Tuesday, November 30, 2010

dala dala

On the morning of my third day's stay in Zanzibar I was running to catch my transportation, except I really didn't know what I was looking for.  The street market it was located near was abuzz with commotion, people walking to and fro, others cramming themselves around food stalls, all of which I tried weaving in and out of.

I made plans that day to go to the opposite side of the island to visit friends I had met on safari. I was craving relaxation, and on top of that, I was craving a location where I could actually lay out on the beach.

The man, which my two star hotel employs as a five star concierge, spent a great deal of time researching the best mode of transport for me to take to the resort.  When I declined the initial private taxi offer which would cost me $60 each way, he provided a second offer of a small group van costing $10 each way.  I was perfectly content sharing a van with a few other people for a fraction of the price of a taxi.

The evening before my excursion, however, the concierge gave the unfortunate news that the sharing van didn't pass by my friends' resort. Again I was faced with the prospects of having to subject myself to an astronomically priced taxi ride.  That's when the concierge chimed in, "then again, there's always the dala dala."  "The what-a what-a?," I replied.  He tried explaining, but already had me sold with the words '$2 round trip ride', so failed to listen to anything else.  Thankfully I didn't know what I was getting myself into.

As I turned the corner of the last fruit stand, I saw the top of a moving vehicle, with a sign indicating it was the one I needed, just about to leave the station.  Before I had time to process anything, I waved them down and grabbed hold of a hand which was helping me on.

A dala dala is the local transport, and due to the number of side glances I got, I'm assuming is not regularly frequented by tourists.  I was squeezed onto a bench, already filled with people, that lines the walls of the truck. I couldn't understand why the conductor was waving more people in, but I soon found out. When there wasn't a centimeter of space left for someone to squeeze onto the bench, the narrow aisle way left to walk in and out from was lined with kneeling bodies. There was no sense of personal space.  Elbows were jammed in faces.  Heads were laying on laps. And we were encompassed in male body odor.  On top of that, diesel fuel was hurdled towards us the entire hour long drive.  I gasped for air, wondering how the locals could live to a ripe old age when their lungs had to be filled with soot.  

But I relished the experience. I sat wide-eyed, trying to absorb everything that went on.  I counted the heads of 27 people jammed into the truck bed.  I watched as bikes, potato sacks, and other items were thrown on the roof and then taken down just as quickly when the person departed. And then there were the awkward conversations I held, initiated by men whose faces were two inches away from my own.

So I logically suggested it to two Americans I met the next day who were planning to visit the other side of the island.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

self invitation

My first afternoon in Stone Town found me in my hotel room, after a day of wandering the streets, wishing I were somewhere else.  Anywhere else.  I was tired of the loitering, the cat calls, the men asking me to come look at their shop, their sister's shop, their father's shop, or asking if I'd like to have dinner with them.

Although Zanzibar is an East African island, it was founded by the people of Oman. Nearly the entire population is Muslim.  Mosques dot the city streets in Stone Town.  Women are covered from head to toe in burkas.  Arab mentality encompassed the area.  And to top it off, my visit was right in the middle of Ramadan. As much as I would have enjoyed my stay had I been accompanied by a companion, I felt highly uncomfortable all alone.

Had I not been alone, I'm sure I would have taken the time to soak up the beautiful architecture, the vibrant colors, the kindness of others welcoming me to Zanzibar every 5 steps I'd take.  The sites and sounds would have enveloped me, instead of overwhelm me. Wishing I were anywhere else is something I had never experienced before.

But there I sat, in my hotel room, mentally creating a game plan for the rest of my Zanzibar stay, determining to fill it up with daily excursions.

Due to Ramadan, the street market and most restaurants weren't opened until sun down, which was around 6:30pm.  While on the roof of the hotel, writing in my journal to pass the time away, my mind was racing with the options presented to me.  I could:  a) walk the dark streets -there are no lights- of Stone Town on my own to get food, b) go to bed hungry, or c) find someone who would allow me to accompany them.

Having been my first evening there, I didn't know the lay of the land, and I didn't know how people acted when the lights were out.  Although I've always been fascinated with the Muslim/Arab culture, I really didn't know how to react in it, and the many books I've read didn't seem to help calm my concerns.  I really didn't want to go out alone.  Not in the dark.  Not on the first night. And I wanted to go to bed hungry even less than that.

There was a couple on the rooftop with me, planning their next day's activities.  I surveyed them. I tried coming up with tactful ways to invite myself to join them without seeming like an inconvenience. So I struck up a conversation, just so they knew I wasn't crazy, or strange, or anything else that could have popped into their mind had I asked if I could be a third wheel for the evening right after saying the initial hello.

Michael and Gina were kind and gracious people.  They humored me as I took their attention away from their guide book.  I hinted at being wary of walking around alone at night.  I might not have hinted well enough.  So we returned to our previous tasks for a few minutes, until I gained enough courage to request if I could intrude on their previously planned evening.  But when I did, they smiled and welcomed me along.

As we walked the city streets that night in the dark, with our flash lights, I started appreciating the beauty of the buildings. I enjoyed the sites and sounds, the curves of the road, and the hidden alleyways. And as an added bonus, I was introduced to an amazing restaurant I wouldn't have discovered otherwise.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

in search of paradise

My safari only lasted 6 days, but I wasn't about to fly all the way to Africa to spend less than a week there.  I had to come up with another activity.  Being alone, however, limited my options since I tried to keep safety in mind.  I wanted nothing more than to spend a few relaxing days basking in the sun on a white sandy beach off the Indian Ocean. 

I limited my limited options even more by only allotting a small budget on that relaxation.  I very well could have payed another thousand-plus dollars on a nice resort on the Kenyan coast and been quite content, I'm sure.  But since living in Holland has emphasized my penny pinching nature, I couldn't justify spending yet another thousand on top of the other thousands I spent the first 6 days there.

Sadly, that threw what limited options I had out the window.  From what I had researched, I couldn't find a place on the coast that I would feel comfortable wandering alone in with the budget I had.  But it was during that research that I discovered Zanzibar.  It looked like the perfect place: small, cheap, safe, and even has a budget friendly hotel which is run by a Dutch woman.  It had to be fate, and I couldn't pass it up.

Little did I realize though, the island was completely different than I had anticipated.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Divine intervention

Sometimes my penny-pinching attitude overrides my street smarts (aka. lack of better judgment).  Due to flight schedules, I was forced to spend one night in Nairobi before venturing on to Zanzibar.  When researching accommodations for that night, I thought of the thousands I was spending on 6 luxurious nights' sleep in the bush, and decided I could rough it just once.

I found the perfect place: cheap and relatively near both airports.  When I asked to reserve a single room, however, I was informed that all rooms were booked for that day.  Instead, another option was offered:  to sleep in a rented tent and sleeping bag.  I debated and debated, and searched a few more locations, but the $11 price tag for an evening's stay was enough to persuade me to make the reservation.

I still didn't feel completely comfortable with the decision I had made, but I remained bull headed and determined to see it through. Thankfully, in my case, an angel was sent to intervene.  Mary Anne arrived at the Mara Camp the same time I did. She is friends with the manager, Penny, and had come from Nairobi to spend a few days of relaxation.  During that time we had some intriguing discussions about the novels she has written, such as "My Warrior Son", and "Nomad".  Once she found out I had an evening layover in Nairobi, she asked where I was staying.  She had never heard of the accommodation, but after telling her the street it was located on, she was quick to offer her home to me.

As it turned out, the street name of the accommodation I was supposed to have boasts the same name and general location as  Kenya's largest slum, Kibera.  Mary Anne was a wonderful hostess, providing me with a 4 poster bed, on-suite bathroom, a personal tour of the city and the aforementioned slum, along with feeding me a beautiful cheese souffle dinner at the end of the day.

The best part of it all, though, was that my 5 star Nairobi treatment cost less than it would have to sleep in a rented tent and sleeping bag, as it was FREE.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Monday, November 8, 2010

Ancient tradition? Or modern day knowledge?

In the Mara I was paired up with a lady from England named Cathy.  She had been on safari a few times before, loved birds and was thirsty for knowledge.  Meaning, she was great to travel with since she opened my mind up to a number of new observations.

At one point her thirst produced a question I wouldn't have otherwise asked in my desire to know more.  We had been talking to our guide, Joseph, who is Maasai.  We asked him of his culture; how old he believed it was.  He stated that he, and other tribesmen, believe the tribe is thousands of years old, having traveled south from Mt. Sinai.  It had me thinking, and when I made mention of the 12 tribes of Israel, he said it is believed that the name Maasai is derived from Manasseh, Joseph's son. He stated that non-tribesmen believe his tribe originated from somewhere in the Sudan.

He spoke of how most men have more than one wife.  He is the oldest of his father's sons, being a child of his father's first wife.  There are five.  When he was a child, the Kenyan government mandated all Maasai tribesmen to send one child to school. Joseph was sent because he was the only one of age.  Most fathers send the least favored child to school, that child is generally born from the least favored wife.  The seemingly harsh infliction is a huge blessing for the unpopular son.  In the end, that son turns into a great blessing for his father and rest of the family as well, since he is the means of financial support for them.

When Joseph was around 14 or 15, the age at which most men in his tribe reach adulthood, the government placed a ban on killing wild game.  Until that time, teenage boys, to prove their manhood, would spear a lion. The boy who's spear first pierced the animal would be honored and allowed to wear the lion's mane around his neck. Now there is no ritual accompanying their circumcision into adulthood.

It was upon hearing that which caused Cathy to pose the question I wouldn't have otherwise asked. "What about female circumcision?," she inquired.  He explained that after a girl's first menstruation, she too is circumcised. Before Cathy's question, I tried feigning ignorance.  Although I had heard it common in Africa, it still left a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I couldn't help myself at that point, I had to ask, even though it wasn't my place.  "Joseph," I said, "will you circumcise your daughter?"  He responded that he didn't want to, but unless tradition changed by then he would have to, since it's hard to find a man who will marry an uncircumcised woman.

As saddening as it to see an ancient culture desintegrate, Joseph saying most people doubt the Maasai will be around in 100 years, it is wonderful to know that modern day knowledge is being brought into the tribe, and the end of barbaric and brutal practices is in sight.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

In case you ever wondered:

There's no better way to feel at one with nature than by peeing in an African bush while wildebeest graze in front of you.