Monday, June 24, 2013

Home Sweet Home: A Reflection

It's hard to believe how fast these last seven weeks flew by. Reflecting upon my many adventures in East Africa, I am quite taken aback. I’m actually replaying some of the moments in my head and am appalled that it was actually me experiencing each and every moment, each and every day!

Sitting here in the comfort of my home in Oakville, I am extremely thankful for the wonderful experience that was this trip, and for the many learnings that I’ve come home with. Since I’ve reached safe and sound, I thought it would be appropriate, in this final post, to write a sort of reflection in the form of many thanks, to close this blog.

First and foremost, thanks to my family. Not only for encouraging me to embark on this trip of a lifetime, but for their tremendous progress in life! It was so incredibly emotional for me to visit the birthplaces of my parents, and to try and grasp the life they had back in Uganda. I’ve heard many stories about the expulsion of all Asians from Uganda by then President Idi Amin back in 1972, but seeing the remains of bombed buildings, and travelling along the same bumpy roads that they travelled some 41 years ago to flee the country painted a clearer picture of the horrors they faced as children. Knowing that they came to Canada as refugees, with next to nothing, and seeing where they are now, makes me extremely grateful. Their hard work, motivation for success, and sheer drive to ensure that their children never had to experience the same financial situation they did as refugees is unparalleled. I can only imagine the change in lifestyle that they were faced with, and I am so thankful to my parents and my grandparents for committing to establishing themselves soundly in Canada, and for truly making this our home for generations to come.
It is also important to thank the next generation of leaders in Rwanda: the enthusiastic students at the School of Finance and Banking! They made each day such an exciting adventure, and their willingness to learn and absorb made the experience so fulfilling. From the bursts of hands raised in unison when each question was asked, displaying their eagerness to contribute to the class discussion, to the rounds of applause at the end of many of the class sessions, the students were a delight to teach. I mentioned that I had started tearing up when I read the course evaluation/comment sheets, as their kind words of appreciation and thanks were quite touching. I wish I still had the sheets so I could share some of their takeaways from the course, but since those have been sent off to Alex, I will share some snippets from emails I received in the weeks following the class.
“Thank you for the knowledge you gave us and the support. And thank you for the certificate, it was a surprise to me! Thank you so much for the good work.”

“I thank you for everything you taught us and the certificate. May God protect all of you… We love you.”

“We miss you a lot; greetings from all your friends and brothers. Even though you’ve left us, we still love you!”

It is amazing how affectionate the students are at SFB; their words of love and blessings will stay with me forever. I learnt from reading their emails how important it is to share with our loved ones how much they mean to us, as even a simple message can often make their day.
This brings me to my next vote of thanks: to the notion of lifelong learning. I learnt SO MUCH from the experience, much more than the knowledge I possibly could have imparted on the students! The teaching experience itself was filled with tremendous learnings of all sorts. From the late nights preparing cases and lesson plans, to running around town trying to figure out logistics and purchase materials, to navigating the “pole pole” attitude of the administration, the stresses were all so worth it, and allowed me to get the whole picture before standing in front of the classroom. Once at the front of the class each morning, I found myself completely in “the zone.” It was as if all of the other stresses would vanish, and it was all about getting as much input from the students throughout the case discussion as possible, while being mindful of the goal of the case, the inclusion of all students, the clear board work, and the effective synthesizing of key points. Each day was so exhilarating, and presented a new set of challenges and resulting solutions. I developed my communication skills, enhanced my knowledge about the mannerisms and way of life of a culture quite different from my own, and increased my self-confidence throughout the experience. I also learnt more about how to deal with people whose views differ from my own, and I learnt about the importance of adapting to a different lifestyle, acknowledging that there are reasons and history behind the ways which each society operates. Furthermore, I learnt about the power of a smile when one is faced with significant language barriers, and I learnt about the reality of the African continent: a place filled with hard working, driven people, with tremendous energy and commitment to development, and to enhancing the quality of life of their communities.
I felt such a sense of brotherhood over there, where most individuals were striving for success in order to help their communities. It reminded me of a song I sang back in my choir days, which stated, “it takes a whole village to raise our children; it takes a whole village to raise one child.” This was so true in the communities that I interacted with, and the nicest thing was to see that these children, now grown up and about to start their own careers, were committed to returning to their “villages” to symbolically repay the people who contributed to their growth and development. It’s quite a special circle of connectedness, one which I think we can learn from out here in the West, where we all too often find the uber-successful members of society possessing individualistic attitudes.

Far from possessing individualistic attitudes were the many people who became like family to me over the course of the trip. From Aleena, Samir and their family in Kigali taking such great care of me, to Rehman and his mother for always driving me home after prayers, to the Jamat Bhais and members of the congregation in Masaka, Kampala, Kigali and Zanzibar, ensuring that I was safe, had a place to stay and felt right at home, to Aleeda and Naziha’s family in Nairobi, for adopting me for the week and letting me experience life over there. Alshana, one of my roommates from London who happens to be from Nairobi, and a really great friend of mine since first year, had written something in my going away book that stuck with me as I was leaving. She had said she was sorry that she could not be in Nairobi while I was visiting, but asked me to really experience the city, and to fall in love with the land of my sisters. She really has become a sister to me, as has Naziha, and all of the members of our "house family" in London. I am so fortunate to have “siblings” living all over the world, and now extended families as well, just all of the aforementioned people have become. They all contributed to the wonderful experience that I had, and really did make me fall in love with the land of my sisters.
It is also so incredibly important to thank my parents’ encouragement to approach all endeavours and experiences with an open mind and a positive attitude. There were so many instances on this trip that could’ve completely spooked me and left me with a negative impression of Africa, however having an open mind, an optimistic outlook, and a passion for adventure made each experience amazing. From having to break into my home in Kigali and then sitting locked in Chris’ room for five hours, to the swarms of mosquitos inside and outside the house and the deformed feet that resulted from all of the bites, and from being stuck without a place to stay in Kampala, to being stranded in Jinja, everything always turned out okay. One instance that was indeed frightening was when we were stuck in traffic in Nairobi, and a man stopped at Naziha’s dad’s window asking for money. This is quite the normal occurrence there, and unfortunately men, women and children approach cars vehicles quite frequently, however this man pulled out a handful of poo and threatened to throw it in the car unless he was given some money! Of course, Naziha’s dad had to oblige and the man walked to the next car, but it was quite shocking to say the least!

Although it seems quite obvious and important to keep this in mind when travelling, and I am fortunate that my parents absolutely love to travel, so my siblings and I have been lucky to have seen many remote parts of the world, being bitten by the travel bug at a very young age, it is still an important learning from this trip: to always keep an open mind.

With the positive attitude and open mind, I enjoyed all of the very new experiences in East Africa. My aunt actually stopped reading the blog as she said I was being too adventurous and scaring her with my tales of the moto-taxis, the wandering on the streets alone, and the thought of being kidnapped! I got home and received a lecture from her, but it was all out of love, and I assured her that I was being safe and cautious in all my endeavours and adventures. That being said however, I have returned home and am quite thankful for Canadian living. There are a lot of things that we take for granted here, which I will definitely appreciate a tad more going forward. For example, being able to take hot showers whenever we so choose (ie. without having to switch on the hot water heater one hour before our desired shower time, let alone having to think whether one’s present living facility has a hot water heater at all) is commonplace here, but in fact would be a luxury for most people in the developing world. In addition, not having to worry about bugs in the food, nor frequent power outages during the day are conveniences we are fortunate to posses. I am grateful to have been made aware of such realities, so that I may be more conscious of how fortunate we are here, and to place greater value on these luxuries we really do have.

I am also thankful to have experienced an important element of my cultural background! Tasting the foods which contribute to my home’s East African-Indian fusion cuisine was so exciting for me, and trying everything was such a treat! The mandazis, fruits, spices, and barbecued meats were all delicious, and gave me a sense of where a big influence in my family’s diet comes from.
I could go on for pages and pages of things I am thankful for, but I’ll end with just one more: a thank you to all of you! Thank you SO MUCH for reading the blog, it really means a ton! As I had mentioned in the first post, this blog was initially just intended to keep my parents, aunts and uncles informed about my whereabouts, especially with the limited wi-fi access, but I’m so happy to know that it was shared! The following grew organically, and my jaw still drops each time I check the stats. To the 3,000+ people who’ve viewed my blog from around the world, I thank you for keeping engaged with my travels, and for getting me excited to update you all each day. I truly appreciate the love and support!

What’s next? Appreciating all of the adventures in life.

Well, I have been enjoying spending time with my family, now that my brother, Malik, has returned home for the summer after writing his LSAT, and my sister, Aleeza, is finishing up her grade ten exams. The three of us and my parents are very close, and it’s been a blast reuniting with each other, sharing lots of stories and laughs over many cups of chai and cookies late at night.
Although life does move at a faster pace here, we can still be conscious of this fact and take the time out of our busy schedules to appreciate our loved ones, to keep in touch with old friends, and to enjoy each other’s company. This was probably one of the best learnings from the trip, and something I will try to consciously implement in my life going forward, based off of the warmth and kindness I felt from everyone I encountered.

I made it home in time for my convocation, and am proud to say that I’m officially done my HBA (Honours Business Administration)!
The Ivey Business School at Western University provided me with incredible opportunities, including sending me to Doha, Qatar for the inaugural Doha GOALS (Gathering of all Leaders in Sport) conference in December 2012, looking at ways which sport can influence development, in addition to giving me the opportunity to teach basic budgeting and enhance the operations of a microfinance institution in rural Honduras in February 2013, and of course this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to teach an undergraduate course in business decision making in Kigali, Rwanda. I'm super thankful to Professor Haggerty for building Ivey's presence in Africa, and for giving me the opportunity to teach abroad. It truly was the best way to end an amazing undergraduate career. I learnt a ton during my time at Ivey, both inside and outside of the classroom and will cherish the memories forever. It was a lovely day and a joyous occasion for the family - I was all smiles the entire day!
Going forward, I will continue to work towards the last couple of credits to finish off my second degree in music on the side, and will carry on quenching my thirst for knowledge with interest courses and the like far into the future. In early July I will be heading to London, England, to partake in a course at the Aga Khan University, focusing on Music, Art and Architecture in Islam. This is something which excites me a great deal, especially since my studies and training were primarily in Western classical music, so I have a lot to learn! It’s so exciting to be able to pursue the notion of lifelong learning, and I hope that I can use that learning for the benefit of others.

After the course, I will do a bit of travelling before returning home to sort out some “real world” stuff ahead of starting work full-time in September in downtown Toronto. I will continue to be engaged in my various volunteer initiatives and numerous extra-curriculars on the side, and look forward to the adventures that navigating the corporate world as a young, creative mind might entail.

My brother has encouraged me to create another blog and post regularly about life’s wonderful adventures in my perspective, but until then, this is it! I will let you know if that ever happens, or even if I happen to start sharing my songs online, but in the meanwhile, feel free to follow me on Twitter and Instagram, and please do keep in touch! Thanks again for being part of my seven week experience; it truly was an unforgettable Adventure in Africa!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Nairobi living...

I don't think I could ever get used to having people serve me, and attending to all of my chores. Henry, the cook, always laughs at me when I instinctually pick up my dishes after each meal and bring them to the kitchen. Roda, the maid, always giggles when she sees me making my bed, and folding my clothes. It's quite the different lifestyle here, and although I am loving it, this is one aspect which is hard to get used to.

The week here in Nairobi has been absolutely wonderful, and I am so thankful to Naziha's family for making me feel like I have yet another home away from home. As her adopted sister for the week, I've gotten to live like I was born and raised here, visiting all of the local places, having lots of chai and coffee, and really getting a feel for the laid-back lifestyle here.
Friday evening after prayers, I met my dad's cousins, Shina and Mina, who both grew up in Nairobi. Mina Aunty was in town for just the evening from Mombassa, so both of them, and Shina Aunty's two kids, Karim and Karima, took me out for dinner. We visited the famous Diamond Plaza, an outdoor food court where you choose a table and sit down, and representatives from each of the booths in the court rush to your table with a menu. It was cool, as we ordered each of our dishes from different representatives, so as to get the best of the best. They fed me quite a bit, but it was all delicious, especially the fresh fruit juices that I downed quite quickly! It was lovely meeting them all, and I look forward to hopefully seeing them all again at the next extended family reunion.

On Saturday, I got a taste of how the youth in Nairobi party. And boy, do they party hard! Naziha and I were picked up by a couple of the guys, now familiar faces after the BBQ Thursday evening, and we made our way to the first club. Ali, another friend from Western, who's presently doing an internship in Nairobi, met up with us, along with his cousin Azhar, and friend Alykhan both also from Western, in addition to a couple other friends from Nairobi. The first club, Gypsies, was fun, and attracted quite the interesting crowd, including lots of foreigners, older expats, young tourists, and locals of all ages. By 1:30am, we were beat and ready to go to bed, but they all convinced Ali and I that the night was still young, and led us to the next club, called Treehouse. This place was awesome, with amazing DJs and a really cool vibe. However, Ali and I, as the two Canadians who are used to clubs closing at 2am back home, were absolutely exhausted, and looked pretty weak when we sat down for a while at 3:30am just recharging our batteries while our group kept on going! We ended up leaving Treehouse at around 5:30am, which is apparently still early for Nairobi standards! I cannot believe how they can do this on a regular basis, and with so much energy too! I'm also quite impressed that they can all function perfectly well the next day; what tanks they all are!

Sunday morning we slept in a tad, before getting ready for a family day. We visited Naziha's parents' company's new office space, which is being renovated presently, before heading to the outskirts of town to do some furniture shopping. Afterwards, we made our way to the famous restaurant called Carnivore for lunch. As the name suggests, this restaurant features meat, and boy was it delicious!
We then made our way over to the Nairobi National Park, where instead of going on a safari through the park, we walked into the Animal Orphanage. The orphanage is home to numerous wounded or orphaned animals from around East Africa, and serves as a sort of rehabilitation centre for some, and simply a safe haven for others. They are all caged, but treated very well, and it is therefore kind of like an exotic zoo.
We got to see about nine majestic lions up close, with their humongous teeth and beautiful manes, as well as numerous cheetahs, who darted about as we called their names.
There were a ton of monkeys roaming around on site, and many primates in the cages as well. My favourite animal though, was the leopard, with its silky coat of fur in the most beautiful spotted pattern. Leopards are incredibly rare to see both in the wild and in captivity, so we were quite lucky that there was one staying in the orphanage when we visited.
One of the kind zookeepers also gave us the chance to feed the giraffe it's lunch. Jihan, Naziha and I all took turns holding up leaves for the tall creature, as he bent down, stuck out his giant black tongue, and ripped off a piece of each leaf before chewing profusely. He was quite gentle, so we were able to pet him as he was chewing, however at one point I mustn't have been holding the leaves at the right angle, as the giraffe almost licked my face! Thank goodness he was quite slow in this action and I was able to turn my face right in the nick of time! It was a lovely afternoon overall, and I got a taste of the incredible wildlife Kenya is famous for.
Monday evening, I was fortunate to meet up with a couple other Western students who are also from Nairobi. Raheel used to live on my floor in the apartment building I was in during my third year. He and his roommates were good friends of mine, and we used to alternate Friday dinners after prayers at each of our homes! He and Azzam, the frosh rep from this past year's ISA, of which I was fortunate to be President of, both invited Naziha, Ali and myself to dinner. It was great catching up with them at this mini reunion, especially since I won't be seeing them all so often next year!
My last couple of days in Nairobi have been just as wonderful as the rest of the week. I've spent a lot of time chilling with Naziha and her friends, who have been so kind to open their circles to me. We ventured around the famous Masai Market on Tuesday, featuring local handicrafts, and experienced Nairobi Fro-Yo. I have only recently been exposed to the wonder that is fro-yo, and I was excited when one of Naziha's friends, Zain, asked if we could stop by the Nairobi chain, Planet Yogurt, for dessert. It was delicious, but what was the most awesome, was that amongst the typical toppings, were mini "gulab jamun!" This is a traditional Indian dessert, and I was quite amused to see it in the restaurant, so I of course took a picture and tried it with my yogurt. (It was not nearly as good as my grandma's, but it was still delicious!)
Early on in the week, I also received a surprise Facebook message from an old friend. My babysitter, Aleeda, from when I was about two until five, had found out I was in East Africa, and was dropping a line to say hello, as she lives in this part of the world now! Aleeda used to be the only person I'd let my parents leave me with when they had to be at institutional meetings, or when they were leading the local congregation as Mukhisaheb/Mukhianisaheba some 20 years ago. Since my blog hadn't been updated for a few days, she didn't know I would be in Nairobi, and I was so excited to respond that I was actually in the city! We made plans for the next day, and I was super excited to see her.

Aleeda does some really cool work in the tech space in the developing world, and she actually launched M-Pesa, the famous mobile money service in Kenya with Safaricom, back in 2005. She has since been doing all sorts of neat things, so in the morning, I got to go with her to the launch of the Nairobi Innovation Hub's User Experience Lab, which featured a talk by Google's Director of EMEA, Steve Rogers. Some of her clients that she consults for were present at the talk, so I got to meet all sorts of brilliant people, and get a sense of the energy and excitement that is surrounding tech in Kenya presently.

We then went for lunch before I got to meet her youngest daughter, Kayla, who is just eight months old. She then dropped me off at Naziha's home, where I remembered to take a picture before we said farewell. It was so wonderful catching up with Aleeda, and I'm so glad we became more than babysitter-babysitee, but grown-up friends over this reunion as well!
I packed my bags and had one last cup of tea with Naziha, Jihan, and their mom, Saira Aunty, before we had to say goodbye. I wrote it earlier, but I really cannot express how much it meant to me to have them take me in for the week, and treat me like a member of the family. That's exactly what I needed, and it was so wonderful spending time with them all - I will miss them dearly!

Friday, June 7, 2013

You can call me Captain...

The tendency for people here to see the good in each other is overwhelmingly wonderful. Of course I'm sure there are exceptions, but from my experience here, and my many encounters with strangers, I have been pleasantly surprised by their trusting nature! For example, on Wednesday morning, I went to check out, but their VISA machine wasn't working, so I needed to pay all of my incidentals with cash. However, I had budgeted my trip to Tanzania quite well, so I had set aside cash for my taxi to the airport, and for my Kenyan visa upon entry into the country. Since I had to use this cash upon checking out, the receptionist assured me that there was an ATM at the airport, where I could withdraw money and pay the taxi driver upon arrival. This was not the first time a taxi driver willingly did this for us over the course of the trip, but I was still very thankful that he still accepted to take me. We arrived at the airport, only to find that the ATM was out of order. I was taken to the arrivals terminal through security to another ATM, which also happened to be out of cash. The driver then took me all the way into Stone Town, to the first ATM which was out of cash, and then finally to a fourth, which (thank God!) worked! We zipped over to the airport and I tipped him well before we said goodbye.

I boarded the plane for the quick, 26 minute flight to Mombassa, where after a short stopover to clear customs and obtain visas, we were to fly onwards to Nairobi. About 10 minutes into the flight, the air hostess came to my seat and asked if I knew the Captain. I responded that I did not, but she told me that he thought I looked familiar. She told me to come to the cockpit with her, just to see if meeting him would jog my memory. I hesitated, but then followed her to the front of the plane. Inside the cockpit, the Captain and First Officer introduced themselves, and asked if I'd like to join them in the cockpit for the landing! The air hostess assured me that she'd watch my bags, and then proceeded to pull out a third seat, sitting me down and closing the door to the cockpit.
It was SO COOL! The Captain and First Officer were extremely nice, and explained to me the various internal processes of their plane, describing the functions of each of the button sets. They told me that they'd like me to join them for the second leg of the flight as well, so after our stopover in Mombassa, I was called in yet again to the front! It was absolutely beautiful up there, with the panoramic view, and the clear blue skies. We chatted about their decisions to pursue flying as a career, their lives in Nairobi, and the reality of the very relaxed nature of flying a plane.

Please note that I was SO excited to be sitting there. I was squealing silently in my head the entire time, trying to grasp the fact that I was hand picked to come sit in the cockpit, and that this was a pretty rare opportunity! To make the experience even cooler, when we were approaching Mount Kilimanjaro, the Captain offered to let me sit in the First Officer's seat for a picture! I couldn't believe it, and became extremely conscious of my hand movements, as I didn't want to accidentally push a button!
I stayed in the cockpit for the duration of the flight, including the take-off and landing, and squealed out loud once we had all left the plane and I was out of hearing distance from anyone else. After collecting my broken luggage, I met Naziha's driver, Simon, and we went on our way to her home.

Naziha is a really good friend of mine from Western, who is actually from Nairobi. She has graciously taken me into her home for the week, and I have been looking forward to arriving here for quite some time! Not only have I needed a break from the rush of the last few weeks travelling, but I've been feeling a bit homesick recently, and needed a "home-away-from-home." In addition, I've heard so much from my friends about Nairobi, that this visit has been a long time coming! From our "family" friend circle at Western, comprised of four Ismaili apartments in the same building, totalling 13 people, seven are actually from East Africa! So naturally, I have learnt much about their lives here, and I couldn't wait to experience it first hand.

We have spent the week chilling, and it's been oh-SO-wonderful! Naziha's mom, dad and sister Jihan, have made me feel so at home, and have gone out of their way to make me feel a part of the family. I cannot express in words my gratitude!

Every morning, we wake up to the table set with a pot of tea brewing. Most days we chill around the house, and then head to town for lunch or for coffee. On days that we stay home, Henry, their cook, prepares us a gourmet lunch, before starting the preparations for our afternoon tea and later on, dinner. Every meal has been absolutely delicious, and Henry always serves us with a huge smile on his face.

In addition to the relaxing time I've spent here in Nairobi, I've also been fortunate to experience many new things. On Thursday, I experienced a Kenyan Ismaili funeral, as one of Naziha's friend's uncles had passed away. There were subtle differences from the way we conduct our funerals back home, but the prayers are of course the same. I started crying when one of the prayers commenced, as it is a hauntingly beautiful tune, and immediately transported me back to the funerals of my Nanabapa and Mama (my mom's father and mother) two years ago. I'm glad we woke up early to go though, as I know how important it is to support the families in large congregational prayer during their difficult time.

Thursday evening, Naziha and I went to one of her friend's homes, where they were having a barbeque. I became wide-eyed when I saw exactly what they were barbequing - it was an entire goat! I'm not kidding, they had purchased a headless goat earlier in the day from a butcher, and had cleaned it, before putting it on the spit! I could not believe my eyes, and they all had a kick out of my reaction. Most of them go to school in Canada, so they were playfully recalling their first Canadian BBQ experiences, when they showed up expecting fresh meats, only to find hamburgers and hot dogs! Although I was still in shock, I tried the goat as instructed, and it was delicious. Even more delicious was the freshly grilled lamb!
It was really nice to spend time with all of them, especially as a couple of them actually started at Western this past year! So it was great catching up with them, meeting a bunch of their friends and seeing how they all live. One of them talked about taking me in his friend's helicopter up to see Masai Mara, and to have breakfast in one of the lodges out in reserve. I thought he was joking, but he was being quite serious, which illustrated to me how very different their lifestyle is! Overall, it was a great night, and I thoroughly enjoyed hanging out with Naziha's friend circle!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Beaches and beautiful solitude

I think I've become desensitized to bugs after having been here for six weeks. At home in Canada, I don't think I would ever accept a meal that has a few bugs cooked into the rice, crawling around the sugar bowl, or floating around in the soup. But here, I've been very comfortable just scooping them out at each encounter and continuing with my meal. It's quite gross thinking about it now, but here little things like that don't matter. That's probably one of my biggest learnings from the entire trip: learning to let the little things go. It's a learning such as that which makes one a happier, more easy going person, and truly allows one to enjoy life more!

In addition to the bugs in my food, I've also learnt to ignore the creepy crawlies around the house. The first time we saw a cockroach in our home in Kigali, I jumped up from my seat, so scared of the giant thing! I kept my eyes on the creature and could not get any work done until Chris chased it around and squished it. But now when I see them darting around on the floor, I am quite okay staying where I am and simply raising my feet when I hear it crawling towards me. Overall, I'm very happy with this learning of "letting the little things go," and hope I can continue to apply it in life upon my return home.

On Monday, I enjoyed breakfast on the rooftop terrace once again, and then rushed to check out from my room. Joy, the lady at the front desk was kind to book us a taxi to the beach hotel for the afternoon, and let us keep our bags in the hotel while we finished our sight-seeing in Stone Town. Jamie wanted to do some more shopping, and I really wanted to go see the Jamat Khane, so we decided to split up and meet back at the hotel in time for our taxi.
My first stop was the Stone Town Cultural Centre, another building that has been wonderfully restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). The AKTC really has done a lot of work in Zanzibar, and I was taken aback by the before and after photos of the building and waterfront. I now understand why the people of Zanzibar are so appreciative of His Highness the Aga Khan, as he really has invested a lot of time, energy, and resources into the preservation of this historic town, and for the benefit of the people of the island.
I then wandered into the alleyways in search of the Jamat Khane. Everyone knows the building and was very nice, so it was easy to ask for directions, but I was wonderfully lost in the winding alleys. It was so pleasant turning this corner and that, and discovering marvellous doors each depicting a different era in the historical rule of settlers in Zanzibar.

Once I reached the Jamat Khane with a huge smile on my face, I was painfully reminded that it was mid-day and the chances were quite slim that anyone would be there to open the door. I rang the bell of the Jamat Bhai's (caretaker) door, but it was locked from the outside, so I figured he must be out. I still had a few hours before I was to meet Jamie, so I was about to sit down and leave another note here, just as I had done in Masaka, when I heard another door open a few feet away. It was an assistant to the Jamat Bhai, and he let me in. He also told me to wait in the foyer, as the Jamat Bhai was actually in, just three stories up attending to some errands!
I excitedly sat down, and took in my surroundings. This Jamat Khane is the oldest in all of Africa, as it was the first built when many Indian Ismailis moved to Africa so many generations ago. Zanzibar was the port of entry, and the khane was built in 1836! One wall was covered with the names of the Mukhisahebs and Kamadiasahebs (leaders of the congregation) from 1836 to the present day, and it was pretty neat to think about our forefathers attending prayers here over 175 years ago!
The Jamat Bhai was incredibly nice, as they all have been, and he took me on a tour around the entire place, sharing details of the architecture, the additions to the building, the history of our Jamat here, historical thrones that have been used by His Highness the Aga Khan's predecessors, and information on the surrounding area.
The interior was very ornate, with magnificent woodwork around the perimeter of the prayer hall, gorgeous stained glass on the windows, and brilliant chandeliers making the place sparkle. This is another congregation who is extremely fortunate to have such a beautiful prayer space! From one of the balconies, he pointed out the various places of worship surrounding the Jamat Khane. There were two Sunni Mosques, a Bohora Mosque, a Hindu Temple, an Ishnashri Mosque, and a Christian Church, all around the perimeter of the khane. It really is so inspiring to see so many faiths living harmoniously with one another.

After our tour, I signed the guest book, and asked about this famous local restaurant, which is essentially a "hole-in-the-wall" place. Tazim Aunty, a friend from our congregation back home, had recommended I try it out before leaving Zanzibar, and she said it was near khane. The Jamat Bhai led me through the winding streets, and we literally stopped at a cut-out door in a concrete wall. Inside were more bare concrete walls and floor, and a lady sitting by a giant frying pan. Beside her was a small table with her supplies, and across from her was a small concrete bench, with two other ladies sitting down eating their lunch. The Jamat Bhai ordered for me, and I watched her prepare my meal. She fried fresh "bhajias" in the pan, and then added potatoes, some other squishy vegetable, and a lot of sauces and spices, before handing it to me in a pink plastic bowl. She asked the Jamat Bhai if I liked spices, and of course I wanted to experience the real deal, so I nodded yes and regretted it a few minutes later! Although my mouth was on fire, the dish was amazing! It's true when they say the most run-down, simple food places are often the absolute best, most delicious finds!
I still had some time before I had to meet Jamie back at the hotel, so I sat down in Forodhani Park and just enjoyed the fresh air, the sea breeze, and the gorgeous gardens surrounding me. I wrote in my notebook until my pen ran out of ink, and then made my way back to the hotel, after which we left for a beach resort on the East Coast of Zanzibar!
The resort was lovely, and although it wasn't sunny outside, I immediately felt relaxed upon setting my bags down in my room. (Actually, a Masai man wearing traditional robes carried my bags on his head to my room, so I was relaxed even from entering the reception area!)
I got quite a lot of Physics work done in the afternoon, and met up with Jamie for dinner, which featured a traditional Swahili buffet.
After dinner, we enjoyed a poolside Masai show, and I dozed off in my recliner to the sound of the waterfall.
The next morning, I completed another Physics lecture and quiz, before allowing myself to go to the beach, which is about a ten minute drive away. The resort seemed really empty, so I figured the beach would be packed, and Jamie returned saying he enjoyed his hour at the beach, so I got ready and took the shuttle. I was the only one in the shuttle, and the driver was quite talkative, asking me about my "love life" and giving me advice when I said I was not yet married at the age of 22 and still do not have kids. I've become quite used to these conversations now, but he was especially shocked and told me that I need to get married very soon. We then turned into a small village with tiny houses lined up against one another, and lots of mothers and children sitting outside on the dirt.

Now I generally trust people very easily, and I like to see the best in people, but I'm not going to lie: for a split second, I thought the driver was kidnapping me and about to drop me off in this ultra-poor village to be his wife. I'm ashamed now to have had that thought run through my mind, but it's something to laugh about I suppose!

The village detour turned out to be a roundabout way of getting to the beach, which was private for our resort and quite secluded. He dropped me off just as the sun was coming out, and I was greeted by the bartender, who led me down the path to the beach, which was a two minute walk from the bar.
My jaw dropped for the umpteenth time on the trip: the beach was completely empty! And I mean completely empty: there was not a soul in sight for as many miles as my eyes could see! I realized how rare of an opportunity this was, and after taking a few pictures with a huge smile on my face, still in disbelief, I lay down on a beach bed and let the sun soak into my skin.
It was the most beautiful state of solitude, and quite the serene afternoon. I spent some time up at the bar chatting with the bartender, and got to try a delicious soft drink similar to a Fanta Fiesta (the purple one) but this brand was called Mirinda. It tasted just like a soda we used to get when we were kids, called Portello! It brought back good memories, and made my afternoon even better than I thought it could get!
After a couple of hours, new guests to the resort started showing up, but the beach still had enough space for us all. I took the shuttle back, and on my mom's recommendation after reading raving reviews on trip advisor, I got a massage! Honestly, the entire day was just so lovely. I felt so relaxed and at peace after my full body massage, that I agreed to get a henna tattoo when the lady asked me after my massage. Even though we decorate our hands with henna back home for special occasions, I wanted to support this lady's side business, and got a gorgeous flower on my wrist. Their henna here is black, so it looked like a real tattoo! I felt a tiny pang of regret, as it looks so real and I will be meeting many people in Nairobi over the next week, which might give them the wrong impression, but thankfully it's easy to hide under my watch strap.

After freshening up and meeting up with Jamie for dinner once again, I went to the African Goma show. It was a wonderful display of music and traditional dancing, and at one point, they released a huge snake onto the deck! They had taken my and a few other ladies' hands, and had us standing up before we knew there was a snake to come out, so when they started taking the snake around to each of us, most people were quite frightened and ran away. A couple men stood up to display their bravery and hold the snake, and when it came around to me, I was terrified, but realized I probably wouldn't have a chance to hold such a huge reptile anytime in the near future, so I took a deep breath, held out my hands, and had it hissing around my neck! It was so strong, and had quite the tight grip, but its leathery skin was surprisingly super soft.
After the show, I made my way to the reception area, where the internet connection was. I FaceTimed with my parents and gave my mom a good scare for about three seconds when I showed her my tattoo! If only I was a better liar, and didn't burst out laughing so soon, I might've gotten away with spooking my dad when he came to the screen as well! Nevertheless, it was so nice catching up with them, and sharing stories from the wonderful day. After I finished my call, I was called over to the lounge area of the reception, where about ten Masai men were on duty as security and entertainers. I had a lot of fun playing table tennis with a few of them, and then chatting with them, Jamie, and a couple of Belgian tourists we met during the day. After a ton of interesting stories were shared about our lives in the different societies we live in, we all said our goodbyes and called it a night. I went to bed super relaxed, and excited to be flying onwards to my next adventure in Nairobi the following morning!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

New lands

First of all: please accept my sincerest apologies! It's been almost a week since I've last posted, but I've kept a journal to remember the details, and have condensed the most memorable moments from the last few days into a couple combined posts… Thank you to those who have kept checking the blog regularly, and for the concerned emails I've received over the last few days making sure I'm okay! I'm fortunate to have such lovely friends and family members in my life.

We woke up super early in Kampala on Friday and received a phone call from Shiraz Uncle making sure we had been picked up and were okay heading to the airport. Of course we hadn't yet been picked up as it was still early, but he followed up with the driver and asked us to let him know when we reached the airport safely. It was so touching to have him check up on us, ensuring that we were looked after by the Ismaili congregation for the entire duration of our stay in Kampala.

We had a quick stopover in Nairobi, after which we boarded the second plane to our final destination: Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. En route, we saw the magnificent Mount Kilimanjaro from the window, and it really was a breathtaking sight, looming up above the clouds! We landed in Tanzania and immediately felt the heat. It's hard to believe they're only just entering their summer months now, and this is not nearly as hot as it gets!
While we were waiting in line to withdraw some cash, (which has been quite the stressful experience in each place we visit) we met a few foreigners who visit Tanzania frequently. They recommended that we stay in the YWCA tonight, for it's proximity to the port and its cheap room rates. We checked in and walked to a nearby local restaurant for lunch. I had "beef mishkaki" and it was delicious! My friends from East Africa always rave about how much better the meat is over here, but I didn't realize how much better it would be. It was very fresh and tender, and it gave me a great first impression of Tanzania. I must say though, my dad's marinades and bbq style rival the best of the best, so if he had access to these fresh meats at home, his mishkaki would be out of this world!
Since we hadn't been connected to the internet for the past few days, we thought it would be nice to relax at the Serena and get some work done. We got dressed up so we would fit in with the upscale crowd, and walked over to the gorgeous outdoor bar. The Serena Hotels have really done it right, as each hotel is like a peaceful haven inside the crowded cities in which they are built! We ordered our drinks, and I was surprised to see how tall my coke bottle was - definitely going to bring one of these home for my dad's collection! Unfortunately however, the wi-fi was not free, so I wrote out my Masaka blog post, while Jamie caught up on his tv shows. I needed to finish a Physics test before the Saturday mid-day deadline, so we ventured out into the city to find cheaper wi-fi access. We were SO lucky - we found the most hospitable people in Dar and were welcomed with open arms at the Holiday Inn in the city centre. This was quite the high class Holiday Inn, and immediately the concierge assistants gave us free vouchers for a full day of internet use, even though it's normally just half an hour of free wi-fi. We were wandering around upstairs looking for plugs, when we met a waiter, Firoz, who took such great care of us all evening. He sat us on the rooftop patio away from the noise inside the bar and brought us free snacks, ensuring that I was able to complete my Physics test comfortably. He assured me that he had no ulterior motive, but instead referred to me as his sister, starting in a new place far away from home. When we were leaving, he handed me a small note of 100 rupees from India. He mentioned that someone had done the same for him when he had arrived in Dar, and that it was meant to be a symbol of good luck. He was metaphorically investing in my future, and it was a very kind gesture.

I was full from the snacks, but Jamie wanted to eat a big, American-style dinner, so while we were walking through the streets of Dar, we experienced another side of the city. The streets were quite dirty, littered with garbage, and street kids were unfortunately setting up their beds along steps of large corporate buildings. While trying to avoid stepping on a pile of garbage on the path, my foot slipped on some gravel, and I (not so gracefully) fell, somehow scratching my entire shin, cutting through my pants and landing on my chin. Thankfully, my chin is just bruised a tad, and the gash on my knee is just another addition to the battlescars from running around the playground as a child. What's quite unfortunate though, is the rip in my pants! (For those who know my wardrobe, these are THE pants.) I'm grateful however that I wasn't hurt any worse, and I know I can always find a replacement for the pants!

Saturday morning I had the customary cold shower, and refrained from squealing. It's quite surprising how quickly I've become used to the ice cold showers! We had a quick breakfast and hailed a taxi to take us to the port for our ferry ride to Zanzibar. Unfortunately however, the taxi driver forgot to put my luggage handle down when he lifted it, and ended up snapping the handle right off. It's a nice bag too, but thankfully I've learnt not to value material things too much, as they come and go, and are far less valuable than one's safety, health, relationships and happiness.

We arrived at the port and were swarmed by ferry company representatives sticking their hands in the windows of the car with flyers and price promotions. Thankfully the people we had run into the day before had advised us on which company to go with, for safety and reliability's sake. We purchased our tickets, and while we were waiting, went to the bank. I experienced my first case of Police corruption, as our taxi driver bribed the officer to let him park on the road where Jamie told him to wait. I was a tad scared, as I was by myself in the back with all of our luggage, while the policeman and taxi driver angrily argued in Swahili, every so often gesturing back towards me. The bribe ended up working in the taxi driver's favour, and 15 minutes later, Jamie returned so we could get on our way.

The boat ride was lovely, and as we were leaving we ran into another Canadian, Nicola, who was visiting Zanzibar for the second time.
She graciously led us to her hotel, which was nearby, and we were thankful for not having to aimlessly wander with broken luggage trying to find a place to stay! The hotel was a gorgeous boutique hotel, right on the edge of Stone Town, with great Arabian-themed rooms. After a quick lunch together with Nicola, I excitedly put on my new pants, and Jamie and I set off on a walking city tour to experience the exoticness that is Stone Town.

With tremendous Arabic and Indian influence, this city is a fascinating place. The architecture is incredible, and one could easily get wonderfully lost wandering through the many alleyways.
On our tour, we visited the first trading market in Zanzibar, and the spot where all of the catches from the sea come to be auctioned off centrally. We also toured the former slave trading grounds, and the holding cells of many of the slaves, which was pretty shocking to see.
We also found a spot where there was a fantastic view of both a church steeple and mosque minaret side by side, which I thought was really neat. It's always nice to see how different cultures and faiths can harmoniously live together.
My favourite part of the tour, however, was Forodhani Park. This ancient park used to be in ruins, but His Highness the Aga Khan, through the AKDN's Aga Khan Trust for Culture, invested heavily in it a few years back, funding its restoration and upkeep. It is now a lively place, central for all townspeople, and an attraction for all tourists. Not only is there lots of space to relax and sit in quiet contemplation against the picturesque landscape, but there is a playground for children, and the entire park transforms into a night market in the evenings, where vendors proudly sell fresh juices, snacks, and their freshly grilled catches from the day. Even though there were so many foreigners enjoying the market, and Nicola and I really wanted to eat there, Jamie didn't trust the cooking, so the three of us went instead to an expensive restaurant for dinner. There was live Tebab music playing, and we sat on cushions for the meal. Afterwards, we made our way to Mercury's (where all menu items are wittily named after Freddy Mercury's favourites, as he was born in Stone Town) for some dessert and coffee.
The next morning, we went on a Spice Tour just outside of Stone Town. We got to taste the spices right off their plants, and I surprised myself and the entire group with how familiar I was with all of the spices, naming them immediately when we were asked to guess the spice from its smell. I guess having grown up in a house that's cuisine is a flavourful fusion of East African and Indian has led me to subconsciously be very aware of more spices than the average person!
At one point, the tour guide handed Jamie a little grass ring and told him to give it to me. We had to explain to the tour guide that we're not a couple, but rather just colleagues touring East Africa for a few days as our work has just finished. It's quite funny how many times we've had to explain that we're not a couple over the last few days, and how many puzzled stares we've gotten when we ask for two separate rooms! The tour guide ended up giving the ring directly to me instead, and he proceeded to make one for each of the ladies in our tour group, which was very sweet.

The tour ended with a traditional lunch, a visit down into a slave cave, and a quick trip to a remote beach on the outskirts of town. It was absolutely gorgeous, and the fine white sand and brilliant blue water took me by surprise. For some reason, I expected the beaches to be a bit more like the European beaches, with more rocks. Nevertheless, it was stunning, and made me quite excited to be heading to the East Coast beaches the next day.

I did a bit of work in the afternoon before meeting Nicola and Jamie for dinner, at Mercury's once again. Once we reached the hotel, I just sat in the rooftop terrace for a while, admiring all of the stars, and the view of the magical place that is Zanzibar!