Tuesday, April 26, 2011

New Pictures

Finally posted my pictures from the past few months to my Flickr page. Highlights include:

A senior picture:

Africa's pay phones:

A traveling Urban Worm:

An elephant's butt:

And a shot that captures what traveling actually is:

Flickr has a really annoying feature (or lack thereof) that doesn't allow you to change the order of photos in your photostream. So, since the order of photos in the photostream is based on the time of upload there are a few pictures that aren't in the appropriate sequence if you're browsing from the main page. This is killing me (but probably something you really don't care about). Rest assured, if you browse by clicking on the sets, those photos should be in the correct (date taken) order.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Oil Libya

Forget the gas tax. America could quickly ween itself off of foreign oil if gas stations were named like this chain of stations I've seen in Nairobi.

Imagine every time you went to the pump you were greeted with a big sign that said "Oil" followed by the origin of the gas. Oil Libya, Oil Venezuela, Oil Iraq. I'd probably think twice. Better yet, we should not only require all gas stations to change their name to state the origin country of the gas but to also include a picture of the country's ruling leader. Especially when that ruler looks as crazy as this wax doll.

Note: After having this idea, I did some googling to see where the US gets its oil. Turns out, nearly 20% of our oil comes from Canada and 49% comes from the Western Hemisphere. Oil Canada doesn't sound too menacing, and Stephen Harper looks way too wholesome for this to work. Oil Venezuela might.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Week in Malawi: Part Six

Friday, March 18th

I’ve decided to hit the road again today. I’m not looking forward to another long trip, but I don’t have much interest in spending the weekend in Blantyre, I’d like to be able to see Lake Malawi, and there happens to be an NGO regional office on the way to the lake. So, after a short meeting at Nikhil’s office with another NGO, I head back over to the Blantyre bus market and hop on a mini-bus to Mangochi.

Based on the looks of the bus stations and the sheer chaos that exists surrounding them, it’s actually pretty surprising how quickly you become not only use to the environment but also able to navigate it and find the right bus. After being here yesterday to catch my “Fear God” bus to Llunzu, I’m able to easily find the Mangochi buses. You also learn quickly when mistakes made (like getting on the empty bus in Lliongwe and waiting at the station for two hours) result in dangerous spikes in blood pressure and acute cases of short term insanity, so I seek out the mini-bus that is nearly full and am on my way out of town within 10 minutes, patting myself on the back for my savvy veteran moves.

The trip to Mangochi is generally as uneventful as a four bus trip on public transportation can be in a developing country. It features all the standards of this type of travel – a terribly uncomfortable seat if you can call it a seat; a dangerous number of passengers; what feels like an infinite number of stops to pick up and drop off; freight that includes passenger bags, bamboo baskets, chickens, breast feeding babies, and some mysterious cooler type box that smells like rotting fish; and piercing sun that is, of course, shining through the bus window on my side. At one point I count 24 people and two babies (the bus is slightly bigger than a minivan). At another point the guy sitting to my right is trying to have a conversation with me, something I’m not at all interested in, though I must have engaged him enough because he gives me his phone number and email before he departs. At another point, there’s a baby resting its head against my arm which is actually pretty cute until I remember that most small children’s stomachs don’t handle the roads very well and am fearful that I may end up with this kid’s half digested lunch on my lap if I allow him to get too comfortable. Other than revelling in the nonsense surrounding me on the bus, I try to just let my mind wander to other thoughts and observations.

Observation 1 – I noticed this the moment I got into Lilongwe but it’s even more pronounced during the bus ride and in the more rural areas. Malawi is a lot poorer than Zambia and any other country I’ve visited. There are signs every where once you start thinking about it but the first thing that I noticed and connected to Malawi being “poorer” is the number of people walking around without shoes. There are A LOT. On my bus trip, I start to think that maybe the number of shoes in a country could be an indicator of the wealth of that country but after a few minutes of playing around with that idea in my head, I decide to throw it out since I suspect that poor countries in cold climates will have more shoes. Then I start to think of other unique indicators that may be able to measure a country’s wealth. I’ve noticed that very few of the people I am meeting in Malawi have business cards, something that surprises me after getting so many in Zambia. Maybe the number of business cards printed in a country is an indication of its wealth? Somewhere between Zomba and Mangochi I decide to make this my PhD dissertation.

Observation 2 – My right leg is starting to fall asleep and I’m not quite sure how much longer I can withstand the sharp metal point that is sticking out of this inhumanely hard seat I’ve had the pleasure of sitting on for the last three hours. But from desperation comes creativity and I manage to come up with a million dollar idea. I’ll be returning to Malawi next year to sell what in the states is used to shield and comfort our privileged asses from the cold, hard bleachers of high school stadiums while we cheer on Johnny Football Hero. I’d currently pay close to $100 for this type of cushion, and with proper marketing, I believe Malawi and its 1970s fleet of decommissioned buses and minivans would be a gold mine. I even consider taking a loan from these certain future earnings to pay the bus driver to immediately kick everyone else off the bus and just shuttle me the remaining distance.

I get to Mangochi around 4:15pm and call John, the NGO worker I’m trying to meet. He tells me to take a bicycle taxi to his office, so I blindly choose one of the 4 guys uncomfortably surrounding me all offering the back of their bike as a ride. I straddle the wire seat that sits above the back wheel, grab the conveniently placed handles coming out from the bike seat, and rest my feet up on the soldered pegs coming out from the bike frame. It’s a comfortable trip for me and from what I can tell a pretty exhausting trip for my driver. It’s about five minutes to the office on pretty loose dirt roads so he’s broken quite a sweat by the time we get to the office. After paying him the unkind fare of $0.25, I make a note to myself to not consider “bike-taxi driver in Malawi” for any future employment.

John is waiting in his office for me when I get there. He looks like he may have just gotten up from a nap and is wearing a look that I’ve seen a lot over the last few months – a neck tie that reaches just past the second button of a dress shirt but no longer than the third and features a Windsor knot the size of a new born baby’s head. The short tie and big knot always remind me of some cartoon character and I have a hard time taking John seriously. He also seems to be on the verge of falling asleep, straining to get out every word while he’s answering my questions and keeping his eyes open just enough for me to notice that his pupils are completely clouded over with cataracts. I’d guess that he’d choose to be anywhere in the world but in this meeting with me. We get through it nonetheless, but there are a number of follow ups I’d like to try to get from him and his field staff, so I ask for a business card. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t have one.

After another bike taxi ride, I’m back at the Mangochi bus market, boarding another bus. Mangochi is at the very southern end of Lake Malawi. If you travel north from Mangochi on the western side of the lake, you head up a small peninsula and reach Cape Maclear, the lake’s largest resort town and my final destination. This evening, though, I’ll only have time to get to Monkey Bay, a town just before you enter the Cape Maclear Nature Reserve and that has, I’ve been told, plenty of places to spend the night.

The trip is just like all the others, but I have the luxury of the front seat which is likely the most dangerous but at least offers leg room (if you don’t mind straddling the stick shift), a decent seat, and a little more personal space than what exists in the back. The road gets increasingly rural and narrow during our trip and by the time we’re an hour in, people, bikes, and goats far outnumber any cars on the road. In the last hour of the two hour trip, I relisten to the Malawian news radio’s hourly update (five 18 year olds in central Malawi have burned down their school after being suspended for discipline problems) and count the vehicles we pass – zero. The road feels more like a path through a corn field than a road and the evening’s darkness is making me a little nervous about where I’ll be able to spend the night. We keep passing signs for lodges and hotels but they’re pointing me down pitch black paths that I’d rather not explore at night, alone. I figure I’ll have better luck in town where I’ll be able to grab a taxi and just have him drive me to a nice hotel.

Unfortunately, Monkey Bay is more of a sleepy village than a town and the laughable thought of a taxi whisking you to a hotel is held only by a stupid, naive, and poorly prepared tourist that is now stranded in said village. There is absolutely nothing around and though the town looks completely harmless during the following morning, I’m more than a little scared when I realize we’ve reached Monkey Bay, I’m the last person on the bus, and I have no idea where to go or how to get there if there’s even a place to go to. Monkey Bay during a busy weekend day:

The bus driver and his helper ask me where I’m going, and they’re a little too willing to help when I tell them I need to find a hotel. They want to take me to Mofasa, a hotel they say is just up the road. Hmmm...yeah, it could be right up the road, yes, but so could a couple of ropes, hidden in the deserted corn field, they’ll use to tie me up before robbing me of everything I’m carrying. I’m scared at this point but don’t really feel like I have much choice other than to take their word. The driver’s helper opens the passenger side door to get in the front after I tell them to take me to Mofasa, and I tell him, probably more aggressively than needed, to get in the back. The last thing I want is to be in the front middle seat, surrounded by these two partners in crime, with nowhere to escape if things go sour.

They drive up the dark dirt path, which to me looks completely unpromising and more than a bit malicious, and make a right turn at the sign for Mofasa. The sign makes me feel much better but the right turn is onto something about as wide as a walking path and even darker than the path we were on before. It’s a cornfield with large boulders on my right and surely the dreaded ropes on my left. The driver’s helper keeps telling me to pay him 1000 kwacha, more than what I’ve spent to make the entire 7 hour trip from Blantyre, but I’m not in much a position to negotiate and will happily pay the fare if he actually gets me to a hotel, a task I’m still unsure he’ll complete as we’ve been driving now for five minutes and it doesn’t look like we’re close to anything but several ditches in which they’ll dump my body. At last, just past a very big boulder and a dip in the path that’s completely submerged in two feet of water, I see a fence with Mofasa painted on a sign. Sweet Lord, yes! My two would be assailants turned saviours deliver me right to the gate and assure that there’s a room before wishing me a very pleasant stay and returning to town, rich from a short little trip to Mofasa to drop off a stupid, vulnerable, and jumpy tourist.

Mofasa isn’t really what I had in mind when I took off for the lake this morning. I wanted a nice hotel and had imagined all day during my journey that a warm shower and a beach bar serving a good meal were waiting to reward me for the long trip. What I get is more of a Robinson Crusoe hippie hangout with no electricity, three Israeli travelers that are waiting for their pot brownies to cool and a guy in dreads that looks like he has been at Mofasa for a LONG time and has certainly had his fair share of brownies. I have three beers to calm my nerves, sitting right on the beach, staring at the silvery lake and full moon (the biggest in 20 years!), both of which are beautiful but something I'd probably trade for electricity, a shower, and a Papa John’s pizza. I stumble around my candle lit room, tucking in the mosquito net and hiding my camera, computer, and money before falling asleep uncomfortable in the filth of a 7 hour journey on public transit and more than a little annoyed I have made this whole trip for a night not a a Hilton, but at Mofasa.