Sunday, September 30, 2007

South Africa: Impressions Upon Landing

What a difference a flight makes. Wow, culture shock. We land in Johannesburg, and it’s almost as though we’ve flown home. Fancy new cars. Strip malls. Billboards. Restaurant chain food. Lots of white people. It was odd. But first, a note about the flight, which was hilarious. We were jet-setty and flew, instead of taking the bus, as the price difference wasn’t that large once you factored in all the visa fees we’d have to pay as we passed through multiple countries on the 40+ hour bus trip. Meanwhile the flight was short, and cheap because we flew Air Malawi. This may have been because their inflight magazine discussed how they were well on their way to bringing up their safety codes to standard compliance. They had a ways to go, but they were making progress (gulp). They also noted how African airflight has the worst safety records in the world, but they wanted to do their part to improve this. No joke, this is what it said! Thanks and pass the peanuts.

In any case, we landed safely in Jo’burg and immediately noted the differences between South Africa and its eastern neighbors. Soap in the bathrooms! We were immediately whisked away to a backpackers by the crazy, tightly-wound, but charming owner whom we met at the airport. She raved about how her backpackers was so safe (everyone’s legitimate concern in Jo’burg) because it’s in a ritzy suburb near the largest mall in the southern hemisphere, and money equals safety, and everything we need is at the mall. Not exactly what we came to Africa for, but alas. We found ourselves crashing in what seemed like someone’s college apartment, with mismatched furniture, bad carpet, and even the requisite stoner plunked down in front of the boob tube, half asleep. Hilarious.

And indeed, she was right that everything we needed was at the mall. It was like being plunked down in a more racially-diverse Walnut Creek, California. We got our new cell phone SIM card, had chicken wraps at a health-food chain, watched a shirtless Elvis impersonator play guitar for tips in a steakhouse, searched for guidebooks, plug adapters, and groceries. Surreal.

We hightailed it out of Jo’burg and hit the open road. Our whole mode of travel changed in South Africa. Given the distances we wanted to cover, and the relative costs of transport, we had WHEELS. It was a crazy sense of liberating freedom to rent a car (once Eric mastered driving on the left side of the road, with the stick shift on the left). All of a sudden we were free agents. And the network of backpacker hostels and guest houses in South Africa is incredible. They are all charming, full of character, and boast self-catering kitchens. So we bought a cooler, wine glasses, a corkscrew and some silverware, and we were a mobile culinary, adventuring unit. It was quite fun and indulgent after months of eating whatever came at us through the bus window.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Haircuts Around the World: Malawi

This is the one that got away. Instead, we leave you with Eric’s increasingly Amish look.

Malawi: The Wild Interior

Tearing ourselves away from the lake, we jumped in our first in an endless stream of pick-up truck rides as we made our way to Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve, where we’ve heard rumors of great herds of elephants. The Malawian countryside is absolutely gorgeous, rolling hills and mountains, dotted with villages and jacaranda trees. One sad reality that is impossible to avoid, however, is the large percentage of coffin shops you see on the side of the road. Indeed, many of the furniture makers have changed their signs to call themselves coffin salesman. And with the high rate of HIV/AIDS, their business is likely picking up as a result. It’s a sobering and depressing reality.

The last and most-memorable leg of our trip was sitting cross-legged in the back of a matola, flatbed pick-up truck, being bounced down a bumpy dirt road. The truck was packed, and Kathleen found herself holding another woman’s child in her lap, while Eric was plied with Malawian Gin (which comes in little plastic one-hit sachets) by an exceedingly friendly drunk who promised to come keep us company the next day (please, no!). Open jugs of diesel spilled on Eric’s pants, while we hoped the guy smoking a cigarette in the back didn’t drop his light. Alas, we landed at the National Park gate at sunset, waved goodbye to our friends, handed back their children, and made our way to our hut where we dined on warm beer and peanut butter and tomato sandwiches.

The next day, we learned the rumors are true as scores of elephants paraded past our hut en route to Kazuni Lake. It’s the laziest game viewing we’ve ever done. We sat on our verandah and watched while the amazing animals ate, drank, and occasionally tussled. It was truly incredible. They got so close to our hut that one bull elephant sent us scrambling inside for cover. And the baboons sat at our picnic table, as though waiting for us to serve them lunch. Fantastic. We ran into a tour guide that we had met previously, and he graciously offered to have us join his group for breakfast and dinner. A delicious breakfast and dinner, I might add. So kind! And then he proceeded to get drunk and regale us with crazy African bush tales. At night, we could hear the hippos grunting and elephants trumpeting. Magical.

Our last destination in Malawi was Chinguni Hills, although getting there was half the fun. Especially when we had to take a taxi-cab ride from two seedy-looking fellows with their hats pulled low and booming rap music in their car with tinted windows. When we got in and they heard our accents, they flashed huge warm toothy grins and said genuinely, ‘Welcome to Malawi!’ So typical of our experiences here, where everyone is overwhelmingly nice, friendly and helpful. At Chinguni Hills, we embarked on a canoe safari into hippo paradise. Grunting, laughing, snorting and bobbing up and down in the water, they are so fun to watch. But don’t get too close please. We were hoping that we actually got to paddle the canoes, as we would have welcomed the exercise, but evidently it’s too dangerous. As a Boundary Waters’ paddler and map-reader extraordinaire, Eric was chomping at the bit to lend a hand, so he did finally convince our boatman of his finesse and helped push us through some reeds.

Dinners at Chinguni Hills were also a highlight. Candle-lit (no electricity) affairs served family-style with fresh produce and cold beers. We were so appreciative and impressed with the crowd staying there (and virtually everywhere we stayed in East Africa). A thoughtful international mix of travelers well versed in local politics, history, and news. A few were on holiday from their work in Zimbabwe distributing food to those who needed it (which is virtually everyone), and others worked for human rights and environmental organizations throughout East Africa. It made for really thought-provoking conversations, which has been much of the joy of our travels thus far. Hopping on bike taxis, we were sad to leave. And I’m sure the bike taxi riders were sorry to see us---what with our big packs and big bottoms. At least it was mostly downhill, and we tipped well.

Making our way to Blantyre,
we ran errands (postcards, email, flight tix) as we prepared to leave Malawi. But that didn´t mean Kathleen didn´t have time to have a skirt quickly made on the street. Who can resist this cultural experience? You go into the open market and buy a bolt of fabric. Then you give it to a guy set up with his sewing machine on the sidewalk, who takes your measurements. Then you swing back in an hour to pick up your new outfit. All told, it was less than $6. Granted, it´s no Elly Karl original, but still...

Friday, September 28, 2007

Things We Ate on the Street: Malawi

While Malawi lacked the diversity of street side snacks on offer that Tanzania flaunted, the drive-through produce market more than made up for it. Crammed into a mini-bus with chickens, children, bags of grain, luggage, gas cans, and overloaded baskets, it was virtually impossible to move or put your feet on the ground. However when we passed through an agricultural area, local farmers would thrust fresh carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, garlic, corn, radishes, and potatoes through the windows.

It was utter chaos, but somehow we all made room for a few veggie essentials as we trundled by. One time the man next to us stuffed six heads of lettuce down between his legs (as his lap was already occupied balancing his little boy, his bag, and a basket full of linens). Yum!

Another Malawian treat was Chibuku, the International Beer. It came in a milk carton, you had to shake it, it was usually warm, and it was kinda chunky. We´re fairly certain that it´s not giving Anchor Steam a run for its money.

Truthfully there was one delicacy on offer in Malawi that we didn’t try: barbecued mice. Evidently when they burn the fields to clear them for planting, all the field mice run out and local kids run and collect them to grill and sell by the roadside. We saw them being proffered, but our bus (luckily) didn’t stop.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Malawi: Life on the Lake

To many travelers, Malawi is all about the lake. And it’s easy to see why. Crystal-clear waters, abundant fish, gorgeous sunsets, and a laid-back lifestyle. For Eric, this was also where he got his first mints since leaving California; a notable event for a man who used to burn through several Mintz tins a week at home.

Our first stop was Nkhata Bay, where we pushed our way onto a crowded mini-bus, hugging our packs on our knees. Kathleen was perched on half of a seat with no back rest, with only one foot on the floor and another hovering above a sack of rice, ever fearful that the door would fly open at any moment. But arriving in Nkhata Bay erased all discomfort, as we stepped foot into Mayoka Village. Our hut was perched above the lake, swaddled in bougainvillea and boasted fishbowl windows. We wished we could have transported all of our friends and family to come join us for snorkeling, hammocking, trampoling, and a game of pool. We raised a glass of hot chocolate and amarula to you all.

But to truly appreciate Malawian lake life, you need to take a ride on the MV Ilala Ferry. For lakeside and island communities, the ferry is a lifeline. It’s been plying the waters since 1957, and it’s one of the only ways that locals can transport food, furniture, family and farm animals around. Clambering aboard, we made our way over sacks of potatoes, rice, breast-feeding women, and a veritable morass of humanity, bathed in sweat and diesel fumes from the engine. Truthfully, it felt a bit odd to push our way through the extremely overcrowded 2nd-class compartment to reach the open-air first class deck. The lines were fairly clearly drawn between Malawian locals below and mostly-white travelers above, which lent a bit of a colonial feel that we didn’t like. That’s not to say that the top deck didn’t have it’s own fair share of resident cockroaches. We grabbed deck chairs and silently cruised into the warm pitch-blackness under a blanket of stars while trying not to get seasick.

We disembarked around midnight on Chizumulu Island. There is no dock large enough for the ferry, so everyone piles off with their goods into a lifeboat to be paddled to shore by moonlight. We reached our atmospheric island paradise lit by kerosene light. But the lack of electric lights is not all eco-friendly; electricity (fueled by diesel that sometimes runs out before the next ferry arrives) is only available to the island from 9am-noon and 2-8pm. And even this is a recent addition, given as a reward to the island for voting in majority for the UDF political party. Funny. Either way, the approach is beautiful, as is the island. Except for the cockroach on the bar, the mouse in the outhouse, and the musical frog in our sand-floor reed hut. Although that might just be Kathleen talking.

All heebie jeebies were erased by morning, as sunlight streamed over the island, and we awoke to the laughter of little kids jumping in the water by the fishing boats. As the only guests on the island, we had the run of the place and we plugged our ipod into the stereo system, moved the furniture to our liking, and relaxed with the dogs. Amazing sunsets prevailed , along with funny and surreal nights with our host, a British expat whose been living on the island for at least a dozen years and definitely needing a break. After two days wandering the island, we felt like locals, and the little children would run and grab our hands as we walked down the dirt roads. You begin to feel like the Pied Piper as they all run after you. The island mostly consisted of fishermen, and walking around we’d see rows and rows of silver fish being dried in the sun. The highlight was the older women and naked babies seeking shade under the fish racks, clapping and singing to pass away the time. That, and the massive and distinctive baobab trees that dotted the island.

But more adventure awaited us, so we decided to hitch a ride over to Likoma Island. A local choir group was headed to the island, so they let us sail over with them. But first we all sat under a tree waiting for the wind to change. Literally. It truly felt like island life. Our dhow was typical of the region, with a sail pieced together from bed sheets, maize bags, and other odds and ends sewn together. Someone was in charge of bailing water continuously during the 2-hour journey. The choir group started the trip off with a prayer (hopefully not needed to keep us from sinking!) and then proceeded to drum and sing the whole way. Including a rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In for our benefit. Not bad for a 75-cent trip. When we disembarked, we promised to come watch their choir performance at the local school.

Our new home was the Mango Drift, a series of beachside huts where you could virtually dangle your toes in the water. It was true paradise except for one disturbing incident when Kathleen found herself face-to-face with a snake in the outhouse. The snake had not bothered to lock the door while he was in there, so Kathleen had walked in and was picking the toilet paper roll off the ground when she noticed the privvy was already occupied. The snake was long (maybe 4 feet) and had supported its body in the air while swaying about. Kathleen scrambled to give him some privacy, but the doors were barn-door style (top and bottom), so she was having trouble maneuvering during her fright. She was panicking, the snake was panicking, and all-in-all it was not a relaxing experience. Kathleen eventually ran from the bathroom, t.p. still in hand, and managed to not have to go to the bathroom for the rest of the trip. Later we learned that the snake was likely a black mambo, as they are one of the few snakes that can support their body weight in the air like that, and they normally strike in the chest. They are also one of the deadliest snakes in the world, and most humans die within 15 minutes of being bitten. Ahem.

On a happier note, the island was full of friendly locals and curious kids. Numerous children tote their younger siblings on their hips and backs, causing us to note that in the United States little girls have dolls to play with, but here they actually care for their siblings. We managed to walk virtually every inch of the island while we were there (most on purpose, sometimes because we were lost), chatting with villagers, buying local bread and produce to make sandwiches, and going to a malipenga dancing competition. This was an incredible thing to witness as men played gourd-like instruments and drums and danced in a line. We wish we knew more about the origins of the dance, but it’s popular along the Mozambique coast as well. For all the local kids, we seemed to be the entertainment. They would stare shyly at us at first. Then when we would bust out the little Chichewa we knew, such as ‘Muli bwangi?’ (how are you?) and ‘Dzinu lanu ndani?’ (What’s your name?) they would scream with laughter and in minutes were climbing all over us.

Likoma is an interesting place. Technically it’s in Mozambican waters, and the views across the lake to the looming mountains of Mozambique are incredible. Oddly, the island is also home to St. Peter’s Cathedral, one of the largest churches in Africa, on a scale with Westminster Cathedral. Once the headquarters of the Anglican Church in Malawi, the island proudly boasted a 100% literacy rate in the early 1900s. A rarity in Africa at that time. The church is set in Chipyela, which means ‘place of burning’ as this was where witches used to be burned to death by suspicious locals before the church intervened. These days poverty is still the norm, but there are several wonderful programs in place to help educate kids, house orphans, and teach locals sustainable farming and business techniques. It’s quite inspiring and many of the programs were introduced by the staff of the luxury lodge, Kaya Mawa, that operates on part of the island. As a result, Likoma residents tend to be better off than your average Malawian. And while the Mission stills operates a well-run hospital, they compete for business with a highly-regarded witch doctor on the island, who attracts clients from as far away as Tanzania.

Returning to Nkahta Bay on the ferry, we board around midnight. By 3am, we finally take off after more people, cars (!), grain, and household items are loaded on. We rented a sleeping mat to share, and curl up for the trip home.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Malawi: First Stop, The Mushroom Farm

We originally thought we’d travel to Southern Africa via Zambia and Botswana, but expensive visas, complicated logistics, and a gut-feeling that Malawi was calling our names prompted us to change our plans. While we’d love some day to return to visit these other countries, we can’t say enough wonderful things about Malawi, it’s people, food, and scenery. There’s definitely a reason it’s known as the ‘Warm Heart of Africa.’ To cross the border near Mbeya, we boarded a 5:15am bus in Dar Es Salaam. We payed a bit more for a ‘Luxury’ coach that promised a bathroom and air-conditioning, neither of which worked. A fact that was hard to swallow, as we saw the cheaper bus rocket past us on the highway. Alas, we couldn’t complain too much, because as we drove through Mizumi National Park, we saw giraffes, gazelles, and monkeys, and had to stop the coach to let a family of elephants cross the road. Unbelievable. Fourteen hours later we finally reached Mbeya, where we crashed amid cockroaches, sparkly curtains, fake flowers, and candles to mask the scent of our shoes and socks.

We congratulated ourselves on not falling prey to the Malawi Border scam, whereby seemingly charming taxi drivers offer to ferry you across the border to your next destination for a fee. While far more pricey than the public route, they offered convenience, comfort, and efficiency. We smelled a rat. None of our previous buses had been comfortable or efficient, but they had been plenty entertaining and cheap, to boot. We opted for the local route, and thanked our lucky stars every time we met folks in Malawi who had paid anywhere from $30-$100 for this ‘service’---each and every one of them had been abandoned at the border crossing realizing they’d been duped. Not to say that our own route was crystal clear. We boarded one coaster (mini-bus that you sit and wait in until it fills---to the gills—at which point you get moving). Only to have to transfer after an hour to another rattletrap contraption with no working dash instruments that belched and backfired its way toward the border.

We arrived in Malawi with little preparation. Despite our best efforts to buy a guidebook in Tanzania, we were entirely unsuccessful. So we read people’s blogs, crossed our fingers, and with a roll of the dice landed at the Mushroom Farm. Happily, it seemed the fates were with us, as this ended up being one of our favorite spots. We were fully prepared to walk the 3-hours uphill to reach our destination, but we ran into some other guests who had already called for a lift because, "Alex is like the Queen, she doesn’t walk.” They were fun and funny; loud, brash, heavy drinking Londoners. Great company, really. And they had a guidebook that they let us borrow.

We spent the next three days in eco-friendly sustainable paradise. Composting toilets, outdoor showers, organic home-grown veggies, lantern-light, and stars for miles and miles. It felt like living in a tree house. Or rather the most beautiful mud house you’ve ever seen. Technically, we believe it’s called a ‘cob house’ and we plan to build one when we get home. If you want one, too, check out Becky Bee’s book, ‘The Cob Builder’s Handbook." Really! The downside of not having reservations, however, is that we got booted from our cob house to a tent on the second night. Alas, it was still a tent with a view!

The Mushroom Farm was near Livingstonia, where an important Mission dedicated to the works of Dr. Livingstone (we presume) has been in operation since 1875. The original mission was near the lake, but malaria sent the Scottish missionaries heading for the hills in 1894. There’s a reason the country is often called Malawia, as it has one of the highest malaria rates around, with still lake waters being a breeding ground for mosquitoes while a high population density made for tasty snacking. A fascinating museum in town marked the history and impact of Missionary work in the area. While we tend to be extremely skeptical of the process of converting people away from their own native beliefs, there is no denying that the original missionaries in Malawi did a world of good. They played an instrumental role in abolishing the ruthless slave trade that had been ravaging the area, introducing health care, and providing education. They introduced new farming methods and carpentry skills, and their schools gave rise to many of Malawi’s most influential nationalist politicians. That’s not to say that colonialism didn’t eventually rear it’s ugly head of exploitation and self-serving subjugation, but it does seem true that the original goal of ‘Africa for the Africans’ was the initial intent of the first missionaries to get involved in Malawi.

The Mushroom Farm was also near Manchewe Falls, an impressive waterfall simply for its sheer drop and beauty. But also notable as the site where locals used to hide in caves behind the falls to avoid being sold into slavery. The history of the slave trade along the East African coast is horrific and unfathomable, with men and women captured in their homes, shipped across Lake Malawi, marched forcibly for months, and then shipped to the slave market in Zanzibar, with hundreds dying well before they made it to the auction. Now, however, Manchewe Falls is where barefoot kids run and play and tell jokes and act tough, hamming it up for the camera.

Back around the fire at the Mushroom Farm, we cracked each other up by demanding, ‘How many kwacha for a kuche kuche?” (Kwacha being Malawian currency and Kuche Kuche being the local beer.) Speaking of kwacha, it’s incredible to comprehend that the largest bank note produced is 500 kwacha (approx. $3.50 USD). And even this note is rather new. Which tells you something about the economy. While rich in scenic beauty (including the greatest diversity of fish in the world!), Malawi does not hold the same degree of natural resources as some of her neighbors, and sadly the economy suffers as a result. That being said, we met a tremendous amount of doctors and medical volunteers in Malawi. We heard mixed reviews about the success and efficacy of Malawi’s medical officers, which prompted interesting conversations about the role of NGO’s in developing countries. Overall we were inspired by the amazing programs that seemed to be in place to bring healthcare up to suitable standards in rural villages although they certainly have a long way to go.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Haircuts Around the World: Tanzania

It’s time for another installment, as my caterpillar lip is getting unruly. We last left you with a fine haircut and beard trim in the town of Jinja in Uganda - an 8 out of 10 experience. We were fortunate that a barber shack was located at the end of the road next to our lodge in the town of Lushoto. This was a happing spot with lots of men waiting for a trim, Tupac posters on the wall, American hip hop and rap music playing on the stereo, and the maestro with the razor working his magic. Although I wasn´t quite sure what the deal was with the mouth protector he wore.

The cut went well, although it is hard to mess up a trim when you only use the #1 clipper. The tricky part is the beard. He went at it with no clipper guard but managed to do it well enough and trim the beard back into shape. I don´t think they have much experience with beards, as we rarely saw a Tanzanian man with a beard or mustache. No head massage or great care went into the cut, but the barber shack was excellent with great atmosphere. Because it was so small, they had a mirror angled from the ceiling behind the chair so you could watch all of the action by the reflection of the two mirrors. Overall, I would give it a 5 out of 10. Stay tuned for hair keeps growing.

Tanzania: Lushoto and the Usambara Mountains

Bidding adieu to Zanzibar, we boarded the Sea Star Ferry for a rocky journey back to Dar Es Salaam. Although instead of the Chuck Norris movie we enjoyed en route, we had to watch WWF wrestling and a Thai Martial Arts movie.
We boarded a local bus, where we shared two seats with seemingly five people and their chickens, bags, and groceries. But it was fun, actually, as the little boy shared his biscuits with us, and Eric played peek-a-boo with the giggliest toddler we’ve ever seen. What wasn’t fun was when we got pulled over for having too many people in the bus. Which wouldn’t have been a big deal, except our driver got in a verbal dispute with the cop that resulted in a 2-hour delay while they butted heads over fines, attitude, and road rules. Admittedly a full bus is not something to be underestimated. We were appalled at times by the crush of humanity, where neither pregnant women, nor men with peg legs, were given seat priority. Fancy an egg or a cashew? They’re plenty for sale while you wait…
But we eventually made our way via an overcrowded daladala to the hilltown of Lushoto. Winding our way up, up, up into the Usambara Mountains, daylight gave way to moonlight, the mountain air chilled, and we passed cozy looking homes lit by kerosene lights. We checked into the exceedingly friendly and homey Karibuni Lodge and fell fast asleep.
Awaking to Vervet Monkeys in the trees, we saw the so-called African Alps bathed in sunlight. Like a German-influenced Switzerland in Tanzania, the Usambara Mountains are sprinkled with European architecture and steeped in African flavor. Gorgeous views, abundant sugar cane, and lots of kids that giggle when you pretend to chase them.
We embarked on a three-day trek to the village of Mtae, where the views are stupendous, the kids run out to ‘jambo!’ you at every turn, and the mountains are a jumble of pine, eucalyptus, fields and villages. The motto of Mtae is ‘Kesi ya mbuzi hakima ni chui haki hakuna’ which means ‘In the case of the goat and the lion with the leopard as the judge, there is no justice.’ And it stemmed from colonial days, when there was no justice for an African plaintiff against a German farmer with a Colonial judge. Interesting and thought-provoking.
In Mtae, we stayed in a local guest house, along with all the passing bus drivers. (Who tended to lounge in the hallway at night, wrapped only in their towels. We tried not to contemplate this too much.) It was a simple abode. So simple, in fact, that Eric accidentally knocked off a large chunk of the wall when trying to get rid of a cricket with his flip flop. Whoops!

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Tanzania: Getting Spicy on Zanzibar

You probably know that Zanzibar was one of the original ‘Spice Islands,’ where traders from near and far came to swap goods and pick up exotic spices. But did you also know that it was home to Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the band Queen? It’s true. And it’s fitting for an island like Zanzibar, which is such a crazy crossroads of cultures, architecture, and attractions. Mosques ring out the call to prayer, India influences the cuisine and music, and everyone from Rastas to Masai plies their wares on the streets. We wandered the narrow alleys, enjoying the feeling of being back in Egypt at times, and capped our evenings off with sundowners on the famed balcony of the Africa House Hotel. Kathleen became particularly enamored with the dawa, a mix of kunyagi (the local cane-based fire water), vodka, lemon and ginger. We tried to check out the local music scene at the Dharma Lounge, but we were put off the sign that prohibited both prostitution and bedroom slippers. Talk about a kill-joy.

While largely Muslim, Zanzibar feels so different from Egypt, as the women wear brightly colored kangas (cotton print cloth used for skirts, dresses, head wraps, etc) with Swahili proverbs on them that convey everything from loving endearments to sassy advice. We had good fun asking women in the street to help us translate them. Another testament to the relaxed culture in Zanzibar was the veiled woman at our backpacker hostel, who couldn’t taker her eyes off Jay Z’s racy ‘Umbrella’ video with scantily-clad women writhing around. She told us, ‘Oh, I love this one!’ as she was helping us check out of our room.

We also made our way out to the coast at Pongwe Beach. Rather than fork over the cash for a taxi, we opted for the daladala, a pickup truck converted into a taxi of sorts. People get on and off as you rumble down the road, with everyone packed in like sardines. At one point, we counted 21 people in the back, including the two women crouched in the middle with no seat.

Heading out into the hinterlands, we encounter kids playing their own version of shirts and skins on the soccer field, with one team wearing jerseys made out of old rice bags and the other bare-chested. We jumped out at Santa Maria Coral Park, awaiting seaside bliss. Instead we were greeted with low tide (the sea looked miles away) and hundreds of kids running amok, screeching and careening into each other at our seaside abode. But we learned that the kids were orphans (largely due to HIV/AIDS) on a day trip, so how could you be angry with them? And the tide came back at 3pm. After a beachside beer at the bar made out of an old dhow (fishing boat), followed by barbecued kingfish and a post-dinner bonfire, we had changed our tune. And our one night stay turned into three. Our only wish was that the Three Stupids could have been in charge of the stereo system. Instead, we found ourselves dancing barefoot to bad American mukaz classics. But we did learn to play the wooden board game, boa, and we bought a board to teach all of our friends at home.

For the most part, we lazed around reading, journaling and hammocking, but we did ride rental bikes up the coast to Kiwenge, a largely Italian-oriented resort village. We cracked up at the Masai on the beach who greeted us with ‘ciao regazzi!’ Evidently we were all out of our element, as neither us, nor the Masai, really belonged there.

The highlight of our Zanzibar experience, however, had to be our daladala ride back to Stone Town. We foolishly convinced our new German friends Tim and Melanie to join us on the daladala instead of a taxi. Which was all well and good until the skies opened up and poured rain on us while we waited by the side of the road. But soon enough we were picked up, with just a short detour to pick up a 6-foot bull shark, manta ray, and heaps of firewood to load on top with our backpacks. It was rather unreal, and the whole ride we had a view of the shark’s fin bouncing down the road with us. We practiced our new language skills with the daladala drivers, and when Eric busted out his ‘poa kichisi kama ndizi’ (crazy cool like a banana) they laughed and accused us of speaking gangsta Swahili. Upon arriving in town, we saw them unceremoniously dump the shark on the pavement and drag it a block to the shop, prompting us to eat vegetarian that night.