Sep 28, 2010

Arrival and an Alarming Actual Allegory

Our arrival to Tanzania was, how shall I put it, dramatic.

Scale of Africa
Africa is enormous!
Initially Erin and I planned to make the trek from South Africa overland.  Looking at a world map this appeared to be approximately the same distance as Colorado to NY.  I've driven that a number of a times in a little over a day, so three weeks seemed like plenty of time. I knew it wasn't precise, projecting a globe onto a 2d map skews the size of continents.  Not to mention that the US highway system has a reputation of being a little bit easier to navigate than crossing countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Before we made it to Africa, however, I found this intriguing map in a history book (the exceptional Africa: A Biography of a Continent by John Reader.) I knew Africa was big, but had no concept that you could comfortably fit India, China, the continental US, Europe, Argentina and New Zealand inside the continent.  In reality, a direct route from Cape Town to Iringa would be farther than going from NY to California.  Not only that, but the most direct route (on sketchy roads) would send us through the painfully war torn Democratic Republic of Congo.  In other words, we decided to fly instead.

When we arrived at the airport in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania the school thoughtfully had a man named Fouad pick us up.  He seemed to be a gentle man, very helpful and with perfect English.  As we stepped outside the airport, a mob of people rushed into the airport screaming. Puzzled, we asked what was going on... is Bono visiting Africa again?

Fouad paused and calmly stated "A man stole car.  I think they will kill him."        

Wait, what?!?  He explained that because people have little faith in their criminal system people here take justice into their own hands.  Instead of waiting for an arrest, court, and an appeal process a mob may simply stack tires around an alleged criminal and set them on fire.  Often it's a brutal but non-lethal beating, but one study found that in a five year period over 1,200 people were executed by crowds in the city of Dar Es Salaam.  Tanzanian mobs find all sorts of crimes to be capital offenses in Africa, including a shocking amount of  executions because of witchcraft (in the mobs defense, the witchcraft community is far from innocent).  Although many are probably guilty of their crimes, many are not.  Although vigilante justice makes great comic book super heroes it is deeply disturbing to see in reality.    

I find this all horrifying, but an argument could be made that as an American my perspective is hypocritical.  Although I don't support it, my country does have the death penalty.  Furthermore, it wasn't until 1968 that the US got serious about ending the practice of public lynching.  However, my problem is about more than the terror an individual would feel if chased by a mob.  It's also the symptom of a broader problem that hurts the prosperity of the country.  People take justice into their own hands because they fear, right or wrong, that if they went to the police a criminal need only pay a bribe to be set free.  Broadly perceived corruption, whether real or not, cripples society as a whole.  For example, if most people believe a small bribe will get them out of a traffic ticket there will be more bad drivers and more people die as a result of reckless driving.  The same concept applies on every level of society ranging from who gets elected to how businesses operate.  A just rule of law can make a society prosper.  

For example, despite this frightening story Tanzania is a far more peaceful place than the United States.  The Global Peace Index distills an array of complex statistics, ranging from wars to number of homicides, about a nations relationship to violence into a single number.  Tanzania is consistently ranked one of the most peaceful in Africa and far higher than the US.  However, concerns about justice and the rule of law inhibit development in a self perpetuating downward spiral whereas these particular problems aren't really a concern in the US. This real and imagined corruption, and the societal reactions to it, hold back this rich and kind society from profiting from its peaceful nature.    

Sep 19, 2010

Colorful Cape Kingdom Kaleidoscope

Cape Town South Africa-92
Micah in front of Table Mountain in Cape Town
    In the last post I wrote about a nation that was given independence by South Africa, until Mandela welcomed it back into the country in 1994.  For the sake of symmetry, after our visit to the Transkei Erin I went to a kingdom that South Africa, also through Mandela, gave to the whole world ten years later.  It's a fascinating place, and one that goes far deeper than stories about kings, politics, or even human beings.
Floristic Kingdoms
The Floristic Kingdoms

Cape Town South Africa-205   When studying where flowers exist botanists divide the world into six broad floristic kingdoms.  One can find many kinds of flowers, ecosystems and climates within a each kingdom but they share enough characteristics to be clustered together.  Most kingdoms span many countries and even continents.  I personally visited over thirty countries across the Northern Hemisphere before I stepped foot outside of a single kingdom.  When I finally did, on a long trip through Latin America, I was continually amazed by the strange new flowers I came across.     

Cape Town South Africa-208
Cape Town South Africa-221The smallest kingdom is the only one that fits inside a single country, South Africa.  Although tiny, it has one of the highest densities of different plant species on the planet.  Mandela declared the Cape Floral Region a UNESCO World heritage site in 2004 because of this unbelievable diversity.  To give a sense of scale, there are more plant species endemic to the top of Cape Towns iconic Table Mountain than there are in the United Kingdom. 

The biological diversity of this small part of the world is matched by it's ethnic and cultural diversity.  The southern tip of Africa has been a busy since long before history has been recorded.  Ever since Cape Town was established by Europeans it has been a vital port city and embraced immigrants from all over the world.  Nearly every european power is represented, the huge Bo-Kaap neighborhood is historically muslim Malay, and it proves almost irresistible to every expat who visits.  It took all our willpower to escape from  Cape Town to the final leg of our journey to our new home in Tanzania.
Cape Town South Africa-599
The colorful Bo-Kaap neighbood of Cape Town

The National Gallery in Capetown is remarkable and worth a visit, play the above slideshow to see some of our favorite pieces!

Sep 6, 2010

Nonexistent Nation

Port St Johns South Africa-166   You just can't make this stuff up.  Imagine a tiny 'nation' that tried to secede from the brutal regime of the South Africa.  And instead of waging a civil war to keep it the South African Prime Minister (and former Nazi) declared it an independent republic by referring to 'the right of every people to have full control over its own affairs' which was just a wee bit ironic considering he also staunchly also supported apartheid.
Port St Johns South Africa-46Port St Johns South Africa-125   So this newly independent state was no longer South Africa, it became the Transkei with it's own flag, government, and military for 18 years.  The only problem?  South Africa was also the only country on the planet that recognized it.  Despite their best efforts, the rest of the world (and the ANC) refused to let South Africa give it up.  It's a peculiar situation, and one that only got stranger in 1978 when the leaders of the Transkei got so frustrated with South Africa that they cut off all diplomatic ties.  Which means they cut off all relations with the only country that acknowledged their very existence. 
This all ended in 1994.  Nelson Mandela was released, apartheid was eliminated, the constitution was rewritten, and the Transkei was welcomed back into South Africa.  Which was very convenient,  because both Mandela and the next president Thabo Mbeki weren't actually from South Africa.  They were both born in the Transkei.  
Port St Johns South Africa-151

With a history like that, Erin and I couldn't resist visiting.  We navigated some long rides off the beaten path to a little coastal town called Port St Johns.  The wilderness was lush and diverse, people were friendly, laidback and integrated.  More than anything, after a long scramble along the garden route Erin and I needed a place slow down, relax and spend our days hiking and watching the waves crash onto the beach from hammocks.

Sep 1, 2010

Galavanting around the Garden route

Storms River South Africa-62
Beautiful coastal landscape, a region of vineyards renowned the world over, high end homes, strip malls, navigating as helpless pedestrians in a car culture... our trip along the Southern California African coast was fascinating and energizing.

Cape Town South Africa-513I remember learning about South Africa politics as a child.  This proud bastion of legal racism drove my late great uncle Pat crazy with frustration.  He explained the concept of Apartheid in words simple enough that I could grasp it, but never in such a way that I have ever been able to understand it.  The task of making those laws itself proves their insanity.  When creating inhuman laws for humans, the details keep compounding complexity well past the point of absurdity.  They could make a law that said blacks and whites had different legal rights ... but what about mixed-races?  Or people that weren't 'native' but also weren't exactly aryan?  Before long high courts had to develop long list of criteria, as absurd as 'if the hair is curly enough to support a pencil then they are black.'  But when that petty distinction can have a massive impact on everything about how a person lives, one has to wonder if the high court had to weigh on on whether hair straighteners were a legitimate way to 'change races.'  At some point, I've got to believe, that even the people creating the laws realized how ridiculous it had gotten.

Hermanus South Africa-24
At the time I couldn't understand why Pat thought a man thrown in prison a generation ago would still be able to change things.  But in the final years of his life Pat got to live in a world where that man, Mandela, was released and helped rebuild South African law from the ground up.  Unfortunately, there is more to ending discrimination than law and that was a reality that kept screaming out to Erin and I while we travelled along the legendary 'Garden Route.'  The major cities along the coast are immaculate, well guarded, and look like a beautiful cross between Europe, California and an army base.  Without exception people were kind, friendly and engaging but the constant reminders of economic segregation hung in the air.  Cities the hummed with activity during the day shut down at night, when the last bus to the townships took the workers back to the townships and others barricaded themselves in each night.

Buffelsbaai South Africa-1The Garden route is aptly named as it had some of the most spectacular fauna I've seen anywhere in the world.  South Africa has barely 1% of the worlds landmass, but nearly 10% of the worlds plant species.  In some parts of the Colorado Rocky Mountains you can hike all day and see only one or two species of trees.  In South Africa, its almost impossible to open your eyes without seeing a dozen.  The topography itself is magical, we sat on top of a cliff and watched surfers and a couple whales play in the bay for over an hour.  We camped on empty beaches that looked like an artists rendering of 'the ideal beach.'  We saw dozens of different types of birds on long hikes out of the back door of our 18th century Dutch farmhouse.

Storms River South Africa-85
It was a remarkable and worthwhile trek through half a dozen destinations, but halfway up the coast both Erin and I were craving something a little more 'cultural.'  We'd heard legends about a formerly independent nation hidden inside of South Africa that only South Africa recognized.  It sounded like a fascinating place.  It was far poorer than it's "neighboring," country but also without the painful history of Apartheid.  But that is a story for another blog post....

Aug 22, 2010

Inspiring and Incredible Iceland

The Laugavegur hike Iceland-336
In 2002 I was stranded on Iceland with little but the clothes on my back.  In this spectacularly expensive country I was very nearly broke and all my bags were so anxious to get home from a year abroad that they skipped my extended layover and went directly to NY.  But, in the way things often do when traveling on a shoestring, it worked out.  This time it took the form of an Australian guardian angel who'd made entirely too much money working off the coast of Norway for a year and wanted a friend to explore with. It was only a couple days and I got just enough of a taste of this fascinating country to swear I'd be back.
Reykjavik Iceland-19Erin, as it turns out, has lifelong attraction for gnomes and surreal landscapes so we pleaded with the airline until we got our one hour layover in Reykjavik extended by a week.  The only problem was, Iceland is so spectacularly expensive that it really is out of reach to a couple who just quit their nice jobs to work in Sub-Saharan Africa.  This time the guardian angel took the form of some despicable American money managers who'd thoughtfully imploded the world economy a couple years before.  Iceland has a tiny population and too many people worked in international financial services.  With few resources other than surreal natural beauty, wool and hot water the economy of Iceland crumbled and the Kroner halved in value relative to the dollar.  What was once impossibly expensive, became merely extremely expensive and we booked the flights.

The Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon Iceland-68

The legendary Blue Lagoon is a small lake of opaque water that bubbles up from ground so hot that they built a power plant on top of it.  Instead of burning mountains of coal to power their cities, Iceland has clean and inexpensive geothermal energy.  Coal plants generate massive amounts of waste which sometimes causes disasters, like the TVA slurry spill in 2008 that dumped tons of toxic chemicals into the water supply in Tennessee, crippled the local ecosystem and will cost nearly a $billion to clean up.
Blue Lagoon Iceland-51
Bathing in industrial waste
In Iceland, their system works differently.  In 1976 they built a geothermal powerplant outside of the capital city Reykjavik.  Like the coal plant, it too constantly spills out a byproduct.  The difference is, people started bathing the hot mineral water the geothermal plant produced.  Before long, the bathers noticed that it helped with health problems and the minerals did wonders for their skin. So, while in Tennessee they'll be cleaning up their disaster for generations, in Iceland they built a luxury spa next to the power plant and sell mineral creams worldwide as high end skin care products.  Call me crazy, but I like their system better. Although geothermal power plants only work in volcanic regions, it would work well in parts of the US.

The Laugavegur Hike
The Laugavegur hike Iceland-383
It's impossible to describe Iceland without talking about the landscape. It's also impossible to describe the landscape 
The oldest democracy (~930AD) is located on one of the newest landscapes on earth, a country that grows about an inch every year as the the North American and European continental plates pull apart.  There aren't many species of plants and animals because its an isolated island that was buried under a massive glacier during the last ice age. That seems like a long time ago, until I found that about 10% of the country is still under ice today.
The Laugavegur hike Iceland-157

When I came to Iceland the first time I was intrigued by the landscape, but mostly only saw it through the bus window. One of the many benefits of being with a Colorado girl is that she craves mountains and insists on making time to be in the wilderness.  We'd heard of a legendary four-day 53km backpacking trip in the south east.  Thanks to the devious machinations of gnomes we only had three days free to do it, which was disappointing until Erin noted that since the sun never sets we could hike all day (uh oh!).  The landscape is quite unlike anything I'd ever seen before.  Even within the hike itself the views were so unique that every couple hours it looked totally different.  Rather than describe it with words, click below for a slideshow of our pictures (or click any picture to get to our Flickr site).

It was a tough hike, and the weather ranged from sunny and pleasant, to intense hailstorms. Most of the time we were alone, but the route itself is divided by public campsites every 12-16 km apart.  Although they offered little but flat spots for a tent and an outhouse, they were a godsend when trudging through occasionally brutal weather late into the daylit night.  It was an amazing and rewarding trek.
Although we were disappointed not to have seen any gnomes in Iceland, they did pilfer some of our stuff along the way.  They got my camera charger, and a passport... but at least they had the decency to give the latter back.  Next time we're in Iceland, I'm going to have to capture one.

Aug 5, 2010

An apology!

   To the handful of you diligent enough to be checking this site regularly with hopes of a brand new post from any one of the countries we've been in 'til now, I'm sorry!   The Journey has been spectacular thus far... and ranged from a happy homecoming, UNBELIEVABLE backpacking in Iceland, romantic adventures traipsing around Europe, and an spectacular introduction to Africa.
  Unfortunately, what this trip hasn't had (yet) is good or reasonably priced internet.  It's either painfully expensive, or terribly slow (and when we're lucky, both!)
    Fortunately, that'll hopefully change when we get to Tanzania (in a week!)  I've got a lot of pictures and stories to share!

Jun 27, 2010

Hopecoming Hijinks

This journey started with a visit to a place so unique, so off-the-beaten-path, that most travelers will have never heard of it.

Erin and I visited it for several reasons, but one of those was that this place like our future home in Tanzania.  It has a pre-British Colonial history that still has an influence on life today. In it's day this relatively small city was the capital of one of the wealthiest empire states the world has ever seen.  But even today, it's possible to be attacked by wild animals in the heart of the downtown.   

The other reason to visit Albany, NY is that it's been the launching point for every trip I've ever made.  My folks, and many of my oldest friends still live there.  We had a few other rounds of frantic 'Oh my God, this is the last chance to buy___ before moving to Africa' shopping sprees (following similar runs in Colorado, and followed by others in Amsterdam, Paris, and yet another 'last chance' opportunity in the cosmopolitan Cape Town. ).

We had a wonderful time, and it was the first chance Erin and I had to breath after our frantic departure from Denver.  We went hiking in the Adirondacks,  Mom threw us a Bon Voyage party, and Dad took us to a spectacular bridge over the Hudson river.  In Colorado they call it a river if you can't jump over it, so its nice to see what a river that nearly a mile across looks like. 

It was great to see so many old friends, and even better to see them doing well. 

PS) Getting pictures uploaded and organized from the road is still a challenge.  These pictures aren't linked to a broader album yet.  I'll fix these, and breath new life into my Flickr account , when I can sit down with a laptop and quicker connection.   

Jun 20, 2010

Dramatic Departure Demonstrates Devotion

We always knew leaving Colorado would be hard but we had no idea how hard.  A couple months before, when I put in notice at work, we debated whether I should take the last week off.  We thought it through, confident in the fact that we were already both better prepared than either of us had been before.  We weighed having the time to say goodbye to our home state casually versus the economics that one weeks income in Colorado is roughly comparable to one years rent in Tanzania.

So, it turned out, I made the first spectacularly bad decision of the trip two months before we even left the country.

Somehow life accumulates.  When Tyler and I moved to Colorado we both fit everything we owned comfortably in a small minivan but somewhere along the way I picked up enough things to fill up a small mountain kingdom.  Erin had even longer to collect things, including a small house that we simply could not fit in either backpack.

Suddenly two months was two weeks and we just barely got someone to agree to rent the house.  We both have tons of family and friends in Colorado to say goodbye to, and only one small box tentatively packed. Recognizing our predicament, I did the most logical thing... get into the worst bike accident of my life.  My right elbow hurt to even think about picking up anything the same week we had to pack an entire household into storage, which immediately preceded carrying our whole life halfway around the planet, all while scrambling to tie up loose ends from a full time job.

It was while drowning under this massive sea of stress that we discovered what we will really miss about life in Colorado.  While we started wondering if what would happen if we simply missed the flight, our people came out of the woodwork.  Neighbors, family and friends stepped up and spent long hours packing, cleaning, moving and keeping us alive.  We couldn't possibly have done it without their help.  As it was, we weren't able to stop moving for the last week, and even then it came down to packing our backpacks the morning our flight left.  If any one of our heros hadn't offered to help, we literally would not have made it.

It was an awe inspiring display of spontaneous community, and by the time we finally got to breath a sigh of relief on a plane flying out of Denver we were both in tears.  Thank you all so much, and you are why we already miss Colorado.

May 18, 2010

An African Adventure (and Alliterations!)

I have always wanted to go into the Peace Corps.  And I almost did, twice.

An ill defined dream of living in a mud hut kept me pushing through to the grueling finish line of an undergrad engineering degree. The idea of development work was why I got interested in building with local materials, renewable energy systems and Buckminster Fuller. That spring, I got my posting... To teach chemistry in Tanzania. It sounded like a magical place, home to Africas tallest mountain and the Serengeti national park.  I was excited about the prospect, but a bit disappointed too.  After a years of academia, I wanted to go out an build something not stay in school (although on the other side of the desk).  I didn't go, there was too much going on at school to leave so I promised myself that I'd wait until I had some skills to share.

And then, as it does, life took over.

Over a decade later I'm about to fulfill my promise... in two days Erin and I are leaving our lives in Colorado and moving to Iringa, Tanzania.  I'll keep this blog updated with how we get there, and what we find when we arrive so drop by my new virtual home once in a while to say hi!.