Saturday, June 30, 2007

State-Side Once Again

(South Salem, NY, USA: June 30, 2007)

Ah, back in the states. I guess there weren't nearly as many obvious adjustments to make as I expected there would be. It felt pretty normal to be back. Part of the problem is that I suffer from a bit of culture shock each time I come back to Westchester as it is - from San Francisco. So coming back here from Africa wasn't all too different. Lots of eating disordered older women in giant SUV's with plastic bodies dressed in exercise clothing. You know - the usual.

One of the main differences and the one I am still not adjusted to is water. I am still spitting constantly while I shower to prevent even a drop from getting into my mouth. Unnecessary here! Tap water - good to drink. Ice cubes - not a problem. Raw vegetables - should be fine. Having good drinking water is such a luxury I never thought about before. I mean, sure, I hear about it as a problem in third world countries all of the time, but it really it surprising how much of your time and psyche is occupied by thoughts of water when you're traveling. When will I be able to buy more, will it be good, will I get sick (again), etc. I got a terrible parasite when I was away that really was traumatizing. A good dose of Cipro and away it went, but still. No fun. It's not like there are nice clean bathrooms with toilet paper there!

The other noticeable difference is space. We like a lot of space. Space in our homes, space in our cars, space when we walk, when we sit, how we interact. The Dala-dala's are the rectangular Toyota mini-van type vehicles used for local transportation in Tanzania. They can fit 18 people. What they do is add another bench and squeeze in 26. 26 people!!!! These are NOT large vehicles - I'd feel claustrophobic every time I saw them pass by. Truly sardines. Of course Americans couldn't do that because we're too large. Even if we could, we wouldn't. Fights would break out! I've seen it before on San Francisco public buses because someone is too close to someone else or accidentally touched them. These people are squished against each other, yet look completely relaxed. The houses here are also very large. Not just the large Westchester Mansions, but even the smaller houses. We have an assumed right to privacy and if we can afford it, give each member of the family their own room. It's such decadence. Then each house needs to have as much land around it as possible. High ceilings. The whole 9.

We as Americans just have a very large buffer zone around us - which I happen to really like.

So lessons learned: who knows. I don't know. I've thought a lot about it, and I just am not sure what if any change will come of this trip. I want to go back to school for either international policy work or research biology. Probably the latter. This won't be possible for a number of years though, I definitely can't afford it now. Sugar daddy? Anyone?

The one thing that was apparent though is that in places like East Africa individuals can make a difference. I don't ever feel like that here. Sure, I give money to non-profits. I call my senators when Move On or Act for Change tells me to. I send countless emails to politicians urging them not to vote for whatever bill. I don't feel like it's helping though. I just do it because other people tell me it helps. In Africa you can go to a tiny village, and see the water pump someone donated making a huge difference. The doctor that Campi Ya Kanzi hired to help the Maasai of the Chyulu Hills. A donated vehicle, a water tank, condom education. Granted, some help can be well-intentioned but misguided and detrimental. I definitely want to return at some point to be involved in a project helping people. If people who have the means each just helped one village out, even if it's just building a new school building, many many people would be living slightly easier lives.

At my grandmother's unveiling a few days ago the rabbi said that we keep peoples memories alive and honor their spirit by our action and our aspiration.

Monday, June 25, 2007

It's so Modern!

(London, UK: June 25, 2007)

Ah, high speed internet. Don't get me wrong, I still use dial-up from time to time. For whatever reason my parents can't get DSL, so I use dial-up whenever I'm there. East African internet is not dial-up though, at least not as we think of it.

The reality is that the internet hardly works there. Sometimes it's just down for an undefined period of time (can be days). Other times certain sites come up, others don't. This happened to me continuously where I could log into one Yahoo account, but the other wouldn't work. Or the person next to me could log in, but I couldn't at all. Many times you could log into Yahoo, but not actually access your mail. So frustrating! At the best of times you could access everything, the computer wouldn't freeze, and it was only about 20x slower than broadband. It took me 45 minutes to place on online order through ebay while I was there. So here in the UK waiting for my plane to NY, I am living in the lap of luxury!

I wanted to say a little something about the transportation in Africa. For those of you reading our friend Liz's blog (she's in Ghana with the Peace Corp) you already know transportation is crap. East Africa is no different.

The first flight I took to Rwanda I needed to be there 2 hours early - no problem! I'll just leave plenty of time in the cab. Well, driving across Nairobi can apparently take nearly 2 hours instead of 45 minutes. So then I was stressed out - as I would be about being late. Typical Sara. So I go to check my bags - but Oh! Lo and behold the print out "confirmation" I have is not an e-ticket. I need to go to an office to get a paper ticket. Uh oh. So now I am panicked I will miss my flight. I get into the office and the fears are confirmed. There are two people behind the desk, and many others waiting. It takes 45 minutes for me to be helped. Why is that you ask? Oh, because one of the women decided to chat with a friend on the phone for 30 minutes without helping anyone, and the other woman took *forever* to write out paper tickets for people. Luckily, my flight was delayed by a number of hours, so I didn't miss it. I decided in the future to make sure to leave plenty of time when going to the airport, and I made them give me tickets for all of my flights then as well, so I should have been all set for future flights.

Ha! the next one from Kigali, Rwanda to Zanzibar had a layover in Nairobi. I got up at 4am to be on time for my flight at 6:45am - funny thing was, the airport wasn't even open 2 hours in advance of the flight (not very funny, really). So I check in for my 2 flights which are both on the same airline, get to Nairobi.... Surprise! My flight to Zanzibar has been canceled, but no one told me in Rwanda, where they could have rerouted me. Oh, but no worries the next flight was only 13 hours later. You can imagine my excitement to wait in a ratbag airport where people are allowed to smoke inside. All of my preparation was for naught there!

Then I wanted to leave Zanzibar, and thought it would be easy to get a flight out to Arusha, I had seen plenty listed on line. Ha again! I went to all 5 airline offices in vain the first time around. Three of them despite advertising flights, had none on Friday? Why? Why not. Air Tanzania only flew into Kilimanjaro, not Arusha as they had advertised. Precision Air had a wonderful piece of paper taped to the desk: Non-stop flight to Kilimanjaro 11am daily. Perfect! Oh, I'm sorry, we don't have that flight. But it's advertised right here on this paper! Yes, but that is starting sometime next week. Hmm... funny thing was the paper looked like it was at least a year old - tattered and stained. So I get a flight out on Air Tanzania, the reason they weren't flying into Arusha is because the airport is closed for 3 months. In typical African fashion they would never give you such useful information though. I had to figure that one out on my own.

So I am leaving Zanzibar and the security guy tells me the machine is broken and asks if he can search my bag. He also says in the same breath that I don't have to let him search it. So I say that I'd prefer he didn't since it was packed like sardines. He says fine he won't and just stands there. this goes back and forth a few more times (the machine is broken, I can search your bag, or I don't have to) and I of course am growing more confused. Finally another employee whispers to me "tip". OH, I exclaim, you want me to pay you money! Yes, he says. How much? He won't tell me how much. So I give him the equivalent of 3 dollars and pass right through security. Sweet! My first security bribe.

So having learned oh so many lessons I am sure that the charter to southern Kenya will go smoothly. I arrive 30 minutes early to the tiniest airport I have ever seen (it's one shack). they tell me to wait anywhere - funny thing is, there weren't any chairs, so I go sit outside on the steps. We were supposed to be there by 9:30am for a 10am flight. Seven of us. So I wait. and I wait... and suddenly it's 9:20 and no one is there yet. Then it's 9:30 and still no one. What are the chances I am in the right place if no one else is there on time? I call the tour company and they don't answer. Then I am in a complete panic (and I am sick as well, to top it all off). Where are they? Where am I supposed to be? What's *happening*?? I get a call at 9:50am about 100 grey hairs later: people are on their way, we'll be leaving soon, not to worry. TYPICAL AFRICA.

My last anecdote is regarding changing my return ticket to come back to NY 2 days earlier. My cell phone is long since dead (no charger) so I need to call from the hotel. Talk about expensive - 6$/minute. First I call BA, wait on hold for 7 minutes and decide to cut my losses after 42 dollars and still no live person. Then they call the local office in Dar Es Salaam for me. I go through the flights with the woman and finally I ask how much it will cost. Oh, she says, I have no idea. Well, how will I know then? She says well, we have a huge line here, I don't have the time to do it now, I can call you back? I explain I am on a hotel phone and she says she'll email me. When will you email me? Oh, I couldn't say. Today? Yes, by the end of the day. I wish I had asked when the end of the day was... Needless to say, no email, no nothing. I bite the bullet and call American Airlines. 1 hour (360$ later) i have changed my flights. I refused to pay for all of it though, I argued that I had only been on the phone 30 minutes, which was a lie. So my grand total came to 268$ for the phone calls. You can imagine my frugal self literally curdling over that.

Really though, of all of the travel adventures I am so looking forward to not smelling terrible diesel fumes constantly. I must have taken a few years off of my life inhaling the thick black smoke that permeated every single parcel of air. Apparently the diesel there has some other bad additives that make it smoke so badly. Regardless, it's overwhelming.

Off to NY now! I'll write once more to wrap up once I'm back stateside.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

She's a Beauty

(Kilimanjaro, Tanzania: June 24, 2007)

You may be wondering - did I make it? Well, yes! … and no.

We started out as a group of 7, with about 30 porters and two guides: Victor and James. I have done a fair amount of serious backpacking in the past – but always carrying my own gear. It was strange to have porters carrying all of our gear – all we carried were small daypacks with water and extra layers. Not that I’m complaining about carrying 20 pounds instead of 55!

There aren’t any easy routes up Mt. Kilimanjaro - they’re all pretty much the same. The difference is how many days you take to summit. Our route was supposed to be easier because we took 6 days to ascend instead of 4 allowing for extra time to acclimate. The first two days were surprisingly easy. Not too steep, slow pace, minor altitude gain – we were only at 11,500 feet after 2 days. I was really relieved my sinus infection and lack of recent exercise wasn't an issue. Mind you, the second night was our first below freezing – it was so incredibly cold, and only got colder. You can imagine that after drinking the requisite three liters of water each day, I had to make many trips outside the tent at night. Torture!! I would lie there for at least 30 minutes before getting up the energy and willpower to even unzip the sleeping bag. As soon as that frigid air leaks in though, it’s time to get up and out as soon as possible. Sometimes I would decide to wait until morning, which was equally unpleasant.

Day three was tough for me. It was our first day at higher altitude (12,000+) and I was light-headed and a bit nauseous, and generally not feeling like myself during the hike. I almost passed out once. As soon as we got into camp at 13,000 feet I had an instant headache – it was so severe that I was incapacitated. My vision was throbbing, seeing spots, and if my head were in any position other than upright, it felt like it would actually explode. I was certain I would need to be evacuated, or walked out in the middle of the night. I didn’t think I would be able to continue. Amazingly, many Advil later my headache was gone by the next morning. It was a terrible night. Thank you Ibuprofen!

Day four went well actually, we went up to almost 15,000 feet for the first time. Unfortunately one of the girls in the group, Daisy, wasn’t feeling well, so I walked to the next camp with her while the others got to do a little rock scrambling up Lava Tower. I was feeling completely better, much to my surprise. She got really sick though, which was really hard for our group.

The next day was the first really strenuous day. We’d been walking for up to 8 hours each day, but with a reasonable amount of elevation gain. Day five was Barranco Wall day - 1500 feet of scrambling straight up. Unfortunately Daisy couldn’t make it up the wall due to altitude sickness and had to be walked down and evacuated after she passed out. That was a really big loss for the team – it made it apparent how quickly our health could change in those conditions. I felt really strong that day, but another team member, Andrew, started to get a stomachache, either dehydration or altitude sickness. The next day was our summit day so we were all hoping for the best.

Spending each night in near zero degree temperatures at high altitude made for really difficult sleeping. I would sleep for about 3-4 hours, then be awake for the majority of the night and if I was lucky fall back to sleep for an hour or two in the morning. The night before and after the summit day we camped at 15,180 feet, which was terrible for me. Since I couldn’t take the high altitude medication I was a bit of a wreck.

Day six, aka summit day, started out poorly. I felt terrible after another sleepless night. I was winded just walking to the mess tent, which was no more than 20 feet from my tent. My body felt like it was a zombie body someone had attached to me. To say I had no energy was an understatement. I was hoping that by the time we were moving I would perk up a bit. Hardly! Andrew only made it for an hour before he had to turn back – he was too low energy to continue which was so very sad. He wanted to summit so badly, and had definitely trained more than any of the rest of us. That really was hard for me to see him turn back. We still had about 4 hours to go until lunch, and then at least 2 more hours to summit and the trail was straight up - 4000 feet straight up. Every step was harder than the prior step. Our leader, Victor, kept checking to make sure I could continue – I’m sure I looked like the walking dead. At one point I knew I had to turn back, because every shuffle of a step was more energy than I had. A porter offered to carry my daypack, so I continued on at a snail’s pace literally dragging one foot in front of the other. A little further along I again said I was ready to go back, but I wanted a slightly better view to take a photo, so I decided to go up to the big rock ahead. Then to the next switchback… I kept setting goals that were no more than 30 feet away each time, knowing that I had to try my best to get to the lunch spot because I was out of water and food. After what seemed like an eternity of trudging up this FREEZING cold, blustery wind blown high altitude desert, I made it to the lunch spot with the team, and just sat and cried for a long time. That didn’t help my breathing!

Rather than turn back then, I followed the team, knowing I would not make it to the summit, but just trying to get as high as possible before I needed to turn back. I had already decided I would not allow myself to go so far that I needed to be carried down, so I used that as criteria to evaluate if I could take another step or not.

About 45 minutes later I started to get loopy and light-headed, and before I knew it we were at the top!! Not the Uhuru Peak summit point, but the top of the crater rim, 19,000 feet, Stella point. I had made it! I honestly could not believe I had gotten myself up there. It was truly a miracle, and I was so proud and so grateful. My mind actually dragged my body up that mountain.

I knew it was time for me to turn back as the remaining 4 team members continued along the glaciated and snow covered crater rim to the highest point.

I somehow made it back down – nearly running down the scree and deep loose sand with no control over my body. That night was so hard to stay at 15,000 feet - the altitude did not get along well with me. Two days later and we were back in Arusha in such comfortable beds – it’s amazing to sleep through the night and not be a frozen block of ice each time you wake up! Such luxury.

So I got my certificate for making it to Stella point, and now I know – I am not doing any more high peaks – there are plenty of lower ones to climb!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Twas the Night Before

(Arusha, Tanzania: Thursday, June 14)

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and all through the house...

[Note: This is an entry with a parental warning attached as per their request. Although there's nothing violent, or sexually explicit, it may be nerve-wracking for them.]

... we were all freaking out basically. Me more so than the 6 others. I came to Africa in great shape and have since become completely out of shape. Having a sinus and tonsil infection for the last week didn't help! I spent nearly all of the time in southern Kenya in bed - after running out of books I wound up reading the Da Vinci Code - not bad. I am feeling much better, but still not 100%.

So what exactly am I afraid of?
1. That I will need to kill this woman on the trip with us who already drives me nuts. If you think I'm a control freak... She actually had the audacity to say to the leader who is taking us up Kili: would you like to explain how it works or should I? YOU? Who are you??
2. That my inability to take high altitude medication (Diamox) due to the fact it's a sulfa drug is going to be a problem for me. Everyone who hears I can't take it gives me the UH OH look before saying 'Oh, I'm sure you'll be fine'. The reality is that over 15,000 feet, our bodies just aren't able to function as well as they normally do, and without Diamox, it's much harder to acclimate.
3. Snow. When our guide was there 2 weeks ago the crater camp (upper most camp over 18,000 feet) was under a lot of snow. Yikes.
4. COLD. It is below 0 (not 32 degrees, zero) at the last camp and for the day or two prior to summit. I can not imagine how I will be able to keep warm, but everyone else seems to be able to do it, so I'm sure it will work out somehow!
5. General illness paranoia. As I have now had one *terrible* stomach bug/illness requiring Cipro, and this sinus thing, I sense my immune system doesn't really like Africa. but I do!

Positive developments:
1. We can summit and then drop to a lower camp for the night, skipping trying to sleep at 18,000+ feet. I have a sneaking suspicion I will do that, if I make it that far. I mean, when I make it that far.
2. There's only one so far, but a list of one isn't really a list.

Well, I'm going to try my hardest, but be completely honest about my physical state and symptoms and hope for the best! They have a very high success rate with Kili summits (this outfitter) so my fingers are crossed.

We spent the last 4 days in the Chyulu Hills in southern Kenya on property which is "co-owned" by an Italian couple and the Maasai. There are approximately 7000 Maasai in that area. They have a doctor now for the first time, who we briefly visited. He has no electricity, no running clean water (they need to boil it), no lab to get tests done, no transportation, and no means of communication (radio, phone). He described how in the month he's been there it's been incredibly hard, especially since the way to transport really critical patients the 60K over the dirt road to the nearest hospital is via motorbike, or a random passing vehicle. If the patient comes in at night, they have to wait until the morning! Talk about a brave man! He is amazing. I can't even imagine. The camp we stayed at was really inspiring - the owner Luca has won a lot of environmental awards for it, recycling water to turn into drinking water for animals, solar power, collecting rainwater and dew on PVC sheets for the camp. They have a lot of great collective programs they are doing with some of the villages too, but the juxtaposition of west over traditional culture is really difficult to process. I'm still not sure if it seems like the right thing to be doing or not. It does seem like they are helping a lot of people, but my Western evaluation may be completely off base. They have an interesting program to save lions. the problem is that the lions kill the Maasai livestock (cows are the valuable ones) and then the Maasai kill the lions in return. Luca has a program to give credits to owners whose livestock has been killed by a lion. If no lions in the area have been killed for 90 days thereafter then the Maasai can trade in the credit for a good amount of money in return. It seems to be working very well. I don't know enough to know how sustainable it is. You can read about what they are doing here:

OK, off to bed.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Potentially Polygamous

(Arusha, Tanzania: June 9, 2007)

Soundtrack: Africa by Toto. Have you ever had the same song stuck in your head for 10 days?

I just spent the last 10 days on safari – what a terrific time. It turns out we (Jon and I) had a guide, Marc Baker, who has to be the best guide in Tanzania. He’s a biologist, originally from England, who was raised in Tanzania by research biologist parents. He seemingly knows everything there is to know about Tanzanian ecology. We spent 10 days in a Landrover with him traveling across Ngorongoro Crater and Conservation Area, Ndutu, Central Serengeti, Western Corridor, and Loliondo. Rather than bore you with a list of the animals we saw, you can refer to Appendix B. My favorite animals were spotted hyena, warthogs, giraffe, lions, secretary birds and ostrich.

Animal highlights:
Hippos stay in the water all day, and then graze at night. Nocturnal if you will. It is highly unusual to see one out of the water during the day. Well, we did! We even followed it and got in between it and the swamp at one point. Whoops. Have you ever seen a 2-ton animal running straight at the side of your vehicle with incredible speed? Marc never had either – first time for everything! It stopped no more than 3 feet away at which time I was already bracing myself for the massive impact. Marc’s first question: Did you get the shot? [side note: I did get a shot of it charging – somehow my finger pushed the button without my knowing]

I happen to be a bit squeamish, especially in regards to gore. We were really lucky to be able to watch a lioness feeding on a zebra. It’s not the easiest thing to watch, especially when the back half of the zebra is already gone and he’s been out in the African sun all day. Tough but well worth it, and the blood is really red!

Random Musings:
So in Tanzania the marriage license is only signed by the man, and has 3 boxes on it – Monogamous, Polygamous, and the good old catch-all: Potentially Polygamous. ?!?

Marc is very into conservation, he was just in the states last year giving a talk at UC Santa Cruz on the balance between tourism and conservation. What luck to be able to have such a great resource to talk to! Conservation is SUCH a difficult problem. Fifty percent of the GDP of Tanzania is aid money. While aid is certainly helpful in some situations, it also creates dependency, which can be really dangerous. With an employment (not unemployment) rate of 30%, how do you wean villages off of aid food and medical supplies when they have little to no means of ever making a living? Part of the problem with providing aid is that while a typical family would previously have 5-6 children, half of whom wouldn’t survive, the same family is now able to (barely) feed 5-6 children. Without serious family planning education, you wind up with a population that grew 2.3% last year and is set to double sooner than later. The resources of the country can’t even provide for the existing population, let alone a growing population. Aid will not just increase and continue forever. It’s a very, very difficult situation. The good news is that there is a program that is very successful educating women about family planning and providing birth control in Northern Tanzania.

Many of the projects that are done to “help” people are ill thought out, with the recipients not being part of the planning process. A water pipe was put in a village (which cost tons of aid money) so that the women wouldn’t need to walk 5K each way every day to get water. Within 2 weeks of its completion the women had torn it out of the ground and destroyed it. When they were asked why, they explained that for them walking to the water was how they enjoyed spending their days. They brought their children, all of the women got together to chat, they did laundry, the children played, they were away from their husbands for the day, and then they went home to cook at night. With the water in the village they never saw each other, the husbands just found other work for them to do, and they hated it. One lesson I have learned through the work I do is that if you are creating something and you don’t include the end user or a representative group of them in the planning, then you wind up with something they don’t want and won’t willingly use.

I’m off to southern Kenya tomorrow morning and then starting the Kilimanjaro climb in 5 days! I am completely scared – 19,000 feet is no joke, the altitude is not agreeable to the human body, so you get up and get down. I put on pounds of padding during the safari, which included eating 3 huge meals everyday and sitting in a car nearly the entire time. Yikes. Wish me luck!

Appendix A: Technical Failures
Sunglasses: Arm broke into two pieces.
Watch: “Water-proof” it isn’t. First it got water in it, then the water killed it.
Cell Phone: Left the charger behind in Zanzibar. It’s waiting for me in Kilimanjaro, where I will hopefully pick it up in a week.

Appendix B: Animals seen
(in order or approximate numbers viewed)
tsetse fly
gazelle (Grant’s and Thompson’s)
olive baboon
guinea fowl
gorilla (Rwanda)
red colobus monkey (Zanzibar)
tawny eagle
spotted hyena
jackal (black backed and golden)
crowned crane
Kori bustard
secretary bird
2 leopard
2 saddle billed stork
1 rhino
1 vearaux’s eagle owl
1 puff adder

Sweet Dreams?

(Serengeti, Tanzania: June 9, 2007)

Lately I feel like people have been divulging bits of information about themselves. It must be something about being in your thirties – suddenly you’re able to talk about some strange, quirky aspects of yourself or your past. Well, here I go, jumping on the bandwagon.

So many of you know this already – I have a rather strange sleep “disorder” let’s call it. Ever since I was 13, sometimes when I wake up, my dream continues even though I’m awake. It can take up to 15 minutes or longer for it to fade back to reality, even when I’m interacting with someone. Of course the dreams themselves at the point of waking are not pleasant, happy dreams with pretty fairies leading me through Candyland. They’re terrifying. The good news for anyone sharing a room or bed with me is that for the last 5-10 years I’ve mostly stopped screaming when they happen.

You can imagine the awkward discussion… “Yeah, so I kind of have this thing sometimes when I sleep. It probably won’t happen, but if I should scream out, don’t worry. It’s nothing - just ignore it.” Well, I can assure you that when it actually does happen with someone else in the room, no amount of prior warning prepares them. It’s just really freaky being awoken by someone screaming out in abject terror. Jon can now newly attest to this (hence the ‘mostly stopped screaming’).

This doesn’t happen when I’m home, and usually not in well lit rooms, either, but it’s been happening nearly every night of this trip unfortunately. Some nights it’s just waking to a person standing over the bed. Just lying there completely petrified with fear wondering how they got in and what they’re going to do. After 5 minutes or so they fade out. If the waking dream is being buried alive, I do try to physically get out. I’ve even tried to bite through a tent in the past – biting a zipper is no fun, I assure you. During that dream in Rwanda I just tore back a curtain. Not too bad! No harm done. Last night’s episode was a pretty cool dream though – looking back after the fact. The room we were in was balanced on a long round cylindrical object of some sort, under the middle of the room. So every time I moved in the bed, even an inch or two, the entire room tilted in that direction. This wasn’t the kind of tilting room that would just stop at some point either. It would fall over, come crashing down and crush me inside. So I would move a hand or a leg an inch, it would tilt wildly and I would wait for it to settle down, then move a little more, then quickly go back to sleep. Cool, huh?

I’ve met two people in my life who suffer from the same thing, neither knowing exactly why, but having a reasonable hypothesis. I think when I get back I’m going to look into some sleep disorder programs. I’m thinking after 21 years it could be time to get rid of this!