Kibera slum

A Little Adrift… Dispatch From Africa: Perspectives on Poverty

A month into my trip and travels thus far are filled with highs and lows; there were a few days last week where I just wanted to give up, which is normal on any given trip but usually later into the travels. Once Gary left, and I was on my own again, I was overwhelmed with the weight of balancing work and solo travel. But, I met new friendly faces in the past week, and partnering up for a few days helped straighten out some of the discombobulated feeling.

Pushing through the overwhelm, I finished out my time in Cape Town and caught a flight to Nairobi, Kenya. Arriving here was a surreal flashback to Mumbai—bustling traffic, congestion, and drive from the airport lined with slums. This is far from the Africa of travel brochures. A region that calls home to the “Big Five” animals travel dreams are made of is also a struggling, developing economy.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]kibera, nairobi, kenya Walking the railroad tracks in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya as the sun is sitting low and workers return home for the evening.[/caption]

Conversations with Taxi Drivers

The moment I landed, however, my driver’s enthusiastic exclamation of karibu!—which means welcome in Swahili—had me smiling. Language barriers are a fear point for many travelers, and I can only say that the gap here is small. Nairobi hums with English and Swahili both as lingua franca, and most Kenyans speak with fluency. Which makes traveling and learning about the country infinitely easier.

Taxi drivers are fonts of information on this trip. Travels in Asia are often filled with stilted conversations and games of charades, but my African drivers converse with the skill of a veteran barman as they the bob and weave through gridlock traffic. They field any topic you throw their way with ease and insight, though the talk here, as in South Africa, often circles back to poverty and politics.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"] All smiles and a wealth of knowledge from our guide as we visited music projects and local initiatives in Kibera.[/caption]

[divider_flat]And as we talk of life (and even philosophy on one late-night ride) my taxi drivers ask me about America. The great American dream is alive here, and throughout most developing countries I visit. Yet it’s skewed. Hollywood and our media have done an excellent job selling others on the big dream, and my drivers are shocked and most don’t believe me when I mention things like poverty, racism, and homelessness in the United States. Our poverty is relative rather than systemic like in many developing countries, but these issues are not a part of the consciousness outside the U.S. We are a vast land of opportunity in comparison, this is not an argument against the U.S., but we are far from the Utopian image portrayed outside our borders.

It’s hard to explain to them that we have traded much for the sake of our take on prosperity. A moving documentary I watched last year, God Grew Tired of Us, follows three Sudanese men on a journey from wandering across sub-Saharan Africa to life in the U.S. Their initial elation gives way to deeper insights as the boys remark on the odd state of our communities, the unconnected lives we lead from each other, and the hard work it takes to even to subsist for many Americans.

Like the route our taxi took through the city, our conversations wove through all these complex issues this past week as I made my way through three airports and three thousand miles.

Slum Tourism

In the way of weaving, let’s shift topics a bit. I mentioned last week my plan to visit a township in Cape Town on the recommendation of many travelers and as many South Africans. The resounding question is: what did I think?

My conclusion is muddled. I just don’t know if this is a positive form of tourism. It had never before occurred to me to partake in one of these tours, but somehow I found myself on two tours in one week. The standard recommendation is to find the right operator, one using the funds to build community projects and empower those in the townships and slums. There is, without a doubt, great need in these areas, but as much as I push local-level tourism, this feels off on a large scale.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]Langa township Cape Town Outskirts of Cape Town’s townships[/caption]

[divider_flat] I didn’t love my Cape Town tour, and yet two days later I took a new friend up on a chance to see a different side of it all as he looked for partnerships in the Kibera slum in Nairobi for his music charity, Bridges for Music. I tagged along in the hopes of seeing an alternative side since we had a purpose, a reason for being there. And it was interesting, I learned a lot and saw incredible initiatives within the slums and heard some excellent local music to boot.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]kibera bone crafts A worker grinds bone into jewelry for sale locally in the markets and to tourists in Kibera.[/caption]

[divider_flat] But in both places, our guides carefully mentioned the need to photograph areas and not people as we walked the streets, to not peer into homes and invade their privacy… and having to stress that this is not a zoo-like experience (their words) is the very reason I can only say that mass slum tourism is an ethically ambiguous area and as such, others should tread carefully.

And one last thought, NGOs catch a lot of flack in Kenya and it only furthers this idea of whether aid and development are progressing in a positive direction. Cynicism abounds, especially in the projects within Kibera, and it didn’t take long for locals to point me to Aid for Aid, a home-grown parody series about an international NGO that accomplishes nothing but is filled with do-gooders.

Moving Forward

Switching countries came with a marked change in the attitudes and welcome here in East Africa, and these next weeks have me jazzed once again. When I asked the community for recommendations on grassroots projects, you guys gave me heaps of wonderful work being done over here! Enough that most of my weeks are planned out from here until June when I head home. So, thank you. And, if you have any others, let me know, I can always squeeze in more along the way.

Next week’s update is a big one for me as I am visiting my first safari this weekend! I’ll make sure to edit my photos asap so I can share photos of the Big Fivelion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, and elephant.

Have a wonderful weekend.  :)


A Little Tourism … A Laid-Back Laos, and Our Shrinking World

Returning to Laos was an education on how tourism can affect a country; the difference a mere three years has made in Laos at times seemed inconsequential—unpaved roads were still riddled with jolting, bone-shaking potholes, and a slow and syllabic “sabaidee” hello generously rang into the warm afternoon air  from sweetly grinning locals standing in their shop doorways. Then, the same as now, the (often excited) ring of falang, or rather westerner, dipped and flowed into conversation as I walked through the small towns with my niece, Ana.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Monks houay xai, laos Monks all over Asia generally learn English as soon as they enter the monkhood, and throughout my time in SEA, I seek out monks in new cities because they are always eager and willing to share information, stories, and cultural history. At sunrise, these monks were no exception in Houay Xai, Laos–great English and eager smiles![/caption]

So much my return to Laos felt like a “welcome back, Shannon, we have been here waiting for your return.” I spent a month in Laos in early 2009 and fell in love with the slow days and easy smiles. Now though, that “welcome back” has a gleam of Westernization spritzed with a glitter stick over the well-traveled backpacker route through Laos. Towns where the thought of internet access was laughable when I visited in January 2009, are now littered with discreet signs proudly announcing: “we have WiFi,” “we speak English,” “book any of a gazillion different tours right here and we will hold your hand as we show you around town.”

It’s worth noting that I threw my toilet paper in the toilet…yes, right inside the toilet bowl instead of a trash can nearby. Okay, not everywhere. In fact, not even most places, but there are places with fully flushing toilets in Luang Prabang and that, my friends, is a gigantic flying leap different from the dank and dark squat toilets (and I considered those good toilets!) of just three years past.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Slow Boat in laos The Slow Boat back in 2009, complete with rickety wooden benches![/caption]

In short, the tourism path is cleaner, neater, better organized, more comfortable, more expensive, and just more than it was three years ago. And thankfully, it’s also not less Laos than I remember–throughout these new developments, the people and sentiments felt largely the same, and the political maneuvering with the rural ethic minorities is still a sad and ongoing game.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"] Cushy bus seats take the place of the wooden pews of the past on the crowded boat down the Mekong River in Laos.[/caption]

The UNESCO protections in place in Luang Prabang safeguarded the city from any sort of modern face-lift over the past few years, a protection not in place in Laos’ capital city,Vientiane, where tall cinder-block hotels and offices line the streets in a disjointed jumble and cavernous holes gap in the skyline in a wave of new, and often unfinished, construction.

The country has changed; and I have changed too, to be sure. Over the past few years, I often listed Laos as one of the highlights from my round the world travels. Going back this time, I realized there was more at work during that trip, and it’s this “other” that likely played a part in why I enjoyed traveling the country so much.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]laos children These two excited girls goofed off for the camera in rural Laos; their very basic English elicited shouted “hellos!”[/caption]

This time, I realized I cannot reconstruct the past, there is no way to recreate a moment from my past travels no matter how much I loved it in that moment. I backpacked Laos with Laura, a good friend from the years I lived in Los Angeles, and we did the more footloose and fancy-free activities. Back then, we struggled for an internet connection strong enough to support a quick and choppy Skype chat home, I got sicker than I have ever been in my life, and we spent days upon days on slow boats and buses as we crisscrossed the country.

I returned with Ana last month, unsure of what I would find as took that same route down the Mekong River. Not too surprisingly, the road infrastructure is still in transition (meaning they rely on dirt roads outside of the tourist route) and there were still many weary, long travel days. But, I noticed that very same glitter stick struck some of the more popular guidebook towns. Wifi. Western restaurants. Packaged experiences playing to the interest in Southeast Asia’s ethnic minorities (and some not doing so very ethically, I might add).

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"] A colorful line of bicycles for rent on the streets in Luang Prabang, Laos.[/caption]

But then, I look to the positive side of tourism…and the fact that this is, after all, still Laos. There was more wealth spread throughout the large towns (hints of that are trickling down to the smaller towns). Large-scale tourism brings money, and when it’s done well (and I’m not entirely sure that’s the case in Laos), it can positively augment the way me, as a traveler, sees and experiences a place.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Street scenes from Hongsa, Laos A woman carries home her purchases from the market in Hongsa, Laos[/caption]

There are many elements of tourism done well in Laos. Luang Prabang had a range of grassroots and local projects. Ana and I took a full day weaving class from an organization supporting cultural preservation in Laos. We learned a traditional stenciling method the monks use to decorate new temples. Fair-trade shops abound. The food is delicious, plentiful, and safe to eat (more-so as Western sanitation standards make themselves known). With tourism comes more English, and that meant asking more questions from our guides and guesthouse owners so we could understand the nuances.  And, the glitter stick version of Laos had its up side, because without it, I’m not sure Ana would have enjoyed the country nearly as much. Whereas I, as an adult, love sipping an afternoon coffee watching the boats drift down the Mekong River, she needed engagement on a different level, which we found in the various towns at the local level where just the mere hint of English being spoken meant we had enough charades and gesturing to still be fun but could get our point across.

I’m still reflecting on my return to Laos (and plan some stories and photo-essays in the coming weeks), but my conclusion is: Laos has changed, but the essence of the country, and the warmth of the Laotians leave this country in a special place in my traveling heart.

logging elephant trek laos

A Little Quandary… Ethics and the Elephants of Asia

Ana and I left the other tourists traveling on the slow boat down the Mekong River with their jaws agape when we nimbly jumped off the boat’s thin, rickety ramp onto a giant sand dune with just a small smattering of thatch-roofed houses sunk into the hillside several hundred meters beyond. The boat reached Tha Suang, a tiny blip of a town, and we were the sole tourists venturing into the more rural Sainyabuli province in Laos. Our target end-destination? Hongsa, a town I visited on my round the world trip three years ago.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Tha Suang, Laos Welcome to Tha Suang, a small and dusty town on the Mekong River in Laos.[/caption]

[divider_flat]There were so many reasons for the trip back to this small town: the friendly face of an expat guesthouse owner in Hongsa, the chance for Ana to see the slow pace of life in rural Laos, and to ride an Asian elephant. You see, while I have my doubts about the ethics of the elephant tourism industry in Southeast Asia, my 11 year-old niece was very keen on the experience. One of her dreams at the moment, is to work in animal conservation and one day reverse the gradual extinction of endangered animals. This school year, conservation has been a strong focus and we talked it over, discussed a lot of the issues about the current treatment of elephants around the world, including the elephant logging industry, and she decided she wanted an up close ride and elephant trekking experience in Laos, where they still use elephants for logging.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]feeding an elephant bananas Ana is amazed by the elephants swift removal of the banana from her hand in Hongsa, Laos.[/caption]

[divider_flat]Three years ago, I rode an elephant in Hongsa as well — there’s a lure and a romance to riding an elephant through the green jungle and living-out some elephant meets Tarzan fantasies. The quandary part of this comes down to the where . . .

After reading up on my options three years ago, I picked Hongsa because I could rent a logging elephant for the day and give him a break from long hard days of hauling trees, rather than risk over-working a tourist-camp elephant. And perhaps by convincing myself that a day eating through the jungle with me was easier than his logging duties could appease my guilt and indecision to be honest. Even looking pack, however, I think it’s a very complicated topic because I have gone so far as to tentatively endorse riding elephants in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, where that activity is among the only actions that have saved the elephant in that part of the world.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]elephant eating bamboo The elephant snacks on bamboo in Laos.[/caption]

[divider_flat]With that in mind, Ana and I ventured off the more well-worn backpacking route through Laos to the same rural town I last visited in early 2009 so she could learn more about the elephant logging industry in Laos, meet an elephant in person, and make her own decisions about elephant tourism.

The wooden bell around the bull elephant’s neck thudded with a cheery ring as the mahout directed him toward the loading platform — Ana gasped when the elephant’s broad shadow blocked out the sun and dwarfed her petite figure. The elephant’s dull, grey skin was wrinkled like that of an old man celebrating his long-awaited 102nd birthday; we both tentatively patted his coarse, hairy stomach as Ana buzzed with nervous excitement, passing the bundle of bananas from hand-to-hand.

A huge bull elephant munching on trees at the Jumbo Guesthouse in Hongsa, Laos. An huge Asian elephant in Laos. Jungles, rivers and rice paddies on a rural elephant trek in Laos.

She is fascinated by these animals and carefully studied his small expressive eyes, his sneaky trunk (the bananas she she was still holding in her hand had the elephant probing her hands and pockets with enthusiasm), and the thick chain wrapped around his ankle.

I’ll spare a full description of her experience (I walked along beside the elephant), and instead point you to her post and thoughts about the elephants we met, but I will note it was a beautiful trek through what I consider one of the prettier regions in Laos (but who am I kidding, the entire country is photogenic). Deep brown waters flooded many of the rice paddies, enveloping the weak green stalks, and at points on the trek we heard the tinkling lilt of grainy music drifting out from the wooden houses on stilts.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]rice paddies in laos The rice paddies and wide open fields of rural Laos, outside of Hongsa.[/caption]

[divider_flat]And after an hour perched behind the mahout, jilting from side to side and watching the world pass by from 10 feet above the ground, we stopped for lunch and she informed me of her theory — if she stopped riding him, maybe the mahout would stop poking him with the sharp metal hook, and instead let him eat more of the bamboo and plants lining the red mud paths. She told me that though she liked the idea of riding an elephant, she now decided watching him walk around and do his “elephant” thing was better all around for the elephant and for her.

I agreed and at this point figure the day was a success — she fulfilled her dream to ride an elephant, either way we gave a logging elephant an easier day, and Ana learned for herself (instead of me prattling at length about my own beliefs) about some tough ethical dilemmas facing the elephant tourism industry in Asia.

It’s worth pointing out that the bulk of my issues with elephant tourism stem from the way elephants we domesticate elephants, but not necessarily the domestication in general. The level of cruelty needed to force elephants into submission is not like breaking a horse; it takes beatings, days of abuse, inciting pure fear in the animal, and a whole host of other actions I did not share with Ana, but are startling in their level of pure brutality.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]chain on elephants leg, Hongsa, Laos. The chain around our elephants leg, Hongsa, Laos.[/caption]

[divider_flat]You see, that’s the issue here, because the domestication of elephants is nothing new to the world; in fact, for thousands of years (well into the BC era) humanity has revered the elegance of the elephant. We used the ancient art of storytelling to weave this giant beast into the myths of gods and goddesses, into legends speaking of ultimate power and wisdom. Indian mythology is ripe with elephant imagery, each story bestowing ever the more power, grace, and awe on these animals. Images of Indra, King of the Gods, draw power from the idea of this God mastering and controlling Ayravata, his elephant steed. While Ganesha, a deity know as the “Remover of Obstacles,” has an elephant head and is arguably the most popular and recognizable of the many Hindu gods.

[caption id="attachment_7048" align="aligncenter" width="523"]Ganesha, a popular and prominent Hindu God Ganesha, a popular and prominent Hindu God[/caption]

[divider_flat]Humans have waged war with elephants for centuries, their brute strength and intimidating figures were likely the deciding factor determining the outcome of many skirmishes and battles throughout history. An issue cropping up now, though, lies within globalization, tourism, and the world’s connectivity. Our growth means massive habitat loss for the Asian elephant, more demand for their productivity in questionable trades (such as the elephant logging industry which is illegal in Thailand, but still legal in Laos, Myanmar, and other areas of Asia), abuse, and a novelty factor in tourism that has put this beautiful animal on the world’s growing list of endangered animals.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]eating elephant An elephant munches on trees and bushes outside of Hongsa, Laos.[/caption]

[divider_flat]These are the elements I see within the elephant tourism industry — a lot of gray areas. And there is so much more I haven’t mentioned; the animals often sustain skin injuries from the chairs needed to haul tourists—their curved spines cannot easily support the weight — and, they need a lot of time throughout the day to eat enough food to sustain their enormous bodies (there is often not enough time to both eat and fulfill tourism duties).

Former logging elephants will often have broken backs or  malformed legs from the dangers of the job. And it’s these very same elephants, the former logging elephants that are now forced to earn their feed by spending hours upon hours hauling tourists. Numbers are dwindling because owners often cannot afford to allow the mothers the time and light load needed to gestate for 22 months, and when they are born, the baby elephants are destined for the tourism industry as well.

A baby boy elephant and his mom A frisky two small boy elephant in Hongsa, Loas.

This is the first side of the coin, later this month Ana and I will visit the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. The Nature Park is a conservation center allowing full elephant-tourist interactions but without the riding aspect. We’ll learn more about these beautiful animals and Ana is excited to see some of the current conservationists working to preserve the Asian elephant’s place in future generations.

Through other travelers I greatly respect, they have told me this park is one of the best spots for ethical elephant tourism in Thailand, so Ana and I will report back with more information soon.