Chocolate Lab

On Saturday night my dog was poisoned. By herself. With chocolate.

I was out all day on the Ski Train (more on that another time). When I came home I discovered Josie had eaten over a pound of pure cocoa. Theobromine, an alkaloid found in cocoa and chocolate, can be toxic for dogs in large doses, and can even be fatal. Josie ingested way more than a safe amount. When I found her she was exhibiting all of the signs of toxic chocolate poisoning: she was shaking, hyper, and her heartbeat was really fast (the vet later told me it was 250 beats per minute). I took her to the pet emergency center immediately. She was in bad shape. The vet took some steps to get the remaining chocolate out of her system and then put her on an IV and kept her overnight. It was pretty scary. She's doing much better now, but in this picture taken after she came back from her sleepover at the dog hospital, you can tell she was a little shaken up by the whole experience.


So. Random.

My little brother does some modeling in his spare time to supplement his (lack of) income as a medical student. He poses for stock photographs which may be purchased by any advertising agency for use in their clients' ads. While it pays well, he never knows where his picture will end up--for instance, the photos from his recent shoot which included pictures of him laughing and hugging a pretty young woman could easily turn into an ad for genital warts medication.

I was just reading an article about a defamation lawsuit filed by a pro golfer who wasn't happy about what someone wrote on his Wikipedia profile. While reading the article, something seemed oddly familiar about one of the ads on the page:

And then it hit me: that was my brother's head poking out from behind that computer!

Congratulations, Andrew. You've finally made the big time. But remember, you may be better looking and have more hair (for now), but I'm funnier and can still kick your ass.

A Sort Of Homecoming

5:00 AM. Anchorage. Sleepless again. I fell asleep at 9:30 tonight. I was cuddling with my dog and in the midst of the most sound sleep I have had in a long time when my phone rang. The sound was jarring, and noticing that it was 1:30 AM I figured it must be an emergency for someone to call so late. Not so. The voicemail message revealed that the caller just thought I might be awake because of jetlag. That was almost 4 hours ago. I'm still awake and can't fall back to sleep.

I've been back in reality/Anchorage for about 12 hours. It's been a rough re-entry so far:

* The special Malawian hot sauce I dragged with me halfway across the globe could not accompany me from Seattle to Anchorage because it was an "oversize liquid" and therefore constituted a threat to national security. Several TSA agents in Seattle are enjoying it tonight, I'm sure.
* My car won't start and is refusing to respond to a jump. UPDATE: repair cost is only $800.
* At dinner last night, our waiter knocked over a candle, spilling hot wax all over my lap and ruining my favorite pants. (And leaving me with white, flaky stuff caked on my crotch for the remainder of the evening. A classy look, let me tell you.)
* It is 85 degrees colder here than it is in Malawi right now.

I want to go back to Africa.


Back in the USSR

Back in Alaska and utterly exhausted. Though the fact that it is 4:00 and the sun is still high in the sky and shining brightly may inspire me to wake up and look for my skis. I haven't watched any TV in over 3 weeks and my internet usage has been minimal. So, save for a few quick glances at the CNN or BBC website, and the local Malawian papers, I don't really know what's going on in the world. But I don't think I missed anything. Though I did spot headlines that said Anna Nicole Smith died under mysterious circumstances and that Britney shaved her head. Is it okay if I pay absolutely no attention to either story?

A Few Malawi Photos

The house we stayed at in Mangochi

Village People

Fish Eagle
View from the house Nate and Marlo are building

Kidnapping an Afghani girl
Baboons have blue balls. Literally (zoom in).

One-Tusked Elephant

Sleepless in Seattle

6:45 AM. Seattle. Sleepless. I have no idea what time zone my body thinks it is. But I am wide awake and sitting on my brother's "ex"-girlfriend's couch and looking out the bay window at Lake Washington. Sunrise over the lake was pretty, and I would have gone outside to take a picture, but it was too cold. I'm not moving from my blanket-wrapped position on the couch.

Yesterday, on my flight from London to Seattle, the in-flight entertainment system malfunctioned (i.e., the video worked but the audio emitted only screeching static), depriving me of the ability to watch the two movies I had selected for the flight: Babel and Sleepless in Seattle. Recently, my role in a pseudo-love triangle was described by one of the other participants as that of Tom Hanks' character from Sleepless in Seattle. Having never seen the movie, but having seen You've Got Mail, I thought I was in pretty good shape. And, really, is there any Tom Hanks role you would not want to be compared to? Maybe not from Forrest Gump, Philadelphia, or Turner & Hooch. And maybe not Castaway. But I'll take Hanks from Bachelor Party, Bosom Buddies, and Splash any day. Now I sit, literally sleepless in Seattle and still never having seen the movie.

The lack of in-flight visual entertainment left me with few options: sleep or read the awful Dan Brown novel I overpaid for. Somehow I appear to have built up an Ambien immunity in just 2 days. My plans to dose myself to sleep with the little blue pills (as I did en route from Joburg to Heathrow) disappeared as the Ambien had no effect. Were I a more adventurous sort, as I was in my youth, I would have supplemented the Ambien with the other "mystery" pills Dawson gave me. But, having so far successfully avoided Malaria and Bilharzia, I decided not to push my look, medicine-wise. Thus I was forced to sit awake and read Dan Brown for 9 hours.

I finished the book. It sucked. Last night I immediately had to start reading something else to clear away the memories of Digital Fortress. Unfortunately, the bookshelves once shared by my brother and Casey, and now belonging only to her, are littered with medical texts, cookbooks, and travel books about Italy. There is only one small section of shelf that has any novels, and they appear to be my brother's, as there are just a few Ayn Rand books and a tattered copy of The Godfather. Don Corleone, thank you for helping me in my time of need.


Malawi Five-0

There isn't much of a police presence in Malawi. There is a police force, and it is very well-respected, but lack of resources prohibits the sort of police patrol that we are used to. Malawi takes traffic safety very seriously, though, and roadblocks are established in most towns where traffic police officers will check to make sure that your car is registered, properly insured, that the driver has a license (any license, apparently, will do as they had no problem waving through Alaska-licensed drivers), and that you have your "triangles"---triangular shaped reflectors to lay out in the road in case your car breaks down. We went through about 10 such checkpoints during the course of our trip. We didn't have any problems until the last day.

On Sunday, Polly, Scott and I planned to drive from Mangochi to Lilongwe so we could return the rental car and catch our flight on Monday. It is about a 5 hour drive to Lilongwe. After about 2 hours, we came to a checkpoint in Balaka. We thought they would check Scott's license (he was driving) and waive us through. Not an irrational thought--we hadn't had any problems with the car's paperwork and it was a rental, we figured the rental company kept everything in order. Thus, we were quite confused when the traffic officer stared at the stickers on our car and Scott's license for about 5 minutes and then told us to pull over to the side of the road and wait. She then called over another cop and they talked for a couple of minutes before walking hand-in-hand (Malawians hold hands as a sign of friendship; even men hold hands with other men) over to us.

The cops, Ruth and Alex (as we later learned) were talking to themselves more than us. We were finally told what was going on: our registration was invalid and our car did not have the proper license plates. The registration problem is still confusing--the car was registered twice and that is a no-no--and the license plates were supposed to have red letters indicating that it was a car for hire, not black letters which indicate a private vehicle. We tried to explain that we had no idea, that it wasn't our fault, etc., while hoping that the United States maxim of "ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking the law" did not apply in Malawi.

We explained to the cops that we were on our way to Lilongwe and had to catch a flight in the morning. they told us that the infractions we committed required an appearance in court the following day and a 15,000 KW (about $100) fine. And we would be detained overnight.

Ruth then told us we needed to talk to the owner of the vehicle to see what he had to say, and she seemed incredulous when we told her none of us had a phone (everyone in Malawi has a cell phone!). Alex let us use his, and we called Skywave rentals at the number listed on the sticker on the back of the car. What happened next was straight out of a movie: we called Skywave. First the Skywave guy talked to Ruth for a few minutes. Then he talked to Alex for a few minutes. Then Alex hung up. Then the Skywave guy called back. This went on for about 15-20 minutes and we had no idea what they were saying because they were speaking Chichewa. Though there was a lot of laughing which was a good sign. While these back and forth phone calls were taking place, people kept coming up to our car and were trying to sell us things--food, wood carvings, etc. The fact that we were stopped by the police and were being questioned by them did not deter the capitalist instincts of the residents of Balaka. And, at one point, Ruth pointed at a game someone was trying to sell and told Polly she should buy it.

At some point, the telephone game ended and we were back to talking about the situation at hand with Alex and Ruth. Alex told me that previously, there had been a 3,000 KW (about $30) "spot fine," but that the rules were now stricter. Fortunately, Nate had told me how the Malawi police are notoriously NOT corrupt, otherwise I would have taken the "spot fine" language to mean that it was time to offer a bribe. But we still didn't know what was going to happen. In Malawi, the driver is considered the owner of the vehicle, so Scott would have to go to court the next day. We had no idea if they were going to let us go or not. All we knew was that things were not like they were in the US--there would be no ticket issued with a court appearance in the future. There was no computerized system to fine Skywave rentals and let us go. If the law was followed, we would have to stay in Balaka, go to court the next day and miss our flight, which meant 3 more days in Malawi until the next flight out. (it should also be noted that during this whole time that Alex and Ruth were dealing with us on the side of the road, the checkpoint gate was wide open, so every other car that came through passed on without so much as a glance.)

Alex and Ruth were actually really nice about the whole thing. Well, Ruth was kind of formal and stern in the beginning, but Alex had a smile on his face the whole time. And once I started telling him why we were in Malawi--volunteering at an orphanage and working with an organization that was building schools--I could tell we weren't going to have to spend the night in Balaka. But still, there were more back and forth phone calls about what we had no idea--that is what made it so surreal. In between these calls, we explained Solace's work in detail. Alex was totally into it because he comes from a very poor village and though he is only 23, he has been a cop for 7 years and is paying for six other people to go to school. Ultimately, they let us go, but I think I may have promised him that we would build a school in his village, and I definitely promised to come back to Malawi and tour his village with him. Then he looked straight at Polly and asked her what she was going to do to help his village. "Uhhh..." was her initial response followed by something about discussing options with Solace's directors because she is just a volunteer.

The whole ordeal lasted about 90 minutes, and unlike most traffic stops in the US, this one ended with Alex and Ruth giving me their phone numbers and addresses (both home and work), them telling us how they were glad we were friends now, and all of us promising to write to each other (Ruth also mentioned that her middle name means "end of life." How do you respond to that?). Though we escaped this situation, we had no idea if there were more checkpoints on the way to Lilongwe, and if there were, we could run into the same problem. Fortunately, we had Alex and Ruth's digits, so we could try to call them if we ran into any more problems.

There were two more checkpoints before we hit Lilongwe. At one of them the cop asked Scott what was in the boot (trunk)? "Bags," he replied. "Okay, go ahead." At the next one, we drove through without incident.

The rental car company representatives met us at the hotel the next morning and didn't think it was that big of a deal. After all, we got out of it. They didn't seem too concerned with thanking us for talking the cops out of a $15,000 fine, though we did use this experience to negotiate a slightly lower rate for the rental. We're still not sure what the problem was. The multiple registration thing still makes no sense, but some light has been shed on the license plate error: red plates indicate rental cars but the rental agency doesn't use them because they think it is safer for their clients to drive around in cars that don't scream "tourist! rental car!" this makes good sense, but it would have been nice of them to let us know that ahead of time.


London Calling

I landed in London 2 hours ago. My plan was to spend my 6 hour layover catching up on emails and trying to post a few more blog entries about the trip. But the wireless card in my computer is no longer operational, so I am sitting at an internet terminal. The terminal gives you several choices--you can pay £3,£4,£5,or £6 for internet use, but it doesn't tell you how many minutes that is for. I went with the £4 option and was rewarded with 43 minutes. So now I have to sit here for 40 more minutes even though I really have to pee.

I'm feeling much better than I was 15 hours ago in Johannesburg. I guess I don't have malaria, which is good. But I still could have Bilharzia (it's gross--look it up), though those symptoms won't show for a few weeks. I felt awful when I got on the plane, and it was about 90 degrees on the plane--no exaggeration. Teh flight attendants kept apologizing for the heat--something about the auxilary power kicking on. Anyway, everyone was dripping with sweat and then once we started flying, the plane got really cold. Somehow I came out of it feeling better than before. Maybe it's because I slept for 9 hours in an ambien-induced slumber.

Oh, and the ridiculously-expensive Dan Brown paperback I accidentally purchased (well, I intentionally purchased it--but I thought it was only $7, not $17, and I hadn't yet found the good bookstore), sucks. The story may be enough to keep me entertained, if necessary, on a flight across the Atlantic, but the prose is painful. To wit:
"Becker was dark--a rugged youthful 35 with sharp green eyes and a wit to
match. His strong jaw and taut features reminded Susan of carved
marble. Over six feet tall, Becker moved across a squash court faster than
any of his colleagues could comprehend. After soundly beating his
opponent, he would cool off by dousing his head in a drinking fountain and
soaking his tuft of thick, black hair. Then, still dripping, he'd treat
his opponent to a fruitshake and a bagel."
Gag me.


Traveling with Scott and Polly has been a blast. They are two of my oldest friends in Anchorage, but I have definitely gotten to know them a lot better on this trip. And I have also learned much about their bodily functions, which may make us even closer when all is said and done. Or may drive us further apart.

We parted ways about 2 hours ago. I'm headed back to the US and they are kicking around here for another week for their "honeymoon." They have planned a trip to the wine country outside Cape Town, a great white shark diving expedition (Polly is going in the cage, Scott will stay on the boat) off the coast, and possibly a quick jaunt into Zimbabwe.

It is rare to spend so much time with people and not get on each other's nerves much. And we spent so much time together that my first instinct is not to call Scott by his name, but rather by Polly's pet name for him. Scott wanted to sleep late (though late was only 8:00 in Malawi), eat good food and wine and have fun. Polly wanted to learn the local languages, read all the guidebook information, and get exercise. Having Polly around to translate and brief us on what Lonely Planet had to say was ideal. It allowed Scott and I to chill and have fun and not worry about most of the details. Though, now that I think about it, I don't think Polly paid for anything on this trip--all currency conversion, cash transactions, and tipping was somehow delegated to me and Scoots (shit. I did it again).

There was however, one time when I wanted to kill Polly. Scott told me early on that the bird watching was great in Africa and that some of his friends who are "balls to the wall" birders (his exact words) were really jealous. Not being much, or any, really, of a birder myself, the allure was lost on me. For those of you who don't know, birding involves sitting around, or walking, and looking for birds. Binoculars (or "glass" as those in the know call them) are employed as is a bird book. One person spots the bird and shouts out distinguishing features--beak length, tail length, color, cap color, feather pattern, etc.--and the other looks in the book to ID the creature. Scott says three people is the ideal birding team number, and Scott, Nate, and Polly made a formidable trio. Though the identified probably close to 75 different birds on this trip, all of which are beautiful and many of which are rare, I wasn't as into it as them. Although, the one time I really tried, I enjoyed it. It is kind of like taking clues and trying to solve a puzzle. And it's not terribly easy as all sorts of things can happen--birds fly away, the sun gets in your eyes, elephants may trample you, etc. But I am hesitant because I think birding may really appeal to my obsessive compulsive side and I really don't want to become a "balls to the wall" birder.

Back to Polly. Ranking the birders in our group, Scott is #1, Nate is a close second and Polly comes in in third place. But she is the newest to the sport(?) and got really into it. So into it in fact that she would shout out birds whenever we were driving anywhere. "Ooh, Scott! DId you see that one? It had a red cap and a black streak." The problem was that she would usually do this while Scott was driving. For some reason the constant birding started to get on my nerves and after a couple of days I wanted to strangle her every time she called out a bird. And I later learned I wasn't the only one...

CSI: Malawi

Most roads in Malawi are paved, but potholes are plentiful and difficult to spot, so sudden swerving is often necessary. Long stretches of road are not paved and suffer at the whim of the weather. Rain can wash out entire sections and leave jagged ruts, washboard-like tracts, and not even potholes, just giant holes. After a good rain, "road crews" will be out within a day to repair the damage with dirt. The "repairs" last only until the next rain. The roads are also narrow and there are always people walking or riding bicycles along both sides. Driving can be harrowing, and is very much like a video game you have to move forward while avoiding hitting anything and running off the road. You will find yourself swerving to avoid people, goats, cows, bicycles and potholes means often bottoming, going over a huge bump that lifts you off your seat, and coming within inches, seriously, inches, of pedestrians (Polly wants to raise money to build bike lanes or sidewalks) and their livestock. But the people walking the streets seem unfazed, and most respond to a few beeps from the horn (the proper way to warn pedestrians as Malawians walk with, rather than against, the flow of traffic) and move over. But for Americans, the challenge is compounded by driving on the left side of the road and having to clutch and shift gears backwards, with your left hand and foot.

Nate says, "I've worked in Malawi for three years. It's a miracle I haven't hit someone yet." Scott can't make the same claim.

We had just passed unscathed through the police checkpoint outside Lilongwe. Now, safely (by just a few meters) within the city limits, we pulled into a petrol station to gas up and pee (though the gassing-up was aborted as a means of retaliating against the rental car company. More on that later.). We stepped out of the car and Polly said, "I don't think we should hang out here. I feel llike we just committed a crime." I tried to assure her that everything was fine, and even if it wasn't, that there was no evidence connecting us to the scene. Later, we came to realize that there was some trace evidence: a dent and a smudge on the side mirror.

While on the road somewhere between Mundini and Lilongwe, a scary situation presented itself: coming around a bend, a large truck was barelling towards us in the opposite lane, making the roadway very narrow, and a group of people were walking and biking in our lane. Scott hit the horn a few times, and most people got over, except one. At 100 km/h, there wasn't much time to think, nor was there space to maneuver-- we were either going to hit the biker or the truck. Somehow, Scott positioned the car between them with just inches to spare between us and the truck, and no room between the car and the biker. Our vehicle, a mid-90's Toyota Corolla, nicked the biker (we think the side mirror clipped his handlebar). It happened quickly, and from my position in the back seat I made eye contact with the man just an instant after impact. Somehow, he stayed on his bike and did not flinch. I flung my head around to make sure he was okay while Polly yelled at Scott for driving too fast. As the biker got smaller and smaller in the distance he still appeared upright and plugging away on his bike, so we did not stop.

Scott too saw that he was fine. Polly, however, was worried that Scott and I were lying to her and that the man had been injured but we did not want to stop because we were worried that if we had injured him, we would have to deal with the wrath of an entire village (which has happened--remind me some time to tell you Nate's "White Devil" story.). Polly apparently trusts me more than Scott, so my account of the biker's health was enough to relieve her concern. Nevertheless, we high-tailed it out of there. Well, as high-tailed as one can get in a mud-covered 1996 Toyota Corolla with a few non-functioning windows.

Update: It occurs to me that this I should discuss Scott's driving during this trip in more detail Nothing in this post should be read to insinuate that he is a bad driver. He did an excellent job negotiationg difficult roads and unexpected situations and even handled the backwards roundabouts with ease (I only drove once and it was really weird). Polly felt there were a lot of times when he was going too fast or coming too close to people and animals, and she let him know in her "I-work-with-youth-and-this-is-how-you-explain-things-to-teenagers" voice, but he always got us where we were going and only (sort-of) hit one person. So, Scoots, good job. Thanks for driving my ass all over Malawi.


6:00 p.m. Johannesburg. 3.5 hours until my flight leaves for London. I feel like shit. I've been pretty healthy for this whole trip (read: no major stomach problems, which is unusual for an Africa trip) but after breakfast today my stomach started acting up and I started sweating (this came on during the 15 minutes that I lost my passport--after frantic searching, said passport was located in the pants I wore last night. Fortunately, I learned my lesson from the Denny's incident in Boulder that some of you may recall and I did not immediately blame the hotel staff for my misplaced property) . I've been battling the hot and cold thing all day--drink cold water to cool off. Then hot tea to warm up. I wore shorts and a hooded sweatshirt on the plane. Figures that I would get sick on the very last day in Malawi. Now, I'm totally out of it. I was wandering around the airport in one of those hazes you fall into when sick, and I think I just spent $17 on a Dan Brown paperback. Hold on, let me convert Rand to Dollars....Fuck! I did. I knew I should have brought another book. I brought 3 and finished the last one yesterday. I snagged one from the Malawi house for the trip home, but it sucked--I couldn't read more than 2 pages. [fn1] A brand new copy of a book about the history of salt is sitting on my desk. That is, unless Viv stole it--she seemed very excited about it when I purchased it and she has been caring for my dog and sleeping in my bed the past few days, so she probably saw that I left it behind. Viv, sorry I didn't wash the sheets before I left.

[fn1] Granted, it was a Tom Clancy novel; I don't know what I expected. I like to read mystery/suspense/thriller/espionage type books when I fly. If written well, I get totally absorbed and can forget about the fact that I am uncomfortably stuffed into a flying can of germs for 11 hours. Dan Brown, don't let me down! And if he does, once again, Dawson, thanks for the Ambien. I just need to stay awake long enough to take it.

Shipwrecked Heart

17 Feb. 2007: Shipwrecked Heart is the title of the song that is at the heart (pun-intended) of the latest Carl Hiaasen novel I am reading. This is the third Hiaasen book I have read on this trip. That sounds like a lot, and it is. I'm kind of sick of Carl Hiaasen, though his work is funny, entertaining and always has a social message I agree with--anti-idiocy and ignorance, pro-environmental protection, anti-corruption, and in this book, Basket Case, he lashes out against the corporate machines running music and news. If you haven't read Hiaasen, check him out, you won't be disappointed.

But "shipwrecked heart" also describes how I have been feeling the past few days. I received some sad news the other day. Nothing too serious--no one is in trouble, sick, dying, or anything like that, and it wasn't totally unexpected, it just happened sooner than I thought, so it came as kind of a shock and has left me feeling pretty sad. I don't want to go into too much detail, but basically, I had my heart set on something for a long time and then I suddenly found out it wasn't going to happen.

The past few days have been tough. I managed to hide my emotions from everyone for a few hours, but living/travelling in such close quarters, it wasn't long before everyone noticed something was bothering me. And everyone has been great--very supportive and caring, but there really isn't much they can do. Instead, I have been trying to keep myself busy, which isn't terribly difficult when one is on holiday in Africa. The past few days have been filled with excitement--hiking, boat trips, wildlife viewing, so keeping busy has been easy. But there is plenty of downtime when you are sitting quietly and waiting for an elephant to walk by. During these times my mind tends to wander a bit towards the thoughts I have been trying to avoid. For that, though, I've found that drinking helps. And my friends are really, really good at helping with that.


Charge It To My Room

Today was day one of the four-day journey home. A six-hour drive with Scott and Polly from Mangochi to Lilongwe (though we were actually trying to get to Senga Bay, but road signs are virtually nonexistent and neither of the two maps we had were accurate, nor were the directions we sought), complicated by a 90-minute detention and interrogation by two Malawi Traffic Police Officers (a story that deserves its own post), started things off. Right now we are settled in at the Sunbird Capital Hotel, the hotel that "visiting diplomats and business people stay at" when they are in Lilongwe. It will suffice for our purposes.

After a long, excellent dinner consisting of accra (an African variant of calamari), an eggplant/tomato/feta caprese salad, escargot, king clip and kompango (two kinds of African fish), guinea fowl, and 2 bottles of wine, I'm tired and a little (or a lot) drunk. [note: I ate with Scott and Polly, I didn't eat all that myself] I thought this would be a good time to catch up on some writing. So I ordered a few bottles of water from room service and plopped down on my bed (the first time I have my own room in over two weeks) to take advantage of the hotel's wireless internet. However, I severely misjudged the plop and my head failed to land softly on the pillow. Instead, half of it smacked full force into the very solid and very wooden headboard that is connected to the equally solid concrete wall that the other half nailed. So, now that I'm dizzy and have a huge lump on my head and a splitting headache, it may be time to go to bed and forget about writing for the night. Fortunately, the hotel has a doctor who makes room-calls.

Do They Know It’s Valentine’s Time?

Another planned blog entry that resulted in a mass email instead. But, for the email, I went with a subject that did not steal directly from the title of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Nevertheless, according to Sam Seaborn at least, good writers borrow and great writers steal, so screw it. My Valentine’s Day in Malawi:

Valentine’s Day is a holiday I try to avoid. I don’t like the pressure of greeting card companies telling me when it is time to tell people I care about them. I can remember to do that on my own. I’ve had no problem avoiding this holiday in the past—in fact, I think I have only spent Valentine’s Day with a girlfriend 2 or 3 times (relationships either began just after, or ended just before the 14th of Feb., or that special someone and I were miles apart on the day in question). This year would be no different. Another solo V-Day. But it turned out to be great.

The day began with breakfast and a wildlife viewing hike through Liwonde National Park in Southern Malawi. After hiking, we learned that the road out of the park was flooded from the previous day’s torrential thunderstorm, so we would be spending another day at Chiguni Hills Camp and Lodge. The day was lazy: reading, napping, and a self-guided bird watching tour with Nate, Scott, and Polly, during which we were yelled at by the game warden: “Do not get out of your vehicle or death will be upon you! Elephants will crush you!” I wanted to ask why the elephants wouldn’t crush us if we were in the car, but I decided against it because he had a big rifle. I’m glad I can turn off the sarcasm when firearms are present.

The subject of V-Day didn’t come up until late in the day when Scott realized that the candy hearts he had planned to give out were in his lost suitcase. Little, Muzdah, an incredibly precocious 14 year old Afghan girl who was with us asked me if I had a girlfriend and if I loved anyone. Muzdah, wise beyond her years, realized that those questions can be mutually exclusive. I answered the first one honestly with a “no,” but I lied about the second and said “no” as well. I figured it was easier to lie to her than explain my recent relationship issues. Later, Muzdah, playing Cupid, slyly gave Scott her necklace and told him to give it to Polly as a present. Polly loved it.

Travelling with 3 couples (Nate/Marlo, Scott/Polly, Ayub/Hote) has been great, but it is also a constant reminder of the aforementioned relationship issues I have dealt with recently and a reminder that there is someone who I would like to be sharing this trip with, but she is not here and is, in fact, celebrating V-Day with someone else. But V-Day wasn’t going so well for the other couples either: Marlo wasn’t feeling well and begged off early to go to bed. Polly, wearing her new necklace, fell asleep sitting up in a chair. And Ayub and Hote were preoccupied because their daughter Sahar was experiencing malaria symptoms (she’s fine, we got her some medicine).

As for me, I enjoyed a candle-lit conversation (there was no electricity at the lodge) with Darren, the crazy South African owner of the lodge who looks like John Cleese, about Malawi, ostrich farming, international fisheries management, running a prawn fishing operation, and raising crocodiles for food and/or sport. Not terribly romantic, and I was beginning to recount every mistake I ever made in every relationship as another ho-hum V-day came to a close. But then little Muzdah came over and handed me a card she had made out of notebook paper. On the front she drew a pair of lips with the words “I love you.” On the inside, a big heart with an arrow through it and “Happy Valentine’s Day Jason” written inside it. I thanked her for the best V-Day card I ever received (apologies to Lindsay) and gave her a big kiss on the cheek. Then I walked to my cabin under a brilliantly star-filled African sky where I was consistently woken up throughout the night by Nate’s snoring. And each time I woke up, I sat up and smacked my head into the top bunk. Happy Valentine’s Day, indeed.

Under African Skies

I tried to post this here a week or so ago when I wrote it, but a slow internet connection rendered Blogger virtually useless. So I sent this first report from Africa out via the traditional method of a mass e-mail. However, for the sake of posterity, and to satiate those inadvertently left off the email list, here it is again:

10. Feb. 2007: I am sitting in an open-air bar on the shore of Lake Malawi, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. The lake is 30 yards away, at most, and its waves are breaking loudly on the shore. It is about 80 degrees with a slight cool breeze. I am so far away from Alaska right now--both mentally and physically.

I don't know what time it is. I asked my new friend Sahar and she said, "10 past 15." Turns out, through a little investigating, it was 9:45. It is later now. There is no one left in the bar. The mosquito coils burning underneath my table are almost out. The French owner (the bar is called "Froggies") is yelling at her Malawian staff in an indecipherable mix of French and English.

Earlier today I had internet access for the first time in a week. I had no desire to sit in front of the computer. I checked a few emails from work to make sure there were no fires to put out (not that I could anyway as it was the middle of the night in Alaska), but then I couldn't sit still any longer. And 8 other people were clamoring to use my computer to check their email. But now seems like a good time to write a little, though I am not sure if this will work because as I type this, the website is in French. I started keeping a travel journal almost immediately. I wanted to document as much as I could about this trip, both for myself, and to share it with my friends as this is a part of the world most of you will never see. I had to stop. I was spending hours every night just typing away. And while I would type, more things would happen that I needed to write down. It became daunting--there is/was just too much going on here to write it all down. So, I gave up. Instead I'll just jot some things down periodically and probably craft a few funny blog posts from some things that have happened in the future--like during layovers on my flights home.

I had no idea what to expect on this trip. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. It can't even be called a developing nation, because it really isn't developing; it's just a nation. It has been an eye-opening experience to learn firsthand how people live here, and it gives me a wholly new perspective on the fortunate lives we all live. It has also been strange to walk around as, by far, the whitest person in the country--though that's not exactly true: there are actually quite a few albino Malawians. Fortunately for my self-consciousness, white is white here--my pale (now burnt and peeling) Alaskan ass is no different than Marlo's Arizona-browned bottom. And people don't think too highly of America right now, so that has caused some stares as well.

Traveling with Scott and Polly has been a blast, though there have been some bumps: all three of us lost luggage, though 2 bags resurfaced (mine and Polly's), but Polly's didn't make it overseas. There was also the matter of a lost (stolen?) digital camera, a memory card that decided on its own to delete about 100 pictures from the first few days of the trip, Scott getting sick and cutting his hands and feet at least once a day on either a luggage cart or a magazine, Polly being attacked by squirrels, and me being mugged by a swarm of 30 orphans. But any difficulties we have had make us smile now, and overall the trip has gone smoothly. We spent a few days living large in Cape Town, but have spent the majority of our time so far working with Nate and Marlo on Solace's projects in Malawi. I've been on Solace's Board of Directors for 3 years, but not until I spent a day in the field with Nate did I have any clue about what he does. From trying to find materials for a chain-link fence to scouring small art galleries that Solace built to find paintings to sell on overstock.com, to trying to determine what type of bricks to build new classrooms with to wondering why the mechanic would saw off our car's exhaust pipe when all it needed was a new clamp, the days are never without excitement and a little vexation.

I'm getting used to cold showers, drinking only bottled water, dealing with huge wads of cash ($1 = 140 Kwacha; the $400 I changed at the airport = $52,400 K. Have you ever tried to stuff that much money in your pants? Not easy. And the bills are larger than US currency), people everywhere begging for money (or chocolate, which is weird), converting km to miles, being hot and sweaty all the time, remembering to take my malaria pill every morning, and generally just brainstorming and problem-solving on a daily, if not hourly, basis. I'm loving every minute of it.

Tomorrow we are diving and snorkeling in Lake Malawi (which also has the only freshwater tropical fish in the world, according to Scott's recollection his of 7th grade science class). Then it is back to our house near Mangochi for a day to work on the fence (finding chain-link materials was hard, but not impossible) and to meet with some of the artists Solace has orders with. Tuesday night we leave for Lilongwe and a meeting first thing Wednesday morning at the US embassy to talk about visas for Ayub (one of Solace's employees) and his family, who had to flee Afghanistan a couple of months ago because of the resurgence of the Taliban. Ayub was instrumental in Solace's work to build schools for girls in Afghanistan, and there are some folks there who are none too happy about that now. Ayub, his wife Hote, and their 4 daughters (Tamana, Tanya, Sahar, and Mushda) are here in Malawi with us. Ayub is incredible. Hote is very sweet. And the girls are amazing, precious, darling--and whatever else you can think of--they range in age from 13 to 18 and they are doing things now they have never done before, like swimming(!), walking around without burkhas, and just being able to be themselves at all times. Watching them, for lack of a better term, blossom, and view and experience freedom has been an incredibly moving experience. Case in point: the other day Polly and I were in the lake teaching Afghan refugee children how to swim and how to play marco polo. The swimming went well. The maro polo, not so much--we took to calling it "retarded" marco polo, or "mahca pohla." Terrible, I know.

After the embassy excursion it is on to Lilonde National Park for a river trip, some hiking, and some wildlife viewing. Then I begin the journey back home and Scott and Polly head to the winelands outside of Cape Town for what is ostensibly their honeymoon trip--since they got marrried in a foreign country last year they had to forgo the traditional post-matrimonial excursion. Okay. It is getting later and the bugs are getting bigger, scarier, and more interested in tasting me and hanging out on my computer screen. Here are a couple of pictures of tonight's sunset:

Tsalani Bwino.


Laying Over

London. Sunday. 4:00 p.m. 3.5 hours until departure to Jo-burg. I just woke up. I am supposed to be in Heathrow, but it feels more like the Short Hills Mall in NJ.

Anchorage can feel so small sometimes. It is important to get out of town periodically to remind myself that there is another world out there that is just a short long flight away. Otherwise, I tend to take all of the Anchorage bullshit too seriously and think that every little thing that goes wrong will have disastrous consequences. I guess what I'm saying is that it is hard for me to see the big picture when I get, to borrow a phrase from Michelle Shocked, "anchored down in Anchorage."

But on Friday night I was reminded that there is a larger world within Anchorage. I have a tendency to hang out with a bunch of lawyers and don't have many opportunities to venture beyond my established social circles. And I've been feeling bored lately. Not that my friends are boring, but just that things have gotten a bit stale. Same people. Same places. All the time. Still enjoyable, but I need to shake things up a bit and inject some new blood into the scene -- and I'm not talking about waiting for the new crop of law clerks shows up in the Fall.

So the party Friday night was perfect for this. It was a housewarming party for a woman I didn't know and a welcome back party for 2 people I didn't know either. The party was great. Only a handful of lawyerly-types present. Nice house. Good music. Lots of alcohol--Dr. Hootie, who I met that night, assured me that I could drink while taking malaria medication--and a small sea other young (thought Viv thinks everyone over 30 is old, especially women, who, she says, are "done" by the time they are 31), relatively hip, professional-ish Anchorageites ("Yappies?"). Some highlights:
  • Dr. Hootie: A walking cliche, which he readily admits: Doctor. Son of a doctor. Dating a nurse. Very pompous and arrogant (though this may be attributed to his consumption of conspicuous amounts of cocktails) about his Berkeley childhood and about the fact that his father's Iranian friend from med school picked his name, while his dad picked his friend's son's name. I don't know, I went to law school; my classmates and I didn't promise gay shit like that to each other.
  • Surprise appearances by Suzie and Ellen.
  • K-Rock dropping some new gossip, which is always nice.
  • A cute girl recognized me from the Planned Parenthood presentation a few weeks ago. We talked for a while and I was able to answer her "What are you doing after the party?" question with this: "I'm going to Africa." [Sometimes my life actually seems really interesting.] I think I made a good first impression, but we'll see if she remembers me when I get back.
  • Running into Dawson, who refused to let me leave the country without a handful of Ambien (and some other stuff that he could not immediately identify) that we procured from his apartment on the way to the airport.
Time to sign off and go freshen up in an airport bathroom. So far the trip has been great. The flight to Seattle was uncomfortable and I couldn't sleep, but the layover was perfect: I napped at my brother's house, borrowed a few things from him (int'l power adapters, smaller iPod), did some yoga, and ate a delicious vegetable-laden meal that his girlfriend Casey prepared. If I could do the things she does with Kale, I would be a much happier (and healthier) man. Flight from Seattle to London was really nice: I had a whole row to myself, so after dinner and a movie, I popped an Ambien (I think) and splayed out for 5 hours.

Tonight I fly 11 hours to Jo-Burg, then catch a flight to Cape Town. I'm supposed to meet Triple-P and Lobo in just over 24 hours. More later.

Tally ho.


Leaving on a Jetplane

Little-known fact about me: the song Leaving On A Jetplane makes me cry every time I hear it.

The Alaska to Africa adventure begins tonight (tomorrow morning technically) with a 2:30 AM flight to Seattle. After I leave it will be about 72 hours before I meet up with Triple-P and Lobo in Cape Town. I'm travelling with a decent-sized backpack and one rolling suitcase filled mostly with gifts, candy, and various Alaska-themed trinkets for the kids in Mangochi, the village in Malawi that will be home base for this trip (for more info on Malawi and the work my friends are doing there, check out the Solace International website). The backpack is coming on the plane with me and has all of the essentials for 3 days of flying and airport living: iPod, camera, laptop, change of clothes, toothbrush/paste, deodorant, Tylenol PM, malaria pills and reading material (Lonely Planet guide to southern Africa, a Carl Hiaasen novel, the latest copy of Wired, and a Supreme Court brief I need to read and edit by the middle of next week).

During this trip, Internet access will be sporadic, and likely often of the dial-up variety, so blogging/e-mailing will be light over the next few weeks. But I'll be sure to check in when I can. Now I'm off to a party where I get to be the cool "I'm just stopping by on my way to the airport because I am going to Africa tonight" guy.

As they say in Zambia, "Adios."