‘Pinche Chilangos!’ ..I moaned!
…The truth is my spanish is shit! It is utter garbage! While it is not entirely non-existent, it is just plain and simply shitty! However, three hours into arriving in one of the most populated cities in the world, I experienced a linguistic breakthrough albeit catalysed by an unfortunate event.
“No Mames!”… I screamed frantically grabbing my pockets, eyes bulging in a blend horror and angst. …”Pinche Chilangos! No Mames, Guey! “ I continued and sealed the curse!
Picture the dumbfounded visages in that train car, with mine the most distinct in hue. On one hand, there were the faces shocked at how Chilango-like the accent in my curses’ tongue had pierced the air and on the other, there was my face mourning the loss of an extension of my ‘SELF’. I had been liberated from my precious iPhone.
The irony of it all is that from the moment I descended into the subway underground, on my way to Zocalo, I acknowledged to myself that the conditions were prime and perfect for anybody to be pick pocketed, especially me, the eager visitor whose perceptions were tuned in to all the novelties, therefore distracted. It was about 4 pm and the trains were pouring over at every station. I in fact had a nerdy statistics hard-on when I thought to myself how interesting it would be if the percentage of people with communicable illnesses was almost equal to the number of occupational pickpockets in every train car at any given time. And how shitty it would be to catch the flu from the same person that picks your pocket. I even chuckled when I thought that a foreigner such as myself must have been like a game of Pokemon GO for a pickpocket.
For as long as I incubated my medley of thoughts, I exercised extra caution. Sometimes a bit too dramatic as I changed trains clutching desperately at my pockets and hugging worrisomely at my backpack. I thought of BBC’s, Conor Woodman’s SCAM CITY; a television serious founded on unearthing the most prevalent of scams in popular tourist destinations. Predictably, pick pocketing reigns supreme in swindle kingdom. To accompany those thoughts, my eyes darted back and forth endeavoring to savor the sight of a hand in action.
Suddenly, there was some unnecessary aggressive shoving and pushing at the Pino Suarez subway station while boarding the blue line to Zocalo. I raised my hands in the air, gesturing my American goodwill in the peaceful transcendence into every and all spaces as my precious iPhone ascended from my pockets. How stupid was that! Word of advise, if a situation looks like a pig, its probably a pig. I knew what was happening but somehow I convinced myself that I had a bias worth muting. I even looked at the bitch that did it in the eye as she retreated from boarding the train, thinking, yeah good idea, this is a mess! It happened so fast! It infuriated me! I sneezed! It was poetic! And now I sit with a sense of liberation that has been long estranged from my ‘SELF’.
A sense of liberation that was bought by a communion of mezcal and tacos coupled with an audit of pequeña hardships and pequeña blessings of my iPhone-less state. I took out a piece of paper and said to myself, “well, I guess now I’ve got to write shit down. ” Undoubtedly, in the 24 hours that have passed, I have enjoyed looking at the different aspects of my personality through my handwriting. I have scribbled a lot of meaningful and meaningless things. I have scribbled on receipts, on the back of my hand and I think I almost scribbled on a spare tortilla at a taco stand. I stopped myself short after considering foldability.
Not having a cellphone means that I had been stripped off my Uber superpowers. Now I am forced to power up my shitty Spanish and haggle with drivers in a taxi industry that is riddled with unregulated operators. On the upside, I cannot hide behind my Black Mirror for the next 8 or so days. And I have to be cognizant of directions, time and my surroundings in general. There is no precision to my sense of direction or time at the moment and there need not be. I am neither here nor there and the time is not now. I can best sum up my spatial disposition as an approximate actuality. For example, I am writing this from a taco stand in La Condesa. 3 tacos in with 2 left to go. I am approximately 150 pesos ( my willingness to pay as a function of my perceived distance ) by taxi to my next destination: Somewhere in Polanco where I intend to continue illuminating the night with La Comida y las Bebidas. The food and the drinks: The chief of all my reasons to visit Mexico this time around.
The inconvenience of not having a phone means that I am liberated form the persuasions of the barrage of notifications I suffer on an hourly basis. Not having a phone means that my first instinct is to experience and reflect rather than capture and share.
Pinche Chilangos, Gracias!!
oh feuille d’air
vous qui porte mes semelles .
Luttez avec la gravité,
tourner dans le vent.
Me récompense avec la liberté,
sur la terre et sous l’eau.
Garder mon souffle vrai,
et ne jamais éteindre le feu
qui porte mon âme .
oh sheet of air,
you who bears my soles.
Wrestle with gravity,
turn into wind.
Award me with freedom,
over land and under water.
Keep my breath true,
and never extinguish the fire
that bears my soul.
And then there was Zanzibar…
I arrived in Zanzibar aboard the flying horse. A budget ferry that cost half as much as its competitor ‘Kilimanjaro’. That meant that I did not expect anything grand lux when I boarded the purported two hour trip that turned into three. It also meant that the bodies sprawled on the top deck had minimal shock value. Some had crawled under their seats where they sought the sweet relief in an afternoon’s sleep, while others desperately supplemented the insufficient sea breeze with folded newspaper fans. The heat must have been turned all the way up. Despite her shortcomings in speed and air conditioning, there was a kind of bravado with which the flying horse battered the waves bearing northeast towards Zanzibar. It was flattery at its best. I leaned against a rail the whole way fending off wind-dancing rastas from my face; my mouth blissfully frozen agape. My romantic recount of that voyage is testament to my enthusiastic excitement for finally arriving in Zanzibar. I was super stoked.
Immigration officers at the port were convinced that I was a musician coming to perform at the Sauti Za Busara festival that was set to commence the following day. My hair is dead giveaway. If someone doesn’t mistake me for a footballer (soccer) then the next best thing is that I am most certainly a musician. In the name of good humor, I played along in an attempt to get a taste of the perks. Only until I was led to separate room, where I was presented with a hefty government of Zanzibar tax fee that all performing festival artists had to pay. Imagine how awkward that was.
After checking into my off the beaten path cheaper hotel, I took it upon myself to conduct a self guided walking tour. A decision I questioned five minutes later as I stared down at my t-shirt that clung to my body curving out the contours of my lethargic shoulders, arms and entire torso. I was drenched! Completely drenched. Sweat lushed down my forehead and cascaded over my eyebrows. The entire island was cocooned in a blanket of sweltering heat. But not enough to stop me.
I kid you not, I didn’t return to my room that day. When I finally returned it was five in the morning and the sky was dimly lit by the promise of a sunrise. In the course of my promenade, I encountered a young Masai man in ‘civilian’ (as opposed to traditional Masai dressing ). Circular scars from childhood heat branding on each of his cheekbones and an unmissable gap between his teeth informed me of his heritage. He was a long way from home. But he wasn’t the only one. There are Masai men, (No women) all over stone town Zanzibar. And most are adorned in full Masai regalia. Out of curiosity, I approached him to ask why he had come to Zanzibar and how long he had stayed. He candidly responded that he came to Zanzibar from Arusha with his then Norwegian girlfriend, now mother of his daughter, eight years before. Since, their relationship soured and she left him with nothing. He decided to stay in Zanzibar to work in the tourism industry selling wares out of a curio shop.
Robert took it upon himself to deliver me to a variety of nightly entertainment venues around the city of Zanzibar. From Taarab to Bongo flava to Lingalala to American hip hop, there was hardly a genre of music that we didn’t cover. It was also during these escapades that the ineffable aphrodisiac quality of Supu wa Pweza ( octopus soup ) was emphasized to me. Outside a night club adjacent to the Zanzibar prison, Robert pulled me towards a man where he requested five hundred shillings worth of soup. He then told me that the soup would award me with sexual virility, stamina and an insatiable libido. A few other believers chimed in to profess this claim as truth, never raising their heads, deeply buried in their bowls of soup. I didn’t believe them and I had no reason to. “Agata, why do you think all these white women come to Zanzibar and never leave?” Robert asked. “And if they leave, they always come back!” Heckled another man. Later that night, Robert would bitterly reveal to me that his baby mama had left him for a local man; a mzenji. “Just drink it then, its delicious! Since you are not drinking alcohol, why not?”
When Robert had offered me a drink earlier on in the night, I respectfully refused boasting the three months since November 13th of 2014 that I had managed to stay completely dry. (That alcohol free run is now 113 days and counting ) I reluctantly gave in to his request and drank the octopus soup. What a delicacy! I savored every mouthful. It then came to my realization that the octopus was my first meal in Zanzibar, just like in Lamu a week prior. I oliver-twisted my way into three more bowls of soup. I was famished.
The walk back home was strange. Strange in the senses it evoked. Those of mystery, those of wonder and often those of a delightful loneliness. There was utter stillness; with nothing but the puttering of my footsteps. But every so often, I would get startled by a shuffling followed by the blank stare of the sleepy eyes of a man sheltered under cardboard boxes. He would look up but only for a moment before continuing with his posture adjustment. When I got to my hotel room, I lay sleepless in my bed gazing at the ceiling where a wobbling fan labored to whip up a breeze. How could I not think of the four bowls of octopus soup possibly conspiring an appetite within me? How could I not think of Robert and the misfortune of his love? How could I not think of his reverence of Zanzibar and his determination to persist in its habitation? How could I not think about me and Zanzibar? I laughed off the first thought and soon after I was fast asleep.
I didn’t sleep alone. Do I have your attention?
The morning was shorter than the night had promised having woken up a with trail of bug bites running down my shins. Bug bites paired with an unpleasant itching that pestered me in the course of my search for alternative accommodation. My price-distance compromise had not paid off. After a long search that initially seemed impossible, I landed new accommodation closer to the music festival in stone-town at Shylock prices.
Later that night, as Ali Kiba sang, Mapenzi ya run dunia (love runs the world) I reveled in the muddled symphony of love as the masses sang along. It was beautiful. Zanzibar is love. It is mystic. It is a serendipitous place that rocked my world many times. Once on a sandy island that was reborn every morning as when the ocean’s low tide bowed to the sun.
Whats the difference between people and places? Aren’t places personified in the experiences the afford us. Especially those of kindness, patience and love.
Along the Swahili coast, it is not entirely strange to encounter a man bent over, repeatedly waging war with the white and gold sands against a back drop of a crystal blue-black evening ocean. Whip! Whack! Whip! Whack! His weapon; a three foot, eight tentacled octopus recently drawn from the ocean and soon to be dinner.
I had never been to Lamu before. In fact, up until then the town only existed in a vivid imagination drawn up from descriptions that dated an excess of eight years prior. I had also never cooked octopus, let alone eat a full one all by myself. But never say never.
I arrived in Mokowe in a convoy of buses and police escorts at five o’clock in the evening. Nowadays, getting to Lamu is no walk in the park. I am told that it once was. Before al-Shabaab, you could leave Mombasa or Malindi on a bus headed to Lamu at any time of the day. Now, all the buses are required to depart these towns at the same time every day and are escorted by administration police a few miles before Mpeketoni all the way to mainland Mokowe, a couple hundred kilometers from the Somali-Kenya border. The risk of al-Shabaab is omnipresent but life goes on. For the coastal people that ply these route, the extra security is appreciated but deemed unnecessary. I ignored numerous adverse counsel to refrain from visiting Lamu for security reasons. Counsel formulated solely on opinions gaining prevalence with regards to travel along the Kenyan coastline: Opinions driven by travel advisories.
As I stepped off the bus, my face was bent in a grimace inspired by a persistent stomach ache and the discomforts of a journey that lasted the better part of 8 hours hours. A journey punctuated with police road blocks, ID checks and a dirt road that squabbled with the bus. The whole trip, my body was rammed by the bus’s seat as I played nanny to a six month old child that belonged to a set of two.
He had been handed to me when his twin brother needed a diaper change. An affair that concluded in a soiled diaper being skillfully hurled outside the window right across my face leaving behind an eternal whiff of baby poop. My heart sunk to unimaginable depths at this heinous act of littering. Still, the responsibility of holding young Awadh was bestowed upon be me for the duration of the rest of the journey.
A welcoming brigade of starved tourist handlers and porters swarmed in to lay their claim at the jetty in Lamu town. In the midst of the shoving and jostling, in the midst of the frenzy, a hand penetrated the eager crowd vying for attention. A three foot octopus lazily dangled from the blacked hand.
“One hundred and fifty shillings!” Cried the hand. As I fingered the octopus, inspecting her slimy tentacles and body, I cried out. “One hundred! One hundred only!” The hand ushered me to the side where money changed hands. Shortly after, with a few onlookers, I was bent over a golden white sandy beach that bordered a blue-black ocean, vigorously whipping and whacking an octopus to a desired tenderness.
How hard could it be to cook octopus? The answer is that it is not hard at all. Getting the slimy thing clean is the hardest part. The rest is patience, a good boil and a sufficient amount of salt, spices and herbs to taste. A few hours after the darkness of the night had settled in, I sat atop sunshine hotel enjoying the sweet serenade of a muezzin, the glare of the full moon and an octopus dinner. I stared down at the narrow paved streets full of awe of the town’s history. I thought of the indefinable impressions of Swahili culture embedded in the people and their intercourse as they went about their ways below me. I reflected on the slice of heaven that is Lamu ; frozen in time but thawing ever so gently.
In the few days that I spent in Lamu, I rediscovered myself as an ass guy. I herded donkeys, enjoyed the unexpected glam of riding down the narrow corridors on their backs and hopscotched through the passageways scattered with dung.
A week later I was in Zanzibar where my affair with the octopus resumed.
Tough! The essence of the word is illustrated in the bent backs of porters that look to the slopes of Kilimanjaro as a means to an end. In the mercy of the sun, their eyes bloody and their temples throb. Still they march up the steep sometimes treacherous martian-like inclines of Africa’s big mountain with resolve. Their fuel is largely their camaraderie irregardless of the numerous tour companies they are contracted too. Often they thrive ( survive ) on one meal a day that comprises of Sukuma Wiki and Ugali ( collard greens and maize polenta ).
In kiswahili, the porters are referred to as Wagumu (Hard Men/Women).
The town the most hail from is Moshi, Tanzania. Adequately dubbed ‘Mji wa wagumu’: The town of hard people.
It’s not just wishful thinking. Someday, I’ll giving Anthony Bourdain and his Parts Unknown a run for their money. Credit to that is the fact that, akin to Mr. Bourdain’s travel exploits, I too have become a self proclaimed connoisseur (of sorts) of great but cheap eats in the course of my comings and goings.
Eating is the easy part. Try grabbing a hearty meal for under One US dollar. The dollar meal in Africa today is becoming increasingly elusive as food prices continue to soar. By my own admittance, the endeavor of finding this meal requires no mastery. Such meals are simply a function of the compositions of the meal itself and the location. Therefore, if you don’t mind sometimes sharing dining space with things that crawl or if you can look past the luxury of eating while sitting down (for example), you could turn an empty stomach into an nourished one a dollar later.
Dollar meals shouldn’t always constitute an evocation of the ‘big M’ and its mc nuggets, mc doubles etc.
Here is an example of my culinary adventures with sub-dollar meals.
Price: 90.00 Kshs 0.98 Dollars
Location: Likoni-Mombasa, Kenya
In a little wooden shack in Likoni, right after you get off the ferry, a man endlessly rolls fist size balls of dough into flat disks; mechanically. There is half a meter stack of cooked chapatis on his right and a charcoal stove glowing in the dimly lit cooking area right in front of him.
Price: 100 Kshs 1.09 Dollars
Location: Lamu, Kenya
If Kiswahili words meant nothing, one would still find endless strings of poetry in the effortlessly melodious accents of the patrons of Hamza’s little restaurant tucked away in the paved shoulder to shoulder streets in the maze that is Lamu town.
Price: 1500 Tshs 0.83 Dollars
Location: Kigamboni-Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
I was half kidding when I requested, even demanded, that I get an extra piece of meat. My excuse was that great things come in threes. And how was it that I had ordered Ugali with beef, yet my plate had more beans than meat. She pointed out the extra sardines and vegetables that come with the meal but my smile brightened when a third piece of meat dropped into my plate splashing delicious beef stew onto the sides of the partitioned silver plate.
Price: 1800 Tshs 1.00 Dollars
Location: Zanzibar, Tanzania
I haven’t the slightest clue as to what my meal constituted in its entirety. On one hand, I had a chapati rolled like a scroll. On the other, my spoon was pointed downwards into a concoction of a potato, a hard boiled egg…etc.