Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Goodbye Mozambique, Hello India, Thailand and America (Part 2)

After our first harrowing day in New Delhi, Hannah and I were anxious to escape the scams, bottleneck traffic, and choking fumes of the capital city. We only spent one day there, but, to us, it felt like an eternity, as overnight flights and buses had prevented us from sleeping since our final night in Mozambique four days earlier. Despite the stress of that first day, our one day in Delhi was, nonetheless, an unforgettable experience.

Just walking the streets in a sleep-deprived haze was enough to take in the scents and sounds of India. As we walked past the tiny food stalls, my nostrils were enchanted by the smells of chapatis frying on iron tawas, samosas bubbling in oil, and the traces of garlic, cumin and anise mingling in a dance of aromatic curries. It was sensory overload. I walked the streets like a dog, my eyes and then feet lagging behind my nose which guided me from one food stall to the next. Meanwhile, my ears were assaulted by the cacophony of urban India. A symphony of car horns bleated their tones, while cyclists whizzed by ringing their bells and perilously avoiding collisions with pedestrians and auto-rickshaws. Bollywood music blared from the tiny TV sets behind the counters of food stalls, and arguments broke out between men sipping milk chai from their miniature glasses. 


Between the sounds and smells of Delhi, there was almost no room to take in any other senses, but looking from left to right, I saw novelties I couldn't even have dreamed up. First, I saw a miniature carriage pulled by a bedraggled cyclist over the stones and potholes of Delhi streets. The carriage wasn't any bigger than a large trunk, but was enclosed by bars and had no less than about six toddlers in their school uniforms and Spider-Man backpacks sitting comfortably and absorbing the bumps on their way to school. Further along, an enormous and matriarchal cow lay in the middle of a busy intersection, contentedly flicking flies off of its back with its tail as auto-rickshaws, buses and taxis swerved to avoid hitting it, no one thinking to coax the cow out of it's poorly chosen afternoon nap site. Later on down the road, women pressed their hands into brown Frisbee-sized cow pies, shaping them into dense discs and setting them in the sun to dry so that they could be used for fuel. 

As we got into our taxi and rode to our first site in Delhi, the grand India Gate, I noticed something about all of the cars and taxis in Delhi: none of them had side mirrors. In the location where the side mirrors would have been now resided a few broken chunks of plastic and a hole. One car after another passed us, and I realized that this was not an isolated incident, I literally didn't see any cars with side mirrors. As we swerved through the busy streets, narrowly avoiding collisions with cyclists, auto-rickshaws and pedestrians, sweeping within inches of oncoming vehicles in perilous passes, I realized why there were no side mirrors left – either they had all broken off already from cutting it too close, or privy drivers had removed the mirrors preemptively in anticipation of losing them soon enough. Amazingly, despite the complete lack of, or at least driver ignorance to, existing road signs, stop-lights and lane designations, no one seemed to be hitting each other. I found this unfathomable. Drivers had a sixth sense as to when a lane in front of then would open up, and a prescience for knowing that an auto-rickshaw coming directly at them in the oncoming lane was going to veer to the left at just the right moment to avoid a nasty collision. It was a brilliant dance of cars weaving in and out of lanes, stopping and starting, merging and shouting, but never colliding.

After the India Gate, our taxi driver took us to Humayun's tomb, then to the Jains' Lotus Temple, and finally to the Gandhi Memorial, where we walked through Old Delhi, getting lost in the labyrinth of famously frenzied street markets and the Jama Masjid, a historic mosque, before returning to our hotel for a much deserved night of rest.

The next morning, Hannah and I boarded a train bound for Agra and the Taj Mahal. We decided that it would be best to visit the iconic Taj Mahal at sunrise the next morning, so on that first afternoon we flagged down a cycle rickshaw, intent on getting a mini-tour of the other interesting sites in Agra. Our driver was a small and skinny, yet endlessly jolly man, who called himself Ali Baba. His rickshaw had seen better years and I had my doubts as to whether his miniature frame could peddle us around the city, but he had a gritty determination and wasn't afraid to tell us to step out and walk when we got to an incline, so we agreed on a price and set off on our adventure. 

One of the more interesting, yet disturbing, sitings we had on our mini-tour of Agra was on a remote road on the way to the Baby Taj. As Ali Baba strained to peddle us down the road, we noticed that the road was spotted with feces. I assumed it was from goats, cows, or some other domestic animal, but then I noticed children, one after the other, approaching the road, dropping their drawers and defecating right there on the road. I couldn't believe it. I'm no stranger to latrines and even popping a squat behind a bush from time to time, but this all seemed backwards. They were coming to the road in order to take care of their business, rather than going away from the road. This highlighted one general observation I had about India over the course of my two weeks there – you simply couldn't escape the sight and stench of bodily fluids. Whether it was a situation like this, people hacking loogies on the train, or people unabashedly peeing anywhere they felt the urge to go, India was full of a disturbing amount of personal waste material.

Despite this, we had an enchanting day with Ali Baba. At the end of it, he was ready to take us back to our guesthouse, but pulled aside to ask for one favor from us. He said that he would be a “vedy, vedy, hoppie mahn” if we only agreed to go into the textiles emporium to look around. “Jost ten minutes....lookie, lookie, no buy, just lookie, den we go. You make me hoppie mahn.” After turning him down a few times, we finally agreed to let him take us to the craft emporium. It was not uncommon at all in India to have taxi drivers who, sometimes without even asking you, insisted on taking you to all of their favorite textile and craft emporiums because they would get a commission from the store every time they brought customers in. It can be frustrating when you have places you want to go, and your driver takes you on a tour of all the highest paying stores in the city to make a few extra rupees. On this night, however, we had nowhere else to be, and were happy to help our friend Ali Baba support his family.

The next morning, we woke up before dawn and braved the brisk morning air as we stood in line at the gate to the Taj Mahal. I read somewhere that the Taj Mahal receives as many as 20,000 visitors every day. In a city as small as Agra, I could never figure out where all those people stayed. Given this quantity, we decided it would be best to get in and get out early in order to avoid the crowds. Arriving an hour before sunrise (when the gates are officially opened) put us behind only two or three other people in line. Thus, when the gates opened, we ran ahead in what seemed like a scene out of the Amazing Race and were the first people to get a picture on the bench centered directly in front of the Taj Mahal, with the canal and row of trees leading up to the Taj behind us.

The Taj was epic and statuesque. The morning sun painted the bleached white marble a golden yellow and brushed the horizon behind it with purple and pink hues. As I approached the stoic structure, its reflection grew in the emerald waterway leading up to it. Inside, there were two cenotaphs surrounded by an intricate marble lattice. One of the raised marble tombs was perfectly centered in the middle of building. This was the tomb of Mumtaz, the famous wife of Shah Jahan, for whom he constructed the building. The other tomb, laid parallel to that of Mumtaz, was the tomb of the great Shah Jahan, the Mughal King buried next to his wife some 20 years later. 

After visiting the Taj Mahal, we walked across town to the other great structure credited to the legacy of Shah Jahan, the Agra Fort. The fort was a massive red stone structure with a dried up moat running around its vast perimeter and what seemed like miles of towering walls layered one after the other to protect each successive level of the huge structure. Inside the fort, there was room for a whole city. Courtyards and finely crafted marble palaces populated the interior. While the Fort was originally constructed years before Shah Jahan came along in the 16th century, he was credited for designing the vast inner network of palaces and balconies which looked out over his kingdom. Famously, after his wife passed away and he built the Taj Mahal in 19 years, he was deposed and imprisoned by his son and heir. He spent his remaining years imprisoned in the great palace within the Agra Fort. There he could only look from the balcony across the river to his life's work and deceased wife's tomb, the Taj Mahal.

After leaving Agra, we headed to the first of the great Rajasthani cities in northern India : Jaipur. Over the next 10 days, we fully toured all of the great forts and palaces of Rajasthan – first Jaipur, then Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, before heading back to Delhi and flying out. Each of these cities had its own unique aesthetic. Jaipur was known as the “pink city” and boasted a network of interesting Moghul palaces and bustling street markets within the pink walls of its “old city.” Despite this, the most memorable day we had in Jaipur was the night I ordered a Chicken Maharaja Mac at McDonalds (two chicken masala patties with special curry sauce, mmm....) and we caught a Bollywood movie at a historic theater in downtown Jaipur.

Udaipur was an eight hour train ride from Jaipur and was my favorite city in all of India. Like Jaipur, Udaipur had a number of nicknames including “the city of lakes” as it was build around a large and beautiful lake, “Venice of the East” or the “City of Love” as it was widely considered the most romantic city in India. Any time Hannah and I mentioned to an Indian that we were planning on going to Udaipur they always told us two things: that Udaipur is the city of love and romance, and that the James Bond movie Octopussy was filmed there. I'm not sure if the two were related, but when we got there it was clear that the city had an obsession for the movie Octopussy. It seemed like every hostel had a sign in front that said, “Tonight's Feature Film: James Bond's Octopussy.” We wondered if they ever showed anything else. 

Our hostel in Udaipur was beautiful. Since this was the “Venice of the East” we decided to go a little ritzier that usual and found a place in the guide book called “Dream Heaven.” For something like 1000 Rupees ($20) per night we had our own room with private bathroom, hot running water (not always included) and a beautiful balcony overlooking the lake. After trying desperately to see every site, palace and fort during our first week in India, we decided to take it a little slower in Udaipur and just sort of take it all in.  

I had a theory about fellow travelers in India. They seemed to fall into one of two categories, neither of which Hannah and I felt we melded with terribly well. The first type was the high-end package tour gang. These were generally populated by couples in the 50s-70s of Russian, Israeli or European ethnicity. A double-decker coach bus would pull up to the gate of a historical site and, two by two, old Russian couples would hobble down the steps with their khaki shorts, fanny-packs, and ID lanyards, accompanied by a Russian-speaking Indian. They would gallivant through the gate on their way to a merry and enchanting tour before getting back on the bus and heading back to whatever hotel they were staying at. The Taj Mahal was replete with these tour groups. The other type of travelers could be identified easily because they were generally in their 20s, wore genie-style pants or other local Indian clothing, often sported dreadlocks, smoked hookah at the restaurants, and tended to give off the general vibe that they were there to “just take it all in,” as Hannah and I liked to joke. So, that said, while we didn't particularly identify with either of these social factions, we decided, in Udaipur, to transition from the Russian tourist-style of frantically seeing every site in town, to the “just taking it all in” hippie mind-set.

While we did visit a few beautiful palaces, we spent most of our three days in Udaipur lounging like maharaja on the floor pillows and candlelit alcoves of hotel Dream Heaven's velvety rooftop restaurant.

After Udaipur, we spent two days in the “Blue City” of Jodhpur. When we toured the massive Mehrengarh Fort of Jodhpur, our third or fourth fort in Rajasthan, and learned about the bloody wars between the Rajputs and the Moghuls, and the incest and royal rivalries, I began to realize something about Indian history – that here I was after nearly two weeks spent in museums, palaces and forts, and I knew nothing about the way 99.9% of Indians lived throughout history. So much of history is devoted to the 0.1% that live in palaces with 5000 concubines, like the great Akhbar, and hundreds of thousands of slaves hauling marble and carving pillars in their names. Touring the palaces of the Maharaja and great Moghul kings, I would see room after room with only a giant throne or floor pillow in the center whose sole purpose was for the Maharaja to sit and be entertained. It seemed like all they did was engage in bloody wars for greed and glory, and laze in the giant day-beds waiting for the next war. 

Our last stop in India before waving goodbye was the great desert city of Jaisalmer. Jaisalmer was a city literally built upon sand. Everything in the city, including the great fort rising up in the middle of it, shone with the gold-colored sand it was built from. If it weren't for the bottleneck of tourists and ubiquity of tourist-oriented restaurants and hotels, it would have been an enchanting desert getaway. The day we arrived on an overnight train, we set out on a desert camel safari. It was an overnight safari, and we envisioned roaming deep into the Thar Desert and sleeping under the stars miles away from civilization. Well, it didn't quite work out like that. I didn't even get my own camel. 

After driving an hour or so to another town on the edge of the desert, we waited at our camp for two or three hours while they prepared the camels. When it was time to mount our beasts, Hannah was given an ugly and ornery camel with a bottom lip that flapped in the wind. My camel, named Tiger, was a gentle giant, but our guide, nonetheless, mounted him as well, and sat behind me for the ride. Our “desert safari” only lasted about 30 minutes on the way out. We walked out to some nearby sand dunes, and the whole time I could only hear the clicking noises that my guide was emitting in order to control the camel. When we got to the dunes, it became clear that this was the place to come for a camel safari, because there were about a hundred other tourists on camels of their own who had come to the same spot to watch the sunset. The sun fizzled out behind the smog probably 20 minutes before it would have actually set on the horizon and we trotted back to our post where we spent the night in the small tourist huts we were provided. 

From Jaisalmer, it was an 18 hour train ride back to Delhi to catch our flight out of the country. Our final train ride was a nightmare. Our booking agent had promised us reserved seats on all of our trains, but we arrived at the station and found out that we were on the wait list. I was granted a “Reservation Against Cancellation” ticket (which meant that I would share a seat with someone, unless there was a cancellation somewhere else in the car), and Hannah was given a general sleeper class ticket in a different car. I decided to abandon my seat and join her in the general class where our windows didn't close (it was cooold), and which were directly in front of the door. This meant that any time any Indian man in our car felt the need to hawk a loogie, use the bathroom or smoke a cigarette, he would do so only a few feet away from us. The men in the berth across from us decided to drink Boss Whiskey (the classy kind that is sold in plastic pouches) for the entirety of the 18 hour ride and, at one point, a fist fight broke out between them. Needless to say, we didn't get much sleep on the 18 hour ride.

Once we arrived in Delhi, we were ready to say goodbye to India. That's not to say I didn't and don't continue to love India, but it was time for a more relaxing trip. That evening we boarded a flight from Delhi to Mumbai, nearly missed our connection at 2 a.m., and then proceeded towards Bangkok, Thailand.

The moment we arrived in Thailand, we knew that things were going to be different. There were signs written in English, clear instructions, and bus schedules. We easily boarded a bus (in which we had seats all to ourselves, and which left on time, regardless of whether it was full or not) bound for the seaport we were headed towards. We found a shared taxi to take us to the dock and then were helped by a number of English-speaking tourist agents as we bought tickets to the ferry that would take us out to Koh Samet, a small island off the Southeastern coast of Thailand.

Koh Samet was beautiful and was everything that India was not – relaxing, sunny, and clean. We spent three days at a small beach-side bungalow. By day we read on the beach with our toes dipped in the gently lapping surf, and in the evenings we ate delicious Thai curries at the mom and pop restaurants spotting the beachfront. It was divine. 


After three days in Koh Samet, we headed to Bangkok for some Thai history and culture and the final three days of our vacation. The restaurants in Bangkok were the highlight. During the day we visited Buddhist temples – where, among other things, we saw about 50,000 different varieties of Buddha statues – and in the evening we ate fragrant green and red curries, pad thai's, and other sweet and spicy rice and noodle dishes. On our last day in Thailand we took a train to Ayunthaya, a city of ancient ruins that was once the center of the largest empire in all of Asia – Siam. We rented bikes and peddled around to the various ruined temples and, yes, more statues of Buddha, that were dotted around the city. 

The following day it was time to board a plane and begin a long-awaited homecoming. 27 months of Peace Corps service was complete, it had been a year since I last touched American soil and sunk my teeth into a Chipotle burrito, and I was ready to do both. First, though, we need to fly to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and stop over in Tokyo before boarding a final flight to Chicago. In Tokyo, we laid over for 10 hours, and decided to take the train into the city to pass the time. While we were able to get a feel for the culture, and walked around a few markets, we were hindered by the fact that we hadn't planned our wardrobes very assiduously. Tokyo in December, it turns out, is colder than Thailand in December. Thus, we were ill-equipped for the below-freezing temperatures that we found in Tokyo when we stepped off the train. We ended up spending most of our afternoon huddled in the Starbucks drinking their holiday peppermint mocha latte.

I said goodbye to Hannah, and boarded my 16 hour flight to Chicago. Most people on the American Airlines flight were American and I couldn't remember the last time I was in a place with so many other Americans all at the same time. I would eavesdrop on peoples conversations and couldn't stop myself from giggling at their goofy accents and mannerisms. I wondered, is this why all those Mozambicans were always laughing at me? The day I landed was overcast, and, on the plane's descent, it circled above the cloud line for what seemed like an eternity. The sun was setting and coating the tops of the clouds with a golden glaze. We were gliding just feet above the cloud line and I felt like I could have stepped out of the plane and frolicked on the the bed of marshmallow clouds. It was like the pilot was giving me one final chance to take in the beauty of not just those clouds on that day, but everything that I've seen and done in the past 27 months. Then he dipped the wing and it sliced through the cloud layer. Underneath Chicago was cold and gray. The hole in the clouds that we passed through closed up and the sun disappeared. I was home. 


Saturday, February 23, 2013

Saying Goodbye to Mozambique and Hello to India...Entries From One Final Adventure (Part 1)

I've been at home, in Madison, Wisconsin, for nearly two months now. I've been removed from the place which once seemed so much like a home, Mozambique, for almost three. The Earth has done a quarter turn around the sun, and fall has faded into winter which is now fading into spring. A lot has changed in my life and in the life of Mozambique, undoubtedly, since the fateful day that I crossed the border into South Africa at midnight and began a long reintegration into the life I formerly knew in The United States of America.

A lot of people ask me whether it's been difficult to integrate back into the first world life of technology, TV, cars, running water and all sorts of other machines that do our work for us here in America. To them, I usually have a somewhat unsatisfying answer. No, not in the way I thought it would be. I made a pretty seamless transition from bucket baths to hot showers, from the back of a flatbed truck to the driver's seat in my own car, and from coal burners to microwaves and ovens. What I didn't expect, however, was that America would be a different place in January, 2013, from the place that I left two years ago; not only from the reality of the evolving technologies, but also in the way that I connected with and viewed my own culture.

In this blog, however, I have a long way to go before arriving in the USA and facing the iPhones and plasma TVs of Americaland. This story begins in November, 2012, the day I crossed the border to leave Mozambique, and three weeks before I would get stamped in at the arrivals counter of Chicago's O'Hare airport. In the weeks leading up to my arrival I dreamed that the person working the immigration counter at O'Hare would be a guy like the Marlboro man, an embodiment of American spirit. I imagined him with a big mustache, a rugged, wind-torn face, and a hardened disposition, yet also betraying traces of a good-hearted appreciation when there was an American that passed through his gate that deserved recognition. He would check my passport, realize that I had been gone for two years teaching in Africa, shake my hand with his callused and leathery palms and, with a deep enveloping drawl, say, “Welcome home, son.” Well, unfortunately, that never happened. So spoiler alert, the story today will end with an immigration official paging through my passport with cursory interest, stamping it and unceremoniously calling out, “Next!”.

Flashback to Mozambique. I was at the bus stop in Maputo, getting ready to board an overnight bus to Johannesburg, South Africa, where a plane would take me to Abu Dhabi, and then to New Delhi. Given my history on overnight coach buses, and this being the last form of ground transportation I would take in Africa, I was a little jittery. Thoughts echoed in my head like, how fitting this would be if this bus crashed on my final trip. In the days leading up to that last exodus from Mozambique I counted down the times I would have to get into a vehicle or a plane in Mozambique, as I was terrified of both. There was an open back truck from Tete to Chimoio, a road on which the car I was in once hit and presumably killed a child, I never found out, a taxi to the airport, a two hour flight to Maputo in a plane that I could probably lift with one arm, and a taxi into town. Miraculously, I thought, I might make it out of this country alive after all. But it all rested on one final bus. I thought the transportation gods would punish my audacity for booking the overnight bus rather than the day-time bus in order to save time, wondering whether I had learned anything traveling around Mozambique for two years, and from the time an overnight bus I was on rear-ended a logging truck at full speed causing logs to coming shooting through the windshields.

In order to cool my nerves I walked down the street one last time while the bus was loading. I bought 10 plastic sacs of roasted peanuts, my favorite Mozambican street food, from a lady on the side of the road, which I hoped would last me until arriving in America three weeks later. Then I bought a Ceres juice and a pot pie for the road. These would be my last tastes of Mozambican food, despite how un-Mozambican they are, and my last meal ever, I mused, depending on how the bus ride panned out.

At midnight, when the bus arrived to the border to South Africa, I got off, as is customary, and walked seamlessly and unceremoniously out of Mozambique for the last time. As I walked under the ostentatious “Welcome to South Africa” sign, a luminescent omen of development in contrast to the Mozambican darkness behind me, I saw the dank immigration buildings of Mozambique morph into the modern processing facilities of South Africa. I saw the walking Mozambicans morph into driving South Africans, and I saw a country that ranks 184 out of 187 countries on the UN's development index fade out behind me in favor of a richer but somehow more drab South African landscape span out in front of me.

Somehow, the bus arrived to the station in Johannesburg without any mishap. After spending all day in the Johannesburg airport, it was time to leave Africa. Hannah and I boarded a red eye to Abu Dhabi, UAE, and arrived at 7 a.m. in a completely different world. The Abu Dhabi airport was like a giant sphere with golden tiles, a dome ceiling, and a McDonald's that blew us away. Hannah left her pants on the plane, so while she negotiated with airport staff to try to recuperate her lost articles, I stared unabashedly at men greeting each other in Arabian thawbs, and women trailing them in full burqas. It seemed incredible that I could go to sleep in Africa and wake up the next morning in a completely different world. Who were these people? How did I get here? I imagined how Christopher Columbus would feel if he had been on the plane with me. They never found her pants, so in her first foray into Abu Dhabi Hannah wore her pajama pants, at least until we got the mall and she was able to buy another pair of jeans.

Abu Dhabi had the feel of a city that was built overnight. Modern glass skyscrapers seemed to have grown right out of the sand. Chains like Pizza Hut, Subway and KFC flashed across billboards and neon signs with a stylized Arabic script. A quick survey of the skyline showed that it was a skyline composed of cranes and scaffolding and that there were more skyscrapers in construction that currently in existence. I couldn't figure out exactly how to classify it. It was modern and impressive, yet unfinished. It juxtaposed a stark traditionalism in the dress and customs of the people with a daring modernism in the buildings, advertisements and commercialism.

In Abu Dhabi we visited the National Mosque. It was a massive pearly white structure with towering minarets and countless white domes reaching up into the heavens. The whole building glowed with the reflection of the sun as if it actually radiated heavenly light. Not even Hannah's new jeans fit the dress code for entering the mosque, however, so she was forced to wear a cloak, while I walked around in shorts and a t-shirts. It seemed a little unfair. It only rains an average of eight days a year in Abu Dhabi, and that afternoon while we were waiting to take the bus back to the airport the sky opened up and it started pouring on us. We waited for three hours in the pouring rain as four different buses heading to the airport went right by us without stopping. It wasn't a good start to our three week adventure which would be heavy on bus and train travel. It would have been par for the course in Mozambique, where one expects travel to be impossible, but we thought we had escaped our transportation woes when we flew out of Africa. We had no idea, and we were about to arrive in India...

We finally made it back to the airport and took another overnight flight to New Delhi after our flash tour of the Middle East. The next morning we arrived in Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi. Before I tell you about that first chaotic day in India, and it was chaotic, you must understand the two factors that progressively compromised both Hannah's and my normally cheery disposition on that day:

First, in the days and weeks leading up to our arrival in India, we had tried vigorously to book as much of the trip as possible in advance. We knew that, especially during the holiday season, trains, buses and hotels would fill up quickly, and we had been well-advised to book train tickets months in advance, if possible. Well, how did that work out, Mozambique? It didn't. Despite our greatest efforts, we booked almost nothing from Mozambique. Whether it was our internet timing out, all of our credit cards being denied, not being able to reply to confirmations because we didn't have Indian telephone numbers, or any number of other hurdles, we arrived in New Delhi with only a few tenuous reservations made at various hostels, and no idea how we were going to get from one city to the next because we had no train tickets. This made the arrival more stressful, to say the least.

Second, neither of had slept in 72 hours. Here's a tip if you planning to do a lot of traveling: eights hours on a plane or a bus, is not the same thing as eight, or even six or four hours in a bed. We took an overnight bus to Johannesburg, an overnight flight to Abu Dhabi, and another overnight flight to New Delhi. As a result, it had been over three days without any meaningful sleep. We were one night removed from actually becoming zombies, and we arrived in India at 7 am even though it felt like it had to be night time.

We mapped out our game plan on the plane: we would take the reportedly new and easy to use metro system to get from the airport to the train station. There we would find a customer service agent and look into booking train tickets for the next two weeks. From there we would walk to the hotel that we booked online, which, according to our guide book, was only a few blocks from the train station.
We made it through customs with our snazzy holographic visas (one thing we were able to take care of ahead of time), and followed the signs to the metro system. As we were walking across the street in the direction of the metro an auto-rickshaw driver called to us and said, “You know, the metro is closed for repair. Where are you heading? I can take you there?” Well, I had been to India before, and had recently read the section in Lonely Planet about scams and touts in India – taxi drivers and hotel owners who will say anything to get you into their taxi – so I was ready for this. I waved him off and said, “Nice try, but I'm not falling for that one!” Well, we made our way into the tunnel for the metro, and what did we see? Yellow tape and a sign saying Closed for Repair. Sheepishly, we turned around and exited the tunnel, only to run into the same taxi driver waiting for us with a victorious smirk on his face, “So where was it you wanted to go?” Determined not to let the taxi driver win, we opened the guide book and considered our next best option—there was a bus line that went directly to the train station. Score.

When we arrived at the train station we got out of the bus with all of our bags and descended into what I can only describe as a sea of chaos and energy. Maybe it was the lack of sleep or the smog preventing my brain from getting enough oxygen, but everything seemed to be blurring in motion around me as I put one tentative step in front of the other in the crowd. Taxi drivers beckoned us to their cars, a cacophony of horns molested our eardrums, and every direction I turned my large backpack seemed to whack another miniature Indian woman in the face. Like when you're drowning in an ice cold river, the only way to move, it seemed, was to simply stop struggling and surrender to the current. So we followed the flow of bodies downstream and eventually found ourselves standing in front of the New Delhi train station.

In the train station, there were people everywhere. Men squatted on the cement eating puris and samosas, while women slept with their babies on fabrics laid out on the grimy floor. We needed to find the ticket counter and inquire about a special category of tickets called the “tourist quota.” We knew that all of the general tickets had been sold out on all of our trains, thus our only remaining hope was to secure “tourist quota” tickets, which are apparently withheld for people like us to plan last minute trips. This, we quickly realized, would be nearly impossible. There seemed to be no information of any kind anywhere. Most of the signs were written in Hindi, and the giant window that said “Tickets” had only one useless attendant who only knew how to say “fill out a ticket inquiry form” and with whom you had to press your ear up to the little hole in the separating glass pane to even understand. We needed to get out of there.

We decided to make our way to the hotel, regroup a bit, and come back when we were a little more clear-minded. So...hotel. According to the map, we just needed to follow the street we came in on, and veer right, then left, then right again, and it would be there. No problem. Well, we got to the street and were quickly enveloped in the raging river again. Car's honked past us, taxi drivers yelled at us, upset that we were walking rather than using their services, and more tiny women fell victim to my large backpack. We started one way, then turned the map around, and went back the other way. We quickly realized that, even if it was only a few blocks away, we had no idea where we were going, and amidst the chaos in the street we were not going to figure it out any time soon. We decided to step into the relative comfort of an auto-rickshaw. Surely he would know where our hotel is. I said, “Hotel Delhi Continental” thinking that there can only be one Delhi Continental, and that's when I realized our rickshaw driver was a feeble old man who didn't speak a lick of English. He hacked up a loogie as if he were summoning it from the deepest recesses of his lungs and shot a black stream of betel leaf juice onto the pavement so vile that I almost got out of the rickshaw right then. “Yessir, Delhi Continental. 300 Rupees,” he rasped.

I knew a thing or two about rickshaw rides in India, and there was no way I was going to pay 300 Rupees for a 30 second ride to a hotel right around the corner. I offered 30 Rupees and after a difficult negotiation we settled on 100 Rs, still what I considered robbery, but we were desperate. He revved his anemic engine and we pitter-pattered away in the direction of Delhi Continental. 15 minutes later, we had done about three u-turns and were in another part of town. Each time I pleaded with the driver “Delhi Continental, close...you know? Close? Nearby? Not far? Here?” my attempted Indian accent thickening with every word in an attempt to get him to understand, he looked back over his shoulder and said, “yes, yes, Delhi Continental, Delhi Continental.” I was sure we were not where we were supposed to be, but we finally pulled up to a large, multi-story hotel with a ritzy sign and a gate attendant. The driver stopped the car and said, “Delhi Continental.” The sign didn't say “Delhi Continental.” We refused to get out. “This isn't Delhi Continental,” we protested. “Yes, yes, Delhi Continental!”

I had read about this in the guide book too. It said to be very wary of taxi drivers and make sure you tell them that you already have reservations at your hotel, because they will want to take you to the hotel they are commissioned with. They will even tell you that your hotel is closed, or doesn't exist in order to get you to go to their hotel. I was sure that this was what was happening with our inept geriatric driver. As often happens during disputes on crowded Indian streets, bystanders began to approach to offer their opinions on the matter. Another taxi pulled up, a few people appeared out of the woodwork to hear what was going on, and before I knew it, there was a crowd.

I appealed to the crowd, proclaiming that we had asked to go to Delhi Continental, and this hotel clearly was not Delhi Continental. My statement was met with approval from the onlookers; “it's true,” I could see them nodding, “this is not Delhi Continental.” It was time, however, to hear the driver's side of the story. He claimed that this hotel used to be called Delhi Continental, and thus he had no fault in the matter. The driver's defense was also met with approval. Everyone in the crowd agreed that this hotel, indeed, used to be called Delhi Continental. So what to do? An idea emerged: “Are you sure you don't want to just go to this hotel? It's very nice...” “No!” Thus the onlookers reached a consensus that the best plan would be for us to pay the driver half of the agreed upon fare, since he didn't knowingly bring us to the wrong hotel, and then get in a different rickshaw with a driver who knew where the real Delhi Continental was located. This seemed a little backwards, but overall was agreeable for both parties, so we stepped into another rickshaw headed towards what we thought was the real Delhi Continental.

Surprisingly, this new driver didn't try to jack up the rates on us, and said he would take us to Delhi Continental for a very reasonable 30 rupees. Finally, we thought, an honest driver. A few minutes into the drive, however, his intentions became clear: he had a a friend who worked at a tourism booking agency that he'd like us to meet. What a coincidence! After a brief protest, Hannah and I looked at each other and realized that, well, we might actually need a tourist booking agency considering our inability to book anything at the train station just a few minutes earlier. We agreed and our driver whisked us away to meet the inimitable Nayeem, of Delhi Tours.

15 minutes later we were sitting in Nayeem's office sipping on chai and hearing about tour packages that Nayeem was offering us. For only $400 each, we could ride camels, stay at budget hotels, and have guaranteed second-class or A/C chair car train tickets around the country. We told him that we had already booked a number of hotel and only want the train tickets. This was a hard sell, but we eventually were able to reach an agreement with Nayeem, and booked all of our trains, a camel safari, and a few other bells and whistles for $200 each. We shook hands with the jolly fat man, paid him in cash, and got in the taxi that he had personally arranged to take us to Delhi Continental to drop off our things, and then take us on a tour of the city that day!

When we finally made our long-awaited arrival at the real Delhi Continental, we were met with some disappointing news. They had no record of the reservation and payment that we had made at agoda.com. We slumped our heads, tired and defeated. All this time we were trying to get to Hotel Delhi Continental, and not only did they not have our reservation, but it was a piece of shit hotel, with loose tiles, creaky floorboards and no hot water. We did everything we could, we lamented together, but Round 1 went to India. We forked over the cash for another room and slept for the next three hours. When we woke up, we reassured ourselves, we would take on India with a newfound energy!

To be continued...

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Thanksgiving Chickens and Mozambican 'Lasts'

(From December, 2012)

I’m sitting on a reclined beach chair with my toes dipped in the gently lapping waves of the Gulf of Thailand. Each methodical surge of aqua-marine water fills in the spaces between my toes and pulls my beach chair ever so slightly into the sand, while it pulls my consciousness quietly into a blissful trance. The sun sinks behind me into a technicolored sunset and thoughts of where I’ve been and how I got into this idyllic paradise rise and fall with the pulse of the waves.

Here and now, this toes-in-the-sand paradise, all started three years ago when I accepted my invitation to become a PCV in Mozambique. Nine months of waiting for my assignment was followed by that momentous arrival in Maputo, Mozambique, and an exciting but at times frustrating pre-service training. Then, before I knew it, I was in it, the main event. 24 months of Peace Corps Mozambique. I don’t need to rehash all the stories that spawned from those marvelous, scary, at times impossible, but invaluable twenty-four months. Then, before I knew it I was counting down from 12 instead of up to 24. 12 turned into 6 turned into 1, and all of a sudden I was counting the days instead of the months. 

About a week before I would head to Maputo in preparation for my official close-of-service on November 30th, 2012, I celebrated Thanksgiving with Hannah in her quaint little town of Kaunda. We had been planning on spending Thanksgiving with friends at a nearby site, so when plans changed and we were on our own for Thanksgiving we found ourselves lacking some of the key ingredients for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, namely, turkey, gravy, any of the ingredients needed to make stuffing, pumpkins for pumpkin pie, cranberries, and the list goes on. You name it, we didn't have it. But, we were determined to use our combined four years of Peace Corps ingenuity to conjure up a satisfying expression of American cuisine on this special day. 

To be clear, the challenge in front of us was formidable. If you know anything about Mozambique, you know that the prospect of running over to the local grocery store to pick up a 20 pound Butterball would be downright laughable. Option number two would have been to procure a live turkey. Turkey's aren't that common in Mozambique, however, and one would probably go about obtaining one by scavenging the area for a homeowner who had some domestic animals and offering to buy his turkey off of him. That might have been a possibility in some parts of Mozambique, but in the remote and scantily populated district of Chiuta, finding any kind of turkey, alive or dead, was a virtual impossibility. Thus, we set our sights on the next best option: to secure a live chicken and pretend it was a turkey for the sake of the holiday. We were told that none of the roadside stalls in town sold chicken, neither frozen nor alive, so, with this in mind, and 24 hours before Turkey-turn-chicken go-time, we set out into the bleak African savanna in search of our elusive holiday meal. 

It didn't take long for us to discover that nobody in this town had chickens that they were willing to part with. Down but not out, our only hope this late in the game was to send a boy to the neighboring village with money to bring back a chicken. Our liaison in this operation, Hannah's colleague, Veronica, only required a cursory glance into the yards of the neighboring houses before zeroing in on her targets: two teenage boys walking aimlessly caught in the slow lethargic rhythm of a hot Mozambican afternoon. She called out the boys' names, and, with a rapid squeezing of her outstretched hand, motioned for them to approach us. Her voice modulated into what I would have classified as a coquettish southern drawl, except that it was in Portuguese. Then, in the way a southern belle might convince a farm-boy to carry her grocery bags home for her, she said, “now this here's Professora Ana and her boyfriend, Ian. They need a chicken for one of their American holidays tomorrow. You boys wouldn't mind running on down to the next town and picking them up a nice looking chicken, would you? You're not doin' anything else right now, are you, boys? And when you bring the chicken back, you wouldn't mind killin' it an' takin' the feathers off so these folks can have a nice meal. Now, wouldn't that be nice? Don't go stealin' their money either, ya' hear?” She may have even ended it with a wink, and the boys slunk away in search of a bike they could borrow to ride to the next town.

An hour later a bicycle that was one loose screw away from crumpling into a cloud of dust came rattling up to our door with one boy in the driver's seat, one boy sitting side-saddle on the frame in front of the other boy, and an exhausted looking chicken bound and hanging upside down from the handlebars. The boys dismounted with our prized chicken and the bicycle seemed to give a creaking sigh of relief as the weight was lifted. I let them keep the change, and while the chicken they handed me was a bit scraggy and malnourished, it would have to do. I handed one of the boys a knife and a bowl and turned away while the deed was done. Afterwards, we threw it in Hannah's neighbor's freezer for the night.

On the afternoon of the big day, we did an inventory of our food supply to see what we could make for that evening's meal and realized that we could pull off a decent imitation Thanksgiving. We had all the fixings for garlic mashed potatoes, a pound cake and, I almost forgot, a chicken. I skinned and removed the guts from the chicken (which was a messy affair) and then I marinaded the chicken in a tomato barbecue sauce (essentially ketchup, tomato paste, garlic and chili powder). Alongside the garlic mashed potatoes (we sauteed the potato skins with butter and garlic and added them back into the potatoes), and the pound cake Hannah cooked, it was a delicious Thanksgiving meal to remember. 

After Thanksgiving, I boarded my last LAM (Mozambican airlines) flight ever and exhaled deeply when the miniature propeller plane touched down in Maputo. I spent four days at the Peace Corps office in Maputo, receiving final medical and dental clearance, closing my bank account and signing form after form. And then on Friday, November 30th, with one final signature, I unceremoniously ended my Peace Corps service. 

As the days wound down in Mozambique I consciously checked off all the “lasts” that I was experiencing, some of them I was happy to check off and others I would be sad to see go. There was the last ride,the last three hour wait at the intersection in Inchope; those were good “lasts.” But there was also the last biology class, and my last English class, my last JUNTOS youth group meeting, my last night in Mangunde, and last words of farewell to the students whose lives were the reason I became a volunteer. There was, of course, the last squat on my hole-in-the-ground latrine,the last bucket bath, the last exam proctored and graded, and the last student pestering me about charging a phone, borrowing a camera, or asking for a pen. But, after everything, there were more sad “lasts” than good ones.

The end-of-the-year party that I threw for my English Club was one of the most memorable “lasts” I had as my time in Mozambique wound down. Hannah and Mike helped by spending the afternoon cutting up and preparing seven chickens to serve for the dinner. After an afternoon of eating and dancing I showed the kids a slideshow of pictures from the year and then they all got up one-bye-one and talked about how much I meant to them and how much that admired and respected me. It was a wonderful and heartfelt end to a chapter of my life that I'll never forget.

After signing my papers in Maputo I boarded a bus to Johannesburg and the the next chapter of my life began. Through the next three weeks, my journeys took me to Abu Dhabi, India, and now, Thailand. It looks like I'm about at my limit, though, so I'll have to reveal the exploits of this magical adventure and my arrival in America in my next edition. 

 Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Courageous Story of My Friend Alberto

As I get ready to leave Mozambique, there is one person very close to me who has a remarkable story of loss, poverty, persistence and dedication that I have yet to tell.  It’s the story of my good friend and counterpart, Alberto Camisola.   

Alberto lives with his family in a small homestead about three kilometers outside of the mission.  The first time I met Alberto was on my veranda during my first few weeks at site.  He approached me to ask if I could bring my guitar and camera to his house to film his family singing and dancing to a few church songs they had learned.  I thought the request was a bit unorthodox, but I was eager to make friends, so I accepted.  On the agreed upon day, he walked me to his house and we chatted for the duration of the 30 minute walk.  That was the first time I got a brief look into Alberto’s sad yet inspiring story, and was the beginning of a friendship that would last my full two years of service.

 Alberto at his house in Mangunde with his sons Isaias (left) and Camisola (right)

I learned that Alberto was studying in 7th grade at the time (despite being in his 30s), and was volunteering as an HIV/AIDS community activist at the hospital, as well as working painstakingly long hours on their subsistence farm, in order to provide food for his family.  Since that first meeting, I invited Alberto to be the co-leader of my JUNTOS youth group (HIV/AIDS music group for students), and have seen him ascend into a leadership position with the volunteer activists at the hospital.  In addition, I spent a memorable two days walking with Alberto from Mangunde to Dombe, a 100 kilometer journey that allowed us to spend a night at his family’s house on the first night and brought us closer together.  Now Alberto is working with my former roommate, Mike, to gain funding and build a pre-school for orphans in the Mangunde area.

Alberto leading us and a gaggle of kids on our cross-country walk to Dombe

A couple of weeks ago I went to Alberto’s farm to help him prepare it for planting.  He had his son meet me on the road and accompany me on the 15 minute walk through the bush to find his plot of land.  When we arrived, my jaw dropped at the broad swath of land I saw in front of me.  I had expected a small family plot, and what was spread in front of me was an expanse of cleared land that could have fit five football fields inside of it.  Isaias, Alberto’s son, pointed to a figure in the distance which I presumed to be Alberto. He was standing with his shirt off in the diffuse morning light with a machete on his hip, and the fragmented remains of a tree underneath him.  As I approached him I noticed that hidden beneath his ostensibly small frame was a muscular farmer’s body with wiry and taught muscles, presumably the product of years of manual farm labor.  While Alberto was clearing full sized trees with the only tools he had, a machete and an axe, his wife was on an adjacent plot hoeing the land that had already been cleared with their one year-old son hanging on her back. 

He handed me the axe and we began taking down the next tree in what seemed like an interminable line of trees that would need to be felled before the farm was ready for planting.  I got to work, hacking away at the next tree with my axe, and imagined the kind of dent you could put into this work with a chainsaw instead of an axe and hand-held machete.  As the morning wore on, I decided that there was no better place to hear Alberto’s full remarkable story, from start to finish.  So I asked him to start at the beginning and tell me

Alberto was born sometime in the early 1980s on a small rural homestead in the Mozambican province of Manica.  The 1980s in Mozambique were characterized by civil war, bloodshed and, for those not doing the killing, fear.  The central region of Mozambique, where Alberto was raised, was an especially active warzone, and rural families lived in constant fear of raids from both sides, RENAMO (the rebels) and FRELIMO.  RENAMO owned the rural districts, while FRELIMO owned the cities, but the whole innocent country was caught in the cross-fire.  If you didn’t take sides with FRELIMO you were assumed to be RENAMO, and if you didn’t join up with RENAMO you were assumed to be fighting for FRELIMO.  This left simple rural farmers, like Alberto and his family, with nowhere to go and no one to protect them.  Thousands of peasant farmers fled to South Africa or Zimbabwe and thousands more abandoned their homes and took to hiding in the mountains of western Mozambique. 

Alberto’s most vivid childhood memories are of putting out the fire and hiding in their house or fleeing into the bush upon hearing army jeeps approaching in the distance.  On one particular occasion, the young Alberto hid in his house as FRELIMO troops approached and accused his father of being in collaboration with RENAMO troops.  Alberto was later told that they forced his father to join the FRELIMO army that day.  I asked him what would happen if he had refused to join.  He laughed and said no one was allowed to refuse; they would simply shoot you.  After all, why would any Mozambican refuse to join the national army unless he was a member of the rebel front? 

That was the last day Alberto saw his father.  He can only speculate that sometime during bootcamp, where thousands of Mozambicans died due to the harsh conditions, or during the brutal fighting itself, his father passed away.  With his father gone, there was very little left for Alberto and his family in Mozambique.  If they stayed in a dying Mozambique, the young Alberto was at risk of being recruited into the army himself; plus, poverty was so sweeping that there was no hope in continuing to raise a family in such a forsaken and war-torn landscape.  I am not clear on all of the details of the next 10 years of young Alberto’s life, but I know that soon after his father’s disappearance he became separated from his family in Manica, and fled on foot through the mountains into Zimbabwe to start a new life. 

Under the governance of the now infamous Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe was actually a somewhat functional nation-state in the mid-90s.  As opposed to the small subsistence farms characteristic of Mozambique today, Zimbabwe was comprised of large plantations normally owned by white land-owners.  While labor on the plantations wasn’t exactly easy living for the poor African farmers who worked them, it was at least a job with a reliable wage that they could take home to their families.  In his late teens Alberto easily found work at a large rose plantation and began looking for a home and a family.  He found a wife and in the late 1990s they had their first son, Isaias.  With the unrelenting work ethic I know Alberto has, he soon worked his way up the ranks at his plantation and gained a higher wage as a foreman of his work group.

In the year 2000, however, there was a major shift in the political landscape of Zimbabwe.  President Mugabe announced that he would be confiscating plantations owned by white Zimbabweans, and redistributing the land to Zimbabwean war veterans and formerly landless black Zimbabweans.  He gave the white landowners only a few weeks before seizing the land, encouraged blacks to invade white plantations, and did not compensate the landowners in any way for their losses.  The result of all this political turmoil was that Alberto, along with thousands of other black farm workers, found himself jobless once again.  Even today, 12 years after the land seizures, formerly productive fields go fallow and the new landowners often fail to achieve the productivity that was once a source of pride for Zimbabwe. Since then, the Zimbabwean currency has tanked (to the point that they adopted the US Dollar as their currency in 2009 to dig themselves out of the massive deflation of the Zimbabwean dollar), and their government has floundered in attempts to right its economy.

After a few jobless years in Zimbabwe, trying haplessly to raise a family, Alberto decided that Mozambique was now peaceful enough to attempt to return to(the civil war had officially ended on October 4th, 1992, and refugees were slowly finding their way home).  Unfortunately his wife was Zimbabwean and didn’t have any intentions of returning to Mozambique with Alberto.  She elected to stay with their son, Isaias, and Alberto was forced to journey back across a border having lost a family for a second time. 

With no money, no food, and only the clothes on his back, Alberto trudged 200 kilometers on foot through the Chimanimani mountains that lie on the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and tried to start a new life again in Mozambique.  This time luck, or God, as he would tell you, was on his side.  He had heard about a small rural mission called Mangunde that had farms and employed local workers.  He made his way along the same bush paths that he would later guide me through on our cross-country trek this June, and found his way to Mangunde.  There, with no friends or family to support him, he asked the local chief for a small plot of land to build a house three kilometers outside the mission.  As he integrated into the community of Mangunde and became acquainted with the workers at the hospital, he met a special foreigner who he endearingly refers to as Dr. Uva. 

Dr. Uva and his wife were volunteering at the hospital at the time, but took a liking to Alberto, and took him under their wings.  It was just the break that Alberto needed.  They introduced him to other hospital workers and eventually set him up with a job as a community activist for HIV/AIDS.  Step by step, he got his feet underneath him here in Mangunde and made a name for himself.  Realizing that the only way he would be able to have a real future would be if he graduated from secondary school, he began studying 4th grade in 2008.  This year he passed 8th grade, and next year has plans to move into 9th grade.  He remarried a few years ago, and, in 2011, with his new wife, had his wifes first son, his second, Camisola.  Through his work with the hospital, he received a cell phone and bicycle, two things that poor people simply don’t have, and, with a monthly stipend of 1,000 meticals ($40), he’s been able to add new huts to his homestead, begin raising chickens, and acquire new land to continue farming. 

In June of this year, Alberto received word from Zimbabwe that his ex-wife had fallen into hard times and his first son, Isaias, was not studying, and had been left to fend for himself at the age of 12.  Now that Alberto had a house and a stable situation to bring another child into, he sent his aging mother with money for transport (which PCVs Mike and Mac funded) to Zimbabwe to fetch his first-born son.  Since she didn’t have phone and there was no way to contact his family in Zimbabwe, Alberto had to  wait and hope that his ex-wife and son would both agree, and that his son would make a safe passage through the mountains and into Mozambique to be reunited with his father.  Weeks and months went by and Alberto began to lose hope that his son Isaias would ever arrive.  On a hot day in August, however, we received news from Alberto that his mother had arrived at their house with his long-lost son, her grandson, Isaias.  It was a glorious day and auspicious homecoming.

A few weeks after Isaias’ arrival, Alberto invited Mike and me to his house to celebrate the long-awaited reunion of his family.  Young Isaias was a little timid, and seemed to be confused about all these new people who were now part of his life, but we ate chicken, drank neepa and celebrated for Alberto.  On that particular day, it seemed like we were celebrating more than just the arrival of Alberto’s son; it seemed like we were celebrating every amazing accomplishment that Alberto has been able to scrape out from nothing in this third try at life that he was given in Mangunde.  Getting by on his sheer determination and will to succeed, Alberto took himself from a feeble orphan and refugee in Zimbabwe to a successful and respected man in the Mangunde community.

Mike and I drinking a local beverage at Alberto son's homecoming

Celebrating Isaias' homecoming

While we were taking a water break from clearing the brush on his farm that day, I asked Alberto a question: where do you see yourself in five or ten years?  He told me that the most important thing for him was to finish school.  With God’s help, he said, he could pass 12th grade in four years.  But then what did he tell me after that?  He didn’t say he wants to be a nurse, or a teacher, or even a community activist, as I would have expected.  No, Alberto’s dream, above all other dreams, is to be a musician.   He wants to be in band, save up enough money to get a guitar, a piano, and a drum set, and produce church music with his family.  That’s what brought him to my house on that day two years ago.  He had seen me playing guitar on my veranda, and it ignited in him his dream of recording music for his band some day in the future.  My first instinct was to scoff at his musical aspirations and write it off as some kind of pipe dream that would never come true.  Currently he is years, maybe even decades, away from getting close to his dream, but after everything he’s been through and come out on top of, I can’t doubt him anymore.  If the cards fall his way, maybe we’ll be hearing Alberto’s family band on the radio someday.  

Standing outside Alberto's family's house on our walk to Dombe