Wednesday, November 19, 2008

This blog, that blog, moving on

This blog will live on, and I'll update it with memories and things if and when they come up. I'll try to put some pictures here soon, too. But for now, I'll be returning to the other blog: Thanks for reading. Really, thank you.


Sunday, November 9, 2008


I'm home.

If I was a better blogger, I might have posted this much sooner. Unfortunately, I've put this off a little bit in order to adjust. I could probably have written something when I got off the plane, but I was tired. I think I have an excuse. But, had I blogged sooner, it would have looked something like this:

"I'm home. I bought cheese for mom and spilled coffee on the flight attendant. Now I'm going to bed."

All of that is true. I am home. I bought cheese for mom, smoked gouda, the best $15 hunk of cheese I've ever purchase. I did spill coffee on the flight attendant but that, I think, was her fault and I did apologize. And then I did go to bed.

To add a few more boring details: Both of my bags arrived safely in Detroit, where I checked them through, but one of them didn't make it to Grand Rapids. It came later that night and they sent it right to my house.

The first place I went when I got home was Panera Bread with my family. Dad was in St. Louis, so he couldn't join us. But I had long wanted a good sandwich, and Panera Bread delivered.

Sometime right before I landed in Amsterdam, McCain conceded the election and Obama won. And from that point until yesterday, I didn't stop hearing about it. Come to think of it, from the time I arrived in Dar Es Salaam, everyone was talking about it. When people found out I was American, they demanded to know why I wasn't in the United States, voting for Barack Obama. Wote Watanzania wametaka Barack Obama. My cab driver told me that he thought Kenya, and maybe Tanzania, too, would go crazy if Barack Obama won. He told me they wouldn't work for a week, and would just party. As far as I know, he's probably right.

The first question most people ask is "How was Africa?" And, God bless 'em, this is a terribly frustrating thing to answer. Because I can't really summarize or put it into words yet. How were the last three months of your life? You have to think about it, right?. This was not a weekend trip, it was three months of life. You can tell the people who've been there, because they ask specific questions. "What was something tough you experienced?" "Where were some of the places you went?" "What were the people like?" "What was the weirdest thing you ate?" Those are questions I can answer. If you ask, "How was Africa," I'll either give an equally brief answer ("Good.") or stammer and tell you awkwardly that I don't know yet. I don't have my impressions all formed yet. This is the kind of thing that doesn't make a whole lot of sense for a while.

Someone asked me in church today "is your heart there?" and I told her it wasn't. I've been expecting people to ask me if I'm going to drop everything and move there, and "Is your heart there" sounded an awful lot like, "Are you going to drop everything and move there?" She told me her experience must have been opposite because as soon as she was there, her heart was there, too. I loved being in Africa, but I'm glad to be home. I'm still at the stage where I'm soaking up home, reconnecting with everyone I haven't seen, enjoying brushing my teeth with tap water, and hiking in the woods without thinking about puff adders. So, my heart is pretty firmly planted here. For now. Which is not to say my heart isn't a little bit "there" too. And maybe someday I'll drop everything and move there. But for now, lots of people are going to get vague answers from me.


I'm home and adjusting. I still wake up at 4 am for no good reason, and I'm still learning how, even in the span of three months, the world has moved on without me. And all of the pictures, the good pictures, are up on Facebook.

As for today... Today I watched football and it was glorious, even though it was the Lions.


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

And now for my final thought...

I’ve never been good at summarizing. Which is pretty strange because I’ve read lots and lots of summaries (most often in textbooks to probe for buzzwords and easy answers before tests when I haven’t read the chapter). And so here I am, on my last day in Africa, waiting to go to the airport, and I really haven’t got a way to sum this all up.

Maybe it’s because where I am doesn’t feel like Africa. It feels like Florida. It feels like Generic Vacation Spot. I'm at SeaCliff, some expensive hotel that some foreigners built here so other foreigners can visit Tanzania and not have it feel so… foreign. They have a foreign supermarket where you can buy Oreos and Dr Pepper (which I just did, without hesitation.) You can eat at restaurants and sip lattes in coffee shops that feel just like the ones back home, and visit a book store to browse the same selection of books you’d see at a Borders or Barnes and Noble, and buy educational crap for your kids at one of those “Learning is FUN” type places that seem to be in every mall in the USA. But, I have already ranted about all of this before. I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t like places like this – it’s a nice and necessary step toward my own culture. And I’m sitting here anyway, so who am I to judge? It’s just not a place where I’ll say, “Yeah, this is what I’ll remember about Africa.”

This is the point of the post where, if I were in some pleasant, nostalgic writing mood, I’d break into some poetic essay on how serene the landscape is and how God must have surely saved His best ideas when he crafted Tanzania’s mountains and filled its pristine lakes, and how breathtakingly deep and full the night sky is, and how the church choirs sound like the choicest angels plucked from Heaven’s School of Music. All of those things struck me and you kind of need to come here and see them. Or hear them.

And if I had the time, I’d take a moment to summarize all the stuff I did or, if I were to rephrase it with modesty, the stuff “God did through me.” I readily admit that he had a role in everything that happened to, with, from, over, under, around, inside, or despite me while I’ve been here. The truth is, most of my impressions came not from the perspective of a giver or a doer or even a servant, but of a wide-eyed guy who just wanted to see how this part of the world works, one that hoped to be an instrument and did his best not to get in the way. I have had a wonderful time and I have no intention of downplaying it with sarcasm or cynicism. I love Africa and I would love to come back and maybe someday I will.

For now, though, I miss my home and my family and friends*, and in a few hours I’m going to get on a plane and go home and see them and shower them with hugs and lavish African gifts upon them. I am thinking more about there than I am about here. I have been on the road almost constantly for the last 35 days, and I’m almost back to my own bed, to my own home. I can tell you about what I will miss when I begin to miss it. Trust me, it will sound better then. It will be more poetic.

So I will conclude with the one nugget of information that seems to stand out more than any other right now, and that is this: If you go to Africa, and you ride the bus, and if the bus makes a bathroom stop, please please please watch your step.

See you soon.


*Note: Not all friends will be lavished with gifts. Offer restricted to those who made specific requests. Must have replied by 31 Oct 2008. Must be 18 or older, excepting those warranted by executor of offer or by tribal council. Offer not valid in Puerto Rico or New Jersey.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


I am sitting in an internet cafe in Ndola, Zambia. If you look at a map of Africa, there's a little piece of the Democratic Republic of Congo that hangs down and bottlenecks Zambia. Ndola is just to the left of that.

In my money belt, I have nine 50 kwacha bills and some identification, little else. For the few of you who aren't up to speed on African exchange rates, they have a combined worth of about ten cents.

Zambia is not like Tanzania. Actually, I guess it mostly is like Tanzania, only everything has taken one single step towards the United States, or at least towards South Africa. Here, people seem to wear nicer clothes, and live in bigger houses. More of them drive cars and the roads get a little bit more upkeep. You can go around the corner and pick up a bucket of chicken from Hungry Lion. Every city has a Shoprite, an African supermarket chain. In Tanzania, I know of two cities with Shoprites. And there are lots and lots of foreigners, too.

The other day, we were driving the Great North Road down from Tanzania, and we passed a few clusters of date palms. They say you can trace the line all the way to the Indian Ocean. It's the path the slave traders took, and they tossed their date palm seeds out as they ate along the way. Many of them took root and grew tall, and now we can see right where they go. The palms we saw grew amid huge farms with long lines of sprinklers where they grow tomatoes and cabbage and soybeans. It's agribusiness. Things in Zambia have changed.

Also, as most of you know, it's Duwali time. It's the Indian new year. And there was a fireworks show. We went to the local sports club, where the rich and the expats hang out, to watch. There was a huge crowd there, made of Indians and Chinese and Europeans and South Africans and wealthy Zambians. I thought it might have been the most diverse crowd I've ever been a part of. Each of us paid 30,000 Kwacha to be there ($8 USD). As it turned out, it was a great fireworks display, just like anything you might see in the States on July 4.

The next day, we went on to Mufulira, which is a little further north along the border with the DRC. The town is pretty big, and it survives entirely due to the mine. This is the Copperbelt of Zambia, they say, and for the last several decades, the town has thrived. But lately, production has dropped and the mine might close in the next couple years, leaving 14,000 people jobless. We drove around, and saw where the Rugby club was, and the Cricket Club, and the Swimming Pool, and the Football Club, too. All of them are closed or rarely used, testaments to a Western presence that once was. There's a golf club where the fairways are nice and green in the rainy season, but no one goes there any more except to eat in the restaurant or go to the bar. The foreign investers are mostly gone. Already the city looks dead and the Meiers, missionaries I've known from back home for a long time and with whom we're staying, joke that there's nothing to do in Moof. And they still have the mine. The Meiers don't know what will happen to the town, and their church, and their ministry here, when the mines close. The city will die.

In Tanzania, everyone farms. Even in the big towns, many people have a plot of land somewhere that they farm corn or something with. People there live a little more poorly, but they can eat. Here in Zambia, nobody farms. There are big farms, and people in villages still make their living off the land, but in cities like Mufulira people will have their way of life abruptly reinvented when the mines close.

Tomorrow, we begin the two day trip back to Mumba. Then, I have another two day trip across the country back to Dar, where I'll fly away next week. I'll be home, and it will be good to be home.

One Love

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Did it.

There it is.

For now, I'm in Zambia for another week. I've been traveling almost non-stop since the start of the month, and won't be done until I'm home in Michigan November 5. I'll see you all then.

One Love,


Sunday, October 5, 2008


I don't know why people climb mountains. They are big. So big that they are symbols for big, they define big, they're metaphors for impossibility. We stay away from them, build roads around them and sometimes under them but never over them.

I live (or have lived) on a plateau that is to the west of the mountains of Africa's Great Rift. There are no acacia trees or mosquitoes or baboons or cobras, and we can't grow oranges or rice or papayas or mangos. Three miles away, at the foot of the rift, lies the Rukwa valley. There, people grow all those things and fight the bugs and the heat and the snakes and mangy apes. Three miles from where I sleep, a vastly different world. Between us: Mountains. Nature respects the mountains.

Almost nothing lives or grows on top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Maybe lichens. Maybe moss. Nothing else. The animal kingdom doesn't mess with mountains, at least not this one. Yet, thousands of people climb it each year. Not all of them make it. Maybe we should take a note.

I never wanted to climb mountains, always assumed it best to leave them alone, to leave it to the moss and lichens and goats, and to Moses and the vegans who wear those Life is Good T-shirts. And so when someone asked me if I'd like to climb, I laughed, said "I don't think I'll be doing that, I'm broke and sorely out of shape." But they persisted, and since I was going to Africa anyway, and since you only ever need to do this sort of thing once, and since I'd had a nice long run of 24 years and would be going to Heaven in the end anyway, I finally said yes. Besides, the worst thing that could happen is that I a) die on the mountain and go to heaven or b) wuss out halfway up and come back down a failure, get disowned by my friends and family and pursue what I already know to be my inevitable future in the circus. And I kind of like the circus.

And now, I have seen the mountain, and it is big. When I first saw it, it didn't look so big, just a subtle peak with its head in the clouds, a long way off. Then we drove and drove and it didn't seem to get any bigger until finally we were at its base and it was suddenly so impossibly ginormous that I have no words to describe it appropriately. In my experience, things do not get this big. Dump trucks are big. Skyscrapers are big. Kilimanjaro is... I don't know. It's a landmark and an icon. It's mind-blowingly huge. Even as we drove away toward Arusha, it didn't shrink, and an hour down the road where we sat in the shadow of Mt. Meru, a very large mountain with no crown of snow, we saw Kili's glacier poke out above the clouds and it was still dominant, still king, still refusing to fit within the scope of my eyes. Kili reminds me, most assuredly, that I am still very very small and had better not even think about setting foot on it. Kili is famous. It's on postcards. To my knowledge, I am on no postcards.

In preparation, I've been climbing and clamoring and and hiking for the last three months, and I am as ready as I will ever be. Tomorrow morning, we're actually going to climb it. We'll drive to the mountain and put our feet on it and walk slowly, slowly toward the summit, three and a half miles up into the atmosphere to where the animals don't go.

So for now, I'm going to stop talking about it. It's all kind of surreal anyway, and I'm not doing it justice. I know we have a lot of people praying for us, and that is all the reassurance I need. If we summit, it will be Friday, I think.

One Love


Friday, October 3, 2008


I am glad to be off the bus.

I am so glad to be off the bus.

Yesterday I took a 12-hour bus ride from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam. Two hours into it, we took a pit stop, a bathroom break. Now that I think about it, this was our only stop except for lunch, and it was two-hours into the trip. But on this stop, we pulled off the road and everyone hurried off the bus and into the bush to relieve themselves. I went last and trekked down a path which the men quickly claimed as their own. I walked past everyone else, chose a spot, and reunited with the animal kingdom. I walked back to the bus and sat down in my seat. Now, since I was traveling alone, I had no one to urge me to watch my step, and once I sat down I was met with the sudden, unmistakable odor of human waste and the sneaking suspicion that I was somehow responsible for it despite the fact that I had only “gone onesies,” as the Africans say (which they don’t say.) Since I had no room to check my feet, (a backpack betwixt them, a wall in front of and beside them, another gent’s legs on the other side, and a seat filled by myself behind them) I could not confirm or deny that it was I who had returned with a… souvenir of our stop. I help hope that one of the many other feet on the bus had an unfortunate hanger-on. A few hours later, after much gagging and guessing, I got off the bus for lunch and discerned that it was, indeed, I who had borne great displeasurous* odor upon the bus. I was thusly forced to bear it the majority of the trip, as I had carried a fair amount back with me and shared it with the floor beneath my feet and, quite possibly, my backpack which rested upon it. In short, I smelled people-poop the whole way here.

But all of that aside, it wasn’t so bad a trip. I only had an awful African soap opera on the tube to deal with, and a guy next to me with whom I jockeyed for the arm-rest, and knees that inexplicably burn in agony when I rest them at acute angles for seven hours at a time.

I am so very glad to be off the bus.

And here I am, in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. It is the hot and humid time of year, and that is genuinely saying something. I am in the tropics right on the ocean. The air is thick, and I’d bottle it for you if I could. It’s hot enough that I was sweating through my shirt over breakfast, at 8:00 am. (And to think, A week from now I’ll be in a place in the same country where it reaches below zero.) Dar is a fantastic city. There are lots of big buildings and you can sleep in air conditioning and buy ice cream and A&W Root Beer (2,450 shillings each – I bought two for about $4.50 today).

(Hold on, I just remembered the word “Gondwanaland” for no explicable reason. If you know what Gondwanaland is, please tell me.)

We went to Slipway, a bayside resort where lots of white people hang out. And having been away from all but ten of them for so long, I find them fascinating. I want to stare and shout “Wazungu!” Slipway is a resort-ish, touristy shopping and eating place. The shame in this, I thought today, is that many people I guess (and probably guess unfairly) that many people come here and stay in a nice hotel and visit a game park and see some wild animals and buy some carbon-copy souvenir ebony carvings, and then get on a plane and go back home. And they will say that they have seen Africa, without ever sharing a meal of ugali under a kerosene lamp, or frightening a baby who has never seen a white person before, or catching a cold from a village kid, or changing a tire in the bush. I am just arrogant enough to claim merit badges for each of those, and three for the last one. And I wouldn’t mention sleeping by hyenas, listening to a church choir, or staring at the Milky Way from below. But I guess you can say this about anyone who travels anywhere. “Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt,” right? You probably haven’t really seen a place until you’ve been culture-shocked by it, and even then you don’t really know it. I don’t know Africa. All I know is Michigan. And I miss Michigan.

But now, I am no different. I am a tourist. Dar is only a stopping point for me, on the way to Kilimanjaro. Tomorrow morning, we’re getting on a bus to go and do something so stupid as to climb a mountain, something impossibly high that people stay off of and build roads around, the top of which no animals can live on. We’re going to haul ourselves to a dangerous altitude to say we’re no smaller than a mountain, to set before our eyes a fleeting but spectacular sunrise. We’re going to see this place. The truth is, I am super excited (ugh, I just used “Super Excited.” Guess I better go watch The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or something) to do this stupid, stupid thing. But more on that once I’ve actually seen the mountain.

One love,