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.