Tag Archives: David Meffe

Three Free Rides in Montenegro

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It was nearly noon by the time we’d just about given up. Hot and battered, the unapologetic Mediterranean sun cared little for our curses whispered undermouth. With everything we owned strapped to our backs, sweat stained the pavement with a hiss.

A single word on a makeshift sign signaled the endgame a few hours northward: “KOTOR.” Blue sharpie. All caps. A few hastily drawn hearts and stars highlighted the seriousness of the affair – I wasn’t afraid to show a little skin in the name of expediency. Our outstretched thumbs traced drooping arcs in the air as one car after another politely ignored our flightless plight. While the Balkans were known as a playground for hitchhikers, Montenegro, it seemed, would have none of it. Not today.

‘Freeloaders,’ they must have thought, and rightfully so. Dirty, tired, and likely a little hungover, we embodied that good-for-nothing, vagabonding spirit of the travelling kind, scrambling from one backpack rat trap to the next in search of nothing in particular.

“Let’s try a little further up the road,” Mel suggested. If not, we’d call it quits and take the bus.

And here our troubles began.

ONE –

We resolved to make it to a gas station up the road and try our luck a little longer. An old man pointed to it and told us in broken English that it was where he’d hitchhiked from as a youth. It would be a crossroads of sorts; if we couldn’t make it there, we couldn’t make it anywhere. As Mel and Adam trudged up ahead confidently, I walked backwards, thumb upright, to not lose any momentum. Finally, even I gave up, my optimism souring to remiss at the hours lost. I turned away from the road and made peace with our fate on a smelly bus.

A honk awoke me from my stupor. Then another. Followed by a third.

I spun to face what I can only describe as the leftover remains of what was once surely a vehicle of some sort. There was no need to roll down the window, there was none.

“Heeeeeeey!” a man cried in a deep, raspy voice. “I love tourists! Get in! Kotor! Kotor!”

The car was beyond battered. Hell on wheels. Rusted through at every possible corner, wires hung derelictedly from the roof. It was less a car, and more like what was left of a car. Mad Max himself would have tossed it onto the post-apocalyptic waste pile. The man inside smiled and motioned us over to. The prospect wasn’t great, but it was all we had. We looked at one another, and in a series of squeaky, sweaty shrugs we decided to go for it. We had everything and nothing to lose.

The man was ecstatic, and jumped out to help us pummel our bags into the trunk, which he kept open by hand with a grunt to match the gears. He was middle-aged, head shaved, with a rough-and-tumble stubble overhanging a stocky build under a blue T-shirt that emulated the car’s dilapidated notions of togetherness.

Adam took the front seat, while Mel and I huddled into the back. I positioned myself behind the driver with my sharpened pocketknife unsheathed in my pocket. I took strange comfort in the knowledge that I could easily slit his throat if the situation turned sour. Whether or not I had the countenance for such a play was another matter completely, but it made me feel powerful in a situation where I otherwise had little control. We each reached for seatbelts only to find them missing. I’m not entirely sure what we were expecting.

The driver flashed us a reassuring smile and put the car into motion, but we had gone no more than 50 meters before it put-puttered to a halt on the road, like a heavy smoker giving in to a particularly heavy mulch of phlegm. The driver pulled over to a ditch as best he could and tried the ignition several times before giving up with a shrug, placing the gearstick in the neutral position. He motioned me and Adam out of the car with him, leaving Mel alone in the backseat.

The driver slipped his hand through the front window and steered as Adam and I pushed. Cars whizzed by sending puzzled glances in our direction. Adam and I exchanged fever-flustered grins and gained momentum under the auspicious cheering and encouragement of the driver. We were less than 100 metres from the gas station when he led the car to the side of the road and told us to stay put. He’d be back in a moment, he assured us in broken English. With a gap-toothed grin, he lazily jogged over to the station, his bobbing pants barely concealing an open ass crack begging to be unleashed.

‘Well,’ I thought to myself. ‘He’s obviously going to murder us.’

Without cue, the three of us fell to hysterical laugher. What else was there to do? We waited, impending doomed be damned. At least we weren’t walking.

The driver came back 10 minutes later accompanied by a teenaged gas station attendant who looked as bewildered as we were. He held seven or eight small soda bottles filled with yellowish liquid that looked like piss. We got out of the car, mostly to help, but mostly to watch.

With the support of a twig he found on the ground, he pried open the gas tank and filled it with liquid from the bottles with a hearty squeeze. The spouts sputtered with delight. As he finished the last bottle, he looked at me and deadpanned: “This is Montenegro!”

Quickly, he made his way to the front of the car where he popped the hood and started fiddling with wires. Using my extensive mechanical engineering knowledge, I remarked to myself, ‘yes, that’s definitely an engine.’ I wasn’t wrong.

With the gas station attendant still staring in amazement, the driver pulled apart a hose and inspected it, holding it up against the sun to insure it was empty. He put the remains of the last plastic bottle to his lips, drew heavily, and expelled the content with a hearty psssstttttt as the liquid bubbled begrudgingly into the tube. Searching for a screw driver, I instinctively handed him my knife, which he used to secure the mechanism back into place. I regretted showing my hand, but he gave it back without hesitation. I knew then I wouldn’t need it.

And like that we were off again, as if nothing had happened. With his mouth and hands still covered in gasoline, the driver lit a cigarette and caressed the engine back to life. I had visions of the car going up in flames, with my own smirking face engulfed in the absurd series of events that had brought us here. We hadn’t even left Ulcinj yet.

“You see my friends,” he said as we got back onto the road, “I am gypsy.” Suddenly, the pieces began to fall into place. We relaxed in the knowledge that this all made sense in completely bizarre set of circumstances.

The driver’s life had been one of hardship. Like in many European countries, the Roma community in Montenegro was treated with a lingering sense of mistrust, apprehension, and outright hatred based in centuries of socially acceptable subjugation. Inherent statelessness was this nomadic community’s life and curse, a means of self and self-preservation. Our roadside condition had sparked a sense of empathy from the man. He always picked up hitchhikers, he told us. He had been one himself for many years.

Without prompt, the driver began to tell us his life story. A Montenegrin native, he had travelled Europe searching for a better life for his family. He had lived in Germany and Sweden, and spoke five languages more or less fluently. He told us unabashedly of his hardships, the racism, deportations, and institutionalized hatred he had endured throughout his travels. His children, he feared and knew, would encounter the same.

When I remarked on the peacefulness of Sweden, he agreed wholeheartedly; save for a few noteworthy exceptions. “Too many Arabs and Muslims coming in now,” he said, “not good for the country. I don’t like these people.” Without a hint of irony, he also expressed his apprehension towards Albanians, who he said were infecting this part of the world. “Bad people,” he said, “bad, bad, not good.”

Adam, British and London-bred in all senses of the term, politely mumbled under his breath “well…I quite like Albanians…” but left it at all. There wasn’t much of a discussion to have. We were guests in this deathmobile headed north.

Therein lies the great paradox of the hitchhiker. When you lay yourself at the mercy of the road, you agree to agree with whatever comes your way; a means to an end. Who are you to argue with someone giving you a free ride? So you set aside your own principles, regardless of the contradictions, steadfast in the belief that your place on the road is ephemeral and open to whatever may come. Biting your tongue becomes a matter of survival. You may not agree, you may not even like it, but nothing seems worse than the prospect of being on foot. So you stomach what you will for the time that you can, moral conundrums be damned.

The Balkans themselves were a mystery of sorts. These shattered remnants of a misguided Versailles-spewed, pan-Slavic Utopian dream that had fallen to ruin during the devastating Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. A nation once held together by the arbitrary bounds of a state had crumbled to ethnic and religious tribalism, a Balkanization of more than just geography. Even here, a Gypsy who had himself felt the sting of irrational persecution, could not see the irony of his own prejudices, sharing them freely with passersby. We reserved our thoughts for silence and comments on the weather.

An hour into the ride, the driver, who never told us his name, admitted that he could not take us all the way to Kotor. He had a family and children waiting for him in a nearby town. He left us on the road once again, and apologized for the inconvenience. At a fork the highway, he assured us we would find a ride in no time; he had done so himself many times at this very spot. With the soul of a man knowing he had done good, he left us with our packs on a gravel ditch. We said our farewells with knowledge that we would likely never meet again.

TWO –

The Gypsy was right, within moment of sticking out our thumbs a car stopped just ahead of us, hazard lights flashing. The twist of fate was striking – a black BMW X5, shining in the afternoon light.

We approached the tinted passenger window cautiously, worried that it might be a police officer with our number. Hitchhiking wasn’t technically illegal, but we didn’t have nearly enough cash to butter our way out a jam with the Montenegrin fuzz.

The music lowered with the automatic window to reveal the driver, a middle-aged woman with bob-length red hair shrouded by the smoke of a burning cigarette. Overlarge brown sunglasses obscured most of her face, but she was unmistakably sexy. With a drag of her smoke, she softly whispered the only word she would utter for the rest of our voyage.

“Budva.”

I recognized the name from the map as a hippy village some miles south of where we were headed, a party hub for backpackers and travellers of the miscreant kind. In haste, I answered:

“Budva?”

“Budva.”

‘Good enough for me,’ I thought, as we piled our bags into the trunk, which opened and closed automatically with a subtle beep. And like that we were on the road again.

There was no conversation this time, as we realized our driver didn’t speak English, or simply didn’t care to. The leather seats were cool to the touch. Attempts to strike a talk were met by smiled silence, and within a short time only the blaring radio filled our ears. I recognized the tunes immediately. She was playing Pink Floyd’s epic rock-opera masterpiece The Wall, start to finish.

So ya,
Thought ya,
Might like to go, to the show,
To feel the warm, thrill of confusion
That space cadet glow

I had listened to the record obsessively as an angsty teenager, memorizing every word and flailing drum beat as an extension of my own fleeting feelings of loneliness and anxiety.

Tell me is something eluding you, sunshine?
Is this not what you expected to see?
If you want to find out what’s behind these cold eyes,
You’ll just have to claw your way through this disguise

As Roger Waters sang to me in angry nasal tones, I fell limp to the humdrum blasts of air conditioning as we hugged the Montenegrin coast. The car lurched from side to side, complying with the bends in the road, and I lost myself, content to stay here forever if need be. The Montenegrin MILF lit one cigarette off the next, compassionately silent in the throws concept-album eccentricities.

I couldn’t help but wonder why she had picked us up at all. She didn’t have to, and judging by the swanky SUV, she clearly didn’t need us around. But there was never a sense that we were a nuisance. Far from it, she seemed to enjoy the ragtag company, even in silence. Something about her spoke to a not-so-forgone sense of adventure in her own right. I knew that she had once been in our place, at the mercy of the road. There was a sense of karmic retribution at play, which we didn’t feel like we were exploiting, but rather taking on ourselves, like a temporary mantle, devoid of martyrdom. Worriedly, I wondered how bad we must smell; we’d long since lost the ability to notice the stench of sweat and backpacks full of dirty laundry. If she minded, she didn’t say.

I was half asleep when she pulled the car over the to the side of the road after about an hour.

“Budva,” she said, clearly as before, still puffing.

“Budva?” I asked, coyly.

“Budva.”

We thanked her and exited the car. She never said a word, only exhausted smiles through the breaths of her cigarettes. She left us by the side of a grocery store on the edge of town, and didn’t look back as she drove away.

THREE –

We were only a few miles from Kotor, and with the frozen memory of air conditioning at our heels, we hit the road one last time. There would be no buses now, despite their ready availability. We had come too far. It was a matter of pride. We would make it by the thumb or not at all

Hitchhiking, as we were learning, is an art. As with any real estate gains, the game meant mastering the three Ls: location, location, location. And we were in the wrong spot.

The key is finding somewhere at the junction of a few different roads with fewer lanes, where passing cars have no choice but to see you. Too much road and you run the risk of being ignored. Too little road, and you run the risk of being run over. You have to find that perfect sweet spot, where you can look just pitiful enough to pick up, but not too pathetic to pass for common vagabonds. On this razor’s edge lay the great game of good faith, the line between a helping hand and a hazardous stalemate within the fringes of Good Samaritanism.

We walked across Budva along the coast, thrust once again into the uncomfortable humidity we had come to recognize as a quintessential element of Mediterranean summer months.  Looking for a new position, we passed other hitchhikers who gave us the complimentary smile and nod. We were in the same boat, so to speak, but they were still competitors, friends of circumstance but nonetheless momentary enemies in a world of ample demand and dwindling supply.

Finally, just when we thought all was hopeless, a man appeared behind us in the haze of a fuming exhaust pipe below a set of German licence plates. A large, white jeep was bumbling on the curb. He shouted bombastically, hadn’t we seen him stop? He was tall and muscular, wearing a dirty white shirt with a large, golden cross perked between his pecs. He threw our bags effortlessly into the trunk; we were too tired to protest. Another man sat motionless in the front seat, so we piled into the back. It happened so quickly that we didn’t notice that neither had a German accent.

The driver spoke English, so we started with the usual where-are-you-froms to mask the deafening sound of open windows screeching over the rumbling highway. He was ecstatic to have Canadians onboard. The man in the passenger’s seat remained silent.

“Canada? Beeeaaautiful place,” he said, elongating the word with a slur of the tongue. I asked him if he’d been before. “Yes, of course,” he said without hesitation, “to Saskatoon. Wonderful place.”

Canada is enormous, but Saskatchewan is hardly the place I think of when describing the country. The solitary prairie province is characteristically sleepy, and by no means the kind of place that foreigners typically frequent unless they have damn good reason. I had to ask.

“I am in motorcycle club, we had rally and rode ‘cross Canada,” he said, revving his wrist over the wheel.

The men were Serbian, travelling up the Montenegrin coast as they did every year in search of booze and women. The German plates, he explained, avoided any unnecessary trouble when it came to leaving to car lying around; the police couldn’t fine foreign vehicles. Montenegro was an observer state to the European Union, so cross-border checks weren’t worth it. It became fairly obvious that the car was stolen.

“What motorcycle club?” I asked, hoping for the right answer.

“Oh” he laughed, “Hell’s Angels. Have heard of us?”

Oh I had heard of them, alright. I noticed that both men sported a series of tattoos on their forearms, notably three die, engulfed in flames, displaying the numbers 666.

While originally a California-based club, the Angels had spread over North America and Europe throughout the late twentieth century. While not intrinsically violent, the group allegedly had a hand in various element of drug trafficking and arms dealing across the world. My own homeland of Québec was a hotbed for Hell’s activity on the East Coast, though sub-zero temperatures rendered motorbikes useless half the year. I had sudden visions of myself as a young Hunter S. Thompson, infiltrating these outlaws as a point of journalistic pride and personal curiosity. While my two travelling companions visibly shriveled at the revelation, I salivated at the opportunity to sample the biker’s life in action.

The driver was more than happy to divulge, turning his whole torso towards the backseat to pontificate on the virtues of the real 1%. Every time he did, the jeep would swerve slowly into the oncoming lane. Our horrified roadside glances served as his only indicator of impending destruction, which he narrowly avoided each time. It was during these rants that I noticed the unmistakable stench of stale liquor on his breath which the open windows had previously concealed. I brought up the subject of booze to confirm my theory. If we were going to die in a head-on collision in a stolen jeep with two Serbian bikers, I wanted to at least have all the facts for comfort’s sake.

I’d fallen for the region’s national homebrew, a pungent fruit brandy called rakia, made of everything from anise to plums and figs. Each country had their own version, and I’d sampled each as a matter of serious research. My scientific consensus? It got you drunk as hell for pennies on the pavement. We commiserated over our demons.

“Yesssssss, rakia” he said enthusiastically, “it gets you where you need to go! You can’t have ride like this without …and a few beers! Ha ha! Am kidding,” he laughed, “more like 15 or 20!”

And so the cycle continued. As Mel and Adam silently begged me to stop, I would ask more questions, and answers would come with another drunken swerve out of oncoming traffic in the nick of time. The driver wanted to know where we had been, and was openly disgusted that we had come from Albania.

“Filthy place,” he answer. “Get out of the car.” There was a moment of awkward silence before he erupted into laughter. We nervously followed. “Just kidding. But Albanians…bad people.” He shook his head. Everyone in the Balkans, it seemed, hated each other only slightly less than they hated Albanians.

I noticed a few military tattoos on his right shoulder and surmised, given his age, that he had likely fought in the Kosovo conflict against the ethnically Albanian Kosovar secessionists. The 1999 war, and destructive NATO response, had sent Serbia’s economy and military stranglehold on the region into a tailspin from which it never recovered. War crimes on both sides had left thousands dead and effectively spelled the end of what was left of the Yugoslav dream.

That was the thing about travelling in the Balkans. European history was storied, but visiting countries like Italy or Germany always lent history an ancient feeling, even with regards to the Second World War. The Green Fields of France had dried up, their buried dead long since decomposed underfoot. There was a sense of historical detachment, as if through a greyscale looking glass.

Trauma in the Balkans felt fresh, their wars and horror still within living memory. Everyday residents bore the scars openly, the wounds still exposed and visibly infected. Tenuous armistices had halted the killing but never truly made peace. The map’s fractured reflection spoke to a people still drowning in the blood they had spilled for nothing more than a romanticized vision of identify and their place within it. The region was rebuilding, but the foundations would remain shaky for decades; everyone had lost too much to simply forget.

The bikers finally dropped us off at the massive stone gates that served as the entrance to the ancient walled city of Kotor. We said our goodbyes and they were off who knows where.

And so it was that we made our way to Kotor. Three free rides we had paid for without a cent changing hands. The Gypsy, the MILF, and the Hell’s Angels.

‘Who the fuck picks up hitchhikers?’ I might have asked myself before.

People just like me, apparently.

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Photo by Melissa Wheeler

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The Other Nairobi

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Nairobi is really two completely different cities. Maybe more.

I can’t remember when it all started to become normal. I look back to when I first arrived and wonder what made me accept it all, like some sort of freakish gospel I couldn’t argue with. Now I’m not even fazed anymore when I think of it. Sometimes when my heart feels cold, I remember those first few weeks when things made sense, when things were, for lack of a better term, black and white.

From our first few days in the country as bright-eyed and bushy tailed interns almost a year ago, we were chauffeured around town in cars and vans, doors tightly locked, touring development projects in slums and rural areas across Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya’s two largest cities. They’d paraded us from compound to courtyard in an effort show us the country’s underbelly, the one that usually got lost between grilled crocodile and the sight of your first zebra.

We’d been given the usual low-down about driving in the slums. Lock you door. Keep your windows rolled up. And most importantly, don’t wear anything valuable.

We got out of the car and I stepped onto a tarmac of unpaved soil and trampled streams of garbage, baking in the stench of cloistered humidity. I had seen nothing but Nairobi’s downtown and ritzy expatriate suburbs until that moment. I thought I must have fallen asleep in the car. This couldn’t be the same city. No, we had gone far beyond, to somewhere else. But the skyline wouldn’t lie to me no matter how I pleaded. Nairobi’s other face was staring back at me, and it wanted change. My pockets were empty.

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Kibera is arguably the largest urban slum in Africa, and one of the largest in the world. Anywhere between 200,000 and 1 million residents live here, depending who you ask and for what reason. Informal houses are made of scrap metal, mud and generally whatever people can find. From the centre, it stretches out in every direction almost as far as the eye can see. There are allegedly over 2000 NGOs and community organizations working out of Kibera.

There exists two completely different social spheres in Nairobi, and though I think they’re aware of one another, they never seem to interact outside of a few select service industries. The city’s looming financial district, complete with skyscrapers and everything else you’d expect from an emerging economic hub, sits just a few kilometres from slums where hundreds of thousands live huddled together in homes made of mud, scrap wood and aluminum siding. Residents of extensive, unmappable slum networks like Mathare or Kibera work for the rich as maids, cooks, guards, bus drivers and any other occupation you can think of without having to think of unless you really want to. Ghosts, they pass unnoticed by most, even long after they’re no longer there.

Navigating the slums is an exercise in patience and acceptance, fighting the urge to forgo all sense and reason for forcibly ingrained sycophantic sensibility. You feel sick at times, but manners prevent you from expressing it. You want to turn out your pockets, but you don’t want to be an asshole. You want to say hello, but you also want desperately to be ignored. But you never can, not here.

Westerners are taught to cry and woo over scenes like these, because sadness demonstrates empathy, the ability to interact in broader sense of humanity. As kids, we’re told by our mothers to finish our meals because “there are starving children in Africa,” a sentiment that is never far removed in these circumstances, despite its ridiculous and infinitely condescending nature. Sadness and pity show you’re relating with the locals, and letting the world know you understand your immense privileges and the genetic lottery you’ve won. But if tears could magically pump into the nearby wells or water pumps, the taps would still spray salty and altogether useless bile out into the rivers of waste and feces that flow through these communities, snaking their way between homes and gaggles of playing children.

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Kiambiu, another of Nairobi’s infinite slum networks, houses roughly 50,000 residents. Rivers of garbage and feces flow through the community down into the mighty Nairobi River. The water is so polluted, it cannot be drank, though many residents do so anyway. Photo originally published in Vocativ, February 2014.

In some places, pity runs the game. There’s a huge industry surrounding social tourism, where people pay good money for guided afternoon tours through slums. Dealers in the trade parade it as a more realistic alternative to going on safari, but I can’t entirely see the difference. Visitors point their lenses at unsuspecting, unwilling animals, drooling and dreaming about what caption they’ll stick under it to garner more buzz from friends back home. It’s Discovery Channel dribble and more like a competition to see who can fit the most flies in a grayscale close-up of a dirty child’s bemused face. Now the world can see just how worldly you are.

The slums are complex communities that exist because there is nowhere else for people to go. Neighbors know each other’s names and look out for one another; mothers let their children play idly in the alleys, comfortable in the knowledge that if they get lost, someone will take them home. People support each other’s businesses and buy local food. Decency is maintained through public shaming, religion and gossip. No one owns their home or the land it sits on and they can be forcibly removed without a moment’s notice. They exist in the spaces between everyday life.

These slums are more than a big amalgamation of informal housing, they represent a massive group of forgotten people whose lives are so often lost to the pages of humanitarian health reports and guilt-inducing NGO public relations material. It’s easy to consciously ignore their humanity and think of them as a single insignificant number in a great statistic aimed at getting donors to shell out pocket lint. If African children could claim royalties on Facebook photos, then we’d be working with a realistic solution to end poverty across the continent.

I had a house woman named Rose who cleaned our apartment, did our laundry and cooked our meals every day. I saw her every morning when I left the complex and every night when I came home. Yet, I knew virtually nothing about Rose save for the fact that she lived in the nearby slum and every day arrived with her hair tied in bright cloth. She’d wave goodbye and leave every night after cooking dinner. I’d been there so long it seemed awkward to try and feign conversation. We were estranged work colleagues. Long after I’d moved out of the apartment, I met her again at a political rally. We hugged and exchanged smiles in broken English. She asked me to take a photo of her and she looked proud to be skipping work to support a politician from her tribe. I snapped the shot and as she disappeared into the crowd, I wondered for the first time I’d ever see Rose again.

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A young man holds a photo of Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga. His followers are generally from his Luo tribe, the second largest in Kenya and fierce rivals to the current politically dominant Kikuyu tribe. At a political demonstration known as the Saba-Saba Rally, thousands gathered in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park to show their almost religious devotion to the politician and his party. Over 15,000 police and riot squad soldiers were deployed to keep the rally in line, should it break out into a riot. Only a few tear gas canisters were fired, making it a general success.

Nairobi’s two social spheres are so wildly different, it’s hard to fully comprehend how they have coexisted for this long without a total collapse. The rich business elite and political classes feed off the poor in a manner best described by an activist friend of mine named Boniface Mwangi as vultures – countercultural graffiti murals around the city sport the popular motif. The poor in turn are convinced of the inevitability of their status, or, of the far scarier notion that the ruling classes truly have their best interests in mind. People throw their support blindly behind politicians who share their tribal ethnicity, rather than represent their beliefs. They follow their every infallible word and support their decisions blindly; tribalism slowly destroys the fabric of Kenyan society to a such a degree that it has caused mass violence time and time again, most notably the post-election violence of 2007-2008 that left over 1500 dead and thousands more internally displaced. The scars of that time are still visible across the country, and the wounds are still open for all to see. They may never close.

I can see the people mix on the streets but the lines between them could not be more obvious. Sometimes I feel as though a sickness hangs over the city like invisible smog, suffocating those too poor to reach higher ground. They sit asphyxiating in neighborhoods overflowing with poison as the rich, lounging fat in bulging designer suits, cling flutes of cheap champagne in their towers made of glass, watching the wide world wither and die beneath them. “Don’t worry,” they’d assure themselves under the low tones of fixed gas masks, “we can always make more poor.”

Back in that first slum visit almost a year ago, we got back in the car; the driver immediately locked the door behind us as groups of schoolchildren and mothers crowded the vehicle, hands outstretched.

“So how did you like the other Nairobi?” he asked me. I never answered him.

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In Awe of India

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As I walked to the temple, the enormity of it looming in the distance made me feel uncontrollably small. Mahogany beams interlocked across the entrance creating an archway of enigma atop a series of stone steps that magnified the structure under a sun obscured by no clouds. They had taken my bag, my camera, my phone and just about everything else after a series of security frisks so thorough, they had made me seriously consider asking the guard for breakfast and a phone number where I could reach him again if he wanted to hang out and watch a Bollywood movie or something.

I took off my shoes, bending low to hand them to an Indian man through a window in what looked like the entrance to a small underground bunker filled with nothing but piles of fading footwear. “Thank you, sir,” he said, bobbing his head from side to side and handing me a small numbered chit.

Inside, people sped up on their naked feet and rushed to fall on their knees before a gigantic golden statue, the shining likeness of a man in a turban, sitting cross legged on a pillow, hands clasped at his knees. Pilgrims touched their foreheads repeatedly in respect and mumbled words I couldn’t understand under their breath. I stood a few metres behind, hands at my back, observing the scene with a mix of confusion and sympathetic serenity to match the air of fabricated sanctity blessed in silent reverence. The cavernous room felt oddly full, echoes aside.

An arrow pointed me down a set of marble steps that led into the basement. I could hear the sound of ritualistic chanting getting louder as the bulbs dimmed to a caramel shade of candlelight. The mantra grew louder and more monotonous, echoing off the narrow walls as my eyes adjusted to a sea of holy relics laid out in pantheon before me.

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The Gateway of India in Mumbai, built in 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George V.

But the story really starts 16 hours earlier on a train leaving Mumbai in the middle of the night. I slumped into my seat just as it began to rumble, having narrowly caught my overnight sleeper to Ahmedabad, a northern Indian city a few hundred kilometres from the Pakistani border, the largest and most populous city in the province of Gujarat. Despite being one of the few places in India where the sale and consumption of alcohol is entirely forbidden, the self-proclaimed food capital of the country boasts famed mosques, winding markets and absolutely no tourists to speak of. But more importantly, I’d found an incredibly cheap flight back to Kenya from the city’s relatively new and desperately underutilized airport.

I sat next to a married couple on the train, traveling home from a vacation with the family in Mumbai. Their two young daughters quickly jumped on the upper bunks to secure them for the eight-hour ride and we settled into the compartment partitioned by thin walls and a few curtains hung on dangling metal rungs. We got to chatting about the usual moving car pleasantries when I finally admitted that I was only staying in Ahmedabad for a day to catch a flight and not planning to see much. They were shocked, they were appalled. They playfully wouldn’t stand for it.

Strangers were kind in India, a sort of uninhibited natural kindness I had long ago forgotten in Nairobi. People exuded immense pride in their country, not just a veiled hustle for tourist cash with anyone that looked out of place. The wayward stink eye stares of street faring Kenyans was gone, replaced by smiling Indian faces who held out no beggar’s hands when they waved and yelled “Hello!” amidst the intense hustle bustle of metropolitan cities like Mumbai that neither cared nor waited for the slow of heart or mind.

A few days earlier, I’d met a young graduate student on a boat heading back to the mainland from Elephanta Island, an ancient archeological site just off the coast of Mumbai. His name was Hashish. No, really. After seeing me sitting by myself on the deck, he approached me to chat politics and proudly boast the immense technological and social advances his city had undergone in the past 10 years. As we got off the boat, he introduced me to seven of his family members, each individually by name, and gave me a private tour of the downtown core, for which he would accept nothing but a streetside cup of tea. “This is Indian hospitality,” he told me. “You are a guest here. This is our home, and you are most welcome.”

Back on the train to Ahmedabad, the friendly couple was surfing the web on their tablets to find the cheapest hotels in town, routes to the famous tourist spots and even instructions on how to take public transit if I didn’t want to pay for taxis or hire a car. They asked me about life in Kenya and were keen to know about what it was like during the terrorist attack in September. I told them about plans to visit a Somali refugee camp and the husband rolled his eyes.

“He’s a racist,” the wife giggled, winking at both of us from across the tight compartment.

“No, no. Ha, ha. I’m not a racist. I’m just not a fan of the Muslims,” he said, unabashedly. “They have Pakistan, we have India. They only cause problems here.”

The Haji Ali Mosque in Mumbai. Built on a islet 500 metres off the coast, the bridge is accessible only during low tide. Despite the split with Pakistan in 1947, there are still over 138 million Muslims living in India

The Haji Ali Mosque in Mumbai. Built on a islet 500 metres off the coast, the only bridge is completely submerged in water during high tide. Despite the split with Pakistan in 1947, there are still over 138 million Muslims living in India

With 1 billion people in a country no larger than Québec, India was boasting one of the fastest growing economies in the world. This, coupled with a democratic government and a free press that was manifesting itself into an increasingly literate and university educated middle class. India is the ‘I’ in what’s known the BRIC countries, a group of emerging economic superpowers that includes Brazil, Russia and China.

The next day, I followed their directions and made my way to the Swaminarayan temple in Ghandiganar, a nearby town that housed the provincial government buildings and bustling streets filled with horses, cows, camels, elephants and packs of monkeys that weaved their way effortlessly through oncoming traffic. The temple was really a cross between a palace and a playground, complete with an amusement park waterslide and pathway lined with shrubs pruned into elaborately posed baby elephants, trunks all pointing in our wake.

Lord Swaminarayan, who died in 1830, is revered across many parts of the world as the physical incarnation of god on earth. Hindus worship many gods, but they’re all ultimately representations of Brahman, the world soul, the all connecting world energy that flows through everything, vibrating at the frequency of om. Swaminarayan was the incarnation of that supreme being, come in human form to earth in order to show people the way and the truth. It was like a strange Hindu and Christian hybrid religion.

In the basement of the temple, Swminarayan’s relics were displaced in brightly lit glass cases with plaques that explained their significance in Gujarati, Hindi and English. All around, hidden speakers played an almost Gregorian loop of singers continuously repeating the word “Swaaaaaaaaaaaminarayaaaaaaaaan,” in a rhythm that quickly became hypnotic and strangely soothing. I closed my eyes and subconsciously swayed.

Everything from his gloves to his teeth was displayed with the proud dignity of a small group of devoted followers who had taken great pains to keep them in immaculate condition for over 180 years. Life-sized wax dolls illustrated scenes from Swaminarayan’s life, from his seven-year journey across India as a barefoot child to his works and deeds amongst the people of Gujarat.

People kissed their hands before passing them over the glass as they walked onto the next relic. I’d seen the same thing all over Europe; people traveling to see the mummified remains of St-Ambrose or the skull of St-Yves, never too far from a piece of the True Cross. A priest once told me that if you added up all the so-called pieces of the True Cross into a straight line, it would go around the world. Twice.

I wasn’t sure what to think. Here was a religion with 20 million followers across the world that I had never heard of, which, in the age of Wikipedia, is just unacceptable. I was dumbstruck to find out they even had a temple in Toronto.

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Rule #1 of India: Beware of monkeys and proper grammar

The world is so much larger than I’d ever imagined, and just when I think I have a grasp on what’s happening, I come face-to-face with a new reality that shows me how utterly small and clueless I am to the grand scheme of things. The world works in the framework of a ticking, clicking series of interlocking gears that grind together in a way that I don’t feel people were ever meant to fully understand. Humans look different, act different, but in the end, we all seem to feel that inexplicable need to find greatness and power in something outside of ourselves. Something to call great, something to follow. Something larger than life to turn to when things get bad. Something to thank when things are good. Something to praise. Something to worship.

I’d experienced something similar at the Mahalaxmi Temple, one of the oldest and most widely visited Hindu temples in Mumbai. Visitors sometimes wait for hours in a winding metal line to shower bowls of flowers and coconut husks onto three silver statues of goddesses Mahalakshmi, Mahakali and Mahasaraswati. Others simply slip money into a small steel grate below the statues’ feet where two attendants in matching orange togas brush away the fallen offerings and usher more through. Most of the people visiting the shrine aren’t tourists but locals come to pay their respects and pray for peace, prosperity, and maybe even better days.

Above all, India blew my mind in ways I could never describe. They had their own music, their own movies, their own sports, their own religions, their own body language. It was a completely different sub-section of world culture that manifested itself in a people that bore immense pride in being the descendants of a great and ancient civilization that had survived under the duress of Alexander the Great and the British Empire. This was a new world, shockingly different but altogether not entirely different.

Most of all, India introduced me the idea that everything I know could be entirely, and irrevocably wrong. That despite boasting knowledge about the world, I’m still willfully ignorant of even major concepts that shape the globe politically and socially. People here lived completely independently and out of synch from people in Canada, Kenya or wherever, and they would continue to exist without us. But much like the founding principle of the religion that binds so many of them, Indians were connected to the rest of the global village, though these days the Internet seems like a more realistic incarnation of the world soul, but with more naked people.

In India I began to understand that everything I think I know as fact could be complete and utter bullshit, a manifestation of nothing more than the environment I was born into. A surrogate womb of pretentious Western, Eurocentric ideologies and histories I was taught to understand and believe as ultimate truth. Lies caked into lies in order to create for Westerners a history which legitimizes centuries of abuse and destruction of foreign cultures in the name of progress. But they would survive.

India told me I was wrong and, like any good teacher, showed me why.

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Slums adjacent to the Dhobi Ghat washing facility in Mumbai. Photo originally published in Vocativ, February 2014.

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A Love Affair with Lake Victoria Part I – Kampala Journey to the Motorcycle City

4 countries, 7 cities, 3500 kilometres by bus and backpack

4 countries, 7 cities and 3500 kilometers by bus and backpack

I opened my eyes and we were in Kampala.

Even before being fully awake I could tell that something was new; clammy hands clasped in moist humidity, the air even smelled different. I remembered scenes like hazy daydreams out the window of the overnight bus, watching as Kenya’s arid soil slowly dissolved into vibrant shades of lush green as the sun rose slowly above the rounded hills in the distance.

But let’s backtrack a bit; it started with beer. Actually, it started with many beers, probably some whiskey too, but who’s keeping score? I work with two Ugandans who constantly brag about their homeland’s overall superiority to Kenya in everything from food to women and weather. One night over drinks we challenged them to put their matoke where their mouths were; we’d join them for a weekend of shenanigans in Kampala to put to the test their Ugandan self-satisfying sense of regional superiority, myself and my American friend Ben as the neutral, third party judges. We were not above taking bribes.

A few days before we left, I interviewed an American NGO worked named Aaron who said he was planning a trip to Rwanda and Burundi to do field research on conflict minerals like tungsten and coltan from the Democratic Republic of the Congo that were still finding their way into international markets despite increased legislation and worldwide condemnation. He lamented the lack of media attention on the issue as well as the prospect of finding a French translator in both countries, so we settled that I’d accompany to follow the story and give him a hand. I’d meet him in Rwanda and we’d take it from there. After Aaron and I parted, I’d trek by bus along Northern Tanzania, where another story about a secret Polish refugee cemetery hidden in a field near Arusha spurred my interest, but we’ll get to that later.

And there it was, a full-circle journey around Lake Victoria to wash away the strange emptiness the Westgate massacre had left in my mind and the pit of my stomach.

So after a grueling 14-hour bus ride, Ben and I arrived in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, and headed straight to the hostel to take showers and just generally clean ourselves up after the sweaty, cramped voyage. When I got out of the shower, Ben was sitting in the early afternoon sun with oversized tacky brown sunglasses and a large sweating bottle of beer at his side. He looked like an African reincarnation of Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway’s unborn lovechild; this vision would set the tone for the rest of the weekend.

From the get-go I couldn’t believe the contrast; it was as if Nairobi’s heavily Westernized bustling downtown core had been replaced with a sea of winding dirt roads lined on all sides with lush jungle greenery. People often generalize Africa as one amorphous blob of congregated cultures and puff power poverty, leading to the dreaded “Africa is a Country” mentality that tends to dominate Western attitudes vis-à-vis the continent in everything from geopolitics to immigration. But Kampala was different; it had its own pace, its own throbbing pulse as you walked down the streets. Ugandans have the reputation of being the happiest people in East Africa, something I learned is earned with a heavy bag of salt… which they’d probably use for tequila if you actually gave it to them.

Motorcycle culture dominates the city as heavily congested traffic can be bypassed with a quick vehicle capable of weaving itself between gridlocked trucks and mini buses all screaming for a right of way that simply doesn’t exist. It’s one of those cities that was never built, nor properly adapted for mechanized commuter traffic that doesn’t involve camels.

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Hail a taxi, I dare you

Uganda gained independence from Britain in 1962, but power was seized nine years later from the democratically elected government by dictator extraordinaire Idi Amin, or, as he preferred to be referred to: “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” However, despite also referring to himself as the uncrowned King of Scotland, he was not into freedom, and what followed was eight years of brutal political repression and ethnic persecution. Since, however, Uganda has remained out of the spotlight, drawing international condemnation only for alleged continued support of the ongoing civil war in the DRC and an almost institutionalized hatred of homosexuals.

But Kampala seemed at odds with the ways news media from the West reported on Uganda. It was more than just the homeland of YouTube sensation Joseph Koni or rapping president Yoweri Museveni. The beautiful multicultural city spanned kilometers of densely populated souls hustling to make a living doing whatever, wherever and however in a way I can only describe as uniquely Ugandan.

The city’s famed indoor/outdoor informal market stretches several square kilometers and is so dense, you can lose yourself amidst the small sea of aluminum siding and whatever-selling salesmen, which we inevitably did. It was the kind of place you could find absolutely anything, from bootleg DVDs and jewelry (READ: Stolen) to Museveni keychains and T-Shirts so hip, they didn’t need “That Vintage Look,” they were old before it was cool. Mountains of polished leather shoes stood dwarfed by massive bags of rice and multicolored beans that easily weighed a ton. I’m convinced that if the Holy Grail is real, it’s in there somewhere, nestled between a heap of dingy dishware and a woman wearing a tattered Osama Bin Laden t-shirt.

Ben aboard a motorbike

Ben aboard a motorbike, locally known as boda-bodas

Despite Kampala’s insatiable insanity, a place of complete peace and serenity sits atop the city’s seventh and dominant hill, a newly constructed mega-mosque, an architectural rarity in sub-Saharan East Africa. Construction for the Uganda Muslim Supreme Council was started by Idi Amin and completed by Muammar Gaddafi, but despite its questionable funding history, the building showcases the beauty of modern Islamic architecture. We toured the interior and were delighted when our guide asked if we wanted to hike the 400+ steps up the single minaret to the highest point in the city.

We climbed and bitched the entire way, but from the top, you could see all of Kampala, its winding streets with thousands of residents swarming through traffic like ants on a metropolitan molehill. Every way you looked, the wind-swept panorama revealed a city in constant motion with radiating boulevards emanating in every direction from the mosque and splitting into a seemingly endless array of urban subdivisions. Giant shopping malls muddled together with miniature slum cities nestled near palaces and gardens that rather than sitting in juxtaposition with one another, blended into one complex mass of beautiful madness.

“All roads in the city lead to this central point,” our tour guide told us, never taking his eyes off the horizon. “That is why the British raised their flag at this very spot when they conquered. Now we have replaced it with a mosque, to show that god is more powerful than the British.”

Sometimes I forget that most nations in East Africa gained their independence in recent memory; there are those still alive who remember first-hand the brutality of colonialism and the long periods of instability and political mayhem that followed. All the war and political strife that dominates collective modern memory is a function of the awkward growing pains that all nations must go through on the long road to freedom and stability. Much like what we see now in countries struggling with democracy in the wake of the Arab Spring, the road to peace is plagued with ups and downs, a function of years of existence under someone else’s heel. East Africa will find its own way to prosperity, but it will take time and many angst-ridden years of pimply uncertainty and crackling voices struggling to uncover the true depth of their baritones.

I looked to the side and noticed a small child had followed us up the minaret. As we all ogled and took out our cameras for that perfect pose, he leaned against the rail and stood in complete silence, arms folded in bliss, overlooking the motorcycle city he called home.

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