Stone Town, Zanzibar

Along the coast at Stone Town.

Along the coast at Stone Town.

The Catholic cathedral, peaking out from above a Stone Town alleyway.

The Catholic cathedral, peaking out from above a Stone Town alleyway.

Stone Town is a small city by the sea, a maze of winding alleyways full of architecture hundreds of years old that you can get lost in – until you invariably find the edge and are dumped out at the coast or along the edge of the new town.

My few days in Zanzibar were mostly occupied by a lot of just this type of wandering, all the while ducking in and out of curio shops (Stone Town is heaven for the souvenir fiend) or taking in a historical monument or two.

The House of Wonders, or the tallest building in Stone Town and the first to have electricity.

The House of Wonders, or the tallest building in Stone Town and the first to have electricity.

The Old Arab Fort, Stone Town's oldest building.

The Old Arab Fort, Stone Town’s oldest building.

The Slave Memorial at the Anglican Church, which was built on the site of Zanzibar's slave market.

The Slave Memorial at the Anglican Church, which was built on the site of Zanzibar’s slave market.

One place I kept coming back to (besides Lukmaan Restaurant, where I ate delicious Zanzibari food three times in five days) was the Forodhani Gardens – mostly because there was free public wifi!

Aside from being a well-maintained public park overlooking the ocean, every evening, the Forodhani Gardens also transform into something of a food court, with offerings such as skewered and grilled seafood, fresh squeezed sugar cane juice, Zanzibar pizza (more like an omelet inside of a crepe than a normal pizza), and something called urojo or Zanzibar mix.

Urojo: a tasty broth with all sorts of things floating in it, from grilled meats, to a boiled egg, to some sort of fried thing that tasted like white bean beignets (which I'm told taste like chicken nuggets).

Urojo: a tasty broth with all sorts of things floating in it, from grilled meats, to a boiled egg, to some sort of fried thing that tasted like white bean beignets (which I’m told taste like chicken nuggets).

Frying up a Zanzibar pizza.

Frying up a Zanzibar pizza.

The Forodhani Gardens are kind of geared toward tourists, which unfortunately meant a bit more harassment than in other parts of Stone Town, but it was still overall a very positive part of the trip.

A view of the harbor from the Forodhani Gardens.

A view of the harbor from the Forodhani Gardens.

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On to the next Adventure

After two weeks milling about in Yaoundé, as well as a good deal of paperwork and a few medical appointments (I have no cavities, stomach parasites, or tuberculosis) it’s official: I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer.

 

The three of us who were having our Close of Service in the same week were all pretty ambivalent about the idea of a whole big ceremony, but after a couple days of equivocating, the matter ended up being decided for us. The new Ambassador was visiting the building on Thursday, and the trainers were preparing for the new trainees that would be arriving the next week, so there was neither the time nor the space. We did away with the whole to-do with the speeches and banging on a gong, and instead just received our pins and certificates, took a few pictures, and started calling ourselves Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. And that was that.

 

To celebrate, my friend Kevin and I splurged and split the cost of two nights at the Yaoundé Hilton, where we laid out by the pool, took advantage of the Jacuzzi, went out for nice meals, and generally lived it up like the grands we aren’t.

 

Then, Sunday morning, I was on a bus at 6:30 am, on my way to Douala, where I got on a plane to Addis Ababa, and then another one to Zanzibar.

 

And on Monday morning, I found myself in paradise.

 

Nungwi, Zanzibar

0 to 14,000 Feet

The Mauna Kea Observatories

The Mauna Kea Observatories

There are few places in the world where you can drive from sea level to almost 14,000 feet in a matter of a few hours, but this is what we did to visit the Mauna Kea Observatories on the Big Island of Hawaii.

The path to the summit of Mauna Kea

The path to the summit of Mauna Kea

The summit of Mauna Kea stands at 13,800 feet. Mount Cameroon, which is the tallest mountain in West Africa, is 13,255 feet tall by contrast. Building the observatories at the top of Mauna Kea was a pretty controversial move. The mountain is a very sacred place in the Hawaiian tradition and there was a lot of opposition to scientists coming in and using the land. The thing is that Mauna Kea also currently has the best seeing in the northern hemisphere, with its height and location in the Pacific Basin. It is because of the observatories that are up there now that humans have been able to see planets orbiting other stars.

My dad is into these sorts of things – observatories and telescopes. In fact, he makes his living making some of the chips and sensors that make them work. So he is the one that called up the observatories to organize a tour for his family to go see the Gemini North Telescope. He was asked if he was interested in an educational or professional tour – apparently they are trying to discourage tourists from going up there. A professional tour it was.

The next barrier to getting to the Mauna Kea Observatories is that driving up there violates your contract with all but one rental car company on the island. So we rented a 4 wheel drive vehicle for the day and started on our way up. During the drive the landscape went from old lava flows to grassy hills to shrub land, until the plant life was pretty much nonexistent and it looked like we were on another planet.

Once we were up there, we faced another challenge: the altitude. We had all spent an hour at about 9,000 feet where there was a small visitors’ center and where we met our guide, Janice, and had lunch together in the cafeteria where the scientists eat. She told us that the altitude affects people in unpredictable ways: that she had taken triathletes to the top that ended up fainting from the thin air, as well as 400 pound native Hawaiians who were perfectly fine. She and my dad disagreed on whether it was a good idea to have the all-you-can-eat ice cream that was included in the lunch. My dad claimed that eating too much would make all of our blood rush to our stomachs, leaving less to get oxygen to our brains. Janice said that she thought the slight increase in blood sugar actually helped. We all (including my dad) opted for a modest amount of ice cream. In the end there was no fainting on our trip up. I would occasionally start to feel lightheaded, and was certainly concentrating on my breathing much more than usual, but none of us got too weird.

And the views were otherworldly.

The view from outside the Gemini North Observatory

The view from outside the Gemini North Observatory

America!

I arrived back in the land of supermarkets and hot and cold running water (that you can drink right out of the tap!) for my two week summer vacation two Fridays ago on July 26th. Since then I have developed a sort of elevator pitch explanation in response to the constant asking of the same questions by different people (So how do you like Africa? What exactly do you do there? What is the food like?). It has been pretty gratifying, though, to hear a lot of people tell me that they’ve been reading this blog – so thanks, guys, even those of you who don’t comment!

I have also constantly stuffed my face with bagels and cream cheese, sushi, Mexican food, and many other delicious things I hadn’t seen for a while.

A California burrito in California

A California burrito in California

Last Tuesday I drove down to Santa Monica to meet my friend, Kellye, and go have an open air food truck dinner. As we sat on the grass and munched on El Salvadorian street food and Sweet Arlene’s cupcakes, one of her industry friends came to join us. It came up that I had been in Cameroon with the Peace Corps for the last ten months, and he asked me whether I was now disgusted by American excess and consumerism. I responded almost immediately: “But I love it!”

Pretty soon the conversation moved on, but I continued to ponder the question. Ok, it was probably a little silly that we were sitting on a nice lawn in an area that gets far less annual rainfall than the North of Cameroon, and I had been constantly astounded by the amount of packaging that comes with seemingly everything in America (having no trash pickup for a few months will really make you notice that sort of thing). And it probably is excessive to have a separate car on the road for every adult that can drive – but how often have I wished for my own car and the right to drive while in Cameroon? (Answer: pretty often.) I’m not saying that the American way of life is perfect, but it sure is comfortable, and it’s home, and boy do I find myself missing it sometimes.

Last Friday I saw a friend from high school (and middle school, and oh yeah, we went to the same elementary school, too!) get married, and it was beautiful, and even more friends were in town for the wedding. By now Mary and Barry are off on their honeymoon in Italy. Best wishes to both of them! As for me, I am currently enjoying my second week in America on a family vacation in Hawaii before I start the trip back to Cameroon on Sunday.

To answer that first questions (How do you like Africa?): it is in turns really amazing and really frustrating. I don’t know what I would do with myself if I didn’t go back, but I also know I’ll be missing life here in America when I do.