Category Archives: Travel

Cycle-touring Tanzania, for a cause


Two sets of thick, nubby tire tracks disappear over the steep slope. This is a cliff, really, a cliff in remote Tanzania ending 1,500 feet below on the hot, sandy Masaai Plain. It’s not a good place for injuries of any kind, and especially not the bloody kind of gashes sustained after falling off a mountain bike. Blood (and fear) is detected easily by lion, hyena, snake, scorpion and the like in wild places like this.

Today, after five days riding up and over Tanzania’s green, lush Usambara Mountain Range, it is finally time to descend into a harsher, hotter Africa.

Though hilly and rutted roads are the norm in these mountains, mountain-biking the Usambara had been relatively easy so far, as long as you took it slow and steady.  For most people in our group of five foreigners in their thirties and forties, this method worked well. I think the cool, misty mornings had something to do with it. I could see, after a few days cycling here, why they call the Usambara “The Switzerland of Tanzania.” We had stopped for a full day and night in the village of Lushoto, singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” with friendly girls walking home from school, eating sugarcane with happy young boys, whose only use for knives was to cut wild sugarcane. Passing through the farm towns, “helloooo-muzzungu!” rang out from anyone working the fields, and children pushed us up the hills, grabbing the backs of our seats and running furiously behind us, laughing the whole way. The mountains felt safe, giddy almost, with happy monkeys in the trees above us and happy children nearly everywhere else.

But the exit route out of this veritable African idyll, so far, isn’t so pleasant. Our guides, two Tanzanian brothers, decided to lead us out of the Usambara and onto the Masai Plain via a new route, a little-used cattle track beginning in the village of Mtae (muh-tie). It’s main purpose was to switch-back down the mountainous shelf known as the Masai Steppes. This track, peppered with thorns and full of deep rocky ruts, gave this amateur cyclist chills on a rather hot day. I’d never seen anything tougher on which to ride, and especially on a bike laden with too many tee-shirts stuffed in the panniers. I rode my brakes (always) and got off the bike (often). Whether riding or walking, I swore, loudly and steadily, at this horrid little cattle track. Local women, hiking the track uphill with heavy baskets of firewood on their heads, smiled knowingly as I shrieked and swore and sweated past them.

* * *

Yassin Madiwa, one of our two guides, saw the errant tire tracks first, where the riders had obviously missed the switchback and instead rolled off the slope.  He peered down. Definitely no trail. Just thorns, bushy tangles of trees, loose sandy soil, and rocks. He got off his bike, examined the tracks and thought, Could they … have ridden down this? The two women were the least experienced cyclists in the group of riders, made up of three American women and two Englishmen.

Certainly the others wouldn’t have lost the trail like this, Yassin thought, endangering themselves and possibly the rest of the group in one sweeping, poorly-thought-out decision.  It was only the seventh day of an 11-day cycling trip. It was not a day for losing two American women on the Masai Steppes.

He called the two women’s names, long and loud.

One of those names was mine.

TO BE CONTINUED (NEXT WEEK) ….

2 Comments

Filed under Eco-travel, Philanthropic Travel, Travel

Lhasa, at last


The conclusion to my 3-part story of traveling from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet via high-speed rail:

The instant-comfort-with-other-foreigners phenomenon happens again in the dining car, where my husband and I meet another American woman. She is 73 years old and traveling alone. She’s no less energetic or excited about the world as the young Harvard graduate we’d met earlier. After she explores Tibet, she’s headed to the highest point in India. She definitely does not buy an oxygen tube, feeling perfectly fine at 15,000 feet. Instead, she chats with us about her love of travel. We discover that we have both reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania.

As we get closer to Lhasa, a few of the cars’ bathroom floors are completely covered in sewage. Time. To. Get. Off.

Claustrophobia and intense restlessness set in. My husband spends hours on end in the dining car. Normally gregarious with strangers, he has reached his social limit and doesn’t feel like talking to anyone. We sit across the table from one another and stare out the window at the Tibetan Plateau.

Like us, the Chinese wait-staff appear as if they do not want to talk to another soul. Visibly weary at journey’s end, they stand and stare at one another behind the beer cooler. The looks on their faces say don’t ask us for another single thing.

For everyone, it’s a relief to pull into Lhasa.

The doors open and cold, thin, squeaky-clean air breezes in. We breathe a clean breath for what seems like the first time in weeks. Lhasa, at last.

The Lhasa train station stretches the size of football field in one big platform covered by a high ceiling — way too large for this one single train arrival per day. There are no schedule boards, and no one waits inside at the station for anyone.  Is this against the Chinese government rules, perhaps? People-less, the giant station nearly swallows us whole.

Just outside, the Himalayas loom in all directions; the sun sets behind those to the West. Out here, families greet one another in the Great Outdoors.

Lhasa is still an outpost city. There are no high-rises here. Yak herders, walking for hundreds of miles, have pitched their tents just beyond the train station parking lot. They will sell a few yaks and then go home.  We make our way into town under pink and purple skies enveloping the Himalaya.

LHASA, A CITY DIVIDED

To get to the Tibetan sector of Lhasa from the train station, you have to drive through the Chinese section first. It is a saccharine place, with neat rows of new shops with floor -to-ceiling glass fronts and Chinese shop girls wearing tight jeans milling around the mannequins that also wear the same tight jeans. The Chinese government has offered incentives for Chinese settling here, and it shows in how many storefronts use only Chinese lettering. Even in Tibetan sector of Lhasa, where we are staying, grocery stores are Chinese-owned chains.

My husband and I venture out for a walk the first morning, and cross from the TIbetan sector into the Chinese.

Sidewalks at nine in the morning on the Chinese Side are full of waving arms. Human arms waving in big circles, and human hips, bending from side to side. These mostly-female employees wear identical store-uniform skirts and aprons in pastel green or pink. They face their storefront, their backs to the cacophony of the streetscape unfolding behind them: the passing of Tibetan donkey carts packed full of vegetables with their clanking chimes, or motorcycles zipping by, or the women in traditional dress walking past silently, with equally quiet babies strapped to their backs. Patriotic music blares out into the street. When the mandated exercise session is over, the music stops and the employees go inside, like nothing ever happened.

The Tibetans walk and drive and pedal past all of this as if invisible in a territory no longer their own.

On the Tibetan Side, though, Lhasa’s sounds and smells would overwhelm me. Hearing the scraping of hand-mitts on stone of prostrating pilgrims inside and around the Johkang Temple gave me a new appreciation for Buddhist devotion. Inside the temple, the chanting was low and intoxicating, and yak-butter candles lighting every dark corner made the experience nearly surreal.

But then, intrusion. At the Potala Palace (the former home of the Dali Lama, now exiled in India), video cameras and recording equipment and Chinese soldiers in every quadrant of the eerily empty palace angered me. Our Tibetan guide warned us not to talk of the occupation or Chinese politics in public. There were recording devices placed all over. We could talk about it inside the car, though, once we were out of Lhasa and heading out into the villages.

Despite Chinese occupation and the physical absence of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan way of life is enduring and being passed on to the young. A trip to the hillside Sera Monastery, about six miles outside Lhasa, where laughing young monks debate every afternoon, gave me hope. These monks reveled little fear as they practiced their beliefs. And, after visiting Sera Monastery, as we hiked down the hillside to catch our bus back to Lhasa, a young man, maybe 20 years old, happily ran toward us. He saw us looking at our guidebook, and asked in English if there were any pictures inside of the Dalai Lama. Tibetans desperately want to see their exiled leader, but the Chinese ban any images of him. We flip and flip through our guidebook but there is no picture to rip out and give the young man. He looks over our shoulder, hoping to see his holy leader, and to take him home. His faith is steadfast, not impeded in the slightest by the Chinese occupation.

We apologize that there’s no picture in our guidebook and mean it more than we can say.

He thanks us for looking, smiles and walks away. On our way out of Lhasa the next day in our Land Rover, the train-bridge over the Lhasa River reminds me of our long journey from Beijing. If my presence here changes anything, I won’t fully know it unless I return. For now, all I can know for sure is that the only change I wish for Tibet is a peaceful end to the Chinese occupation. I’ll support the worldwide effort as best I can by bringing awareness to the issues. It’s all I can do — at least now — in the hope of preserving such a rich and wonderful culture. For now, though, I’ll take in — and lock into my memory — the wide openness of the Tibetan Plateau unfolding before me in every direction.

4 Comments

Filed under Eco-travel, Travel

Of Trains and Toilets and Tibet


The continuation of last week’s story about my travels into Tibet on the Beijing-to-Lhasa train:

Given the still-sensitive nature of the Chinese occupation, my husband and I knew before we left the U.S. that we would have to adhere to strict Chinese rules to move about Tibet once we got there. Rather than get stuck in travel-permit hell, we decided to join a Canadian travel outfit for a small-group adventure tour, who would arrange the permits and drivers for us. We’d be with the group for about two weeks.

After the train ride, government-mandated Tibetan drivers would take us deeper into Tibet, then overland to Kathmandu.  First, though, once off the train, our itinerary called for acclimation time to the high altitude (and high level of yak-based meals) in Lhasa before the Land Rover portion of our trip.  The eight days of the trip would be slow going, with bumpy, dusty roads and overnight stops in the Tibetan towns of Gyantse, Shigatse and Sakya — before a cold sleep at the Rombuk Monastery Guest House at the foot of Mt. Everest. Rombuk is the highest-altitude monastery in the world.

Without thinking too hard about it, I grab the toothpaste tube in the toilet, wash off the tube and my hands. I do this as thoroughly as I can, seriously considering how I might use boiling water to sterilize the tube some more.

Back in our sleeping compartment, my husband is appalled when I tell him how I rescued the toothpaste. So are the others in our group. I’m not sure if he’s more surprised about my thrifty desire to save a $2 tube of toothpaste, or my willingness to retrieve anything at all out of a Chinese squat-toilet. In many ways, I’m looking in the mirror at my “travel-self” for the first time, and it feels like everyone else is looking too, pointing out the flaws. Just like outsiders seem to be doing with China and its flawed politics and flawed dog food and flawed kids’ toys.

But on this train at least, it seems the Chinese want nothing more than to protect us. There are no outdoor viewing decks on the train, and no windows that open. Instead, double-sealed and glazed doors and windows protect us from the cold, wind and from strong ultraviolet rays at the high altitude.  We’re also protected from sinking into the permafrost. Strange stone square grids made with hand-placed rocks line the train tracks, part of an intricate system of raised rock beds underneath. The Chinese have used these, along with clever uses of pipes and near-frozen concrete pylons, to create a cool bed of air underneath the rails. It’s a fairly simple way to ensure that the permafrost never has a chance to get warm enough to thaw.

You wouldn’t know a rugged geological uprising is happening right under us, as the Indian and Eurasian plates crash together to create the heave of the Tibetan Plateau. It’s quiet here, and save for a few small towns, the most common sign of human life is the nomadic herders and their tents. And the yaks, scattered in groups of ten, fifty, a hundred, look small here. The few Tibetan antelope we see spy the train and flee. For hours, we see nothing but distant Himalayan peaks.

My husband stares out the window, running the compact video camera, his eyes moist behind its lens. I’m intrigued by what lies outside too, but touched to a greater degree by his emotional reaction to seeing the Himalaya for the first time.

YEARNING FOR THE OUTDOORS, EXPLORING WHAT LIES WITHIN

Like him, I wish I were outside in the emptiness. My semi-solution to get away from people is to take frequent long walks through the other train cars (where there are yet more people), then back again. On a train it’s the closest thing to going for a stroll. I like to keep moving, up and down the length of train, through the seating classes, glimpsing the shades of economic and cultural difference that they represent.

It’s much like a city: the rich live in the periphery (the first and last cars), the poor in the middle. It reminds me of wealthy suburbs surrounding the struggling inner cities of so many world metropolises. But the poor on the train are not so poor by local standards. Buying a ticket on this train isn’t possible for most of the Tibetan population – the ones we see herding yaks, or in the yurt camps, and so many others we never see. The poorest are on the outside looking in. Do they know where the train stops and starts? Did anyone tell them it was going to slice through the openness of their land?

I wonder how the herders and their families must feel looking at us behind our windows, zooming by on the rails. Can they see our table stacked with chips and apples and tea and warm Chinese beer? Can they see our $1,200 high-definition video recorders, our $1,000 digital SLR cameras?

Perhaps this new train somehow intensifies their knowledge of their “poorness.” Or was that already done decades ago after the Chinese invasion? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The nomadic yak-herding families remain, at least for now. It’s their home, train or no train running through it.

Some of my fellow foreigners (which include urban Chinese) never seem to emerge from first class, hiding inside four-berth sleeper cabins with sliding doors that close them off from everyone. The next class down, which we have booked, is made up of foreigners and wealthier Chinese. These six-berth sleeper cabins have no doors.

In second class, the train’s “inner-city,” passengers creatively attempt to sleep on the floor underneath or between seats, or on the cold hard metal floor between cars.  The price to be able to lie down on a bed – even stacked three high in an 8 foot by 5 foot space — is high enough (about $100 for the entire route) that most locals cannot afford it.

On this journey, there is only one foreigner who sits here, a young woman who keeps to herself and looks utterly miserable. After the first day, I don’t see her anymore.

PEACEFUL, IN LOOKS ONLY?

On this train, the Tibetan and Chinese passengers sit mashed together in uncomfortable-looking seats placed way too close together. Like the uncomfortable relationship between China and Tibet, it looks peaceful on the surface. People tolerate one another despite invasions of space. Legs and arms stick out in the center aisle. Sometimes spilled and mashed food blocks the way and makes the passageways between cars slippery. After a while it starts to look and smell like vomit.

I walk quickly through and slide on slippery goo. I catch myself by flailing my arms and bolting back upright. The worst part of my train walks, though, is the leering men, whose eyes lock on my chest anytime I pass through.

The train stops during one of my long walks. I’m on my way “home,” just three cars away from our cramped sleeper berth, and the familiar faces inside. By now I’ve thrown the toothpaste tube away under severe peer pressure from my husband and our temporary roommates.  Their teasing is good-natured, and I’m discovering that I’m fond enough of them to know that 10-hour days bumping along in Land Rovers with these people will turn out all right. Plus, someone will loan me their toothpaste.

But as the train stops, so does my long walk home. All the doors seal shut, locking everyone where they are. This is the Chinese solution to keeping people in their places during embarkation and disembarkation: seal everyone off from one another, so one sneaks on the train without a ticket, or sits in the wrong class.

The stop is only a minute or two, but the lockdown lasts nearly 20 minutes. There is no spare seat for me in this compartment, so I’m stuck standing on the metal floor in front of the toilet door.

At first, it feels like the whole car is staring at me, the lone foreigner. A tall man stands four inches away, waiting to use the bathroom. Before long he begins to leer. I try to keep my head pointed away from him. His eyes slowly survey my neck and chest, but there is no where for me to go. Soon he has his cell phone out, and oh my, he’s is taking a picture of me with it.

Is he sending my picture to his entire address book? I will never know, because I do not speak Chinese and I choose not to make a scene. No one in the car says anything. With nowhere to sit, nothing to read, and no window for scenery, the minutes drag. After about twenty minutes, a stern-looking train employee walks by. I motion to the locked door, and he opens it with a key.

With a loud ka-push, the seal breaks.

I’m the first one through the door. I walk fast. I’m relieved to get back to my compartment. I feel bad for feeling this way, but I can’t help it. Like it is in so many places, the privileged are semi-comfortable passing through, but we can’t stay. We can’t sit down and get comfortable. We look different. The rules for men and women are different. And cultural differences, while it’s easy to say they don’t matter, do.

Even the Chinese-Americans on the train can feel the strong cultural division, and it seems a few of them don’t feel they fit in all that well either. A few compartments away from ours, I meet a bright-eyed young woman, a recent Harvard graduate. She explains that she is traveling with her Chinese-born parents, who like to come back to China to visit family; this summer she decided to come along. She confides that she’s tired of speaking Chinese, and oh wow is it so great to have some English-speakers here. She’s got a job lined up at Google in San Francisco.

The scene feels a bit weird, as if the train and the instant camaraderie of talking with another American temporarily cancel out where we are in time and space: racing across the Tibetan Plateau, closing in on on its holiest of cities, Lhasa.

THIS STORY WILL CONCLUDE NEXT WEEK…

1 Comment

Filed under Eco-travel, Travel

To Tibet, riding the world’s highest rails


 

On China’s sleek new train from Beijing to Tibet, the you-know-what is always sloshing in the squats. Overflowing aluminum toilets and door-less sleeping compartments filled with restless travelers (a few gasping for oxygen with tubes in their noses) wasn’t quite what I had envisioned when my husband and I signed up to take China Rail’s much-lauded route across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau — as part of our honeymoon.

A romantic trip? Romantic wasn’t quite the word for this, but this journey along the “Roof of the World” from Beijing to Lhasa certainly held an exotic allure. Chinese propaganda reinforced it, as did the news pieces published shortly after the high-speed line opened. And with the hubbub, booking the journey was hard to resist: perhaps it was simply the idea that we could watch the dawn creep over the Himalayan Range from the comfort of a warm train compartment.

Opened in the summer of 2006, this is officially the world’s highest train journey, carrying half a million people in and out of Tibet each year. The shiny new cars glide effortlessly over five high passes, some more than 16,000 feet above sea level.  Over the 60-hour journey, the train stops just eight times, and only for a few quick minutes.

Some would say the Qinghai-Tibet railway line is a work of engineering genius. Several sections cross some of the world’s most active geological fracture zones. It took 227,000 workers five years to complete the line, and the high-altitude working conditions required 2,000 medics (working in on-site hospitals with oxygen chambers!). Not one person died building it.

I’m starting to wonder, though, if some of us passengers near the toilets might very well expire from fumes.  It’s June — peak travel season — which is part of the reason the plumbing is protesting. It seems as if this train — for all the feats of Chinese engineering required to get it up and running, and all the fanfare (and controversy) over its opening — would contain working toilets.

Still, I see no one passing out – yet — at least from the lack of oxygen on a train that cruises at an average altitude of 13,000 feet.  We can thank a special oxygen-generator under the train and piping in the walls that directs the extra oxygen into the ventilation system for that.

A PLACE UNCOVERED

Tibet was once a place that had a kind of natural shield – the unforgiving terrain — to protect it from the masses. Now with the train, we can shield ourselves from it, at least until we get to Lhasa. And now, the masses are starting to come to Tibet. Critics say this train, as the years go on, will bring way too many Chinese into Tibet who will stamp out the Tibetan culture. It’s a dramatic conclusion, and most of the time I bristle at dramatic prophecies. But I can’t see another end for Tibet unless it gains independence. The Tibetans are way outnumbered by the Chinese, and the longstanding Chinese-government occupation makes it easy for ethnic Chinese to move in.

Tibet is empty. Yet Tibet is full – of a spiritual confidence, of a culture steeped in history, of values still largely unaffected by consumer culture. Tibet is also a study in flatness and height, dirt and cleanliness. Tibet is new and old all at once: fresh geologically (the Himalayas are the youngest mountain range in the world) but old spiritually and historically. Tibet’s people are resilient yet acquiescent. Outwardly calm yet brimming with spiritual energy.

Perhaps naively, I want to get to know Tibet a little before it changes too much. I want to know what I can do – if anything – to help it. I’m hoping our two-week visit, staying in local guesthouses with a small tour group, will help me find out how.

From the train window, I gaze out over this vast plateau flanked by the Himalaya on two sides. Perhaps I’m hoping that some of the Buddhist spirituality to rub off on me. My wants conflict me, because so many other people want Tibet too, and this train is far and away the cheapest way of getting here. I also feel conflicted as I am helping to globalize (and in the process homogenize) Tibet, one of the last lonely places left.

A NEW TIBET?

China Rail installed oxygen outlets in the walls so passengers can buy individual connection tubes for about $2 and “plug in.” It’s funny to watch people stick the tubes in their noses in their compartment (there are outlets over each bed), near their seat, or at a table in the dining car. I wonder, might this train be a metaphor for the New Tibet? Could this high-tech thing, capable of dampening the blow of high altitude travel for potentially millions of people over the coming years, be making Tibet into a softer, more pampered version of itself?

What about those that feel dizzy but cannot afford the $2 tubes?

Foreign tourists like me, of whom the train carries only a handful on this particular summer run, are part of the problem. For the time being, we are a small percentage of those flooding into Tibet, but we represent big change to Tibetan way of life. Why aren’t the train’s nay-sayers mad at us? Aren’t we part of the controversy too? Chinese or not, we are all part of this history-in-motion.

Right now, though, most of us Westerners in our tour group are trying to blend in, an impossible task. Even so, we do our best to mimic the locals, cooking our giant store-bought tubs of spicy ramen noodles using the hot boiling water from spigots in the walls next to the toilets.

One evening, not wanting to set my toothpaste on the filthy bathroom sinks, I hold the tube in my teeth as I use the restroom. One turn of my foot on the slippery floor, though, and it flies from of my mouth and lands directly in the toilet.

I stare down at it. Is this really happening?

I look again. It’s still there.

My conscience won’t let me leave it where it is to clog the toilet, so, holding my breath, I go in.

TO BE CONTINUED ….

7 Comments

Filed under Eco-travel, Travel

Going Inside Kibera Slum (Part 3)


The conclusion to my 3-part story of  inside Kenya’s biggest slum, Kibera, and travels into other slum areas around Nairobi:

After listening to these courageous HIV-positive women, I buy about a dozen of the blue, green, yellow and red beaded pins the women make and sell to raise money for their public education campaigns. They put some of the money in a fund for medical expenses when one of them develops full-blown AIDS. They smile, grateful for the donation, and I thank them for letting me into their inner circle.

Once outside and in the light, Brother Cleo and I are surrounded by children. It’s as if smoke signals announcing the arrival of a priest and an American woman had gone out while we had sat indoors for a little while. Like the women I just met, the children all stare at my camera; the easiest way to end any awkwardness, I think, is to offer an impromptu photo session. Indeed, the laughing begins as the camera lens clicks. Only a few (more self-conscious, teen girls) walk away, camera-shy.

The laughter of children. It’s the same joyful sound no matter where you are.

A MEAL OFFERED

Brother Cleo and I leave to go higher up the hill to visit with one of the families Brother Cleo has been ministering to. The parents and their young children live in a lean-to, made of plywood and scraps of tin. A pot of water boils on tabletop gas burner.

According to The Slum Project, water mains cross underneath the 1 million people living in Kibera Slum to carry water to surrounding golf courses and estates, yet the utility companies do not provide access directly. Instead, Kiberans must either purchase water by the liter from water brokers, at prices that can be upwards of 20 times the price paid for metered water in the city. Many who can’t afford that walk to locations outside Kibera with cheaper water and haul it back to their living quarters.

A pile of lettuce sits on a table. The family offers us lunch. Brother Cleo whispers to me, “We’ll eat later, back at McCauley House.”

Taking Brother Cleo’s cue, we smile and politely decline, saying we have plans later for lunch.

With visitors, sharing what you have — however little that may be — is part of the Kenyan culture here. But in Kibera there is very little food to go around. According to The Slum Project, Oxfam, Concern Worldwide, and other aid agencies, Kibera is in a state of prolonged food crisis.

Spotting my camera, the family is eager for me to take their picture, and ask to send it back to them after it’s developed. They have never had a family portrait before. They stand proudly outside the back of their home, near a kiln that backs up to other shacks.

After the photo shoot, I thank them for inviting me into their home. Brother Cleo and I keep going up – into the commercial center of Kibera. Even after being here a few hours, I find myself, still, unprepared for the rivulets of sewage that flow down crevices in the hillside. Again, I clutch my trousers at my hips to save the bottoms from soaking up the wetness.  Just a half-mile away, where I’m staying inside the Holly Cross seminary, restrooms with clean, flushing toilets work perfectly. So much could be done to extend the city water and sewer lines here, but it doesn’t happen.

Instead, malaria and cholera and typhoid spread through the community. Diseases that don’t have to exist.

We step into the courtyard of one of the schools the late Mother Teresa set up decades ago, then walk along the railway at the “top” of the slum, where we see the farm animals, the garbage heaps, and the makeshift shops with boom-box music drowning out other shops’ boom-box music. They sell car parts and underwear and everything else in between.

After snapping at least a hundred photos, I’m officially overwhelmed.

AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SLUM, A FAMILY RISING

Before we leave Kibera, we stop and visit a family who has received seed money from the McCauley House priests to start and run their own businesses. They live at the bottom of the massive Kibera hill, where the open sewers drain into the field and form a kind of moat around Kibera. This family tells me that their small snack cart near downtown Nairobi, purchased with the grant money, is doing well. They introduce me to their 20-year-old son, who has just begun studying at Nairobi University. His parents beam with pride as he talks about college.

Much of his success – and his parents’ newfound success as well – can be traced back to a teen center that the McCauley brothers run near the seminary. This is where young people from Kibera can just be teens; some, in time, end up introducing their  families to the priests. The teen center is our last stop for the day. It’s a plain building painted yellow on the outside and containing big open hall inside where teens can play music, dance and support each other. A priest is always nearby to talk. It’s a simple concept, but a powerful one.

When we arrive, we’re greeted by a few young men hanging out in front.

“Brother Cleo!”

They offer hugs, high-fives. This young priest is a trusted friend.

“Hey there!,” Brother Cleo answers, smiling.

Brother Cleo pats them on the back, asks how they’re doing. The priest on duty at the center comes out and waves, then goes back inside. A few girls watch me peek through the open doorway, giggle, and return to getting the space ready for a dance party they’ve scheduled for later that evening.

MORE WALKS, MORE SLUMS

Over the coming days, we would travel all over Nairobi to visit more projects run or supported by the priests. I got the sense that Brother Cleo walked with me as if he were trying to see this place with fresh eyes, like mine. We visit a boarding school for impoverished girls and spoke with the headmaster and a few students; we go inside a health clinic crammed with patients who would be seen regardless of their ability to pay.

All of these places receive money that the priests raise, and everyone asks if I would kindly tell my friends back home to donate, too. Brother Cleo never pressured me to give any money, or make any promises to anyone here. He just wanted me to see it from the inside. With Brother Cleo gently leading me forward, I could scratch off the ugly surfaces of the slums. And in doing so — in facing the hard realities — find a greater sense that, yes, something could be done in the slums.

This would not be my last experience in a slum. It was only the beginning.

1 Comment

Filed under Philanthropic Travel, Travel

Going Inside Kenya’s Kibera Slum: Part 2


Part 2 (of 3)  from my journeys in Kenya’s Kibera Slum:

While photographing the Holy Cross priests’ primary projects in the slum is my main “job” here, I’ve got other, more personal reasons why I’m here. I’ve started to lead volunteer vacations abroad in the last few years, and it’s time to test the limits of my comfort zone, and more importantly, see potentially what I and a group of volunteers could realistically do to help in a slum full of people in need. I’m not so naïve as to think that all slum cultures are the same, but I know I want to try and understand the needs of this one.

(Three years later, married and no longer traveling solo, I’d lead a 14-member volunteer team to build houses in a slum in India.)

For someone who was raised Catholic but has never practiced it as an adult, it was a minor miracle that I had lined up an insider-tour with the Holy Cross priests. As a general rule, single women are not allowed to sleep overnight in a Catholic seminary, nor are they (especially if they’re white) advised to walk into Kibera Slum alone. But my timing is good on both fronts. Nearly every one of the seminary brothers are away at a conference in Uganda, and Brother Cleo has offered guide me inside Kibera.

FINALLY, THE PRIEST

The harried bus driver appears, as promised. I thank him profusely and give him a slip of paper with the number of Brother Cleo. They speak, and then he hands the mobile phone to me. The voice on the other end sounds like soft, cool rain. He was simply waiting for me to call.

“Oh yes, the buses are always late from Tanzania” he says nonchalantly. “How was your journey?”

“Good, long,” I say, just happy to hear his voice. “I’m so sorry we’re here so late.”

“No problem, we’re not far away. Maybe fifteen minutes.”

Brother Cleo tells me to stay put, and assures me he will find me here.

The bus pulls away and I am alone, watching hotel guests appear and disappear. This is a popular stairwell. I do my best to ignore this drug den hotel that I’ve found myself in and instead focus on pressing my fingers into my swollen foot. It has grown in size all day, and I’m worried I might have to go to the hospital if it doesn’t get better soon. Twenty minutes later I’m greeted by Brother David, a young seminarian. Brother Cleo is waiting outside, he tells me, in the car. It’s not safe to leave the car parked at night in Nairobi; idling is better, with the doors locked.

“Colleen! It is so great to finally meet you after all the e-mails!” Brother Cleo says as I get into the car, turning his head around in the driver’s seat to look me in the eye. His eyes are warm, his cheeks round and full.

I smile, and tell him I completely agree.

Once we’re on our way, both priests want to know about my trip, my climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro, my swollen foot. I am just grateful to be in the car, grateful that they care, grateful that these kind men are the people I get to spend the next two days with.

After winding up and out of the city, we reach McCauley House. The big metal gate in front locks only from the inside, so of the brothers comes out to let us in. Tall brick walls, topped by razor wire, enclose several buildings that surround a grassy inner courtyard. The whole place sits on a rise overlooking Kibera, which is on its own big hill, less than a quarter-mile away.

Before we pull the car all the way in, Brother Cleo rolls down the window and points to a few lights in the distance. It’s as if Kibera has a protective edging stretched around one side: a long, narrow field a mile long, but less than a quarter-mile wide.  Cross the field the short way, and Kibera is closer than one might think.

“That’s Kibera,” he says simply, with the calm, even voice I will become accustomed to in the coming days. He knows this place – this famously awful place — is what I’ve come to see.

“We’ll go tomorrow,” he says.

From here, I listen to Kibera rumble. The whole place murmurs and creaks, like a giant old computer running too many software programs all at once. It’s like the sound right before the computer locks up completely. But so far, Kibera hasn’t died. It’s been churning like this for years, components maxed out, struggling keep everything and everyone going within. What is striking, at night, about Sub Saharan Africa’s biggest slum is not what you see (there are few lights), but this organism you hear.

It is nearly 10 pm, but the seminary kitchen is still open, most likely because of me. One of the brothers, as cook-for-the-night, feeds me a mildly spiced African soup and a side of vegetables and rice. After dinner, Brother Cleo then leads me to my room, at the end of a long, dark hallway in an empty dormitory wing on the far side of the grassy inner courtyard. It feels miles away from everyone else. I have a hunch I’ve been put out in the “back 40” for a reason, but that’s just fine by me. The quiet is heavenly.

A MORNING IN KIBERA

After breakfast the next morning, Brother Cleo and I cross the no-man’s land – the border field. My foot, as if miraculously healed by my presence in a holy seminary, is no longer swollen. And so Brother Cleo and I walk, side by side, the first of many walks we will take, crossing a footbridge over a dirty, garbage-strewn moat, then up into Kibera, its own city on a hill. I expected to go “down” into a slum, not up.

From a distance, Kibera is a sea of rusty shack roofs atop a giant pile of dirt and a garbage dump. From close-up, it is much more: a living city, more densely populated than New York,  a city that belches smoke from thousands of cooking fires and reeks of farm animals and garbage. All of this is mixed with the aroma of butchered raw meat, and steaming vegetables cooking at alley-side stands, and a thousand other smells I can’t indentify.

Perhaps more than anything else, Kibera reeks of wet, wan waste. Everywhere, goats and cows and dogs rummage through the garbage. Most of us in the developed world don’t have to live with the stuff that we tuck away, or bury, or sanitize, or burn. We cast away all those moist, mushy things that smell bad: the dead things, the rotting things, the bloody things, the stained things, the cast-off things. In Kibera, though, life happens in tandem with the inevitable waste of life.

The first thing that shocks me, after the smell, are the open sewer trenches everywhere, hundreds of them. Some are only partially dug. These gullies are full of garbage and plastic bags that create unnatural and dangerously mobile dams for the sewage. Overflows are common. I’ve made the mistake of wearing sandals and linen slacks, and I grab my pant legs at the hips to hike them up out of the way as I step over overflowing sections.

According to the Kibera Slum Foundation, Kibera residents who can afford it pay for shared toilets that may get used by many as 500-1,000 people; about two-thirds employ the “flying toilet,” which involves defecating in a plastic bag and tossing it into the air during the night. It’s no surprise that disease – especially stomach and intestinal illnesses –  runs rampant here.

As diseases go, HIV gets the most media attention, with as many as one in nine Kibera residents infected. Still, few receive proper treatment for it. Brother Cleo and I make our way to visit a women’s HIV support group.  Ten women are gathered in one of the member’s homes for a regular meeting. The home is made of corrugated tin, and inside sits one table with a plain, threadbare cloth and one couch with a ripped slipcover. It’s eerily dark inside, despite the late morning glare outside. The women, sitting in the dark corners of the room, shyly introduce themselves one by one.  All tell me how many children they have. Children are a big part of one’s identity in this part of Africa.

Some have as many as eight children to care for, but today they are here to brainstorm ideas on how educate other Kiberans about HIV in an effort to save their neighbors. A few cough. Most look tired. So far, one woman in the group has died of the disease. The women stare at me as I cradle my camera with its big telephoto lens in my lap. I wrap my arms around it, instinctively trying to make it look smaller than it is. The sale of this camera could buy medicine for all of them, at least for a little while. I feel guilty carrying something so expensive in this place, and their eyes are piercing. I know they don’t mean to make me feel bad, but I do.

Brother Cleo talks to them about a door-to-door campaign where they will be talking to Kiberans on how to prevent HIV. The women will be passing out flyers about safe sex practices.  This is a first for me: Catholic involvement in a safe-sex campaign. I’m excited about this, to know this “secret” that is undoubtedly saving lives here.

Part 3 will conclude this story next week.

2 Comments

Filed under Philanthropic Travel, Travel

Going Inside: My journey to Kenya’s infamous Kibera Slum


A lump grew inside my throat. The bus’ idling diesel engine vibrated with a violent vigor below my feet somewhere, as if trying to jar me loose from my seat. But I wasn’t budging. I was traveling in Kenya alone, but for the first time in nearly a decade of solo adventuring, I sought the comfort that comes from being inside a large hunk of metal on wheels.

The priest was not here, and I was not in a good place. 

We had just pulled in three hours late after six hours on the road, well after dark. After snaking through the dark streets of downtown Nairobi, the driver stopped the bus abruptly. We were to disembark on the street — now, quickly, the driver’s body language seemed to insist — directly into the center of a sprawling African metropolis known for carjacking, armed robbery and murder. I knew Nairobi’s reputation, of course. I just didn’t know we’d be pulling in at nine o’clock instead of six, and I didn’t know that, in Nairobi, a poorly-lit street corner is apparently where everyone gets out when there is no centralized city bus station. It’s where you get out when the offices of this particular bus company have closed for the night because your bus happened to be really late. Nobody gets paid to wait for a late bus. This is the way it works in Nairobi.

On both sides of the bus, along the exterior luggage compartments, a group of men appear from seemingly nowhere. From what I can tell, they want to carry our luggage quite badly. In a place with high unemployment, any little bit helps.

I’d caught this bus in Moshi, in Tanzania, and we’d crossed into Kenya hours ago. Our 50-50 mix of locals and foreigners (most of the muzzungus were fresh off the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro, like me) all piled out of the bus in a frenzy, happy to be done with the ride. Except me. Not only was my ride not here, but one of my feet had swollen after the long descent off the 19,000-foot mountain the day before, so much so that it looked like a huge water balloon.

The bus had largely followed dusty single-lane roads before finding the highway into the capital city. This was an especially dry July in East Africa, and drought was causing famine in parts of both Tanzania and Kenya. I deeply sensed my white privilege here —  to travel freely, simply because I could, because I had a tiny bit of savings and some frequent-flier miles, and because my culture allows women to do pretty much whatever we want. I felt lucky and guilty all at once, and up until now, I felt perhaps a false sense of security in a less-than-secure part of the world.

 Maybe it was my intended destination – a Catholic enclave — that had fooled me a little into thinking I was safer than most single women traveling here. But in truth, I actually would be pretty darn safe. Through the grace of friends at the Holy Cross-run university where I worked back home, I’ve managed a special three day stay in the McCauley House Seminary of Nairobi to learn more about their charitable programs in the slums and to photograph them for my university. While here, the plan is to spend most of my time traveling from project to project, including a visit to an AIDS clinic on the grounds of a Catholic church near the Dandora Slum.

My main focus, though, is Kibera Slum. I’m here, officially, on a photography assignment. I don’t know what to expect, but I do know I’m grateful for an “in”. I’ll be an outsider, for sure, but one priest, Brother Kyomuhendo Atwooki Cleophas —the priest I’m hoping will show up soon – will be taking me inside Kibera, home to 1 million of the world’s poorest people.

 I gingerly step off the bus. Ignoring how uncomfortable I feel, limping a little on the bad foot, I concentrate on looking confident.  One by one, the other passengers meet family and friends and disappear. Once the driver’s assistant hands me my backpack, one of the men offers to carry it for me. I throw the backpack over my shoulder and look directly at the man.

 “No thanks!” I say cheerily, wondering if that was the right tone to take.

 Where was the priest?

 A LEAP OF FAITH

My mind searches for reasons for his absence as I look over both shoulders to see BEWARE OF CARJACKERS signs tacked to nearly every telephone pole and building. I swivel my torso back and forth in an effort to steel my backpack against sticky fingers. Must. Not. Smile. I talk myself into giving off a don’t-mess-with-me look.

 The only light coming from anywhere near is from a decrepit-looking hotel across the street. I hope that I won’t end up spending the night there. I need a phone, preferably, before the bus leaves me alone here. I’m drawn to the one I see in the bus driver’s hand.

“Excuse me?” I say. He doesn’t hear me.

 “Excuse me?” I say, louder this time.

 The driver and his assistant busily close up the luggage compartments.

 “Excuse me?”

 The driver finally looks in my direction.

 “My ride isn’t here, and I don’t have a phone. Can I please call my friend on your phone?”

 The driver looks annoyed. He waits a few seconds, and then speaks.

 “OK, OK,” he says quickly.  “Just wait in the hotel,” pointing to the decrepit building nearby.  “I come find you.”

 I wait on a bench near a stairwell in the lobby, watching the locals go upstairs to their rooms, then back out again, too tired to suspect what’s likely really happening here — drug trades. I’m also just now realizing that I can ask the hotel staff to call for me, if it comes to that. I wonder if the bus driver has forgotten my request, and I wonder too if I’ll ever make it to the Holy Cross seminary near Kibera Slum. Like the priests that live here, I want to be near this dirty, crowded place, where so many are afraid to go. The priests go inside to listen, to pray, and to offer help. Perhaps it is this initial act of courage, to face the ugliest of realities and offer help, which defines faith-in-action best. I want to see that, to capture that. And so I sit and wait, taking a leap of faith.

Part 2 of this story will be posted next week.

4 Comments

Filed under Philanthropic Travel, Travel