Sunday, September 28, 2008

Giving up on Thai food

I give up. There’s no way we will find decent Pad Thai in this city. Last night, after Sarah got home from her week on business in South Africa, we went out to dinner. We tried a new restaurant, a place that’s listed in the Lonely Planet guide book, which said it had authentic Thai food. Like the other Asian restaurants in town, this place’s Pad Thai just was not the same as what I’m used to and what I like.

I’m almost ready to give up on Chinese food as well. We’ve tried a few Chinese restaurants in town. The last one we went to was a place next to the American embassy on our anniversary a few weeks ago. I love fried noodles, but this dish had no taste. We had tried another Chinese restaurant earlier that bills itself as having “Chinese” and “Thai” food, or maybe it is named something like “Thai Garden.” When we got there, there were no Thai dishes to be found on the menu, and when I asked if they had any, I was told that they use Thai spices in their Chinese dishes. Disappointed again.

I know I’m picky with my food, especially when it comes to something I’m craving at a particular time. Or maybe I’ve just been spoiled. I’ve eaten real Thai food in Bangkok, drunk mojitos in Havana, and have had the most memorable Italian meals in Italy (I remember how good the cappuccinos are even at the airport in Milan). So I get cravings for some of these favorite foods and long for something that will satisfy me, and not every city is cosmopolitan enough to have authentic food from around the world. We have found a really good Italian restaurant down the road from us that we’ve been to many times. The pasta is at least homemade there, and they have a wood-fired pizza oven, so it’s pretty European-style cooking. And there is the Swiss restaurant nearby as well for when we miss fondue, but the weather is too warm here for that most of the time.

I know that no matter where we live, I will never be totally satisfied, that there will be some favorite food that is just not quite like the real thing, like the perfect croissant (like they have in Paris) or the best shepherd’s pie (like they have in London – usually tasteless, but at least it’s authentic).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Five years as expatriates

Here's a bit of a personal note to ourselves about today, but something that I'll share with the rest of you – my reflections on what the day means to us. This day on our household's calendar used to be marked as our "Geneva anniversary," the day we arrived in Geneva in 2003, having sold our house and car and left our friends and family behind, as well as most of our possessions. We had left our home and country, but we had set out on a great European adventure. Neither Sarah nor I had really taken the requisite backpacking tour through Europe as a young person, but we ended up becoming residents for several years and adopting and liking many customs there. We were still young and enjoyed those years immensely. I often thought of our move there, essentially leaving my country for work and economic opportunities, as doing the opposite of – and even undoing – the work of my great-grandfathers, who had left a poor part of Europe more than a century before. What would they have said if they knew that one of their great-grandsons had returned to a very prosperous Europe and to opportune locales?

Of course, "Geneva anniversary" isn’t what's on our calendar anymore now that we live in Nairobi. Today has become our "living out of the country anniversary." It has been five years now. I'm very pleased to think of that period as most of the years in the George W. Bush administration (however, having to represent him abroad as our president has been a real burden), and I'm pleased to remember that we haven't paid one single cent in U.S. federal taxes in all those years (thus not financing an unjustified war in Iraq). We are thinking about our return to the U.S. now. It will happen sometime in 2009, and we're ready to be back where we came from. We would like to say that we can come back because Bush won't be president anymore, and we'd like it even more to say we're returning because Obama will be president. But really it is our decision. Living abroad has been fun, and there are certain advantages that we do not have in the U.S. Just to name a few, the weather is great (warm and sunny) for longer periods of the year in Nairobi, we have a nanny/housekeeper, and we feel like tourists constantly because there are always so many new things to see. So we appreciate all that we’ve done and gained in the last five years.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Back in South Africa

So I am back to South Africa, roughly 1 month later for a meeting for work. We are going to be here a whole week. It is much colder here than it was 2 weeks which is going to be problematic for me as I didn’t bring the right type of clothes! People will just have to get used to seeing me in the same sweater every day…

Stephen and I are still trying to figure out why Kenyans seem to give oblique answers – or can’t give you the correct answer, but give you an answer that they think you want to here. ‘Is this chicken?’ ‘Yes.’ But it’s not – it’s turkey. ‘How small does that playpen fold up?’ ‘Yes.’ We can’t believe that these people don’t know the right answers – but they don’t seem to be trained in customer service at all.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The world lives!

In reference to one of my earlier posts about the new Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva (see below), this news was released this morning: The collider was switched on for some tests this morning, and I'm happy to report that, by the very fact that I am writing this, by the fact that I'm able to report this news, the world has survived!

However, I was sitting at the desk in our spare bedroom/office this morning, and I did feel a slight tug at my body, as if a small black hole was trying to suck a large chunk of Africa into it. But I grabbed on to the large rocking chair we have next to the desk, and I was able to remain in the room. I then continued my work at the computer as usual.

Unfortunately, there's another point in the near future when the world may come to an end: November 4, the day Americans go to the polls. If they elect John McCain and Sarah Palin to a third Bush term in the White House, then we are all doomed!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Out of Africa

As Stephen explained re: our visit to South Africa, it truly did NOT feel like Africa to me. If that is the only country you ever visit in Africa, I feel like you really have not been - even if you do go to one of those native villages set up for tourists.

And yes, we didn't go into the really poor rural areas - which I am told there are some - but we did see some of the rural parts, though the more wealthy ones I think. First off, the roads are SO good. It's amazing after Kenya. It was such a pleasure to drive a car there. No potholes, people follow the traffic rules, things are well sign-posted. Second, the stores have a whole assortment of things (not so different from Kenya) BUT I don't think we had a power outage the whole two weeks! And they are supposed to be having an energy crisis.

All in all, it was a nice trip and I am glad we went. It was different traveling with a wiggly 1-year old, but I think she enjoyed it as well. We went to an acquarium one day and she looked at all of the fish and of course, she likes to look at people wherever they are.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Our trip to the bottom of Africa

On Sunday we returned from our two-week “summer” vacation (although it was winter in the Southern Hemisphere) in South Africa. My sister came from Seattle on her second trip to Africa and met us in Cape Town to tour the country. Why South Africa? My sister, Lora, and Sarah (and Lexi, of course) had never been there, and this trip was meant to be a bit of a tour of southern Africa while we are living on this continent and was to include a return for me to Zimbabwe yet again and to show more of my family where I used to live as an exchange student when I was 16 years old. But because of the political instability in Zimbabwe in the last couple of months, and because I was not able to get in touch with the few families I had stayed in touch with off and on over the last several years, we decided not to go. My sister, however, took a couple of days after we returned to Nairobi to go by herself to one tiny corner of the country, probably the last tourist enclave – Victoria Falls.

Most of the time when Sarah and I travel, we visit places over a long weekend – usually only three days. It was easy to see many places in Europe like that, and here in East Africa we continue on occasion to drive to places in Kenya or take short flights to other countries in the region to visit a place as tourists for just a few days. So we rarely take as long as a week or two to see a single country. We did this a couple of years ago one summer to see Norway, but this makes for a long (in our opinion) vacation, and it can be a tiring trip, given how we tour. Our definition of a vacation is not waking up late every morning, sitting around reading books, or lying on the beach. We try to pack in a lot of site seeing every day and are out the door by 9:00 every morning and back in our hotel room sometimes as late as 9:00 or 10:00 at night (before we had a child to worry about getting to bed).

So because we were gone a full two weeks, and because we toured in our usual way, packing a lot in every day and covering a lot of ground over our many days in South Africa, there is no way I can describe every place we visited in the detail I sometimes provide in my trip reports. We simply saw too much for me to talk about – I just don’t have the time for that now. But I still do have some things to say – some general things about the country. OK – I’ve got plenty to say, even apart from describing each location we visited.

First, let me say that I have always loved South Africa since the first time I visited while an exchange student in Zimbabwe in 1989. Those were the days the country was still under apartheid, when it was at its height. That system was about to topple a few short years after that, although nobody knew it would and would happen so quickly. I returned to South Africa in 1998 with my parents, the last time I paid a decent visit as a tourist. I went there for work in early 2004 and visited a few of the major tourist destinations, but spent most of my time in new areas to me – rural areas – and also visited Swaziland and Lesotho (two small neighboring countries). So it was very fun and eye-opening to pay a thorough visit again to many of the same places I had not been to in a decade and to see what changes had taken place. The most visible changes I noticed were more monuments, museums and tributes to Nelson Mandela the individual and other anti-apartheid leaders and in honor of the whole struggle against that system. More about that below. But I’ve always loved South Africa because it is so much like my own country. It’s very Americanized, but also marches to the drumbeat of the U.K. in terms of culture. So it’s quite cosmopolitan as a whole country, more so than the U.S., because it has adopted the modern cultures of two dominant countries of the world. But on a more subconscious level, despite being a racist regime until the early 90s, I guess I admired South Africa because it had developed itself into a powerful country, economically and socially, and was a leading country in Africa in many ways, much like the U.S. had developed itself. I also like the country because it is modern and American, and one could live exactly the same type of lifestyle and at the same level of comfort as one does in the U.S., but the typical offerings of Africa – game parks, open land, beaches, etc. – are also close by in the same country. So you get the best of both worlds in one place.

Sarah declared to me several times while there, “This is not Africa!” I hate to say it, but compared to Kenya, it was so nice to return to a “normal” country where there is not so much dust outside and where the streets are orderly and have curbs and sidewalks (and not a pothole in sight!), and where the traffic and pedestrians move in a more orderly, reasonable fashion and speed.

The urban centers – Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria – that were the anchors of our trip this time were places I had visited before as a tourist. But there were many changes in these cities – most notably new (or replacement) museums. We rented a car two times and drove outside these cities and visited some places that I had been to before, but some places were new to me, most notably the Winelands, South Africa’s answer to California’s wine-producing region. The most notable changes I noticed were the apartheid-related museums in the cities that we visited, all new in the last ten years. South Africa has done a marvelous job of not turning its back in shame on this awful, oppressive, racist past (a period that ended so recently), which would be easy to do because it could weigh so heavy on their conscience as a nation, but it has acknowledged its past in appropriate ways and lifted it up as an example of a history that they never want to repeat.

Everywhere else we have gone in Africa (with the exception of some places in Kenya), the museums are far below the standards of those in North America and Europe and have not been maintained (or even dusted!) since the colonial era ended – sometimes decades ago. But the museums in South Africa – especially the new ones we visited – can compete with those in the developed world. The explanations are in English (and often additional language/s) and are clear, concise and informative. The displays are professionally done and are modern and often multi-media, using traditional text explanations but also photos, videos, audio recordings and other interactive activities. Many buildings are modern – a combination of wood, glass and steel – and all are handicapped-accessible, which impresses me. And again I will say what a marvelous job the country has done in the last ten years in portraying its apartheid history in its museums and now its civil/government buildings in appropriate ways that allow South Africans and non-Africans alike to delve into that past with some guilt, granted, that we as humanity allowed apartheid to happen, but with the appropriate recognition of this wrong-doing and with the hope that we can overcome these differences and build cultures, countries and systems that are more democratic, just and fair. One new government complex to me that we visited was in downtown Johannesburg and is called Constitution Hill. There they’ve combined historical sites from the distant and recent past with a modern civic building. The site has an old fort as well as two prison complexes for men and women who were held as political prisoners during apartheid. All of these places are open as museums or historical sites now. But the centerpiece of the complex is the new Constitutional (supreme) Court, a very modern building full of symbolism (well, all the new parts of the complex used for current purposes are very full of it). Some walls of the main court chamber as well as a walkway between the court and the old men’s prison are made with bricks from the now-demolished Awaiting Trial Block (and the stairways from this old block are preserved as well; one is incorporated into the courthouse). They are very clear to visitors in explaining that the symbolism of this is that you are walking (on this walkway) between the past and the future and that these buildings were built with the old bricks from this building as a way to show that, from structures that were used in unjust systems, new forms of justice and equality can be built. Very powerful stuff – a powerful and haunting but inspiring atmosphere is created – intangible ideas and ideals expressed with tangible things like brick and mortar.

I might venture that perhaps the country has gone a bit overboard in naming things after Nelson Mandela. One won’t be able to tell all of them apart before long: “Where should I meet you – at the Mandela bridge, square or office building (I can’t be that accurate because they’re all in the same complex!)” In fact, we missed seeing the man himself by just one day in unveiling yet another new statue of himself, this one at the entrance to the prison where he was released from his 27 years of detention as a political prisoner. We just happened to discover that this prison sat among the vineyards in the gorgeous wine-growing region and drove by it on the morning after the statue had been dedicated with Mandela present along with our tour guide from a few days before at Robben Island in Cape Town, who was also a political prisoner for many years there.

Another highlight was visiting the Cape of Good Hope and the adjoining Cape Point, those famous world landmarks made legendary by explorers and the southwestern-most point in Africa. I had been to both places before, however, with my parents in 1998. But I had not visited Cape Agulhas, the southern-most point in Africa and truly where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. We drove there while visiting some areas east of Cape Town. So within the span of just a few weeks, we had stood on the equator in Kenya and at the very bottom of Africa – gone to the ends of the earth – at Cape Agulhas.

We spent a couple of days visiting some wineries and tasting wines in the area east of Cape Town. We chose the most popular ones recommended by Lonely Planet. The ones we visited were over two or three hundred years old. They’ve maintained many of the original buildings and are on gorgeous estates with beautiful mountain scenery as a backdrop. And this was during the country’s winter when the vines aren’t growing and much of the land is brown and dormant.

One of our final stops was a town we stayed at while visiting Mpumalanga Province in the northeastern part of the country. I had us stay in an old gold mining town from the late 1800s that has been preserved (many buildings are from the turn of the century or later, however). We stayed in an old 1920s mining cabin high up a hill above the town. This truly did not feel like Africa to me. It felt more like a historical American mining town in the Old West. When we were there, we were nearing the end of the trip, and a couple of times I had the urge to go outside to look at the stars in the dark night sky, to drink in the African sky. I had actually forgotten that I live in Africa now – that’s how far mentally I was removed from Africa on this trip. I had forgotten that I was returning only to Kenya, still in Africa, and could go outside anytime at home and see the dark, starry African sky. As I have written earlier, it still feels a bit strange to come “home” to Africa, even while visiting other places on the continent, which in my mind is still an exotic, far-away location that one must travel great distances to get to from one’s “real” home – it’s always a “strange” place to visit and to experience only for a short time before one returns to one’s real place of residence.

I enjoyed several favorite South African foods during our visit. These include koeksisters, a sticky, sweet donut/coffee accompaniment which are basically a twist donut soaked in sugar water; Appletizers and Grapetizers, which are sparkling apple and grape juice soft drinks; and rusks, another great coffee accompaniment like biscotti. The foods I get to taste and experience on trips are one of the most fun parts of travel for me.

Overall, it was a full and rich trip – mostly because it was so long. It had something old – returning to places I had visited before – but also plenty of new things to see and changes to observe. As I have said after all my other previous trips there, I would love to live there some day for reasons I have previously mentioned. But the crime, especially in Johannesburg, the biggest city, is still driving whites away in droves. Many are moving to Australia. So the insecurity is a big factor. At this point as well, with a young child, I would also not want to live so far from family, and South Africa is so far south in Africa and about as far from the U.S. (and Europe) as one can get. So we will not live there for a long time, but it is something I will keep in mind as a possibility for many years down the road.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Mystery mail: Are you J?

Recently in the mail I received something addressed to me, but to our old address in Geneva (it was forwarded from there to our current address in Kenya). Inside the envelope was a page torn from a magazine - an advertorial. On the page was a post-it note with this written by hand (in a woman's handwriting, it seems to me):

Try this.
It's really Good!

There was no return address on the envelope. I can't figure out who "J" is - and she obviously doesn't know that I now live in Kenya and not Geneva!

I can't figure out who sent this to me. Was it you?

The end of Geneva – and the world – as we know it?

In Geneva, our former home, there is a large scientific research facility called CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research, but “CERN” is its acronym for its former name in French). It’s actually on the border between Geneva and France, which was deliberate – that makes it truly an international center for nuclear research, which is basically what CERN does. It’s a place where scientists from all over the world come to do research because there aren’t many other facilities like it in the world. One of the only other few places like it is Fermilab, outside Chicago. One of our good friends from our church in Geneva worked at CERN along with many Nobel Prize winners and other brilliant minds. If you have read one of Dan Brown’s high-powered thrillers – Angels and Demons – parts of the story take place at CERN.

For many years, CERN has been constructing an enormous circular tunnel way underground, under both Geneva and parts of neighboring France. Its purpose is to attempt to discover the very origins of our universe, to apparently replicate something like the Big Bang, by pushing atoms around the circle in the tunnel at extremely high speeds and then do the same thing in the opposite direction and watch them crash into each other. This enormous “machine” is called the Hadron Collider.

The Hadron Collider is due to be switched on on September 10. As this momentous event unfolds, people in the area might notice their lights dimming a bit as it powers up, but then they – as well as the rest of us in corners of the planet both near and far from tranquil Geneva – might notice something a little more: COMPLETE OBLITERATION AN ANNHILATION OF THE ENTIRE EARTH AND HUMAN RACE!!! This is the concern of a group of nuclear researchers from the U.S. who filed a class-action lawsuit to stop construction of the Hadron Collider because they fear the first experiments will create mini black holes, which will merge into one big black hole, which will effortlessly swallow up the planet. This lawsuit has been dismissed, and the switch will be thrown next week, with the Americans’ concerns addressed by scientists in Europe who say there is nothing to worry about.

This is quite a proposition to consider. First of all, it’s ironic – in attempting to discover the very first moments of our universe, its origins, its beginning, the “let there be light” moment when God Almighty Himself spoke, the scientists could be responsible for its very end, bringing several hundred billion years of work and evolution to a screeching halt. And how ironic and awful this potential end of the world would be coming on September 10, a day before the anniversary of our other near-Doomsday experience of September 11.

Second, if the experiments do go wrong, if the Americans are right, how would they be able to say afterwards, “I told you so!” (I would certainly be one of the first to open my mouth to say that.) If we all die, there will be no way to say, “Oops! I guess that didn’t work.” There will be no chance to feel regret or to do it over. It would truly be a one-time experiment, but if the worst happens, how would we all really know the results?

Is it even physically possible for humankind to create something that comes even close to what God did at Creation, to build a small machine that is capable of creating forces as vast and powerful as those found in outer space, able to swallow entire planets?

Genevans and all Swiss by law are required to have in their single-family homes a bomb shelter. Unfortunately, these are able to withstand only nuclear bombs and not black holes, so even the Swiss can’t protect themselves with such defenses. It would really be a shame if that group of American scientists is right and ironic as well that the end of the world should originate in such an idyllic and peaceful place like Geneva and among such modest people. But let’s all enjoy life for another week or so until they turn that machine on, okay?