Thursday, April 16, 2009
Most travel is better in the doing than in the sharing. But while sorting through the photographic evidence of my misspent February, I made a curious find: When it comes to safaris, the slide show beats the schlep. Indeed, the interplays of predator and prey, the landscapes soaked in beauty, the holy-cannoli-is-that-a-hippo-flipping? moments that I witnessed two months ago are astounding me now even more than before.
Ever the social scientist, I've named this phenomenon the safari sleeper effect.
I must admit: when I embarked upon my six-day safari to Tarangire, Serengeti, and Ngorongoro national parks--the durations and locales that all the guidebooks recommended--my baseline for amazement was abnormally elevated. I had just spent three weeks living by my spinal cord, as Vonnegut wrote, crashing along on my bike and hoofing up mountains, inhaling every pixel of this hypersaturated world. Somehow breathing dust in a Land Cruiser for six days with David--by now like family, for better and for worse--and two German tourists (though lovely people) just wasn't buttering my biscuits.
"The soft life," David calls it, this sitting still in a metal box and feeding on carbs four times a day. One starts to feel like a veal calf. And indeed, after weeks of dodging my own pointy hipbones--which exertion had exposed like storms unearth fossils--I felt the familiar layer of fat finding its way home.
I also objected to whatever economic forces had sucked all the black people out of the national parks. After so many days of being one half of the white population in town, I was dismayed to realize that the majority of visitors to Tanzania--rounding the safari circuit in their identical khaki kits, replete with Tulley hat--most likely depart with the impression that Tanzania is a majority-white country. "Whitey is everywhere," I would say in Kiswahil to our guides, who always laughed at my small subversion.
But when I got home and snapped open my camera, I was finally and properly wowed. "Yeah, I guess watching those two cheetahs hunt from the termite mound was pretty rad," I thought.
"The pachyderms making an elephant's breakfast out of that grove was tres fab, too," I conceded.
The wildebeests feeding their calves warmed the cockles of my heart all the more stateside.
The goofy lionesses sunning their bellies raised a more seismic chuckle...
..as did the giraffe nibbling the clouds.
The zebras weren't just standing there; they divided the plain from the sky.
And I was, and continue to be, all the more grateful, every day, that sometimes the world or this life cracks itself open and lets me peek in.
Monday, April 06, 2009
And I? I am a vegetarian, 20 years gone. Although I count myself among the most adventurous of my ilk, I stop short of rolling up my sleeves with Lera and tearing into the oxtails, or the entrails, or the offal, or the tripe, or the smoked sea monster.
Despite my chaste herbivority, Lera embraces me as both sputnik and dinner guest. When breakfasting in, say, Aceh, Indonesia, and served fish heads in spicy rice, Lera gets two servings of fish heads and I get two servings of spicy rice. Because she has mad Bahasa Indonesia skills, she delights in ordering "noodles in crab sauce without the crab" for me. Back stateside, she tolerates my gustatory shortcomings with admirable aplomb: although she wants nothing more than to roast a whole hog, and is lactose intolerant, she always has a vegan entree and six gourmet cheeses for her benighted plant-eating guests.
Traveling through Tanzania, though, I tried to snap pictures of things that I would eat if I had Lera's omnivorous proclivities. I found the first candidate in the Stone Town meat market: unidentified ruminant heads, gleefully butchered. (see above)
Fresh squid? She would take two--one for now, one for the road.
Salted lake fish, padlock-style? Check.
Of course we would share the bicycle of jackfruit, although Lera would pass up the chance to ride the demon machine.
I'd eat the durian just to show that it's not the smell of rotting flesh that bugs me, but the fact of flesh itself.
I'm a little embarassed to admit that what I ate over there strongly resembles what I eat over here: a bolus of starch coupled with vegetables spiced just so. In Tanzania, this combo is called "ugali and sauce." The East African innovation is that the ugali--stiff grits--doubles as the utensil: Using the non-toilet hand (i.e., your right hand), you pinch off a mouth-size bit, roll it into a ball, press a thumb in to make a scoop, rake up some sauce, and pop the savory profiterole into your mouth.
(To round out the meal, you buy cashews wherever possible and eat eggs for breakfast because Tanzanians haven't quite yet quite learned that "vegetarian" does not mean "does not need protein.")
I also drank loads of Tanzanian coffee, such as the brew that this man serves in the center of Stone Town.
Recently, Lera has developed her weirdest yen yet: She needs blog posts. Two a week, in fact--one from me, and one from that beguiling Irish wordsmith, Dervala. Otherwise, blogmonster LB gets hongry. And we can't have that.
So from now on, Dervala and I will be posting to our blogs at least every Tuesday, whether we need to or not.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
I snapped this pic as I wandered about Lushoto, a leafy market town nestled in the Usambara Mountains. We'd arrived by bike earlier that day, and so I spent the afternoon moseying around by myself. The main road was full of children walking home--from school, if they were affluent enough to attend, from elsewhere, if not.
One copse of willowy schoolgirls in their uniforms--which included a sweater, even though the temperature was well above 90 degrees F--bravely tried out their English on me. I returned their kindness by playing photo-shoot for a half hour. The digital camera--with its instant replay capability--is a fantastic toy, especially for kids who seldom see pictures of themselves.
As we sat reviewing our handiwork on my camera's display, one of the girls--Amina, the first to speak to me--sweetly adjusted my sunglasses on top of my head. As her fingers lingered, I figured out what she was after. And so I took down my ponytail and let all the girls touch my hair. (When I lived in Japan, several people walked right up and asked to touch my exotic dishwater locks.) Oohs and ahhs ensued. I think my manky helmet-hanks were thrilling only because the girls had sacrificed their own hair for the privilege of attending school.
After we parted ways, I wound up walking behind these two girls.
Their gentle camaraderie was not unusual; throughout Tanzania, grown men hold hands when they talk, as do women (although people of the opposite sex seldom touch in public.)
Friday, February 27, 2009
(One more day of hiking took us the remaining 12 miles back to the Marangu Gate.) Upon my return I discovered that Kili had extracted only flesh wounds, including some abrasions around the cuffs of my boots and frost-burned lips, cheeks, and nose. I also learned that 10 of the people who had attempted to summit did not succeed--about average for the peak.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
And so they loaded up the first canoe with my bike, panniers, and me. It took all my core muscles to counterbalance the load while remaining perched on the boat's rim. Within moments, the canoe was one quarter full of water. The captain shouted at me to start bailing.
A lot different, I quickly learned on day 3 of our ride. The 40-mile journey started with a plunge down the side of a mountain and ended with a climb up the sheer wall of a 15-foot-deep ravine. Throughout, boulders bounced my bike hither and thither, sand sent its back wheel shimmying, and tight switchbacks added more torque and centrifuge. Meanwhile, gravity pulled the impending disaster ever faster and faster. In many sections I just wanted to get off and walk, but the path was so pitched that descending with my heavily laden bike was dangerous, if not impossible.
By the time we arrived at our guesthouse in Ndungu--a venue whose decor and clientele made it an excellent location for a war crime--all I could do was retreat to my room for a good cry and an orange Fanta. (Orange Fanta tastes just like St. Joseph's baby aspirin, and so it is the perfect accompaniment for all post-traumatic regressions to childhood.)
As is so often the case, though, a few simple cycling rules--mental skills, really--kept me in my saddle, if not my right mind. They were:
1) Plan, and then have confidence in the plan. I bite it hardest when I doubt myself and then try to change the plan at the last minute.
2) Believe in the machine, and have faith in engineering.
3) Don't look where I don't want to go. The body follows the eyes, and so keep them trained on where I want to wind up.
4) Hills are never as bad up close as they seem from a distance.
Writing them out, I see these skills aren't half-bad guides for living--another gift from the mountains of northern Tanzania.
The sisters in this picture were so enthralled by my arrival that they followed me all the way up a steep 30-minute climb. Although I enjoyed the accompaniment of their footfalls and giggles, I found it difficult to feel like a bad-ass cyclist when four schoolgirls--all barefoot, none out of breath--could so easily keep up with me.
When we reached the summit, though, only the eldest remained. She spoke her first English words to me: "Give me money."
As I would later learn, this is a familiar refrain among Tanzanian children. Someone, somewhere has taught them the following: 1) All wazungu are crazy rich, and 2) If you say, "Give me money," they will share their wealth with you.
I've asked several Tanzanian adults about this phenomenon, and they shake their heads and say that the children have bad manners. They also warn me against giving money--even if the children are desperately poor, and even if their desperate poverty has something to do with my people's enslaving their people and stealing their resources for, oh, the past 300 years. At least.
But enough of my white guilt, at least here, for now. I wanted to give this kid a treat because here she was, all brave and strong and fast, alone on a mountaintop with some strange white chick. From my pannier I fished out a small gift I had for just this occasion--a millefiore necklace that my ex-mother-in-law, a glass artist, made. I have about 20 of these left over from my marriage, and was looking forward to unloading them on the unsuspecting populace. (Agribusinesses, chemical companies, and pharmaceutical multinationals perfected this strategy long before me.)
The girl looked at the necklace, looked at me, and then said, "Give me money."
By this time, Jerome, David, and I had regrouped and the three other sisters had caught up. The sun was beginning to set and we had a breathtaking view of the valleys tumbling behind us.
"What are we doing here?" asked one of the girls in Kiswahili. (Jerome translated this.) "These wazungu aren't going to give us any money. In fact, they're probably going to cut off our ears."
Jerome chuckled and reassured the girls that we weren't the ear-cutting kind of wazungu.
I told him about the money/not gift communiques I was getting from the eldest girl. He then quietly asked her about the necklace. She didn't say anything.
"What an ingrate," I thought.
But then Jerome explained that she really liked the present.
"How can you tell?" I asked.
"Because she won't show it to me and she's hiding it from her sisters."
By the end of the first week of myTanzanian extravaganza, though, I'd completely blown out both Birkenstocks--my only alternative to bike cleats and hiking boots.
"Don't worry," Jerome reassured me. "Africans don't create anything, but they can fix everything."
Neither half of this adage turns out to be true, but the latter is certainly more accurate than the former.
Jerome sent me to the shoe fundi (repairman) in the Lushoto market--a dark labyrinth of dried fish, plump produce, athletic chickens, and fat mice. David and I were the only wazungu (whities) in town, it seemed, and so the"Jambos!" were flying left and right. The fundi whipped out his needle and thread and proceeded to hand-stitch my sandals back together. I know he charged me the mzungu price--1000 Tanzanian shillings, or about 75 cents--but I was willing to pay extra for his artistry. Three weeks later, my Birks are still intact.
As for the adage: Tanzania hosts plenty of brokens that go unfixed. I high-five the toilet gods on the rare occasions when the hasp on my stall actually locks. I have yet to stay in a hotel room that has all of the following in working order at the same time: fan, mosquito net, hot water, and light. My jacked derailer befuddled the bike fundis in Same.
But creative genius is also everywhere. Passengers twist the laws of physics to use every inch of space on every local bus. Women defy heat and entropy to turn their bodies and cheap cotton into chic on two legs. Old men fashion marimbas out of electronics packaging. Children turn requests for directions into business opportunities (more on that later).
People pull so much function and beauty out of so very little. Is that not art?
Sunday, February 08, 2009
Wednesday, February 04, 2009
And so a white woman on a bicycle is an event not unlike the circus pulling into town. Children rush out of schools to greet me. Women drop their chickens. Men marvel and then discuss among themselves.
Mind you that all of this goes down in a really friendly way, with people smiling and calling out, "Jambo!" (Hello!) and "Karibu!" (Welcome!). Nevertheless, I wouldn't want to attract any more attention, or any less wholesome attention, than I already am.
And so I've settled into my modest Muslim cycling kit--loose mountain-biking pants or cycling shorts worn under a black cotton skirt, coupled with long-sleeve cotton shirts that I picked up at FabIndia in New Delhi when I visited Lucy a few years ago.
My demure dress probably makes me a bit more approachable, as I am clearly (and for once) not some half-nekkid wench come to upset the social order. But the question remains: am I an inspiration to the ladies to take up their bikes and lay claim to the highways, or a cautionary tale of what happens when you don't marry well? My guide, Jerome, (pictured here) and fellow-traveler, David, reckon that the answer is the latter, and suggested that we complete the scene by hanging a sign around my neck that says, "Woman for sale." I recommended that they add "Long legs! Strong teeth! Good SAT scores!" to the sign.
Meanwhile, the people I roll past seem to admire my exertions. "No way I can do," said a woman my age carrying about 50 pounds of firewood on her head. "You must be very strong," several men have speculated. But the surest sign of respect is the term of address they use when I'm on my bike. On foot, I get called "dada"--that is, sister. But when I'm on two wheels, I become "mama."
The best part of the kanga is the least accessible to me: the proverb. In a kanga exhibit at the local museum, I came across a kanga that sported this gem: "Mother, give me your blessings; living with people is really tough" (Mama nipe radhi kuishi na wata.) An equally wise kanga that my guide gifted me reads, "The world is not permanent, and you are just passing through"--a needed check on my Type A tendencies.
But not all of the kanga proverbs are so bongo (Kiswahili for "clever"). I couldn't resist one that the saleswoman translated simply as, "Oh, wow!" I look forward to wearing it to spice up those otherwise lackluster Mondays.
I've asked several folks why Tanzanians are so excited about our new president. A seafood vendor at the night market said that it's not just because they think that Obama is going to ship boatloads of foreign aid to his paternal homeland--though they do think this--but also because they hope that Americans won't be afraid to travel to Africa anymore. "They see that Obama is African, and that he's a good man. And so they will come to Africa themselves," he says. Likewise, a young man on the ferry--the head of the Youth League of the ruling CCM party, as it turns out--hopes that Obama will turn the tide of sentiment the world over: "Bush made everyone afraid of everyone else. Maybe Obama will make everyone feel safe again."
Monday, January 26, 2009
Two years after the divorce, I sold my engage- ment ring, bought a used mountain bike, and set out for a bicycle tour of northeast Tanzania. Diamonds weren’t forever. The platinum also passed. And so I wanted to invest in something more enduring: experience.
Selling my besmirched merch took more than a year, as the market for used engagement rings is about as hopping as turtles in a tar pit. But eventually Craigslist revealed a buyer—a lawyer of the reduce/reuse/recycle set.
We met at a bank. He paid in cash. I hadn’t predicted the awesomeness of seeing so many Ben Franklins at once, and so all I had on hand to document the moment was my craptastic cell phone. Hence this classy snap, “Bens for Bling.”
I also hadn’t prepared myself for the small gasp of sadness in my heart when I parted with the last vestige of my married life. The feeling passed, however, when my beaming buyer turned to me and said, “Can I hug you?” I had not anticipated the tonic of his joy.
That night he proposed to his girlfriend, who promptly accepted.
The next day, flush with cash, I reserved my spot on the International Bicycle Fund's "Tanzania Surf to Summit" tour, prowled for used mountain bikes on Craigslist, and started over, all over again.