Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Hakuna Matata, You've been Mugged!

“The one thing I can say with near certainty is that you will enjoy Tanzania.” Was the last line I finished reading in the intro to the guidebook as we sat in a nice coffee shop in Arusha that was located beside the Ethiopian Airlines office. Indeed, things were looking up. We were remarking how Arusha and Tanzania seemed a bit more organized and less abrasive than much of Ethiopia or other parts of Africa. I was savoring a “Zanzibar Chai Latte” which tasted excellent despite the flavor side effects we were experiencing from starting our dosages of Diamox (for our impending climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro). I could taste cinnamon and clove mixed in the chocolate and thought of exotic beaches and spices that the name “Zanzibar” conjures as it rolls off the tongue. We would be going there as soon as we finished our week trek up to the “Roof of Africa” and back down again.

We were angry at Ethiopia, at least their national airlines. Before our departure from Addis the previous night the woman working at the check in booth had sent Megan’s bags without applying the luggage tag. She assured us that she would go to the back to put the tag on. When she was unable to get to the back she sent another man around to do it for her. “It’s the brown bag.” The lady said. “No, it’s blue…” Megan said. But it was too late for us to know or control the fate of Megan’s bag accompanying us to Tanzania on a direct flight.

We arrived at the Kilimanjaro airport in the early morning hours and my heart sunk as I saw every passenger pulling out a yellow fever vaccine card that I did not have. Of course, I am vaccinated against yellow fever but I have never traveled with a vaccine card and was blissfully unaware that such a thing would be required.

“Ok,” Megan said, “You lost your card because your bag got stolen or something.”

We went with that line and it seemed to work. I was pulled aside in a medical office where they made me a vaccine card on the spot for a $25 “fee” or bribe. It is sometimes hard to tell which you are paying. I was overjoyed they weren’t going to revaccinate me. I remember my yellow fever vaccine well from deployment. The ship’s doc had found me on the bridge when I was on watch, injected me on the spot, and I spent the next several hours incredibly sick and wretched from it.

After successfully navigating that challenge we were more than pleased to learn that Tanzanian visas for Americans cost $100 a pop. I had not paid that amount of money to get into a country since 2004 when I underwent an eight-hour interrogation followed by paying every dime I had to get into Syria.

Then came baggage claim, the task we had been dreading. We waited. We waited more. Not only did Megan’s bag not come, NONE of the bags came. We had just around 24 hours before we would leave to climb Kilimanjaro and all of our equipment and supplies we had bought were missing- not to mention we didn’t even have a toothbrush for our night at the hotel in Arusha. I angrily made my way to lost baggage trying to remind myself that working in “Lost Baggage” must be the crappiest job in the world since all your customers are pissed off. I tried to put on my smiley face even though I could see from Megan’s occasional look that I was failing miserably and that sarcasm and irritation heavily laced my words. How could all four bags not make it on a direct flight? How could that woman at Ethiopian Airlines be so incompetent? What if our bags had been sent to Nairobi or something crazy?

“We need allies, Sara.” Megan kept saying to me. She was right. Smile. Smile. I had not been in the best of moods since I had expected to have long-awaited internet access the previous day in Addis. That was foiled since ALL OF THE INTERNET IN ETHIOPIA was out that day. I thought it has been an amazing feat that Mubarak and his security forces has blacked out the internet in Egypt during the revolution. In Africa the internet went down in entire countries regularly.

The lady at the baggage claim was the antithesis of our encounter with Ethiopian airlines. She was well organized and assured us the bags would arrive the next day, we would be contacted, and our things would get to us in time. We had no choice but to depart with a sheet of paper promising bags. We could only hope the Team Kilimanjaro (our climbing company) driver was still there to take us to the hotel. We found our driver who was also taking two other women to their hotel. Thankfully Megan and I did not have luggage because it would have been impossible to squeeze all four of us and bags into the tiny car he had brought to pick us all up. Even worse news, Megan was feeling sick for the third time on our trip. The one hour, bumpy car ride where we bottomed out about every three minutes did not help her agonizing situation. The driver kept mentioning things about Tanzania, Mt. Meru, Mt. Kilimanjaro, but we could hardy be bothered to care at 0300.

When we made it to our hotel we crashed into our mosquito net covered beds. I had just enough time to use my iPhone to confirm functional if slow wifi in the lobby. Yes, I am a wifi whore. I awoke a few hours later to the realization that Megan was very sick and certainly needed water and 7-Up or Sprite if possible. I set off to the lobby and was pleased to discover that the Outpost Lodge was a trendy little backpacker rendezvous with wifi, decent food, a café, and other amenities. This is when I started to feel a bit better about Tanzania. I started considering how much money must go in and out of Arusha with all these people coming for safaris and climbing Kilimanjaro. Arusha was probably not really “Africa” in the way that Sharm El Sheik is not really “Egypt.” I began to relax. It might have also helped that everyone kept saying “Hakuna matata” to me. I thought that those words had been made for “The Lion King” but apparently it is a standard phrase in Swahili.

Over the course of the day we were able to get Megan back into a better level of health. We confirmed our bags had arrived at the airport and that they would be delivered at some point to the airlines office in Arusha that evening. The hotel assured us we could walk out into town, buy some things, and get to the airlines office without a hassle. Before we left we had lunch in a still semi-dazed state. I noticed a group of rowdy, drinking Australians at a table next to us (who we learned later were some of our awesome Kilimanjaro teammates). I hoped we could soon follow their example and begin having some fun. We just needed to get the bags sorted and get everyone up to health. The Team Kilimanjaro rep was supposed to be coming that evening to check our gear. We hoped we could get everything before they showed.

Thus Megan and Sara, savvy naval officers and Olmsted scholars, set off into town, confident in our abilities to do whatever we needed, knowledgeable in all things travel related, salty in our developing-world experiences. Harassment from men? Bah! We knew about such things having lived them for years. We laugh at third-world challenge. By God, Megan lived in “real” Africa and I had recently made it through a revolution. We know what we are doing! We both remarked that Arusha was quite tame as the men called out to us “Hello, my beautiful sister from another mother! Sister, sister come here! Sister, what are you looking for?”

And so we ended up in our café, sipping nice drinks, waiting for the bags to show up at the Ethiopian airlines office. What I imagined to be the taste of Zanzibar was on my lips. I had decided to read “Howard’s End” and “A Room with a View” having recently finished ElBaradei’s book, “Age of Deception.” We were on the brink of a great adventure. We just needed the bags.

The van with the bags did not show after and hour so we walked to wait outside the office. Finally a lady arrived and called the driver the find out his location. He had just left the airport. Since we had been waiting so long she told him to send the bags to our hotel directly. We were pleased to find such an easy solution and that the lady was so nice and willing to help. All that was left to do was walk back to the hotel and wait. We cheerily set off on foot, enjoying the evening.

I never thought we were being followed. I never sensed any danger. But I knew something was seriously wrong as I heard footsteps running at full speed behind us. I am blessed in that I did not see much or I do not remember clearly. I am afraid that if I had had too much time to react I would have fought irrationally and made the situation worse. There were four of them. Megan turned around to see one behind me, his arm around me and a knife at my throat. All I remember is being knocked down and feeling my purse being cut off with a knife. It would be an hour later before I realized that the knife had also slashed my arm (though not too deeply) in the process. Though I did not see it, Megan had been thrown down in the middle of the street and was extremely lucky to not have been run over. Her bruises were far more significant than my little scratch and banged knee. As I replayed the whole thing in my head later I would come to realize there is nothing we could have done short of pulling out a gun- well, we could have taken a taxi back to the hotel. But it did not occur to us there was danger in broad daylight on the main street. Our hotel had never mentioned anything to be concerned about.

We walked back wounded and in shock. People on the street had watched it happen and did nothing. Cars passing by stopped to say they saw what happened and they were sorry. Someone offered us a ride to the police station but we weren’t getting into anyone’s car. My wallet had all my ID’s, and approx $2000 worth of cash, not to mention all credit and debit cards. I was thankful I kept my passports and iPhone in my pocket. Both our cameras were gone. Some irreplaceable items were also part of the devastation.

We stumbled back to the Outpost Lodge to find the head guide for our climb, Jonas, waiting. He looked like a no-nonsense sort of man, aloof but in control. Our introduction must have been one of his more memorable. “Hi, we are Megan and Sara, we don’t have our gear right now because we are waiting for our bags and we just got mugged.” We felt like idiots. We felt like amateurs. I was embarrassed and felt like the whole thing had to be my fault. Of course, I have a tendency to always think everything is my fault. I had been stripped of all cash and means to get cash. I kept reminding myself to be happy that I had my passports, iPhone, and Macbook. Oh, had they stolen my phone or laptop I might have been suicidal.

Jonas took it all in quietly and with minimal reaction. Though I was craving at least some minor sympathy, I was also content that this was the man leading our climb. He was obviously not going to get excited in exciting circumstances and would have full command of any situation.

“We will go to the police station.” He said in his deep voice. “Do you want to go there now or deal with your bags?”

We waited for another man to arrive, Jonas referred to him as his boss. Before long we were all headed to a Tanzanian police station, not exactly a place on my tourist itinerary. The police did not want to fill out a police report because it was Sunday. As we slowly wrote the items we lost and their value everyone was amused and amazed. What I had lost was over $3000 in value, more than enough to feed a family in Tanzania for a year. Western guilt, shame, and humiliation with the situation filled me. “Why did you not take a taxi?” The policewoman chided.

“Hey, we already feel like idiots ok.” Megan remarked. “You don’t need to make us feel worse.”

Jonas grabbed my arm and showed the police the knife cut on the back of it.

“You should go to the hospital!” One said to me. It was not nearly severe enough to be worth a hospital visit. Had that been the case I still would have not gone to a hospital. The smell of the police station itself was bothering me. It smelled like sickness and fear. I did not want to know what went on in the rooms and cells behind the front desk. I had seen police walking openly with batons in hand during the day. Perhaps it was only my perception but they seemed ready to apprehend anyone for anything.

We filled out our entries in their big green book that reminded me of the logbooks on navy ships. Our one light at the end of the tunnel was finding our bags waiting for us when we got back to the Outpost Lodge. Somewhere through the course of events Megan and I had both decided we had no option but to carry on with the climb. If anything, it would be a distracter from what just happened.

I lay in bed that night replaying and analyzing the situation again and again. I wanted to think that my things had been stolen by people who really needed them and the money. I could live with that. But I knew this was not the case. The police had said that particular area of the main road was known for that problem because there was a good escape route. It was probably a regular band of ruffians who did not share their benefit with anyone. Did I deserve it just for being a rich Westerner who dare carry such enormous wealth publically? If this happened to me, with no one reacting to the situation, what happens to people who live here every day? I reassessed my initial take on Arusha. I could not blame the police for having no sympathy for we absurdly wealthy tourists walking about, thinking nothing would happen to us. I tried to divert my mind and focus on the mountain. I knew it would challenge me to my very reserves of physical strength. But I was still lost in sad contemplation about Africa…

Friday, July 15, 2011

And then we went to the mystical land of the mountain...

14 Jul 2011 Arba Minch, Ethiopia
Dorze dance.
Southern Ethiopia has been an entirely different experience from the North. Perhaps I could blame it on my lack of stomach troubles or even that our sightseeing of churches finished in the North. But I think it is more than these issues alone. The South is wide open and filled with animals. The people live further spaced, predominantly in natural huts varying in style from tribe to tribe or climate to climate. The mountains, lakes, vegetation, and wildlife are beyond anything I have seen before. In our last 48 hours we have seen baboons, wild boor, crocodiles, hippos, and more bird species than I can count.
Megan and the fearless Beha
Beha is our driver for the South. We have ceased our daily flights in the North and now get to explore by Toyota Land cruiser and the enthusiastic Beha. He is from Addis but loves the South as well. He even speaks a few of the native languages from South Omo where the nomadic people still live. He wears a lion claw around his neck from his days working in a hunting company. “What country do most people come from to hunt here?” “From the US. Always from your country.” He answers. Then he continues to tell a story about two mad Americans who came to hunt lions, refused to listen to the Ethiopian guides, and demanded that their Kenyan guides were superior. They were not sharp shooters. One of the Americans shot a lion but did not kill it. They lost the lion in the sugar cane. Later it came back for revenge. The Americans had demanded to walk in the front, placed the Kenyan guides behind them, the Ethiopians in the back. “When the lion attacked the first American his claws went into his chest. It was like meat coming off a drumstick. Then he went for the second. The Kenyan guides ran away. And who killed the lion? The Ethiopians of course.” Beha tells us as he drives. “Those Americans must have been from Texas.” I remarked sarcastically.
Southern landscapes.
I am most impressed by the naturalness of living here. I have never seen such an “organic” country. The majority of farming is subsistence. The people leave the trees in their fields; cactus or brush forms the “fences” of the fields. The huts are all made from the false banana plant, bamboo, or even the mud from the large termite mounds. The animals are kept inside with the people to provide additional warmth in the night. Everything is used; even animal dung serves as firewood or as building material for other structures. Different symbols are often painted on the houses from natural oils, generally from flowers. A lion to designate a hero, a cow to designate a rich man.
Girl chasing our car.
In most of these areas the are few cars and the very sound of the land cruiser brings children to the roads dancing in hopes that we might throw them pens, candy, or money. They chase the car, especially when they see we are white. I have never felt so very aware of being “white” as I do now. In many of the villages we visit large crowds immediately surround us and the children try to touch me as much as possible. There is always a count down to being surrounded by children whenever we get out of the car anywhere. This issue makes bathroom trips to the bush especially time critical. One tries to finish one’s roadside business as quickly as possible lest you end up surrounded in your predicament by curious children.
Local traditional house.
The children are quite entertained when I take their picture and then show them their image on the screen of my digital camera. They often try to pull the bracelets from my wrists. Adults try to hit them with the same switches they use for the cows. Usually their English is very abrupt. “Give me pen.” Or “Give me money.” Much of the experience is very awkward and I am usually embarrassed by the fact that I am “white.” I feel more like a zoo animal than I do when I am Egypt. But the context is different. In Egypt I feel more aware that I am a woman. Here more aware that I am white. I am not sure if there are internal or external reasons for that, or both. I don’t even “believe” in “race” per say and most of the time I rarely think about it. It is a socially constructed category. Humans are more interrelated to each other as a species than almost any other species is related to itself. In other words, humans have a very small degree in variation across the species. Race is nonsense.
Women walking up the mountain.
People in the South do not seem to live in the same poverty and malnutrition that I saw in the North, though they are still very poor. Life is very hard, particularly for the women. Sometimes I find their lives not far different than the work animals. They carry heavy loads of firewood up and down mountains, spin cotton, prepare all the natural made foods (the process to make bread from the false banana plant is quite extensive), make rope, cook, give birth, raise children. The list goes on. Woman was taken from Man’s rib and so on and so forth- we are nothing more than like the animals: here to help Man.
Woman cooking.
“Yes,” Beha laments as he drives. “The life of woman is very very hard. It is not fair. I do not like it.” I am not sure if he is serious or saying it for Megan and my benefit. We have noticed his touches have become more frequent and friendly as our three days with him continues. Perhaps we have a wanna-be Casanova on our hands. We still enjoy his company though we are disappointed that our relationship with him is feeling somewhat tainted. We have both grown considerably tired of feeling like we are seen as sex objects more than anything else in our respective countries. More often than not, when you act somewhat normal or friendly with a man, he suddenly thinks he might have a shot at sleeping with you. Perhaps this is no different than the US, feelings are just kept under wraps there. Beha continues, “The men work in their fields for two to three hours and then have drinks, chat with their friends. The women always have a full day, from sunrise to sunset.”
Woman spinning.
I wonder about the exploitation of women. Why is it that everywhere women are to some degree or another second-class citizens? Marx says it is all about class struggle- well, perhaps it is all about gender struggle and the exploitation of women. Even in this “developing” society that is ripe for foreign exploitation of labor the women have always been the laboring force who in turn reap less for their labor and production than the men.
The deadly schnapps and false banana bread.
I was chewing over such irritations, watching the small hunched over women carry the loads of firewood uphill, when we arrived in the mountain top village of the Dorze people. We started with our typical ethnographic exploration of the traditional hut, guided by the second son of the compound whose name I cannot remember and who I will henceforth refer to as “dreadlock man.” After explanations of weaving and the various utilities of the false banana plant we were seated at a bench and table to try the false banana bread. Little did we know we would also be subjected to the local schnapps flavored with garlic, anise, and other spices. As soon as the shot glasses were set in front of us at 11am I knew we might be in trouble. Hopefully it would only be one.
Did I drink too much?
The shot was absolutely putrid and we had no chaser. Megan kept saying to use the bread as the chaser. The bread seemed to bring out the liquor’s worst flavor. It must have been close to 80 proof and I felt it go straight to my head. I kept saying to myself that by God I was a sailor and I could handle my alcohol. I would not get sick. Before we knew it more shots were before us and our pleas to stop were followed with comments like, “One is not our culture.” I wondered where Beha had gone and I knew Megan and I, two lone women, were probably being given some extra special alcohol treatment. A few other tourists had drifted through the area and they were not being hard pressed with the drinking.
Yes I might have drank too much.
I am not sure how it all happened next but at some point the local people lined up to do their ceremonial dance- or so they said it was. I was well on my way to drunk and watching men dancing around in cheetah skins with spears was not helping the situation. Before I knew it, I was also in a cheetah skin and dancing- and there seems to be photographic evidence as well (thanks to Beha). Megan was dancing across from me, also clad in cheetah skin. This experience was not what we had expected and was going far beyond our little ethnographic and intellectual explorations. Had we just been sitting in the land cruiser working her Mensa crossword puzzle on the drive up? And now we were trashed at 11am on local nasty bamboo-schnapps dancing in animal skins with spears? We felt like we had ended up in some otherworld of the mountain. After the conclusion on the dance we led through the local market by dreadlock man where he showed us what was referred to as the “high school” where people lined a bench drinking tej, or honey wine. You guessed it- it wasn’t long before Megan and I were sitting with huge glasses of the honey wine in front of us, dreadlock man getting more and more friendly. We were laughing, but it was time to escape. As we came down from the mountain, completely inebriated, I asked Megan what the hell had just happened. We had gone to the land of the mountain…
Honey wine with dreadlock man.
By the time my inebriation wore off we were in a boat in the middle of Lake Chamo in search of giant crocodiles and hippos in something reminiscent of the Disney Land Jungle Cruise ride. Lieutenant Commander Megan was pointing out to the boat operator that he had snagged a fisherman’s line in the motor for the second time. I kept muttering “Red over the red. The captain is dead” as I was sure we were about to lose the already feeble engine and go dead in the water in the middle of a lake infested with 5 meter long crocodiles. It would just go with the day.
Don't fall overboard!

As for what actually happened at the end of the day. Well, I might just leave that for Megan’s telling…