February 10, 2006

One loooong train ride with the world’s most patient people

Instead of taking 48 hours to travel from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia, it took 88 hours. This means that we got on the train on Friday and didn’t get off of it until Tuesday.

Just to repeat – that means we spent FIVE DAYS on the train. So how do Zambian passengers react when they are made to wait endlessly with no information?

There were no screams at the counter people, no demands for hotel rooms, refunds, or bus transfers. Everyone was calm, quietly milling about the platform to stretch their legs, or talking in small groups. There seemed only a sense of inevitablilty about them. There was nothing to be done, so why fight?

During the second delay (lasted 27 hours in Mpika), over 450 people placidly stood inside the train station to watch a soccer match on a single 27 inch TV.

Each delay came as a surprise. We would pull into a station, and then, because we didn’t know the schedule or how long they were supposed to be at the station, the train would simply not move. There were no announcements, no one coming by to let passengers know that there was a delay. No one, absolutely no one, had any idea what was going on. And they seemed completely unworried about it. The radio was down, and cell phone calls were left unanswered. There was nothing to do, so why be unhappy about it now?

None of the staff would commit to knowing how long the train was delayed. The most we could get out of them was “I don’t know”, and “hopefully soon”, as nervous as if we would go and beat them with sticks if they were wrong.

So how did Jonathan and I react, usually typically American in our responses to travel delays?

We had a great time. :)

A short list why:

    1. We had nowhere to be, no one to meet, and no set time to get there. A surreal experience all in itself.

    2. We had a first class sleeper compartment. Although hardly the luxury experience found in Europe, compared with third class (which even the Zambia tourism website advises that no one take, consisting of a seat on a hard bench), it was paradise.

    3. I watched Jonathan as he took amazing portraits of the Zambian kids, which meet the train and play by the railway tracks.

    4. We met some interesting people. Met a Zambian, Tommy Silweya, whom when I told that I come from a large family with 5 brothers, replied “Five? You call that large?” He, of course, has TWENTY siblings, all from the same mother and father. We challenged him to name all his siblings, of which he got 10, and then started to falter. We met two American girls (Kim and Kristen) traveling down from Cairo, who first had their luggage stolen out of their hostel room while they were asleep in Dar, and then the next day, after replacing their passports, were mugged by their taxi driver! We also met 6 South Africans, recently graduated from college, and heard their grumblings about white flight and affirmative action (called something else in SA).

    5. Bought fresh mangos through the train window from a boy carrying a basket on his head for $0.15. Completed the meal with fried dough and some boiled eggs.

    6. Got to sit and do nothing but watch the beautiful countryside whiz by and finish 2 novels.

    7. Was specifically given a 2006 Tazara (Tanzania Zambia Railways) calendar, which featured the picutres of the past and current presidents of Tanzania, with, of course, Mao Tse Tung!?. I had no idea, but evidently in the 60’s, China helped Tanzania develop a rail system and to learn to plant rice. As a result, the trains have Chinese signs, and we whized by countryside with locals working in rice paddies.

After 5 days though, we were ready to get off. However, our final destination was the Zambian capital of Lusaka, 2 hours away by bus. My patience had begun to really had it. Met at the train station by a fleet of hawkers and minibuses, we were crammed into a minibus with 15 people and all their luggage, only to sit for two hours in the 90 degree direct sun waiting to get 5 more passengers for a full bus.

It was so full that when Jonathan needed to get out of the bus to check on our luggage in the back, it was easier for him to climb out the window and jump down than to try to clear the aisle and climb over people to get to the door.

Four hours passed with me crammed against the window with my backpack on my lap and trying not to be touched by the old man next to me, who was reciting the names of drinks (“Johnny Walker Red, Johnny Walker Blue label, on the rocks!”).

We arrived in Lusaka in pretty rough shape. We couldn’t stomach shelling out $250/night at the Intercontinental, so we checked into a backpacker hostel…shared bathrooms, single beds, undergoing construction…ugh. But too tired and beaten to find somewhere else.

We quickly got ourselves showered and to a mall. There is nothing like an air conditioned internet cafe, a movie and popcorn to perk one up. :)

February 6, 2006

No longer a camping newbie

Since the first time I ever slept in a tent was this past August, I regard camping 13 out of the last 14 nights as a major achievement.

I finally feel I’ve been camping. I camped during cold clear nights, in the rain, and in the howling wind. I camped at 4 different altitudes up to 15,000 ft, and on the hot, dusty treeless plains at sea level. I’ve woken up to a Masai guard draped in a bright red robe holding a walking stick, greeting me with a precise “Good morning” in perfect English. I’ve been protected by a man in a trenchcoat who stood watch over the camp with a bow and arrow.

As an elephant casually sauntered through our campsite, I knew that I very, very, far from home.

On the mountain, I had a hard time staying warm at night. Even though my sleeping bag is rated for 10F, and most nights it probably was about 20-25F, I wore long underwear bottoms underneath Jonathan’s jogging pants, a thermal top plus a T-shirt, a wool sweater, a fleece and a hat. And I was still cold. After complaining at breakfast, someone suggested that I stuff all my extra clothes in the sleeping bag with me, and finally that night I was warm.

Of course, the next time I used my sleeping bag was on the hot, dry plains, and all my cold weather defenses were rendered immediately useless. I learned quickly to appreciate all the screens and the ways to vent a tent.

Although camping reminded me how little a person really needs for a place to sleep, I will say, that I am big fan of showering more frequently than once every 7 days. I have never had so much dirt underneath my fingernails for so long. It took me a full week to wash it all out. And, for the first time, I understood how hair can turn into dreadlocks – I couldn’t run my fingers, much less a comb, through it.

I enjoyed the whole experience, though by the end of 14 days, I was ecstatic to stay in hotel – and have a bathroom I could reach without putting on my headlamp, my sandals, and picking my way around the tent strings and rocks, all the while watching out for pairs of eyes in the night…

January 30, 2006

Zebras and gnus, who knew?

The day after getting off of Kilimanjaro, we immediately set out on our 5 day safari to the Serengeti.

It was a complete mental and physical switch, after being cold and hiking for 10 hours a day, to sitting on our butts in cars in the dusty, searing 95 degree heat for 12 hours a day. For some reason, we both found it harder and more tiring to be on safari than hiking.

I couldn’t believe we were actually going to the Serengeti. It was the stuff of countless PBS documentaries, and elementary school science classes. Serengeti in the Masai language means “endless plains”, and it was incredible, a sea of grass as far as the eye could see.

I was immediately struck by how dry it was…the scenery could be drawn entirely with brown and yellow crayons. We were told that the rains were expected soon, but these conditions were good for viewing wildlife, as it concentrated them near water holes. In fact, the only animals which could go without water every day were the ones we saw on the fringes of the park, the impalas, far away from predators.

At first I felt mostly like we were in a zoo, seeing a single giraffe, or a single zebra here and there. As someone in our group pointed out, it was us in the metal cages instead of the animals. But then we started seeing hundreds of zebra, hippos, wildebeests, impala and more, lions in prides, and baby elephants nursing and ostriches bounding across the landscape.

What was the most interesting for me was to see how all the various animal groups interacted. I had never known that zebras and cape buffalo and wildebeests all grazed together and drank from the same watering holes. Vultures circled overhead, sneaking attacks to a fresh kill guarded by a lioness and her cubs. It was also amazing to see the close guard of adults around the baby animals. Often times all I could see was an extra bump around the legs of the adults.

Unlike on Kilimanjaro where campfires were not allowed, a large fire was kept going all night to keep the animals away from the campsite. It was really fun to chill out after dinner with some wine (we brought ourselves, thorugh Jonathan’s foresight) and the people we had gotten to know on the Kili climb.

One funny note – one of the guides kept using characters from “The Lion King” to describe the animals we were seeing. When we saw a warthog, the guide would exclaim “Pumba!”. I also learned that ‘Simba”, the little lion in the movie, is the Swahili word for…you guessed it….lion.

January 25, 2006

Spice tour on Zanzibar

For me, spices ususally come in little red plastic bottles with perferated plastic tops. Or if I decided to splurge, spices would come in glass bottles instead.

We took a tour of a spice plantation on Zanzibar, one of the spice islands. It was fun to see what spices and other natural products really look like in the wild, before processing. On the surface, the plants don’t look like much, and it is amazing how only a very small part of the plant is used. Ginger and tumeric are roots, citronella is isolated from leaves, cloves are dried flowers, nutmeg is a seed, and so on. (See picture. The red covering over the seed is another spice, mace.)

It was really interesting to see fresh vanilla beans, as I would only recognize the black dried up shriveled pods (see picture).

Some of the best food yet was the lunch on the Spice tour. We were served Rice Pilau, spiced with cardomom, cloves, and cinnamon bark, and topped with a coconut curry. I must try to duplicate this when I get back home. It was absolutely delicious. We had a great time, sitting on straw mats in a concrete thatched hut in the countryside of Zanzibar, eating in the 95 degree humid heat.

It killed me that I couldn’t buy some of the spices there at the end of the tour. 50 cents for 12 whole nutmeg seeds, pouches of cardomom seeds, tumeric, cinnamon. Besides being very pricey in the US, I’ve been wanting to experiment with the cardomom ice cream/ cardomom cake recipe in Ming Tsai’s first cookbook, but had been too cheap to bring myself to buy the spice in its seed form.

Sadly, I knew it would be pointless to ship them back to the US to sit around for a year losing their aroma while I continued traveling. Oh well…a small price to pay to be able to travel :)

Great Chinese and Indian food…in Africa?

Chinese food at China Plate, Zanzibar

Despite my previous grumblings about finding good Chinese food on the road, I was pleasantly surprised in Tanzania.

The decent Chinese food is due, we were told, from a population of professionals that came to live in Tanzania as teachers and doctors in the 50’s and 60’s (perhaps fleeing the Cultural Revolution). Although there are few Chinese people left, it seems that good Chinese food is there to stay. Lucky for me.

I got some dumplings (good, though with a weird tasting filling), and squid stir fried with celery and cloud ear mushrooms. Yum. Now if I could only find some dim sum…

In fact, it was almost harder to figure out what more “traditional” Tanzanian food was. One night on the safari we were treated to a traditional African meal, featuring an entire goat roasted over hot coals. This was served with ugali, a sticky bland paste made from maize flower (which is rolled in the hand and used to pick up pieces of food), and accompanied by red beans in a savory/sweet sauce. Delicious. Other than that, curry sauces are abundant, which are more subtle and not as spicy as Indian and Thai curries.

I was also surprised by the excellent Indian food. Large populations of Indians were brought into East Africa by the British to work on the railways, leading to an established Indian community living in Tanzania (See Jonathan’s post on the Hindu temple we stumbled on in Moshi).

One of our favorite spots was the “IndoItaliano”, serving Indian, and well, you guessed it, Italian food. Who would have thought that would be a great combination?

January 18, 2006

Highest Point in Africa – Kilimanjaro

We celebrated New Years morning of 2006 watching the sun rise over the peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, illuminating the crater at the top, the bluish white glacier, with the landscape spread out below. Simply breathtaking.

The 5 days of hiking and camping leading up to the summit hike were surprisingly easy for us – the acclimatization in Bolivia definitely helped us, as we suffered none of the pounding headaches and lethargy we had only 10 days ago. Climbing the Barranco wall on day 4, a scramble of 1000 ft almost straight up was one of the most fun hikes I’ve ever done.

However, the hike to the summit was something else entirely. We started at midnight on Dec 31st. We had all gathered a few minutes earlier in the mess tent, cupping our rapidly cooling tea and huddling together against the raging wind howling against the tent flaps. It was only 15 degrees, and abnormally windy, with constant winds of 40mph that would stay with us for the entire 7 hours up.

Just as we were starting to climb, all the porters celebrated the New Year with shouts and firecrackers. Jonathan turns to me, and says “Isn’t this the best New Year’s Eve ever?” I look around me, feeling the the darkness, the cold, the cutting wind, and imagine myself on a dance floor in Las Vegas surrounded by hundreds of dropping balloons and champagne…hmm.

It was definitely the hardest hike I’ve ever done, ascending more than 4000 ft, in the pitch dark, all the while only seeing the boots in front of me with my headlamp. If someone even got more than 5 ft in front, the trail became indistinguishable from the rocky mountain surface.

Besides the line of bobbing headlights leading up, and some city lights below, it was otherwise impossible to tell where I was on the mountain. It was too cold even for me to check my watch underneath my gloves, so it was just a blind trudging upwards. We stopped only 3 times for 5 minute breaks, and peeing at 17,000 ft in the dark freezing cold is not an experience I ever want to repeat. However, I was not to repeat it, as my insulated camelback tube froze, so I only drank about 600 ml the entire trip up (10 hours) and back to summit camp.

About 6 hours into it, I discovered I couldn’t feel my right toes. Since we lost our luggage, we both had to buy new boots in South Africa 3 days before hiking. I could only wear thin hiking socks with them, and my toes started to go numb and hurt. I was really afraid that I was getting frostbite. But by that time, we were an hour from the summit, and although we had 9 guides initially, we had only 2 guides left for 20 people, as people in trouble were escorted down. So, I couldn’t really go down even if I had to, as there were no guides left to do so.

The last hour up was really miserable, as I was throughly frozen, and I knew every step I took up meant another one that I had to take down. The terrain had changed from rocky shale to silt/volcanic ash, so for every step upward, we slid down half a step. The guide kept telling us we were close, and just a few more steps. I could see the first light of the sun. This filled me with incredible relief, as I knew we must be pretty close.

The last step up to Stella’s point, the false peak, filled me with hope, as we crested the relentless upward slope onto a ridge. Peering into the crater at the top, seeing the frost blowing from the glaciers and ice fields was surprisingly beautiful. In all the time planning and hiking up Kilimanjaro, I had never thought what it would actually look like from the top. The real peak, at Uhuru, was another 45 minutes and 500ft up, but it didn’t matter. With the view, and the growing sunlight, I slowly trudged on.

Actually seeing the wooden sign marking Uhuru peak was one of the most surreal things I’ve ever experienced. I knew what it looked like, having seen hundreds of pictures, but I couldn’t believe I was actually there. The sign was surrounded by a throng of other happy summiteers who had gotten there ahead of us, all jostling to take their photos. I was so tired and cold, I almost didn’t bother, knowing in my heart that I had made it, and that would be enough. Seeing the sign not only told me that I had hiked as far as I could go, but gave me permission to leave.

Jonathan, however, was ecstatic to have made it. He was one of the happiest climbers, and the most energetic at the peak. He was taking photos, running ahead to scope out the trail and give me encouragement, and got the shot of me in front of the sign. Jonathan was so energetic and happy he was giving everyone still struggling towards the peak pep talks and wishing them a Happy New Year as we started down, which was met mostly with indifference or grunts. :) .

Fabulous experience, hiking and camping, but I don’t think I would ever do this kind of hike again. It was really more of a mental game – can I make it, how far is good enough, can I beat the mountain, how tough am I? I wouldn’t say it was fun, but it’s something I’m proud I finished. 19340 ft. Wow.

We had another 5 hours to hike that day to camp, for a total of 15 hours of hiking that day. My right big toe still has no feeling…a physiologist in our group suspects I may have temporary nerve damage, which will hopefully recover in 3-6 months.

A patch of numbness, a badge of honor…