28 October 2009

kilimanjaro, moshi and arusha

Our first view of the famous Mount Kilimanjaro, affectionately referred to as the "roof of Africa," caused both my partner and me to gasp. Driving up from Dar, we had seen the flat land become increasingly hilly, and the moment before we spied Kili, we had been looking at what we thought were fairly large brown and green mountains on either side of the road.

We passed through forests, as well, where we saw this (blurry) baboon, staring us down:

We had gotten used to the landscape and were feeling sleepy from the long (twelve-hour) ride when we heard someone say "Kilimanjaro," instantly snapping us back to life. Aside from being Africa's tallest mountain, Kili is also one of the only snow-covered mountains on the equator.

When we looked out the window and saw the mountain in the distance, it was a blue-purple color, its snow-covered peak clear in the blue sky, and it towered above the brown and green mountains, making them look more like anthills in comparison. It really was majestic. And we were lucky to see the peak, as people can stay in the area for a month and only see clouds at Kili's summit.

For the privilege of climbing Kili, you will need a minimum of US$800 (per person) and a week to climb up and down the mountain-- and plenty of waterproof, warm weather clothing. And good boots. We don't have any gear or warm clothes (and didn't feel like spending that much money or time) this trip, so we aren't trekking up up Kili this time. Maybe on our next visit.

Instead, we spent our money eating our way through Moshi and Arusha, the two larger towns in the area, and got to visit some more health care facilities in some of the nearby towns and villages. It has been nice traveling with a non-touristic goal and meeting some pretty extraordinary doctors and nurses in the process.

My partner and I are working on a chapter for a global health textbook, and I discovered in our research that the average Tanzanian makes 70,000 Tanzanian shillings per month-- about US$47. And you read that correctly-- that's $47 per month.

I was shocked-- and it really put things in perspective. I thought our hotel room (with a bathroom but no toilet seat) was cheap at about $19 a night. But instead of European and American backpackers, it's filled with Kenyan and Tanzanian businesspeople. I realize now that we'd use up a typical month's salary in less than three nights here.

As with many things Tanzanian, old and new collide. Here is a view from our hotel room:

And this is fairly representative of the area. There are shiny new buildings covered in reflective glass being erected next to wobbly shacks and tiny storefronts.

We've become breakfast buddies with a Kenyan man here for an HR training who is from the same region of the country as President Obama. He said that everyone from their area has a last name that starts with O. I thought that was pretty cool.

He asked us if the U.S. was really the land of opportunity, and my partner and I looked at each other, unsure of how to answer such a big question. As we hemmed and hawed, he said that it seemed like, in America, everyone feels like they can do anything. And I agreed-- there is an attitude of possibility, and we are so lucky to be part of that culture.

He explained that in Kenya, if you're not from the right tribe, it doesn't matter how smart you are or how skilled you are-- you will not even be considered for a position. In Tanzania, where there are over 120 different tribes, harmony and hakuna matata really are a way of life. And it's all thanks to Nyerere. Pretty amazing.

And speaking of our breakfast buddy, another great thing about almost all accommodation in Tanzania: breakfast is included, and you usually get some fresh fruit (papaya, pineapple, banana and watermelon, so far), bread with butter and jelly, and (delicious) Tanzanian milk tea. If you're lucky, you may also get an egg or two, and if you're really lucky, you may get crepes. Yum.

So, we're leaving Arusha now and going to visit some of the national parks. Up next: our wildlife report.

25 October 2009


Bagamoyo means "lay down your heart" in Swahili, and one explanation was that it meant "give up all hope" in connection to the slave trade, as Bagamoyo was often the last part of mainland Africa that slaves would set foot on before being shipped off to Zanzibar, twenty-five miles into the Indian Ocean, where they were then sold and taken to the Middle East.

(Slavery was abolished by the British in 1873 but continued in secret until much later, by some accounts, until the beginning of the twentieth century.)

Bagamoyo used to be the capital of German East Africa when Germans ruled in the late nineteenth century and remains the dhow-building capital of Tanzania today.

Since Dar took its place as the capital in 1891, however, Bagamoyo has been sliding slowly into obscurity. The upside is that it is on the shortlist to becoming Tanzania's seventh UNESCO World Heritage Site (as part of a major slave trade route), and the government is now working to restore some of the historical monuments.

As you walk along the narrow dirt roads, there are many crumbling buildings:

Beautiful old carved wooden doors:

And the feeling that the clock may have turned back a couple hundred years:

Incidentally, it has been really impressive to me how much Tanzanians carry on their heads. Women will have babies strapped around their back, huge buckets or baskets of fruit/appliances/you-name-it on their heads while holding the hand of another child walking along beside them. (The average Tanzanian women has six children.) I can barely walk along the dirt roads without tripping over myself.

Men selling snacks will balance gigantic wire baskets or cardboard boxes full of peanuts, chips, soda cans and candy on their heads. At the docks, you'll see men with four boxes stacked on top of each other on their heads loading the ferries. I've seen men, women and children carrying huge bags of twigs and branches on their heads and once saw a man balancing a thick wooden table on his head just walking down the street.

It seems like we non-head-carrying types could learn a lot from this practice (grace, for starters), as everyone I've seen, carrying everything from suitcases to bags of fruit on their head, has perfectly straight posture. When I catch reflections of my partner and me with our backpacks, I see us leaning forward to counterbalance the weight, resembling hunched-over turtles. It seems like carrying my pack on my head would be the solution, but I think I'll need a lot of practice.

Again providing night-and-day contrasts, we were able to visit a highly funded lab that had (what looked to me like) white marble bench tops and nicer facilities than they have at Harvard, where we got to see blood infected with the falciparum strain of malaria under a microscope:

And the next day, we went to a small village dispensary (a tiny clinic) about an hour away on dirt roads, which was one of the five (of fifteen in the area) to have electricity:

Here was the view from the back:

It was surrounded by coconut trees, mango trees, papaya trees, a dirt road and a few small buildings, but it served the 5000 people in the two nearest villages (about fifty patients per day), offered rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) for malaria and HIV, and had a microscope they used when electricity was available, usually used for quantifying malaria infections.

This dispensary is a good symbol of Tanzanian life for me: it seemed pretty basic, didn't have a lot of the bells and whistles you'd find in their Western counterpart, but it did its job. I have been amazed again and again by how resourceful Tanzanians are. They don't have much money, they reduce/reuse/recycle by necessity, and they make do.

When I think of how wasteful we are as Americans with our electricity, our water, our resources, it kind of makes me cringe. Here, blackouts (scheduled and unscheduled) are common, about half of the population has access to clean drinking water, and people generally use their resources sparingly. So, my partner and I are trying to be less wasteful whenever we can. It isn't going to change the world tomorrow, but it's a start.

24 October 2009

mzungu and other swahili expressions

Languages show so much about a culture, and Swahili is no exception. Mzungu, for example, is what the locals use to refer to white people (and what most foreigners will hear kids shouting as they walk by). It's kind of funny to be just walking along and then suddenly hear children's voices screaming, "Mzungu mzungu mzungu!" in rapid-fire succession. I'd heard mzungu wasn't offensive, but I learned from Simoni that it's much more positive than I would have expected.

Pole (po-lay) means sorry, and pole pole means slowly. The opposite of pole pole is zungu, which means to rush around. I asked if zungu was the root of mzungu, and Simoni said no and explained the proper derivation.

Mzungu actually comes from mzunguko, which means around. It started with the British when they took control of Tanzania after World War I-- they were called mzungu because they were always around. The British thought it meant clever, and in fact, the Tanzanians did consider them clever (even though the name didn't originally convey that).

Now, Tanzanians prize thinness in women (Simoni pointed out that most African women are naturally more like "big mamas"), and women who are slim are said to have a mzungu figure. Likewise, Simoni said that Tanzanians who are clever, honest and faithful are called black mzungu (or wazungu, which is the plural form of mzungu). It made me a little sad that such positive qualities were associated with being white.

There are a large number of Indians here, and they are considered good merchants and businesspeople, but they are not mzungu. Chinese people are known for helping Tanzania with infrastructure when others (Americans and Europeans, for example) wouldn't, and many of the buildings, bridges and railroads were built by the Chinese. But they are also not mzungu. It reminds me of the South African hierarchy of black, white and colored.

While it's good that foreigners are viewed positively (especially when you're the foreigners traveling here), it made me sad that they didn't seem to own their good qualities and associated them with their former colonists, instead. It's as if they bought into the idea that they were inferior.

The good news is that younger Tanzanians (children, especially) feel strong Tanzanian pride and take more ownership of their good traits. Shikamoo, for example, is how you traditionally greet elders to show your respect, but children don't like to use it because its literal translation is "I am under your feet." The traditional response is Marahaba, which means "And you'll continue to stay under my feet forever." It isn't surprising that they associate it with slavery and don't want to be under anyone's feet.

It was also insightful to learn that mzungu also means wandering or lost, referring to the foreigners who have left their homes and are just wandering around, traveling through other people's lands. Village life and a sense of community is so important here-- even in Dar, the big New York City of Tanzania, known for its quick and clever inhabitants, interactions with people still come before everything else.

We learned some "street Swahili" and felt rather hip when we were able to interact with the young people in a non-stiff way. Mambo means "How's it going?" And the proper response, poa, means "Cool."

Older locals will ask Habari?, which is the traditional "How are you?" And the proper response, mzuri, means good.

Lastly, jambo (how are you?) is a greeting used pretty much for tourists exclusively. If you say jambo back, it shows you don't speak any Swahili. If you say sijambo, it means "I'm fine" and shows you aren't an easy target and have taken the time and made the effort to learn a little Swahili. If you only know sijambo and asante (thank you), you'll already be the proud recipient of many more smiles than someone who just comes and speaks English/French/German/etc.

Locals do use hamjambo, which means "How are you all doing?" The proper way to greet someone/ask how someone (singular) is is hujambo, but I have never heard it used.

Instead of the traditional kwaheri (goodbye), you can say badai, which means see you later. And if you really want to impress the locals, greet them with Mambo vip (veep or veepee), which comes from V.I.P. (very important person) and will be sure to earn you smiles (and potentially some surprised laughter).

22 October 2009

tanzanian cashews

Simoni also showed us how to prepare cashews the traditional Tanzanian way:

1. Pick cashews from cashew tree:

2. Separate fruit from nut and discard fruit:

I was curious to see what the fruit tasted like, but apparently, no one eats them-- except foolish children. And I was too embarrassed to be thought a foolish child. Now, I think I should have just gone and taken a bite. Silly adult.

Then again, maybe there's a good reason no one eats them.

3. Spread the cashews out on a roasting dish over an open fire:

4. The cashews start to smoke as they emit a natural oil:

5. Then, they burst into flames:

6. Really big flames:

Simoni grabbed a palm tree frond and, in one quick motion, lopped off all the blades of the frond first on one side and then the other with a machete. It was pretty bad-ass. When he finished, he had two poles (palm leaf stems) with which to roast cashews. He told us they had to be long because the cashews burned so well. Once we saw the leaping flame, we understood what he meant.

7. Remove cashews from the flame and dump them on the ground to cool off:

8. They look a bit like large bugs when they've cooled:

9. Simoni's son, Daniel, showed us how to hit the little roasted cashews with a stick to crack the black shells enough to peel them off:

We were both really excited when we learned how to crush the shell and peel it off-- we even got our first cashew nuts out in one piece:

Once we learned how to crush the cashews properly, we spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the ground, crushing and peeling cashews. Our hands turned black and oily, but it was great, messy fun.

I was surprised to discover that freshly roasted cashews are incredibly different from what you buy in a can or jar in the States. They are so fresh and flavorful-- and are even a little sweet and soft after being roasted-- that they almost taste like a roasted fruit. Yum!

18 October 2009

couchsurfing in a tanzanian village (part ii)

We got to visit Simoni's school, and the kids counted to 100 in Swahili for us, sang songs for us (from the ABCs to a song about being happy to be Tanzanian to a song about Hakuna Matata, which really does mean 'no worries') and then pretty much just stared at us for the rest of the time. Like all (okay, most) little kids, they were hyper, shy, curious and adorable.

Sadly, two of them weren't feeling well, so Simoni told the other teacher we would walk them home. As we walked, we learned that the boy was throwing up because he had malaria, and the little girl was crying because she was hungry.

It really makes one think of how little we need-- and how little it would take to make a positive difference in a village like Simoni's. I was really impressed with this Ugandan (NPR link), for example, who recycles hotel soaps and thus prevents thousands of children from dying from diarrheal diseases, many of which could be prevented through simple hand sanitation (per the NPR article).

People never cease to amaze me, like this 16-year-old Indian boy (BBC link) who now is the headmaster of a free school for all of the children in his village who can't go to school.

If you're interested in spending some time in a Tanzanian village (or know anyone who might be), Simoni said he's always looking for volunteers to teach at his school or help with other projects in the village. You'll get free lodging if you're interested, and you can email him directly at kimwerisimon@yahoo.com if you have any questions. Or you can email me, if you'd prefer.

After visiting the school, we went to the center of the village, where there were a cluster of traditional clay houses. We went to the village "restaurant" (max capacity: 4) and had Tanzanian tea (delicious) and these little donut-like cakes. Here are Simoni and my partner in front of the little restaurant:

And here is the woman who served us (on the right, weaving):

We learned that the clay houses were built by digging a deep hole (which became the drop toilet) and using the clay they dug out to make the walls.

It was neat to see the indentations from fingers in the walls, as if the builders were saying, "I was here." I also thought it was neat that the roof was half-thatched and half-corrugated:

After walking around the village some more (i.e., learning about the trees and plants and 'talking' (see sample interaction) with people from the village), it was time for lunch. Simoni's girlfriend, Edita, is an amazing cook, and we really enjoyed eating traditional Tanzanian food.

The main Tanzanian staple you'll see is ugali, which is made of cassava and/or maize. I read somewhere that it was an acquired taste, but I totally disagree. Ugali is great: somewhere between bread and mashed potatoes in consistency and similar to rice in taste. What's not to like? (Ethiopian injera, for example, with its slightly sour taste is good but more of an acquired taste, I'd say.)

Anyway, it comes out like this:

It's cut into thirds, rotated 90 degrees and cut into thirds again (nine square pieces plus rounded corners), and the proper way to eat it is to roll it into a ball in your right hand and then make an indentation with your thumb in the middle. You then can use your little ugali ball as a spoon and scoop soup/meat/etc. into the middle, like so:

My partner was a natural at this ugali rolling business, but I was totally hopeless. First, I rolled my ugali into a ball with both hands, and as Tanzanians consider the left hand dirty, I might as well have rolled my ugali on the ground (or worse). Then, my little ugali balls kept on crumbling into my soup. Meanwhile, my partner was making perfect little balls with perfect little indentations. Oh, well. At least I provided some entertainment for them. (Edita had a hard time finishing her meal, as my pathetic attempts at eating ugali properly were cracking her up throughout the meal.)

This is where Simoni and his girlfriend lived and where we ate lunch and dinner:

Edita cooked in the wooden shed (left) with a real wood fire, and we sat at the table (center) near it. For dinner, we had rice and beans and veggies, which were again delicious. Tanzanian food is flavorful and healthy, which has been great. We sat and chatted until the sun set.

We learned that much of Tanzania was matriarchal, where the family line often stems from the father's mother, and that men had to pay dowries to their future bride's family in order to receive their permission and blessing to wed. So, like brides in many other countries, Tanzanian men often save for years in order to save up US$4000, for example. Many men can never save up that much, and they end up living with their girlfriends and having children without marrying.

Simoni said he'd been saving for a while and that he was hoping to get married to Edita next year. Dowries are a funny tradition, and we laughed at how it seemed you were buying your future partner, but I guess you just do it if you have no other choice. Simoni and Edita are one of those couples who seem so happy together, and I hope they're always so full of smiles and laughter.

By the time we finished dinner, the sky was pitch black, and the stars were bright and twinkling. You could just make out the faint orange glow of Dar es Salaam to the east.

15 October 2009

couchsurfing in a tanzanian village (part i)

After two dalla dallas (crowded minibuses) and a taxi (totalling about three hours with traffic), we reached Simoni's little village in Kibaha.

There was no electricity or sewage system in the village, and they had running water two days per week. This was real Tanzanian life, and I felt lucky to have the chance to experience it.

I think my biggest surprise was how lush it was. Whoever said Africa was a dry wasteland has never been to Tanzania.

The earth was brown and dusty, but it felt like a garden of Eden. There were tons of full, leafy mango trees (the biggest I've ever seen-- and in four different varieties), tall, skinny papaya trees, banana trees with huge fronds, little orange trees, vast fields of pineapples with their long, pink leaves, cassava you plant for the roots and cassava you plant for the leaves, curling pumpkin vines growing out of the ground, coconut trees, palm trees, cashew trees, and thorny trees and other trees and plants used for medicinal purposes-- there were even aloe vera plants just growing along the side of the dirt road. And Simoni told us they never had to water the plants and trees-- it was Mother Earth at her most bountiful.

This photo is of a giant mango tree with about a billion full-sized green mangoes hanging from it. Unfortunately, Simoni told us they needed another month or two to ripen properly. After that, "there are mangoes everywhere you walk." (Sounds like heaven to me.)

There were ducks, chickens, dogs and a cat wandering around, and there was a pig pen behind his house with these little piglets (I guess that's where the term, pigpile, comes from):

Tanzanian culture is very polite, and we spent most of our time with Simoni just walking around the village and talking with people. (Simoni seemed to know all 3000 people in his village.) Our conversations would usually go something like this:

Villager: Karibuni! (Welcome!)
Us: Asante! (Thank you!)
Villager: (huge smile, thinking we speak Swahili, launches into Swahili welcoming speech)
Us: (uh oh, not understanding anything)
Simoni and villagers: (Swahili Swahili Swahili Swahili)
Us: (smiling politely, totally lost)
Simoni: (Swahili Swahili Americani Swahili Swahili)
Villagers (brightening): Obama!
Us: Yes! Obama!

And everyone would laugh, and all was well. It became the routine of "You're from Obama!" with big smiles and us, smiling back, "Yes, we're from Obamaland" over and over again, but it was nice to find some common ground.

And boy, is Obama loved here in Tanzania. His photo is everywhere, there are paintings of Obama in random villages, Obama stickers on cars-- we've even seen kangas in different colors with his photo, a map of Africa and "Congratulations, Barack Obama" above his photo and "Love and peace God has given us" below his photo (in Swahili):

It was interesting how slowly everything moved-- it seemed funny that we thought Dar was slow-moving, because in the village, people walked and moved even more slowly. But, I appreciated that people here valued spending time together above all else. Everything else could wait until you'd had a proper conversation with your neighbor, and I feel I don't see enough of that in modern society.

I can't, for example, imagine most urban Americans taking so much time out of their busy, busy schedules to just chat with their neighbors. (I feel that, increasingly, most urban Americans don't even know their neighbors.) And perhaps most interesting was that the people in the village seemed quite happy. Yes, maybe there was a little too much idle time here, but slowing down and spending more time connecting with other people face-to-face would probably do most people in 'developed countries' some good.

Anyway, I was also impressed by how well people from this tiny village knew their world geography and politics. I've met a lot of well-educated people who didn't know where Taiwan was, but when I told a man from this village that I grew up in Taiwan, he thought for a moment and then nodded and said, "Taipei." Another man was teasing us that we may be from Obama now, but we used to be from Bush. And he conceded that Clinton was okay, too.

And speaking of democracy, we got to go with Simoni as he registered to vote. Voting and seeing others vote makes me feel there is no limit to what we humans can do if we just work together.

It was interesting to notice that the top two 'signatures' on the page were fingerprints instead, and it makes me happy that literacy (or lack thereof) doesn't prevent people from voting (or being allowed to vote).

Our couchsurfer, Simoni, is also pretty incredible: he's a talented wood carver but has also opened a (free) school for the children in his village. He has a huge heart, and Tanzania is lucky to have people like him in its midst. Here's an example of his work:

And here's a huge log that he's planning on carving next:

I'm excited to see what he'll create, as it will be a very cool black and white wood once it's finished. (Simoni showed us some photos of huge giraffes and elephants he carved using the same wood, and they're very impressive.) Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be around to see the finished work, but it's nice to know that it will, in Simoni's gifted hands, become something beautiful one day.

Next up: our visit to Simoni's school and how you can visit his village, too.

12 October 2009

dar es salaam, intro to tanzania

Dar es Salaam spent most of its history as a quiet fishing village and didn't receive its current name, which means Haven of Peace, until it was bestowed by a Zanzibari sultan in the mid-1800s. Today, Dar is Tanzania's largest city with a population of three million, but it still retains some of its mellow heritage.

I thought the air smelled sweet as soon as we stepped off the plane. Downtown Dar is small and easy to cover on foot, people stroll at a leisurely pace, groups of men can be found in front of almost every building, just sitting around, chatting and people-watching, and you'll hear more bantering than arguing in the streets of Dar.

Former president, Julius Nyerere, who served from 1961 until he retired in 1985, is credited with uniting Tanzania and inspiring national pride. Because people here identify first and foremost as Tanzanian, tribal rifts which are common in many other African countries are almost nonexistent here. (Nyerere, who is affectionately referred to as mwalimu (which means teacher-- and yes, he was actually a schoolteacher), is so well-loved that Nyerere Day is coming up on October 14th, and his photo (especially this one, above) seems to grace more walls than that of the current president, Jakaya Kikwete.)

The 'locals' in Dar refer equally to the Swahili women in colorful batik as it does to the Indian women in bright, sparkling saris or the veiled women in long, black robes revealing nothing but their eyes, to men in neutral-colored button-down shirts and slacks or men in kanzu (traditional robes, often white) and kofia (cylindrical caps, usually with intricate embroidery), and to the traditional Maasai warriors, draped in red shuka (Maasai blankets, often striped or plaid), with their wooden staffs. And you'll see all these people (plus the occasional mzungu, the local term for white person), not in segregated neighborhoods but all together, walking by the same fruit stands and interacting daily.

The architecture is equally varied: old buildings with wooden shutters and balconies sit next to crumbling pastel concrete structures, beautiful mosques with detailed geometric designs and towering minarets, simple cream-colored churches, huge glass-covered skyscrapers and construction sites everywhere.

The city hums along during day with constant activity, but at night, everything shuts down, and the constant flow of people disappears. Day or night, however, taxis and SUVs careen around blind curves with equal tra la la, as if just hoping no one will be there to get in their way. (Crossing the street is an excellent survival-of-the-fittest exercise.) The uniformed security guards stationed 24 hours a day in front of all of the foreign exchange bureaus and cell phone stores with their huge guns remind us not to get too comfortable or complacent, either.

I have been reluctant to take too many photos yet, but, generally, Dar feels safe, and I don't worry too much. (It helps that my partner, at 6'2", towers above almost everyone else here.)

I have so much I want to share about Dar, about Tanzania, about the locals, and about everything I've seen and done so far, but I'll stop here, as my recent posts have been a little long-winded. Thanks for reading. :-)

09 October 2009

usa, mexico and the netherlands

Traveling across the U.S. on our road trip really made me appreciate the beauty of the States, but now, our fearless president is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, too. I don't think there has been a better moment in my lifetime to be American. It feels like the world is becoming a better place already.

And I quite liked this quote: "Some people say, and I understand it, isn't it premature? Too early? Well, I'd say then that it could be too late to respond three years from now," Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said. "It is now that we have the opportunity to respond – all of us."

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who won the prize in 1984, summed it up by saying, "It is an award that speaks to the promise of President Obama's message of hope."

Obama is my hero. And now, back to our scheduled catching up (rather anticlimactic, I realize). But shoot, if President Obama can push us towards world peace, the least I can do is keep my blog up to date. Los Angeles first.

My partner’s a big history buff, so we went to the La Brea tar pits (free on the first Tuesday of the month):

We learned that, right in the middle of what is now L.A., there used to be mammoths, camels, lions, saber-tooth cats, jaguars, cheetahs and bison (and lots of others that I can't remember now). Can you imagine one of those strolling down Sunset or Wilshire? It would be quite a sight to behold. Here's a camel skeleton they found, for example:

They also had a yellow wall with over 400 dire wolf skulls, representing about a quarter of the ones they've found so far. Their theory was that packs of wolves would try to feed on animals stuck in the tar and get stuck themselves:

We discovered that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) next door has pay-whatever-you-want twilight hours (after 5pm), so we went for a quick visit there, too.

There was a neat exhibit on Korean artists that I’d recommend checking out, if you’re in the L.A. area. Photography was prohibited inside, where the best pieces were, but I loved the colors in this one outside:

It was made of cheap plastic bowls, sieves and cups:

I also liked this one, which resembled a fountain of street lights:

We stopped by the Griffith Observatory (which was also free), where we got a beautiful view of L.A...

and saw (through a gigantic telescope) the largest four of Jupiter's sixty-three (!) moons: Io (with more volcanic activity than any other body in the solar system), Europa (covered in water and ice and believed to have twice as much water than Earth), Ganymede (the largest moon in the solar system, larger than the planet Mercury and the only moon with its own magnetic field) and Callisto (mostly ice and rock, less interesting), all named by Galileo in 1610. I know, let me push up my nerdy glasses and go nuts.

Anyway. From L.A., we went to see my partner’s family in Lo de Marcos, Mexico, where we spent two weeks in bikinis and swim trunks because it was super hot and humid.

But, who can complain when you’re right in front of the beach, drinking fresh coconut juice, eating coconut curry (made with fresh coconut!) and spending time with great people? Not to mention how warm the ocean water was—like stepping into cooled bathwater, which was perfect at sunset. We even grilled fresh shrimp, lobster and fish.

(These are the moments that make me feel very grateful for my life and a sense of responsibility, that I really have to give back in whatever way I can to the universe to say thanks for what I have. The hard part is figuring out exactly what that means in practice.) But I digress.

Speaking of food, we also had the most amazing little tacos, complete with cucumbers, beans, a variety of sauces, seasoned cactus, etc. (YUM), which made me look forward to living in California and being surrounded by delicious Mexican food.

We enjoyed spending time with all of the different family members who were with us, but we spent most of our time playing with our little niece (1-1/2 years) and nephew (5 months). I loved running around and generally acting like an idiot with the kiddos, but seeing that you couldn't leave them unsupervised for even a moment confirmed that I wasn’t ready for my own babies anytime soon. (Backpacking for a year is also not the most convenient time to start life with a newborn.)

After L.A., we stopped in New York for a weekend, where we got to hang out with family and eat at two of my favorite restaurants, Saigon Grill (and I don’t even love Vietnamese, usually) and Il Corallo (my favorite Italian restaurant in the States, near Sullivan and Prince). It was a quick visit, but we got to check out the new (to us) pedestrian-only areas of Times Square (a great change):

and the Chelsea Market, which used to be the National Biscuit Company (now Nabisco) factory.

It was a beautiful, industrial space with lots of exposed brick, an arch with a clock that looked like the Hulk just ran through, and tons of great food. If you're in New York and haven't been, it's worth a visit.

Then (almost done catching up, finally), we flew to Amsterdam.

We’d stopped in Amsterdam both ways on our trip to Morocco, so this time, we pretty much just spent the day at the Anne Frank House, which was really well done and worth visiting. (And of course, we got our requisite Vlaamse frites.)

We walked around the canals, enjoying the scenery, checked out the flower market, and then went back to the airport to catch our flight to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (via Nairobi, Kenya).

Which is where we are now. We've been without power for a few days, though, so we’ve been unplugged for a little while. But more on Dar in my next post.