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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 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 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

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
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life Travel

How Blogging in the Third World is Frustrating Business

AarrrrgggRemember when, back in the day, you’d start up your dial-up internet, most likely with AOL, and your computer would make these obnoxious whrrring sounds, a long, high-pitched eeeeee-rrrrrr, and maybe at some point your family would yell at you to get off the internet because they needed to use the phone? Remember how tediously slow it was? Yeah, well blogging from my home in Madagascar, with an internet stick (a small device you plug into a USB outlet and connects to the internet with 3G through a local phone tower) feels a lot like that.

Some days, I’ll click on a link to an article I want to read, get up, make some coffee, write a few things on word, check it – still not loaded – get distracted, and before I know it, half an hour has gone by and all I can see is half an image, slowly loading line by pixelated line, and I give up. I’ve had days when even twitter, a relatively low bandwidth site, takes ages to load. For one of my most recent posts, I spent a day and a half uploading the seven images I wanted to include with the post – and that was with comparatively “good” wifi at a hotel and not my dinky internet stick. Blogging in these conditions can be seriously painful.

And of course, there are all the other weird obstacles in the way. I missed a Skype date once because a cyclone had somehow wiped out all the wifi in the entire city of Antsirabe (then again, it was a Malagasy waitress explaining this to me, so you have to take the explanation with a grain of salt). I biked to all the places I knew with wifi, and nothing. There’s the fact that my electricity for the past month has consisted of a single light bulb strung from my neighbor’s house with all sorts of sketchy electrical wiring that I’m a wee-bit afraid of. (I walk to the other side of the school compound about twice a day to charge my computer in the English Center, if you’re curious.) There’s even that one goat that jumped on me while I was biking to get to a wifi spot, leaving me limping into the café after his hoof smacked my foot.

I love blogging and I love sharing my travel experiences, but behind every post I’ve made there was probably quite a few moments of me shouting “ARRRGGG WILL YOU LOAD ALREADY!” at my computer. So guys, for me, tell your kids “appreciate that fast internet connection you have – there are Peace Corps volunteers in Africa with dial up.”

Photo: I may or may not have had a couple of beers when someone tossed that fake turtle at me

Categories
Africa La Reunion The Nomadic Life Travel

La Reunion, See You in a Week!

Photo credit: iloha.fr

So… readers… I don’t really know any better way to put this… buuut, in less than a week from now, I’ll be in La Reunion! I’m doing my happy dance right now as I type (I know, I’m talented, right?), so, clearly, I’m stoked. I hardly ever write blog posts about future travels, unless I’m truly beside myself with anticipation. And right now, I’m beside myself with anticipation.

“Why La Reunion?” You may be wondering. I know some of my friends were. Well, last month while I was cross-checking some facts in my LP for an article on BootsnAll, I got distracted and started reading this tiny section in the back about the Comoros. They’re a small, independent cluster of islands off the northern part of Madagascar and being so close already, visiting them seemed like a now or never travel opportunity. I hadn’t even begun thinking of the other little islands floating off the coast of Africa (Mauritius, Seychelles, La Reunion…) at that point. However, later that day I mentioned this what-if-I-went-to-the-Comoros-after-Peace-Corps idea to my friend Chip.

“Why not go now?” he said.

“Now??” I asked.

“Yeah, during spring break,” he said, then launched into one of his usual, rambling, soliloquies (Chip has a habit of thinking out loud) about how OK, Comoros makes sense and all, but Mauritius actually sounds more fascinating because of all the cultures mixed together but yeah, La Reunion would also be a great place to visit because it’s like France but tropical and…. On he went, mentioning factoids about the smaller islands surrounding Madagascar (because Chip is also a human encyclopedia) until eventually his facts led to questions, and questions led to him Google searching Mauritius, me Google searching La Reunion.

Within an hour, my pensive ‘what-if’ about the Comoros had turned into a very real debate on whether to go to Mauritius or La Reunion. La Reunion won out in the end because the flight was cheaper (About $300 USD round-trip), it has two rad looking volcanoes (one of which erupted in 2009), Chip could be snooty and practice his French, and it has a KFC. Okay, Mauritius has a KFC too, but if La Reunion didn’t have one, this may have been a deal breaker. I’m only kind of joking (remember, I’m a Peace Corps volunteer serving in probably the last frontier American fast food giants have yet to set foot on). A week later, we bought our tickets.

At the time, volcanoes and food was about all I knew of La Reunion. I hadn’t felt the need to really intensely research it. We figured, why not land, eat some fried chicken, and play things by ear? And honestly, I liked this idea. I’m all for spontaneity with travel and having a post-it note constitute as my itinerary. But then I started reading all these websites about how to be a better blogger/freelance writer and one thing stood out: research before you go. Since I plan on churning out at least an article or two from this vacation, I took their advice and began scouring the web. And you know what? I discovered some cool things about La Reunion that have been fueling my pre-trip excitement.

Like, you can go canyoneering:

Credit to: http://www.allonslareunion.com

It’s a UNESCO world heritage site thanks to its national park (which covers 40% of the island) and biodiversity.

Thanks to i-voyages.net

There’s like, some actual good food.

Photo Credit: allonslareunion.com

And, oh yeah, did I mention I get to travel with this guy?

Travel Buddy!
Chip getting excited about this coconut….

Google definitely just expanded my eat-good-food-and-climb-a-volcano itinerary (I may need a second post-it). Anyways, wish me bon voyage and I promise to take lots of photos for all of you trapped in what seems a relentlessly ongoing winter in the northern hemisphere!

Oh, and P.S. this site has some amazing photos of La Reunion, but since I can’t repost them here, that just means you’ll all have to click and see for yourselves.:)

Categories
Africa Madagascar Peace Corps The Nomadic Life

Dealing with Sexual Harassment in Madagascar

Ile Sainte Marie

Even though we had agreed neither of us felt like drinking beer that day when we left the house in the morning, by the time my friend and I – both of us girls – sat down for lunch we didn’t even have to ask the other to know that we wanted the waitress to bring us two Skols with our lunch. Somehow, the sexual harassment that day had been worse than usual. A policeman at one of the road checkpoints asked for our passports as an excuse to flirt with my friend. Another man grabbed me at the brousse station. Then, even though we were both covered in dust and dressed our dingiest, walked to the Peace Corps house to the whistles, tisks, and other various catcalls of men

“F—this shit,” I said while we waited for our food, “I’m buying water guns tomorrow.”

It started as a joke, but even though the catcalls and inappropriate gestures directed toward foreign women in Madagascar are a common annoyance we as PCVs and expats here have to tolerate, some days I reach a breaking point of intolerance. That day, I want nothing more than to successfully retaliate. It had angered the part of me that wants to scream ‘FREEDOM’ to wearing what I want, not feeling uncomfortable in everyday situations because of my gender, and to reclaim the power and independence of being a woman that I lost when I left the States. But more than anything, I felt this innate need to tell these men that what they’re doing is not OK. I want to tell them that me getting upset at them for yelling “I love you” to me from across the street, draining the phrase of its intended meaning, doesn’t make me mean or stuck-up but rather makes the man saying it rude, mean, or arrogant.

So the next morning at market, I bought two water guns.

In the afternoon, I loaded them up and faced the street again.

Far beyond what I could have predicted, walking around Fianaratsoa with two loaded water guns proved a fun social experiment. From the market stalls and darkened shop corners I could hear people mutter “Kai! That white girl has a water gun,” in Malagasy. Deftly, I swiveled towards them, aimed, and said “watch out!” Most of the shop owners, women especially, would gasp and jump back in surprise before breaking down in laughter when they realized I wouldn’t actually shoot. I tested it on a beggar who was pestering me – he laughed. I shot a few street children and quickly learned it was a terrible idea. They all began to demand I give them the guns or shoot them again. They were riotous.

As for the men I originally intended to use the guns on, most never saw it coming. Walking in the throngs of people along the crowded sidewalks, they pulled the usual lines, sticking their face in my face or trying to block my path, when out of no-where I drew my weapon and shot water in their face. They jumped back in shock, looked offended, and even though they almost definitely learned nothing of the message I was trying to convey, it made me feel gratified and empowered.

Photo: Walking across the jetty in Ile Sainte Marie