Saturday, February 26, 2011

Africa - Zambia, Zambezi rafting and Victoria Falls


We pretty much just rolled on through Zambia in pursuit of our final destination,Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. We camped for three nights in Zambia — the first, the night of January 31, at Chipata Camp just over the border from Malawi, the second at Eureka Camp just outside the capitol city of Lusaka, and the third at a place called The Waterfront, which is in Livingstone just a mile or so upstream from Victoria Falls. There's not much to say about Zambia because we drove right through it. It was sparsely populated but pretty country and it sported the best roads I'd seen in Africa. A brief stop in Lusaka was a study in contrasts, however. One minute we were driving through lightly populated rural country with huts made of mud and grass and down at the heels marketplaces, the next we found ourselves at a modern shopping mall with coffee shops, restaurants, ATMs, the works. It might have been transplanted to Lusaka from any modern suburb in the U.S.

Roadside scene - rural Zambia house
Rural marketplace - Zambia
We make a lunch stop somewhere in Zambia

Sunset Cruise - Livingstone, Zambia

I reckon the most memorable part of being in Zambia was the Sunset Cruise, aka The Booze Cruise, out of Waterfront Camp on the Zambezi River. We paid $45 USD for a cruise on the Zambezi, a cruise that included dinner and all the alcohol you could drink in two and a half hours. We didn't see much of a sunset that evening and the dinner was only okay. We were able, however, to put away a fair amount of booze — no surprise there I guess. During the cruise I did manage get a few pictures of the folks from my truck with whom I'd become friendly over the past few weeks of traveling together. 

"Little Dave", Shannon, Kathleen, Liz, Kelsey and Andrew, aka The Canadians
Me with Andrew and "Little Dave"
I should explain how the name "Little Dave" came about before going on because it's part of a pretty good story I'll relate later on. Dave is younger than me (I guess that's obvious) and smaller than me, also obviously. He's a lovely fellow who I got to know on Zanzibar when I helped him use my Skype account to phone his bank in order to unfreeze his credit card. Drinks and oaths of friendship followed our success but because I had been a pivotal player in this essential contact the rest of the Canadians thereafter dubbed me Big Dave and him, unfairly, Little Dave. I'll get to the rest of the story presently. First, some more photos of our little group:

Nick, our driver, Kelsy, Mwangi, our road boss, and Herb from Perth

Liz and Kelsy

Shannon and Kathleen

Dinner on the Booze Cruise. Lisa is on left, her partner Jamie is hidden behind her. The rest you know already.
Here too is a photo of three of the Australians. Sandra and Wayne were touring with their 18 year old son Stuart who is just about to enter college somewhere in New South Wales.

Sandra, Wayne and Stuart
Pixie from Perth, Shannon and Kathleen
The ride from The Waterfront in Zambia to Victoria Falls was a short one. We got through Zimbabwe Immigration without any problems, exchanged our Zambian quachas for American dollars and set up our tents for the last time at the Rest Camp in Victoria Falls town. We spent the next few days there doing a variety of activities available through an outfit named Wild Horizons. This is a fine tour company that offers everything from bungee jumping the Zambezi Gorge to guided walks with lions. Most of these activities were fairly expensive, around $100 USD on average, so I chose only one, the Whitewater Rafting for $105 USD. Not that I was interested all that much in the bungee jumping. As it turned out the raft trip was quite an experience in itself.

Zambezi Whitewater Raft Trip

The relaxed start of our trip above Rapid #11

We got picked up at 9 am at our campsite and got driven a few miles out of town to our put-in point above Rapid #11. Because the water level was quite high at this time of year the upper rapids, those closer to Victoria Falls, were too dangerous. Consequently, the half-day trip going from Rapid 11 to Rapid 24 was the one we did. After a short pep talk and some basic instructions we each grabbed a life jacket, helmet and paddle and set off down the steep path to the bottom of the Zambezi Gorge. There in a little bight of quiet water we climbed aboard a rubber raft and took a short course in following the instructions of Colgate (real name Creto), our boat boss (rearmost in above photo), and James (top right). Most of us chose to ride in a boat like the one shown above, nicknamed a "paddle boat". That means we chose to actively paddle our raft down the river and through the rapids. The other choice was the so called "chicken boat" in which the passengers were passive — only along for the ride so to speak. It was steered by one of Wild Horizon's expert oarsmen who would, we later learned, also avoid the worst of what was ahead.

These photos were taken by Wild Horizons people who came along in small whitewater kayaks. They would go ahead of us and set up cameras in spots that offered a good view of each rapid. I think they were hoping for some spills so they could get some exciting, and salable photos. I, along with many other participants, bought the DVD containing these photos along with a video for $45 USD. There is a more complete photo collection of the raft trip in my Facebook profile. You can see that album here.

Some of our party, "Canada Liz" and "Alaska Elizabeth", chose to ride the chicken boat
The first few rapids were thrilling. We paddled hard whenever Colgate barked out an order: paddle left!  paddle right!, back-paddle!, trying to catch each rapid just right. Sometimes the boat would almost fill with water when we caught one at a bad angle. These boats are (somehow) self-bailing so we never had to remove any water. Good goddamn thing! Some of these standing waves were huge, towering over our heads at times, and literally roaring at us — it was quite unsettling when heading straight into a particularly surly one on such a big river. They don't call it the Mighty Zambezi for no reason — no shit, it is all of that. All too quickly we saw one of our boats flip over in a big wave. Gnarly water that!

The chicken boat approaches a big wave below. The skillful steersman managed to somehow avoid taking a spill during the whole trip. But every one of the paddle boats dumped at least once. Go figure!

So far we were doing okay. Our guides had pointed out that during a spill there's really very little danger of hitting a rock as the Zambezi is something like 180 feet deep  here! These massive rapids are usually due to the fast current and shoreline obstructions, etc., not rocks as in so many other rafting situations. I had all I could do to take in the wonderful scenery as it raced by. My eyes were focused on the water and rapids ahead. And we were paddling hard all the time, racing into the rapids, having fun chasing waves and white water. In the next photo we have just made it through a big rapid. That's Little Dave pointing skyward. Next to him on the left in the photo is Shannon and directly behind me is Kathleen, all part of the Canadian contingent.

We emerge giddily victorious after a close encounter with a large rapid
We weren't so lucky on Rapid #16a, also known as "The Terminator." At some point during our meeting with this monster we knew we were going over. There wasn't much to do except hope for the best. I'll readily admit right now that once I found myself in the water struggling for breath, I got damn scared.

We're losing the battle with The Terminator

I'm looking into the jaws of The Terminator and not really liking what I see

We're going over - see the close up view above
Right about now, I'm thinking I might be drowning
So much water, everywhere I turn. I just couldn't seem to get enough air to breathe.
Little Dave offers a welcome hand to Big Dave
Okay, so I didn't drown. But when Little Dave reached out for me I was damn happy to see his extended hand, make no mistake about that. This is how we traded nicknames — because in that moment he surely became Big Dave in my eyes. For me anyway the rest of the trip wasn't quite as much fun as before we spilled. First I had yet to get my big carcass back into the slippery boat. After James and Colgate righted it that is. I desperately hoped I wouldn't have to go through anything like that again. Luckily the Terminator was the worst rapid we faced that day. Still, I was thoroughly tuckered out when we reached the take-out point just beyond Rapid #24. After a bunch of high-five-ing and back-slapping we began the 300 foot ascent to the top of the gorge for cold beers and a picnic lunch. It was an ugly climb in the heat and a wake-up call for me to try to get into better shape for tennis this summer. Four months of sitting on my ass drinking beer just isn't cutting it. When all was said and done the floating part of our raft trip had lasted about 3 hours and had covered only the few miles between Rapid #11 and Rapid #24.  They closed the river to rafting due to high water on the following day.

Victoria Falls

I hung around camp sort of biding my time for the next couple of days. People from our truck bungee jumped, took helicopter flight-seeing trips, walked with the lions, and did other fun things. Jambo and Willy took a guided canoe trip on the river above the falls. They watched elephants, hippos, and observed the exotic bird life, for example. But now that the safari was over my thoughts turned to Bangkok and Nut. I had originally planned to travel for an extra week with Jambo, Willy, and Elizabeth but by now I was tired of Africa and really missing Nut so pretty quickly I decided to try to get back to Thailand. After a bunch of hassles with telephones that refused to work in Zimbabwe I finally got on Skype and spoke to Kenya Airways in Nairobi. I manged to reschedule my return flight for the 9th rather than the 12th. That done I decided it was time to visit Victoria Falls.

The falls, the African name for them by the way is Mosi-O-Tunya (The Smoke that Thunders), are always in your consciousness when you're anywhere in the town. One need only look up to see vast clouds of mist hanging in the sky. The mist can reach over 1300 feet into the air. Their roar is also constant and can be heard everywhere in town. Elizabeth and I walked over to Victoria Falls Park paid the rip-off fee of $30 USD to enter and spent part of a morning enjoying them from up close. The funny thing about these falls is that the water drops into a narrow gorge — you cannot get a view of the falls in their entirety anywhere except from the air.

I'm very familiar with Niagara Falls as it's near my home town of Buffalo, New York. From the Canada side you can get a magnificent view of the whole deal. Not so here. Victoria Falls is high — at 360 feet (108 meters) they're more than twice as high as Niagara Falls  (360 vs 167 feet), and at 5600 feet quite a bit wider too (5600 vs 3950 feet). I was surprised to learn that the average volume of water going over them is less then that delivered by the Niagara River (38,430 vs 85,000 cu ft/sec). That average reflects both seasons, the dry and the wet. The maximum recorded flow of the Zambezi River however is an astounding 452,000 cu ft/sec while for the Niagara it is 240,000 cu ft/sec. About half of the Niagara River's huge flow of water is diverted into hydroelectric generators and never even makes it over the falls.

I had Elizabeth take this shot of me in my Alaska Boats and Permits hat. I didn't need it on this trip (too blasted hot) but took it along on this soon-to-be-wet walk along the south rim of the falls.

I include a couple of photos from Wikipedia that show the falls from above so you can get an idea of what I'm talking about. The so called "Danger Point" is the furthest point you can walk to on the Victoria Falls Park footpath that skirts the south side of the chasm.

The Falls during the dry season  — 2003
Elizabeth and I walked along the footpath taking in the view when we could and getting soaked with the constant  "mist" which felt like, and in reality was, a torrential downpour. Danger Point, clearly visible in the dry season photo above, was quite fun when we were there on our visit during the wet season. Water filled the air and we were instantly drenched again with warm Zambezi water. We were very impressed with the roar of the giant falls, so close to us there, and with the powerful winds generated by the massive amount of water falling so far through space a stone's throw away. As you can see in the top photo, Danger Point is perpetually shrouded in mist during much of the year. In the lower photo the International Bridge connecting Zambia in the north (top and right) with Zimbabwe in the south is shown. The Zambezi delineates the international boundary generally. After our soaking at Danger Point I walked the few kilometers to camp in the hot sun. By the time I got back my clothes were dry.

We spent a couple of nice evenings at our camp restaurant with the gang from the truck but by this time folks were starting to disperse and go their own way — a bittersweet time. Some of us would continue to Capetown or Botswana with a new crew on a different truck. Others would be heading home, or like me would continue traveling elsewhere. Here are a few more photos of our group at the Rest Camp Restaurant in Victoria Falls.
Me with Little Dave
Little Dave and Helen
Aimee and Katy
Pete and me
The Alaskan travelers at safari's end - Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
There are a few people that I just did not get decent pictures of. Damn it! — it's too late to get them now. I apologize to Krystal and Chris, Helmut and Monica, and Dusan, because this is their story too. It was a good time and fun getting to know you, all of you.

I'm Out of Africa

That about brings my Africa story to a close. We Alaskans had a very nice dinner at the posh Safari Club a few miles out of town on our last night together. This restaurant has a lighted water hole where a number of elephants magically appeared, almost on cue, just as we were finishing dinner. Elizabeth told us she had decided to grab a different truck and head to Botswana for her remaining time in Africa while Willy and Jambo had elected to fly to Jo'berg to see what mischief they could get into there. I caught a ride back to Lusaka and was back in Bangkok a few days later.

In all we traveled approximately 2400 miles (~3900 km) during this particular trip, the Nairobi-Victoria Falls 21-day safari with the Africa Travel Company. We traveled from about 1.5 degrees south latitude to about 18 degrees south and visited 5 countries along the way: Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. It was the first time I've ever traveled with a touring company and as I said before, it had its good points and bad. I really prefer traveling on my own, meeting people by chance, and having unplanned adventures. Yet, I met some wonderful people and found it an easy way to see a fair piece of Africa with a minimum of hassles.

On the road back - Zambian countryside
For me, having just begun a new relationship, the time away was, well, you know, difficult. I missed Nut and wanted to get back to her as soon as possible after our trip ended. I missed the easy friendliness of Thailand and its fabulous food too. Not to fault Mr. Mwoi but we were camping after all. How can one compare the fabulous tom yum, som tam or pad thai available everywhere here with quick sandwich lunches and camp food? Well, we did have that tasty roast pig in Malawi, and BBQ steaks, and those nice curries. Africa isn't nearly as friendly as Thailand either. Perhaps because it's so impoverished and its people so needy. And the constant stream of street touts and panhandlers put me off too. Much worse than Cambodia even.  I'm reminded of something my buddy Al said to me last year during our motorcycle trip. He was getting ready to tour South America a few years ago, obtaining visa information and the like. He suddenly realized that he'd rather just come back to Thailand and be done with it. It has everything he wants in a winter getaway. It's sort of that way for me too, especially now.

So I'm back in Bangkok where I'm writing the final lines of this entry, the Africa part of my blog. What's next? No big plans.  Nut and I will take a short trip to visit an ancient temple near Bangkok but the bulk of my remaining time in Thailand will likely be spent right here in our place hanging round with my honey. I'm watching for Suzuki V-Strom motorcycles on Craigslist in Oregon. I want to do some touring when I get back stateside in early April and that means I'll probably head south to desert country and warmer temperatures; Arizona, New Mexico and southern California. Maybe I'll see you down there.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Africa - Malawi

Written in the Jomo Kenyatta Airport, Nairobi, February 9, 2011

As I mentioned earlier, Malawi is a beautiful country. The Malawians are very friendly and we are constantly waving our hands at smiling faces as our truck rolls by. In Kenya and Tanzania children almost always ran out to the roadside yelling and waving at us with great excitement and big smiles on their faces. But here in Malawi everyone waves: the woman carrying her wash out to the drying rack shifts her load to one arm so she can raise the other in greeting as we race along; the teenager riding a bike laden with charcoal or things from the market nods his head and smiles widely; the women clustered around the town pump doing their laundry pause to look up and wave; the workers hoeing weeds in their carefully tended fields of maize also wave. It becomes a sort of game to me to see who will wave first, me or them.

Doing the wash at the town pump - Malawi
Countryside view - Malawi
After traveling quite a bit by now in 3rd world countries I've become disdainful about outwardly friendly gestures made by locals on the streets. "Hello there. Where are you from?" In Africa especially you're constantly being pitched by street touts and hawkers to buy this or that; sometimes they just out and ask you to give them money. And they're persistent. This is very annoying to me and it got old fast. But these rural people are not asking for anything, cannot ask for anything. They do it because they're friendly and I believe, happy. When you see the beautiful farm plots, the carefully swept yards, the simple but neat brick houses, the smiling faces, you must conclude that something good is happening in Malawi. I've talked to more than one of my fellow travelers who told me they experienced a twinge of real emotion -- "tears filled my eyes" one friend said -- as they took in the reality of being made to feel welcome in such a genuine fashion. These people will never see us again. We cannot give them anything but a return wave. And that seems to be just fine. Malawi was one of the high points of my safari.

Malawi fields and farms are neat and weed free

Along the road in Malawi

We stopped for a bag of charcoal along the road somewhere just north of our first stop at Chitimba Camp on Lake Malawi. On that day Mwangi happened to have had his iPod plugged into the truck's sound system so there was reggae music playing when our camp chef, Mr. Mwoi, jumped out to buy the charcoal. Kids appeared from everywhere and began dancing alongside our truck. Beautiful kids, smiling kids, happy kids. It was wonderful!

Kids greet us at a stop for charcoal (video below)

Happy kids running alongside our truck

We spent two nights at each of two campgrounds on Lake Malawi, Chitimba Camp and Kande Beach. They were a welcome and enjoyable interlude in our ambitious schedule. The overland tours all work this way I suspect. We race across many miles of less interesting country to spend time in the nicer areas; four days on Zanzibar, the three day side trip to Ngonongoro and the Serengeti, and now these four days on Lake Malawi. At Kande Beach the water was crystal clear and warm and there was a volleyball net on the beach. It was ragged and sagged quite a bit but people had a great time of it. We had taken up a collection so Mwangi could make punch that first night at Kande. He bought 3 bottles of Malawi rum, lots of vodka and gin, some brandy and assorted fruit juices. When he was finished we literally had a barrel of strong punch to drink after dinner. Some of us later that evening unintentionally learned where this mixture got its name.

Mwangi gets help making the punch from Liz and Kelsy
After dinner and with the barrel of punch under our belts we adjourned to the bar for more alcohol inspired "conversation" and other party type behavior. Before too long one of the Canadian gals was up on the bar dancing. Soon the bar was crowded with dancing campers. It ended up being quite a late night. I see now why Mwangi arranged our party for the first day of our two day visit. He's been there and done that before. It got windy later on and a light rain began to fall. I like a bit of weather, especially when the rain is so warm, so I took a walk out to the water's edge to ruminate on my Africa trip. We had a great crew and some wonderful people to travel with. I view our contingent in groups according to where they're from. Hence we had the Canadians, the English, the Aussies, the Kiwis, the Austrians and the Alaskans. And one guy from the Czech Republic. Desan lives and works in New Zealand so I include him in that group. We also had a wide range of ages, a good thing I reckon. Herb, one of the Aussies, from Perth, and I were the elders with a retired couple from Austria, Helmut and Monica, not far behind. We had several good people from England, Helen and Katy, and Peter, some middle aged folks from Australia, Wayne and Sandra, who were traveling with their 18 year old son, Stuart, another young Aussie couple, Jamie and Lisa, Pixie from Perth who was on her way back to Australia to begin college, Chris and Amy from New Zealand, and the Canadians, Andrew, Kathleen, Shannon, Liz, Kelsy, Dave, and Crystal.

I recalled the day we all met back in Nairobi for our orientation meeting. As I scanned the room my gaze stopped at Liz, Shannon and Kathleen who were chattering away with their friends, Dave and Andrew and thought, Oh shit, there's a bunch of twenty-somethings! Little did I know at the time how interesting and friendly these recently graduated Canadian lawyers would be. Or that Dave would be offering me a helping hand when our raft overturned in the Zambezi River a few weeks later.

I had this thought too: I am making friends. I love meeting new people and that's perhaps the best thing that can happen when you travel. Travel takes you out of your everyday sometimes hum-drum existence and puts you in situations where you will make connections with people. My Africa experience wasn't perfect but the folks I met on the tour were certainly cool.

I felt my shirt starting to soak through so I edged my way back to the bar. Jamie and Lisa were still there lip syncing to some songs by the Choir Boys and a group calling themselves Powderfinger. How, I wondered, did it happen that this bar in the middle of Malawi had songs these guys knew so well? I later learned they had connected their iPod to the bar's speaker system. DOH! Jamie and Lisa "closed the bar" that evening.

Next day was another beauty although most of us missed the sunrise, myself included. That evening I can tell you there was a quite bit less drinking going on. Some of us played volleyball and some were content to simply watch the beautiful sunset with a beer in one hand and a camera in the other. That night Mwoi and the crew surprised us with a treat for dinner. All day long I had been watching out of one corner of my eye some guys in a nearby campsite roasting a small pig over a charcoal fire. I hadn't guessed it was gonna be our pig roast. Mr. Mwoi did himself proud when he served us platefuls of roast pork, baked potatoes, and a delicious bowl of curried fresh greens. I had a couple more beers and turned in early. We'd need to be up at the crack of dawn for our border crossing into Zambia.

Volleyball game on Kande Beach

Our fabulous Africa Travel Co. crew relaxing : Mwoi (cook), Mwangi (captain), and Nick (driver)

Sunset at Kande Beach - Malawi

Monday, February 7, 2011

Africa - Random Rants

I'm in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in Africa. I'm sitting in a cool shady bar at our campsite overlooking scenic Lake Malawi. Life expectancy in Malawi is only about 40 years. But here at the lake we're most of us blissfully unaware of that fact. The lake is the big draw for tourists. It's huge, the second largest lake in Africa after Lake Victoria, clear and warm, and it contains fresh water. Strangely out of place I hear familiar tunes by the Beatles, Alanis, Santana playing on the CD player. Two arduous days in the truck put us here after leaving Dar Es Salaam at 5 am the other day. It's morning so I don't avail myself of the ice cold beer or other liquid refreshments available here for next to nothing in this little oasis but come evening I, along with my fellow travelers, will play some volleyball, drink a few beers, chit chat at the tables set up in the pleasant surroundings, and eventually turn in. We're spending two days here, a welcome departure from our normal schedule. The long days in the truck are over Mwangi, our guide, assures us. The rest of the trip to Vic Falls will be more leisurely. But our somewhat uncomfortable travels are nothing compared to the situation most people here find themselves in. I'm reading Paul Theroux's book Dark Star Safari as we travel and I'm in almost perfect geographic synchronization with the story, which is about his 2002 overland trip from Cairo to Capetown. We're both in Malawi now. His book is either a great choice or a bad one considering where I am and what I'm doing.

Lake Malawi at Chitimba Camp (S10.58488° E34.17537°)
Theroux is an accomplished writer who lived in Africa in the 60s. He came as a young and idealistic Peace Corps volunteer who lived in Uganda and here in Malawi for quite a few years. He taught school, learned about the people, learned their languages, and dedicated himself to the cause of African independence then recently attained after decades of colonial rule by the European nations. He wished through his efforts to raise the level of literacy and through that increase the standard of living. He hoped someday to see a free and self sufficient Africa. Dark Star Safari describes his return to Africa to rediscover the Africa he had so fondly enshrined in his memory. He did not find it. What he did find after 40 years of independence and 40 years of well intentioned international aid were countries much worse off than they were when he lived here. This is the Africa we're seeing on our tour. For the most part we're protected from the stark reality of Africa. We're cocooned in our big truck, all of us white and in relative terms, wealthy. We chatter amoungst ourselves about the latest music, our other travels, Facebook trivia, the beauty of the countryside passing outside the windows which are always open wide to encourage the fresh breeze that helps keep us cool in the big non-airconditioned vehicle.

We are indeed in a cocoon when you consider the security measures our touring company enforces to keep us and our precious belongings safe. Everything carried on the truck is securely locked in place at all times. When we stop for a break we close and lock all windows. We have a lock box in which we can store valuables. The box or safe is never referred to by that name though. We assigned it a code word, salmon. When somebody wants to access it we say, I want some salmon. Every campground we visit, indeed every supermarket or other place where money is exchanged, is gated and without exception guarded by security personnel often armed with automatic weapons. We stay in peaceful, self-contained campgrounds. We buy groceries and snacks in a nearby supermarket before setting up for the night. Once inside we mostly stay inside. We have a bar, music, Internet if lucky, laundry service, meals provided by our camp chef, Mr. Mwoi, and each other. It's strongly recommended that we not leave the camp alone, especially at night. There are various activities like trips to African villages or recreations like snorkeling available. For most of those we're accompanied by a local man who guides us and, I presume, keeps us out of trouble. It's a bizarre situation once you open your eyes to it.

Part of the reason Theroux left Africa was because he was living and teaching in Kampala, in Uganda, during the rise of the crazed dictator Idi Amin. He realized where things were headed and got out while it was still possible. Earlier he had taught at a small English-founded school near Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. He describes how the once beautiful and well kept homes and neighborhoods from his past have degenerated into broken down hovels, the once neat streets strewn with litter. Nothing's been maintained or repaired during the 40 years since he left. His old school, the Songe Hill School, once boasted a fine library with many books and current magazines; it was well lighted and in constant use by the staff and students. These days it's a shambles. Few books remain. The rest were stolen by students or perhaps other people who were likely on the verge of stavation and who sold them to buy food. Probably. Despite the fact that the school is being run by an old friend of his, a dedicated woman who has the best interests of her community and her country at heart, the windows are broken, only one light fixture has a working light bulb and it serves the entire library. The problem, she tells him, is no money; this is a constant refrain he heard all over Africa.

In the book he sometimes thinks out loud and includes us in the converstion he is having with himself: how could things have come to this pass with so much help being continually available from western countries? He describes his ride on a decrepit train through Tanzania. The railroad was built by the Chinese during the time just afer Tanzania gained its independence from Great Britain when that country was entertaining the idea of becoming a socialist state. The railroad has not seen one bit of maintenance, nor has one meter of new track been laid, since the Chinese left. Not only are the cars in horrible condition but they're filthy, the bathrooms stink, the food is awful. He provides some of his own answers to that question.

Mismanagement is rampant in Africa. There is corruption at every level of government. Theroux lays much of the blame on the aid given to the various African states through NGOs and well intentioned foreign governments. It has encouraged an unhealthy dependence on people other than Africans to solve uniquely African problems. There has developed a culture of securing aid at all costs  -- the crooked officials that comprise most African governments consider the aid a source of revenue, a huge source. Securing that revenue has become the main focus of those officials. He goes so far as to suggest that they might not want conditions in their countries to improve because then the aid would stop. The well will have run dry. Add to that the grim fact that there are countless petty bureauocrats siphoning off the aid before the people who really need it see one penny. Moreover, he considers most of the people working for those NGO's and aid organizations profiteers, just another layer of bureauocracy whose members get paid to help Africans but who in reality  dilute what eventually does reach the poor. It really pisses him off that the newest Land Rovers and Land Cruisers one sees invariably belong to the well known NGOs or relief agencies and that they seldom have offices in the poorest section of town. Their officers are part of the elite class in African society.

Tanzania - typical house of mud and sticks

Typical home - Tanzania
I had wondered why I was seeing so many locals wearing T-shirts boasting the Detroit Tigers, or advertising Nike, Abercrombie & Fitch — organizations that have about as much relevance here as today's Dow-Jones average. I hadn't made the connection yet. Those T-shirts, indeed much of the clothing and footwear we were seeing, were donations that came from charities all over the world. Gee, that sounds nice at first. We're doing some good here after all, I thought. But here again Theroux provided some valuable insights that are not so self-serving. He writes that shipments of clothing are routinely diverted and sold by petty bureaucrats to wholesalers who then distribute them to small scale retailers, who turn around and sell them to the impoverished people we see wearing them. Everyone in a position to take a cut does so and pockets the money while the needy get doubly shortchanged. In Africa it's just business as usual.

Used shoe store - roadside Tanzania
Theroux offers many more insights and valuable information about Africa and the African situation in his book. Another of his musings involves the question of why there is so much garbage about, so many tin shacks and shantytowns, so little effort put into the simple upkeep of a home. Due to difficult problems faced by farmers, continuing drought conditions, etc., many rural folks have migrated to the already overcrowded cities. But there is no work for them there. Unemployment is high —  more than 50% — and we constantly see men hanging around in the shade, poking their heads out of doorways to watch our truck pass— they're obviously idle and prefer to let their womenfolk do the heavy lifting. There seems to be a shortage of African innovative effort or business acumen. People are concerned with the basics, sure. Getting food on the table, paying the rent. But, he asks, does it take that much effort to pick up the litter in your front yard? Perhaps it's because of those 40 years of handouts. Too much dependence on the Arabs and the Indians to do the work of business and accounting. By the way, both of these minorities were essentially driven from their adoptive countries by dictators insisting that only Africans should own African concerns. He advances the suggestion, and he's not alone in this, that perhaps the best thing we in the first world can do for Africans is to walk out and leave them to do it on their own. If subsistence farming is what they want, or if joining the corporation dominated first world is what they want, they should be allowed to do that. Unfortunately, Africa has so many valuable products and natural resources and there are many hungry corporations waiting to develop them and exploit the native peoples, I sincerely doubt Theroux's ideas will ever come to pass. Good luck Africa.

In one of my other posts, I commented about how this type of trip wouldn't work for everyone. We're on a kind of forced march covering countless miles of country that, were I traveling alone, I would be experiencing in a different, a more real way. I don't have the courage of a Theroux or of my friends Kirk and Lynn from Homer who traveled through Africa on bicycles in the 80s, so I reckon this is the only way I'll ever be able to see it. And we're camping every night. I mentioned the tents we're using earlier. They're heavy, probably around 40 pounds, made of thick oiled cotton canvas and if you're used to a nice Sierra Designs 3 pound backpacking tent, as I am, they're plenty tough to set up. I drag the dreadful thing to a chosen spot, a shady one if possible, and with much cursing erect it before hurrying off to supper. Then in the morning before breakfast, we bring them down. They are difficult to pack, especially if wet, but breakfast is ready by the time we get the ungainly things stowed inside the truck. We wolf down some eggs and toast, fruit, coffee or tea, wedge our bags into the truck and climb up into our seats. From 10 to 15 hours later, we repeat the whole process.

The other problem is that if you like to take photos it's virtually impossible to get good ones from the madly bouncing truck windows. Covering as much ground as we are every day the truck simply cannot be stopped for photo opps as if we were traveling by private car or motorcycle. I got very frustrated about that as the days wore on.

Okay, I'll stop ranting now. Things have possibly changed in Malawi since Theroux wrote his book. I have not been to Lilongwe but our travels yesterday through the northern portion of the country revealed a verdant and productive looking country especially when contrasted with neighboring Tanzania and Kenya. I'll have more to say about Malawi in the next entry. We have a great group of folks and a fine crew managing our tour. Even if what we're seeing is only a small piece of Africa it will nevertheless be a memorable experience, and one I'll aways treasure.

Typical Malawi brick house