Hi from me

Little bits and bobs of my life, my thoughts and my experiences in the place that has - I guess - become my home

From Pen

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

My bikini and other seasonal greetings

Yesterday, we gave a Christmas gift to Rachel: the wonderful, warm lady who spends two days a week in our apartment. She bristles with energy, and we do our best to exchange information about our lives through amateur Kiswahili and gestures. Somehow, we communicate something – although Rachel has a tendency for doubling over with squeals of laughter when the whole process breaks down.

Rachel is one of the most open hearted, dear people I have met here. She seems to genuinely care about me and my flat mate (Kari), takes such incredible care to make our home tidy and clean, and has an astounding knack for reorganizing our wardrobes so that all our clothes can be more easily found. This is achieved by categorizing our items – tops; shorts; dresses; trousers; jeans; undies - and making beautifully laundered piles of them.

Admittedly, there have been a very few occasions when I have failed to locate something as a result of my inability to fully grasp Rachel’s logic but, on the whole, her system is remarkable.
Last week, Kari and Rachel shared thoughts on my bikini. We had some old magazines lying around which Rachel was keen to flick through, if only for the pictures. She approached Kari with a page showing women wearing what must seem like very skimpy clothes to someone who has never been beyond Dar es Salaam although, to you and me, they were nothing too outrageous. What was outrageous, however, was my bikini – which Rachel managed to slide into the conversation after having asked Kari why western women wear small clothes like those in the magazine.

It soon became clear that Rachel, whilst washing my bikini on a weekly basis, had been pondering its purpose and, more significantly, seriously questioning its decency as a garment. Why, she enquired, would I choose to wear such a thing in my daily life. Why would anyone do this? Was this normal behaviour?

Rachel, in short, thought I was a bit of a loose lady who wore practically nothing and probably had very little dignity. Kari did her best to explain that bikinis are for the beach and that even she has a bikini, whilst undoubtedly stifling laughter at this almost poignant cultural misapprehension and, we hope, the matter was settled.

When I heard this story, I did not know whether to laugh or cry. Whether to laugh at the idea of myself gallivanting around Dar in a bikini with gay abandon, or whether to cry because the lady whose approval and care I actually value thought I was hussying about her hometown.
I think we’ve cleared the air. A barrel of biscuits, a sprawling hand of bananas and a kilo of sugar was our gift to Rachel and her family and I think she has seen my pyjamas enough times now to know that I’m not entirely without shame.

Not entirely.

So hot is it at present that one might, indeed, be forgiven for resorting to a bikini at any time of day. The sun positively heaves its weight with a mighty punch onto the people of Dar es Salaam, as though it has expanded in the last month; somehow slipped closer to the earth; or has actually become hotter.

Has the sun got hotter? It certainly feels that way. I cycled less than two kilometers at lunchtime yesterday and, within the first one hundred metres, I started to feel the burn. The earth seems to be baking and all who walk on it are trying to live, work and stay healthy in this giant open oven. At dusk, a breeze occasionally rises from the sea to nudge away some of the intense heat of the day but, last night as I sat by the ocean sipping a glass of wine with a friend, there was barely a murmur of freshness in the air.

As mosquitoes tucked into a feast of Pen leg, the ultimate Christmas treat, we bemoaned the distinct lack of crispness and envied those who have found themselves gripped by the chill clinch of snow. Whilst wearing dresses, shorts, cotton tops and – in essence – as little as possible (though not, let me advise you, bikinis anywhere other than on a beach!) is freeing and simple, I miss cold weather attire.

This Christmas, I would dearly love to dig out warm, thick socks or opaque tights; long sleeved tops; chunky knit sweaters (preferably borrowed from a man- don’t ask why, it’s just a penchant I have); hats, gloves and scarves. Oh, I miss my fleece, my Gortex and my sturdy walking boots.

More than this, I miss the unparalleled sensation of coming in from an invigorating, brisk walk through silent woods, where one’s icy breath dances in the still, cold air, and finding a home lit by the low, soft lights of early evening and a fire in its early stages of crackling life.

I yearn for the spicy aroma of mince pies, the first glow of wellbeing that floods through the veins after a sip of Christmas spirit, and the intense, immediate relief-laden sigh of a still slightly cold body submerged in a warm, bubbling bath.

This Christmas, I will mostly be taking cold showers. I will eat syrupy pineapples by the basket, so abundant are they at present that, for me, they have assumed a quasi status as a seasonal symbol. On the 25th, I will spend time with my surrogate family in Dar es Salaam: the friends who give me the support and strength to keep going when I sometimes feel like packing my suitcase and coming home.

No doubt, there will be some Savannah involved.

There will be a little messing about on boats, hopefully on a benign ocean, and some safari-ing. I will escape the city for a few days and connect again with the Tanzanian bush. I hope to swim, to walk, to talk and to be.

Just to be.

I hope, too, that everyone I love is able just to ‘be’ this Christmas and into 2010. I have an intimidating list of resolutions that I hope to honour, many of which are less about quitting and more about not quitting.

May you all have a truly wonderful Christmas, very much fun, succor for the soul, and a brilliant 2010. I’ll do my best to accompany you through it with some thoughts, observations and news. If I can share a little of your from time to time, it would make my New Year that much pleasurable.

Warmly, warmly.

23 December 2009

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tidal Shift

It's not too hard to reconnect when you feel the need, or when you look in the mirror and are not quite sure who the baggy-eyed witch staring back at you is. What is hard is admitting that you have the need in the first place - now that can take some humility.

My great leveller is the ocean, a trait that runs so strongly through the Cabot line that anyone doubting the true identity of my father would be floored by this luminous thread in the genetic patchwork of the family.
Yesterday, I took a wooden boat from one of the beaches that lie to the north of Dar es Salaam and, after a half hour crossing which eased me into another mood and rhythm, arrived on the island of Mbuja with my thoughts starting to untie themselves and my body visibly relaxing.

I adore the theatre. I love great cinema, can be distracted by artifacts, get absorbed by art in all forms and am carried back through time when I enter, say, the National Gallery. Goodness, I miss all that. But, for me, there is something equally transporting and uplifting about being removed from all cultural references, in nothing but bikini, and running down to the ocean through icing-sugar sand so soft that you sink and trip all the way to the water.

When I was a child, during the many summers that my family passed on the beaches of Brittany in France, I developed a passion for sea life which was inspired and nurtured by Dad. Dad would endow me with some aptly over-the-top title such as 'Great Mariner Extraordinaire', and we disappeared for hours with buckets and nets in search of some prize catches.
There were many. The rock pools in that area were a child's paradise, teeming with fish, shrimp, crabs, urchins, anemones..... Some of our catches were surprisingly large and we literally spent hours scrambling over rocks, slipping across weedy, wet, barnacled expanses bent double as we turned rocks and prodded our nets into the deeper pools. It was here, in Brittany, that I really fell in love with the sea and, at the same time, discovered that my Dad, too, was a child again when presented with the simple wonders of rock-pooling.

I have never been afraid to run into the ocean, to take on the currents, or to get my head under water. I have always, also, been a strong swimmer. This, again, is pure Dad: this is the man who was a young lifeguard off the Devon coast; once made the Brittany news for a valiant sea rescue of a flailing swimmer; would, in my teenage years, lead me out into the Atlantic swell from the far southwestern beaches of Portugal and commandeer two hour long snorkeling marathons in water so wild and chilly that I had no option but to invest unfathomable faith in him.
It was here that Dad taught me what has become one of my guiding principles in life: just keep moving. Then, it was an instruction designed to prevent my lips from bluing at the edges in that icy sea. Now, it means something a little more than that to me, and I recall it and am driven by it at times when life threatens to grind to a halt.

Mum was, on more than one occasion, a panicking, pacing figure on the shore, wondering where her teenage daughter might have chosen as a swimming target. Again inspired by Dad, who had a penchant for using boats out at sea as destination points, I once decided to swim solo out to a boat which did not seem so far away. Except that it was. It was bloody far away, and even I have a recollection of a vague concern that crossed my mind as I swam towards the apparently chimerical vessel. I reached the shore an hour and a half after I had departed, weak-kneed, shaking, purple at the extremities, and with a mother apoplectic and so distraught that even today I cannot quite forgive myself.

So, to the ocean.

The Indian Ocean that sweeps around Africa’s east coast, and nudges the coast line and islands of Tanzania, is a tamer beast than the Atlantic of my past. At least, the parts that I can access are positively benign and, despite the warnings by certain slightly sensationalist relatives who warn me of the dangers of, variously, sharks, jelly fish, and Somali pirates (I wish I was joking), I know it to be kind and gentle.

Admittedly, it is not always refreshing as such, especially at this time of year when the blistering heat of the day turns the great expanse of water into a giant bath, but the water around the islands in this part of the world is magically clear, warmly reassuring, and, for this sea lover, hypnotic.

As I said, my mind starts to come into balance and my physical being is also somehow righted when I immerse myself in the sea. So it was yesterday. The moment my kanga was off, so was I: snorkel in hand, tripping down the beach and soon completely immersed in the warm embrace of the sea. There is no other metaphor but to say that it was crystal clear yesterday and even I, a loather of cliché, cannot find a better description.

It is then that it happens: the reconnection. Once under, with snorkel and mask in place and free to thrash out to where the coral reef, eroded and not nearly as spectacular as it surely was some years back, I am transported. Not, so much, as to another time or even another place but, rather, transported back to ‘me’. In that case, maybe not transportation at all but rather a kind of ‘bringing back’: a return. For this is the moment when I forget what my hair is doing, have no inkling of the imperfections of my body, drift far from the day to day detritus of the life that I have built, break the relay race of question-answer-question which at times plagues me, and, finally, gloriously, actually stop thinking.
At that moment, when I am lost without thought, suspended in the water with my body and spirit and mind quite free – I suddenly, dramatically, feel just like ‘me’. It’s not a certain mood, emotion, age, or anything specific, it is purely a sense of being whole and sound and somehow, simply, back.

Yesterday, back exposed to the sun, body carried by the Indian Ocean, spirit lifted by the irrepressible pleasure of watching the world of fishkind going about its colourful daily business, surrounded by legions of jellyfish which pumped past full of casual vigour, wrapped in the warmth of the salt water, I came back again and emerged, as I always do, walking steady and strong. Me again.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Losing yourself in Africa

Sometimes, I admit, it's hard to remember myself here in the middle of Dar es Salaam. Sometimes, I lose my bearings.
There are few familiar points of reference, and the elements of life that tend to ground you at home - family, childhood friends, walks in the rain, old TV shows that somehow remind you of YOU - are nowhere to be accessed.

When that happens, and I feel the drift towards a sense of total anonymity, I really have to remember to do something that makes me feel like ME. Ride my bike along the sea front; jump into a pool and thrash things out in lengths; take some photos; write a poem or twelve. It's hard to do at times, make that reconnection, but today more than ever I feel how important it is. If you leave it too long, things can really go awry.

I miss home just now. All that is familiar, secure and safe. I miss my family horribly, and would gain so much from running about with my niece and nephew for a few days.

Yes, it's hard being away at the moment.

This week I really need to pick myself up, dust off and get strong. It's fair to say that Africa can grind me down at times. Or do I do that to myself?

Anyway - to all travellers and people who live away from home. Stay focused on what you are and try to keep yourselves somehow on top.

My Tanzania Times

Hi Hi

Before I started this blog, I was writing all kinds of bits and bobs about my time in Tanzania, and e-mailing them back to people.... that was in my pre-IT days..... I thought it would be nice to post them here. I'll date them so you know when they were written. The most recent was about a week ago..... the rest getting old now.

As you read down, the oldest one (near the beginning of my time in TZ), is at the bottom....

Hope you enjoy


The drift back to Dar - November 2009

Two months it has been since I landed back in Dar es Salaam, on a humid, dusty night. Sometimes, my emotions are running such riot that I cannot even access what I am feeling: there is little precision from one minute to the next and, often, I experience a host of conflicting ups, downs and upside downs within a short space of time here in Tanzania. That day, the first in October, this was particularly acute.

I enjoyed such a special time during my three and a half week break in the UK. Admittedly, it took about two of those weeks to feel vaguely grounded again, to regain my bearings, but even as I did so I felt closer to my family than I have in years and a great tide of warmth swelled within me. It helped, too, that I was a more relaxed Pen – a brighter, more positive person than the one they said goodbye to last year. Never in my life have I had such a wonderful time with Mum and Dad – a product, I’m sure, of my being away from day to day life. But also, maybe, a product of where I’ve moved on from and what I’ve experienced in the last 12 months.

All was oiled by stunning September weather – some of the finest sunshine to kiss the UK all year. It lasted almost exactly from the day of my arrival to that of my departure, resulting in lunches on the patio, strolls by the Thames, pints in pub gardens, and birthday celebrations in the garden. I could not have wished for much more – only the improved health of Dad, which I’m sure time will bring.

So – let’s just say that leaving the warm belly of the family to embark on yet another chapter was extremely tough. Ouch. Dad and I had, to say the least, an emotional farewell at Heathrow and my flight back was punctuated by hard-to-control sobbing. The soulless, limbo-like, sleep deprived vacuum of air travel didn’t exactly soothe, and at one point I came to the decision to simply hide in the overhead cabin at Dar, and wait for the plane’s return leg to Amsterdam. I am never sure whether it is bravery or cowardice which keeps me going.
But here I am, at my table in my third floor flat in dusty Msasani, the balcony door open, the netted external door closed to stop unwanted flying creatures from invading the place. I can hear thumping music from the bar up the road, children shrieking, the cries of a maji salesman. The fan is humming overhead, offering some respite from what is now the quite repressive heat of late November.

It gets worse from here for another couple of months – the sun more and more intense; the humidity higher and higher; the temperature fiercesome. Even I, sun worshipper extraordinaire, have been drained of late, nudged over into moments of real fatigue where the prospect of yet another scorching day seems too much. Energy levels drop massively during the day, and without air conditioning in the office I have lost concentration from time to time. Still, I seem to recover at dusk, when the sky shocks with orangey red hues and a breeze drifts in from the Indian Ocean. A couple of Savannahs later, and I’m somehow restored. Indeed, it would be easier working at night that during the day. Lately, I seem to be awake during both.
The lady in the small dukka across the street sells the most wonderfully sweet watermelons. I wonder if they are addictive. Our regular conversation commences with polite enquiries about each other’s health, and progresses towards the size of melon I’m looking for. I’m an elfu moja kind of girl, as the elfu mbili option is a bit much for my fridge to bear. That’s 50p to you, if you’re wondering. I sometimes hang around for a sweet menthol, too; a fairly strong local cigarette which I get a craving for at night time. It takes something fairly radical to get me puffing by day, but once darkness falls and the stars are above me, and I get the African butterflies which flit about my stomach most evenings for no apparent reason, there is something just so soothing about that first evening drag. Ahhhhhhhhhh.

It took about three and a half weeks for me to stop waking up imagining that I was about to head downstairs to share tea and morning grumbles with Mum. Funny – she is the first person in my life to ever comment on my complete uselessness in the mornings. I never noticed it before, but maybe she’s right. Yup – I tend to warm up around evening time, when most others are winding down. Still, I developed a real fondness for seeing my folk around the house every day: part of my life again, I part of theirs. Getting used to be far away from those who know me and love me (warts and all) was extremely tough – much tougher than I ever imagined it would be.
Africa, too, came into starker contrast. The streets of Dar seemed somehow more challenging, more brutal even, than I had noticed before, and I felt fragile, vulnerable for a while. None of this strange, delayed culture shock was helped by the fact that I was hit by something fairly hefty in my second week (and I don’t mean a local bus!). Not sure what, but there is plenty going around, and whatever it was had my world spinning, rocking, and causing me to feel pathetically sorry for myself! It has crept up behind me and caught me out again since, but at least as I write I am feeling as good as it gets in the heat of a sun-burnt city.

I have a new job, and it’s taking time to adjust from teacher mode to NGO mode. Yesterday, someone whose opinion I value called me bossy. Ouch. I guess that’s the teacher in me then?? Oh well, yeah – hell I’m bossy. But, in my new role, I don’t know nearly enough to be bossy and it’s a daily challenge. My NGO is a disability organisation and a hospital and, as such, there is plenty to get to grips with that is totally new to me: medical terms and surgical procedures which are a whole other world from the one in which I have sat comfortably for much of my life. I have always been a passionate teacher but, at CCBRT where I now work, the emotions which drive my commitment are different.

My office is sited precisely opposite the hospital and, on a daily basis, patients come and queue and wait in their hundreds. I see the elderly; mothers with children or babies in their arms; middle aged men and women. I see babies or children with clubfeet; the blind; children with cleft lip or palate; women with fistula; amputees waiting to have a prosthetic limb fitted; people who have suffered burns. I see people who really have no means of paying for treatment, dressed in kangas to protect them against the harsh sun of the season.

Indeed, I see much which could depress the hell out of me. Not only the poorest of the poor – but also the most dependent, needy of all - for disability in this country is not managed in the way it would be in the West: it is a socio-economic barrier; a hard-to-escape spoke on the wheel of poverty; a ticket to nowhere much unless you happen to be one of the rare few who realises that a disability can be treated, cured, or managed in order to allow for a fulfilling, productive life.

Our organisation is like Robin Hood, and we boast about it! The poorest patients, those who really cannot pay, simply do not have to. Patients pay what they can so that, ultimately, the richest patients are subsidizing the poorest. This is a unique system, and one which means that we really are able to help those who need it most. Of that, I am proud.

Whilst I joke with a close friend of mine that the weather here is merely degrees of different ‘hotness’, I like to spot the seasonality which creeps subtly into the tropics. Late November, and a pleasant surprise appears on the street corners: something which I have missed these past six months. Pineapples, large, conical, plump and radiating the warmth of the southern hemisphere sun, have taken up residence on wooden carts along the roadsides. It is a wonderful time, then, for the men who grow and sell these perfect fruity symbols of tropical climes. Next to each stand, a plastic bucket in which sit carefully carved slices of the fruit, whose sweetness here delivers a sugar rush unmatched by the sad, imported pineapple wannabes that we see back home.

Mangoes are also making a showy comeback. In the past two weeks, the carts which were laden with oranges have taken on a new, headier passenger. Mangoes, of different size, shape, colour, texture, moisture content and sweetness, have taken Dar by storm. It could easily rain mangoes for a week or two and there would still be enough to wrap around the globe several times with a few left for breakfast.

Today, I found a clutch of red plums at the back of my grocery store, where the men pop secret surprises into my bag after a particularly large shop (sometimes an apple and, once, a custard apple!). They were small and sweet and yielding, and I ate most of them from the bag as I rode home with my goodies hanging from the handle bars.

It is a little hot to cycle, and I arrive at every destination glistening with sweat, which drips down my back and forever tricks me into thinking that I have a parade of ants marching across my skin. Cycling at night is little better: it is dangerous for a start, at least until the dala dalas have stopped careering down the roads and the rush hour traffic has eased off. It is also a little tricky on roads which require high levels of concentration to navigate even during the day. Potholes are unforgiving in the dark – indeed; they seem to breed magically at dusk. Then, there is the dust……

Still, I love my bike and I guess that there is something rather ‘Pen’ about arriving by bike for a night at the pub from time to time. The Masaai last night seemed disappointed that I was going home in a taxi: but, sometimes, a girl needs a treat.

Africa seems to have made more of a girl of me. I have no idea how, when, or why it happened, but some time in the last six months I felt an urge to start wearing dresses. Maybe it is the sight of African women, usually immaculately presented, albeit if only in kangas, or maybe it is the warmth of the climate by day and by night, but I have developed a potentially expensive love of dresses….. My tailor, who lives a couple of doors down from my apartment, is getting sore fingers from all the work I am giving him. I, in the meantime, am constantly seeking reasons for dressing up. My friends, many a few years younger than me, are very kind to humour me.

One problem: dresses and bikes are not exactly the best of friends.

The Indian Ocean is crackling across the rocks as it makes its way towards the shore. It is 4pm, and the tide is turning. Skinny-legged, long-beaked sea birds tread with caution between the stones and coral, pecking in the holes where small ghost crabs scuttle to escape the heat of the sun. There are local men wading just knee deep; others pushing boats without much urgency a little further out. Perhaps they hope to catch a fish for dinner.

Wooden fishing boats, some with sails, sit on the glistening water so invitingly that I imagine myself to be a great mariner, so tempted am I to stride into the sea and claim an oar or a sail. Across the bay, the white sands of Kawe beach lull me away from the city and give perspective to my day. I will sit here until sunset, writing, checking e-mails, adding to an important proposal that I have to write in order to secure funding for a significant number of child eye surgeries in the coming 18 months.

No doubt, others will join me. They start to drift in. Sometimes, it is hard to leave this spot and, two nights ago, I was here from 4 – 11pm, wondering at the contradictions which riddle the heart of this continent and finally reckoning that every ugly, threatening, disturbing, alienating feature must surely have its counterpart – a feature as magnificent and wonderful in measure. It is that thought which keeps me going.

Like my moods and my feelings for Tanzania, it is neither one thing nor the other. I cannot love this place unless I also hate it. For all the negativity that I am often exposed to; for all of the pessimism about the future of the country and, indeed, the continent, I remain the eternally driven, motivated and die-hard protagonist.

Just now, as a barely perceptible breeze starts to lift from the sea and valiantly endeavour to soothe me, I actually feel ok.