Thursday, March 03, 2011

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

Time, it is flying. Has it really been seven weeks since my last blog post? A month since I went to Tanzania? Eleven weeks until I go home?

The trip to Tanzania was amazing. Exhausting, but amazing. I only had a week, with a firm deadline for when I had to be back in Malawi for a meeting related to my grant. And I was traveling on a budget (partly self-imposed, partly set by my travel companion). So I spent a lot of long days riding on buses of varying quality and schlepping my over-packed backpack across borders, along roads, up and down stairs. On the first day alone, I spent 12 hours in seven different vehicles, just to get from Nkhata Bay, Malawi, to Mbeya, Tanzania. The way back was a combined 30 hours---from Dar es Salaam to Lilongwe---in two buses and two taxis.

The actual travel bit was uneventful, once I learned not to pick fights with border officials and to confirm transport prices in Swahili. (Taxi drivers in Tanzania have a tendency to conveniently “mix up” their numbers in English. Fortunately my dormant Swahili came back surprisingly quickly.) And the middle bit was quite pleasant. Once in Mbeya, we took the train to Dar es Salaam---a lazy, 24-hour canter across the country, through national park lands and past small villages. I opted for “first class,” a sleeper compartment with four berths. Although it was hardly what we in the West would consider first class, it was comfortable and clean and I even managed to get a decent night’s sleep. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to see any animals, apart from a herd of wildebeest, but I met some nice people, including my compartment mate, a Tanzanian girl named Happiness who worked at a hotel in Zanzibar and offered to help us get out to the island and get oriented to Stone Town.

Dar was a bit of a shock: a true urban center (as opposed to the large towns that pass as cities in Malawi) with bumper-to-bumper traffic and multi-lane roads and proper shopping malls. It was late when we got there and dark by the time we settled into our room at the YMCA and got much-needed showers, so we defied common sense and wandered into the dark to find dinner. And wander we did. My travel companion---a volunteer from the lodge where I’m staying in Malawi---wanted to find a restaurant that her sister had recommended. Except that she had only the faintest idea of where the restaurant actually was and no idea of the name of the place. A nice stranger guided us through various back roads, past night markets with all sorts of fruits and vegetables, past restaurants emitting delicious smells, around round-abouts and down alleys, until I was thoroughly lost and hungry and unamused. Eventually we found the general area, a sort of Little India in the midst of the city, and settled on a different restaurant, where we had vast quantities of delicious Indian food.

The next day, we only had the morning to explore the city, so we went to the National Museum, which had some decent, if uninspired exhibits on the history of Tanzania and the archeological finds. I think I probably would have been more impressed had I not taken an archy class that convinced me that archeologists just make shit up. (Yeah, yeah. Scientific method. Blah, blah, blah. You cannot convince me that you can tell me how a society was structured based on finding some beads next to a pile of bodies.)

In the afternoon, we met up with Happiness and took the ferry to Zanzibar. High on the list of things I love: water; boats; seafood; spices; narrow, labyrinthine paths that promise tiny discoveries around every corner; the ability to explore those paths alone without having to carry on redundant conversations with strangers. So, basically, Zanzibar was my Xanadu. Loved, loved, loved Zanzibar.

(I’m willing to admit that part of my infatuation may be that Zanzibar is my first actual vacation---my first time to travel somewhere just as a tourist---in more than eight years. And, really, I don’t understand what people have against being a tourist. I had so much fun, taking photos and shopping for souvenirs and going on tours.)

We stayed in a small hotel, tucked into the middle of Stone Town. During the day, we shopped at the various markets; at night, we went to the fish market, held in a plaza along the water, where you pick out skewers of barracuda, shark, tuna, swordfish, prawns or whole lobsters and crabs, squid and octopus, to be cooked on barbeques and eaten with chipati and a tall class of sugarcane juice. Then we’d go to Mercury Bar, named for Freddy Mercury, who it turns out was born in Zanzibar, for overpriced drinks and overloud music. We spent one day on a Spice Tour, going by bus to one of the farms where they grow the spices. We got to taste and smell and feel nutmeg and vanilla and cloves and jackfruit and curry leaves and pepper. Then we had a fabulous lunch made with the spices. The day finished with a trip to a gorgeous white-sand beach with perfect blue water: a living postcard.

I was reluctant to leave, but I had that firm deadline and needed to arrange a bus ticket back to Lilongwe. So back on the ferry to Dar, where I trudged through ridiculous heat, made worse by the press of traffic, on a frustratingly long and ultimately unsuccessful mission to find a bus to Lilongwe. I eventually had to settle for a bus to the border town of Kyela, as buses to Lilongwe only ran on certain days, and those days didn’t match my schedule. To salvage my last day of vacation, I treated myself to a nice meal at an upscale restaurant where I could order a proper cocktail and sit quietly by myself and have a delicious prawn curry.

The next two days were a series of long, dull bus rides; rainy, late night arrivals; another border crossing; more rain and buses.

I was back in Malawi, in time for my meeting. Barely. But after two days of buses and rain and make-do meals from road stands, I was thrilled to be in Lilongwe---not a place I’m normally happy to be. This time, however, I was being put up in a seriously swank lodge by the embassy so that I could take part in the orientation program for the newly arrived Fulbright grantees. So not only did I get to enjoy a proper bed with sturdy white pillows and a hot shower with fluffy white towels and an air-conditioned room and room service, I got to hang out with a bunch of Americans for a few days. Americans who aren’t Peace Corps volunteers (who have sunk to all-new lows in my estimation). After months and months of Brits and Dutch and Canadians and Germans and Australian, I was so happy to be surrounded by Americans. People who know my references and understand why I was so excited about the Super Bowl and share my language. It helps that the Fulbrighters are, as a group, incredibly nice, intelligent, fun people.

While the new arrivals were properly oriented by the embassy, I got to abuse my privileges once again to secure transport for some essential work: shopping! I stocked up on groceries and restocked on shirts (I go through t-shirts and tank tops at an alarming rate).

On the final day, I even more reluctantly returned to Nkhata Bay. Back to work. Back to ant invasions and giant flying cockroaches and cold showers---when there’s water---and peeing behind my cabin because I’m too lazy to walk 500 feet to the toilets at 2 a.m. and sliding through ankle-deep mud to get to town because there aren’t any paved roads.

But also back to the lake and the familiar and my routines and the small group of friends I’ve cobbled together. And as much as I sometimes get annoyed with having to greet absolutely every single person any time I leave the lodge, I enjoyed the warm welcome back from the lodge staff, curio sellers, church members, and others on my return.

Once back, however, I had to get myself back to work. In Blantyre, everyone works, or at least, so it seems. It’s the commercial capital of the country, and by 7 a.m., the roads were filled with cars and people walking to offices. At the lodge where I stayed, most of the other guests were either volunteers (the majority at the hospital) or short-term contract workers, so everyone tended to head off to work early in the morning. I felt out of place, hanging around the lodge during the day, and so I had extra incentive to find ways to keep myself busy each day. Nkhata Bay, on the other hand, is a tourist town. Although plenty of people do work, plenty of others---both local and foreign---just “stay”---sleeping until late morning, wandering about town, hanging out at the lodges and bars. I’m usually the first one awake at the lodge; often the other guests don’t rock up until lunchtime. So I found myself lulled into a lazy state, convincing myself that I was conducting participant-observation by sitting around the common area.

My good intentions toward work, however, were temporarily thwarted by yet another nasty cold, my third one since arriving in Malawi. I spent about a week feeling absolutely wretched---achy, tired, coughing incessantly, producing more snot than I thought was humanly possible. (I’m still coughing, but generally feeling much better.)

I’m still perhaps a bit less manic than I was in Blantyre, and I actually do get quite a bit of good data from sitting around the common area or hanging out at the local bars. But I’m trying to be more diligent in seeking out interviews and putting together focus groups. I’m determined that I will have plenty of data for my dissertation when I leave.

I’ve also found myself committed to several volunteer projects. I’ve stopped going to the youth club at the lodge; I was hopelessly useless and inept with them. But I’m now holding a weekly tutoring session on “Romeo & Juliet,” which is part of the Form 4 (Grade 12) curriculum. I’m helping a widows group with their plan to create a baking business, mostly by teaching them new recipes that will appeal to the tourists. And I’m working with several small libraries and information centers to catalog their holdings.

Balancing my research needs and volunteer commitments can be challenging; I have to remind both myself and others that the research is my primary responsibility. But being busy does make the time go more quickly.

In other news, I’m suffering a terrible case of puppy envy. One of the dogs from the lodge next door had a litter, and I’m absolutely smitten by the puppies. I want one! So far, I’ve been practical: I have no place to keep a puppy here, and I wouldn’t be able to take it home with me. Once I get back State-side, though . . .

Once I get back State-side: I think about this daily. I think about the food I can cook, the magazines I can buy, the television shows I can watch, the people I can see. I think about my dog and my condo and my kitchen. About Metcalfe’s and the farmers market. About cheese and fresh herbs and an oven. I think about hot showers and hair salons and fresh clothes. I think about Friday Night Dinners and Thai food and high-speed Internet and well-stocked pharmacies.

Eleven weeks and still counting . . .


At 2:38 PM , Blogger Bearette said...

Great post! Who knew Zanzibar was so fun?

At 9:47 AM , Blogger artemisia said...

You are certainly keeping busy! I hope the next 11 weeks go by quickly and smoothly!

At 10:25 AM , Blogger Jessica Mason said...

Hm, I'm looking at that volunteer work... teaching literature? sharing recipes? library work? Sounds like you found yourself a niche at long last!

At 8:33 PM , Blogger Lisa said...

Jessica: I also started teaching the youth club girls to knit. It didn't last long, though---they were markedly less interested when they figured out that it would involve them having to learn something.


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