11 weeks left, but who’s counting?

Here in Gigiri, it does not rain as heavy, or for nearly as long, as it did in Ghana.  I was expecting the rainy season, even the short one, to be continual downpour for its duration.  Instead, it has only drizzled during the day or poured during the night at some point each day over the past 2 weeks.  I would not mind so much if I did not have a reoccurring low-grade migraine each afternoon rendering me to uselessly await the evening rains in order to relieve the pressure in my head.  …Okay, perhaps I am being a little dramatic, but generally speaking by 14:00hrs these last 2 weeks, this has been the case.  Sometimes I am fortunate enough to have the rains come in the afternoon relieving the pressure early in exchange for an incredibly muddy walk home.  All I can say is thank God for Excedrin – the absolute best migraine medication ever – and Diet Coke.

If you are brave enough to venture outside of Gigiri these days, chances have it that the rain will freeze traffic up and you will be stuck bumper to bumper on a road that resembles a parking lot going nowhere fast.  This is especially the case if you are heading to downtown Nairobi because this is where all the China-sponsored road construction is occurring.  Globe Roundabout is a giant red mud pit.  Fun if you are playing football or field hockey but not so great when you are on a mission and stuck in a car that is stilled.

If you decide to walk to the nearest shopping center (perhaps you are in dire need of toothpaste), you will be lucky if you are agile enough to make your way on solid ground.  Most of us barely get 2 minutes from home wearing shoes newly stained from the red mud.

Believe it or not, the sloped drop-off to the right is actually a road that joins this pothole and puddle infested road.

I probably sound really pessimistic.  It is after all, just rain, and I knew coming here that I would be here during the short rainy season, but I know this is just one of those lows in the grand scheme of culture shock.  I think this is probably just in conjunction with the fact that a lot of my friends here on short-term contracts and are leaving within a month, work has been stressful, and everywhere I go I see holiday decorations reminding me that I will not be home for Christmas. Thankfully I have some sweet plans for the holidays which will keep me more than busy, but in the meantime I will continue to dream about all the fun everyone from home will be having in the snow.  Am I crazy? Most people cannot stand the snow, and I love it.  However I suppose this, of course, is nothing new.

Now I have only about 11 weeks to go before I am home again.  The time seems to have escaped on me.  The days feel long but the weeks pass by before I notice and then they are history.  What my next steps should be is the constant question occupying my mind.  Not that I am worried.  No, that is not it at all.  I am still living in the moment and making the most of my time here, but all the while, as the weeks continue to pass, I am increasingly looking forward, excited for the new opportunities that will come and to see where the next path will take me.

Not long ago I was exactly half-way through my contract.  It has been a really great experience and I have had my eyes opened to so many new things from urban sustainability, training effectiveness, evaluations, managing partner relationships and understanding how advisory committees work, to change management and corporate restructuring.  While I will admit that working at a large bureaucracy has been frustrating at times, my recent trip with a friend to see the organization she supports in Kibera reminded me of how unnecessarily frustrating it can be when working with small local organizations.  I think it was really good for me to go and get refresher of what it is like working in that context.  It can become too easy to judge where you are and romanticize what you miss; forgetting that challenges exist in both.  I still think I would lean towards working in a smaller office, with more direct community engagement.  Perhaps experiencing what it would be like in a small UN country office would be a good opportunity.  I am curious to see how much autonomy they have and how they operate with the challenges of working within the local context and as part of the large bureaucracy.  Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. It would also be incredibly interesting to work from a donor point of view, perhaps with a foundation or within the CSR role of a corporation.  Who would you decide to support and in which manner will you support and partner with them?  Or, I can exercise more of the humanitarian response skills and look to employment in relief.  There are so many options!  Oddly enough, I am not scared these endless options and unknowns; rather, I am quite excited.

UN Day was last month.  The day is a celebration of the anniversary of the UN Charter coming into force in 1945.  It has been celebrated on October 24th since 1948. The Nairobi festivities included acknowledging the role the UN plays in addressing gender equality, combating injustice, man-made and natural calamities, and the aversion of climate change.  There were also booths about all of the different UN agencies around for the visiting dignitaries to stop by at and pick up information during their conference breaks.  I of course went to most of these booths as well.  It was perfect!  In a way it was like holding a panel interview; I was able to ask the agencies all my questions and determine which ones I would really like to work for one day.  It still seems surreal to think that I am here.  I wonder if it will ever really sink in.  One thing is for sure: it will all pass quicker than I can imagine, just like Zanzibar did.  I smile when I think of Zanzibar.  Others tell me that I smile more when I speak of being there.  I wonder what they will say when I am home again reflecting on my time here, working in Nairobi.

Before this rainy season I used to wake up with the birds, just like at home.  Some days there where happy birds, cheerfully chirping away.  Other days there were birds that sounded like Canadian Geese.  About 2 or 3 weeks ago I woke up with the feeling I was at home in my bedroom before opening my eyes.  I was surprised to find myself in the German School Boarding House of Nairobi, Kenya instead of back home in Canada.  This has never happened to me before; not in Italy when I was 16 and away from home, or at ballet summer school when I was 12, and definitely not in Ghana just a couple years ago.  The funniest thing was that I fell back into a semi-conscious state and dreamed that I was with the friends I intend to backpack with for Christmas.  For some reason we were in an airport waiting for our backpacks to come on the luggage conveyor belt.  Instead of my backpack coming out towards me on the conveyor belt was the teddy bear I took practically everywhere with me since I was 3 years old.  No, Tippy Bear did not come to Kenya with me.  Dreams are crazy things.  Sometimes I wonder what goes on up in that brain of mine.

I will miss hearing about the monkeys wandering through my office.  I will miss the entire UNEP and UN-Habitat informal 10:00hrs coffee station congregations. I will miss the friendly faces and the tropical flowers and their scents that drift my way as I walk through our work compound.  I will miss funny conversations like the one where I was informed that the ideal world is a mix of China and Norway; both orderly and efficient.  I will miss hearing the practical advice from one expat to another such as how to get around hassle-free downtown: find a big guy and pay him some change to keep everyone else away, aka. choose and hire your own body guard for the day. 

Inside my office, standing by the coffee station.

I will not miss the constant warnings about safety, trying to create in everyone a healthy measure of fear.  In my French class last week we heard gunfire shots go off.  There were only 2 so either it was completely by mistake or the hunter was a good aim.  I do not know which is worse.  Thankfully, we’ve heard nothing more like this and Nairobi is somewhat calm again.

Yesterday morning, on the way to work I could see my breath in the air.  With Christmas music reaching my ears and December 1st tomorrow, you would never know that I am in Africa.  Such a diverse continent this is: mountainous and flat lands, desert sands and thick forests, volcanoes, and great lakes.  Rich in bittersweet complexities; joy and sorrow, famine, faith and inflation.

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See You Again Z’bar!

Zanzibar is famous for its spices!

We learn all about the various types of spices and the creative looking shapes they come in.  I am perplexed by whoever decided to try using these leaves, roots and bark in such a complicated way; transforming the raw into powders.  Others are cracked similar to how walnuts are.  There were nuts too: macadamia.  Perhaps my favourite!

These were followed by coffee beans and the hottest, tiniest peppers one can imagine.

Fruit that you will only find in the tropics, of all colours and shapes hung from the trees.  Jack fruit, Star fruit, and something sounding like Apple Blossoms (?) that you eat like an apple.  It has a similar texture to apples and when you bite into it you can hear it crunch and taste refreshing juice.  You also cannot (or should not) eat the core.

(We were all given local spice-jewelry.  Check out the Spice Watch and Spice Ring.  I was also given a necklace and sunglasses.  The men received ties and hats.)

Flowers of all sorts, some of which are processed into a liquid, as oils and perfumes fill the air!  At the end of the tour we are encouraged to purchase a Channel #9 of sorts, as it is made with the same ingredients.  Tempted, an awesome souvenir this would make, both Danika and I resolve to leave it here and search for it in Stone Town’s local market before flying back to Nairobi.

***

Thirty minutes later we are in a farmer’s field.  Its cliffs drop down to a beautiful cavern-filled coastline where you can walk out until you are neck-deep in the crystal clear water.  Crossing the field we find the secret entrance we are looking for and descend into a gigantic cave.  The only light that exists is that which comes in from the entrance.  There is fresh water pooling from underground in a tiny basin to one side.  We gather in this cave (much larger than it once was due to erosion caused by the rains) and they tell us the history of this place.

Zanzibar was not only known for trading spices but for slaves as well.  When it became illegal to sell slaves secret markets took their place.  Some were literally underground.  This cave was one of them.  Used as an auction and storage place of the purchaser’s cargo, the slaves would have to stay in this cave; men, women and children.  Here they would stay crammed together like sardines.  Then, once a month and at night, when the tide was at its lowest point, they would be forced to walk through a series of tunnels until they were outdoors, taking their last steps on Zanzibari sand before being loaded into the boats and shipped off around the world.  Unfortunately this underground slave market flourished for years after the slave trade was abolished.  When the farmer who owned the land eventually died, it ended.

We are told how greatly the local communities, whose villages were pillaged for their people, had their culture changed during this time.  Certain communities adopted facial markings.  This had dual purposes; enabling them to locate each other when captive, and making them worth less – a disincentive for capture.  We are also told that this was the time Ethiopian women, the Mursi who were taken captive for their beauty, began inserting lip plates to make them less attractive.  Both these practices are still done until today.  (I have looked into this much since, but I would like to.  It’s quite interesting.)

 

 

We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and climbing the rocks and coral along the shore which resembled scenes from the films Pirates of the Caribbean and The Count of Monte Cristo.  It was fun and so peaceful.

We head north toward Nungwi and decide to stay in Kendwa.  We are there Saturday night – perfect timing for the Full Moon Party!  I won’t mention that there was no full moon that night as we were one week early, because you barely noticed amongst everything that was going on.  There was food, entertainment, dancing, the beach, lots of new people to meet from all over the world… (This finally includes North America!  Most people I meet in this region are here from Europe.) …and to top it all off, our accommodation reminded me of a tree house!  It was great.  We had a blast!

Sunday we laze on the beach watching storm clouds until heading back to Stone Town for the Eid ul-Adha, a Muslim holiday known as the “Festival of Sacrifice” or “Greater Eid.”  It remembers the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as an act of obedience to God, before God intervened to provide him with a sheep to sacrifice instead.

Stone Town is full of life!  It is dark and yet the intricate pathways across the town are lit and full of people everywhere dressed in their very best; women covered head to toe in flowing sequined garments.  Children are still up, playing in the streets with parents watching nearby.  Little girls’ have their hair in braids with colourful ribbons and bows.  Families drive by, piled high on their motorbikes; their youngest boys waving and calling out to us.  We pass a carnival for the children and continue on our way to Forodhani Gardens for our final dinner in Zanzibar.

The place is swarming with people.  Everywhere you look there is somebody.  We eventually make it to the vendors and find all the seafood we were hoping for and more.  The vibe filling Forodhani Gardens is that of a pure exuberant passion for life.  I hear laughter and chatter everywhere.  Everyone seems to be sincerely happy.  Children aren’t tired; their eyes wide with excitement and smiles spread cheek to cheek across their faces.  We enjoy a moment of not being catered to as muzungus.  Here the attention is entirely on those celebrating.  We select our food – delicious once you flick off the bugs and sit down to enjoy it with the famous sugarcane, ginger and lime juice!

The busiest night Forodhani Gardens has had in a long time, with vendors spending countless hours in preparation, we can barely make our way through the crowd at anything but a sloth-like pace, and we not only manage to find our friends, but we also discover others among the crowd whom we had met in Kendwa the evening before.  I suppose island life is a small world after all, but there is something about it that is intricately beautiful.

 

 

We stay up celebrating and the clock runs away with time.  The night of festivities and farewells comes to a close as it dawns on us that on the morrow we must retrace our steps to Nairobi.

We spend the morning having coffee and spiced tea in the emptied out Forodhani Gardens reliving the excitement and adventures of the weekend.  Joined by friends we wander the labyrinth of Stone Town, enjoy a local lunch, select a souvenir, and before we are ready, find ourselves heading to the airport where I realized my days of being called Angelina Jolie were coming to an end.

Kwaheri Zanzibar!  I will forever miss you. Stone Town is definitely on my list of places to return one day.

Where does all the time go?

Have I ever mentioned how much I enjoy blogging?

It has turned into far more of a relaxing and de-stressing activity than I imagined it would.  Of course people encourage travelers to write a journal and this is mainly for two reasons: it helps ease the transition through each stage of culture shock while making the necessary adjustments to a new sense of normalcy, and it serves as a memoir of the time spent abroad.  Blogs are different though, in the sense that they have the added benefit of looking like a finished product (that can later be printed as a personal travel journal), and providing communication with family and friends in a way that makes including photos a far easier task than that of e-mail, Facebook, and online photo-share sources.

The only problem is that I like it so much I really miss not writing it when I’m too busy with work and making the most of the traveling experience, nevermind the constant cold that is leaving me utterly exhausted and sends me to bed early each night.  This needs to be rectified soon as there is so much more about Zanzibar, as well as life and work in Nairobi to share.

As for now, with the darkness settled here already, one can only say “Buona Notte!” from this part of the world, and wish you the best where-ever you may be, whether morning, day or night.

Good night!

 

Conquering Stone Town’s Labyrinth and Feeding Prison Island’s Gentle Giants

Bright and early, without the guidance of Lisa, the three of us attempt to make our way through the tangled streets of Stone Town, numerous times, before we finally arrive at the place where our French friend awaits us.  Larissa, comfortable in Zanzibar and speaking Swahili, has spent the last 7 months on Tanzania’s mainland.  She knows most of her way about Stone Town, but not quite as well as Lisa, who knew it like the back of her hand the previous night.  On a small, wooden, dhow-like boat, we make our way out of Stone Town’s harbour to Prison Island, also known as Changuu Island.  We are there in no time, perhaps 30 minutes.

Prison Island has an interesting and unfortunate history for such a beautiful place.  It is small and was used to confine troublesome African slaves by an Arab trader before he would ship them off to Arabian purchasers, or to the auctions at Zanzibar’s slave market.  Much like how the troublesome slaves were sent to the island to prevent their escaping, the prison was built in 1893 by Lloyd Mathews to send and seclude the mainland’s most violent criminals.  Oddly enough, the purpose of which the island’s most well-known name descends, it never served.  The Yellow Fever Epidemic turned the prison into a quarantine center; quarantine island.  Remnants of the prison, or quarantine center still exist.

Our feet first take us to see the gigantic tortoises that are conserved on the island.  They are HUGE.  I see one that is 185 years old.  Apparently the oldest is 200+ years, but we cannot find it.  We stand there looking at them.  Such slow and surprisingly pushy creatures, they climb over each other to get their food; spinach and something resembling cabbage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I keep my distance as first.  They are just so big!

However, I soon realized that they are only interested in getting their food; harmless so long as I keep feeding them.  I find a friendly looking crowd and squeeze my way into their circle of feeding frenzy.

We contemplate how odd it is to think that these wrinkled, hard-shelled animals will outlive us.

I was surprised to see  that their conservation wasn’t right on the water, but I suppose, after taking ourselves on a mini self-governed walk, that the tide must fill in certain crevasses at different times of the day and night.  I say this because the island is covered in coral and small crawling sea creatures who carry their homes on their backs; no, not the tortoises, small seashell dwellers.

We walk the island and imagine its history as we see the prison and quarantine structures.  I see a large dining hall with the sky as a roof, looking out over the sea, with nature entangled into its walls and am reminded of scenes I would expect to see in a medieval, King Arthur-like movie.  We pass still other ruins which validate the island’s history by revealing proof that many different coroners of the world once dominated this small piece of land.

The sand is white and I see my first starfish of the trip washed up and dried in the burning sun.  There are many shells and when standing in the water, you can see your toes clearly through its aquamarine colour.  After enjoying the buoyancy of the salt water my stomach is grumbling as we cross back to Stone Town to meet Lisa for lunch.

 

 

 

We are in a small restaurant, white and blue, bringing me back to Greece but with a more laid back pace.  We have the most amazing smoothies we could have dreamed into creation (or perhaps we were just unbelievably hungry and thirsty) before our food arrives.  I eat Bunny Chow – but don’t worry, it is not actually bunny or rabbit.  It is chicken masala in a hollowed out loaf of bread, and it is delicious!

The afternoon our French friend, Danika and I spend traversing, exploring and discovering Stone Town.  We are lost in its maze of narrow winding paths.  We find the market, stumble across a place where I enjoy some spiced tea, marveled at the nice old buildings and meeting a variety of people willing to sell us anything and everything.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We pass the post office and the Old Dispensary, dating to Zanzibar’s colonial past and stop for a minute to contemplate a place called the House of Wonders which was built in 1883 as a ceremonial palace for Sultan Barghash.  I later found out that it was bestowed the name ‘House of Wonders’ because it was the first in Zanzibar to have electric light and an electric lift.  The things we take for granted these days…

Watching the sunset from Mercury’s, named after Freddie Mercury who was born in Zanzibar under a different name, reminds us that it is time to reunite for Lisa’s farewell party.  We leave the coast where a relatively huge ship is being loaded with containers, balanced by the multiplicity of small wooden boats sitting in the harbour next to it.

After getting lost in the labyrinth that is Stone Town, we eventually arrive.  House of Spices; a place with an awesome name and which has the absolute best spinach and ricotta tortellini I have tasted in …God knows how long.

Dinner and wine behind us, we meet the rest of the party at Livingston’s.  It is a grand send-off for Lisa.  Friends, both expatriate and local, are there and we half dance the night away; star-gaze the other.  Lisa looks so happy here; her love of Zanzibar visible with every smile.  Our feet in the sand, under a canopy of stars, I can’t help but be reminded of Lindsay Duncan’s fanciful, surreal and life-loving character as Katherine from Under the Tuscan sun, or of Kathleen Turner’s character Joan Wilder and who she becomes in film Romancing the Stone.  Such a mesmerizing island; an exotic, far away and dreamy feeling is tangible in this place.  Life here is so different from home.

By the end of the night the dance floor is covered in sand and we head back to Lisa’s place.  The next big adventure will soon dawn and I can only imagine how our senses will be bursting as we learn all about the spices grown on this island.  I cannot wait.

Welcome Zanzibar

Rushing to the airport, the sky unfolds and a light rain begins to sprinkle on Nairobi.  My heart-rate increases as the vehicles sop in their places.  Vehicles fear the rain, my driver tells me.  The idea of crossing Nairobi for any set and appointed time is stressful.  With traffic it is nearly impossible.  The sudden stop and start – jolting of the cars to and fro, coupled with the dark and strong fumes and horn blasts coming from what seems like every vehicle surrounding mine, sickens me to the stomach so much so that I have turned to Gravol for these trips.  Now, there is a combination of rain which causes traffic, leading to the fumes and horns, and a very strict appointment: a flight I cannot miss, en route to which I must first pick up Danika from work.  Stressed, me?  Not in the least bit.  Not even when the rain stopped and the taxi got lost looking for Danika’s work place.  Stressed, me?  Not at all.  Getting randomly stopped at the police check outside the airport, passing security, finding something to eat, and being rushed onto the flight with the other last four people; I am not stressed at all.

Escorted out to the plane we had passed a small UN jet on the tarmac.  Not a working WFP plane to drop aid, or anything of that sort.  It is a very nice, almost new looking, small plane; very posh.  Would I accept if asked to fly in it one day?  Still wondering musing over that as I suppose it would depend in what capacity.  I find my seat in the front of the plane and sink into it looking out the window at the UN plane remembering how rushed I left work this afternoon.  My last assignment submitted the minute before I left.  My supervisor had given it to me titled Mission Impossible, hoping it would be possible for me to finish before leaving.  Possible to complete, it was.  To meet expectations and of quality, I hope.  Alas, the week of endless work is now behind me.  No more working all day and all night.  I am officially on holiday.  Zanzibar, here I come!

The plane is small.  I am thankful for such a short flight: only 1hour and 30minutes.  Not that I was uncomfortable or scared of flying, but I happened to be seated in one of the 2 seats that was facing another 2 seats.  It was as if I were on a train seated at a booth, or facing a mirror of someone else’s reflection for the duration of this flight.  Danika was fortunate to have a common airplane seat, able to read or sleep or do as she pleases without the constant reminder that those in front of you may watch and scrutinize you the entire time.  Luckily enough, it was uncomfortable for all four of us, no matter where who we were: Canadian, American-Zimbabwean, Tanzanian, and another.

There was too much baggage to fit in the overhead compartments and I witnessed the extra bags be taken up near the cockpit and stowed behind some straps in a cargo bay.  I think of Hollywood films where this scene is always shown as the flight falls from the sky to a saltwater deathbed below.  Saying a quick prayer, I distract my mind with my book and wine gums; both are flying necessities.  It is not long, however before my thoughts are brought again to this unusual flying contraption.  Out from the wall slides a foldable chair in which the stewardess opens and sits in preparation for take-off.  As we take off the panel on the lower part of the chair concealing the emergency equipment falls off.  Once safely in air she does her best to put it back together again, folds the chair and rolls it on its tracks back into the wall crevice it came from.  When landing, there was much trouble getting the chair to slide back out, because the panel had dislodged again.   The steward almost had to stand for the landing.

Upon arrival, before even entering the airport, we must show proof of our Yellow Fever vaccination, to ladies covered head-to-toe and I am instantly reminded the dominate religion of where I now stand. I release a breath of thankfulness: thankful that I remembered to pack extra conservatively, and that Danika and I both had proof of our Yellow Fever vaccinations at the ready.  We are filling out the required custom forms, wondering how everyone else has gotten through so quickly when someone comes and says I’ve filled too much, just sign it.  I look at him, analyze with what authority is he who tells me not to fill the custom forms.  I skip ahead and sign it, and am told to write the date.  Once the date is written we are rushed through customs where we pay the US$50.00 visa, have our passports stamped, get our photo and fingerprints taken, meet a French national on R&R from South Sudan, and are finally permitted to pass through the main gates.  There I see Lisa!  So lovely to see a friend from home after so long!  With her is another girl I am introduced to while en route to an ATM for some Tanzanian shillings.  Ear to ear grins on the four of us, this is going to be a perfect weekend.  Work behind me, I am on a holiday!  It could not have come at a more perfect time.

We take a dalla-dalla, similar to a matatu, to Lisa’s place, which is like a mansion compared to my single, shared, room in Nairobi.  Our bags are left behind, mosquito spray applied and we head further into Stone Town.  Dinner is awaiting us at Forodhani Gardens, a most beautiful seafront garden bustling with activity as dusk sets in and vendors sell seafood, famous Zanzibari seafood pizza (the term pizza is liberally applied), fruit and crepe-like dessert pizzas (still liberally applied, but oh, so good!), and sugarcane juice squeezed before you with lemon and ginger.  The place is alive, full of people and I love it!

To get there however, we had to traverse through the maze of Stone Town.  Lisa took us left, right, right, right, left, left, right and down one dark passage and then another, and one yet darker still until we finally started down one through which I could see no light in the end at all.  I would be lying if I said I wasn’t in the least bit frightened.  Is this the safest thing we could be doing?  It is the best way we could be going?  Lisa, and her friend Larissa, seemed so comfortable.  Yes, it was quite amazing and beautiful, yet I had to wonder, perhaps they had become desensitized having grown accustomed to life here too well?  It is not that I felt unsafe; by all means I will admit that I was blown away by how safe Zanzibar felt.  I had noticed it immediately, during the walk from the airport to the dala-dala.  But this was insane compared to Nairobi.  Oh, how the warnings of life in Nairobi echoed in my mind, especially those of late.  But this was not Nairobi, this was Zanzibar and before I knew it our path opened upon the feast of seafood at the waterfront gardens.

Of course, I had to try as much as my stomach could hold that first night: the famous Zanzibari pizza, which was covered in hot sauce; dessert pizza, which included nutella and therefore cannot go wrong; and the sugar cane drink, which was so sweet I could have used some more lemon.  All was good.  I looked at the fish and other former sea creatures cooked and waiting to be served.  Danika and I both knew we would have to return to Forodhani Gardens for dinner or a mid-night snack before leaving the island.

Quickly learning how small island life can be, chance introduced us to the French acquaintance we had met in the airport, whom we invited to join on the morrow to Prison Island.  Yes, a heavenly first evening.  I was looking forward to the next day, even if a place with the word Prison was the main attraction.  Such a nice change of pace from Nairobi and the last stressful two weeks this weekend was going to be.