Tuesday, January 27, 2004
1/21/04 to 1/27/04: Tearing myself away from Bamboozi’s wasn’t easy, but I knew getting the Cruiser ready for sale was going to be challenge, so I bid farewell to my favorite stop of the trip and headed for Maputo. It had been almost six weeks since I’d seen a city with more than six paved roads, so my expectations of Maputo were pretty low. As I descended into the brown air surrounding Mozambique’s capital, I was greeted with the first real traffic jam I’d seen in Africa. Supposedly Uganda’s traffic jams are world famous, but we accidentally missed those in our race to Nairobi, so this was the first real jam I had the pleasure of participating in. As I inched forward past the armies of roving salesmen hawking garbage bags, coat hangers, fruit, and phone chargers, the cause of the traffic jam came into view. It was a cemetery. Throughout Africa I had passed plenty of funeral parlors and coffin carpenters, but this was the first time I got to taste the effects of the AIDS Pandemic first hand. I couldn’t believe it. On a Wednesday afternoon at 3:30PM, there was standing room only in the Maputo cemetery. Lean-to flower shops lined both sides of the road and the main highway to town had turned into a parking lot. I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I just stared in disbelief. To the locals it was just another average day at the busiest piece of real estate in town, but I felt like someone had just kicked me in the gut. I can’t think of any of my friends or family who have died of AIDS. Can you imagine if HALF of your family was dead or dying from the disease? Can you imagine how frustrated you would be if the uninfected family members still thought condoms CAUSED aids and the infected members thought they could cure their disease by having sex with a white virgin? Ugh! Stop the madness! Luckily, the people on the front lines of the Pandemic haven’t lost hope. The AIDS education programs and condom propaganda are slowly seeping into the consciousness of the rural African, but it seems as though a whole generation or two may be lost in the process. My mind was full of a mixture of sadness and anger as I pulled up to the hostel in Maputo, so I spent the rest of the evening trying to process the day’s events. The next day in Maputo was much better. I was pleasantly surprised to learn the combination of South African and American investment had turned the city into a bustling metropolis. You can still see the dilapidation caused by years of neglect and civil war, but the forest of tower cranes on the horizon told me things wouldn’t stay that way for long. Apparently South Africa has almost outgrown its port in Durban, so multinational corporations and the South African government have combined to massively upgrade Maputo’s harbor. You can tell where the money is coming from when you realize the best road in Mozambique is the one connecting Maputo to Johannesburg. Go figure. I enjoyed my stay in Maputo mostly because I was able to completely relax. I could finally rinse my toothbrush out in tap water instead of bottled water, and I knew I had nothing but 1st world roads all the way to South Africa. Since the rainy season had finally caught up with me, several of my days were spent watching mini-bus taxi’s battle through two-feet of run-off on the main city streets. Apparently the guy designing the city sewer system had used rainfall measurements from Death Valley to size their storm drainpipes. Genius. When I packed up the Cruiser for the big drive back to the first world, I was greeted with a familiar “Click” when I turned the ignition. Complete electrical shutdown once again. Since I had already disconnected one of the immobilizers in Malawi, I reached under the dash to check the other one. As I touched the plastic box covering the circuit board, my hand was instantly covered with water. The entire box was full of rainwater from our mysterious dashboard leak. Nice. Since it was Friday afternoon and all the shops were closed, I spent the next two days surfing the Internet for tips on fixing or disconnecting our type of immobilizer. However, since that’s the information thieves are looking for, I had no luck whatsoever tracking down the deactivation process for our 20 year old immobilizer. There must have been a reason why I was supposed to be in Maputo that weekend, because on Monday morning the mechanic two blocks down disabled my electronic anchor in less than five minutes. It was humbling to say the least. When I completed the song and dance at the South African border crossing, I wanted to kiss the smooth, glistening pavement stretched out before me. Mmmmm…simple pleasures. As I pulled into a petrol station that actually had petrol and noticed the standard cookie-cutter strip mall surrounding me on three sides, a strange sense of remorse washed over me. This was just like the States. I was back in the first world. The scariest part of the adventure was over. My great friend Neal Mason told me that fear develops character. Was my character done developing on this trip? It was a weird concept to ponder, but as I sat down to enjoy my first salad in over five months, I couldn’t help but if I had rushed through Malawi and Mozambique too quickly. What was I in a hurry for? To rush back for salads and smooth roads? Although I had convinced myself I needed as much time as possible to fix up and sell the Beast, deep down I knew I probably could have spent another week or two in the 3rd world. It’s crazy how much I’m drawn towards comfort. I like familiarity. I like drinking water from the tap and seeing people I know when I go out to eat. Is that bad? Does that make me a coward? Do I only feel that way because it’s been so long since I’ve been somewhere familiar? All those theories make sense, yet I was finally back in my semi-1st world comfort zone and I could feel my gut longing for village markets, waving children, and utter simplicity of the “Real Africa”. I guess the grass always seems greener on the other side…even after you jump over the fence. Once I finished spinning, I settled into a mega-mall in Nelspruit and decided to soak up the consumerism big time. I wandered from shop to shop, enjoying the clean air and clean floors before stopping to watch “The Last Samurai” and stuff my face with some Nando's. As I polished off the last bite of my chicken wrap, it struck me that a huge percentage of the people I met and passed in the last six months will probably never travel to South Africa, and will almost definitely never enjoy the sumptuous “Dinner and a movie” that I had just treated myself to. Maybe the answer to ultimate answer to happiness is to quit comparing your “Lawn” to the perfect green grass in your neighbors yard, and start focusing on the barren wasteland of a yard across the street. No matter how bad things get, someone always has it worse.
Tuesday, January 20, 2004
1/17/04 to 1/20/04: In retrospect, I am very grateful that I hit Vilanculos first, because it served as the perfect buildup for Tofo Beach. With an Australian couple I picked up at Blue Waters playing copilot, we braved another six hours of roller coaster roads before winding our way through the swaying coastal palms towards “Bamboozi’s” beachfront hostel. We spotted a handwritten sign exclaiming “Deflate & Accelerate!” just before we hit a stretch of “Road” that was really a trail made of quicksand, but the Beast prevailed and the trip was definitely worth it. The main bar/kitchen at Bamboozi’s is perched on an enormous sand dune overlooking a crescent shaped bay full of crystal clear water and a four to six foot beach break. Shannon was kind enough not to sell her surfboard in Capetown, so after riding on top of the Beast for almost 25,000 kilometers, it got to taste the warm waters of the Indian Ocean once again. I can’t claim to be any better at surfing than I was when I showed up in Africa, but the sensation of riding waves that are clear enough to see the ocean floor through kept me paddling out for hours on end. Tofo’s temptations didn’t end with the waves. On my second morning there I learned that I had stumbled into town during peak Whale Shark season. Shannon informed me later that Whale Sharks are considered a diver’s dream, but at the time I was just happy to learn they eat plankton instead of people. As the pontoon boat pulled off the beach I was overwhelmed with a combination of fear and excitement. Since the Whale Sharks like to hang out at the surface grubbing on tiny organisms during the day, all we needed to see them was snorkeling gear and fins. As I dropped into the water next to a huge dark spot our captain claimed was a shark, my heart stopped beating. If I would have done a little more research on Whale Sharks before going swimming with them I probably wouldn’t have been as shocked, but I just wasn’t expecting an eighteen foot long fish wearing a leopard-skin suit. EIGHTEEN FEET! That’s almost three of me stacked end to end…and I’m not that short. Even though Whale Sharks are as toothless as a 95-year-old gypsy, I almost passed out when my gargantuan friend started swimming right for me. His could have fit my whole body in his mouth without stretching, and his lips were now less than twelve inches from my mask. Luckily I didn’t smell like plankton so he moved on, but by that time I was just grateful my swim trunks didn’t have built in underwear. Before we called it a day we got to swim with six different Whale Sharks, ranging from 10 to 18 feet. I’ve seen tons of stuff underwater now, but nothing compared to this. If you EVER get a chance to see these amazing beasts, do what it takes to get in the water with them. You will never regret it. On my way back to Bamboozi’s I managed to buy four pounds of fresh prawns off a local fisherman for less than four dollars, so I was set for the seafood feast of the trip. What I didn’t realize was that four pounds is a TON of prawns. They filled up two full size skillets and I ended up serving the whole hostel, but it was definitely worth it. I even took a picture of them for you! Just when I thought Tofo couldn’t get any better, I signed up for a deep dive (Over 75 feet) to check out a Manta Ray hang out. The next day, as we cruised past the home of the Whale Sharks, my divemaster briefed us on our upcoming “Negative descent”. Since the current over our dive site was so intense, we would all have to flip backwards off the boat and immediately start swimming down towards the bottom as fast as we could. If I screwed it up, the current would sweep me away and I would have to find the boat and re-start the dive. As I dropped backward into the ocean, my mask filled up with water and I started to panic. I didn’t want to stop and empty it because of the current, yet at the same time I couldn’t see a thing. My adrenaline was pumping by the gallon as I dropped towards the bottom, following the outlines of the other divers on the way down. Luckily I was able to calm myself down enough to clear my mask before I had a head-on collision with a coral tower, but the damage was done. In my state of rookie-diver panic I had sucked down almost half of my air. Even though I was a little bummed and freaked out about being so low on air so quickly, all was not lost. The visibility was almost 20 meters and the fish were EVERYWHERE. To make sure I surfaced with some positive memories, Mother Nature decided to send two fourteen-foot-wide Manta Rays right by our group in the first ten minutes of the dive. Mantas look like huge underwater airplanes, and while they don’t top the Whale Sharks, their grace and elegance was breathtaking. While I hung out on the surface waiting for the other divers and reflecting on my underwater hysterics, at least five Devil Rays completely flew out of the water doing multiple aerial backflips to get rid of their parasites. I wish I could have gotten it on tape because it would have made “Natures funniest home videos” for sure. Before I left Tofo, the owners of Bamboozi’s handed me the greatest temptation of the trip. They needed a bartender to run the dunetop bar and resturaunt and the job was mine if I wanted it. Ugh! I couldn’t have asked for more…the perfect vacation job, at my favorite hostel, on my favorite beach. After reflecting on the choice for half a day I decided to pass. I only had three weeks until our “Carnet de Pasage” required me to have the Beast back in South Africa, but that wasn’t my only reason for declining. Over the past couple months I have become extremely conscious of how much we are all changed and influenced by the people we surround ourselves with. We can’t avoid it, and it can serve us in both a positive and negative manner. This realization has kept me very aware of who I interact with, and I had a hard time convincing myself that the rest of the staff at Bamboozi’s would keep me inspired and charging down a life path I believed in. Does this mean I could never see myself having Tom Cruise’s job in Cocktail? No, it just means when I find that perfect beachfront job, I’m going to have surround myself with some of the amazing people reading this Blog in order to make it worthwhile. How awesome would that be?!
Friday, January 16, 2004
1/13/04 to 1/16/04: As crazy as it sounds, my stay in Mick’s construction camp was one of the highlights of the trip. Maybe it’s because I was so exhausted, or maybe it’s because I hadn’t felt an air conditioner in over five months, but whatever it was, the universe delivered him to me at exactly the right time. He even had the construction cook fix me up a complete English breakfast before I left! Since I was completely re-charged, I decided to push through Chimoio, and complete the twelve-hour drive to Vilanculos, one of Mozambique’s hottest tourist spots. After all this driving, the ten hour drive from Ukiah to San Diego is going to feel like a breeze…as long as I can remember how to drive faster than 50 miles per hour on the other side of the road. The entire drive down the coast to Vilanculos was covered with forest and massive granite monoliths, but the most graphic memory of the drive came about half way to my destination. I spotted a mini-van with its hazard lights on about 100 meters before I arrived on the scene, but I wasn’t ready for what I saw. A woman was laid out in the road, soaking in her own blood, partially covered with a blanket and a pile of sticks. I couldn’t tell if the mini-van had hit her, or some other vehicle had done the damage, but I was too in shock to ask as the crowd of villagers on the side of the road waved me by. I haven’t come very close to death like that in my life, and even though I’m not sure she died, the image of that woman stuck with me for a while. The worst part of the day was when I passed the ambulance on its way to “Save” her TWO HOURS LATER. It was quite an eye opener to realize that if something went wrong at this point along the coast, help was at least four hours away. By the time I pulled in Vilanculos I was ready to relax. Fortunately for me, the Blue Waters Resort that Nathan had recommended was just what the doctor ordered. The ocean was the same fluorescent aqua color that had taken my breath away in Zanzibar, and the Mango’s were even juicier than those in Malawi. I hit quite a nice rhythm in Vilanculos. I would get up early to watch the sunrise, stroll up the hill to buy eggs, fresh rolls, and fruit from the village women, snorkel, read, and journal on the beach, and then head into town for dinner and sand volleyball under the lights. Incredible! After a couple days of this, the Australians I was camping with organized a dhow sailing trip to one of the best snorkelling islands in the Indian Ocean. About half way to the island our captain lit a fire in the back of the boat to start boiling live crabs for lunch. I wasn’t used to seeing a cooking fire made on the hull of a carved wooden sailboat, but they were cool with it, so I was cool with it. The snorkelling off the islands lived up to its excellent reputation, and after spotting tons of fish, an octopus and a couple sea snakes; we were ready to stuff our faces. I wish there was a way for you to taste what we tasted on that beach last January. I was speechless. That might have had something to do with the calamari curry, steamed crab, and juice-saturated fruit I was inhaling, but either way I was thoroughly impressed. I had to stay horizontal on the beach for about a half hour after lunch just to let my stomach recover. That night during volleyball, I bumped into a professional hunter named Curt who had fallen in love with the winch on front of the Beast. Even though the winch was at least 15 years old and new ones cost less than $1,000, I didn’t argue with Curt when he offered over $700 for the Beast’s front bumper ornament. I just handed him my wrenches. Shannon and I hadn’t used the winch once in eight months, so I had no problem with putting some early cash in our pockets. One of the other interesting individuals I met that night was Shaun, the first strip mall builder in Africa. Since Shaun’s first strip mall over twenty years ago, South Africans have taken mall building to a whole other level. You should see these things! My favorite part of Shaun wasn’t his construction experience though. It was his attitude towards the “Black Empowerment” movement in South Africa that caught my ear. For months I’ve heard white South Africans complaining about the Black Empowerment laws currently being enforced across the county. Black Empowerment is like an aggressive form of “Affirmative Action” focused on the corporate world of South Africa. It requires a representative percentage of every level of every corporation to be black. There are strong arguments on both sides of the Black Empowerment issue, but Shaun believes that it’s not what happens to a person that matters, it’s how that person responds to what happens to them that matters. When Black Empowerment came out, Shaun simply adapted quickly, found the employees he needed, and then marketed himself aggressively as a “Black Empowered Company”. Since all corporations were now required to hire a certain percentage of Black Empowered vendors and subcontractors, Shaun made a killing. Rather than resisting and bitching, Shaun adapted and profited. It kind of reminded me of a certain mouse that book “Who Moved My Cheese”. Speaking of books, one of the girls I met at the volleyball bar reminded me of a book called “Reviving Ophelia”, written about the challenges girls go through growing up in America. Claire was beautiful and outgoing, but she was THIRTEEN, and there was no way she should have been downing beers with a crowd of dirty old men (Myself not included of course). She was the first to tell me that she had already “Seriously dated” several of the young men in Vilanculos and her dive instructor father pretty much let her do what she wanted after her Mother left a year ago. The cigarette hanging out of her mouth and the skin-tight bra/shirt she was wearing convinced me she wasn’t exaggerating. This experience probably wouldn’t have been half as painful for me if I didn’t have 13 and 16-year-old sisters reading this Blog back in the States. “Reviving Ophelia” ripped open my eyes regarding the mixed messages and damaging trends created for young women by our society, and Claire drove every one of the books’ points home with tragic precision. If you have an adolescent daughter and you haven’t read this book yet, buy it today. It may not apply to your daughter, like I hope it doesn’t apply to my sisters, but it’s worth the read either way. As I packed up my bags to continue moving down the coast, a strange sense of gratitude washed over me. Even though life has been quite the roller coaster so far, at least I had parents and step-parents who instilled a sense or right and wrong in my heart that I still believe in, and they didn’t let me start ruining my liver three years before I was legal to drive. Thanks guys…
Monday, January 12, 2004
1/10/04 to 1/12/04: Sharing stories from Zimbabwe, Sweden, Malawi, and San Diego definitely made the time fly by, and before we knew it we were pulling into the Blantyre, the commercial capital of Malawi. “Commercial Capital” might be a little too flashy of a name for a town with less than ten stoplights, but traffic control is over-rated anyway. I’m not sure if the Beast just needed a break or what, but as soon as I pulled into the hostel, the electrical system crapped out again. Ugh! The next morning, after dreaming of having the Beast towed 1,000 kilometers to Johannesburg, I wasn’t exactly in the mood to be gentle. Twenty minutes of jiggling and kicking later, she sprung back to life, but there was no way I was turning her off again if I wasn’t in the hands of a qualified electrician. Luckily for me, mechanics, bar owners, and coffin makers are about the only people making good money in Malawi, so I had no problem finding a shop to solve my electron circulation problem. As it turns out, one of our two immobilizing anti-theft devices was malfunctioning, so after a couple careful snips from my trusty “Car thief-turned-electrician”, I was on my way. Blantyre was my last stop in Malawi, so after trading a local kid a moldy loaf of bread for watching my car at the Mozambiquan border, I was ready to tackle some of the worst roads in Africa. Since everything I had read warned me about driving through Mozambique, I was only planning on driving to Tete, about 200 k’s across the border. Surprisingly, the roads were great, but the heat and humidity was unbearable. When I pulled into Tete, my entire body was soaked and I think my toenails were even sweating! Later I learned the climate had earned this specific part of Mozambique the nickname “Place that kills the white man”. Nice! As much as I was dying to climb inside my steamy down sleeping bag for a nap, I decided to push further south towards cooler weather. I knew I didn’t have enough time to make it to the next day’s stop at Chimoio, but the map showed a couple towns on the way, so I decided to chance it. Someone upstairs must have been laughing at me, because as soon as Tete dropped out of my rear view mirror, the road turned into a horizontal staircase of washboards and potholes. I guess that’s what I get for trying to rush in Africa. The drive south was full of bankrupt gas stations and unsettling sounds of grinding metal, so I was pretty happy to pull into the tiny nowhere town of Catandica just as dusk was beginning to conceal the round road mines in my path. I actually pulled over to take a picture of the ¼” of asphalt the road companies squish down in the mud to make roads in Mozambique, just in case our insurance company asked what shattered our suspension. At the restaurant/hotel/campground in Catandica I came face to face with my first real language barrier of the trip. In most other countries, at least someone in the vicinity could understand my combination of English and hand signals, but in Mozambique everyone spoke Portuguese or their native village language. After about fifteen confusing minutes, my makeshift combination of Spanish and English finally got me directions to the toilet. Whew! Later that evening, as I was sitting down to the East African staple of chicken & chips (French Fries), I bumped into an old Irish road builder from Zimbabwe who happened to be from Donegal County Ireland, the same place my Great Grandfather grew up. After realizing that we both worked in construction and we were probably somehow related, Mick insisted that I skip out on the Portuguese campground and stay with them at their road worker’s camp down the road. Since I wasn’t exactly looking forward to drenching my sleeping cushions in sweat for another night, I jumped at the offer. Mick was an absolute crack up, and his generosity was overwhelming. After about a half hour, I found myself relaxing on leather couches, watching satellite TV, clutching ice-cold Cokes in both hands, and revelling in the feeling of my first hot shower in weeks. It’s amazing how much pleasure you can get out of even the simplest of things. Just as Mick was heading to bed, Angus, another kid from Zimbabwe who’s a lawyer for the company and married to the owner’s daughter, showed up with Nathan, a young farmer who had recently relocated to Mozambique from Zimbabwe with his family. The next couple hours were very enlightening. I knew I was only getting the white, Western view of what’s happening in Zimbabwe, but the stories spewed out by Angus and Nathan were heart-wrenching. I’ve written about the land reform in Zimbabwe before, but now I was hearing out it first hand. Apparently Nathan’s family had worked the land on their farm for three generations, and they were brutally forced off by a mob of war veterans. According to Nathan, his father barely escaped with his life after slamming his Land Cruiser through the back gates of his farm with the mob in hot pursuit. Without education or funding, the war veterans were only able to grow enough corn to live on, so the rest of the 500-hectare farm has become overgrown. Nathan was blown away to find out last month that the veterans had burned down fifty acres of coffee trees after an internal dispute, and they were in the process of cutting up the $500,000 irrigation system to make a fence. I was curious how Nathan’s Great Grandfather had originally taken the land from the local tribes, so I started to ask more questions about the history of Zimbabwe. Nathan agreed that the colonial powers had raped and pillaged parts of Africa in the past, but he asked if he should have to pay for his Great Grandfather’s sins. He said it would be almost the same as Native Americans kicking all the farmers out of the central United States due to ancestral rights. Interesting point. I’ve run into the same question in South Africa. When is it better to heal the past and move on, and when is it better to continue to pick at a nation’s scars and dig through historical events for justice? The “Truth and Reconciliation Committee” process has gone a long way towards closing the door on the past in many nations, but would that process have saved the farmers of Zimbabwe from a government desperate enough to trade other people’s land for votes? Nathan was full of stories, and one of the craziest was about the Hyenas in Mozambique. Apparently when the slave traders were parading captured tribesmen from Central Africa to the East African ports, the Hyenas used to stalk both sides of the slave train waiting for stragglers. As the tribesmen would drop from exhaustion, the Hyenas would begin their feast. Ugh! The next day I was planning to drive on the road built on that old slave route, and Nathan was kind enough to tell me Mozambiquan rebels has shot and killed his Dad’s friend through the door of his truck on that same road in 1998. Nice! Even though Nathan, Angus, and I didn’t see eye to eye on every issue, I appreciated the passion with which they shared their opinions, and I was amazingly grateful for Mick’s generosity. Hopefully he’ll send his grandkids out to stay with in the States with me sometime!
Friday, January 09, 2004
1/6/04 to 1/9/04: After bidding farewell to the cliff-top views, disease-covered snails, and juice-soaked mangos of Nkata Bay, I was ready to head for Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. The only legitimate reason for venturing away from the crystal-clear waters of the lake was the fact that Mozambique requires travellers to apply for entry visas in advance, and the closest Mozambiquan Embassy is in the capital. Even though I was there for business, that didn’t stop me from gorging myself in the first Nando’s I’d seen since Nairobi. Mmmmmm… I can almost taste it now. Once I finished gaining about five kilograms at Nando’s I dragged myself into the Mozambiquan embassy only to find the entire first floor empty. It sounded like someone was getting a lap dance on the 2nd floor, so I guess I can understand how they didn’t hear me yelling and kicking stuff in their lobby. Just when I was ready to scrap my plans for Mozambique and risk the trek through Zimbabwe, the dishevelled receptionist stumbled into her post and accepted my visa application. There’s something a little scary about turning your passport over to a country that can’t manage to find a full time receptionist or working light bulbs for their embassy, but I figured what hell, if they lose my passport, it will just make a better story. On my way back to the campground the steering got stiff and I started to hear my favorite POPPING sound under the floorboard, indicating that the body mount had ripped through the frame for the third time. Nice. To add insult to injury, the electrical system mysteriously shut down completely while I was trying to find a welding shop. After jiggling a couple wires and punching a window, everything miraculously started working again. Interesting… After a day full of adversity, I finally found a welder who spent six hours welding about ten pounds of steel onto the skeleton of the Beast. At last the body mount was fixed Fort Knox-style, and just to make sure I was smiling, the Mozambiquans came through with my visa ahead of schedule! Even though I was tempted to spend the next couple days living in the kitchen at Nando’s, I opted to turn the scar-covered Cruiser towards Cape McClear, Malawi’s #1 tourist destination. Ever since the accident, I’ve made a habit out of stopping to offer my help (Limited though it may be) to any car I see broken down on the side of the road. Most of the time they don’t speak English or they already their problem handled, but I have managed to give away some brake fluid, petrol, and a couple engine belts. Since I was in the habit of stopping to talk to people on the side of the road, it was no big deal to give a local villager named Patrick a five-kilometre ride back to his village at Cape McClear. I was on my way to the Cape anyway, so it seemed like no big deal. What I didn’t realize was that feigning roadside trouble to get a ride and first dibs at selling canoe trips to new tourists was an advanced sales strategy used by the local village boys who couldn’t afford to go to school. After eight months in Africa, I’m convinced that telemarketers or any other organization that needs aggressive salespeople should do all their recruiting in Africa. The local vendors can handle the most brutal rejections in stride, and always seem to have an angle to get into your wallet. As I made an appointment with Patrick for a canoe trip the next morning (I figured his unique strategy deserved a little reward), I had no idea how many lessons we were both going to learn over the next couple days. Settling into Cape McClear was no trouble at all. With local music soothing my ears, pristine lake water lapping my feet, and the smell of fresh fish sizzling on the grill, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere for a while. Just over the mountains on both sides of the lake I could see massive thunder storms punishing the landscape, but for some reason the sky stayed clear over my little piece of heaven the whole time I was there. Every book I read on Malawi and Mozambique claimed that January was the worst part of the rainy season, but the Beast and I seemed to be dancing around all the major storms. It was hard to relax completely since I still didn’t know if the roads through northern Mozambique would be passable without a snorkel (Allows your vehicle to completely submerge without stalling) for river crossings, but the beautiful surroundings went a long way towards helping me live in the moment. That night I bumped into a miner from Zimbabwe who was in Malawi prospecting for untouched mineral deposits. He had some very unique opinions on the future of Africa, but one of the comments that caught my attention was that the people of Malawi had chosen kindness and compassion as a “Coping mechanism”. Malawi has a reputation throughout Africa for having some of the friendliest people on the continent, and my new miner buddy was claiming their positive attitude was their way of coping with adversity. Almost every country in Africa has faced massive challenges, and some people have responded with anger, hate, and aggression, while others have chosen love, compassion, and generosity. After reading about Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela and I wondered how I would respond to similar adversity. Would I have the courage to love those who were striving to take me down? Could I love my enemy? If I lived in Malawi, would I smile and wave at the descendants of the colonials who stole my grandfather’s land? I read once that the difference between humans and animals is that in the instant between what happens to us and how we react to it, humans have a choice while animals react based in instinct. It’s easy to argue the benefits and drawbacks of both anger and compassion as “Coping mechanisms”, but I think we could all learn something from the “Choices” made by the big-hearted people of this tiny country. Once we finished beating this topic into the ground, the miner asked, “How many times have you been afraid in the last eight months? How has that changed your life?” Great question huh? I hadn’t really thought about it much, but I had been scared almost every day. Most of the fear came from driving a two-ton Frankenstein vehicle down pothole-invested roads with a twenty-year old brake system, but the list of adrenaline-dispersing events unrelated to the Beast was also pretty long. So what does living with fear do to you as a person? If Soren Kierkegaard was right when he said that “Life can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forwards”, then I should be able to answer the 2nd half of that miner’s question when I get off the plane back in the States. One thing is do know is that I’m going to do my best to keep a daily dose of fear in my life for the rest of my days. Several Africans I’ve met have claimed that our Western life of abundance has made us “Emotionally flabby”, and based on what I’ve seen them go through, I have to agree with them. Maybe every high school kid should travel through 3rd world countries on a gap year before college like the English do? Maybe every man and woman should be forced to serve at least three years in the armed forces or volunteering overseas like they do in Israel or Germany? I don’t know what the right answer is, but I do know that I’m going to focus pretty hard on working off my “Emotional flabbiness”. After burning the midnight oil with my opinionated miner friend, my eyes were a little cloudy the next morning as I waited for Patrick to show up with his trusty dugout canoe. After Patrick was about an hour late, the Assistant Chief, who knew I’d given Patrick at 200 Kwatcha ($2) deposit, came over to ask what was up. When he found out that Patrick had flaked with my cash, he got pretty upset and set me up with another local villager to take me snorkling. Malawi has an international reputation for amazing freshwater tropical fish, and the local wildlife did not disappoint. While my new guide started grilling up some fresh fish on a rock BBQ, I slipped on my snorkel and dropped into an underwater traffic jam of tropical fish. I could not believe it. A couple times they were so close I was afraid they would start taking bites out of the big white fish from California. Apparently a huge percentage of the freshwater tropical fish sold in Europe and the States comes from Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganika. I could see why. Once I finished inhaling my fish, rice, and tomato lunch, we headed over to hang with some of the local fisherman on the other side of the island. The fisherman had spent most of the morning catching all kinds of fish in their nets and it was time for their own little BBQ. Since there aren’t any regulations on the size of fish you can pull out of the lake, the locals stuck stacks of four-inch long fish on long sticks and leaned them over the fire. Then they boiled a huge pot of mealy-meal (Similar to flavourless cream-of-wheat) and dumped it out on a platter made of palm leaves. Classic. Even though I was stuffed, it would have been disrespectful to refuse a plate full of their charred fish mixed with dirt, mealy-meal, and shredded leaves. Yum! As our dugout canoe slid up onto the sand near my campground, I could already tell I hadn’t heard the last of Patrick. The Assistant Chief was waiting for me and he demanded that I come confront Patrick and report his “Offense” to the village Chief. The local village consisted of around 15,000 people, although it only looked like they had enough houses for 3,000. As we wandered from “Shabeen” (Bar) to shabeen, the villagers started to chatter loudly and crowd around behind us. According to my guide, almost all the men of the village spend part of their days sitting in the sand (There aren’t any chairs) drinking homemade beer and talking village politics. (If the men would have been sitting in golf carts instead of the in the sand it could have been my hometown) After searching five different shabeens for Patrick, we found the Chief, who promised to resolve the issue by the end of the night. I wasn’t really that worried about the two bucks, but the villagers took offenses against tourists very seriously and they wouldn’t let Patrick off the hook even if I wanted them to. Before we left the last shabeen I saw the Chief dispatching four burly young henchman out the back gate to find Patrick. That night, as I was busy solving all the world’s problems with the miner from Zimbabwe, the four henchman appeared out the night dragging Patrick’s terrified body behind them. He was visibly shaken as he stammered out an apology and explained that he had hadn’t been able to hire a boat, so he bought some beer with my money and fell asleep on the beach. By this point I was pretty sure the kid had learned his lesson, so I gave the cash Patrick had leftover to the henchmen and they disappeared as quickly as they had come. The bartender then explained to me that there is almost no crime in Cape McClear because the Chief does not hesitate to dole out quick and brutal punishment anyone who breaks the village code of conduct. He told me that Patrick’s penance was just beginning. Ouch! The next morning I packed up the Beast with some new passengers; a University of Capetown student from Zimbabwe named Tristen, a Swedish volunteer named Quesa, and her local boyfriend William. Tristen took control of the MP3 player with Israeli trance music by “Infected Mushroom”, and we shared our thoughts on the future of Malawi. Quesa had just started her second multi-month stay in Cape McClear working with an AIDS clinic and raising funds for the youth of the village. School is free for children through around 7th grade in Malawi, but after that, they need to pay their own way. While tuition at the secondary school is “Only” $90 for an entire year of books, tuition, room, and board, the majority of the kids in the Cape McClear village can’t afford it. At least fifty different kids had approached me in at least ten countries asking me to “Sponsor” their studies with cash, but I had always turned them down either because I thought they were scamming me, or because I wanted to do something that could help more than one kid at a time. Basically I rationalized away how overwhelmed and guilty I felt and kept driving. Well, Quesa didn’t keep driving. She stopped, listened, and then when back to Sweden and raised money from corporations around her hometown. It wasn’t easy, but she’s managed to single-handedly sponsor twelve kids out of the tiny village for their complete four-year secondary school education. Besides just raising cash, she comes down to the Cape twice a year to hold the kids accountable for following through on their commitment. The crazy thing is that she can’t sponsor her boyfriend’s education because of the “Gender/pride” issues associated with William’s culture. Quesa admitted that’s it’s tough to keep a long distance relationship going through the language barriers, cultural misconceptions, and the fear that she’s just being used for a “Marriage visa” out of Malawi, but you can see the determination in her eyes, and I have a feeling everything will work out just fine. Quesa’s efforts in the Cape reminded me of a short story in a book I just read: “An old man is walking along a beach after a storm when he sees a little boy in the distance. As he approaches him he sees that the storm has washed hundreds of starfish on to the sand. The little boy is running up and down, picking up starfish one at a time, and throwing them back into the sea. The old man cynically smiles to himself at the futility of the child’s actions, and as he approaches says ‘Hey, why don’t you go and enjoy yourself? You can’t save them all, so what difference will it make throwing one or two back?’ The little boy picks up another starfish, and as he sends it flying back to its home, he looks at the old man and says ‘Well, it made a big difference to that one.’ Quesa taught me that not being able to fix everything is not an excuse to do nothing. There’s always something we can do…
Wednesday, January 07, 2004
1/3/04 to 1/7/04: The drive from Dar to Iringa was a blast, mostly because Peter and Amalia made it that way. With Amalia hanging out the roof hatch spotting roadside Elephants and Peter crouched in the back seat making 30 second videos of the out-of-control public buses that kept passing us, the nine hour drive went by like 30 minutes. After only one night in my favorite Southern Tanzanian city, I was on the road again, headed towards my first solo-border crossing into Malawi. Driving alone in Africa was an interesting experience. I've babied the Beast throughout most of the trip, but at least with Shannon as co-pilot, I knew that if we broke down, we wouldn't have to abandon the Cruiser on the side of the road. Traveling alone is a different story. If anything went wrong, I would be forced to leave the Beast, and all my worldly possessions on the freeway. Ugh. Just to make sure I was ready for the challenge, the African sky decided to turn as black as coal, and dump thousands of gallons of water onto the pothole-infested road outside of Iringa. I've never seen a sky as dark as it was that day. I needed our dim candles (Posing as headlights) just to stay on the road. The lack of light, coupled with the fact that the new windshield I bought in Dar was filling with water and a torrent of leaks from under the dashboard was giving me prune feet, kept me well below the speed limit all the way to the border town of Mbeya. Even though Mbeya has a reputation as dumpy town full of tourist swindlers, I found myself looking forward to arriving in another familiar place. The owner of the one real resturaunt in town even remembered me after three months, and asked how Shannon was doing. I could almost hear the "Cheers" theme song playing in my head..."Where everybody knows your name...". Other than feeling like a local at the town dining hall, the highlight of Mbeya was checking e-mail. I know that probably doesn't sound ridiculously exciting, but nothing cures lonliness like twenty amazing messages from the people you care about the most. It's like pulling into the emotional gas station on empty and leaving with a full tune-up and a tank full of high octane optimism. The encouragement and positive thoughts from home are what has kept me going. After all my anxious build-up, the border crossing into Malawi was no big deal. Malawi has a reputation throughout Africa for having the friendliest people on the continent, and after one day in the country, I was convinced it was true. On my way to my first stop in Nkata Bay, I picked up my first hitchhiker of the trip. He was pretty surprised to be getting a ride from a "Mzungu", but it was fun to have a co-pilot even for a couple of kilometers. He was excited to practice his English as well, even though I didn't have the heart to tell him he didn't have to yell each word for me to understand him. Oh well, maybe he was deaf. Malawi is dominated by a gigantic lake which runs the entire length of the country, and one of the most interesting phenomenons of the day was the huge black cloud of "Lake Flies" that dominated the horizon. They made the lake look like it was on fire, and my temporary passenger LOUDLY explained that when the clouds of flies come on shore, the village women gather them for a snack by waving large baskets through the clouds of frantically circling insects. Yum! After bidding farewell to my acoustically challenged hitchhiker, I pulled into Nkata Bay, a small lakeside village known for swallowing travelers up for months with it's peaceful, laid back atmosphere. I have to admit, the three cent mangos and spectacular sunrises over the lake were tempting, but waking up every half hour to dump the sweat out of my bellybutton and swat Malaria infested mosquitos insured that I wouldn't make Nkata my long term home. I'm sure people get used to it after a while, but the heat and humidity from Mombasa all the way down the East Coast of Africa had been OPRESSIVE. Since I hadn't been able find a fan that plugged into the cigarrette lighter, and I was too cheap to pay for a dorm bed, I was destined to spend my nights soaking in pools of perspiration inside my own little 4x4 sauna. Nice! Besides the heat, the people, and the mangos, Malawi is also home to some pretty good fish BBQ's. Hanging out on the beach, with the moonlight reflecting off the lake and the gentle glow of my chef's cooking fire heating my back, was definitely a unique memory. The next morning, before bidding goodbye to Nkata, I managed to fit in a refreshing sunrise swim. I resisted the lake until my final day because every tourist I met had warned me about infestation of Billharzia-toting snails on the lakeshore. Billharzia is caused by parasites that hang in the weeds and on the small freshwater snails all around the lake and penetrate your skin on contact. Of course every local hostel owner claims that "Their" section of beach is "Billharzia free", but none of the German and Canadian tourists I passed on the way were willing to risk it. Billharzia takes weeks to show any symptoms and a single dose of medication can kill it without any side effects, so gave in to the temptation of the waves and dove in. I'm not sure if I was delirious from dehydration and wringing the sweat from my sleeping cushions, but I figured "When am I going to get a chance to go swimming in Lake Malawi again?" The whole experience reminded me of a quote I'd read a couple days before from Michael Landon, "Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we're dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it NOW! There are only so many tomorrows."
Friday, January 02, 2004
12/25/03 to 1/2/04: Once Amalia and Sush had headed back to Iringa for Christmas, Shannon and I had to say our goodbyes. Since Shannon’s divemaster training was scheduled to start right in the heat of Zanzibar’s high season, she needed to get to the island ASAP. It’s amazing how comfortable you get with someone after traveling/living together for over six months, so it was tough to give her a hug goodbye knowing we might not cross paths again for months, if not years. As I settled back into the YWCA for my first Christmas Eve away from my family in 27 years, I had one other issue to address. About two days after coming down off Kilimanjaro I notices a strange lump on the back of my leg. It didn’t hurt, but it seemed to be growing and it had me pretty worried. During my first visit to the Dar es Salaam hospital I ended up with a young intern who couldn’t speak English and appeared to have no idea where my “Lump” could have come from. Very helpful. Since he was completely baffled, he told me to go check into SURGERY for a second opinion. But, of course, all the “Surgeons” were off for the Christmas holiday. They told me to come back the Friday after Christmas, but when I did, the surgeons had decided that Friday was a holiday as well. So I came back Saturday…no surgeons. Sunday…you guessed it…no surgeons. By this point I had decided to be my own doctor. The Internet is a great thing, but it can really freak you out when you start typing in “Google” searches for “Self Diagnosis”, “Lump” and “Swelling”. Ugh! I had my top ten possible causes force ranked and none of them were very encouraging. The scariest options used words like “Terminal”, “Melanoma”, and “Malignant” so my mind was racing through possible solutions. Should I continue to wait to see another illiterate intern playing doctor in Dar es Salaam? Should I roll the dice and just head into Malawi? Should I fly to Johannesburg to see a “1st world” doctor and then fly back for the Beast? Should I use my emergency evacuation insurance and figure it out in the States? Was I over-reacting? Probably. Overreaction or no overreaction, there is something pretty powerful about contemplating the possibility that you may only have three years to live. What would I do with my last 36 months? How would I be remembered? The list of negative scenarios goes on and on, but I decided to stop obsessing about something I had no control over and focus on the moment. After reviewing my “Plus/delta” of all my different options, I chose to stay in Dar fight for the best doctor I could find in the hospital. Once I had a couple other educated, non-internet opinions, I would re-evaluate my choices and move on. When I showed up on Monday, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that “Professor Aziz” the best and most senior physician happened to have “Executive Office Hours” on Mondays for people who can afford to pay the $25 “Executive Rate”. That was quite a price hike over the $1.50 I paid to see the intern, but I figured my mental health was worth the investment. Dr. Aziz was amazing. He nailed my diagnosis right away. Apparently climbing at high altitudes can thicken your blood due to dehydration and oxygen deficiency, so I had developed a “Hematoma” (Blood Clot) in one of the arteries near the surface of my skin. While this was not a very serious condition, it would continue to grow and start to hurt until the pain would become unbearable. He said if I was willing to pay an extra $30 he could conduct the SURGERY required to remove the blood clot that day! At this point my mind was spinning a cloud of relief and fear. I was pretty excited I didn’t have cancer, but at the same time I wasn’t really looking forward to going under the knife in a 3rd world country. For some reason my gut told me to trust Dr. Aziz, so I told him warm up his scalpel, because I was going for it. My resolve got a little shaken as I walked from the snazzy new medical office building over to the dilapidated 1920’s relic of a surgery ward. Half the facility was under construction and the lights kept flickering off and on. Nice. As I walked into the surgery room, I felt like I had stepped into a Frankenstein movie. Everything was clean, and I made sure I watched them unwrap all the tools from brand new packages, but surgery table and all the furniture looked like it was left over from the colonial times. When Dr. Aziz confidently strolled in I felt a little better, and a couple shots and one small cut later he was proudly displaying the three blood clots he just pulled out of my body. Yuck! I wasn’t all that excited to check out his handful of blood, but I was pretty happy to hear everything went perfectly and I should be healed and cleared for travel within two to three days. Whew! The next couple days of hanging out with tubs of disinfectant and Neosporin weren’t my favorite of the trip, but it still felt great to know that my chances of living more than 36 more months had GREATLY improved! I know I’ve written about coincidences several times already, and there’s a good chance that traveling has made me a little more superstitious, but it seemed a little strange that there just happened to be no doctors available until Monday, the only day that Dr. Aziz works at the hospital. The coincidences continued on New Years Eve, the day I was planning to leave. I randomly bumped into a kid I played basketball with in Iringa, who had randomly bumped into Amalia in Zanzibar a couple days earlier. He told me Amalia and Sush would be heading back to Dar the next morning. A couple hours later I opened up the bbc.com to find an article describing how Africa’s roads were the most deadly on New Years Eve and they recommended that no one drive unless they absolutely had to. Interesting. I decided to follow the guidance of my coincidence superstition and stay one more night in Dar. It was definitely the right choice. Amalia was fired up to see a familiar face, and her roommate Peter (My neighbor from San Diego) was flying in the next day from the States. Amalia and Peter made excellent co-pilots, and they went a long way towards helping me get over missing Shannon for my first big road trip since saying goodbye.