La Liberté

…meanwhile, in Gisenyi, Rwanda La Liberte

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 .

La Liberté

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.

freedom

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Zanzibar

And then there was Zanzibar…

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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.

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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.

Sauti Za Busara

Sauti Za Busara

 

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.

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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.

Octopus soup

Octopus soup

DSC_0721The 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.

Ali Kiba performing at Sauti Za Busara in Zanzibar

Ali Kiba performing at Sauti Za Busara in Zanzibar

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.

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Lamu, Octopus and Ass

A man ties down the mast of his mangrove hewn Mozambique dhow.

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. 

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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.

Crescent moon and star. The symbols of Lamu town.

Crescent moon and star. The symbols of Lamu town.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Young boys kick playing football in Lamu town

 

the Dollar Menu

…and a couple of cents give or take.

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.

Chapati-Matumbo na Mchicha

Chapati-Cow Intestines with Spinach

Dollar Menu: Chapati, Mchicha na Matumbo

Chapati, Mchicha na Matumbo

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.

Samaki Mkavu, Chapati na Maji ya Maembe

Fried fish, Chapati with Mango Juice

Dollar Menu: Samaki Mkavu, Chapati na Maji ya Maemba

Samaki Mkavu, Chapati na Maji ya Maemba (Fried Fish, Chapati and Mango Juice)

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.

Ugali, Nyama

Maize Polenta with Beef

Dollar Menu : Ugali Nyama (  Maize Polenta  with Beef )

Ugali, Nyama ( Maize Polenta with Beef )

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.

Urojo na Chapati

Urojo (mixed vegetable, meat and egg soup) with Chapati

 

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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.

 

I stand accused of eating, praying and loving. Perhaps you yourself have thought of my travels and likened them to that very tale of a lonesome Elizabeth Gilbert.  I claim neither innocence nor guilt as I am still faced with six more months of deliberations with roads, time, people and places unbeknownst to me.

The Vehicle’s Art

As I pushed my way towards the front of the daladala (public bus), I pointed my camera at the object of my interest. There, against the backdrop of a cloudy blue sky, the images of the slain Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi were plastered on the back window of another daladala; side by side.

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Placed side by side as if to suggest that they were messengers of the same word.

I felt a deep sense of betrayal as people piled into the bus one after the other with no regard to the ‘Vehicle’s Art’. 

What place do these two individuals have in everyday Dar es Salaam?
How is it that these slain individuals continue to live in broad daylight?

The clicking of the shutters of my camera further perpetuated my angst urging me to hop out of the daladala in an effort to apprehend Osama and Gaddafi, only to watch them speed off when the light turned green. I look forward to the next time I will spot the same Ubungo bound daladala on Shekilango Rd in Dar es Salaam.

What would you say to the driver and passengers of this dala dala?

Next Year in Wadi Halfa

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Wadi Halfa

It would have been nice to experience the festivities of ushering in the new year, complete with a midnight countdown, in Cairo. If traveling that far north was not a possibility, I would have been content with spending this day (31st of December) and the wake of 2015 gazing upon the silvery waters of the Aswan lake and the Nile. Sipping on hibiscus tea and… Better yet in the glare of Hurgada’s living moon, I would go swimming in the Red Sea on both sides of the year and … I can only imagine.

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I spent the 31st of December of 2013 eating mounds of crispy bacon, drinking whiskey and watching fireworks on Denver’s 16th street mall. It seems like the forces that be have willed that I meet this new year here. How can anybody forge an existence here. In stern dissobedience of the abundance sand, sun and nothingness. Where bacon is unavailable and whiskey costs 40 lashes.

There is not much in this town. Besides the  handful of buildings that are a couple of storeys high, the rest of the town is on a level plane, one floor high. A full appreciation of Wadi Halfa must warrant an intimate relationship with one’s own imagination.

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I am fully engaged. As the the calls for the last prayer of the day compete for air space. My eyes will dart from one tiny minaret to another. I will sip on my hibiscus tea that I will have ordered minus the sugar. I will gladly inhale the second hand smoke from apple flavored Shishas. And I will tap my fingers to the rhythm of music from my chai vendor’s transistor radio and count the stars in the sky. Who needs fireworks when the sky as bright?

Tomorrow morning, I am guaranteed entry to Egypt. (visa issued today at 1100 hrs)

Until then, I have surrendered to Wadi Halfa’s mystic allure.

 

 

The Face of Faith

Have you ever heard of Limalimo road?

Nov. 27th-Nov 31st

It is a ‘highway’ in northern Ethiopia between the historic city Gondar and Shire. It is famous worldwide for its treachery: With barely enough room for two small size vehicles to move in opposite directions without careful hesitation, it is convoluted around the Limalimo mountain with huge portions that are either in grave condition or under construction.

Nothing went according to plan that Thursday ( Nov 27th). My day started routinely at 4:00 am with a languid descent of three flights of stairs from my room at a decently priced pension conveniently located next to the bus terminus in Gondar. I had booked my bus ticket the previous day after back tracking from Debark where my efforts to secure a seat on a bus to Aksum via Shire were fruitless due to an overwhelming amount of pilgrims making their way to Aksum for the st. Mary’s day celebration.

I stepped out in to the murky street where a huge crowd was huddled around the station’s gate. At the stroke of five o’clock, the gates went ajar. Men, women and children flooded the bus station scurrying in obedience to the exuberant calls of bus touts or their forceful yanking.

After the dust had settled, the bus pulled out of the station.

I will spare you the excruciating details of the that journey that was halted hundred meters later when the engine of the bus imploded.  The details that would further describe the pains of waiting a couple of hours for a replacement bus that feigned death after half an hour of driving before finally throwing in the towel 100 km from Shire at dusk: Brake failure.

After being left in the darkness, and after chasing down a pickup truck that was supposedly two kilometers away, I made it to the next town accompanied by Dirk (German/Turk traveler). The next morning we got up early, boarded a bus to Shire before proceeding to Aksum where pilgrims were arriving in numbers.

 

The Face of Faith.

They  were there in numbers. They meditated and prayed. They slept under the blanket of the night’s sky or kept vigil chanting mantras and praying under candlelight. If patience is not the chief of all human virtues, then faith is: Decidedly.

St. Mary’s Day celebrations at the Church of our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum, Ethiopia. November 30th, 2014DSC_0774 DSC_0821 DSC_0817 DSC_0808

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