transient nature of my relationships in Malawi, I appreciate what each has offered and the love that each person has brought to my life.
Love exists and we all need it – it is essential, especially when surrounded by so much suffering.
Instead of being hardened, I’m choosing to be soft. I know that if I risk being a bit uncomfortable, I will be opened to the potential of nurturing human connection, the possibility of being a bit of light and hope in a place that oftentimes feels dim.

They say its better to light a candle than to curse the dark.
Today I choose to be love.

Lusaka to Lilongwe

Our final destination before heading back to Lilongwe was Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city.
Lusaka has always had a special allure because of my dear friend and former volunteer colleague, Joan Anne.
One of the people that I admire most, Joan Anne worked for CUSO in Lusaka, coordinating volunteers in the region. This was during the time of South African apartheid, when the African National Congress (the political party which boasts Nelson Mandela as member, and former leader) was banned from South Africa. The ANC headquarters at the time was in Lusaka and she worked with them on post apartheid planning.
She would regale me with stories about Zambia’s sleepy capital city and how she would have to travel to Harare, Zimbabwe to eat at a nice restaurant.
It is against this backdrop that I entered Lusaka. When I provided Joan Anne an e-mail description of the present-day city, I could sense her shock - all the way from Canada!
Our guidebook said that Lusaka had a few shopping centres. Although I have never been much of a mall rat, the idea of a mall was quite enticing after a couple of months in Malawi. Elsa and I set out (Holly was sick and resting) not knowing what to expect. As we pull up to the mall, a strange feeling of excitement and disbelief sweeps over me. We are talking about a brand-new 3 story, Western Style mall!!!
We clamber out of the taxi and into the air conditioned building. Everything is so controlled – the light, music, temperature… We walk around stunned and keep on bumping into each other as we wander. I start to worry that other shoppers may think that we are on drugs because of how spaced out and weird I feel. After about 45 minutes, Elsa and I agree that we need to sit down and take a break. We find a corner in a fancy cafĂ©, order exorbitantly priced gourmet lattes and take a breather. We start feeling a bit better and decide to brave it again. To our dismay, the stores are beginning to close.
 We rush to the closest store and beg them to let us in but they refuse, saying that they are closed. Fortunately, one store employee sees the look of desperation in our eyes and quietly ushers us in after making us promise not to tell her boss. Elsa buys a pretty dress, her first new article of clothing in 7 months. We head up the ESCALATOR and are presented with a modern looking sushi restaurant! After finishing our meal, we go to the movie theatre and learn that there is a new Sarah Jessica Parker movie playing. We select our seats on the touch screen and pay for the movie on credit card.
After this last special day, I am ready for the 12 hour bus ride back to Malawi.
The following afternoon, the border guard stamps me into Malawi with a 2011 (rather than 2012) stamp, which we eventually (fortunately!) change to the right date.
As soon as we cross the border, the scenery changes drastically. Lush greenery fades quickly and brown withered grass and plants come into view. The clothing of the people we pass becomes tattered and hole-y. When the bus pulls into the Lilongwe station, I am overwhelmed and angered by the contrast. With a wealth of natural resources and tourism (among other reasons), Zambia and Tanzania are ‘haves’ to Malawi’s ‘not’.
Any remnants of my mistaken belief that all sub-Saharan African countries have similar economic landscapes fall away. Malawi, the Warm Heart of Africa, is struggling in her development. I am happy to be home and re-motivated by the privilege to be involved in development work but I can’t help but wonder… How much can one warm heart take before it breaks?

The Smoke that Thunders – Welcoming the New Year

 Coming from southern Ontario, I don’t get too excited about big waterfalls, given that we have Niagara Falls within close proximity. I treated Victoria Falls as one of those ‘check it off the list’ trips, but wasn’t expecting to find it all that exciting.
The indigenous name for Victoria Falls is ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’ which translates as the ‘Smoke that Thunders’. The late Scottish missionary, David Livingstone, named it ‘Victoria Falls’ in honour of his Queen. Although both names are still used, Victoria Falls prevails. As with much of history, the dark ink from the Western pen dominates narrations of days of old.
Smoke that Thunders seems like a much more accurate description than the name of a deceased European Monarch… the height and width of the waterfall forms the largest sheet of falling water in the world and makes it one of the seven natural wonders.
Hiking towards the first viewpoint, the falls come into view and I am immediately captivated. Within minutes, a rainbow forms as we take in the scenery from the cliff opposite the falls.

We eventually pry ourselves away so that we can return to the hostel before evening. We enjoy a delicious meal and discuss our goals for the upcoming year before heading out for a night ‘on the town’ in Livingstone.
In the taxi, we communicate with the taxi driver in English and broken Chichewa (Chichewa and the Zambian language of Nyasa are dialects from the Chewa ethnic group which spans across the Malawi-Zambia border). He tells us that his wife is from Malawi but doesn’t know where. In order to figure out which part she comes from, we ask him if he paid Lobola. Referred to in English as ‘bride price’, Lobola is customary only in only Malawi’s Northern Region.
This increasingly controversial tradition is said to bring families together and indicate that the man can support his wife financially. It is traditionally paid in cattle but nowadays it is becoming less frequent to give actual cows. Instead, the price is determined in cattle and then converted into cash based on the market value of the cows.
The driver tells us that he did indeed pay lobola, and we conclude that his wife is from Northern Malawi. He then proceeds to tell us that we would fetch a good price because ‘we can make coloureds’ (‘coloured’ is the widely accepted term to refer to people of mixed race, mostly black and white). He says we are each worth 10 cows, but that Elsa would fetch an additional few cows because she knows how to cook Nsima (the local staple dish).
He drops us off, and we celebrate the arrival of the new year. I feel grateful to mark the beginning of 2012 in one of the most beautiful places on earth with two wonderful women.
We wake up early the next morning and head back to the falls. We have arranged for breakfast on Livingstone Island, where David Livingstone is said to have seen the falls for the first time and the only land accessible in the middle of the falls.
Elsa - On the boat heading towards 'the smoke that thunders'

Tour Guide (Alpha Omega) & I on the way to Livingstone Island
 Our tour guide, Alpha Omega, takes us out by boat to the island on the edge of the falls. We use the rocks protruding from the water as stepping stones and are guided nervously to the edge.

Next on the itinerary is ‘Devil’s Jacuzzi’, a pool of water just before the 108 metre drop. The guide assures us that despite the pool’s location, there is an underwater wall of rock that would prevent us from going over.
I strip down to my bathing suit and tentatively climb in. The girls soon see that it is easy and follow suit. It is absolutely incredible to be in the water, peaking over the largest waterfall in the world to the thundering sound of water hitting rocks far below.

We dry off and breakfast is served in a tent on the island. After the train, warm muffins and eggs benedict are an incredible treat. What a way to spend the first day of 2012!

Ringing in the New Year - Bridge on the Bridge!

The Tanzara Railway... and then some

The Tanzania-Zambia Railway (TAZARA) is the largest single item foreign-aid project ever undertaken by China. Also called Uhuru (kiSwahili for Freedom Railway) and the Tanzam (Tanzania/Zambia) Railway, it runs from the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam to Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia. It was built between 1970 and 1975 as a way to give landlocked Zambia an alternative to export routes via white minority ruled Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) or Apartheid South Africa.
Aside from being an interesting piece of history, the train offers passengers (including curious backpackers such as ourselves) a unique way to travel overland from Tanzania to Zambia with the whole trip from Dar es Salaam to Kapiri Mposhi taking 2 days and spanning 1860 kilometers.
Back in Dar es Salaam from our ‘Crater Christmas’, Holly, Elsa and I board the train in the stifling heat. We find our cabin (thankfully we managed to obtain ‘first class’ tickets – less than 50 dollars each) and wonder how we will endure 2 days of the unbearably hot weather.
Day 1 - Holly before the train starts moving

Day 1 - Elsa and I outside the train in Dar es Salaam

Elsa in our Cabin

We are relived when we manage to pry the windows open and the train starts moving, cooling everything down.
Our Canadian friends from the Zanzibar part of our trip join us for the first 27 hours as they live close one of the Tanzania border stops (on the Malawi side).
The first day is lots of fun. We hang out in the bar car where there are couches and beer. After 24 hours, we stop at Mbeya to bid farewell to our friends. Not only is the train running 3 hours ahead of time, but the ride has been quite smooth. (We had heard horror stories from a nurse who recounted re-attaching a man’s finger after having it partially severed when jumping between cars).
In the lounge car

The train chugs away from Mbeya station and we settle into the meal car for lunch, pleased with the good time we are making. This means that we can spend some extra time in the Zambian capital of Lusaka before heading to Victoria Falls to ring in the New Year.
Our food arrives and Elsa and I are chatting animatedly about our upcoming adventures when the train lurches, then stops. When it starts moving backwards, our smiles fade into looks of confusion... What is happening?
We backtrack to Mbeya where the train grinds to a halt. No one can tell us what is happening.
After a few hours of waiting, I get off the train and climb onto an out-of-commission cargo car to watch the sunset.
Back in the train, everything has become dark. The three unfortunate side effects of a stopped train are:
1)   No electricity
2)   No running water
3)   The closure of ALL OF THE LATRINES, save one.
We are on a train with hundreds of passengers and ONE squat latrine, without running water. You do the math.

On my way back to our room, I stumble upon Elsa who is happens to be chatting with a slick looking man. He has a lazy eye and is sitting drinking a beer while he hits on her shamelessly. I wonder why she is tolerating it until she introduces him as the conductor. This is how we learn that the locomotive is broken (whatever that means!) and that they need to get a spare part. The conductor assures us that it will be fixed soon, but when we wake up the next morning, we haven’t moved an inch. 
We buy fried dough and bananas from vendors at the side of the track while we wait… and wait… I start to read to pass the time. A full novel later, we still haven’t moved. We are starting to feel dirty going on three days of not showering, but there is nothing to do. We still haven’t entered Zambia and our money is running low. As night falls, metal creaks and the train finally starts chugging forward.
I am lulled to sleep by the soft swaying of the train...
Sleeping peacefully... for a short while
... but soon learn that this portion of the journey is not as smooth as the last as I awake gasping in mid-air. Seconds later my body crashes down onto the hard mattress.
Holly and Elsa have claimed bottom bunks, so I am on a top bunk with a small rail that runs part way along the edge of the bed. As I am hurled repeatedly into the air, I doubt that the measly rail is as high as the space between my airborne body and the mattress .I curl into a ball in hopes that centralizing my weight will keep me closer to the bed. I position myself as close as possible to the wall and make sure to centre my body parallel to the rail. 
The night continues for what feels like forever as I drift in and out of consciousness in a painful and terrified state of confusion. Every time I wake up I’m sure that, this time, the train has derailed. How else could it be so bumpy, sway so wildly? I start thinking about train crashes… how people use the term ‘train wreck’ to describe really bad situations, why in my first aid training they would always model train accidents as the ultimate disaster…
Sometime during the night, the train stops and a flashlight illuminates our cabin. We are crossing the border and the Zambian immigration officials have boarded the train. They claim that the train is too dark to issue visas before leaving. The train jolts its cargo (including our deceptive passports which state that we are in Tanzania) forward as the sun rises over Zambia.
In the morning, the girls and I recount the horrific night and strategize as how to best protect ourselves in the case of a crash (Elsa recommends that we sleep with our heads towards the interior of the train so that in the event it tips over, our heads will be last to land). Bruises form on my hips as the Zambian countryside displays herself. At this point, we have been on the train for 3 nights.
Before seeing much of Zambia, the train grinds to a halt yet again.
We silently hope that this is a regularly planned stop at a dusty station in rural Zambia, but as the hours pass, the latrines close and dusk threatens her re-arrival, our hope dwindles.
Elsa and I set out to find the conductor to ask what has happened this time. He sips his beer and tells us that a fertilizer train has derailed in front of us, blocking our path forward. Not only do they need to drag the train out of the way, but there are also a bajillion tons of fertilizer that need to be shoveled off the track.
At this point, we cancel the second night of our hostel reservation in Livingstone and settle in for another night on the train. If we don’t move soon, we will spend new years eve on the train instead of Victoria falls.
The ridiculousness of the situation strikes us and we sit in the dark giggling while we much on fried dough and bananas… We play music and set my hanging flashlight to the ‘emergency’ setting so that it flashes in the dark like a strobe light. We tell stories to distract ourselves from the fact that we are sitting filthy on the train for the 4th night in a row.
4th night dance party

After picture - on the ground after 5 days on the train

The next morning the track is cleared and we continue without further delay to our final destination. All in all, the journey has taken 5 days and 4 nights. We disembark at the Kapiri Mposhi station at dusk and explain to the station staff that we aren’t official stamped into the country. A few phone calls later, an immigration official arrives to process our visas. As soon as we are stamped in and our location and passports are re-synchronized, the station power goes off. The only light we have is from my flashlight and the occasional flickers of lightening in the distance. We have to get to Lusaka, about 200 km away to board a bus to Livingstone Victoria falls.
We stumble over luggage and shadows of people in the eerily dark station. In both Malawi and some parts of Zambia, taxis are quite unofficial making it next to impossible to tell the difference between a taxi and a regular car.
We ask for the taxi stand and take down the car’s license plate number before negotiating a price to the Kapiri Mposhi bus station. As we drive through the dark town (yes, the power is out everywhere) our cab starts to slow down and pull over to a place where there are 2 other cars idle on the side of the road. We exchange nervous glances and then start yelling at the cab driver to keep moving.
He tells us that something isn’t working with the car, but we tell him to make it work.
In one silent moment, Elsa and I make eye contact… (A word on Elsa: wide-eyed and curly haired, this young woman works with children in a nutritional program in the village. She is soft-spoken and almost always smiling. In the 5% of the time when she isn’t being the biggest sweetheart ever, she happens to be one of the feistiest women I know. To illustrate this, let me share a quick story. A few months ago she was at a concert in Lilongwe when a man walked by and snatched her purse. Without a moment’s hesitation, she chased after him through the crowd. When he realized she was gaining in on him, he climbed up a wall in attempt to escape. She reached him when he was half-way up the wall - grabbed him by his belt loops, hauled him off the wall and reclaimed her purse before heading back to the concert.)
Back to the creepy taxi: Elsa quickly removes her headscarf and wraps one side around each of her hands, pulling the foot of remaining fabric taut. She is sitting behind him and if he tries anything, she will hold it around his neck and force him to drive. In fear and anticipation of what may come, I flip open the blade of my swiss army knife and hand Holly my whistle.
Fortunately the ‘car starts working’ and he speeds up and drives us to the bus station.
We arrive in Lusaka in the early hours of December 31st. There isn’t a 2am bus as we had been told and the next buses won’t leave until 7am. They open the bus and we curl up exhausted on our bus seats and sleep for the 5th consecutive in-transit night. As Lusaka wakes up on New Year’s eve day, the bus starts moving. 7 hours later, we finally arrive in Livingstone.
In my 26 years I have never been so happy to see a shower. It has been 6 days… We check into the hostel, shed our filthy backpacks and discuss who gets to shower in the comfort of the bathroom attached to our room (as opposed to the common showers used by those staying in dorms). Holly arises triumphant. Given that she wasn’t travelling with flip-flops, her only option for shower shoes are her plastic 5 inch heels. (I first found this out while staying at the grimy YWCA in Dar es Salaam – I howled with laughter at the sight of her coming out of the shower in black strappy stilettos and a towel.)
Clean and excited to be far away from the train, we set out to set out for Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world….

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Merry Crater Christmas

We had made and confirmed our reservation at the Arusha Inn, but upon arriving we are told that there isn’t enough room. We giggle, exhausted after the Sai Baba debacle and struck by the irony of there being ‘no room at the (Arusha) Inn’ for the Christmas leg of our journey. After some negotiation and questioning the hotel staff, we discover that there is one room with a King bed where the 3 of us can sleep. We burst into laughter again when we hear the number ‘3’ and the word ‘king’ in the same sentence and hum ‘we 3 kings’ on our way upstairs to the room. 

The next day we start our 2-day safari and enter a national park where we spot a few animals and have some fun. We stay overnight in a town just outside of the Ngorongoro Area, which contains the Ngorongoro crater.

Christmas Eve at Sunset
Christmas eve we watch the sunset and hang out at the lodge. We eat diner and pop a bottle of champagne. None of us have spent Christmas away from our families and we are all feeling a bit raw and nostalgic. We pass the bottle around, drinking to family and close friends and talking about our family Christmas traditions while laughing and shedding a few tears. Later in the evening, a young local man comes to the lodge and we strike up conversation. He is incredibly bright and speaks frankly about the problems in the region and his proposed solutions. He says that there is incredibly high HIV prevalence due to the through traffic of safari tour guides and the resulting sex industry. He also tells us the heart-wrenching story of how both of his parents died of AIDS related illness.

We accept his invitation to meet some of his friends in town and sit outside as Tanzanian youth bustle around the small central area of the town of Mosquito (really it was called Mosquito!). We then see our not-so-young and married tour guide drive by. A few minutes later we see him drive the other way flanked by a young woman in the passenger seat.

Based on our recent conversation about tour guides, HIV and the sex industry, this kills the mood and we decide to call it a night. We spend the final hours of Christmas eve and the first few hours of Christmas morning in serious and sometimes agitated conversation. We can't make assumptions, but we discuss our discomfort with the potential financial support we were providing to fuel the grim reality of HIV in the town. We have a open conversation and debate our differing views around responsibility and harm reduction.
I feel paralyzed by the realization that my every action has a (sometimes negative) impact. My head spins and I feel completely lost – I know nothing

We sleep a few hours and wake up to the painfully loud call to prayer emanating from the local Mosque. Usually I am enchanted by its sound, but today is sounds loud and flat.
We trudge to breakfast where our guide is waiting. We say hello and feign normalcy as we try to enjoy the treats we had brought for Christmas day – Amarula for our coffee, cheese and chocolate (all expensive rarities in Malawi). We share with our tour guide and I give the girls each an African headscarf as a gift before we set off for the crater.

The Ngorongoro Crater, often called the ‘8th Natural Wonder of the World’ and ‘Africa’s Eden’ is situated just South of the Serengeti in Tanzania. It is the world’s largest unbroken, unflooded volcanic caldera (if you are like me and didn’t know what a caldera is, Wikipedia describes it as ‘a cauldron-like volcanic feature usually formed by the collapse of land following a volcanic eruption). This particular crater was formed two to three million years ago by from the eruption of a massive volcano. It is estimated that, within the 2,000ft deep, 100 square mile crater, there are over 30,000 animals.

As we snake up the mountain towards the clouds, the upset of the night before fades away and excitement sets in. We decide to stop at a Maasai village to see how the Masaai people traditionally live. The Maasai are a semi-nomadic group of people that live in Northern Tanzania and Kenya. We meet the chief and negotiate a price before entering the village.

We leave and start descending into the crater. It looks absolutely stunning as the bright green plain welcomes us. The clouds hover gently on the edges of the crater – we are so high up that mountains touch their white softness.

As we descend it becomes quickly obvious that all isn’t well in paradise - something is wrong with our Safari vehicle. The guide can’t seem to shift very easily and we determine that there is a problem with the clutch. We make our way into the crater and he pulls over to fix the car. Not far from us is a herd of Zebras. We quietly open the door and sneak out to get a closer look. Someone makes a small noise and the guide spins around and while reprimanding us, chases us back towards the vehicle. As he yells at us to get back in, we giggle and try to stall to take a few more pictures.

He opens the roof of the vehicle to appease us and make sure we stay in the car. I climb through the opening and onto the roof. When he sees this, I receive another scolding before he clambers into the vehicle and we continue.

I have very few words to describe the experience of being in the crater. At this risk of sounding completely cliche, the best description I can offer is that I felt like I had stepped into Disney’s ‘the Lion King’.  We saw Elephants, Wildebeast, Warthogs, Lions, Hippos, Antelope, Buffalo, Monkeys and even the endangered black Rhino. There was even a rock that looked like pride rock!


Warthogs (aka Pumba)


Lioness in the tree - can you spot her?


The crater was like an incredible animal soup, and one of the most beautiful things I ever seen. We leave, tired and content, after our day of excitement.

What a way to spend Christmas! We gush about all of the animals that we saw and note with mild disappointment that the only thing we didn’t see were Giraffes.

On the drive back to Arusha, we see a herd of the gentle yellow and brown creatures.
We get out to be closer to the gentle animals. Completely satisfied, we drive back to Arusha as the sun sets behind us and Christmas draws to a close.