Beauty is Close to Home, Too.

Seven months and seven days ago, I drove into Seattle following two weeks spent on the road after finishing grad school in Boston. Give me three more months here and it will officially become the longest I’ve lived in one place since high school. Considering my ten year reunion is at the end of this month, that means a decade of living fluidly and perfecting a vagabond existence on the global scale. It is both terrifying and a huge weight off my shoulders to be adjusting to a life with a “normal” routine.

I went hiking with my friend Ian and his girlfriend Veronica this past weekend. I’ve known him for seven years now, ever since we met one cold January day in Massachusetts at the beginning of a study abroad program through Sea Education Association. We had a shore component in MA and then six weeks at sea doing sail training and oceanographic research on a tall ship, the Robert C. Seamans. To this day, my experience sailing from Tahiti to Hawaii – using nothing but sextants and our knowledge of the stars to guide us – remains one of the most unique and memorable of my life. Ian and I were on the same watch rotation, so he was a part a lot of these memories I still hold so close. Like when we first saw the peaks of Moorea at sunset, or when he got a tattoo from a Marquesan man in Nuku Hiva; when we were about to cross the equator and everyone rushed to the tip of the bow sprit to be the first one in the northern hemisphere, or when our first sight of land in weeks was rivers of bright orange disappearing into bursts of steam in the pitch black – lava pouring off Hawaii into the ocean.


Seven years younger and the faces to prove it.

These are a collection of memories that exist far from the ordinary, and many of which live in the extraordinary for me. As Ian and I hoofed up a mountain towards Lake Serene this past weekend, I asked him: “What if someone had told us seven years ago that we’d still be friends, living in the same city, and both working Monday to Friday 9-5s?”

“I would have told them they were crazy.”

Yet here we are.


Sailing into Moorea, French Polynesia, on the Robert C. Seamans. 2007. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

So here is my current task: to find the extraordinary in what I so often have a tendency to believe is ordinary. To remind myself that beauty is beauty, regardless of whether it’s in my backyard or on the other side of the world. If I was living somewhere else and visiting Washington State, you can bet that I’d be blogging about it as something foreign and extraordinary. As someone who has been born to feel fernweh, “farsickness”, it is often hard for me to see the beautiful places and moments in a home base the way I see them when they’re the “other”. But seeing as I’m likely going to be calling Seattle home for a while, I want to try and change this…

There’s one thing I can’t get over in the Pacific Northwest – something that is always new no matter how much my eyes revel in it: green. Green comes in all shapes and sizes, all hues and textures. It’s a miraculous sight after spending a childhood in the desert. I’ve been channeling my wanderlust into the many places to explore around my new home city, and thank the universe there are a whole lot of them. My list grows daily for places to wander, and I’m slowly but surely learning to appreciate this in new ways. Here are my top five so far… driving times included to show how amazingly close they are to home base.

1)   Quinault National Forest – Olympic Peninsula, 3 hours west of Seattle.


A friend, new to the Pacific Northwest, looks up in awe at the Quinault Rainforest. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

I explored Quinault with a friend who was raised in Chicago and then moved out east. We spotted signs for recent cougar sighting all over the trail system and made a point of having a louder-than-normal conversation to announce our presence in the woods. This got me hooked on exploring the area and Jessica hooked on the PNW – she’s decided to move out next month to make this her new home.

2)   Wallace Falls State Park – Gold Bar, 1 hour northeast of Seattle.


Rainbows come and go at the base of the Middle Falls as the sun pokes its way through the clouds now and again. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

I came late in the day to Wallace Falls but this worked to my advantage – I was the lone soul on the trail on my way down and found myself singing and dancing out of joy to be in such a beautiful place. Watching the rainbows form and disappear over the falls was icing on the cake.

3)   Rattlesnake Ledge – Snoqualmie Pass, 45 minutes east of Seattle.


Rewarded after a great hike up to Rattlesnake Ledge with a supremely calm sunset at Rattlesnake Lake. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

A busy busy day on the hike up and at the ledge, including an engagement photo shoot, but a quiet and serene evening on the lake at the end. My friend Emily’s dog, Egypt, was happy to cool herself down and ripple the otherwise perfect reflections in the water.

4)   Ancient Lakes Wildlife Recreation Area – Quincy, 2.5 hours east of Seattle.


A red-winged blackbird calls to potential mates from a perch among the cattails. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Escaping to the desert on the eastern side of the Cascades. I know I said I was amazed with all the green, but it was good for my desert rat soul to head east and walk in dusty sagebrush country again. The lakes are formed from the combination of natural streams and irrigation runoff in the surrounding agricultural land. Not only a beautiful day in the sun but a lesson in watching for rattlesnakes, as well.

5)   Lake Serene/Bridal Veil Falls – Index, 1 hour northeast of Seattle.


Mt. Index towers above the still frozen Lake Serene on a moody May day. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Last but not least, the hike with Ian and Veronica that started this whole post. The hardest hike yet but a wonderful prelude to a summer of being outdoors with friends I hold dear.

Here’s to the next 5 and beyond…



Updates for the New Year!

Hello all!

It’s been a busy few months getting settled back in the U.S. after returning from Tanzania to present my Masters thesis. The biggest travel adventure since I got back has been the cross-country road trip from Boston to Seattle – 3,400 miles of open road (except for Chicago) and countless radio stations along the way. My plan had been to break in a new tent along the way in the Badlands, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone National Parks, but alas Congress decided instead that a government shutdown would be more appropriate. This is as far as I got…

Road blocked at Grand Teton National Park during the government shutdown. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Road blocked at Grand Teton National Park during the government shutdown. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Shutdown aside, I got to spend time with friends in Cleveland and Jackson Hole, at my home farm in southwestern Wisconsin, say goodbye to my grandmother and welcome her two-day old great-granddaughter into the family in Minnesota, spend a very stormy night in the Motel 6 in Hot Springs, SD (and for only $39 – who knew such prices still existed in the U.S.??), visit the world’s only corn palace, and indeed break in the new tent at the poorly named Massacre State Park in Idaho. Idaho was my last night on the road before making it to Seattle. Even though I woke to a wet tent, the smell of sagebrush country after the night’s rains left me knowing I would miss the road dearly – even if I was excited to start a more settled life in Seattle. I would miss the autumn colors I left in New England, the sunset storm clouds I outran in South Dakota, the early snow on the mountain passes in Wyoming that my car somehow survived, the late afternoon light hitting the orange rocks in the Wind Rivers, and that intangible feeling of freedom that comes when one is driving the all-American road trip heading out west.

Somewhere, South Dakota. The smell of sunset thunderstorms keeps me pushing through to find covered lodging for the night. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Somewhere, South Dakota. The smell of sunset thunderstorms keeps me pushing through to find covered lodging for the night. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Seattle is just how I left it – a city that somehow seems to have stolen my heart (despite January-March) and left me ready for a whole new set of Pacific Northwest adventures. Although it’s been pretty busy with starting a new job at the University of Washington in the School of Public Health, here’s a few of the photo highlights of the past few months…

© Gemina Garland-Lewis and Tufts Veterinary Magazine

© Gemina Garland-Lewis and Tufts Veterinary Magazine

Last week I received a number of copies of the winter issue of Tufts Veterinary Magazine, who featured the above spread of my images and an article I wrote about my National Geographic Young Explorer Grant on Azorean ex-whalers. It’s been great to see these images in print finally and to be able to keep sharing the stories of these men.

Following the heels of my last post on the short film made with footage I shot this summer in Tanzania for Putney Student Travel – Putney has now released a longer promotional video on their programs in general. It gives a great sense of what a wonderful organization they are (and there’s a few more scenes from Tanzania mixed in!).


And finally, I finished updating my photo website just before the new year. It’s been a long process to make some of the big revisions to it, so it feels great to have it finally up and running. New albums posted from my summer in Tanzania, including my trips with National Geographic Student Expeditions, Putney Student Travel, and my post-thesis getaway to Zanzibar, as well as more images from my NG Young Explorer Grant in the Azores. Please check it out and enjoy!

I’ll leave you with the ABCs of my road journey!





Looking is for Free

I get off the ferry in Stone Town at sunset, admiring the giant “KARIBU ZANZIBAR” sign on the terminal building. For political reasons I’m highly unclear of, given that Zanzibar is part of Tanzania, I must fill out an immigration form, get my passport stamped, and show my proof of yellow fever vaccination (a disease, mind you, that is not endemic to Tanzania). I get in a cab and tell him where I’m staying, accepting his quote of 5,000tsh, about $3, not knowing I’m getting charged almost double what I should be. We stop at St. Monica’s Hostel less than a kilometer down the road, indicating I also hadn’t realized how small this town is. The hostel is right next to the old slave market, and when I find the stairs to my room it is next to a sign with an arrow reading “slave chambers”.

My accommodation, like Stone Town itself, is a beautiful mix of histories and cultures. The Arab influence is immediately apparent in the architecture, and I realize I’ve never seen anything like it before. I think more than anything, it is this mélange of cultures that stays with me throughout my explorations of the city over the next day. It is an island that, in contrast to the mainland, is almost entirely Muslim, which I realize means I will wake up at 5am with the first call to prayer. Women here are always covered in a hijab or a burka (known here as a bui-bui), often with a beautiful pop of bright colors that gently reminds you that you are in sub-Saharan Africa. The streets of Stone Town remind me of Italy, more than anything else I can think of – though not quite as well maintained. They are narrow, twisted, and promote getting (happily) lost while wanderings through the maze of shops, houses, and markets. Like Italy, no cars fit down these roads, but you need to watch your back (and your front) for Vespas speeding by.

A shop plastered in old license plates and photos of Obama sits at the end of one of Stone Town's many twists and turns among the alleyways. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

A shop plastered in old license plates and photos of Obama sits at the end of one of Stone Town’s many twists and turns among the alleyways. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

The first place I get lost is Darajani market. I wander through the seemingly endless twists and turns, always finding something new. Zanzibar was a key locale for the spice trade, and continues to produce an array of spices that still play an important role in the economy. I walk by cloves, chilies, cinnamon (three kinds, mind you – some of which were almost as tall as a grown man), paprika, vanilla, cardamom, saffron, black pepper, lemongrass, cumin, mustard, coriander, and nutmeg. The tag in the nutmeg reads “This is better for drinks, cooking, and woman that have given up strong desire for making or to fulfill their men,” and all shopkeepers point out the spice as good for women with a slight twinkle in their eye. Easy, boys.

Within Darajani I soon find the fish market, complete with freshly caught octopus, squid, tuna, dorado, prawns, snapper, and others that I don’t recognize off the bat. I watch as a fish auction begins to take place at one end of the market, before moving towards the opposite end of the building where the meat market is located. Skinned cows hang on hooks and piles of meat adorn the concrete slab counters. Flies are everywhere while butchers prepare orders for customers. As I’m trying to get my bearings, a man starts calling for me to take a picture of him. I turn to find an older man holding up the horns of a cow he has freshly butchered. Playing, he holds them up above his head for his photo op, while some of the animal’s flesh still attached hangs down on his head.

The path cutting through the fish section of Darajani market. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

The path cutting through the fish section of Darajani market. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Turning around to see this man wanting a photo brought a huge smile to my face. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Turning around to see this man wanting a photo brought a huge smile to my face. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

After winding through more rows of vegetables, spices, nuts, fruits, and eggs, I finally come across the chicken market. The men who work here are by far the friendliest of any section of the market I’ve been in before, and I end up staying for a while. They try to disperse the flies covering the chicken carcasses before I take pictures, but it only helps so much. I see a bucket with a variety of bits and pieces I cannot for the life of me place, and when I ask what it is I simply get the answer “soup.” Live chickens walk around, some that will be sold as they are and others that will be chosen live and then butchered on the spot. I watch a man choose his chickens carefully, tossing each one he picks into a large basket with a very small opening on top, just wide enough for one bird. His aim is impressive, and I manage to record a few tosses on film.

Two roosters cock their heads (no pun intended... or maybe intended) at me from atop the cages that hold hens in the poultry area of Darajani market. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Two roosters cock their heads (no pun intended… or maybe intended) at me from atop the cages that hold hens in the poultry area of Darajani market. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

"Soup." Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

“Soup.” Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Upon parting ways with the poultry, I eventually wander out of Darajani and into alleyways filled with small shops for tourists. “Looking is for free” is repeated over and over again to get you into a store, and I wonder who taught them this phrase that I haven’t heard anywhere else. There are so many shops filled with paintings and jewelry, fabrics and clothing. I immediately know I’m in trouble, shopping-wise. Eventually I stop at a small tea house where I am served mint tea, hiding from the busy streets for a minute while I disappear into my book. I admire the wooden doors left from another era and learn from a passerby, who wants me to pay him to have him walk me around town, that the ones with huge round metal adornments are indicative of Arab culture while those with pointed edges are Indian. Apparently their design back in India was meant to ward off war elephants from breaking in doors, though I haven’t seen many war elephants on the island. Around the next corner, I come upon a group of musicians playing a song that all the children in the area come running over to, bouncing up and down in the street with that beautiful kind of uninhibited dancing that only children (and people at Burning Man) can pull off.

A man turns away from his booth selling rambutan, a spiked fruit that is eaten like a lychee. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

A man turns away from his booth selling rambutan, a spiked fruit that is eaten like a lychee. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

When I continue wandering I come out at the port, where I stop for a late lunch and make use of the free public wifi that covers this part of town. This is a huge indicator to me of how high tourism levels are in this city. I can feel this all around me as well – I haven’t been surrounded by so many wazungu since I left America. It also means that I feel my interactions with locals here are a little less genuine than they have been on the mainland – people are still very nice, but often for a price. I eat my chips and watch an elder Dutch woman trying to buy only fish from the small restaurant I am eating at so that she can feed it to some of the many stray cats wandering around – an exchange which the locals are very confused by. As I watch her take her fish to a group of felines I am completely in awe of both the cultural divide in front of me and of why anyone would think the solution to solving a stray cat issue is to hand feed them. A spay and neuter clinic sure, but this? I am reminded of the many conversations I have had trying to explain how pets are viewed in the developed world, knowing that it really can’t be comprehended here. I return to this spot, known as Forodhani Gardens, in the evening for the nighttime food market that pop up and are the place to be for locals and tourists alike. I get a plate with some chapati and veggies, and happily down a glass of sugarcane juice with ginger and lemongrass while watching all the stray cats feast on people’s leftovers that they haven’t bothered to put in a trash can.

My view for lunch in Forodhani Gardens. Not too shabby. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

My view for lunch in Forodhani Gardens. Not too shabby. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

When I get on the daladala in the morning to go to Jambiani, I am thankful a work colleague told me that they’re a little bit different in Zanzibar. Instead of a minibus, the daladalas here are old trucks that have been refitted in the back to hold three benches, one on each side of the bed and one against the driver’s seat. I sit staring at the people across from me, in disbelief every time we take on a new passenger and somehow manage to squeeze them in. Personal space is not a thing here. I laugh as we drive by a man with a baseball hat that reads “I AM A BOSS!” and a shirt saying “I FACEBOOK YOUR MUM.” Every now and then I partake in the passing over of a baby to its mother after she successfully wiggles her way into a seat, reminiscent of a fire line down the daladala bench. Sometimes when a woman has more than one small child another woman without a youngster will take on the other’s in her own lap. I can’t imagine an American woman not being bothered by a stranger taking her baby for her, and get a sense of how family and community structures differ here.

The empty daladala before leaving for Jambiani. A two hour ride cost me 2000tsh, or about $1.25 - less than a two minute taxi ride in Stone Town.

The empty daladala before leaving for Jambiani. A two hour ride cost me 2000tsh, or about $1.25 – less than a two minute taxi ride in Stone Town.

I’m sitting next to man who speaks very good English. He’s 25 and is a capoeira instructor. When he was 12 he found some capoeira videos and self-taught from those until he got noticed enough to be sponsored by an American instructor. He carries his musical instruments on the daladala, heading east to teach a class in Jambiani. I decide to ask him if he wishes Zanzibar were independent, something I have learned is a commonplace here. Indeed, he responds saying that every day he prays for that. He continues on to tell me that Tanzania does nothing for them and doesn’t consult them about anything. He talks about all the oil they have and how they’re not allowed to exploit it – something I can’t say I share his disappointment in. Later he tells me he just a call to go monkey hunting – not for the endemic red colobus monkeys which are protected, but more common ones that harm people’s crops. Knowing the cultural divide is too large to bridge in the space of an hour, I smile politely while he talks about how he loves hunting. When I talk about this interaction with my supervisor back in Dar, he says that Zanzibar will never be independent. He brings up how 80% of their food comes from the mainland and how all their money for infrastructure development comes from the Tanzanian government, essentially seeing it as one big subsidized island. Pointing a finger at me, he also says that America is a big reason Zanzibar will stay part of Tanzania – “the American government doesn’t want to run the chance of having it be an independent Islamic nation with the potential for harboring extremism and terrorist groups,” he says. Now there’s something I never would have considered…

When I return to Stone Town for my last night on the island, I am amazed at how well I can find my way around. That’s the beauty of a small town you do nothing but walk around in for eight hours, I guess. I eagerly head towards an Italian restaurant, thankful for tourists at least in this moment because it means I get real pizza.

One of the many cats wandering the streets of Stone Town, this one having found quite a nice spot for a morning nap. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

One of the many cats wandering the streets of Stone Town, this one having found quite a nice spot for a morning nap. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Meeting Meja

It appears, dear readers, that my prolific blogging (well, for me at least) was actually a procrastination technique to avoid my thesis. Since turning in my thesis, I apparently have enjoyed staying away from writing on my computer. However, I’m at a time now where an update is both overdue and necessary for my brain to work through everything that’s going on right now.

I just spent five nights on Zanzibar, which easily knocked its way up into the top five most amazing places I’ve ever seen. I returned to Dar today, straight from the 7am ferry leaving Stone Town to the office (but hey, now I can say I once commuted to work from Zanzibar). To be honest, I wasn’t hugely productive today – both as a result of waking up exhausted/a little sick and the reality of my last week here smacking me in the face. It is now time to consider the trip home… what I need to do before then, who I need to pay, what I need to write, how on earth am I going to fit all of this in my bag, etc. The life I left behind is beckoning, and with it that bittersweet quality that all journeys end with.

For now, however, I want to go back a few days…when the present moment was all that mattered. I met a woman in Jambiani who reminded me of every beautiful thing about solo travel. Her name was Meja, and I found her sitting in the small pools in the sand left at low tide in her village of Jambiani. Located on the southeast coast of Zanzibar, Jambiani is home to not only incredible beaches, but to a seaweed farming industry as well. “Industry” is probably not the right word, however, as it consists of small plots, maybe 20ft x 20ft(ish), that women in the village tend to each day. Putting sharpened sticks in the sand and tying twine between them, they make rows where the seaweed grows in small bunches, much like a head of lettuce. They tie a small piece of seaweed onto the twine with another small piece of rope, and then wait for it to grow to harvesting size, which takes about one month. Once harvested, they take it home to dry and then wait to collect enough to give to locals who make the drive to the markets in Stone Town, about 2hrs away. Once all is said and done, a woman will receive about 400 Tanzanian shillings, or roughly 25 cents, for each kilo of dry seaweed.

Rows of seaweed line the shallow pools left at low tide in Jambiani. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Rows of seaweed line the shallow pools left at low tide in Jambiani. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

I only know all of this because of Meja, who was one of the only women game for chatting and picture-taking. I met her on my first day in Jambiani – a day when I had only taken my iPhone for a camera when I went out exploring. Upon meeting her at her seaweed plot, I knew I had to come back again to shoot her for real (photographically speaking, of course). I asked her in Swahili if she would be in the same spot tomorrow, and was quite smitten when she said yes.

Fast forward 24 hours and I am back with Meja. After talking a little, I ask her to write her name for me so I know how to spell it. She takes one of the sticks used to tie the twine for seaweed that has been left sitting out, and sketches her name in big block letters in the unbelievably white sand. She asks me to do the same, and so there are our names written together in the sand, to be washed away when the tide returns. Although I attempt some Swahili with her, it is clear that her English is very good, so I allow myself to speak in my native tongue and ask her everything I really want to. She shows me how ties the seaweed, then unpacks the bag she has filled with her harvest for the day to show me how much she has and how little it will turn into when it dries. I learn that the Swahili word for “seaweed” is “mwani”, that she is 25 years old, and that she neither has children nor is married – unusual for a woman of her age generally. I complement her English and ask her where she learned to speak so well, to which she replies that she always had it in school. When I ask how long she was in school, her answer of fourteen years makes it a little clearer (statistically speaking, at least) as to why she is unmarried at her age – as a woman’s education level is raised, so is the age at which she marries, generally.

Where I met Meja, tending to her seaweed plot. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Where I met Meja, tending to her seaweed plot. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

We keep talking, sitting in the ocean with our wet kangas, until she is done with her seaweed tasks for the day. She tells me that she is going to go cook cassava now, and asks if I would like to come. I have not yet been invited into anyone’s home, except for work colleagues, and I eagerly accept the gracious offer. She grabs the bag we emptied (and refilled) earlier while I try to guess just how heavy it is right now while still filled with wet seaweed – African women have a way of making heavy loads look like child’s play, filled with the quiet strength of years upon years of experience. Meja attempts to redo the kanga she is wearing to cover her hair while still carrying the bag. My offer to help gets me one side of the bag, which we carry between us in the middle, at least until she finishes wrapping her hair and decides to take the bag back.

We walk on the sand that will be covered in surprisingly deep water in but a few hours when the tide comes in, then hit the beach and start to wander back through the small stone houses of the village. It is clear from the children’s reaction that not many mzungu wander back this way – usually we are at the beach working on our tans/burns. We arrive at her house and she takes me to where she spreads out her seaweed to dry, showing me the considerably smaller pile of dry seaweed from her harvest a couple days ago. I can’t even imagine how much seaweed it must take to come out with a kilo, and for only 25 cents at that.

Walking through the entrance to her house, I see her sister and mother and am welcomed by them. I am provided with a seat and a very chilled bottle of water, which ticks off a little “refrigerator” box in my head that comes from having read so much about poverty indicators for my internship. I watch Meja’s sister sit on the ground and work on her embroidery while her two-year-old daughter collapses with exhaustion in her mother’s lap. Soon after falling asleep, the young girl starts to pee all over her mom and the mat she is working on. She is still asleep when Meja brings water to clean her, waking only briefly when the cold liquid is poured all over her genitals. She has a look on her face that makes me laugh, knowing that’s not a way I would particularly care to wake up, either.

Meja stands over the seaweed she has just brought back from her plot today. It will dry to about a quarter of its current size. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Meja stands over the seaweed she has just brought back from her plot today. It will dry to about a quarter of its current size. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

I am then brought food to eat, and instantly I am both grateful and worried. I’m guessing that as a visitor, and an mzungu one at that, that I’ll be given something particularly nice, which here means meat. I look closer at what is hiding in the red sauce and realize it’s octopus. Grateful at least that it’s not red meat, which I would have to turn down, I accept that this will be one of the handful of moments over my many years as a vegetarian traveller that I allow myself to eat an animal in the name of being culturally appropriate, and look gratefully at my hosts (at the four chunks of cassava provided, too). I rinse my hands with the small bucket of water they’ve provided, knowing that they will be my only eating utensils for this meal. My body instantly knows I am not supposed to be eating this, and I struggle to consume enough to be polite. At the point at which I’ve downed three four-inch legs and almost all of the cassava, I start to gag. I’ve always thought it better to pass on someone’s kind offer of food than to throw it up in their house, and luckily at that moment Meja starts a new project so intriguing that I am able to act as though the only thing preventing me from finishing my meal is that I want to see what she’s doing (which I suppose is partly true).

What Meja has brought out is a contraption I’ve never seen before – a folding chair that opens wide and sits low to the ground, made of two pieces of interlocking wood. The really cool thing is that it has a circular serrated blade protruding from one end, which I have no inkling as to its use. Meja returns with a bowl of coconuts she has split in two, then sits sideways on the chair and starts to grind out the meat using the curved razor. I watch with a huge smile on my face – it had never really occurred to me how people grate coconuts – and explain that this is not something you’d ever see in America. As chickens pop in and out of the house and one chick comes to pick at the empty coconut shells, I ask her how many she has. She and her sister confer and come back saying they have no idea, which is not entirely surprising. Village chickens wander freely during the day (and I mean freely, like, anywhere in the village they want), and, although they come back at night, aren’t often provided with a roost or coop to spend the night in. When I see the goats, I ask her what they’re used for – milk, meat, or market. While she says all three, the most important is selling. I confirm what I’ve been reading in the literature that women are not allowed to sell goats – this is men’s work – and also that women are able to sell chickens without prior approval from a man. Everything has a gender role here.

My favorite new contraption - a folding chair made just for scraping out coconut meat. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

My favorite new contraption – a folding chair made just for scraping out coconut meat. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Once the coconuts have been fully cleaned out and I have explored their goat house, Meja invites me into their kitchen to watch her cook. It’s a stand-alone building about fifteen feet across and seven feet wide. A variety of pots sit on small stoves, fueled only by fire and charcoal. Meja starts to put the coconut into a blender (ticking another wealth indicator box in my head) and mixes it with water, explaining that before they had the blender it would take forever to squeeze out the coconut meat for milk by hand and that the yield was never as great. She takes some of the milk out to her sister, who is cooking rice, and then pours some in the cassava and sweet potatoes she’s cooking. I watch as she pulls some whole spices out from glass jars, grinding them in a makeshift mortar and pestle made out of a stick and half a coconut shell. She holds up one of the seeds and asks “cardamom or cinnamon?” I respond “cardamom,” simply blown away by her English. She throws the spices in the pot and my nose takes a great liking to what’s on the stove. As we talk, I realize I’m having a hard time figuring out if I’m asking questions like a development worker, a journalist, a traveler, or a peer. Story of my life, I guess. I learn that there are ten people living in her house, including her, that her chickens lay eggs in a dark corner of the kitchen, that octopus is eaten on special occasions, and that her sister’s marriage is falling apart – “she got five years,” she says, which sounds to me more like a prison sentence than a marriage anniversary.

The smell of cardamom and black pepper waft out from the cassava and sweet potatoes cooking in freshly procured coconut milk. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

The smell of cardamom and black pepper waft out from the cassava and sweet potatoes cooking in freshly procured coconut milk. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

As she finishes her work I stand to go, partly not wanting to impose anymore, partly wanting to go take some more pictures on my last day in Jambiani, and partly not wanting to stay long enough that I am offered another meal, kind-hearted as it may be. She says it’s time for her to shower and relax, so I think it’s a good breaking point for both of us. I thank her profusely for inviting me to her home, answering all my various questions, and letting me photograph her all along the way (and for the food, of course). When I ask her if there is any way to get mail in her village, she says no. Guess I’ll just have to come back and personally deliver a photograph… someday.

When I get back to my beach house, all the other guests are laying in the sun, just like I left them. To be fair, I did my share of that as well, but meeting Meja reminded me that the best experiences are always the ones that come from being a traveler and not a tourist – a distinction which we discuss at length with every National Geographic student group. It’s amazing how humbled and grateful you can feel when genuine and unplanned interactions allow you to connect with what’s truly around you.

Making connections between different worlds. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Making connections between different worlds. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.



T’was the Night Before Eid…

I arrive at 6:15pm to see if there’s anything I can do to help set up for dinner. I am wearing long, loose pants and a jacket over my shirt that comes down to my elbows. I am told I must go change into a skirt and cover my hair. I walk back to my room, grabbing my nicest kitenge to wrap around my waist. I change into a shirt that covers more of my chest, but leaves my lower arm still exposed. To top things off, I pull out the traditional Portuguese scarf I brought with me (though I’m not entirely sure why, with as warm as temperatures are here) and wrap it around my head. I head back to the main house and again I am not permitted to enter – my arms are still showing and the scarf around my head is not long enough to hide them under. Taking no chances this time, I return to my room and put on a long-sleeve shirt that covers everything and a sarong my old dance teacher gave me from Senegal that wraps nicely around my head. This time I am allowed inside.

The children have already arrived and are sitting patiently on the floor, where the meal has been set up per tradition. It is the last night of Ramadan – this is the last meal to break the month of fasting before the two-day celebration of Eid. I am new to all of this, but am trying to learn as much as I can. I am told to sit next to the children – children who have been invited from a nearby orphanage to join in this meal. For Muslims who are better off, this is an important time to give to those who are less so. I am feeling a little flustered when I am instructed to uncover the food and serve the children. What if I do it wrong??? I already messed up my outfit several times and I don’t want to accidentally commit some horrible taboo of serving etiquette. But of course, I proceed anyway. I hear what I imagine the thoughts of the children must be in my head “who is this mzungu here serving us food?” I notice that all of the men and boys are in the other room, and it occurs to me that this may be the first time in my life I have been separated by gender for something other than bathrooms and sports teams.

They are all beautiful young girls that I am serving food to, dressed to the nines with whatever they had. One of them is wearing what I imagine has to be an old Halloween costume, based on the fabric and significant bling factor of fake jewels on the cuffs. I am sweating underneath all this clothing – only my face, hands, and feet are exposed. My body is not used to this. We begin to eat together, me trying hard to master eating without utensils or the use of both hands – food is eaten with the right hand. I watch the girls and women nearby and there appears to be some technique of rolling food into small pellets to make it easier not to drop everywhere. I take a sip of the porridge that is the first thing to be consumed when breaking fast at the end of each day of Ramadan – it is made from maize and commonly served with sugar. I have had it three times to date, and I think what it most reminds me of is pancake batter. I try to ask some of the girls their name, but no one is really speaking in either room, making conversation seem difficult or inappropriate while eating. So I just smile.


The lovely gaggle of girls I was fortunate enough to share in the celebrations with on this Eid eve. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

I am told to keep giving them food – to pile it on, make them eat and eat and eat. There is fish, chicken, potatoes, peas, cassava, rice, noodles, porridge, chapati, and about five different kinds of fruit. Some of them do better than others with the mountains of food they’re amassing on their plates. After dinner, I get to learn their names and I am introduced to the group. As soon as word gets out that I’m American, one of the girls looks at me, throws me a huge grin, and says: “Obama!!!!” I laugh and say “ndeyo,” “yes.”

We gather in the main room for the evening’s prayers – purported to be the strongest day of the year for them – with the women sitting in a back corner. I notice that the way people are holding their hands is similar to ways I’ve seen some Buddhists holding them during meditation – open palms to the sky. I am distracted from the prayers, being led by the host’s husband, by the giggling of the young girls who have excused themselves to go to the bathroom, which is just to my left. Earlier one of them had stood up in the middle of the meal and started bouncing around with a look of anguish on her face… some things need no translation to be understood.


Everyone gathers in the living room for after-dinner prayers – separated by gender, of course. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

After the prayers finish the children are given shoulder bags from ShopRite as a gift. We gather to take a couple pictures and I have to work my best powers of distraction to get a shot of the girls actually smiling – something they did readily until the camera got between us. They then continue home, thanking us for the meal. I thank them in return, then return to my room to wash the cassava out from under my fingernails and take off some of my suffocating clothing.

I walk down to the bar where I’m staying to pay for something I’d had earlier in the day. I am greeted by Kichupi (see my last post), who is wearing only his zebra-print briefs. I tell him I like his chupi and he laughs, hugging me and giving me two kisses – one on each side of my neck. Seeing this, DJ Samaki (“DJ Fish” – the guy who does music here and is another new friend) takes a break from his pool game to jokingly thrust the cue towards Kichupi “Hey! She’s my sister!” he says.

And this is the thing about Tanzania… I am constantly moving between worlds and cultures with the actual geographical distance between them being nil. It’s really an incredible thing.