Tuesday, May 26, 2009

keeping the peace

Our night watchman keeps guard with a bow and arrow. He sits up all night, perched on one of those cheap, electric-blue plastic patio chairs, armed with a bow and about nine arrows. actually.

Monday, May 25, 2009

to ottawa, with love

Monday mornings hurt. Squinting sleepy eyes, alarm clocks, and breakfast on the fly. It’s a rude transition from the tranquility of the weekend. The same sun, the same sky, but strangely not as friendly.
There’s a BA flight that departs Monday mornings. Mondays and Wednesdays, and every week feels like a missed chance. I lay on the hard foam mattress, crushing my eyelids closed, and holding my breath trying not to think about my heart flying away.

These are things I look forward to

value village (cyrville)

electric nights on bank st


meet me at trudeau

The truth: my heart’s not in it. It started as a tense and loveless relationship, and I’ve concluded that it’s better to be selfish than break myself trying to make things work in Africa. In one deep breath, I’m looking forward to coming home.
It wasn’t the city so much as the circumstances. With no separation between work and play, a home office, living/working/socializing with the 40+ crowd, it was hard not to see myself fading away. The bi-monthly beach parties and marathon treadmill runs got me through the first three months, but at the cost of my sanity (not to mention the blisters). It’s hard not to feel defeated, but I know I can do a lot more good in a city where archaic thinking isn’t so entrenched in personalities and social practices.
There was no contract, there was no security, and I fell face-first into an opportunity to cut ties and ran with it. The bitterness is mutual, but tensions have eased in the seven days since D-day and it’s not completely unbearable to be at the sitting at the same table with a person you feel has wronged you, and who is more than happy to play the victim. I’m hoping to fly out as soon as some last minute papers go through, hopefully the first week of June. I won’t hold grudges – but it’s time to go home.


1995 - 2009

au clair de la lune,

There’s a certain romance to cities after dark, when the soft glowing streetlamps burn up the deserted avenues. Whether you’re strolling down the boulevards in Montreal, traipsing through muddy streets in London, or riding atop the handlebars of a rickety red bicycle through the stony footpaths in Ljubljana, you can’t help but take notice how busy quarters transform into hollow jungles at sundown – places where only the shadows dance and twist with the haunting movements of late-night commuters.


It took me nearly three months to muster the courage to walk through Dar after dark. I let the labels (third world, crime, night) get the best of me.
But then, at nearly ten weeks in, (and thanks to some familiar faces camped out at the Econolodge in the downtown core) we decided it was time to make the effort.
It was 10pm on a Saturday, and we hailed a 3$ cab to take us to the corner of Morogoro road and Libya street. Stepping out on the dirt sidewalk, it took only moments to spot the sign for the hotel. It was a half-lit blue and white eyesore with a giant red arrow pointing towards the lobby (conveniently located at the far end of a Hitchcock-style dark and ominous alleyway – lovingly dubbed ‘crack-alley’ by the hotel guests).
It wasn’t a love-at-first-sight introduction. We stood, three jailbait tourists staring into the shadows, trying to work out how to get to the entrance without being attacked by a hooligan or radioactive rodent. But crack-alley was just the tip of the iceberg.
I’ve wandered through a few moonlit cities, but the combination of dark and deserted has never been so startlingly complete. For two hours, there wasn’t a sign of life beyond a few sleepy-looking taxis that rolled through the abandoned streets, starved for fares in the twilight hours. From the high-rises office towers to the low-income apartments, every window was filled with the same blackness. We walked single file, following the lights of neon-tinted shop signs, to a late-night Lebanese café that served hot mint tea and shisha. After all the anticipation, it was a fairly sweet and underwhelming first impression – no violence, no debauchery, just a soft and settled sort of charm.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


In a country where sixty hour work weeks are the norm, Sundays are the faint, but comforting light the horizon. One glorious morning to stay in bed until noon, eat a quiet breakfast on the terrace, or, on the more ambitious days, run away to one of the fantastically convenient islands that pepper the Dar es Salaam coast. For the bargain price of 18,000 shillings (16$ American), it’s a short ride on a ramshackle blue and white fishing boat (seaworthy, so long as you ignore the suspicious clouds of smoke that occasionally escape from the engine room) to an isolated stretch of unspoiled beach. It’s a chaperone-free haven where you can collapse underneath a grass-roofed hut and forget your frustrations (western standards, merciless schedules, and family politics aren’t allowed on the island).
It wasn’t a particularly sunny afternoon, but the tides were high and there’s always a fantastic collection of disposable treasures to be found washed up on shore. It’s strangely wholesome that the sea spits back everything that doesn’t belong – including Huggies wrappers and green bell peppers.
With marginally violent swells ripping up the shallows, we spent most of our afternoon sweating it out in the sand and frequenting the tiki-style, ant-infested canteen for drinks and fried food (they specialize in chips and freshly skewered and grilled seafood). It’s may not sound like the most thrilling way to pass a weekend, but the sun, sea, and a stereo, are good enough for me.

Next year’s Christmas decorations:

Friday, May 15, 2009


It’s hard to avoid clichés when you write about being a westerner traveling in Africa. Sitting in front of my laptop, I can’t avoid running through the checklist of scenic things to write home about… giant palm trees, brilliant shorelines, and the fail-safe mustard-colored sunset. It’s easy to get lost in the bright and shiny world of island resorts and tourist plazas, and while I hate to undermine the hardships of third world society, I’ve always been inclined to stick to polite, PG-imagery, and reserve the disheartening realities for more intimate conversations.

But I read a lot about the ways the west has misunderstood this continent, and it seems hypocritical to count myself part of the informed public while simultaneously glossing over the more difficult truths in these journals. I’m sure these crisis of conscience moments plague most people who travel from first-class society to shoeless hamlets where people have never heard of i-pods or Obama. It’s a dilemma that won’t be resolved with a tirade about radically unsuccessful interventions and global apathy, but be warned, surviving Dar is a much dirtier business than the colorful snapshots make it out to be.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

goodbye veganism, hello chocolate

Vegan isn’t really a word in Africa. The Lonely Planet gives some basic tips on how to communicate a strictly animal-free diet (in Swahili: I eat only green things), but finding someone who actually understands my painful attempts to piece together these epically complicated words in my muffled Canadian accent is an entirely different story. After two months of surprise-cheese disasters and tortuous ordering experiences, I decided it wasn’t worth the anxiety. I’ve turned in my threadbare vegan shoes and embraced the world of dairy.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

nine hours there, eight hours back

I was squished in the backseat, pinned against a dangerously unstable tower of luggage, as our SUV powered through the East African countryside. The unexpectedly well-paved highway was pleasantly deserted, save for a few lorries and the occasional free-wheeling bus driver.

I’ve always found something strangely comforting about long drives through open spaces, and once tunnel vision sets it, it’s easy to mistake the smooth pavement and waist-high grasses for rural America or backwater Quebec. But then your sightline slips, and just off the shoulder you discover the most curious collections of lush green vegetation – crooked trees, mangled bushes, and a deep rust-coloured earth – in Western terms, it’s the lion king come real (sidenote: you can learn Swahili via Disney. Simba is the word for lion, Rafiki is friend, and Asanta sana is thank you very much). I spent most of the journey with my nose pressed against the window, breathing in every detail and trying desperately to scribble down memories in my little black moleskine (I gave up when there road turned to dirt and we had an hour of listing back and forth as the car dodged potholes, wildlife and oncoming traffic).

We spent three days and four nights at a luxury resort on the south side of Mombasa. The hotel was over-run by Lions – the humanitarian type – but with members spending most of their days in meetings, we had VIP access to the four swimming pools, eight bars, and a very windy stretch of private beach. On the second to last day, we tore ourselves away from the sunbathing and buffet dining for a ferry ride into the city. We went to Mamba Village, a crocodile farm built inside an old quarry just outside the city centre. There, we were guided around giant pools of murky green water, teeming with iron-jawed beasts that lay terrifyingly still with rigid eyes and devilishly fat bellies. There was even one man-eating croc, incarcerated for terrorizing a rural village half a century ago (he took out five people before he was captured).He was 5-meters long, weighed 600 lbs, and had the unfortunate honour of being named Big Daddy.

He was also camera shy, so we made a human version of the twenty-foot monster.

The trip was a glorious escape from the daily grind, and I felt surprisingly at home in Kenya. It’s quite different than Tanzania, but foreign places always seem friendlier when they’re decked out in English. The trip was well worth the epic car journey and the twenty-five dollar entry visa.

Things I learned on the long road to Mombasa:
1. an ipod shuffle can pump out music for over 17-hours (without re-charging)
2. tree branches make good road flares
3. crocodiles have over 70 teeth (thanks William)

when it rains, it floods

I’ve never been one to complain about the weather. Come rain, or shine, or … I owe my resilience to the Ottawa valley – where the summers can be desperately hot and the winters unpredictably snowy. 20-odd years of conditioning to Canadian climates and I was convinced I could manage (revel in) a couple tours south of the equator. Coming direct from the great north I suspected that the heat might turn my personal thermostat on its head, but I had sunscreen (SPF 75) and bottled water, and a Silversteinian disposure to look for the silver lining.

And then the raining season broke out over the city. Hours of unrelenting pounding from an unforgiving sky quickly washed away my Western daydreams about Fred Astaire and April showers. Standing on the rooftop terrace, half-deaf from the thundering of raindrops on corrugated metal sheets and I couldn’t help but think some God’s fury is showering down around me. In a city without a proper drainage system, where the roads turn into lakes and people wade through the mess with their shoes thrown over their shoulders, I find myself in particularly foreign territory (forgive the pathetic puns) When the rains comes here, I’m staying the hell inside.

so why leave canada?

It’s the conversation starter I’ve stumbled through a million times since I broke the news that I was running away to Tanzania. I usually respond with a harebrained line about escaping the arctic, or saving the planet – but the truth is almost as stupidly simple. I’m a twenty-something Canadian with a shiny BA in my back-pocket and absolutely no desire to crash in suburbia and fight it out for an entry-level deskjob in a government town. Why stay?

happy africa

It’s been ten weeks since I stepped off the plane and into the dry heat of Dar es Salaam’s international airport. I had spent the better part of the nine hour flight mentally preparing myself for the transition from London to the third world (a therapeutic process involving a Lonely planet guide, a half-dozen mini bottles of alcohol and more than one WTF-am-I-thinking moments). In short, I was a haggard and hungover mess as I dragged myself through customs and wrestled by bags off the luggage carousel. Welcome to Africa.

I had planned to be the most wide-eyed, travel-smart, pickpocket-proof Westerner to ever walk through the arrivals terminal of Tanzania’s airport - but in all honesty, it was 7 am (23:00 in Ottawa, 04:00 in the UK), I was sweating through my levis, and all I could think was how do I say coffee in Swahili.

I know it’s an anticlimactic, desperately un-poetic, beginning to my great African adventure, but it’s a fitting introduction to my story (and this blog), since most of my experiences here have been as distinctly un-African as being born with blond hair and blue eyes. I can’t write about lions, or pygmies, or hungry-eyed orphans, because the Africa I see every day is far less fierce and frightening than what my mind (and the public services announcements) have made it out to be. I sincerely doubt that this continent will be the death of me, but for the friends, family, and passers-by frustrated by the distance and digital delays, here are the notes to my life on this distant continent.