Pointe Noire

A few days into my trip I found myself sitting in a salon in Brazzaville waiting to be given a haircut. It was then that Nabir, a Lebanese man there to pass his day with his friend, learned that I would be traveling to Pointe Noire. He summoned a camera phone picture with excitement and said, “When I show you this, you’ll want to go today.” He held out his phone: a sunset over the beach illuminated two huge oil platforms in the distance. Looks like heaven.

To most it would. Oil signals opportunity, wealth, and business in Congo. The derivative businesses associated with oil are immense: subcontractors upon subcontractors reap the benefits of the oil industry by charging extraordinary fees. However, it’s not just subcontractors that swoon over available jobs. The amount of money that goes in and out of Pointe Noire is not lost on the local population.

I met a Scottish guy, Dave, who traveled to Pointe Noire for a series of safety trainings for Congolese workers installing power lines. Discussions about local salaries are always a subject of interest for me, especially when there’s Ngok involved. Luckily, it’s a popular discussion among those who want the outside traveler to know the reality of the people. Dave and his host were able to explain that in Congo, the average day laborer earns 150,000 XAF, or just about $334, per month. In comparison, a taxi driver expects to make anywhere between 12,000 to 15,000 XAF ($26-33) per day. The taxi driver then stands to make anywhere from 300,000 – 375,000 XAF (or roughly $667-834) per month based on working an average of 25 days each month.

And then there’s the lonely man factor. The term “night club” varies in meaning from country to country. In Congo, a nightclub is essentially a hostess bar. Pointe Noire has several options, ranging from Casino, a smoke filled gambling all with slot machines and eager girls looking for a complementary drink, to Master, a bar filled with girls that are not shy to give a price for extra-marital services. 25,000 XAF for a goodnight lay, just over $55. It’s no wonder than that it’s a thriving industry and a means to capitalize off the international presence in town.

A Small Visual of Brazzaville

Internet connections here in West Africa have slowed my pace of visual contributions to the blog. Below are two images of Brazzaville that I’ve managed to bring to the web.

This picture was taken on a Sunday when activity around town was at a minimum. To the left was a pile of burning trash as it sloped into a creek below that ran through town. The booth is used for the Congolese lottery.

Here’s a general view of the main street that runs from end to end of Brazzaville. Again, it was taken on a Sunday. Normally, the road would be filled with green taxis, all beeping their horns in hope of some business.

I took some video when I took a bribed tour of the Catholic University of Brazzaville, but it will have to wait until I get back to 1st world internet speeds.

Brazzaville

As the plane descends on approach into Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, rolling hills covered in tightly cropped grass spreads out below. Roads are non-existent, only footpaths of dirt link sporadic plots crops fields, erratic in size and length. There are no crops, just that these plots are slightly darker green than the surrounding hills. There are no trees.

The plane shifts to the right and the wide Congo River comes into view. Suddenly, a massive city appears underneath just seconds before touchdown. The runway is one strip of asphalt, so when the plane comes to a halt, it turns back down the runway to make an arrival on the strip. The airport is small. Everything is white tile highlighted by off-white paint. The tile runs from the floors and consumes the construction of the immigration desk. I feel like I’m in a public bathroom that would be found under the supervision of a Parks and Recreation department somewhere. Spray paint graffiti on the windows lingers. The bathrooms have no light, and as the door closes behind me, it becomes pitch dark. I realize why it smells so terrible.

Finding a cab outside, we make the ten minute drive through the city and to the hotel. Congo has undergone two civil wars since their independence, the last of which ended in 2005 after 21 years of fighting. The road to the airport feels like it is a byproduct of this time: the road emerges through dense jungle-like foliage as if the forrest around has started to reclaim the city.

In Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil, John Ghazvinian explains the reasons for the considerable disparity of poverty in a country which is within the top five producers of oil exports in Africa. While the book was published in 2007, at that time, oil exports accounted for 90% of the entire export revenue for the Republic of Congo. When so reliant on such a volatile world petroleum market for state revenue, it is no wonder why the country appears stagnant and in a process of being consumed by the jungle. Moreover, as Ghazvinian explains, in country that has discovered “the curse of oil,” the government becomes reliant on the income generated by oil to fund the state, so much so that other manufacturing and agriculture markets become underfunded and even ignored. The state starts giving jobs out to satisfy a labor force void of opportunities in other fields. As a result, as it is highly apparent in Congo, the economy becomes stagnant and lives hand to mouth off the oil fields.

None of this though is evident in Brazzaville from the surface. There are no oil workers and as a matter of fact, very few foreigners comparatively with other state capitols. Then there are the Lebanese. Every store, restaurant, hair salon or airline service counter is either under the direct supervision or owned entirely by a Lebanese man. There are some 100,000 Lebanese that live in Congo, a small number as a man explains, who sits waiting for a haircut with me. He himself has just arrived to the country from Lebanon to invest his entire savings into trucking: dump trucks and long distance haulers to cater to building projects within the country. The influence of this small middle-eastern country on the continent is very apparent to the Congolese. Their distaste for the Lebanese is palpable.

Oil, however, would be a strong and present issue once I arrived to Pointe Noire. More on that later. As I regain internet, I will follow up with more writing about Brazzaville.

South Island, New Zealand

Boarding the ferry from Wellington, Doug and I departed on a three hour boat ride across Cook Strait to the northern town of Picton on the South Island. The strait is said to be one of the roughest pieces of open ocean in the world. Even on the giant car-carrier Interislander ferry, the 10 foot swells felt immense. Once in Picton, our plan was to drive the West Coast of the South Island through to Franz Josef Glacier and south to the Fiordland National Park. The West Coast is what one of our cab drivers dubbed the “wild west of New Zealand”; with mountains that fall away to pure blue ocean below and nature more expansive than any comparable civilization, it’s apparent that the island is home to only 25% of the entire New Zealand population. The island itself is just over 58,000 square miles but has only 1 million people. In comparison, the North Island is home to about 3.3 million people but a landmass of just 44,000 square miles.

We picked up our “touring car,” as our rental agent praised the 1990’s vintage Toyota. She claimed she had driven one down the coast and it was a dream. No wonder the rental price seemed such a bargain when we booked it. With neither of us having experience driving a car on the left side of the road and from the right side of the car, Doug took first shift behind the wheel. We clipped a curb as we drove out of town which snapped the zip tie holding the hubcap to the car and not soon after, we saw the thing fly off to the left and tumble down the road. It wasn’t two minutes before Doug says, “I’m getting pulled over.”

The exchange went somewhat like the following:
Police officer: How you doing then? You were going about 85 kilometers per hour …
Doug: Yeah, I’m sorry, I just picked the car up and just getting used to it.
Police officer: Oh, you’re from the States then? Well, you’re doing a great job. Fantastic really. But at 85 you’re impeding the flow of traffic. You see these turn-outs here? Well, just stay to your left so people can pass you.
Doug: What’s the speed limit?
Police officer: Well it’s 100. So you were just going a bit slow. You’re doing fantastic though.
Me: So officer, if I may clarify, you pulled us over because he was going too slow?
Police officer: Well yup, you were just impeding traffic a bit. Do you guys have a map? Can I get you a map?

Police

548 kilometers is 340 miles. In that distance to Franz Josef, we passed through rolling mountains lined with wineries and out onto the West Coast.

West Coast
West Coast, South Island, NZ

We arrived late at night into Franz and booked a heli hike up to the Franz Josef Glacier. The glacier is 7.5 miles long and is fed by a 7.7 square mile snowfield high above the Tasman Sea. The reason why Franz Glacier (and neighboring Fox Glacier) is so remarkable is that it ends just under 1000 feet from the sea amid a temperate rainforest. This also means that temperatures on the glacier are incredibly warm. The ten minute ride up the glacier was spectacular. We buzzed the top of a mountain peak and the cliff fell away to the glacier far below. With crampons on, we tramped along the ice, navigated around cravasses and through ice caves.

Glacier View
Franz Josef Glacier

We moved south and through the Southern Alps and up Haast Pass. The drive from Franz Josef through to Queenstown is remarkable. At every corner, Doug and I would yell “Ohhhhhhh!” as we approached another unbelievable vista. We made a stop in Wanaka and determined it would be a fine place to live in the future but continued through to Manapouri, our resting place for the night. Manapouri is a small little town, fit with a motel and situated on the bank of Lake Manapouri, and is the gateway to Doubtful Sound in the Fiordlands.

Doubtful Sound
Doubtful Sound, Fiordland National Park

We boarded a tour of Doubtful Sound. Doubtful Sound is actually a fjord, a deep cut into the rock produced by a glacier that forms a body of water and typically much deeper than the surrounding sea. Leaving the dock in the morning and across Lake Manapouri, the fog lifted off the water and cleared into blue. The view from the top of the pass overlooking Doubtful Sound is remarkable. We sat among dolphins swimming by, watched Fiordland Crested Penguins jump to the water, and seals basking in the sun. A fitting end to a trip that still leaves me speechless.

Below is a map of our entire trip. I have yet to figure out how to get the road map to transfer to wordpress, but imagine a line through the points.
A: Picton
B: Franz Josef
C: Manapouri
D: Queenstown
View Larger Map

To learn about the Franz Josef heli hike, click here to visit the Helicopter Line.

To visit the tour companies for our trip to Doubtful Sound and more information, check out Real Journeys.

Below is more photo evidence of the South Island.

Place for Prayer

Lake Reflections
South Island Countryside

… and what was Doug’s reaction to all of this? (And mine, but off-camera) …

Epic Moments
Loving Life and a Missing Hubcap

Welcome to Wellington Mate!

It seems a cliché to title a post ending in “mate!” but New Zealanders do utilize that word above any other.

But let’s start from the beginning. Traveling with my co-worker Doug, we checked in to our connecting Qantas flight from LA to Auckland. Coming off a seven hour, American Airlines operated cramped flight from Boston, neither of us were looking forward to a thirteen hour connection to Auckland. “You’ve been upgraded to business due to an oversold flight,” the Qantas agent says with a smile. “Really pays to have your frequent flyer number in the system. You’ll be on the top deck, Sir.” It was like winning the lotto. The MegaMillions kind of lotto. I returned to my seat in the departure lounge with the relative equivalent of a Wonka Bar Golden Ticket and a big fat smile.

How can you not sit in a seat that reclines into a flat bed without trying all the buttons to see what they do? Doug and I played like children as the rest of the true business folk, in suit (of both the skirt variety or standard) and tie boarded. Resting comfortably, at one point the video system has to be reset for some reason and the stewardess apologizes for the inconvenience. She quotes that it should take half an hour to reset, but ultimately it takes an hour. She returns to profusely apologize that the reset took longer than she anticipated. Doug looks to me as she walks away and says, “I’m nobody.”

Wellington is a very small capital city. Propped in a cove at the southern tip of the North Island, it’s home to just around 300,000 people. What I just called small is a huge city to those who live there. It sits among rolling hills with houses scattered around the hills and the bay. To walk the majority of the downtown area would take under twenty minutes. Wellington has great bars, restaurants, cafes, walking malls and a fantastic national museum, the Te Papa which houses Maori art. And everyone is incredibly friendly. The best way to explain New Zealanders would be this: picture your closest friend, your nicest friend. Your friend is always positive and never has a bad thing to say. The friend always is excited to see you and lives as though today is the best day that’s ever been – and it genuinely is. Not one person I encountered was dismissive or annoyed. Everyone wants to chat and tell a story. Even cab drivers. (One cab driver, as we counted, said “thank you” roughly over a dozen times during a ride that lasted five minutes.) Another man who worked in a wine shop told us how he had lived in Bahrain for three or so years and when we asked how it was, he remarked that it was fantastic, and what a rich a wonderful experience of culture it had been. If you can be positive about living in Bahrain for years without making any negative claim, it’s a testament to a general outlook on life that was incredible.

Wellington
A city view of Wellington

New Zealand is not a tip culture. When the check comes in a restaurant, you pay at the cashier just as you would if you bought a soda at a supermarket. A taxi, the driver will give you exact change and won’t grimace as he says, “oh, sorry, I have no change.” He’ll walk to every nearby store to insure you get proper change. It is a fantastic relief. No one looks to profit at the expense of another and service is always given with a smile and not via a tip jar that says, “Tips = to insure prompt service.”

But if life was good in Wellington, it was about to get better. Doug and I finished work and planned a whirlwind tour to the South Island: a trip that would cover nearly 1200 kilometers or 750 miles, span mountain ranges and limitless, breathtaking scenery.

Weekend in Zanzibar

Dar Es Salaam PortLeaving the mess of traffic behind in Dar es Salaam, I hopped a ferry to Zanzibar to enjoy the weekend. The plan: to sit on a white-sand beach and read. As luck would have it, I sat next to a couple on the ferry over to the island, of which one was a BC ’03 grad. Realizing we had many friends in common, it was nice sharing such a small-world experience and talking about the comforts of home. Departing the ferry terminal, I took a few hours to roam Stonetown. The town, which historically sat as the seat of its own sultanate, is entertaining to wander. Stonetown has winding, narrow paths, like those of the Old City in Damascus. While Dar es Salaam did not strike me as dominantly Muslim, Stonetown immediately did. When I was in Oman, I was told of the historical tie to Africa through the vast empire the Omanis built centuries ago, but it becomes more apparent in Zanzibar. Men wear Omani-styled dishdashas. Omani-style dishdashaWomen can be found in headscarves and burkas. I was cautious to take pictures but roamed the narrow alleys as the town hummed with activity: kids played and ran after one another and men and women mingled as they visited small shops or gathered on street corners to chat.

I arrived on the island with no plan. I had booked a hotel on the northern most tip of the island in Nungwi, a hour-and-a-half drive from Stonetown. With no concept of how to get there, I learned a taxi would be $60 one way. Ouch. I found a shared van headed north and paid 10,000 (about $9). Whatever mental images I had associating Zanzibar and Bermuda quickly disappeared. Zanzibar is incredibly poor. The middle of the island looks like the most remote places of Africa, with dirt houses, half-clothed kids running around, and donkey carts pulling farming equipment. Nungwi, I expected would be a developed, beach town. Instead, dirt roads led off the main road and we bounced through a poor town until we arrived at the gates to the hotel. The beachfront is a network of interlocking hostels, bungalows, and wealthy hotels that form the town.

My digs for the weekend
I passed the next two days exactly as I had anticipated: reading and lying on a beach. However, I met a group of Irish med students, which provided a much-needed outlet for entertainment. They had traveled for the past six weeks after completing projects working in hospitals all over Africa. A group at subsequently climbed Kilimanjaro, another traveled in northern Mozambique and experienced the most interesting boarder crossing into Tanzania I’ve ever heard of, and the other went gorilla trekking in Rwanda. We stayed up all night on Saturday as I introduced Kings to the group, thus providing hours of drinking entertainment.

The beach

On Monday morning, faced with the necessity of return to work, I opted to return to the mainland by air. Again, assuming the conveniences of modernity, I figured a flight could easily be booked with a credit card. False. Cash only I was told. Having 39,400 Shillings on me, I was told the flight costs 68,000 and I would pay the guy at the check-in counter. Looking into my wallet, I was about to convert some Rwandan francs into Shillings to cover the gap when I fortuitously found $20 crammed in a pocket. Graced by a good exchange rate, I got 27,600 for the twenty bucks. 67,000 total. Shit, I was short by 1,000. Without a choice, I walked up to the check-in counter, confidently said, “67,000…all set” and the handed the cash over. The guy just nodded in agreement and handed me my boarding pass. I noticed there was a 5000 airport departure fee and turned back to the guy and said, “oh, and that includes the departure fee right?”

I headed to the gate and climbed aboard a 10-seater prop plane to Dar. front row seatThe plane tossed and jumped as it sputtered over crystal-clear blue turquoise waters, and twenty minutes later, we touched down on the mainland. My island adventure was over and back into the traffic jams of the city I went.

Safari in the Masai Mara

Billed as a three-hour drive from Nairobi, my safari bus set out on what would be a six-hour ordeal to Masai Mara National Reserve. The Masai Mara is the northern continuation of the Serengeti: the Serengeti plains span the northern region of Tanzania and continue into the Masai Mara on the Kenya side of the border. These two reserve areas are famous for an event called the Great Migration, where herds flow north from the Serengeti into Masai Mara during July and August in search of greener pastures. It’s pure luck of the draw that I would be in the country during this annual event.

Just outside the city, climbing high through the hills, the road descended and opened to the vast landscape of the Rift Valley. We passed towns and villages, and without fail, excited kids ran to the roadside to wave us on. We arrived in camp around 3:30pm: a small campground of sorts filled with permanent safari tents. These modest digs would be home for two days and a few breathtakingly cold showers. But as the purpose of the weekend was to see animals, I would spend very little time under the mosquito net covering the bed. With no delay, our bus set out on the first of three game drives at 4pm.
The Rift Valley

Game drives, as I would soon learn, are filled with other safari vehicles from numerous other tour companies. This was far from my mental expectation that a safari was done in solitude. Far from it actually. Each vehicle roams the vast plains alone, with other vans in the distance, looking for unique encounters. However, once one guide finds something of interest, the call goes out on the radio for the other guides to satisfy their “game-hungry” guests. We would troll the fields for hours then suddenly the bus would jerk into action and we’d be flying toward a scene littered with safari trucks surrounding an event of interest. It became humorous to actually watch the on-lookers watching the scene unfold as telephoto lenses and expressions of awe added to all the commotion. (I’m not exempt from this either…my zoom lens was transfixed as well.)

Game Drive Spectators

The first game drive, just two hours, was completely successful as far as I’m concerned. We passed gazelles, zebras, antelope, and wildebeest. Of the “big five” (the lion, African buffalo, spotted leopard, elephant and the black rhino), we managed to see three. We watched as a sleeping lion slept on a hill, and in waking from sleep, regrouped with the rest of the pride and started to play. An elephant wandered by our bus just a half hour later and we came upon a group of buffalo meandering through tall grass. Not bad.

But if the first day was good, the second would prove better. Just after starting out at 7:30am, on Saturday, our bus jerked into action. We raced to a scene that made National Geographic come to life: a pride of lions had just caught, and was in the process of devouring a zebra. With the zebra still kicking, two male and six female lions feasted. I was amazed to have the opportunity to watch such an event unfold. Morning MealWe moved on and found a spotted leopard resting in a tree. While leafs veiled the cat for the most part, four of the big five were checked off the list. We roamed to the south and to the boarder where the Serengeti plains lingered beyond. We gazed upon hippos lounging in the Mara River and spotted a crocodile upstream. Turning back, we drove alongside more elephants meandering and finally got the first look at giraffes up close. Giraffes may be my favorite of the whole bunch. They cruised a long for a while, but out of nowhere, one set off across the fields to join another group. This was the first time I’ve seen a giraffe run, and I have to say, it’s one of the most awkward things I’ve ever seen. Unlike any other four-legged animals that walk with diagonally opposite steps, a giraffes’ gait falls with both legs on the same side of it’s body striking the ground simultaneously. When a giraffe runs, it looks like a gangly uncoordinated spastic horse trying to gallop: the knees kick out in front, it jerks its head up as a horse does when it shies, and launches forward at incredible speed. I think I could get hours of entertainment out of watching giraffes.

That evening, I visited a Masai village. The women and men sang and the men explained the traditions of the Masai people. Widely known as fierce warriors, the Masai are actually more peaceful farmers than anything. They are semi-nomadic as their villages move every nine years due to termite infestation. Masai WomenTheir homes are built out of sticks and hardened cow manure. The family lives in one of the three rooms, while the other two are reserved for the goats and the family cow. The cow provides milk and blood, which provides a central part of the Masai diet. The goats roam around the pitch-black house at will where the only light comes from a small window above and a timid fire. It’s smoky and the air is thick. In the middle of the compound is a sick of sorts, which is used in the ceremonious circumcision ritual. Performed when the young man becomes 14 years old, I was told, “you must come strong and not cry. If you cry, you have shamed your family.”

The next morning we rose early before the sunrise. We watched the sun come up over the plains as wildebeest grazed beneath. Having been eluded by the rhino and a clear view of the leopard the day before, we were quickly off as the radio sprang to life. There, in the open, was a spotted leopard standing over a half-eaten impala. Spotted LeopardWatching until it dragged its prey away from the herds of safari trucks, we drove until we found ourselves between two groups of lions. As they came together, our car sat alone as the lions passed just feet from the vehicle. A male lion looks much more intimidating from three feet away than it does behind zoo bars.

I’ve always romanticized about the idea of an African safari. The idea has always sounded so distant and unattainable. But I leave Kenya knowing that this seemingly unlikely event of a safari became reality. It’s a reality marked by remarkably memorable events and fortune.