When I got off the plane in Dar es Salaam at the end of July, I really didn't know exactly what to expect. I knew I was moving to a very large city. I knew I wasn't going to be in the bush. But I really did not have any concept of what life would be like. Kat - my roommate - had explained to me over email that we lived in a very "local neighboorhood". Translation: We are the only white people in our neighborhood. At first it was less than comfortable. Now that I have been here a little over a month, I am starting to really love it. Here are the highlights:
Kids - There are a bunch of kids that live on our street that are usually playing outside. When we come out of the house, they all run up to us and dance around chanting "mazooooonnnngggoooo, mazooooonnnngggoooo" in sing-songy voices. We play around with them a little as we walk down the street.
Produce Stand - At the end of our street, there is a family that has a fruit/vegetable stand. We go there almost every day to pick up onions or peppers or bananas. All the produce is on tables that are shielded from the sun by ratty old sheets and tarps. Half buried tires serve as a buffer from any rogue vehicles that might run off the road. They don't speak a word of english. They always speak really fast to us in Swahili and then crack up when I just shrug my shoulders and tell them I don't understand. Maybe they are saying "Thank goodness the mzungus are here so that we can overcharge them for vegetables again". But last time, they threw in a couple extra onions for free, so I doubt it.
Duka - Across the street from our house is a small shop that they call a Duka. It sells everything from bottled water and sodas to laundry detergent to cell phone minutes. The guy who runs it teaches me new swahili words every time I go over to buy water. And he always gives us the coldest water he has...
Creepy Graveyard - Around the corner is a graveyard that is completely run down. There is a path that goes through it... but the path runs over some graves. There is a large tree in the center and a ton of headstones all around it. I can't imagine how they packed in so many bodies in such a small area. During the day, there is a goat that hangs out there and eats all the garbage that is collecting. I'm not really sure what to make of it all.
Chickens - A lot of families around here have chickens. Our street is full of them. They just hang out in the middle of the road and eat garbage. Every couple of weeks or so, I see a new batch of babies hanging out with mama hen in the main street garbage pile. They are pretty rugged and totally fearless. They don't even move for cars.
Local Pub - At the end of the street, there is a little bar. I have no idea what the name of it is. All I know is that their beers are about Tsh 1300 ($1) a piece and that they play loud music. I've been there once. It's very local...
Blonks Barbershop - I don't know why, but everytime I walk by this sign, I just crack up.
When I am in the US, I generally don't eat meat. It's not any moral stance about eating animals though. It's really more about being comfortable about where my food is coming from. I still enjoy a good King Salmon or Halibut filet when I am traveling in Alaska. But for the most part, I stay away from flesh. Until now.
Eating in Africa has been interesting. I have found that ordering meals differs greatly from place to place. The majority of places we go for lunch are very quick. But they don't have menus. And if they do, they might as well not. They generally don't a majority of the things listed on there. What I have learned to do is just go in and ask what they have. Usually it's some combination of starch and meat. The starch is either white rice, ugali, or chips (fries) and the meat is chicken, fish, beef or goat. They serve it to you on a lunch platter with some red sauce and green spinach looking stuff. As for the meat, there is no hiding what you are eating. If you order fish - you get a whole-God-damned-fish. If you order chicken, they will just bring out every part of the chicken and it's your job to find our where the meat is. Needless to say, utensils are kind of useless. One day, I was in one of the villages eating chicken and rice with the three African men I was traveling with. When the chicken was served, I tried to cut it with my flimsy butter knife and they started cracking up. "This is village chicken. It spends it's life running around after hens. You better have strong teeth." I didn't. The waiter ended up having to bring out some small pieces of 'mzungu chicken' instead.
Most dinners I have had outside Dar have been a little different. They are usually made to order. And when I say that, i mean when you order chips, somebody goes into the kitchen and starts peeling a potato. Dinner can take anywhere from 1-2 hours to be served. Last night, at our hotel, I ordered chicken and chips for three (Kat, her boyfriend Brett and myself). They went back to the little chicken coop behind the hotel and killed a chicken. Two hours later i was tearing chicken flesh off bones with my hands and teeth quietly singing that old cruise commercial jingle too myself "if they could see me now..."
From the minute I set foot in the Dar es Salaam airport, I knew I had entered a different world. One that was not as convenient as the one I usually exist in. So now, three weeks in, I have started compiling a list of the little things that I will never take for granted again.
Toilet paper in public bathrooms – I would say that 50% of the time that I enter a public restroom, I walk into a room with a hole in the floor that you are meant to squat over. The other 50% of the time – where a toilet seat is actually available – has about a 46.7% chance of having toilet paper. I’ve stopped expecting it.
Shower Curtains –At least it makes for a clean floor. And a wet toilet seat.
High speed internet – Was there a dial-up modem slower than 14.4k? If there is, that is what Tanzania is using. One of those. For the entire country.
Traffic Lanes – Tanzania was colonized by the British. So they are meant to drive on the left side of the road. Which they do. Unless somebody else is driving slow in front of them. Or something else is in the way on the left side of the road. Or they feel like driving on the right side of the road. I’m considering a helmet.
If you look closely under the concrete, you will see a series of sticks holding the parking lot up.
Street Names/Addresses – This is the direction I give to the cabs that pick me up: “Drive towards Mwananyamala hospital, keep going past it for about 1 km and then turn right at the large pile of garbage on the street. Watch out for the chickens. My house is the white one on the left across from the mass of children pointing and yelling ‘Mzungu’”
2X4’s: I’m not really sure what these sticks are holding up here, but I am sure that it would be done differently in the US.
Cops with Inconspicuous Guns: I have been traveling around the borders of The Congo, Burundi and Rwanda for the past week. As we drive around from village to village, we often have to pass through road blocks manned by Tanzanian Police officers with giant guns. There is good reason for this. These bordering countries are not always stable. And there are refugee camps everywhere in this part of the country. However, being stopped by Africans with green uniforms and large weapons always conjures up some stereotypical fears about the continent in general.
I have been trying to get my bearings here in Dar. And not having easy access to internet has been a bit of a hindrance. I’m not sure where to start. I’ve been here a week now and it feels … well it feels like a week. I definitely feel like I have a weeks worth of mosquito bites on my body. But hopefully that will change with my newly installed mosquito net.
So I got here with some knowledge of the location thanks to my friends Robyn and Wren who had spent some time in the country. I am living in the city of Dar es Salaam with my friend and co-worker Kat. It’s a large city on the coast of Tanzania (bordering the Indian Ocean). The city itself is very cool and full of history. There are about 2 million people living here. It has a huge expat population. So there are places you can go that are mostly white. We do not live in these places. We live in a very local neighborhood. We are the only white people that I have seen in our neighborhood. I like it a lot. Whenever we walk down the street people stare and say “Mzungu” or “Mambo” or “Hello Sister”. It’s funny. The streets around our neighborhood are full of commerce. There are fruit and vegetable stands everywhere. Also broken furniture stands. And used electronics. And tons of clothing. Even a few butcher shops with huge chunks of rotting meat hanging in the windows. Pretty much anything you could possibly want. Nothing is marked, so you have to barter a little. We have a little fruit/veggie stand at the corner of our street that we get food from a couple times a week. We have no fridge, so we have to use whatever we buy as soon as we get it. Otherwise, the fruitflies take over the entire kitchen where they party with the house flies and the mosquitoes…
The thing that strikes me here is the garbage. It’s really amazing how unaware we are of how much garbage we produce. But where I am living now, they do not have landfills. Whatever garbage you produce, they burn. I am really struggling with this for a few reasons. First, we have to drink bottled water. There really is no other choice. We could boil all our water, but we have no refrigerator. So we have this mass of plastic that is just going to get burned with the garbage. I suppose that if nothing else, it is good for me to be aware. Hopefully I will bring that understanding back to the US when I come home.
To get around we mostly take cabs and these little cars called Bajaj’s. Bajaj’s are like tiny little 3-wheeled jeep wranglers with insane drivers behind the wheel. I’m not really sure how safe they are. There is traffic everywhere and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of rules to driving. Basically, wherever you can shove your car or Bajaj in the mass of traffic, you do it. Even if it means turning into a bunch of oncoming traffic or driving on the sand on the side of the road or sidewalks (Only Bajaj’s do this). One night Kat and I were out to dinner with a bunch of people she knows (mostly Americans). When we went to go home, we just flagged down a Bajaj. Everybody was like “um, are you guys going to be ok in that?” Between the neighborhood we live in and the mode of transportation we choose, I’m pretty sure they all think we are insane.
I have met some good people. The people that Kat has introduced me to are mostly Americans and Europeans that have come here to either volunteer or start-up companies. The two people that I have spoken to the most are a guy named Jamie from a start-up called EGG-tech and this guy Mbwana who is a native Tanzanian that worked for Microsoft for a long time and is now moving to San Fran. Mbwana has been to Alaska a bunch of times and loves it there. I am pretty sure that I have met one of the only Tanzanians to ever go to Alaska. It was pretty funny sharing stories with him. Jamie’s company is doing something similar to what my company (dissigno) is doing. They are doing a battery subscription service to help the rural Tanzanians stop using kerosene. It’s an interesting business model and all the people involved are MIT and Harvard graduates. Nerd city…
Work is interesting so far. I was able to get out to one village that we are distributing lights in. The village was called Charambe and it is right outside Dar. It is very poor. It was like being in Haiti again though in that the children followed us everywhere and kept asking for their photos to be taken. They were pretty cute. The population was predominantly Muslim (which is actually the same throughout Dar). To get there, Kat and I took a bus – called a Dala Dala. The bus costs about $0.25 and is always overcrowded. There is so much traffic that you are almost always stopped. And it’s hot. But on the plus side, they play really good African music …. Really super loud. Which I suppose would get old fast if you were on the bus for more than the 1.5 hours that Kat and I were.
Besides that, I haven’t traveled much yet for work. But I will be starting next week. I am going to go to an area of the country called Kigoma and do some site assessments for solar installations there with the Rural Energy Authority (part of the ministry of energy). After that, I will travel to a village called Karagwe which is north by Lake Victoria. I am pretty excited to get out and see the country.
Besides being a big city with lots of buildings and malls and people, Dar is actually a beautiful coastal city. My second day here, Kat took me to this island called Bongoyo Island. It is about a mile long and absolutely incredible. We walked around all day and found some great crabs and starfish and even eels (in the tide pool where the restraint chucks their fish guts). It’s a really short boat ride from the peninsula so it’s a great day trip when you just want to chill out.
That’s about it. All in all, I really am happy to be here. I love the area and am really excited about the work we are doing. The people here are so nice. And I am learning a ton every day.
Lately, my work has taken me all over the state of Alaska. Here is an abbreviated, photo enhanced story from my last trip to Alaska.
First I got on a tiny airplane in Nome, AK
Then I flew here
Then I got on a snowbmobile (aka snow machine)
Checked out some of the scenery
And I went out to see one of these
Went inside the tower to check it out
Got all ready to climb the ladder to the top
Then I chickened out and my CEO climbed up instead to take some pictures of the ocean
Saw a polar bear
Turned out to be a polar bear rug
By boss bought himself a nice Oosik. Which you can imagine lent itself to some hilarious conversation throughout the rest of the week.
Then we went back to the "airport" and went back to the mainland to finish our adventures in Alaska
Ahhhh.. Alaska. Where the oil flows like water and everywhere you look you see Russia....
Recently I have been lucky enough to spend some time in the great white north. I have been making the trek to Anchorage about once a month since November. Since I've started, every day has been about the same. The sun rises somewhere between 9 and 10 AM to a cloudy gray day and then sets between 4 and 5 leaving you wondering why you even got up in the first place. However, this last trip was different. Finally, the sun came out. The Chugach mountains, covered in snow, were set in beautiful contrast against a clear blue sky. Anchorage was balmy 30 degrees. A virtual tropical paradise. So I took the opportunity to embrace the Alaska winter and go play in the snow.
Saturday I woke up late, took my sweet time putting my bindings on right, and at 11:45 started the 30 mile drive down to Girdwood. If you ever have driven down Turnagain Arm, you know that the drive is absolutely stunning.
Mountains all around you. Ocean to the right... full of glacial silty chunks of ice that form mini ice canyons on the surface of the water. It's unlike anything I have ever seen. My day could have ended there. But it didn't. It got better.
Afternoon lift tickets start at 1:00 PM. I met up with my friend Dave and his step-son Devon and we got on the lift as soon as they would let us on. Made it to the top and rode all afternoon. No new snow, but what was there was softened by the sun. Alaska has a NO VEGAN policy so my forward lean was juiced. Dave was tricking out - you know... 720's and the like - and Devon was just ripping. It was a great day made better by the great company.
A few beers at the lodge and I was back in Anchorage getting rested up for day 2. I slept like a baby.
Sunday morning my friend Jim called me at 8:00 AM. I have been working with Jim for the past few months and in that time I have really gained a great appreciation for his communication style. Here is how the conversation went:
JSG: Carrie. This is Jim. Sandy and I are leaving at 9:00. Do you still want to go?
JSG: Ok. See you at our place at 9:00.
Dressed. Packed. On the road again by 8:45. At the mountain for first chair (which is at 10:00 AM because the sun rises so late). The morning was cold, but the sun came up over the mountains quickly and by 11:00 we were practically sunbathing.
Jim and his wife Sandy are skiers. And they are good. They pushed me way out of my comfort zone. We skied/rode hard for 5 hours. Steep bumpy trails all day.
By the end of my last run my legs were jelly. I went home content knowing that I had given the mountain everything I had.
The weekend ended with a coffee porter at the Moose's Tooth in Anchorage. I couldn't have asked for more.
I got my winter fix. Thank you Alaska.
On January 10th, I got on a plane for Port Au Prince, Haiti to do some work with an organization called Engineers Without Borders (EWB). I had not spent any discernible amount of time in the third world before this trip and I was ready for a life changing experience. That is exactly what I got, although not in the way that I originally expected. I have a lot of thoughts and pictures and stories. I would like to share it here in a way that is more meaningful than just a stream of consciousness brain dump. I decided that the most appropriate way to do this is to post in installments. So here goes my first installment of the Haiti blog.
We arrive in Port Au Prince on Saturday, January 10th around noon. Representing the San Francisco chapter is Eric McDonnell - structural engineer, Kyle Carbert - civil engineer, and myself - electrical engineer. With us are two students from the University of Wisconsin student chapter; Eyleen Chou - mechanical engineer and Travis Lark - biomedical engineer. Our host for the week, Actionnel Fleurisma, is the community leader and preacher in the village we were going to be working in. He picks us up at the airport and we start the drive immediately to Bayonnais.
There doesn't seem to be many rules to the road. It looks like people generally try to stay to the right side, but there is nothing really governing this rule. No signs, no lines, sometimes there isn't even any clarity on where the borders of the road are. People pass on the left. And the right. And in the middle. Actionnel is on the horn for a significant portion of the drive. However, it's not a NYC horn honk. It's more of a "look out, i'm right here" kind of honk. Seems like the best way to alert people of your presence. There are lots of blind corners around these roads and not a lot of slowing down around them.
Every couple of miles you see a couple stands where people were selling snacks, automobile lubricants or bicycle parts. Unfortunately my camera is lost in a sea of bags in the back of the truck so I am not able to capture any of the sights.
As we get further outside Port Au Prince, the state of the roads deteriorate fast. There are huge ditches everywhere. Some parts are flooded. At one point, there is a large school bus stuck in a ditch spanning the entire width of the road. Actionnel, frustrated with the infrastructure of his country, exclaims that Haiti is a country without a head. It has a body, but no eyes to see and no ears to hear. There is evidence of this all around.
We go through the city of St Marc. There is livestock all over the place. I see goats, pigs, chickens and even cattle. There are huge unfinished buildings everywhere. I wonder who built them. I wonder why they never finished. I see transmission lines. Actionnel tells me that they are empty. No electrons. I wonder how does it happen. How do millions of dollars of infrastructure get built and then just abandoned. I understand that Haiti has enjoyed a significant amount of political unrest to say the least. I know that the level of corruption here is not minor. So all that said, and all this observed, what difference can a handful of idealistic American kids really make in a country without a head?
More to come...
I spent my first day on the mountain today. It didn't start out perfectly. My clothes are so many years past their waterproof prime, I'm pretty sure they actually absorb moisture. My rented gear was the wrong size, and the guy at the rental shop put my bindings on the wrong way. But once I got on the mountain, none of that mattered.
Seth and I rode for a few hours. It was that perfect northeast day. Not too crowded. Not too cold. Beautiful white snow pushed around the edges.
We spend most of the time in our heads. Analyzing. Judging. Acting. But, sometimes, if we're lucky, we get these incredibly perfect moments. Moments of presence. Moments that are totally independent of both the past or the future. When you aren't trying. You aren't acting.
In this world of wanting and taking and having and doing, it's nice to just submit to the beautiful silence of just being. That is the gift that the mountain gave me today.