Island Vacation in Zanzibar, Tanzania

11 min read

East Coast Beach in Zanzibar, Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
East Coast of Zanzibar

I spent my last weekend in Tanzania in Zanzibar. Zanzibar is actually a collection of a few small islands off the coast of Tanzania including Pemba. There are a few ways to get there from Moshi, with a flight being the fastest. There’s also the option of taking an 8+ hour ride on a dhow, but I wasn’t interested in a potential repeat of my seasickness bout in Pangani. A few hours after teaching my last class on a Thursday (tear), I boarded a Precision Air plane for the hour-long flight to the island. The plane was small and didn’t fit more than 80 people, most of whom were flying to Dar Es Salaam, or “Dar” as the residents refer to it, the unofficial capital of Tanzania.

My hotel, Sazani Beach Resort, arranged to have a taxi pick me up at the airport. When I walked out of the airport there was a cluster of rabid taxi drivers waiting for rideless victims. I found my driver, Fahroud, quietly waiting away from the group holding a sign with my name on it, saving me from the other Cujos foaming at the mouth for a fare. I was staying in Nungwi, a fisherpeople’s village in northern Zanzibar, about an hour from the airport on a mostly dark two-lane road flanked by lush vegetation.

J_ and K_’s trip to Zanzibar overlapped with mine by one night and they were also staying at Sazani. They’d flown in a few days earlier and planned to head out the next day to fly back home to the US. It was nice getting to see them one last time. J___ joined me for the dinner the hotel manager had set aside for me since I arrived after the kitchen closed: mashed potatoes, veggies and grilled fish.

The hotel cat, Mwezi, appeared from nowhere when the fish arrived. Mwezi is a grey & black short-haired tabby. She was either discovered on or born under a full moon. In Swahili her name means “moon.” Nikki, the manager, told us that since they don’t really do pets in Tanzania, she hasn’t found a place that sells cat food. So Mwezi, and the 4-month old puppy they recently took in, eat people food and whatever prey they find. I overestimated how hungry I was and they served me a huge plate of food, so I snuck Mwezi some of my fish. Bribing cats with food is the fastest way to their ambivalent little hearts.

Mwezi Tabby Cat at Sazani Beach Resort Zanzibar Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
Mwezi (moon in Swahili, named such because of his moonlight arrival) lives a good life in Zanzibar at the resort.

The power cut out shortly after I arrived, an occurrence I’d grown accustomed to in Tanzania. “Oh the power’s out? Must be Thursday. Or 7am. Or 2012.” A generator backed up the common areas (and they are installing solar panels for sustainable energy; get with it USA), but the guest rooms were not included, so they gave me a lantern to walk around with. A real deal lantern! I felt like it was 1790 (minus the enslavement, oppression and asphyxiating corsets).

My picturesque, beach-themed room held a large four-poster bed dusted in hibiscus flowers. This is why I work hard: to occasionally spoil myself with romantic rooms for one. Sexytime for me and me. The shower had cold and hot water and both were working. Thank you, Jesus! I didn’t have to shower like a teenage boy fighting the damage done by thoughts of Samantha in the tight turtleneck at school.

Room with Queen Bed at Sazani Beach Resort Zanzibar Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
My room. The mosquito net is both decorative and functional.

The resort is right along on the ocean and my room was only tens of feet away, so I could hear the waves crashing. I thought that ocean sounds were supposed to be soothing to sleep to? I found it disconcerting and really loud! I kept waking up thinking it was raining really hard or that monkeys were beating the thatched-roof with their tiny fists. But, there are worse things in the world than being awakened by the Indian Ocean.

Beach View Room at Sazani Beach Resort Zanzibar Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
The view from my room at Sazani

The next morning, I met up with K___ and J___ for breakfast. Our options were eggs in various forms, including omelets, as well as French toast (with jam, no syrup), toast, fruit (mango, papaya, banana, orange) and tea or coffee.

After breakfast, J___ and I strolled along the beach to check out some of the other resorts. He told me how different he felt the tourists were in Zanzibar compared Moshi or Arusha. It seemed to him that most of the tourists were monied Europeans who weren’t very friendly. So far, in my travels and residencies, I’ve yet to find people as effusively friendly as Southerners in the US. Whenever I go back to Texas to visit the fam, I am practically accosted by strangers trying to have conversations with me. Although, I must say that once you know a Tanzanian, they seem to welcome you as a member of their family. It makes for a wonderful sense of community.

I couldn’t help but notice that the majority of tourists I saw did not look like us. Rarely did I see a brown face. This is not where most locals can afford to vacation.

We discovered a large resort where J___ told me the rooms cost $3000 per night. I asked, “Do they come to your room, massage you, fluff you and hand feed you your food for that much?” Do they have State Farm powers? Could they conjure up Channing Tatum for me if I switch my car insurance? Good lord. I thought our resort (a “moderately” priced choice) was awesome; what more could there be? When we reached the resort, my eyes widened at the sight of a large Infinity pool. I’m not gonna lie, I don’t want to spend the money, but I wouldn’t mind staying there. Let me be a baller for a second. I read enough Us Weekly to know how to do it right.

Beach resort in Zanzibar with Infinity Pool Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
Baller resort with Infinity pool

In a crowd of people lounging on chairs, posing in and by the pool or strolling about, we were the only brown faces with exception of the staff. There were three attendants by the pool and one approached us curiously, as though we were lost. I know that look. It’s that, “You don’t look like you have the money to be here, homie,” look. We told him that we just wanted to look at the pool and see the hotel. He escorted us down a wooden bridge away from the hotel, to the restaurant and bar. We  tried to get rid of him thanked him and he retreated to his station. The whole thing made me uncomfortable. It saddens me that in a country as beautiful and as rich in natural resources as Tanzania, the residents themselves don’t seem to get to enjoy it the way tourists do. It’s a luxury for many to even consider a vacation.

Based on previous experiences during my trip and conversations with others, it’s clear that there’s an assumption or even an expectation from some of the local population that white people, in general, are “wealthy” and black Tanzanians are not. Given I was quite often mistaken for Tanzanian or native of some other African country I can imagine that the staff members didn’t see me and immediately think, “American.” Though my “brazenly” parading around in a bikini top should have given some indication that I might be “different.” In addition to feeling disheartened, I felt a mild sense of guilt. Even though I’ve worked hard and struggled to get to where I am (not that I’m living a Jay/Bey lifestyle), it doesn’t keep me from feeling guilty that I “lucked into” some fortunate circumstances while others are not so fortunate. J___ and I quickly snapped a few photos and headed back to the welcoming arms of our resort. A couple of hours later, he and K__ departed and I was by myself.

Kilimanjaro Beer on the Beach Zanzibar Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
Nothing like enjoying a cold Kilimanjaro beer and reading on the beach

I spent the afternoon drinking a beer, reading on my Kindle (“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks“, it’s awesome, read it!) and napping. I was awakened around 5pm by Bakar, the bartender, inquiring what I would like for dinner. Okay: they hold dinner for me, know and call me by my name, and personally come by to see what option I would choose for dinner – what the hell could be going on at that $3000 a night joint that’s even better? Red Bull and eightball shooters? Dancing llamas? I chose prawns for dinner.

One of the hotel staff, JK, offered to show me around Nungwi. I was grateful since I didn’t have transportation and hadn’t arranged for any excursions that day. We hopped in a Rav4 which led to me think,

Whachu think I rap for / to push a fuckin’ Rav4?

Ah, Kanye, thanks for that gem. What’s wrong with a Rav4 anyway, Kanye? Whatever. Yeezy sleeps on fur pillows and wears leather pants so much I’m concerned he may suffer from recurring yeast infections.

Apart from the resort signs dotting the sides of the roads, Nungwi seems mostly residential. I saw a lot of the same small shanty homes with laundry drying on clotheslines and the requisite goats goating around, eating trash and other goatly shenanigans. Resident were outside their homes chatting, farming, selling, braiding hair, cooking over open flames and other activities I’d grown used to seeing.

JK attempted to play tour guide while he drove. Though he was speaking English, between his accent and the use of Swahili sentence structure, I only understood a quarter of what he said. I did a lot of nodding, raising eyebrows and light chuckling when it seemed appropriate. I think it worked: I didn’t end up mistakenly married, deported or anything else that would qualify as the inspiration for a bad Lifetime movie.

Sazani Beach is on the eastern side of Nungwi and JK drove to the western side where the number of resorts increased three-,  four-fold, as did the liveliness. This was definitely the more touristy, partier scene. Locals played football on the beach and surfed while tourists played volleyball or lay about in hammocks and straw chaises. Later, this scene would take on a different view for me given a conversation I had with someone in the know. on my return. This insider told me that she’s heard of older Italian women coming to Zanzibar to pick up on hot, young local men for their personal pleasure. Intriguing and scandalous behavior salacious enough for a beach novel.

Savanna Dry South African Cider by MicGloWal on Flickr.com | The Girl Next Door is Black
Savanna Dry Cider

I stopped at a little market to pick up my new favorite cider*, Savanna Dry. In the shop, I overheard two people talking. A girl asked, “What are we going to do tonight?” Her male friend answered, “Get high!” Their voices sounded familiar and sure enough they were the same young British kids I’d met three weeks ago on safari! We exchanged hellos.

I tried to explain to JK how I knew them. “I met them on safari.” “Yes, you’re on safari.” “NO, I met them ON a safari, we saw animals. Elephants, simbas [lions]…” He wrinkled his face with confusion. I dropped it. It was very “Who’s on First?” In Swahili  “safari” means “trip” so it’s used to refer to vacations, not just animal tourism, which led to several confusing conversations while I was there.

We arrived back at Sazani shortly before dinner. I met the other four-legged resident, a 4-month old puppy, Joa Calle (I am butchering this spelling) which means “warrior” in Swahili. Joa is adorable, looks like a golden Labrador and was teething. He tried to nibble on everything: towels, rugs, my real-deal-from-the-Brazilian-headquarters Havianas… They were having a hard time finding suitable chew toys for him. Poor doggie in non-pet land.

Puppy Dog in Zanzibar Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
The puppy eyeing his ersatz chew toy

I arrived during a slow season, so there weren’t many others staying at the resort. Later that evening a group of six people in their 40s and 50s arrived. I’m not quite sure how they knew each other. It seemed like they all knew at least one of the women, who I’d later find out is American, but has lived and worked in Tanzania for years. She seemed like the organizer. The group members were an international bunch with two being French, another man Australian, a couple of Brits and the American.

For dinner, they pre-set the tables according to party number. So, a party of two would have a table for two and the large party that arrived that afternoon, had a table set for six. Nikki, the manager, told me she’d be joining me for dinner. So sweet of her to keep me from dining alone. Small touches like this are why I prefer staying in smaller hotels and resorts rather than the giant mega-hotel chains.

Nikki is affable. During dinner I learned that she is from Ireland, in her early 40s and recently divorced with an adult child. She decided to take a year off from her teaching job to do something different and ended up managing the resort. Not a bad gig at all.  She enjoys it, though it’s been challenging trying to run a staff that’s accustomed to working on Tanzanian time, which is to say: there is no rush to do anything. The pay is also drastically less. I told her a little about what led me to volunteer in Tanzania. I also shared that having met so many people who’d taken the plunge to either work or volunteer in Africa long-term inspired me to think about doing the same.

Our conversation eventually drifted to vacation time because she was amazed that I’d been in Tanzania for three weeks. Such things are unheard of for most Americans! “Work for yourself to the bone!” “Who has time to lay on the beach; time is money!” She said, “I don’t understand why Americans don’t fight and demand more time off.” I am not the American to ask. I work to live, not the other way around. I will say that it’s never occurred to me to try to change the system in that respect. I have just accepted that it’s the world Americans live in and if it really bothers me, I will move elsewhere. Or I will figure out how to retire by 45.

Mwezi showed up just as our prawns did. Nikki and I took turns feeding her the tails. My cats eat bougie, Whole Foods-like kitty dinners, so I worried about Mwezi’s nutrition. But, what could I do?

After dinner, I headed to bed to get a good night’s sleep as I had to wake up early the next morning to go snorkeling. So far, Zanzibar was working out just fine.

*Normally, I don’t drink cider. I’ve been conditioned to think of it as a “weak, girly drink.” I am not weak, nor girly (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and can handle my beer. But, damn, Savanna Dry is good and has higher alcohol content than many beers.

More Photos:

Black in the United States and Exhausted

7 min read

This year’s election and the 2008 election have shown me a side of some Americans that I find abhorrent, disgusting and sad. I cannot say I was / am proud to call them all my fellow countrypeople.

At times I feel very unwelcome in my own country. I’ve worked and continue to work hard. Once I left my parent’s house to attend college, I was fully on my own. I worked an average of 30 hours a week while taking 12-15 hours a semester and still managed to have an active social life and hold leadership roles. I’ve struggled through jobs that I didn’t like or that didn’t pay well, usually both at the same time.  I am an active contributor to American society. I volunteer my time, I give to charities, I give money to the homeless. I pay what seems like more than my fair share in taxes. Yet, there will still be people who look at me and assume the worst.

There are people who claim racism in America doesn’t exist anymore. We’re “post-racial.” That black people don’t have it hard. That slavery ended over 100 years ago and we should stop complaining. We’ll just ignore the Jim Crow laws, segregation in schools, and voter disfranchisement that occurred after the end of slavery.

Sure, we are not enslaved in chains. Yes, things have improved. Yes, I and other blacks across America now have the right to vote. But, in some areas America is still largely segregated.  Voter disenfranchisement still happens today and largely impacts people of color more than not. We have the revisionists who want to teach children that slaves were treated well and happy and that slavery had its positives – one of them being that black children then were more likely than today’s children to be raised in a two-parent household.

Need I remind you of the mess of Hurricane Katrina?

Ever heard of implicit racism? How about systemic or institutional racism and the far-reaching impacts of it on longstanding institutions like standardized tests that may be biased toward people of certain socioeconomic groups?

Or the influence of a teacher’s personal biases and the effect it may have on how well their students do. Or economic discrimination? Or implicit bias and how it affects how doctors treat their black patients? These are the less visible forms of prejudice, bias and discrimination that black people experience over the course of our lives that are easily overlooked by those who don’t walk in our shoes.

black womanSometimes it’s exhausting being black in this country. I even get angry sometimes. But, god forbid I’m angry or I’ll be seen as an “angry black woman.” I can’t just be angry: I’m black, female and angry. My emotions aren’t my own. They belong to a stereotype. But, more than angry it makes me sad. And sometimes I cry. I hate to admit it, because I’ve been told and taught not to show weakness, not to let ignorant, hateful people get me down. To live my life the best I can to prove people wrong. But, sometimes I get tired. It’s tiring feeling like you have to be the best, because if you’re not, someone inevitably will think, “Yep, just another lazy n-.”

Some people claim not to see color. That’s not helpful either. We AREN’T all the same and it’s disingenuous to pretend we are. Some people say, “Why are black people always bringing up race?” Because other people WON’T LET US FORGET IT!

Why is it okay to ask if black people are voting for Obama because he’s black?  Is the thinking that once we see a brown face, we lose all critical thinking skills and are blinded by color? How well did being black work out for Herman Cain? Cain, a Republican, didn’t receive wide support from black voters. Could the black support of Obama have more to do with him being a Democrat, as black Americans have overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates since the days of Truman?

Colin Powell, seemingly respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, was recently reduced to his skin color when John Sununu questioned whether his Obama support was based on raced. Colin fucking Powell. Are you kidding me?

If black people are only voting for Obama because he’s black, what’s motivating LatinxsAsians and other non-Black groups have for voting for him? Are they color struck as well?

If you posit that black people are voting for Obama because he’s black, what does it say about the majority of white men who support Romney?

Why do some people assume that a black person would vote for Obama because he’s black and not because they’ve made an informed decision to choose him between a choice of two candidates? What does that say about the person who makes this assumption and their view of black Americans?

Do some people think there is an underground black hotline where millions of us meet monthly to discuss how we should all behave, think, feel, act, speak, so that we embody the monolith some people seem to think we are?

I thought the one-drop rule was supposed to be a thing of the past in this country? Yet, people still refer to Obama as black when in fact he’s biracial. Yes, I’m aware that he self-identifies as black. But, which came first? Other people treating him as a black person or him self-identifying as such? Do people forget that Obama is half-white? Can we be real and admit that people in this country still socially categorizes people based on skin color?

Will there ever be a time in this country where people don’t assume members of a racial or ethnic group will behave as one large block?

Can I just have an opinion on something or someone and not have someone attribute the reasoning for it to me being black?

Why is it that some people think whenever the topic of race is brought up by someone of color that they are “playing the race card?” I can’t speak for all people of color or all black people, but games with race aren’t games I care to play. If I bring up the topic of race, it’s not to play some damn game. I’m certainly not “winning” anything holding a black card, especially given the latest AP poll findings that a majority of Americans harbor negative views of blacks.

I have never claimed to be a victim.

I have a college degree.

I pay my bills.

I have never asked for a handout, unless you consider taking out student loans that are like an albatross around my neck for tens of years a handout.

I don’t immediately assume that anyone who looks at me oddly or is rude to me is racist.

I don’t have a chip on my shoulder. You try living in America as a black American for 30+ years and see how it changes your view of the world.

I often think of expatriating. Not in the idle way some people threaten when their candidate doesn’t win the Presidential election. I mean, for real. When I travel internationally, I’m also thinking, “Could I see myself living here for years?”  I’m tired of feeling like the country’s punching bag (do a google search for “black people are…” and see what autofill comes up with as most frequently searched).

Black People Are
Sigh

Americans watch black athletes play sports, listen to music performed by black people, laugh at black entertainers, but seemingly ignore the contributions of the hardworking black people in finance, law, technology, science, education and blue-collar jobs who are not in the public eye, but quietly work hard to achieve the American dream (whatever that is these days) and see little to no representation in the media.

It’s as though the rest of us do not exist. No, instead we get to see the crime we commit, the depressing statistics about health and wellness and the oh so sad outlook for single, educated black women.

We get to hear positive rappers like Common called a hoodlum just because of his chosen career.

We get to hear Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States reduced to nothing more than her behind. It’s disrespectful. She is the goddamned first lady of the United States of America and you’re a Congressman. Why are you talking about her backside?

Is there a place I can live where people don’t make these asinine assumptions? Some place where I can just be Keisha?

There’s no hate in my heart.  I love learning about different cultures, trying new things and opening myself to new experiences, which sometimes is scary and intimidating, but overall I think I’m a better person for it. It’s why I travel. It’s why my friends and I could model for a Benneton ad. I wish more people were open to experiences and people outside of their comfort zone.

Race and ethnicity should not be a taboo topic in a country like the United States where we truly have people of all kinds. Let’s not make excuses in the face of blatant or latent racism. Racism exists in this country, let’s not deny it, pretend it’s a thing of the past, gloss over it or act like only people of color ever discuss it. We’ll never get past it if people insist on living in denial and get uncomfortable talking about it. Instead of accusing people of “playing the race card” or living with a chip on their shoulder: think about it, engage in a dialogue about it and examine your own beliefs.

Where’s the Fire?

6 min read

Since I moved to San Francisco two weeks ago, my life has been like a comedy of errors. No big catastrophes, but little “first world” annoyances.

It all started when:

  • The post office ignored the fact that I sent my apartment deposit via Express Mail and decided to ship it any ol’ time they felt like. That ended up being a week later than I paid for. I was fit to be tied, worried that my hard-won apartment would be given to someone else who actually paid when they said they would. They didn’t.
  • The movers accidentally absconded with the power cord for my flat screen. I got it back.
  • My mailbox key didn’t work. The box was jammed full of legacy mail. Do these people not believe in forwarding their mail? The building manager got it fixed.
  • My building won’t allow DirecTV to install a dish on the building. I’ve had DTV for 6 years, but entered a new 2-year contract when I bought my flat screen. With a year left on my contract they sent someone out to find alternative mount options. The DTV guy came by, looked at my setup and with disgust told me, “SF sucks for DirecTV. I come to do these installs and there’s no line of sight. I make no money. You should have stayed in LA.” Are you serious, homie? Why are you telling me this and really, stay in LA because of DirecTV? Spare me your dramatics. I have my own problems. Do you see all these boxes?
  • I am stuck with Comcast, shitty, constant price-jumping, Comcast. I spent two hours in an online chat trying to set up cable service while the CS rep went through the ridiculous rigmarole of the script I’m sure she was reading. All because I couldn’t sign up for service online as the only options they gave me would force me to have a phone plan. Don’t try to force me into your plans, Comcast, I’m onto you! I am young and have no children. Why the hell would I want a landline? This isn’t 1992.

Unexpectedly, my stove also didn’t work. Someone neglected to tell me that there’d been a gas leak in my unit. They weren’t able to fix it before I moved in. I had no stove and because my things hadn’t arrived yet, no microwave. Sigh.

I received a call from the property management company profusely apologizing for the inconvenience. That’s nice, but I can’t be eating out every meal. I’m sure you are well aware of what I’m paying for rent here. She offered to send me a microwave that very same day. Now that is service. Meanwhile, they still had to fix the problem. So, on two occasions  I left my house key (which I kept losing in the mess of boxes that is my apartment) in a lockbox to allow strangers to wander through my apartment to fix the leak and then turn on the gas. I came home on one of those days to find my toilet seat all the way up. Motherfu…. Was that seat up when I left? I know it wasn’t ’cause I don’t have a penis and I don’t let my cats drink from the toilet. Ohhh, pet peeve city. You’re in a woman’s apartment, there are two cats roaming around, do not leave the toilet seat up if you use the bathroom that you didn’t get permission to use. Ain’t no gas line in the bathroom.

After a week and a half of no stove and eating sandwiches and microwavable foods, I had a stove again. Oh sweet gas! Last night I used my stove for the first time. I decided to stirfry some spinach. Within two minutes of heating the sesame oil, the smoke alarm went off in my kitchen. The sound was piercing and loud enough to be heard in Napa Valley. One of my cats (the one I like) looked at me, looked at the smoke alarm, looked back at me with fright and scrammed like Tom to find a place to hide. The smoke alarm began to speak, with the voice of a female droid: “FIRE. FIRE!” I hurdled over the mess of unpacked items in a rush to reach my step ladder (a single short woman’s best friend), knocking over piles of things on the way. That’s when my bedroom smoke alarm decided to join in on the fun. “FIRE! FIRE!” Bitch, there is no fire, STFU! I finally reached the first smoke alarm and pressed the button in the center of the alarm to turn it off. It beeped at me and I’m pretty sure increased its volume. “Warning, carbon monoxide!” Great, now I’m poisoning myself. I tried to turn off the alarm in the bedroom; same smart ass beeping reply.

Smoke Alarm
One of the evil offenders

My ears were ringing and I feared one of my neighbors would come at me with an axe. “That damn new girl with the cats!” Most of them have dogs. I like dogs. No, I LOVE dogs. When I told one of my dog-owning neighbors I had two cats she gave me a look that said, “Great, one of THOSE people.” I quickly told her that I like dogs, but do not have the time to own one right now. That seemed to settle her. I ran into another neighbor shortly after I moved in and told her about my pets (she asked, I’m not prone to bringing up my cats unprovoked. I am not that woman.). Word must have spread because later that week I overheard two neighbors talking about me on the stairwell in our not-at-all-soundproofed building:

“Have you met the people who just moved in?”
“Yeah, it’s a girl. She just moved from LA.”
“Does she seem cool?”
“Yeah, she seems cool. It’s just her and her two cats.”
“…..”

I could feel the waves of judgment emanating. For the love of god, cats are nice animals, people! Well, except, the one of mine that I want to trade in.

Anyway, back to the fire…or the notafuckingfire.

I heard a knock on my door. Here comes the axe, I thought. Either that or someone is coming to check that I’m not actually being swallowed by flames. I waded through even more crap to get to the door, having previously knocked things over into the entryway.

It was a guy with a stepladder. “Do you need to borrow a stepladder to turn off your alarm?” “I have one, thanks!” “Oh, okay, ’cause this happened to us when we moved in. You just have to press the button to turn it off.” I was tempted to give him gasface, but I knew he was trying to be helpful. “Yeah, I tried that. They won’t turn off. Do you know how to disconnect them?” “No, sorry. Did you try opening a window?” Seriously, what kind of moron did he take me for? “Yeah, that’s what’s weird, I had my windows wide open already. I’m really sorry. I’m trying to stop it.” The alarms had been blaring for at least five minutes. I was reminded of the sirens played when people were warned bombs were dropping during wartime. Yeah, overkill.

Smoke Alarm 2
The aftermath

The damn things wouldn’t turn off and they wouldn’t come off easily. I was able to disconnect the bedroom device and ignored my urge to smash it as the dumb thing kept repeating, “FIRE! FIRE! Beep!” Oh you bitch. The kitchen one, however, wanted to fight. In a Hulk rage, I ripped it from the ceiling causing the fuse to short, spark and out went the lights. I could smell the burning. Well, eff you too, sweetheart  And please don’t tell me I now I have to live in the dark. And I still haven’t gotten my damned spinach. I am hungry! I turned off all the switches on the fuse box, turned them back on and then there was light. With the smoke alarms disconnected I went back to my business of cooking spinach. The smoke alarms were dead. I won…until there is an actual emergency and I don’t know about it because I have no smoke alarms to warn me. Also, I think I am now deaf.

Tanzania: Voluntourism: Life as a Volunteer with Give a Heart to Africa – Part II

14 min read

I was in Moshi, Tanzania (TZ) for three weeks with a program called Give a Heart to Africa (GHTA). GHTA works to empower woman through the aid of volunteers and donations by educating women and providing the tools they need to improve their lives. Here is part II of a summary of my stay as a volunteer, the school and the students.

THE SCHOOL

There are three courses taught at GHTA: English conversation, English grammar and business basics.

The school is free for the students. The program is geared toward women over the age of 30, who have found themselves with few options for education and often, unfortunately, little financial solvency. However, men and younger women are also accepted, with the ratio of men-to-women being anywhere from 10/90 to 25/75. Monika, GHTA’s founder, feels it’s beneficial in the patriarchal Tanzanian society, for men to learn along with women and see just how capable, intelligent and independent women can be. Potential students are interviewed before each semester begins and ultimately 40 to 50 students are selected based on several criteria and in person interviews. Many of the students haven’t had the opportunity to attend school past seventh grade or so as secondary school isn’t free in Tanzania. To attend secondary school, there is tuition of a little over $10/year and other fees for things like watchmen, food, furniture (seriously?), possibly uniforms and other misc. fees. When you consider how little money many Tanzanian people make, it’s understandable that secondary school is often not an option for some families. God forbid you have more than one child to enroll… In exchange for their free tuition at GHTA, the students pitch in to keep the school clean on a rotational schedule.

The school has only been in existence for a little over three years. As time passes and the school’s reputation grows around town, the school evolves. The students I taught were in school for a 6-month semester. However, when the next semester begins in January 2013, that batch of students will be in school for a year. They will also most likely have the option of learning a skill as Monika hopes to implement some skills training. What skills they are taught will in part depend on the talents of incoming volunteers. If you are lucky enough to have talents or skills of some sort, you should volunteer.

English Classroom
English Classroom. I got to make a poster on the ‘four Ps’ for the business classroom’s wall!

There are three small classrooms, each with long wood tables and benches and helpful hint posters on the walls, as well as photos of some of the students, current and past. Additionally, there is a playroom for children. Twice a week local neighborhood children and the offspring of students under the age of eight, are invited to come play at the school in the afternoons. The volunteers entertain them, play games with them, teach them songs, color, paint, play soccer, etc.

The students attend two classes Monday thru Thursday. The first class is from 9-10:30 and the second from 10:30 – 12. They are divided into 4 groups: 1a, 1b, 2a & 2b. The 1s began the semester with little to no knowledge of English or business, speaking predominately Swahili. The 2s began the semester with some knowledge of English and perhaps some prior business experience or knowledge. On Fridays, there are home visits, during which students offer to welcome the volunteer teachers to their homes to see how they live. Unfortunately, as I arrived toward the end of the semester, I didn’t get to attend an official home visit. All of the students had already had their turn.

I’ve never taught before, unless you consider cross-training co-workers or training presentations I’ve given on Agile Scrum at work. I didn’t know what to expect.

THE STUDENTS

English Grammar
I taught English grammar and this book was a godsend.

When I arrived at GHTA, V_, the interim house & school manager, gave me the option of teaching either English grammar or business. George was already comfortably settled as the teacher for that class. I opted out of business as I think I’ve overdosed on the topic. I majored in business in undergrad, I’ve been working in business for over a decade and I’m not in love with it. English grammar, on the other hand, is of great interest to me as I’m always seeking to improve my writing.

Ka_, one of the other volunteers from California, had been already completed her first week of teaching when I arrived. I would be taking over for her at the end of my first week in Moshi. In the meantime, I would shadow her and help out where I could.

Each class has a translator. The translators are former students. The 2s tend to need the translators for less than the 1s do. The translator for my classes was Fa_, a diminutive woman in her late 50s with a lot of spunk and internal fortitude. I liked her immediately.

GETTING TO KNOW TEACHER KEISHA

The students refer to all teachers as “Teacher [first name].” That tickled me. My first day of class, Ka_ introduced me to both classes and had me answer the following questions.
1. What is your name?

2. Where are you from?

3. How old are you?

4. Who do you live with?

Numbers three and four elicited the most response in combination with each other. To number four I answered, “I live with two cats.” I was met with blank stares and puzzlement. “Teacher, you are __years old and you are not married?” I figured, oh no, I’m about to hear that I’m a cat lady. I have two cats so that I’m not leaving a pet home alone. God! Erm….anyway, nope, not married. “Do you have any children?” Nope, no kids. “Why don’t you have any kids?” “I haven’t met anyone I want to have kids with yet.” There were “oohs” from a few of the female students and Fa_ said with enthusiasm,  “Good for you!” Her husband died in the 80s and she’s been raising her five children on her own ever since. She would later tell me, as she was giving me unsolicited counseling on who to marry, “No more men for me. You don’t know if the man is going to like your children. My head is clear and I want it to stay that way.”

SO, TEACHING, HUH?

Just doing a little teaching.

Teaching is hard work. I knew this and have long had much respect for teachers. But, I didn’t realize just how much work it is and how exhausting. Each night before the next day’s class, I’d spend a minimum of 20 minutes, but more often one hour, preparing lesson plans. What would I teach the next day? There are curriculum guides for the class and I would use those, and several other teaching aids to create lessons for the next day. Each Monday I had to give and then grade quizzes that I prepared the week before.  I reached into the recesses of my brain to recall what I learned in a psych class about test development.

Teaching itself was tiring and I only did it for half a day four times a week! Your mouth gets parched, you get tired of standing, you get chalk all over your cute clothes…I was so nervous about teaching and whether the students would respect me. I also wanted them to feel engaged. But, I had no reason to fear. These students wanted to learn. For some of them, just getting to school each day was a large feat. There are students who have to get up incredibly early to work before school; students who travel long distances on busses, foot or dala dala; and students who have children to care for – one of my students brought her baby daughter with her to class a few times. She was adorable and she ended up being fun to use in example sentences.

Often I would come up with example sentences to illustrate grammar rules. During a lesson on necessity (must, have to, have got to), Fa_ decided to chime in with a sentence of her own, “If you don’t want to get pregnant, you must take the family planning pill.” Did I mention she’s in her 50s? And lives in a patriarchal Tanzanian culture? And almost 90% of the citizens are Christian or Muslim? Yeah, she’s awesome.

I also realized that I had favorite students. They were generally the ones that spoke up more and apparently I am shallow as hell, because I found myself favoring the better looking students. Please forgive me. I think it’s an evolutionary response! I found myself working hard to go against my biases. I tried to get the quieter students to participate more (and it worked).  Teachers have it rough.

IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, EXCEPTIONS ARE THE RULE

Have you ever tried to explain to someone the rules of the English language? I remember once telling an ex-boyfriend’s niece that she shouldn’t use double negatives in a sentence. “Why?” she asked. “Because, it’s confusing.” “Yeah, but sometimes you can…” “Actually, yeah, that’s true.” For instance if I were to say, “You can’t not bathe or else you will be stank.” Sigh.

The English language is full of contradictions. Try teaching a classroom of non-native English speakers about comparative and superlative adjectives. Or, let me put that another way: silly, sillier, silliest. Or: funny, funnier, funniest. Ok, so, how about the word “good”. Good, gooder, goodest. Eek, ow, no. It’s: good, better, best. But, why? ‘Cause the English language is stupid, that’s why.

CONVERSATION DAY

Once a week the English grammar students get to have a discussion to help practice their English speaking.  My first week the topic was marriage, divorce and male – female relationships. Just a little light chat. I learned that divorce is revolutionary in Tanzania and is spreading as a method for marriage dissolution. Although, before it gets to that point, the couple may consult their friends for counseling, if that doesn’t work, their parents, and if that doesn’t work, their acquaintances, and if that doesn’t work, well, I guess y’all really don’t want to be together, so time to go to court! They were shocked when Ka_ and I told them that America’s divorce rate is 50%. I was thrown when one of the male students, Bar_, prone to loud exclamations and not shy about stating his opinions stated, “Marriage is like modern-day slavery for women!” Well then!

In that same discussion one of them women said, “My friend said if you’re husband doesn’t beat you, he doesn’t love you.” Many of the women nodded in agreement. Fa_ shook her head with disappointment. Ka_ and I sat with our mouths hanging open. Then one of the older women said, “Tit-for-tat!” I was impressed by her correct use of this expression.

PANTS VS. TROUSERS AKA THE BRITISH ADD EXTRA Us TO THEIR WORDS

During my last few days of teaching, two new volunteers arrived, Jenny and John. They are a married British couple who live in Belgium. John’s a retired engineer and Jenny is an ESL teacher for kids who decided to take a year’s leave of absence to travel the world with her retired husband. They plan to spend a few months at GHTA in Moshi. They are an adorable couple who’ve been married for 30+ years and it’s obvious from seeing how they interact with each other that they make a true effort to treat each other well and make their marriage work.

Some of my students

Jenny would be taking over teaching English grammar when I left, so she sat in on a few of the classes to get to know the students and get the hang of things. One morning I was teaching the ‘1’ students how to express preferences and gave them an example sentence: “I prefer wearing pants to dresses.” A few students looked at me with confused expressions and there were a couple of titters. I figured they just didn’t understand and asked Fa_ if I should explain more. Jenny helpfully suggested we have each student state their preference for either pants or dresses. A few students went until one student, Ester, asked me, “Teacher, what are pants?” I pointed at the pants she was wearing, “You’re wearing pants.” Another student chimed in, “Teacher, trousers are pants?” “Yep!” Conversation started up in Swahili and Fa_ said to me with amusement, “They think pants are what you wear underneath your trousers.” “Underwear?” I asked. Jenny added, “Ah, in England we say ‘pants’ for undergarments and ‘trousers’ for the clothing item.” So, all this time, the students thought I was saying that I prefer to walk around in underwear than dresses. No wonder they looked at me funny, they probably thought I was some kind of freaky American perv.

And thus the students learned one of the differences between American and British English.

I’LL TAKE A SECOND WIFE PLEASE

The second day of class, one of the younger male students kept giving me eyes. I couldn’t tell if he was just curious about me or trying to flirt with me. After class he pulled me aside. “Teacher Keisha, can I add you on Facebook?” Ha! America or Tanzania, Facebook is insidious. He then asks, “Do you want to walk around town with me?” Alone? I think. I don’t think that’s a good idea. We don’t have rules about student-teacher fraternization, but I don’t want to be the talk of the school. Besides, he looks 17. The next week, George would confirm that this student did indeed have a crush on me.

The next day, a male student in his 30s told me, “Teacher, I think you are very pretty. I think we can get to know each other. I like to have a girlfriend.” “You have a wife,” I reply. “Ah, but in my culture, that is not important.” “Well, in my culture, we don’t do that. So, this is not going to happen. Thank you though!”

WRITE THIS DOWN

George, as previously mentioned, is a big country music fanatic. He taught English conversation for about three months at GHTA. One morning, during my first week there, I was laying in my mosquito-netted bottom-bunk bed, nursing my sick self, and I heard his class singing loudly in unison, with their Swahili accents: “Write this down / take a little note / to remind you in case you didn’t know / write this down / tell yourself I love you and I don’t want you to go / write this down!” George Strait has a new set of fans. It was adorable and their enthusiasm was and is admirable. Later, he taught them “I Saw the Light”, the Hank Williams version.

HOME VISIT

While I didn’t get to attend an official home visit, my class’s translator, Fa_ invited me to her house. She would cook. She and I bonded quickly during my trip. It wasn’t long before she asked me if I could help her learn to use email. The afternoon we went to an internet cafe, we discussed the state of my love life (the state is non-existent). She asked why I hadn’t gotten married yet. I fell to the ground, pounded the dirt and cried dramatically, “God wants me to be alooooooone!” Or, maybe I just said I hadn’t met anyone I wanted to marry yet and that sometimes men get scared when things get serious. She said that in Tanzania women who are single are looked upon poorly. I told her it’s not so different in the US. I’m in my _s, single and have two cats. The shitgiving doesn’t end. She was surprised. I told her that sometimes when women are single after a certain age and don’t have children, people ask them about it a lot and put pressure on them. Perhaps it’s okay to be educated and support oneself as a woman in the US, but you still better find you a man girl, and best be poppin’ out some babies soon, lest you be branded with a ‘C’ for childless. As for men and dating, Fa_ told me, “For a woman, your father is the best man. All others are just wearing trousers, pretending to be men.” She said that because women outnumber here, men act like dogs. Girl, I know, right? I wanted to bring her back home with me.

Hiking
Hiking in a skirt and flip-flops

On a Sunday, Monika, Ka_, Je_, one of my students, Ab_, whom Fa_ says is “like [her] son”, and I went to Fa_’s for lunch. Fa_ lives with her 10-year old grandson. Her 20something daughter drove in from her job at a safari park to help her mom with the cooking. Ovens and stoves are expensive and many don’t have them, let alone microwaves. So, most of their cooking is done on portable gas stoves or on open fire. Fa_’s house is small, but cozy, down along a dirt road that made for a bumpy car ride.

Before lunch Fa_’s nephew and his good friend took us on an unexpected 1-hour hike behind Fa_’s house, while Fa_ and her daughter stayed behind to finish cooking. On the way to the trail we ran into Fa_’s father-in-law who lives in the house a few fields down. He helped her and her husband get their house. He’s very old, hard of hearing and often not coherent or present.

Hiking in flip-flops on rocky, dusty paths, some wide enough for only one foot, with a stream of water 30-ft below, makes for lots of thrills – if by thrills, you mean almost spills. When Ab_ asked the boys why they took us so far they said in Swahili, “We wanted to show you the waterfalls!” Cute.

From l to r: pillau (bottom), chapati, glazed peas and carrots, curried chicken, spicy eggplant

For lunch, Fa_ and her daughter made pillau, chapati (a staple of many meals), curried chicken, a glazed pea and carrot dish and spicy eggplant. To drink we were served fresh mango juice. Fa_ has a small garden behind her house where she grows mangoes, avocados (known as parachichis in Swahili, love that word), and other vegetables. Some she sells, some she eats. The food was set on mats on the center of the living room floor. We served ourselves. Fa_ and her daughter ate without utensils, while the rest of us opted to eat with. Fa_’s lucky to have her garden. She’s had goats and chickens stolen. The neighbors have too. Or the thieves have destroyed people’s gardens, taking all the fruit and vegetables they could. But, the neighbors look out for each other. It’s a real community.

The Great San Francisco Apartment Hunt Continued

7 min read

Two weekends ago I began The Great San Francisco Apartment Hunt. I’m leaving sunny (and sometimes downright hot as hell) Los Angeles for foggy San Francisco in search of a less trafficky-lifestyle (and thus reducing the chances that I commit a road rage-induced homicide or suicide). I also wanted an escape from gaggles of women who speak with a Kardashian-perfected vocal fry, ending declarative statements with like, a questioning, inflection? Who spend more time talking about their manicures and expensive designer handbags than the current Presidential election.

The “why L.A. is making me grossly unhappy” list is a lot longer, but again, I’ll save that for another post.

Having had not much luck the first search (that kiss-ass girl with the yappy dog got the apartment in the Marina, boohiss!), I flew up this weekend armed with a new strategy and attitude: I’m here to find a place and I will cut a bitch for an apartment. My Asian-American friend (why I’m mentioning her ethnicity will become clear shortly), V-, who is also lucky enough to be looking for an apartment, suggested we create bios. For all my moral grandstanding and highfalutin’ attitude I was willing to amp up my sales tactics to secure an apartment.

I created a flyer, hoping a photo of two cute kitties and my obvious pandering for sympathy due to our impending homelessness would soften the hearts of sittin’ pretty managers and agents.

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You know you want to rent to us 

V- and I met up for an early breakfast at Golden Coffee Shop to power up for the serious business of the day. I was armed with the listings for seven open houses, three of which started at 11am. Do I look like I can be at three places at one time? What is up with 11am?

I asked my friend, “How many Blasian friendships do you think there are in San Francisco? I mean if we go to open houses together with our ‘we are the world’ friendship, that should help us stand out more, right?” As awesome as trading on our beautiful Blasian friendship sounded, we both had open houses to see in different parts the city. I did, however, join her for one open house at 9am.

We took a taxi to Noe Valley, as we’d lost time by getting on a BART train going in the wrong direction (the joys of being a city newb). Our taxi driver was quite chatty and upon finding out we are relocating to SF, informed us that the rents are steep (what? no way!) and asked if we’d considered the East Bay? What about Oakland?

My brain heard: “You won’t be able to find an apartment in the city!” Why do so many people seem to think I should give up before I even start? Sounds like a…CHALLENGE! A challenge I accept!

The apartment was on the bottom level of a Skittles-purple Victorian-style duplex with pink trim. An “in-law” unit, they call it. It was carpeted (blech) and on the darker-side due to its near-subterranean location; a place well-suited for a vampire. If I thought Ian Somerhalder might visit me there, I’d have applied.

The owner seemed stunned when my friend, after looking around and asking a few questions, said a quick “Thanks,” indicating she was done and not interested. Yeah, that’s right, SHE turned YOU down, buddy. The listing had “charming” in the title. We should have known. She said ultimately it bothered her that the manager would be living right above her.

We parted ways and I killed time at a Noe Valley Starbucks while I waited for an 11am open house nearby. While there I spotted more baby strollers and mini-people (you might call them toddlers) than I see in a year in L.A. (I’m convinced children are zapped when they try to enter urban L.A., ’cause they are a rare sight.)

The clientele was mostly white. It reminded me of Santa Monica: clean, yuppie-tastic, populated by people with punty-dogs, teeming with families and monochromatic.

Finding an apartment to rent in San Francisco is probably harder than finding a job! | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black from "The Great San Francisco Apartment Hunt"
Noe Valley, photo by flippinyank on flickr.com

 

I loved the apartment I saw at the open house. 750sqft., lots of light, beautiful new hardwood floors, balconies, a bedroom that didn’t double as a cave, and parking for a small additional amount. I was second to arrive after a white guy who appeared to be in his late 30s. I looked at him and thought: stability.

When I met the manager, I was secretly thrilled to see that he was a black man. Generally, I don’t try to cash in on shared ethnicity, but all most bets were off during the hunt. Sometimes it can work against you if you encounter a self-hating Negro who wants nothing to do with you and your Negroness. I thought I had an in until the stable white guy said, “So, my partner and I…” Dammit, he’s gay! And I’m pretty sure the manager is gay. Gay trumps black! Gah!!! Go away with your stability and your black-trumping card!

I amped up the charm and told the manager I’d love to apply and tried to hand him my carefully compiled application packet, with fancy bio, but he turned his nose up at it. “I’m sure you can understand that we’d prefer to have tenants fill out consistent applications.” Well, I, understand that. Tell that to your comrades who seem to foist all the legwork on their potential residents.

This was apartment choice #1.

I then had to cab it a couple of miles north and west, for an 11:45am showing. I arrived early and took a short stroll around the neighborhood. My assessment? These motherfuckers are rich. What the hell am I doing here? By 11:45 there was a crowd outside the building where the OH was scheduled. %#^#$*%#^& Where did these assholes come from? There were a few single folks and two couples. Oh lord, now I’m competing against people with TWO incomes?

I liked this apartment too: a 1-bedroom, corner unit, lots of light as it faces south, and…and…and a WASHER AND DRYER IN THE UNIT! The only downside? It’s a junior 1-bedroom, meaning the bedroom fits a bed and not much else. I’d emailed the listing agent beforehand, including a little jazzy info about myself and my moxie. She replied the morning of and directed me to download her company’s application.

Unfortunately, no one has invented a printer that prints from thin air, so I didn’t have time to print the app. Instead, I handed her my rental packet of winning and she smiled and said, “Oh, how cute is this?” Noticing the cats: “Oh they are so cute!”

The 20-something girl in front of me, trying to shoehorn her way into my performance time, gave me a look of death. Yeah, bitch, I did that! Whachu got? From the looks of her bare hands – nothing. I thanked the listing agent and moved on to the next, shooting daggers of hate at the vultures congregating outside the building. This was apartment choice #2.

Finding an apartment to rent in San Francisco is probably harder than finding a job! | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black from "The Great San Francisco Apartment Hunt"
Homes in this neighborhood are valued in the millions.

A few open houses later, I had applied for two apartments, opened up a P.O. Box where I could forward my mail in case I am still homeless by the time I move up. I felt dejected and in great need of some spirits. I sat on the bus feeling sorry for myself and wondered just how far I am willing to debase myself to find an apartment in this city. However, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to wallow as I was more entertained by the antics of others on the bus.

An older, molestor-looking gentleman, boarded the bus with a white cat in a fabric carrier, who was howling, “Goddamit asshole, let me out of this before I scratch the crap of you!” I’d howl too if my owner sat his molester-looking self down and put a duffel bag on top of my carrier, essentially smushing my mid-section. A hipster girl sitting beside me looked apoplectic and whispered to me, “That poor cat.” To my other side, an adorable 6-month old babbled in-between cat howling.

On a second bus – I had to transfer – I overheard the following conversation between two men whom I was scared to look at due to the content of their chat:

Man 1: “Man, you ain’t go to worry about it. Just pee on anything!”

Man 2: “But…”

Man 1: “No man, just pee on anything! A stick, a piece of paper, a bag of chips…”

Man 2: “But, I walked in and he said, ‘I am not your parole officer.'”

Man 1: “Man, fuck that. Those POs are all the same. Assholes.”

Thank you, sketchy gentlemen who have parole officers for reasons I don’t want to find out, for keeping me from spiraling into an apartment hunting depression. I returned home to Los Angeles and the obsessive checking of my email and phone began.

—-

Update: Ladies and gentleman, I am happy to announce that I was offered an apartment in the city of San Francisco. Not East Bay, not even Oakland, but in actual San Francisco. This will soon be my living room. Challenge complete!

Finding an apartment to rent in San Francisco is almost harder than finding a job! | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black in "The Great San Francisco Apartment Hunt"
My new living room! Look at all that light!

The Great San Francisco Apartment Hunt

6 min read

I’m relocating from Los Angeles to San Francisco imminently. Bye, Los Angeles. It’s been…well, I’ll save the “sentiments” for another post.

This past weekend I flew up to the Bay to scout apartments, hoping to find a place before I officially move up. What a freaking mess it is up there! It’s not apartment hunting, it’s a cattle battle and the winner gets a drastically overpriced apartment fit for an oompa loompa and oompa loompa-sized furniture.

FInding an apartment in San Francisco is sometimes harder than finding a job! | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black from "The Great San Francisco Apartment Hunt"
photo by idleformat on flickr.com

Here’s how it works:

  1. You check Craigslist maniacally – because Craigslist is really the only way to find a place – looking for a listing that fits your criteria: clean, pet-friendly, not in crackhead row, no gross carpet from the ’60s because you’re a hardwood floor snob and large enough for the harem of men you plan to acquire
  2. Many landlords and rental agents hold open houses. Silly me, I thought open houses were for HOUSES. As in, I’m ballin’ and I’m going to buy property in one of the most expensive-ass cities in the world. Nope. Open house is where you and 20 other desperate mofos pile into a clown-car apartment and compete to see who gets to stay for good
  3. If there isn’t an open house scheduled, you email the decider about your interest and hope for a response. When you don’t get a reply after 10 different emails, you begin to wonder if you’d have better success if you said your name is Sally instead of Keisha. Then you think to yourself, “Don’t go there. They are probably just REALLY busy.” Right, that’s it.
  4. Landlords in SF have it easy. A Craigslist listing might read: “This 400sq ft. studio is on the bottom level of a decaying building. The unit gets no light so if you have SAD this isn’t for you because you’ll be more sad. Hope you like insects. Roaches live here too. They have a basketball league. There’s a murder every other day in the neighborhood, but not directly in front of the building. This charming place is a steal at $3250 per month! Open house scheduled from 11 – 11:06am on Saturday morning SHARP. Bring your pay stubs from the past 10 years, a credit report from 10 different agencies, your dental records, 4x the monthly rent for a deposit and the name of your first-born child whom you haven’t given birth to yet. Oh and you’re desperate so bring your own damned rental application. We ain’t got time to be printing out sheets of paper.” You read it and think, “This is great! It doesn’t say anything about mice or rats. That’s my deal breaker!”
  5. If you apply (often along with an application fee of at least $25), you then wait on pins and needles with hope that you’ll get a callback. It’s worse than waiting for a guy you like to call you. Instead of: “Why hasn’t he callllllled meeee? I thought we had a connectiiiiooooon?” It’s “Why haven’t they called meeeee?! I thought we had a connectiiiioooonnn? I don’t want to live in crackhead roooooooow!”

The first apartment I visited was in the Marina, apparently otherwise known as the neighborhood where former frat boys and sorority girls go to live out their fratty / sorory post-collegiate life. Not my preference in neighbors as I can imagine it just means having to hear the 2012 version of the Dave Mathews Band, Gnarls Barkley or Gotye played on repeat until I want to kill every member of said band.

When I arrived at the building, no one else was there and I thought, “Yes! I am first. I will meet the landlord, charm the pants off him (and maybe add him to my harem if I like what I see) and I will get this bitch!” That is until an attractive young couple showed up. I resisted the urge to mean mug them. I’m generally a nice person, but when presented with a competition, my baser instincts kick in.

“Is this the open house?” the girl asked me. I’m thinking, “Bitch, do you really think I want to help you out?! This ain’t friendly neighbor time. I’m about to cut you for this place I haven’t even seen yet!”  Instead I said crisply, “Yes.”

Then another young woman and her mother showed up. Motherf… Finally, the landlord arrived, all smiles, because what does he have to worry about? He’s in the power position.

Inside, the apartment is small, but it receives lots of light. The hardwood floors are newer, and although the kitchen is practically on top of the living room, the countertops are granite and it’s in a clean, quiet neighborhood. I decided to apply.

I chatted with the landlord for a bit as he grilled me about my qualifications, “Where are you working? What do you do? Why are you moving from Los Angeles? Is your cat neutered?” During our conversation, another competitor showed up. This time a young woman with whimsy that I immediately found a turn off because I could tell she was there to kiss ass.

And kiss ass she did: “Oh, hello Jonathan. I’m Kelly. We spoke on the phone. I love this, ohmigod. I’m going to apply. I have a dog. Do you want to meet him? He’s outside. He’s so cute. You’ll love him! He does tricks!” Girl, stop. I see right through you and your dog is not that cute. Not cuter than my cat! I turned in my application and left.

I’d seen one place and was already exhausted and feeling dejected by the process. But, I’d made a goal to see at least six apartments that weekend and had at least four other open houses to attend. Well, that plan didn’t work out so well.

My POS phone died. Without Google Maps, I didn’t know where the hell I was going. So, I had to make a trip to my hotel to charge it meaning I had to miss an open house. But, it’s okay; I’m pretty sure it was smack in the middle of Homicideville. The price was way too good and the listing used “charming” to describe the unit one too many times. I told myself to buck up. People do find homes here and there’s no reason I shouldn’t be one of them. I later drowned my worries in a few pints.

That weekend I saw apartments in the Marina, The Mission and Noe Valley
and I applied for all three. I didn’t even bother to step inside one in the Civic Center, the street just looked like one of death’s hangouts.

The last one in The Mission was perfect, but the agent said the owner would prefer no pets. I told him, “Ah yes, but my cats are really sweet and very well-trained.” He looked skeptical. I blame irresponsible pet owners for the bad reputation cats and dogs get. Some of us do have well-behaved animals that don’t rip places to shreds.

I don’t have high hopes for that one, as beautiful as it was.

Finding an apartment in San Francisco is almost as difficult as finding a job! | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black from "The Great San Francisco Apartment Hunt"
Look how cute we are! We make great tenants!

It’s Monday and I haven’t heard a peep from the owners of the apartments I liked. I even pestered followed up with one via email to see if he’d made a decision yet. No reply. I have a lot of packing to do and I hope I don’t have to fly up again this weekend to apartment hunt.

I don’t want to live in the East Bay. I am moving to San Francisco to have a short commute and experience the joys of walking instead of watching my ass spread as I spend hours driving in my car – among other reasons for the move. I definitely do not want to live in the South Bay. I’ve been there, done that and hated it. If I don’t find something before d-day, the kitties and I will either be on the street, secretly living under my desk at the new job or living in $4000/month temporary housing. Joy! Say a little prayer for me.

Update: Read The Great San Francisco Apartment Hunt Continued

Voluntourism in Tanzania: Day-to-Day Life as a Volunteer with Give a Heart to Africa

10 min read

Give a Heart to Africa House | Voluntourism in Tanzania, Africa | The Girl Next Door is Black
The GHTA house

I volunteered in Moshi, Tanzania (TZ) for three weeks with a program called Give a Heart to Africa (GHTA). With the aid of volunteers and donations, GHTA strives to empower Tanzanian women through education. I considered other organizations for my voluntourism trip and eventually settled on GHTA because the program fees were very reasonable and all the funds go directly to running the school and management of the house. Volunteers are unpaid, including the founders and the organizers.

Here is part I of my stay as a volunteer, written during my trip.

MEET THE OTHER VOLUNTEERS

There’s a rooster who cock-a-doodle-doos every night beginning at 3am and continues until well after the sun rises. One of the GHTA managers wants to print t-shirts with the rooster’s head in the center of a red circle with a strike through it. He’s notorious and wanted. On nights when I forget to use my earplugs, I lay awake during his moonlight sonata and debate which is worse: trying to sleep through nature’s animal chorus (including neighborhood dogs that bark and howl at each other nightly) or man-made noises like the car honks and alarms, garbage trucks and loud drunks I experience at home in L.A.

The volunteers all share one large 3-bedroom house which is next to the small school. Up to six volunteers share bunks in the house. The house/school manager resides in a small “studio” just behind the main house.

Living Room of Give a Heart to Africa House in Moshi, Tanzania, Africa, Travel Voluntourism | The Girl Next Door is Black
The Living Room

I didn’t have a roommate until A_ arrived in week two, declaring to me within the first hour we met:

I usually don’t like Americans, but you seem cool. Perhaps because you travel and you don’t have that annoying American accent?

She shuddered.

“Uh, thanks?”

A_ is half Arab/half Polish with a mostly Australian accent. She’s striking; a girl the boy’s flock to. She has long, dark, wavy hair; large green eyes, and a willowy figure. She’s 21, a student at a private university in London, and full of energy enough to power a Prius.

We roomed together my remaining two weeks, the first few days of which, she quizzed me about my life:

“Where are you from?

“What’s your family like?”

“What are your plans here?”

“What have you done so far?  How do you like it?”

“How old are you? You look really young!”

“Do you work? What do you do?”

“Don’t you hate when men aren’t straight up and play games with you?”

She is inquisitive, to say the least. I have never met anyone like her.

George, at Peponi Beach Resort

George slept across the hall from us. He is a tall, lanky, but athletic, 25-year old from South Carolina with perfectly straight white teeth, boyishly cut brown hair and a slight Southern drawl. He speaks with a booming voice, is gregarious and innocently straightforward. He has enough energy to power a dam. I met him my first night in Moshi when he invited me to join the other volunteers on a safari the next day. He has an amazing knowledge of geography and will share random facts with you such as:

“For each 15 degrees in longitude, the time zone changes by 1 hour,” (or something like that).

He also seems to have memorized the entire catalog of country songs that charted between 1990 and 1999. Over the three weeks I was in the house, I heard him sing country songs to himself, to the students (which helped them learn English) and to the other volunteers. He is pure entertainment and a sweetheart.

Next door is Ka__ and Je_ a mother / son duo from Northern California. Ka_ is German/Dutch and of an age where a lady doesn’t tell. She’s blond and her German-accented English is endearing and pairs well with her welcoming attitude. 22-year old Je_ is tall, slim and would probably make a fantastic fashion model. He’s super chill, though some tough life experiences have left him a bit hardened. He’s very easy to talk to and shares my sense of fun. We became fast friends and he’s my buddy for most of my stay in Tanzania.

Cockroaches live in the house too. I don’t like cockroaches. They are disgusting scum of the earth that refuse to die, live in people’s homes without paying rent or at least washing dishes and the ones in Texas even have the nerve to fly around flaunting their filth.  While I sneer at them and smother them in bug spray, my roommate screams and runs away in fear, as though they will morph into an aliens with giant tentacles and chase her around the house. I feel like her protector.

Dining Room in Moshi, Tanzania House | Give a Heart to Africa House | The Girl Next Door is Black
The Dining Room

AT “HOME”

The weekday housekeeper, Me___, is a former GHTA student in her 40s. She’s feisty, takes her job very seriously and is determined to teach the volunteers Swahili one phrase at a time:

“Good morning, Me___.”

“No. Habari za asabuhi, Me___!”

She will wash your clothes for what amounts to US$.13 a shirt and $.18 for pants. Between teaching every morning – during which the sun bakes the non-a/c’d classrooms, playing soccer with the local kids who visit twice a week,  my daily “beauty regimen” of sunscreen and mosquito repellent, and hot, dusty 20-minute walks into town, I had plenty of clothing for her to wash. She’s a clothing ninja. We leave our shoes on the patio to avoid tracking dirt in the house. One morning I walked outside to find my flip-flops missing. Another volunteer, noticing my confusion, asked “Are you looking for your shoes?”

I nodded.

“Me___  washed them for you.” This would be a regular occurrence.  If Me___ noticed a speck of dirt on my sneakers, she’d clean them. I’d feel bad because the next day I’d walk into town and come back with dust-covered shoes. She’d just wash them again. I overpaid her purposely.

Ugali, photo by Bacardi on flickr.com | Tanzanian Cuisine, Tanzanian food | The Girl Next Door is Black
Ugali Photo cr: Bacardi, flickr.com
MEALTIME

We also have a cook, another former student turned employee, who prepares dinner Sunday through Friday nights. She is very sweet and sings songs in Swahili while she cooks. The menu, posted on the fridge, rotates every two weeks. Dishes vary; sometimes it’s Tanzanian cuisine like chapati, ugali, mchicha (myummy!) and pillau. Other days we have meals based on recipes provided by former volunteers, such as: zucchini fritters, pasta with sauce, and chili. We usually eat dinner together every night except Friday and Saturday when many volunteers go away for weekend excursions. Having dinner together each night gives us a great opportunity to discuss our days, get to know each other better and form a semblance of a family.

I THOUGHT COLD SHOWERS WERE FOR TEENAGE BOYS
cold shower
photo by stevendepolo, flickr.com

The house has two bathrooms. One is in George’s room, the other we share between the other two bedrooms. The first week and a half of my stay the water in the shower was freezing cold and no one could figure out why. There are two buttons to press to activate the water heater before showering, but they damn sure weren’t heating the water. For over a week I took cold showers: shivering, speed cleaning and all the while trying to imagine I was in a sauna (it sorta worked). Eventually a technician fixed the issue. I’m not sure what he did, but we went from ice-cold showers to burn-the-skin-right-off-your-body steams. Given the option of cold or hot water to bathe in, I choose hot. It also gave me the opportunity to teach the students a new English vocabulary word: scalding.

TURN ON THE LIGHTS
Scrabble Board | The Girl Next Door is Black | Games to Play
Photo cr: martinak15, flickr.com

Electricity in  Tanzania is a problem. Depending on who you ask you’ll hear that it’s either because they’re short 900MW, or the government is corrupt and makes deals with sketchy electric companies. Either way, from time to time the electricity goes out without warning. I experienced this my first night in Moshi when I arrived to a pitch black house. The power went out for more than a few hours at least three more times while I was there. On one such night, only A___, George, and I were in the house. The lights flickered out in the middle of dinner. A__ became slightly panicked:

“What if the cockroaches start coming out now because it’s dark?  What are we going to do? I can’t take it!Why are they heeeeeere?!”

We grabbed lanterns, candles, and flashlights. A___ refused to make a move without George’s accompaniment in case a bug needed putting to death. 

What to do at 7pm with the lights out? Go to bed? Too early. Read? Too dark. Talk…to…each other? We talk a lot as is. Play a game? Play a game! The house had playing cards and board games.

None of us could remember the rules to any of the card games we knew, and without Google to help jog our memories, card games were out. We decided to Scrabble. We played Scrabble by candle and lantern light. A___ won and I came in second. I blame the poor view of my letter tiles for my loss. I am just a tad competitive.

Scrabble by candlelight makes for a good bonding experience.

IN CONVERSATION

DO YOU HAVE JUSTIN BIEBER IN AMERICA?
Training Day Poster, photo by jb2.0 flickr.com | Tanzania Voluntourism | The Girl Next Door is Black
Training Day, photo by jb2.0 on flickr.com

One of the non-live-in volunteers is a local, Pr_. Pr_ is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and so laid back I’m surprised he doesn’t walk in constant recline. He and I had a fun conversation after dinner one evening. He shared with me:

“We really like some American music here! We like Jay-Z, Rihanna, Beyonce (pronounced without the inflection on the final ‘e’), Ne-Yo, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, 50-cent, Keyshia Cole…”

I informed him that Keyshia Cole spells her first name wrong (but I’m biased), Rihanna is actually from Barbados and Nicki Minaj from Trinidad, which he found surprising. He asked:

Do you have Justin Bieber in America?

I laughed – hard – and told him that we very much have the Canadian Bieber in “America,” much to the dismay of many of us.

Jay-Z came to Tanzania (Dar Es Salaam) a couple of years ago (with Beyonce in tow) and tickets cost about $20-$30. When you consider how little some people make in Tanzania – some as little as US$1 / day – it’s a huge investment to see these performers, but people are such fans that they do it.

Later, as we watched Training DayPr___ asked:

Is it true that Americans are quick to shoot each other with guns?

In TZ knives and machetes are much more prevalent than guns.

It’s a shame that one of the images of Americanism that we export to other countries, is that of US Americans as trigger-happy, homicidal asshats.

ARE YOU VOTING FOR OBAMA?
Inauguration Day 2009, President Barack Obama, L.A. Live Plaza | The Girl Next Door is Black
Inauguration Day 2009

I had hoped to escape thinking about or discussing the inane 2012 Presidential election on my trip, but there is no getting away from talking about American politics even on the other side of the planet. Quite a few times in TZ, when I mention I am American, the response is a wide-eyed variation of, “Oh, Obama!”, “He’s our ‘brother'” or “Yes we can!” POTUS has quite a few fans in TZ.

I get drawn into discussions about everything from the state of the US economy, to why some Americans are so against universal healthcare, to gay marriage, and to the horrid racism directed at President Obama and The First Lady. Once the topic of racism surfaced, Je__ shared some of his less than stellar experiences living as a biracial, young man in North Carolina. A__, my non-American-loving roommate, couldn’t believe her ears. But, that’s racism: it’s so asinine and absurd that it’s almost unbelievable if you don’t see / hear the incidents for yourself.

COUNTRY RAP

We took turns volunteering to wash the dishes after lunch and dinner each day. Often when George volunteered, his dishwashing time would turn into an American Idol audition with him belting out country songs. Once, I volunteered to dry while he washed. It thrilled him to learn that I like to listen to country music sometimes. I requested he sing a George Strait song from the 90s. He obliged, singing “Blue Clear Sky“, and followed it up with another song, aaaand another song, while A___ and I grinned and tried to sing along. I’m sure the neighbors could hear him since he was loud enough to out cock-a-doodle-doo the rooster with the death wish.

Once the dishes were done (man), we moved karaoke night into the living room and he went on a tear. He told us about country rap and one of his favorite country rap artists Cowboy Troy. I’ve never heard of this dude.

Not only did George sing for us, he rapped. Imagine a really tall, lanky, “aw shucks” white guy loudly singing a country song with a twang and suddenly busting out into a rap that includes the lyrics:

What’s-your-name is; now don’t be scared.
Get on the dance floor, girl, you heard:
Hands on your knees, arch that back.
Shake that podunk a dunk an’ make it flat.

Mic drop. It was awesome.

Tanzania: Weekend with Warriors – Visit to a Maasai Village

14 min read

At the volunteer house in Moshi we have 24-hour security. While Tanzania is one of the safer countries in Africa, due to the severe income disparity, some people become desperate and there has been some crime. Most who can afford it have large, heavy, secured gates for their homes with a security system and some, like Give a Heart to Africa, have watchmen. We have watchmen who rotate shifts each day. One of our watchmen, Edward, is a Maasai warrior. Given Edward’s soft-spoken voice and calm demeanor he is not someone I’d immediately peg as a warrior, but given he has made it through the warrior rites-of-passage, I’m sure the ninja comes out when needed. He has a side business taking visitors on tours of his village. Je_, a fellow volunteer, and I joined him on my third weekend in Tanzania.

Day 1

Our trip began with a 1.5-hour bus ride to Arusha. After my worst bus experience ever, the previous weekend, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to another, but this was blissfully short. We then took a 1-hour dala dala ride (always overcrowded) to Monduli and stopped at a local restaurant to eat and pick up alcohol (you know, the essentials). Two of Edward’s brothers joined us for a lunch of soup made with an oily broth, chunks of questionable meat and potatoes. Edward told Je_ and I that if we ate the soup, we’d be considered strong. Je_ was not having it. He tried the soup, made a face and pushed it away. The waitress told Edward in Swahili, that she didn’t understand why Je_ didn’t want the food and that her feelings were hurt. My soup hadn’t come yet, so I took his soup and the strength challenge. I have no interest in proving how tough I am by putting myself through a torturous Mt. Kilimanjaro climb, but a small food challenge I can accept, leaving Je_ to eat his chapati. With some salt, the soup was actually quite tasty. Edward not-so-subtly peer pressured me to finish it, as I was content to try only a few spoonfuls, so I did. After a few hours, I had no ill-effects from the soup, so I can officially say: I am strong.

Monduli Juu
Monduli Juu

After lunch we took the final short leg of our trip on individual boda bodas, small motorbikes used for transport, until we arrived in Monduli Juu, a Maasai village. Monduli is in the same area as many of the famous safari parks, so the landscape and fauna is very much the same: high and low plains for miles, lions, elephants and other wild animals.

Edward gave us a quick rundown of Maasai greetings, which I quickly forgot and thus stared blankly at people when they greeted me, my mind filtering through all the words I know in various languages for “hello”, “nice to meet you” and “how are your goats?” Thankfully, everyone we encountered was patient and amused by my attempts to speak or not speak. We entered a small boma and met more of Edward’s family, including his mother, a tall, imposing-looking woman whose favor I immediately wanted to win. I like for mothers to like me. She welcomed and invited us, in Maa, to make ourselves at home and to feel like their home is our home. His family has several bomas: small huts made of clay and straw. Edward told us that the men generally create the framework of the boma and the women fill in the interior walls and floor with packed clay. Basically, the women do much of the work. I smiled smugly when he said this. Yay, women. We be building things. They have quite a bit of land on which they farm beans and maize, as well as tend to goats, chickens and donkeys.

Edward took us on a tour of the village where we ran into many children who lowered their heads in deference to their elders,

Passing out candy to the local children, at Edward’s suggestion. They loved it and would later follow me around the village asking “Pipi” (candy)?

including Je_ and me, and we laid a hand on their head. I’m glad there was a finite number of children or else we never would have made it more than a few feet. There is no waving a quick hello and goodbye in a Maasai village. There are formalities which must be respected. Edward ran into an older woman on a walk the following day and they had a long conversation in Maa. When we asked him what they talked about he told us they spent about 10-minutes greeting each other:

Edward: “Hello, my elder.”

Maasai Elder Woman: “Hi, young warrior.”

Edward: “How is your family? Mine is well.”

Maasai Elder Woman: “All is well. We are healthy. My children are great. And your animals?”

Edward: “Our goats are well, our donkeys are strong, life is good.”

And so on and so forth. I do not think their conversation actually contained more than casual inquiries about the well-being of themselves and their families.

Beans and corn for lunch
Serendipitously, we arrived in Monduli Juu the weekend they were celebrating a wedding, as well as the transition of several junior warrior males into full-fledged Maasai warriors. While we were not allowed to see the actual transition ceremonies since we aren’t Maasai, we did get to view the afterparty. But, first we ate. Edward’s mother served us a jug of hot milk from one of their many goats. This was Je_’s nightmare as he doesn’t drink milk due to traumatic childhood experiences (don’t ask). But, when Edward’s mother wants you to drink or eat something, you do it. He was a good sport and tried it. The milk was great: fresh and not too fatty. Some of the best milk I’ve had in a long time.

We next walked a couple of miles to another boma where we were served a warm dish of beans and maize blended together. We asked Edward whose home we were in and he told us he didn’t know. Now those are some good neighbors. If I wandered into some strange person’s home in Los Angeles and brought an entourage with me, they would not be serving me food, they’d be calling the cops. A few other Maasai men joined us for lunch, looked at Je_ and me curiously, asked Edward a few questions about us and then chatted among themselves while they ate. Je_ has an ear stud in his left ear and they asked Edward why. I was also later asked by an elderly Maasai man why I was wearing my silver hoop earrings. I’m not sure who is and is not supposed to be wearing earrings in the village.

After we ate and I stalked a baby goat for a while (so cute), we heard the roar of the celebrating Maasai men heading up the hill. The newly transitioned warriors had colored their hair a burnt orange shade and they led us into a room where the Maasai women gave them their new warrior names. After, everyone celebrated with song and dance. The singing involved lots of calls and repeats and loud whooping. The men stood in a circle surrounding tween- and teen-aged Maasai girls wearing ornate neck jewelry. As this was going on, Je_ and Edward pulled out the  small bottles of Smirnoff vodka they’d purchased in town. Edward usually only drinks beer, but to keep up with Je_ he bought a bottle of vodka. He and Je_ took capful-sized shots together after which Edward declared, “I will fall down if I drink too much!” I took a couple of shots, as well. Our shot-taking generated much interest from the surrounding warriors. A few meandered over to try. One particularly cheerful Maasai, Baraka (“like the President!” he said), took a capful and exclaimed, “Ow, ow, ow,” then took another shot. He smiled giddily

Marching Maasai warriors

and continued, “Ow, it kills me. Ow. I have never had this Suh-mer-noff-ee before. I want to dance now,” and wandered off to join the dance circle. Another particularly stoic man poured himself a shotful and a half in a mug, drank the whole thing straight, grunted and stared ahead, showing absolutely no emotion. Should there be an increase in Smirnoff purchases by Maasai, the Smirnoff company should feel free to send Edward, Je_ and I royalties.

Edward introduced us to more of his family. He seems to have a billion cousins. I couldn’t tell if they were cousins he was actually related to or cousins in name only. In any case, they were all very friendly and welcoming and fascinated by me and Je_. We were asked many times where we’re from and met with looks of confusion when we said we’re American. “Where is your father from?” They’d ask. I’d say he’s American too. “What about your grandfather?” Still American. I could see it did not compute. One elderly man, upon being told I’m American, said to me in Maa, “Can I send my daughter with you to become American?” Um…I’m not sure it works that way. He also invited me to his home and offered to slaughter a goat for me. Well, that’s a first. I think I will now demand that friend’s slaughter animals for our dinner if they invite me to dine at their homes. Another warrior in English, “Do you like Obama? I like Obama. His father is from Kenya. He is my ‘brother’.” Several people also inquired whether Je_ and I were married or together. We didn’t really need to understand Maa or Swahili to figure that out.

I also met Emmanuel, one of Edward’s cousins who I think is actually a cousin. He became my unofficial guide for the ceremony, explaining to me in detail all that was going on. His English was very good. He asked if I wanted to join the girls in the center of the circle. I looked at him like he was crazy. After a bit of cajoling from him and Edward I relented. When in a

Attempting to dance
Attempting to dance like a Maasai girl

Maasai village, do as… He had his sister lend me her neck jewelry and walked me into the circle, holding my hand. I was ridiculously self-conscious. With my long hair, eyebrow piercing and Western clothing, I was clearly not one of them. Almost all eyes were on me. Emmanuel showed me how to do the female dance, different from the dance the males were doing. If ever there was a time I felt less black and shamefully unable to dance, that was it. We were to dance up to one of the boys, say something prescribed and dance back to the center of the circle. The little girls giggled at me and some just stared at me with wonderment. Emmanuel then said that he’d let go of my hand and let me approach a male on my own. I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on when I approached a male. I feared I would somehow be offering myself up for marriage, so I again looked at him like he was insane and told him it was time for me to go back to being non-Maasai.

The ceremony lasted for a few hours and at nightfall, we walked a few miles back to Edward’s family’s bomas. For dinner, his mother made us a tasty stew and huge bowls of rice, which I could not finish. But, I think it’s fair that someone my size not eat the same amount as men much larger than I, several of whom are warriors.

That night I slept in my own boma, which belonged to one of Edward’s brother. I slept on a twin bed covered by a blanket I’d brought, using a pillow I’d brought and wearing my heavy hoodie as the temperature decreased dramatically at night. During the night I was serenaded by a bleating baby goat who I think got into a crazy fight with a chicken. I heard what sounded like a baby crying, a cat hissing and scrapping. Then a donkey joined in with loud braying. It was animals gone wild out there. In the middle of the night, I awoke to nature’s call – not a donkey or a rooster – the other kind. My only option was an outhouse with a hole in the floor for a toilet. I wasn’t so much bothered by the potty’s form as I was getting out of my warm bed, braving the dark with my nearly useless flashlight in the pitch black and possibly walking in to find god knows what kind of animal had beat me to the bathroom. I debated internally for a good half hour about what to do. Could I hold it ’til morning? Eventually, my body won out and I had to go. Thankfully, the 20-foot adventure was uneventful. No lions or elephants attacked me on the way, no one walked in on me; all was well.

Day 2

I awoke to Edward banging on my door to wake me up. It was 7:30am. Bitch, it is 7:30am! But, we had to get an early start. I stumbled out of the boma to head to the bathroom in the light of day and encountered Edward, Je_ and two of Edward’s brothers sitting around a fire. My hair was disheveled, my makeup smeared, stank ass breath and I’m sure my eyes were puffy. In short: I looked a hot mess, but hello gentleman. I quickly scampered away, took care of business and snuck back into the boma to dress. I brushed my teeth using the toothpaste, toothbrush and bottled water I’d brought as there wasn’t any running water.

Edward’s mother had already awoken bright and early to milk the goats, so I missed out on that. But, I did get to watch

Local medicine
Local medicine

Edward’s little brother make their local medicine. The Maasai use their natural resources including tree bark and plant roots to make medicine to prevent and cure ails for everything from headaches, to stomach-aches to malaria. Edward swears they rarely get malaria. Je_ and I tried a little bit, but were advised not to drink too much since we were already taking malaria pills. It tasted like Tylenol crushed and mixed with water. But, I’m all for natural medicine. They drink a cup full once a week and swear by it.

For breakfast we were served more hot goat’s milk – much to Je_’s dismay, this time he refused to drink it and was joined in by Edward’s little brother who also doesn’t like milk – and sliced white bread. Edward’s mother was kind enough to make hot tea without milk for Je_. I asked Edward how they make the tea and he replied, “We buy it at the market in town now.” Haha. I guess not everything is natural.

After breakfast, I got to try herding goats. Baraka joined us and told us, “I like that drink from yesterday. It made me dance more. Then I went to my home and I fell asleep.” Je_ and I nearly died laughing at Baraka’s glee that he passed out from two capfuls of vodka. We bid him farewell and I thanked him in Maa for spending time with us. He warned me, “Oh, be careful. If you speak Maasai too good, we will steal you and make you Maasai woman.”

We then headed into another part of the village to visit the weekly Maasai market. At the market, local Maasai sell goats, chicken and donkeys for the farm and chickens and goats for eating. They also sell handmade jewelry, fabric for the shukas they wear and other household wares. Edward told me that a healthy goat can sell for 30 to 60,000 Tanzanian shillings which is about US $19 – $38 per goat. For that kind of money, I could have my own farm. I joked that I would like to buy a few, but I didn’t think I’d be able to carry them on the plane with me. As we walked over to another part of the market, we saw goats being put down to be sold for their meat and hides. I didn’t want to watch. It was hard for me to watch the same cute goats I’d seen, be killed for food. But, I’m a meat eater and I know it’s important to identify the meat we eat with the methods used

I hope you're not squeamish: goats being cleaned for cooking.
I hope you’re not squeamish: goats being cleaned for cooking.

to procure it. So, I forced myself to watch (and Edward goaded me into watching anyhow; I told him that he seemed to enjoy torturing me). Meanwhile, Je_ was videotaping the killing from the cut at the jugular to the draining of blood. I told him he was sadistic.

Edward asked us what part of the goat we’d like to eat. We told him and he purchased a goat. We watched as our goat was skinned and the intestines emptied. I still cannot get the imagery out of my head. A doctor checked each goat to make sure they were healthy and okay for human consumption. The discards were thrown into a pit for stray dogs to eat, which they did, with relish. Ugh. We ended up with the goat’s liver, not my choice, because the goat “preparer” (what do you call someone who skins and cleans goats?) suggested we eat it first. Liver of any animal is not my favorite. I even turn my nose up at foie gras and I’ve tried it in many forms. But, again, when in a Maasai village…Edward pulled out his well-hidden knife from under his shuka and his brother chopped the cooked liver up into chunks. We ate it with salt and a mixed salad made up of avocado, tomatoes and cucumbers and pepper. It was…livery, but I must say tasted pretty fresh.

After our goat meal, we walked around the market a bit, Je_ and I purchased shuka’s from one of Edward’s brothers, said goodbye to Edward’s little brother and liver-cutter, and then we headed back to Moshi, the same way we came.

I truly have never met a more welcoming group of people. Whey they said to feel at home, to feel like while there I should feel as comfortable as I do in Los Angeles, I believe they truly meant it. I appreciate them opening up their homes to us and sharing cultural moments with us.

Tanzania: A Weekend in Paradise – Pangani

6 min read

My first full week in Tanzania was a busy one. After a great weekend safari in Tarangire and Ngorongoro Crater, my body told me it needed a break, in the form of a cold. After 20 hours of flying and airport hijinks , I’d only slept 13 hours in 72 and my body wasn’t having it. I spent most of the week battling fatigue, congestion, a sexy-sounding mucus-y cough and a sore throat. Between co-teaching two English grammar courses, spending a hot afternoon walking around rural Moshi recruiting students for the next school session, and just generally trying to get my bearings in a new country, I was exhausted and ready for some relaxation.

Three other volunteers and I (George, Je_, and Ka_) planned a trip to Pangani, just outside Tanga for the weekend. There are very few ways to get to Tanga from Moshi and the most common means of transport is by bus. The bus ride was brutal. I thought an 8-hour ride on a Greyhound bus from Los Angeles to Las Vegas next to a malodorous person who appears not to bathe is bad. This was far worse. It should only take 4-hours to drive from Moshi to Tanga. Our bus ride expanded to a hellish 8-hour ordeal where the following occurred:

  1. We learned that in Tanzania, there is no such thing as a full vehicle. The bus operators will let as many people on a bus as possible, packing people in like sardines. People stand in the aisles, including women holding babies in brightly colored slings and men with pungent body odor who end up face-elbowing those unlucky enough to have aisles seats and there are random seats hidden all over the bus. If they could put seats on the bus roof, I’m sure they would.
  2. The bus stopped frequently. It seemed that every 10 feet was a bus stop. Why person at point A couldn’t walk the 10-feet to point B, I have no idea, but I will say that after 8-hours of this it got on my damn nerves. The bus also transported cargo, so even if no human was boarding and disembarking, the bus would stop to deliver large packages of food. We were even lucky enough to be on a bus that had a mechanical issue: adding a 40-minute delay to our ride.
  3. Each time the bus stopped, a rush of street vendors appeared at passenger windows to offer goods for sale: mostly a bunch of junk food and beverages, but at times fake watches, wallets and loaves of bread. Is it a common occurrence for people to crave loaves of bread, a fake-ass set of Beats by Dre headphones and a tomato? These roadside sellers were persistent too, banging on passenger windows, tantalizingly waving their products and not taking “no” for an answer. By the tenth stop, I was through being polite. “No, hapana, non, no, nyet, I do not want!”
  4. People throw trash out of their windows on the side of the road. As an American who’s had the “Don’t Litter!” admonition ingrained in my brain since I started toddling, I have a Tourettes-like reaction to seeing others litter. I calmly, repeatedly reminded myself that it was a different culture as I watched someone toss a cookie wrapper out the window, spoiling the beauty of the surroundings. Even still, when the gentleman in the seat in front of me steadily tossed his orange peels out of the window, I almost had an aneurysm.
  5. Listening tomuzak playing on the speaker system (90s era Celine Dion and Michael Bolton, kill me now) did not quash my homicidal feelings. To the lady with the baby seated behind me: I am sorry your baby didn’t like wind blowing in his face, but that bus was a furnace where body odors go to fester and radiate. It takes a village to raise a child: hand your baby to someone else (people were regularly doing this) and leave me and my open window alone!

    The scenery on the drive to Tanga is gorgeous. The Usambara mountains are in the background.

When we finally arrived in Tanga, a harried 8-hours later, we had to endure the jockeying of taxi drivers. The minute one puts a foot on the bus step to descend, at least four men approach you to strongly encourage you to choose their taxi over the shady guy next to him. Some  even come to blows over potential customers. “Sista, sista, dada, taxi! Taxi!” We still had more traveling to do as it’s a 45-minute ride to Pangani from Tanga. One driver offered to take us in his tuk-tuk and another taxi-driver shut him down for that nonsense. Four people, including two men, and our bags, were not going to fit in a tiny tuk-tuk. We finally chose a driver who seemed the least likely to rob us and make us the subject of a “when travelling goes wrong” documentary. Other than our taxi driver stopping during the ride to pee on the side of the road, being stopped by roadside police (who thankfully weren’t corrupt) and being forced to listen to Akon’s annoyingly high-pitched “my jublies are in a vice grip” voice on the radio, the taxi ride was uneventful.

It was clear when we arrived at Peponi (which translates to ‘paradise’ in Swahili) Beach Resort, that the distressing bus ride was worth it. The place is gorgeous with Bougainvillea , mangroves, palm trees dotting the grounds and a view of the Indian Ocean only a few feet away from the bandas and campsites. We later discovered cute monkeys, a few resident cats, mongoose, crabs and turtles.

Inside our banda at Peponi Beach Resort. The mosquito nets doubled as a canopy during the day.

The grounds were beautiful and the banda adorable, but we were ridiculously excited about the prospect of taking a hot shower. The shower most of us shared at the volunteer house didn’t want to give us hot water, so we’d spent days taking cold showers. We had a window from 5:30pm – 8pm for a hot shower. Hot showers are bliss.

After dinner (whole crab, yum!) we walked on the beach that night. It was low tide and we walked on the sand that just earlier had been completely submerged in ocean water from the Pemba Channel as the moon shone brightly on the water. Amazing doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Ready to enjoy my first meal of seafood in Tanzania and drinking a glass of Tusker (or ‘tasca’ as it sounds when said with a Tanzanian accent), a Kenyan beer.

We arose early the next morning for our dhow snorkeling trip. The water was definitely not as clear as say, the Pacific Ocean near Costa Rica, but it was still a great time. Our foursome was joined on the dhow by a young couple from Amsterdam and an older couple from Toronto. While snorkeling we saw massive coral reef and a few colorful fish. I also had the pleasant experience of getting seasick for the first time and upchucked in the ocean. That shouldn’t destroy the sea life right? It’s all organic ingredients. It also rained heavily for about 10-minutes, sending us all underneath a tarp our dhow crew set up.

The dhow on which we sailed to sand island. Our captain is chilling on the boat. It’s got to be a great job.

The weekend in Pangani was incredibly relaxing. I loved being in the water despite the number it did on my stomach. We all bonded even more while trading life stories, meeting a few new people and enjoying beers and wine. The calm I experienced helped temper my irritation on the bus ride back, which blessfully only took 5 1/2 hours.

A Tanzanian Safari in Ngorongoro Crater

3 min read

Ngorongoro Crater Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
Ngorongoro Crater

Our safari trip began the day before with a visit to Tarangire National Park, home of Ngorongoro Crater. As our safari guide informed us, “crater” is actually a misnomer as there are living creatures residing in the area, which is an active volcano. After a unique breakfast, we started exploring the park.

Lake in Ngorongoro Crater Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
A lake within Nrgorongoro Crater. There are rhinos in the water. They were quite vocal and sounded angry. It was a little disturbing being so close to animals that are prone to charging and trampling other animals, humans included, but we made it out without incident.

 

The crater is pretty impressive. There are tens of thousands of animals living there along with Maasai who reside in huts and tend to their cattle and other animals.

Zebra Buddies Ngorogoro Crater Tanzania Safari | The Girl Next Door is Black
Zebra Buddies
Line of Safari Jeeps Ngorogoro Crater Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
Line of jeeps awaiting the lions

All weekend, we’d been hoping to see a lion in action. Even I, the animal lover, joked impatiently,

Is it too much to ask that I see a murder while I’m here? I don’t think these lions understand just how far I’ve traveled to see them. Work with me here!

After a few hours in the park, we spotted a line of safari trucks pulled over on the side of the road: almost always a sign that there’s something to see nearby. Sure enough, our guide slowly pointed out one, then two, then four, then seven(!) camouflaged lions. Their target: a poor lone gazelle. Once I realized what might actually transpire, I knew I didn’t want to see the gazelle lose the fight between prey and predator.

We all watched intently, eyes darting between the lion and the gazelle, and spoke in hushed tones. Well, almost all of us. G_ said loudly, with his Southern drawl, “Hey lion. Come to papa!” and laughed heartily. We all shushed him, including the party in the safari van next to us. No one wanted to spook the lions. We are not interested in being lion chow!

It seemed the lions enjoyed torturing their prey with fear; the gazelle seemed to be weighing its options. Finally, the gazelle made a decision and we watched as it hightailed it away from the lions, followed hilariously by two tubby warthogs. The strategically positioned lions, did not give chase. Instead, they rose slowly en masse and ambled toward the safari trucks.

Eek!

Lion pride in Ngorogoro Crater Tanzania
Very intimidating!

We watched as they hulkingly rumbled toward us. In the truck, J___ teased me, “You wanted to see some action. Your window’s open, one of those lions could reach in here.” I quickly closed my window and soon after, a lion strolled right by my window, less than 5-feet away from me. This is one of the coolest moments I’ve ever experienced.

Lions in Ngorogoro Crater Tanzania Safari | The Girl Next Door is Black
The lions had had enough of the tourists and moved on, abandoning their targets. The lions moved in between our safari truck and another, within spitting distance of me. I promptly closed my window when I realized just how close they were.

After the exciting safari, we returned to the lodge to eat. During lunch at the lodge, our Maasai guide, Zak, and our driver, Grayson, discussed the differences between their two tribes. In Maasai culture, it is okay to have more than one wife, who are sometimes paid for with cows and/or goats. Maasai men can “share” their wives with other Maasai men. This is not the custom is Grayson’s tribe, which practices monogamy.

Zak asked us what happens in the US if a man has more than one wife. He was beside himself with shock when we informed him that it’s call “bigamy” and it’s illegal. Same for Finland, M_ added. Additionally, prior to getting married, Maasai men must endure public circumcision during which they are not allowed to show pain, otherwise they are considered weak and unmanly. Their debate about tribal rituals was amusing. After digesting our last meal, we headed back “home” to begin another week of volunteering.

Group on Safari in Ngorogoro Crater Tanzania | The Girl Next Door is Black
Me and the other volunteers and our Maasai guide, Zak.

Tanzania: Safari – Tarangire National Park

5 min read

I arrived in Moshi on a Friday night after 18 hours of flying and my exciting visa adventure. I’m in Moshi to volunteer teach at a school geared toward female empowerment through education. Four volunteers were already in town when I arrived. I hadn’t gotten a chance to meet them when I arrived at the volunteer house as they’d all gone to the Serengeti fiesta and two of them were hungover. The party sounds epic: it was held in a stadium with at least 3000 attendees, including Maasai tribe members who seem to be quite popular.

The other volunteers planned a weekend safari trip including me and I got up early to join them. G_  is a very tall South Carolinian in his mid-20s, with boundless amounts of energy, a loud voice and an extremely inquisitive nature. In addition to G_, there is: M_ from Finland, also in his mid-20s,  and he’s definitely Finnish: tall, strapping, & broad. He has a deep voice and speaks slightly accented English. He also speaks French, Spanish and German.  K_ is a kind-looking blonde, half-German/half Dutch, but has been in the US for at least 20 years and her adult son, J_ is biracial: his father is a black American. He’s in his early 20s, slender with a swimmer’s build and seems chill. They live in Northern California. Everyone seems friendly. I just met these people 30 minutes prior and I’m going on a weekend trip with them. I hope they are sane. Our safari driver is Grayson and he is assisted by Zak, a Maasai, who dresses in traditional Maasai clothing. They are both very welcoming. We’ll be heading to Tarangire National Park and Ngorongoro Crater.

Our safari truck
Our safari truck

We all bonded quickly on the 3-hour drive to Tarangire. The volunteers have all traveled a lot and have fascinating stories to tell. G_ had just spent the past year and a half teaching English in Southwest China. M_ and I took a photo together on the way to the park and G_ declared, in his booming voice, “M_ and Keisha, our newest couple.” M_ is cute, so I had no objections and apparently he didn’t either as our whirlwind “relationship” became a running joke throughout the weekend.

TARANGIRE

Tarangire is the sixth largest national park in Tanzania. During the trek, we saw camouflaged lions lying in wait, salivating over zebras mingling with wildebeests; herds of elephants, antelope, beautifully-colored birds and giraffes.

Elephants in Tarangire National Park
Elephants in Tarangire National Park
Wildebeests
Wildebeests
Zebras
Zebras
Giraffes
Giraffes

We took a lunch break in the park. While eating we met a precocious young boy of about 10-years old, from Oman, named Hilal. He and G_ took a liking to each other right away with their very sociable personalities. Their conversation was highly amusing:

Hilal to G_: “Where are you from?”

G_: “The United States.”

Hilal in wonderment: “Oh man, the United States? I am dreaming!”

G_: “Where are you from?”

Hilal: “Oman.” G: “What’s Oman like?”

Hilal: “We have X-Box and Wii! And I’m getting a Playstation soon!”

Ah yes, all the important things for a young boy. We ran into him two more times on the safari. At the park exit, he and G_ exchanged email addresses so they can write to each other. Their fast friendship is adorable.

Safari Lunch
Safari Lunch

Later that evening we arrived at Haven Nature Lodge  in Lake Manyara where we stayed for the night. The camp has permanent tents and the tent I shared with K_ had two twin beds and an electric outlet which I immediately used to charge my dead electronics. Electricity can be hard to come by here.

At dinner we discussed politics. I was hoping to get away from talk of politics given the 2012 US Presidential election is driving me batty. Ah well. The conversation ran the gamut from my hatred of the state of Florida; heads of state of different countries; America’s obsession with race; colorism in different ethnic groups; capitalism vs. socialism and weed. We were all even-keeled and well-behaved and there were no tears, fights or name-calling. Yep, it is possible to talk politics and race and be civilized. Zak, one of our guides, innocently asked the Americans if bears eat people. He’s never seen one. He’s as fascinated by bears as we are the lions. We told him that bears are much like rhinos and elephants: they are large, intimidating and can hurt humans if they feel threatened, but generally do not care to eat us.

Nighttime performers

After dinner we were treated to a show around a bonfire by a local polygamist tribe. They sang a welcome song, “Jambo, Bwana”, and a few of us joined them in their song and dance. The song is catchy and fun. The tribe sang a few more songs and performed a couple of skits. Iwas moved to tears. I guess I was mourning the loss of a rich African culture that African-Americans had taken away from us.

After the show dispersed I made friendly with a few of the stragglers: two young women, Canadian Ky_, American V_ and an African man, B_ .  V_ had been in Tanzania for a month with a UN program. B_ runs a tour group in Tanzania. He enjoys taking tourists off-the-beaten path. He and V_ met on one of his tours and became fast friends. He took a few days break to join Ky_ and V_ on their adventures. Ky , who reminds me of Amanda Seyfried, had the opportunity to spend time with the Hadzabe tribe and said she wants to join them. B_ laughed at her comment and told her that perhaps she should learn the language first before joining. She’s comical and sweet. I asked B_ how he thinks it is that traditional tribes in Tanzania are able to maintain their culture without being influenced by Western culture. Ky_ chimed in that there is a tribe where up until a few years ago the women who used to go bare-breasted are now covering up and the men who wore loincloths now wear shorts. They’ve discovered modesty. It’s a difficult balance. It’s an engaging discussion, the type that makes traveling worth it. I bid them farewell after a while and told Ky_ that I look forward to seeing her on NatGeo in the Hadzabe tribe one day.

I intended to go to bed, but I spotted M_ and J_, my volunteer-mates, hanging out with a large group of British kids who were smoking non-cigarettes. Even in Africa… They rapped to Nicki Minaj with thick Liverpool accents and it was so hilarious I wanted to video it, but one of the kids was afraid I’d YouTube it (I don’t YouTube anything). They ask me if I like any British rap artists and were unimpressed when I can’t name it. They are young and nuts and I needed to go bed, so off I went after further unimpressing them by telling them I like Elton John.

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Adios California, Jambo Tanzania!

7 min read

The Departure

Knowing I’m leaving the country makes flying out of awful LAX more tolerable. I enjoy seeing the different colored passport covers in the security line. The family in front of me hold maroon passports and are speaking Italian. Another family nearby speaks in French. I spot a navy-blue American passport and see its American owner scratching his balls. Yeah, I see you dude.

On the plane, the pilot says something in English. Her Dutch accent is so thick, all I can hear are phlegmy-sounding words. I have no idea what she’s saying. As long as it isn’t: “The plane is crashing”, we should all be fine.

The 747 is giant with two levels. I’m seated in the middle section in a non-aisle seat and feel trapped. To my left is an older woman, with a heavy accent of unidentifiable origin. I would later notice she is flying to Tehran. She seems to know how to speak some English, but doesn’t appear to understand the English I speak. We are about to take off and a giant tote bag sits in her lap. The flight attendant asks her to put it underneath the seat. “I’m fine,” she says. The flight attendant laughs lightly, “It’s actually not fine. You have to put it underneath the seat.” “Thank you,” says the woman, “but, I am fine.” With mild frustration the flight attendant says, “No, you MUST put it underneath the seat.” The woman acquiesces, puts the tote at her feet and begrudgingly pushes it under the seat in front of her. As soon as the flight attendant walks away ,she uses her feet to inch the purse closer to her. I’m not usually a stickler for rules. But, I don’t mess around on airplanes. I’m not trying to die or be maimed. If there’s turbulence and that giant sack hits me in my face…. As we take off, the woman grasps a rosary.

On my left is an older Asian couple; they sound British. The male half of the couple looks at me as if he wants to say something. He gives me that curious, “I wonder if this person speaks English” look and perhaps decides I don’t as he closes his mouth before any words make it out.

Each seat is equipped with a private TV. The display is currently showing our flight path. It occurs to me as I look at the map, my eyes lighting up: “Holy fuck, I am going to Africa!” The screen displays the distance to Amsterdam, in kilometers, where I have a short layover. I don’t know what the hell a kilometer is. I have tried many, many times to learn the metric system, but my brain seems have a block when it comes to that particular information.

KLM’s service is excellent. The flight attendants are attentive and welcoming. They feed us so often it feels like I’m constantly eating. They even provide warm towels to wipe our hands between meals! The selection of free movies, recent and classic is not shabby. I watch American Reunion (it was alright), Safe House (meh), and Friends with Kids (I fell asleep toward the end and have no interest in picking it up from where I left it). United, American Airlines, Delta – please take note: this is service.

The Arrival

18 hours later I arrive at the Kilimanjaro airport. I am informed that Americans must purchase visas at the airport before exiting. The lines are long, but fast-moving. When I make my way to the window I am told the visa is US $100. I hand the agent my credit card. “We only accept cash,” she says. My eyes widen. I have US $20 on me. I’d intended to withdraw cash at LAX, but the terminal I was in wasn’t flush with Bank of America ATMs like others.

I tell the agent, “I don’t have any cash.” She stares at me briefly and then repeats, “You need cash,” and sends me over to her colleague. I am now his problem. He repeats, “You need cash.” I know, I know, I need cash, let’s move on from this. “What can I do?” I ask him. He tells me that I can leave my passport there and come back the next day with the cash. Is he kidding? Leave my passport?! Every international traveler knows you never part with your passport. But, I have no other option. I have to find the volunteer coordinator who is meeting me at the airport. She’ll know what to do.

I walk out of the immigration corral into the baggage claim area. Only passengers are allowed in the baggage claim. I walk by an older African woman who says “Hello” with a tone that sounds like a threat: “Hello, I will kill you with my eyes.” I am distracted and her greeting doesn’t immediately register with me, so I don’t return it. She says “Hello” with even more malice this time. I say “Hi” back and she gives me a look that seems to say, “Damn right you say hello!” I guess she works there?

I can feel tears starting to pool in my eyes. I feel the burning in my throat that accompanies a crying jag.

Do not cry, I will myself. Do not fucking cry! You are stronger than this and have been through much worse. It’ll work out. But, I have no passport and I can’t grab my luggage. Is this the beginning of some Locked up Abroad shit? My imagination is sometimes too active for my own good. Of all things, I think of The Amazing Race. Fans of the show speak of the “killer fatigue” that often strikes contestants, causing them to freak out over the smallest of things: “My hair is oily. I can’t speak the language! My life is over. We’re going to lose!!!”

I do not like the way murderous “hello” woman is looking at me. I ignore her and walk up to a kind-looking younger woman. I begin, “I…I…passport…I…” Oh god, I’m crying. “It’s okay,” she offers, “What’s wrong?” I am so thankful she speaks English. “Passport…no cash…(deep breath)…I don’t…he won’t give me my passport…” Stop crying and just spit it out! “Ok, who is meeting you?” she asks. “Volunteer…I’m…volunteering…I don’t know where she is!” She tells me, “Go find your friend and you can go drive to get cash and come back.” There is, of course, no ATM in the airport. How convenient.

I walk out of the baggage claim fearing that it’s the last time I’ll see my passport and luggage again. I scan the waiting crowd for a sign with my name. I see a petite woman with short, curly hair holding a sign with the name of the organization I’m volunteering with in African colors, green yellow and red, on a poster board shaped like the Continent. Thank God! Her name is V_. I learn later that she is from New Jersey. She sounds a bit like Bethenny Frankel.  Actually, she kind of looks like her too.

This is not the impression I want to make: “Hi, I’m the girl who said in her application that she travels a lot, doesn’t stress easily and goes with the flow. I am also an idiot who doesn’t have any cash, left her passport with a strange man in a foreign airport and cannot speak a full sentence without stopping to compose myself so I don’t cry.”  She assures me it’s okay. She has seen it all. One of the current volunteers didn’t realize he didn’t have any blank pages left in his passport when he attempted to cross into Tanzania from Kenya. He ended up stranded in Kenya for a week while he waited to get more pages. That makes me feel a little better. I apologize for being a hot mess. She says soothingly, “It’s okay. There’s no need to dwell on it. We’ll get you cash and come back.”

The cab driver is incredibly cooperative and drives 20 minutes away from the airport to the nearest ATM. It’s out of cash. Of course. Thankfully, the next ATM works. Cash obtained, we head back to the airport. On the way back to the airport, I learn that V_ lived in Madrid for 13 years and France for nine. She first volunteered with Give A Heart to Africa in 2010. She loved the experience so much she decided to take a year off and volunteer here full-time. I’m awed. 

Back at the airport, I again ignore the murderous “hello” woman and head back to the visa window. The man with my passport grins broadly at me and says, “I knew you’d be back tonight.” “Yes, I’m here! Thank you so much for being kind to me.” “You too,” he replies with a warm smile. He takes care of the paperwork and sends me over to get my photo taken. I smile and fix my hair for the picture and one of the women at the booth giggles at my primping. I don’t like not smiling in photos whether they are for visas or not. A young man hands me my visa, grins at me and declares triumphantly, “Welcome to Tanzania! It is a beautiful country. Maybe you will come back to stay one day!”

My bedroom in Moshi
My room in Moshi

The house where I’m staying is about 45-minutes from the airport. There is a heavily gated door with an electrified barbed wire fence atop it. A security guard is inside the gate for our protection. We arrive to a pitch black house. The power is out. I’d been warned that the power and hot water are spotty. The house is small, but comfortable. There’s a bunk bed in my room, but I will not have to share it just yet. A mosquito net drapes the bed like a canopy. V_ says to me, “This is your home for the next three weeks.” I like the sound of that. Welcome to Tanzania.

Mind the Gap – London, England

3 min read

2008 was a difficult year for me. I was recovering from the dissolution of a long-term relationship. By the start of 2009, I was over the weeping and moaning; the woe is me, I’ll never love again;  my heart has been ripped out of my chest mercilessly; men are vessels of evil; why God, why?; please can I be a lesbian? and more overly dramatic exclamations of post-breakup-life and ready to rejoin the world of the living. My friend Heidi had expatriated to London from Orange County a few years prior and kept encouraging me to visit her. I figured it was just what I needed. Since I was heading to Europe, I reasoned I should visit as many countries as I could while there. Within a 10-day span I planned to visit England, The Netherlands, Belgium and France.

By this point I’d seen almost everything Hugh Grant appeared in post-Four Weddings and a Funeral, including the way he charmed his way out of seeming like skeez for picking up a prostitute when he was a guest on Leno. Colin Firth had already swept Renee Zellwegger away in Bridget Jones’ Diary and Love Actually  was one of my favorite movies. Perhaps, I too, would meet a dashing young, worldly English bloke who would reaffirm my heterosexuality and sweep me off my American feet. I had high hopes.

When I arrived, Heidi had me meet her at her office in the heart of London’s West End. From one of the windows, I captured a great view of Piccadilly Circus, which is neither a cafeteria -style restaurant nor an exploitation of cute farm animals.

Piccadilly Circus
Sadly, I did not see any elephants

My first night in London, I:

      1. learned people take turns buying rounds of drinks for their friends. This caused me a bit of panic since based on the 2:1 exchange rate, I already envisioned having to eat out of the trash in Paris by the end of my trip. I would have to look up how to say in French, “Please sir, might you spare a few euros for a poor American Negress?” There were also at least 5 people in our party, including 2 tall men. No way could I drink as much as them. In 5 rounds I’d be on the floor.
Three Crowns Bar
We’re drinking on the street, popo!
      2. learned you can drink outside on the street, act a fool and put your empty glasses on the sidewalk and some kind angel will clean up after you.
      3. met an international DJ who claimed to have a third nipple. He didn’t. Sad.
          4. made the mistake of smiling at an older, swarthy gentleman who eyed me like a juicy rack of pork ribs. My imagination runs wild so I assumed he wanted to sell me into white, black slavery.
            5. was mean-mugged by a British Middle Eastern woman in a schwarma joint. Women mean-mug other women all around the world.
          6. The electrical currents mean business and will blow up your camera, forcing you to use your crappy blackberry to take photos the rest of you trip. (I apologize for the poor quality of the images I post henceforth.)

The next morning I began a long day of touring the city. I hopped on one of the double-decker tour busses London is known for and visited Buckingham Palace, The Clock Tower with Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and many other landmarks.

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A few other observations of London:

        • Londoners do not care how excited you are to be in London, so quit smiling at them you goofy American. Victoria Beckham isn’t the only Brit afraid to crack a smile.
        • Black Londoners do not participate in the same greeting traditions as American blacks: the head nod and unspoken acknowledgement that says, “Hey you’re black and I’m black! Sup?’ No one cares. They’ll think you have a weird head tic.
        • You and your heavy-ass luggage WILL be run down in the stairwell as others try to catch the tube. And that little baby in the pram is in their way too!
        • You’re lost? Sucks for you. Do not approach a random Londoner on the street to ask for help. You will be met with a look of puzzlement followed by a look of fear and a quick scurry away.
        • No one will join you in a juvenile giggle as this stop is announced on the tube: St. John’s Wood. Just me? Really? St. John’s WOOD?!

My first 24 hours in London were exhausting, educational and honestly, a little disappointing. I was off to the English countryside the next day. Perhaps someone would at least smirk, if not smile, at me there?

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What It’s Like to Breakfast with Jay-Z and Beyonce

5 min read

Downtown Houston
Downtown Houston

About 4 years ago, I was in Houston visiting the family. My younger sister N, suggested we breakfast at a cozy, vibrantly-decorated restaurant, known for their chicken and waffles, The Breakfast Klub,  It’s owned by a Kappa (as in Kappa Alpha Psi: a black frat; famous for cane stepping; if you don’t know, now you know), so everything normally spelled with a “c” is spelled with a “k”, such as the “katfish and grits” dish. Kute.

As we were enjoying our Texas-sized meal, my sister, facing the window to the outside world, said casually, “Oh look there’s Solange.”

“How do you know it’s Solange?”

She answered me as though I’d asked her why her skin was brown and the bottom of her feet weren’t (seriously, someone has asked me that): “It just looks like her. It’s obvious.”

A minute later, my sister’s eyes widened as large as one of those creepy big-eyed cat memes and with her voice lowered, said to me, “Ohhhh.My.GOD, Beyoncé is here!! That’s fucking Beyoncé right there! Ohmigod!”

Sure enough Ms. Bey was there in the much-sought-after flesh! The first thing I noticed was that Solange is much taller than Beyoncé and the resemblance between them is much more noticeable in person.

My sister and I returned to eating our meals (which were very good, by the way), with huge-ass grins of shock and amazement. We were laughed and giggled at each other in between sneaking glances at Beyonce. Like a couple of damn fools. When I glanced over toward the entrance again moments later, I couldn’t believe what I saw.

Barely able to contain myself, I whispered to my sister, “Girl, motherfreaking Jay-Z is standing right there! That is Jay-Z. Hova. Mr. Jigga. What?!”

Beyonce Jay-Z Celebrity Sighting | The Girl Next Door is Black
Bey & Jay
Photo cr: mp3waxx.com, flickr.com

“Girl, I know!” she whispered back. We quietly squealed, 12-years old again. There was Mr. “Best rapper alive” looking like he’d just dusted some dirt off his shoulders, wearing black aviator sunglasses and a plaid shirt, tall and intimidating, standing next to Beyoncé who looked less like a glamorous music princess and more like a normal girl. She didn’t seem to have much makeup on and her skin was really light. She was dressed  casually and appeared low-key, unlike her sister whom my sister commented, “walked in like she owned the place.” Little Blue Ivy Carter’s future momma looked like a girl next door. Only she looked like the kind of girl who is so hot you drive by her house just to see what she’s doing, ‘cause she’s so pretty she must be doing cool, hot people stuff, and you too must do this cool stuff. Not that I would ever do that.

I reached toward my purse to grab my cell phone to text my boyfriend at the time. He is a huge Jay-Z fan. Jay-Z could do no wrong in his eyes. If Jay-Z rapped, “Rub-a-dub-dub, a thug in a tub,” guess who’d be taking bubble baths? Just as I made contact with my phone, a stocky man approached me, put his hand on my shoulder (I don’t know you like that!), startled me and said with a terse voice, “If you’re thinking about taking out your camera to take a picture, please don’t. “They” asked me to make sure no one takes pictures.” Say what now? The phone wasn’t even in my hands. I told him, “I was just reaching for my phone to send a text message.” He gave me a knowing look, a look that said, “Girl, stop” and responded, “Ok, I’m just sayin…,” and walked away. I think the life of my first-born was just threatened telepathically. It’s likely he was the owner of the restaurant based on the way he kept buzzing around, inspecting the restaurant, protecting the prized customers. No sense in crossing him.

Jay, Bey, Solange, Solange’s son (a cute little thing with curly hair) and a man we didn’t recognize, were seated two tables behind my sister. Jay-Z sat next to Beyoncé, facing me. This kind of freaked me out. He had on those sunglasses looking all stealth and I couldn’t tell if he could see me sneaking glances at them. I don’t mess with a man who raps: “I’ve got ‘99 Problems‘ but a bitch ain’t one.” Beyoncé was adorable as she fed and entertained her nephew, seated next to her in a high chair.

The Breakfast Klub Houston Beyonce JayZ sighting
“Working Breakfast” at The Breakfast Klub

Photo cr: Ed T, flickr.com

To my left on a slightly raised platform, sat two body guards in suits, the overlords, scanning the restaurant for potential danger to their clients. Don’t look at me. I don’t know nothing ‘bout no trouble. Whereas everyone else – the peons – had to order their food at the cash register, Jay, Bey and the bodyguards received direct service. The bodyguards ordered fried chicken; I have no idea what Beyoncé & Co. ordered. I think their  food was served invisibly. During all the commotion, the restaurant patrons were remarkably well-behaved. You could see the glances, whispers and smiles. A lot of folks were on their cell phones, including me and my sister. A table of little girls to my right didn’t release the grip on their phones the whole time I was in the restaurant. Their day was made. This moment will probably top growing boobs for them. Even the waitstaff animatedly spoke in hushed voices and laughed among themselves when they were out of earshot and the view of Beyonce & Co.

N & I called our youngest sister, C, to tell her about the sighting. Celebrity lover that she is, she peppered us with questions:

“What is Beyonce wearing? What does she look like? Can you hear what they’re saying? What are they doing now? What do they smell like? Go take a picture of them and if the bodyguards give you any problems, burn off!”

I was not trying to get arrested in Houston for celebrity stalking. “C, we gotta go. The bodyguards are staring us down.” “Noooo! I want to hear Beyonce BREATHE!!” Girl, no. She would have to try to breathe in the essence of Bey and Jay over the phone.

My sister and I finished our meals and sadly could come up with no reason to linger. So we paid and left the restaurant before the celebrity party did. As we made our way outside, we spotted two more giant bodyguards in suits, hovering around a black Ford Excursion waiting for their clients. These people don’t mess around.

And that’s what it’s like to breakfast with Jay-Z and Beyonce.

How I Learned to Love My “Thick Thighs”

8 min read

I’ve been thinking about my weight since I was 13.

One day I ate everything I wanted with abandon and the next, the size of my thighs were cause for angst.

Jane Fonda Workout Record Video Body Image Acceptance
She wore the tights / leg warmer combo like no other
Photo cr: Jacob Whittaker, flickr.com

Thirteen is about when I started working out. My mom had a catalog of Jane Fonda videos from the 80s and I was Jane Fonda’s devoted follower. Those videos work!Jane still looks hot today. It’s unreal. I also became a fan of Joyce Vedral and her fat-burning workout. I thank her to this day for my interest in being fit and toned.

Once, upon being presented with “soaked in the deep fryer” chicken for dinner, I whined to my parents with dramatic horror:

Fried chicken?! Oh.my.God. Do you know how much fat and salt is in that, mother?!

(I learned from watching white teens on TV that if you are angry with your parents you refer to them – with the disgust only a teen can muster – as “mother” and “father”. See: Brenda Walsh). My mom would reply with something like: “You don’t like it, you can get a job! Sit your butt down at this table. I don’t have time for this. And do not take the Lord’s name in vain.”

“Mo-ther! I am not eating this!”

In college I gained the “Freshman 15.”

I’m short, so even an extra five lbs becomes noticeable. That first year, I steadily free-fed on dorm food – bovine-style. My frequent meal-buddy and I would even stow away bread rolls and whatever else we could easily hide for later consumption. It felt deliciously decadent to have dessert with every meal. Then, the summer after my freshman year, I looked at myself in the mirror one day and my rounder image horrified me. My face was fat(ish), like a burnt chipmunk. I was wearing a crop top with a fat roll muffining its way out. Who was this schlub?! Well it had to stop.

I went on a superdiet.

Cows grazing, Rosengarten, The Dolomites, Italy by ** Maurice ** Freshman 15 College Weight Gain
This was me, my Freshman year of college.

I greatly reduced my caloric intake and worked out like I was training for The Olympics. My weight quickly came down, and down, and down, until I looked like a chocolate Tootsie Roll pop. I’d gone too far. I lost my butt. As the ever-wise Lil Wayne says about women with no ass: “You ain’t got shit.” Or as his labelmate, Tyga raps: If you ain’t got no ass, bitch, wear a poncho.” When the ass goes, you’ve overdone it and misogynistic men won’t give you  a second glance. What will you do with your life then?

The problem is that even though I was too thin, I received a lot of compliments about my size: from men (“hey baby!”) and women (“please share your secret!”) alike. I learned: skinny = validation.

When I graduated college I was ill-prepared for the shock of the real world. I went from constant partying studying and working, to what seemed like days and days of endless, routine boredom. I came to understand that this is called “working for a living.” The novelty of ordering office supplies for my desk quickly wore off and the reality of working in corporate America set in: this shit is boring.

So, I ate and my weight crept up.

One evening I went out with my roommates for a much needed bout of drinking and dancing. While walking into one of San Jose’s “clubs” (the city was boring as all hell) I bumped into a cute, slender Asian girl about my height. Having already thrown back a few, I gushed to her: “You’re so cute. You must be a size three. I used to be a size three.” She looked me over – I was probably no bigger than a size six – and with her voice dripping in bubbly judgement replied:

What happened to you?!

Her reaction stunned and hurt me. It also saddened me that a size six is considered worthy of disgust. I should have been fine with my size. I was healthy and within the right range for my height. But, by this point, my body image was so distorted, I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. I also wasn’t getting the skinny validation I’d gotten in the past.

Then followed an intense battle between my body, my mind and my other mind.

My body insisted on stowing away fat for the winter that never comes in my part of California. My mind wanted to eat everything in sight to soothe my boredom and loneliness. My other mind wanted to be thin.

I started bingeing and purging. I’d go crazy eating cookies, chips and soda in one sitting, feel ill and disgusted with myself, and then run to the bathroom to throw it up. I only did this for a short time. It’s not effective and it’s too much damn work. Do you know how much work it takes to stick your fingers down your throat and force yourself to vomit? Who has the time? People are starving all over the world and I’m eyeing food with a mix of lust and hatred. It’s also bad for your teeth and I like my teeth. Not to mention, if anyone catches you in public, you have to explain why your feet are facing the wrong way in the bathroom stall. Either you are barfing or you have a secret penis. My dance with bulimia ended within a couple of weeks, never to be revisited again.

Popcorn and Sour Patch Kids, photo by naydeeyah on flickr.com Favorite food combos sweet and salty together
I love you all!

A few years later, I was in Los Angeles. I’d started dating an actor (warning: don’t do it). He said to me one day while we were phone-flirting:

You got some thick thighs, I like that.

Well, I sure as hell didn’t like that! Thick?! Why the hell had I been going to the gym?! He meant it as a compliment, but I took it as a reason to go annihilate myself at Bally’s.  I replied with a hesitant “Uh, thanks.” That relationship crashed and burned miserably (I said not to date an actor).

Another couple of years later, I’d worked my weight down to my “normal” (for me) size. I went to visit my feisty grandma. She took one look at me and said matter-of-factly “Keisha, you’re too thin. Men like women with a little extra padding.” I’ve heard more than enough times from others that men like more “cushion for the pushin’”. Grandma knows. My grandma is no “oh my, golly gee, let me bake you some cookies” granny. She tells it like it is, she keeps it real and you can bake your own damn cookies. I laughed and told her how awesome she is.

Then I got into a serious long-term relationship.

For at least a year, I maintained my weight. Boyfriend liked my body and the “thick” thighs were just the right size. Then came year two. Happily in love, I spent less time at the gym and more time, well…none of your business. By year three, I’d grown faaat. I mean, actually fat. I was clinically overweight. I had never weighed so much in my life. I  comforted myself with the thought: boyfriend will still love me anyway, right? But, I didn’t love me.

I had to buy a whole new wardrobe. Not only did I feel bad about how I looked, I felt bad physically. My body wasn’t used to carrying so much extra weight. I didn’t know how to dress for my new size. What looked good on me? So, I tried to lose weight. Then boyfriend and I broke up. That was the kick in the pants I needed to get my fat ass back in the gym. It’s the depression weight loss plan.

I couldn’t shake the weight, no matter what I did. I figured it was because I was nearing that age where people say your metabolism slows. Since, I was also having problems sleeping and breathing properly, I visited a specialist to check things out. He said to me,

“You’re too heavy! That’s why you can’t sleep.”

That was his expensive doctorly wisdom: you are a fat bitch. Well, fuck you very much doctor dickhead. The issue did turn out to be medical and once pinpointed, the weight started to come off. I’ve been able to maintain a reasonable weight (for me) since then.

I straddle two worlds: one black and one mainstream.

In the “black world” depending on who you ask, I am either “just right” or “too thin”. One of my younger sisters is very slender. She once had a black boyfriend tell her she was too skinny and that she needed to start eating some cornbread. I marveled at this. A free pass to pig out on cornbread? I’m sold! Does he have an older brother?

In the “white” or “mainstream” world, the view of what constitutes thin has shrunken over time. In Los Angeles, some women probably think I’m “big.” To those types, if you’re larger than a size two, you’re a tub o’ Crisco.

I would love to say that I no longer care. That I don’t think about my weight and that I don’t have days when I just want to say “Fuck it all, I’m going to eat some motherbleepin’ ice cream and then a big ol’ tub of movie popcorn and be fat and happy!” But, that’s not the case. However, after several low-carb diets, starvation diets, weird heart patient lemonades, and flirting with bulimia, I’ve learned to allow myself to enjoy food. I can eat well and be healthy. I’ve also learned to appreciate my womanly figure, including the “thick thighs”, and pay less attention to my clothing size.

What happened to the days when women with a little bit of belly fat were thought of as gorgeous? Can we go back to that? To the figurative days when having extra pounds meant you were fortunate enough to have plenty of food to eat? We aren’t meant to starve ourselves into stick figures. Life is meant to be lived and food is part of living (and too damn good to be chucking in the toilet). So, live, eat, and love your body!