Thursday, 23 April 2015

Eating, Praying & Food Loving in Bali

The island of Bali is known for being a feast for the mind, spirit, and body — as well as for volcanic mountains, lush terraced rice fields, stunning beaches, vibrant culture, lots of temples, and very sumptuous cuisine. After more than three years of volunteering, gallivanting, and over-indulging through Africa and Europe, this sounds like exactly what I need. Plus I’ve heard that Indonesia has the spiciest KFC around, which would greatly assist my ongoing quest to sample Colonel Sanders’s secret recipe in all 115 countries where he has a presence.

Bustling Kuta
Hence I find myself rocking up in Bali, with the intention of exploring Indonesia’s most famed island, and — with my friends and family constantly pestering me about when I’ll re-enter the world of gainful employment — possibly teaching here for a year. I’ve had my share of tropical island paradises, and I thought I knew what I was in for when I booked a place in Kuta, which sounded like a nice enough area close to the beach on the southern side of the island. Once a quiet fishing village, it was an early favourite of tourists, especially popular with Australians.

I soon discover this is not quite the Bali I expected. Suffice it to say that a concentration of tourist bars means a lot of drunk holidaymakers, and the fourth of the four S’s of mass tourism — sun, sea, sand, and sex — is highly prevalent. Walking around South Kuta reminds me of the spring break holiday period in Nassau, except that here it’s almost twenty-four hours a day, and apparently all year round. But two years of living in the Bahamas taught me an important lesson: do not judge a place by its main tourist drag. Get away, explore the less touristy areas, and you will almost certainly find some of the true essence of a place.

You might also find monkeys

North-east of Kuta, in the village of Padangtegal, is the Ubud Monkey Forest, a nature reserve and Hindu temple complex populated by hundreds of crab-eating macaques. Well, actually, I should say their diet consists partly of crab, as they also subsist on sodas, fruit, and sandwiches taken from unsuspecting tourists who don’t read the cautionary instructions at the entrance to the temple. Or maybe the tourists also had too much of a good time in Kuta the night before, and don’t even notice the monkeys pilfering their stuff, until it’s too late. Some of the monkeys also appear to have recently returned from the set of The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, displaying intelligently aggressive behaviour. Visitors getting bitten is apparently quite common.

Puras Galore
The impressive pura or temple at the Monkey Forest, built around the mid-fourteenth century, is
one of over twenty thousand in Bali. Hinduism is the predominant religion on the island, but the version practiced here is unlike that of any other part of the world, with elements of Buddhism and animism. I’m also shocked to learn that eating beef — something that would be considered sacrilege by my family — isn’t frowned upon by Balinese Hindus. I guess my Hindu Indian university friends in Britain were right all those years ago, explaining that only Indian cows are truly sacred, when I questioned them about their penchant for Sunday roast dinners at the local pub.

Volcano Watching
After all that monkey business, I decide to head for higher ground. North of the Monkey Forest is
 Mt.Batur, an active volcano with a massive picturesque crater lake at its base. For the adventurous-minded, a sunrise hike to its 1,717-metre summit is well worth the effort. I wish I could describe the view from the top — but five years living in Montserrat, with its active and very destructive Soufrière Hills Volcano, taught me that such geological features are best viewed from afar. Preferably with a cold drink in hand, and your keys in the ignition. Luckily I found a nearby restaurant where I could do just that, plus enjoy an amazing traditional Indonesian lunch buffet. 

Food, Food, Food
Which brings me to the most important part of any travel story: the food. My favourite Indonesian dishes are nasi goreng — a spiced fried rice, accompanied by egg, chicken, shrimp, and a prawn cracker; rendang — a slow-cooked spicy meat dish, reminiscent of a Trinidadian stew crossed with a Guyanese pepperpot; and daun papaya — papaya leaves sautéed with dried salted fish and red chilies. Yes, papaya leaves — and it’s delicious. The bitterness of the leaves nicely compliments the salt and heat of the other two ingredients, and reminds me of my days of eating cassava and sweet potato leaves in Tanzania.

Spicy Food
My palate is savoury-spicy, and the sambal which accompanies most Indonesian food is right up my alley. The ingredients vary, but it’s usually a spicy condiment made in a mortar and pestle, consisting of chilies, shrimp paste, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, shallots, scallions, sugar, lime juice, and vinegar. This thing could put hair on your chest, as they say, and could rival any flavourful West Indian hot sauce.
Even better news: in addition to having affordable restaurant dining, 

Street Food Culture
Bali also has a very vibrant street food culture. I buy delicious steamed meat-filled buns (like the ones Trinidadians call pow) for about thirty US cents each. Another great discovery is “mud rice”: steamed rice with sweet corn, covered in a thick peanut sauce and wrapped in banana leaves — for a measly US quarter. The best thing for washing down all this food is “beer Djawa,” or Javanese beer, a sweet non-alcoholic drink made from ginger, cloves, lime, and other ingredients. Now, drinking non-alcoholic beer is not really my style, but unlike the very affordable food, alcohol here is a bit on the pricey side. Paying US$50 for a bottle of Chenin Blanc that would probably cost four dollars in South Africa, where I recently lived, is not exactly congruent with someone of my employment status. So beer Djawa it must be.

Poop Coffee - Most Expensive in the World
After stuffing myself properly at the buffet at Mt Batur, and praying those macaque monkeys
never find out how much food is available at this place, I’m off to a nearby farm to try a cup of kopi luwak. This is Indonesia’s unique coffee brand, made famous by an appearance in the Jack Nicholson movie The Bucket List. Kopi luwak is produced by an unusual process, to say the least. Asian palm civets — small mammals also known as toddy cats — eat coffee berries which ferment in their stomachs, and then — er, let’s say resurface, intact in the civets’ feces. The beans are collected and harvested from the excrement (wouldn’t want that job), washed (very carefully, I hope), hand-roasted (hopefully killing any E. coli that might still be around), and sold as the most expensive coffee in the world, fetching up to US$3,000 per kilo. Thanks, Jack — this will be a very expensive item to get off my bucket list!

The coffee was amazing!!
I’ve tried some exotic food and drink in my life — from fried grasshoppers in Tanzania to Guyana’s potent Amerindian cassava beer, fermented with human saliva. But drinking pre-digested coffee is taking it to a whole other level. What will my friends say on Facebook? What if I come down with some strange stomach problems for the rest of my trip, and am not able to take advantage of the free drink shots at the nightclubs in Kuta — or, worse yet, never get to sample that extra-spicy KFC? All of these thoughts are dispelled when I have my first cup. As I sip the smoothest and most heavenly cup of coffee I have ever tasted, all my doubts about my well-being, and any acrimonious thoughts against Mr Nicholson, are dispelled. Afterwards I’m in such a Zen mood that I gleefully part with US$40 for 100g of beans, thinking what an excellent deal I’ve got. Farmers in Thailand are apparently trying to replicate the process with elephants — thankfully, with little success so far.

I’m sorry to report that my time in Bali doesn’t produce much headway in changing my
employment status. But as I eat my last nasi goreng at the airport, I reflect that during my vacation — er, I mean job-hunt — I’ve only scratched the surface of the island. Not to mention the rest of Indonesia. After all, this fourth most populous country in the world spans an archipelago of more than seventeen thousand islands. Imagine the historical sites, the natural wonders, the restaurants and food stalls along the way. I make a vow to return. Meanwhile, my kopi luwak travels with me.

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Monday, 8 September 2014

Duneing, Dining and Drinking in Namibia

Braai & Windhoek Lager - My 2 favourite things
“Will there be any vegetables?” I asked my friends on the way to a Namibian braai (bar-b-que).  “Yes, we have chicken and lamb” they replied. Boy was I glad that a ten-day business trip to Berlin a decade ago abruptly ended my seafood/vegetarian diet phase.  I realised at that moment that this trip to Namibia was not going to be an ordinary vacation. Located in southwest Africa, Namibia is a former German colony that was administered by South Africa until independence in 1990.  My main mission was to visit Sossusvlei and climb Big Daddy. Before you get the wrong impression let me rephrase. The Sossusvlei area is Namibia’s most popular tourist attraction, hosting the tallest red sand dunes in the world, and standing at 350 metres is the famous dune, Big Daddy.
Air Namibia - The National Carrier
Landing at Hosea Kutako International Airport I was struck by the aridness of the landscape and how developed and European-ised the capital city Windhoek and its people were. It was the Namibian summer, when the mercury regularly crossed 40°C. But the lack of humidity and cool nights made it very bearable.  The heat did give me an excuse to grab a Windhoek – the all-natural national beer, brewed in accordance with German purity laws of 1516 for about a century.  One sip and I immediately relegated my previous favourite Speights from Dunedin in New Zealand to second place. I was already in love with this country.

After a week in Windhoek and the very
A Stiefel of Beer is a must in Swakopmund
Germanic coastal town of Swakopmund, we set out in a bakkie (a Southern African pickup truck) for the 350 km, 6 hour journey to Sossusvlei, equipped with essential supplies – some Windhoek lager and a few boxes of KFC. I am one of those Trinis who cannot pass up on KFC in any country and have a secret ambition to sample it all 115 countries that Colonel Sanders has a presence and write prize winning book about it. But that’s another tale. The drive on mostly graveled roads took us in and out of the Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namib Desert, considered the world's oldest.  It is also Africa’s largest game park, a whopping 50,000 km2 – more than ten times the size of Trinidad. 

Oryxes Grazing - They are also very yummy
The Park’s landscape is stunning, traversing through rugged mountain ranges and wide desert gravel plains. After a couple hours on the road chomping on my KFC and washing it down with a Windhoek lager (I was the designated drinker), I spotted a small herd of the majestic Oryx.  Found all over Namibia, including on the coat of arms, this large mainly grey-coloured antelope has striking black and white markings on its face and legs, black side stripes on the flanks and a long black tail.  It looked so different alive than on my breakfast plate earlier that morning in Swakopmund, and I made a mental note to desist from any further culinary indulgence of this magnificent creature and to stick to my customary wild meat diet – foreign KFC.  Unfortunately for these animals, this pledge was short-lived, as I bought some Oryx biltong (dried meat snack akin to jerky) at the solitary gas station on route. Windhoek lager defeats will power – would not be the first or last time on this trip.

On the edge of the Namib Desert I spotted a sign for the Neuras Wine and Wildlife Estate.
Neuras Vineyard - A surprising find in the desert
 I thought the desert and the Windhoek lager were playing tricks on my eyes. But this was no desert mirage and as they had two things dear to my heart and stomach, we decided to stop in – especially as I was also running low on KFC. This little oasis is one of only three wineries in Namibia.  The micro climate on the 15,000 hectare farm allows it to produce 3,000 prized bottles per year of the Neuras Shiraz, and the Namib Red, a Shiraz-Merlot blend. After touring the vineyards and the unique cellar – built from sand, stone and wood found in the area - some lunch and wine tasting was in order. After all, I was not climbing Big Daddy till the next day. A couple bottles of red, a vegetable (read chicken) schnitzel, and an hour’s drive later, we arrived at the well camouflaged Little Kulala Lodge - home for the next couple days.

My New Office - the Complimentary Bar at Little Kulala
I had heard that it was on the luxurious side, with rates start ranging from US$600 – US$1000 per night and hosting numerous celebrities including Chelsea Clinton on her honeymoon.  As we entered the 37,000 hectare private reserve, a herd of antelopes and flock of ostriches moseyed by and were promptly greeted by the welcoming staff with cold towels and equally cold drinks. I am loving this country even more! The design and colour of property blended perfectly with the natural desert environment, with 11 thatched kulalas (meaning “to sleep”) and facilities that take luxury to another level.  From its top notch in-room amenities, to its private plunge pool, and the ability to have the bedroom moved to the rooftop so you can sleep under the stars. I initially thought, “what if it rained?” Silly me, it never rains here. Sossusvlei receives less than 63mm of annual rainfall, probably the same amount as one afternoon’s convectional rainfall in the tropics.  A night on the rooftop sleeping under the dense starry heavens absolutely convinced me that this place was a proverbial Shangri-la and worth every penny.

Springbok Drinking at Watering Hole at the Lodge
While sipping a couple sundowners on the large semicircular patio, watching springboks drink from the adjacent watering hole, the thought of the arduous trek up Big Daddy the next morning crossed my mind.  Hmmm! Maybe I should have an early dinner and call it a night.  But there was no luck with this plan, as the managers of Little Kulala were friends with my travelling companion and they insisted on taking us to a buffet dinner at the “nearby” Sossusvlei Lodge. A bumpy hour’s drive later we arrived this other luxurious retreat.  The property has a porte-cochère that takes your breath away, with a stunning red façade and walls made from river sand cement bricks, blending perfectly with the giant surrounding sand dunes.  The Lodge’s 45 circular rooms are modeled after “fairy circles” – naturally-occurring patches of land up to 5 metres in diameter that are devoid of vegetation and occur throughout the desert plains.

The Mother Ship of Wildmeat at Sossusvlei Lodge
After obligatory shots of Jagermeister (Namibians and South Africans live on the stuff) and a Windhoek lager, it was time to tackle the non-liquid buffet. To my surprise there was an actual vegetable and salad station. But my new friends passed it like a full bus and headed straight for the meats.  In keeping with my time-honored “When in Rome” travel principle, I followed suit.  There were numerous labeled bowls of seasoned meats to choose from, with a chef waiting to cook selections to your request. And what a selection it was – kudu, springbok, blue wildebeest, oryx, zebra, ostrich, eland, and hartebeest.  Did they just make up the names of some of these animals?  The bowls of beef fillets, lamb steaks and chicken breasts were neatly tucked away at the back – not very popular and for the vegetarians I guess. I thanked Berlin and my wild meat upbringing in Trinidad, and selected the kudu and eland.  Better eat what I don’t know now before finding out what they are. A mantra learnt from my experience with bird’s nest soup at a wedding reception at the Chinese Association in Port of Spain a couple decades ago.  But that also is a tale for another time.

We sat down on an enormous al fresco terrace to dine, looking out on a floodlit watering hole, watching a passing procession of oryx, springboks and jackals. Tomorrow’s lunch perhaps? Later as I lay exhausted in my palatial kulala, snuggled under my 1000 Egyptian thread count sheets, I replayed the magical day’s events in my head. What a country! What a place! And I had not even climbed Big Daddy yet.

The Famous Dune 45 - Not Challenging Enough for Me
I awoke at dawn, cursing Berlin, Windhoek lager, Jagermeister, Neuras Wines and myself for the indulgences of the previous day. Feeling slightly better after some strong black coffee and a meaty breakfast, I joined our small group in a 4 x 4 to head out to Sossusvlei.  A flat tyre delayed us a bit but allowed me to take in and photograph the remarkable surroundings – the white bleached plains populated with ostrich and oryx, the dark red-rusted towering dunes, and the deep blue wondrous sky devoid of any clouds.  On resumption we passed the famed and widely photographed 80-metre high Dune 45, which most people settle on for dune climbing.  The driver/tour guide gave me a look in my slightly morose state, as if to say, “Maybe you should settle for this one son – the closest hospital is hundreds of kilometres away.”  But as you probably realise, I am not most people and avoided his pleading glances.

The Harrowing Trek Up Big Daddy in the Midday Sun
We arrived at the picnic area at the base of Big Daddy and looked up at its imposing towering crest with some trepidation. My slightly constipated look betrayed my state of mind and my travelling companion retorted, “If you want to be a man at night, you have to be a man at day.” Somehow I knew this wasn’t going to be the last time on this trip I’d be hearing this common Southern African saying.  I immediately manned up and decided there was no turning back.  Armed with essentials — a cap and large bottles of water instead of my customary Windhoek lagers — I commenced the labourious trek up Big Daddy’s edge.  After trudging for about an hour we reached the first plateau. The two fellow trekkers in my group were pooped, and decided they had had enough and were turning back. Parched and totally exhausted I seriously contemplated joining them. Looks like Big Daddy had kicked my butt. Then as if by divine intervention, a solitary, Granny Luces-esque lady leisurely scurried past us and gave me a look as if to say “Calypsonian Michael Baker was right – ah good wukkin old ting better than a young ting.”

Amen!!!Finally Summit-ted Big Daddy
This is just what I needed for a second wind (or was this my third or fourth of the day?).  I literally picked myself up, dusted off the sand, and decided to follow this Energizer bunny, even if it killed me.  For the next hour I shadowed her footsteps, on sand that was over 5 million years old, with the midday sun blazing down on us.  It was grueling, and as was the case during my exploits of running the Kilimanjaro Marathon the previous year, I kept muttering under my breath, “Lord, who send meh?” Two things kept me going though. I was not going to be embarrassed by this obviously fitter pensioner, and a cold Windhoek lager was not far away. I finally made it to Big Daddy’s crest about an hour later. I had earned myself bragging rights. Impulsively I hugged my inspirational trekker. We took pictures of each other and of the awesome dune panoramas. Even more stunning was the view of Dead Vlei below - an enormous white clay pan dotted with dark fossils of 900-year old camelthorn trees  – photos of which are synonymous with Namibia’s unique tourism product.

Now came a fun part that I did not expect.  While it is a two hour struggle to the top of Big Daddy, it is only a few minutes run down the soft side of the slip face of the dune to get the bottom. I felt like a kid again during my bouncing and exhilarating 5-minute run downwards to Dead Vlei.

Deadvlei and its Almost 1000-Year old Trees 
Later on, as I sat in the picnic area catching some deserved shade and trying to correct the imbalance in my Windhoek lager-to-blood ratio, I pinched myself several times.  In visiting over 60 countries in my short life, this was by far the most surreal travel experience. I wanted to take this moment in forever and never leave.  But alas I had to go. For I still had another week in this remarkable country, where equally amazing experiences were in store for me: petting full grown cheetahs at a conservation camp; hand-feeding ostriches; cruising to a seal colony; eating the meatiest and tastiest oysters in the world; getting photographed with the indigenous Himba people who are prone to exhibitionism; chasing a herd of zebra on a farm; discovering the abundance of small animal life that live in the desert’s sands; and learning how to make boerewors sausages and biltong from scratch.  No wonder Brangelina and millions of other visitors have fallen in love with Namibia. For once I thought a Tourist Board had gotten a country’s promotional slogan right. “Namibia – Endless Horizons” is so apt.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Karibuni Tanzania – Land of Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar & the Serengeti (and Konyagi)

Just a 5-hour direct flight south from Dubai is one of the world’s most stunning tourism destinations – the United Republic of Tanzania. This East African state of 45 million people is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, which is being fuelled by oil and gas exploration, mining, agriculture and tourism.  The tourism sector in particular has been growing rapidly with the country welcoming more than 1 million visitors per year.  This is no surprise as the country is home to some of the world’s iconic tourism attractions and has a unique and colourful history. 

Mount Kilimanjaro – This towering snow capped stands at 5,895 metres (19,342 feet) making it the tallest mountain on the African continent and the highest free-standing mountain in the world.

The Serengeti – This national park covers 14,760 sq. km and is famous for the annual wildlife migration when between December and July around 1.5 million wildebeest and 300,000 zebra (along with antelope) gather up their young and start their long trek from Tanzania's Serengeti Plains, further north to Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve. 

Ngorongoro Crater – Known as the “cradle of mankind” because of ancient finds there led scientists to conclude that all mankind originated from there – effectively making all of us Tanzanians.  This IS the world’s largest caldera and home to 30,000 large mammals, including the rare black rhino.

The Islands of Zanzibar – This Indian Ocean paradise, was controlled by the Sultanate of Oman for 200 years until 1890, and is home to stunning white sands beaches; exotic spices and a vibrant culture that blends Persian, Arab, Indian, European and Bantu influences.  Its capital Stone Town is a maze of streets filled with traditional houses and buildings dating back to the 19th century.  Queen’s deceased front man Freddie Mercury was born in Stone Town and the house of his birth is a popular photo stop.

1. Go on Safari – Safari means journey in Swahili and it will be an unforgettable trip as Tanzania several National Parks and game reserves where you will easily spot lions, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, hippos and other large game.

2. Climb Mount Kilimanjaro – One of the most popular things to do is to climb to the summit, a 5-7 day hike not recommended for the faint hearted or the unfit. Although many guides claim that smokers have an easier time at the thin-air high altitudes because of their already diminished lung capacity. If you can climb it run its foothills during the Kilimanjaro Marathon held every March.  It is sponsored by Kilimanjaro Breweries and the cold free beers after the race is worth the effort.

3. Ride a Dhow – Take a sunset trip on these single masts and sail vessels in Zanzibar.  Another great trip on dhows is a Safari Blue trip which includes swimming in stunning coves, landing on a white sand strip in the middle of the ocean, lunch on a private island and swimming with dolphins. They also supply lots of refreshments which keeps everyone even happier.

4. Eat Local – Tanzania’s melting pot of cultures and availability of exotic spices and fresh seafood means the local cuisine is amazing.  Try the Zanzibar pilau (similar to Trini pelau), nyama choma (roasted goat meat marinated in spices), mishkakis (beef, seafood, chicken on skewers), pweza (octopus) curried in coconut milk, ugali (white corn polenta) with beans, kachambari salad (a limed juice dressed salad) tandoori grills on the street. The daily Forodhani Gardens food markets in Stone Town, Zanzibar is a must. If you need a Caribbean fix, Velisa’s Jamaican Restaurant on Kawe Beach is a must – her stewed oxtail and escovitched snapper are scrumptious, she has a resident DJ names Jah Pete and jazz on Sunday evenings.

5. Drink Local - Drink the local beer – most of them come in giant sized bottles with the best being Serengeti and Kilimanjaro.  If you are brave enough try a shot of the local Konyagi – a cheap papaya gin that also comes in penny-cool type packets and will kill every germ in your body. If you are even braver try pombe – the home brewed beer that might include ingredients such as fermented cane juice, bananas, honey, sorghum and exotic herbs.  It is frothy and deceptively strong which after imbibing may cause you to change your plans for the rest of the day.

6. Lime like a Trini Dar – Dar es Saalam has numerous bars and activities which makes it a liming haven.  The nightlife in Dar is pulsating and exciting with many hotspots opening till dawn.  You will hear a lot of bongo flava, which is the infectious Tanzanian R&B/Hip Hop music in most places, but also be prepared to hear Michael Bolton or Celine Dion’s greatest hits being played over and over again. The monthly full moon party at Mediterraneo on the beach is a must, as well as crawl through the local bars and clubs in the Peninsula area such as Elements, Maisha, Watanashi Lounge and Q-Bar. The latter is an outdoor bar known for its excellent vibe, good music, and with a nice mix of locals and visitors – and a good chance you will be accosted by a lady of the night.  A must attend event is the charity goat races when all the who’s who in Dar come dressed up in costumes and  you might even see some goats race if you leave the numerous refreshment stands  with music, food and dancig

7. Go on a Spice Tour – Take a tour of the spice farms in Zanzibar and see how everything from vanilla, cardamom, cloves, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon and nutmeg are grown.  You can also learn about the medicinal (and aphrodisiac) properties of the spices.

8. Drink the Coffee – Tanzania is famous for its excellent coffee and boasts numerous cafes serving rich and robust varieties.  Visit Zanzibar Coffee House in Stone Town for an excellent cuppa – and their food is excellent as well.  Or try Stiggbucks (our version of Starbucks) in Arusha. Take back home some Kilimanjaro branded coffee.

9. Ride a Bajaji – Called tok toks in India, these door-less, small 3 wheeled vehicles are cheap and excellent for getting around Dar es Salaam and most are uniquely decorated – usually with memorabilia of the driver’s favourite football team.  Make sure to negotiate the price before the driver takes off.

10. Use your Lion King Swahili – Although English is one of the official languages and widely used, using the few Swahili words you’ve learn from Lion King such as rafiki (friend) and hakuma matata (no worries) will get you some respect with the locals.  Few other phrases to use include jambo (hello), habari (what’s the news), tafadali (please), and asante sana(thank you very much). If you don’t know the Swahili word then usually adding an “i” to the end of the English word works – bill becomes “billi”, left becomes “lefti”, roundabout becomes “keepi lefti” and school becomes “schooli”.  Do not however mix up kumi and kuma – one means ten and the other one will get your slap in face from a woman (unless she works at Q-bar – see item 6).

Getting to Tanzania from the UAE
Emirates offers daily direct non-stop flights from Dubai.  Qatar and Oman Air also offers daily flights via Doha and Muscat respectively.  Other major international airlines flying into Dar es Salaam includes Turkish, Ethiopian, KLM, Kenya Airways, Swiss Air, South African, Air Uganda, Rwandair and Egyptair.

For More Information
Visit the Tanzania Tourist Board website at

PS: This piece was written for the Trinidad and Tobago/UAE Community website

Thursday, 8 November 2012

50 Oranges & The Near Drowning of Henry - Arusha

Banana Boats in the Caribbean - Banana Trucks Here

Having done major damage to my fitness level after a very indulgent summer trip home following the Kigali Marathon in May, I decided to sign up for the Safari Marathon in Arusha, in early September.  They market it as a marathon when in actual fact it is a half marathon and a 5K run through what is a most unattractive route.  However if you have a fetish for dodging huge transport trucks and boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) while running, enjoying the smell of rotting garbage,  inhaling copious of dust and insects and having to beg for your race t-shirt from the organisers when you finish the race, then this is the run for you.

The Road to Arusha is Long and Dusty
Arusha is about a 10 hour bus ride from Dar es Salaam, which was about 10 hours more than I would have liked to spend on any bus.  But being the team leader (again) for a group of VSO volunteers running the race, I decided to turn down a discounted flight and rough it with the two other team members that were bussing it Arusha. This time around we only attracted a team of six (6), as opposed to the 25-odd volunteers we attracted for the Kilimanjaro and Kigali marathons.  It might have had something to do with the fact that each volunteer had to raise a minimum of US$500 for our Mobile Health Programme in Zanzibar, in order to benefit from VSO-paid transport and accommodations. I think the real reason though was the fact that there would be no free food! For like everything else here, if you don’t have free food and drinks, no one will participate or help you.  Try going to the police station to report being mugged and the first thing you will be told by the officer taking the report is “I need 10,000 shillings for a soda.”  At that price they must be buying designer sodas.

You Can Basically Buy Anything From Your Bus Window Here
Only three (3) of us ended up on the bus ride to Arusha on the Friday, with two others driving from Dodoma and one deciding to fly in on the Saturday (smart girl even though she almost missed her flight, forgot to pack underwear and slept in the morning of the race).  One person cancelled at the last minute so we had an extra seat on the bus which we protected with zeal from other passengers for our bags and other stuff.  I took great pride in flashing the ticket for that seat to any passengers who dared to try and sit there. The ride was quite scenic with occasional rest room stops, where if you spent too long in the nauseating “toilets” or used the nearby bushes, the bus driver would have no qualms in leaving you behind.

Barbara With Our 50 Oranges
Although the ride ended up being a tedious 12 hours, a spur of the moment purchase of 50 oranges through the bus window for Tshs 2,000 (US$1.25), provided us with much sustenance and entertainment for hours.  We gave away oranges to our neighbours on the bus (particularly the ones with the very green skin), taught my seat mate Barbara how to peel an orange properly with a Swiss Army Knife and peeled and ate about twenty (20) of them, and practiced throwing the peel and waste out the window from the moving bus, hitting many  unsuspecting bystanders.  More entertainment was provided at the lunch rest stop, where we witnessed a raven like bird swoop down in the car park and grab some roasted meat off the plate of an unsuspecting young lady, who stood perplexed for a couple minutes wondering what had just happened.  I felt sorry for the raven and not the lady, since I had bought some of that same meat and eating it was like trying to chew rubber bands.  Again though, with a long bus ride it was something to do to pass the time.    

We Should Have Read This Notice
We got to a very cold Arusha just before dark and after a not so encouraging taxi ride through a side street that made Kimwheri Road look like Bond Street in London, we got to the L’Oasis Hotel, where VSO was putting us up in the backpacker rooms for the weekend.  Thankfully, our Dodoma colleagues who arrived earlier in the day had stayed there before, and because the hotel was quite empty, they decided to upgrade us to the fancy cottage rooms at the backpacker price.  This was quite fortunate on my part, having vowed never to repeat my lone hostel-staying experience of 1997 in Amsterdam. The property was indeed an Oasis compared to the rest of the neighbourhood.  There were beautiful gardens, a fountain area, a comfy lounge and bar with overstuffed sofas, a swimming pool and free wi-fi.  The biggest surprise was the rustic looking cottages which looked a bit mshamba on the outside but were very quaint and luxurious on the inside. I ended up in a cottage with 4 beds, with beautiful Tanzanian furniture and artwork. 

The Rescue of the Flightless Henry by the Brave Juanito
But the absolute highlight at L’Oasis had to be the golden crested crane and pet dog that inhabited the grounds – Henry and Jeffrey.  Or at least so we thought.  It was only the day before we left we discovered that the dog’s name was actually Skippy, which incidentally was on a big sign posted at the front desk.  Henry’s wings were clipped and lazily walked around the compound, which provided us with ample opportunities for photo ops, once with almost disastrous consequences. I tried to get a shot of Henry and I in front my cottage one afternoon, and my VSO colleagues decided to help out by trying to corral him towards me and the cottage.  Basically they spooked him, he tried to fly which ended up being more of a leap, and he ended up falling into the fountain.  With clipped wings he was stuck there and started frantically flapping his wings in an attempt to get out of the fountain, which only resulted in him banging his wings against the concrete sides of the fountain.  Thankfully disaster was averted when Juanito, our brave Philippino colleague sprung into action and rescued Henry, despite being pecked on the arm.  For the next hour Henry stood next to us in the garden, screaming and trying to dry off his drenched feathers in cold 16°C weather.  Skippy, aka Jeffrey, got lucky that we didn’t get his name right for most of the weekend, for who knows what mishaps we might have gotten him into.

The Coffee Is As Good If Not Better than Its Famous Big Brother
The day before the actual race, we ventured into town to register and do some sightseeing.  After giving up on finding the registration office for the marathon, we had a nice lunch at Stiggbucks (we also have Darbucks and several other variations of the Starbucks name in Tanzania) and some even better coffees.  Arusha sits in the foothills of the impressive Mt. Meru and has some of the best coffee in Tanzania.  After eventually finding the race office and registering, we walked walk through town, and came across the Rwandan War Crimes Tribunal building and compound.  As we were walking past I explained to my colleagues that I read somewhere that this tribunal had spent close to US$1.5 billion but only convicted about 50 persons. Whereas the Gacacas (community based trials) in Rwanda had convicted about 500,000 persons in about 15 years and had cost just over US$40 million.  Armed with this knowledge, we had to pose in front of the building for photos – another photo-op idea what ended up going awry.  Someone casually commented that we were not supposed to take photos in front this compound, but we ignored this and did so anyway.  

My Mug Shot Before the Real Mug Shot
As soon as we strolled away a policeman came hurling up the street and told us that we had to accompany him back to the security office for breaking the no-photographs rule.  We protested untruthfully that we were not aware of this rule - another bad idea.  You see the grounds and the fenced area of the compound are full of surveillance cameras and microphones, and so our conversations were all caught on video and audio tape, including someone mentioning that we should not take photos and my little rant about the exorbitant costs of the tribunal.  After viewing and deleting our photos, we got “released” by the security personnel.  But not before they found out I was Trini and made some remark to the equivalent of “damn Trinis again”.  That was not the end of this story though, for later that evening poor Juanito went to meet one of his country-men who lived in Arusha, who immediately recognized him even though they had never met.  He turned out to be the head of security for the War Crimes Tribunal and had seen the tape!

The VSO Tanzanian & Rwandan Team
Race morning approached and I was not feeling well.  Before arriving in Arusha I was a bit flu-ish and the cold weather there (it dipped to 14°C in the evenings) did not help.  So on race day I struggled through the half marathon, especially since the first half which was all uphill.  The dust and unattractiveness of the route did not help either.   Good thing my nemesis and VSO-boss Jean was not competing, so there was no need to push myself too much to once again win bragging rights.  I eventually finished in about 2 hours and 10 minutes, thanks mainly to my colleague from Dodoma who ran with me for most of the way.  Two of the four female Rwandan VSOs that made the trip finished way ahead of me, even though they had quite a bit of wine the night before, and also were competing in their first half marathon (must be their Irish genes).  Oh well, I guess the sins of the summer had caught up with me.  

Poor Skippy - We Drove Him to the Bottle
After the race we chilled at the hotel, drank some wine, played asshole (my new favourite card game), drank more wine and then went out to dinner at an Italian place. As soon as we got there they announced they had a chef from Las Vegas in the kitchen.  Wow we thought!! Turns out he has been living in Arusha for several years, failed at operating a Mexican Restaurant and was moonlighting at this place.  The dinner ended up being was terrible, and to keep us in the joint, they offered us free special desserts, which they claimed were ready.  After 20 minutes passed and there was still no dessert and we attempted to leave.  They insisted we stay, which we reluctantly did and when the dessert came, it turned out to be some horribly sour-tasting strudel type thing, which would have been more useful for pelting mangoes in the Caribbean.  After the trauma of that dessert we decided to stop briefly for a drink at a local place with a live band.  Our two Rwanda-based VSO colleagues got into the music and started dancing (they don’t get out much in Rwanda), while the rest of us headed home for some shut eye.  I needed some rest for the next day I was going on my first safari to Lake Manyara and the famed Ngorongoro Crater.  Here I would see another animal struggle to get out of water alive.  But this time around it was a water buffalo and the culprits were nine (9) hungry lions.  But this will be my next blog. Stay tuned.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Umuganda & Akabanga: Running & Liming in Surprising Rwanda

The Believed - Amazing How the Country Has Turned Around 
I have to apologise to my huge ardent fan base (all 21 followers and perhaps as many as 5 others in 204 countries) for the lateness of this blog posting about my Rwanda adventures, which is about 3 months overdue. Let’s just say a 6-week vacation to 6 cities in 4 countries in early summer, and too much of a social life in Dar, got in the way.  But, as an eager wannabe first time mother would say, “better late than never.” My trip to Rwanda at the end of May 2012 was the 60th country I have visited in my short life, and was perhaps the most surprising.  Generally associated with the horrific genocide of 1994, when 1 million people were slaughtered in about 100 days, I was pleasantly shocked at how clean, orderly, developed and beautiful was the capital city of Kigali.  Words you normally do not associate with Dar es Salaam or perhaps any other Sub-Saharan African cities.  I was team leader (again) of a group of CUSO International and VSO volunteers based in Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda, who were running the Kigali Peace Marathon on May 27th, to raise money for the economic empowerment of women in East Africa.  This was right on the heels of our successful run at the Kilimanjaro Marathon in February, where we raised over US$10,000 for education programmes in Tanzania, and drank the bar at the Honey Badger Lodge dry over several days. 

My New Most Favourite Airline in the World
When I tried booking my flight on the national carrier Rwandair and applying for my visa online, I had an inkling feeling to expect something special from Rwanda.  The online visa application process was extremely user-friendly and a PDF of my entry visa was emailed to me the next day.  An even bigger surprise came when I was booking my flight.  For some reason when I got to the credit card payment part, I kept getting an error message.  I therefore decided to send an email explaining my problem to the generic address that was on the website. I was not hopeful of getting a response, as my experience with emailing airlines in this part of the world with questions has not been good.  But less than 5 minutes after sending the email, I got a response saying someone from the Rwandan office would contact me.  A couple seconds later my cell phone rang and it was the airline apologizing for the inconvenience I was experiencing, and confirming with me that someone from head office would contact me (take note Fly540 and “im”Precision Air).  Later that evening while running on the treadmill (I was training for a full marathon you know) someone did call from Rwanda and gave me alternate instructions on what to do.  After trying to pay with the card again the next day and it still not working, I emailed Rwandair again.  They said to come into the office in Dar and pay cash, and they would waive the US$35 fee for not ticketing online.  

Bet You Don't See These Type of Faces on an AA Flight
What is this?  This sort of service is unheard of where I come from.  When I was on American Airlines from Montreal to Miami in June this year, the frumpy stewardess poured me a cup of tea which leaked over my arm and on the tray table because there was hole in the cup.  When I pointed it out to her she said “Chances of that happening is a million to one”, dumped a couple napkins on my tray and continued along her way.  By the way American Airlines, your stewardesses all look like they were in the casting call for The Golden Girls.  If there was an emergency on your planes – they would be the first ones reaching for the oxygen.   And while I am at it, your US$25 charge for the bloody 1st check-in bag within North America, and the overpriced food, blanket and head phones that you sell (when you have it on board), sucks big time.  A cookie for $5 dollars – really!  No wonder you had to file for bankruptcy recent AA.

They Don't Call it That for Nothing - As I Discovered on Sunday
Anyway back to the ticketing story with my new most favourite airline in the world (Emirates is a close second by the way Karyn and Phil).  The next day I got a message from Canada saying that my credit card was suspended due to suspicious activity - again.  Sometime in April, my card got cancelled as someone had charged 2 Pizza Pizza pizzas, 2 airline tickets on USAir to Florida, something on Kijiji, and sexual escort services (you can do that?) to my card.  By the way, whoever the culprit is, I hope they got something itchy and leaky from the escort, that required more than just a cortisone cream.  Anyway I called my bank, got the card reactivated, booked the ticket and then sent a nice email to all the customer relations people Rwandair saying how much I enjoyed their service.  24 years flying with American Airlines and I don’t think I have ever sent them any such correspondence.  

You Don't Just Get Peanuts - But a Selection & You Can Have 2
But even bigger surprises were in store for me when I checked in at Dar es Salaam airport for my flight to Kigali.  The check-in girl recognized my name from speaking to me on the phone, said a special hello and even was kinda amenable to upgrading me.  The Rwandaair planes were spanking new with great seats and they served a choice of nuts and free drinks, including a super good red wine. And this was on the 40 minute flight leg from Dar to Kilimanjaro.  From Kilimanjaro to Kigali, which is about 1 hour and 40 minutes, we got a delicious hot meal with even more drinks.  By the time we got into the super nice airport in Kigali, walked past the flower pots that lined the immigration aisles, heard all the beautiful French being spoken, and watched as the Rwandans scanned their fingers and passports to self-clear immigration, we thought we were in Europe somewhere. After collecting our bags, playing hide and seek with some of the stragglers, we boarded some pickup trucks courtesy of VSO Rwanda to head to our hotel.  We hesitantly threw our luggage into the open back of the trucks, but the welcome committee assured us that our bags would be safe and would not be stolen (definitely not an option in Dar).  We were greeted with fresh juice at the hotel, which had beautiful landscaped grounds and small but nice rooms.  Next it was then off to a group dinner to meet our Rwandan and Kenyan counterparts at Sole Luna Restaurant.  Here we feasted on a great Italian buffet in this really nice restaurant set on the edge of a hill, which made you feel as if you were in Italy. This place was growing on me really quickly – and it was not just because of all the red wine.
The Woodlands Hotel - Great People and Service
The next day (Saturday morning) we were told to stay put at the hotel, as it was Umuganda.  This is the mandatory community service day which runs from 8:00am to 11:00am on the last Saturday of each month.  By law, all able bodied persons above the age of 18 and below 65 are expected to participate in volunteer community work, which could range from clean-up campaigns to repairing a bridge damaged by flooding.  You are not allowed to be on the streets during this time, unless you are going to the airport or hospital, or have special permission.  The practice of Umuganda apparently goes back to colonial times, which got me thinking that is must be related somehow to the dying/almost dead Gayap practice in Trinidad.  But this takes it to another level, with even the President and politicians getting involved.  No wonder Kigali was so clean and organized.  This incidentally is also a function of the fact that street vending is also outlawed.  I was beginning to like this place even more.

It's Like Duty Free - Better than Advil for After Run Pains & Aches 
That afternoon, following a nice breakfast, a couple of us went for a short run close to the hotel.  After a few minutes, a funny smell wafted in the air, to which I thought, what on earth did Margaret and Liesbeth (my running colleagues) have for breakfast. I didn’t remember refried beans or dodgy boiled eggs being on the menu. They also thought the same and that I was the culprit.  Only for us to realize later on that we were running past a prison, where obviously water and soap were in short supply.  One (1) km or so into the run things got worse, as the heavens opened up and we got drenched.  Wet sneakers and a marathon scheduled for the next day is not a good combination, and the cool, damp conditions at the hotel was not going to get them dry in time.  We eventually used the hand blower in the public washroom at the hotel to dry the sneakers, which made for some awkward encounters every time someone entered to use the facilities.  By the way, the urinal basins in Rwanda are mounted high up on the walls because the people are all so tall.  Nicholas Sarkozy would be peeing on his feet every time unless, he brought his travelling foot box with him.  Although I tiptoed when using the one at the hotel, I still got my feet peed on, as the drainpipe below the basin was missing.  Oh well, I guess everything can't be all perfect in this country.  Also I guess I won’t be getting any foot fungi infections in a while.   
80% Pepper and 20% Vegetable Oil - Not for the Eyes
Later that day, after a nice lunch and coffee in town (Rwanda Estate coffee is amazing) we headed off to the stadium to pick up our registration pack.  I also encountered a first here.  If you were running the full marathon or the half, you actually had to undergo a medical examination before they registered you.  I think one of our volunteers discovered they were pregnant during their examination – or maybe that is just me being scandalous and "mauvais langue".  After getting our clean bills of health we headed off to a liquor store – we needed supplies for the after party on race day.  It is a running thing people.  You train hard, get healthy, run the race, and then you undo all the good health gains by getting thrashed for the next few days.  Well actually this might just be my thing.  The liquor store so was nice we did a mini photo shoot in there, loaded some bottles and boxed wine, and headed back to the hotel for dinner.  We had requested a special pre-race dinner buffet of fish and pasta and were expecting grilled fillets of fish and whole wheat pasta tossed with vegetables.  What we unfortunately ended up with was a lot of large scary fried fish heads and some plain spaghetti. Let’s just say something was "Lost in Translation" between the manager and the kitchen staff.  Thank god for the Rwandan Akabanga – the potent and flavourful chili oil (pili pili) that comes in an eye-dropper bottle.  It makes everything more palatable - I bought 10 in the supermarket to bring back home!

40 Year Old Marathon Virgin - My 1st Start at the Front
Sunday morning and it was race day.  After an early breakfast we found out that our bus driver was missing in action.  We thus had to hastily arrange a taxi for the early starters to get to the stadium on time, with the others (read: Venessa and her stop-for-a-coffee drinking 5K posse) coming by dala dala.  By the way, on Rwandan dala dalas, neither standing nor eating is allowed.  I wish this practice would come to Dar es Salaam.   This incident immediately gave me flashbacks of the Kilimanjaro marathon, where our bus was stuck in the mud and we had to dala dala it to the stadium.  But like the Kili marathon, we should have taken our time as the race start was delayed (TIA: This Is Africa), which gave us enough time to take some group pictures, and also for me to trip, fall and bruise my palms and knees, after peeing in some bushes outside the stadium.  I can be such a klutz sometimes. There were not many starters for the full marathon, so for the first time in 7 marathons, I would be starting close to the front with the elite runners.  If I thought the Eau de Prison smell the day before was a bit tough to stomach, there worse things to come.  Our course involved four (4) grueling laps around the city and back through the stadium track each time.  They don’t call this place “the land of a thousand hills” for nothing.  The stinging rain and gushing water towards the end also did not help.  Nor did seeing some of my colleagues who were doing the 5Km race, stopping at the coffee shop for a beverage and a smoke during their race.  

The 18-Year Old Girl that Helped Me Finish
The last lap was tortuous – so much so I wish I was back at the hotel chomping on those fish heads from the night before.  Thankfully, an 18 year old Rwandan girl ran next to me for the duration of the last lap, and we chatted in my bad French and Swahili.  I allowed her to finish ahead of me and wish I had seen her after to finish line to take a proper picture with her.  I ended up finishing in 93rd place in a pedestrian 4 hours, 42 minutes and 56 seconds. It was my worst time ever but it was my best placing ever so I was happy (mind you there were only about 125 runners that took part in the full marathon). I did beat my VSO boss again by about five minutes, securing me bragging rights for the rest of the trip.  After a massage and a warm beer, it was time for shower, some food and the after party at Erica and William’s house – a Canadian couple who are volunteering in Kigali.  It was a good lime, although the combination of red wine, white wine, shots of Smirnoff from a brown bag in the bus, and Amarula, did not agree with some people.  I had to eventually be the sober one to prevent some of my colleagues from soiling the clean streets of Kigali, and possibly ending up in the foul smelling prison I ran past the day before.   We did go for a nice restaurant for dinner afterwards.  However, many of the diners had no recollection of the great view, the super food, and warm service or about trying to sneak a 5 litre box of red wine into the restaurant.  Good times!

The Childrens' Exhibit Will Break Your Heart
The next day we headed off to the Genocide Memorial Centre which is excellent and a must see.  Although I am not sure that the word excellent is one you would want associated with any museum of this kind.  The museum is quite well done with numerous audio-visual presentations and exhibits.  It was quite an emotional experience, especially the children's exhibit and the massive concrete vaults where the remains of 250,000 persons are interred.  That very touching and reflective experience necessitated some retail therapy and lunch, so we then headed to one of the malls in the city centre.  On the drive there, I was again struck on how clean the streets were, with lots of beautifully manicured roundabouts, modern traffic lights, and nicely paved roads.  They even taped the plants to the beautifully terraced walls along the road so that they would grow properly and cover the walls. The mall was also very modern, but walking up and down the steps to the different levels were a bit challenging for those who ran the full and half marathons.  We did get some funny stares from the locals as I guess we kinda looked like we spent the previous night at Father O'Reilly's church quarters in Boston, on the choir boys' night off.

Kili and Kigali "Konquered" - Arusha Next 
A quiet-ish dinner followed that evening and then it was back to Dar the following day.  It was another fun and successful marathon run and we raised over US$7,500 to facilitate economic empowerment grants to disadvantaged women in Tanzania.  All energized and motivated by this effort, as soon as we got back to Dar, we started planning for our next race and fundraising effort.  This will be the Safari International Marathon in Arusha, Tanzania on September 9th.  We will be running this race in support of our Mobile Health Project, to improve maternal health in Pemba Island.  This island is part of Zanzibar and is one of the poorest regions in Tanzania.  You can visit my personal  Run for the World fundraising page to learn more about the dire health situation in Pemba and to also donate.  I know this is the third time I am badgering you for sponsorship this year but I can’t help it - there are so many worthy causes to run for in this country. That and the fact that there is also so much cheap good beer to drink after the race.  Altruism and volunteerism do need a good dose of inebriation now and then.