One of the luxuries of our time in Burundi is having our laundry done for us. I don’t know what they do to the clothes, but they get them impressively clean (pressed is not an option). Once or twice a week we would all gather our dirty laundry and place it in a pile for them to clean. A day later, all the clothes would reappear inside out. I don’t know why they would be inside out, but I’m guessing it has something to do with their secret formula for getting clothes so clean. I discovered it is important to pay attention to the orientation of your clothes so your pockets are not on the outside and it is not impossible to zip your pants – seriously, try it. It is very frustrating.
As exciting as laundry is, that is not really to point of this blog. Since all of our clothes were washed together it was important to be able to identify your clothes. This was very challenging for one member of our team. I won’t tell you who so Bane will not be embarrassed. Apparently this member had not seen his own clothes before he came on the trip, so he saw laundry days as a flea market where you just take what you want. He was easy to spot, because you just looked for the person who was wearing your clothes. (He is also the only black man on our team so it was like playing where’s Waldo if he didn’t have on your clothes.)
I wear a t-shirt everyday, as do all civilized men. I wear sleeveless t-shirts known by the unfortunate moniker of “wife beater” or “beater” for short. After the first laundry day I noticed my beater supply was getting low. Hmmm. On the next laundry day I saw my black beater was in the mix. I was excited, because the black ones are my favorite. The next morning I grabbed a shower and tugged on my fresh t-shirt. I instantly started to complain that “they” shrunk my shirt. Judi took one look and started to laugh. Picture the Michelin man in a size small speedo, but for the upper body. Though sleeveless, this shirt managed to keep my arms nearly straight out on the sides giving the Impression of a chubby, fleshy airplane wearing a corset. She said, “Nobody can shrink a shirt that much. It’s not your shirt.” She was right…again. I told her that if I could get out of the shirt, she could give it to Bane to add to his ever increasing collection.
It is fairly rare to see a white person in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. The more rural and primitive the area, the rarer the sightings become. Everywhere we went in Burundi children would point and yell “muzungu, muzungu.” Muzungu (alt. sp. Mzungu, Umuzungu) means white person. It literally means “wanderer” and was first applied to the European explorers who wandered around Africa. In fact, the root word zunguzungu means “dizzy” or “one who spins around in place.” So, obviously, the term can be used affectionately or derisively. I choose to hear it affectionately – what’s not to love.
Where we stay is significantly in the boonies, even for Africa, so muzungu sighting are especially exciting. “Muzungu” is a word we heard a lot as we zoomed by in our van. Apparently, many did not realize that muzungus know how to move about without the assistance of a motorized vehicle.
Every day I had to take a brief walk of about a kilometer to get medicine that I was keeping at a clinic in a nearby compound. I felt a bit like a moose walking down the main street of a city. The locals knew I existed, but they had no idea why I was out walking around – I simply did not belong on the mountain trails of Africa without an appropriate black escort. All activity would stop as the locals stare at the muzungu who got loose from his black care takers. In a car, I am a fun novelty. On foot in the mountains, I am a bizarre aberration that needs to find a vehicle, preferably with a black driver.
Monday, June 26, 2017
We met the Governor today. It’s hard to remember the last time I saw that many teeth. He was a very likable guy and did a good job at the infomercial he gave us about Burundi.
In the afternoon, we unpacked all the clothes, tools, and supplies we brought with us. We don’t distribute directly to citizens, but give to the NGO we work with so they can assess the needs. The tools are used by THARS to maintain facilities. One of my favorite parts of coming here is showing the local handyman (fundi) how to use the tools we brought. Johanna, the local fundi, was so excited he hugged a level and a square and danced a jig. It is wonderful to see significant life change with such a simple gesture. Their joy at the simple is humbling.
Sunday, June 25, 2017
Typically, a Sunday morning service will last for several hours, but today we went to the French Church – because French is so much easier for us than Kirundi and Swahili. We enjoyed the four-language service since one of the languages was English and the sermon was good. My favorite part was the little guy who did laps around the congregation stopping on every lap to attempt the theft of Chris’s water bottle. He never succeeded, but never gave up.
After church, we were able treated to a trip to the animal museum (zoo). Think of it as a petting zoo with animals that can kill you. Panther, snake, monkey, chimpanzee, crocodile – we touched them all. One chimp would show us where she wanted scratched then lean against the bars so we could service her. I never thought I would be scratching the armpits of wildlife while I am here, but I am game for whatever comes up.
After lunch, we left the oppressive heat of Bujumbura for Gitega in the much cooler mountains. Normally, I love this trip, but I ended up in the middle of the back seat sitting on the hump. As the tallest member of our group I got an excellent view of the ditches and a butt that was numb the rest of the day.
Friday, June 23, 2017
Day 2 of travel. We arrive in Bujumbura, Burundi after 23 hours of travel. We were all so exhausted that our biggest job was to stay awake until bedtime so we could start the transition to Burundi time. I laid on top of my bed and dumped gallons of sweat from my pores. I must have chugged a lot of liquid after we landed, because heaven knows the moisture did not come from the plane of dehydration. I’m not saying it was hot in the equatorial city of Bujumbura, I’m saying that Lucifer himself would have stripped down to his BVDs and poured cold water over his head to survive. I didn’t put the mosquito netting over me since I thought any layer of covering would be the final straw. At some point I fell asleep, or passed out from heat exhaustion, and slept soundly until 2:00 am when my CPAP battery died. I stumbled around in the darkness trying to find the bathroom, then finally peed into what, I am fairly certain, was the wrong receptacle. I got up at 5:00 to take a shower since I could not get sleep without my CPAP and noticed a host of red welts on my legs. I guess sleeping without the mosquito netting was not such a good idea.
Saturday, June 24, 2017
Saturday found most of us awake bright and early. The 5am call to prayer at the local mosque probably helped with that. After breakfast, we exchanged American dollars for Burundian francs. This is where you walk in with a handful of bills and walk out with a grocery bag full of bills. It’s great. You feel so rich when you can talk about spending money in the millions and have more money than wallet–a condition with which I rarely suffer.
My heart sank a bit when I heard our host was taking us to a wedding function known as a dowry ceremony. Great! I travel half-way around the world to attend a boring dress-up event while I am jet lagged out of my gourd. I envisioned awkward social interactions in a language I don’t understand with people I do not know. This ranks just above jamming a sharp pencil in my ear and just below hitting my hand with a hammer in my list of desirable life events.
I’m so glad I did not opt for smashing my hand. The evening was delightful. It was an engagement party with a cultural twist. The families of the bride and groom sit across a lawn from each other for a mock negotiation for the bride. The groom’s family asks to have the bride for their son. The bride’s family refuses, and negotiations ensue in earnest. Negotiations last about 90 minutes until an accord is reached. What follows is celebration through dance and music in traditional outfits. Eventually the bride is presented and the celebration started anew with fresh vigor. When a group of Africans decide to party it is a sight to behold.
Day one of travel. Relatively uneventful…if you don’t count the usual foibles of travel: missing passports and vaccination cards, broken straps threatening to spew more than a half-ton of luggage onto I95, (not to mention the risk of giving Fred a coronary). I thought I handled everything quite well given the 87 minutes of sleep I had before the trip.
Ethiopian Airlines always promises a unique traveling adventure. There is a reason they are “reasonably priced.” They utilized a two-prong approach to keep us travelers on our toes.
Phase 1 was feeding us salty foods, but forgetting to provide liquid refreshment afterwards. Phase two was putting Binladen’s evil sister, (we’ll call her Helga), in charge of the water rations. She was having a bad day. At one point a small child from the seat in front of me wandered into Helga’s territory, the aisle. Helga slowly lowered herself to the child’s level and fixed her with a withering gaze. In a soft, steely voice she informed the frightened child that she needed to return to her seat and not interfere with Helga again. A chill ran down my spine as I watched a traumatized child slink back into her seat too frightened to cry. Later, I tried to take matters into my own hands with the water. I strolled up to the “kitchen” area and discovered a water bottle with several ounces still in it. I quickly poured some into a cup with fantasies of slaking my thirst at last. I was 2 ounces into my pour when I heard, “No, no, no! That is not for you.” Busted by Helga, she grabbed the bottle and the cup away from me. Like my brave cabin mate, I too refrained from crying…but mostly because I had no moisture in my system.
Victoria, British Columbia. Wow, what a city. Temperate weather, flowers and greenery everywhere, and much less rain than Seattle. I could move there. If the United States would annex western Canada, my move would be seamless. The Butchart Gardens were indeed spectacular, but I still think Longwood Gardens edges them out as the best. Our time in Victoria was excellent; the real excitement was getting there.
If you read the earlier blogs you know that we booked an excursion to Butchart Gardens on Friday, but because of the limping boat we would be back to Seattle by Friday. We were arriving to Victoria a day early. Judi made calls to move our reservations up a day, but was informed there was nothing they could do for us, there was no availability for us on Thursday. If you don’t know Judi well she might surprise you with her bulldog tendencies.
The last time we were on a cruise we left the dining room to find a couple having a huge argument by the elevators. She was crying, he was yelling. Everyone was keeping clear and using the steps to avoid the melee. It seemed like a good idea to me, but not to Judi. She marched over to the couple, stepped in front of the man and firmly asked. “Do we have a problem here?” Well, duh. Obviously there was a problem, but she was not going to leave it alone. She turned to the woman and asked, “Are you safe? Do you need somewhere to go?”
I quickly started praying that our room would not be that somewhere. The couple stormed off down the hallway, the woman cursing the man, and the man cursing Judi. She was un-phased. That is what she is like when she thinks something is amiss.
Butchart Gardens was the excursion Judi most anticipated. She would endure the animal nonsense as long as she got to walk through a beautiful garden at the end. She would not give up easily on this excursion. She kept researching and calling, but when we arrived in Victoria we had no reservation. She instructed me that we were getting off the boat as soon as they let us and we would get to the gardens. I know that determination and did as I was told. True to her word she got us a shuttle with the same company that said they couldn’t accommodate us and got us there a half hour earlier than the scheduled trip. She is a force to be reckoned with if you come between her and her flowers.
Skagway may not sound like much of city, mostly because it is not. However, several told us to take this excursion which is a train ride up the Yukon pass that was utilized by intrepid fools during the Yukon gold rush. The disappointment of this excursion was realized early. We received an email the night before our ship sailed to inform us the itinerary had been changed: we would skip Skagway and come back to Seattle a day early. The truncation of our cruise was necessary because they needed to work on the ship’s engine.
Seattle from the Ship
You may be thinking what I thought, “Why are we going to sea with a bum engine and rushing back to the safety of Seattle a day early?” We were in Seattle. Was this the “Gee, I hope we make it cruise?” Were we also leaving with only a quarter tank of gas hoping the price would be cheaper in Alaska? Was our captain a risk-a-holic adrenaline junkie? I don’t know, they never told us. In fact, they never mentioned the missing day at sea after the email notice. I guess they figured we would be so busy cranking up our triglycerides that we wouldn’t notice.
Eagle With No Relevance to This Blog
I don’t know if it was related to our engine problems or not, but we left Seattle about an hour before the Princess Cruise ship. I watched the princess cruise gain on us during the night. When we arrived at our first port of call, Ketchikan, the princess ship had been there for hours. This pattern repeated itself at every port. Our ship would leave first while the Princess and Royal Caribbean passengers explored the towns and went sight seeing on shore. When we arrived at the next port those ships would always be docked already and the passengers were busy with excursions. I felt like I was being punished or on time out. “Sit there and watch the other kids have fun and maybe you can have a little fun too.”
I digress. This is a long blog for an excursion that never happened. I will dedicate a separate blog to my analysis of cruise lines. Stay tuned…
Juneau, capital of Alaska, home of Sarah Palin, and sight of our second shore excursion. Helicopters and glaciers, what could go wrong? After all the shuttling and shuffling was done we found ourselves in a little shack on the edge of an airport. To make sure the chopper could get off the ground they confiscated all of our bags and backpacks and then made each of us stand on a scale individually so they could record our weight. You couldn’t even go to the bathroom to reduce your weight because the bathrooms were broken. They did have a port-a-potty next to the building which is never an exciting option for me. I decided to follow the leadership of Captain James T. Kirk and wait for the glacier to address my biological needs. I wanted to go where no man has gone before.
The helicopter held six of us, so not everyone was going to get a window. More specifically, if your body was big, your view was small. I won the bountiful body award and was assigned a special seat in the middle of the back row between two other big guys who clearly had not worked the buffet line as skillfully as me. Wedged in like a cork in a bottle, I was happy to provide sufficient ballast so the leaner among us could enjoy the breathtaking views of Alaska from the air. Judi, of course, was in the front seat right next to the pilot, who incidentally, didn’t look old enough to drive a car. Between the duty-free shack (you’ll get that later), and the high-school pilot program they did not instill a lot of confidence.
We lifted off in light rain and were assured a beautiful day on the glacier. The pilot pointed out highlights on the way, passengers would ooh and ahh, and I would wriggle around trying to peer over the first and second runners-up in the fat-boy contest only to be told by the second runner-up that I missed it as he gestured to behind us. I soon became aware that we were flying in rather tight circles but couldn’t quite tell what was going on. Judi told me later that the pilot looked nervous as a storm closed in on us. I’m not sure how she could tell, he wasn’t old enough to furrow his brow. He soon made the announcement that we would not be landing on the glacier and would head straight back to the shack to get out of the weather. We returned without event – at least none that I could see from the chubby seat.
The good news is that they refunded the cost of the excursion, Judi got a free helicopter ride, and I got enough money back to handle the tips at the next hotel.