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Africa Kenya Travel Uganda

How (Not) to Cross the Border Overland from Kenya to Uganda

Truckstop at the Uganda / Kenya border of Malaba

When we hopped off the bus in Malaba, the bustling, ramshackle border town between Kenya and Uganda, we were immediately bombarded by motorcycle taxis trying to ferry us across the border.

“No, we’ll walk,” we said, finding it ridiculous to pay someone to drive us a distance we could cover in less than ten minutes.

So we hiked our bags on our back and headed to the office on the Kenyan side, when we saw the recliner chair from the best recliners we knew we had found the office. The office was easy enough to find, and the process was simple too. Since we had arrived in a mini bus, and not with one of the large international buses that ferry people between Kampala, Nairobi, and Kigali, we had also arrived with a crowd of locals going to market (and who therefore didn’t need to have their passports checked) and were the only ones in line. It took us all of ten minutes, and we were stamped and sent on to the Ugandan side.

A Peace Corps friend in Malaba had told us that the Ugandan office wasn’t that simple to find. We would have to veer left off the road a bit — so we tried to do that. A group of men shouted at us and told us we were going the wrong way. They pointed us towards a sidewalk where dozens of other pedestrians were walking in to Uganda, so we followed them, still looking for someone who could stamp our passports and give us a visa. Instead, we found two soldiers lazily sitting by an entrance looking thing, with their AKs sitting in their laps.

“Passports, please!” They demanded.

We handed them over.

“What’s in your bag?” One of them asked Liz.
“Where’s your WHO card?” The other asked me.

We responded accordingly, but it quickly seemed apparent that they were more interested in flirting with us than making sure we were legally crossing international borders. We smiled (because you should never upset a man with a gun) and moved on, now fully in the throngs of an African market filled with colorful fabrics. We stopped to look, because our Peace Corps friend had also mentioned it was a great place to find fabric we could later turn into clothes.

A few meters down the road, we found our bus to Jinja, and turned to each other to say “well, that was easy.”

It wasn’t until later that night we discovered that we were now illegal in Uganda — in the confusion of the border crossing and market, we had never managed to get a Ugandan visa (which all American citizens need in order to enter) or stamp… This was quickly becoming a hassle, I could catch myself thinking, how easy it was in Asia with the Vietnam visa on arrival program.

What You Need To Know

Before attempting to cross the border ourselves, the internet had made it seem as though it would be semi difficult to cross overland between Kenya and Uganda. I totally disagree.

The main towns to cross through are Malaba and Busia. For those coming from Kenya, you can cross into Uganda and return to Kenya with a single-entry visa (don’t waste the money on a multiple-entry visa — Kenya has special agreements with Uganda and Tanzania that allow you to travel between the three with only a single-entry visa) but you still need to buy a separate visa to Uganda. Visas for Uganda and Kenya cost $50 USD each. You can pay with local currency, but make sure you have exact just in case the border agents don’t have change (as happened to us). That said, visas are available on arrival.

Large bus companies such as Easy Coach cross the border, and make it easy for passengers to go through the process. Just hop off and follow what everyone else is doing, then meet the bus on the other side. They’re good about waiting and making sure everyone is back on board before leaving, just in case that sort of thing makes you nervous. If you are traveling with local buses, however, make sure you get both stamps! It’s very easy to find a bus in either direction from the border, and you generally don’t have to wait long. If you are going with a local bus, I’d suggest traveling by day. This is best if you are going only a short distance.

Also somewhat annoying, the bus from Malaba – Jinja is the same price as the bus from Malaba – Kampala, but worth it if you don’t want to back track.

All in all, crossing the border overland between Kenya and Uganda is easy, and you don’t need to have anything special (like passport size photos, as the official website claims) besides money for the fee in order to get a visa on either side. Plan to spend about an hour crossing, just in case you get caught behind a large group, and definitely don’t have any worries about crossing this border!

Our Return to Kenya

Ten days later, we groggily stepped off the Kampala – Nairobi direct and into the Ugandan passport control office.

“Where are your visas?” The offcial asked.
“We tried to get them! There were men with guns… they looked official… we don’t know what happened!” We groveled.

Our official consulted with someone else, and eventually decided that they would give us the visa, stamp us in, and stamp us out, all at the same time.

“Perfect!” We said, and happily forked over the $50 visa fee. We both breathed a sigh of relief that they were so understanding, and that we didn’t even have to offer a bribe, before ambling on to meet back with our bus and try to catch a few hours of sleep on the bumpy bus ride east.

Categories
Kenya Travel

Apparently, Hell Has Zebras: A Visit to Hell’s Gate National Park

Hell's gate

“Welcome to hell!” a Kenyan man standing by a row of rental bikes shouted, obviously amused at his joke. “Would you like to buy a map?”

Liz and I had just turned off the main road from our camp ground by Lake Naivasha, headed to the Elsa entrance of Hell’s Gate National Park on rickety bikes that were already beginning to make our bums sore. We decided to take him up on his offer and Liz handed over a dollar for a sorry excuse of a map, a badly drawn, photocopied sketch of the area, that would end up being little use to us when we really did get lost — a second joke on the map-seller’s part — before struggling up a dirt road on a slight incline to the entrance of Hell’s Gate, to the entrance of hell, you might say.

Safari by bike

Hell's Gate Wildlife

We shattered some preconceptions that day: apparently, Hell has zebras. And giraffes, warthogs, gazelle, baboons, and buffalo.

It was beautiful, and probably not the image you’d conjure up if I had just told you “we just visited Hell”. But it also wasn’t the image you’d get if I were to say I had been on safari in Kenya.

To start with, Hell’s Gate doesn’t have any predators, a small dissappointment since they’re a main safari attraction, but at the same time great because it allows for another unique feature of the park to exist.

You can bike and walk — unguided — through the park, instead of traveling by car.

I loved that part. Even if the bike seats had our butts acheing for two days after, it was worth it to stand in the middle of a grassy plain, just a few feet away from the wildlife (if you had managed to walk quietly enough not to startle them), and pretend like we were the only humans around for miles. Going unguided also gave us the feeling of discovering something new and setting out on a true, rugged, adventure. Our discoveries were our own. This was what I had imagined safaris were like, before a long ago trip to South Africa taught me that Safari in Africa was synonymous with looking at far away wildlife with binoculars from a Land Rover.

Scrambling through the canyon

Hell's Gate Canyon

We did, however, have to hire a guide to wander through the serpintine, sand-colored, Hell’s Gate canyon and recent filming site for Tomb Raider II.

As we trodded along, ocassionaly stopping to admire the naturally hot water trickeling from the rocks, my thoughts bounced between wondering what the filming crews had done about the graffiti on the wall, and why exactly inspired the first explorers to visit this place, Fischer and Thompson, to call it “Hell’s Gate”. Did they take the hot water and active volcanoe as signs that a firey underworld sat just beneath the surface? Who knows, but it was fun to think about.

Climbing Fischer’s Tower

Fishers Tower

About one kilometer from the park entrance stands a tall, slender, pyramid-shaped pile of rocks called Fischer’s Tower. Besides being able to bike among the wildlife, this tower was our other main motivation for visiting the park: you could rock climb. Before heading off into the park, we had just noticed a small mention of rock climbing in a guide book (“in Hell’s Gate you can bike, hike, rock climb, and …”) which is pretty typical really. I’ve found that as a nomadic climber, the normal range of guide books won’t do much more than mention the possibility of rock climbing, and to really track down a good climbing spot requires more word-of-mouth and internet research.

Upon arrival, we learned that this tower was mostly trad climbing — which we didn’t have gear for — but had a solid 5.7, 5.8, and 5.9 sport climb routes that we were able to hop on to and get our fix (thanks to the Kenyan rock climbing guide who spends his days posted up at the bottom of the tower, renting out equipment for tourists who want to go vertical, who took pity on our rope-less situation). The tall rock walls surrounding the valley also offered a variety of more challenging climbs, but again, not bolted. Our new friend told us that he had been working in the valley for over 6 years and knew all the routes. For anyone who wants more beta, showing up at the tower and interrogating him might not be a bad way to do so.

Some practical boring stuff…

Kenyan Town

  • We camped at Fisherman’s camp, about 5km from the Elsa entrance to the park. Camping in our own tent was 500 KSH per person, per night (so unfair, shouldn’t we get a discount for squishing?!).

  • Entrance to the park for non-East African residents was $25 USD, and a 100 KSH fee for each bike. Our bikes were 500 KSH to rent from our hotel, but if you rent a bike at the park entrance, you don’t have to pay the bike fee.

  • Busses from the town Naivasha to Fishermans camp were about 80 KSH
  • Two good cafes in town (Acacia and one next to the butcher) serve cheap local options.
  • Multiple people said it was best for us to set out early and aim to be at the park around 7, so we could have the roads to ourselves before cars came through and kicked up dust (and it’s better photography lighting anyway), and after getting there not-so-early, I’d agree.

Categories
Africa Kenya The Nomadic Life Travel

Landing Without A Plan in Kenya

Zebra

Stepping off the airplane into Nairobi’s international airport felt surreal. Normally, I think of airports as these familiar, unchanging structures — which is ironic since they are buildings built for the purpose of transience and travel — that I can confidently navigate worldwide, no matter if I’ve never been there before or I have been there a dozen times. However, because of construction and the recent fire at Nairobi’s airport, it seemed more like I was strolling through an outdoor expo than an airport. They had erected large white tents to act as an arrivals terminal. The bathrooms were port-o-potties. Customs agents sat behind a folding table in folding chairs, then sent us outside to walk to another tent where our bags waited, lined up next to a paper sign with our flight number, rather than rotating on a large carousal. The airport felt temporary and transient, which I suppose matches its purpose better than colossal airports like Charles du Galle and Dulles.

But the airport may have been misleading. However small it felt, we were without a doubt back on a more beaten path, set to wander around a country with an abundance of travelers and a healthy tourist industry — an excellent situation for us, since we had done little research about our first stop on our round-the-world trip and would need other travelers and resources made for travelers to help us along the way.

Finding Things to Do in Nairobi

Kenyan Coffee

At first glance, we found Nairobi fancy and developed, and since we were coming from somewhere less developed, we had no qualms about spending a day or two pretending to be fancy as well. I was excited enough just seeing asparagus and red peppers on a cafe menu (sad, I know). So, after looking at 101 Things to Do in Nairobi, we decided to forget about the normal touristy stuff, and instead watch a cheesy movie on a big screen at Junction Cinema, drink our first I.P.A. beer in two years at Brew Bistro and Lounge, and have a bagel and coffee at a Nairobi coffee chain, Java. While others at our cozy hostel — Upper Hill Campsite — set out on day trips to Nairobi Giraffe Farm or to shop in local markets, we shyly slunk away to the mall, telling our new friends that we had “errands to run” when actually we were oggling new clothes and going to the cinema like a pair of bored teenagers.

Getting Out of Nairobi

Flamingos in Lake Naivasha

For some reason, I suddenly remembered photos of a flamingo filled lake in Kenya, and decided that’s what I’d want to see here (having already done a safari, and reserving a trek to see gorillas in Uganda as our one big splurge). A quick Google search told me Lake Nakuru, on the road to Uganda (perfect!) was the place I was thinking off. Chats with other hostelers, however, told us that camping alongside the hippos of Lake Naivasha would be more worth our time. Not only does Lake Naivasha have flamingos, but it’s close to the entrance of Hell’s Gate Park, which allows visitors to bike and walk through game filled valleys, rather than drive. We both loved the idea of being outside with the animals (no predators though — phew!), and the possibility of rock climbing as mentioned in an old and battered Lonely Planet, so we immediately made plans to hop a matatu (bus) to the lake the next day. We’d end up staying at Fisherman’s Camp, a classically backpacker spot and one of the cheapest in the area, but would later discover a few quieter budget options elsewhere by the lake.

Maybe Next Time?

Of course, attractions like going on safari in Maasi Mara, hiking Mount Kenya, and lounging on the beaches near Mombasa were all tempting as well, but would have taken us out of the way from getting to Uganda. We heard nothing but positive reviews from people recently returning from then. Naturally, we didn’t want to actually say no to visiting them so in the spirit of travelers who want to see it all, we kept (and keep) telling ourselves “next time… Maybe after Uganda?” We’re traveling without much of any plans right now, so who knows?

Categories
Africa In Photos Madagascar The Nomadic Life Travel

Photo-Frenzied in Morondava’s Avenue de Baobabs

Seven

I went to Madagascar’s most iconic and photographed site, and I didn’t bring my camera.

Just kidding. Though I did think about it for the purpose of writing a piece on how photography distracts from being present and the importance of absorbing and interacting with a place rather than documenting it. Maybe I should have done just that, but I selfishly wanted my postcard snapshot of the Avenue de Baobabs at sunset too. They’re just so damn photogenic.

I wasn’t alone in this. Car after car full of tourists rolled in, parking at the entrance closest to the road back to Morondava town or pausing for a few seconds to drop off groups returning from the Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, so they could lazily walk the several yards of baobab-lined path back to their private four-by-fours just in time to get dinner. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a large concentration of tourists in Madagascar in my whole two years of living here (although Isalo came close).

As we made our way down the sandy path, a group of small children ran up to us with chameleons on sticks. They knew from experience that basically every visitor would have a camera and demanded we take photos then give them small change. “Madame, photo! Madame, photo!”

It made me a little uncomfortable but one of my friends was impressed they had figured out they could make money off of this. They would have made a cute photo, but I was more interested in chatting with them. I asked one of the little girls her name in Malagasy. When I couldn’t pronounce it quite right she got pouty and stomped her feet “NO! Boon-BOO-na!” I laughed. I love it when kids step out of their robotic “oh, madame-o, please give me something” and let their personality escape.

I snuck a photo of her from behind, and she snapped her head around, obviously in recognition of the shutter’s ‘cliiick’ and was back to berating me with ‘madame, photo!’ I feigned ignorance. I told another group of boys near her I didn’t want to take their photo because they were dirty. They were amused. I was serious.

Four

In the end, my seven friends and I all joined the photo-snapping frenzy, but I could tell that all of us still felt somewhat separate from the tourists passing through. We were observing them and their habits the same way they were observing the trees and cooing over cute little African children holding chameleons on a stick. Even with our cameras, we were putting our Madagascar-acquired habits to good use by simply standing in the middle of the road, chatting and staring, moving slowly and not worrying about time.

After we put away our cameras and piled into our taxis to head back to town for pizza, the cool night breeze forcing me to put on a sweater, I felt reminded of why I love travel — for these moments of absolute beauty and tranquility. For being separated from ‘the rest of the world’ but in such a way that isn’t anxious, but peaceful. I felt absolutely content to be where I was in that moment, but at the same time excited for the adventures to come once I’m off this island (which is soon…)

Oh yeah, and those photos:

Avenue de Baobabs

Baobab

two Canoe Morondava

Rasta Bar

Photos: (1) Entrance to the Avenue of Baobabs (2) Bobona and her chameleon (3)  The kids in front of the baobabs (4) Baobab from the bottom of the trunk (5)  A woman on the road to the Avenue de Baobabs (6) A traditional canoe called a ‘lakana’ on Morondava’s beach (7) Musicians in the ‘Rasta Bar’ in Morondava

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Veloma Madagascar — I’m an RPCV Now!

COSYesterday was my first full day as an RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer).

Except, I’m not returned. My friend Liz, who I’ll be travelling with for the next few months, joked that it meant “Recovering Peace Corps Volunteer”. That seems more suiting, since neither of us will return until Christmas. But whatever it means, it’s a pretty significant event. I’m done! We’re done! On Friday, my group of five COS-ers had our official I.D.s punched and voided, our Country Director shook our hands and said “thanks for your service” and we popped open a bottle of cheap champagne from the duty free store to pass around on our walk from the office to lunch. (Note: When a PCV finishes their service, it’s called “COS-ing”. COS stands for “close of service”. Because of medical processing, only a 5-7 volunteers can be COS-ed at a time. Those volunteers are called COS-ers.)

Working up to that moment, the week was filled with lasts. Last goodbyes, last time at my favorite restaurant in Tana, last day as a Peace Corps volunteer. And finally today, I have my last day on this island. My friends that I’m leaving behind keep asking me how I’m feeling. To answer that, I’m feeling a little nostalgic, but mostly excited for new adventures. And honestly, it’s hard to feel really upset about leaving a place when at the same time you’re cursing it under your breath. Last night, our taxi driver asked for a “kiss kiss” goodbye and it pissed me off. We got stopped at a police checkpoint and hassled for our I.D.s. Several homemade bombs have been going off throughout Antananarivo (but fortunately, whoever’s making them isn’t particularly good at it, so there have been no deaths or damages). This week, I’ve generally been irritated and stressed. I’m ready to move on.

I’m sadder about not being a Peace Corps volunteer anymore. All in one day, I lost my home, my job, and a significant part of my identity. I love being a Peace Corps volunteer and I love the family us Madagascar volunteers have built out of being in it together. Also, Madagascar loves us. On a really basic level, PCVs are known for being “those white people who speak Malagasy”, and Malagasy appreciate it. Telling someone that I’m Peace Corps almost always gets a good reaction (when they know what it is, obviously), and I’ll miss this aspect of instant awesome-ness when I tell people my job.

Fortunately it seems like the RPCV community is just as much of a big family as Peace Corps, and just because I’m losing one identity, doesn’t mean I’m not gaining another. Like I said, I’m less sad than excited for new adventures. I’m excited to fly to Kenya with Liz in less than 24 hours (I’m not excited about the 2am departure time). I’m excited for new food, new music, new scenery, and new discoveries. We’ve both put seeing a movie in a real cinema, not on a laptop, as our number one thing we want to do in Nairobi (silly, I know, but i haven’t seen one in 3 years). I’m also excited to finally be making my way home with a RTW (around-the-world) trip!! So guys, save the ‘welcome home’ for Christmas-time… I want to take my time getting home.

Photo: A mix of friends during the second COS week in August while celebrating at Le B’ in Tana

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Success! 22,000 Books Finally Arrive in Madagascar

BFA Mada

After months of frantically e-mailing, running around Tana, and bugging the group of Peace Corps volunteers involved in the Books for Africa project (which I’m sure people are sick and tired of hearing me talk about) I finally found myself standing in a Tana school yard, with the tangible result of all of our efforts being swung full force into a tree. To explain better, a group of Malagasy construction workers were unloading the 40-foot, 4 ton shipping container that had transported 660 boxes of 22,000 books and 4 laptops from Savannah, Georgia to Antananarivo, Madagascar from a truck, and placing it in a Tana school yard to be eventually turned into a guard house com teacher lounge. They weren’t terribly graceful about it, and managed to nick off several tree branches in the process.

image

I didn’t care about the tree though, obviously. I was just marveling at the hugeness of the container and the overwhelming amount of books currently stacked in a classroom and waiting to be shipped off to their new homes. (Earlier in the day, the school had stopped class so students could unload the books from the container into the classroom while I was sitting in painfully slow Tana traffic on the other side of town. I just had to love Madagascar a little for being able to drop a whole school’s studies to force the kids to do manual labor. Don’t feel too bad, they got juice and cookies as a reward.) Mostly, I was filled with relief that the container had made it, and that seeing it in person meant undeniable, verified proof that we had actually succeeded with the most difficult part of our project: getting the books across an ocean and past Malagasy customs. Even though I knew the work wasn’t quite done yet — we still had to sort and distribute the boxes among 18 PCVs — seeing that container swinging into a tree in a Tana schoolyard meant the worst of it was over.

Not everyone in the project thought it would ever be completed, and understandably so: we’ve had a lot of bumps and hurdles. Almost a year and a half ago now, we had our first stall in the project when trying to raise the $19,000 USD we needed to purchase the books, pay for shipping, and get them distributed around Madagascar. Then, very sadly, the PCV who originally started the project, Lynn Brown, was separated from the Peace Corps for medical reasons and had to pass her leadership along to another volunteer, Brittany Bemis, who led us through the ordering process. Even though Lynn was no longer a PCV, she still remained involved in the project and project fundraising. She showed some serious dedication and yes, her site got 1,000 books just like the rest of us! Brittany, however, didn’t have regular enough access to internet or the ability to come to Tana frequently (which would prove essential as we got to the stage of the project where we needed documentation for the container and permission to import) so she passed it along to me.

Our next set of hurdles came with navigating Madagascar’s importation system. It’s hard for me to bite my tongue and keep my criticisms under wraps, but they didn’t make things easy. Madagascar isn’t helping themselves either by complicating the process of importing goods or requiring high taxes (we didn’t pay any for the books or computers because they were a donation). To make matters worse, most of the offices involved didn’t have e-mail and were still functioning in an arcane, print-it-out-and-deliever-the-document sort of system — which meant on several occasions I had to waste a solid 4-5 hours just to pass a document from one office to another, get a stamp from a ministry across town (because, naturally, nothing is official in Madagascar without a stamp…), or just ask a question about the process. For the most part, this wasn’t difficult, but obnoxious, and filled with a lot of little, really avoidable mistakes (like how we lost a full month because a Malagasy website incorrectly translated a website error to ‘missing document’ instead of ‘incorrect document’). I don’t even want to begin to count the hours wasted sitting on taxi-brousses and inner-city busses by yours truly. I listened to many ‘This American Life’ podcasts during this period.

BFA1

The Peace Corps office and the Ministry of Education were beyond helpful with trying to get past these problems and misunderstandings. I don’t know how this would have gotten done without them, and now it has. Which means, it’s time for the fun part: riding in to site with a bus piled high with boxes of shiny, new books, opening them up, and putting them on the shelves for our community to read. While all of our sites are incredibly thankful for the donations, and probably just as excited as I am to flip through those books, I have to say I’m sad to see it all coming together right at the end of my service. Like most of the volunteers in the project, I won’t get to se how my site ends up using the resources, and will never benefit from them as a resource with my own teaching. But then again, “it’s probably more sustainable to have this immense amount of English material in town than to always expect a PCV to be there to teach English,” as one PCV commented. I hope so, because it’s been one heck of a project, and despite it all, one heck of a success!

BFA James

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Breaking Up with Madagascar

Broken Hearts by Darwin Bell

I need to get out of Madagascar. And I will leave, to East Africa, in 40-some days. Don’t take this to mean I dislike Madagascar — I’m lucky to have been placed here for my service in Peace Corps and there some truly wonderful things about the island, but two years is enough. I like to use the analogy of an arranged marriage to explain being a PCV here. I, along with most PCVs, came to Madagascar knowing little about it but willing to make the commitment based on the little we did. After we got here, we spent much of our first few months figuring out what this place was all about and in the process uncovered wonderful and awful aspects of Madagascar’s character. Yet despite all of the awful (smelly piles of trash, annoying men, general lapses in logic) we found ourselves forcing to focus on the parts we loved in order to make the ‘marriage’ work (beautiful landscapes, cheap fresh vegetables, laidback attitudes). Some people here, well, they’re really just ‘staying married for the kids’ (as in, they aren’t happy in Madagascar but for whatever reason are too committed to quit now). It’s definitely like an arranged marriage – you don’t know much getting in and have to focus on what you love, not what you hate, to make it work.

On the other hand, I believe a healthy relationship makes you the best possible version of yourself. I would say this extends to a person’s relationship with a place, not just people, as well. This is why I need to leave — Madagascar does not allow me to be the best possible version of myself. Yes, I like the relaxed sort of lawlessness of it all, of living here, but overall I don’t like the characteristics it tends to draw out of me. Over time, it’s made me angrier. I’m constantly on guard, ready for someone to pickpocket or harass me. The lack of general creative energy at first was disappointing, but now it feels stifling. I remember being blown away when I went to Thailand briefly last year, because there was so much presence of fashion, art, and architecture that had been carefully thought out, designed, and constructed. It was inspiring. (To be fair, there are some very creative people here making beautiful things, but it doesn’t seem to be as embedded in the general Malagasy mentality or history as, say, Thai mentality).

I understand that Madagascar has been through some unfortunate circumstances (political instability, it’s one of the world’s poorest countries, locust plague) so I feel somewhat unfair to speak badly of it, but I think my run here is over. We just weren’t made for each other. We had some fun, but didn’t fall in love. In a way, I almost feel like I’m breaking up with it. Sorry Mada, you have some fantastic qualities, and I’m sure you’ll find someone who loves you for who you are, but I just don’t think we’re right for each other. We can still be friends though, right?

Oh, and just to let you all know… I will officially be an RPCV (returned Peace Corps volunteer) September 6th, and fly off the island for Kenya – Uganda – Ethiopia on September 9th. I’m looking forward to this next adventure!

Photo: Flowers in Golden Gate Park by Darwin Bell

Categories
Africa In Photos Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Peace Corps Volunteer for a Week: When Shaz Came to Visit

The idea of inviting a non-Peace Corps volunteer to fly all the way to Madagascar and brave Taxi-brousses and kabones (outhouses) while living off rice and beans for a period of time is always an intimidating notion. I’ve tried to paint a realistic enough picture on this blog, but reading about a kabone and experiencing one are two totally different things. Fortunately, when my friend Shaz came last month to visit me, he took all of our little mishaps with surprising stride. On the way up to Mahajunga, our brousse broke down several times, and while I was slouched in my seat muttering “uhg, we’re never going to f*ing make it” he stayed positive. “Maybe we’ll still get there before the pizza place closes! Here! Drink some of the whiskey I brought!” He actually liked the food, especially brochettes (which are one of the most fantastic snacks here… he has good taste). He aslo didn’t complain nearly as much as I did about the rather putrid kabone situation at one of my friend’s sites (the outhouse has gone to shit because the whole middle school uses it). Furthermore, he even tried toka-gasy, the homemade sugar-cane moonshine that’s known to turn people blind, and was enthusiastic about it. Okay, okay, I mostly pressured him into trying toka for my own amusement, so way to go Shaz for taking that bullet! I took a lot of hilarious photos of him and another PCV throwing down shots with looks of utter disgust while I sat by and giggled.

Also, we took a lot of photos

Ankarafatsika CanyonDrink Seller Mahajunga

Mahajunga boardwalk
Girls in the window
Breakfast
Lemur Forest
Mahajunga baobab(1)
Bush

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Really Officer, I’m Not an Illegal Immigrant

Creative commons courtesy of timsackton
Creative commons courtesy of timsackton

I know I have slacked for the entire month of June about blogging… and a lot has happened in that month. The books for the Books For Africa project I’ve taken over have arrived in Tamatave and are currently stuck in customs. I had my Close of Service conference with Peace Corps and will officially be leaving the island on September 9th (onwards to Kenya/Uganda/Ethiopia!!). My Dad will be arriving (with homemade cookies!!!) tomorrow to see this hunk of land I’ve been camped out on for the past two years.

And… a fellow American and I were stopped for being potential illegal immigrants.

Every time I have told this story to other PCVs (and expats in general) they always interrupt me here to exclaim — “who the f– would illegally immigrate to Madagascar?!?” I’ll get to that.

It started when a Malagasy police officer stopped the two of us as we were walking around town looking for breakfast and taking photos. When the police officers started yelling “eh! eh! eh!” at us, I thought they were mad at my friend for snapping an accidental shot of them. Easy problem to solve, right? We’ll just delete it, say sorry, and be on our way.

But I was wrong. Instead:

Officer: “Can we see your passports?”
Me: “Passport? Why? Here’s my resident card…”

The tall, well-fed officer and his two assistants (all donning very official looking, laminated badges dangling from lanyards) took a full five minutes to decipher the card and write down my information — all was good — but started to give us trouble because my friend had left his passport and copy of his passport at the hotel.

Officer: “You’re going to have to come to the station and present it later,”
Me: “But we already have plans, we left the passport at the hotel because there’s lots of thieves. We were afraid of getting robbed.”
Officer: “You need to come to the station.”
Me: “Why are you checking our passports anyways? I’ve lived here for two years and no one has ever asked me for this.” (With the exception of one police officer who, I swear, stopped our whole taxi-brousse just to flirt with my friend, using the passport check as an excuse to talk with us).
Officer: “There’s a big problem with illegal immigrants”
Me: “From where?” (This is when I was thinking ‘who the f– would illegally immigrate to Madagascar??’)
Officer: “The Comoros”
Me: “Do I look like I’m from the Comoros?”
Officer: *Small chuckle* “No, passport please.”
Me: “He left it in the hotel, can’t we just pay you some fee so we don’t have to come back?”

At this point the officer got incredibly offended that I tried to bribe him, and I was equally shocked that he wasn’t taking the bribe.

In the end, we walked away and I was in an outrage at how pointless the whole ordeal had been. Seriously, us illegal immigrants in one of the 10 poorest countries on earth?! The absurdity!! Couldn’t these guys be spending their time doing more productive things? Later, we did end up going to the station and were a little creeped out when everyone knew my name already and had been expecting me (I don’t think the could have pronounced my friend’s name). We figured that they had made such a big fuss about seeing our visas because of the upcoming elections that were scheduled, rescheduled, and now postponed indefinitely, because he wanted to prove that he had been doing actual work before his post came up for elections as well.

Whatever it is, I promise you all, I am not trying to illegally immigrate to Africa.

Categories
Africa In Photos Madagascar The Nomadic Life

A Skipped Beat: Tuesday Travel Snapshot in Diego, Madagascar

Bringing you a travel snapshot from Beat Nomad’s travel archives each and every Tuesday

Diego SuarezI recently found a blog describing Diego Suarez (the northernmost city in Madagascar, known as Antsiranana in Malagasy) as a “small fishing village”. It made me giggle a little, but then again, everything is relative. It’s small by western standards and most well known for it’s Portuguese-founded port, but tell someone from Diego that they are from a village and they’ll likely tell you off. Within Madagascar, it’s a hub of cosmopolitanism in the north. The city boasts a couple of night clubs, banks, a university, round the clock electricity (which says nothing of its reliability), and an airport. And then, there’s this semi-cryptic graffiti all over the place — a style of art I’ve always associated with urbanism. Through the Peace Corps rumor mill I heard that a French volunteer, not a local, is responsible for the graffiti, but of course that should be taken with a grain of salt.

Best part about Diego Suarez: The nearby Ankarana national park, the retardedly beautiful Emerald Sea, and all the fresh seafood and coconut rice we could handle.

Worst part about Diego Suarez: A surprising lack of cheap Malagasy food options and a not so surprising abundance of prostitutes (the seedier side of Diego: it’s a sex tourist destination, though still not as bad as Nosy Be)

Categories
Africa In Photos Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Photos From Inside an African Market

Malagasy girl eating riceI hate to say it, but I’ve gotten used to the Antsirabe market’s smell. It’s a weird combination of muck and old produce, rice being cooked, and charcoal. The meat section has a totally different stench. Even after two years, I scrunch my face and try not to breathe it in as a walk quickly past. Once past the meat and surrounded by piles and piles of vegetables, (the women, because the overwhelming majority of people selling goods in the market are women), shout out the names of vegetables they think I want. “Citron! Citron!” one woman carrying a basket of limes calls out “Les tomates, madam, les tomates!” another says from her perch on a table covered in various vegetables, holding one up for me to see. It catches me off guard on the rare occasion they ask in Malagasy, and I wonder “if I were a tourist, would I have even noticed?”

The place is dark and dingy. Although it has no walls, the stalls of various vendors lined up at the entrance to the covered market and sectioned off with sheets of plastic, make it seem as if they do. The whole place is ensconced with a brick-tiled roof. I’m pretty sure several birds and bats have made homes in the rafters. The floor is no better. I keep my eyes to the ground to make sure I don’t step on a chicken, a small child playing with a cardboard box, or any other mysterious, liquidy substances.

On the other side of the produce market, sit rows of tiled lunch counters. Behind each one, people tend to giant metal pots over charcoal flames, cooking rice and loaka — the thing that accompanies the rice, (pork, beans, cow tongue) — coffee, or frying different sorts of bread in hot oil. Off in the far corner, I notice all of the street kids have gathered at one of these counters, being fed rice and chicken by the owners.

“Hey look, they’re doing their dishes when they finish,” one of my friends notices.

“I guess that’s a fair trade for free food, right?” I reply.

In that moment, I’m still finishing up my own plate of rice, beans, and cucumber salad when one of the older kids ambles up to beg for money, still munching on a chicken bone.

“Sorry kid,” I say, “but you can have the rest of my rice.”

“Sure,” he replies, and dumps the rice into a plastic bag. (This is one thing I love about Madagascar, how little is wasted. If I can’t finish my food, which I rarely can when it’s rice, there’s always someone else who’ll eat it — even if it’s just the cat that hangs around the hotely)

We finish and leave the dark, weird-smelling, half-open market and step out into the street. I’m startled by the sunshine, but also on some level how normal sitting in a dingy market eating rice has become.

Chickens and Bananas

ChickensBasket SellerStreet kid eating chicken boneWashing ShoesBag vendorPhotos: (all were taken near Antsenakely, Antsirabe)

(1) Small child eating rice (it would have been cuter if she hadn’t made that weird face just as my friend Amy snapped the photo!) (2) Women selling chicken, bananas, and brooms (3) Chickens… duh (4) Woman selling woven rafia baskets and hats that are common in Madagascar (5) The street kid I gave my rice to… he’s making a funny face because he was in the middle of eating a chicken bone, but I think the photo is kind of hilarious (so did he) (6) Shoe vendors washing their shoes just outside Antsirabe’s small market (7) Tangerines, bananas, and bags

Categories
In Photos Switzerland The Nomadic Life

A Skipped Beat: Tuesday Travel Snapshot in Lugano, Switzerland

Bringing you a travel snapshot from the Beat Nomad archives each and every Tuesday…

Lugano, Switzerland… except for last Tuesday because I was having some internet problems. To continue with today’s post:

I wish I had better pictures of Lugano, Switzerland. Even though I’ve ended up in the tiny Swiss town just north of Milan several times, I have disparagingly few. I’d like to say it’s because I was too busy drooling over cobblestone streets and bugging my friend to drink espresso or climb a castle with me… so we’ll blame it on that. This photo is a view of Lugano from a nearby mountain (but really just a hill in comparison to the Alps that hover in the distance).

Favorite part about Lugano: Stumbling upon a violin-cello duet around the corner from the Louis-Vuitton store, performing with sheet music and all (even the street musicians have class)

Least favorite part about Lugano: It’s retardedly expensive and a Swiss couple judged me for climbing that mountain in Toms

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

How Biking Saved My Sanity in the Peace Corps

Peace Corps volunteers have a reputation for being a little off-kilter. Newbies arrive, meet more seasoned volunteers and think “wow, they’re a little weird.” The seasoned volunteers shake their heads and say “don’t worry, you’ll grow in to it.” Exhibit A: A PCV dancing with a bunch of pousse-pousse drivers and street kids:

Peace Corps Volunteers are WeirdJust another Friday night, right? Sadly… yes. There’s just something about living in a rural African village for two years that can drive a person slightly crazy, (or really crazy, but that’s rare) and generally the things that affect us are different for every volunteer. Maybe it’s that rooster that crows outside your bedroom window every morning at 4:30, or the kids that try to move the bamboo slats that constitute as walls on your house to peer and spy on you. More often yet, it’s the lack of schedule and extreme and utter boredom that comes with having a vague job in an area with no electricity. Or it’s weird food cravings and the sudden disappearance of your social life (once early in my service, I had one of those what-the-f-am-I-doing-here moments when I realized it was a Friday night and I was sitting at home sewing curtains).

Personally, when I first arrived at my Peace Corps site, the town that was supposed to be my home for the next two years, the thing that ate at me the most was disappointment. I had electricity and an abundance of cheap, fresh vegetables (two things I hear other PCVs complain about not having at their sites and I count myself lucky for), but the town itself was… well… bland. I’m in a beautiful country, but my town isn’t pretty. It’s big enough that there will forever be someone shouting “hey white person!” when I walk through market. It’s also in the heart of the Merina tribe’s region, and, sorry to any Merina folks reading this, I think the I-love-Jesus-and-soccer culture is mind-numbingly dull. I mean, great for you, but going to church and watching soccer are about as fun to me as going to the dentist. I still don’t like my site. It’s comfortable, people actually do work when I ask them to, but it’s bland.

At first, I really tried to take Peace Corps’ cheesy advice and “make the most of your site”. I tried going for walks, but no matter how far I walked I could never fully escape the obnoxious kids who herd cattle or random creepers. I tried going to church once, and almost fell asleep. I watched a fair amount of soccer games, and eventually decided it wasn’t worth my time to sit in the cold rain watching a game I don’t enjoy. By my third month at site, I was officially going a little nuts and over-fixating on the flickering light bulbs in my house. I couldn’t sit in a coffee shop, rock climb, hike or do anything outdoorsy to cope with the stress and boredom of site like I would have back in the states, and felt stuck.

But then I got a bike.

DSCN0742

And biking saved my sanity.

It quickly became the one connection I had to my life back in Seattle, back in the states, and a way to do something outdoorsy without worrying about obnoxious cattle herders or having to make conversation when I wasn’t up for speaking Malagasy. Finally free, I would furiously pedal back and forth between the highway and town, or throw the bike on top of a bus and take it around Antsirabe. One day, I broke out of my fear of biking on the highways (reasoning that drivers were already more used to seeing cows, kids, bikes, and rickshaws on the road than the average American driver) and went the 22km from Antsirabe to Betafo.

Cows

It was the happiest I had ever felt in Madagascar.

I was part of the scene, but not — and that was exactly what I wanted, what I needed, as a reprise from daily life in town. I wanted to observe Madagascar, to be outside and not cooped up in my house, but I still had this incredibly American mentality of wanting to not be bothered. It was a practice of being present but not pestered.

Road to Betafo

It’s still my favorite way to view Madagascar, and I’m hoping to bike the 500-ish kilometers from Antsirabe to Morondava before leaving the island, so stay posted!

Categories
Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Madagascar Locust Plague? What Locust Plague?

The vendor was too shy to have his picture taken with the locusts, so this lady volunteered! You can’t see the crowd that gathered behind me.

 

I first noticed them last Wednesday when I was fetching water at mid-day. The sky was bright and cloudless, and tiny shadows began to flit past in the dirt. Since nothing had taken a swan dive into my head, I initially thought they were the shadows of a flock of tiny birds – not that I had ever seen anything like that before in my town. But the shadows kept moving across the dirt basketball court in numbers too large to represent one measly group of birds. So, I put down my bucket of water and squinted up at the sky.

“Locusts!” I thought, “So it is true…”

Since March, news reports have been floating around the internet about a locust plague ravaging Madagascar. These distant writers have been predicting famine and portraying a pretty dark situation. Apparently “100 swarms across Madagascar, made up of about 500 billion ravenous locusts” have accounted for the worst locust infestation in 60 years. Concerned friends and family back home shared the articles with me and other Peace Corps volunteers located here, but most of us would read the articles only to glance away from my computer screen, look outside, and think “locusts? What locusts?”

To be fair, it started much further south of the capitol, near where I and the other PCVs I see most frequently live. Madagascar is a huge country with climates almost as varied as the United States. So we mostly wrote it off as something that was happening in that far-away southern part of Madagascar. But then, a few weeks ago, a friend of mine about 300km to the south of me outside of Fianaratsoa mentioned that the rumored locusts were floating about her town. Then, on Wednesday, they finally seemed to have made it to my town.

“Teacher, how do you say fanala?” one kid asked me in class later in the afternoon.

“What?”

Fanala,” he repeated and pulled a locust out of his backpack.

“Oh, locust. Are you going to eat that with your rice tonight?” I joked, sending the class into a fit of laughter.

“Yup,” he responded. Honestly, I don’t doubt he’s lying.

The thing is, while the rest of the world is anxiously watching to see if Madagascar will reach a famine, Madagascar is having a blast. Kids are out in the field at the sunniest parts of the day – when the locusts are most abundant – trying to catch as many as they can. Several vendors have popped up in my market selling them for 200 Ariary (about $0.10 USD) a cup. They’re apparently delicious.

Basket of Locusts
Yum…

 

“Are you going to eat locusts for your dinner tonight?” the woman at the photocopy shop asked me.

“I don’t know how to cook them,” I said (rather diplomatically, I thought).

“Easy, just fry them up in oil!”

Besides being able to eat them, harvest season is largely over, and the central highlands – which are the rice and vegetable belt of the country – weren’t hit as hard as the south. Meaning, from my non-expert opinion (let me repeat: I am no expert, I’m just a PCV / teacher), even though locusts are undoubtedly causing problems, famine in this region doesn’t seem to be as big a threat as the media is making it out to be. They have undoubtedly caused problems for the southern part of Madagascar, which is already too arid to grow the same amount of rice and produce as the central highlands and easily affected by natural disasters. However, in the highlands, the problem feels distant. Around Antsirabe at least, the media’s pessimistic opinion of the locusts doesn’t seem to match up with people’s talk of eating delicious locusts for dinner and kids jumping around trying to catch a few. It’s got me thinking, maybe I should try one?

Photos taken in Antanifotsy, Madagascar

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Importing Books to Madagascar is Like Herding Cats

copyright @ photohome_uk

If you are a close friend/family member of mine, I probably bugged you almost a year and a half ago to donate to a huge project aimed at getting 22,000 books from America to 17 different schools and libraries in Madagascar. I really appreciate everyone who helped donate money to the project and I think after so much time has passed you deserve an update…

Well here it is: They’re still not here, but they’re close. Crunch time to sort out the logistics of sorting the books and sending them (by car/bus) to different cities/towns/villages throughout Madagascar is approaching quickly. Which means, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been running around town trying to get the nit-picky official aspects of importing a 40-foot shipping container with books and computers done. Unfortunately, the perils of wading through third world bureaucracy is driving me crazy. Mostly, it’s irritating because I’m trying to figure out a process I know nothing about, in a foreign language, in a system that’s 30 years behind in technology. For example, when I asked a Malagasy official at the customs office earlier today if I could e-mail her the one missing document I needed to petition for a tax-free import (since they are donations), she said “I don’t have an e-mail,”

I probably rolled my eyes a little too obviously.

I mean, in the West the idea of anyone working in government, business, or operations of this caliber not having an e-mail address wouldn’t ever cross anyone’s mind. But here, it’s kind of a big deal if I don’t have to travel across town on a janky bus and risk getting pickpocketed to hand off a letter. Not even an original copy of some official document, but a letter of request.

There’s also a lot of mis-communications that have come up in the process. Malagasy tend to talk around a point, rather than taking the American approach of direct communication and getting right to the point. I feel like I have sat in front of officials who explained something irrelevant to the question I asked, in three different ways, before they either answered my question or I gave up.

When I was registering on Gasynet — a website that anyone who imports large shipments to Madagascar has to get registered on — they kept sending me an e-mail saying “missing document” when it should have read “incorrect document”. It took a trip from my site to Tana to figure out what was going on, and even then I got so frustrated with the tech-help woman at Gasynet (who, even though she works for a website was hunt-and-peck typing) that I left her office crying.

However, I am proud of myself for holding it together today, when after going to the customs office for the third time they told me that I yet again, was missing a document. I felt a lot like when I was a server, and I would deliver a coke refill to a table, only to be asked for some more salt, and then a side of bread, and curse the table for not asking me for all three things at the same time.

Efficiency is a foreign concept I suppose.

I know a lot of it is language and culture barriers, and the fact that everything here does not run on e-mail and computer systems, but is still lost in the literal red tape of turning in hard copies of documents and having signatures and stamps on everything (my god, the f*ing love for stamps in this country!), but still, I can’t help but cry a little inside when I have a conversation like:

“We need the documents from you.”
“What documents?”
“The official documents.”
“Ummm…. that’s not what I meant….”

It’ll get done. They should be in port on June 23rd, and then I’ll be back in Tana, rushing around again. (Fortunately, there have been some incredibly helpful and efficient people working with me on this project, and I’m happy to say that we’ve finally got a space to unload the books, and someone to take the shipping container off our hands! Yay!) Wish me luck, or mail me bags of Starbucks coffee. No seriously, Starbucks coffee, send it my way — my address is in the about me section ;D