"Fourteen Weeks" is a series of updates that Ethan Gelber and Jane Higgins wrote
as a means of staying in touch with friends and family as they traveled around the world in 2002 and 2003.
|A BIG HINT:|
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First 14 Weeks (2002) — Part One: Introduction | Part Two: Australia | Part Three: Hong Kong | Part Four: Africa
Second 14 Weeks (2002) — Part One: Introduction, Ireland | Part Two: Europe and U.S. | Part Three: Europe | Part Four: North America
Third 14 Weeks (2002–2003) — Part One: Introduction, U.S. | Part Two: Mexico, Brazil | Part Three: U.S. | Part Four: U.S., Australia | Part Five: U.S.
Nine weeks ago . . .
Eight weeks ago, we were recovering nicely from a lost battle to fatigue. After 15 hours in the air from Hong Kong to Cape Town, we had finally reached the African continent! Our main (and met) objective in Cape Town was to catch up with friends Yazir, Razaan, Soraya and Clayton. All four work to improve the lot of the too many people marginalized by a society that may have gone through a high-profile political shift (the abolishment of political apartheid), but continues to be troubled by de facto economic apartheid, and fear and misunderstanding spawned by decades of unremedied racial division. As impressed as I was by the progress that has been made and by the work undertaken by our friends, I left Cape Town with a bitter taste in my mouth. Time spent learning about the plight of (principally non-white) young people in prison and youth living in the (colored and black) townships taught us hard lessons about life pre- and post-apartheid. A half-day visit to the area's townships organized by Yazir's Direct Action Centre for Peace and Memory drove home through personal anecdote and historical review a basic but unsettling understanding of why colored and black people (subtle differences in aparteid-era racial classification I never knew existed and deeply regret) chose to fight the battles they did (both political and armed), as well as why so many people continue to lobby for greater change. Cape Town is a modern city with some tough struggles ahead in a country still on the road to recovery.
Seven weeks ago, we finally got to "Africa" when we landed in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Why "Africa"? To many South Africans, South Africa is not really Africa. It's a bit of Western world attached to the African continent. We already felt this way in Cape Town, but the point was reinforced after a brief stay in Johannesburg with our incredibly generous friend Tamara and her family. Tamara, a daring physically handicapped young person (on her way to the cycling world championships in Germany this year!), is Afrikaans South African. She and her family and friends gave us a grand tour of sprawling Jo'burg (by day and by night) and helped us to understand just how developed (but divided) South Africa is, especially when compared to its African "African" neighbors. We saw this ourselves when our flight to Zimbabwe plopped us in Victoria Falls, where we made the obligatory pilgrimage to the splendid site of the falls, known in the local language as the "smoke that thunders." Lord does it do that — mist and spray and plummet and cataract . . . and everything else that one of the mightiest falls on earth (a true natural wonder) can.
Six weeks ago, we were within the Harare city limits. From Victoria Falls (and after an adrenaline-high day of abseiling and gorge swinging [like a bungee jump, but using a fixed non-elastic cord that swings you out and across a gorge after a 50m freefall!]), reassured by local Zimbabwean friends, we turned south and into the Zimbabwean interior. First we took an overnight train toward Bulawayo. Unfortunately, the train only traveled about 100km in 11 hours (one third the expected distance) to a point where the train ahead of us had derailed. An early morning bus carried us the rest of the way (much more quickly than the train ever could). We paused in Bulawayo for breakfast and to query the stunned tourist information people (who hadn't seen any backpacking tourists in more than two months!), and opted for an immediate bus to Masvingo, the town nearest to Great Zimbabwe, the awesome ancient stone ruins that are the country's spiritual heart and gave it its name after independence. We visited the site the following day with a lively and informative guy named Ben, perhaps the only working guide in Masvingo (since tourism has unfortunately come to a virtual standstill). From there we traveled to Harare, an appealing bustling metropolis, where we spent two full days wandering the streets and learning about contemporary life with Jane's friend Justice (and family). Throughout Zimbabwe, we had frank discussions with people (hotel workers, taxi drivers, random pedestrians, etc.) about the crisis in their country. Everyone expressed frustration and a sincere desire to see Mugabe removed from office. Everyone also acknowledged that the recent election was rigged, but resignation to another term with Mugabe in office, holding out high hopes for the next go-around.
Five weeks ago, we were on the tranquil shores of Vwaza Marsh in Malawi. It was a tough road to get to Malawi, fraught with the kinds of things that happen when you try to travel fast through places you don't know well: intimidating night arrivals, moneylessness (foreign exchange places closed on Sundays and at night), dodgy rooms in dodgier hotels (although always managed by very friendly people), missed meals (because of no money) and low clean water stores, etc. Three, long, jam-packed, and sometimes hellish bus rides got us from Harare to Lusaka (Zambia), Lusake to Chipata (at the Zambia/Malawi border), and Chipata to Lilongwe (Malawi) to Mzuzu (still Malawi). From Mzuzu, a last overstuffed and fume-filled minibus finally descended 1000 meters to the shores of idyllic Lake Malawi . . . and that is where we decided we would take a break. And did. But after two days, with plans (on Lake Malawi) fixed for the following week, we found ourselves with three "extra" days and made the six-hour local transport trip to Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve. Highlights: a day of nothing, reading and relaxing in a marsh-side reed hut to the sounds of African wildlife (hippo gurgles, elephant roars, monkey chides, innumerable bird calls); an early-morning hike with Abel, the ranger/scout who took us to within ten meters of a solo wading hippo; endless grazing impala; calm.
Four weeks ago, Jane completed her SCUBA course and I a refresher class (to make up for 5 years out of the water). We celebrated with a feast and a few rounds of drinks at a nearby lodge. We had spent the full week in Nkhata Bay, sleeping in another reed hut right on the busy banks of Lake Malawi. Every morning we woke with the sun (and to the sounds of fishermen returning in dugout canoes from their nighttime efforts), paddled across the bay to the diving school, listened to orientation lectures, got (re)acquainted with the gear, and practiced diving skills. Every evening, happily exhausted, we paddled back, dined at the lakeside restaurant attached to our lodge, and then fell asleep to the gurgle of wind-pressed water (and the distant echo of a nightclub's tacky music).
Three weeks ago, we were happily ensconced in a private apartment in Stone Town, the main city on Unguja, the largest island of the Zanzibar Archipelago. After a tough set of long trips (a full day ferry north on Lake Malawi [during which we watched emergency relief food delivery, an early step to head off the very real, looming famine], a full day of local buses and minivans across the Tanzanian border to the city of Mbeya, and a 26-hour train across Tanzania to Dar-es-Salaam), we caught a fast boat north along the Tanzanian shore and landed at last for Zanzibari rest and relaxation. The day trip-selling touts swooped in, but, for the most part, we kept them at bay while still enjoying the area's attractions: the giant tortoises of Prison Island, the richly diverse spice plantations (now we know how cinnamon, lemongrass, cardamom, coriander, cloves, ginger, turmeric, and a variety of other fruits and spices grow and are harvested!), and the culinary pleasures of the Forodani Gardens. We also connected with Jane's friend Asya and local guide Hisdory, both of whom made us feel incredibly welcome.
Two weeks ago, we were still enjoying Asya's company, but this time in Arusha, and with her friend Omar as well. We had arrived in Arusha, the northern safari capital of Tanzania, the day before and were preparing for our one and only (three-day) African animal-viewing outing. The weather was a good deal chillier than the roasting tropical temperatures of Zanzibar, where we had spent another four days exploring Stone Town, climbing through a muddy cave, SCUBA diving and soaking up sunsets from the north coast at Nungwi, snorkeling with dolphins off the south coast, and hanging out with friends. We had also enjoyed time in Dar es Salaam before the all-day bus to Arusha (and past our only glimpse — through the standard thick mop of clouds — of snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro).
One week ago, we were back in unexpected heat. From Arusha we had sped north across the (expensive) Kenyan border to Nairobi and then hustled quickly away to the mellow city of Kisumu on Lake Victoria. It was just a weekend break to the home of our Kenyan friend, Alfred, who, with Patrick and their colleagues from the African Youth Parliament, and Sarika and Dennis (who with incredible generosity opened their new Nairobi home to us) had welcomed us to our last African country. The week before, we had mingled with the animals for which Africa is justly famous. At the Ngorongoro Crater and in Arusha National Park, we spied on zebras, wildebeests and other -boks, buffaloes, jackals, ostriches, flamingoes, impalas and various gazelle-like creatures, elephants, a rhino (a speck in the distance), hyenas, hippos, lions, giraffes, baboons, Colobus monkeys, and endless birds. We did this from the back of a classic open-topped safari jeep, but also wherever possible on foot. We also made a trip to Lake Eyasi, where some people still live very traditional bush lives. Visits to the Madazawe and Totoga people were too short, but very rewarding (especially Jane's exchange of simple gifts — earrings for a necklace — with a young Madazawean woman).
Twenty-four hours ago, we were happily thrust from the captivity of too many planes into the chill summer air of Belfast, Northern Ireland . . . but warm embrace of Grainne, a local friend. Our last days in Nairobi had gifted us with a visit to the home of another Kenyan friend, Michael, where over a glorious feast, we met his wife and daughter, Irene and Amani, and even his father, Lucas. The next day, in the able hands of (another) Michael, we luckily had time to tour Shalom House, an outstanding structure built and shared by both Michaels' impressive and very busy community-based organizations — Koinonia Community, Amani People's Theatre and African Peace Point. Our very happy time in Kenya was however touched by the sad news of the death of Jane's family dog (and good friend of fourteen years), Tiger, now resting peacefully under the lilly-pilly trees in her mother's backyard.
It has been an amazing adventure that is far from over. The summer in Europe will be followed by an autumn in the States. Winter will see time for visits to Canada and Mexico and spring may bring a brief return to Australia via Hawaii. But in the meantime, we are broke . . . and happy.
The next 14 weeks . . .
Copyright 2003-2004 Ethan Gelber. All rights reserved.