Saturday, June 28, 2008

Picture of the Week: Walking on sunshine

There is nothing like a sunset. The way the sky is transformed into a dazzling display of colour as deep oranges, rich reds and powerful pinks splash across the horizon announcing the fall of night is truly mesmerising. For me though, you can't beat the African sunset. It somehow has a power that reaches right into my soul; a power which has kept me transfixed for more than a decade. (Perhaps this is why I feel such a connection to the African continent?) Case in point is this sunset I captured a couple of days ago on Lake Victoria in Mwanza, Tanzania. While I was focusing my lens on the play of light as the sun set on the lake's far horizon, a Massai warrior silently walked across the beach and into my viewfinder – where else but Africa would that happen? Mzuri sana!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Guest Blog: It's a hard life, but someone's gotta do it

After four weeks of having a travel buddy, Dan has finally deserted me and left me for the greener pastures of Edinburgh. In his last Guest Blog, he reflects on his experiences on the road trailing a travel writer:

I've been on the road with Kim for four weeks, getting a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a travel writer. As I prepare to fly back to the UK what ground-breaking (or not so ground-breaking) insights have I had as a result?

There are good days and bad days: For aspiring guidebook and travel writers, those dreams of luxuriously jetting around the world will likely remain just that, dreams. Sure, we've spent some time in some beautiful and luxurious accommodation in game parks and on coffee plantations, but at the same time we have been in numerous low-end hotels and guesthouses which let rooms by the hour and have signs cautioning that 'women of immoral turpitude are not allowed in rooms'. There are a lot of miles to be covered, and a lot of places to be visited in the researching of a guidebook. It's a tough slog at times, but at others I haven't been able to think of where else I'd rather be than sipping on a chilled Tusker beer watching the sunset over a herd of wildebeest in the middle of a national park or watching a possum steal my bread roll off the dinner table.

Hair raising and hair conditioning: When travelling around Tanzania there have been a few hair-raising moments (often involving the condition of the road network, the speed of our driver and driving skills of other road users, but also involving a ngake kifutu (a puff adder), and a charging elephant). Travel writing will involve such moments and they add another layer to the vocation – if you are someone who needs to keep their nails manicured and hair well conditioned, this might not be the job for you.

Expert packers: The tight schedule of updating the guidebook meant we moved rapidly from place to place, often only spending one night in a place before moving on. This sense of movement is simultaneously a huge appeal of this work but also a drawback – there is little time to stop and reflect and to get to know the nooks and crannies of a place. After four weeks of movement, my rucksack packing skills have improved and I’m more attuned to the 'essential' things I need and to getting rid of the bits and pieces I haven’t needed in order to travel as light as sensibly possible.

A lonely road: The guidebook writers' lot can be a lonely one – weeks on the road by themselves (perhaps with a driver if they’re lucky) with only sporadic contact with friends and family back home. The highs and lows of the trip have been far more enjoyable with someone to share them with and I can imagine that doing this kind of work without a travel companion could get very lonely at times.

The guide book is not a bible: That dog-eared guidebook sat in your rucksack should not be taken as gospel. The time pressures on collecting information for guidebooks means the writer will not have been able to eat at or sleep in every place listed therein. Descriptions are based on visits to the establishments and the prices set at that time – but it could easily be two years or more from the research visit to the day you arrive at a hotel and things change. Treat the guidebook as a general introduction to a place and be prepared to work with changes on the ground. The number of times on this trip I’ve heard people talking about the guidebook as being the final word on a place or price has been chastening.

Thanks for sharing the journey with me Dan!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Drink this!

Over the last four weeks two drinks in particular have punctuated Dan's and my journey throughout Tanzania, providing us with well-deserved refreshment after long days on the road. The first is the omnipresent Tusker Lager. Reputably named after an elephant that killed one of its founders, Tusker holds the honour of being East Africa's first beer. The second is the quintessentially English G&T – the only drink to have as you watch the sunset over the African veld. (Yes, sadly, I have succumbed to the colonial gaze – hopefully it will wear off soon. Mind you, tonic water is said to be great for malaria prevention; the Gin, of course, is an added bonus!) Bottoms up!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Character of the Week: Mama Ruth

When I began organising my research trip to Tanzania several months ago, I discovered that a Norwegian friend from the University of Cape Town had family living in a place I was covering for the guide – Tanga, a quiet seaside town near the country’s northern border with Kenya. My friend immediately put me in touch with her mother who ran a meeting centre just out of town, and, after contacting her, Dan and I were invited to stop by and stay the night. I didn't know what to expect from the introduction – but I certainly didn't expect Mama Ruth!

Arriving by car from Dar es Salaam around midday, we were greeted at the gate by an elderly Maasai man who in perfect English inquired about the purpose of our visit. "I'm here to see Ruth," I responded. He looked at me blankly and shrugged unknowingly at the name. "You know Ruth...the owner?" I tried again. By this time another man from the gate post joined him by the car and together they chatted in Swahili and scratched their heads over my seemingly odd request. Our driver then interjected and asked after Ruth, this time in Swahili. But, again, the two men drew a blank.

Turning to Dan I asked, "How do I say her last name?" Having not known my friend at all his reply was a short, "How would I know?" Looking back at the two men I fumbled hopelessly over the pronunciation of the Ruth's Norwegian name, "I think it's Ruth or Nes..ja?" Suddenly the Massai's eyes widened and he beamed, "Oh, you mean Mama Ruth!" Of course, Mama Ruth, why hadn't I thought of that I smiled.

It certainly wasn’t difficult to miss Mama Ruth; dressed in a colourful tie-dyed kaftan with a crop of white-blonde hair framing a deeply tanned face, she was bright and bubbly with a loud, infectious laugh. First coming to Tanzania in 1984 Ruth had spent the better part of the last 20 years working on various HIV/AIDS programs throughout the region. Keen to promote a more positive image of Africa and to encourage sustainable development through tourism, in January 2008, along with two other investors, she opened the Meetingpoint Tanga - a community meeting point, an international conference centre and accommodation facility all rolled into one.

While there are numerous tourism projects throughout Africa that claim to be environmentally friendly and community conscious, for many it is simply rhetoric and as the pockets of the wealthy investors are lined, local communities are often left wanting. Meetingpoint Tanga, however, is different. Apart from self-satisfaction, investors in the centre earn no financial dividends. Instead, all money raised is reinvested in various community projects from hosting local music festivals to HIV/AIDS education. Tourists, too, are invited to "make a difference" by sharing their knowledge, skills and experiences during their stay at the centre. In one particular instance, a visitor from Norway helped fund and set-up a recording studio, which now produces and sells CDs for a local hip-hop group.

Dan and I were subsequently invited to join Mama Ruth and three other Norwegian visitors to watch a local football match in a nearby village. In this latest venture, Mama Ruth was hoping to secure international sponsorship of the team and lure skilled players over to help train the local team. In true Mama Ruth fashion, we barrelled onto the field in the middle of the village (after taking several wrong turns) unannounced in a large white Land Cruiser, much to the amusement of the crowd of onlookers who had gathered for the match.

After some initial confusion as to whether we were indeed in the right village and at the right football match, with her Norwegian flag held proudly in hand Mama Ruth was ceremoniously introduced to her team, TICC, who were dressed in the unmistakable red and white uniforms of Manchester United. With the official proceedings over, her team took to the field to take on another team from a nearby village, who were rather fittingly kitted out in Real Madrid royal blue, in a local friendly.

I'm not a huge fan of football, or soccer as we call it at home, so I found all the back and forth play with no point scoring a little bit tedious. That was, until a herd of cattle suddenly decided to storm the field. While both teams carried on seemingly oblivious to antics of the stray cows, the interruption obviously affected our team’s concentration as not long after Real Madrid landed the first goal of the match (perhaps the cows were all a ploy?). Despite the fact that it was the opposition that scored the goal, the children from the village swarmed the field cheering and clapping in jubilation – some even entertaining us with a few clever back flips. Sadly, in spite of Man United’s best efforts to regain control of the ball, in the dying minutes of the game Real Madrid managed to sneak the ball past our goalie to win the match 2:0.

While I’m no expert on football, it does appear that the Man United team would benefit from some proper training – perhaps David Beckham would like to help his old English team’s namesake out? So if you know anyone who’d be interested in sponsoring the team, or if you’d like to find out more about the centre and its projects, give Mama Ruth a shout.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Guest Blog: Surviving Stone Town

While I slaved away researching hotels in hot and humid Dar, Dan set off to Zanzibar for a few days of diving and exploring Stone Town. Here's what he had to say about his adventure:

Stone Town, the main urban settlement on the island of Zanzibar remains a top Tanzanian tourist attraction as travelers seek to revisit the history of slaves and spices of the island and wander the maze of narrow streets that comprise the old town. The history of African, Persian and Asian influences on the islands are evident throughout the town in the range of food available. Twists and turns in the maze of backstreets reveal hundreds of stalls and shops, craft vendors and craftspeople, the sound of the ocean rapidly replaced by a school-room of children reciting Arabic verses, and pedestrians, bikes and motorbikes jostling for space on the narrow alleyways.

My visit to Stone Town left Kim in the sweltering heat of Dar es Salaam as I took an early morning ferry across the water to Zanzibar for a few days of scuba diving. Whilst the neighbouring island of Pemba is touted as the better destination for diving, time constraints kept me to Stone Town.

For three days a small hotel in the heart of the Shangani district of Stone Town was my home as I set out each morning on Bahari Divers' dhow and explored reefs and wrecks in the Indian Ocean. Amongst the nudibranchs, clown fish, puffer fish, lion fish, ramoras, trigger fish and parrot fish, the highlight was at the end of the third dive: a close encounter of the turtle-kind.

Where guidebooks and tourists talk of the sound of Zanzibar being taarab music, for me the audio accompaniment for the trip was the noise of hundreds of petrol generators. An ongoing powercut (9 days and counting by the time I left the island) meant businesses were reliant on petrol generators for power, and the constant chatter of these engines was the soundtrack of the visit. A side-effect of this was for hotel, restaurant and shop prices to increase dramatically as operating costs rose due to the cost of generating electricity.

Sadly, all diving trips must come to an end, and after my third day on Zanzibar the afternoon ferry brought me back to Dar es Salaam.

Tips to surviving Stone Town:
Touts: As soon as you set foot off the ferry you will be beset by porters, taxi drivers and ‘guides’, some offering their services outright and others making conversation before guiding you to a hotel or guesthouse. Stone Town is a maze of streets so unless you know exactly where you are going, a guide may be of use to show you the way – but be aware they will expect payment for this and will likely loiter outside your hotel until you reappear and then attempt to guide the rest of your visit. Trying to shake these guides loose can be tiresome and some tourists opt to retain a guide as once you are ‘spoken for’ the hassle from other touts disappears. If, as I did, you walk alone then be prepared for a near constant bombardment of people offering goods and services. If you do ‘retain’ a guide, treat their claims and advice with a large amount of caution – one tourist I met on the boat back to Dar was left furious and distraught by the lies and claims made by the tout she had used for two days.

Losing your cool: In hot weather and with constant attention from touts, it is easy for tempers to become frayed. Rows with touts and pan-handlers will not get you far; try to keep your cool. On the two occasions when touts became overbearing and forced me into confrontations, a simple but firm re-assertion of your refusal of their services/products sufficed to put them off and to gain the attention of and support of locals who were visibly annoyed that these touts were acting in an aggressive manner.

Eating and drinking: The fish market, now based in a street between the Old Fort and the Zanzibar National Museum, is a great place for good quality street food (especially sea food and sugar cane juice) from about 6pm until 9pm. Watch out for overcharging and take a bit of time to look at the different stalls before being pressured into eating from a particular one. Expect a degree of hassle from pan-handlers and guides if experiencing the market alone. There are numerous cafes, restaurants and shops selling food and drink during the day, but a quick way of cooling down is from the street vendors who ply the streets with handcarts laden with oranges or coconuts. For a few hundred shillings a handful of oranges or a coconut-milk will provide a quick and mobile pick-me-up (and amusement to small children as you, the crazy mzungu, inevitably spill half the coconut milk down your shirt).

Streets of Stone Town: Stone Town’s charm is the maze of alleys and streets, but it is easy to get lost amongst them. Try to keep an idea of your general orientation, but if all else fails and you find yourself lost, just head in one direction until you reach the edge of the old town, work out where you are and carry on from there.

Learn some Swahili: A few basic words and phrases in Swahili will serve you well. Being able to work through greetings and declining offers of help (Hapana, asante) will help with shaking off touts and with getting assistance from staff and locals.

Dress appropriately: As with many other parts of Tanzania, dressing conservatively with long trousers and long sleeves is advisable – not only is this culturally sensitive, but it does seem to reduce slightly the hassle from street touts, and helps prevent sunburn!

Find a reputable dive company: There are numerous companies offering scuba diving and snorkeling in Stone Town and across Zanzibar. Seek recommendations as to reputable companies before booking and diving with a company, and check they are appropriately certificated by the government and the diving industry. Bahari Divers and One Ocean in Stone Town have very good reputations.
The passport stamp/port tax scam: Con artists working at the Dar ferry terminal will say you need to pay them or a colleague money for your passport to be stamped back into Dar (it doesn’t) or for the port tax (you don’t, buy your ticket from a ticket office and the tax is included in the total price). Ignore such people and don’t pay them anything. There is little point reporting such activities to the local police as they are unlikely to do anything about it.

Remember the good things: Despite the hassles and heat, try to remember the good times and positive experiences. Would you rather be being hassled to buy a bracelet by a beach on Zanzibar or to take part in a piece of market research on a rainy afternoon back home?