Sunday, July 27, 2014

On Stereotypes, Generalizations, Clichés, Straight People and Gay Voices

I'm always up for a good fight, and considering what I do with my life, I'd better be. Or perhaps it's the other way around: I'm fighting fit for a healthy, heated debate because my work has made me that way.

Over the course of the years I've spent writing essays (and an entire forthcoming book!) on race and sexuality, particularly my past six months as a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and Advocate.com, I've become accustomed to exceptions to the rules, trends and patterns I write about who take offense when I point out those rules, trends and patterns. The implication of their ire: "Well, I'm not like that, so you're wrong."

Some of them suggest cosmetic adjustments, like prefacing opinions with "I think" or "I believe" as if that isn't already implied in any kind of personal essay or op-ed piece. One reader suggested that I re-title my latest HuffPost Gay Voices article "8 Things Some Straight People Occasionally Get Wrong About Some Gay Men" -- or something to that waffling effect. I don't know. That just doesn't have the same ring as "8 Things Straight People Get Wrong About Gay Men."

At any rate, if those would-be editors would put aside their righteous indignation and reconsider where I'm coming from, they'd realize that the "Some" is silent. It's like when women complain about men. They aren't talking about all men, just the ones who've done them wrong and all the other ones like them. It's a generalization intended to make a point: This is a common occurrence or habitual behavior. Of course, there are always exceptions.

Despite what we've been told about stereotypes and generalizations, both tend to be based on truth (if only a grain of it), information acquired from observations made over an extended period of time. They are not inherently evil or misguided. Stereotypes and generalizations become dangerous when people are unable to see past them, when people use them as the basis on which they pre-judge people. That's when racism and homophobia begin to rear their ugly heads.

If you're an exception to the rules, trends and patterns, good for you. Feel free to tell us all about it. I want to hear from you because you're the one who gives me hope. But it's not all about you. "You" doesn't necessarily mean you, nor does "people." If you'd prefer a "most" in front of "people," put it there yourself. Any writer, if he or she is a reasonable thinker, probably put it there in his or her mind, too. But "most" and "some" rarely work in good, compelling headlines.

When Jim Morrison sang "People are strange" in the title of The Doors 1967 No. 12 Billboard Hot 100 hit, did rock fans write the band to complain: "Well, I'm not strange, so your song is shit"? When The Bellamy Brothers declared that "Lovers live longer" in the title of their 1980 No. 3 country single, did country fans take them to task because lovers sometimes die at an unripe young age? Have we become such a hyper-sensitive culture that every comment, every sentence, must now be qualified so as not to risk offending people who can't handle the truth (or those to whom it doesn't apply)?

At the end of every post cycle, though, I'm thankful that anyone, whether in agreement with me or not, would bother to take the time to read anything I write. And comments are always welcome, even if it's just to criticize my choice of photo because the guys in it are so attractive. The one above has already been damned and praised by readers of my latest Gay Voices piece (where I previously used it) for that very reason. Never mind that the couple sets a good example by being interracial. Does the twosome have to be good-looking, too? I suppose Men's Health should start looking for cover models with a bit of a beer belly because by the PC beauty standards, you don't look like a "real" person if you're too pretty or too perfectly sculpted. (Yet when Valerie Bertinelli gains a few pounds it becomes home-page news.)

Someone commented that running a photo of two hot gay men with "8 Things..." undermined the entire essay because, I guess, that's another thing straight people get wrong about gay men: They think they're all attractive, too. Who am I to argue with a flattering assumption like that? Or maybe by being good-looking, the two guys support the straight theory that says gay men are obsessed with their looks. Should we all stop shaving and bathing to dispel that horrible myth?

I recently had a guy on Grindr take me to task for having the nerve to say that I'm looking for a non-cliché in my profile while parading around shirtless in the pic that goes with it. I'm the cliché, a gay cliché, he suggested. So does that make any shirtless guy with a decent body a gay cliché? Or is it just when he's undressed that way on Grindr? Is going topless on Grindr any more of a gay cliché than being on Grindr in the first place? I wonder if he would have called me a gay cliché if I had love handles and a paunch in the photo? I wonder if he would have said anything to me at all. The cliché I'm looking to avoid has less to do with what app you use and what you're wearing on it than what you say after you have my attention. (Hint: Flattery, even via clichés, will likely get you farther than critiquing my profile pic.)

But those are issues for another blog post. Getting back to "8 Things...," not all of the feedback has been critical. In fact, most of what I've read has been quite the opposite, and the overwhelmingly positive reaction -- 5.2k "likes" and still rising -- has floored me. I know people are more likely to come out in droves to read a listicle, but I had no reason to expect this particular one to find such a large appreciative audience.

It's even apparently crossed over to heterosexual readers. One "straight" guy felt "insulted" by my generalizations, mostly because they don't apply to him, and we had a somewhat heated Twitter exchange over it. Twitter is usually not conducive to intelligent discourse, but this was one of those exceptions to the rule. Ultimately, we arrived at common ground and hugged it out virtually, with my former Twitter rival offering to buy me a beer if I'm ever in New Orleans.

Unfortunately, "C Warren" wasn't so open-minded. In fact, judging from the comments "C Warren" made on Twitter (see below), I'd say "C Warren" is proudly homophobic. This makes one wonder why "C Warren" would bother reading HuffPost's Gay Voices to begin with. Surely there must be plenty of other reading material on the web that's more in step with the interests and beliefs of someone who thinks "gay" is a euphemism for sexual deviancy.

In a way, the Fox News Channel's loss was my gain. The declarations of "C Warren" made for some entertaining weekend reading. But why should I have all the fun? Enjoy!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Songs from Casey Kasem's "American Top 40," April 28, 1984

"It's My Life" Talk Talk
"The Reflex" Duran Duran 
I so wanted more for Talk Talk, whose lone Top 40 U.S. single, "It's My Life," crawled from No. 40 to No. 39 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending April 28, 1984, en route to a No. 34 peak, which would be bested 19 years later by No Doubt's No. 10 cover. Casey pointed out at the time that Talk Talk was one of only eight double-named acts to hit the Top 40, a list that included Duran Duran, which debuted at No. 36 that week with the still-un-remixed version of the band's future first No. 1, "The Reflex." Other double-named Top 40 acts to follow include Mr. Mister, Lisa Lisa, Tony Toni Toné, Yo-Yo and Mary Mary, while Casey neglected to mention the then-active The Go-Go's, Tom Tom Club and Toto. Sadly, The The, Womack & Womack and Wet Wet Wet never managed to make it that far in the U.S., though they all scored multiple hits in the UK Top 40.


"Borderline" Madonna
"Girls Just Want to Have Fun"/ "Time After Time" Cyndi Lauper
Although she ended up being one of the biggest hitmakers of the 1980s, Madonna was no overnight sensation. Unlike Lauper's 1983 debut album, She's So Unusual, which spawned four Top 5 hits and won Lauper a Best New Artist Grammy, Madonna's eponymous 1983 debut was a slower burner.

Indeed, when her second Top 40 single, the No. 10-to-be "Borderline," only inched from No. 37 to No. 35 (two notches below Lauper's debut hit, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," down from No. 17 after peaking at No. 2, and eight below "Time After Time," which leaped from No. 37 to No 26 on the way to becoming the first of Lauper's two No. 1s), I suspect that Casey, like many of us, was writing her off as someone we wouldn't be hearing from for long. He even got her age wrong, citing it as 23 instead of 25 going on 26.


"Holding Out for a Hero" Bonnie Tyler
"Eat It" "Weird Al" Yankovic
"Dancing in the Sheets" Shalamar 
I can't believe that Yankovic's Michael Jackson parody (down from No. 15 to No. 32) was a much bigger hit (No. 12) than Tyler's gay anthem (from the Footloose soundtrack), which was holding out at its No. 34 peak for a second week. So was Shalamar's great but almost-forgotten concurrent Footloose single, which jumped from No. 30 to No. 26, on the way to No. 17.


"I'll Wait"/ "Jump" Van Halen
I never had a clue what "I'll Wait," which rose from No. 33 to No. 31 in its second Top 40 week, was about, but it was still my favorite single from the 1984 album. I never understood why it didn't warrant a video, though. Perhaps because "Jump" was still kicking at No. 23, after spending five weeks at the top. I always thought it was only four!


"Jump (For My Love)"/ "Automatic" The Pointer Sisters
"Jump (For My Love)", an "American Top 40 classic extra" (not to be confused with Van Halen's descending "Jump") that debuted at No. 62 on Billboard's Hot 100 this week, was fire (no relation to the trio's 1978 No. 2 smash "Fire," which, incidentally, was the May 12, 1979 AT40 long-distance dedication from an 11 year old to his schoolmates who picked on him because of his braces and made him feel like he was "going through fire"). So was the entire Breakout album (featuring the No. 5 hit "Automatic," falling three to No. 9 that week), which my mom bought for me on vinyl LP for my 15th birthday nine days later.


"Sister Christian" Night Ranger
 As Top 10 Night Ranger power ballads go, I've always preferred "Sentimental Street" (No. 8, 1985) to "Sister Christian," which moved from No. 32 to No. 30 in its second Top 40 week, on the way to a No. 5 peak.


"Show Me" The Pretenders
Learning to Crawl's third Top 40 single, which held at No. 29, one notch below its eventual peak, and failed to chart in the UK reminds me that although her band never has, head Pretender Chrissie Hynde has hit No. 1 in the UK twice: via her duet with UB40 on a 1985 cover of Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe," and alongside Cher herself (and Neneh Cherry and Eric Clapton) on a 1995 cover of The Judds' "Love Can Build a Bridge."


"A Fine Fine Day" Tony Carey
 A fine fine song (No. 25, up from No. 28), one of my favorite singles of 1984.


"Leave It" Yes
I love that I lived through a year when a song as strange as Yes's second 90215 single (the follow-up to "Owner of Lonely Heart," Yes's 1983 No. 1) could make it all the way to No. 24, where it was holding and where it would peak. (Fun facts: 1. The Yes album was named for its Atco Records catalogue number, not for a California zip code. 2. "Leave It" was the week's second follow-up to an iconic rock band's only No. 1 single, the first being Van Halen's "I'll Wait.")


"Breakdance" Irene Cara
Between "Flashdance… What a Feeling," "Why Me," "The Dream" and "Breakdance" (26-22, surging toward No. 8), Cara was right up there, challenging Cyndi Lauper and Madonna for pop's female MVP of 1983 and 1984.


"The Longest Time" Billy Joel
Thirty years later, I still haven't tired of listening to the fourth An Innocent Man single (25-21, heading to No. 14). In fact, it might very well be my all-time favorite Billy Joel song.


"Here Comes the Rain Again" Eurythmics
Casey used the occasion of Eurythmics' second Top 10 falling from No. 9 to No. 18 to discuss Top 40 hits that mention rain (at the time, 60 in total, with three No. 1s: B.J. Thomas's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," Neil Sedaka's "Laughter in the Rain" and Eddie Rabbitt's "I Love a Rainy Night"). Of course, when I recently did a blog post on songs about rain, I completely forgot all about Eurythmics' No. 4 single.


"Tonight" Kool & The Gang
"Let's Hear It for the Boy" Deniece Williams
I never noticed this before, but Kook & The Gang's "Tonight" (18-14) was a marked departure from the band's previous string of party-song singles ("Ladies Night," "Celebration," "Get Down on It," "Big Fun," "Let's Go Dancin'") in that it was decidedly more middle of the road (i.e., pop), with a rock-guitar instrumental break. I'm pretty certain that it was an attempt for the band to maintain its crossover status on a Hot 100 that was increasingly inhospitable to R&B in the mid-'80s, when the R&B chart was called "Hot Black Singles." In fact, despite the presence of other black artists such as Irene Cara, Shalamar, Deniece Williams (with "Let's Hear It for the Boy," 23-12, the week's biggest mover and a future No. 1), Rockwell (No. 10, descending, after peaking at No. 2 with "Somebody's Watching Me") and Lionel Richie, the closest thing in the Top 40 to old-school soul music was The Pointer Sisters' "Automatic."


"You Might Think" The Cars
Were The Cars still climbing the chart with the first Heartbeat City single (11-7) at the end of April? According to Wikipedia, the follow-up, "Magic," wasn't released until my 15th birthday (May 7, 1984, the day I received The Pointer Sisters' Breakout), yet I distinctly remember hearing it on the radio on April Fool's Day. It was during the introduction that the DJ announced that Marvin Gaye had been shot to death by his father.


"Love Somebody" Rick Springfield
I always forget how many hit singles Rick Springfield had. Perhaps it's because as good as some of them were, so many of them sounded interchangeable. At first I thought "Love Somebody" (6-8) was "Love Is Alright Tonight," which was the No. 20 1981 follow-up to "I've Done Everything for You," which kind of sounds like "Love Somebody," too. I wonder if the two earlier singles still sound as good as "Love Somebody" still does.


"Footloose" Kenny Loggins
"Hello" Lionel Richie
"Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)" Phil Collins
Unfortunately, the Top 3 doesn't. I distinctly remember liking each of these No. 1 songs in 1984, but in 2014 I can barely sit through any of them. Will I live to feel the same way about Ariana Grande's "Problem," Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" and MAGIC!'s "Rude"? I already do about two of them (the last two)!

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Most Egregious Example of Racism I've Yet to Encounter in South Africa

While I was in Tanzania, I had a conversation about race with a South African woman who tried to put a smiley face on our uncomfortable discussion by insisting that things are getting better in her country and my adopted home. I didn't know how to break the news to her: That's not saying much. So I let it go. There are some things you simply aren't going to be privy to or understand unless you are black, a point that a friend just reconfirmed when he sent me the short and not-so-sweet Grindr exchange he had with "Wild fun" in Johannesburg.


Hmm... I wonder why "white jock" didn't tip off my friend that he might be dealing with a racist jerk. Maybe the American Indian on the guy's t-shirt canceled out the implication of that specification. Whatever the story behind the celebrating of one oppressed people while damning another, if this is pat-ourselves-on-the-back "better," what a low bar we've set.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

If Animals Could Talk, Would They Tell Us to Leave Them Alone?

Better cameras than guns, but still... What can anyone possibly do with all of those photos?

One great picture of a bunch of hippos slumbering in the water is cool, as is a 15-second video of one rotating its body 360 degrees while a few others make ghastly noises. Two or three more shots add variety. But unless you're a National Geographic photographer, why would you need to take a dozen or more pictures of more of the same? Nobody wants to see all of them (Hint: Single and small groups of photos get more "likes" on Facebook than padded photo albums), and chances are the person who takes them won't look at them more than once.

So how much is enough? That's what I keep asking myself as my fellow camera wielders and I snap away in the Serengeti. What are we thinking/doing?

Yeah, yeah, everyone goes to the Serengeti or on any African game drive hoping to spot the Big 5 (lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffaloes) and while they're at it, to get some amazing photos to post on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but are we more interested in the photos than in the animals themselves? Going on a safari and watching the way people view the animals is not unlike walking around the major cities of Italy and watching tourists snap shots of all the unnatural wonders they've been told are important. Everyone is so busy taking pictures that they aren't paying any real attention to the beauty stretched out before them. When he's not fast asleep in the front seat of one of the 4x4s, Gaia, the eightysomething Brazilian who perhaps maxed out on breathtaking after decades in Rio, is too preoccupied with reading his camera instructions to even look!

There is no genuine reacting, just hustling to get the perfect shot. At one point, I gasp when I finally catch sight of the elusive leopard I'd been trying to spot with the help of binoculars. The other passengers in my 4x4 laugh at my genuine reaction. The ones in the 4x4 behind us look at me as if I've lost my mind. So what? Who cares about a leopard that you can't even photograph? A safari is only as good as the photos it produces!

They're missing the point entirely. I'm certain they're missing everything surrounding the animals, too: the stately acacia trees, the landscape so perfectly manicured by Mother Nature, the endless horizon, all those cool spider holes. It's not unlike going to a rock concert and looking at everyone looking at the video monitor instead of at the stage, or not fully enjoying Soundgarden's performance of "Outshined" at the Sidney Meyer Music Bowl in Melbourne because you're videoing it. They're digitally documenting everything and missing it all at the same time.

And what is the cost of our camera obsession? I'm not talking about what we don't see when we're looking at life through the lens, or even monetary expense. In the modern digital-camera age, capturing moments to remember might be the least expensive thing we do on holiday. What about the animals? Sure, we're there to see them, but what about them? What about a lion's right to a little peace and privacy in its own home, whether that be in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park, in the Ngorongoro Crater, or in the wilds beyond?

(True story: One of the guys in my Tanzania-to-Kenya tour group actually complained to our guide about the locals on the island of Zanzibar. They didn't make us feel welcome, he griped. They didn't wave at our passing truck like the locals did on Tanzania's mainland. Shame on them. It's always all about us, the visitors, not the people who actually live in any given place, be it Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, or the Serengeti.)

I hate being stared at by strangers, and as a black man accustomed to living as a rarity in places like South America, Southeast Asia and Australia, I know what it's like to have people train their cameras on me with and without permission. But those curious locals know better than not to just get their photo and move on. If those big cats are anything like me, they'd rather be left alone while they eat, sleep and pee. I wonder if that's why leopards and cheetahs spend most of their time out of sight, hiding in trees and overgrown grass, far from the maddening crowds parked in 4x4's on the side of dusty roads.

As I watch 4x4s following a pride of lions around the Serengeti on my first morning there, it dawns on me: This is Hollywood. The lions are the celebrities, and humans are the paparazzi. If I had to compare the lions to a particular star, I'd go with Princess Diana, a master manipulator of the media who suffered (ultimately, fatally) under its too-watchful eye. There's something borderline tragic about the way humans chase the lion clans around the wilderness in their big, loud, scary vehicles, but the lions don't always come across as victims. If the Serengeti had a red carpet, they'd probably know how to work it. There's already a distinct strut in their walk (big cat strut?), and sometimes I could swear they're posing for us as we snap snap snap away.

But what about when they aren't? What about when they're trying to take a late-afternoon nap, or roam around the Serengeti with their cubs? As I watch lionesses and their children migrate from spot to spot, I feel like such an interloper that I sometimes have to put away my camera. They seem to be trying to escape us, our prying eyes and our prying cameras.


Still, we lie in wait, watching, and when they appear, we descend upon them, sometimes dozens of 4x4s at a time. If they just sit there, we wait some more, as if expecting some grand gesture or a quotable punchline or both. "ROAR!" Oh, the pressure -- on us (to get the perfect shot) and on the animals, too. We snap away until we exhaust our batteries or our memory cards. If the animals could talk, what would they say? Would they object to our voyeurism, tell us to get the hell out of there?

The Massai tribe that inhabits the Ngorongoro area adjacent to the Serengeti object to picture taking by tourists unless they pay US$15 to be part of an official village group tour. If you pass a Massai in your vehicle, and he or she sees you taking his or her photo without permission, it could cost you US$50. I'm not sure how the penalties are imposed (Do they complain directly to the safari tour companies?) and how they're collected, but just having rules to protect their rights seems to deter unauthorized picture taking.

Unfortunately, animals can speak for themselves only by attacking. (Beware those hippos. I hear they're cranky and deadly.) Since I'm not privy to any acts of extreme aggression on the part of the animals, at least not today, I hope for the best. Maybe they enjoy the attention. Perhaps some of those lions really are putting on a show.

With their flowing manes, the males seem to have perfected the art of acting like us humans aren't even there. But when we catch a group of three females lounging on a rock like a feline Supremes (there's always one particularly hammy one assuming Diana Ross top-cat status), I begin to get the feeling that maybe they do sometimes enjoy our attention and are possibly egging us on, particularly when the kids aren't around. That's so Hollywood celebrity.

"You want a great photo to share with your Facebook friends? Well, here!"

Got it? Now move along, folks, before you overstay your welcome in their home.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Animal Planet: 12 Safari Game Drive Shots in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater

I was too mesmerized by live ostrich porn to take video of it (the male's mating jig, which sort of looks like he's flapping his wings to fan the flames of lust, or just attempting an African tribal dance, must be seen to be believed), but I did catch a few decent animal shots during my four-day safari in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, the latter of which was my favorite part of Tanzania.

Riding through the massive hole in the earth past the crater lake in a 4x4 with the rooftop popped up was like being transported through a painting or a movie set with the most jaw-dropping panoramic backdrop. Yes, the mountainous terrain surrounding the crater, the low clouds enveloping it and the pale blue sky above were so unbelievably gorgeous. The scenery just had to be fake, or retouched by the hand of God, or Engai, until it was a stunning shade of perfect.

Every so often I had the same thought about the animals in the Serengeti, especially on the first morning game drive when a horde of elephants surrounded our vehicle while they crossed the road. It felt like a scene from a movie, or REM sleep. Was I dreaming of Africa? I blinked hard, then pinched myself to be sure I was awake. I was. But could it really be real?

Oh, and where were the rhinos? They were the only one of the "Big 5" (which also includes lions, leopards, elephants and buffalo) that we didn't see. Apparently, rhinos are severely endangered in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro, thanks to the inexplicable human need for their horns. Leopards, like cheetahs -- my favorite big cat -- are also generally quite elusive here, though we did spot at least one apiece. Unfortunately, they were too far away and/or too camouflaged to make for a decent photo.

Occasionally, I'd stare at a giraffe gliding across the savanna, seemingly in slow motion, or nibbling at the leaves on a tree, and wonder if it was fake. I knew the jackal carrying the corpse of a baby gazelle wasn't; it was survival of the fittest, up close and impersonal. These were scenes I'd only seen on TV and movie screens, or in a zoo. For four days, they were unfolding right in front of me, in their natural nature setting.

Now that I'm back in the big city, once again far removed from the beasts of the African wild, I'm not completely convinced that I didn't imagine the entire thing.

Friday, July 18, 2014

8 Things I Learned About Myself While Roughing It in Tanzania and the Serengeti

1. I'm definitely not a happy camper. But as my personal motto says, I'll try anything twice, and until the Serengeti, I'd never tried sleeping in a tent or inside a sleeping bag even once. Now I can say I've done both three times. I'd like to also say I'll never do it again, but unless you have the financial resources to splurge on "glamping," the only way to experience/explore any relatively unspoiled expanse of nature and wildlife as remote as the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area over the course of several days might be with no-star camping accommodations -- especially if Winnebago vehicles are prohibited due to the rough 4x4-ready terrain.

In other words, some day I'll probably find myself once again sleeping just above the flat earth enveloped in nylon in some other national park and/or nature reserve somewhere else in the world.

For all of the lack of creature comforts (and comfort) at the Serengeti and Ngorongoro campsites where I spent three consecutive nights last weekend, or even a fence to provide a middle-of-the-night buffer between campers and wild animals, sleeping inside a tent did have its upside: You haven't lived until you've woken up in the wee small hours to the sound of snorting/growling/roaring, felt something brush against the side of your bedroom, and wondered if that zebra, or elephant, or lion, is looking for you.

2. I'm a lot less fearful than I thought. I'm not sure if the more experienced campers in my tour group were just teasing me, or if I had just cause to be afraid of lions roaming through the camp in the still of the night. (And the morning after the second one, Haloise, a young woman in my group, told me that she saw a pride of lions wandering through around 2am.) "Try not to leave your tent after everybody has gone to bed," one of the Serengeti guides warned us the night before our departure. I kept an empty 1.5 liter water bottle in my sleeping bag to use as a makeshift urinal just in case.

I didn't have to -- at least not until the third night when I was too lazy, not afraid, to walk 50 meters of so to the toilet. Otherwise, at 4am when I woke up needing to go, I picked up my flashlight, unzipped my tent, stepped out and walked unafraid to the ablution/toilet facilities, which were actually scarier than any wild beast. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't secretly hoping to encounter the king of the jungle on my way back. Of course, I'm always more brave (and stupid) when I'm really groggy.

3. Wildebeests might do it, but I don't travel well in packs. I always knew I prefer going solo to doing duets, but I haven't traveled in a large group since eighth grade when I went on a National Honor Society trip to Washington D.C. I had a great time then, so the jury was still out on whether I could get into group travel now. I'm glad to know I can do it if I absolutely have to (and frankly, the idea of trekking through the Serengeti solo doesn't exactly give me a peaceful easy feeling), but my idea of a perfect holiday is being able to choose whom you see most of the time and when and whether you want to speak. I'm all for a little (a little) idle chatter to make eight or more hours a day on the road go by faster, but making small talk during breakfast, lunch and dinner is so not relaxing.

4. I must really have baby fever. Tanzanian children are among God's cutest creatures, but a baby baboon or a baby warthog? Give me the baby version of the ugliest animal, and I'm immediately aaawww-ing over it as if it's the sweetest thing I've ever seen. The cub lions, by the way, very well might be.


5. I like to watch (just watch, without taking photos). As I observed the safari crowd jostling for the best shot, it became clear to me that in trying to capture the perfect moment, so many of them were missing the moment. An elephant's slow approach is much less impressive when viewed through a lens or in video replay. Of course, that's easy for me to say, considering that I might be the world's worst photographer/videographer -- and I have the blurry Serengeti photos to prove it.

6. I'm so not a bird watcher. But storks and eagles and vultures are pretty cool, and after a while, I found myself noticing the smaller birds, even the ones that weren't blue, red or green, without having them pointed out to me. I also saw a living owl for the first time at the Masai Mara Museum and Snake Park in Arusha, and it was just as creepy as I'd imagined it would be. Do they really go "Whooooo"?

7. I can survive in a WiFi-free zone. In fact, after one day, I didn't even really miss the Internet anymore. Of course, that's not hard not to do when you're too busy doing without electricity, hot water, and a washroom that's not stinky and muddy and doesn't make you want to gag on sight/site to think about updating your Facebook status.

8. I can sleep through the night -- or most of it. I had such vivid dreams in Tanzania that I must have been actually sleeping for more than a few hours at a time for the first time in months. In East Africa, I averaged one or two wake ups a night, which might still not be the most restful sleep, but it was a welcome change from my 2am, 3am, 3.30am, 4am, 4.30am and 5am wake-up times in Cape Town. I'm not sure if it was the fact that I didn't take any afternoon naps, or if it was limiting my liquid intake after 6am, or if it was the mosquito net casting a certain calm over my sleeping environment, or if there's just something in the East African air, but I am sure of this: Some of the best of times in Tanzania were in the middle of the night in my dreams, which made the mornings after even lovelier. But I already knew I'm a total morning person, and sunrise in Tanzania following a relatively decent night's sleep made me even happier to be alive -- and awake!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Before Night Falls in the Serengeti

My First Impressions of Tanzania: Random Thoughts in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar

"Cape Town is not the real Africa.… You haven't seen the real Africa."

If I had one rand for every time I've heard that pronouncement in the last eight months, I'd be $10 richer. At the current rand-to-dollar exchange rate, that's triple-digit frequency, so yes, it's been said -- a lot.

OK, so this must be the place. I presume that when those travel know-it-alls go on and on about "the real Africa," they are referring to the Africa depicted on the dusty trails masquerading as roads that lead to Sawe Hotel, which is where I'll be staying overnight in Dar es Salaam. I knew East Africa was going to be different from Southern Africa, but I was expecting the change to be more gradual as I made my way from Tanzania's east coast up north to the Serengeti, not almost instantaneous culture shock.

However, here in Dar es Salaam, not Tanzania's capital city but its largest and highest-profile one due to its prime coastal location, the view en route from the airport is fascinating, though not for any pristine scenery. "Ah, true grit," I say to myself, buckling my seat belt for what will no doubt be a bumpy ride ahead.

I'm in one of too many cars crawling past commercial buildings topped with corrugated metal and huts with thatched roofs during the early afternoon rush hour. Hijab-cloaked women balancing baskets on their heads walk along non-sidewalks, while men converse lazily and small clusters of young children play and do cartwheels off to the side. Every so often, a chicken squawks and bobs its head back and forth, crossing the road as if it runs this town. (On the morning after my arrival, the first sounds I hear: "Cockadoodledoo!" followed by the Fajr prayer.)

As if to drive home the "This is not America (or even South Africa)" point, the taxi passes a van parked on the side of the road with portraits of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden painted on the back window. Two days later when I hear reports of a terrorist bomb going off in Arusha up north and wounding eight people three days before my arrival there, I'll shudder as I recall those bracing images of two of the most notorious international villains of the last century.

In the midst of the non-splendor is my three-star hotel. It might be slightly outside the more conventionally urban city center, but this is partly what I flew two flights over five hours from Cape Town to see: real life. Reality doesn't bite, but it's got bite. This, I think, as the taxi pulls up past the gate and into the driveway of the Sawe, is home -- somebody else's home but home all the same, not a picture-postcard version of some exotic city, all white, clean, neat... and white.

Unlike Cape Town, Johannesburg, Windhoek and other African cities I've been in up to this point, Dar is considerably not white. In fact, during my first 18 hours after leaving the Julius Nyerere International Airport, I don't see a single white person. Aside from the black expat from San Francisco who chats me up in the restaurant at the Sawe, I encounter no Americans on day one either. The first white people I see I meet around 9am on day two at the entrance to the Zanzibar ferry: Haloise and Ryan are a twentysomething married couple from South Africa (her) and Zimbabwe (him) who will be part of my group for a 10-day Zanzibar/Serengeti overland tour, which begins the morning after my arrival in Dar.

By the time I meet the rest of the gang in Zanzibar, one two-hour ferry ride later, the color wheel has turned, and I'm surrounded by white tourists, including the ones who are not part of my package deal. I'm actually surprised at my relief that Servius, the tour driver who will be accompanying us on the Zanzibar portion of the trip, is black. This is a first for me, and I can't explain why I immediately feel more comfortable, knowing that both Servius and Norman, the tour guide who will be guiding us to the Serengeti, are black Africans from Harare, Zimbabwe.

Perhaps it's relief that I won't be having a completely white-washed Western experience in Tanzania, though Amaan Bungalows on the north end of the island of Zanzibar, comes close: The clientele is 99 percent white while the staff is mostly black African (with the exception of the manager, who looks like a young version of Freddie Mercury, Zanzibar's most famous export, and an Asian man and an Arab man working at the bar of one of the two restaurants). I'm sure that several of the employees are being particularly kind to me, making unnecessary small talk and regarding me as if I'm in on some private joke. Clearly they don't get many black guests here.

That's OK. There's a local village several hundred meters away, and for anyone passing through, it offers a quick jolt to Zanzibar reality. As I gaze at calves roaming around like puppies and munching on grass and children happily playing soccer in a field during my afternoon walk through the village the following day, I wonder if the people here are as content as they appear to be. Life is obviously hard for them, but it's never been any other way, so there's no reason to complain about such relatively trivial inconveniences as bugs and slow-to-no WiFi.

I'm already guilty of griping about the latter, but I'm in good company, much better than I expected. When I signed up for a Nomad's 10-day, 9-night overland Zanzibar & Serengeti Trek with 17 other travelers (Nomad's maximum), I was expecting to spend a week and a half feeling like an old man surrounded by backpackers in their early twenties. After all, this would involve tents and sleeping bags in the Serengeti. What middle-aged fool other than myself would intentionally subject himself to something like that?

Surprise! With the exception of Haloise and Ryan, nearly everyone in the group appears to be thirtysomething and older. The eldest is Gaia, a Brazilian man in his eighties who doesn't speak a word of English and travels around continents writing books about them. Unfortunately for him, he speaks Spanish, which means he'll have to depend on me to translate for him.

Oh, great. It's been three and a half years since I left Argentina, and I never knew the Spanish word for "snorkeling."

"Why don't you just describe it in Spanish then?" Haloise suggests.

Good idea. I sigh, relieved, that "no le interesan los deportes del agua." I can't believe how quickly my Spanish is coming back to me, but I'm not thrilled that I have to speak it loudly in front of so many people hanging on my every word that they don't understand. I'm sure it won't matter, though. An eightysomething man who travels to the other side of the world to rough it with a bunch of people half his age must not be the needy type (an assumption that will be disproved in the days ahead, as Gaia's English mysteriously worsens and I start to suspect that he doesn't understand Spanish either). The hop-on/hop-off-style tour has been going for a couple of weeks now (I'm only on a half-time leg, which will be followed by the final ones, the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and gorillas in the mist in Uganda), and he's still upright.

Luckily, most everyone in the group -- which, the Brazilian, South African and Zimbabweans aside, also includes people from the Netherlands, Austria, Australia, Cayman Islands, Korea, and Meg, a schoolteacher from San Francisco -- is friendly, engaging and well-traveled. Several of them I'd happily hang out with even if I weren't being forced to. I feel like neither an old man nor too technology-obsessed for being so attached to WiFi. At Amaan much of the conversation is conducted while we tap away at our phones and iPads, trying to make the best of snail-sluggish Internet. We'd better enjoy the unlimited WiFi while we can (slow as it is), everyone reasons, for there'll be none of that in the wilds of the Serengeti.

Though Amaan's 7.30am-to-11pm food service means we won't go hungry during the day, I can't believe that for the second consecutive Ramadan, I'm in Muslim country. One year ago, I was in Dubai. Now I'm in Zanzibar. But honestly, no-food-or-water-in-public-while-the-sun's-up aside, I'm happy to be on an African island where the native population is 99 percent Muslim. The visual aspect of the religion gives Zanzibar much of its distinctive flavor. It's not everywhere that you see black Muslim women wearing colorful hijab walking on the beach or sauntering regally along dirt roads with baskets atop their heads, freeing their hands to use their smartphones. (Those Vodacom outposts on every corner must come in handy.)

The beach on both the north side and near Stone Town has me once again rethinking my life-long indifference to beaches. It's beautifully eerie, especially in the gloaming when the waveless, motionless ocean and its sky-high backdrop takes on a slightly ghoulish end-of-the-world auburn glow. It's like a Georges-Pierre Seurat pointillism painting or a scene from a Jane Campion movie with cows (yes, cows!) as extras.

Further inland, amidst the hustle and bustle of Zanzibar's villages, Stone Town, Dar es Salaam and beyond, Tanzania's leading ladies are quiet and contemplative, with just a touch of melancholy and resignation. The country is no lap of luxury, but the men and the boys seem almost cheerful (more so the further inland you go), if occasionally aggressive.

"Blackie, blackie," a man shouts in the Stone Town meat market, obviously addressing me. I turn around. "Take my picture." He holds up a piece of meat, and gives me a thumbs-up with his free hand after I take the picture. It's a good thing he's black, I think as I walk away. A white person, like the one who referred to me as a "darkie" in Cape Town a couple of weeks ago, would never get away with calling me "blackie." I know he was just being a typical Tanzanian guy, trying to bring me into his world. Indeed, in the small villages outside of Dar heading north to Arusha, the men and boys form unofficial welcoming committees, waving at the cars and buses and trucks that happen to be passing by. Occasionally, the women greet us, too.

A little boy of about 6 years old bounds gleefully toward the road, like a gazelle sprinting across a savanna, as Tommy, our tour truck, slowly makes its way from Dar to Lushoto in Usambara Mountains. The child stops just at the edge of a ditch that separates the hut where he lives from the road and waves enthusiastically. He looks truly happy. Such a little thing, but the difference we make in brightening his day -- which, by extension, lights up mine as well -- is so great.

Though I know he does the same thing for so many passersby, I feel special, truly welcome in his country. As we drive off, I know that this Tanzanian moment is likely to be as etched into my memory as any stunning sunset or the Serengeti adventure that lies several days ahead.