Tuesday, June 30, 2009


The mango is the national fruit of the Philippines. And not for nothing. I've had more mangoes since I've arrived in Salay than I've had in the last five years combined. And let me tell you something: I'm in LOVE. I may NEVER come back, because you can't get mangoes at home like the ones that grow in Loreta's backyard.

Paul and I were lucky enough to come to Salay (it's a tiny town, on the southern most island in the Philippines) in the middle of prime mango season. They ripen April through September, and the Rafisura's (who we're both documenting, and living with) have a bunch growing in their backyard. They pick them and let them ripen naturally, instead of using chemicals like lots of other people do.

I've been told the variety of mango we're enjoying is called the Caribou mango, the Tarabow mango, the Salay mango and the Manila mango, so take your pick. Whatever the official name, they're a little slice of heaven. Best enjoyed cold from the fridge, but almost as delicious warm, they not only taste like the most mango-y mango you've ever eaten, but the texture is almost like eating really thick pudding. In a good way. THEY ARE SO FUTZING GOOD.

So far today I've had 4, while Paul clocked in at 3 because he has the ridiculous notion that the sugar in them are keeping him up at night. Think he's going to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat craving the mango that's waiting for him in the fridge.

That's how good they are. I think about them at night, when I'm eating one all I can think about is if I can have another one immediately after. They're ridiculously addicting. When you see someone else eating one, with the orange juice dripping down their chin, spoon easily cutting through the bright orange supple flesh, you want one immediately in your mouth. Immediately.

Loreta and her husband thinks it's hilarious that we've gone mango-crazy and are constantly goading us into eating more and more (granted, it's not the hardest task). They've taken pictures of us in the middle of mango feeding frenzies and when Paul refused a mango at dinner tonight, Dr. Rene took one out of the fridge and placed it directly in front of him, daring him not to eat it.

I wiki'd them and they're good for you. Classified a "superfruit", high in fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants. So not only are they tasty (wow, what an understatement, they should create a new word), but they're also guilt-free!

If you ever find yourself contemplating a trip to the Philippines, make sure you go April - September. It may be hot, it may storm on you a bit, but you will get to experience one of the most sublime eating experiences of a lifetime. I am not exaggerating.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Filipino History-Lite

Wow. So. Paul and I are in the Philippines now! I know, totally crazy. From Africa to Southeast Asia. I don't know what I was thinking when I booked this trip. To say that things are different here doesn't even begin to cover it.

It smells different. It looks different. The people behave differently. Poverty looks different. Affluence looks different. The food is different. The legacy of colonialism is different. And that's just the beginning.

To make a long story shorter: Magellan "discovered" the Philippines in 1521, got hacked to death by natives, Spain persisted, named the islands after the soon to be crowned Prince Philip, stuck around for a long, long time and converted most everyone to Catholicism (only majority Christian nation in Asia, though Muslim's represent in the south); the Filipino people (weird spelling I know, but some how correct) kept trying to get the imperialists off their back while other nations tried to jump on, mostly unsuccesfully (although I think the British suceeded for like a month or something like that); during this time the Chinese kept coming in (I say 'kept' because they'd been doing it for thousands of years before Magellan's little discovery, in addition to Malays from Indonesia); in 1897 after lots of blood lost (mostly Filipino), both sides signed an armistice to try to hold things together; the US had a beef with Spain over Cuba the next year and thought it was as good a time as any to make a play for the Philippines, who's people fought on their side, hoping for independence, which they didn't get until after the Filipino-American War which has been compared to another war in south east asia, as it used similar nasty tactics; anyway, Filipino Independence was sort of achieved on July 4, 1902 (I know I don't have to point out the irony, but I just did), but wasn't officially achieved until 1935.

So. I guess that wasn't the short version, but I did my best. What all this means is that Tagalog has a ton of Spanish words in it and there are American brands and chains EVERYWHERE. 7-11's on every corner, I kid you not. It's been called the most American country outside of America, and Filipino's sometimes call themselves brown American's. Which is weird. But I think it's maybe a good place for people to travel who haven't been to Asia before. Sort of like, Asia with training wheels. Signs are in English, and you can get a Big Mac. And chorizo.

I have more to say about differences with Africa, and Uganda in particular in relation to our documentary, but I think maybe this is enough for one post. I hope you enjoyed my (hopefully completely accurate) history lesson!

I can't believe we have less than a month before we come home! I have to get to work!

xoxo Erin

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Erin versus the Sharks

I'm afraid of lots of things. The death of loved ones. Dark allies. Being murdered, etc. But, most of my fears are (at least fairly) grounded in reality. I'm not scared of spiders, or heights, or the dark (when not pertaining to allies).

I am, however, scared witless of most ocean critters. Fish, crabs, jellyfish, dolphins, whales... and the worst of them all: sharks. I've gone a long way in conquering those fears on this trip. Snorkeling in Kenya and Tanzania (with real fish. and coral.), swimming (if briefly) with dolphins in Zanzibar, but it’s all been building up to the ultimate confrontation: shark cage diving in South Africa.

Usually great whites prefer to eat the multitude of fish that roam around the harbor of Cape Town, but those are scarce in the winter months here (that’s now), so they head to an area known as Shark Ally where 65,000 seals that make their residence there year round are systematically hunted down and eaten alive. It's the perfect time of year to use fish heads and chum to lure the sharks up to the surface and directly into your face. For fun!

Even before booking our plane tickets, I was sending YouTube links to Lisa and Paul insisting that they save the 100 odd bucks needed to come to face to face with my greatest irrational. I'd managed to avoid thinking about being caged underwater with hungry sharks for the majority of the trip, but was forced to deal with the idiocy of my spontaneous and rash decision. Unfortunately, Lisa and Paul had to deal with the consequences too. I guess it's the price to pay for my amazing company and lifelong friendship.

Which is how we found ourselves, this morning, facing giant swells and giant sharks on a relatively tiny boat with 20 other morons. After a two our van ride, a one hour boat ride that reminded both Lisa and I of the movie “A Perfect Storm” (How did no one puke in that movie? They just ran around acting heroic and coming to terms with their inevitable demise. Unlikely.), and a suspiciously short and confusing “safety talk” our guides began hurling our woozy fellow shark cage divers into a “cage” that was little more than a wire box with foam duct-taped (seriously) to the edges and tossing a disgusting fish slurry into the water around them.

Then came the sharks. Big ones and “small” ones (1.5 m – 5 m in all). Ones that had ragged fins, and ones that looked like they could swallow our boat whole. Lisa and I stood on the top deck snapping pictures while others suited up and were hurled (6 at a time) into the cage as others were dragged out proclaiming the “AWESOME” nature of their dives (which often included close calls involving fingers and elbows and entrances and exits).

Well, I hate to disappoint, but neither Lisa nor I ever made it into the cage. In fact, we didn’t even make it in to the wet suits. I could blame it on nausea or cold water or freezing weather, but that would only be a half truth. The whole truth is: I was scared completely shitless, and I had reached the limits of my bravery. I’m totally scared of sharks. And you know what? I have good reason to be. They’re crazy strong, huge, can turn on a dime, have two rows of razor sharp teeth, and while they don’t like to “eat” humans, it’s not entirely unfeasible that they wouldn’t try – especially if they came across a band of human idiots careening in and out of the water in to a shoddy, duct taped, wire cage surrounded by fish heads and guts.

So I failed, I guess. Paul went in after he puked and said it was “pretty cool”, and I was really proud of him for doing something that scary. So tease at will, but it took a lot for me to step on to a boat that was essentially shark bait. I guess that’s as fearless as I’m made.

Next stop, Manila.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Cape Town Rocks.

We left Kampala very early in the morning last Monday before the sun came up. The night before our host Betty threw a party in our honor at her house. That's another blog post all together. There was matooke, dancing, strange games and lots of Nile Special. In short: it was super rad.

We all left kind of sad to say goodbye to our friends, and a place that had grown very familiar to us. We were all pretty comfortable on the back of an erratic motorbike. We knew how to do the ubiquitious Ugandan handshake (I'll show you when I get back) and how to sit on the ground properly (on your knees).

We arrived to Cape Town after a short, hectic stop over in J'burg airport (suffice to say they better get their shit together before they're hit with the World Cup clusterfuck that's headed at them next year).

After our first week here draws to a close, my first impressions have turned out to be pretty accurate:

Wow. Is it ever different here.

I'm not exactly sure what I was expecting... cooler weather... better food... wider offerings at the movie theater... But it goes so far beyond that, I find myself forgetting I'm in Africa at all.

An example of things that are different here: meters in cabs, salads you can eat without thinking twice, potable water, pedicures, sodas in plastic bottles and metal cans, vineyards, museums, fantastic thai food, hipsters, a wide variety of people who come in all different colors, dentyne ice: arctic chill, lack of need for mosquito nets, pharmacies in which a prescription is required, lack of haggling for every single thing you might want to purchase, large number of fellow travellers, autumnul colors and weather, a large middle class... you get the idea. It goes on. And on and on and on.

It's hard to describe how shocking and overwhelming it was the first few days here. Especially for Lisa and I, who have spent the past three months gradually getting used to avoiding uncooked vegetables and arguing over every monetary transaction. I think it's the sudden familiarity with how things work and what things are that's so surreal.

What's even more shocking to think about is how a country like Zimbabwe could share a border with a country like this. Granted, there are very evil things bubbling under the surface here that I have only the most casual knowledge of, and I'll probably leave here without ever coming into contact with the way life is for the cogs in the wheels that live in slums and keep to themselves.

But the sheer functionality of South Africa is truly astounding. The stability of it. Wow.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

stills from our still untitled documentary!

Lisa, the best footage down-loader EVER. With the basket weaving artisans.

This guy climbed up a giant tree to collect the rafia used for basket weaving. Paul looked on.

We have been eating really well during all of our visits to artisan's home. They cook us these really elaborate meals. There is ALWAYS matoke, which is the yellow stuff on the right. They make it by steaming bananas in banana leaves all morning. It's good, but SUPER filling.

Here is us with Mary, one of the main characters in our film! She's so nice and cooked us the best meal of our trip so far. She also taught me how to "dig" like her, which is how she earns most of her money, especially since the economic crisis. It's really hitting people hard here, especially the people who were struggling to begin with...

The artisans taught us to weave last week. We made key chains, which are basically the equivilant of 1/16th of a basket. Then we were judged on our skills. Paul was on the top of all three of our judge's lists. I was on the bottom. I think they didn't like my pink color scheme. UNFAIR.

Here's Millie, one of the artisans, starting a basket. It starts so tiny! After our little jaunt into weaving, I can say it's hard work.

Our second interview with Betty this Saturday. Paul's shirt was dirty so Betty made him take it off to wash it. So he worked topless.

Our production office. CLASSY.

Here's Paul filming Betty getting her grandkids ready for school this morning. We had to wake up at 5AM to get there by 6AM. It was a really great scene though.

xoxo erin.

in which I totally lose it.

Growing up with a mom like mine, I've spent lots of time in the company of mentally and physically handicapped children. She's a pediatric physical therapist who's owned her own practice since before I was born. She's really good at it, and almost always positive about her patients and their futures.

I've always known that handicapped children were special, brave, hardworking little people and I've rarely seen them as very limited in any way. With the right amount of coaxing and determination they could (if not easily) lead happy, healthy, productive lives. And they manage to do it all facing more challenges than the average "abled" person will ever have to deal with in the entirety of their lives.

Yesterday, Betty (who is disabled herself after a childhood illness left her walking on crutches) took us to visit a mother of two twins, one of whom is handicapped. They're both 13, and while there is no Lugandan word for her disability, I can pretty decisively diagnose her with cerebral palsy.

I have known so many children affected with CP. Several of them 1/2 of a set of twins. Many of them are no longer children, but rather adults with jobs and responsibilities. College students cramming for exams and partying with their friends. Spoiled teenagers who are the apple of their daddy's eyes. In short: just like me. Just like you. "Regular", whatever that connotes. Average.

I say all this to try to convey what an utter shock it was for me to enter the courtyard of several mud huts, and be face to face with a 13 year old girl, in a red wheelchair, suffering (a very deliberately chosen word) from cerebral palsy. Immediately, my heart started to race and I could feel a very unfamiliar wetness creep into my eyes.

I am not a crier. The closest I get to tears back at home is when I've had too much to drink and I initiate a pity party in my honor. On this trip, I have stood witness to so many forms of utter poverty, desperate people, struggling mothers and disease ridden bodies that I've become pretty numbed to feeling anything more than compassion and anger.

As Betty introduced me to the girls' mother and described what she was trying to do to help the family, I could feel my composure slipping. By the time we made it into their shabby one room mud hut, I had completely lost it. I had to excuse myself and squat around the corner, weeping into my hands.

It wasn’t that she was so thin. And it wasn’t that she looked like she was maybe 7, instead of 13. It wasn’t her bald head or the flies that congregated by her eyes and nose. It was that in her moans and squeals, I couldn’t decipher anything human. And I knew it wasn’t because she was inhuman, I knew a desire to communicate, to ask for what she wanted, to laugh with her friends and talk back to her mom was contained inside the fragile, bald little girl in the red wheel chair. I knew that inside of her was an adult with responsibilities, and a college student and a spoiled teenager. But I also knew that she had no hope of ever getting to lead a life that was any different from the one she was currently leading. All of the different possibilities and hopes that are contained in a little girl of 13, even the most destitute, were completely, 100% absent in this girl.

Betty confirmed this, when she told me that for kids this disabled in Uganda, their parents –at best – are just trying to keep them alive until they die. Betty gave this little girl less than a year.

Her mom couldn’t afford to buy the protein her daughter needed to stay alive. Which was bad enough, and a familiar enough tale at this point in our trip. But what seemed almost worse to me, was that Betty (a very educated, in the know, advocate for the disabled) didn’t really understand me, when later in the car I tried to describe what services my mom provided for disabled children. Physical therapy? Speech therapy? Cognitive therapy? Therapy? All of these were foreign terms to her, and required lots of explanation to convey their meanings. Parents don’t even talk to these children. They never learn to speak, or communicate. They’re lucky to even see the light of day, as most parents have to lock their children inside while they go to work. This girl, Betty described as “lucky”. Lucky because she has a donated wheelchair and is able to sit outside.

The best these kids can hope for is to get born into enough money so that their parents can afford to put them in an institution. Otherwise, “life” is a word that’s completely off base in describing the future that’s in store for them. They will not lead productive lives. They will not laugh with their friends. They will not go to college. They will not raise families. And they will never have adult responsibilities.

It’s the most upsetting, harrowing and depressing situation I’ve seen here in Africa. And on the rest of our silent car trip down to the Equator, I tearfully pondered possible solutions and came up with nothing.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Africa and the quest for gold.

I am a pretty adaptable person, and I've gotten used to tons of local customs that the average bear might not have been down with. I am now a world class heckler, despite loathing the custom with every inch of my being. I chewed chat with the locals in Ethiopia, despite the bitter taste and long duration of the "ritual". I ate cow stomach in Palissa, despite it's wet laundry smell and texture. I ride boda bodas hands-free, despite visions of flying off at ever pothole.

However, there is one custom that I will never get used to. It grosses me out in such a basic, fundamental way that despite the regularity of it's appearance, I can't help but cringe each time I'm confronted with it. Yell at me for being culturally tone deaf, but if I never see another Ugandan pick their nose it will be too soon.

I'm not talking, a casual wipe here, or a flick there, or even a kid exploring his nasal cavity. I mean, grown adults, shoving half of their finger up their noses, prying out disgusting gobs of phlegm and then flicking that phlegm in any odd direction.

They don't just do it when they think no one is looking. You could find yourself in the middle of talking with someone (say the dean of a university, or a member of parliament) when, without dropping the conversational thread, they push their finger up their nose and wiggle it around. With authority.

Even worse, some of our interview subjects go at it while we're in the middle of an interview. As casual as you or I would run our hands through our hair. It's really unnerving and nearly pushes me into uncontrollable giggles every time. Which can be inconvenient when discussing abject poverty with someone who is living in abject poverty. Not exactly the time for a chuckle.

I guess you never see anyone here rearranging their crotch, as is the fashion in the United States. But I wish the good old American value of using tissues and privacy to extract clingy boogers would cross the Atlantic already.

Not to mention, it makes me very wary of shaking peoples hands.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Boda-Bodas in Action


One of the parts of our trip that I have been most excited about was returning to Pallisa, the small rural town in Eastern Uganda where I spent a summer 5 years ago. I was a little nervous to go back – I wasn’t sure what I would find when I got there or if any of my friends would still be there since I didn’t have current phone numbers or e-mails for them and only had a vague recollection of where their houses are (road names and physical addresses don’t really exist in a town like Pallisa).

When Erin and I arrived in Pallisa most of the town was exactly as I had remembered it – one long paved road with lots of stores that sell exactly the same things. For such a small town there’s an over abundance of photocopy/stationary shops and a few supermarkets that sell staples like soap, toilet paper, etc… and not much else. The scenery of the countryside surrounding Pallisa is exactly the same in any direction – miles and miles of red dirt roads with lush green fields and banana trees against the bluest sky you’ll ever see.

When I was in Pallisa before there was only one hotel in town – the Country Inn, which is where I lived for the summer. The Country Inn was my oasis during that summer. Living in such an isolated town by myself I frequently felt out of place and homesick and the Country Inn was comfortable, private, clean and had a friendly staff to come back to every day.

Even at that time the Country Inn seemed wildly out of place in a town like Pallisa. The owner Charles is a successful lawyer in Kampala and he built the hotel in an effort to reinvest back in his community and attract tourism and business to Pallisa – it was a really noble idea. The reality of it though is that Pallisa isn’t really on the way to anywhere. There are no tourist attractions and the business people have no reason to come here when there are plenty of bigger cities with at least equal or better accommodations. So for most of the summer that I lived there I was the only guest at the Country Inn. I always wondered if the business would be sustainable in the long run, without anything to attract customers, but I really hoped they would find a way to make it successful and help to improve the local Pallisa economy.

When we arrived this time, the exterior of the Country Inn was pretty much the same. But I immediately knew that things were different when we stepped inside the lobby. The interior was dingy. It wasn’t completely run down yet, but it looked like time stopped 5 years ago and there was just an overwhelming sense of neglect, like an old haunted house. The walls were grayer with random wires poking in and out.

One of the things that stood out to me when I was here 5 years ago was how professional the staff was – there were always overstaffed for the amount of business they got, but everyone did their best to stay busy and keep the place in tip top shape. I was always impressed by the quality of service and could tell that everyone on the staff felt proud to be working there since it was obviously one of the most modern and sophisticated operations in Pallisa. This time, the staff was friendly enough, but a little indifferent and even a little confused by the presence of actual customers. Its hard to sustain enthusiasm in an obviously dying business.

My return to the Country Inn left me feeling sad. I don’t think I was surprised by what I saw; actually the Country Inn looked exactly like I thought it would when I imagined my return to Pallisa. And even in its current condition the Country Inn is still a fairly nice hotel by Pallisa standards, but its fairly easy to project what the Country Inn will be like in 5 or 10 more years, if its even still around. Pallisa seems to be one of those places that’s stuck in a never-ending cycle of poverty. Its hard to imagine how a place like that can really lift itself out of this cycle and make progress.

On a side note, while we were in Pallisa Erin and I did catch up on some tv watching since there wasn’t much else to do after dark. One of the shows that we watched was E!’s Dr. 90210, which is one of my guilty pleasures at home. For those of you who haven’t watched it, its basically a reality show that follows rich plastic surgeons and their whiny wives as they deal with the trials and tribulations of living in Beverly Hills. It was very surreal watching a show like that in Pallisa and viewing the over-the-top American culture through the perspective of someone here. We were sitting with people who struggle to put food on the table and watching obese American’s paying exorbitant amounts of money to have their fat sucked out. Both experiences are pretty far removed from my everyday life, but for a Ugandan I can only imagine that the doctors of Beverly Hills must have seemed like they were from Mars.

Finally, if you’ve made it this far into this epic post, I’ll end on a brighter note. We were actually able to find my friend Stella’s house (after some hunting and help from a few friendly neighbors) and had a nice visit with her. Seeing Stella was like a breath of fresh air. She is an extremely smart and capable woman who has really persevered and been very successful. She is still working for NACWOLA (National Community of Women Living with AIDS). Despite the fact that they no longer have funding to pay her a salary she continues to volunteer her time to provide support services to HIV positive women in her community. Her children are also growing up to be really outstanding young people. Her daughter Genevieve wants to become a doctor and is becoming a very bright beautiful young woman – she also has some of Stella’s spunk! Erin and I both agreed that her 3 sons – Paul, Michael and George - were the most obedient children we’ve ever met. They all have a very easy-going and fun relationship with Stella and seem to really enjoy one another’s company. When I was here before, Stella had taken in two teenage orphans whose parents had died of AIDS. After I left the boy and the girl actually got married and continue to have a close relationship with Stella.

One of the evenings that we were in Pallisa Stella cooked us an amazing meal of really delicious local foods and also invited Anna, one of my other NACWOLA friends. I’m constantly amazed by women like Anna and Stella who face such tremendous obstacles in their lives and continue to have a positive outlook and the strength to persevere. This year Anna traveled to India and Stella traveled to Zimbabwe on behalf of NACWOLA and it was really interesting to hear about these experiences from their perspectives. It reminded me again of how lucky Erin and I are that we’re getting to see so many new places and meet so many amazing people on this trip.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


I have no idea if this will work... here goes!

OMG IT'S WORKING! how exciting. I've attempted to upload pictures before, and it never works! So, anyway. Per my moms request. Here's me today on a boda boda. Let's see if I can do more!

YES! this is really working. Here is me feeding giraffes on our last day in Kenya! They are slobbery with long black tongues and are constantly drooling. They remind me a lot of my friend Alfonso!

So it turns out I grabbed Lisa's camera instead of mine, so I only have pics she took... we have identical cameras. NO JOKE. So these might be of only me. But we can do her tomorrow (that's what she said)!

This is this guy in Nairobi who we visited who makes wire toys! It was for a Ten Thousand Villages assignment. We visited at his home and took a ton of pictures! He had a tiny baby. Which I enjoyed.

Here's Lisa and I at Lake Nkuru (Kenya), where we saw a billion flamingos in one lake (it smelled exactly as you'd think it would)

This is what we rode around in for three days for our safari in Masai Mara! Sweet ride.


Look at those hippos! Safaris are kind of boring. You just drive around and around looking for things that are really hard to see, and every once in a while you see them. Seeing them is cool, but driving around is really boooooooring. To pass the time I would try to imagine the animals singing pop songs. Ostriches singing Justin Timberlake's SexyBack is pretty amusing during an all day bus ride.

Paul on a boda boda today in Kampala!

OK, I'll post some movie pics, cos Lisa is our official still photographer, so she has a ton on her camera! We're off today, but tomorrow we meet with one of the basket weavers at her home, to get a sense of her space. Monday, we start a run of shooting that should last pretty much until we leave, with maybe a few days off here and there...

An example of the amazing baskets that Uganda Crafts sells.

Shooting on Friday, when the artisans come to sell their baskets to Betty (she's the one in the pink). I'm awesome at holding the reflector.

Here's Dorothy, who we're visiting tomorrow. We did this series of slightly slow motion portraits in front of the brick latrine. They look really awesome, if a bit "allergy commercial". The women were so excited about doing them though, which is an excellent sign of things to come!

Here's us shooting them.

This was our first interview with Betty. We shot it against a white wall... mistake? I hope not!

Here's Betty. She is really great. So smart, and funny and an amazing business woman. She made us the most amazing meal the day we interviewed her. It was EPIC. Like 15 different dishes.

I just think this is a cute picture. Paul and I are working really good together, so far. He is the yin to my yang.

Well. I am so glad that worked. I tried to do this once before, and it was such an epic fail I couldn't get back on the internet for a few days after. Because I was so FRUSTERATED! I hope when I hit "publish post" it actually works. Fingers crossed...

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Paul got here Tuesday, and brought with him an amazing amount of gear. A whole SUITCASE full of drives, and another one full of more drives. And that's not even including the camera. We met him at the airport with a sick sign that read "UGANDA WELCOMES THE HONORABLE PAUL B. YEE". We made it in Pallisa, a small (so small) town we stopped in on the way to Kampala. Lisa used to live there so we visited with a friend of hers which was fun. But since there wasn't much else to do there, we spent a lot of time watching satellite TV and making the sign.

ANYWAY, filming went well yesterday. Betty is really comfortable in front of the camera, and has picked up on how things are going to work over the next few weeks. We have a really loaded schedule already that includes visiting her mom and some of her 28 odd kids (10 biological), visiting artisans, and seeing how these amazing baskets are made! Yesterday we did a long interview and she showed us around her compound. This included hiking up a huge hill which wasn't easy for her (she's disabled from a childhood disease) or for Paul (he fell flat on his butt, but very gracefully).

She also had her family cook us lunch, and it was the best yet in Uganda. I have to say, I'm not a huge fan of Ugandan food. In Pallisa we had our choice of beef or chicken, neither of which was very palatable. Lucky for us, Betty grows all her own food on her land and her family rarely eats meat, as they have access to so many fresh fruits and vegetables. While I don't think I'd ever go searching out matoke (steamed plantains... sort of the consistency of mashed potatoes, but with a sour flavor), she served up the best I've had yet.

Today we have the day off... which is good since it's been storming all morning, but we'll be back at it tomorrow morning... 6AM!

from point a to point b

After arriving in Mbale, Uganda on a 10 hour overnight bus ride from Nairobi, Lisa and I emerged bleary eyed at the bus stop in search of transportation to our hotel.

We looked to the left. No cabs. We looked to the right. No cabs... but a suspiciously large group of boys on motorcycles. And so the boda boda makes it's first appearance on our African adventure. Ubiquitious across Uganda, but for some reason not seen (by us anyway) in Kenya or Ethiopia or Tanzania, the boda boda is a little motorbike (or bicycle) with enough space for the driver and one (or 2, if squished) passengers. Never helmeted, and never approaching a speed less than that of light, or a bullet, bodas are the ride of choice for tons of Ugandans.

Boda bodas originated on the Kenyan-Ugandan in the 1960s and 1970s as a way to get between the two border posts without going through the hassle of vehicle registration. The boda boys would shout "boda-boda" (border border) which is how they got their name. In Uganda now there are an estimated 200,000 professional bicycle boda boda drivers, and 90,000 professional motorbike boda boda drivers.

When riding a boda (after negotiating a price, which usually equals about $1 USD no matter where you're going) ladies who are not prostitutes generally sit side saddle, while men sit in the safer, "cowboy" style, straddling the bike. The women often do this while carrying groceries, baskets, or even more terrifying: babies (as usual... women doing all the work and hard stuff and men enjoying the ride, I swear it seems to be an African theme, don't even get me started).

Our first ride in Mbale was notable as we both had to carry our giant (GIANT) bags on the bikes with us. Lisa's wore hers, mine was tethered to the back of the motorbike using a thin piece of rubber. Halfway there the rubber snapped off hitting me in the face (ouch), but more importantly, leaving me to keep myself and my giant (GIANT) bag on the speeding motorbike of death. Luckily, we got there in one piece... but the fun wasn't over yet!

In order to get back into town, after we stowed our giant (you get the picture) bags, we had to flag down a bicycle boda boda. As it turns out, bicycle boda bodas like me just about as much as I like them. The boda boy that was carrying me had a lot of trouble getting started (Lisa contends he didn't know what he was doing, I think I was too much woman for his bike). He couldn't quiiiiite get us balanced, so we'd lurch forward and then tilt over... and repeat... and repeat... and repeat. By the time we'd gone a few meters we were pretty much the best entertainment in Mbale, judging by the crowd of Ugandans, laughing behind their hands. I eventually jumped off and found a stronger, more experienced boda boy. But I've vowed to never get on another bicycle boda ever again... a promise I've kept so far.

Now that Paul's arrived, we've been taking seperate boda bodas to and from the matatu (mini bus) park (previously, Lisa and I would save 50 cents by piling onto one, but it's much less enjoyable). It's super fun (especially since Lisa and I have abandoned all illusions of ever riding like "proper ladies" and sit "prostitute style" instead), if slightly terrifying. In Kampala, there is always tons of traffic, but the boda bodas don't really heed by any rules. They swerve through moving and stopped cars buses, and trucks, drive on the wrong side of the road, and take steep, off road shortcuts... in short, it's a BLAST.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Uhuru Highway & Soft Rock

Two random observations about Kenya:

1. I love the vendors on Uhuru Highway leading from the Nairobi International Airport into town. Nairobi, like most major cities, is plagued by awful traffic. The two times that we've ridden into town from the airport we've gotten stuck in the mid-afternoon rush hour, which basically means that we sit on the highway without moving for at least an hour. The cars usually don't have AC here and people also don't like to keep the windows down (sometimes for safety reasons, sometimes just because), so its usually sweltering hot inside the vehicle. Many vendors in Kenya have realized that this highway is a jackpot for sitting ducks who have time to spare and maybe even a little extra money. There are a few of the vendors you might expect offering cold beverages and snacks to weary travelers. But most of the vendors come with all sorts of random assorted items that look like they were picked up at the dollar store. Some of the best offerings the last time we rode into town were as follows: a 4-foot tall orange inflatable teletubby, a blue camouflage pillow case, an assortment of international flags (including the American and Kenyan flags) and a plastic shaving kit. Its hard for me to imagine anyone driving home from the airport and realizing they've just gotta have an orange inflatable teletubby, but it must happen or else they wouldn't still be standing there.

2. The Kenyan people share my love of soft rock music (mostly from the 80s and 90s). I have yet to enter a Kenyan airport, supermarket, restaurant, bar or other public establishment without hearing at least one song by Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey (sometimes on a lucky day both). Beyonce is also very popular and, in fact, Erin and my main mode of transport in Lamu on the Kenyan coast was a little motor boat named Beyonce.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Cautious Adventurers

Erin and I may be the most cautious adventure travelers to traverse Africa. Neither of us is particularly daring when it comes to risk-taking adventure sports. If you've ever swum in the ocean with Erin or me you probably know that we both have an aversion to swimming with ocean critters. We've probably watched too many Discovery Channel Shark Weeks.

On our first snorkeling trip in Lamu Erin didn't even get off the boat (though she did assume the role of the great provider by catching a fish for lunch). And I made it into the water for about 15 minutes before I started getting visions of being eaten by a shark and swam back to the boat.

So this morning when we embarked on a dolphin tour off the coast of Zanzibar I don't think either of us actually thought we would make it into the water. We were the only ones on our boat to spend $2 extra for the life preservers (and no, they don't come standard with boating in Kenya or Tanzania). When our boat pulled up next to the dolphins everyone else aboard hopped off and started chasing after the dolphins... Erin and I stayed put on the boat. But by the third jump into the dolphin colony Erin and I finally got up the nerve to dive in with the dolphins.

It was AMAZING. You only see a few dolphins on the surface, but if you look down you can see huge bunches of them swimming along just beneath the surface. I think I lasted less than a minute in the water -- enough to see it, check it off of my life list of experiences and scuttle back to the safety of the boat. Erin lasted about 10 seconds longer than I did before hopping back into the boat. But the important part is that we both SWAM WITH DOLPHINS!

Erin keeps telling me that we're going to go shark-cage diving in Cape Town ... we'll see if either of us makes it into the cage...

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Kenya Burning

One of our first days in Kenya, Erin and I found a really great (and free!) photography exhibit called Kenya Burning that chronicles the violence that took place in Kenya during the 2007 elections. It was a real eye opener for me because although I had followed the post-election rioting in the news I don't think that it really sunk in just how widespread the violence was, and just how close Kenya came to the brink of disaster.

It was interesting to see how immediate the local media's response was to the crisis. The exhibit had a film of interviews with many of the local journalists and photographers who documented the violence and it was a huge reminder for me about the power that a free press has to really change the course of history. During the crisis, the Kenyan radio was constantly broadcasting messages throughout the country urging moderation and warning Kenyans how closely the situation resembled the early stages of Rwanda -- which is so different from the way that Rwandan radio messages were used to fuel the violence during the genocide there.

There is something surreal about seeing such graphic depictions of violence and then realizing that it happened so recently. On the one hand, I was impressed at how transparent the exhibit was -- it certainly didn't sugar coat anything and I think that in general it says a lot about the society's resiliency that it is already reflecting on and trying to come to terms with such a traumatic time. On the other hand, in talking to most Kenyans we've spoken to there is still a fair bit of pessimism and mistrust in the government. There also seems to be a general sense of fear that the worst may be yet to come with the next round of elections, as very little has changed to address people's concerns about corruption in the government.

And on a day-to-day basis people's lives continue to be impacted by the violence because of its impact on the local economy. Even for low season it seems incredible that in most of the cities we've gone to in Kenya we've only bumped into a handful of other tourists. For the local vendors, this means that they have fewer opportunities to make a buck -- for us tourists it means that every time we leave our hotel we are accosted by at least 10 people trying to hawk the same kitschy crafts.

Lamu & the Muslim Rasta

On the recommendation of my friend Laura, Lisa and I decided to splurge and spend some time in Shela, on the island of Lamu.

Lamu is a European beach destination on the northeast coast of Kenya, located in the middle of a pretty conservative Muslim community. This made for a very interesting dynamic. On one hand you had Europeans (and us) frolicking around in bikinis (and sometimes less), and on the other hand you had a conservative community going about their day to day.. donkeys abound, the women are clad (in very beach inappropriate) black niqabs (which can't be pulled up - very haram - and therefore get wet and sandy).

Lamu is also where we got our first introduction to the Kenyan beach boy. While these boys are all members (or former members?) of the surrounding community, they have shrugged off (as far as we could tell) their religion and have become wild haired, Bob Marley loving, (mostly) pot smoking, beer drinking rastafaris.

How does that work, you may ask? I'm not entirely sure. There is definitely some palatable tension between the rastas and the surrounding community, but it wasn't violent or extreme in anyway. At worst I think the community looks at the rasta beach boys as sort of a minor annoyance, and low level security threat (a few of them have been involved in the muggings of tourists in the past, and of pickpocketing and that sort of thing)... sort of an all around anomaly.

I also wondered how rastafarism took hold on the coastal areas of Kenya. Does pot smoking and hair dreading increase in direct ratio to your proximity to the beach? Does Bob Marley sound more convincing when listened to out in the hot sun, on a dhow (it's a kind of sailboat) while fishing? (I say YES to that one, having experienced it myself last week). Does weed enhance your enjoyment of all things nautical? I don't know, but maybe the answer is yes to all of them.

Needless to say, we interacted with the beach boys much more than we did with the surrounding community. They took us on snorkling and fishing trips, they cooked us lunches and dinners on the beach, they built us bonfires, they showed us the phosphoresence in the water (so freakin' cool) they took us out dancing (oh man, that could be a whole different post. the hottest dance ticket in town is what they referred to as "the boogie boogie" but was actually called The Police Comission's Social Club, which was ACTUALLY this open air cement floored verandah thing with a dj and a man that sold beer from inside a cage. full of beach boys, prostitutes and Lisa, me and the two American girls we've been traveling with for the past week. it was obviously a LOT of fun)... etc... they basically tried to take our money from us in any way they could. It worked. It worked for them, and it worked for us.

But I couldn't help but wonder what they went home to at the end of the night (or in the early morning). Do they live with their parents, and have to listen to a lecture about cleaning up their acts? Are they pretty much ostracized from the community, and ignored? Is it acceptable behavior?

I don't know! It's another mystery. I'll add it to my growing list...

Kenya is freakin' hot

So. News flash. Kenya is really hot.

Nairobi was not so bad, it was temperate even. Really cool with rainshowers that lasted like... 10 minutes but cooled everything down immensely. HOWEVER, immediately upon exiting our aircraft on the island of Lamu on the northeast coast of Kenya, my hair poofed out to Diana Ross proportions and my face broke out in rivulets - no RIVERS, of sweat. And my condition has not improved as we've traveled further south down the coast. Not even a little bit.

Lisa and I have started taking 2, 3, sometimes even 4 showers a day in order to stay just ahead of spontaneously combusting in the afternoon sun. We've also completely given up on make up (comes right off!) and have taken to wearing the same clothes every day (what's the point of getting everything so sweaty and digusting? NO POINT, so we don't bother). I want to know how Angelina glows when she comes to Africa, when the adjective that best describes Lisa and I from 10A to 5P is "DRIPPING".

Not only that, but some enterprising person needs to introduce waterproof sunscreen here. All the sunscreen you can buy (which comes, charmingly, either in spf 1.5 or spf 357) is labeled "water & sweat resistant," which seems ok at first... until you take your third "end of day shower" and realize you're bright red, and the owner of the restaurant you eat at that night calls you his little lobster and insists that you jump in his pot because you'd be good eating (yeah...). Water resistant in Africa actually means water soluble and sweat resistant is not enough to stand up to the aformentioned rivers that Lisa and I are outputting every day.

Luckily, we'll be back in Nairobi by next week, nursing our blistering skin, and washing all of our increasingly disgusting clothes.

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Today I purchased a pair of ex officio boxer briefs; they are odor resistant, lightweight, breathable, wicking (don't know what that means), and quick drying. I am most excited about the quick dry feature. If you rinse them out during your shower, they dry out in just two hours.
I am wearing them right now, and they are ultra comfortable. It seems likely that I'll just take two pairs of these ex officio boxer briefs, and a pair of ex officio boxers, and just get in the habit of washing my undies while i'm bathing.
Ex officio also makes a quick drying tee shirt. I'll be wearing the boxer briefs for the next few days to see if they work. If they do, I will probably buy their tee shirts also... and then only pack three pairs of underwear, and a few tops for the trip.
This way, I'll have space for dress up clothes (for the wedding), 100 double A batteries (for the microphones), 100 percent deet (so i don't get japanese encephalitis), and the weird universal power strip (so i can plug in things!)

Less than a month before i leave the continental US for the first time EVER!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ethiopia highlights

Hello Everyone -- As Erin has mentioned, Ethiopia's internet is extremely slow. So here is my belated post on my highlights of Ethiopia as we've just arrived in Nairobi!

Navigating Addis has given Erin and me plenty of entertainment (and transportation adventures seems to be a recurring theme of our journey). One of our more ridiculous taxi rides happened on the way back from dinner one night -- we negotiated a fair price with the driver and hopped into the cab. About 10 minutes later our taxi sputtered to a stop on the side of a highway. After many failed attempts at restarting the engine our taxi driver got on his cell phone and called a friend. A few minutes later a new taxi pulled up and our first driver hustled us over to the new taxi. After a few confused minutes of figuring out what to do about payment for the first driver and trying to negotiate how much the second driver was going to charge we finally settled into our new taxi, realizing that our first taxi driver was actually offering to give his entire fare to the second driver. Lo and behold two seconds after our second taxi started up the hill it too conked out. By this point Erin and I were starting to wonder if this wasn't some kind of scam... but finally, after a few more confused minutes our first taxi driver walked up the hill and procured a third taxi for us. He was an absolute professional -- didn't take a cent for himself and negotiated our fare with the third driver so that we didn't get cheated on the price... and of course we felt very guilty for even thinking that he was trying to cheat us in the first place.

Navigating on foot has also had its fair share of challenges as well, despite our purchase of an excellent German map of the city. Addis would do well to assign names and numbers to its streets if it wishes to make things easier for tourists (and locals as well), but there is a certain charm in finding your way through the city like a scavenger hunt. Erin and I spent almost an entire hour scouring a 5 block radius, winding up and down a posh gated community of mostly international embassies looking for an elusive Thai restaurant that had advertised at our hotel. Their marketing campaign was ubiquitous and actually quite good except for the fact that they don't have an actual address, so all of their fliers have to make do with cryptic references to nearby landmarks and poorly drawn maps that kept us hunting for quite some time. But if there's one thing that Erin and I most always agree on, it is that a good meal is worth the hunt. We persevered and had some remarkably good Pad See Ew.

If Erin has not already mentioned it, Ethiopian food is not my favorite. It has been interesting to be here during the fasting period for lent because it means that meat is basically nonexistant on the menus. It has actually made ordering quite easy because usually the only dish available in local restaurants is the traditional fasting plate -- injera with a variety of vegetarian samplings on top. I actually don't mind the flavor of the vegetables, but something about injera just doesn't do it for me. And after two and a half weeks of fasting plates I'm more than ready to move on to Kenya for more culinary variety...

The biggest highlight of the trip for me was our 3-day, 22 mile trek in the Simien Mountains where we saw wild baboons, tons of beautiful birds and some incredible scenery. The mountains are breathtaking -- literally and figuratively. At an altitude of 4,000 m and with very steep inclines the hike was very challenging. Even at our campsite, the pit latrine was all the way at the bottom of a very steep hill that always left me huffing and puffing at the top and certainly made me think twice about whether I really had to go to the bathroom or not. And the water taps were in the complete opposite direction down another steep hill. Erin can attest to the fact that I was the only one among our 6-person trekking group that opted not to hike out of my way to take the coldest shower ever and preferred to wallow in the grittiness for our 3 days in the wild...

The vistas were absolutely incredible -- it looked a lot like the Grand Canyon. The biggest difference by far was the remoteness of the Simiens compared to the Grand Canyon. When you go to the Grand Canyon its hard not to be within earshot or eyesight of another tourist for even a minute. In the Simiens we did an entire 16km hike without encountering another soul (and then we landed in a Village in the absolute middle of nowhere, which was a bit surreal). In some ways its amazing to have that level of preservation, but it also made me a little sad to think how few Ethiopians ever actually see the Simiens, aside from those who actually live here. It really brought home for me the difference between a culture that can afford leisure and one that cannot....

Which brings me to my final impression of Ethiopia. Throughout the country -- in both the city and the rural areas -- the one constant refrain that I keep coming back to is how incredibly hard life is here. Along most of the countryside you see endless fields full of people tending to their crops with extremely manual and primitive tools, maybe a mule if they're lucky. Women will walk for miles with a load of firewood on their backs and in search of the nearest water source. Its nothing for children to hike up and down a very steep mountain a few kilometers (without water!) to get to and from school each day. On our second day here I encountered two people actually bathing in puddles of rainwater on the streets of Addis -- it certainly makes me think twice when I'm hoping for a hot water shower to think about not having one at all.

Ethiopian Food is BOMB: Final thoughts on Ethiopia

My dad often says, that Ethiopian food is the only food that consistently makes him ill. He HATES it, and if you know my dad, you know that hating any kind of food is a rare occurrence.

I've never felt the same way, although I've met many who have. I think what it really boils down to is: injera is kind of weird. I'll cop to that. It's served cold, it's kind of got a spongy texture, it's slightly sour, when it gets wet it falls apart which is obnoxious because you have to use it as your fork, spoon and knife... I get it.

But, despite it's faults, I've enjoyed our traditional feasting here in Ethiopia.

We happened to time our trip to coincide with Ethiopian Lent. Ethiopians take their Christianity very seriously - compared to a lot of Ethiopian Christians, Americans are just phoning it in. For Lent pretty much no one eats meat (fish doesn't count as meat though... go figure... it's the Faith Gaskins method of vegetarianism.. ZING). There will be meat listed on menus, but if you order it, you'll be told it's not available.

So that pretty much left us with the Ethiopian Fasting Plate. Sounds pretty awful, but in reality it's not at all awful. It's basically a big round of injera topped with all these little vegetarian salads. The mainstays are a kind of spiced, curried lentil, a cooked cabbage salad, shiro (which is the only food I will admit is really trifling. disgusto. it's basically chick pea sauce, but there's nothing in the sauce, and the sauce itself kind of tastes like glue or paste or something), curried potatoes and carrots and then whatever else is available. Sometimes a sort of coleslaw like salad, sometimes a green salad, sometimes something unidentifiable but delicious.

Also this huge meal costs the equivilant of about $1.50 USD. It's like the ultimate dollar menu! Really cheap, really tasty, really filling.

They also serve injera for breakfast here, called firfir. It's literally yesterdays torn up injera stir fried with some awazi sauce (super spicy) or some other sauce... sometimes the dreaded shiro. It's pretty good, although I'll admit I go for eggs when available.

While the Italian colonizers were only here for like, five years, it was enough time for the Ethiopians to take the best of what they had to offer: pizza, pastries and aqua con gas. We've only been in Kenya for 1 day and I already miss Ambo! They have it everywhere, it's just seltzer water, but it's a nice constant in a country who's landscape and people change so dramatically from region to region.

The pizza in Ethiopia is GREAT, and every other storefront is a pastry shop. Granted, you can point at any slice of cake, no matter what it's shaped like or what color it is, it will turn out to be lemon cake - but that's beside the point.. it's GOOD! And it's everywhere. Donuts too! (Which reminds me of a very off color joke told to me years ago: What's the easiest way to exterminate the entire population of Ethiopia? Throw a donut off a cliff. I HOPE YOU'RE NOT LAUGHING).

Also, to make my mom proud, we found the only Thai restaurant in Addis, and ate there our last day. Guess what? It was really good. Everything tasted authentic and we were joined in the dining room by two tables of Thai people, so you know it must have been the real deal. It was even better than the Thai food we had in Cairo. And significantly more spicy than Thai food served stateside.

So all the jokes about food and lack of food in Ethiopia are totally off the mark, the food here is great, I didn't get sick once, and not EVERYTHING is hellishly spicy. I have a feeling I might even miss the Ethiopian fasting plate here in Kenya... We'll see! Tomorrow we're headed for the coast!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

In which I almost redeem my repatriation of remains clause

So far here are the words I know in Amharic:
Ah mah seken aloo = thank you!
Bekka = enough
Selam = hello
Cuss ba Cuss = slowly, slowly (you have to really accentuate the C sound to get it right)
This last phrase I used copiously on our 3 day hike up into the Simien Mountains in north west Ethiopia. We hiked 22 miles up to almost 4,000 meters above sea level. My lungs felt like they were going to explode and ooze out of my body, leaving me a sad, dirty, windblown corpse. Luckily, we were accompanied by a guide (who spoke english) and a scout (who did not). The scout, with his intimidating looking gun (what was he protecting us from? babboons? kids who coveted our water bottles?). He became my pesonal bodyguard and best friend of the trip. I vacillated between dramatic huffing abd pugging, to accentuate my struggle and apologetic looks that he had to wait for me. We bonded over Beyonce on my iPod as I tried to catch my breath.
Despite my proximity to unglamorous death, it was really a wonderful time (sorry no pictures! I'm still in Ethiopia! land of the slowest internet connection ever!) And I felt a really great sense of accomplishment upon finishing our third day, alive.
I have a lot to say about Ethiopia. None of it terribly cohesive. So here's a list:

* They really love empty water bottles here. But it feels weird giving someone your trash, even though you know that they want it. It's hard to get used to, and feels vaguely insulting. But they ask for them constantly.
* The food is super good. I'll be sad to leave. I haven't gotten sick once (knock on wood) and have even started branching out to salads and raw food!
* There is a really awsome blanket culture here. Especially up in the mountains. People walk around wrapped in blankets all day long. I wish it was culturally appropriate in the states. How awesome would THAT be? (answer: totally awsome)
* Ethiopia is not for the faint of heart. As in the physically faint of heart. There is a LOT of uphill walking to be done, even just to get around in a very basic way. Also the sights are usually strategically located up a massive mountain that takes an hour or so to walk up (especially if your speed is cuss ba cuss like me)
* Little kids love love love practicing their English here. They usually just know "hi" or "good morning" but today Lisa and I hiked up to see a monastary (up a mountain, I wasn't kidding about that) and when school got out at least 35 kids asked me what time it was. Because they had just learned it in class.
* Kids also know how to ask you for stuff. Water bottles are the most popular request, but sometimes they just want some water (which is easily shared). In the Simiens the kids would come up behind you and whisper "water, waaater, waaaater" or something ot that effect and it was really creepy. Now I like to creep up behind Lisa and say "satan, saaaatan, saaaaaaaaaatan". It hink things like this happen after 5 weeks of uninterrupted togetherness.

So those are my thoughts currently. Sorry they're not more cohesive. I wish I could post pictures because I have a lot of really amazing ones... but I can't! It's Ethiopia for Christ's sake! Which brings me to my next point. We're in Lalibela now, home of the rock hewn churches that King Lalibela made in the 13th century to be a "second Jeruselum" which is kind of weird, made weider as you tour the churches and the guide is like "This is where Christ was crucified, this is where he was born" etc etc. And it's like... uhm.. but he WASN'T actually born here! It's like an ancient Disney World for Jesus lovers, I guess. Tomorrow is Ethiopian Good Friday, so that should be even more interesting. Or disturbing. Depending how you look at it!
I leave here Saturday and then have about 3 more days in Addis and then it's off to Kenya!
xoxo erin.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Joys of Bathtime in Ethiopia

So. Internet is so slow in Ethiopia, I have sent this blog post to the always lovely Naomi to post for me. Pictures would be nice, but that's LAUGHABLE...

Unlike picking your nose or playing solitaire, a cold water bucket shower is something that I think would be much more fun with a partner. With someone you lust after, it maybe could be a really sexy thing. When done alone in the darkness of your blacked out hotel room on the shores of Lake Tana, it's just sort of cold and messy. I contemplated more than once why I insisted on growing my hair so long, why the bucket is so freaking small, how many trips it will take from the drain to the faucet to sufficiently clean my body, etc etc.

However, it did get me clean. And I WAS on the shores of Lake Tana PLUS I totally saw a wild hippo that afternoon!

More to come... very slowly...

xoxo Erin

Friday, April 3, 2009

egyptian recycling

So. Our Ten Thousand Villages - EGYPT stop was to visit a really nice woman named Linda from the MCC (Mennonite Central Committee... before we continue, please don't hold it against me if I get some details like names and things wrong... I'm only human and I didn't write anything down, and Lisa's not sitting beside me to confirm if I'm correct... that said...) who took us into a community of garbage collectors in the outskirts of Cairo.

In Cairo a certain percentage of waste is collected by independent garbage collectors, for something like 5 Egyptian pounds a month. The guy comes every week and takes the haul back to his house (in this community, in other communities the garbage is taken waaay outside the city and sorted there) where he and his family sort through it salvage about 95% of it, while discarding the rest. The salvaged material is sorted into... plastic bottles... cans... fibers... organic matter ... cardboard... plastic... paper etc. He then sells those items to a specialized collector in that same community who recycles it for further use.

Ten Thousand Villages purchases really neat rugs and bags that are made in a compound in the community out of recycled cloth. It's cut into strips and woven to make really pretty bags (they'd make great beach bags). Additionally they make paper out of salvaged materials. You can buy their stuff at http://www.tenthousandvillages.com/ (and you SHOULD).

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. I was actually expecting much worse living conditions than what we found in the community. It is definitely it's own little world, tucked away from the rest of Cairo society. Most of the people living there are Christians (which is, obviously, not the norm ANYWHERE else in Cairo), and the community itself is very insular. They have their own hospital, schools, church etc. And I guess it would be unwise to underemphasize the squalor that these people have to put up with (no pictures though, Linda gave us a tour but asked that we not take pictures as it makes the people living there rightfully angry at being photographed dirty and living such a dirty lifestyle).

There was trash EVERYWHERE. People generally would sort trash in the first story of their house, and live above it on the next level. They generally also keep cows, pigs etc on the first floor to eat the organic matter they can find. Swarms, and swarms of flies everywhere. Lots of kids covered in blackish dust and muck. The stench was pretty much what you'd expect. Linda told us that in another community like the one we saw, they discovered that a group of kids were getting these weird chronic illnesses in large numbers... the found out that the community had been making toys out of recycled hospital waste... The whole thing is a public health crisis.

That said, I was really impressed at the level of organization in the community itself. The garbage collectors, while social outcasts, actually make a more steady, reliable living than a lot of the lower class in Cairo. They are looked down upon (they're considered a step above beggars), but they are actually fairly economically stable. From what we saw, everyone was pretty well fed, safe and relatively happy. It was much better than what I was expecting.

Also... think about recycling 95% of what we throw away! It's inconcievable. It really makes you think twice about what you put in the trash here...

That's it from Egypt.. we're headed to Ethiopia tomorrow to stay at the famed $4 a night Wutma Hotel! 24 hour hot water! I have a feeling posting there will be a bit more difficult (pictures may be impossible from here on out), but we'll see!

Hope all is well back home!

Here's an aerial of the community we saw. If you zoom in (however you do that) you can get a bit of a sense of the neighborhood. Pigs in the back yard, trash everywhere, goats on the roof... etc. Sorry it's the only one! Go buy some recycled fabric bags!

Israel & Egypt in Pictures

Oma and her friend at Kfar Blum Kibbutz, Israel

Ladies at Sindyanna making an order of Ten Thousand Villages olive oil soap... get yours at tenthousandvillages.com!

The Yokel family survives the trek up Mosada.

More pictures here because these computers are too slow to upload!


Baksheesh & Bureaucracy

Erin and I have now been in Egypt for about two weeks and are leaving tomorrow. We are traveling in a group of eight here – my dad and his wife Joanne, Erin and her parents Kathy and Uri, and Joanne’s friends Bob and Jim.

Arriving in Egypt from Israel was a surreal experience. The juxtaposition of the two societies is stark – Israel is a culture that thrives on order, while Egypt is a culture that thrives on informal chaos and a fairly laid back (some would call it inefficient) approach to life. The extreme lack of order and organization in Egyptian society, and particularly in Cairo, is especially stressful for us Westerners who are overwhelmed by the constant smog, noise, traffic, crowds and ever-present vendors trying to hawk their wares at every corner.

Our first breakfast in Egypt was at a small café in Zamalak, the middle-class neighborhood where our hotel is located (and where I used to live when I studied abroad here). Kathy, Uri, Dad, Joanne, Erin and I each ordered a coffee drink and a croissant. Our waiter took dutiful notes – two small cappuccinos with whip, two large cappuccinos without whip, one café Americano with cream and one small latte. Thirty minutes later, after we witnessed 6 bumbling waiters hemming and hawing over the espresso machine we were presented with 6 absolutely identical coffee drinks. The Egyptian word, “Ma’alesh,” which loosely translates to “no worries” came to mind.

It’s amazing to think that in America a Starbucks barista probably could have single-handedly produced 6 times that many coffee drinks with an equal number of custom variations within the same time frame. But then again, in all of that efficiency that we are so accustomed to, we often miss out on the opportunity to really live in the moment and stop to enjoy leisurely meals with good friends, family and good conversation.

My flight from Cairo to Aswan was another priceless Egyptian experience. The rest of the group was traveling on a separate flight a day after me, so I arrived at the Cairo airport by myself at around 8 p.m. for a 10:20 p.m. flight and planned to get a hotel room for myself in Aswan to meet the group the following day for our 4 night cruise down the Nile from Aswan to Luxor.

After standing in line for about 30 minutes to get to the check-in counter, I finally made it to the counter only to be told that my flight was “suspended” due to sand storms in Aswan. When I asked what “suspended” meant, (was my flight cancelled? Delayed… if so, till when?) the response from the EgyptAir representative was “no comment.” At that point I knew it was going to be a long night. So, I went with the throngs of other people to stake out a spot on the hard metal benches and wait…and wait…. My flight’s departure time came and went without so much as an announcement or notice on any of the screens. Eventually, at about 2 a.m. I decided I was probably in for the long haul and decided to try to sleep. Of course, as soon as I fell asleep I was awoken by a mad rush over to the check-in gates.

I assumed that we had clearance to depart so I joined the throng of people jostling up to the counters to check our luggage. The one thing about Egyptian airports is that there are conspicuously few lines. It’s more like a giant scrum with people shoving and pushing – everyman (or woman) for himself (or herself). Since there are few official announcements most of the best information comes word-of-mouth from other travelers who have gleaned bits and pieces of information from varying sources with sometimes dubious credentials. Eventually I checked my bags and was herded into a lounge area for a gate. Of course with all of the rush I assumed that we would be departing any minute. Even though it was the middle of the night, I still figured this was good timing and that I’d have plenty of time to take a quick cat nap at a hotel before checking into our cruise boat.

4 hours later, at about 6:30 a.m. we still hadn’t made any progress and eventually there was another mass migration (everyone following one another like sheep with no real authoritative information to go by) – this time we were ushered out of the building into another terminal entirely and into a new check-in area.

By this point we had been in and out of security at least 6 times. Our new gate had a metal detector at its entrance, but we quickly discovered that the security guards at the entrance could care less whether it beeped or not – so eventually all of us tourists who are used to the usual airport strip down (shoes & belts off, laptops out, liquids contained and out, no jackets, etc…) took our cues from the locals and began to walk freely through the metal detectors bags and all – back and forth to the bathrooms and a meager selection at the café. (Sidenote: This complete lack of security has been a constant theme throughout the trip – there are guards, metal detectors and bags at almost every hotel and historic monument, but the guards always wave us through – a continuous BEEP BEEP BEEP as cameras, bags and people flow through unchecked. I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t better ways to spend the money that is clearly wasted on buying equipment and employing guards.)

At 10:30 a.m. the next morning, just as desperation was starting to set in amongst our weary group we finally got clearance to fly…14 hours after arriving at the airport. I made it to Aswan just in time to catch our cruise ship. Again, the whole experience seemed to be epitomized by the sentiment, “Ma’alesh” – I’m re-learning how to go with the flow and enjoy these opportunities to meet people and bond through a shared experience.

It takes an equal level of patience to deal with the constant barrage of vendors asking for “baksheesh” (tips) for a variety of services (ranging from pointing you in the wrong direction to providing two sheets of toilet paper at the bathrooms) and cheap knick-knacks for sale. Everyone we pass on the streets asks us the same questions – “Hello, Bonjour, Hola… Where are you from?” and when we respond “America” we are greeted with enthusiastic replies of “Ahh…. Barak Obama!” It’s a welcome change from the response of “Ahh… Bush:(” I was greeted with 4 years ago!

All of these frustrations aside, Egypt also has a lot of wonderful aspects as well. I love being able to use my muddled Arabic to talk to people and bargain in the markets. We’ve had some really lovely experiences talking to cab drivers, felucca captains and tour guides. We’ve eaten delicious meals at hip restaurants in Cairo, had a picnic lunch on the banks of the Nile, stumbled into delightful hole-in-the-wall fiteer and koshri shops in Cairo and Luxor. The ancient tombs and temples are breathtaking and we were even able to take a hike along the ridge over the awe-inspiring Queen Hatchepsut’s temple (she was a kick-ass feminist before her time!).

Next stop… Ethiopia!

(Hatchepsut's Temple)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

driving in egypt

I think it would be inaccurate to say that drivers in Egypt are maliciously aggressive. I am a very aggressive driver. I drive too fast, I tailgate, I cut people off, on occasion I roll the window down and do some shouting. I'm the first to admit that when behind the wheel, I'm a raging bitchmachine.

Drivers in Egypt exude a kind of benevolent aggression. There's yelling, and fist shaking on occassion, but no one really seems to take it to heart. No one gets real red in the face.
HOWEVER, their manner of driving is one of the most insanely terrifying spectacles I've yet to encounter in my lifetime. And it's not just one asshole who's driving like a maniac, it's a COUNTRY of assholes driving like maniacs. In fact, I think I should put "driving" in quotes to really convey how loosely this style of "driving" resembles what we call driving in the US.
There is no concept of lanes, anywhere. It's just a swarming mass of cars constantly weaseling in front of each other, sometimes 3 across sometimes 5 across... it's nuts. NUTS. In addition, when a small space opens up in front of the "car pack" (kind of like a wolf pack, only way more scary), EVERY car floors it to fill the hole, and stops just short of total destruction.
If you think that's bad, try CROSSING the street. There are really no crosswalks (ok maybe a few, but those are located in places where you don't even really need them), and there are defintely none bisecting the biggest, most crowded roads. It's like a live action game of Frogger with no extra lives. You basically just have to take a deep breath and step into swiftly moving traffic, hoping that you won't get flattened by the public buses that are packed like sardines, or the men (and babies, BABIES) on motorbikes with no helmets (ever, even on the BABIES).
It's therefore very suprising to me that I have not been involved in any accidents, I haven't even seen anyone else get into an accident. This leads me to believe that Islam must be the one true path to God, because someone must be protecting Egyptians from killing each other regularly with their automobiles.


I don't really have any good pictures to illustrate this phenomenon... this is the only real "driving" picture I have, of a bunch of camels in front of our taxi driver's cab. He got really super excited and ordered me to take a picture, and then started imitating camel noises. EVERY time he saw a camel he would get excited, pull the cab over and make me take a picture. It was pretty funny.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

i have typhoid in my stomach!

it's swimming around with my oatmeal. I think it's giving me a headache too.

Monday, March 23, 2009

all I know in arabic

shukran - thank you
la - no
ihh ter ah mik naf sik - behave yourself

I made Lisa teach me that last one on the plane when she was saying that sometimes Egyptian men come up to you and say "F--k me!" and things like that because you're a western lady, and I decided I wanted something sassy to say back instead of just blushing and being speechless. I haven't had to use it yet. I will post if I do. I hope I can pull it off.

first impressions of cairo.

after that mega picture post I want to go to bed. but, we're leaving cairo tomorrow morning to aswan, which will be the start of our cruise up (down? the nile is a confusing river... it runs north!) the Nile, and I think internet will be spotty from here on out. so...

Cairo is a smelly (burning oil from the old cars), dirty (really really dusty... it's a desert! but also excrement and cigarette smoke), crowded (I think like 11 million people live in Cairo proper, which is really nuts, I think more people live here then in all the rest of Egypt combined, but Lisa will have to confirm) town. I have to say I was COMPLETELY overwhelmed just driving from the airport to the hotel. While Lisa went for a walk, I bunkered down in the hotel, took a shower and watched American TV to comfort myself. We went to dinner and were approached by a zillion people wanting to show us how to get where (for a fee of course, running theme in Egypt). Additionally I wore a skirt (to the knees!) and felt totally uncomfortable... it was really too much for me. Sensory overload.

But after spending today out and about, while I think my first impressions are totally valid, I also think it's been an important lesson in not judging a country solely by the first few hours you're there. As it turns out, Cairo is also a beautiful, ancient, lively city full of people who will go out of their way to help you if you look lost and really want you to enjoy your time here (sure it may be because then they'll have people to pay their taxi fees, and buy their scarves... but I don't think that makes it any less pleasant).

So, while my eyes are still stinging from being outside today, and I'm totally put off and intimidated by the aggressive nature that pervades the big markets and major tourist spots... I also saw one of the most beautiful mosques of all time, and was led on a completely free tour of a coptic christian church by a woman who was just hanging out there waiting for someone to share her knowledge with. I guess maybe that's how it goes in any country in the world... some good stuff... some bad stuff... some good people ... some bad people... It's the same everywhere. Kinda comforting. For me anyway.

hazy, dirty town.

this isn't even the crowded part of the market. this is just where they ease you in to being in a crowded space and then after walking for 5 minutes you're completley penned in. this guy tried to pickpocket me but little did he know I don't keep anything in my pockets but dirty tissues. BURNED.

doors of coptic christian church

the most beautiful mosque. Lisa will post the name later, I'm not so good at those kinds of things. (EDIT: Al-Azhar... way to go Mama Rodriguez)

you have to take your shoes off to go into a mosque. kind of grody at first, but it's not like you eat with your feet. and cold marble feels gooood to a naked foot.

inside the mosque. each of those little rectangles is where they (the men, the woman part was tiny and not this luxurious) kneel, there are 12,000 "spaces" in this mosque. I wish I could remember the name, but it's one of the most important of all time and it is the highest center for the learning of islam in the world. my dad says it's "very highly regarded" but neither of us can remember the name (we're infidels), and we're both too lazy to look it up in the book. I swear, Lisa will eventually fill in the blanks.

on the top of the mosque. so many minarets!

look at those two policemen holding hands! it's not weird here in Cairo for guys to do that. however, a lady's naked head? SCANDAL.