Saturday, December 30, 2006

Africa: Paradise at last!

In Blantyre, I woke up at 5AM to catch the morning bus to Mzuzu. Apparently there is no more morning bus, and I would have to take another overnight bus. More defeat and frustration. One guy recommended that I take a minibus to Lilongwe, then another minibus to Mzuzu. Minibusses are vans, a little bigger than a normal van, where 30 people squeeze in like sardines. It's truly unbelieveable. A van that should fit 8 people fits 30. They leave all afternoon, but won't leave until completely stuffed full. I was desperate enough to get to Nakhata bay by nightfall so I did it. Lucky I was by a window. The man next to me was a but chubby, so it was a nice cushion. I kept thinking of that early 90s dance song to myself "Hey fat boy!! come stay with me for awhile... hey fat boy, I wanna make you smile!" catchy song. We were sealed together, shoulder to knee. Actually the minibus wasn't bad. Again, I was the only foreigner but I felt fine. I was on a mission. At Lilongwe used the nastiest bathroom, I thought about putting the picture here but decided not to, and got on another minibus. The bus was empty when I got to it so we had to wait a good hour. In that time, dozens of guys tried to sell me everything under the sun through the window. kitchen knives, muffins, firecrackers, cell phone covers, mothballs (!) and drinks. All kinds of RANDOM stuff. It was sweltering outside and my clothes were soaked, but luckily I was in the front so no squeezing. We drove through the Malawian countyside, which is very pretty, lush, almost like Costa rica at times, sometimes reminding me of northern Michigan. Every 60 miles or so we had to go through a police checkpoint for some reason. I finally got to listen to my ipod. I listened to Sean Paul, then Kaskade, which put me in a great mood. I also listened to "boogie on reggae woman" and "do I do" by Stevie Wonder, which will now always remind me of Africa.

At Mzuzu I wondered, do I trust these taxi drivers? Its dark and I really have no choice. I picked the most trustworthy looking one. Isaac took me up the 45 minute ride to Nakhata bay. He was actually playing a tape of coutnry music in the car! Slow, 1970s ballady stuff. where I checked into my very own cozy hut, pictured above, and hit the bar for a much needed beer. I drank with some peace corps girls and some local guys, one of whom had dreadlocks and was dancing around to Michael Jackson's "I'm bad". It was funny, I took a video with my camera. In the dark, the series of huts and backpacker places were lovely, they reminded me of Thailand. I went over to the guesthouse next door, Mayoka Vilage to check in for the remander of the week. It was so much fun - a pool table, friendly people everywhere, dogs sleeping on the floor, fun music playing.. Waves from Lake Malawi crashed below and tropical plants are everywhere. There are hammocks and pillows to lounge on. I was so happy. It was a hard earned journey to get here but all worth it. I slept for 12 hours.

Oh, and Saddam Hussein was hung? And Gerald Ford and James Brown dead? I've missed a lot of news.

well, in honor of James Brown, I feel good! may he r.i.p.

above - my hut, my hut interior (not sure why the pic is small?), women selling fruit through the minibus window

Africa: The 36 hour bus experience - oh yeah

I woke up at the Idube guest house in Melville and taxi'd over the bus station. Simon, my taxi driver, nicely escorted me over to where I was supposed to wait. I had to wait outside, in a line of 100 or so people with enourmous bags of stuff - the same plaid plastic zip bags they use all over Asia. Simon had explained to me that a lot of Zimbabweans come to South Africa to buy goods, and sell it there. I saw boxes of TVs, a refrigerator, huge bags of clothing... all things that people were taking on public transportation.

I looked around for other backpackers. They must not be here yet, I thought. I was a bit early - 8:30AM for my 9AM bus from Joburg all the way to Blantyre, Malawi, a 20 hour bus ride taking me through Zimbabwe and Mozambique along the way. My Dad and coworkers had heard me complain for a week about my last minute freak-out, I had to fed ex my passport to the Moz embassy in D.C. for a last minute visa. The bus company told me that they might not wait for me at the border if I didn't, but only after I called to ask.

I surveyed the people. I couldn't help but notice, I really stand out. I'm the only white person in the whole waiting area of hundreds of people. I did see an old Aussie lady in the bathroom, but that's it. Usually I wouldn't think of it, but being the only foreigner around is an isolating experience, a little bit scary. Even in Asia, there was always another traveller around, or someone who looked like me. I looked in people's faces. Can I trust everyone here? What are they thinking of me? People were reasonably dressed, I thought. There were no bums hanging around. Nobody was hassling me. (except for a teenage boy who kept hissing at me from above the balcony). OK, I thought. I'm not going to make an issue of this until it IS an issue. I wandered over to a couple - Lestor and Juliana. They made small talk to me between sitting on eachother's laps and kissing. I read my book, "no touch monkey", trying to keep the cover out of view to lessen my freakishness to the line of people! 9AM came and went. Oh well, this is Africa. I'll give it another hour. 10AM came and went. I asked someone if the bus was usually this late. One lady said (picture in a miss cleo accent) Oh, don't wooorry darling! This is City to City busses! It will come. It's always late!" The City to City bus company guards didn't know when it would come either. 11AM came, went. Noon, then at 12:30 I can't believe my eyes, the bus is here!

OK, let's get this show on the road, people! I ran over to the door, to ensure getting a seat by the driver. Passports were checked and they started loading all of the smuggled shit in the back of the trailer. Chaos an confusion for another two hours. Shouting, arguing, some people had the balls to put their stuff on the trailer and THEN go inside to buy a ticket. And it was clear that the bus was giong to be full. I sat on the curb in the sun, reading my book, trying to tune it all out. My patience is really wearing thin and I have nobody to comisserate with. Thank god for my funny book. The author, Ayun Halliday, reminded me of myself in some of the stories so it was like I did have some sort of company. I have renamed the City to City bus comany "Shitty to Shitty" in my mind. But there's nobody to share the joke with.

1PM came and went. 2PM, still there is arguing about loading the trailer. 3PM, it looks like people are getting in the bus! At 3:30, 6 AND A HALF HOURS LATE we get on the bus and it starts rolling through the station. We get to a gate and no... It can't be....we are stopping for another 20 minutes. Dear God. Finally. FINALLY we get on the road. I'm a little worried because the bus is making a tremendously loud sound. RRRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! A loud, high pitched whine and the sound of metal parts grinding together. If this bus breaks down, I thought... I am going to lose my mind. 30 minutes later. Yes! It breaks down. We pull over at a gas station and wait for a mechanic to come "in 10 minutes!" 30 mintues later a mechanic comes. He works on the bus for awhile and we get back in. Apparently the bus is fixed but it is still making a deafining sound, and I couldn't help but notice that the floorboards under my feet were very warm. I moved my camera equipment, luna bars, and anything heat sensitive off the floor. It's kind of like the van in little miss sunshine. Like we might have to get out and push at some point.

At 4:30 we finally hit the road. I lucked out, I had a seat in front so I could stretch my legs. I still couldn't shake that total isolated foreigner, pasty white girl feeling. I can't ride 20 hours and not talk to anyone. I need someone on my side at border crossings, someone I can ask questions to if I need to. So I did what I always do. Make small talk with people and force them to like me. Next to me was a young guy in dreads named Geffrey and on the aisle was a nice girl named Jefunda. I read my book and the hours turned dark. Hours and hours went by. I couldn't help but notice that the funk on this bus is starting to get to me. But by this time, I stink too so I just embraced it. No a/c on this bus. I'm a little worried about the Zimbabwe border crossing, which we'll pass sometime near midnight. I'm the only non-African on the bus, the only one who will need a visa. I had reserearched this and apparently you can just get a visa at the border. But paranoid me didn't stop worrying. It looked pretty desolate out there.

At about midnight we stopped at the border, along with several other busses to some crowded, cinder block buildings in the dark. I exited south Africa and was so confused in the crowd. I found some people on my bus and stuck to them. We had to get to the Zim border and more confusion. A wave of panic and loneliness hit me like never before. I sat on the curb and just put my head in my hands, trying not to cry. I had just been such a trooper all day, for weeks, all the stress of this trip and this bus ride just overwhelmed me. I thought, why am I here? I could be home going out with my friends, I could be sitting on my couch watching little people, big world, or I could be in the grafton having a black and tan. I could even be at work planning what to have for lunch with my beloved coworkers. I thought about how much I missed my friends and home.

And for the first time since 5th grade camp, I experienced homesickness. Usually I have the kind of wanderlust that says "go anywhere, who cares, you can always go home later! hit the road, girl!" but I felt so beaten down. A woman on the bus came over, sensing that I was sad, and patted me on the back and said "it's going to be OK, what's wrong?" Her name was Charity (pronounced in that choppy, African way Cha-lit-tee) and I was so grateful. She, it turns out, is from Nkhata bay, Malawi, my final destination after all of this. She told me about it and comforted me and I felt so much better. I found some people I recognized and the whole bus went through Zim customs together. It turned out, my visa took only 5 minutes and it was very easy. But I will never forget how isolated and sad I felt at that moment, and how Charity talked to me. Sometimes you'll find that women look out for eachother. It was like the moment in Vietnam when I was so freaked out, couldn't cross the big, busy street of motorbikes (who do not stop - you have to walk into traffic and they swerve around) and yes, and old lady helped me across the street! That's an embarrasing thing to admit but it's true. But I will always remember the kindness in the old woman's face and how scary that was.

I keep having conversations with myself on this bus - whiny Sara and ballsy traveler Sara:

"I wanna go home....waaaaaa! This is hell! Why did I decide to come here? Is this even safe? waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!"

"Shut up dumbass. You wanted to see the REAL Africa, here it is. Stop complaining and just realize how amazing this all is."

"I'm hungry and homesick I all I have is a luna bar...waaaaaaaaa"

Zimbabwe looked like a scrubby desert at night, and in the morning we stopped to go to the bathroom and buy water. We also went through Hirare, the capital. Zimbabwe in general looks like it was having a going out of business sale. Lines for gasoline 30, 40 cars long. The stores were barren like there once was merchandise, and someone had cleaned them out. I changed a few South African rand into some very strange money (the bills say "this check is payable for 1000 dollars to payee) and bought some water and crackers. Zimbabwe is going through an economic crisis. The president has been accused of human rights offenses and a lot of companies have boycotted Zimbabwe. There is a huge black market and no more than three people can congrigate on the street or is it officially a protest and you can be arrested. The difference betwen South Africa and Zimbabwe was shocking. Africa in general is just mind blowing to me.

Through the day we drove, the bus so loud (and floorboards hot) that I couldn't even hear my ipod on the highest volume. I've been really sneaky with the ipod and camera, I don't want anyone to see it. Hence, my pictures of the bus ride aren't that great.

I noticed that more people on the bus were talking to me at the stops (6 border entries/exits all in all) and I realized that we were all in this hellish trip together, and I was just the strange white girl reading a book, with all the dumb questions, kind of like a pet on the bus. We shared snacks and chatted more. I noticed a flirtation growing between Geffrey and Jefunda. It was cute. The scenery got more lush and green - and hilly - and traditionally "African". Lots of women carrying things on their heads, lots of the round mud, beehive huts, children playing, more rural. Finally we reached Malawi and at around 11PM we rolled into Blantyre. I went straight to Doogles hostel from my guidebook, tried to use the internet and failed, drank a beer called "kuche kuche" and went to bed for 4 hours. So by the end of the bus ride, I just felt like everyone else on the bus - just someone trying to get to their destination. The bus ride kind of broke me down for awhile, but left me feeling good. I wished terribly that there had been another backpacker on the bus, but in the end it forced me to talk to people more, the Malawians, and get to know them a little. Had there been someone like me on the bus we would have stuck together and bitched the whole time, gaining nothing in the end. I got through it, it was an accomplishment - After it was all done, I felt good about the whole thing. Africa is just a series of little challenges and rewards. I have to just break it down into little segments. OK, just get to this border crossing, just get to Blantyre, just get to the bus station - if you think of it all at once it overwhelms.

On a side note, my theory on beer that sounds like a womans' body part being skunky holds true - kuche kuche beer tasted only a little worse than Vergina beer we drank in greektown. Can anyone think of any other gross beer in this category?

Anyhow, thanks for reading - if you comment anonymously, please remember to sign your name!

above - the joburg bus station and the south Africa countryside

Kathy - please read - hotmail is down

I'm soooo sorry, I haven't been able to get on the internet in days and hotmail is down - I know you arrive in Joburg today. I am at Mayoka Village now.

When you get to Lilongwe, if you can get to the bus station early enough, say by 2PM - go to the minibusses and get one to Mzuzu. I know the book says to use Shire bus lines but I found minivans/busses to be faster. You have to squeeze in a van with 28 or so other people - try to sit by a window or in the front and you'll be fine. It's definitely an "experience" but you'll be OK. Try to make friends with a woman or an older person in the minibus/van if you can and hopefully she will look out for you. There are always minibusses coming to Mzuzu, all afternoon. You will be one of the only tourists you'll see and it's really gross there but I found it to be safe during the day but hold on to your stuff.

Once you get to Mzuzu there will be taxis andyou can come to Nkhakta bay. Ask for Isaac if you can - he was very honest and played, believe it or not, country music in the taxi. Insist that he drop you off at Mayoka village entrance. It is VERY hard to find on your own if it's dark. At the back of town up a hill there are like 4 or 5 traveller-hut type places. I got you a double room of your own with your own bathroom on January first - I'm in the dorm. I figured you will need your own room after the trip. IF you can get here on the 31st, try to let me know via the blog and I'll get you a room at the butterfly lodge, which is right next door. I'm so sorry I haven't been able to communicate. Be safe and I can't wait till you get here!! It's hard travel, I know. I'm a bus expert by now...

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Africa: New Continent & Hello Summer!

At the Madrid airport, I met up again with Selvy who had spent the day sleeping in a hotel. I watched the flight to Tel Aviv board, including 5 guys in black hats and robes with two braids on each side. I was too loopy and wired to worry about openly staring at people. We lined up and I had that excited, new continent feeling. A few Aussie girls in line must have felt the same way, because one of them burst out to her friend "Oh, I am just SO exciyyted!"

The lady at the gate told me my seat had been changed. I was secretly a little panicked, because if I don't get an aisle seat, I can't crack my knee and that makes me feel very paniced and claustrophobic. Either a terrible mistake had been made or Iberia was impressed with my mileage because they put me in first class for the 10 hour flight. I couldn't believe it. I was such an idiot. Really? REAlly!? Oh my gosh! really!? Selvy laughed at me. He pointed back to coach and said "I'll be back there in the projects".

I sat in my extremely large and spacious seat, bursting with happiness. I played with the seat adjustment that lets you recline 10 different ways. I activated the seat massage. Keep in mind that I had been awake for far too long, and this just overwhelmed me that I was actually sitting in first class for an overnight flight. The lights were dim, and smooth jazz christmas music played. I got to choose between different types of cava (spanish champagne). I got to choose between several decent dinners. I had some nice white wine and some bailey's to conk me out. For the first time in my entire life, I might actually fall asleep on an airplane! And you know what, I DID!! And to think that some people get to do this all the time??! (KATHY) It was unbelieveable. Coach is fine and dandy if you are flying a few hours, but those 10 hour (or 13 hour) overnight flights are so bad.

Time spent in coach:

2003 - 43 hours (Greece and Peru)
2004 - 52 hours (Costa Rica and SE Asia)
2005 - 20 hours (Brazil)

so in case you can't tell - I was happy, really happy.

Sitting next to me was 50-something Dan, who did not share my dorky enthusiasm for first class. I think he flys it a lot. Dan, from London by way of California, was flying to Africa to climb Mt Kilimanjaro and go to the Serengetti. We did the travel talk again - where have you gone, what do you do... He had also been to Cusco, Peru and got so altitude sick he thought something was seriously wrong. So he was now on altitude pills and we talked about that, and about how English people like to play cricket, and how the game goes on for days, and how cricket players have to stop for tea... He was another stellar seat-mate. I like to think that fights to Africa are pre-screened for interesting people. I slept and the flight seemed to take only a few hours.

Humidity hit me at the Joburg airport. Humidity, the smell of b.o. combined with Oklahoma sweetgrass. South Africa really did have sort of an Oklahoma smell. I always really notice the smell of a new place. The Joburg airport was like a cross section of the world - people in every color, from Muslims to white backpackers, to people with features I couldn't place. It was calm but buzzing. I exited and looked for a sign with my name since my guesthouse was picking me up. A man was holding a sign "Sahar Shiehrmer" and I thought, that's my guy! I love the spelling of my name. You can just call me Sahar from now on. Tony (pictured above) was very nice and even took me to downtown Joburg right away to sort out my bus ticket to Malawi. He didn't have to do that, it was so far out of his way. He pointed out interesting sights along the way and tried to teach me some words in Zulu and Africaans, which exited my brain immediately. I asked him about where he was from, Soweto, and his family. He even escorted me into the downtown Joburg bus station so that I'd be safe and not get confused. When he dropped me off at the guesthouse, I gave him a big fat tip. He seemed surprised and happy.

I took a much needed shower and laid down in my nice room with a private sitting area with skylight at the 33 on first guesthouse. Thunder crackled in the distance and I woke up to the most vicious thunderstorm I had seen in years, with sheets of rain pounding so hard against the glass I thought it might break. I lounged in my sitting area, reading a new book (no touch Monkey!) and waited for the storm to pass. I wandered into town to one of the only open places, the cat's pyjamas, where I had two black label beers and some delicious spicy couscous (above). I was too tired to be social with anyone and just enjoyed another thunderstorm passing next to me on the balcony. It's summer here, so the air is humid and warm, everything is green. I went back to bed and fell asleep to "footballers wives" and enjoyed South African commercials. There is one I really like, for something called WTG, that has the Mary J Blige remix in it I like "baby put your hands up!! hands ups! dum dum dum!" It gets me fired up. They play that song on my internet dance music station I listen to at work.

I wote up in the middle of the night in a complete panic about my bus trip on the 27th. Do I have my visas all squared away, Is it going to be OK? what am I doing taking a 20 hour bus (well, it's shorter that 30, anyway) from a shady, extremely smelly bus station where I clearly do not resemble anyone there? What if the Zimbabwe border crossing does not go OK? It may have been the malaria pills that made me paranoid (and gave me a wierd dry mouth) or just typical travel panic but I managed to go back to sleep and had some really odd dreams. At least I am better off than I was last year. Nobody lost my backpack. My wierd sore throat went away. Bring it on, translux bus company, bring it on Malawi.

You will hopefully hear from me next from Malawi in a few days. I called the bus company again to calm my fears about the Zimbabwe crossing, and today I'm going to try to squeeze as much fun out of Melville as I can on a public holiday. I saw an indian restaurant and a few promising-looking places. In fact I might wander around, Yanni-style...

wish me luck on that bus, I will need it.

Africa: Hola, Madrid!

Finally, the day had come. I rushed off to OHare and started the "hurry up and wait" game. My flight to Madrid filled the waiting area with Spaniards and their families going home for the holidays. I love watching the spaniards. I always say that they are some of the suavest, most attractive people. I enjoyed being in what was clearly the coolest crowd at a gate in the H wing of terminal three. Two other americans were waiting for the flight, a guido-looking New York guy and his girlfriend. While the girlfriend walked around, guido talked to his buddy on the phone:

"yeah, yeah man. me and Lisa last night - wooeee......yeah haha. I'm just tryin to keep up wit you! She's ovulatin'......yeah, man, I'm tryin'. "

To pass the time, I started to read one of my six books, "Indecent", about the life of a call girl/peep show worker. The book was a lot racier than I thought, with the "P" word used in profusion, the p-word referring to both men and women. I looked around to see if anyone might notice or be offended that I was reading such smutty words. They were all spanish and didn't seem to read over my shoulder, so I just kept on reading.

On the flight, I had a great seat-mate, Selvy from D.C. He was on both my Madrid flight, had the same 15 hour layover, and the same flight to South Africa. He used to be a travel agent and now teaches drama to kids. Selvy had made many trips to Africa over the years, and was so enthusiastic about it. We talked about how SA has changed since 1993, when one of his friends was arrested for a year, for distributing pro-mandela flyers. He was so happy when he talked about Africa, and showed me photos of his capetown friends on his laptop, and a little girl he wanted to adopt. I learned all about islands where slaves had passed through, and about how SA reacted during the Mandela election, and how his 1970s college friends were still close because they all used to protest for black rights. It was so interesting to hear his stories. He had also travelled to Asia and Saudi Arabia, so we talked about places we had each travelled and how important it was to each of us. He told me that I had convinced him to go to Vietnam.

I felt a little embarrased to take out the call-girl book around Selvy, so I read the entire book, the Bell Jar, instead. The story of Sylvia Plath's mental breakdown, start to finish. (although I do recommend "Indecent" to everyone I know! go out and buy it - I promise you'll learn some new things)

Iberia airlines was taking their own sweet time serving us and removing our trays. I think our trays sat on our seats for over an hour, then we endured some interesting turbulence. It was such a looooong, uncomfortable flight.

I was tired but I knew I had to power through, put my pack in storage and wander around Madrid again. I was there in 2000 so I knew my way around. Since it was Christmas eve, a lot of the stores were closed so I spent my day wandering around, coffee shop to restaurant, sampling all my favorite tapas and shivering in the cold. To my surprise, the Prado museum was open so I once again looked at all the Goyas, Rubens, and de Rivera. I had that old slap-happy jetlagged feeling, jacked up on way too many cafe con leches. My favorite painting was one of a family of frogs, but painted in that dark, ominous, ancient spanish catholic style. It made me laugh. The painting of a man breast-feeding a baby also made me laugh.

I started to feel like the Michigan Avenue Yanni of Madrid - aimlessly wandering, pretending I was going somewhere in particular, peeing in public restaurants, not quite dressed like everyone else....Finally, I caved and went to Starbucks. They may not be very european but they have comfortable chairs where I could finish reading my call girl book, undisturbed. I wandered some more in the dark, and found a cute little restaurant to sit at the bar for some tortilla espanola. It was nice to sit in the warm yellow glow, listening to the spaniards chit-chat. It was time to stop pounding the pavement, Yanni-style. None of them were shouting on their cell phones, nobody was punching away in a blackberry, just pure holiday cheer and the sounds of an espresso machine and groups of friends talking. I sat in there for two hours, just soaking up the atmosphere and reading. The bartender handed me a beer and said "feliz navidad! where are you from?"

Finally it was time to get back on the metro and go to the airport. I was a little sad and nostalgic to leave Madrid. It was kind of like hanging out with an old friend. By this time, the Spaniards were all out in groups, celebrating Christmas eve in the festive lights. A lot of young people were wearing brightly colored wigs, for reasons unknown. I got back on the train, ready for journey part #2 to South Africa.