Friday, November 14, 2008

Wedding and Wind Scorpions

We are enduring the worst of the hot season right now; it rains so much in Luapula that I would often grow tired of it, but now I am fervently hoping for the rains to begin to break the heat. I've woken up several nights with my sheets soaked through with sweat, and now lie on my side to minimize the surface area I can sweat from. I also have a fan set up as close as I can get it to my bed without risking injury to myself, though if it's hot enough it barely helps as it simply swirls scorching air over me.

I traveled down to Choma district in Southern Province a little over a week ago to see two of my Peace Corps friends get married in a village ceremony. It was a lot of fun and was nice to spend a few days back in a village. The village itself was in a bit of an uproar the whole time we were there; one foreigner is huge entertainment in remote areas, so more than a dozen is tantamount to the circus coming to town and setting up the center ring in your front yard. Plus there were all the preparations for the wedding feast that took a small army of women several days to prepare; I wandered over a few times to stoke my appetite and admire the process of cooking that much food over open fires. Cooking is always a long production in the village, but to prepare that much food in massive cauldrons is truly a feat.

A brief aside: by most measures many villagers are highly uneducated, especially the older generation and women as they are the first to be taken out of school, it's not seen as critical for a girl to be educated like a boy should be, they tend to get married and have children at very young ages, etc. In remote areas it's not uncommon to find people who have lived their entire lives in the same village, without even having been to the nearest town that has proper shops, electricity, tarmacked roads, and things of that nature. So, their life experiences and education are extremely limited; yet, they also are unparalleled experts at what they do. I've sat around watching women cook, for instance, and they have it down to a science and an art--their movements are deft and sure, there's little wasted motion, no pausing to try to remember measurements or times, and they move with purpose and strength (I realize strength isn't commonly associated with cooking, but watch a bamayo stir heavy, thick, gruel-like nshima with a carved wooden spoon and you quickly understand why they could probably cripple me using just their forearms). Or there was the time I was sheltering from a thunderstorm in an office building at a refugee camp. I stood on the porch watching the storm probe the earth with preliminary rains, like liquid skirmishers, gathering itself to unleash a torrential downpour. Then three women with large bundles of firewood--some of the poles were easily five or six feet long--came into view. I stood gaping as they trotted by at a fast clip, eyes fixed straight ahead, chins tilted slightly up, necks straight and rigid, in order to keep the 50 or so pounds of firewood in place on their heads...and each one had a baby fastened with a piece cloth to their backs as they nimbly maneuvered down the muddy road. And it's the same thing with the men as they carve furrows out of the ground for their fields with home-made hoes, or build a charcoal mound or take down a tree with an axe. I always enjoy watching these people who are some of the most deprived in the world and yet who possess world-class skills in their areas of expertise. It's a delight every time.

Back to the wedding: on the first day I was given the chance to slaughter a goat which I gladly took up. I had never killed one though there was not a day in Muyembe when I didn't want to, given that they are evil incarnate (If you want to start most any Volunteer raving, ask them how they feel about goats and you'll probably hear stories about how awful they are and how the Volunteer had plotted to covertly kill a few of them as an example to the rest. I had a friend in Eastern Province who found one in his outdoor kitchen; he wrestled it to the ground and then proceeded to slap it four times in the face before finally letting it up). Now village knives are notoriously dull which leads to painfully slow slaughters and traumatized PCVs, and the bare piece of metal I was handed that was ostensibly a knife was no different, but I started in anyways. The accepted method is to saw away at the goat's neck until the goat dies or you collapse; fortunately the goat died first in my case, though it was nip and tuck. After it was over some of the village men took over the butchering, obviously having concluded from my slaughtering efforts that I wasn't entirely competent in the goat killing/slaughtering arena. We rescued the testicles and fried them up and ate them later; they were marginal at best, and I ate them mostly for bragging rights which, in retrospect, isn't a great reason.

There was, of course, plenty of dancing. Before the wedding started some of the older women started an impromptu session, something I smugly expected to be only for females until a very determined old lady grabbed me. I briefly calculated my odds of being able to beat her off and put them at 50-50, maybe 60-40 in my favor if she was tired from nshima cooking; but, I hadn't embarrassed myself in a few hours so I decided to give in and start dancing, which would be punishment enough for her and the other women anyways. I went into my normal routine which has been, unjustly I think, compared to a slow seizure, like maybe it's happening underwater, and continued my normal routine of convincing myself that all the laughter was merely admiration being expressed. The dancing was mercifully brief by Zambian standards, cut short no doubt by the women's concern that I might need medical attention, and everyone filtered off to prepare for the ceremony.

After changing into my less dirty shirt I settled in to watch the wedding. The groom came out escorted by a parallel line of dancing school girls. He shuffled along and appeared to be limping though he clarified later that he was actually executing a prescribed dance step, and made his way once around a hut. The bride came out of the hut and they were covered with a chitenge, a piece of cloth essentially, locked pinkies, and then shuffle-limped to several chairs that had been set up on the edge of a bare patch of ground. All the villagers, including many from the surrounding areas, formed a solid circle five or six people deep all the way around the chairs and the open area; a very intoxicated man was on crowd control duty which consisted of him flapping his arms and yelling loudly as he rushed around the inner part of the circle and mock charged anyone who threatened its integrity. There was then several brief speeches from the different headmen attending, along with the bride and groom's village parents. Directly following that was a ceremony to exhibit how the bride and groom were prepared to care for their respective in-laws if and when it became necessary. The pair carried a plate of food to a line of people meant to represent their families of which, as a friend of the groom, I was a part. They then moved down the line kneeling before each person and offered them the plate; the person would select something to eat and the bride and groom would move on to the next person. I found the process to be interesting for a couple of reasons; one because I enjoyed the fairly elegant symbolism, but also because it highlighted the cultural reality in Zambia that relatives, even by marriage, are expected to provide for other relatives, including distant ones. It is somewhat common and perfectly normal for children to be raised by grandparents, aunts and uncles, or cousins, even if the child's parents are still alive, and for wealthy relatives to send money for schooling, food, transport, etc., to relatives they've never even met.

Things then rapidly moved into the gift-giving phase; essentially the master of ceremonies stood in the center of the circle and browbeat everyone until they came forward with money or a gift. The m.c. would then hold up whatever the person was offering, announce how much it was or, if it was a gift, offer his best estimate of its worth which was usually wildly inflated. All of this was mortifying to the Americans present, especially the bride and groom who had asked that this part be skipped, but perfectly normal to the assembled Zambians. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the gift-giving had finished, the end of which also marked the end of the ceremony.

The rest of the day was spent relaxing and stuffing ourselves on goat and chicken. We built up a big bonfire and stood around chatting and listening to the general hubbub of the large crowd still socializing and excitedly discussing the day's events. Excitement among the Americans would also occasionally flare up when a wind scorpion would approach. I had heard of these things but had never seen one until that night; in Zambia they are alternatively known as wolf spiders although they are neither a scorpion or a spider. They are big and hairy with large, over-sized jaws that can be a full one-third of their body length, which can reach five inches. While their physical appearance alone qualifies them as something I kill or run away from on sight, the most disconcerting feature of wind scorpions is that they are highly aggressive and target any light source; they lie fairly flat most of the time but when approached or if they sense something nearby worth terrifying (a half-asleep Peace Corps Volunteer walking barefoot to the pit latrine in the middle of the night, for instance) they raise their body off the ground on their hairy legs and sprint straight for their prey. One of my friends in Northwestern Province where wind scorpions are very common told me that the first time he saw one he bolted into his house, leaped onto his bed and wrapped his mosquito net around himself. Another guy, a former college rugby player built like a boulder, was sitting on his porch eating and ended up tossing a full plate of food in the air and jumping into his yard when he turned to see one glaring at him from an eye-level ledge inches away. So, to see one of those things busting out of the night in a scuttling, hairy, spider-y kind of way is alarming, to say the least, and they were out in force that night, attracted by the bonfire from which I risked burns in order to be close enough to see them coming. Leaving the safety of the fire was hard on the nerves; we were able to track several girls' progress to and from the pit latrine by their shrieks whenever a scorpion charged them or when the guy with them for protection would yell "look out!" and point to an empty patch of earth at the girls' feet.

The next morning we packed up our tents and backpacks, said goodbye to the village, hopped in the back of a pickup truck and roared our way over potholes and bumps into Choma. From there everyone scattered, either to Lusaka or Livingstone or back to their villages. I was exhausted but satisfied: dancing with mayos, eating goat testicles, avoiding wind scorpions--there's really not much else I could have asked for.

I hope you are all well. All the best, Josh

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hitching, Mwanawasa, and African Politics

i hope this post finds you well, things in zambia continue on mostly the same. i realize it's been another long stretch since i last wrote, i have found that there are fewer things of interest to report now that i live in a modern city. the lack of items of interest hasn't stopped me, however, from writing possibly my longest post yet, so consider yourselves fairly warned.

i did get malaria last month for the first time, although i was fortunate as it was a fairly mild case. malaria is a scary illness for people without access to proper medication, and is responsible for more deaths in sub-saharan africa than hiv/aids--one of the great tragedies of the disease is that it's easily treatable with a number of different medications. i ended up taking coartem which is cheap and highly effective, although it also seemed to tick off the malaria parasites before killing them. i had been able to operate more or less normally before taking the medication, but a few hours after my first dose i had to struggle up the stairs to my bed where i had a vicious bout of the chills that set my bed jitterbugging up and down. i had one more bad evening (malaria works in waves--the parasites enter your bloodstream, destroy a bunch of red blood cells, then stop to reproduce. they re-emerge more strongly about 24 hours later and repeat the process) and then that was pretty much it other than fatigue and a general lack of strength and stamina. even though i was quite sick it wasn't nearly as bad as it can be and usually is, i've been around people with a serious case and they can just barely move; some pcv's have had it to the point that they couldn't get out of the bed to go the bathroom and general unpleasantness ensued (this is a common enough occurrence that having malaria guarantees a bed to yourself, even if there are other pcv's around who have no place to sleep).

over the fourth of july holiday i went out to malawi again, back to the same place i went for easter of '07. i won't say much about it as i've already written about lake malawi, other than to say that it was just as beautiful and relaxing as last time. malawi is similar enough to zambia that it feels familiar--the languages they speak are all also spoken in zambia, and the primary tribe in malawi, the cichewa, populate most of the eastern province of zambia. getting there can be a hassle though, it took us two full days of traveling to get to our final destination and that was even with some extraordinary luck hitch-hiking.

'hitching,' as it's known here, is a popular way of getting around for everyone, peace corps volunteers especially. shortly after arriving in country i overheard several veteran pcvs discussing whether they should hitch to lusaka from mansa, and one said that she didn't want to as she 'already had enough stories.' that is usually the way hitching goes, you're almost always guaranteed to have a tale to tell when you've finished, although it's usually one that's only funny after some time has passed and the fatigue and aggravation have receded. pcv's have some spectacular hitching stories and some have amazing luck, but i'm a grade-a cancer during hitching attempts, which is why i've mostly given it up. however, we decided to give it a shot anyway and were eventually picked up by a german expatriate named ully; now, one of the reasons i enjoy africa so much is the interesting people you meet, and ully did not disappoint. he's an engineer who's lived here for more than 20 years, an ex-special forces commando who grew up in west berlin and is personal friends with the zambian vice-president, rupiah banda. he's a big, barrel-chested guy with a wide face and short, salt and pepper hair and a commanding air about him, and is possibly slightly paranoid; he told us on one stretch of road that it was a bad place for car-jackings but that we shouldn't worry as he carries a .357 ruger revolver in the vehicle with him, which he had his girlfriend riding on the passenger's side fish out from beneath her seat so we could properly admire it. he is also certifiably insane on the road; 140 km/hr was his preferred cruising speed, and he apparently viewed potholes not so much as obstacles to be avoided but as challenges to be confronted--he told us that he had customized the suv's shocks with some sort of inflatable device, which is why he didn't bother avoiding the potholes. all of that made for an interesting ride but also a pleasant one as he gave us sandwiches, sodas, and candy bars, cranked the american classic rock he was listening to from his satellite radio, and worked on setting a land speed record to chipata. i often have moments over here where i am deeply, deeply grateful for the experience i'm having, and as i sat back in padded suv comfort while ully drove at 140 km/h with his knees as he wrestled with opening a bag of crisps, all while regaling us with stories from his commando days as led zeppelin songs pulsed through the vehicle and the brownish landscape whizzed by me outside the window, i had another one of those moments.

last month i traveled to luapula for a going-away party for my group. i've mentioned public transport in my emails enough that most of you are probably tired of hearing me complain about it, but you're going to have to bear with me one more time. on this particular trip i was feeling smug at my good luck in getting a mostly-empty bus that left close to on time, until we pulled into a petrol station in kapiri mposhi that is about two and a half hours from lusaka. i was half asleep as the bus had left at 4:30 a.m., but i still heard the zambian a few seats over stand up and make a general announcement that 'the bus is on fire' before speeding down the aisle. normally that sort of situation would send me in a panicked gallop off the bus, shoving people aside if necessary, but sometimes in zambia people tend to badly overreact so i ignored the warning. a few seconds later, however, i started smelling smoke; this was an interesting enough development that i snapped fully awake. my mind was further focused when i noticed smoke pouring into the front section of the bus, and people streaming into the aisle. i joined them in what i hoped was a collected manner, resisting the urge all the while to trample a mother with a baby on her back who was not moving with the dedication i thought the situation demanded. when i finally made it out the left front wheel hub was producing clouds of smoke, the result of a 'problem with the bearings,' according to a mumbled explanation from the conductor. kapiri mposhi was already my least favorite zambian city, and the following four hour stay in the parking lot of a petrol station as i tried to avoid drunken street vendors did nothing to approve my opinion of it. but, we finally got under way and i safely arrived in kazembe after an 18 hour journey.

i am now one of 6 or so volunteers from my intake remaining in zambia, the rest finished their service last month and many of them are back in the states now. it was sad to see them go, i have a lot of good memories with many of them. i have been surprised at the depth of the friendships i formed here, and looking around the peace corps community it's obvious that many others have done the same. i think i'm surprised because, apart from perhaps a few close pcv neighbors, you only see other volunteer friends once every few months for a couple of days; yet somehow you still manage to connect with them and form a very strong bond. there are a variety of reasons for it, i think the biggest being the intensity of the shared experience. working as a pcv in zambia is such a bizarre, bewildering, thrilling, unique experience that it is only another volunteer that can really understand what's happening with you. when you're struggling to articulate your irritation or sorrow or elation over something that happened in the village, you don't need to be eloquent or fill in the gaps in your story for another pcv because they already know what you're trying to matter what you're trying to express, chances are that the person who best understands will be another volunteer. so, you come to rely on volunteers in many of the same ways you relied on family in the states (the first time a pcv visited me in my village i very nearly tackled him with a hug i was so delighted to see him, after a week and a half by myself). my friend katie described this dynamic best when we were sitting around reminiscing towards the end of her service and the beginning of my extension, looking back at our time in the country and marveling at how far we'd come. she said that the peace corps experience was like a bizarre blind date where you're thrown in with a bunch of strangers, only to fall in love with them. that's the best description i've heard of all of this so far.

i'm not sure if this got any coverage in the states, but the president of zambia, levy mwanawasa, had a serious stroke at an a.u. summit in egypt at the end of july; reuters and the bbc reported that he had died, and the president of south africa even issued a condolence statement. as it turns out the reports were premature as he did not die for about another month; on news of his death a mourning period of 3 weeks was declared that just ended last week. zambia has only had three presidents since independence, so this was an unprecedented situation and there was some concern about how the country would deal with it. however, everything remained calm and the government continued to function, and elections have been announced for october 30th. as sad as it was for the people of zambia to lose a president who by all accounts was a fairly decent head of state, it was at least encouraging that there was no violence and the succession of the vice president to acting president was smooth and orderly; too often in africa and elsewhere these types of situation devolve into a crisis.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere

well, very sorry it's been so long since i've written, i don't have a very good excuse for my apathy other than that i feel like there's not too much going on that's worth writing about. i work in an office all day now in front of a computer, and most of the time feel very little like a zambian peace corps volunteer, seeing as the essence of that experience is getting dirty and smelly for weeks on end in the bush, emerging to eat enough dairy to get sick, and then heading back to the village. however, lusaka is proving to be a lot of fun of the more conventional variety; there is a large community of western aid workers, embassy staff, etc., who live here and manage to keep themselves entertained--braiis (cookouts), ultimate frisbee, the hash (a group of people who get together and run pre-laid out courses that are deliberately confusing so most people get lost--all for the sheer pleasure of it...weird, i know) and other activities along those lines. the beauty of it is that, specifically with americans, there is an instant bond and the feeling of kinship that comes with being countrymen in a different country--that feeling is so strong that many of them are even willing to cart peace corps volunteers around in their vehicles and overlook the fact that we're the american equivalent of poor relations with bad table manners.

my new job is in the public health sector, a field i knew next to nothing about before starting this job, so i've been learning a lot. the program has a heavy emphasis on anti-retroviral therapy and antenatal care; as i've spent most of my life being largely grossed out by the idea of childbirth, i've had to spend a lot of time with a dictionary figuring out what all the terms associated with antenatal care mean...however, discovering, for instance, what 'meconium' is has not helped me in the grow-up-about-childbirth category at all. since smartcare (the name of the project i'm with) concerns electronic medical records, many of the people i work with are software/computer guys--there's actually only one other person in the office without a computer background, so i spend a lot of time exchanging eye rolls from across the room with her. pretty much the only way to confuse me more than i am when dealing with antenatal terms is to use some software programming lingo around me. on the rare occasion when i haven't successfully avoided a software-related task, i find myself during the briefing meetings trying to take my cue from people who know what's going on: i'll watch them out of the corner of my eye, and if they nod in agreement to something that's been said i'll nod as well in what i hope is a sage manner, and throw in a concurring grunt if their nodding seems to be particularly committed. the irony is, of course, that i used similar methods in the village when i was confused, so it's a technique i've perfected.

over easter i went down with a group of pcvs to livingstone in southern province, to see victoria falls. this was my third time down there so i'd seen the falls before but had never done a proper tour of them, and decided to do it this time. the night before i went a girl who had gone earlier told me she spent the entire time they were at the face of the falls simply shouting "it's intoxicating!" well, that actually proved to be a pretty good description of the experience. in tonga, the language of the tribe in that area on the zambian side of the zambezi river, the falls are called mosi-oa-tunya, "the smoke that thunders." david livingstone reportedly said upon first seeing them "...scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight;" i wasn't able to muster anything quite that poetic, although i took a stab at it with "holy crap, they're massive." and i was right, they are massive, about a mile wide and 360 feet tall, the water plume it sends up can sometimes be seen 30 miles away, and during peak flow times about 105,000 cubic feet per second of water plummet over the falls. obviously, though, numbers don't begin to capture the size and power of victoria falls that you experience when you're close up against them.

the falls stretch in a gently curving fashion all the way across the zambezi river, the far side being lost in the mist. livingstone island, a small patch of tangled, heavy vegetation perched on top of craggy sheets of bare rock sits directly in front of the falls, only about 200 feet away, and offers an unparalleled view and the opportunity to get completely drenched. there is a small clearing where crowds of people congregate before heading down the trail that takes you over the bridge and onto the island; here, people who have just returned from walking the trails are wringing out their clothing and checking to see if their cameras survived the trip, while tourists preparing to head down the trails are donning rainjackets and wrapping their electronic gear in plastic. my group stopped here briefly so we could make similar preparations; i opted for a stylish red sox poncho (some of my more low-brow companions claimed to be embarrassed by it; normally that type of mis-guided remark would upset me, but this time i simply reponded with the observation that they're stupid).

as you start down the trail the rock path starts to become slick with moisture, and soon the overhanging branches are shedding heavy drops of water on you. there is a steady roar and you can glimpse through the trees a mountain of churning water, and then you step out from the relative protection of the woods and into one of the bare overlooks jutting out over the edge of the gorge. chunks of greenish-white water tumble slowly over the lip of the falls and disappear into the fog below, and a perpetual haze of mist comes streaming back up with force, as if fired from a water cannon. the slick black face of the cliff off to your right has swathes of soggy moss clinging to it, made into tenuous islands by the streams of water gushing down the surface of the rock. the trees toss and sway in the wind churned up by crashing water, the same wind that is sending sheets of fog swirling around you and driving heavy rain onto your head and shoulders, all in the midst of a bitingly sunny day. you turn and look at your friends; the closest ones have an exhilarated look on their faces that are flushed red from being pelted by water and wind, their eyes are squinting against the onslaught and their soaked hair is plastered down on their heads. farther away your friends are fuzzy smudges in the mist until they get closer and their bodies begin to take on definition, the same silly grin creasing their faces that you know is plastered on your own.

then you step onto the cable bridge that leads to livingstone island; it hangs there over a gorge, in front of the face of the falls, streams of water flowing down it ankle-deep in places; pot-bellied indian men with their shirts off are dancing and laughing in the driving fog, kicking and splashing in the pooled water like children after a rainstorm. you lean over the edge of the bridge with a hand raised to protect your eyes that are being pelted so insistently with water; a slightly dizzy feeling grips you as you confront a wall of angry water whose dimensions can't be discerned as they're cut off by the mist, a wall barreling its way down into the gorge. your disorientation is increased by the confusion of competing gusts of wind striking you from below, behind, above, and in front, and you're completely overwhelmed with the giddiness of being in the grip of an unimaginably powerful force. it is, in a word, intoxicating.

so, victoria falls is beautiful, though the experience is much more than simply viewing them, the sensations you experience in the mist and the rain and the wind are equally important. it's the only natural wonder of the world i've seen, and it was all i think a wonder of the world should be. as always, you'd be much better off seeing it for yourself rather than taking my word for it. i hope you are all well. best, josh

Sunday, January 20, 2008


it's been a whirlwind month or so, i'm back in lusaka after a lot of traveling. it looks like now i'll be starting my new job in the middle of february as there have been some problems finding housing for me here in the city--in the meantime i'll take the opportunity and go out to eastern province to visit some friends there.

this account of the last month is going to be more of an 'impressionist' piece, basically an excuse to transgress even more rules of proper (i.e. good) writing than i normally do.

four of us headed to kasanka national park in the middle of december to watch the annual migration of straw-colored fruit bats. there is a two-month period every year when, for reasons no one's sure of, a swarm of approximately 12 million of these bats migrate to a small forest in kasanka national park. every evening they leave the shelter of the forest en masse to feed on fruit in the surrounding areas; i've been to watch twice, and the spectacle has not gotten any less amazing. we walked with a guide out to the edge of a plain that borders the forest in question; right around dusk a few bats started flapping their way up out and out of the treeline. that must have been some sort of cue for the main body of bats, because suddenly an absolute swarm of black dots swirled into the area and started towards us--being from maine i couldn't help but be reminded of a massive cloud of black flies. for 45 minutes about 12 million bats that can reach up to 1 kg in weight each streamed over our upturned, gaping faces, a perforated torrent bobbing and weaving but all moving in the same general direction. it ended as abruptly as it had begun with just a few stragglers flapping their way out of the woods and into the darkness, leaving us still mumbling incisive observations like 'wow, that rocked,' and 'that's a lot of freaking bats.'

we returned to our campsite and crawled into our tents; i'd strategically placed mine on a slightly damp, muddy-ish bit of ground thinking it'd be softer. what i somehow failed to think about was that this is the middle of the rainy season, and damp, muddy-ish ground at the base of gradually up-sloping land just above a swamp might potentially be a natural drainage area. all of this did occur to me at around 2 am when the bottom of the tent started rippling like a waterbed and we were forced to wade our way out of a newly-formed river that would probably get marked on most maps. we spent a cramped and cold night in the land cruiser with me huddling in the back, trying to hide from the accusing glares i knew the others were firing into the dark at me.

after that adventure/misadventure, we drove to kapiri mposhi and got on a train for dar es salaam. it took about 45 hours total to get there, most of which was marked by a lot of boredom and sleeping. there were some fun moments, such as when we passed into tanzania and found ourselves without any way of communicating with the people selling food outside the train. doug had gotten his hands on a swahili phrasebook and kept trying out different phrases, most of which were met with puzzled stares. the rest of us tried a melange of english, bemba, nyanja, and lunda, figuring that by talking slowly and loudly and enunciating clearly, people who had no experience at all with those languages would be able to understand us (on an entirely unrelated side note: back when joel was still visiting we went to the kala camp that houses congolese refugees. we started talking to a small group of boys, none of whom was older than 10 probably: i perpetrated my bemba on them, joel spoke with them in french, their native language is swahili, and they understand some english. so, these pre-teens knew 3 1/2-4 languages...great, i thought, now i can feel inadequate in 2 more languages besides bemba.) doug soldiered on with his own method though, at one point leaning almost entirely out the train window in pursuit of a chipati, mumbling unintelligible swahili at a street vendor while nicole supervised the process. nicole: 'that's not going to work doug, even if he understands you you're not going to understand his response.' doug, ignoring her, continued butchering swahili until nicole poked her head out the window: 'iwe. chipati. CHI-PA-TI?'

fortunately food was sold on the train, otherwise we would have starved to death. also fortunately, the train travels through selous game reserve, the largest reserve in the world, just before reaching dar es salaam. we saw giraffes, zebras, impala, warthogs, etc., as we cruised slowly by, lending some excitement to the monotony. from dar we took a ferry to stone town in zanzibar island, the largest of a cluster of islands collectively known as zanzibar. the island is outrageously beautiful, i felt the entire time as if i were living in a postcard. the whole island is ringed almost entirely by beaches--white sand, tall palms with thin, softly curved trunks that look as though they're constantly blowing in a gentle breeze, bright turquoise and green water, small thatched shade shelters, and arches and rock formations carved by the ocean into the mostly-coral shoreline. stone town itself is an interesting mixture of the old and new--narrow, twisted streets paved with cobblestones, the drab gray, soaring buildings that give off a slight air of neglect and antiquity crowding right up to the streets. looking up from street level there are only narrow slices of brilliant blue sky to be seen between the buildings, along with the wrought iron balconies that stud the faces of the structures and the tall, slatted black shutters swinging out above the street. arabic script flows along the sides of the buildings and above the doors of the mosques, through which barefoot men in orderly rows can be glimpsed genuflecting towards mecca. the dull, humming drone of the three-times-daily call to prayer echoes down the streets and hangs in the humid air. bundles of black wires snake up the sides of the building to connect to the antennae and satellite dishes poking into the sky from the jumble of tin roofs, each one a different shade of rust. men in white flowing robes with beards stride along the streets next to women wrapped completely in multi-colored hijabs but for their faces, clutching, incongruously enough, expensive cellphones and handbags. indian men and women, black africans and white, gawking tourists perpetually in danger of being run down by a scooter or large, rough wooden wheelbarrows piled high with goods pushed by men shouting warnings round out the population. the busier areas are chaotic, loud, and very exciting.

we made our way to the eastern side of the island to a place called jambiani. we stayed for the evening at a spacious, whitewashed house with columns out front and the sandy beach running right up to the porch. i wandered out into the warm night and sat in a reclining chair, gazing up through the palms at the bright expanse of stars stretching from horizon to horizon. as i dug my feet into the sand the palm fronds overhead clattered lightly together in the soft breeze, making a sound like rainfall, punctuated by the crash of the breakers against the beach about 25 yards ahead of me, the white foam from the waves glimmering dully in the dark. the owner of the place sliced up a pineapple for us and we chewed on the sweet, juicy pulp contemplatively, i for my part wondering how i'd been so lucky to end up in a place so beautiful.

the next two days were spent in bwejuu which was equally beautiful before we headed back to stone town. some more impressions of those following days: dancing on the beach during new years, fireworks spiralling up into the night sky and shattering over the applauding crowd, then falling asleep on the beach to the sounds of music, surf, and the quiet laughter and chatter of the people spread about over the beach. scubadiving, swimming along in a silent blue world, watching brilliantly-colored fish move over the surface of the mounded coral that rose in lumps from the sandy floor of the ocean, twisting slowly onto my back and watching platinum air bubbles with highlights of silver tumble and roll their way towards the surface. columns of small silver fish rising above my head, the entire formation flashing as the filtered rays of the sun caught their sides as they darted collectively at our approach. the gaunt ribs of a shipwreck looming out of the dull blue smudge of the water in front of me, a few small kicks lifting myself up and into a hole in the oyster-festooned side of the vesssel, allowing the current to pull me down through the body of the wreck, admiring the shattered remnants of the craft now chunky with marine growth, threading my way through the long fuzzy fingers of brightly-hued kelp stretching towards the surface and swaying slowly in the current. lying sprawled on the hard canvas canopy of the boat, letting the bright sun dry us off as we munched on falafel and spicy potato balls, the deep blue of the ocean spreading all around us, pitching us back and forth in the swells, islands dotting the horizon. standing under the shade of a massive tree at the end of a spice tour as a man with a sharp knife moved through our group offering us chunks of local fruits--pineapple, jackfruit, papaya, mango, oranges, limes, the juice running down our forearms. visiting the night fish market where all the local seafood is offered, each small wooden stand illuminated with lanterns and candles, piling a paper plate high with kebabs of barracuda, snapper, shark, king marlin, tuna, calamari, octopus, lobster, mussels, crab legs, all cooked up on the small wrought-iron braais and washed down with sugarcane juice. sleeping on the topmost deck of the ferry back to dar es salaam, 5 of us sprawled in a corner being rocked to sleep by the slow rolling of the boat. piling back into the train, exhausted, a little sunburned, sand infiltrated throughout our luggage, broke, saddened at leaving, yet still slightly jubilant and wildly happy at the experience we'd all just enjoyed.

hopefully you got a little taste of what it's like to travel to zanzibar, although i honestly can't begin to do any of it's just something you have to experience for yourself. i've been lucky enough to travel to a lot of amazing places, and though i debate back and forth with myself on this one, i think zanzibar so far was the best. if you ever get the opportunity...GO!!