A New Year.

 

It is hard for me to believe that Christmas is past, that a new year has begun, and that I have been traveling for over five months. I’ve had none of the familiar indicators of passing time. I’ve jumped time zones and seasons. I’ve felt the crispness of fall, the heat of deep summer, and the promise of early spring in the same week. My internal clock has been rewound, fast-forwarded, and rewound again. If not for the watch on my left hand, I would have a hard time noting the day of the week, let alone the day of the month.

Physically, there are few changes to note. The sun has left me tanned (okay, freckled) and highlighted. An Indian hairdresser, distracted by her own description of the impending end of the world, chopped half my hair. Miles walked have calloused my feet. I can’t be bothered to wear make-up.

If I measure time internally, in my own growth and understanding, surely years have passed. Surely 2012 has lasted a decade. It has brought me from the safe confines of undergraduate life into the frenzy and beauty of the nomadic; from a class schedule to a schedule of constant improvisation; from book learning in the library to marinating in knowledge and culture. To travel is to learn. Incessantly. Unceasingly. Every day is new. Every day requires you to adapt; to figure out where you are, where you need to go, and how you need to get there.

Travel stretches the realm of “possible.” You begin to think, and to dream, bigger. You have a wider lens of understanding. You realize you see life in a new way, but you can’t really point to when this happened. Because you are constantly growing.

And you can never turn back.
And this is great.

In 2012, I began an incredible journey. I realize more and more every day how this journey is shaping my life, my future. And while it has been solo, I have by no means been alone. Friends and family have been a constant support. Strangers have become friends. They have guided me on the streets, safeguarded me on buses, welcomed me into their homes, and even nursed me back to health. 2012 has given me a new faith in humanity, in the goodness of people. For this, I feel blessed beyond reason.

To all those who have been a part of my 2012, I thank you, a million times over.

And now,
Let the adventures continue.

Bring on Twenty Thirteen.

 

Incredible India

A droplet of sweat rolls down my neck; the muggy Bangalore air wafting into the small Internet café fails to dry it. I have a couple hours to kill until my overnight bus to Hampi. In less than a week, my father will be arriving in India to celebrate Christmas with me. I’m speaking with him via Gmail Voice to finalize our plans, trying to make myself heard over the unceasing street sounds.

I’m quite nervous for his arrival – nervous that he will be overwhelmed, that it will be too much, that he will hate it here. India can be jarring, abrasive.  But if you let your body fall into a new frequency, if you let it run through you and not into you, you begin to see Incredible India in all its glory. The beeps, honks and screeches become an invigorating symphony; the jolting, swerving auto rickshaws and motorbikes a roller coaster; the pushing crowds a chance to immerse in humanity. Join the rhythm of chaos, and see life – in all its forms and emotions – made manifest.

Even in my first few minutes, as under slept as I was, I felt it. A new kind of energy, pulsating around me, ready to ooze into my very being. From shadows in a cave to three dimensions; from black and white to high definition; from subtitles to surround sound. All it took was one ride on the Bombay trains – where I was not only allowed but encouraged to hang out the ever-open doors – to seal the deal. The growing number of rush hour bodies pushed me farther and farther out of the car; the wind whipped across my body; the towering skyline paraded in front of me. My soul soared, and India won my heart.

As I try to explain this to my dad, the symphony of the street climaxes into a crescendo of percussions. Explosions. Firecrackers? The inability to speak over the booming bangs, and my growing curiosity as to the source, pulls me away from the screen and towards the open door. I am not alone. The other five computers quickly empty, and we clamber onto the streets like moths to a flame.

The intersection is ablaze with the crackling fireworks exploding at ground level. With my eyes and ears fixated on the fiery bursts, I do not at first notice the rest of the crowd. Dancing men dressed in white flanked by a marching band in uniforms. I pull out my camera.

A man, one of the growing spectators, pushes me towards the pyrotechnic display, insisting I get closer for my photograph. As I turn to protest, I see it coming. My arm reflexively flies up to block my face. The singeing shrapnel collides with my exposed throat.

My hand drops, feeling for the wound. My eyes quickly scan the crowd, searching for some kind of reassurance. No one seems to notice that I have been hit.

Not to say that I haven’t been noticed.

I am noticed everywhere. My light skin and hair make me a celebrity. Some ask to take my photograph. Some take my photograph without asking. Everyone stares. One man on a motorbike actually drove off the road as he strained his neck farther and farther around to keep his eyes locked on me. Though slightly unnerving, the attention is not motivated by sinister intentions. When my eyes meet theirs, I see only curiosity – interest spurred by my own novelty.

My presence here, at this parade of sorts, shifts the attention of the crowd. I am soon pulled to the center, surrounded first by the dancers, then the band, and then the spectators. The music begins. They tell me to dance.

I hesitate, but just for a moment. After four months of travel, my innate shyness has almost completely dissipated; the smiling, expecting faces melt away any remainder. Channeling Bollywood, I begin to dance without reservation. A large, professional-looking (though slightly outdated) camera is held over the crowd, its lens zoomed on me. I don’t know why it is here; I don’t even know why any of it is here. But I don’t care. I just dance. And everyone follows.

The music ends. My body comes to a stop. Hands reach out from all directions to shake mine. I eventually loose myself from the crowd and fade into the backstreets.

I wander the streets until my growling stomach reminds me that I must eat before the long bus ride. I spend a little too much time enjoying my mixed vegetable curry and have to rush to pick up my luggage. I walk briskly through a group of men; they call to me enthusiastically.

Ma’am! Ma’am! Hello! Ma’am!

I turn – expecting the customary “Where are you from?” followed by “Would you like a…” – with “no, thank you” already formed on my tongue. They surprise me with something else.

Ma’am! Ma’am! We love your dancing!

I am dumbfounded. In the last hour, I have been hit in the throat by exploding firecrackers. I have been pulled into the center of a crowd of dancers, musicians, and spectators. I have been filmed by God-only-knows-who. And I have been told my dancing is good.

I will never doubt the absurdity of a Bollywood film. I will never question a local tale. In India, everything is possible.

 

Informal with the Formal

I pull my bag onto my back and start down the dirt road, zigzagging around the jutting rocks, littered trash, and permanent puddles on the impenetrably compacted path. I turn my shoulder to take one last look at the turquoise waters of Nungwi, Zanzibar, a paradise so removed from the poverty of the village. As I do, I see Machu coming after me. He waves me back. Just make sure to get on one that looks like a bus, not those others ones. I promise I will. He smiles and waves good-bye, confident he has done his part to get me across Zanzibar safely. I hike up my pack and continue to walk towards the village center.

In about 15 minutes, under the directions of Machu, as well as a few other helpful local men, I have reached my somewhat vague destination. A few different vehicles are parked around this intersection and the neighboring field. Some are small buses, some more like vans, and others wall-less trucks. All are dala dalas, or minibus taxis. Heeding Machu’s warning, I pick the safest looking minibus headed for Stone Town, the main city on the island of Zanzibar.

I board the bus, immediately drawing attention to my skin color and obvious foreign air. Most tourists arrange private taxis or utilize the shared taxis transporting passengers from one hotel to another (at a much higher cost). A man immediately gets up and helps me to a window seat. I am grateful, as the wind will be a relief from the heat. When the bus is full, we depart. Between here and Stone Town, there are no established stops, no printed maps, no timed schedules. If someone wants to get off, they will be allowed to get off. If someone wants to get on, they will be allowed to get on. The number of seats is irrelevant – there is always room for one more. We pass other dala dalas (the truck-like ones I was told to avoid) with up to four men standing on the outer edge and holding on to the back of the truck.

These informal systems – paratransit – remain the backbone of transportation for many African cities. The have responded to the needs of the people when the government did not, or could not, by providing cheap and accessible means of getting around. Safety is another question. Vehicles are old; drivers are fast; ridership per vehicle is above capacity. While it may be tempting to suggest they should be replaced with official networks of transportation, this may not be a realistic prospect. In Cape Town, this seems to be a growing realization.

Prior to the 2010 World Cup, cities in South Africa relied almost completely on private transportation – minibus taxis, bus companies and/or commuter rail. Government public transportation was near nonexistent. Apartheid spatial planning created communities separated by long distances, thus creating a great challenge to, and necessity for, public transit connections between them. The prospect of hosting such an enormous event provided the perfect impetus, and funding, for the development of these.

In light of the success of bus rapid transit (BRT) – creating dedicated bus lanes to avoid road congestion – in Latin America, the idea was to replace existing paratransit with BRT. In Cape Town, the resultant bus rapid transit system is called MyCiti. While effective for the area it serves, this is only a small portion of the city with future expansion in mind. Expenses have been much greater than expected, and there is a real possibility that the government will spend all of its resources on a few BRT lines, thereby neglecting the majority of the population.  Total replacement of paratransit seems a goal far out of reach.  Signs point to a more realistic compromise – a hybrid system utilizing the formal and informal transportation networks – if policymakers accept that paratransit will not disappear.

As other African cities prepare for their own public transportation endeavors, such as Dar es Salaam’s introduction of BRT in a dala dala dominated city, policymakers and government officials should consider a more open and integrated approach. By allowing the minibus taxis to continue to exist, they can become a feeder/distributor network to support the primary BRT arteries – a task for which the smaller vehicles are well suited – and reduce the necessary investment.

Paratransit may not be the most photogenic system, or the safest, but it successfully serves the majority population in many African cities. It developed in response to real needs of people, and its place and purpose in pubic transportation should not be overlooked. Reform, rather than replacement, is the more logical ideal.

In the meantime, I will be satisfied with paratransit’s place in my budget. An hour and a half and one dollar later, I am in Stone Town.

[The Perils of] African Overland Adventures

I hug my knees to my chest, trying to relieve the pain in my back. A cockroach runs across my feet. I shudder, knocking into the legs of the man behind me. I have extended beyond my allotted space in the aisle of the bus. I know the beauty of Tanzania – the reason I decided to travel overland – is just out the window. From my spot on the floor, I see only legs. I look at my watch: 11 hours left to go.

This journey began over three days ago in Livingstone, Zambia, home of the wondrous Victoria Falls. Graham, a traveler from Ireland, and I met on a 22-hour bus ride to Livingstone from Windhoek, Namibia, and stayed at the same hostel – Jollyboy’s Backpackers. We both intended to go to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, but had loose plans for getting there. After talking to several travelers at the hostel who came from Dar, we decided to team up and take the Kilamajaro Express – an epic 48+ -hour train ride starting in Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia, and rambling into and across Tanzania.

The train departs on Tuesdays and Fridays. We opted for the Friday departure. Kapiri Mposhi is 2.5 hours north of the Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. Lusaka is 7 hours northeast of Livingstone. After spending Thursday morning exploring Victoria Falls, we board the Mazandu Family Bus to Lusaka. A comfortable, air conditioned journey brings us to our first taste of real Africa – at the Lusaka Central Bus Terminal, we are thrown into a mob of taxi drivers vying for our attention (and promising the world). A Canadian couple traveling on the same bus has a private driver, and he is able to find us a reliable driver. After acquiring two dorm beds at Lusaka Backpackers, we collapse in the poolside chairs, break into our reserves – peanut butter and banana sandwiches – and begin to plan the next day’s adventures.

In the morning, we rise early so as to be at the front desk when the hostel worker comes at 7 am. We have been told he can reserve our compartment for the train leaving Kapiri Mposhi at 2 pm. We greet him as he arrives – he does not looked pleased to have eager customers already. We are told to come back at 8:30 when the train office will be open.

We eat our complimentary cereal, drink our coffee, share stories with the other guests, and go back to the desk. We are told the train will leave at 4 pm – not 2 pm as we thought – and we have a second-class compartment on hold. We must get there as soon as we can to pay for the tickets. We pack up and head back to the bus terminal to catch a ride to Kapiri Mposhi.

The scent of foreigners seems to have announced our arrival. Heads all turn our way and bodies begin to ascend. They ask where we are going, and we tell them. Oh do you want to leave now? Yes? Okay, you must hurry; a bus is just about to leave! It will drop you right at the train station! Five men pull us forward and begin to run. We have no choice but to keep up as they drag us along. They jump in front of a bus in drive. Wait! Wait! We have two more! The driver honks. They keep waving. He honks again. An attendant comes to give us tickets.  One of the five men takes our bags and puts them under our bus; the others follow. He demands a baggage fee; we protest. The other men surround us. We give in, pay the money to the most-likely-frauds, and board the bus, anxious to watch this terminal disappear in the distance.

Two hours later, we are still sitting in the unmoving bus. We have watched the same ploy to get passengers again and again. Others tried to buy tickets to another bus, only to find their ticket was given for this one. No one is happy. The beating sun and constant flow of men walking up and down the aisle selling everything from wigs to perfume to chargers does not improve the mood. When every seat is finally taken, we pull out of the terminal. In the end, our 2½-hour bus ride becomes over 6 hours.

We also discover the train is meant to leave at 2 pm.

At 3 pm, we are pushed off the bus – without a train station in sight – into an even larger throng of drivers. Feeding time has arrived. We are pulled and coerced by everyone in every direction. Our frustration rises with the chaos and confusion around us. The train is gone! The train is gone! We are told from all directions that we have been defeated, that we will not catch the train today. But all have a solution ready that involves getting in their taxi.

One man, much calmer than the rest, approaches. He explains that the train will reach Mkushi, its next stop, in less than an hour. If we go with him, we can catch it in time. Graham and I look at each other; we must make a decision. Our trust falls to this man, Moses, and we get in his car. His quintessential African driving whizzes between and around semi-trucks, takes short cuts through dirt fields, and brings us to the next station – full of what we assume are fellow travelers – before the train arrives. In fact, as we will soon find out, the train has not yet even departed from Kapiri Mposhi, our previous destination. Whether or not Moses knew this will remain a mystery.

We spend the next two hours waiting at the Mkushi station chatting with the local history teacher and one of the guardsmen while also serving as the object of attention for most of the town. We get the feeling that not too many wazungu (white people) come through here. A couple of bold 13 year-old boys also approach us.  We learn from them that only a tiny fraction of the people at the station will board the train – the station is used as a community-gathering place. Isaac is here “to play with his friends and talk to girls.”  As the sun begins to set, our presence has become more or less accepted. The initial fear of one baby from merely looking at my pale face forged a friendship with some of the local women. We laugh as I determinedly try to win over the small boy and eventually succeed.

When the train finally arrives, Graham and I are sad to leave this small Zambian town. Our frustrations have melted away. We both know these two hours have become treasures of our African travels.

We board the train and try to find an available sleeper compartment. We are ushered into neighboring but separate compartments: one all-male and one all-female. I am paired with Purity, Jackie and Juliet – three Zambians traveling to Dar es Salaam for a short holiday. They are welcoming and immediately put me at ease. Unfortunately, Graham’s situation was not so. He entered the four-berth compartment as the fifth man and answered the menacing looks by renting out an empty compartment in second class. The attendant brings me to this new one, and I say good-bye to the three women.

In my brief time with these women, I learned something – something I will have to tell Graham and that will shatter his look of relaxation as we settle into our new space. I have learned that the train will not be going to Dar es Salaam. Due to a strike, it will dump us at the Zambian-Tanzanian border.

From there, we fend for ourselves. Our frustrations resurface; the train rambles on.

The cool, night air pulls us to the window of our compartment; we are mesmerized. The clear sky provides the perfect backdrop to the infinite stars, sliver moon, and silhouetted trees and shrubs of the African bush. The uncertainty of the future disappears behind the beauty of the present. Our thoughts turn from the looming border to the splendor of the land we are traversing. In this moment, we recognize its challenges and difficulties as part of its character, as part of its allure.  And we are seduced.

We fall asleep to the wrenching of the wheels against the tracks, trusting against all our senses that we will arrive safely.

The night is full of children running down the halls, outbursts from neighboring compartments, and sudden jolts and tumbles; yet, we sleep well. We bask in the luxury of sleeping on our backs instead of a cramped bus seat. With no place to go, I lazily spend the morning drifting in and out of consciousness, watching Zambia roll by, in and out of my dreams.

The early morning hum of activity on the train gets louder and louder as the day progresses. We are acquiring more and more passengers at each village we pass. As we slow to a stop, crowds await. Children run down to the tracks. Some are there to wave at the passengers (and especially at the unexpected wazungu), some to sell goods, and some to climb into the train. Babies are passed through windows, women are pulled up from the inside, and packages are thrown to open arms.  We can no longer open the door to our compartment – the aisles have become full of people. The train seems to wince at ever turn, weighed down by the ever increasing load.

At 5 pm, almost 24 hours since boarding the day before, we reach the border. We are pulled into a flow of people exiting the train, spit into a mob onto the platform, and immediately pounced upon by local “guides.” The Zambian departure protocol consists of a solitary man walking across the platform with a stamp in hand. We hold our passports open to an empty page; he stamps without even looking at our names.

We walk towards the Tanzania border, following the train tracks, and followed by our unwanted “guides.” We have to get our visas, find a bus to Dar es Salaam, and ditch these two men.

With new visas in our passports, we consult the border control as to the bus schedule. There will not a bus until tomorrow. Our hearts sink. We ask where we can stay in town. We are told it is not safe for us to be here. We must get a minibus to Mbeya, about three hours away, and stay the night. From Mbeya, we will take a bus to Dar the next morning. The man next to us is to do the same, and as he speaks Swahili, we attach ourselves to him, successfully avoiding the “guides.” He gladly accepts us under his wing, though we feel its safety for only a few minutes.

Outside of the border control office, he begins speaking to a man on an auto rickshaw in Swahili. Graham and I are pulled onto the rickshaw and carted off, while our new benefactor waits for the next one. He promises to be right behind us.

We are taken to a dalla-dalla (minibus taxi) headed for Mbeya and find ourselves in the back corner of what should be a 12-seater bus, with bags on our laps. By the time we leave, over 20 people have piled into the bus (all holding children, boxes, computer or bags), our new friend arriving too late to find a place. He waves at us as we pull away, and we try to smile back. Full attention is given to the two wazungu on the bus, and we receive unabashed stares and gestures. Darkness falls, and we are at the mercy of the dalla-dalla driver in the middle of nowhere, Tanzania. We drive on.

Four men board about halfway through the journey and show a keen interest in us. They spend the first chunk of time talking amongst themselves while pointing and staring. Soon, one of them begins to talk to Graham, asking where he is going and offering his services as a guide. The others do not take their eyes off of me. Our discomfort rises. We will have to get a hotel quickly. Just when we have determined we will not get off the bus until there is a hotel in sight by providing the driver whatever bribe is necessary, the attendant on the bus yells back at us. Where are you going? We tell him for a second time Mbeya. Yes, but where in Mbeya?We need a hotel, somewhere to sleep! He nods his head; our prayers have been answered.

Fifteen minutes later, we are dropped off within 20 feet of the Mbeya Forest Hill Motel entrance. As we greet the receptionist, our bodies relax.

We explain our situation. She arranges a taxi to take us to the bus station so we can secure a ride for the morning to Dar es Salaam. She assures us of the driver’s safety and competency – he will help us find a good company.

The bus station is only 15 minutes away by car. The driver comes into one of the booking offices with us to make the arrangements. We ask him if this is a good company. Yes, this is the best. We pay for our tickets and pick our seats on the bus – number 13 and 14. It will depart at 10 am and arrive in Dar at 7 pm. We must come back in the morning by 9:30 am; our current taxi driver agrees to pick us up from the hotel at 9 am. He takes us back to Mbeya Forest Hill, and we head straight for the restaurant for our first meal of the day (aside from a couple mangos purchased through the train window). It’s just after 10.

Exhausted from the stress of the day, satisfied from our meal, and comforted by the chance to take a warm shower, we fall asleep quickly and deeply.

As we are enjoying our complimentary continental breakfast of fresh bread and fruits, the taxi driver arrives to take us to the bus terminal… 45 minutes early. We ask him to come back later; he says he will wait outside. Afraid he will charge us for the wait time, we reluctantly put our already-packed bags in the car and arrive at the terminal and hour and a half before our departure time (10 am). We sit in front of the booking office, the sun directly in front of us. The man who sold us our tickets greets us enthusiastically and stores our bags in the office. The time passes slowly at first, until we meet Francisco, a local man on his way to Sunday services. He stops to chat.

He conversation jumps from one topic to the next, with no clear path. He is friendly, generous, and extremely entertaining. He seems to particularly enjoy my company. Soon we are joined by another, younger man – Yabaya – who works for the bus company. He sits beside me. Francisco turns to me. Are you Christian? I nod. Which kind? Roman Catholic? I nod again. Do you like bananas? I hesitantly answer yes, I do in fact like bananas. And he disappears. Graham and I exchange confused looks, and then conversation resumes with Yabaya. Fifteen minutes later, Francisco returns, black shopping bag in hand. He hands it to me – For you – and walks away again. Inside are two grilled bananas – a delicious and very popular street food I will have to recreate at home – and one avocado. Graham and I enjoy them immensely.

Another man walks over and begins chatting to Yabaya in Swahili. It’s his brother. Yabaya introduces us, and his brother begins to laugh and look at me in a new way. I have introduced you as my future wife, Yabaya tells me. My eyes widen and cheeks flush. Oh, okay, I say and nervously smile. He laughs, so we will go to America then? I don’t know what to say. Luckily, Francisco returns to change the conversation. It is time for him to go the church. He scribbles on a piece of paper, hands it to me, and tells me he will be praying for my safe journey. On the paper is his full name – Francisco Atupele Christopher Benedikto Mwafongo – address, and telephone number. I say good-bye and make a mental note to send him a thank you postcard for the banana.

It is now past 10 am, the time our bus was supposed to arrive. We are continuously told it is just a few minutes away. It doesn’t come. At 10:30, we are pulled over to a dalla-dalla and passed over to a man in red shirt. The bus isn’t coming, but this man will take you to our other bus. Sister company. Hakuna matata, everything will be okay. We find ourselves again at the mercy of the schedule-less minibus system and vendor attacks at every stop. 45 minutes later, the man in the red shirt pulls us off the dalla-dalla.  Come, you will get your bus now. We are parked next to a medium sized bus. Though it has certainly passed its prime, this ragged bus delights us – finally a vehicle that will take us to Dar.

The man in the red shirt puts our bags under the bus, and we start up the stairs to board the bus. We freeze at the sight in front of us, then slowly turn to the driver, pleading for some explanation.

There are no empty seats.

There will not be any empty seats. We will have to stand. Or sit on the floor. Until we reach Dar. In 14 hours.

I am stupefied. I cannot fathom how the day will ever end. I cannot fathom where seats 13 and 14 went. I cannot fathom how that man decided to cheat us like this. Graham pulls me forward. Kathleen, we have no choice. I relent, go to my space halfway done the aisle, and sit down.

14 hours left to go.

The aisle is littered with trash, unwanted snacks, and soda bottles. The glass clinks and knocks into my back at every turn, emptying its remnants onto my clothes. In less than an hour, we have picked up more people. Now the entire aisle is full. Bodies occupy every available space. I have my first encounter with our much smaller passengers as they crawl around and over my feet, feasting on the trash around me.

11 hours left to go.

I bury myself in War and Peace, my African overland companion, escaping into Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. The sudden stops, quick turns, and mountain roads knock me back and forth between the seats and throw me forward into Graham. I keep reading. Soon, I have been given a plastic crate to sit on. It slips and slides on the bottles and flings me off at the turns, but I have something to sit on. I welcome its relative comfort. We keep driving.

My body screams to let it stretch, to let it rest. I feel a tap on my shoulder from the woman next to me (in a real seat) and abandon Tolstoy. We are stopped at road construction, and there are vendors reaching through the windows. The woman has bought grilled corn on the cob. She breaks it in half, handing one piece to me. I try to refuse but she insists. The sweet kernels soothe my stomach, aggravated by the constant serves and jerking stops of the bus. We begin to talk.

She is traveling in a group of six from Malawi on business. They make this trip often. She sympathizes with Graham and me – on her first trip, she was cheated in the same way. We ask where she is staying in Dar; she tells us a hotel in walking distance from one of the bus drop-offs. We ask if we can come with them to find a room, our eyes pleading. She smiles. Of course. We smile, and our eyes rejoice. We may have 6 hours left on the bus, but at least we have somewhere to go. We will not reach Dar until after 1 in the morning.

I turn back to Tolstoy, now using my small reading light. We keep driving, and the hours pass. Slowly.

I feel another tap on my shoulder. Is that your husband? The Malawian woman next to me asks, pointing at Graham. I shake my head no. Is he your boyfriend? Again, I tell her no. So just a friend? Yes, just a friend. Oh, okay. My brother – she points to the man behind us smiling – would like to marry you. I flush, not knowing what to say. This man has not even spoken a single word to me, nor have I to him. He introduces himself. I’m Rafael. My mouth opens, then closes, then opens again – I return the introduction sheepishly. You don’t like me? I don’t even know you! So in the future, we will get married? I shrug my shoulders and tell him the future is a mystery. I turn back to War and Peace. The pain in my back fires up and down my spine, my muscles cramp.

Two hours left to go.

Napoleon is exiled to the island of St. Helena. The notion of victory and defeat in war is changed. Natasha marries Pierre. I have finished War and Peace, and my motion sickness returns. I close my eyes and try to find some way to rest my head. Nothing seems to work.

One hour left to go.

I open my eyes. I see buildings! Not villages, but the outskirts of a city!  Never has the sight elated me so. I shove Graham with more force than necessary. Graham, we must be getting close! He looks out and smiles. Yes, yes, we are! The minutes inch by; the buildings get denser; my anticipation heightens.

The bus comes to a stop. We are at a bus terminal. Graham and I excitedly turn to our new Malawian friends. No, this is not our stop. We will wait to the next one. We sit back down. People climb over us and on top of us. We are being called from outside.

They tell us they have our bags. They tell us we must get off. They tell us this is the last stop. We shout back that we are staying; they say we must get off. Confused and fearful of losing our bags, we step and squeeze through the aisle to get off the bus. We are pulled by one driver and the next, saying we must go! we must go! Our eyes anxiously scan for our bags; Graham’s is on the ground. He grabs it, pushes the men away and climbs back on the bus. I cannot find my bag. I run around the bus, looking for it and trying to escape the reach of the men around me. They follow, telling me that my friends are lying, that we must get off here, that he will take me where I need to go.

I find my bag; it’s still under the bus. I try to extricate myself from the crowd surrounding me but cannot find a hole. Suddenly an arm grabs me. I turn towards it, slowly, fearful of seeing my captor. It’s the Malawian woman, cursing at the men in Swahili and pulling me to the safety of the bus. Don’t worry, we are almost there, she tells me. We drive on. I remain standing, clinging to the luggage racks above.

Again, the bus slows to a stop. Rafael answers my pleading look: this is our stop. I grab my bag and push my way off the bus. We walk to the hotel. We get our rooms. I take a shower.

The water runs down my body, erasing the dirt and residue of the journey.

I am clean, and I am safe.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

Where the sidewalk ends.

There’s nowhere left to go. I have spent the past 100 meters balancing on about a foot of pavement, trying to pretend it is a sidewalk. In reality, it is simply a bit of landscaping for the perfectly manicured bushes cutting over it. Taxis speed past me again and again, shooting out onto the freeway. I try to keep walking, but I am beginning to realize the futility. It is my first night in Dubai, but I have spent the last six in Abu Dhabi. I should know by now that this is not a country for pedestrians. Dejected, I hail a taxi.

I am staying with a wonderful Dutch couple – Marcel and Ilona – on the Palm Jumeriah, an artificial archipelago in the shape of a palm tree, known for its beautiful apartments and crowned by the massive Atlantis Hotel. Marcel and Ilona live halfway up the Palm. Marcel went out to meet friends, and Ilona is at yoga – they advised me to go check out the Atlantis in the meantime, just a mere 4 kilometers away.

The Atlantis is no ordinary hotel. Nothing here seems to be. Malls have ski slopes and ice rinks. Skyscrapers touch the heavens. Prayer calls are wirelessly transmitted. Atlantis, The Palm, is modeled after the Atlantis in the Bahamas and includes a water park, aquarium, shopping mall, dolphin swimming, conference center, and stretches of private beaches. The opening of the Atlantis in 2008 included the opening of the first monorail in the Middle East – the Palm Jumeriah Monorail – as stipulated in the original agreement to construct the new resort. Unfortunately, the monorail has not been deemed a success.

The line runs between the mainland and the hotel, without serving the apartments in between. Though future plans consider linking to the Dubai Metro, it currently only ends in a parking lot, meaning that you must drive your car to the monorail. Additionally, the cost of the tickets exceeds the cost of a taxi to anywhere on the Palm. Needless to say, ridership is incredibly low, not even close to reaching the 40,000 passengers per day capacity (600 passengers per day in 2009). Its purpose does not go much beyond a curiosity for tourists. I find it to be simply another flashy development showcasing the new wealth of the UAE.

Only 50 years ago, these two cities could hardly be classified as cities. The region was in trouble after the fall of the pearling industry – until it struck liquid gold in the 1960s. Finding independence from the British, Abu Dhabi and Dubai formed a union in 1971 and invited four other Emirates to join – thus creating the United Arab Emirates. As the petroleum flowed, the cities expanded and foreigners immigrated into this Muslim nation. Rapid urbanization, westernization, and a constant influx of capital have created a country that implores you to indulge, to consume, to spend. The Emirati people have cash in their pockets, and they are ready to use it. To celebrate Eid al-Adha – one of Islam’s revered observances commemorating when God appeared to Abraham and asked him to sacrifice his son – the malls stay open 24 hours. I am fairly certain America has lost its title of consumer capital of the world to this rising nation.

I find myself drawing parallels to the United States in the 1950s – and not only for this promoted consumerism. The Emirati cities could hardly be any more car-centric. Freeways dominate the city, sidewalks are a rarity, and pubic transit is inconvenient. If you don’t own a car, be prepared to become reliant on taxis.

When I told fellow travelers in Turkey that this would be my next stop, I received confused replies. It was assumed that as a woman, I would have almost no freedom in this Islamic nation. Instead, I find myself much more limited by transportation than any moral expectations. Even while staying on the beautiful Palm Jumeriah, I feel trapped. Taxis are my only option to get off this artificial paradise.

The UAE has not become my favorite travel destinations – I am uncomfortable with the booming mall culture, extravagant spending, and reliance on the automobile. Yet, I do not regret my time here. Over the past couple of months, I have had the wonderful opportunity to meet so many great people. But every few days, I start over – in a new place, with new people. It can become exhausting (as well as exhilarating).

In Abu Dhabi, I had the privilege of staying with fellow Vanderbilt alumnae, and my wonderful friend, Lonyae. I didn’t have to start over – merely pick up where we left off. No introductions necessary, no explanation of what I am doing. The chance to spend time with a friend, a friend who has also started over in a new city in a new part of the world, and to share our experiences. For this, I am most grateful.

And everything else… well, I have learned a lot.

Lonyae and I at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

 

ambassador by default

Lake Isikli in Denizli Province, Turkey.

The fish is fresh from the lake, the vegetables fresh from the garden, the cheese fresh from the goats. Mustafa and I are preparing dinner in his home in the small town of Civril, Turkey. We have spent the day at the beautiful Lake Isikli and its surrounding villages. We hiked to waterfalls; we talked with fisherman; we hunted down shepherds (for the cheese). An exquisite day untouched by the flashes of other tourists. I feel as those I am the only American to have ever walked these trails.

I met Mustafa, a 26-year-old social worker, through Couch Surfing – a social networking and hospitality exchange website – while trying to find a host in Istanbul. My request generated an unheard of 300+ responses (a testament to Turkish hospitality), including one from Mustafa. His generosity, welcoming nature, and proximity to Pamukkale – a geologist’s playground – sold me. I decided to take a break from the crowds of Istanbul to see another side of Turkey.

Carbonate terraces in Pamukkale.

Mustafa and his roommate, Ramazan, share a two-bedroom house outside of Civril with no neighbors in sight. Vegetables grow in the garden; almonds can be picked from the trees; mountains emerge on the horizon. While my time in Istanbul was incredible – particularly due to the generosity of my host, Dogus University, and Istanbul Traffic Control – it was equally intense. I find respite here. I am incredibly grateful to Mustafa and Ramazan for their invitation.

Unfortunately, Ramazan was unable to join our adventures around the lake, and I have yet to get to know him. He works six days a week as an agricultural engineer. Tomorrow (Sunday) is his day off. Tonight, he will get home in time for dinner, and we will get a chance to talk. Sort of. Ramazan does not speak English. He has never left Turkey. He has never met an American… until today.

The vegetables have been chopped, the salad is prepared, and the fish is ready to cook. The front doorbell rings. It’s only Ramazan – he is just letting us know he has arrived. Mustafa goes to the door to greet him. I linger in the kitchen. The front door opens; Turkish banter wafts through the hall. They come to the kitchen.

Ramazan and I introduce ourselves and sit down at the kitchen table with Mustafa in between us. The fish is cooking. Our simple introductions have exhausted our shared vocabulary. He knows I am a traveling American; I know he is an agricultural engineer. He turns to Mustafa and says something in Turkish. Mustafa turns to me. He would like to ask you some questions. Is that okay?

I nod and smile, not quite knowing what will come my way.

The questions begin, and they won’t soon desist.

…Why did Bush invade Iraq?
…Why are American presidents so aggressive towards other nations?
…Why does the US get involved in the affairs of other nations?
…How would Romney differ from Obama in international affairs?
…How do Americans perceive Islam?
…Why would it matter if Obama was a Muslim?

Each question comes to me through Mustafa, each answer goes back through him to Ramazan. And then comes another question.

I feel the weight of my words. Their importance far exceeds that of any I have written for an exam or spoken in a class debate. There, my words determined my grade; at this kitchen table, my words determine a perception of a nation. To these two young men, I am representing the United States of America. I have become an ambassador by default.

While the intensity of this conversation is a first, the situation itself is not. I have found myself in similar (though diluted) dialogues in every place I have visited. New friends, acquaintances, or hosts inevitably ask me about American politics – usually centered on health care or the election. The frequency of these topics necessitates a focused effort to avoid recorder responses.

As a traveler, I am trying to immerse myself, to experience life in another way, to begin to understand other cultures. Yet, I also bring my own cultural identity. I represent my town, my university, my nation. In accepting this fellowship, I have inadvertently accepted the role of representing Saint Louis, Vanderbilt, and the United States.

The question-and-answer session has lasted almost an hour. The fish has long been ready. I take a sip of water as my last answer is translated. I try to read Ramazan’s face for his approval (or disapproval). Like all the rest, his response is imperceptible. He says something in Turkish.

Mustafa turns to me; I brace myself for the next question. He likes your answers.

I smile.
He smiles.
We break bread.

 

Swiss Simplicity

The small Volvo is wrapped tightly in billows of cloud. We cannot see more than a few feet ahead. I look to my right out the window. I have a feeling I am probably staring at a sheer drop, yet I can’t even see the edge of the road. I am happy to be in the passenger seat. My Swiss host has grown up on these roads and seems relatively nonplussed by the zero visibility. We continue ahead, turning corner after corner as we make our way up the mountain switchbacks, intermittently swerving quickly to the right at the approach of two dim headlights. At one point, we have a close encounter with an entitled cow trotting up the middle of the road. She stares us down before eventually taking a slow step to the side.

We are beginning to regret our decision to take the theoretically scenic overpass back towards Zurich. Felix gestures out the window as we pass by a small parking lot. That is usually a very beautiful view. I nod my head and try to imagine what it would look like. It is hard to convince myself there are mountains behind this curtain of cloud. We are about to reach the top of the overpass. Suddenly, a streak of light breaks through. We can see 10 feet in front of us, then 15, then 20. We have broken free. I swivel around to look behind us. I am met by the grandeur of the Swiss Alps. We have ascended above the clouds.

For the next half hour, Felix and I sip coffee at a café conveniently located atop the overpass. Our conversation wanes as we each drift into thought. As we sit, the clouds rise and fall. In one moment, we have a gorgeous view of the Alps and the blanket of white below. The next, we are enveloped by the midst. With only one more day left in Switzerland – one more day in the truly Western world – I find myself reflecting on the past week and a half.

In Switzerland, everything is perfectly organized. Trains arrive at 13:17 on the dot, every time. Missed connections do not exist. For the past ten days, I have easily hopped from city to city, tram to tram, bus to bus. Planning was nonexistent. The freedom of extensive public transportation allowed for impulsive decisions, some of which led to time spent with various friends from Vanderbilt.

Though I was using a tourist-only Swiss Pass for my travel, which included all forms of inter- and intra-city transport, tickets for locals are not too different. In Zurich, each tram, bus and information board is stamped with the words ein ticket fur alles. One ticket allows for full usage of the incredibly integrated urban transit system – bus to tram to boat. Every part of the city is accessible, provided one can afford the ticket. The Swiss system is incredible. Incredible and expensive. Though the distribution of wealth is much more uniform than in the US, there are still discrepancies. The high cost of transportation, can lead to inequities of access – the one and only caveat of Swiss transportation. This aside, the Swiss have perfected the simplicity of integrated transit.

Tomorrow I will leave the ease and clarity of Switzerland, the ease and clarity of the Western world. Time to descend into the fog.

Felix and I get back into the car. We drive on. Everything goes white.

Midnight in Paris

It’s midnight in Paris, and I am slumped against the wall of an apartment building stairwell. I try to stay awake enough to hear the front door of the building open. When it does, I pop up, walking up or down the stairs as though I have a purpose. I don’t want the residents to be alarmed by the homeless American loitering in the hallway.

My eyelids flutter. My body is ready for sleep – the hours of walking have hit me suddenly. Without the excitement of the city, my energy level plummets. As I yearn for sleep, I am reminded that I am lucky simply to be inside the building.

About an hour and a half earlier, I was happily wandering the streets of Paris, lost in the lights, the people, the activity. I had come from a Democrats Abroad in France meeting. The nominated delegates from this group of American ex-pats shared their experiences at the Democratic Convention, reflecting on the speeches, the atmosphere and the outlook of the coming Presidential election. I was grateful for updates on politics back home, particularly as each European I meet seems eager for information on the subject. While I was at the meeting, my Parisian host went out to dinner with friends. He is supposed to text or call when he is headed back to the apartment – at this point, I am to do the same.

I reach for my phone and turn it on. In about ten minutes, the battery level drops from low to dangerously low. I spend the next 30 minutes turning the phone off and on again to check for messages, trying to conserve as much life as possible. Nothing. Just as I am texting Nicolas to ask when I should meet him, my phone dies. I see no reason to panic. I will simply take the metro to his apartment at a time when I am sure he will be back from dinner. As I realize the caveat to this plan, my heart begins to race.

Every Parisian apartment building requires a code to get into the front door of the building. Once you are inside, you can buzz up to whomever you are visiting. I have stored Nicolas’ code in my phone – the phone that has now lost all power. I take a hard swallow. I must reach the building before he does and wait outside for him, else I will be utterly unable to reach him. I run to the metro and jump on the first train.

I squeeze my eyes shut and try to picture the small keypad outside Nicolas’ home. I reach for the St. Christopher’s medallion around my neck – patron saint of travelers. Suddenly, my lips form four numbers. I can only hope that these are the numbers that will keep me off the streets for the night. I spend the rest of the train ride repeating them to myself.

The French voice on the loudspeaker announces my stop. I step onto the platform and walk towards the exit, all the while hoping I will see Nicolas ahead of me. He is not there. I walk the two blocks to the apartment, open the keypad, and slowly punch in the numbers. A wonderful green light signals that I have indeed remembered the correct code. My body relaxes, and I push open the door. I have a home for the night.

Winning London

Keep to the left. Keep to the left. This becomes my personal mantra as I take to the streets of London. For merely a pound ($1.60), I have 24-hour access to the Barclay’s Cycle Hire, the London bike share program. If my rentals stay under a half hour, this will be my only fee. I slide my debit card, receive my number, pick a bike, and start the 30-minute timer on my watch. London is mine to explore.

Barclays bicycle.

The bike share system suits my needs perfectly. I am able to easily find a return stand within the half hour on each trip. If I have yet to reach my final destination, I simply return my current bike, check out another, and restart my free 30 minutes. In this way, I spend the day covering much more of the city than would be possible by foot at a cost much less than the London Underground (Tube). My day’s adventures would have consisted of at least 6 separate rides on the Tube. At the cheapest (i.e. non-peak hours), this would cost 12 pounds in total. I suddenly feel much more inclined to treat myself to a Bulmers Cider at the pub.

At the same time, biking London streets is not for the lighthearted. At one point, I find myself surrounded on three sides by double-decker buses – a peninsula sure to fluster the unfamiliar or inexperienced cyclist. Here, confidence is key. Biking these streets is akin to those in New York City. While bike lanes exist, they are inconsistent and frequented by impediments – illegally parked vehicles, reckless drivers, and missing links. While providing a significant adrenaline rush, this cycling ultimately makes me yearn for the protection of a Danish cycle track.

Luckily for those intimidated by cycling in such a fierce environment, London provides plenty of other options, all managed by one umbrella organization. Transport for London (TfL) is responsible for the planning, delivery, and day-to-day operation of London’s public transport system. It manages London’s buses, London Underground, the Docklands Light Railway, London Overground, London Tramlink, London River Services, Victoria Coach Station, the Emirates Air Line, London Transport Museum, London’s Congestion Charging scheme, 580km network of main roads, 6,000 traffic lights, taxi and private hire regulations, and the Barclays Cycle Hire. Every day, around 24 million journeys are made on the TfL network.

As if this was not already an overwhelming task for one overseeing organization, TfL had to then prepare and facilitate transport during the 2012 Olympics. In preparation for the Games, around £6.5bn was invested to upgrade transport links to increase capacity and improve services. Olympic spectators created up to an extra three million journeys each day. Transport for London handled this additional load with astounding success – success that took Londoners by surprise. The impending Games had conjured feelings of coming doom for locals – unending traffic jams, deadlocked roads, buses brimming with people, trains overflowing. Miraculously, this was not the case.

Every spectator to the Olympics was encouraged to use public transport, cycle, or walk. I arrived in London at 7:30 am on Sunday, September 9 – the day of the Paraolympics Closing Ceremony. I staggered off my overnight coach from Edinburgh into Victoria Station.  Minutes later, three friendly – almost overly friendly for my drowsy state – employees of Transport for London greeted me. Good morning, miss! You know, you look a little bit tired today. Can we help you? Where are you trying to go? I was soon outfitted with precise directions to my friend’s apartment, a full map of London, a booklet explaining the time and location of all Olympic-related events, information on public transit, and an additional map designed to encourage walking and cycling from Victoria Station. On this map, concentric circles designated areas within a 5-, 10-, 15- and 20-minute walk with similar concentric circles for cycling distances.

London map.

As impressed as I was by these maps, I would soon find them almost completely unnecessary. Nearly every corner of the city had city maps – both a full-city map as well as a localized map of your current location. These localized maps provided the same concentric circles designating transit times for walking and cycling. Each version of the map included your specific location and orientation (an arrow pointing in the direction you currently faced). With these stands so accessible, I found fewer and fewer reasons to pull out my own personal map.

Transport for London, I commend you. You successfully made one of the largest cities in the world easy to navigate for thousands upon thousands of Olympic spectators. Even though you only allotted a brief 20 minutes to meet with me, I will forgive this oversight as it was in the wake of your Olympic exhaustion. While most believe the fireworks on my first night in London celebrated the 2012 Olympic athletes, I would like to suggest they also celebrated your success (…as well as my arrival to the city). A job well done.

Cheers to you, TfL, the silent victors of the 2012 Olympic Games. [Now, please, protected cycle tracks.]

 

“We cannot continue to deceive ourselves thinking that to paint a little line on a road is a bike way. A bicycle way that is not safe for an 8-year old is not a bicycle way.” — Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá.

 

 

Trouble with Trams

I follow Chris up the stairs, relieved that I didn’t have to make a request to do so. I will never understand why anyone would choose the first level of a double decker bus. We sit on the left side of the aisle. I’m in the window seat. I turn my body to face Chris as she tells me the story of the Edinburgh trams. Two young couples are sitting on the right side of the aisle, directly behind Chris in my line of vision. It becomes increasingly difficult to concentrate on the story as it becomes increasingly clear why these couples have chosen the second level. They are taking full advantage of this “private” public space… Luckily, I find good reason to look away as Chris gestures out the window.

We are navigating through construction, again and again, as we try to make it out of New Town in Edinburgh and towards Tranent, the hometown of my wonderful hosts in Scotland – Chris and Malcolm. Torn down the middle, the streets are being prepared for the addition of a tram network. Had this project gone according to plan, I would be riding the tram two years into existence. As it stands now, the suturing of the pavement has been pushed back to an unknown future date, leaving the innards exposed in this otherwise gorgeous city. The beauty of the adjacent Georgian row houses is certainly tainted when juxtaposed to the orange construction equipment, metal fences, and upturned soil.

The bus lurches around the corner. Unused to riding at this higher elevation, I fear we will tip. I quickly turn to look out the window, half expecting to see the ground rising up to meet us. My eyes meet the landscape. I cannot remember my last thought – I have come face to face with the rugged coast of Scotland. The sun breaks through the clouds, the water glistens, my heart warms. Glaciers have kissed this land, carving out a craggy oasis. I become lost in the beauty through the remainder of the 45-minute ride.

We turn landward and come to a stop. I am reluctant to get off the bus. A short walk brings us to the doorstep of Chris’ house where her husband, Malcolm, meets us. Over a cuppa, Malcolm and Chris continue to explain the tram project. Frustration coats every word. They both questioned the project from the beginning, not understanding why Edinburgh needed trams given the reliability, efficiency, and breadth of the bus system. The timeline of the project has only heightened this distrust, proving to them the stupidity of the idea. I ask why it was ever started. Their mouths open… and close again. Silence. Then Chris says, “Manchester.” Malcolm agrees, “Yeah, they wanted to be like Manchester.”

Just that morning, I had traveled by coach from Manchester after spending a couple of wonderful days visiting family. To catch my 9 am Megabus, I rode the tram from one end of a line to the city center. The tram was efficient, very well used, and particularly livened by the excited chatter of uniformed children returning to school for the first day of fall term. This system has been successful within the context of Manchester. What works in one city cannot necessarily translate to another.

I soon learn that Malcolm and Chris are certainly not alone in their tram evaluation. This word has become synonymous with government inefficiency on the streets of Edinburgh. I would suggest avoiding the subject altogether.  Not taking my own advice, I continue to press for more information on the project. Professor Eric Laurier from the University of Edinburgh provided some background information over our lunch meeting.

The tram idea was birthed in attempt to connect the city center of Edinburgh and the airport by public transit. While commendable in purpose, Professor Laurier believes the easy solution was overlooked in lieu of the grand. The current rail system runs just past the airport and into the city center. A simple link between the two (rail and airport) could have avoided the massive construction efforts necessitated by the tram.

Donald, my guide to the Scottish highlands and co-owner of the Hairy Coo Tour Company, continues the story.  Not only is the project behind schedule but it has also doubled in price yet shortened in track length. Businesses located along the construction have suffered. Getting to a shop just on the other side of the street can require walking multiple blocks out of the way and then looping back to it. I myself couldn’t be bothered to make the extra effort to visit a store that initially peeked my interest. These are the costs of expanding transportation, but what if the new network was never needed?

Donald is a man brimming with Scottish pride. He speaks of now-US Open champion Andy Murray as a son. He can remember every detail of Scottish history with perfect clarity. His tours operate on a “tips only” basis – he wants people of all budgets to experience the Scotland he loves. Yet, he sees this choice of the government to be very misguided. The Lothian bus system – the main provider in the city of Edinburgh – is regarded as the best, and most extensive, in the United Kingdom. It allows access to every part of the city as well as the surrounding suburbs and towns. With such a great system already in place, why expand in such a costly manner?

When I found out how far away my hosts lived from the City Center of Edinburgh, I was a bit disappointed. I thought the commute would be a hassle, taking time away from my precious few days in the city. I was pleasantly surprised to see it become a favorite part of my visit. The ease, and beauty, of the journey transformed a “means to an end” into an experience in and of itself. The Lothian buses serve the people of Edinburgh perfectly. In this context, it is hard to imagine a prospering tram, unless it comes at the cost of the bus system. I don’t know which scenario is worse.

I leave Scotland first and foremost with a newfound love. I fell head over heels for the warmth of the people, the charm of the city, and the beauty of the land. I also leave with an adjusted view on transit expansion. More isn’t always better. Yes, light rail is sexy. But it’s potential in a city must be carefully analyzed before introduction. Its success in a neighboring region is simply not enough to validate the costs.

Globalization can lead to wonderful shared innovation, but it can also rob cities of their individuality. We must be careful to perceive and preserve this uniqueness. Edinburgh deserves to be more than a shadow of Manchester.  It deserves a transit solution designed specifically for its own needs and limitations. Maybe the tram will prove to be exactly this; maybe Lothian buses were already enough.