Archive for December, 2007

December 31st 2007
Home for the Holidays

Posted under U.S.

We left Johannesburg on the evening of December 18 and, after thirty-one hours and three connections, we arrived in Boston sleep deprived (neither of us can sleep on planes) but otherwise unscathed. As we arrived on American soil, I began to softly sing every patriotic song that I could think of. Mark picked us up and drove us to Providence where we met up with more of the Rooney clan. We all caught up over a quick drink in the hotel bar before they headed off to the Mulhearns’ for dinner and we passed out for a good twelve hours. When we finally re-surfaced, the pre-wedding festivities were already brewing as more friends and family began to arrive.

It had occurred to us just a few weeks prior to the wedding that we didn’t have anything appropriate to wear, couldn’t realistically buy anything in South Africa, and wouldn’t have time to shop in Providence. Thankfully, we knew just who to call – an expert in the retail arts – my mom. Within a few days of receiving a list of our sizes, she had secured full attire for us for the entire weekend’s affairs, including all of the proper undergarments, shoes and accessories, and shipped them to Providence. Momma, you rock!

The rehearsal dinner took place at the University Club at Brown University. Everyone looked ravishing, particularly Mark and Meredith who were both glowing, and the venue was gorgeous. I was still a bit shocked by my own transition from cargo pants to stockings, high heels, and a strapless bra. I had forgotten how much I love Aaron clean-shaven and in a tie. Dinner was a lavish winter buffet followed by an array of decadent desserts to please every palate. Many heartfelt toasts were given in honor of the happy couple and we were even serenaded by Christmas carolers dressed in colonial attire with tall top hats, tiny spectacles and plenty of holiday cheer.

The wedding ceremony and reception at Warwick Country Club were beautiful and adorably personalized. The club is set on the shore of Naragansett Bay where Mark and Meredith spent the summer boating and falling in love. The bridesmaids donned floor-length black gowns, carried red roses, and walked to the delicate melody of a string quartet. The bride was stunning – her gown divine. When the pastor introduced Mr. and Mrs. Mark Rooney, I think that Aaron and I both realized how happy we were to be there. The reception was merry and energetic with an almost constantly packed dance floor. We sipped pomegranate martinis and ate enough hors d’oeuvres to qualify as a full meal, which didn’t stop us from indulging in the four courses that followed. The evening was so much fun that, before we knew it, the band was announcing the last song of the night. In a flutter of hugs, Mr. and Mrs. Mark Rooney said their goodbyes and rode away in their limo. We stumbled across the freezing parking lot to Mark and Meredith’s Volvo (the first “o” is pronounced short if you live in Rhode Island) and struggled to figure out the GPS so that we could find our way back to their condo. We were happy to realize that, because Mark had lent us his Blackberry for the weekend, he wouldn’t have it on his honeymoon.

At 5:00am on Christmas Eve, we arrived at the airport in Providence only to find that our flight to Chicago had been canceled. Bah humbug! We eventually secured two seats on a later flight but were told that there would not be any connecting flights to Moline. After calling every rental car company at O’Hare, we determined that there was not a single car available at any price. Resigned to spending Christmas eve in a hotel, we called my parents with the sad, though not surprising, news and Daddy came to the rescue by driving to Chicago to pick us up!

We had made last-minute secret plans to surprise my family by having Aaron’s mom bring our puppy from Phoenix and we were dying to see our little child substitute. Still mildly zonked from the doggy valium, our little Lenasaurus went totally crazy when she saw us. She kept jumping from Aaron’s arms into mine and back again until finally we both laid down and let her crawl all over us and smother us with four months worth of puppy kisses.

We spent the next seven days with our family, relaxing, visiting and driving each other crazy as only relatives can. We had a white Christmas, which also meant freezing temperatures, so we rarely left the house. We didn’t mind, though. There’s no more beautiful, warm and inviting place than my parents’ house at Christmas. The tree looks amazing every year, the house is trimmed inside and out with Christmas accents and the kitchen is full of Mom’s cooking. This year, Aaron and I had requested pasticcio, spanakopita and my yiayia’s homemade bread and all three were waiting for us when we arrived. One of my fondest childhood memories is of sitting in Yia’s kitchen and dipping her homemade bread, toasted with melted butter and Papou’s honey (he was a beekeeper), into a dainty cup of coffee with cream and sugar. They are both gone now but Mom has the bread recipe mastered and we still have a single last jug of the honey with Papou’s name and phone number on the label. I ate the toast for breakfast every morning until it was gone and even had my coffee with cream and sugar one morning so that I could take myself back to that hazy memory in a tiny kitchen in Dubuque, Iowa where I always felt spoiled rotten and infinitely loved.

Lena stole the show for the entire week. My family is as crazy about her as we are and she went from one lap to another, received a minimum of a hundred kisses each day, and was the main topic of conversation. When we finally left, it was a toss up as to who they were more sad to say goodbye to, us or Lena. We loved every minute of being home for the holidays but it was hard to say goodbye. We would love to have our family and friends meet us somewhere along the way but we understand that, while we’re busy squandering our fortune, most other people’s lives are continuing on as usual. It will be initially hard to return to the hostel world after basking in the comforts of home for two wonderful weeks (I’m already bracing myself for the squat toilets in India) but whatever adventures and challenges the next fourteen months bring will be met with open minds and open hearts. On New Year’s eve, we are off to India with big dreams. The world is beautiful and, with a new year ahead full of promise, we feel blessed for this opportunity to see it.


December 27th 2007
Reflections on Africa

Posted under South Africa

After three short months exploring eastern and southern Africa, we’ve seen so much but most of the Dark Continent remains unexplored. We fell in love with Africa and her people, some of the most warm-hearted on earth. Frustrating and inspiring, informative and confusing, hot and cold; our brief visit left me tired and weary, yet not truly ready to leave. From the comforts of home during our brief stay in Iowa, I reflect on Africa; her grandeur, her beauty, and her immeasurable potential so often suffocated by primitive tribal culture.

Africa is expensive. For as poor as most of her residents are, Africa is incredibly expensive for visitors. After staying in more than thirty different hostels in nearly as many nights, we’ve discovered that the rooms are almost all uniformly basic and barely clean, but it still costs a local resident’s monthly wages for a single night stay. On average we spent about $35-40 per night for these Spartan accommodations, always staying in private double bedrooms but often sharing a bathroom with our fellow travelers. Western staples such as food items in supermarkets and meals at restaurants are often priced on par with similar offerings in the US. Transportation, even when traveling on the same buses and shared taxis as the locals do, is often more expensive than one would think because of the dual price structure; one price for the locals, a different, higher price for the mzungus. On many routes, there are very few (insert mode of transport here) traveling to the destination you want around the time you want so you are at the mercy of the conductor/ticket seller and the prices they charge.

Everything will take longer and be more complicated than it should be. Very few things in our experience were done quickly or efficiently or delivered exactly as we expected. Sometimes this seemed to be caused by the incompetence of our local hosts, or an obvious lack of motivation, and other times by a clear language barrier. This Is Africa. Enough said.

The landscapes truly are breathtaking. From the plains of the Serengeti in Kenya and Tanzania to the white sand beaches of Zanzibar to the majestic green mountains of South Africa’s Wild Coast, Africa delivers. Even the most uncomfortable, sensory assaulting bus rides are redeemed by the views afforded along the way. We could have taken a hundred pictures each day (but who wants to look at that many landscape pictures?) and still not been able to capture her beauty. Africa must be experienced to be appreciated. No National Geographic photo spread or Discovery Channel documentary can fully capture the diversity and scale or the unadulterated beauty of these surroundings.

The value of human life is different. Malaria. HIV/AIDS. Hunger. Auto Accidents. Murder. You don’t have to travel far in Africa to find a family whose loved ones have died by one or more of these tragic events. For many of the local people that we met or merely exchanged glances with, each day is a struggle for survival. HIV is a devastating epidemic, but Malaria still kills many more people, over a million, each year. Many Africans only eat one meal each day and it almost never includes a meat dish. Some people are unable or unwilling to work and they rely on the generosity of an able-bodied relative or kind-hearted stranger for their survival. The disrepair of most “road worthy” vehicles and the narrow, potholed roads combine with aggressive African driving to result in commonplace auto accident fatalities. Others are victims of sexual abuse or inexplicable violence that leave them irreparably damaged. These are life and death realities so far from most western minds that it is still difficult for us to fully grasp the magnitude of their impact. In the US, we all expect to live to a ripe old age, dying sometime in our eighties, most likely from “natural causes.” In Africa, just surviving childhood is a divine gift and most men and women will never celebrate a fiftieth birthday.

Our African adventure has changed us in immeasurable ways. We have witnessed the desperation of the struggle for survival. We have seen overpopulation, lack of education, illiteracy, lack of employment opportunities, laziness, oppression of women, children conditioned to panhandle, squalid living conditions and a society where stealing is a means of survival. We have also seen kindness, hope, faith, sense of community, expressions of beauty through music and art, political awareness, and a desperate desire to improve quality of life. As we head for India we know that new adventures await but we can’t help pondering our next trip to Africa. Africa is wild, raw and primitive in comparison to our Western standards but that is precisely what makes it so intriguing.

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December 19th 2007

Posted under Africa & South Africa

Johannesburg, our final South African destination, is reputed to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Our guide book warned “to be very careful of your personal safety in Johannesburg”. While we had already traveled to other notoriously dangerous cities, such as Nairobi, we were still apprehensive about visiting a city where the white minority confine themselves to suburban shopping malls and their homes which are so heavily guarded with tall walls, barbed wire, security bars and surveillance systems that you feel an eerie sense of criminality lurking about, whether real or imagined.

We had pre-arranged a ride from the bus station through our hostel and were picked up quite tardily by a young man in a white Mercedes van. During the ride back to the hostel, I asked the driver if Johannesburg really lives up to its dubious reputation. He replied that it is safe…as long as you stay within the areas that the hostel staff specifies. He then shared a story about two male travelers who had recently stayed at the hostel. The staff had warned them not to venture outside the “safe” areas but they chose to disregard that advice. The hostel manager received a phone call at 2:00am from the police department requesting that he come down to the station and pick up two young men in their underwear. The two had been mugged and the perpetrators took EVERYTHING but their skivvies! Thankfully, the two idiots escaped with their lives – some are less fortunate. Johannesburg records more deaths each year by murder than by car crashes.

As we rode through downtown Johannesburg in the safety of our vehicle, I couldn’t take my eyes off the streets. I recall thinking that it didn’t look that dangerous. My imagination had conjured up an entire Hollywood cast of unsavory-looking characters uninhibitedly toting guns, chains, brass knuckles and big knives, ready in a moment’s notice to wreak havoc on anyone foolish enough to present himself as a potential target. What I saw instead were poverty-stricken human beings living life in their own neighborhood. My first impression was of uneducated young men whose rough edges and disheveled appearance would likely preclude them from ever earning an honest living outside of the hard labor pool. But first impressions can be deceiving. Still, I wasn’t about to get out and ask them if they’ve accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and personal Savior.

The hostel was nestled deep within a labyrinthine complex of heavily fortified houses. We entered the complex through a narrow alley separating two rows of modest homes behind walls and gates with barbed wire so jagged and extensive that it felt like we were entering a prison. Most of the walls also displayed signage of one or another armed response company – privately owned armed security companies that, judging by the number of similar signs around town, are making a killing! No pun intended. One thing was boldly apparent – these people are serious about their home security!

It was getting dark by the time we’d checked into our room and a heavy rain had begun to drench the city. We had spent over twelve hours traveling from Mozambique that day. Most people, me included, would relax, settle in, and go to bed early after an exhausting day like that. Not my husband! Instead, my never-do-tomorrow-what-you-can-do-today, can’t-sit-still-for-five-minutes, always-needs-a-project, sweet, adorable spouse gets this hare-brained idea in his head to walk to the grocery store. And worse…he puts on his best angel face to try to convince me to accompany him. I must admit that, after three years of marriage, I am still not immune to my husband’s charms. I strongly considered walking at least twenty minutes each way in the dark and pouring rain through the unfamiliar streets of Johannesburg! Granted, the store was supposedly in the “safe” zone but there was seriously nothing that we needed before morning. Thankfully, I came to my senses and tried desperately to bring Aaron to his. Perhaps it was my matted, greasy hair or my oily face from twelve hours of bus transit but my womanly guiles failed me. He was determined. I sent him off with a loving “Don’t call me to pick you up in your underwear at 2:00 in the morning from the police station. I’ll be asleep.”

He was gone for almost an hour and each minute of that hour felt like an eternity. I was sick with worry but tried to fill my head with positive thoughts as the rainfall crescendoed into an intense downpour. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then fear for your lover’s safety transforms you into a love-crazed maniac! When he walked through the door, soaked from head to toe, I squeezed him harder than the day he proposed.

The next morning, we decided to spend the day doing touristy things, namely a township tour and a visit to the Apartheid Museum. We made the arrangements through the hostel and were collected shortly thereafter by our tour guide. He had a very thick accent and was difficult to understand but he conducted our township tour with educational commentary and endearing enthusiasm.

Townships were created during the Apartheid era when oppressive European settlers, mainly from the Netherlands and Britain, displaced hundreds of thousands of native Africans from their centrally located homes to shanty towns on the outskirts of the city. Black people were allowed to come into the cities to work in the goldmines, as day laborers or in a servant capacity but they had to live in one of the established ghettos, called townships. “Soweto”, which is an acronym for “South West Township”, is South Africa’s largest township community and one of the largest ghettos in the world. Though the scars of Apartheid have begun their arduous healing process, the ghettos are still painfully overcrowded and, with few employment opportunities, many township residents still find themselves living in squalid conditions.

It was rainy that day and we spent the majority of the day viewing subdivisions of Soweto through the window of our van. Our guide was a resident of Soweto and provided valuable insight on the history, politics, education and living conditions related to township life. In one neighborhood, there had been a huge street party two nights prior and the residential streets were covered in jagged shards of shattered beer bottles. Scattered groups of men worked slowly to sweep up the glass but there was a good three block radius of unbelievable disaster zone. Our driver cringed as we listened to glass crackling under the tires.

As a part of the township tour, we also took a guided walk through one of the subdivisions of Soweto. Our driver stayed in the car while another local guide walked with us along a dirt road through rows of makeshift homes. Many had small vegetable gardens. One woman was sweeping diligently what might have been a front step but instead was the section of dirt road in front of her house. A group of little boys walked ahead of us, only mildly curious about two of what must be a parade of foreign tourists. Our guide explained that only about twenty percent of the township residents are employed due to poor education and lack of skills, proximity of the township to the city-center, lack of business opportunities within the township, etc.

We were also invited inside one of the houses and, for me, this is when things got a little awkward. Our guide led us into a one-room shack where three young men were sitting and said “Okay, you can ask them questions and take photos now.” First of all, we weren’t about to start snapping photos of these people’s home like zoo patrons photographing the monkeys. Second, we didn’t exactly have a list of questions prepared since we were put on the spot so, after an awkward silence, we started asking whatever questions came to mind. The approximately three hundred square foot house was home to eight young men. A couch, love seat and television occupied one side while the other side held a large freezer and shelves stacked with miscellaneous household items. The freezer was non-operational but the bottom was lined with a layer of beer bottles covered with a broken ice block. The guide explained that the young men tried to make a living by selling beer. They had to buy a new block of ice every day in order to keep their product cold. The entire township is without electricity; most people use car batteries to power their small electronics such as televisions and radios. The house that we were in had a small generator which sat in the middle of the floor. When asked where they sleep, the young men replied that they have bedding that they take out at night. After about ten minutes of uncomfortable interrogation, our guide led us outside the house and back to our van but not before hitting us up for a sizable “donation” for which he suggested the amount. Normally, I am immune to this sort of request for a handout but my emotions were disturbed by my immediate surroundings and, without hesitating, I handed over the amount requested. He said that the donations are used to benefit the community but I suspect that he just pocketed it. The whole exchange seemed underhanded and I felt as if the chastity belt on my pocket had been violated. I have definitely suffered buyer’s remorse in my life but this was the first time for donor’s remorse. With a sour taste in my mouth, I hopped back into the van and we continued on with the next segment of our tour at the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, which commemorates Soweto children who lost their lives in protest against Apartheid. Apartheid, by the way, is an Afrikaans (language of the original Dutch settlers in South Africa) word meaning “segregation solely based upon race”.

We then took a brief tour of the house that Nelson Mandela lived in for almost thirty years with two of his three wives (not simultaneously). The modest house was quaint and cozy with many family photos, articles of Mandela’s clothing and shoes, rooms full of honorary degrees from esteemed universities, newspaper and magazine clippings documenting his political actions, gifts from celebrities and international leaders and letters of support and praise, including an interesting letter from the State of Michigan, apologizing on behalf of the United States for the CIA’s role in Mandela’s eventual capture and imploring then-President George Bush to issue an official apology which, of course, was never done.

The final stop on the day’s itinerary was the Apartheid Museum. We parted ways with our guide and spent the remainder of the afternoon inside the museum. With its extensive collection of photographs, video footage, interviews, and Apartheid-era memorabilia, the museum meticulously documents the history of Apartheid, lifestyles of native Africans in contrast to other immigrant groups under Apartheid, the propaganda used to market the idea of Apartheid to the European settlers, and the valiant, bloody fight to bring the long-time racial oppression to an end. We noted many interesting parallels between the persuasive tactics used to perpetuate Apartheid and those used to rally support of the Nazi regime. We were especially moved by a temporary exhibit on the life of Bantu Stephen Biko, a brilliant anti-Apartheid activist who was eventually arrested and allegedly died of head injuries sustained in captivity, though no one was ever charged with his murder. He spoke intelligently and passionately about the black people’s need to empower themselves by changing their self-image from the negative associations prescribed by their oppressors to proud and positive associations with their black heritage. He was only 30 years old when he died alone in a jail cell. We stayed at the museum until it closed and then called for a ride back to the hostel. It had been an intense day revolving around extreme poverty, oppression, martyrdom, child martyrdom and unjust imprisonment. We were emotionally drained.

In drastic contrast to our day of depressing tourist activities, we spent the next day inside a two-story haven of commercialism and muted Christmas cheer: the mall. As we walked leisurely through the bright and colorful stores full of pretty things, handsome things, baubles and gadgets – the very same things that once seemed important enough to spend entire weekends collecting – our senses were overloaded. The whole scene was surreal. I suddenly felt a belated jolt of liberation at having purged our ubiquitous stuff, sold the house that we worked constantly to fill with stuff, thereby alleviating any temptation to purchase durable goods aside of our daily necessities. I didn’t feel the weight of my possessions until it was lifted. I felt a subconscious rearrangement of priorities in my life. I would never go so far as to say that I don’t value material possessions. That would be absurd. Material comforts are…well…comfortable. These days, rather than drooling over a new purse or piece of jewelry at Nordstrom, my hopes are focused on health and happiness, family, friendships, love and triumphing over the bathroom challenges on this crazy adventure. I wonder, though, if I will fall back into that old familiar obsession with stuff when I am thrown back into the bottomless pit of suburban commercialism. Que sera sera, as the saying goes. For now, I’m not worried about the future. I’m just enjoying the simplicity of carrying my worldly possessions on my back for a while.

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December 18th 2007
Bamboozled in Mozambique

Posted under Africa & Mozambique

We sadly relinquished the Polo in Nelspruit, as outlined in our rental contract, and reverted once again to bus transport. A double-decker Greyhound carried us to Maputo, Mozambique with a slightly frantic border crossing despite already having obtained our visas. One can seemingly infer a lot about a country’s politics and infrastructure by the level of chaos at its borders. The Arrival area at the Mozambique border bore all of the appropriate signage; however, the actual system of queues took on a functional disorder such that, were it not for a few friendly border crossing veterans telling us where to go, we would have been rightly stressed about missing the departing bus on the other side.

We arrived in Maputo and took a cab to a hostel that, according to the cabbie, organized transport to Tofo, a remote coastal town about eight hours north on a pothole-ridden stretch of road. Fatima’s Place was inarguably one of the most filthy, uncomfortable hostels that we have encountered thus far. The attendant was unfriendly, the shared bathrooms atrocious and the rooms musty but we endured it one night for the sake of convenience. At 5:30 the next morning, a shuttle picked us up and carried us, along with seven other backpackers to the chapas station (parking lot). Chapas is the Mozambican version of the mini-bus. As we were among the last to arrive, we were crammed into the back of the bus. There was no luggage storage on the chapas so bags were packed into the aisle, under the seats and in the front of the vehicle, next to the driver. Each row of seats also had a fold-down seat which created an additional seat in the aisle. Think sardines.

We had made a reservation at Bamboozi, which had been recommended by someone we’d met in Coffee Bay. The gray sky was raining down on us in fat, wet drops, which easily penetrated the thatched roof at the reception desk. We carried our packs up a thatch-covered ramp to our chalet – a charming slant-roofed cottage on stilts with patio, private bath and kitchenette. It was oozing character with its walls made of bamboo bundles tied tightly with reeds and ceiling of woven palm fronds covered in thatch. The furnishings were rustic; one look at the dark wood floors, handcrafted kitchen cabinetry and two-burner gas range with antiquated metal tea pot made us smile at the illusion of paradise. The rain continued to pour down while we settled in and we soon realized just how much of an illusion it was.

Water blew through the spaces between the bamboo bundle walls and seeped through the ceiling onto the upper part of the bed, which was soaked through to the mattress. The kitchenette was devoid of pots, pans, cooking utensils, silverware and a refrigerator, though it did have a full set of dishes, a cutting board, a can opener and a spatula. What anyone thought we were going to do with that combination of items still escapes me. We discovered that first evening that we had no hot water and, at least once a day throughout our stay, we would be without either water or electricity. Most of these little inconveniences fall easily into the “This is Africa” category but we also found the staff to be so unfriendly and unaccommodating that we spent the majority of our time and money away from Bamboozi.

Luckily, we found solace at Tofo Scuba, with whom we did our diving. The staff was incredibly friendly and welcoming. They also had a patio restaurant, facing the beach, with the best salads in Africa and, best of all, two tiny Rhodesian ridgeback puppies that tumbled around and tried to chew scuba equipment and everything else in sight. So cute!

Mozambique scuba diving is known for two things: whale sharks and manta rays. After our dive trip to the Red Sea, Aaron had warned me that I would probably be ruined for future dive destinations because my standards would be too high. I didn’t understand what he meant until we dove in Mozambique. We had signed on to dive with Tofo Scuba and planned to do a shallow introductory dive that afternoon, as is usually required when diving with a new shop. As we left the shop to walk around town for a while, one of the dive guys came trailing after us. He said that he’d spoken to his manager and could get us on an earlier deep dive, circumventing the intro dive, if we were interested. Aaron perked up at the suggestion but I was hesitant. It had only been two months since our last dives but it was a new company and unfamiliar equipment. I needed to think it over. Within a half hour, my excitement overtook my reluctance and I acquiesced. We hurried back to Bamboozi to grab our masks and swimsuits and then hurried again to Tofo Scuba for the deep dive.

There were twelve divers on board the pontoon boat as it bounced over the waves and headed out to sea. I was nervous but tried not to show it as Aaron gave me his best reassuring looks. The boat ride to the dive site was about thirty minutes long, plenty of time for my nerves to fray and, when the boat motor cut off at Hogwarts, we quickly slipped into our equipment, which was already assembled. I checked all of my gauges and releases, inflated my buoyancy control device (BCD – inflates or deflates to help you float or sink), and took a couple of breaths from my regulator (tube linking your air tank and your mouth). I heard a funny wheezing sound on the exhale coming through my reg. I was already unnerved by the haste of the dive preparations, the foreign equipment, and the negative buoyancy entry (a first for both Aaron and me). With a negative entry, you enter the water with a fully deflated BCD, head-first down to your depth and collect yourself and your dive buddy at the bottom. It is a more advanced entry than the positively buoyant entry that I am accustomed to where you enter the water with a BCD full of air, which causes you to stay afloat until you calmly collect yourself, then deflate your BCD and descend slowly, feet-first, with your buddy. The negative entry is necessary in water with greater surface current because you don’t want the current to carry you away from your descent point while you’re getting yourself together on the surface.

While the wheeze in my reg added to my tension, I convinced myself that the reg was fine and that I was trained to handle any problems that might possibly arise underwater. Luckily, I didn’t have much time to think about it because the countdown was already in progress for the entry. “Three, two, one…go!” With a hand over my mask and reg, I flipped backwards over the side of the boat and found myself shockingly immersed in a cool sea of tiny white bubbles. I kicked a few times and then held my position, assessing my mental and physical state. The wheeze was still there, with each exhalation, but I was functionally convinced that my panicked breathing pattern was the cause of the noise so, after a few minutes pause, I slowly descended near the anchor line and found my cheeky buddy among the group below.

The day was overcast, following a rainstorm the previous night and the visibility was low. We had been told that manta rays feed on plankton so low visibility was not necessarily a bad thing for the manta seeker. The ocean floor was quite bare of corals and, aside of three different species of starfish, I hardly noticed any underwater life, though I admit that my frenzied mindset skewed my focus. The dive lasted about forty minutes, which included an excruciatingly long safety stop. We ascended without having seen sharks, rays or really anything of interest. As we reached the surface, inflated our BCDs, and waited in the choppy water for the boat to collect us, I said to myself, “I might be done here.” My equipment had worked fine but the whole of the experience was like a bad dream – the kind in which you’re conscious that you’re having a bad dream but still you cannot wake yourself. Once back on the boat, I kept quiet as the boat smacked against the waves on the rough ride back to shore. Anyone who knows me well enough would have seen that I was visibly shaken. Aaron was disappointed in the dive as well and we agreed to take the next day off from diving for sure and then reassess the situation.

The next day was sunny and gorgeous and we began it with a long walk down the beach. As an interesting side note, the guide book warns to be careful about walking along remote stretches of beach because there are still scattered landmines, which are remnants of the decades-long Mozambican civil war. The day was perfect for diving and the fact that I had the itch to hop on a dive boat that morning was reassuring. I felt confident that I’d be able to “get back on the horse” the next day. The beach at Tofo did not disappoint. It is a hotspot for surfers with big, tubular waves and soft sand. In the morning, at low tide, small white clams get washed onto the shore and you can see the clam’s soft, translucent body creep out of its shell and burrow beneath the sand. Young boys walk along the beach, peddling beaded bracelets, shell necklaces, freshly shelled and roasted cashew nuts, and coconut bread. One woman walked along with a baby tied to her back with a sash, carrying a large plastic bin full of mangos on her head. The baby’s head bounced back uncomfortably, unsupported by the sash. We bought some mangos from the woman the second time we saw her and she seemed both kind and desperate in the hot sun.

In the tiny town center, every day was market day. With a couple of guys (Sam and Tyler) whom we had met along the way, we walked to the town center to buy some prawns and a sack of rice to cook dinner. There were several tented stalls with fruit and vegetables and three or four “convenience stores” with packaged items. We bought butter, a bulb of garlic, a coconut, and some candles. We carried everything back to our chalet and borrowed a pot, pan, knife and silverware from the bar. The unfriendly bartender was annoyingly reluctant to lend us any of the requested items, despite the receptionists’ reassurance that we were welcome to use them, but he finally gave them up at Aaron’s insistence. With the tops popped off a round of delicious Mozambican beers (2M, Laurentina and Manica, which are large bottles, usually cheap, cold and easy drinking), we began the preparations for dinner. Aaron took on the nauseating task of cleaning the prawns, removing the exoskeletons and cutting out the “poop chutes”. Sam started the coconut rice with the milk from the coconut and then Tyler cut up the meat of the coconut with his Swiss Army knife so that we could chomp on it as an appetizer. I set the table and created the ambience with music from the laptop and a centerpiece of white taper candles stuck into empty beer bottles. The evening was lovely with great political and religious conversation – our two favorite topics to discuss with foreigners. Dinner was a delicious collaboration and we enjoyed it with coconut bread and bananas.

We had scheduled a two tank dive for the next morning and we arrived at the scuba shop refreshed and energized. There were only seven divers this time – a much better number – and as we pushed the pontoon into the water and hopped in over the side, the excitement began to percolate inside us. The first dive site was called Manta Reef and we felt confident about our chances of seeing mantas based on other divers’ reviews of the site. My equipment felt great and the negative entry was smooth. During the two dives combined, we saw five different species of rays, several schools of brightly colored yellow and orange fish and a free-swimming honeycomb moray eel. The visibility was better but still not good…about 8 meters maximum.

During the safety stop on the second dive at a site called Sherwood Forest, we spotted about five manta rays gliding through the water below us. Mesmerized by the grace of those beautiful creatures, I began gravitating toward them, unaware of my increasing depth in the murky water with no reference points. And then I felt “the squeeze”. I had learned about the squeeze during my Open Water certification course. It is a pain arising from excess pressure at depth. Before I realized what was happening, a sharp pain shot through my inner right ear. It was an almost mind-numbing pain that shocked me to attention. Suddenly frantic, I looked up, saw the other divers above and realized that I had sunken too low. I ascended slowly while trying desperately to alleviate the pressure in my ear. Nothing seemed to work. The pain didn’t increase but it persisted. One of the dive masters noticed that I was struggling and came over to help but there was nothing he could do. I maintained relative composure and managed to ascend to the surface with the rest of the group, which may or may not have been the best decision but I went slowly and felt okay.

On the surface and throughout the afternoon, my ear continued to throb – a lasting reminder of the importance of following dive protocols and controlling your depth. We returned to the scuba shop and sat down for a couple of their killer salads while reveling in the success of our ray spottings. My ear did eventually did find its happy place again but we were finished diving nonetheless. Despite religious application of sun block, both of our faces got sunburned such that we had to hide beneath the brims of our hats for the last sunny day in Tofo. Our chalet was without power for most of the day so we wandered around the beach and found other places to relax. The waves looked so intense and inviting but the threat of more sun exposure on our already rosy mugs kept us ashore.

That night, as we packed our things once again in preparation for the four a.m. bus ride back to Maputo, we both agreed that we were not sad to be leaving. We had come for the diving and, even though we didn’t see any whale sharks, the manta sightings were fantastic. The beach was beautiful and the town had a feeling of quiet serenity. The discomfort of our accommodation, in conjunction with weather that was either pouring rain or oppressively hot and humid, kept us from truly relaxing. I honestly believe that our experience would have been better at a different resort but that’s the breaks on the road. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes it’s preferable to endure a bad place for a few extra nights than to pack it all up again in an attempt to upgrade. It really depends on your mood.

I couldn’t, in good conscience, end this entry without touching upon the border crossing from Mozambique to South Africa. We took a Greyhound bus from Maputo to Johannesburg. The bus arrived at the border and all of the passengers disembarked and walked to the Departure area on the Mozambican side. Being Saturday morning, a long line had formed, spilling outside the door and into the already hot morning sun. As we waited in the queue, sweating along with the other civilized people, a group of tourists cut into the section of the line that was just inside the door while no one up there did anything to stop them. Aaron yelled from the back of the line but with minimal effect. We stood, annoyed, while people pushed, shoved and cut into line without a second thought. Once inside, we found ourselves literally sandwiched between sweaty Africans as we defensively held our position through the resurrection of some of our old basketball skills (pivoting, boxing out…and a little elbow action when necessary). After about an hour, we reached the front of the line and, with the exit stamps still gleaming on our passports, left Mozambique, probably never to return.

With a sigh of relief, we walked quickly to the Arrivals area on the South African side. We arrived to find a beautiful single-file line that stretched around the building, almost all the way to the Departure area on the opposite side. The line moved slowly but we eventually reached the inside of the building, which was packed with more sweaty people (and when I say sweaty, keep in mind that most Africans do not wear deodorant), kept in queue by a series of guardrails. At first glance, it seemed like a reasonably efficient system until we realized why the line had been moving so painfully slowly. Of the six windows, four were occupied by working agents and two were empty. One window was reserved for “Diplomats” of whom there were none. The Diplomat window attendant, rather than taking the next person in the official queue, seemed to take selected persons who managed to circumvent the inside part of the queue. Meanwhile, on the opposite end, a shortcut had been discovered wherein a separate small but consistent line had formed by people who had sneaked over from the Departure side; these people were being served without having waited in the queue at all! The attendant at that far window saw what was happening but did little to stop it. All that it would take to remedy the situation at the borders is a couple of stern-looking guards with night sticks keeping order in the queue. It took us a total of two infuriating hours to cross the border and continue on our journey.

Situations like the above-mentioned border crossing make me want to throw my hands in the air and scream, “Why? Why? Why? Why is it so difficult to be civilized?” After more than three months in Africa, I am no closer to finding the answer to that question and I find it maddening! For all of its appealing wild beauty and colorful culture, sometimes Africa can feel like an incorrigible child. It takes patience and determination to endure the many discomforts involved in African travel, particularly in a place like Mozambique where years of civil war have dramatically damaged the infrastructure. If you can look beyond the blemishes and peel back the rough exterior, you will find a sensational raw beauty and vulnerability that touches your soul and forever changes your life for having witnessed it. In hindsight, you’ll always find that it was worth it.

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December 13th 2007

Posted under Africa & South Africa

It rained. It rained all day, every day, with a fog so thick and so low that we could just barely make out the beautiful mountain ranges surrounding the colorful rural Swazi landscape. With the exception of one rain-soaked trip to the Mozambican consulate to obtain visas, we hid out in our hostel, cooked all of our meals in the kitchenette and devoured our last two bottles of wine. Despite driving the entire length of the country, we left Swaziland, one of the last three remaining African monarchies, after two nights, as yet undiscovered.

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