Saturday, January 22, 2011

Mombasa Bends

Mombasa, Kenya
19-21 January 2011

The first thing i learned in Mombasa, Kenya is that the rental car companies, particularly Budget Rental Car, have no internet connection so if you forgot to bring your contract that you set up online you are out of luck. The second thing is that that i learned is that the car you get probably won't be the car you reserved. We rented a small SUV and ended up with the an old beat up RAV-4 with 166,000km that was falling apart that belonged to the cousin of the person who worked behind the Budget counter. It took about half an hour to annotate all the damage to the vehicle before we could leave. The third thing I learned right away in Mombasa, Kenya is that since we were borrowing the family car, we had family responsibilities- like we had to to drop off the owner of the car at his house since he was so nice as to bring the car to the airport for us. Luckily i didn't make the car reservation, so my friend who did got to go through the aggravation of working it all out and then driving through town to the hotel. The fifth thing we learned is that there are no maps- Budget didn't have any and we didn't bring any with us. The welcome desk was kind enough to give us a map of Kenya but nobody had any idea where the hotel was located besides saying it was on the North Coast. Eventually we found it- after some extended exploring.

We got a pretty good package deal at the Serena Hotel (located some 30km from the airport) that included breakfast and buffet dinners and i ate too much. The food was good and we spent the first couple days working it off scuba diving, lounging, or exploring Haller Park. One of my friends earned her PADI Open Water Certification in 2.5 days by studying all night, doing pool dives in the morning, and open water dives in the afternoon. She did very well and is excited to dive Zanzibar next week!

However, i got bent. We did two dives and broke all the scuba rules and completely blew the dive tables when we followed the plan of the Assistant Dive Master. The Dive Master was the figurehead for the PADI school and was never around. He refused to go on a dive with us- it seemed that he just allowed the Kenyans to use his name to run the program. I was dumb and just followed the assistant dive masters even when they told us not to worry about breaking the rules. The first cardinal rule we broke was to dive deep first. We dove 20 meters for 36 mins, but then dove again in less than 30 mins. For the second dive we dove 24 meters for 37 mins when according to the dive tables we should have only gone to that depth for 9 mins, if that, after such a short surface interval.

During the short break between dives I felt like crap. The tiny pitching boat on the open sea outside the protective barrier reef made my face turn green and i was holding on for my dear life so i didn't question the uber short surface interval- I just wanted to get back in the water so i would feel better. I did feel better for a bit but after 10-15 mins on the bottom (around 24 meters) my nausea came back again and i felt like taking out my regulator and puking. The fun had gone out of the dive and my field of vision narrowed. I didn't care about the huge sea turtles swimming by or the white tipped reef sharks we found at the end- i just wanted out of the water and to get back on shore. Out of the water i felt better, but back on shore i struggled to rinse and put my gear away and then shuffled back to my room to take a nap. Mild headaches kept me from sleeping and i watched a movie with my dive buddy who was having some blurred vision. I thought it was just the continuation of being sea-sick and i crashed early.

The next day the mild headaches came and went as we explored Haller Park, a limestone quarry that was converted into a wildlife park in the 70s. It cost about $10 USD to enter the park and a guide took us around to see the giraffes, the hippos who were hiding, the fish farm, and the snake house. Really it was an overgrown zoo, but it was still admirable that they had turned a pit into an ecosystem with ponds, circulating water, and imported animals. I felt like crap again after walking around the park for an hour or two and decided to skip the afternoon dive- and that could have saved my life. While i rested i tried to calculate the pressure groups for my dive log and the online calculators kept saying there was an error with the dive. So i did the numbers using the PADI dive tables and it became apparent that the second dive was stupid and dangerous.

Resolutions: (1) Join DAN just in case i am diving and something goes wrong they can get me help or me to a hyperbaric chamber. (2) Buy a good dive computer that will help me calculate my pressure groups. (3) Don't just accept what the dive master tells me- double check the plan and don't dive stupid!

Friday, January 21, 2011


Nairobi, Kenya
16-19 January 2011

Traffic in Nairobi sucks. It seems like the greater part of the roads in the city are under construction so it takes hours to get from the airport to downtown or anywhere else in the city. Major road projects affecting traffic is the construction of a new bridge and a series of underpasses to replace the jammed traffic circles (or roundabouts) where we sat for hours in our taxis.

Cool stuff that we got to do in Nairobi: visit a shopping center where we watched Tron Legacy (a great movie from the states), ate lunch at the UN headquarters, and played a round of golf at the Windsor. The UN compound was huge with every set of letters you could jumble together represented. The people seemed busy but a friend who worked in the area commented that most of them spend their time in the pool or gym- and the gym was very nice with spinning classes and new equipment. The food was great too.

Golf at the Windsor was nice- the caddies who carried our rented clubs found most of the balls we lost. The scenery was awesome but sometimes you had to wait for the monkeys to clear the green so you could chip onto it or putt. On the ninth hole as we approached the green by the hotel my second shot was attacked by a group of large raptors who kept trying to steal my ball and fly away. Bird after large bird would swoop down and pick up my ball and fly several feet before losing their grip and dropping it again. Unfortunately they were flying towards me and not towards the green! So my next shot was several yards further out than it should have been- but we weren't playing for money- just enjoying the awesome experience of playing golf in Kenya.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Djibouti Day4

15 January 2011

Not much compares to a day spent swimming with giant whale sharks that looked like massive 20 foot long catfish that had mutated from some radioactive experiment gone horribly wrong (like Godzilla, but not angry and destroying cities). Today was anticlimactic as we spent it driving around the city and visiting a clinic to get some medication as two of the six members of the group had developed strep throat and my throat was getting scratchy. Luckily we were able to get some drugs after only an hour wait. For dinner we visited a restaurant downtown located on the 4th floor that gave a good view over the city and it's many lights. The food was alright, but only French cuisine. During the four days we spent in Djibouti the only local food we were able to find was on the boat trip as it seemed the restaurants that were recommended to us only served Italian or French food. C'est la vie...

Djibouti Day3- Whale Sharks!

14 January 2011

We got up early in the morning and ate a rushed breakfast before heading to the port to catch an old wooden Dhow into the Gulf of Aiden to swim with the Whale Sharks. As we pulled drove along the extension to the pier parking lot we saw long lines of men walking to work who started calling out to us as we approached the parking lot. A we made the turn into the parking lot a couple men in ragged clothes pointed to us, then started to run alongside the car with their hands on the door handles and fighting off others to to be the one to open the door when we came to a stop. As we got out of the car we were mobbed and our "escorts" would push and shove the others away.

We fought our way through the rocky dirt parking lot and up a narrow gangplank that bowed and flexed considerably under our weight. Once aboard it was evident that we were on the low budget cruise as the cooks started the cooking fire on the main deck in a cut off 55 gallon steel drum. I was glad to see that they had brought jugs of water along to wash their knives and cutting boards as they prepared our lunch on the deck. The cruise on the old leaky diesel boat took over two hours and nearly rattled the fillings out of my teeth. Every half hour someone would turn on the two bilge pumps bolted to the deck to pump out the water accumulating below, streaming an unknown amount of water for 10-15 mins. Stuff streamed out the back of the boat as well from the open bottomed latrine. It seemed that most of the passengers on the ship were from the local French military bases and only a few small kids were aboard. One five year old girl amused herself by chasing a kitten around the boat and trying to talk to my friends.

Finally when we arrived at the western-most point of the Gulf of Aiden the boat dropped anchor near a sandy beach and the crew brought the two small boats we had towed from the port alongside and began to load the divers. Each of the smaller boats held about 20 passengers and i had the misfortune to get on the second boat that only could move at rowing speed. Unfortunately two of my friends literally missed the boat and had to stay behind on the mother ship while we crawled out to the whale shark zone.

The first thing we spotted was a jagged dorsal fin cutting slowly through the water, up to, then under the boat. Then my eyes adjusted and i could make out the rows of white dots that covered the back of the giant shark as it passed under us. I was still, in awe of the giant shark that was bigger than our boat when the boatsman called out to us to dive. I pulled my mask and snorkel on and fell backwards over the edge of the boat and into the warm blue-green waters teeming with whale sharks and other snorkelers. I watched the first whale shark swim slowly away and turned around just in time to see another massive whale shark coming right at me, only to turn quietly and gently pass my on my right, and keep on swimming.

The whale shark is a massive fish that can grow to over 13 meters long and resembles an overgrown catfish without the whiskers. It has over 3000 small teeth but a small mouth and even though i saw it floating and feeding just below the surface of the water i couldn't see what it was eating (must be really small food). I later learned that the whale shark doesn't reach maturity until after about 25 years and bears live young (doesn't lay eggs). They are hunted and prized for their fins (for soup), and one whale shark can sell for $10,000 USD. It would not be hard to catch one as they move slowly and i was able to easily swim alongside several in the warm gulf waters. Some of the over eager snorkelers would reach out and touch the whale sharks or try to hold on for a ride, but then the huge gentle animals would dive deeper and disappear from sight leaving the snorkelers gasping for air. We were warned not to touch the whale sharks as it removes the protective mucus from their skin and exposes them to bacteria and can cause infection and usually on the surface the abusive snorkelers were corrected by their peers.

The wind and strong currents pushed us and the whale sharks into the back corner of the gulf and i was able to spend over an hour swimming next to, over, under, and around several huge whale sharks. It was amazing just to float behind one as it fed and watch the massive gills open and close as it filtered gallons of water. The water was extremely salty and kept us very buoyant so it was no effort to swim or stay at the surface. The only danger was from the swimming crabs that frequently attacked me and chased me around the area. These hand-sized crabs liked to sneak up behind me and attack my back or hamstrings with their oversized claws so i had to keep turning around to protect my back. It was funny to watch or hear the girls in the water scream when they got spooked by a whale shark or pinched by a crab.

After about an hour people started to get hungry and we headed back to the mother ship and lunch. Upon reaching the mothership I jumped in a boat with my two friends that were left behind and headed back to the whale sharks. One had never been snorkeling before and was nervous in the water and the idea of being surrounded by whale sharks. However once she realized it was easy to float and got used to having her head in the water she quickly joined in the chase and enjoyed swimming with the sharks.

Lunch when we got back on the boat was meat on a skewer, a vegetable salad in mayonnaise, french bread, rice, and a red stew. Once everyone had eaten we began the long three hour cruise back against the strengthening wind and rising seas. The wind swells would pitch the bow twenty feet as we slowly pushed our way across the great troughs of water. At one point one of the two smaller boats broke free and we had to circle back to get it as well as a later time when the wind swept a pile of unused life vests into the sea. I became bored and lay down on the deck and fell asleep to the vibrating massage of the rickety diesel engine and the bilge pumps continuously pumping water from the hold.

I woke up as we entered the calm of the harbor, and so we gathered our gear, paid the man who watched our car (he didn't look like he cared anymore- his eyes were glazed over as he chewed on mouthful of green khat leaves) and returned to the hotel for the night.

Djibouti Day2

13 January 2011

I enjoyed la grosse matinee (sleeping in) thanks to the uber-comfortable bed and the black-out curtain that kept out the brilliant tropical sun. The Kempinski is also located on the outside edge of the port and my room overlooked the pool with a swim-up bar and the ocean so it was very quiet.

After a quick breakfast at the full breakfast bar, complete with an omelet chef, we collected our rented Nissan Patrol and headed out to see the city. It was quickly evident that the greater part of the population didn't speak French or English and many of the signs were in Arabic. However, the business class and most of the people we met with were equally competent in English and French and my Franco-handicapped traveling companions were able to communicate very easily.

For the greater part of the population the day revolved around the noon Khat delivery. In the morning the men would work hard to make whatever he could in order to buy khat, then spend the next couple hours sitting around and chewing the narcotic green leaves talking to friends and enjoying the high. The first 30-45 mins are supposed to make the chewer agitated, but then a cool mellow sets in the and the individual chills for the next couple hours. The drug is not illegal and about 75-80% of the male population chews khat. A friend related that khat is part of the reason for the stability in Djibouti as it keeps the people mellow. If the electricity goes out for two days or there is no water or food prices got up it's not a big deal. But, if there is no khat delivery for two days pandemonium would follow. Accordingly the state protects and ensures on time delivery of khat everyday.

When we returned to the hotel in the early afternoon after exploring we could see groups of men sitting in the shade leaning back and relaxing. The streets that were busy in the morning were now practically deserted, with only a few cars driven by Forengies (foreigners) on the road.

Later that evening we visited another friend and had dinner with several expat families living in the area. I relished the A&W root beer and cheddar cheese, which are very rare commodities in Africa. Over a great dinner of mostly Italian dishes (spaghetti, pesto, bread...) we learned about life for the expat families in Djibouti. With no English-speaking schools in the area all the expat kids attended the French school and the opportunities for recreation for the families were very limited. Most agreed that life in Djibouti was hard for expat families but several had requested extensions to stay longer in the area.

After we said goodbye and headed back to the hotel we were amused by the different sets of guards we passed by who would jump to attention and rush to open the gates to their walled compounds when they saw our headlights. I guess there isn't a lot of traffic after hours in the upscale residential areas.

Djibouti Day1

12 January 2011

The morning started with another meeting at the African Union then we caught the plane to Djibouti arriving after dark. The short flight from Addis flew over jagged, broken dusty brown mountains and many milk chocolate dry rivers. The flight was full leaving Addis but more than two-thirds of the passengers disembarked during a brief refueling stop at Dire Dawa, about an hour from Djibouti.

To check into our hotel we had to pass through several different security checkpoints, including getting our baggage screened in an x-ray machine to get inside. We ended up getting staying at the Djibouti Palace Kempinski upon recommendations of so me local friends, mainly for security reasons. The hotel was very expensive but also very comfortable with several swimming pools, good restaurants, a great gym, and the best bed i have slept on in Africa. The bathrooms were amazing with a separate tub and a sauna-shower with an overhead rain shower and bench. But for $250+ USD per night it should be good!

If you stay in the Kempinski one should be aware that only the new wing has wifi, and the hotel graciously accommodated my request to move to a room with wifi. The signal and bandwidth was sufficient to video Skype with my family back in the states. Wifi access requires a free code from the business center and i had no problems connecting with my iphone and iPad.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Addis Day3

Addis Ababa
11 January 2011

This morning we visited the African Union Headquarters and walked around the impressive complex. The PRC was in session and we could see the representatives from all over Africa that were sitting behind their desks and debating. Most of the people in the art filled corridors were speaking in french. My favorite piece was an intricately carved wooden bust of an African man that was about two feet tall, but unfortunately it was not labeled.

Adjacent to the African Union building the new headquarters are under construction, thanks to the Chinese. The building looks amazing even though it was only half way built. Banners in Chinese adorned the skyscraper tower that will easily be the tallest building in Ethiopia. At the foot of the tower is another large globe shaped building that will hold the new assembly chamber. I look forward to visiting again and touring the building when it is completed.

We also visited the Sun Market in Addis to pick up some snacks and found that most of the products were from France or China. Surprisingly they didn't have any milk in a box but had fresh milk in a bag. Outside the store we were swarmed by little kids selling kleenex and chewing gum who jammed their little hands into the door opening to stop us from closing it. Eventually we were able to get away without anyone getting hurt.

The worst part of driving in Addis is not the lack of traffic rules or signs at almost every intersection, but the people that walk up to your car when stopped in traffic and tap on your windows with their hands out asking for money. If you are stopped for five minutes they will stay there the whole time banging gradually louder on the car and calling out in Aramaic. I am surprised that nobody gets hurt with kids and people wandering around in heavy unorderly traffic.

Addis Day2

Addis Ababa
10 January 2011

Today we went shopping around Churchhill Street looking for silver crosses from the north country and wandered around the many little shops on the side of a hill. Here we were bugged by a couple street vendors, but it was just a slight nuisance (or maybe I am just getting used to them). I found a cross I liked set in a dark wood panel with intricate carvings and etched stone pieces but the vendor started at 850 birr so I walked away.

Next we went to the Piazza neighborhood where silver was sold for 30 birr per gram and I got some silver cuff links for $21. The rectangular cuff links had a silver trim and featured a silver map of Africa set on a black background and weighed 35g.

We ate dinner at the Face of Addis restaurant located on top of a hill with a great view of the city. Unfortunately the food wasn't great and the service sucked- we had to beg for silverware after the food was delivered two hours after we ordered. After asking for bread four times we got our week old stale bread after the main course.

Addis Day 1

Addis Ababa Day 1
9 January 2010

Back in Africa after passing the holidays in Europe and the states- it took 45 hours to get back to Senegal from the west coast, then another eight hours to get to Addis. I am definitely enjoying the cooler weather in Africa! (and not the freezing cold in the states or Europe). I flew to Addis on Ethiopian and wasn't impressed- i had to beg for a headset, couldn't get a blanket, the stewardesses ignored us repeatedly, and the carpet was coming up in front of my seat.

However i have been impressed with Addis, starting with the airport- its the biggest & nicest i have seen in Africa so far. Roads are great and it's not hard to get around the city. The people seem nice and i haven't been mobbed by people trying to sell me junk as soon as i get out of the vehicle or a building. We wandered around the city and enjoyed the light Sunday traffic- we'll see how it is in the morning! One challenge has been the signs in Aramaic but fortunately the important signs (i hope) are also written n English.

We ate dinner at an Ethiopian cultural restaurant which featured a traditional Ethiopian meal where you ripped of pieces of a flat bread and used it to grab the pieces of meat arrayed on a large communal platter. While you ate with your hands a traditional 4 piece Ethiopian band played songs important to their culture while dancers performed a wedding dance, war dances, and a variety of other dances. The music was great and the dancers were impressive and at one point my redneck friend from Alaska was called up onto the stage to dance with the troupe. Surprisingly he did very well, to the amazement of the many locals that laughed themselves to tears.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Book Review: Escape from Rwanda

ESCAPE FROM RWANDA: A True Story of Faith, Hope, and Survival, John Yves Bizimana, Deseret Book, 2010, 160 pages, $18.99
John Yves Bizimana relates in this book his childhood escape from Rwanda and journey to attend Brigham Young University where he was scheduled to graduate in August 2010.  He wrote this book as a response to the many who had questioned his miraculous survival and how he ended up in Utah going to college. 
As a child in Rwanda John enjoyed a privileged life until his father died in an automobile accident a few short months before the start of the killings in April 1994.  At age seven, shortly after the death of the President of Rwanda, John and his family were evacuated to a stadium in Kigali and stayed there for some time before his family decided to walk to Zaire.  Later his family relocated to Tanzania, Zambia, and eventually settled in Zimbabwe.  When he was ten years old and living in a refugee camp his mother died from malnutrition and he spent the next couple years bouncing between orphanages, boarding schools, and relatives.  Finally at age 15, relatives living in Belgium adopted John and his siblings and they emigrated in 2002.  With the help from friends John applied to BYU, was accepted, and began his studies in 2006.
This book is informative for its description of the life of a refugee in Africa and how the author was able to find solace from the many tragedies in his life through religion.  Religion then provided a means to travel to the United States and gain a university education.  The author's success is not typical but his journey is educational.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Book Review: Machete Season

MACHETE SEASON: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, Jean Hatzfeld, Picador, 2006, 272 pages, $10.20
Machete Season by Jean Hatzfeld looks at the Rwandan genocide from the point of view of ten Hutu killers interviewed in prison during March 2003.  The ten Hutus in the interviews were a group of associates or friends, a gang- living in the hills of Nyamata in south central Rwanda.  Once the killings began the men left their fields and took their machetes and began cutting their former Tutsi friends and neighbors and didn't stop for nearly 100 days.
The book is organized in short chapters by subject starting with the beginning of the slaughter when the men were gathered into the square and given instructions to kill all the Tutsis the morning after the death of the president.  The men discussed in the interviews the emotion or lack of emotion in their first kills and how they motivated each other to keep killing.  Not only Tutsis were cut, but also moderate Hutus and those that spoke out against the genocide (aka "the Just").  The men mentioned in the interviews how looting was a major motivation in the killing and corrugated steel and the lands of the recently deceased were highly prized.  They were rewarded each day as they returned from the swamps and killing fields with beef and beer and most of the spouses supported their husbands in their new work. 
The most amazing part of the book is when the author asks the killers about their remorse for their actions.  The men for the most part were upset for not being forgiven and felt that they didn't need to change if they wouldn't be forgiven.  They said repeatedly throughout the interviews that they were just following orders and were influenced by peer pressure to continue the cuttings.  Some of their biggest concerns were how they would return to their homes in the hills where they killed their neighbors and try to resume a normal life.
Only one of the ten men in the gang was sentence to death for his role in the genocide and only as he was a local political organizer and helped plan the slaughter.  The others were sentenced to time in prison or were still awaiting sentencing in a traditional court depending to their confessions and age.  The back of the book features a photo of the group and a brief biography of each man, which helps to understand them better.
This book provides valuable insight into the thinking of men who slaughtered thousands of their former friends and neighbors.  The interviews are tinged by their location and can't be taken completely at face value despite the promise of the author to not reveal their content to authorities.  The men undoubtedly held back certain truths and emotions that they thought would get them in trouble or present them in a worse light- but still provide a rare look into the minds of ordinary Rwandans who at the drop of a hat picked up their machetes and nearly exterminated all the Tutsi in their neighborhood.