Friday, June 26, 2009

Guest Houses and Street Food

It’s amazing to me the range of price options there are when travelling. You can spend as much or as little money as you want. There is always someone who will cater to your desire to drop more dough and usually someone who will sell something to you for less if you try hard enough. Although I look forward to the day when I can take luxury vacations (maybe when I’m retired?) I’m enjoying being a dirty backpacker again.

The best way to travel in Africa on a budget is to camp—a lot of backpacker guest houses, a.k.a., hostels, have camping areas for $2 per person per night. Since I don’t have tent or sleeping bag, I’ve been going the hostel dormitory route, which usually runs me about seven to 10 bucks a night. Dorm rooms sleep anywhere from four to12 people, all in bunk beds. So far, they’ve all been co-ed, which means you get to change in the bathroom. The lighting d├ęcor ranges from an exposed florescent bulb to an incandescent with a basket-cum-light shade over it. If a hostel doesn't have a dorm room, I'll get a single or even try to find someone else to share a doube with! Even in these, there are usually shared bathrooms.

The showers typically consist of the shower head mounted somewhere in the bathroom, and most places have hot water. The bathrooms generally feel like something between a public beach bathroom and Motel 6. You provide your own towel and soap, and it’s always a good idea to bring a roll of TP just in case there isn’t any. ;-)

Flamingo Guest House in Zanzibar, where I stayed last night, didn’t have hot water in the shower, but made up for it by having fine-mesh screens on the windows and an overhead fan that ran like a jet engine. I had my first night unmolested by mosquitoes in months. Mosquitoes are bad flyers, and if any of them did get through the screens, they were overpowered by the fan. I don’t know how, but with non-screened windows, some mozzie invariably finds its way inside my net and bites unmercifully on any exposed part: hands, face or feet. My face looks like a hormonal teenager’s right now.

The only downside of staying in dormitories is sharing your room with a bunch of other dirty backpackers, whom you are also trusting not to steal your stuff. But they're generally a trusty bunch through an unspoken backpacker's code. And for me, being in close contact with other travellers is actually a plus, since I’m on my own. It’s a great way to learn about what to see, what to watch out for and where to get good, cheap food.

I learned about a Ugandan delicacy called the Rolex this way. Outside the gates of the Nile River Explorers Backpacker’s compound in Jinja, a fellow travler informed me that you can get a chapati (fatty flour tortilla) with a fried egg and veggies for 1,000 Ugandan shillings (85 cents). The vendor chops up some tomato, onion and green pepper and fries it on an iron skillet over coals. He breaks an egg over the mixture. Once that’s cooked, sliced avocado is added and the whole thing is rolled up in a chapati. It’s basically a breakfast burrito and fills you up for hours. I met a broke primatology student from Nairobi and Rotary-funded sociologist interviewing gay sex workers in Mombasa who were able to stay a whole extra day at in Jinja after discovering the Rolex, because it was so cheap. They ate one with bananas and Nutella for breakfast, a veggie/avocado combo for dinner and meat Rolex for dinner.

So, if you eat at street vendors like this, you’ll hardly spend any money and will get to eat fresh and like a local. If you go to the tourist lodges, you’ll spend more than you do at home. I know eating street food can be a little risky, but my rule is if I watch it being cooked, it should be okay. So far, so good… plus, you know what Dad says: you'd be surprised what the human body is capable of handling! ;-)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Well, I wrote a lovely long post in Jinja about kayaking on the Nile, but the computer at the hostel ate it without any remorse what-so-ever... if I have time I'll try to rewrite it...

I'm in Zanzibar now, fresh off the plane from Nairobi this morning. After taking the biggest rattle-trap bus in the world across the the worst road in the world (Kakamega to Kapsabet) and getting launched a good foot in the air out of my seat at 20-second intervals for an hour straight, then just mildly slammed around for another eight, I decided I was done with bus travel in East Africa. Especially the seven-to-nine-hour trip variety. Of which this was the fourth. No mas!

Just because I had had pretty good luck with the Akamba buses in Uganda did not mean I would get another newish bus with good shocks empty enough to allow me to lounge across the whole back row. Like we said at CG, Past perforane is no guarantee of future results! My bus on Sunday was full and stinky. AND in Kenya there are no hawkers who sell you meat on a stick and bananas through the windows. I was really getting used to that in Uganda. Back in Kenya, I had to actually get off the bus to buy my drinking yogurt and meat pie lunch at the rest stop. Though the pastry part of the meat pie was top-notch—I haven't had better anywhere.

Flying here felt so civilized. Getting a cold drink (even if there was no ice in it)and even my first sandwich in months. Chicken with some spicy Indian-tasting sauce. Though it tasted great, my stomach was a little unsure what to do with the sandwich. Ironically, Western food now makes me feel weird; I haven't had any trouble with African food for months.

All but a handful of the people flying were wazungu, which was a little weird. One mzungu was super-blond, super-tan and super skinny. She was wearing heels, low and tight jeans, a black tank top and carrying a Diesel denim purse slung over one shoulder. I thought for sure she was from the O.C. and felt a little embarrassed to be from the same state. However, when we were climbing up the stairs to the plane, I saw her passport: Italia. Of course!! Suddenly, I didn't mind her look which I previously found obnoxious -- in fact it endeared her to me. She's from Italy! Of course she's allowed to look like a young Donatella Versace! Suddenly, I felt ashamed to look like such a grubby backpacker.

Anyway, on to Zanzibar... some observations.

  1. Stone Town feels like a cross between the little island of Hydra, Greece that Katrina and I visited in 1993 (fishing port and lots of stone—surprise surprise) and the old town slum of New Delhi (lots of wires suspended over narrow alleyways and people cooking outside by their doorsteps.)
  2. I am only hearing Swahili and English, which feels strange because in Kakamega people speak English, Swahili (of which I understand a wee bit) and their mother tongue -- Luhya (the local tribe's language of which I understand one word -- Hello.) Zanzibar is a Swahili island so Swhahili IS their mother tongue. It's nice that I can always understand a little bit of what's going on, whereas when coworkers/friends/people in the villages spoke Luhya I would zone out completely and wait for bits of Swahili or English.
  3. All the women wear long black robes and head scarves pinned under their chins as Zanzibar's 85% Muslim. The call to prayer is rather lovely.
  4. Things are expensive! The tourist stuff (carvings, jewelry, bags, etc.) is a good 50% more pricey, after I work REALLY hard to bargain it down. This is really going to curb my thank-you present buying, which has been going full-force up until now... I'll have to hold off until back in Nairobi, which has the Masai Crafts Market, which I'm assuming has good prices. It's too bad, because there's a lot of cool stuff here.
  5. Per everyone I've talked to, it's actually safe to walk around after dark. I won't be doing it if I don't have to, of course, but how nice that I don't have to go scrambling for cover at 6:45, sunset on the equator.
  6. The carved doors really are fantastic.

Tomorrow I'm taking a ten dollar spice tour to see where saffron, vanilla, and cloves come from (this is the Spice Island after all!) Thursday, I'm heading to the other side of the island to chill out on the beach. I've cut Mombasa from my itinerary all together for two reasons: One, it saved me $75 on flights, and that's a lot. Two, I've had a nasty head cold (non-stop snot) for the past three days from all the early mornings, bus travel and low-level stress associated with being on the road, and the last thing I want to deal with is getting in and out of another city. I am very happy to stay in one place a whole five and a half days.

Speaking of staying in one place, I won't be doing a lot of it in the next month or so... Here's my itinerary from now until August:

Now til Sunday - Zanzibar (hostel and beach hut)

July 29 - July 3: Masai Mara (camping)

July 3 - 5: Nairobi (@ Tara & Alan's gorgeous rental estate in Karen)

July 6: Fly from Nairobi to London (any one know a friend near heathrow I can crash with for a night?)

July 7: Fly from London to LAX

July 8-9: U.S.A.!!!! Home sweet Los Feliz

July 10: Drive to Sacramento

Jul 11: Cousin Kristine & Eduardo's wedding in Grass Valley

July 12: Fly to Portland to hang with Lizzie

July 17 or so: Fly from Portland to Sacramento, drive to Orinda

July 17 - 22: Bay Area

July 22 or so: Drive from Orinda back to LA

IN LA!! Start looking for job.

Some time in Aug: NYC & Boston with Will to see his fam

August 22 - ??: Possibly, hopefully be a camp councilor in Catalina with Will.

September: Back to normal life, full-time job search, avoid planes, buses and any sort of travel at all costs.

Another call to prayer! I'll try to write more tomorrow.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Jinja, Uganda

11/21/09: I found this unpublished in my entry list and so am posting it now. After I wrote it five months ago, the computer I was using crashed, and I thought it was gone forever, but lo and behold, I guess it was saved. So here you are! Reading this now, it seems like another lifetime!

Each time I think I've found the slowest internet connection in East Africa, I am again proven wrong. The Red Chili Hideaway hostel connection in Kampala, Uganda is the new winner. I'm dying to read all your Facebook comments on my last entry, but alas, I've given up on e-mail as it keeps crashing, and am going to just post this to let everyone know that I'm safe and what I'm up to.

I spent today tandem whitewater kayaking on the White Nile in Jinja. I was originally going to take a kayaking lesson, because I've always wanted to learn, and a lesson is much cheaper here than at home, but Daniel pointed out that if I went that route, I would be paddling in circles in calm water vs getting to run the class five rapids. Which I know for a fact are great, from our trip here over Easter weekend. So I went for the tandem and was not disappointed. It was incredible, and we only rolled over in one rapid-- I think it was "Silverback."

But it rained again after lunch. Ugh. What's up with me and getting drenched by cold rain on the river? At least it wasn't a torrential downpour like last time. It was so bad that all ten rafts (it was a holiday weekend) had to paddle to an island in the middle of the river, turn the boats upside down, and crouch in the shallow water under them. The water was warmer than the air. It was goosebump city for me, and I couldn't talk my teeth were chattering so much! Hah! It was still a great trip once the rain let up somewhat.

My tandem kayak guide was Peter, a sweet 21-year-old (if that!) Ugandan, who was full of bad jokes (reused, no doubt). He said if I got cold, he would be happy to warm up the kayak (by peeing in it) and that the missing chunk of his lucky paddle had been eaten by a crocodile. Actually I don't if that was a joke -- there are parts of the Nile rife with crocodiles. Some of the guides had actually kayaked those sections and said beating off the hippos and crocadiles each time they were out of the whitewater got tiresome pretty quickly. They said they wouldn't do that trip again, no matter how good the rafting was.

Peter was a fantastic kayaker and great guide; I felt like I was in good hands. And the trip reminded me of how much I love being on the river--any river-- in a kayak, raft or just floating in my life vest. I ate my lunch of half a pineapple and some crackers that tasted like animal cookies that way: floating on my back down the river in my life vest, like an otter.

Tomorrow, I'm going to take a six hour plus bus ride (joy!) to Kibale National Park on the western side of Uganda to go chimp tracking. It's a haul, but Corey, my primatologist friend from Kakamega recommended it highly, so I'm going to make the trip out and back to do it.

There is also good gorilla tracking in Uganda and Rwanda. The British and Aussie girls who used this computer before me did that yesterday. For five hundred smack-a-roos to the Rwandan or Ugandan Wildlife Authority, you get to sit with a troupe for an hour. Are you kidding me??!! For an hour?! However, they swore the experience was priceless. Of of the two girls even showed me a video on her camera of an young-adult male taking a swipe at her. Hah! Their guide said that was pretty typical for that gorilla thought.

I was a little sad to leave Bugagali Falls this afternoon as it's a beautiful, beautiful place. There was even a fancy restaurant next to the hostel and campsite that served BREWED coffee and had CHEESE in their omelets. Yes, I succumbed and splurged for a $9 breakfast and it was WORTH it. :-) Mark my words, I am never having instant coffee or a cheeseless omelet again once I'm home!!

I think some people never leave Bujagali Falls; they just convert to the camping/river lifestyle.

One thing that would keep me from joining their ranks was the fact that there was no glass in my bunk room window -- just wire mesh to (sort of) keep out the mosquitoes. And 100 yards away, at the camp bar, drunk American, European, Australian backpackers--and a few locals--party late into the night, every night. I am getting too old for that. Fortunately I'm a champion sleeper, and can deal with it. One of my talents.

More soon. Lots of love,


The fancy restaurant next to the hostel where I had an omlette WITH cheese for the first time in five months, and real brewed coffee vs. instant!!! There are monkeys that hang out on the railings and will grab your toast if you turn around. Cheeky monkeys!!

A picture from the restaurant's website. It's faster to link to theirs then to try to upload my own. The hostel wasn't as fancy obviously, but the view was just as incredible.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Katy Goes to Uganda

Written on a bus going from Busia (Kenya-Uganda border) to Jinja, Uganda...

It's such a rush to start a trip, especially when you're doing it alone and on public transportation. I was sitting in my first matatu of the day in Kakamega, waiting for it to fill up with enough people to leave, when the thought struck me: I can go anywhere right now. I don't have to go to Jinja, I can get off and get on any other matatu at the stage, and not even ask where it's going. I have $100 in shillings in my money belt and a backpack with everything I need. I am not due to be anywhere for six days. I am completely self-contained and completely free. I can go wherever the spirit moves me.

Of course I stayed put, because I really did want to go to Jinja, but the feeling was elating.

I also felt good because I felt like I vaguely knew what I was doing: that the ride Mumias should cost about 100 shillings, that "I'm getting off here" in Swahili is "Nashuka hapa", that to get a tout selling stuff through the minibus window to go away, you stare at him blankly, and of course, that I should scootch to the edge of my seat to allow a little room for the butt of the woman sitting in the aisle "non-seat".

I didn't think twice when said woman got up to make room for someone to pass, and had her entire posterior pressed up against my cheek. No sweat!! We are all sisters!!

I have become culturally competent!!! (At least enough to get by!)

In addition to being satisfied with my new freedom of movement and basic ability to get around, I feel liberated not being an FSD intern/ACCES volunteer any longer. From the day I got here in January to my last day at work on Friday, I've been trying to fit in as much as is possible: to dress, talk and behave like everyone else in Kakamega. To be culturally aware and respectful, conservative in my dress and to act more like a "local" than a loud American. I've been trying to be a good representative of FSD, ACCES and the U.S.!

Now that I'm on the road, I'm only represent myself and am not expected to fit in: I really am a mzungu (foreigner/white person). It's nice not to have to think constantly about how my appearance and actions are being perceived. Right now, I'm wearing a t-shirt and cargo capris vs. my usual long skirt and shirt. Happiness!

I'm also pleased for having found a matatu WITH an airbag and seatbelt earlier today (although I know you're not supposed to sit in the front seat because most accidents are head-on) and for buying myself a nice little 20 shilling "wedding" ring from a guy selling cheap jewelry and biscuits (cookies) at the Mumais matatu stage. It's nice to have evidence to back up my "Sorry, Bwana*, I'm married" line.

The fact that I'm now on vacation doesn't hurt my mood either. Yesterday, when packing up my room, both impressed by and frustrated with how much crap I'd accumulated in 5 months, I almost didn't want to travel. I just wanted to jump on a plane to Nairobi and high-tail it back home. I was worried I'd be lonely, that my rough itinerary would prove to be a little too rough, and lastly, that I would go nuts with all the time I'm planning to spend on buses, ferries, matatus, piki pikis (motorbike taxis), boda bodas (bicycle taxis) and planes. But I'm actually very happy at the moment: I've got two seats to myself and more leg room than you'll find on business class. I'm writing in my journal and watching miles and miles of lush African countryside go by. It's the usual mix of banana trees, fields of corn and sugar cane, huts with thatch or tin roofs, cows being herded by little boys in ragged t-shirts and women carrying firewood and plastic shopping bags on their heads: all familiar and yet somehow different. I think the trip is going to work out alright.

*Bwana = Mister.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

When aid is appropriate...

My cousin Kristine sent the following response to my last entry about development vs. aid:

This is really cool. I would argue that you are not a hypocrite, you are learning. You set out to do some good in the world, help people, and you are refining your definition of what it means to help people. Personal independence and interdependence are skills that are often overlooked. Initiative and collaboration as well.

I would say that Aid has it's place. Sometimes, as it seems to be the case with this school, people need a handout to get them on their feet. If you were to come across a man who is having a heart attack, you would not lecture him about the benefits of reducing his stress, eating fewer animal fats and more vegetables- you would give him CPR, and maybe a triple bypass. After that, you work on the root of the problem, and bring in preventative (sustainable) medicine.

The question would then be: when is it a time for aid, and when is it a time for sustainable development? And perhaps not one versus the other. Each one in its own time and place.

I was hoping someone would ask this, so that I could answer! When I was telling Will about my new philosophy he asked the same thing, which promoted me to consult my colleague Liz on the subject. She's doing post-graduate studies in Community Development and Project Management and is planning on a Master's in Public Health.

Basically, she said the exact same thing as Kristine:

"It's fine to arrest an emergency through aid, but you have to make sure that you take steps to prevent the situation from reocurring. Otherwise, people will just need the aid again. You don't come up to a hungry man and start telling him about farming; you have to feed him first so that he has the energy to learn and practice what you've taught him."

I also asked about a project a CARE friend of mine did: donating500 mosquito nets. Liz said that it's fine to donate them, but that unless the donor does a good job of educating the recipents on the benefits of using them (less sickness and substantial savings on malaria treatment) the recipents won't save money to get a new one when the originals wear out.

Me, I would argue that they shouldn't be given out free at all—maybe just an educational seminar and a discount on a net... but it's a fine line.. I'd be curious as to the psychology of getting gifts and donations... When do you really value gifts and when do you take them for granted and come to feel entitled? I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on that..

In other news, the last day of my internship is Friday, and I start my travels on Sunday. It's bittersweet! I'm excited to be on the road, and closer to getting home to my beloved Los Feliz, but I will miss so much here!

Also, I've been posting a lot of pictures on Facebook, but it struck me that you don't all use Facebook, so here are some links.

Chelsea's Soy Bean Training Project (can't remember if I've sent this):

A friend's house party:

Catering Committe Shopping for Joseph (a co-worker)'s Wedding:

I'll post the actual wedding pix ASAP, too! It was a blast!!


P.S. C.G. Peeps, I'm thinking of you. I hope none of you have to join me in the unemployed boat, unless you want to.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Aid vs. Sustainable Development

After being here a few months, and reading a fair amount of literature about various projects implemented by foreign NGOs, I am starting to have somewhat strong feelings against aid. What is aid? Aid is giving out something for nothing, with the recipient having no way of obtaining that resource again independently. For example, donating clothes, a building, a shipping container of medical equipment, etc.

What’s wrong with that?

The problem is that outright aid creates dependence, instead of independence. It makes the recipient reliant on the donor. As one of my co-worker Elizabeth’s development professors writes, "a social welfare paradigm...leads to the creation of dependency syndrome among the recipients of handouts…people get hooked to assistentialism, a state of helplessness waiting for rescue missions. In the case of handouts-for-work, people usually don’t see the need to sustain the projects they [have] started once the source of such handouts is exhausted or depleted. They will sit and wait for the donor to come back, no mater how long it takes.”

True, it feels really good to give someone food or shoes or clothes or a new pit latrine—“Look! The orphan has shoes now! Because of me!”—but doing so just fixes the superficial problem, rather than getting to the root cause of the issue. Why doesn’t the kid have shoes? What caused that? In my mind, aid is selfish: It makes us, the donors, feel good about ourselves. But what happens after we’re gone and the shoes wear out? How will the child get new shoes? She’ll have to find another donor. Giving that pair of shoes fixed the immediate issue at hand, but doesn’t get at the root of the problem.

The alternative to aid, which I do believe in, is participatory community development (PCD). PCD is going into a community, finding out what the community's goals are, and supporting them initially to accomplish these goals themselves. Teaching people how to fish instead of giving out fish. Participatory community development is more involved, expensive, and certainly less gratifying in the short-run, but in the long run, it’s more sustainable and breaks the cycle of aid dependence.

No doubt, right about now you’re saying, “Waaaaait a minute, Norris, wasn’t your FSD project to donate a rainwater harvesting system to a school for orphans and low-income kids?” Yup, it was. And I’ll b the first to admit that my project was part aid. FSD and you, my donors, gave the school the tank, pipes, etc. outright. So for that, I’m a hypocrite—it would have been more sustainable if I’d helped the school management committee, parents and even orphans establish income generating projects, through which they could earn their own money to buy a tank themselves… In retrospect I probably should have done that, even though they wouldn’t have had that tank for years to come.

I think that when I read all the needs assessment surveys done by previous volunteers, and visited the school, I was overwhelmed by the fact that this school had no water, and wanted more than anything to help them get it. I guess I was blinded by emotion.

But as Kelly, the centre principal, has reminded me, the project will help the kids stay healthy and reduce the amount of time they spend fetching water, therefore keeping them from missing school, and hence getting an education. And as we know, education key factor in getting out of poverty and becoming independent and able to support one’s self. And the lifetime of this thing is a gopod 50 years...

And there were some participatory development aspects to the project it as well, in the form of capacity building and training:

  • Our plumber Patrick trained members of the volunteer Centre Management Committee (CMC) on how rainwater harvesting systems work.

  • I made sure the CMC, Kelly and my co-workers were involved every step of the way, from submitting the proposal, to planning the system, to hiring tradesmen, to purchasing the materials to helping with the digging, painting and mason work. They now know all the steps involved and if they want to implement a similar system elsewhere, will know how to. Even the kids who live around the center pitched in during their April holiday and learned a lot.

  • In writing the proposal together, Kelly, my coworkers and the CMC learned a lot about the grant writing process.

  • I reiterated again and again and again to the CMC that they have ownership of the tank and are in charge of all repairs and maintenance going forward. Due to the massive amount of volunteer time they invested in it, I’m optimistic that they will actually take care of it.

  • The last element of the project was a brief lecture by Maggy, our community nurse, to teach/remind the kids about healthy sanitation and hygiene.
So, the project wasn’t a perfect model of development, but at least I didn’t just descend with my own work crew and install the system. It really was a community effort. And going forward, I’ll make sure the organizations and initiatives I support focus on development over aid. I would requet you do the same. When making a donation, ask yourself: "Is this money going toward sustainable development—training and capacity building with the goal of self-sufficiency? Or is it going towards aid—giving something for nothing and creating a system of dependence?"

The book I quoted above is Demystifying Participatory Community Development, by Francis W. Mulwa, PhD of Development Studies. I would encourage anyone volunteering in Africa, or anywhere for that matter, to try to get their hands on a copy.