Africa, Nature

De-Nile, and other Ugandan States

Last week, I visited friends in Jinja “Source of the Nile” Uganda and stayed with them at the lodge they manage.
Between playing sharks and mermaids with their two beautiful children, drinking excessive amounts of African tea laced with ginger, feasting on their restaurant’s famous ribs (had to be a bad Jew for a day before heading to Israel for Passover!), practicing yoga poolside and working full time, there wasn’t much time for sightseeing.
So, for my last day in town, all of us—plus a few extra kids and friends—hopped on a boat to check out Lake Victoria, some wildlife, and the infamous source of the Nile.

Jinja lay claim to an impressive 5-meter column of water springing from the river’s start at the edge of Lake Victoria. The world class rapids along this following stretch attracted droves of adventure seeking tourists, fueling an industry of rafting and whitewater kayaking.
On August 3rd, 1858, an avidly adventurous Englishman named John Hanning Speke “discovered” the source of the Nile, although it wasn’t until after his death that his claims were finally verified. Our guide, however, pointed out the exact spot from which Speke first spotted it.
A few minuscule drops of rain excepted, it was a perfect afternoon for a boat ride. We observed vibrant-hued kingfishers and bee-eaters, ungainly pelicans and a particularly ugly vulture-type bird whose name I’ve forgotten, monitor lizards, otters and more.
When we neared the source of the Nile and our gaze followed our guide’s finger between two small Islands, I already knew what to expect:

The construction of two hydroelectric dams downriver in 2012 quickly turned the wild origins into the Nile into the still lovely—but rather more staid—river that meandered past my tent:

The full ecological (and economic) implications of this shift remain to be seen.
In classic irony, we had to run generators at the lodge for nearly two days when the power cut out. (Rumor has it Uganda is selling all that juicy new electricity from the dams to neighboring Kenya.)
The car ride home hosted a 45-minute game of “I Spy,” in which I participated as a laughing spectator to the shenanigans of three rowdy kids (two small, and one grown up). Back in Entebbe airport in Kampala the following day, I studied a bevy of glossy banners promoting the #PearlOfAfrica’s lush green landscapes, diverse wildlife and smiling inhabitants.

Juxtaposing those lustrous landscapes and straightforward hashtags, I am struck now—as I so often am—by the depth of the gray space between simple facades and complex realities. Fraught with tensions, ironies, vibrancy and intensity as they are, I’ll always choose the latter.


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Africa, Nature

Other Words for Turquoise

Over the last week, I have been struggling to find other words for what has always been one of my favorite colors: turquoise.
As I help to write new website content for a Zanzibari hotel, and as I research other accommodations in the industry, I am struck by the dearth of alternatives. Hundreds of hotels, lodges, hostels and villas, and all any of us can come up with is, “the warm, turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean.”
Really? I mean, I love turquoise—the color, the word, the evocative sound of it—but there must be more creative ways to describe this coast.
The following words are officially out, for overuse: stunning; warm; turquoise; aquamarine; tropical blue; island blue; exquisite.
Not to say the Indian Ocean isn’t all of those things… only, words begin to seem trite when used in such limited permutations.
The ocean here is truly a bevy of hues, none of them simply blue. When the tide is out, there is a short stretch of water a few shades lighter than teal, then a wide bay of deep and surprising periwinkle, tapering into indigo at the meeting point with the sky—azure fading to white. Throughout this vocabulary test of colors emerge hints of sea green (a color none can replicate, it is mined from the ocean depths to fill a gap between green and blue). And at the border between every pair lie colors without names, achingly beautiful blues never seen before that moment and never to appear again.
Everything changes with the sun, of course. In the rain, add a few shades of grey to every hue. In full sun, the color at the horizon brightens to sparkling sapphire. The faraway depths become a cobalt seasoned by saltwater. The shallows at high tide almost insist upon the label of “turquoise,” yet if you look very closely you will find each and every shade from the imperfect white of the surf to the navy-black of the shadows. And in-between, a spectrum of blues, named and unnamed, which, lacking more and better words, we call turquoise.
Are there other words for turquoise? Undoubtedly. Can any one of them truly describe the explosion of color that laps at these shores? Unlikely.

And so, I am back where I began, watching the warm, turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean recede with the tide. Any other words I chose would be equally insufficient.
Bonus: Massive double rainbow spotted last week!
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Africa, Nature, Poetry & Fiction

Before the Rains

We are at the very edge of the rainy season here in Kenya… This is what it feels like. (All photos taken yesterday at the Gede Ruins and nearby beach in Watamu.)


Before the rains come, the air grows thick—
Cough syrup thick
Wool hat thick
Toffee thick—
and clings to me like an extra layer of skin.

The heat becomes heavy—
Oppressive like chains
Lethargic like city traffic in the summertime
Slow like the honey melting of sunset—
Fattening itself on the waterless days, weeks and months.

Before the rains come, the animals appear—
One by one
Two by two—
Frogs and lizards, ants and spiders, and all manner of creatures seek shelter,
Dragging the storms behind them.

Palm fronds and mangrove branches sigh a warning in the waning breeze:
The rains will come
The skies will clear
The world will turn to water overnight.
These are the rains in which some civilizations have crumbled and others have risen, they murmur.

Before the rains come, the clouds gather to promise change—
Air thick like honey
Heat heavy like wool—

We hold our breath to hear them, hovering in wait for the gift of a new season.
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The Dhow

[The following is an adaptation of a piece I recently published at elephant journal, “Facing Fear in Handstand.” Or maybe the piece in elephant is an adaptation of this, as this is a near exact excerpt from my travel journal. Either way, enjoy!]


I swim to the Dhow—a traditional Arab/East African (/originally Chinese?!) sailing vessel—anchored in Kilifi Creek. I alternate between front and back crawl, and though it only takes a couple minutes, it feels much longer, as is always the case with swimming.

The Dhow (named musafir, Arabic for traveller) is unfinished. Three years in the making, the boat has a bit of work remaining. The deck boards wobble and gape in places.

The ship’s builder, a Frenchman with a feather in his dreads, is leaving when I arrive. I hoist myself up the rope ladder that dangles into the water, then he lets himself down into a waiting dingy.

Alone now, save for a snoozing workman at the bow, I make my way to a single plank of wood jutting out at the back of the boat and sit down. The four o’clock sun is still hot on my skin; it dries the seawater on my arms, leaving a salty film.

I think about jumping into the water, but delay a while yet. I watch, fascinated, the journey of a single fish. He looks like a seahorse stretched out flat: long, pointy snout, eyes on the side of his equestrian head, mint green and brown body, undersized blue tail fin. He plies the water two meters below my feet.

A dog barks from shore and reminds me I have something to do.

I probably stand on that wooden plank a full five minutes thinking. Thinking how I could just climb back down the rope ladder, but I won’t. Because I have something to prove. Not to anyone else—the small beach is deserted—but to myself. Thinking how I feel the need to jump off boats and bridges precisely because it scares me so.

Some people will always turn back to the rope ladder, but I am no longer one of them, I think. I have decided to be “fearless.” A better word, however, might be “fear-defying.” I refuse to abide by my fears.

I am thinking how fearlessness, or courage, rather, is not the absence of fear. It is doing things anyway. I hope I always will.

And I jump, of course. The water is warm-cool after the heat of the sun, and it rearranges itself effortlessly around my body.

And of course, the jump is a non-event. Nothing of note has happened, and yet I am pleased enough to write all about it. I swim back to shore with a smile on my face. It’s the little things, after all…

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Africa, Poetry & Fiction

That Sand in your Toes Feeling

Today was a gorgeous day at Diani Beach. For the first time in a long time, I felt poetry pushing at my fingertips. I hope it will transport you to where I am, if just for a moment…


You know that feeling
of sand slipping between
your toes
like silk ribbons,
so soft and yielding
you could almost
sink your heels to the center
of the earth?
Take my hand,
and follow me there.
Kick off your shoes here—
Yes, here at the edge—
you won’t need them.
Squint a little
against the glare—
white white sand too bright
to look at.
Where the sand forms
miniature dunes
in the shifting wind.
Before the damp, packed
floor of high tide.
Just there—
Try on a pair of sand slippers
for size.
Material so fine
it will hug every millimeter
of your toenails
and soothe your soles
like nothing before.
Dig deeper,
and feel the cool gasp
of another layer,
untouched by the sun.
Drink the salt breeze
in your hair.
Stay as long as you like.
Watch the waves carry
blown glass jellyfish
and green sea tangle
In and away.
When you’re ready,
brush off your feet with
sandpaper fingers,
and put your shoes back on.
Shade your eyes
for one last look
at that sand between your toes feeling.
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