Saturday, December 31, 2005

Good Riddance

In my life, it has never been more true to say that it was the best of times and the worst of times.

I started 2005 at a job that I intensely disliked, working in a dysfunctional children's publishing company doing borderline monkey-work as if I were just starting out in the editorial world. But it was easy aside from the fact that no one liked each other, plus the money showed up as scheduled. And it was necessary—the dollar's plunge against the euro meant I'd spent the last of my money on living in Barcelona at the end of 2004, a cheap Ryanair flight from H.M.

Herr Marlboro was in his last year of university in the UK. He spent his 2005 Easter break in Jersey City. We gorged ourselves on a ridiculously indulgent Holiday Inn package in Atlantic City and went to see strange off-off-Broadway productions in Manhattan, including one where we were covered in shredded paper. We cooked. We watched Netflix DVDs. I (ineptly) tried to cook him bratwurst. He rode my bicycle around the edge of Manhattan.

Bells at the nearby Catholic church signified the death of the Pope on one of H.M.'s last days with me. On the way to the airport, he was quick to remind me that he was never going to want a traditional life. As if I ever would want that. Bah. If I wanted a traditional life, why would I have ever let go of Mr. Perfect, the man in my life before H.M.? He had it all… stable job, beautiful house, quick wit, good looks, and the ability to fix things. Ah, well, there was that small matter that I was forbidden by law from staying with him for more than 90 days and he was adamantly petulant about rectifying my legal status within his country… but that's a pet peeve from 2002, not 2005.

Herr Marlboro went home and Mr. Perfect showed up. He kindly renovated my entire apartment out of the goodness of his heart. He slept on the sofa 10 feet away for six-and-a-half weeks. He charmed the neighbors and all my friends with his great personality. We had barbecues. We went camping. We had fun.

I was confused. I am still confused. I fled to H.M. once for the weekend, seeking his reassurance. H.M. told me Mr. Perfect was hanging around because he obviously wanted me back. "Then why didn't he try?" H.M. didn't have an answer for that. Like I said, confusion reigns. It is entirely possible that Mr. Perfect just thought I was swell and wanted to help me, and had no ulterior motive.

Then, it was off to Uganda. I presume that H.M.'s acquaintances there thought me a bit odd, this American girl who was chained to her laptop coloring Donald Duck comic strips. I didn't fit in at all with the German expats, but they were all so sweet and open-minded and a few of them were terribly clever. I was the odd-one-out but I felt privileged that they let me in on their l'il world.

I was stressed and closed when I first arrived in Uganda, and I wasn't sure I could deal with living in the jungle full-time with a man (my "fear-of-intimacy" may be trumped by H.M.'s but it's still formidable). So I rented a flat in Kampala. I spent the summer bouncing back and forth between Murchison Falls and Kampala. I thought I'd get tired of the lack of hot water and lack of things to do at Murchison, but this was not the case. Mostly, I scheduled in visits to Kampala because I didn't want to stress the relationship of two relationship-phobic people.

We enjoyed our time together, even when it was about swatting mosquitos and being chased by hippos. And I enjoyed the free-wheeling atmosphere of Africa. I loved it, actually. We were once caught in a storm and H.M. held the tent up while I gathered my stuff. We listened to the hippo eating grass next to our heads from our bed on the verandah. We cooked steak at night and I experimented with making baked goods for the workers by day. We read books by Mag-Lite under the mosquito net. We watched the sun rise over the Nile every morning. In the beginning, he brought me coffee in bed. By the end, I was up first and had his coffee waiting for him.

My only regret is that such a fabulous adventure was marred by the aftermath.

An incident drove us apart. H.M.'s response to the incident was... not ideal. I left. I ended up alone and sick in a Namibian hospital. H.M.—wracked with guilt—disappeared and avoided me for months. I was devastated at his disappearance.

Alone in Namibia, I was sick and numb. I realized that I was not half-as-strong as I'd imagined myself to be. I colored comics. I worked on the book. The book now rings hollow. I've really lived in Africa now, not just danced along the edge of it. I learned to let people into my life at exactly the moment H.M. removed himself from it. I've experienced fundamental change in Africa in 2005 and I'm writing a book about a merry chase across the continent in 2001.

I would probably still be sitting in Namibia today if my next-door neighbor hadn't gotten fresh with me. I got off my butt and moved to Cape Town, and again, the only reason I left Cape Town was that a nice man asked me out. I fled, prepared in no way for so much as a cup of coffee with romantic overtones.

Trains and buses took me overland through Lesotho, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, and finally back to Uganda. I thought myself totally recovered by the time I reached Tanzania. I was happy and my head was on straight. There's nothing like being in motion. It distracts you, keeps you from facing grief.

I'm home again and feel fragile and weak. Sitting in one place means avoidance is not an option. The thoughts and emotions roll in while I work, and I am envious that H.M. is still busy in Uganda. I want to be happy and running around Africa too, instead of sitting home on New Year's Eve, wondering if I can work up the enthusiasm to go to parties or if I might not be better served sleeping through the end of a rotten year, and hoping the next one brings me something better.

Kuwait waits. I'll be in motion. I'll have no time for self-pity.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Dogs Are Good

Grief blows. I can't seem to beat it. I understand avoidance now--people avoid dealing with "the bad" because it feels sucky.

Trying to be a Buddhist about it—by renouncing past and routine—works for about a day. And I have met people with health problems. "You still have your health," they tell me.

Instead of being relieved and counting my blessings as Jared's grandmother would instruct me to do, I think: "Oh, great, I still have farther to fall."

Time healing all needs to kick in soon. I'm sick of this. You readers are probably tired of it too. Maybe moving to Kuwait will help. At least it won't be cold and gray outside.

Murphy is here to help me out.

Murphy is an 11-year-old Pit Bull mix. She is Yancey's dog, and he has gone to San Francisco on an important secret mission. So Murphy is snoring away on the cushion next to me. She's a loud snorer. Dogs are a pain to walk but Murphy puts her head on my lap when I'm sad. It's an honor because Murphy only likes eight people.

But it must be said that I've had nicer jobs than picking up steaming dog shit off the ground.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Worse and Worse

Uganda isn't doing too well on the international stage these days.

The Ugandan army, intending to shoot bad guys, killed seven non-bad guys and injured 16 others by accident.

Ugandan rebels have killed a UN peacekeeper in neighboring Congo. 35 Ugandan rebels were killed in response.

And the US has joined a lengthening list of countries withholding aid because of the fishy election/term limits stuff, where the Ugandan President imprisoned the opposition leader right after Parliament agreed to the President's request to lift term limits so that he could run for office again.

Maybe President Museveni is staying in office because there is indeed "No Hurry In Africa."

Sunday, December 25, 2005

The Nesting Instinct

It looks like I want Santa to deliver me a giant sack of cash.

Sometimes when I save files and sit staring at the computer, I browse real estate websites.

I found some houses I would very much like to own and live in.

This carriage house is near where I live now.

Here is an enormous Victorian by the Danforth Light Rail stop near Bayonne. I've passed it before and thought "too bad that is not for sale." Now it is.

Here's a relatively sensible investment as it has several units in it. I think this must be on Danforth too.

Or more realistically, the $420,000 one in Bergen-Lafayette.

Only the really expensive one is in a great neighborhood. The others are "iffy," something I've done to death in the past and probably am too tired to face again.

My mother pointed out to me that energy costs are only going higher. (You're telling me—it's $240 a month to heat my natural gas heated condo, and that's with new insulation blown in the walls and plastic sealing up the windows.) And Yancey and Wooly both reminded me again of the insane property taxes we get slammed with here. Houses are way more than condos, and Jersey City is raising taxes per square foot in 2006. I clearly remember the last JC property tax debacle. It was in 1988 and half the town was for sale. The other half was foreclosed on. (But don't worry, I'm sure it's true that real estate never goes down in value. You can trust your realtor who told you that.)

It doesn't matter as it's all theoretical investing anyway. The freelance checks I'm waiting on seem to have been slowed down by the holiday mail and the negative $240 I had last week is now much lower in the negative zone.

I'm not wishing anyone any kind of holiday because my charming home country has now super-charged these sayings with subliminal meaning. If someone says "Merry Christmas" to me, I panic for a second and stare at them, trying to determine if they are a lunatic with an agenda or just someone who has always said it. And actually, all those things you are supposed to say seem kind of stupid, now that I think about it.

If Santa would be so kind as to bring me that giant sack of cash, I will say whatever he instructs me to say. Swell Santamas or whatever. Santa is the meaning of Christmas. I heart the North Pole.

On the bright side, at least today is not New Year's.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

BBC Editorial

If you are interested in the political situation in Uganda, check out this interesting BBC editorial.

I agree with the writer that Museveni is no Mugabe or Mobuto. But he's also no Mandela, Kaunda, or Khama. He's done more-or-less all right over the years, and the question now is whether he will continue to do well or succumb to the corruption of power. His imprisonment of the opposition leader is worrying. Lots of countries who have now chosen to withhold aid agree with me.

Friday, December 23, 2005

More than You Want to Know About Fare Hunting

Today I worked a lot and had a frustrating Christmas shopping experience at the mall. Drank an extra cup of coffee and chased the UPS man down the block, but not at the same time.

Sound familiar? I've had to acknowledge that "No Hurry In Jersey City" is nowhere near as exotic as "No Hurry In Africa." If it were Africa, the lines at the mall would be shorter and the UPS man would wear yellow and work for DHL. And the frustration would be from power failures and diarrhea.

But here's some exciting news. I'm only 17 days away from a 3-month stay in Kuwait.

It was hit-or-miss for a while there. First, I wasn't sure I wanted to go. A day of snow-shoveling and a quick look at the bank balance changed my mind.

Second, I wasn't sure they'd let me go, what with my tricky passport issues and all. The State Department kindly solved my problem.

Third, I couldn't find affordable housing or reasonable airfare. These problems have not been solved, but I've readjusted my definition of cheap. I've had to accept that while there are plenty of fabulous places for around $750 a month in Kuwait, these are not available to someone looking for a three-month lease. I'll be paying a thousand unless I can masquerade as a Muslim Tamil bachelor in order to score a share.

The airfare was tricky, and I scored a good price only in relative terms. $960 round-trip can hardly be called a "bargain."

I tried some direct routes through the biggest, best-est NYC discounters—TFI—and they were all about $1200. Yow.

Then I played with some online discounters. Airfareplanet looked good, but it does that annoying thing where it displays all published fares—not what is actually available. And it shows the prices pre-tax. I gave up on them when I called and got a person on the phone who knew less than I do about being a travel agent.

"What booking class is that?" I asked her. She refused to tell me.

"You don't need to know that. Only I need to know that."

I calmly (but probably with apparent rage) explained to her that the booking class determined whether a fare was eligible for frequent flyer miles or not. She argued with me. I proceeded to ask if I could have a stopover in London, and she could not make heads or tails of how to build in a stopover. I finally hung up.

I bought a $400 round-trip Continental flight from Newark to London Gatwick. I leave January 9th and return April 10th.

Then I trawled the UK booking engines for the rest. seemed like a good place to start, as it lists the lowest published fares and the times they are available. But invariably, when I go to the sites in question, the fares are unavailable. In one case, Czech Airlines claimed to fly to Kuwait, but no one could figure out how when I called, and I could not find any flights to Kuwait on their website. Their Prague to Dubai flights are offered at an amazing $328 round-trip, but when I looked at flying first to Prague on EasyJet, then from Dubai to Kuwait on Air Arabia or Jazeera Airways, the UAE flight taxes seemed prohibitive.

Then I moved on to the German discount airlines. There's a ton of them and Herr Marlboro has recently worked out that it is possible to buy a hundred-dollar one-way from Cairo to Munich. The prices on airlines such as Condor and HapagFly were amazing… but I again ran into the problem of the fares from Egypt to Kuwait (via UAE) costing too much once taxes were added in.

I went back to scouring the UK booking engines. brought H.M. to JFK once for dirt-cheap on Air India—at Easter no less—but they wouldn't sell me anything without a UK-based credit card. had an amazing fare of £323 for London to Kuwait via Athens but they wanted to charge me another €30 for delivery, and no one there could figure out how to route a stopover in Athens (I've been meaning to visit my old college friend Scarfalonius there for over a decade). Ebookers fares were slightly higher than the others, and had some Gulf Air tickets for £349.

I nosed around some more. None of these airlines would be useful to me in frequent flyer miles terms. Only Emirates was useful, but their fares were all MUCH higher.

I finally decided to buy a one-way ticket on Olympic and then wing it on the way back. Maybe I'd catch Jazeera to Amman, go overland to Tel Aviv, get a discount one-way to Europe. Maybe I'd go lay on the beach in Sharm El-Sheikh and then go up to Germany for a Ryanair connection to London.

Maybe I'd just check the booking engines one last time and then buy.

Was I dreaming? Had I been staring at the iBook monitor for so long that I could no longer trust my vision? Where had that £298 British Airways all-inclusive round-trip Heathrow-to-Kuwait fare come from? An e-ticket, no less, meaning no delivery fees. And American Airlines miles, although only 25% of the normal as it's a discount economy ticket.

"Quick, do something," I told myself. I clicked "Book" and bought the ticket.

I didn't mess around with the dates. Once I saw that fare, I just bought it without trying to get the exact dates I wanted. I got the right outbound date, but I will have a week in Europe on the return. Fine. There are worse things. I'll think of something to do. Any suggestions, bearing my poverty in mind?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Detour to Japan

This has nothing to do with this blog, but Yancey sent me this link this morning.

It's a BBC story about four passengers attacking a man who groped a 20-year-old girl on a subway train in Japan. The groper died as a result. Apparently, there are women-only cars in Japan because of all the groping.

And everyone keeps warning me about Kuwait. Ha.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Pins and Needles

The truth is out there. And in this case, it's waiting for me in an Express Mail package at the Jersey City post office on Washington Street.

"We have your passport," said the postal employee who called me.

She had a sealed envelope from the Passport Agency. She couldn't tell how many passports were enclosed.

My near-future is in that envelope. I cannot go to work in Kuwait without "clean" documentation. Is my regular passport in there along with a new one, or did they poke holes in my old one and call it "expired?" Or did they reject my application and just send back my current passport with its evidence of my 2001 transit of the unmentionable Jewish state?

I want to go make comic books in Kuwait. I need to. The bank balance is the lowest it's been since I was a young, foolish New Yorker with lots of student loans. And I decided to sell my condo at exactly the wrong time, when inventory is plentiful and the market has essentially collapsed (it might pick up in the spring). If Kuwait doesn’t happen… it’s time for legal proofreading. That sounds mindlessly dull. Plus I was chatting with a few ex-X-Men writers over the weekend, and they gave me some good ideas for Kuwaiti comics. It’s starting to sound like fun.

But I cannot race off to the post office. We just added un-pickable locks to our building as well as a metal bar contraption called a "jimmy bar." I won’t be offering advice to burglars again any time soon. And I need to stay home and wait for everyone else in the building to arrive since they don’t have keys.

To complicate matters, there's a New York City transit strike on. Our beloved PATH train is unaffected (living in Jersey City produces a smugness from time to time, much as owning a Mac does). But it will be a mob scene as people who don’t usually take the PATH will be using it to go from Midtown to World Trade. So the neighbors cannot tell me when they’ll get home. They’ll get out of Manhattan when they get out of Manhattan. And my passport and the mystery of my near future will have to wait down at the post office.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Racking it up

I'd been avoiding looking at my bank balance. Contrary to what “become a travel writer and live a glamorous life and get paid for it” websites would have you believe, I don’t get paid much. At all. And so I color comic books, or do copyediting. The latter pays pretty well, but the former pays only slightly better than cleaning the birdcage did when I was 6.

Finally, I had to look. I squinted so that the horror would not blind me.

Negative $240.


It’s been one thing after another since I arrived home. $85 to fix the self-defrost in the ‘fridge (FYI, Turbo, there IS water in a ‘fridge). A few hundred for leaky power steering things in Henry the Ford Taurus. $165 to Al for moving the relief valve on my hot water heater for the inspectors while I was in Africa. Taxes on the garage. $5.75 for the opening day matinee of King Kong.

The cupboards are bare.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, last night it was sleeting out so I parked the car in front of my house. It was cold and icy and I didn’t want to walk back from the garage.

This morning I was on a frantic end-of-day Marvel Masterworks coloring deadline and was screaming along through pages. My street is a 2-hour parking zone, but usually no one checks, so I left the car.

Finally, I went to move it.

The Boot. Henry the Ford Taurus was wearing The Boot.


Yancey rushed me up to the Parking Authority, where I paid $75 to remove The Boot and $42 for the corresponding ticket. Picked up a day parking permit, rushed home and got back to coloring.

Then the locksmith came and my neighbor Helen and I spent 20 minutes talking Medeco versus Mul-T-lock with a guy named Cosmo.

Cosmo was here as a result of yesterday’s horror story. Or not-horror, because actually I was pretty lucky.

I went to the supermaket in the afternoon. Came in to surprise a young fellow who was in my apartment building and knocking on my apartment door.

“Who are you looking for?”

“The Super,” he replied. “I saw the sign outside and I’m looking for an apartment to rent.”

“It’s for sale, not rent,” I told him. “There’s no Super. It’s a condo building.”

“Oh sorry.”

He went to leave and I stopped him. I gave him explicit instructions on how to get to Del Forno Real Estate.

“Are you in a car or on foot?” I asked him.

“Foot.” He made a face.

“Ah, you’ll want to walk over to Armagno then.”

I gave him directions to the closer realtor. He repeated them and left. I went into my apartment. Wait… no one else is home. How the hell did he get in?

And the sign outside clearly says “condo for sale.”

A realization started to dawn on me. I checked the front door locks. Intact. Checked the basement. All deadbolts were in place.

The outside door usually does not shut all the way. We need a new door-closer and have been lax about getting one. The inside door was still locked and there was no evidence of a break-in.

I emailed everyone in the building. No one had been home. No one had buzzed the guy in.

He must have picked the lock.

Helen and I met with Cosmo about changing the locks. Cosmo is putting in two unpickable locks and a “jimmy-bar.” $400. He showed us how to fix the door-closer--with a little WD-40. Took Helen 20 seconds.

Cosmo also showed us a tiny mark that I had not noticed. My pal the prospective renter had jimmied our front door.

I had an entire conversation and tried to be helpful to a burglar!

I’m not a religious person. And I try not to be superstitious. But part of me can’t help but believe there is some sort of scorecard somewhere, and that I’ve had my bad luck numbers for the year and that I’m due for a change.

But then I realized… I had been lucky. Had I gone to the post office after the supermarket, the burglar may have absconded with my laptop. Or worse, I could have surprised him in my place and gotten a sore head as a result.

Can someone tell me if bad luck comes in waves? If there are odds that mean I'll get some good luck soon?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Passport to Summer

What a difference a cup of coffee makes.

I woke up at five to color comics books, and I read my email. Turns out that my friend Jessica is turning 40 tomorrow.

Any news of the big 4-0 sends me into an emotional tailspin as my own is due in April, so I was miserable for a while and then went back to bed. Without blathering on in detail about why this occurs, I'll just have to say that I'd rather not write about it where total strangers can read it, that it has to do with tragic events that occurred in Uganda, and that I had accepted the idea of being in a certain place in my life on my 40th, and now I'm not going to be anywhere near that place.

So. That's confusing and obscure and unhelpful.

Anyway, I'm back awake now and a massive cup of coffee has set me straight. I have to finish cleaning the house (I gave up a few weeks ago) so that I can host Michael Kraiger's birthday dinner tonight. It’s also my mother’s birthday. I need to rise to all these occasions and quit feeling sorry for myself until the next time I succumb to sadness, which should be in about a week.

And I've got to deal with Kuwait.

I’ve encountered some setbacks. The New York-to-Kuwait airfare is ridiculous, and while I know all the airfare tricks, I can’t get around paying at least $950 round-trip. Even strategic use of Arabian budget airlines doesn’t get me there cheaper. Why? Because of &^@# Saudi Arabia. Anyone can transit across Saudi Arabia on a bus to get to Kuwait. No big deal.

Unless you happen to be female or Israeli, that is. (I'm the former.) If I were traveling with my husband (no one’s asked), brother (don’t have one), or father (he’s never left the US), I’d be allowed. And I’d have to prove it. Can't just borrow another passenger and say “doesn’t he look like me?”

I'm stuck paying the ridiculous airfare. And because Kuwait is a country that caters to business people, I am also stuck in expensive accommodation when I get there. My choices are limited to:

-stay a year and sign a lease and get a good rent
-rent a corporate-style apartment with gym, parking, internet, pool for $1000 a month
-find a flatmate.

The latter is hopeless. A quick look at online newspapers revealed ads such as these:

"Accommodation available for a Muslim Tamil bachelor."

Er… quite. Anyway, having a gym and pool and included Internet—hey, there are worse things.

But I might not even get to go. I have a big stumbling block and it is out of my hands and in the hands of the Passport Agency.

It's my passport. It’s got the dreaded I$r@e1i visa stamp. You know, the one you’re not supposed to have when you want to go to the Gulf or to Sudan. I know the score… get it on a separate piece of paper. Transit in and out of the West Bank from Jordan and no one will know. Of course I’ve done this before. But this time it wasn’t going to work.

During, there was an incident some of you may recall in which some misguided men decided to get pilot licenses, fly planes into some buildings, and change the world in a dreadful way. This meant the ship picking me up in Egypt to take me to Europe quit going to Egypt, but was willing to pick me up in the aforementioned unmentionable country. You can’t get the Egyptians to stamp you out on a separate piece of paper at the Taba border, so there’s the evidence. Was I then transported into the sky? No, it is obvious where I went.

Plus, I left from Ashdod. Again, no way to hide that. Did I swim to Italy? Obviously not. I had much too large a backpack.

I figured it was no big deal as my 48-page passport was almost full anyway. I'd just get a new one. A clean one with no stamps from anywhere.

Wrong again. They just sewed in more pages. I have a super-sized passport.

It's a well-kept secret that in certain circumstances, a qualified individual might potentially be eligible to carry more than on American passport at a time. One circumstance is when someone needs to get visas in one passport while traveling on the other. I had two for this reason in 2001.

The other reason is the situation I now find myself in. I sent in all the paperwork and I got a letter back asking for my expired 2001 spare passport. I think that’s what they wanted anyway. To be on the safe side, I sent in any passport I could find and I am now completely passport-less.

My winter is in the hands of a bureaucrat in Philadelphia. I’m hoping to avoid shoveling the walk all winter, but we won’t find out for a week or so.

Happy birthday to everyone. I’m going back to color comics now.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Taking Kampala's Temperature

A couple of years ago I was setting off on what some would consider the trip of a lifetime.

An airport taxi driver picked me up. He was young with a Middle Eastern complexion, perhaps a recent immigrant to Jersey City or Newark. It was unseasonably warm for a late February day, and he had the car windows down. Egyptian pop flooded out onto 8th Street.

“Where are you going?” The driver was in a chatty mood.

“Antactica,” I said excitedly.

He looked at me blankly through the rear-view mirror.

“Oh. Are you from there?”

* * * *

Before you laugh too hard at him, think about how much you knew about Uganda before you started reading this blog. Or what you knew about Rwanda before the genocide. Or how about this… what do you know about Tuvalu? Where the heck is Tuvalu? I couldn’t even locate it on the map. I’d wave a hand at the South Pacific, say “it’s there,” and hope no one wanted specifics. (It’s famous for global-warming reasons).

In the interests of educating myself, I’ve taken a page from my pal Yancey’s book. Every morning I read BBC Africa. And because I have a personal interest in Uganda, I also read the Daily Monitor each morning.

What’s the latest in Uganda?

The opposition leader is still in prison. Secret police called Black Mambas patrol nearby, outraging advocates of transparency and justice. And horrifyingly, Uganda’s attorney general has recommended that the opposition leader not be allowed to run for president, because:

"Although he is presumed innocent until proven guilty, it certainly cannot be said that Besigye is on the same level of innocence as that of the other presidential candidates."

Furthermore, the attorney general stated that if the opposition leader is presumed innocent, then rebel leaders—like the Lord's Resistance Army's Joseph Kony—might demand that they should contest on the ground that they are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Whoa, I can barely think for all the alarm bells screaming in my head. Comparing presidential candidates to murderers? Implying that an accusation alone defines a man’s guilt and morals? This is crazy.

One good thing that has come out of the situation is freedom of the press. When I was in Uganda, commentator Andrew Mwenda was arrested for sedition because he commented that the president’s helicopter had been "junk" when that helicopter had gone down, killing Sudanese VP (and long-time rebel leader in a complex and deadly Sudanese conflict) John Garang. The government had arrested Mwenda with a public reminder of how speculative radio broadcasts in Rwanda had led to genocide. (Hmm, someone has a rather unsophisticated but unashamedly manipulative press agent in his office.)

Now, Andrew Mwenda freely criticizes the President in the Monitor.

The independent Monitor has been closed before by the government. But right now, with the world watching and the opposition candidate in jail on a seemingly trumped-up charge, the Monitor seems immune. Which must give them great confidence and bravado, as they have seized the moment and covered the President’s misdeeds with gusto.

But I wouldn’t want to be working for the Monitor when all this blows over. The world’s attention span is short, and no doubt a scorecard is being kept. Retribution will come. Let’s just hope that Museveni is becoming a benevolent dictator instead of a vindictive despot.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

On the Brink

I’d ducked into the Newport Mall bookstore to scan their New Jersey shelf on my way to the PATH. Just wanted to make sure that they sold my New Jersey camping guidebook in my hometown, and maybe I rearranged the display a little as well.

“Can I help you, Miss?”

I looked gratefully at the bookstore manager. I’d been a Ma’am since June and was relieved I could still be taken for a Miss. But that’s home for you, where blushing brides and new Moms are commonly 40 years old. In Africa, I’d be considered all-used-up at 39, but in New York, I’m not even an anomaly.

I’d had a long talk with Marky in Jinja about the age thing. He’d gone on the road to drive overland trucks at 27. He’d driven for over a decade, ushering tourists around from Ethiopia to South Africa. He’d even been through Sudan and Congo in the old days, before these routes were closed for a while. The Congo one is still closed. He’d seen a lot more than most people ever see from their desks, but there had been a price.

“It was like one day I was 27, and the next I was 40.”

I knew exactly how he felt. At 34, I ditched it all, throwing away a perfectly good job for the open road. Okay, not perfectly good—the company had been bankrupt multiple times, the staff turnover rate was appalling, and the atmosphere utterly dysfunctional in a then-dying industry—but anyway, it was the kind of job that some people would give an arm to have. Maybe they’d also dreamed of having the power of flight or invisibility, but regardless, Marvel editor/colorist/jill-of-all-trades was considered a desirable position by those who did not know any better. And it came with health insurance.

But I left. And I left the East Village too. Home to… well, all kinds of famous people that I wouldn’t recognize even if they spilled a drink on me. Fine with me though. The East Village had transformed from “ghetto” (a/k/a actual neighborhood) to “hipsterville” (a/k/a get me the hell out of here) and I’d come out the other end into another actual neighborhood, albeit on the “wrong” side of the Hudson.

I went around the world, lived in Australia for six months of the next few years, traveled across the US with Turbo and a tent and a Ford Taurus for three months, lived in Barcelona for another three months with Herr Marlboro there part-time, hung my hat briefly in Bangkok, visited Antarctica and Sri Lanka, and lived in Africa for almost-six months.

But it feels like I missed something. Like I went to sleep one day at age 34 and when I opened my eyes, everyone else had moved forward by five years while to me it was January 5, 2001, the day after I got on the Amtrak to head west. Others had saved while I had spent. Advanced while I’d ignored. I’d let a lot of friendships slide and constantly have to start over. It’s like everyone else has aged gracefully but I’m still casting about trying to work out what to do next.

I expressed this to Sean, a friend in Sydney. He told me I was flat-out wrong. That I’d been living while others were chained to the desk. Maybe he’s right, but I still feel like I missed some vital personal-growth part of life, or at least realized too late that I’d been ignoring it.

And here I go again. Avoiding the hard stuff by going to Kuwait. But my Googling has not yet turned up any reasonable housing there. Shall I go on a wing and a non-denominational prayer, as usual, or am I taking foolish financial risks in one of the most expensive Gulf countries??

Friday, December 02, 2005

Jersey City

Soggy matches in the bottom of the dishwasher.
A purple stain where a drink fell on the pine floor.
A broken hair dryer.
Splattered candle wax on the wall.

I glumly surveyed my apartment. I’d just driven six hours up from Virginia and all I really wanted to do was sleep.

A cigarette burn on the bathroom windowsill.
A broken folding black chair.
“Furniture-moving” scrapes on the new paint job in the bedroom.
Missing sliders that used to be under the bed legs.
An inch-long piece of wood gouged out of the back windowsill.

I’d fixed the broken towel rack last week during a kamikaze run-through, and also changed a few light bulbs.

Dried shit splattered around the toilet bowl.
A filthy bathtub with a slow drain.
The toilet flushes slowly, almost not at all.
The $29.99 Ikea floor lamp is just propped into the base, no longer screws in.

I went to wash my hands, but there were no towels. Where were the towels? Oh, there’s one… the Spider-Man towel staff members received one Christmas at Marvel. I suppose that makes it rare, almost collectible, although it had a strange smell to it even when it was new. And there it is, wet and in the trash. I contemplated it for a minute and decided to leave it there, along with one of the bathmats and someone’s 2-foot-tall bowling pin. Sometimes it’s better not to ask.

Missing plastic floor protector.
Lack of keyboard tray that used to be attached to computer desk.
Refrigerator shelf parts missing.
Gaffer's tape on the window sash.
Drink stains on the slate mantel, grease and food stains on the stove.
And coins. Coins all over the place. Mostly pennies.

On the plus side, I was now the proud owner of 7 boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, 4 cans of Spaghetti-O’s, a men’s belt, a hair clipper set, two Saturn car keys, and a fancy TV antenna.

Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing which tenant decided the floor was better left unprotected, or that it was easier to put parts of the refrigerator in the closet than to put them back on the shelves. Three resident men and one girlfriend lived in my apartment while I was gone, and the girlfriend ran up a $750 phone bill.

You win sometimes and you lose sometimes. My first Jersey City tenants were incredible. They left it in better shape than they’d found it in. That was the year the floor refinishers sanded through the thermostat wire. I quit charging Aaron and Brito altogether after they had to live through a few months of that winter.

The father of one of the tenants had wisely said to me “how will you know which tenant broke what?” He was right. I had no way of knowing who had broken what. Maybe one tenant was an angel, the other a slob. There's no way to know.

The broken chair and broken lamp went out into the trash immediately. The plastic floor protecter had been behind a bookcase and now has ripples that reminded me of a pleasant stream. The slow-running toilet taught me a few things I did not know about plumbing—did you know that you can scratch up the toilet bowl with a snake? And I finally had an opportunity to use that plunger that Shannon Wheeler had left in my place on Avenue B in 1996.

I called a friend and asked her for her house cleaner’s phone number. She told me to include a cleaning fee next time. Good idea.

Michael Kraiger dropped by and put the refrigerator back together, changed the “tall-guy” lightbulb, and helped me drag out the refrigerator so that the microwave could go back into its custom-built hutch that Turbo installed. I felt terrible looking at the dirty fingerprints I found on the walls. Turbo had worked so hard on finishing and painting my place. He’d painted the entire place, fixed the sidewalk, caulked the window, re-finished the fireplace, restored the airshaft windows by precariously hanging outside on a fire ladder, painted the tin ceiling, restored the closets, stripped the century-old hinges, and fixed the furnace while he was here. For free. All I gave him in exchange were Mr. Softee boxer shorts and a Mr. Rooter action figure (Rooting is not something you do to the drain in Australia). And the year before? He was bored so he’d re-modeled the kitchen.

“They were very nice boys,” said neighbor Fran regarding my tenants. Casey the next-door neighbor agreed, although he was skeptical of their choices in clothing. But the doctor--! Everyone loved the doctor. He’s the one with the phone-offending girlfriend. I suppose they liked having a doctor in the neighborhood.

The neighbors in the building were less charitable. Duane had cleaned the cigarette butts up in the backyard several times. I apologized profusely, but privately I wished he'd done this again recently... a quick look out the window showed how I'd be spending a morning next week. Picking butts out of a potted plant.

I put on latex gloves and got to work. Next time, I thought… there isn’t going to be a next time. I called Jessica Del Forno to put the place on the market. I wasn’t cut out to be a landlord.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Nile Rafting, with apologies

The readers have spoken! E-mailed, anyway. Consider me suitably chastised for not writing about rafting the Nile. Here it is, with apologies.

* * *

Up to the point when I got off the bus in Jinja, I’d second-guessed my decision to raft the Nile.

"It's only $95, you get same day transport to and from Kampala, breakfast on arrival in Jinja, light lunch, full 30kms of the Nile, and a massive BBQ with beers and sodas at the end. Bargain!” glee-mailed Marky, my Ethiopia Dragoman driver who now runs the office at Nile River Explorers.

I’d e-mailed back the electronic equivalent of sputtering. $95 was an entire summer’s food budget for Herr Marlboro and me at Murchison Falls, excluding splash-out dinners in Kampala. It seemed an outrageous amount of cash to be spending in Uganda, especially on just a few hours. It's a third the average Ugandan's yearly income. (Mind you, the "average" is stilted by all the rural citizens intake, and you'd never survive in Kampala on the average.)

Four companies offer rafting out of Jinja, but it’s a bit of a cartel as they all charge about the same. And they don’t stop there… you can’t take your camera along unless you want to submerge it in the Nile, but they will sell you a CD of photos of your trip for THIRTY DOLLARS.

Is it worth it?

Well, it was a lot of fun, although not too different from rafting the Zambezi River at Victoria Falls. And it’s cool to raft the Nile, even though I swallowed a bit of it, leading Dr. Smyth at The Surgery to stuff bilharzia medicine into a bag. She shoved it into my hand and instructed me to take it right after Christmas. H.M. warned me not to take it.

“Get a blood test to see if you need it,” he advised. He should know. He had bilharzia last year, and the medicine knocked him out for a few days. Africa veterans often try to one-up each other on the illnesses they’ve had, and H.M. can banter with the best. When he drove me to the airport from Kampala, he was just getting over his latest malaria episode.

I later learned I was lucky to have made the decision to get off the bus in Jinja. It was “riot-day” in Kampala, and no doubt the bus hit roadblocks and traffic problems as soon at it hit Jinja Road roundabout. Plus there was a big conference in town and all the cheap and mid-range hotels were booked solid. The conference and riots occurring together were no coincidence… the arrest of the opposition leader seemed timed to coincide with the political conference.

The bus dropped me off north of Jinja’s center, where I was instantly surrounded by motorbike taxis. I started to negotiate, waving away the pedal-powered bicycle taxis as I pointed out my large backpack.

“Will you be okay?” whispered the Akamba bus conductor. I giggled. It was nice of him to be concerned. Surely there are lots of criminals in the world, but it’s been years since I encountered any, and I sure wasn’t going to run across one in Jinja.

“Yes. It’s no problem.” In truth, my only problem had been the excruciatingly long bus trip. I’ve tried both night and day buses between Nairobi and Uganda and my only suggestion is don’t take one. Catch a Peugeot shared taxi on the Kenya side and minibus on the Uganda side. Walk across the border. Sage wisdom of locals is to take the bus because it is slow but it is safe. Marie-wisdom is “for god’s sake, don’t take the bus. It will drive you crazy. Just wear a seatbelt as a nod to safety in the fast Peugeot.”

If you absolutely MUST take a bus, catch Scandinavia Express. Their better shock absorbers will make the road to Nairobi more tolerable.

I wore my pack and perched precariously on the back of the motorbike, which zipped me to 2 Friends Guesthouse. I’d chosen it based on its attractive website.

I threw my bag into my room and went off to find Marky. I asked for coins at the 2 Friends pizza joint. Oh, there was Marky, chatting with the owner… no, wait… that man was thinner in the face plus he didn’t look at me at all. Just someone who looked liked Marky? Maybe.

I walked to the NRE Backpackers and asked about Marky. The bartender called him. He said “park her at the bar and I’ll be there in a minute.”

He was there moments later. After all, he had only to drive over from 2 Friends.

Unfortunately, the riots meant that tomorrow’s rafting trip had been cancelled. No one was moving in or out of Kampala. Marky was glum that he hadn’t had the opportunity to sell me a trip, but Adrift had a half-day trip going.

At $85, the half-day trip is even less of a bargain than the full-day trip. But it was the only trip happening so I signed up.

There were only three other rafters in Jinja that day. Big Ray, Little Ray (a Canadian Mountie and son of Big Ray), Marta from Italy, and me.

Our rafting boss—whose name I am sorry to say I have forgotten—was being tested by an experienced Tasmanian gal who has probably been doing this job for so long that she’d long ago covered up her true self with a solid wall of professionalism. She had a quick answer filed away in her head for each question, and had clearly been asked “where are you from” at least 7,000 times. When I told her I used to live in New South Wales “up near the border of Queensland,” she snarkily said “I know where New South Wales is.” Anyway, she knew her stuff even if her bedside manner was that of a tired veteran. And she became more accessible as the day wore on.

We were instructed to leave behind our Tevas and go barefoot, and there was no question about carrying along money or cameras. Everything stayed in the bus. This made me nervous—was it dead-certain that we’d flip?

We were each given an oar, a helmet, and a puffy vest. These vests would keep us afloat no matter what. The only real danger was in panicking and drinking too much Nile, getting stuck under a raft, or hit in the face with an oar. Or rock.

We each had to practice falling out into the Nile. I was quite good at this.

I wasn’t so good at going under the raft. I had vivid memories of being caught briefly under the Zambezi raft. I’d looked for the famed pocket-of-air and instead inhaled river water. Only sternly reminding myself that I’d die if I breathed water instead of air convinced me to drag myself out from under the boat. And what was on the surface? Wave after wave of churning water smacking me from all sides. More drinking the Zambezi. One man had panicked and finished the trip like a beached whale, gasping for air on top of the overturned rafter where the leader had dragged him.

Off we rowed, the four of us clumsily trying to follow instructions. “Left forward, right back!” Uh, what?

We probably weren’t the worst crew in the history of Nile rafting—after all, we had a Mountie on board—but we were far from the best. The river took us (it was clearly in control) through a few little rapids and we were delighted when we came out the other sides and were still intact.

“This next rapid is called 50/50.”

“Uh, why…”


A wave the size of a Mama-hippo caught us and tossed us over like a Peppermint Patty wrapper on Michigan Avenue in January. There was only a split-second in which to comprehend “shit, we’re going down” and gulp a breath. We were all in the dark river, under the raft in the rapids.

No way was I staying under this time. I didn’t bother looking for the pocket of air—I’d grabbed a breath on the way down—I kicked and ducked under the rubber raft’s rim. I seized the rope on the outside and let the raft pull me downstream, remembering this time to keep my mouth shut.

I still managed to drink some Nile water, but not as much as Marta, who coughed for a good five minutes after our dunking.

We didn’t flip the rest of the time, which was fine with me. Once a wave hit us and everyone on the right side flew in—but I was on the left. A safety kayaker picked up Marta who had been thrown clear of the rapid.

We finally pulled up along the bank for lunch, and then rowed across the river to the take-out point. No one bought the CD. If it were $10, maybe. But $30? No way.

Marta and I changed clothes back at 2 Friends, and I caught a lift with her back to the outskirts of Kampala.

Was it worth it?

I still don’t know the answer to that. It was certainly better value than $360 for an hour of listening to mountain gorillas. And way better when compared to $400 to go over Masai Mara in a balloon. But was it good value when compared to eating perfect steaks for two months in Murchison Falls? No.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

They Lied About the Net

I’ve never gotten the hang of re-assimilation into my home society.

Home is where Yancey and Roberta drink coffee with me, where Polly and I make constant plans only to cancel them due to work conflicts, where Jessica chases dogs and infants while making conversation, where I color from 5 a.m. ‘til 11 p.m., brushing the dust off the keyboard as I can no longer remember a time when I was not renovating wherever I lived. Home is where NPR keeps me company all day as I hit little Mac keys for one job or another, unless I’m in a mood for something morose from Lucinda Williams, or something self-consciously clever from Amy Rigby. The path of least resistance wasn’t on the map.

Home is going to the gym. Home has a machine that does the laundry, for free in my building’s basement. Home is backyard Bubba Burgers with the neighbors. Real estate speculation with dog-walkers, cheap hair color, fast internet, frequent flyer miles for flushing the toilet, incredible old-school cheap Italian and Cuban food, and begging Michael Kraiger to lend me a big-guy hand.

But home is also where routine dulls my senses. Where I’d like to cook, but it’s so uninspiring to cook just for myself, and then I remember that being alone and being independent are very different things. It’s where mundane repetition sets in and slows me down, leaving me passive and overwhelmingly disinterested in the distractions of everyday life. It’s where Roberta and I observe the single old ladies on 8th Street. They happily sit on their stoops in their housedresses. One of them has made scones for Roberta ever since discovering they were both Italian. Is this our future? Roberta swears it’s not. I’m not so sure.

Is it uncool to admit to being bored and aimless following six months in Africa? Probably. I am supposed to say something inspirational right now, something “no place like home” ish. But I’m not going to do that. “Leap and the net will appear” is bullshit. I learned that in the aftermath of MariesWorldTour. There was no f*$%ing net. If you’re lucky, you sew your own. If you’re unlucky, you waffle around wondering what to do and nothing comes up.

You can't hurt what you can't touch.

Homecoming is normally a thrill for about a week-and-a-half. I always try to get as much as possible done during the manic “I-wanna-do-everything-this-minute” phase, because the inevitable crash comes and that can last a few days or a few months.

Or a few years.

Why am I never comfortable just being comfortable?

The crash came early this time, because I was alone in rural Virginia and everyone I interacted with appeared to be from a different planet than the one I’m from. I went into a store where the cashiers were talking and their accents were so different to mine that I had no idea what they were saying. In Virginia, I am completely disconnected from my surroundings.

But let’s face it. I’ve been alienated since I was sentient. Why should today be any different?

Why do I get off on misery
Loneliness feels good to me

On another topic, I cannot change the blog title to “No Hurry In Jersey City.” Or “No Hurry in Kuwait.” Or I could cease doing it now and just archive it somewhere, but I've really enjoyed keeping this online diary, even though I'm not sure anyone reads it. Anyone have any brilliant suggestions or advice?

I'm just a peach that's going rotten
I wanna save the other peaches so I roll away
I'm careful where I land
Does anybody understand?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


Three flights and a bus trip after Herr Marlboro and his father left me at Entebbe, I disembarked at Newark Airport.

The sky was overcast, the temperature chilly. Yancey and Roberta picked me up—I’d been carrying around 90 cents for six months, in anticipation of using a pay phone the minute I got through Customs. (One does not carry a US-cell-phone to Africa to make a single phone call in half-a-years time; coins are a different story.)

What must new immigrants who fly into Newark think, I wondered, as we breezed past the post-apocalyptic landscape along Route 1 en route to Jersey City. They surely must be horrified at the crumbling promised land, its port and refineries spewing toxic waste, its roads potholed, its traffic lunacy, its Road Warrior aesthetic supremely over-the-top. If there is a “perfect storm” of industrial landscapes, it is between Exits 14 and 8 on the NJ Turnpike, along with the corresponding parallel madness of 1/9. The only thing looking vaguely First World is the reassuring blue and yellow of IKEA.

New immigrants would not be in awe of the deteriorating concrete Pulaski Skyway, as I usually am. They would not marvel at the drivers jumping the median when they spot a back-up, on 1/9, the way I often do.

But today, even I was not impressed by the crème de la crème of hideously ugly panoramas. Because it was unpleasant, gray, and cold. I’d gotten on the plane on a warm night, in a city of fresh vegetables, plentiful ripe fruit, cheap melt-in-your-mouth steaks, and a low cost of living. I’d gotten off the plane to enter into a maze of madness, the kind of criss-crossed highways where you’d get lost in a flash if you didn’t live there.

Yancey dropped me off at my car, and Henry the 1990 Ford Taurus started up with just a little sputtering. I dug around in my apartment for winter clothes and my cell phone. (My tenants were out of town but are there until Nov 30). Henry then took me to Virginia, where I set up shop in my mother’s spare house, in the rural “Northern Neck.” The dial-up Internet access was excruciatingly slow and unreliable. My cell phone got no signal. It rained for the next two days. The local restaurant was McDonald’s, or for a special occasion, I could head to Subway.

I grieved for my lost adventurous lifestyle and for my sedate homecoming. I’d be here for ten days then head back to Jersey City where my chromium-riddled pocket Victorian neighborhood sits in the shadow of a spur of the NJ Turnpike.

But we all have to go home eventually. Visas and their expiration dates force the issue. Mom helps too. But I'm already suffering from what Peter Moore termed "Matatu Withdrawal Syndrome." Hakuna Matatu indeed.

Next stop: Kuwait in January. Watch this space.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Good-bye Africa

On my last afternoon, in Kampala, when I should be coloring comic books, I’m instead worrying about Uganda.

And I’m not the only one. The newspapers are full of doom and gloom. The people are pessimistic. No one is quite sure why the country is going down the path it’s going and why President Museveni is doing what he is doing.

It’s like this: The President will almost certainly win re-election. BUT to do so his government had to first revoke term limits. Term limits, it can be argued, are checks and balances that rein in even good, popular politicians. But then, it could be argued that Uganda is a fragile new country that needs experienced leadership. Either way, it is worrying.

Then there was this whole song-and-dance that he was the reluctant third-term candidate. Why anyone bothered with this charade is anyone’s guess, as it’s been clear all along that he would run again. Why else revoke term limits? He finally declared his candidacy yesterday. On the same day he declared his intent to provide free secondary school education for all of Uganda’s children. (They already have free primary school.)

On the other front, the competition is being dealt with. The opposition candidate is—or was—Dr. Kizza Besigye. He ran in the last election and gained a lot of ground, but still lost. He had been in exile in South Africa and returned just a few weeks ago. After popular rallies around the country, he was arrested along with several other members of his party. The charges are of being involved with a shadowy perhaps-existent anti-government group in Congo. And for good measure, they’ve charged him with something repulsive to everyone—rape. For something that allegedly occurred many years ago.

What isn’t clear is why the government did not extradite Besigye if he really did these things. The answer clearly seems to be—he didn’t.

I don’t know anything about Besigye’s platform or if he’s a good man or a decent politician. But I do know that this all looks highly suspicious, and the people of Uganda are fed up with having their leaders deteriorate into dictators. Some are so fed up that they took to the streets earlier this week. It won’t be the last time.

Others are puzzled and confused, annoyed at these actions. No one seems able to work out why Museveni bothered. Surely he’d win anyway.

On another front, the LRA kooks have been active too. People are dying up north. Lots of people. Maybe the President needs to thing less about the competition and more about the LRA.

I love Uganda. It’s a friendly place, full of fresh food and easygoing people. But it doesn’t really love me back. It doesn’t even know my name, as Marie is unpronounceable by most. Mary is the commonly used form.

I’m leaving tonight. In an unexpected (but typical of the serendipitous relationship we've always had) coincidence, Herr Marlboro's Vater flew in at exactly the time I was due to report for my 11:50 pm flight. I'd spotted the DED-mobile in traffic and was surprised to find H.M. in Kampala. I sent him a somewhat rude email and in response he bought me a cappucino and drove me to the airport. It would be an exaggeration to say all is well but at least we are on speaking terms.

So, am I ready to go home? I’m ambivalent. Sure, it kind of sucks to live alone and have no friends on an entire continent. But there is still something so gloriously appealing about living on the road, carrying all my possessions from bus to bus, and trusting total strangers to take care of me. Some people simplistically call this lifestyle “freedom.” I’m not sure what I call it. I associate “freedom” with the inability to articulately think beyond a 7th grade level about personal responsibility. So let’s not call it freedom. Let’s just call it fun.

Good-bye Kampala. Bis denne, H.M. Good-bye Africa.

P.S. The title of the book is… No Hurry In Africa.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Free Ride for Fungi

It’s official. Just got back from the doctor’s office (and the dentist and the manicurist who groaned at my filthy feet) and I’m full of fungi. The beasties have probably been crawling around inside me for months. Who knows, maybe they were responsible for my hospital visits in August and September.

No big deal, just take three of these every day for a week, plus then in 3 weeks if I haven’t had flu-like symptoms then I can toss my malaria self-test kit, oh and in 6 weeks I have to take a day off to feel like crap because I’ll be munching bilharzia meds.

We don’t know that I have bilharzia. But Dr. Smyth at The Surgery felt that given the fact that I swallowed a gallon of the Nile two days ago in Jinja, it would be prudent to take preventative measures. She asked for a stool sample and slid a film canister across the desk to me. Kodak's film division isn't the only business that is screwed by the digital revolution.

Yes, I went rafting. Yes, we flipped. We didn’t even do it on purpose. We were sorely understaffed. It’s low season in Jinja and there were only four of us tourists hanging around. I couldn’t even book a trip with my old pal Marky’s company because they weren’t going to run one just for me. After a fine evening of shooting the breeze, he sent me over to Adrift.

Rafting was fun, but more importantly, my decision to get off the bus in Jinja spared me a night of Kampala roadblocks, riots, and no hotels as that was the same day the riots started.

I’ve been careful to stay out of the center, although local advice is just to avoid the High Court and government buildings. I did have to go to Colville Street to see the dentist. Dr. Geoffrey B. Bataringaya of Basil’s Dental Clinic did a fine job of cleaning my teeth and advised a wait-and-see approach to my sensitive spot. He also located freeloaders, and prescribed antiseptic mouthwash to delete them from my mouth.

Full of steak (it’s Uganda) and pills, I went back to the Fang Fang to color comics in celebration of my final night in Africa.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Kampala Riots

Last week in Kampala, students "rioted" over increases in fees at the university.

Monday, the "riot" was because the President had the opposition leader arrested.

I'm on the Kampala outskirts and have no intention of going into the center. There are a lot of police visible and business as usual is going on around me. It seems that these "riots" were protests first-and-foremost, but some overzealous angry people got a few rocks involved. Bullets and tear gas followed. "Riot" makes it sounds like the entire population of the town is tearing each other's hair out, which is far from the truth. Children are in school, people are going grocery-shopping, and life goes on. Okay, a uniformed guy with a really big machine gun demanded to know if I was carrying a gun into the shopping mall today, but when I told him no, he accepted that and allowed me to proceed to the money-changer.

No one seems real impressed with the arrest. Me included.

The real issue as far as movement is that Kampala has totally outgrown its infrastructure and downtown is a clogged-up mess. There's one main road and lots of tiny roads where traffic crawls on any given day. Add some protesters and some rocks--boom--instant paralysis.

After a unpleasant night in a shabby budget room at the Blue Mango, I've splurged and gotten an a/c room with an ethernet connection at Fang Fang Hotel. It's not a splurge on the level of the Sheraton, but by my standards, it's a little slice of paradise.

Here are some photos of the "riots," courtesy one of the local papers.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Peace and Love and Nairobi

Nairobi is not a warm and fuzzy destination.

But I could swear it had improved. People seemed less paranoid. No one warned me about the good parts of town, only about River Road. Or maybe they just ignored me because I wasn’t wearing a watch, carrying a bag, or staring at a map (all “come and get me” activities).

One man did address me with “Still walking?” I just laughed and said “I’ve heard THAT one before.” It’s the Nairobi prelude to the “Remember me from the hotel” scam.

I was amazed at the difference a few blocks made in the number of international tourists. The Parkside and Comfort Inn comprise a sort-of white tourist ghetto, and in the mornings three shuttles to Arusha wait nearby for travelers to board. But once I switched to the 680 Hotel off Kenyatta Avenue, the only tourists I saw were African.

I caught a matatu out to Westlands and had to laugh at the red-vested minibus conductors. They thought nothing of bending down in traffic to pick up a coin, or hanging by their fingernails from the rim of a sliding van door. The conductor in my matatu did not have change, so he leapt out to ask around. The matatu continued on, leaving the conductor to run for blocks to catch up. Conductors were involved in an entertaining game of one-upmanship, all swaggering to show that they were tougher and wilder than the other conductors within view. By comparison, Ugandan conductors were school crossing guards.

When it was time to leave Nairobi, I couldn’t face the overnight bus to Kampala. The road to the Kenyan border is pitted and cracked, and while some people manage to sleep through all the lurching, I decided that going by day meant that I could at least stare out the window instead of cracking my head against it. Plus, the night buses all line up at the Ugandan border before it opens, resulting in hundreds of passengers needing to be processed at the crack of dawn. By day, only one bus would be at the border and this one wasn’t even full.

The good bus company—Scandinavia—doesn’t have a daytime bus. I waffled between going to the border in a Peugeot or going with the Akamba morning bus. People told me that the Peugeots were not safe, because they go too fast. “It is better to get there slowly than to not get there,” said one taxi driver sagely.

I went with local advice, then cursed it for the next 12 hours. Buses really do go much slower than cars, and we stopped constantly for toilet breaks, maintenance, passenger embarkation and disembarkation. Plus the Kampala-Nairobi buses (with the probably exception of Scandinavia) have all lost their shock absorbers long ago. We lurched our way to Uganda. The Akamba bus did have one unique feature—the backs of the seats had molded plastic drink holders. They were shaped exactly like Coke bottles.

At the border, I slid my Ugandan SIM card into my phone, traded a fifty-euro note from deep in my bag for shillings, and shot the breeze with the Ugandan money-changers. They excitedly updated me on the latest news about Ugandan politics. Uganda seemed so relaxed and comfortable in comparison to Kenya. When I’d left, I doubted I’d ever come back. Now, it felt like home.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Bad News from Paraa

Nairobi’s Parkside Hotel was shabbier than I remembered it being. And the toilet didn’t work. Plus I was sick. First it was a cold. Then it was joined by a gut issue, perhaps related to something I’d snacked on in Nairobi’s Sarit Centre.

In the morning, I headed over to 680 Hotel to negotiate for a better room. I ended paying the same as I’d paid for Parkside, but for decidedly better accommodation.

Walking over, I received multiple invitations to visit shops, jump in taxis, and go on safari. I tell touts that I live in Uganda. This shuts people up and usually makes them friendlier. They are looking for tourists to sell to. Sure, it’s an exaggeration. I used to live in Uganda. Now I just live in the 680 Hotel for one night before moving on to Jinja. If people persist, I tell them I live in a national park in Uganda and that I have hippos and warthogs in my yard, therefore what would I want with a safari?

Again, an exaggeration. I used to have all these things. Now I don’t. And I haven’t heard a word from Murchison Falls in two months.

Until today. By a circuitous route, through Jinja and an unflappable man I’d coincidentally first met on the terrace at 680 Hotel at the initial Dragoman trip meeting in 2001.

Steve, the owner of Red Chilli, had been killed by LRA rebels in Murchison Falls National Park.

Red Chilli Murchison Falls is the budget lodge in front of Herr Marlboro’s Paraa house. Steve lived in Kampala where he ran the Kampala branch, but came out occasionally to oversee his Murchison Falls operation. I saw Steve a few times at Paraa and once in Kampala when we booked H.M.’s family into the backpackers, but I was never actually introduced. H.M. seldom introduced me to people, usually just leaving me hovering. I suspect he developed this habit because he isn’t good with remembering names.

Steve had gone off to aid some rafters who had come all the way down the Nile from Egypt. Any of us would have. Murchison Falls had been safe for ages. True, it’s close to the front lines up past Pakwach (where Celsius’ father was killed), but there’s a huge army presence and the only incident in recent memory was vague and hushed-up, happening right when I got there. Someone somewhere had been shot at. That was about the extent of it.

It was an area considered "unsafe," but nothing had happened in a long, long time. H.M. had gone to this area plenty of times, always taking along a few armed rangers as he delivered his water tanks and solar panels. The idea that H.M. could have been shot at while driving in this area--I cannot even contemplate this, no matter how angry I was at him in the month of September. Steve's wife must be indescribably devastated.

Steve hadn't waited for the guards on the return journey--it seemed so safe, and I would have made the same mistake. He was in a hurry. The irony? Word has it that he was in a rush to take some Americans fishing. They were supposedly the people who were going to take Murchison Falls off the State Department's "don't go" advisory list.

How sad that this will impact tourism numbers, the very thing that people like Steve, Uganda Wildlife Authority, and H.M. are trying to increase. H.M.’s job is to rehabilitate the park’s infrastructure, which deteriorated during past wars and over time. A man named Dr. Speidel has been the driving force behind the rehabilitation. It is almost finished now. Just in time for more governments to issue advisories against travel to Murchison Falls.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Africa Wins Again

I’d been to Arusha before. Twice. It’s fine, but I didn’t really need to go back. But I also didn’t need to arrive in one of the worst parts of Nairobi—the bus area—at night.

Nairobi had treated me well enough in 2001, once my fresh-faced tourist look had worn off. Back in Zambia, I’d speculated aloud as to whether Nairobi’s legendary crime rate was hype or reality. Huw, the rugby coach from the UK, had set me straight.

Huw had met up with two other men in the backpackers he’d been staying in. They’d decided to go for dinner, and they’d walk. After all, what thief would dare approach three largish men? (Rugby coaches are not known for being scrawny.)

Right outside the hostel’s front door, a thief had run up and grabbed one of the men’s shirt pockets. The thief had kept running, tearing the pocket off and carrying it with him.

There had been nothing in the front pocket. Nevertheless, the group of three had reversed course and eaten in the hotel. Nairobi is serious business.

I could, of course, have stayed on the bus and forged onward to Kampala. But that would turn the bus ride into an 18-hour epic, which I was not in the mood for post-29-hour Lusaka-to-Dar-marathon. Instead, my strategy was to disembark in Arusha, stay one night, then catch the 8:30 a.m. tourist shuttle to Nairobi. It’s door-to-door service, they’d book the Parkside Hotel for me, and I’d be in Nairobi in time for lunch.

From Dar to Arusha, I was treated to my second screening of Anaconda this week, courtesy Scandinavian Express. And I came down with a sniffly head-cold. Nairobi was again put on hold as I spent a day sleeping in the Arusha Naaz Hotel.

My strategy didn’t exactly work out. What did Charles from my 2001 Dragoman trip used to say? AWA. Africa wins again.

The friendly booking agent didn’t bother to book my shuttle or my hotel. The shuttle never showed up, so I asked the front desk clerk at Arusha Naaz hotel where the minibus dala-dala taxis were. She looked horrified on my behalf.

Fortunately, the owner was listening and he was more agreeable. He whisked me into the hotel’s car and instructed the driver to take me to the shared Peugeots. Ten minutes later, I was on the way to the border. I sat next to a 9-year-old boy on his way to boarding school. Behind us were three Maasai, one businessman, and three large women. One of the Maasai—the one wearing a safari vest under his checked red-and-black blanket—was a real cutup and his running commentary kept the passengers laughing. Unfortunately, I cannot understand Swahili and all I understood was “Tanzania” and “Nairobi.”

We stopped only once for two Maasai to pee by the side of the road. We caught up to the shuttles and reached the borders with them. I’d paid 350 Tanzanian shillings for the Tanzania side of the trip, then had to pay 300 Kenyan shillings on the other side to continue on in a Peugeot with no Maasai. Total cost for a shuttle trip? $20. Total cost for me doing it on public transport? $7. Comfort level? Similar. And I bet the tourists on the shuttles did not have their own Maasai on board.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Happy in Dar

“I am very happy with you,” declared Geoffrey, my regular waiter at Dar Es Salaam’s Chef’s Pride.

I stared at him, perplexed. Had I over-tipped last night? He simply grinned back at me in response. Finally, I had to ask.

“Why are you happy with me?”

“Because you come here alone. And you are attractive. And you seem happy.”

With that, he left to fetch me a passionfruit juice.

I’d come a long way from my first day in Cape Town, when Shawn had told me I was “not as much fun” as I used to be. (Shawn is not known for his tact, having once told me I had orange in my colored-hair, and that my trousers looked “German,” whatever that means.)

It wasn’t just the SMS attentions of the Cape Town builder perking me up. Nor was it the comforting embrace of Dar, a worn-out city with a multi-cultural heart of gold. Or the personal revelations embarrassingly brought on by reading page 131 of He’s Just Not That Into You in the bookstore.

No, it was being on the road. The chance interactions with random strangers, the innovative solutions I was forced to develop daily, the gamble of eating the food placed in front of me.

Traveling through East Africa by public transport was easier this time around, now that I had no particular place to go. I’d left few corners unturned in 2001, and had no agenda short of finding a housing for my broken mobile phone and locating a double chocolate cookie at Subway (“the dough is imported frozen from the U.S.” according to the proud franchise owner).

The Kenya press trip I’d come up here for had been delayed until April, and I found myself with ten days to kill before I was due at Entebbe’s airport.

I couldn’t face another bus trip the day after the 29-hour Lusaka-to-Dar epic, so I lazed around Dar, coloring comics and hanging out with my new pals—Arafat at the Econolodge, Abdollah from the mobile phone store, and a number of incredibly friendly taxi drivers (who all sipped water from plastic bags instead of bottles).

I’d become good at fending off The Jambo Brigade—the touts who start trying to sell things with a “Jambo” and a firm handshake. My new pals never said “Jambo” to me or tried to sell me a safari. In 2001, anyone who “jambo’ed’ me post-9/11 had gotten an earful. Now I just laughed and moved on.

When the inevitable would happen, and I’d get cornered by a member of The Jambo Brigade, he’d ask where I was from.

“I am living in Uganda,” I would reply. They’d lose interest immediately. There was no blood smelled here.

“Welcome to Tan-ZAN-ia,” people said to me. They meant it. Even the day when the whole downtown ran on generator power (“happens a lot during Ramadan”) and the municipal water supply cut off did not dampen my enjoyment of Dar. Because Dar has a history of sheltering me.

The television in the lobby of Econolodge, unfortunately, had not changed with the years. CNN was still spouting the latest in terror. After 9/11, I couldn’t tear myself away. Now, I prayed to the Hindu and Muslim gods of the hotel that someone would put on a Bollywood film instead.

Abdollah escorted me deep into Kariakoo—the sprawling outdoor market–after work one day. He took me to a dozen stalls until we’d found the right housing for my Siemens GSM cell. Half the market seemed involved in the project. A guy from Zanzibar had it, but the shop was closed now. A man from Central Asia addressed only Abdollah, not me, but nevertheless he tried to find a fit. After we found a housing, Abdollah insisted on escorting me back to Econolodge, lauging whenever anyone Jambo’ed me—then pushing me onward.

On the morning that I fully worked up enough interest to catch the bus to Arusha, my taxi driver explained something to me.

“No one in Tanzania wants to go to France. Or to Holland. No, it is three places: Germany, the UK, and America.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because these are countries where there is money to be made. And America is the best.”

“Why is America better than the other countries?”

“Because,” he said with a laugh. “In America, there are many Africans and everyone is an immigrant. No one will be mean to us. And it is easy to disappear. I could go to America and work very hard as a houseboy or taxi driver and no one would question me. No one would check my papers. Then I would come home a rich man.” I didn't have the heart to tell him about the cost of living.

He dropped me at the Scandinavia Express terminal. I put on my backpack, reached down to get my water, and the backpack’s weight knocked me flat on my ass. To the taxi driver’s credit, he did not laugh. But I did.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Hard Way

Four Zambians and I stood alongside a muddy ditch at six in the morning. We were all brushing our teeth with the aid of bottled water.

The Lusaka to Dar Es Salaam Scandinavia Express bus sat behind two Executive buses and one truck, fourth in line for the border’s 7 a.m. opening. No one was sleeping—we’d all had quite enough of sitting on the bus, having boarded it 14 hours ago.

I nearly hadn’t gotten the ticket. I’d booked over the Internet. Things went smoothly and professionally—until I’d showed up in person.

“Sorry, madam, you should have been here two to three hours ago. We have sold all the tickets.”

I smiled pleasantly at the manager and argued without raising my voice. Traveling in India in ‘98 had taught me that joking and laughter was often the best way to get what you need. Africa was similar, with the important distinction that no amount of arguing could produce results in seemingly inflexible situations, whereas in India there always seemed to be an unexpected solution. I held out hope. The manager was Indian.

“Then we have a problem. I have a document here—“ I motioned at my laptop. “—that says I must be at the ticket office an hour before departure to collect my confirmed ticket.”

“Yes, but you see my position. All of the tickets are gone. I can get you on tomorrow’s bus.” He gave me a huge smile in return.

“Ah, but this is a big problem for me. Because if I must stay in Lusaka for a night, I must pay for a hotel.” My logic was irrefutable and my chuckling friendly. My ulterior motive: I did not want to stay in the huge-hearted but aging Chachacha Backpackers dorm. He nodded sagely and smiled again. A smile standoff.

“Madam, wait here.”

The manager went away for a while and I stood in the same spot as instructed, sweltering in the Zambian afternoon sun.

Eventually, I was in a front-row staff seat on an air-conditioned coach, bound for Dar.

Being a front-row spectator in a Zambian bus had serious disadvantages. I bore witness to a roadside fire, a crashed tractor-trailer sprawled across the road, and a seriously injured pedestrian who was being rushed from the scene of the accident to a pickup truck. I did not complain when another passenger left the bus and the staff moved me back into row 9. From there I could see only the head in front of me and Jackie Chan on the video screen.

Other emergencies were more of a personal nature. An unexpected early period is not exactly every girl’s dream when it occurs in Hour 3 of a 29-hour bus journey. Fortunately, I found a single useful item deep in my daypack. Then, in the morning, I was forced to retrieve and open my luggage for Customs at the border. I cheerfully yielded to the Customs Officer’s demands after the staff dragged my backpack out of the bowels of the bus, palming some of the contents of my toiletry bag.

I made some new friends at the border—one of them was a Tanzanian boy in a “NSW 1999 Rowing” T-shirt. “Are you in New South Wales Rowing?” I asked him. The boy looked at me blankly and offered to change my Zambian kwachaa for Tanzanian shillings.

“That shirt is Australian.” He broke into a smile and appointed himself my border-escort, even though I’d already changed my money. My other new best friend had on a stylish Meadowlark Lemon Fubu Harlem Globetrotters shirt. I had to mime basketball to explain his uniform to him.

The thriving African secondhand market means that everyone else was dressed better than I was. The men on our bus sported Sean John and Fubu designer clothing. The women all looked fantastic. I wore my grungy, faded Lara Croft-esque outfit and Tevas. My T-shirt had shrunk unacceptably small long ago and the Express 3/4 cargo trousers looked pretty good in 2003 when I picked them up on sale on a walk through Jersey City’s Newport Mall. Now as I speculated that they could be indelibly stained, I tied my sweater around my waist.

Fashion wasn’t the only area where I was hopelessly outclassed. Every person on that bus had a color-LCD mobile phone featuring all the gadgets. People’s pockets whirred and buzzed around me as incoming text messages were received. It seemed that half the bus knew exactly where we were at all times by consulting their phone GPS systems. My own cheapie had a screen that lit up blue, a cracked housing, and hadn’t gotten a signal since South Africa, no matter which of my four SIM cards I tried.

Border formalities took a few hours, and we were finally off for a day’s drive through Tanzania’s southwest. Last time I had taken the TAZARA train along this route and it had taken forever. As in days. Days and nights. It made me swear off the TAZARA train.

This 29-hour bus ride gave me new appreciation for my Kampala chiropractor’s stance—she refused to stay on any bus longer than six hours. She’d just get off wherever she was at the end of six hours and would continue the next day.

Everyone was punch-drunk and stir-crazy by the last few hours of the journey. We all howled with laughter at the “scary” moments in Anaconda. Whenever an elephant was spotted along the road, someone would point and fifty heads would lurch to the side. Darkness fell—again. We finally pulled into Dar at 10 p.m. My feet and ankles were—alarmingly—the size of baby elephant ears. I mumbled an inadequate good-bye to a pal I’d made on the bus and stumbled into a taxi. I didn’t even negotiate and accepted the inflated price of $4 to my old standby, Econolodge. It’s around the corner from Safari Inn and Jambo Inn, but marginally better. I’d recovered numbly from September 11th in Econolodge.

The manager took one look at my bleary-eyed state and let me use his Internet for free. I stumbled into my room late and hiked my elephant-feet up on a pillow. My bus to Nairobi was booked for the morning after tomorrow. My last thought as I went to sleep was that there was no way in hell I was getting on another bus that soon. Nairobi could wait.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Blueprint for Independent Africa Travel

Info for independent travelers.
How I went from Cape Town to Dar Es Salaam by land.
(Feel free to change the channel on this one if you are a regular Marie-blog reader.)

1) Intercape Mainliner from Cape Town to Maseru Bridge (Lesotho border). Used VIP Backpackers card for 15 percent off fare. ISIC card does same.
2) Walked across border, caught minibus to Malealea bus. (Just a few rand)
3) Malealea bus directly to Malealea Lodge. Less than 2-hours, but took a few hours for bus to fill. Overnight and pony trek at Malealea Lodge.
4) 6:30 a.m. bus from Malealea Lodge to Maseru. Shared taxi to border. Crossed border on foot. (Got new 90-day S.A. visa!)
5) Minibus from Maseru Bridge to Bloemfontein.(a few hours, 50 rand)
6) Overnight sleeper train from Bloemfontein to Johannesburg. (Shower on train! 175 rand plus 25 rand for bedding, First Class, secure.)
7) A/C buses to Gaborone are operated by Intercape and a few smaller companies but only at 7:30 a.m. (missed it because train was late) and 2/2:30 p.m. Walked behind Park Station to minibus taxi rank. Took minibus to Gaborone. (NOTE: Trans-Lux/City-to-City runs a direct Johannesburg to Lusaka comfy a/c bus, which I avoided because of the high US-passport visa fee for Zimbabwe.)
8) From minibus station in Gaborone, walked short distance to train station. Overnight train from Gaborone to Francistown. Air-conditioned second-class (but not full)-107 pula. (No showers on this train but showers of questionable quality are available in Shoprite plaza by the Gabs train station. Standard Chartered ATM accepting VISA also present. Minibuses go from next to train to Riverwalk Mall, Tlokweng Rd. if you have time to waste.)
9) In Francistown, caught private taxi from train station to bus terminal. Sprinter—a half-bus or combi—to Kasane/Kazangula. 6-7 hours, directly to Kazangula border post. (Leaves when full, get there early like the locals do to avoid waiting.)
10) Crossed border on foot, walked to ferry (about 1 km).
11) Took ferry from Botswana to Zambia.
12) Minibuses wait on the Zambia side. 80 km over new road to Livingstone. Fawlty Towers directly to right at first Livingstone crossroads. I was lucky enough to score a door-to-door lift for this section. Ask around at the ferry. (Book in advance with your lodging to score the Zambia visa waiver.)
13) Caught 0500 CR Holdings bus to Lusaka. Arrived around noon. 0700 seems to be the most popular bus—go early. Other buses run this route as well.
14) Took 1600 Scandinavia Express a/c bus to Dar Es Salaam. 325,000 Kwachaa, 27-29 hours depending on the time spent at border. Overnight Econolodge.

Several companies operate buses from Dar to Nairobi, Arusha, Mombasa, and most East African destinations. Scandinavia Express has a bus that goes all the way to Kampala via Arusha and Nairobi. From Nairobi, many other companies (such as Busscar and Akamba) also go to Kampala. Or do the trip in minibus legs, useful if you are going to Jinja.

The Cape Town to Dar route can also be accomplished via Namibia by combining Intercape bus, CR Holdings, minibus, and TAZARA train. The other option is via Mozambique/Malawi, but I haven’t done that one.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Across the Border

"Jesus Jesus Jesus…" crooned the bus driver’s cassette deck.

I had crossed an invisible line—well, not that invisible as it was the Zambezi River—and had left the modern infrastructure of southern Africa for the lively chaos and rampant Jesus-pop of more developing-Africa. Somehow, in spite of enjoying a lively, late dinner with two personable UK rugby coaches, I had crawled out of my Fawlty Towers bed at 4 a.m. and boarded the 5 a.m. Lusaka coach.

An older missionary couple from Mozambique had kindly brought me from the border ferry, where I really had been questioning the wisdom of my decision after spending seven hours in a hot minibus that had brought me up from Francistown, immediately following an overnight (but air-conditioned) train ride with two Botswanan women. The day before, I’d unstuck myself from the front seat of a Johannesburg-Gaborone minibus and immediately headed to Gaborone’s beautiful Riverwalk Mall to buy a new shirt in lieu of a shower. I’d felt like a bag-lady as I drenched myself from the basin in the ladies room, using wet wipes under my arms.

I’d caught a minibus back to the train station.

“Come and sit here, sister,” said a 20-year-old girl in her red retail store uniform. She patted the empty space between herself and two co-workers. I squeezed in, quite aware that I was easily the size of two of these stunning, thin young Botswanan women. Probably twice the smell as well.

Botswana had amazed me with its obvious wealth and modern infrastructure. My past experience in Botswana would match tomorrow’s—just long hot bus journeys through empty desert-like landscapes.

In Johannesburg, I’d been escorted to the minibus by a Trans-Lux porter. I’d never taken a Trans-Lux bus in my life, but like an escort who had found me in Bloemfontein and a security guard in Johannesburg’s Park Station, everyone seemed anxious to help me avoid being a victim of crime. Certainly, crime is a reality in South Africa, but my experience there consisted of meeting only people keen to help me not learn about it firsthand.

And now—sitting in Lusaka’s Subway (the sandwich shop, not the underground)—I still question my decision to board the 4 p.m. bus for the 30-hour journey to Dar Es Salaam. Maybe I’m getting too old for this. Maybe I’ve lost weight and padding on the bottom. Maybe I’ve just lost interest in discomfort. But what I’ve always said still holds true—if you want to meet locals, get on the bus.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Deliberate Agony... Again

“You asked for this,” I chastened myself. “It’s what you wanted, so deal with it.”

My right shoulder was burning, crushed as it was against the hot, metal sill of the minibus. To my left, a traditionally built Lesothan woman in a sweater had taken over ¾ of the bus seat we shared. Vendors poked beaded necklaces through the open window. Flies buzzed in the center of the stationary bus, attracted by the scent of fries, ice pops, and cold, uncooked sausages stored under the seat.

I could have been enjoying coffee in Cape Town instead of sitting in this bus waiting for it to fill, here in Lesotho, the “Roof of Africa.” But to my mind, me on any bus is more the African basement.

Traveling by public transportation is an endurance test. I’d forgotten how painful it could be. I’d romanticized “the road.”

I’d thought I’d done all right at first, scoring two seats for myself on the overnight Intercape Mainliner bus to the Lesotho border.

My delight was short-lived. At Durbanville, the double-decker coach filled up. First, a thin woman sat next to me. But then she moved downstairs, leaving me with a large chatterbox. My new seatmate—the stranger I’d try to sleep with for the next 12 hours—was a 60’ish Afrikaaner man who had the annoying habit of asking how I was sleeping every time I was about to drop off.

I slept very little, and was not at my most chipper when I lined up at the South African border for my exit stamp.

The immigration officer paged through my passport. Then, he asked me to follow him.

“You have overstayed your visa. The fine is one thousand rand.”

“I cannot pay that.” My answer was firm but I felt panic creeping in. “What do you mean? I thought I had 90 days.”

My mind went back to when I’d entered South Africa. The immigration office had asked me how long I would stay. I said “three weeks.” I didn’t realize she written exactly that on my entry stamp.

The officer showed me where she’d written “1031” followed by some scribbles. I’d read it as 0311, and thought that even though I hadn’t gotten 90 days, I’d still be fine. Today was November 1.

I’d overstayed my visa by eight hours.

The immigration man told me to sit in a concrete room for a while. He went away to deal with other problems while I thought about my options.

They were limited to 1) paying (but I was not carrying one thousand rand, which is a lot of rand) 2) refusing. I wondered if I could just demand he take me to jail instead. I didn’t think he would, and if he did, I wondered how long I’d have to sit in jail to make up for refusing to pay. Would they call the US Embassy? What happened in situations like this? There was no way I was going to pay anything—I was entitled to 90 days.

Finally, he took pity on me. Or he asked his supervisor, who couldn’t be bothered with such a silly problem.

“Next time you come in,” said the officer, “you must look at this line and make sure that they have written 90 days. I don’t know why they didn’t.”


I crossed Maseru Bridge, leaving the first world to enter the third.

A minibus conductor ushered me into a rusty heap of a minibus. He forced another passenger to hold my backpack on his lap. I was squeezed into the back seat with three other full-sized adults and driven to the middle of Maseru through diesel-choked traffic. My cell phone lost its signal. I was out of South Africa and in the mountains.

More endurance tests were to follow. I was hungry, thirsty, and tired.. The Malealea bus took three hours to fill up, and when we finally got moving, the one-hour ride took two hours. Plus the driver put in a cassette tape and turned it up so loudly that no one could speak. Perhaps this was a deliberate strategy.

I’d called ahead and been told that it was a one-hour journey and I’d never wait too long for a bus to fill up, plus I was dehydrated and hungry by the time I stumbled into reception at Malealea Lodge. I was cranky and not very nice to the man sitting at the front desk. In spite of this or because of this, he gave me a good discount on a pony trek. And he gave me lunch, which made me calmer and more enjoyable company, even for myself.

The pony turned out to be a horse but the guide was great. He talked just enough, but not too much. He led me through farmlands and mountains that reminded me of the Grand Tetons, with a big gorge in the middle. I thought that almost, maybe it was worth the trek up from Cape Town. Plus a 29-year-old Dutchman assumed I was his age, which made the trip even better.

I waited for the 6:30 a.m. bus back to Maseru the next morning. A Lesothan man asked me a lot of questions I could not answer. “Why do tourists leave their homes and spend so much money to see other countries?” “Why do they go in buses with a guide instead of on the minibus?” But most interestingly, he told me “wow, Ugandans are so black.” Which seemed a strange thing to say, but once he’d pointed it out, I noticed that his brown skin was much paler than a Ugandans. Strange thing to comment on, but he was not incorrect.

The return bus was as loud, hot, and hellish as the incoming had been. Lesothans turned out to be helpful though, and everyone was keen to help me find my way back to the border. My short visit to their country had left an impact. As I stood in line, a South African grandmother insisted on telling me that Lesotho people have great respect for others. I’d have to agree.

Now I sit in Bloemfontein. To the north is the long trek on buses and trains to Nairobi. To the south is the easy life of Cape Town, with nice food, atmospheric lodging, good plane fares, and a nice man with a large phone bill, one who would be delighted to take a hopeless case out for a meal even after she’s spilled all about her sordid recent past. Cowardice or not, the pragmitist in me is reaching for the emergency brake. But I still have a few hours to choose before the transport leaves town… if you are going to vote, best do it soon.