Run the equator: October 2007

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Cairo – the glitter, the rubble, the mob

  “Hello mister, what’s your name?” the dark man wearing a white galabiyya asks me from across the street. I ignore him; he runs across and walks with us.
  “Hello, what country?” he asks again, and this time, from an unacknowledged instinct to be polite to people who talk to me, I answer, half-avoiding his gaze:
  “Ah, Romania, good country,” he says, clearly overcome by the joy of meeting a Romanian. “Gheorghe Hagi!” he clamors with a sudden burst of exuberance. He stares at me with deep friendliness, as if by naming the one thing he knows about my country, the name of a famous football player, he has established an unbreakable bond between us. “Come to my papyrus shop, I give you good price, for you only, from Romania! Hey, why you leave? you want t-shirt?... Welcome to Egypt!”

Crowds in Khan al-Khalili
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Cairo set

And so it goes… Felucca rides, scarves, souvenirs, henna tattoos, tea and spices, tour guides and taxi rides – all can be had in Cairo at any time of day – and night as well – if you only have the stomach and the nerves to negotiate and deal with the constant hassle every tourist is subjected to. You meet people in Cairo more than you would like to; they talk to you first, and they usually start their attempts at conversation with intrusive questions that easily become tiring and annoying for the tourist looking for a quiet stroll through the anonymity of the crowded streets. “What’s your name?” or “Where you from?” are favorite starters. If the baiting works and you answer, oftentimes you will find out that they have a brother who lives in your town (if you’re from “Amrika”) or a very good friend from your country (if you’re from “Rumania”). And then, almost invariably, they want to sell you something… You have arrived in Cairo fresh and eager to explore the streets and ready to delve into the local culture – soon you become wary, suspicious and unwilling to talk to anybody, and when people who are actually interested in meeting a foreigner talk to you, you spurn them, you become monosyllabic, and you keep your guard up until it becomes clear that they don’t want to sell you papyrus or ask for baksheesh

Men smoking sheesha in the souq

Never mind that papyrus has all but disappeared from Egypt and all you may get from them is painted banana leaves – they will still ask 10 times more than their ware is worth, but to their credit the vendors are always open to negotiating. Sadly, most western tourists have never bargained for anything in their life and get gypped with style, paying sums that Egyptian buyers would only laugh at. Even with our cunning bargaining skills, honed by the school of six months of travel, we still pay more than Egyptians for certain wares and services; we know it and that’s all right – but we won’t be taken for fools. Yet of all troubles, dealing with taxi drivers in Cairo (and in all Egypt) is the worst. Taxis are unmetered and traditionally fares aren’t negotiated ahead, so you just have to know the right price to pay as you leave – and the cabbie will still yell at you that you owe him double. And if you don’t have change for a 20 pound bill, you’re in it for a long shot – the driver will tell you very convincingly in a mix of Arabic and English that 20 Egyptian pounds is actually the right price for your trip. It’s usually a quarter of that. Better travel by metro if you can.


Being out in the streets of Cairo for too long can feel oppressive for many first-time travelers to Egypt. The crushing mass of humanity pushing and shoving from all sides, the permanent hassling by the store touts, the gratuitous requests for baksheesh coming from adults and kids alike (even in places where there are obvious “no tips” signs in English), and the mad, uninterrupted car traffic may easily get very stressful, and can turn a day out to town into a stifling ordeal, leaving the hapless tourist longing for their dark, air-conditioned hotel room. Lonely Planet guide book authors seem to love the worn-out cliché “bustling city” – if this adjective applies to Cairo, then its use should be banned in any other context.

Roofs and rubble

All life in this metropolis seems to unfold in the streets. Its buildings look too dilapidated to entice anyone to spend any time inside their walls. The suburbs are made of rows upon rows of brick and concrete multi-story buildings that look half-built and forgotten. Some floors have windows, some do not, and their gaping holes peek sadly at the street. It seems as though everybody is building their own floor to their liking and the flats are in different degrees of habitation. The old, historic section of town, known as “Islamic Cairo,” a major stop on the tourist circuit, is nothing but one giant pile of rubble. Except for a few thriving mosques, every other building seems to be falling apart, and most top floors have already crumbled. The garbage is piled up high on the walls of the side-streets and in gutters along the road, and seems to have become a permanent fixture of the neighborhoods, to the point that some tourists will not hesitate to label Cairo the dirtiest city they have ever seen. The modern downtown, built from the beginning of the 19th century onward, doesn’t fare much better – its once glitzy and gorgeous office and residential buildings, a blend of European and local architectural styles, now stand in a forlorn state of disrepair, dirty and peeling, a mere shadow of their former glorious looks. Some enterprising flat owners - like the hotel we stayed at in the busy heart of downtown - have taken matters into their own hands and did some façade painting. Most often, the effect is comical and accentuates the poor state of the building – a ribbon of fresh yellow paint, with clumsily hand-drawn edges, between two darker, dirtier floors. The new coat only goes as far as the hand and the tool of the painter could extend from the balcony. Beyond that… it’s somebody else’s business.

The Al-Azhar mosque

But as things invariably end up when one travels, I found that the most interesting side of Cairo is its people. There are few words that could describe the furious coming and going on Talat Harb street at night. People cover the long boulevard from one end to the other and seem to consider cars as just another sort of pedestrian, neither yielding in front of them nor completely acknowledging their presence and the permanent honking. Many young men stroll leisurely arm-in-arm, a very unusual and confusing attitude for the American visitor, not used with such close, friendly contact between males, except is some particular, unequivocal context. “Walking ‘engage’ is very, very low-class,” says Murad, my Egyptian friend that I went pub-crawling with in Alexandria, a few days later. “It’s sad that I have to use the word ‘class’, but that’s what we consider it here.” I don’t know where they all go; there aren’t any bars around, so they must be just enjoying a walk in the city, getting some cheap eats, drinking coca-cola and ogling the girls.

Fast and slow

Women of all ages walk around showing no other skin than their face and hands, covering their heads with scarves matching the colors of their outfits, their makeup or their cell phones. The covering of the hair is apparently a recent phenomenon in this secularized but overwhelmingly Muslim country, likely a combination between a social turn to a more religious life (some say, sponsored by the unofficial “godfathers” of the country, the Saudis) and simple peer pressure. Either way, this makes the few women who are not veiled (non-conformist Muslims, local Coptic Christians or foreigners) look even more conspicuous. Walking with Angela is a permanent invitation to unsubtle stares and dim-witted, ever-repeating childish jeers: “beautiful wife!”, “lucky man!”, “how many camels?” (trading camels for a woman is a Bedouin custom) they shout while we pass them hand in hand. They are annoying but not threatening. In fact, I have never felt safer than in Cairo - day or night - since I left home.

The mornings are quiet. They have finally all gone to sleep. From my hotel room balcony on the 5th floor, I look at the deserted street. There are few cars, and honking is unnecessary. The city is mine, at last. That’s when I think I’m going to go take a walk.

Published from Luxor. At last, I'm posting stories from the country I'm in.

Click here to

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The truth about overland safaris

If you asked me whether I could recommend an overland safari trip in Africa, based on my recent experience, I wouldn’t know what to say. Would I do it again? – Certainly, I would not repeat the long journey from Cape Town to Nairobi, but I would however gladly go for smaller trips, more focused on an area or a few neighboring countries – a tour of just Kenya and Tanzania would be an example. Many factors will influence your overall experience; here are a few ones that I considered important:

  • Driving time – during “overland safaris” (as these trips are somewhat emphatically named), you will mostly sit in a truck together with the other passengers, traveling between two camp sites. Driving for 12 hours is not uncommon, 8 hours is the norm. You must usually wake up with the sun, except on few days when there’s either no driving, or the distance is short and there’s enough time to allow for a late breakfast. There isn’t always something to do at the destination –it’s often just a place to set up the tents for the night and wake up the next morning for another day of driving. Besides talking (if talking to your neighbor for 8 hours is appealing to you…), the only source of entertainment is reading – if reading in a moving vehicle doesn’t bother you, better bring a lot of books – you’ll have ample time for them.
  • Road quality influences driving times (and most roads in Africa are bad indeed) but not significantly. It takes so much time to get between places because the distances are large and the trucks are not made to speed up. Nevertheless, some unpaved roads can be really trying – you bounce up and down in the seat, and run the risk of injury, if you don’t hold on to something when you stand up while the truck is moving. The overhead luggage compartments can become a source of flying books, shoes or food bags. Just about every single object in the truck is vibrating.
  • Safari trucks come in a variety of comfort styles. Our trucks, owned by Wildlife Adventures, seemed to have been built in the 80s and not upgraded since. The seats were uncomfortable and didn’t recline. Some seats had previously broken and have been welded clumsily making them even more uncomfortable. Since all safari companies follow more or less the same routes, I had the chance to see many other truck models, and while they all seem to be similarly built, some were obviously more modern and more comfortable – with reclining seats, on-board kitchen , opposing seats and a table (so people could play cards), and individual safe boxes. The higher-comfort trucks were more expensive as well and ours wasn’t the most beat-up truck around, so there was not much to worry about.
  • Group size - Comfort is as much about the truck as it is about how many people you travel with. If every single seat on the truck is taken, you’ll be likely to feel ill at ease at one moment or the other. Out truck has 20 seats; we started the tour with 17 people; 8 of them were just visiting Namibia and left in Windhoek. For the rest of the trip, although we changed guides, dropped off and picked up some people, we remained 9 passengers. Each had two adjacent seats if needed. We took advantage of this generous seating and sprawled. The most crowded truck we met en route was one belonging to the Africa Travel Co. They had 26 passengers and 2 guides. Quite the madness!
  • People – they can make or break your fun. Being the antisocial type that I am, I didn’t like any of my tour-mates in particular but didn’t dislike anybody excessively either. The ratio of men to women was clearly tipped in the favor of women, and the only guy of my age was an Aussie, whose heavily accented English I could barely understand – my fault not his, I guess. I didn’t make any friends. There was some animosity in the group, but nothing too conflictual; we survived the whole 6 weeks without killing each other. Nevertheless, if you doubt you can share quarters with the same people, day in, day out, for 6 weeks, think twice before booking.
  • Food – is the essential ingredient whose lack of quality or quantity can ruin the trip no matter how beautiful the landscapes and the animals are. The more people you share the truck with, the higher the chance that there isn’t enough food for everyone at every meal (and this is one of the main complaints about some of the safari companies). Luckily food wasn’t a problem for us. Breakfasts were simple: cornflakes, toast, jam, peanut butter and instant coffee, sometimes eggs. Lunches, on the side of the road, were mostly baloney sandwiches and some salad. For dinner, when our guides cooked in the camp sites, there was always enough food for everybody, and nobody had anything to complain about the quality. Occasionally we had to have restaurant dinners at our expense; with few exceptions, most campsites had decent food.
  • Camping – can you sleep in a tent for 42 days? An essential question to ask before considering a long safari trip. With few exceptions – Swakopmund, Victoria Falls and Zanzibar – where hotel accommodations were booked, for the rest of the trip we slept in campsites. It was easier and more comfortable than we had imagined – the tents were spacious and the sponge mattresses were thick. The tents were functional and easy to set up and pack, but they were old, weighed too much (two people would usually carry one) and had all kinds of rips and cuts. The company is obviously cutting its own corners by not upgrading their equipment… The campsites (who I judge by their bathrooms and ablution facilities) were mostly decent except in a few cases. Sometimes I wonder… what were they thinking in the busy Arusha campsite where the male and female population have one sink each in the bathrooms?
  • Back pain – all that sitting and driving for hours doesn’t come without side-effects: it can lead to terrible lower-back pain (I wasn’t spared) and will atrophy your leg muscles – we learned this the hard way when we arrived in Cairo and started walking all day; going up any flight of stairs made our feet numb with pain. We caught up and got in shape in a week or so, but not without a lot of panting and cursing.
  • Toilet stops – ah, don’t forget about your bladder. The driver will stop once in a while on the side of the road, so everybody can find their favorite bush. And where there are no bushes, it’s the boys in the front of the truck, the girls in the back. The truck has an “emergency” button for these situations, but the guides don’t want to stop as often as some passengers would need, so they just ignore it sometimes. When asked why, they mumble something about losing time because there’s a lot left to drive and generally act as if by asking them to stop you’re talking something away from them. A common attitude of bus drivers around the world…
  • Attitude – there’s a pervasive attitude among safari tour guides best described by the slogan “This is Africa, Fit in or Fuck Off” (seen on a t-shirt). This double-edged line, meant to be funny - no doubt, contains a lot of bitter truth. Sure, the roads are bad, you have to sleep in a tent, Africa is dusty and hot, and you may not always find clean bathrooms and hot water. Nobody argues with that. But some guides are pushing this further and act condescending to the tourists, being unhelpful and incompetent at best. Our “guides” acted mostly as drivers and cooks; hardly any information about the places we were seeing trickled from them, not even trivia that anybody already knew. They were either genuinely bored or totally disinterested with their jobs. Most local guides we hired in a few game parks were even worse, hardly bothering to acknowledge our presence. The attitude could be also summarized by another line seen on a t-shirt: “I am too poorly paid to be nice to you, so fit in or fuck off!” Haven’t these people heard of tips? Of the fact that pay may increase with performance? Their tips could have been better if they had been actually nice to me. The rest doesn’t matter.
  • It looks like I only listed a string of problems related to overland safaris and none of the things that make them worthwhile. It’s not like that. There were many beautiful moments, and mentioning each one will only re-iterate what I already said in past blog entries and would make a very long list. Coming close to the wild animals, getting immersed in new and unfamiliar landscapes of incredible beauty, and meeting the local people – especially when they didn’t want to sell us anything – will survive in my memory forever. I am glad I went through this.
Overland Tour ended in Nairobi, Kenya on October 14. Posted from Aswan, Egypt. Stories from Egypt coming next.

Click here to

Sunday, October 21, 2007

A place to redeem all ugliness in the world

Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Ngorongoro set

Shaking and growling, the vehicle trudges its way up on the bumpy dirt road to the rim of the crater. The “Crater access road” sign, scribbled with red paint on a wooden board appears out of the morning fog for a brief moment. It is an unassuming but unambiguous signal that we are about to cross to the other side of the mirror into wonderland, and like Alice in the fable, I am curious, excited and a little anxious. What if the experience doesn’t live up to the expectations? But there isn’t much time for wondering and questioning. We are turning sharp corners going downhill now, on the steep track clumsily carved in the mountainside. This isn’t much of a road – it’s riddled with holes and boulders, uneven and dusty - but a real road – god forbid, paved! – would be completely out of place in the Ngorongoro crater anyway.

Land of elephants

Nearly five hours later we emerge from the caldera at another point. The fog has broken long ago; now a different sign greets us in plain sight – “Crated ascent road. Do not enter.” Yes, I want to say. Do not enter; leave this place alone, you can only ruin it. I am transfigured by the experience and selfishly I’d like to be the last pair of eyes to admire the wonders down below. Any more visitors after me could only bring destruction and waste to this still-perfect world; more gas fumes from their jeeps, more roads and more plastic bottles will eventually topple the fragile natural balance that keeps the crater alive and unmistakably magical … But I am just being childish: no plastic bottles littler the crater floor, and while many 4x4 vehicles hit the crater roads every day loaded with trigger-happy tourists who take shots until their memory cards are full, the visitor impact is kept to a minimum and the animals seem undisturbed by human presence.

An ominous edge

I was elated. On the way back to camp I was pondering silently if I could truthfully and honestly say that I have never seen a place more beautiful than the Ngorongoro crater. This was the single moment that redeemed all the disappointments of the whole 6-week overland trip. Bad and incompetent guides, sitting in the truck for hours each day, some uninteresting and annoying tour partners, the waking up before sunrise almost every day – none of that mattered anymore: this trip had fulfilled its purpose, it has made me happy. Luckily, the visit to the crater happened on the last day of the trip – had we gone the other way, Ngorongoro would have been our first stop, and later I would have compared all other game parks with it, probably to their disadvantage. My expectations had been sky-high, ever since I had read a beautifully illustrated National Geographic article about the crater lions, which had interbred for so long without bringing in new blood from outside, that they displayed a string of genetic defects and had become vulnerable to diseases otherwise benign to lions. My expectations of this place were sky-high – but they were met and exceeded.

A thirsty couple

Sadly, during the visit we didn’t get any information from the guides about the crater, its animal populations and the conservation challenges. Our local “guide” and driver didn’t speak to us at all (although he spoke English) for the whole duration of the game drive – but he often blabbered in Swahili on the radio with the other drivers, and talked to our Kenyan tour guide, who was too busy making out on the back seat with the Swiss girl in our group to be of any help. Nevertheless I didn’t mind; the nature did the talking for them. But I’m not sure if the guide realized that if he had been more helpful, I would have gladly left him a tip at the end.

Caught in the act
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the Serengeti set
Happy lion
Giraffe drinking water

My memory of these days is dominated by the fantastic moments spent in the crater. But a day prior to that game drive we had visited another wildlife reserve, further to the west of Tanzania: the Serengeti. It is quite possibly the most famous national park in the world, a name instantly recognizable as a symbol of wildlife abundance. You say Serengeti and your mind immediately pictures lions hunting gazelles, buffaloes wallowing in the mud, a parade of elephants lingering among the trees in the evening sun, and millions of wildebeest stampeding the plain, turning the horizon into a black cloud. There was none of that. Besides an abundance of Thompson gazelles and zebras, the other animals were scarce; there was not one single elephant in sight. I can’t say I was disappointed – the scenery was beautiful, with the high, green and yellow grasses on the gently sloping hills, the lush marshes teeming with hippos along the quiet river and the eerie rock formations rising out of the immense plain. Some animals finally showed up and posed for our cameras, but I was left with a tinge of dissatisfaction – maybe my expectations had been too high and when that mental image of a pride of roaring lions bringing down a struggling buffalo had failed to materialize I refused to see the beauty of what actually was around me. Sometimes I have to remind myself that eyes are most useful when kept open.

Fast facts: The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is situated 180km west of Arusha in the Tanzanian highlands. Its main feature is the Ngorongoro crater, formed after a volcanic explosion some 2 million years ago. The crated floor is 610m deep and covers 260 square kilometers. It boasts one of the highest concentration of wildlife in Africa and is home to most species found in East Africa, including the "big five" (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo). The crater's steep walls form a natural migration barrier, keeping most animals permanently inside.

Published from Alexandria, Egypt. Still catching up...

Click here to

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Indian Ocean

Sunset in Stone Town
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the set

If you think of overland safaris as trips dedicated exclusively to watching wildlife, then our detour to Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar falls outside the norm. For three days we took our leave from the big truck and explored the winding, narrow streets of Zanzibar's Stone Town, had good espresso coffee and pastries in downtown Dar es Salaam, and dived in the Indian ocean close to Nungwi beach village at the northern tip of Zanzibar island. Sure, we spent more money (diving here was $35, almost double the price in Honduras) but we got to sleep in a real bed (the last time had been in Livingstone) and sipped cocktails on a terrace with a view of the ocean...

Palms in our Dar es Salaam campsite

There is not much to say about Dar es Salaam, really... the map said that the part of town where we got dropped off was downtown, but it surely didn't look like it, and if it hadn't been busy with people, shops and cars I would have thought we got lost in some provincial ramshackle town. Since the sights were so disappointing, Angela and I concentrated on the one real attraction the town had to offer: the Epi D'Or french bakery, which provided great espresso coffee (for the last 5 weeks we had had only instant coffee, mixed with chicory on top of that), delicious pastries and air conditioning, much needed in the hot and humid Tanzanian climate. We spent there almost all the hours we got each time we had to pass through town on our way to and from Zanzibar, except for some brief moments needed for hitting the ATMs and the grocery store.

Stone Town - a restored building

Zanzibar's Stone Town, lying more than a stone's throw away from Dar es Salaam - actually almost 2 hours by ferry - is a beautiful but dilapidated old town, formerly a slave and spice trade outpost, dating from the period of Arab colonization of the eastern coast of Africa. The thin streets squeezed between high white walls are reminiscent of Venice, but the omnipresent garbage and the crumbling facades are definitely African. Unfortunately, as it is often the case, there isn't enough money and good will to bring the colors of this town to its former glory. The few beautifully restored buildings testify to the enormous potential hidden behind the drab, tired stone walls of this world heritage site.

Masai man wearing traditional

But Zanzibar is not only Arab architecture and busy food markets; it also has a very touristy side. The Nungwi village at the northernmost end of the island has sold its soul to hotel developers and its beaches now resemble those in any tropical tourist paradise island. To their credit, the hotels blend into the landscape and have not become an eyesore yet. We spent two days in this wonderful place doing not much of anything, except for one dive and some beach swimming. The beaches are 'patrolled' by scores of Masai men in their traditional clothes, some of them working as security guards for the hotels, most others trying to sell their famous hand-made jewelry. My attempts at conversation with them were thwarted quite fast; whether they approached me or I approached them, within the first minute of talking they would try to sell me something and then I would politely decline and leave. This is often the case but fortunately not always - you can still find good, easy conversation at the bar: the people who work there will only sell you what you already want...

Posted from Cairo. Still catching up with past stories...

Click here to

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Only good things about Malawi

A shady corner
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the set

Like most countries in this part of Africa, Malawi has followed the same historical pattern in recent times – colonial exploitation and neglect by the British, struggle for independence, euphoria for having a new country… then the leader of the struggle for independence becomes the first president and rules for life, banning all opposition and slowly bringing the country into ruin. After his demise or retirement (to their credit not all of those ‘fathers of nations’ died in office) a period of unrest follows, until timid but steady democratic reforms reflected through increasingly correct elections and shorter presidential terms pave the way through economic hardships to a more hopeful new millennium.

The Germans travel by tank

Our Malawi experience was set far from the more dire realities of the country. Malawi’s main attraction is the beautiful and eerie lake with the same name which borders this thin and elongated country on its eastern side. We strolled carefree in our truck from beach camp to beach camp, marveling at the beauty of the landscape, relaxing in the shadow of the palm trees and trying – mostly unsuccessfully - to make out the hazy outline of the Mozambique coast on the other side of the vast lake. The sun was burning, the breeze cooled down the afternoons and the beer was cold. It felt like the Caribbean…

Published from Nairobi, Kenya. Yes, the tour is over!

Click here to

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Another national park - South Luangwa, Zambia

King of the jungle, or what?
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the set

The South Luangwa National Park lies off the beaten track in a remote region of Zambia, and I think the authorities have no intention to make it more accessible. The access road linking the park with the provincial capital Chipata is a dirt track riddled with pot holes, which challenges even the toughest all-terrain vehicles. Our truck had a flat tire, which delayed us by about one hour. Things were bouncing up and down and sideways, bags falling off the seats and luggage compartments. It wasn't very wise to stand, without holding onto something with both hands.

A hippo in its element

But once you are at the "Flatdogs" camp - the gate to the reserved area - none of those troubles matter anymore. The elephants chew their favorite low-lying branches from the trees around the showers. The giraffes walk around your tent and gently pick their lunch ignoring you. The bar is stacked. There is even Internet access for the addicted - but even the incurable will shudder at the frightening $6 per hour charged by the camp management...

The things I could do
if I had a trunk!

We spent a total of 8 hours in the park, cruising on specially-equipped 4-by-4s with our local guides, looking for animals on land, in the river and in the trees. They aren't hard to spot. Elephants, hippos, baboons, buffaloes, giraffes, zebras, warthogs and antelopes of all kinds, they all look at you condescending and just move away. The highlight of the day was no doubt the lion who, having eaten a whole water buck, was lying under a tree taking his siesta, looking at us annoyed, as if he were fighting a serious case of indigestion. Nevertheless, he was still the king of the jungle, so he posed for some good shots.

Posted from Nungwi beach village, Zanzibar

Click here to

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Making a small difference

Waving hands
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the set

Our arrival at the Sinda primary school, in a rural area close to the provincial capital Chipata, created a major commotion among students and teachers alike; most of them had probably never seen white people before. The class schedule was disrupted for the rest of the day. We gradually warmed up to their enthusiastic, chaotic welcome, while they were storming the truck looking at us as if we were monkeys from outer space. At first, the deep, honest, scared gazes of the little ones and the eagerness of the older ones to get our attention were quite confusing. What should we tell them? What if they ask for money? How can we help all these barefooted, orphaned children, the young pregnant mothers, and the adolescents already convinced that the only future open for them is to stay in the village and work the land?


The young ones, grades 1 to 4, only spoke the local language, Chichewa. The older kids spoke English too – the official language of Zambia - some of them quite well. They did not tire of posing to the camera, scurrying back to us after each shot to see the pictures on the small camera screen. They looked at us amazed and curious when we were setting up our tents in the schoolyard and they laughed and giggled like guilty rascals when they were allowed inside by Angela, five or six at a time. Later on we played soccer with the older kids. I spat my lungs out running and tried not to make a fool out of myself, but these boys were fast runners and I could barely compete with them.

Angela, a temporary big sister

When it got dark we stopped playing and had dinner with some of the teachers in the schoolyard by the truck, and talked school issues. But as the headmaster and the older teachers took their leave of us and went home, it became apparent that there was more than school on the minds of the younger teachers and the few older students who had remained at the school to talk to us: they all wanted to marry Jacqueline and Andrea, the two single women in our group, who had become the stars of the evening. Angela and I discussed marriage matters with some of them. It appears that here, as in much of rural Africa, brides are bought from their families by means of a dowry. A young teacher asked me “how much have you paid for this one,” pointing to Angela. I told him joking that I got her for free. He gave me a look of disbelief for a moment… but he had already established that white people are weird, so he probably took it for true. I didn’t tell him about all the money white people spend on courtship, wining and dining, on all the presents and the culmination of all spending outrages, the wedding. He could have thought white people were not only weird, but patently insane.

The master teacher's office

The next day started with a visit to the school during classes. The classrooms were just bare, cracked walls covered by corrugated tin roofs. Beside the chipped blackboards and the nicked desks carved with their pencils by generations of pupils, the only other things in the rooms were a few educational hand-drawings on the walls, some of them quite nice. We stood in the yard as they all sang for us before class, we visited a few classrooms and listened to the teachers instructing the students who were too busy looking at us to pay attention to them. I even taught a little math by explaining a division example at the blackboard. I don’t know if they understood my way of dividing integers, but they were active and answered when I asked questions.

Math class

We donated notebooks, pencils and pens for the school to the professors assembled in the headmaster’s office, and Angela and I gave them 100,000 kwacha (about $25) for a good soccer ball – Angela had this idea after a conversation with one of the teachers about what keeps children at school – it turns out that playing soccer after class is one factor that contributes to increased attendance. We left among the general joy, children waving hands at us and faces glued to the classroom windows. We’ll be food for schoolyard chatter and good memories for a while. I’m sure we left behind a few broken hearts as well. But most of all, I hope we brought some lasting smiles…

Posted from Stone Town, Zanzibar

Click here to

Friday, October 5, 2007

All those place names that start with Z…

No worries, I am still alive
Click on pic to see slideshow
or here to access the set

Because of my visa troubles I couldn’t get into Zimbabwe, so Angela and I separated from the tour group at Kasane in Botswana and, having arranged for private transport well in advance, we crossed directly into Zambia. Romania, it appears, is a great friend of Zambia; therefore Romanian citizens get in for free as tourists, while Americans have to pay. Skipping Zimbabwe and going on our own for a few days turned out to be a great idea for a number of reasons: one – there’s only so long that one can sleep in a tent before starting to dream painfully about a real bed. Two – Zimbabwe is not exactly a welcoming place these days; as the other members of our group attested later on, inflation is still rampant, stores are empty (can’t even find purified water) and restaurant menus are sad reminders that the country has seen better days. And three – the 23rd was the day of our wedding anniversary; there had to be a better way to spend it than in a camping park! Our trip within the trip in Zambia gave us exactly what we needed: a real bed (no luxury mind you, just a bungalow at the Jolly Boys backpacker hostel in Livingstone), peace and privacy and more opportunities to spend money (like that was ever lacking!)

Relax, it's just water!

While the rest of the people in our tour group were busy with bungee jumping and whitewater rafting across the border, we, not being the typical adrenaline junkies (or rather from a desire to save money), opted for the tamer alternative of visiting the falls. Victoria Falls is a sight that can only be described with superlatives, but this being the dry season when little water flows down the Zambezi River, the view of the falls from the Zambian visitor park is not too spectacular. Hence, at first sight, my awe-struck adjectives were failing to emerge and I had to focus my camera more often on the craggy river gorge at the bottom of the falls than on the wall of water that I had expected and was nowhere to be seen. The Zimbabwe visitor park is situated further away, right across the most powerful and water-rich side of the falls, and therefore offers a better view. But since most of that water that flows down into the gorge is a “property” of the proud Zambians, the poorer view is compensated by the availability of activities that are only possible on their side of the border. One of those is swimming at the edge of the falls.

And this is exactly what we did for our one year-anniversary. There’s no metaphor in “the edge of the falls”; natural barrier-like rock formations at the brim of the chasm, a weaker current, and low water conditions caused by the dry season create a few easily accessible pools from which water overflows indeed into the falls but gently enough not to take you with it down into the pit. Now, everyone who knows Angela knows she loves swimming. I… not so much. But the thrill of this unique adventure overcame my natural indifference to swimming pools and I did not regret getting wet. I have the pictures to speak for me.

Sunset over the Zambezi.

We finished the night with dinner at the Royal Livingstone hotel, on the peaceful riverbanks of the Zambezi not far from the falls, which can only be seen from here as a white, silent mist in the distance. Zebras were strolling on the lawn of the magnificent Victorian-style property and vervet monkeys were playing between the reclining chairs at the pool. An army of well-dressed waiters ensured that all the needs of the (mostly retired, by their looks) crowd of hungry patrons were promptly attended. The food was indeed five-star. For once, I even wore a shirt, albeit not ironed. For a few hours we forgot about all the past and future dinners eaten in semi-obscurity by the side of the truck, balancing the plates of food on our knees, anxiously looking around for the hungry baboons lurking behind us, ready to steal anything edible they could get their hands on…

Posted from Stone Town, Zanzibar

Click here to

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

On the run

We have a one hour stop in Mzuzu, a small town in northern Malawi, enough time to check email and do some shopping at the grocery store. All the pictures from Zambia have been sorted and the stories to them written, but they will have to wait patiently on the hard drive of my laptop until we get to a place with reasonable Internet connections and enough time to upload and edit. It's probably not going to happen before Zanzibar, in Tanzania, where we will be arriving in a few days. And the truck wheels keep rolling...

Click here to