Archive for May, 2008


May 27, 2008

On a few occasions over the last nine months, I’ve driven through a safari park, thrilled by the lions, elephants and gazelles. Outside those big zoos, it’s been at least as much fun noticing Africa’s less heralded fauna. They tend to come much closer. So far I haven’t experienced the proverbial cobra in the sleeping bag, but I have felt big hairy spiders run down my leg in the middle of the night. Let me tell you, it’s at least as much of a kick as spotting a lion asleep at fifty yards. Lizards sun in the gardens and frogs hop away from car tires. Millipedes frighten me and the other day a brilliant orange moth, five inches across, rested on an ATM screen.

Ambling over the coral reefs at low tide, loose limbed starfish actually walked through the shallow water and sea cucumbers recoiled to the touch. By moonlight thousands of small white crabs commandeered the beach, rearranging themselves like chessmen whenever people approached.

The main hazard in the water are the constellations of sea urchins peeking out from beneath every coral ledge. Every safari should include a hunt so, thinking uni, I brought a few inside and chopped them open, their quills still twiddling. The goop you’re supposed to eat is difficult to remove from the goop you’re not. I lacked the patience to separate enough of it for a pasta dish. Urchin, perhaps, is only a delicacy when someone else prepares it for you.


Hawking fish

May 27, 2008

A friend and I had some work to finish up so we rented a cottage on the Kenya shore. It looks a lot like paradise, conventionally defined. As you may know, the fighting in Kenya demolished the country’s tourism industry and we appeared to be the only guests staying at a very nice beach.

My friend and I both spend much of our time writing pitches to various magazines and read deep into the entrails of their responses, when we get responses. At the shore we were on the receiving end of the pitches and I can’t say I liked it. Each time we stepped off the cottage porch –a rarely violated, but unspoken barrier— fishmongers approached wondering what we’d like for dinner tonight and tomorrow night and, if we’d care to say so, the night after that. They carried long legged octopi tied together with reeds. Fish they’d just speared hanged from their belt. Gaze a second too long in the wrong direction and someone held a cephalopod aloft.

If I had my way with editors, they would respond quickly. Along with their yes or no, one can dream, they’d suggest topics of future interest. If a fish monger had his way, I’d ignore his friends and listen to him explain how the fundamentals of capitalism work in this particular case (he finds sea creatures and sells them to us) then lay out our menu for the next few days.

Of course, when we bought fish, it had nothing to do with who had the freshest fish or who nagged us best. It had quite a bit to do with who happened to be walking by the minute we decided ‘we want fish.’ It’s not hard to find a parallel to my own professional situation.

Indy’s return

May 22, 2008

In a few minutes I’m going to play hooky from many pressing engagements to see Indiana Jones. The movie opens on the same day in Kenya as everywhere else. The last one, almost certainly, did not. This is a good time to be alive.

When the last Indiana Jones movie opened, I was ending fourth grade and saw it with my dad. At the time I judged movies by whether they had fire in them. At least every good movie I could name had a fire scene. Indiana Jones didn’t feature the most fire but it was my favorite. Over the last two decades I’ve joked, more than once, that my childhood will be complete when the last Indy movie comes out and Guns ‘N’ Roses release Chinese Democracy.

I’ve never discussed Indiana Jones on Internet message boards or dressed up like him at a comic convention, but he has influenced me, a lot. Perhaps more than is healthy. ‘Would Alex be in Africa, on his own little search for facts, if not for Indiana Jones?’ is a legitimate question and one I don’t want to dwell on. Whether or not I’m trying to live up to standards set by a fictional character, on balance this trip has been free of Spielbergian derring-do. I haven’t shot a gun or been shot at, even with a blow dart. I haven’t ridden an animal as a form of transportation or sought out bad elements. Part of growing up is learning one’s limitations. Indy knew his. In the Last Crusade he realizes the grail is beyond his grasp and lets it fall through a fissure in the Earth.

I don’t have high hopes for the new movie. It has a new sidekick, which can’t bode well. Aside from that I know very little about it. A nice thing about living in Africa is how easy it is to avoid hype. I’ll probably be the only person in the theater for the 10:05 am showing. That’s fine; nobody needs to see me stand up and cheer.

Back in Kenya

May 19, 2008

Back in Kenya

One of the most common complaints about journalism by westerners in Africa is that we treat the continent like a country. It’s a fair point. One billion people… a landmass larger than China, Europe, India and the lower 48 combined (seriously, look it up)… innumerable cultures and languages and all we say is ‘Poor!’ ‘Violent!’ ‘Sick!’


So here’s a small example of that diversity. Back in Kenya I’ve been overwhelmed by Nairobi’s size and abundance. Kampala is hardly the poorest or smallest or slowest capital in Africa but in Nairobi I’ve been impressed by the scale of the buildings, blinded by the reflecting glass on the office towers, thrown off by the speed of life. The stores burst with a (slightly) higher quality of things to buy. It makes the prospect of going home somewhat daunting, frankly.

More politics

May 14, 2008

There is a troop build up on both sides of Uganda’s northern border with DR Congo and rebels attempted (and failed) to  take Khartoum. Even relatively nearby, news like this doesn’t have too much impact here. It’s sort of like hearing about flooding in the Midwest or, for that matter, military maneuvers in Africa which don’t make much sense and are unlikely to benefit anybody.