Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A trip to an exotic locale: Zanzibar

We spent a long weekend in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean. We had been to Kenya’s version of this island for my birthday back in February, and we wanted to try out Zanzibar before our Tanzania visas expired at the end of this month. Lamu (the island off Kenya’s coast) and Zanzibar are very similar – they have similar histories and share the Swahili and seafaring culture. But Zanzibar is a bigger island, and there are more things to see there – historical sites, museums, etc. – and it is more developed than Lamu. If we had known about both places before visiting either of them, I would have opted for Zanzibar and not ever bothered visiting Lamu. Zanzibar also reminded me very much of Marrakech in Morocco because the Arab culture is so dominant (and is also predominantly Muslim), but I would say Zanzibar is “Marrakech lite.” Our hotel – its layout, décor and the type of pedestrian-only tourist-shopping lane it was on – totally made me feel like I was in Marrakech, which I have many happy memories of from my two visits there.

We flew down on Friday morning and saw the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro as we flew past. Upon arrival, we checked into our hotel, and immediately went to eat lunch at an Italian restaurant outside on a terrace overlooking a white sandy beach with turquoise water. There are many spots like this on the island. We took a walk through the town and tried to see a museum that had been closed and ended up at one of the main museums/historical attractions – an enormous house that had lots of good displays about the culture and history of the museum. Often at museums in Africa, the displays are very old and worn out and not well done at all, but this museum was done well, and there was actually too much to read for one visit.

For dinner we ended up at another fun restaurant, one where you sit on the floor, Arab-style. Lexi enjoyed this because we were at her level and she could crawl all over us. She made a friend at the restaurant – a 4-year-old girl who was with another family eating there. I had an interesting dessert. It was called a cardamom date cake, but there was neither cardamom in it (that I could taste), nor was it cake-like. It was really just date meats shaped into a small roll and sliced with a dollop of whipped cream on top. Luckily I like dates (and cardamom), and they are a typical Arab-type dessert, so I was eating something authentic for the area, but it just wasn’t what I was expecting.

On Saturday we scheduled ourselves to be with a group of people for an organized spice tour. Also on this tour were a young mother with her 9-year-old daughter who are from Richmond Beach, Wash. (very close to where my parents live) and who are volunteering for a month elsewhere in Tanzania but were taking a short break from that to visit Zanzibar. They actually stayed at our hotel too, and this girl also made quick friends with Lexi, so the girl was pleased that they were together for a few hours on the tour.

We took a van a short distance from the island’s main city into the rural areas where there were a few other vans full of tourists doing the same thing. We could see signs for spice farms/plantations, but it seemed the areas we visited to see spices growing were really just next to people’s houses by the side of the road. And in many ways that really was what it was, I was told by another person on the tour – that the tours don’t take tourists to the actual farms but just show them how spices are grown in sort of demonstration areas where many different types of plants are grown in small patches so one doesn’t have to travel from farm to farm to see all of them individually.

We made several stops for a couple of hours in the area and were shown various spice plants and trees – cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, peppercorn, lemongrass, nutmeg, mace, ginger, vanilla beans, and several others. We were also shown the trees of many exotic tropical fruits – star fruit, jack fruit, bread fruit, Japanese pear, cocoa beans, the various kinds of coconuts, and several others. We got to sample many of these spices and fruits, although many of the spices were in their raw forms, since parts of the tree, such as seeds (or pods inside thick fruits), are usually dried and ground first to make the spice. But it was very interesting to see how many of the spices I know and love start out. At the end we were taken to a small fruit stand and were given samples of many of the fruits we saw. I found a new favorite fruit – jack fruit. Near the fruit stand was a place to buy all the spices we had seen, so I bought some cardamom (my favorite spice, which I always buy when traveling) and some flavored coffee and tea.

Then we drove what seemed to be a good distance further from the main city to a beach area. A short walk from the shore was a cave that had been used in the 1800s to hide slaves by Arab traders before selling them on the market, who continued to illegally trade slaves after the British abolished slavery on the island. From there we walked to a beautiful stretch of beach with soft white sand. We had an hour there. We had brought a life jacket for Lexi in case we got an opportunity to get to the beach. We stood her in the shallow surf, but she didn’t like the water, probably because it was too cold. So we just sat in the shade for most of the hour, and Lexi happily played in the sand.

When we returned to our hotel late in the afternoon, we popped into the café next to our hotel for a cup of coffee and tea. I needed another cup of the cardamom-laced coffee they serve in many places in Zanzibar. I was delighted to have it at breakfast at our hotel the first morning, which was served on a small roof-top patch of our hotel in an open-air dining room with a 360-degree view of the sea and the old city of Stone Town. Immediately after having coffee, we returned to this roof-top restaurant, which was set up for dinner. Our Lonely Planet guide book describes our hotel as a "Zanzibar institution," since it is a former sultan’s palace that has been restored to look like it did in its heyday. Its rooftop restaurant is also an institution, it says, with much sought-after dinners. One definitely needs a reservation, which are offered first to hotel guests. Like everybody else with a reservation (and several without reservations for dinner, who were promptly asked to leave when those with reservations showed up), we showed up an hour early for drinks, just as the sun was setting (it was overcast, so it wasn’t as colorful as it was the night before). Breakfast at the restaurant is served at tiny tables that seat only two, but for dinner, one sits on pillows on the floor and propped up against the outside walls. The floor space can seat 24 like this (with small tables for you to eat on). So, starting at 6:00 with drinks, it was a six-course meal that was still going strong at 9:00 when we left to put Lexi to bed. There were essentially two main courses with sorbet in between – a fish, potatoes and vegetable plate and then a chicken, rice and vegetable plate. Neither was quite large, although it’s a good thing we were warned to pace ourselves by the woman from Richmond Beach who had eaten there the night before.

Sunday morning we had another lovely breakfast on the same spot. For breakfast they have fruit scones, something I rarely see served for breakfast at a hotel. They were delicious – almost as good as the scones I make! With the spiced coffee, they were a real treat (in case you don't know, scones are one of life's greatest pleasures for me)! Then we walked around to other parts of the historical town that we hadn’t been to yet. We visited the main market area, at the center of which is a covered building where all sorts of fresh meat and fish are sold (very smelly in that hot weather), and surrounding it are stalls selling fruits and vegetables and spices. Then we toured the Palace Museum, which is where the 12 sultans that ruled Zanzibar lived. Because this palace was used over many decades, the styles of furniture that are on display are an interesting mix of African, Indian and European.

We ate lunch at an Indian restaurant and sat in a verandah-like third floor and had a great view of the water again. Then we toured the Anglican cathedral, where the slave market once stood. There’s a stone disc just in front of the altar where the tree where slaves were whipped once stood. In the basement of a building next to the cathedral are two chambers that remain from those times, where slaves were stored before they were auctioned off. And there’s a monument outside the cathedral to the slaves. It was a powerful place to visit, since all that history is on that site. This was also the first Anglican cathedral in East Africa. (In the back of the nave are 12 short marble pillars for the 12 disciples. When the cathedral was being built, the bishop took a vacation and returned to find that these pillars had been installed upside-down, which is how they remain today.) Finally, we made another stop for coffee before we had to head to the airport to come home.

It was a fun weekend in an interesting place that’s rich with various cultures and history. The food was good – lots of Indian food and curries – as well as great coffee, scones and spices! It was also nice to be where it’s warmer. We’re wearing long sleeves these days in Nairobi, and the weather has been drizzly and cloudy most days. So it was good to return to summer weather and to see the ocean again.

A word on how Lexi is traveling these days: It had been a while since we had taken Lexi on a trip that involved flying somewhere. In the ensuing months, she has grown to be more mobile and to have constant energy and motion. Although the flights down there and back were only about an hour and a half long each, it took constant attention and a lot of energy from two adults for every minute of that time to keep her entertained and happy. This seemed to be the most challenging part of the trip with her, since airline seats are confined spaces, and we can’t let her crawl around and roam free like she does at home. But also, because she likes to be part of the action all the time, and there were exciting things to do and see on the trip, she didn’t take her naps during the day at all, and she stayed alert late, past her usual bedtimes, both nights we were there. And she woke up at her usual time or earlier each morning, even after getting less sleep than usual. We’re really wondering how she will do next month when we meet my sister in South Africa to tour the country for a full two weeks! Most of all, we’re dreading the longer plane ride down there!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Thank you, Uncle Sam!

Yesterday in the mail we received a check, dated July 4, 2008, for $600 from the United States Treasury, our 2008 economic stimulus payment. Thank you, Uncle Sam! This is especially generous on your part, considering we have not paid one cent in income taxes to the U.S. government, for a few reasons, since we left the country in 2003. What a deal – don’t pay taxes for about five years, but get a refund, essentially! Uncle Sam gave us a gift on his birthday!

Other benefits we have received from the U.S. government since 2003 with no financial support from us:

  • all of us have been issued new passports (well, I suppose we paid for these directly, but it has the perk of allowing us free passage to most places in the world)
  • Lexi got a birth certificate of sorts (from the U.S. consulate in Geneva), which will be more acceptable to Americans that the birth certificate the Swiss issued to her
  • two wars fought on our behalf so we can enjoy the blessings of liberty in a world free from terror, courtesy of George W. Bush personally (not!)

And some good this $600 will do for the U.S. economy in the hands of Americans living in Africa. I know Dubbya thought we would immediately run out and buy that new fridge from Sears that we’ve been eyeing as a way of stimulating the economy. Actually, though, we plan to deposit most of it into Lexi’s college savings account, so the money will make its way back to the U.S. and aid in the creation of more money when it gets in the hands of the investment company, so I guess it will help.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Hold Up

One of the LWF finance staff went to a meeting on the new government's annual budget. It was a two day meeting in a nice hotel in a good area. Someone decided that they would like to rob the casino in this hotel and so at 10:15 in the morning, the people in the budget meeting heard gun shots! I asked what did they do - hide, evacuate? She said they all ducked under the tables for about 45 minutes. There was quite a bit of shooting and several employees were killed. I didn't find out if the robbers got away with or without the cash.

Who would have thought such a thing would happen here? Sounds more like NYC or Vegas.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Welcome to Africa column: A lesson that will stick

Sarah reported that one of her coworkers who works with the Lutheran World Federation program in Sudan took back with him after a visit to Nairobi some non-stick pans for cooking at the compound in Southern Sudan where the staff live and work. There are probably a few women who do the cooking and washing of dishes for the staff there. Apparently they got the pans and because they had a dark coating, they thought they were dirty, so they scrubbed them, and now they are a shiny silver with no non-stick surface anymore!

This almost happened to us until we caught it and put a stop to it. We noticed that Jane, our house help, was washing our dishes with a scouring pad. If you go to the grocery store to the aisle where you buy dish-washing implements, there is a large section of nothing but these scouring pads, including the steel kind. Finding something like a dish rag or a softer sort of pad is actually difficult. Washing with a scouring pad is actually the standard method of washing dishes here. They believe that by using something scratchy, you are not only washing but polishing your silverware and metal pots and pans to a shine, which must mean they’re clean! So we noticed this – really the damage that was being done – on things like our expensive set of German-made stainless steel knives. I immediately took away all scouring pads from the house, and we actually had to explain to Jane about how she shouldn’t scratch off the non-stick surface of some pans or bring the silverware to a bright shine.

People in Sudan are less likely to know this as they’ve just come out of a two-decade-long civil war, and luxuries like non-stick pans are very few and far between. Most people are still collecting firewood to prepare their meals with, so who’s concerned about frying an egg easily or making pancakes? But isn’t it funny how we Americans take even simple things like this for granted and just know how to use them?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

What's in a word?

What's in a word? To Stephen, a lot. I don't if it is because some of the Africans we encounter here didn't have a full education or if they just don't teach the nuances of some of the words. For example, our house help uses 'must', 'will' and is often very direct - and assertive - with her comments. She tells Stephen that Lexi must eat, that the party will happen (even when she knows nothing about it). She doesn't really put things in a questioning way and I am not sure if maybe is in her vocabulary. Stephen is so tuned into the subtleties that this drives him crazy. He wishes she wouldn't offer her opinion in such a forceful manner - like there is no other option.

How do you explain this to someone? We have tried, but I don't think she understands our subtleties. She can't understand that it is her way of speaking that is the problem, not necessarily what she says.

I find at work that with some people I have to be very explicit. I can't assume that they will do everything the way I would do it - or think to tell me what they have done. So I have to keep following up - and sometimes, I feel like I am questioning how they do their jobs, but I just don't know how else to make sure it is getting done.

I think we are both finding it much harder to live here and fit in than in Europe. Europe was probably more like we are used to - and there were things that we really liked about living there.