Tuesday, December 13, 2011

My Top Fives

Canal de Pangalanes, Madagascar (MK)

Rie tells me that when I get back to the USA in a few days, people will ask me which place--out of all the places we went this year--I liked the best. I can’t begin to answer that. I loved many places for many reasons, and I often felt that the most amazing thing was that we were getting to make this trip at all. 

But thinking about that question brought a flood of great experiences to mind. I know that when I get home, it’s going to be hard for me not to rattle on and on and on about the trip to anyone who will listen—and equally hard to zero in on the key moments. So here’s a first stab at that:

Five Great Days

With Annie in Mendoza. (MK)
  • The day Miguel took me to his hometown, the tiny village of Inguilpata, Peru. I felt privileged to be invited briefly into a way of life so different from my own.
  • Any day on our five-day wilderness hike in southern Chile. My fit, athletic big sister does stuff like this—I don’t. On this trek I discovered that actually I could too.
  • Our bicycle tour around the vineyards of Mendoza, Argentina with my daughter and Rie’s younger son. I can’t believe I never wrote about this outing—it was pure fun in excellent company.
  • Our pirogue tour along the Canal de Pangalanes in Madagascar. Though we got off on the wrong foot with our guide, we ended up having a blissful day with zero travel stress.
  • Day One of a three-day trip to some remote villages in northern Mozambique. Volunteering at Manda Wilderness gave me the rare chance to do meaningful work in stunning surroundings—and sitting on the sand watching the sun go down, I was very grateful for that.

Five Memorable Meals

Honorable Mention--the indoor asado at our hostel in El Bolsón, Argentina, where Claudio (the chef) laid the food on the table and said, "Attack!" (KK)

  • Potato soup, guinea pig haunches, and sweet, strong coffee at the Aristas’ home in Inguilpata, Peru. Everything we ate was grown or raised right on their hillside patch of land—and boy, was it good!
  • Minced beef and olive empanadas at Bar Britanico, a decades-old wood-and-brass neighborhood café in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina. While I ate, I watched lovers woo and old men drink coffee and argue about politics.
  • The lovely brunch in Somerset West, South Africa with Mariette DuPlessis, who had loaned us her family’s home in Hermanus for a week. For dessert, she gave us melktert (custard pie) and koeksisters (twisted, syrup-covered doughnuts), foods that till then I’d only read about in novels.
  • Any one of many dinners that ended with Nkwichi pudding—a simple tangy-lemon dessert with a crushed cookie crust—at a torch lit table on the beach in Mozambique, with the sky over Lake Malawi black and full of stars.
  • My budget-friendly comfort food routine in Chiang Mai, Thailand: stir-fried big noodles with chicken and veggies from one night-time street stall and a banana pancake from the next stall over. I’d hand each vendor one of the empty steel dishes from my tiffin carrier, then sit between the stalls on a plastic stool, people-watching until the dishes came back full.

Five Crummy Moments

It was called the Hotel Great Value--really! (MK)

  • Heading across the bridge from Ecuador to Peru, having already been stamped out of Ecuador, and discovering that we couldn’t legally enter Peru.
  • Standing at an ATM in Dehradun, India, low on cash, having just put my card into the machine, when the power suddenly failed, the screen went blank and the card was gone.
  • Sitting in a Dehradun hotel room after changing rooms once already because the door of the first room didn’t lock, and hearing a crash. It turned out the bathroom ceiling had collapsed and the tub was now full of drywall pieces and gypsum dust.
  • Riding exhausted in the front seat of a mini-bus in Mozambique, hearing a thwap! and knowing, just knowing, that my computer bag had flown out onto the highway through the faulty back door. It had.
  • Later that same day—having retrieved the bag from the highway and declined to let the chapa conductor put it back under a big dead catfish in the back of the van—walking into one of the trip’s nicer hotels gritty with dust, stinking of sweat, with fish scales clinging to what once was a respectable looking piece of luggage.

Five Things I Wish I’d Done Differently

But people speak English all over the world, don't they? (Andasibe, Madagascar, KK)

  • Planned ahead more. We read a lot about South America ahead of time and we figured we’d read about subsequent places while we traveled. What we didn’t realize was that when you’re in a new place, you want to BE in that place—and that it takes a lot of mental energy to find your way around, learn bits of a new language, see and do and eat new things. We didn’t have the headspace to read much about Africa and Asia before we went there, and that was a shame.
  • Brought a better camera. I had a cheap point-and-shoot and when I ruined it in the rain on Lake Titicaca, I bought another cheap point-and-shoot. Yes, it’s a pain to lug around heavy camera equipment, and yes, you have to protect it from dust, rain and theft. But so many times on this trip I saw things I just couldn’t photograph with the camera I had on hand.
  • Joined a few carefully selected tours. We chose to make all our own transportation and accommodation arrangements, which probably saved us money and definitely resulted in many wonderful encounters, insights and experiences. Traveling like the local people do gives you a glimpse of their lives that you just can't get from an air-conditioned tourist van. But we also had days when we arrived at our destination too exhausted to be interested in what was around us. Letting somebody else do the planning now and then would have saved some wear and tear. 
  • Built in more down time. When you travel for an extended period, you just can't keep up the pace you might during a two- or three-week vacation. We learned this eventually, though it never felt quite right to "waste" a day when there was so much around us to do.
  • Learned more language before the trip. I found it impossible to even think about studying Portuguese in a Spanish-speaking country. It was hard enough to study Spanish in a Spanish-speaking country! I wish that before I left home I had mastered at least the basic phrases in each language we were going to encounter. Even stammering out “hello,” “goodbye,” “please” and “thank you” makes a world of difference. Very often, knowing just a little more would have let me have real conversations.

Five Realizations

Getting a parcel wrapped for mailing in India means going to a street vendor who sews it up in white linen and seals it with red wax. (KK)

  • Slow is good. The places I remember most clearly are the ones where we stayed a while and did ordinary things—bought groceries, browsed bookstores, paid for phone service—rather than just saw the sights.  
  • The world is really big. We went so many places—and we saw just a tiny fraction of all there is to see.
  • You might as well be optimistic. When you travel, so many things are beyond your control that you can either be paralyzed or take the positive view. Staying hopeful is less tiring—and it’s almost always warranted.  
  • It's tricky to balance trust and caution. In some places you have to develop a thousand-yard stare to ward off all those who will clamor for your attention, your business, your coins, pens, sweets or whatever. Almost everywhere, you have to be alert to avoid theft and scams. But sometimes the guide you hire because his persistence wore you down turns out to be excellent. Sometimes the kid who is Bonjour-madame!-ing you to death just wants to say hi. If you’re too distant and too careful, you miss out on the little exchanges that make travel so much fun.  
  • Wherever you’re thinking of going, go now! Your knees will only get creakier. And that thing people say about how it can be cheaper to go than to stay at home? I never used to believe it either, but it's true! It's true!

    Saturday, December 10, 2011



    It’s been fascinating on this trip to hear what people in various countries have to say about the USA. First, though, we had to figure out how to refer to the place where we live. In South America—which is America too—we were very careful to say “We’re from the United States.” Actually, I learned in Peru to say “Soy norteamericana,” which I liked because it encompassed both my Canadian childhood and my adult home. But when we told people in Africa and Asia that we were from the United States, they’d sometimes look puzzled for a second and then say, “Oh! America!”

    Occasionally someone would make a critical comment about American geo-politics, but usually they were too polite. More often they’d mention someone—a cousin, a niece, a son—who was studying in the US. Or maybe they’d say, “I want to go there someday.”  Frequently they asked what we thought of Obama and barely waited for our reply before sharing their own enthusiasm and admiration. 

    A young South African man was astonished to hear there’s a lot of interest in organic food in the USA. He didn’t say so, but I gather his impression was that all we eat—and all we want to eat—are genetically modified organisms and the products of vast chemical-spewing agribusinesses.

    A man who ran a little restaurant in Antananarivo, Madagascar couldn’t believe he was talking to people from America. “It is so far!” he said in French, the look on his face expressing real shock. Then, after a pause, he added, “Everybody is intelligent there.” We laughed. “Well,” we said, “some are, some aren’t.”

    In Peru one day, I got into a discussion with my Spanish teacher—an intelligent, university-educated man—about access to medical care for poor people in each of our countries. “Are there poor people in the United States?” he asked me, clearly surprised.

    A well-traveled professor we met on a train in India exclaimed that when he visited the United States he encountered “such respect for life!” He wasn’t talking about a religious viewpoint, it turned out—he was talking about traffic. “I started across a zebra crossing,” he told us, “and suddenly I saw a car was coming towards me. ‘What should I do?’ I asked myself. ‘Should I go back to the sidewalk?’ But the car stopped and the driver did this”—he made a motioning-across gesture. “And I saw that behind her were many more cars. And they all waited for me to go across!” Having experienced Indian city streets—where, the joke goes, you need to hire a rickshaw to cross the street—we understood why the incident seemed so remarkable to him. But I also thought he was lucky he hadn’t been on some US street corners I know.

    Obama-wear was everywhere we went in Africa. His face was on ties, t-shirts, backpacks, belts. Some of the clothing may have been donated by US charities, but some—the sarongs printed with his face, for instance—sure looked locally made. It seemed that people there were proud of him and of the fact his father was Kenyan. It seemed they wanted the world to know he was one of their own.
    The influence of American pop culture was dismayingly widespread. Our guide in the empty wilderness at the southern tip of Chile turned out to be a big fan of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” A waitress in a café in northern Peru played a Garth Brooks song about Baton Rouge over and over and over again so she'd be able to sing it in the karaoke bar. And a sunglass-wearing doorman in Madagascar told us that all Americans were very strong--he knew, he had seen "Top Gun." 

    We arrived in Botswana just before the Fourth of July. We’d been gone so long from home—and had encountered so few norteamericanos—that I was thrilled to hear the exuberant white woman hosting the gathering we’d been invited to address another guest as “Sugar Pie.” Americans! And not just Americans—Southerners! We introduced ourselves and were hugged and welcomed and pulled into a volleyball game, all of which bolstered one of the better stereotypes about our citizens abroad. Whatever else we may be, Americans sure are friendly—and at that moment I was very glad of it. 

    In Chiang Mai, Thailand, the man in the optical store was reading my passport information out loud so his coworker could write up a receipt for my glasses. He got to “place of birth,” and a note of envy and longing crept into his voice as he read, “New York, USA.” I felt like saying, “I’m not rich! My life is nowhere near as privileged as you think it is!” But it is. I am tremendously privileged and most of the time I don’t even know it.

    At Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient capital near Agra, India, a young teenager latched onto us in the crowded market just as we realized we’d missed the road leading up to the entrance to the historic site. He insisted on steering us through twisting narrow alleys up the steep hill, chatting all the while in English. “America? Very good country.” And then in a rush of enthusiasm he said, stringing it all together so it sounded like one word, “MichaelJacksonMichaelJordanObama.” He paused, then went on. “Well, Michael Jackson is dead. But do you know Michael Jordan?” The face of a street-smart teenager planning to steer us to a little shop he knew became suddenly naïve and hopeful. “Do you know Obama?”


    Thursday, December 8, 2011

    India, India, India – Part II

    The mosque at Fatehpur Sikri (KK)

    More first impressions of a complicated country:
    •  Qutb Minar, a 12th century religious complex built around a tall stone minaret, was my first close-up encounter with Indo-Islamic architecture. I found the buildings incredibly beautiful—the proportions, the red and buff colored sandstone, the sweeping calligraphic inscriptions around the gates. Every possible surface was ornately decorated, every object designed to be both beautiful and meaningful. It was pouring rain when we visited, and somehow the hurrying crowds with their bright saris and colorful umbrellas made the experience even more affecting. Their presence in the rain seemed to underline how much the visitors wanted to be there, how important the site was to them.

    The Taj Mahal near sunset. (KK)

    • The main road in Dehradun plunged us into our first full-on experience of Indian-style urban anarchy. First we rode in a jerky, black-smoke-belching moto-rickshaw that honked incessantly and jostled for position in a sea of motorbikes, cars and more rickshaws. People drove on whichever side of the road they felt like and narrowly missed each other on blind corners, while cattle, shoppers, vendors and beggars strolled in and among the vehicles. Later, we learned that walking along that road was even worse than driving—it required unflagging alertness lest you be waylaid by a persistant beggar, hit from behind by a motorcycle, sucked into a political procession or tripped into the roadside ditch by an off-kilter slab of cement sidewalk.
    • The Navdanya teaching farm near Dehradun was a quiet, green oasis. At regular intervals, the call to prayer floated through the windows from the mosques nearby, eerie and amplified across the rice fields and mango orchards. Some mornings, we sat on the floor of the seed bank with sari-clad local women and sorted red beans or grains of barley using wide shallow sorting trays made from reeds. One smiling, deft young woman tried and tried to improve my technique, but I never got anywhere near as quick and thorough as she was. At night, when the power failed and tiny frogs explored the concrete floor of our room, we’d lie on our hard beds trying to read as insects swarmed our headlamps and booms resounded through the dark. It turned out the night watchmen were setting off explosives to scare monkeys and wild pigs away from the crops and back into the nearby jungle. 


    • Rie went out walking near Navdanya one day, and a young girl came up to her. “I wanted to meet someone from another country!” she said. They got talking and before Rie knew it, she was invited to meet the girl’s family, to have tea, and to bring me along for another visit the next day. They showed us around their home and their family’s shrine. They introduced us to aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. Even the grandmother who didn’t speak English sat with us and smiled. “You’re family friends now,” the girl’s mother told us. “If you come back again, you will stay with us.”


    • I mentioned to one of the employees at the farm that I was having trouble sleeping and he said, “You must meditate before you go to bed. Then you will sleep.” And later he sat with some of us and showed us the basics. I wish I could say my insomnia was cured—it wasn’t—but the matter-of-factness of his advice made me wonder why I’ve never explored Eastern paths to peace. Why act like a Westerner and carry all this stress around?
    • Our train to Allahabad arrived early, and we were out on the platform when I saw my friend Sonjoy coming toward us, dressed in a blue tunic and loose pants, smiling widely and looking much as he did 16 years ago in Baton Rouge. It’s always a tremendous pleasure to see old friends, and in this case that was especially true. Sonjoy and his wife Nandini are warm, welcoming, smart people, and so much fun to be around. Years ago, I witnessed the grace and strength with which they weathered a trauma, and it did my heart good to see that many positive things have happened in their lives since then. Being in their home allowed me to get to know them in a way that was never possible before, and they opened themselves to us generously. They shared family photographs and family stories and introduced us to many of the people in their lives—relatives, friends, former students, current students. They took us out to meet colleagues and to a big, festive party to celebrate the first shaving of a friend's brother's baby boy’s head. They took us to Sarnath to visit temples and an archeological museum and the spot where the Buddha preached his first sermon. And they took us out on the Ganges at nightfall so we could watch people launch little floral prayer boats at Varanasi. Near the end of our stay, Sonjoy shared poems he’d written, and Nandini impulsively gave me a kurta of hers. I was very touched, not just because I really liked both the poems and the tunic, but because they were in their different ways very personal gifts, and the giving of them the sort of gesture you make only with really close friends. 

    • Our first morning in Allahabad, we all got up very early to go with one of Sonjoy and Nandini’s friends to the Triveni Sangam, the holy confluence where the Yamuna River meets the Ganges and the Sarasvati, the invisible river of myth. It was the day after a festival, and the muddy shore by the fort was packed with people, some just milling about, others under tarps near which were long poles topped with brightly colored flags. Sonjoy hired a wooden boat and the young boatman rowed us out onto the water, which was murky from the monsoon. Whitish, unhealthy looking bubbles floated on the surface, along with coconut shells, plastic bags, bits of tinsel, some dark blobs I didn’t really want to identify, and bundled-straw deities left over from the day before. A rowdy crowd of men splashed and shouted in the water near shore. Further out, though, it was clean and very peaceful, despite all the packed boats headed for the holy spot. In the pale, early morning light, in the clear devotion of people slipping out of their boats to bathe where the waters mixed, you could sense something ancient and sacred and moving and real. That juxtaposition—the rowdiness and the spirituality, the grubbiness and the serenity, the shouting crowd and the deep, quiet pleasure of being with dear friends—stayed with me. It’s impossible to sum up India in one image, but for me this moment comes close.

      Wednesday, December 7, 2011

      India, India, India - Part I

      We left India in mid-October, and for a month and a half I have been trying to sort out my jumbled reactions. India was splendid, India was sobering. It was delightful and difficult, heartwarming and utterly baffling. The more I try, the harder I find it to write coherently about our time there. So I’m throwing up my hands and throwing out some random impressions. Here's the first batch:
      • Other travelers’ accounts had led us to expect an onslaught of beggars, heat and nasty smells the moment we came through the airport doors in New Delhi. But the brand new terminal we arrived at held us a little longer in the gleaming insulated bubble of air travel. There was no onslaught, no clamor. And from the back of an air-conditioned taxi, the roadside scene didn’t seem any more challenging than, say, New York’s Chinatown. 
      • Cattle in the streets—check. Piles of litter—check. But we’d seen these things in other countries, and it was other details that stood out as distinctly Indian. Women in saris rode sidesaddle on the backs of motorbikes. A wooden rickshaw with a school’s name hand-painted on the side carried six little girls wearing immaculate uniforms and black braids tied with ribbons. A policeman with a rifle on his back directed traffic from a pedestal with a permanent umbrella over it.
      • It didn’t take us long to make our first cultural blunder. Changing planes in Mumbai, we obliviously got into the Gents security line and were sternly redirected to the Ladies line. It turns out that women in India get wanded by a female security guard in a tile-lined booth—the first of many gender divisions we would encounter.
      • The elaborate plantings in New Delhi’s parks and in front of its big hotels seemed incredibly green and lush after dry season Africa. And as we were touring the city on our second day, we were caught in a deluge—a tremendous, sky-opening downpour—that surrounded our taxi with grey walls of rain. Almost instantly, the roads developed small lakes and the cars and rickshaws forging through left arcing wakes behind them. I suddenly realized why some people talk with pleasure about the monsoon season. I hadn’t been in a real rainfall for months, and the abrupt reprieve from the steamy heat was exhilarating.
      • As our visit went on, we had no choice but to adjust our ideas about personal space. At first, I was startled when, say, a fellow passenger on a train reached over and moved the book I was reading closer to him so he could see it better. And I had to laugh when a waiter in Khajuraho pointed to the thin slices of green pepper I'd put to one side of my plate and said, “This is good for health!” A hotel manager in Agra ingenuously summed up the cultural divide. Our first hotel room there opened directly onto the restaurant and the curtains didn’t quite close. When I told him the next morning that we were changing hotels because we needed more privacy, he asked me blankly, “What is privacy?”
      • On train platforms, people slept on the floors or sat in groups on cloths they brought along for the purpose. The smells of urine, sweat, excrement and betel were inescapable. We saw a man turn away from the crowd and pee against a freight train standing in the station, oblivious to the hundreds of people all around him. Meanwhile, others waited to wash, drink or brush their teeth at the trough of cold water on the platform. Despite the challenge of keeping clean, almost all the passengers looked spotless and well turned out, most of the women in saris or the pants-and-tunic outfits called salwar kameez

        • In the stations there were endless staticky announcements in Hindi and English to tell us the trains were running late and to assure us over and over that the inconvenience caused was deeply regretted. Sleeper-class passengers in trains standing at the platform gazed out windows with horizontal bars. They bought tea in paper cups from the chai man when he came along with his big battered kettle or exchanged coins for samosas served through the window on squares of newspaper. Men pushed four-wheeled carts piled high with burlap sacks along the platform. At one less-touristed station, a row of young boys gathered around us the instant we arrived and gaped at us until I shooed them off, suddenly finding myself mimicking the imperious attitude I'd seen some middle class Indians display. At another station, I smiled to see a sign just past the platform that said, “Kite-flying area ends.”
        • From the open door at the end of a train car leaving a city, you see tarp-covered hovels crowding right up against the tracks, then flat, green fields, then the bar of a railway crossing and behind it a cluster of rickshaws, red tractors, bicycles, motorbikes and wooden carts pulled by water buffalo. So much of India is so incredibly crowded that I was always surprised and relieved to see these wide, green spaces.
        • Garbage and filth are everywhere in part because of insufficient infrastructure, but also because many people seemed to have no interest in keeping public areas clean. The walls of a spiffy New Delhi shopping area were stained with red, reeking betel juice. People spit and shat everywhere. Once when the train we were riding was in a station, I walked to the end of the car to put some crumpled Kleenex into the garbage container under the sink there. A man was standing in front of the bin washing his hands, and a railway worker held out his hand for my trash. I gave it to him thinking he’d wait till the man moved away and then put it in the bin. But he didn't--he just tossed the wad of dirty Kleenex out onto the platform.
        • A news item reported that a woman whose husband had run off with a younger woman was set upon by the husband’s relatives, stripped naked and prodded through the streets of her village, the assumption being, apparently, that she was somehow to blame.


          • From a boat on the Ganges at Varanasi, we saw the burning ghats, yellow flames shooting into the night sky and faintly illuminating the grey-white building behind them. The tourist in me automatically reached for my camera before I suddenly realized, wait, these are human beings burning. These are somebody’s relatives. It was disquieting to know each bonfire contained a body—we were too far away to really see that, for which I was glad—but it also struck me that allowing death to be so visible on a daily basis makes for an honest, inclusive view of life.
          To be continued.

          Wednesday, November 16, 2011

          On the Chapa

          At some point during the journey, I told myself that if I made it in one piece, I’d never do this again.

          Ride on the back of a flat-bed truck, that is, crammed in with a couple dozen other people on top of grain sacks, crates of bottles, cloth-wrapped bundles and miscellaneous suitcases, some of which had clothing bursting out where the zipper should be.

          On the way up to Cobué in August, I’d been lucky enough to get a seat in the cab of one of the chapas that carry people and cargo around on the dirt roads of northern Mozambique. But heading south again a month later, I was a few minutes too late for that. When the boat from Nkwichi dropped me at Julius’s backpacker lodge in Cobué, the chapa was already there and the cab was already full. There was nothing for it but to grab the edge of the truckbed, put my foot up on one of the big tires, and clamber into the back.

          Really, I was lucky, I told myself. These trucks run just once or twice a day, and I needed to leave that day to catch a plane in Lichinga, the nearest city. I’d sent a message asking the chapa driver to wait for me, and he had. And as the first person in the back, I could claim a spot with my back to the cab. I put my backpack down on the wooden bed of the truck and sat down on it, tucking my shoulder bag in next to me. With my basket under my knees and my inflatable travel pillow behind me, I was as comfortable as a person can be in the back of a truck.

          The driver and the conductor finished tying down a cluster of yellow plastic gas cans, then the driver got behind the wheel and the conductor held onto the side of the cab. The truck turned around and headed up the steep hill toward the church, which was still battered and roofless from Mozambique’s civil war. 

          The truck stopped and the small crowd waiting there piled on with their bundles and bags. A man in a t-shirt and jeans carried a rifle and a clip of bullets. Women had their heads wrapped in colorful printed cloths and many had babies tied onto their backs with more cloth; most had long skirts made of the same. Nonetheless, they climbed up nimbly and settled themselves in on the mounting pile of cargo. Some people carried bread rolls or ears of corn, and others bought food from the vendors who came to the side of the chapa.

          Maybe 20 people got on. I thought, this isn’t so bad, but of course we were just getting started. We stopped maybe four or five more times before we even left Cobué, more people piling on each time, somehow fitting into the growing pile of humanity and goods. The conductor—the local Portuguese word means “pincer” for the manner in which he takes your money—was gentle at first, passing babies and children and sacks around, pointing out to people where they would fit best. But he got harsher as the loading went on and yelled impatiently at an older woman who didn’t move quickly enough. An impossible number of people ended up on board, more than I could count, all meshed in like a human form of Tetris.

          People were astonishingly patient, cooperating easily to make room, adjusting their positions to fit each other in, taking bundles for people, holding babies while their mothers got settled. Everybody just accommodated each other with no sighing or complaining or jostling for a better spot. We were literally squeezed together, limb pressing against limb, people using each other as armrests. For the first part of the ride, I had the bottom of somebody’s wheeled luggage wedged against my anklebone, a woman’s feet on top of mine, a man’s knees pressing against my side, and the woman’s hand on my thigh. Well, I told myself, the more tightly we’re wedged on, the less likely anybody is to fall off.  

          The road was rough, a narrow, sandy, hilly track through the woods. At times we jounced very near the deep ditches and washouts, the heavily laden truck leaning over precariously. But I had no other way to get to Lichinga, and I got myself into a fatalistic mood. Chances are we’ll make it, I kept telling myself.

          Everyone around me was talking but they spoke Chinyanja and I couldn’t follow or join in. People looked at me curiously when they got on, but after that nobody paid me much attention.

          It was hard not being able to shift position, and after a while my knees and hipbones began to ache. But just when I thought I couldn’t bear it any more, we stopped and the woman whose feet were on mine climbed out of the truck at a mud house. Somebody else got on and we were jammed in again like before, but just being able to move for a moment let the blood flow through my legs again.

          Everyone else seemed totally nonchalant, able to sit quietly in one position. But maybe they were hurting too and just not showing it.

          On and on we jounced. I knew the trip should take about four hours, but I’d learned that in Mozambique it’s better not to pay too close attention to the time. At some point, we stopped for a group of people with three big sacks bulging with manioc root or corn.

          “Sister, stand up!” the conductor called to me in English.

          I wasn’t sure I could. My feet were wedged in again and I wasn’t sure my legs were going to move. But somehow I did stand, and I held onto the top of the cab, my feet on the metal edge of the flatbed wall, while they loaded up the sacks.

          The conductor patted my backpack. “No problem?” he asked.

          “No problem,” I said. “It’s OK.” So he put one of the sacks on top of my backpack and then I had to sit on top of the sack, much higher than I was comfortable with. But I discovered that if I leaned inward a bit and kept one hand on the metal wall, I was secure enough. I kept having to shift the pillow behind me—otherwise, the metal bars between the cab and the flatbed would pound into my back on every jounce—but I managed to stay on.

          Meanwhile, I was saying goodbye to Manda Wilderness, where I’d so happily spent the last five weeks. When we climbed the hills out of Cobué, I got my last glimpses of the wide blue lake. When we passed the junction where we’d come in on Julius’s truck after the village trip a week earlier, I felt a pang of sadness. At the village of Mandambuzi, I saw again the school the trust built and is now expanding.  And a little further south, we passed the spot where my chapa had broken down on the way to Cobué. I thought about how strange and new everything was then, and how familiar it had become, how attached I’ve gotten to this landscape.

          Then my nostalgia and anxiety were relieved in a most unexpected way. Somewhere south of Mandambuzi a mother with a nursing baby tied to her chest climbed on. She had two young boys with her and she tucked them in next to her. But her husband had to cling onto the back of the truck. Hurried by the conductor, he glanced hesitantly at me—a complete stranger and the lone white person on the truck—and apologetically handed me his little daughter. There was nowhere else for her to ride.

          I smiled at him to show him it was all right and settled the little girl, maybe a year and a half old, onto my lap. I wrapped my left arm around her with my hand flat against her round belly to keep her on. Her right leg was bumping against the metal rail and I put my hand down to cushion it. Her mom smiled and gave me a thumb’s up, but one of the little boys kept a close eye on me for miles, apparently wondering whether his sister was in good hands.

          I suppose I was doing the family a favor, but it felt more like one was being done for me. The girl’s solid little weight was oddly comforting, and she was utterly calm. Carrying her and making sure she was secure took my mind off my own safety and made me feel more a part of things, a little less the muzungu lady inexplicably riding the truck. The girl coughed now and then, and when I patted her belly, a thin older lady riding near me smiled.

          The girl picked at the half-ear of corn she was carrying and seemed totally unfazed, and the acceptance of a toddler was surprisingly affirming. People along the road and at the places we stopped seemed surprised to see a white woman with a Mozambican baby on her lap, but the little girl’s mom seemed to enjoy it. She even called out to some people we passed as if she wanted to make sure they saw.

          On and on we went, on and on. The sun was hot now that we were more in the open, and the truck tires slid on the loose sand as we headed down the hills. I could tell the little girl wasn't wearing diapers. I hoped she wouldn't pee on me, and she didn't. In one town we passed through, fabric capulanas flew from long bamboo poles and women and children were gathered in front of a house, one banging a yellow plastic gas can with a stick, others blowing whistles or shaking rattles made from soda cans filled with stones or beans. Maybe it was a holiday or something to do with the All-Africa Games then underway in Maputo.

          I didn’t know. By then I was hot, ravenous, lightheaded and gritty with dust from the road. I think it was at this point that I promised myself that if I got safely to Lichinga, I’d never ride in a chapa again. But holding onto the little girl grounded me, and soon enough, there we were at the intersection that serves as Metangula’s depot and transfer station.  

          I gave the girl back to her dad, climbed down and went off and got lunch—fish, nsima and an orange Fanta in a little market restaurant buzzing with flies. Then I came back to the junction to wait for the mini-bus headed for Lichinga. I didn’t know it yet, but on the next leg of the journey I would get to sit up front on the bench seat next to the driver. And though the shoulder bag holding my laptop would go flying out the back of the mini-bus onto the paved highway, the computer inside would miraculously escape undamaged.

          I’m convinced that those strokes of luck were due to the good wishes of the little girl’s family. I came upon them again at the chapa corner, sitting in the shade under an overhanging grass roof, waiting for their ride to Bandeze.  

          We smiled at each other. I introduced myself as best I could in Portuguese and asked their names.

          Then I asked in a kidding way, “Where’s my little girl?” I could see perfectly well she was on her dad’s lap, but the little boy who’d regarded me so warily on the chapa went and got her. He solemnly brought her over to me, and she climbed onto my lap, utterly unconcerned who held her.

          Soon their chapa came along and we all said goodbye. After he loaded his family up, the dad came back and held out his hand to me, his left hand touching his right elbow in the extra-polite Mozambican gesture of respect. He was speaking seriously in Portuguese and all I really understood was “Obrigado.” I understood he was thanking me for carrying his daughter, but I didn’t know how to say “I enjoyed it, no problem,” much less express how reassuring the little girl's presence had been.

          So I just said “Obrigada” back. Then we wished each other a good voyage and went our separate ways.  


          Tuesday, November 15, 2011

          Into the Wilderness

          A three-day journey in Africa's Siberia.


          Uchesse, Mozambique, August 31 – The sun is going down, a pink ball above the hilly purple silhouette that is Malawi’s Likoma Island. The Miss Nkwichi, the broad, slow-moving wooden boat that brought us here, is moored just off the Mozambique side of Lago Niassa, a.k.a. Lake Malawi. Our five tents are set up on the wide, pale sand beach. Behind them, leafless baobabs stand like giant gray root vegetables stuck upside down in a jumble of underbrush.

          Maaike, Devon and Joseph have just come back from meeting with the elders of the small village just beyond the trees, and Francisco has supper underway on two wood-burning clay stoves. Maybe a dozen kids are sprawled on the beach on their stomachs, leaning on their elbows and watching Yohko and me catch up our journals. For a while the kids pretended they came to the beach to play football with a bundle of plastic tied with string. But soon they were all prone on the sand, staring at us unabashedly. Every time we looked at them, they'd smile. When we looked away, they'd inch closer. Eventually, a few make it all the way to the tents.

          (Maaike van den Bos)
          Three weeks into my stint as a volunteer with the Manda Wilderness Community Trust, I’m tagging along on a trip to some of the more remote villages the trust works with. Maaike, from Holland, is the departing community project manager. She wants to say goodbye to the people she has gotten to know over the last year and introduce Devon, from South Africa, who is replacing her. Joseph, who lives in a nearby village, is the local community liaison. The three of them want to see how the schools that the trust is helping build are coming along, deliver some supplies, and talk with the village chiefs about various bits of business.

          For me, the trip is a chance to see some of the tiny wilderness communities along the lake and up in the hills inland. My job with the trust is to write about their work, and this trek lets me see it first hand. Yohko is a Peace Corps volunteer in another part of Mozambique. She’s a good friend of my daughter's and happened to visit at the right time to come along. With us too are Daniel, a local guide who works at Nkwichi Lodge, the eco-lodge that supports the trust’s work, and two lodge boatmen, one named Daliso, the other also named Joseph.

          This far northern part of Mozambique has so few people that some call it Africa’s Siberia. But scattered villages do exist in these wooded hills and along the wide, empty lake. The villages are connected by a network of footpaths—there are virtually no roads here, just a few barely drivable dirt tracks. We have reached the first few villages by boat. Tomorrow we’ll hike inland to the next village, and if all goes well, we’ll do the last part of the journey in the back of a flat-bed four-wheel-drive truck.

          The calming view from the lake shore is particularly welcome after a full day. Early this morning, we set out in the boat from Nkwichi and traveled about five miles up the lake to our first stop, Chicaia. (See the trip route.) Daniel showed Yohko and me around Chicaia while the others visited the village chief.

          Chicaia, Mozambique. In Manda Wilderness villages, most homes are made from mud bricks, with stick supports and rush grass roofs. (KK)

          Two of Chicaia's great assets--fish and fresh water from Lago Niassa. (KK)

          Inside Chicaia's simple church. (KK)

          The new Chicaia school, which the community and the trust built collaboratively. At first, I didn't find it that impressive--but then I saw the other villages' schools. (KK)

          Yohko and Daniel heading back to the Miss Nkwichi to continue the trip further north to Chigoma. (KK)

          Between Chicaia and Chigoma, a trip of about an hour and a half by boat. (KK)

          Some of Chigoma's kids came down to the beach to greet us with play-fighting stances . . .  (KK)

          . . . or just to welcome us. (KK)

          Like Chicaia, Chigoma is beautifully located, with ample water and plenty of fish to supplement the manioc that is the backbone of the local diet. (KK)

          But the community is badly in need of a new school. This is the present one, made from bamboo and rush grass. Because Mozambique is so poor and because this area is so remote, the government hasn't gotten around to building proper schools here yet. It does provide teachers and books. (KK)

          The meeting with Chigoma’s chief and village elders was long and arduous. When the trust builds a school with a community, it enters into an agreement that requires the villagers to make bricks, build the school walls and contract with a skilled carpenter to put on the roof. The trust provides the materials the local people can’t make—nails, cement, doors, window frames, roof beams and roofing metal—and covers the lion’s share of the carpenter’s fee. But it’s up to the village to negotiate a good price with the carpenter, and because Chigoma hadn’t managed that, their school construction project had ground to a halt. The meeting grew tense when it began to appear the carpenter may have increased his fee because he didn’t believe the village would pay its share—he may have thought all he'd get was the portion the trust provides.

          Some of the village elders, Chigoma. (KK)

          Yet everyone kept talking, and in the end the village leaders decided to reopen the discussion with the carpenter. They hope to assure him they'll come up with their part of the money and get him to agree to a lower fee. 

          Chigoma village leaders meet with Devon, Maaike and Joseph. (KK)

          After the meeting, the chief posed with the clay stoves we'd brought to Chigoma--and a bunch of the local boys decided to get in on the picture. (KK)

          Baobabs along the shore at Chigoma (KK)

          Because the meeting went on so long, we reached Uchesse—about five miles further up the lake—much later than we expected. 

          Daniel and Joseph secured the boat for unloading by sticking one of the paddles into the sand. We pitched our tents for the night just a little further up the beach. (KK)

          September 1

          Our day began at Uchesse at dawn. (KK)
          The local fishermen were up and out well before we were. (KK)

          Breakfast at the campsite. (KK)

          As we set out through the village, we passed several people hard at work. These girls are pounding manioc root. (KK)

          After we left Uchesse, our path took us through gently rising land covered in dry grasses and widely spaced trees, then up a steep trail into the more heavily wooded hills. (KK)

          The footpath is the villagers' main transportation route.

          Once we'd climbed for an hour or two, the path led mainly through flat, dry grassland. (KK)\

          One of many anthills. (KK)

          Along the way we spotted a very unusual gecko. (KK)

          The last part of the walk was very hot and dry, through sparse-looking fields of manioc (cassava) with their spindly stalks and droopy green leaves. These inland towns don't have the abundant water available to those who live along the lake, but manioc can grow even in poor soil and dry conditions.

          We couldn't yet see the village of Matepwe, but finally we arrived at the school.

          Inside Matepwe's current school. (KK)

          Here too, construction of the new school has stalled. Maaike and Devon check the site before sitting down with the village leaders to plan next steps. (KK)
          While Maaike, Devon and Joseph met with Matepwe’s elders, Francisco made lunch, Yohko and Daniel went off to look for sugar cane, and I rested in the shade inside the high rush walls of the teacher's compound. The teacher's wife washed dishes in a pan on the ground and then set them to drain on a bamboo rack set over a tiny vegetable patch. I admired her ingenuity--her system uses every drop of water to good purpose. On the sand nearby, white, peeled manioc roots lay on a sheet of black plastic to dry. The woman kept shooing the flies away from the roots, but they returned instantly. Two little girls stood in a corner of the compound, each with a big wooden pestle in her hands, taking turns pounding manioc root in the wooden mortar between them.

          The schoolteacher's son. Behind him, the boy's mother makes nsima or manioc porridge. (KK)

          We brought our own food, and after the meeting was over, we sat in the compound and shared the meal Francisco cooked. When we finished, we heard that the truck bearing building materials and school supplies had arrived. For the first time, it had made it over the rough road that approaches Matepwe from another direction. That meant that Matepwe and the other villages we would visit could move forward with their construction projects--and it also meant we could ride instead of walk on to Magachi that afternoon. But first we wanted to see more of the village of Matepwe.

          These round structures are for meals and socializing. (KK)

          The building in back is for goats, and the little hut on stilts keeps chickens safe from predators. (KK)
          Matepwe is famous in these parts for its two-story mud hut. (KK)
          When we arrived at the truck, Maaike and I climbed into the cab with Julius, who owns it, and everybody else piled in back among the sacks of cement and sheets of roofing metal. We jounced along the rutted track past fields so full of termite mounds they looked like graveyards. Dry grasses stood along the road, and the mountains were dark in the distance. Sometimes the road went down sharply into a dry riverbed with a rough bridge across it, and Julius made everybody get out until he had crossed safely.

          This was the scariest bridge--but we made it. (KK)

          Finally, we rattled into Magachi, another cluster of mud houses, and came to a stop by the chief's house, the leaves of a big mango tree pushing into the open truck window. A dog ran up, followed quickly by the smiling chief, who shook all our hands as we got out. Magachi had been waiting eagerly for these building materials to come, and now they were here.

          We fell into the same pattern as the day before--Maaike, Devon and Joseph met with the village leaders while Francisco, Daniel, Yohko and I set up camp. 

          First, we had to cut the grasses to make ourselves a campsite--Daniel and Francisco did most of the scything, but Yohko also gave it a try. (KK)
          Once we got the tents up, Daniel helped Francisco in the camp kitchen. (Yohko Ogawa)

          The villagers brought vegetables for our meal and firewood so we could cook. We also bought a chicken, and I couldn't watch while they wrung its neck. (KK)

          With the tents set up and Daniel and Francisco cooking supper, Yohko and I decided to get a wash. It had been a hot and dusty day and we felt grimy from head to foot.

          But when I asked Daniel where we could go, he said, "There is a problem with water in this village."

          I thought he meant the water was far away and said we didn’t mind going a ways. “We heard there’s a river,” I said. “Can we go there?”

          “No,” he said, though I didn’t catch why.

          “Is there a pump where we can get some water?”

          “No, there isn’t.”

          “Is there anywhere we can get just a bucket of water?” I couldn’t believe there wasn’t any. People live here—there must be a water source somewhere nearby. Mustn’t there?

          Finally, with an expression I couldn’t quite read, Daniel asked one of the boys who was hanging around Francisco’s improvised kitchen to show us where to go. We borrowed a metal pan from Francisco and followed the boy across the overgrown football field, past the chief’s house and the meeting at the mango tree, down a path between mounds of manioc plants to a reedy, muddy area. The boy showed us a water hole dug into the ground. It was maybe four or five feet across and five or six feet deep with a small puddle of muddy water at the bottom. He immediately made as if to jump down into it with the pan, but we stopped him.

          I was starting to understand what Daniel had been trying to tell us. Not only did the water look dirty, but there was so little of it. How could we take the village’s last gallon to do something so frivolous as to wash when we were sure to get dirty again traveling the next day?

          But judging from the stand of reeds near the hole, we guessed the river must be nearby. Yohko gestured in that direction and since neither of us spoke Chinyanja, tried some Portuguese.

          “Río?” she asked.

          No, the kid said to her in Portuguese. You can’t go there—the women are bathing there.

          That sounded promising, and I wished we’d brought our soap and towels with us. But the boy looked worried about us going past the reeds.

          Just then, though, a woman came from that direction and Yohko asked her if we could get some water to wash with.

          Of course, she said and led us down a rough path to a place with three or four water holes, hand dug into the clayey soil, several of them full almost to the brim. There seemed to be a system for bathing—one hole looked slightly sudsy, so maybe that was for soaping up and actually washing yourself, others looked more clear.

          The woman indicated the nearest hole, which had maybe 10 gallons of muddy water at the bottom. She took our pan and lying on the edge of the hole, reached down impossibly far and filled the basin with water. Yohko and I took turns carrying it back to the campsite. Then we rigged up our capulanas in the trees and made ourselves a little bathing area. One at a time, we went back behind the wall of fabric, stripped down, and using a cup to dip water from the pan, managed to clean ourselves up a little bit. When Devon and Maaike got back, they did the same.

          All four of us felt much better afterward, honestly grateful for a gallon or two of murky water between us. But it was sobering to realize we had no drinking water except for the small amounts left in our water bottles. We drank warm orange soda with our supper and brushed our teeth with the least water possible. We could go thirsty the next morning--we were going onwards to a village that had a pump, after all. But I wondered what would it be like to live there, with nothing but a sudsy, shared waterhole to wash in, day after day. I still don’t know where they get their drinking water. The villages decide what projects they want to work on with the trust, and I was puzzled why Magachi had chosen a school as its first priority and not a pump.

          September 2
          We were up again at dawn and struck camp quickly, skipping breakfast. All of us jumped into the back of the truck because Julius was giving a sick woman a ride to the hospital in Cobué, and she.needed to ride in the cab. Before we left Magachi, we went by the old school the trust and the village are working on replacing. Like the others we'd seen, it had reed walls, a thatching grass roof, and rows of uneven plank benches. 

          Lke all the local schools--old or new--Magachi's had a wheel hub hanging from a tree to serve as a school bell. (KK)

          Francisco on the back of the truck, soon after we left Magachi. (KK)

          This stretch of road had better bridges, but they weren't level with the road. So the guys got off the truck and made ramps out of stone so we could get across. (KK)

          We stopped in M'condece just to say hello. Their school is done and furnished, though somehow they got the desks meant for another school. (KK)

          Students gathered outside M'condece school. (KK)

          A student at M'condece. (Yohko Ogawa)
          M'condece was a good last stop, a reminder that for all the hurdles these school building projects face, the results are very much worth it.

          More about Manda Wilderness Community Trust:
          • a short video two volunteers made
          • the trust's web site
          • an article I wrote for Air Malawi's inflight magazine