Tag Archives conversations with strangers

Tarantula Eating, Silk Spinning & Candy Making: A Road Trip through the Cambodian Countryside

I don’t recall seeing “chow down on deep-fried tarantula” on the tour itinerary, but when our local trip guide reviewed the day’s plan – mouth in a wide grin, eyes dancing at the mention of “eating spiders” – there it was. Given I’m willing to try (almost) anything once, I was game. Besides, I’ve already tried beetle, scorpion, and cricket, so what’s a big ass spider?

During the 6.5 hour drive from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap we made brief stopovers in several small towns in the Cambodian countryside. Towns served by the same unpaved and uneven two-lane road from which vehicles zooming by kick up mini-dust storms so intense, that sometimes those closest to the edge wear face masks for protection. One of those places is Skuon, more colloquially known as “Spiderville” because of its proliferation of tarantulas.

In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Preparations underway for a multi-day wedding celebration in one countryside village. (The grillmaster signaled to me to wait until he loaded the meat skewers so I could get a better picture.)

Spiderville

Eating spiders may seem weird to some, I know, but during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, catching those sizable, eight-legged, hairy insects could mean the difference between starving and starving a little less. Nowadays, deep-fried tarantulas are considered a delicacy and enjoyed as a snack.

Three cute Cambodian children greeted me as I descended the steps of the passenger van once we’d pulled into the parking lot of an outdoor market. The only boy among them – I guessed he was around 9 – said to me: “Sister, you are beautiful.” The oldest girl, standing to his right, shook her head and added, “Your hair is so pretty.”

What is this? Me? My hair? My looks? Who put these kids up to this? People with my dark skin, kinky hair, and African features aren’t exactly held up as paragons of beauty in the US. I wasn’t accustomed to this type of attention.

I didn’t have much time to consider the kids’ comments before they began trying to charm me into buying from them: plastic bags filled with mango or other fruit, colorful origami birds, and various smaller packages of what vendors were selling in the stalls 15-feet away.

In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Some of the produce sold at the market. Pictured (from top left clockwise): dried banana chips (so tasty), mangoes, grapefruit, what looks like pink grapefruit in the bottom corner is actually pomelo, which they season with salt, lime and chili powder (to me they taste better than grapefruit because they’re sweet with none of the bitterness.), passion fruit, custard apple, and tamarind.

K_, our Cambodian guide, strongly discouraged us from buying from the kids – much to my dismay. It’s hard to say no to a sweet child with a gap-toothed smile who’s pleading with you to buy fruit “so that I can go to school.” However, as K_ explained, if they’re able to make an income by hawking goods to tourists, sometimes parents will pull their children out of school so they can work instead. I knew the kids I met were in school because they told me so when I complimented their great English. We’d arrived during the students’ two hour lunch break.

Despite my refusals to part with my cash, the kids trailed me – like an entourage – as I walked toward the market and the many platters stacked high with an array of fried insects and fruit for sale.

In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Fried water beetles
In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Fried grasshoppers
In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Deep fried tarantulas, known as a-ping, are high in protein.

K_ handed each of us a crispy tarantula leg to try. We giggled and teased each other through the experience. Once I got over the initial disgust at the idea of what I was eating, the tarantula actually tasted decent – not like chicken, more like beetle. The salt, sugar, and oil flavoring no doubt helped. It did take me a while to chew though. Like the hairs from the leg didn’t want to leave my mouth. Ick.

In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

As we were gearing up to leave, K_ tapped my shoulder, pointed toward an aged woman wearing a deep-pink head scarf and clothed in long, floating layers, and told me: “She said she likes your hair.”

This never happens to me. What is this magical place?

I waved goodbye to my adorable, pint-sized entourage from behind the window as our van eased out of the lot.

From Silkworm to Silk Scarf

Santuk Silk Farm in Kampong Thom marked the second stop on our countryside excursion. Run by a US veteran of the Vietnam War and his Cambodian-Laos partner, the modest farm employs 15 women and one man from the local community. The weavers work hard spinning the silk into beautiful, color-rich scarves. We got the opportunity to learn about the process of turning the byproducts of silkworms into soft threads for weaving – a 6-week cycle – from one of the co-owners.

In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Silkworms feed on the leaves of Mulberry trees and cocoon themselves in silk on the branches.
In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Once the silkworms have spun themselves into a silk cocoon they are laid in the sun to dry. Some of the silkworms are kept alive to use for mating.
In Cambodia you can dine on deep fried tarantulas, float along the river past houses on stilts, and watch silkworms be turned into beautiful silk | Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
As the co-owner demonstrated, dried cocoons are boiled to loosen the silk, which is then spooled onto the wooden reel. Some of the silk strands were rougher than others.
Dried cocoons are boiled to loosen the silk, which is then spooled onto the wooden reel.
Once the silk is dyed, the weavers smooth and stretch it on the spinning wheel, before transferring it to the loom to be woven into silk fabric.

After getting the lowdown on the world of silk, we sat down to a home-cooked meal for lunch.

Dried cocoons are boiled to loosen the silk, which is then spooled onto the wooden reel.
I don’t know the names of any of the dishes, so I’ll just call it an assortment of meats, veggies, spices, and scrumptious-deliciousness.

The cat family of the farm joined us for the meal, eagerly anticipating fallen morsels and scraps. A small dog resides on the farm, as well. For lunch, he chose to kill one of the clucking chickens. Thankfully, I did not witness this animal act of gallinicide, but a few of my tourmates did.

Dried cocoons are boiled to loosen the silk, which is then spooled onto the wooden reel.
Mom, dad, and baby cat – unbothered by humans.

Sugar Palm Candy

Not too far from the silk farm, we made a pit stop at a roadside sugar palm candy stand. Made from the sap of sugar palm trees, the hardened candy is sweet enough to make your eyes pop. You can also cook with it, boil it into a juice, or melt it into your tea or coffee if a shocking jolt of sugar isn’t your bag.

After making our purchases, we piled back into the van and our driver, Mr. S_, pulled out onto the dirt road. The afternoon had barely settled and already we’d done so much; I couldn’t wait to reach the next stop and adventure.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten? Would you eat a deep fried tarantula?

Read Part I and Part II from my Southeast Asia travel series and stay tuned for more from Cambodia!

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Don’t Call Me “Girl”

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Grown women should not be referred to nor treated as a "girl". Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black

“Girls! Girls!” a large, middle-aged man in a bright yellow safety vest hollered at me and my new friend from across the parking lot as we walked away from my rental car.

I turned slowly around, cocked an eyebrow and didn’t begin moving in his direction until my companion did.

“Yes?” I asked with a touch of attitude as we neared him. He’d yelled out to us like we’d done something wrong.

“Where are you girls going?”

So far I liked nothing about this encounter.

I’d arrived early to the day-long Bloggy Boot Camp conference in Temecula and befriended and picked up another early blogger in my hunt for coffee.

I stared at him for a beat wondering what the hell business it was of his where we were headed. I’m not inclined to give information about my destination to people I don’t know. Why don’t you just beckon us over to a creepy windowless white van with promises of candy?

“We’re not girls, we’re women.”

I am damn near 40 years old and my fellow blogger is a mother of two. She’s raising two little human beings. Neither of us are girls.

“We’re getting breakfast,” my new friend supplied.

The man paused, mouth agape as he gave me a curious look, “Wha….girls….uh…?”

“You can call us ladies,” I answered thinly. Ladies isn’t necessarily my favorite either, but at least it implies more respect than girls.

“Ok. This café is open. They have good food,” he gestured behind him to a store front in the strip mall.

“Ah, thank you.”

We headed toward the café. I felt kind of bad for my response toward him since it seemed like he wanted to help. But, I didn’t appreciate his tone nor how he approached us; it was disrespectful. It didn’t help that the day before, on a business call, the man I was speaking with called me “sweetheart.”

Grown women should not be referred to nor treated as a "girl". Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black (Oprah reaction gif - Oh really?)
Source

Sometimes when I find myself in situations where I feel disrespected, I turn over different scenarios in my mind imagining how circumstances might change if I were someone different.

What if I were walking with a man instead of an equally diminutive Filipina woman?

What if said man were black? And larger than Mr. Bright Vest? Would he yell at us? Would he call me “girl”?

What if I had Oprah money and smelled like wealth?

What if we were two white men? What if we were two white men, the same age as me and my friend and wearing suits? Would he have called out to them? Would he have shouted, “Boys, boys!”

I posed these questions to my new friend as way of explaining my defensive behavior. She’d appeared a bit thrown by my caginess, probably wondering: what the hell happened to the kind, smiling stranger I just met 10 minutes ago?

“I think you’re right, I don’t think he would talk to men that way,” she acknowledged.

I may be small and I may look younger than my years, but neither of these characteristics justify yelling at me like you’re my father. I am glad I spoke up because had I not, I knew I would stew over it until I found a way to make it right with myself. Situations like this happen too much and I am not here for it.

A half hour later as we exited the parking lot to return to the conference, Mr. Bright Vest hailed us:

“Hi Ladies…I want to apologize for shouting at you earlier. That wasn’t right. It was rude and I shouldn’t have done that.”

Holy __! Did that just happen?

I smiled. “Thank you, I really appreciate that.”

“Have a nice day. Again, I’m sorry.”

I thanked him again and waved goodbye as I drove off.

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On Being Black in San Francisco: A Snapshot

Photo cr: massiveselector.com
Photo cr: massiveselector.com

Last night, my sister, my friend “Mercy” and I were on the bus returning from Oakland’s First Music Festival (a blast!). We were exhaustedly babbling, trying to figure out what to do for dinner (sleep sounded like a great option!) when a young guy behind us interjected:

“Excuse me ladies…”

Oh lord. Don’t let this be some lame line. I am too tired.

“Excuse me ladies, but I just have to tell you how refreshing it is to see three African-American women on this bus. On any bus here really.”

Oh. Well…yeah. 

We all nodded laughed knowingly. We get it. There are so few of us here – particularly the young and upwardly mobile. You get so used to being the only one on the daily. It’s like we’re unicorns, aliens or endangered species; so, when you see another, it makes an imprint.

We chatted with him for a little while (he did, not-so-subtly, but charmingly, try to get one of our phone numbers indiscriminately) about the festival and his job at one of the museums in the City.

No numbers were exchanged, no wondrous epiphanies had, just a pleasant and notable encounter among strangers on a bus.

Side note: I’ve visited Oakland four or five times in the 11 months I’ve been living in San Francisco and I gotta say, Oakland just might be cooler than San Francisco. *Ducking flying objects*

People Doing Good Things: Educating the Incarcerated

A photograph of a cell block in the Wisconsin ...
A cell block in the Wisconsin State Prison. Photo cr: Wikipedia

It’s well-known that the United States imprisons more people than any other country. Too often it seems we throw people in prison and forget about them. They’re wayward people who deserve punishment for their bad deeds, right? But, what happens after prisoners get released? According to a 2011 Pew Center study“45.4 percent of people released from prison in 1999 and 43.3 percent of those sent home in 2004 were reincarcerated within three years, either for committing a new crime or for violating conditions governing their release.”

California’s recidivism rates are some of the highest in the country. California also spends a lot on its prison system. The state spends more money locking people up than it does funding higher education. Prison reform in the US is necessary; what we have now isn’t working well.

Last night I went to an alumni mixer for my business school. My friend and I mingled, exchanged pleasantries, answered the question oft-asked in SF, “Who do you work for?” and eventually landed in chat circle with three others. A man named H shared the story of his career ascent: “I made some bad choices in my life that I take responsibility for. I wasted a lot of time. I spent 8 years in prison.”

Whoa.

Say what now? Prison? Like Oz-style with shanking and what not?

Yes, prison. San Quentin prison. You know, where Johnny Cash held his first prison concert?

Damn.

English: Aerial view of San Quentin State Pris...
Aerial view of San Quentin State Prison, in Marin County, California. Photo cr: Wikipedia

He went on to tell us about the program he joined in prison that helped him reset his life. It’s a program called The Last Mile that focuses on teaching prisoners business skills and providing project-based learning experiences. They eventually transition into a paid internship with one of the many technology companies in the Bay Area.

As I listened to H speak, it impressed me how forthcoming he was about his past and the path that led him to this point. He admitted to having made mistakes, but took the steps to change the course of his life for the better. Through The Last Mile, not only is he now employed with an up-and-coming technology startup, he had the opportunity to meet and learn from top leaders in the industry, the kind of people with whom ladder climbers dream of rubbing elbows. Had he not shared his story, I would have assumed he’d taken a more traditional route to reach his current state. His appearance and demeanor were professional and he spoke knowledgeably about the work he does. He enthusiastically praised the program and seemed grateful for the opportunity.

I didn’t ask what led to his imprisonment. It’s unimportant (to me). What’s important is that in the present he’s working hard to carve out a fruitful life for himself.

I greatly appreciate knowing that organizations like The Last Mile exist. It’s one kind of reformation our prisons need. People aren’t disposable. Prison shouldn’t be a place people go to learn how to become better criminals or lead to a vicious cycle from which people can’t escape. As H said, paraphrasing one of the speakers he’d met: “We recycle cans and bottles, why can’t we recycle people? Give them another chance?”

I wish H the best. I hope there are many more out there like him, being given a second chance at life.

When Volunteering Gets Real

A homeless woman yelled at me today.

Through my company, 10 of my co-workers and I volunteered to help out with Project Homeless Connect’s (PHC) annual event. PHC helps to “connect” the homeless population with the essential services they need: everything from dental care and eyeglasses to haircuts to helping people get low-cost bank accounts. You know, the things that help people feel more included in modern American society.

The event was held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium (where Phish had played for three days earlier this month)  with stations set up for various services including employment.
The event was held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium (where Phish played for three days earlier this month) with stations set up for various services including employment.

My company was staffed in the cafe where a mock restaurant was created to give people with the experience of dining out. There were hosts, expediters, servers and bussers. I like interacting with people and moving around, so I volunteered to be a server. As I’ve learned through previous experiences working with the homeless population, most people are generally pleasant. They really appreciate being treated like a human being and not ignored as often happens on the streets. I had an amusing encounter with an older woman who only spoke Mandarin. All I know how to say in Mandarin is “hi,” “thank you” and “black” (as in “black person”).

[One of my college roommates is Taiwanese-American. One afternoon she was on the phone with her mom, speaking in Mandarin, describing her three roommates. I heard my name “Keisha” and then something else. I asked her, “Did you just tell your mom that I’m black?” She smiled at me sheepishly and said “Yeah, how did you know?” I answered slyly, “I always know when people are talking about black people – in any language!” Call it BSP: Black Sensory Perception.]

Erm...how do you imitate Brussels Sprouts? | photo cr: Barbara L. Hanson, flickr.com
Erm…how do you imitate Brussels Sprouts? | photo cr: Barbara L. Hanson, flickr.com

There were three pre-packaged lunch choices: chicken, turkey or veggie. When I asked the Mandarin-speaking woman for her order, she stared at me blankly and said “No English.” Uh oh. Undeterred, I pantomimed a chicken flapping it’s wings and clucked, “bok, bok!” That got a laugh from the others seated at the table. I then mimed a turkey sticking out it’s neck. More laughter. I didn’t know how the hell I was going to mime a vegetable. Stand still like a carrot, with leaves growing out my head? Lay on a plate like broccoli? I decided to just find a volunteer who spoke Mandarin. [Incidentally, if you want to see real ethnic and racial diversity in San Francisco? Look at the homeless population: Asian, black, white, Latino, immigrants, gay, in wheelchairs, old, young, couples, singles, siblings – everyone.]

There were several Asian volunteers there, none with my company though. I didn’t want to be that idiot that goes around asking any and every Asian person if they speak Chinese. Thankfully, I have a lot of Asian friends, friends who like to play “what kind of Asian is that?” and I’ve learned a lot from them. I scanned the volunteers for someone who looked like they might be the right candidate and hit jackpot on the first try! Thank you, D!  Or rather “xie xie.” I learned (and quickly forgot) how to say “chicken” in Mandarin. I also learned how to say “turkey” in Spanish, thanks to one of our Spanish-speaking customers who kindly answered my “¿Como se dice…?”

——

A guest beckoned me over to her table for help.

“Mumblemumblemuble?” she said.
“I’m sorry, could you say that again?” I asked her.
“Tryyyyyyy!”
“Ok, it’s okay. I am trying to understand what you need. How can I help?”
“It’s NOT okay! TryyyYYYYY!”
At a loss, but with a smile I asked again, “One more time?”
“I.need.a.TRYYYYY! Tryyyy!!!!” She grabbed the tray in front of her neighbor and banged it on the table.
“Oh a traaaaaaaay, ok, we’ll get you a tray.” I realized that she had a Southern twang, which ordinarily I have a good ear for understanding having lived in the South for some years, but the context threw me.

When I returned with her tray she said slowly to me with disgust, “Do you KNOW. how STUPID. you have to be. to make me repeat myself FOUR TIMES?!”

I told her I was sorry and was glad I could help her out.

“WHAT IS YOUR NYYYYY-ME?!” She asked me this as though she were going to report me to someone.

She’d become increasingly more agitated and I admit, I was a little anxious, not knowing if her anger and frustration would resort in me getting smacked in the face. I told her to enjoy her tray, smiled and walked away. I refused to return to that table until she left, concerned that there was something about me in particular that might set her off.

I was pretty shaken by the incident, which surprised me. It’s not like I haven’t had people yell at me before. I can throw down with the best of ’em during rush hour traffic in Los Angeles where it’s common for people to cut you off and give YOU the finger for honking at them. I guess, I wasn’t expecting it. The majority of our other customers were amiable and mostly kept to themselves, some even cracking jokes (“I’ll have the filet mignon, please). I also felt I had to maintain a professional demeanor, so I couldn’t be gettin’ all crunk on people.

The scene didn’t go unnoticed as several of the other volunteers looked at me with sympathy (and were probably grateful it wasn’t them!) and assured me that everything was okay. The task leader had a chat with the agitated woman and checked on me to make sure I wasn’t in mental tatters . Other than being a little shaken, I kept it moving. No need to let that oddity throw me off. Besides, I couldn’t take it personally. I’m no doctor, though I do love the hell out of some psychology, but the woman probably has a mental illness of some kind. That’s not the behavior of a mentally stable person. I just wished I knew how best to settle her.

That incident aside, I’m glad I participated.  I’m so inspired by this organization, the hardworking employees that power it, the professionals who donate their services and the volunteers that donate their time. Even San Francisco’s Mayor Lee was there. I spent about three hours on my feet, serving and greeting people. It’s not much; I didn’t change lives. I got to meet some of San Francisco’s residents that often go unnoticed. I hope today’s event helped make some of their lives even just a bit better.

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Making Friends: Paying Dues

Much like dating, the search for friends is filled with highs and lows, wins and losses. If you’re lucky, you meet your soulmate(s) right out of the gate. Unfortunately – and probably more likely – you end up wading through a lot of muck in search of your new mate(s).

I joined a “private social club” a few weeks ago. I read about it in a blog post on ways to meet people in San Francisco. I didn’t know such things existed outside of Ivy League enclaves, the East Coast and thrillers where club members are evil and plot to kill each other. The idea intrigued me. It sounded like a co-ed frat for grown folks.  Could be awesome, could be horrible.

I applied on their website and the next day received a call from a member coordinator for a brief phone screening. She asked me basics like why I was joining (I’m new to SF and largely friendless), what I was looking for (friends, obvs) and what adventures I like to do for fun (most things that don’t involve heights, but even then…). I passed and made it through to the hour-long phone interview with a member rep.

Making friends as an adult in a new city has it's ups and downs and is similar to dating in that way. You have to meet a lot of people before you find your "tribe." Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
I’m ready for adventure!

I should have known from the awkward conversation I had with the member rep that no good could come from this endeavor. You know how you can talk to someone and you just don’t vibe? They don’t laugh when things are clearly funny, because it’s a given that you are hilarious; they aren’t really listening to you because they ask you questions that you’ve previously answered and there are uncomfortably long pauses that leave you going, “Uh, hello, are you still there?” Work with me dude; it takes two to have a conversation!

Despite the laughably unfun interview, I did well enough to garner an invitation to join the club. I accepted, as they sold me with their 30-40 scheduled events a month, promise of adventure (kayaking! hiking! skydiving! trips to Belize!) and, of course, potential new friends (median age of members is 35). They boast a member roster numbering in the hundreds. Visions of my future awesome life flashed before my eyes.

There is a three-week membership trial period. During that period if you attend three events in your first three weeks and don’t like it, you can opt-out and get a refund.

Oh yeah. That. None of this “awesomeness” is free. There’s a one-time initiation fee and a monthly fee, like with a gym membership. I figured, worst comes to worst, I’m out the first month’s fee.

It’s been a month. I’ve attended all three events and, well, you can guess whether I jumped ship.

Event One

Wine tasting in Santa Rosa. Eight hours spent with strangers.

I like people. When I’m not hating the awful things we do to each other (Steubenville, ugh), I find us fascinating. From that perspective, more often than not, I can find a common thread to connect with people I meet. I met a mathematician a few weeks ago. I hate math. It’s an awful subject put on this earth to make my life more difficult and drag down my SAT scores in high school. Yet, he and I had a fun conversation. But, during this event, I was at a loss.

When I showed up at the designated meeting spot, three of the group of 10 who’d signed up were seated at a table in a nearby restaurant. “We ordered mimosas!” the enthusiastic hostess told me (each event has a host). I joined the group at the table. They were engrossed in a dull conversation (I don’t even remember what about, dust or some shit). The lone male made a joke about Chinese food that I thought was vaguely racist. However, I couldn’t be sure. Let the fun begin! I wanted to like him, but his social skills were questionable, which made it tough. No one acknowledged my presence.

The mimosas arrived: three glasses for three people. The waiter was off before I could ask for one myself. No one, but me, cared about my mimosa conundrum. Fifteen minutes after my arrival, one of the especially chatty women, who spoke with a Kathleen Turner-esque rasp, stopped talking and laughing at her own “jokes” (I think they were meant to be jokes, but they weren’t funny, so who knows?) for a nanosecond. I introduced myself. They gave me their names and continued their conversation about mothballs or the fur that grows on kiwi. Kathleen Turner-rasp and her female buddy became the dominators of the group that day with their incessant chatter and over-the-top enthusiasm for all things uninteresting; this was not a good thing.

Filling out the group was a trio of two men and a woman, hippie-ish types, who mostly kept to themselves; a woman who was either 45 or 54 and seemed incredibly and uncomfortably (for others) insecure, which is very unappealing in a person over the age of 30.

[An aside: I have a natural inclination to take in social outcasts. Perhaps it’s from having moved around so much and repeatedly having the experience of being the new girl trying to fit in. I hate for anyone to feel left out or bullied. But, it’s dangerous. More than once I’ve ended up with an overly attached, energy-sucking, take-everything-too-personally friend that I have to remove from my life with a surgical knife.]

I had to keep my distance from madame insécurité.

Lastly was a very perplexing youngish woman. She could have been an extra in The Craft, but, when she spoke, she could have passed for ditzy-ish sorority girl. She wore black thigh-high garter belt-ready tights, thick black clogs and a dark black suede dress. Throughout the day I wondered if she was hot. I was hot in lighter colors. She seemed nice enough, but we weren’t a match. I’m also pretty sure I was the youngest person of the group and I am no calf.

Making friends as an adult in a new city has it's ups and downs and is similar to dating in that way. You have to meet a lot of people before you find your "tribe." Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Hook & Ladder Winery

A few years ago, I realized I’d developed an allergy to wine. It’s generally not worth it to me to put myself through the pain and suffering wine-ingesting causes. I’ve always been more of a beer or vodka girl anyhow, so don’t feel pity for me. But, this was the only event of the week I could attend.

Despite the allergies, at each winery I tried to drink copious amounts of sample-wine, knowing I’d pay dearly for it later, especially that spiteful red wine. I wished I could have just suckled straight from the barrels. Unfortunately, we were wine tasting, not wine guzzling, so I had to maintain some decorum. I needed to get as drunk as possible as fast as possible to deal with this… day.

At the last winery I’d finally drank enough to increase my patience by a tenth. I made chit-chat with the host, who hails from a state I’ve not yet visited and find curious. As such, I peppered her with questions. I actually liked her, but as she’s employed by the club, her job isn’t to find friends.

Kathleen Turner-rasp’s pal joined our conversation. Inevitably, my “favorite” question was posed, “How do you like San Francisco?” with the familiar tone that indicates the expected response is, “OMGitssoawesomeIloveit bestcityever, go hipsters!” I gave her my standard spiel about how it’s an adjustment and it’s weird that there are only four other upwardly mobile black people in the city and people get all “OMG, a black person who speaks “well” and has a white-collar job, I don’t know how to handle it!” (Or perhaps I just said it could get uncomfortable at times, people treat me differently, etc.)

She replied with this gem:“But, doesn’t it make you feel special?” In my head, I bitch-slapped some sense into her; in real life I laughed, trying hard to contain my derision and answered, “Nope, I would rather feel normal just like everyone else.” I don’t have a lot of patience for people who I think don’t take the time to see the world from outside of their personal prism.

You try feeling “special” for years on end and see how fast that gets old. (“Does your skin get darker in the sun?” “Did you get your job by affirmative action?” “Oh your dad has his PhD? I don’t know why I assumed he’s got a blue collar job.” “Can I touch your hair? It’s so cool!”)

Although, she could be on to something. If I’m special, I need to act like it. “Bow down, bitches,” indeed. I’ll demand reverence wherever I roam. At work, I can refuse to do the things I think are beneath me because “I’m special.” I should be getting a discount on my rent because, dammit, I’m special. They’re lucky I deign to live in their building!

I felt hostage in the van on the ride up and back. I was forced to listen to adult contemporary music, which, in my view, induces premature aging and thus terrifies me. They didn’t seem like the Top 40 crowd (I wouldn’t have dared gone as far as hip-hop) so I didn’t object; it wasn’t worth expelling the energy. I suffered in silence.

I later found out one of the hippie-ish guys found Kathleen Turner-rasp and pal, as well as most of the rest of the group, equally annoying. This explains why he and his trio opted out of dinner after wine tasting. I also opted out of dinner. Fuck no, I wasn’t sitting through more of this torture. As we parted ways, the host said she hoped to see me again with a knowing look. She had to have known it wasn’t the best.event.ever! for me.

When I got home, I hugged my cat and my couch. Ah, comfort.

Event Two

Moroccan Dinner

Well, it was supposed to be a Moroccan dinner – one of their more calm events. The day of the event, the hostess (a different one) called and informed they cancelled the dinner. “We’re all going to Bar X to celebrate a member’s birthday.” I didn’t know the member from a random on the bus. But, I had three events to attend and this was the only one I could make that week.

When I arrived at the bar, the hostess texted me that they were on the patio. The patio was packed. She told me they were seated next to a guy in a giant tophat, so I approached a group with a man wearing a large Uncle Sam hat. They were not part of the club. You mean to tell me there is more than one dude here wearing an oversized attention-seeking costume hat? The answer is yes.

As I made my way through the crowded patio looking for them, a giant elbowed me in the head. Okay, perhaps he wasn’t a giant, but at 5’1”, anyone above 5’10” is gigantic. He had to have been at least 6’4”. He didn’t apologize, so I gave him a look that said, “Mofo, you WILL be apologizing.” Instead, he patted me on the head(!), the way you would pat a curious, precocious child on the head as you tell them to be on their merry way. I’m a grown ass woman and this asshole just patted me on the head. I glowered and kept it moving.

I finally found the hostess. Part of the hostess’s job is to introduce you to the group and help you to not feel alone. She quickly introduced me to five people and then stated, “Ok, I am heading out with my friend. Have fun!”

Great. You’ve introduced me to five people, one of whom is the middle-aged low self-esteem (LSE) woman from the wine trip. Another is the guy who head-bowed me and then child-patted me. He also happens to be the birthday guy and guest of honor. Awkward!

Given my options, the fact that LSE was talking to a black woman (the only other black person I saw) and my new hobby since moving to San Francisco is collecting black people, I joined her group. LSE was enthusiastically retelling the saga of her broken hip and its healing.

Here’s the difference between a simple injury and aging: when you’re young and have a simple injury it’s usually because you’ve for instance, blown out your knee from overzealous, improper running. When you’re aging, if you break a hip, it’s because your body is like, “Look, hon, we’ve been around a while. Shit’s about to start breaking down. All that abuse you piled on me in your youth is coming back for you. Body karma. Get ready!” She was describing the latter.

I had nothing to contribute as my hips are fine. The black woman walked away shortly after we exchanged greetings, having seen an old friend. I desperately looked around for people to talk to who appeared to be my age. No one from the club. It would probably have looked bad if I joined a whole group of strangers not-related to the group instead. I stayed put and pretended to be interested.

There appeared to be only one waitress working the patio. She was nowhere to be seen for 20 minutes. When I finally flagged her down, she hurriedly told me she’d return. I waited for another 20 minutes. In that time, I continued pretending to be fascinated by unstimulating conversations while I daydreamed of the more interesting places I wished I was. Finally, I told the group, “I’m going to see if I can track down a waitress.” I headed toward the bar, walked out of the restaurant and straight to my bus stop.

Bye people, just bye. I’m not exactly proud of that behavior, but I hate feeling trapped.

Making friends as an adult in a new city has it's ups and downs and is similar to dating in that way. You have to meet a lot of people before you find your "tribe." Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Oh sweet, sweet, alcohol – how you help make awkward social situations a little bit better.

Event Three

Barbecue

I was weary and full of low expectations for this third (and last?) event. On their website, they hail it as a great way for members, especially new ones, to mingle and enjoy some grilled grub. I arrived 45-minutes after start time to find a pitiful scene of just five people, including the blonde guy who made the vaguely racist joke from the wine tasting; a really loud older man who was practically shouting at the middle-aged woman sitting right in front of him and a little yappy dog.

Each day, I grow to dislike yappy, tiny dogs less and less. I blame the brainless, socialite-wannabes who carry them around like accessories, as well as the dogs’ generally annoying predilection for acting like they are bigger than they are and yapping with their laughably tiny little barks. I know how it is to be little and want to make sure people take you seriously. I get it. But, you don’t see me yelling at people bigger than I in a wee voice as I puff up my chest and preen. (There is one adorable chihuahua in Austin who is like my dog-niece. I adore her. She is exempt.)

There was no food ready and the cash bar hadn’t been set up yet. Oh, yes, the cash bar. Despite the not-insignificant initiation fee and the monthly dues, they charged a nominal amount for beverages, though food was included.

I tried to make conversation with the blonde, but it was painful. It was like he was wearing Keisha-repellent; I just could not like him. Finally, about an hour and fifteen minutes after start time, the cash bar was set up. The beer options were Heineken and Pacifico which is like Mexican Bud Light – water. Having thrown a party or ten in my life, I know that if you’re going to provide few beer options, at least choose one light and one dark for variety. I’ve nothing against Heineken, but I resent paying for one of two beer options.

The older man with a penchant for yelling announced to the women at the bar with delight, “Hey ladies, I’ve got a chick drink for you. It’s called a winemarita! Harharhar!” He laughed loudly and proudly at his comedy. Lame and offensive: two traits I love in potential new friends. I ignored him and my desire to “show him” by asking for a big-ass glass of scotch and asked for a Heineken, which I finished in about 10 minutes and had to ask for another. Oh, what I would have done for a Belgian ale right about then.

Making friends as an adult in a new city has it's ups and downs and is similar to dating in that way. You have to meet a lot of people before you find your "tribe." Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Now *this* is a beer selection! (I took this photo when I visited Bruges, Belgium a few years ago.)

I ended up in conversation with a woman whom I found out is 55. I am not ageist, (here comes my, “I am not _____, my best friend is _____” qualifier) one of my dearest friends is nearing 70. But, I am not looking for sexagenarian clique (or in this case, a quinquagenarian clique) any more than she wants to actively seek a crew of thirty-somethings whining about how old they are when they don’t even know how good they have it.

I was just beyond frustrated that while they claimed their median member age is 35, I seemed to only meet members well above the line. I asked her why she joined the club. She was recently divorced and looking to meet people as a newly single woman. As she told me about the first disastrous event she attended (only three people showed up for what was supposed to be a medium-sized event) and mentioned the founder called her to see if he could assuage her concerns about the club, I detected more than a hint of bitterness. She didn’t seem anymore excited about this motley crew than I.

She suggested a couple of non-meetup organizations I can join centered around travel and philanthropy, my twin loves. We talked for about half an hour. While she was interesting enough, I wanted to mingle to make sure I gave this club a fair shot. We broke and I make a beeline for a group of people who looked to be around my age. I heard them talking about skydiving. A guy protested, “But, it’s $300 to do it!” A woman rebutted, “No it’s not, it’s like $50!” Upon noticing my arrival, he put his fingers to his mouth, looked at the group, looked at me and then motioned, “Shhhhh.”

I think two things about this. First, homie is freaking rude. Second, what kind of sketchville stuff is going on here? I remember noticing the large discrepancy between what I paid for the wine tasting three weeks ago and what I read the event actually costs for the general public. Were they discussing the club’s markup on skydiving? And newbie me may just have overheard discussion of their sketchy practices to generate more income? I didn’t give a flip. I don’t have patience for ridiculous rudeness. I said with annoyance, “Ohhhhkaaaaaay then,” and walked off.

I chatted with another woman briefly, who was nice enough, but clearly painfully shy and I didn’t have the energy to be the one making most of the conversation. Someone announced that some food was ready. Great, I was hungry after drinking all that Heineken! I walked down into the backyard to find fresh off the rack, grilled chicken. No burgers, no hot dogs and a few sausages. Who the hell leads a barbecue with chicken?! The most boring meat on the planet?! Nobody comes to a barbecue for chicken! Very few Americans invite you over to their house for a barbecue and try to tantalize potential guests with the lure of boring-ass chicken. Where are the damned dead cows?! We have a ton of cows all over the state. I’ve seen them, go to the Central Valley!

I grabbed a sausage and walked over to a young Japanese guy. He told me he just arrived in the US a couple of days ago and he and his friends/classmates are here for a few months to study. Again, agreeable enough, but I am not trying to befriend people who have a definite departure date. I have enough friends in other cities and countries. That is not the problem.

Making friends as an adult in a new city has it's ups and downs and is similar to dating in that way. You have to meet a lot of people before you find your "tribe." Read more on The Girl Next Door is Black
Boring-ass meat

I headed back upstairs to make one more round. I saw another woman my age. She looked oddly SoCal-ish, wearing a light cover-up top over a bikini, long shorts and flip-flops. I asked her, “Did you just come from the beach?” She replied, “No. It’s just comfortable.”

What.in.THE.hell?!

Far be it from me to judge someone’s comfort fashion, but is it not a little odd to wear a bikini around when you aren’t doing anything remotely related to water? And San Francisco is almost always chilly after 4pm?

She then asked me, “Are you wearing one too?” I looked down at my outfit: an obvious tank-top underneath a sweater, jeans and boots. What exactly led her to believe I share her interesting choice of comfort wear?

I decided I was through. I gave it a shot. I stayed for almost two hours, mingled with various groups of people and played nice. As it happens, the member coordinator who initially screened me into this club, was doubling as bartender. I told her I was leaving and to avoid lying I casually mentioned I had other plans (my other plans were not being in that clubhouse, but at home, sitting on my ass, catching up on the week’s DVR’d shows).

She loudly asked, “Keisha, what’s your next event?!” She knew it was my third event and could be my final. I mumbled something about having to look at the calendar. She yelled out a few of the upcoming events. I repeated that I’d check out the calendar. I knew damn well by that point that I was never coming back. I had no intention of putting myself through more painfully dull and/or aggravating situations with that group. I can meet weird, awkward people lacking in social skills for free.

As I walked out, a true giant walked in. He had to be at least 7’ tall. Sorry dude, I won’t be around to hear the sure-to-be-told tired jokes about how the “air is up there.”

The next day, I prepared my cancellation letter.

There you have it. I’m out of the club. These encounters qualify as the lows of friend-finding. But with lows come highs, of which there have been a promising few, and which balance out all the fuckery of the lows. To be continued…

Tanzania: Safari – Tarangire National Park

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!

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.