What’s up Auckland?

•November 13, 2013 • Leave a Comment

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On my way to work yesterday, I biked past a black man wearing a glittering gold bikini, platform heels and sunglasses, leaning idly against a sign post. I didn’t look twice.

In a city where prostitution is legal, you see things that would otherwise strike you as out of the ordinary. We definitely have characters who linger on State Street in Madison – the usual suspects accompanied by the occasional person dressed exceptionally strangely – to whom you barely batt an eyelash after awhile.

In Auckland, a vaguely clueless looking prostitute might wander into your five-star restaurant just before you lock the door at 2am, looking for suitors. On a stroll down nearby “K” road on any given evening, you might see a trannies, prostitutes, people dressed up in animal onesies and still others scantily clad in super hero costumes. They aren’t fussed about whether or not it’s Halloween. Any night is a good night for a costume.  Continue reading ‘What’s up Auckland?’

The Dien Bien Phu Loop, Continued

•May 20, 2013 • Leave a Comment

We lingered too long at the vegan restaurant, and like tourist fools forgot to check the hours of the attractions we planned on visiting. We should have known better, as most government buildings close from 12-2pm for lunch. In this case, however, the museums and historical sites closed from 11:00-1:30pm. Why a 2 1/2 hour lunch break is necessary, I have no idea. It would be logical to stagger breaks and keep the attractions open, in order to make more money from tourists. Things aren’t logical in Vietnam, however, so this wasn’t a productive line of thought. Just an irritated one.

Briefly, Dien Bien Phu is famous for a battle that turned the tide of the war against the French. The French didn’t expect the Vietnamese to be able to haul heavy artillery up the mountainside. As a result, they didn’t take appropriate precautions and were roundly defeated. It was the beginning of the end for French Colonialism. We arrived at the Bunker Headquarters of Colonel de Castries, the French commander whose bunker was overrun by the Viet Minh forces, ending the battle. Luckily, they let us in (perhaps because it was a couple of minutes before 11:00) and didn’t charge us admission. It was definitely worth visiting, though I wished we could actually enter the bunker for full effect. Next we drove over to Hill A1, considered impregnable, and the most important French position in the valley. I had to beg at length for us to be let inside, as we arrived just as they were closing for afternoon siestas. I must have played my part well and looked as desperate as I felt because he finally let us in and allowed us a half hour to wander around. The French bunkers and tunnels have been recreated here, and a French tank stands at the top of the hill. The trenches, monuments, tanks and huge network of tunnels were truly impressive, though the signs provided no information about the battle that took place there.  Continue reading ‘The Dien Bien Phu Loop, Continued’

Off the Beaten Track: The Dien Bien Phu Loop, Vietnam

•May 16, 2013 • 1 Comment

We arrived in Sapa and immediately sought out a cafe for brunch and coffee. We picked a French restaurant with a deck where we could soak up the sun and do some internet research about where to stay. Feeling rejuvenated from our pizza and lattes, we headed to a hostel I picked out using Trip Advisor.

The Green Valley Hotel, owned by an expat and Vietnamese woman, was a good value, nice location, and clean. The expat, however, was skeptical when he heard our motorbike route. The plan was to do one epic drive day down to Dien Bien Phu (approx. 10 hours), then over to Son La, Mai Chau, and back to Hanoi (4 nights, 5 days). In his opinion, getting to Dien Bien Phu in one day was impossible (though he’d never tried, and didn’t know anyone who had) and began to suggest other options. It being late, and feeling quite tired from the day, I found it overwhelming to consider completely revamping our plan. Instead I suggested a stop over in Muong Lay. If we reached Muong Lay at a reasonable hour we could continue on. If not, we could stay the night and cut over to Son La the next day. 

Continue reading ‘Off the Beaten Track: The Dien Bien Phu Loop, Vietnam’

It’s a Server’s Life for Me

•May 7, 2013 • 2 Comments

Last night was the official opening of the Blue Breeze Inn on Ponsonby. 

Working the deck: 

Mike, “Mr.Z” from Wisconsin (what are the odds?): with curly, sandy brown hair and a big grin, Mr. Z uses his Midwestern charm to please the crowd. His easy manner endears him to his tables quite quickly. He’s the kind of person you’re lucky to be working with, because you know he has your back. Until he’s in the sticks (by that time, hopefully, you’re out of them, and can return the favor). 

Katja “Lucy Liu” from Germany: tall, with an angular face, freckles, and eye shape/make-up that gives her that Lucy Liu look, Katja aims for perfection. She’s methodical, a good communicator, and always trying to improve or top-up her service and knowledge of the menu. She’s also fabulous to work with, a true team-player. 

Damien “Frenchie:” Charming and charismatic with dark hair, French flair, and a sideways smile.

Wayne, a Kiwi, our GM: Tall and skinny, Wayne jokes he wears a beard so he doesn’t look emaciated.

Mark, Part-owner: the man with the vision, Mark floats around the restaurant chatting up new customers and old friends. Mark’s funny and has a mean wit – the kind only a gay man can have, or get away with. Customer’s revel in his attention. His large, wide, black-framed glasses and brightly colored floral “Pacifica” shirt hangs open, revealing a white T-shirt underneath.

Shey, Head Chef: a gap-toothed Kiwi, Shey takes local, organic, cage-free food seriously. He’s passionate about his work but also volatile. Jokes run about how Chef has a big knife, so don’t ask too many questions…or make too many mistakes. 

Sebastian “Baz,” Bar Manager: Knows a great deal about beer, wine, and spirits. He wants you to know and respect his expertise. Though Baz can come off as arrogant (indeed, on one of my first days he embarrassed me by insulting my wine service when he didn’t even watch me do it), he’s calm and cool during the storm of service. 

Adam, Resident British “hipster” on the pass: lanky and dark haired, Adam’s full of dark humor and a bit snippy, but he gets the job done. It was his job to monitor orders, communicate with the kitchen, and make sure the right food gets delivered to the right tables in a timely fashion.  

4pm: Wayne, Mr. Z, Lucy and I are setting up the dining room. The outside walls are all windows, and it’s a beautiful afternoon. Mark randomly calls out, “20 minutes!” “10 minutes!” though we have no idea what he’s referring to. The assumption is he’s trying to keep us all on our toes. Plates, glasses, chopsticks, napkins stamped with our Tiki logo, all go on the table. 

5pm: We learn there will be no staff meal. It’s in our contract that we get fed, so we all came to work thinking we’d get dinner. Apparently, the kitchen’s too overwhelmed to provide this service just yet, and no one’s been notified. 

5:30pm: We are open. Several changes have been made to the menu and Lucy and I peruse and discuss. It’s particularly difficult for me, because meat is the main ingredient in Chinese fare so I haven’t been able to taste most of the dishes. I got a lot of feedback from fellow servers about their personal favorites and the key flavors during our staff tasting. For whatever reason we didn’t get to try the vegetarian options. Sections have changed and I’m in “Ocean View,” which consists of 8 two-tops lining outside window. Even with a food runner and a good team of servers to back you up, 8 two-tops could easily get hellish. In the states, sections are rarely more than 6 tables. The thinking goes that servers are cheap labor, and people get better service when a server has fewer tables. So I’m eyeing my section warily. 

6pm: My first table arrives. Things go relatively smoothly. Then another table sits. And another. I start to get into my groove, and I think I’ve got a handle on things. Working with a food-runner is a blessing and a curse: you are not responsible for waiting for/delivering/explaining the food, but if things get crazy you have no idea what was delivered, or wasn’t, or when. Mr. Z reminds me I haven’t been dropping off cutlery boxes (each table starts with only a spoon and some chop sticks). 

Things start to get crazy. Food’s getting backed up. Wayne can’t work the floor or be available for questions because he only staffed four servers for opening night. The deck, where there are another 8 tables, starts filling up. So Wayne’s waiting tables too. 

7:30pm: It’s like we are inside the perfect storm. Indeed, we are at sea and waves are crashing over the deck. Mark pulls me aside:

“Where’s the Pinto Grigio for table 14?”

Table 14, Baz told me, are important customers. The gentleman works as an architect, and he has constructed some of the major skyscrapers in Auckland. 

“I ordered it, but it hasn’t been poured yet,” I say. I imagine myself, face flushed, wide-eyed.

“You need to be up at the bar, asking for your drinks,” Mark says. 

I nod. I had assumed the bar was just a little backed up and didn’t want to hound them. But again and again, my drinks don’t show up. I’m losing time, checking the computer to make sure I ordered them and walking by the table to see if they have already been dropped. It’s making me feel crazy. 

The storm breaks over Table 14. When I stop by, they tell me they’ve gotten their entree before the dumplings. I apologize and tell them (as I told them before) that food comes out as it’s prepared. The Tua Tua New Zealand clams came out, but I F***** up and didn’t make a note to take the pork out (why the F*** is there pork in the clams? isn’t there enough pork on the menu?!?!). Their drink orders got lost, but I manage a save and deliver a new wine just as he’s taking his last sip. The Tua Tua’s are fixed and arrive. The Beef Shin, a sort of hot pot made with our master broth and vegetables, arrives. 

“Where’s the Prawn Har Gau?” the gentleman asks me. 

I go do some recon on the Har Gau – a steamed dumpling with prawn and corriander – and find that it was crossed off, marked as delivered, though they never received it. 

In the meantime, at Table 9: Julian and James, VIP customers and wine-makers extraordinaire, order a bottle of the Castagna Adam’s Rib red wine. I sigh to myself: my first wine service, for a couple of experts. Julian waves away the tasting, telling me the cork is of a special variety that cannot spoil wine, so there’s no need to taste it. Tasting the wine would be frowned upon (though they offer) so instead I am asked to get a glass so I can have a sniff. 

“Julian put the label on this bottle,” James says.

Julian has soft features, wears round, black-rimmed Harry Potter glasses, and a black jacket. He’s definitely and fabulously gay. James, though metrosexual, is straight. I learned this later, when Julian accused James of flirting with me, to which I responded, “Well you’re just so charismatic!” 

I look around. All my tables are full. How is this still happening? What time is it? I feel my chest tighten. I track down and deliver the Prawn Har Gau to Table 14 with a flourish. I send Baz to give his attentions and smooth things over. 

“It’s all good, sweethart,” Baz says. “They understand. You can hold your head up high.”

I grab a wine glass and head over to see James and Julian.

“Close your eyes and tell me what you smell,” James says.

Shit. I’m really bad at this. I work with wine, and have for awhile. I drink a lot of wine. But I cannot smell it and tell you what intricate ingredients are sending signs to my olfactory. 

“I smell a rich, smooth, full-bodied red,” I say. If I had time, I think, it would have been worthwhile to read the descriptive label on the bottle. 

“What color red?” James asks. “Purple red or deep cherry red?”

“Never purple red,” Julian says.

“Definitely rose red. A beautiful, floral, rose red,” I say.

“Good,” James says. 

I ordered three different kinds of dumplings, but only two have been delivered to James and Julian, though all three are crossed off. They ask me how long the Ma Po Tofu takes, and I find out it’s too long – I get them walnuts to snack on instead. 

When I stop back by, James encourages me to take another sniff. We’ve already established I’m from Wisconsin, and I’ve made jokes at the expense of our cherry wine. 

“Imagine you’re 12, and you’re riding your bike to school. The snow’s just melted and the air’s coming down off the hills and warming the – what do you call it?” 

“Asphalt,” Julian says.

“So the air’s warming the asphalt, and it’s steaming. Can you smell the asphalt but also the fresh spring air?” James says.

“That’s perfect,” Julian says. “Perfect. Tar and Rose petal.”

“What an amazing journey,” I say. “An incredible story behind the scent.”

Later, Baz clears James’ glass, so he has to start drinking out of my “smelling” glass. He’s genuinely upset that the glass has been cleared and we can’t continue our olfactory journey. I’m vaguely relieved.

9:30pm: Things start to slow down. The restaurant’s a mess and we are low on everything. The Crispy Duck entree has been dropped to James and Julian and I swing by to check in. It’s too salty, and too spicy too. But really, the salt level is out of control.

“Forgive me,” James says. “I never do this. I never send anything back. But I can’t eat this. Tasting, smelling – it’s what I do for a living. This is just too salty.”

I bring it back to the kitchen and Baz has a look, and a taste. He agrees it’s too salty. We take it off the bill and I recommend sending out the Prawn Har Gau because it’s fresh and fabulous and will clear the salt off the palate (and because I suspect they never got it, though I ordered it). James also orders the Ma Pa Tofu.

10pm: Plates have been cleared on most tables. A few people remain drinking. The tofu dish was also too salty, but James wouldn’t let me say anything, or take it back. I make a mental note to mention salt levels to Millie, our maître d, who has the chef’s ear. 

By the time James and Julian leave, they have my life story, and Julian encourages me to write every morning:

“Practice your art. You have to write every day. I make wine, so I drink a lot of it. I have to pair wine with food, so I try a lot of different dishes. But I used to be a filmmaker, so I understand where you’re coming from. You don’t need to make excuses about why you’re waiting tables. Just write every day.”

My head aches and it’s spinning. Still so much to do. Hunger’s gnawing in that vague way it does when dinner time was hours ago. I drink two glasses of water, and offer one to the Indian dishwasher, Sonny. Together, we start to put the restaurant back together.

Later Ian (our lovable, Kiwi, senior bartender), tells me that for whatever reason, my drink tickets were printing off in a different place from the rest of the staff. That’s why my orders kept getting lost. He’s told the IT guy about the problem, so it should be getting resolved.  

It’s midnight before Mr. Z and I clock out and sit down with a Tiki Blonde. The bartenders are still polishing glasses. 

“Wasn’t that fun?” Mr. Z says. 

“Fun? I don’t know if I’d call it that.”

“Oh sure it was stressful. Full on. But it was fun. If I keep telling myself it was fun, I’ll remember it that way.”

“You’re so good,” I say. 

Beers finished, we head for the door. 

“Goodnight Cha-don-aaay!” Mr. Z calls. 

That’s me – Cha-don-aaay – a nickname I earned because of the ghetto white girl way I jokingly pronounce it. Outside the streets are empty and the air feels crisp and cool. I wonder if it’s too late for the hot tub. 

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better

•May 6, 2013 • Leave a Comment

After a rainy day in Auckland, we spent yesterday night in our hot tub with a couple of my new friends from work. Thoroughly soaked and with pruny fingers, we came inside, made popcorn and played Apples to Apples, adding our roommates from California into the mix. 

I have a job and this week I go full-time. I scored gently used running shoes from the consignment shop and have a regular loop that takes me down to the marina. On windy days the ocean spray catches me as I jog by. We now own bikes and a hippie camper van. We are, by all accounts, settling in. 

There are some things that take getting used to. Not just that Kiwis call flip-flops “jandels,” bell peppers “capsicum,” zucchini “courgettes,” and frequently use the word “heaps” in place of “a lot.” Electricity costs a fortune, and few apartments come with dryers. This can be a pain, since winter in Auckland means rain (much like the Pacific Northwest in America). Buying craft beer in good old Wisco doesn’t gouge your pocketbook like it does here, and you have to pay at least $10USD to get a decent bottle of wine. If you go out to a bar or restaurant, likely you’ll pay upwards of $9USD for a beer, and $13USD for a cocktail.

The road we live near, Ponsonby, attracts the attentions of upper crust folk and you often see women dressed to the nines for a lunch date at one of the many expensive restaurants that line the street. Boutiques sell hideously expensive clothing, with your average pair of leather boots starting at $255USD. The posh strip in the “big city” of Auckland (1.4 million, in a country with around 4 million people) BMWs are parked up and down Ponsonby. 

We recently learned about the “tallest poppy syndrome,” a phrase used to describe people who think they are better than others, or advertise their skills in such a way, making it seem like they could do a job better. In a country of more than 300 million, Americans boast about achievements in order to stand out in the crowd. Here in New Zealand, peppering your CV with accomplishments reads as bragging, and Kiwis are sometimes hesitant to hire an American who thinks they can come in and do it better. These fears are not unjustified. Even the local Unitarian church brought in an American preacher to liven things up with outreach and PR, and help the small congregation attract new followers. 

 

Though they may sometimes have “small country syndrome,” by and large Kiwis are well-traveled (perhaps for that exact reason), progressive and liberal, having just legalized gay marriage (they also legalized prostitution in 2003). The more I read about increasing violence and issues with gun-control in the states, the more I appreciate this little peaceful country where local police don’t carry firearms, only pepper spray and batons. 

We met Christine and Robert (aka Chris and Rolo) at our hostel, the Brown Kiwi – and because we found our routines, personalities and general living tendencies so compatible, decided to look for apartments together. Chris works at Southern Cross Insurance, and Rolo, a properties manager, is still looking for work. As neither Colin nor Rolo are currently employed they run the household errands together. They are, as Rolo coined the phrase, “The Kept Men of Ponsonby.” They are working up a pitch for a reality TV series based around the kept men’s activities. Today the kept men go to the Warehouse (a sad substitute for Target) for towels and a laundry rack. The kept men cook, clean, and stay up late watching The Walking Dead. They devised a way to get our mascot from the Brown Kiwi, Sonic the Hedgehog, to our new home on WIlliamson Ave. Sonic must have got wind of their plans, though, because he didn’t come round again and thus couldn’t be transported. 

It seems particularly crazy that only a couple of weeks ago I was in Singapore battling bed bugs with a vengeance, or in Vietnam shortly before that. Our last week in Vietnam, in particular, was something out of a crazy dream… 

With just under 3 weeks in Vietnam, we were always racing from one destination to the next. When we reached Hanoi we had one big task on our hands: find a suitable motorbike to rent for a 5 day trip through northern Vietnam. On recommendation, we went to Viet Motors, a 10 minute drive outside of the central backpacker district in Hanoi. Less of a rental place and more of a repair workshop, Viet Motors was what Colin described as, “the place where motorbikes come to die.” 

There were many working bikes, but not a one that didn’t need some adjustments. It took us  a good 2 hours to narrow the search, and the bike we finally went with, a Chinese version of the Honda Win 100, was just $5 a day to rent. It needed a new rear tire, rear-view mirrors, the rear foot pegs needed fixing and a new (electric) battery. All those adjustments were made quickly and efficiently by a Vietnamese mechanic wearing an old, oily pair of dress pants and a Viet Motors collared shirt. 

We drove the bike back to our hostel, quickly loaded our gear and changed hostels (the one we were in had no availability on our return, and we needed to leave luggage behind)  went to a water puppet show (a strange display of wooden puppets dancing in water with a live band, performing different traditional dances), ate dinner and then put one small backpack on the motorbike (I wore another daypack) and drove to the train station.

Nothing’s ever easy in Vietnam, and as it turned out we couldn’t board from the main train station. We needed to go the “B” station. We got back on the bike and navigated the roads the wound around the entire train station. After driving for what seemed like too long on a narrow, alley-like road, and just as we were about to give up, we reached the “B” station and delivered the bike to the cargo man. The gas tank was promptly emptied as no flammables are allowed on the train. I speculated about how these cargo men probably never have to buy gas. 

Then we wandered around trying to find out where to pay for the bike’s transport because the cargo man spoke no English. We finally got the bike on the train, found our car and compartment, and got settled in. The plot thickened when I awoke at 5:30am, realizing the train was stopped and showed no signs of moving. When I nodded off and came to again an hour later, we were still parked. The train was supposed to arrive at 6:30am in Lo Cai, so I was curious about the delay. Unfortunately none of the staff on the train, including the conductor, spoke English. All announcements were made only in Vietnamese. Around 9am the couple from Holland who were sharing our compartment also became concerned, and the guy ventured out to see what was going on. He came back with stories of a broken train, that we would be changing trains and wouldn’t arrive in Lo Cai until 11am. To confirm this we asked a passing attendant. She said we would arrive at 10:30am and made no mention of the train change. 

When 10:30 rolled around and we appeared no closer to our destination, I decided to investigate. After a line of questioning involving some Europeans in another car (French, with no better English than the Vietnamese) and finally the train staff with a Vietnamese civilian translator – I found out what was going on. We did have to change trains. Either a train crashed on our track or got derailed. We would change at the next station and likely arrive closer to noon. 

At that point it was difficult to remain positive. This delay was cutting into our drive time for the day and since it was such a short trip to begin with we needed every hour. Additionally, one of the benefits of this train was how early it was supposed to arrive – we paid more for speed. The fact that none of the staff were bilingual was surprising. 

The move from one train to the next was fast and efficient. Colin checked on the bike, which  the staff had moved without a problem. When we finally arrived we had to walk the motorbike to a petrol station. Luckily that wasn’t too far and we were very soon on the road to Sapa…

For more on our adventure-filled motorbike tour through northern Vietnam tune into my next blog post!

 

Zanzi-bizarre: Frustration and Bliss

•December 21, 2012 • 1 Comment

Kuchanganyikiwa na neema. That’s Swahili for “frustration and bliss.”

The sun beats down mercilessly as we elbow our way onto the ferry departing for Zanzibar. We rose early, at 4:45am, and departed the campground by 5:45. Once there, we found ourselves subject to a delay arising from some problem  – either made by our trip leader or the ticket office – having to do with our departure time. We were supposed to be on the 7:30am ferry, but instead were bumped to the 9:30am ferry. The ferries never leave on time. This, in turn, affected the plans we had to join a spice tour in Zanzibar at 10am. Everything got pushed back. Grumbling coursed through the troops. I went out in search of a real cup of coffee.

That’s one thing I’ve realized so far in my travels; any country that’s known for producing something, like coffee, wine, chocolate, or fruit, generally gains more by exporting that product than keeping it for domestic consumption. So it is that we drink crappy instant coffee everywhere we go.

By the time we finally pushed our way onto the ferry and sat down, we were sweaty and irritable. Somehow these moments of transit are the most difficult parts of the journey. There’s no order. People swarm and push en mass. An African lady abruptly sprawled out in the aisle and went to sleep there. After two hours, we arrived at the Zanzibar ferry terminal, got our 24 passports stamped, and were on our way. Some of our number, in the meantime, had decided not to come on the spice tour and this created further complications, until finally we were wisked off by our local tour guide, Daniel, to a lunch spot.

We were meant to go on the tour and then eat a lovely lunch in the village, but with all the delays and changes in the number of participants, that was not possible. T.I.A. Africa has turned out to be a much more costly continent to travel in than southeast Asia. The spice tour cost $25 and was a good value, but all those extra activities at $20 or more a pop add up quickly. On the tour we learned a bit about the history of Zanzibar. Daniel identified tumeric plants, cinnimon trees (we chewed the bark, which tasted like spicy wood), ginger (the spiciest ginger I’ve ever had in my life is grown in Zanzibar), lemongrass, green and black pepper, passionfruit, jackfruit, African grapefruit…the list goes on. As it turns out, no spices are endemic to Zanzibar. The extremely rich soil nourishes a great variety of spice plants which are all introduced, most likely from India. We gorged ourselves on fruit at the end of the tour and drank spicy masala tea. Then we watched a small African man climb a giant coconut tree and break into song and dance at the top of it, holding onto the trunk with his arms and flinging his legs out in the air to the beat of his song.

Another hour in a van and we arrived at Nungwi beach around 5pm. We jumped in the shower, which was hot (that was the only time in the next 3 days that shower would have hot water, who knows why?), and within 5 minutes the bathroom flooded because the drain wasn’t working, and then the lights went out.

T.I.A.

Eventually we emerged, clean, and bought fruity blended drinks. We sighed a collective relief and listened to the waves crash as darkness decended. The next few days we woke early to snorkel or dive. We saw many fabulous sea creatures: moray eels, lobster, lion fish, mantis shrimp, potato grouper, Napolean wrasse, and, perhaps the coolest of them all, a large octopus who we watched transform, attempting to camoflauge himself.

Other observations about Zanzibar include the local touts strong desire to sell tourists drugs: marijuana, hash, or cocaine. We were approached at least five times a day by a tout who, after learning we didn’t want to snorkel or sunset cruise, offered us drugs, leading us to believe all touts are also drug dealers. Eventually, when approached by a rasta-looking, dread-locked beach bum, we stopped responding.

We ate two incredible meals. The first was grilled kingfish (Colin had kingfish curry), paired with rice or potato and a vegetable, and a bottle of South African white wine (hey hey, CHARDONNAY!). We finished with banana and pistachio ice cream. The other meal (same restaurant) was tuna with a spicy mango puree sauce, fresh vegetables and potatoes. We drank more crisp white South African wine. 

Our last day in Zanzibar, we relocated over to Stone Town where Daniel took us on a walking tour of the city. We stopped at an old church and he guided us down into the slave chambers beneath the floor boards. With 24 of us down there, and the sun high, the air inside the chamber grew thick and it was hard to imagine what it would be like with 75 people. Crammed into the dimly lit, stone-walled chamber, feeling faint, I imagined the conditions of the slave trade in Zanzibar. It was the most sobering experience we’ve had so far.

Afterward, we wandered around the market and I bought a pair of traditional Masai sandals – made from car or motorbike tires – as a secret santa gift. I had to haggle hard to get the price I wanted, and the whole transaction made me feel dirty and tired. Colin and I began making our way back to the hotel, got lost, and then Colin stepped in a giant brown puddle and came out with a chocolate foot. T.I.A.

We finally got back to our hotel with the help of a local (after searching and asking in vain for 15 minutes as our helplessness climaxed until, just in the nick of time, an English speaking Zanzibarian intervened). We sprawled out in the air conditioning. Colin washed his foot and we started out again for the Africa House, where our group was to reconvene for the sunset and cocktails. The sunset was a bit anticlimatic, the cocktails were expensive, and we were drenched in sweat. I had a vague feeling of guilt, spending so much money on cocktails after haggling over one or two dollars in the market. To drown our sorrows, we walked over to the ocean-side night market and bought as many fish kabobs as we could eat. Tuna, shrimp, and kingfish followed by a ginger, lime, sugar cane juice. Dessert was a banana and nutella pancake.

This morning we were meant to catch the 7:30am ferry, but again we caught the 9:30am ferry, and then we were informed that the truck was having battery problems (mild confusion and discontent that these problems were not resolved while we were in Zanzibar for 4 days) and we wouldn’t begin our drive toward Malawi. Instead we had to haggle bus fare for 24 people back to the campground. It turned out the bus driver we enlisted could not count and provided a bus without enough seats, so we had to get a car. While crammed on the bus, sweating, waiting, a man approached the bus selling ice cream. Sunya accidentally got two for the price of one, and gave me a free ice cream. It was the best free ice cream of my life.

Hopefully the bus repair goes as planned. We have two very long days of driving ahead if we are to make it to Malawi by Christmas. For now, we spend one more night camping next to the Indian Ocean.

T.I.A.

•December 16, 2012 • Leave a Comment

This is Africa.

To say that Africa is different from anywhere else I have been would be a understatment. We arrived in the dead of night and I was genuinely surprised by the kindness and willingness to help we immediately met in immigration. Where other arrivals in a new country have been greeted by hoards of touts, the Kenyan people were a pleasure.

This adventure differs from my past trips because Colin and I are finally traveling together. I enjoy flying solo but there’s no denying it gets lonely. Traveling independently also forces you out of your shell – you reach out for companionship and so meet people more quickly. That’s not a problem for us this trip, as we are traveling with 24 other people. Of that number, only the two of us are from the States.

Our companions are Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Irish and our trip leader is a lanky Scottish woman. Needless to say, getting to know everyone consumes a lot of transit time. We have some fabulous characters:

Cassandra, or Cass, a petite Aussie who, if she were American, would be a coastie. A pretty girl with long brown hair she often ties up in a messy bun at the very top of her head, Cass’ voice rises above the rest and can be heard from a great distance. She owns leg Warner’s and wears them often. She loves animals but loves bolognaise sauce too much to be a vegetarian.

Julian, or Jules, is our typically sassy, if not a bit metrosexual, Brit. He makes jokes aimed at Cass but the two if them are more or less sidekicks. Jules teaches English as a second language in London and lived in Prague for three years. He’s in his late 30s but looks ten years younger.

Steve, also a Brit, served two years out of a five year sentence for kiting, or opening multiple checking accounts and writing checks from one empty account to the next. He has tattoos with ex-girlfriends names. He loves 90s music and subjects us all to it on the truck for hours at a time while he sings along.

For all the advancement and growth of some parts of Africa, other parts are absolutely devastated by poverty. Littered with plastic bags, the stench of body fluids on the breeze, small children staring at the truck full of mzungas – the literal translation means “lost tourist” – this is Africa. Most people wave as we roll by but we occassionally get the finger or a hurled rock. One small task, like mailing a package home, can take hours. When unexpectedly delayed, or when general madness occurs, we shrug our shoulders and say “T.I.A.” This Is Africa.

Our first major adventure with this crew was a safari in the Serengetti. We split into three groups of 7 and piled into our respective trucks. Though it rains at least part of the day, the sun shines long and hot enough to make the world a dustball an hour later.

It was cinematic. We drove through jungle down into Ngorongoro crater. Suddenly the terrain changed into vast, sweeping savannas. Massive herds of water buffalo graze, impala and zebra scattered among them. A pride of lions lounge in the morning sun, one rising lazily and strolling over to the jeeps, lying down in the shadow it cast. A rhino sleeps in the distance. Hyenas are on the prowl. A cheetah lounges behind a rock some ways off. We stop at a small lake and stretch our legs. Hippos surface and yawn. First their eyes and then their huge bodies become visable. They lift their giant bodies in pursuit of one another and emit what can only be described as a throaty howl, a loud low groan. I’m not Steve Irwin and I would not want to be caught between a hippo and the water.

Later that day, we stop for lunch over looking the crater. A giant scavenger bird dives at Jules and steals his bread. Jules screams and claims that all birds are out to get him. He mutters threats against their talons from under a tree while the drivers laugh.

When we reach the Serengetti it’s early evening and a crazy rainstorm rolls in. From the jeep, ar watch the thunderclouds consume half the park. Just before we reach camp, we pull up to a a cluster of large rocks where several other jeeps are parked. We bust out the binocs and scan the very top of the rock until our eyes rest on two leopards sleeping there.

While we wait and watch, the male leopard rises. He stretches and scans the horizon. Then, to our amazement, he slowly makes his way down and slips between the jeeps, taking little notice of us, and disappears into the field nearby. We nearly watch him make a kill but another jeep startles the gazelle he’s been stalking.

And therein lies the complication of 6 jeeps huddling around a leopard trying to feed his family. There’s that balance between tourism and keeping the wild, wild. Our big tourist dollars help preserve the Serengetti but all the same we shouldn’t be scaring away dinner.

I didn’t hear the lions in the night, but others did. We woke the next day to a beautiful morning in the park. The vast tracts of wilderness stretched before us. Hakuna matata.