Date: December 21, 1999

Subject: Planes, buses, hydrofoils, trains and automobiles--and a cobra

Dear family and friends,

This is the first of my "notes from the road", figuratively speaking, since as you can see from my subject line, I've been using quite a few modes of transportation lately. Anyway, it's good to be here in Mansa for a couple of weeks of relative stability w/ Mom and Dad and Chrissie.

To summarize my travels so far: The flights to Africa were uneventful apart from the fact that I lost my wallet at Gatwick Airport waiting for my flight to Dar es Salaam. But only briefly. I had taken it out to see if I had enough change (i.e., pence) to buy a drink (non-alcoholic, I should hasten to add) and forgot to put it back in my pocket. Fortunately it was still on the pile of books where I put it when I realized what I had done and rushed back from the other side of terminal. Just as well since it contained quite a bit of cash, some travellers cheques, and my VISA/bank card... Anyway, that's what getting only an hour's worth of sleep will do to you.

The flight to Dar (via Nairobi) went well and I even managed to sleep for a few hours (a first for me) without the aid of sleeping pills (which do strange things to my nervous system) since the seat next to me was empty and I could stretch out a bit. I arrived at noon local time in Dar and the first thing I noticed was the heat: mid thirties and humid, so needless to say I didn't wear the coat that I'd had in Toronto and London. Sorry to rub it in. ;) After going through immigration I took a taxi to the home of the Neills, an American missionary family whose eldest son Ben was a good friend of Nigel's at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya whom I'd met at Nigel's graduation in July. Monday morning Ben and I took in some of the sights (and smells...) of Dar and its inhabitants when we took the bus to the "Tazara" (TAnzania-ZAmbia-RAilway) train station to buy my train ticket to Zambia which cost all of US$45 for the 1800 km journey. My round-trip ticket via hydrofoil to the island of Zanzibar (maybe 50 km from Dar?) cost me US$50. Go figure. The Muslim influence was strong in Dar w/ the five times daily prayer calls from the mosques. If any of you are planning on visiting Dar you'd probably be disappointed by the architecture... It's like any other third-world city that's growing too fast and where zoning bylaws can be overlooked after an appropriate sum of money has changed hands.

Tuesday morning I took the hydrofoil to Zanzibar w/ perhaps 25 other backpackers. I hooked up w/ an Australian "couple" and an American guy from Texas, in his mid-thirties I'd guess, seasoned travellers all. The 28 year-old female half of the Australian couple was born in Durban, South Africa but emigrated to Aus. at age 8 and is now an occupational therapist doing contract work in London, England (hence lots of time and money for travel). Her male counterpart is a landscape architect in Brisbane, Aus. The American guy, w/ long, curly hair and shaggy beard--the quintessential hippy--has already done his "round-the-world" (although his lasted for at least ten months--lucky guy) and this is his second overseas trip since then: last Christmas he was in Peru. It came out later that he was kicked out of the US army for smoking too much dope but he has since partially rehabilitated himself by getting a degree in Math and Computer Science and is currently working on his Masters in CS, although he still has fond, if hazy, memories of his trips to Amsterdam. So you can see I fit right in...

After arriving in Zanzibar and clearing immigration (again--Zanzibar is a not-quite-independent part of mainland Tanzania) we four checked into a hostel (a self-styled "lodge") a few minutes from the port at US$20 for a two bed room w/ AC for the night. After lunch at a cafe on stilts over the harbour (w/ the sun shining in a blue African sky and a nice cooling breeze...) we explored "Stonetown", the historic settlement in Zanzibar. It reminded me a bit of the Old City in Lahore w/ the houses (many a century or more old) three or four storeys tall packed closely together so that the alleyways were sometimes as narrow as six feet wide, but still wide enough for motorcycles and Vespas which usually beeped before going around corners. I found the most interesting building to be an Anglican church that had been built on the site of the old slave market. (Zanzibar was the main slave trading centre on Africa's east coast.) The altar is apparently right on the top of the whipping post. From outside we could hear a pipe organ playing hymns and carols, a nice counterpoint to the call to prayer from the mosques. An interesting connection to Zambia is that there is a cross in the church made from wood from the tree under which Livingstone's heart is buried. We passed the road to the site on Sunday coming back from the train station. (For history buffs: When Livingstone died his servants cut out his heart, because it "belonged to African", and buried it under the aforementioned tree then, after drying it in the sun for a few days, carried his body to Dar from where it was taken to England and buried in Westminster Abbey.)

On Wednesday morning, we took a van to the north end of Zanzibar where all the good beaches and scuba diving/snorkelling sites are. After checking into the beach-front hotel (nothing too luxurious: really just a bar/restaurant w/ a motel and some cottages attached), I took a stroll up the gorgeous white beach and walked to the northern tip of Zanzibar where there was a lighthouse and a fishing village. The boats the local fisherman use are the Arab-style "dhows" (rhymes w/ cows) or outrigger canoes. We saw them building some boats on the beach using only trees and rough planks for materials and adzes for tools. Must take a while. According to the watchman at the lighthouse, it was the site of the Zanzibar Navy. I saw no sign of warships but maybe they had a submarine or two lurking in the coral reefs. Unfortunately the surf was too rough to go snorkelling so I went for a swim and introduced myself to one of the local sea urchins. After that I contented myself w/ more walks on the beach ("SWM looking for SF enjoys long walks on the beach...") and just looking at the surf. According to the guy at the bar paw-paw (aka papaya) juice is a good medicine for urchin spikes. And especially handy when they're growing in the courtyard. Beats going to the pharmacy. After a good night's sleep ("cooled by the ocean breeze and lulled by the sound of the waves breaking on the shore"--I could go on ;) and yet another walk on the beach, I said goodbye to my companions of the previous two days and took the van back to Stonetown since I had to confirm passage back to Dar for the next day. Still, I could easily have spent a week or more at the beach.

I haven't mentioned the food in Zanzibar yet. Since it was Ramadan (i.e., the Muslim month of fasting) food was harder than usual to come by during the day in Zanzibar. You could get cokes and such if you looked, though, and I enjoyed a curry in a restaurant run by an Indian who made it loudly known that he was a Hindu, but the real eating came after dark (and thus the end of the day's fast) when vendors set up BBQ's along the wharf opposite the old fort. You could very cheaply buy naan and "chapatis" (really piratas, to those of us who have been in Pakistan) w/ kebabs or shrimp or lobsters. What a pity I don't have a taste for seafood. Still, the kebabs were very nice. I also got suckered into buying a couple of carvings from a curio vendor, some of whom were Masai in their traditional dress.

After taking the hydrofoil back to Dar on Friday and mailing the only key to my bicycle lock to Ted (sorry about that) I took the bus (which cost me less than US 20c) back to the Neills just in time for a Christmas tea. Perfect timing. Then they took me to the train station ("I need only ONE porter!") and I settled in for the long ride to Zambia. My cabin mates were a Norwegian (whose Kenyan girlfriends' brother was apparently an Olympic long distance running champion), a Tanzanian going to teach a seminar in Zambia and a Kenyan fellow en route to South Africa. We started the trip in darkness and pretty soon left the city and could see fireflies and hear frogs calling outside the open window in the African bush. I ordered fish and chips for supper--and got what I asked for, a whole fish. It was actually very tasty, but I left the head alone and tried to ignore the eyes. The terrain was scenic on Saturday as the train has to climb quite a bit through some hills: the station where I disembarked is at an altitude of over 3000 feet above sea-level--and Dar is at sea-level, for the geographically challenged... At the bigger stations where we stopped vendors (mostly children) would mill around w/ stuff to sell to the passengers: potatoes, peanuts, pumpkins, live chickens etc. The compartment adjacent to ours was starting to look like a farmer's market by the time we hit the Zambian border, although maybe if I'd bought a few of those chickens I could have helped defray the cost of my ticket. There was a little commotion at the border when the Zambian immigration officials came on board as apparently my Kenyan cabin mate had claimed that he had US$3000 on him. (He needed at least $350 to be allowed to pass through Zambia. Fortunately they didn't ask me...) Unfortunately when the officials asked him to show them his money, he was some $2950 short of his claimed amount, no matter how slowly and carefully he counted it. Polite insults were exchanged ("We know you Kenyans.") for pathetic protestations of innocence and they threatened to throw him off the train and send him back to Kenya to start his trip all over. At this point the Zambian officials left our cabin, followed by the Kenyan, and since he was still on the train when I got off it at 5:30 on Sunday morning, I can only assume that he made them see reason, probably w/ some of the money, albeit not $350, that he did have. (The BBC recently reported that Zambia is the most corrupt country in Southern Africa. Presumably the Congo didn't count. Still it's hardly surprising considering the local government officials haven't been paid in five months.)

Mom and Dad were at the station to meet me. Fortunately they had confirmed the previous night that my train was three hours late so didn't have to get up at 2. It was good to finally see familiar faces and have someone else to keep my camera safe. They and Chrissie had stayed the night w/ a Peace Corps girl, Heidi, about my age whom they'd met when she was working closer to Mansa and had set up a fish farm. (For those of you to whom it means anything, she was at Kalundu and knew Abiya, aka Mama.) After a lively service at a charismatic influenced chapel (great singing) and a quick sandwich lunch we travelled the 4 and a half hours back to Mansa.

I should be winding down, but I did mention the cobra: Last night after dark Dad heard the dogs barking loud and long in the back yard. So he, armed w/ a "torch" (flashlight) and broom, ventured onto the "verandah" (porch), w/ the rest of us following more slowly, and saw that the dogs were barking furiously and lunging at something in the bush by the steps up to the verandah. Dad walked down the steps and shone his torch into the bush which made the dogs bolder so that they plunged into the bush and flushed out the cobra onto the steps. I saw it silhouetted briefly w/ its hood flared before Dobie pounced on it, dragged it onto the lawn and shook the life out of it. Dad whacked it a few times w/ the broom just to be sure. The cobra was at least four feet long, and I took a couple of pictures for posterity. It's now fertilizer for our seville orange tree. Dad is hoping for especially good marmalade next year. Unfortunately the cobra managed to spit venom at the dogs--one eye each was hit. We bathed them in milk (true to his gender Mumford didn't take his medicine as well as Dobie) but their eyes are still swollen and running. Hopefully the damage won't be permanent. Just in case I had any doubts, that incident has made me realize that I really am back in Africa.

Well, this letter is already far too long so I should be signing off. Hoping you all have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and remember, Jesus is the Reason for the season.

Love (you know who you are)/Until next time,


P.S. I'm tempted to wish you the best for the "new millennium" as well but the pedant in me won't allow me do so until next year.

P.P.S. Should any of you care to reply, please use this address ( until January 2 (or December 31, assuming Y2Khaos). After that use Zambia isn't quite on the cutting edge of the Internet Revolution (here's hoping) so I can't get on the Web to check my hotmail account.

P.P.P.S. Today's weather? Sunshine. 30 degrees. 57% humidity. We're not hoping for a white Christmas.