All posts by Tracy

Nighttime in Bukoba

The night outside my window is alive with sounds: crickets, night birds, a television from someone’s room, laughter from somewhere down below, and just now, a somnolent call to prayer. But underlying all of that, booming, throbbing from every direction, comes the sound of drums. Big, deep bass drums and a smaller backbeat, accompanied by big voices, harmonizing, and laughter, and the occasional joyful ululating cry of a woman, a virtual soundtrack from a Hollywood production of Africa.

It’s been like this every night since I arrived, my mind filled with warnings from well-meaning friends of the dangers of the African darkness. My first night here, I lay in my bed, my mind filled with images of what must be out there: I imaged some sort of primal ritual involving bare-chested, sweaty people beating giant tom-toms around fires. I sensed that something very tribal was going on, and that I needed to be a part of it.

I was torn. As a journalist, I know very well that the best stories lay on the other side of my fears. On the other hand, I had been warned that it wasn’t safe for a woman to be outside at night. I wasn’t quite sure what it was I was supposed to be afraid of: man-sized mosquitoes waiting to inject me with malaria serum or serial killers hanging out behind trees waiting to grab unsuspecting mzungus (the Swahili word for white people, of which there are very few in these parts).

I had hurried back to the hotel after the Internet café closed at dusk, trying to beat the clouds of mosquitoes that supposedly came out after dark here. As I stepped out onto the street, I noticed people everywhere – men, women, old people, children – probably heading quickly to the safety of their homes, I imagined. But they were not hurrying. It was quite dark when I arrived, and the mosquitoes never materialized.

Later, as I lay huddled in my bed under my mosquito net, listening to the commotion all around us, I ridiculed myself. I realized that probably the only people in town who were locked inside were Paula and me. I longed to go out and follow those drumbeats, to see where they led. But I didn’t yet know more than a handful of words in Swahili – enough to say “how are you,” “very well,” and “thank you,” but not enough to say “get away from me.”

Besides, Paula had offered to take me to a Catholic sunrise service, and she would be knocking at 6 a.m. So prudence being the better part of valor, as they say, I slept fitfully until just before dawn, when the drumbeat died away. My second night I worked until midnight writing stories from the previous two days. I didn’t imagine that, it being Sunday, a similar commotion would arise.

I was wrong. I felt the inexorable force of curiosity pull me out of my bedroom and I found myself asking Judith and Mulungi, the girls in the reception, about the noise.

“It is the night clubs,” Judith said, apologetically. “It is bothering you?”

“Actually,” I said, “I was thinking I’d like to go. What do you think? Is it safe?”

“You want to go?” The girls examined me incredulously, and then burst into peals of laughter.

“You want to go dancing?”

A rapid-fire exchange in Swahili between the two ensued. The next thing I knew, Judith was leading me by the hand into Lundi’s Night Club. Past a lineup of police on motorcycles, apparently keeping the peace. Through a cluster of men, a few of whom eyed me curiously but said nothing.

The place was packed. A Tanzanian blend between hip-hop and reggae, with some modern African beat mixed in, pounded the air from giant speakers; light flashed from slowly rotating disco balls, flickering on the faces of the dancers. The entire nightclub, it seemed, was a pulsating dance floor.

Judith held tight to my hand and steadily wove her way through the crowd to the back, where the wall was lined with sofas and a friend greeted her. Nelson was his name, and he flashed a brilliant smile, shook my hand warmly and invited us to sit. He was a short young man, but what he lacked in stature he more than made up for in style. He was oddly but carefully dressed, in a collared button-down shirt trimmed in brown fake fur, a Rolex-style watch over one long sleeve and a brown knit cap on his head. I invited the two of them to a “Kili” (slang for Kilimanjaro, the popular Tanzanian beer) and they happily accepted. At 1,500 shillings a bottle, it wasn’t something they indulged in very often, I could tell.

As I looked around the dance floor, I noticed several people had brought in their own drinks – boxes of mango juice from the nearby duka (convenience shop) seemed to be the most common. Smoking was not allowed, so the air was clear.

I settled in to take in the crowd; in most ways, it could have been a subdued and less racy version of a U.S. nightclub. The dancers were all conservatively and respectably dressed, and the dance moves were graceful and in some cases joyful, but much less suggestive than what I’d witnessed earlier this year in a Padre Island nightclub.

It was, to be frank, a little disappointing. I had hoped to find a live band, African drummers, some authentic remnant of the traditional culture. Instead, I found an all-black version of American Bandstand.

No matter. I determined to settle in and observe the crowd. As with birdwatching, one must be patient in the observation of nightlife, and one’s patience is often rewarded.

Judith invited me to dance, and I agreed. I was the only white person in the club, perhaps in the history of the club, but nobody stared. I was within inches of other dancers, but nobody touched. One young man caught my eye and invited me to dance, and I looked the other way; my refusal was accepted with good grace, and he moved on.

What a contrast to my experiences in nightclubs in Latin America, where a blonde woman without a male companion is guaranteed an occasionally overwhelming stream of piropos – catcalls, compliments and persistent pleading invitations. Here I sensed the palpable protection of respect.

We made our way back to our spot on the sofa, where Nelson invited me to dance. I looked at Judith and she urged me on with a smile. I insisted that she join us. Soon Nelson was showing off his fanciest moves. It didn’t take long to observe that Nelson had his own style – more Diana Ross than John Travolta, and it dawned on me that we were in very safe hands with Nelson.

I began matching his twirls and flourishes and felt an exuberant laugh bubbling up from deep inside. I was in the middle of nowhere, Africa, dancing with my hotel’s receptionist and a gay man, and we were all having the time of our lives.

Suddenly, a serious-looking man came up to Judith and pulled her aside. She’d been trying to reach a friend on her cell phone since we were back at the hotel; it seems this was him.

She came back and continued dancing, though less animated than before. Finally she tapped my shoulder. “Tracy, let’s go,” she said, grabbing my hand rather abruptly.

“OK,” I said, waving a quick goodbye to Nelson, and we were working our way back through the pulsating crowd. “What’s wrong? Is there a problem?” I asked, fearing that I’d been oblivious to some sort of menace, or had somehow overstepped my bounds. Was my dress too revealing? My dance too free?

“No, no problem.”

“Is your boyfriend upset?”

We were out in the parking lot now, and the boyfriend was waiting, unsmiling, at the edge.

“He’s my husband, actually … but it’s ok.”

I was shocked – she didn’t look old enough to have a husband. But then, I had to remind myself, this was Africa.

“Please tell him it was my fault, Judith. I don’t want him to be angry with you because of me. Tell him I needed your help, that I am doing research for a newspaper article…” It sounded lame, even to me. He launched into her with a barrage of Swahili. She tried to defend herself – I heard the words “gazeti” (newspaper) and “ingereza” (English).

“Tell him I am so grateful to you,” I said. “Tell him that I said you behaved as a perfect princess.”

She tried to suppress a smile and she translated, but he didn’t budge.

I intervened with every apologetic word or phrase I knew: “pole pole, (sorry sorry)” “pole sana (very sorry),” and “samahani (pardon me),” which usually produced a smile – but he wouldn’t even look at me. It was clear that nothing would assuage him. Finally Judith shook her head and grabbed my hand.

“Let’s go,” she said, and we headed back to the hotel. “Tanzanian men,” she muttered on our way back. “You see what we have to live with? They don’t understand that you can just go to a nightclub and have fun with your friends. He thinks it’s something bad.”

Back at the hotel, I apologized profusely. Judith shook her head.

“He is fine,” she said. “I’m glad I went. Everything will be ok, don’t worry.”

The next morning at the reception, Judith was her usual reserved, professional self. Nobody asked me about the nightclub. It was as if it had never happed.

But that night, when the drums began, I smiled. I now knew what was behind the sounds, and I wasn’t afraid. For the first time since I’d arrived, I slept like a baby. And for the rest of my time in Bukoba, day or night, I came and went as I pleased.

Aventura en Potrero Chico

POTRERO CHICO, Nuevo Leon, Mexico – Less than half an hour from the crowded metropolis of Monterrey, the mountains rise in a spectacular series of limestone peaks that have come to be known as a world-class climbing destination. It started as a municipal park with a swimming pool and barbecue pits, but it didn’t take long for climbers to discover the pitted limestone face of these towering walls.

EROCK
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 Today at the base of the mountains there’s a cluster of businesses catering to the climbers from as far away as Australia and Japan. We chose the cozy Posada Potrero, a picturesque retreat with houses and rooms for rent, grassy places to pitch a tent under the trees, a commodious pool with hammocks and a big communal kitchen that at night becomes a lively community of climbers from all over the world.

We arrived at about 6 p.m., leaving San Antonio at 9:30 a.m. and stopping at the border to buy Mexican car insurance and get car and tourist permits. We’d seen the mountains for an hour or more on the approach, but the hazy blue in the distance gave little clue as to what we’d find: a dramatic series of vertically layered cliffs, pointing heavenward like vast curtains of limestone. I couldn’t imagine myself scaling them, ever. But German and Marco had promised me there were beginner climbs, so I didn’t panic.

There was time for one climb before dinner, so we packed our gear and made our way up to the area known as the Wonder Wall. It was so tall and so vertical that my neck ached from watching German make his way up, leading the way in placing the rope at the very top to secure us as we climbed. I tried not to think too much about it as I stepped into my harness and borrowed shoes.

Unlike Enchanted Rock, where I first learned to climb, Potrero Chico is a sport climbing site, where thousands of routes have been marked and bolted. The bolt fastens a hanger, or a steel loop, that allows a climber to insert a hook attached to his rope, securing his way as he goes.

German had reached an impasse in the climb, and he was retracing his steps to seek another way. I couldn’t see how on earth he was going to make it to the next hanger; it was two body-lengths up a sheer wall, even for a giant like German.

“This doesn’t seem like a beginner’s pitch to me,” I countered. “It doesn’t seem like there’s a way up.”

“There’s always a way,” Marco said, as German felt his way along the wall. “It’s just a puzzle, and you have to figure it out.”

Figure it out he did, and the next up was me. Face to face with the rock, I found my friends’ words to be true. This stone yields its secrets to those who persist. I climbed five pitches during my three days here, working my way up to a 5.9, an advanced beginner pitch, and this with an arm injured in my previous week’s beginner climb.

My guides were Andres and Karla, two young climbers from Monterrey who seemed as much at home on a rock face 100 feet up as they did on the ground. Andres began climbing at 12, and by the age of 19 had scaled most of Potrero as well as Argentina’s Aconcagua, the second tallest peak in the Americas. Karla, at 27, is the single mother of Samadhi, a winsome 6-year-old who carries her climbing gear in a little pink pack decorated with teddy bears. Samadhi’s name is taken from the Hindi word for enlightened consciousness, or, as her mother says, concentracion — an appropriate appellation for a child who began learning to climb before she learned to walk.

With the same care that she coaxed her young daughter up the limestone wall, Karlita coached me up a 5.8 and halfway up a 5.9, meaning I’ve progressed to the level of advanced beginner.

Samadhi and her mother taught me a great deal. After our day on the wall, I feel I’m coming to a sharper focus and a greater mastery of my fear — poco a poco.

Climbing is about more than having a good time, as Karla taught me. It can change your life.

Rite of Passage at ERock

ENCHANTED ROCK STATE PARK – Deep in the canyon between the two pink granite domes that give this place its name, there’s a world parallel to the one most of its thousands of visitors see.

Jamie McNally and Kit Garcia, two veteran climbers from Austin, were my guides into the world of the climber, where this place is known as ERock. Climbing is a pastime I’ve been eyeing from a distance over the years, with various friends inviting me to accompany them. I’d always wanted to; I’d just never had the time. But now, as I approach the five-decade mark, I realize there’s no time left to procrastinate. It’s never going to get any easier. I’m never going to have any more time than I do right now. So I dropped my friend Jamie a line. And now, as I stood in borrowed climbing shoes, harness and rope, facing this near-vertical slab of granite, there was no going back.

A rope stretched from the knot at my waist, upward to an anchor somewhere beyond my view, and back down again to Kit’s waist. She was belaying me, pulling in the slack as I climbed, and gradually letting it loose as I worked my way down. She’d be my counterweight if I fell. Still, while the rope provided safety and psychological comfort, it wasn’t to be used as a climbing aid. For that, it was just me and the rock. 

“You guys have heard about gravity, right?” I quipped, tipping my head back to assess the situation and stalling for time.

“These shoes are anti-gravity devices,” Kit reassured me. “You’ll see. It’ll be easy!”

I heard a titter behind me and looked back. A girl and a boy, both under the age of 10, awaited their turn. Great. Now I had no excuses.

“But… where do I put my feet? I mean, there are no stairs here,” I pointed out, somewhat lamely.

“Here, you can start with your left foot here. Then you swing your right foot up to this ledge,” Jamie pointed to a tiny black knob protruding from the pink granite. “It’s huge!”

I wondered if my eyes were deceiving me. Nonetheless, I placed a tentative foot on the left ledge and another on the right, holding with my hands onto the rock in front of me for dear life. But there was nowhere to go from there. I was sure that if I lifted one of my feet, I’d slide down the face of the rock, shredding my exposed skin. I was stuck.

“Once you get up just a little further, it’s easy,” encouraged Jamie.

The onlookers urged me on. Clearly, I had become the center of a spectacle. There was no way to go but up.

I saw another place to step up, but only by using my right knee – a no-no for a climber, and I quickly discovered why as I left layers of skin on the rock. But I had gained ground. And suddenly, I realized he was right. The shoes were holding me fast to the rough face of the rock. I saw another ledge further up, then another, and soon I was clambering up like a 5-year-old.

“You’re a natural!” Jamie called up to me, encouragingly. “Keep on going!”

I stopped to catch my breath and looked down. Below me, Kit, the kids and their father cheered me on. Above me was Jamie, who had shimmied up by another route and was waiting for me at the top.

Gradually, as I began to relax and trust the magic shoes – and more importantly, my body’s intuition – I began to notice something strange. Gravity didn’t have quite as much power over me as I’d thought it had. It didn’t feel quite so absolute. I worked my way up to where Jamie awaited like a proud coach, snapping photos of my first baby steps as a climber.

“You know what?” I gasped, taking my eyes from the rock to look up at him for a moment. “My body’s not as heavy as I thought it was!”

That’s not to say it was easy. The next route we climbed, called “Jacknife,” was more than twice as tall as the first one and required negotiating an inwardly sloping wall. Jamie coached me to straighten my legs and lean back, keeping my body’s weight over my feet.  Fear of falling generates a tendency to hug the rock, which paradoxically causes the body’s center of gravity to shift forward, taking weight off the feet. This makes your feet more likely to slip out from under you. You have to let go of the fear to let your body work with the rock.

It was perched on a tiny shelf of rock atop the Jacknife, breathless, bloodied and bruised, that I began to understand why people endure what they do to enter this world. I looked across the canyon at the tourists toiling up the side of the main dome’s gentle slope and realized I had changed. What had once seemed a perfectly lovely, even strenuous outing climbing the dome now seemed — well, pedestrian. For a brief instant, I had become one with the rock. Now I realized that nothing would ever be the same.

Exhilaration!
Exhilaration!

From prayers to profits in Tanzania

ITHAWA VILLAGE, Lake Victoria Region, Tanzania — It was during a brief respite in a drenching downpour that Jonia Pastori greeted us, huddled under our umbrellas in the schoolyard. She beamed with pride, seemingly oblivious to the rivulets streaming down her face.

For the children who clustered around her, on break from classes, it was time for tea – the only sustenance that most of them would have until they went home. For Jonia, it was time to do business.

The children lingered as long as they could, taking in the spectacle of two blonde-haired mzungus, or white people, taking pictures and speaking in a strange language. Finally their teacher appeared to usher them back to the classroom, leaving Jonia to tell her story – a story that winds its way back to San Antonio, Texas, and an extraordinary network of women created there.

Keep an eye on the San Antonio Express-News SA Life section for the full story. For those readers who don’t have access to the print edition, I’ll post the link here.

No Brad Pitt for Galveston

Galveston’s gearing up for a big Memorial Day weekend celebration, and they’ve given it a name that reflects the resiliency of this island’s hardy inhabitants: Re-Birth Day.

Construction crews are a common sight throughout Galveston.
Construction crews are a common sight throughout Galveston.

It’s been only seven months since the third worst storm in the nation’s history walloped this small island city, leaving smelly water standing chest-high in the grand centenary Tremont Hotel, the colorful Victorian-style homes and the historic Strand district. Signs of the devastation are everywhere, from the blown-off front of a hotel to the leafless live oaks lining Seawall Boulevard.

Just this week, the National Trust for Historic Places named Galveston’s Historic Strand District one of America’s Most Endangered Places. It seems the cast iron frames supporting one of the largest historic commercial districts in the nation were already vulnerable due to the corrosive influence of the salty, humid air. The onslaught of Ike and the subsequent flooding of the area has placed the structures in imminent danger of collapse, according to the group’s preservation experts.

But just as surely are the signs of renewal: scaffolding and new siding going up on a beach house, a new fence around a newly rehabbed Victorian, a new cafe on the Strand, a new pier going up where The Balinese Room and Murdoch’s once jutted out into the Gulf. Fresh paint is everywhere; the painted ladies on Post Office Street practically jump up onto the sidewalk with their vivacious yellows and blues and pinks. And the beach, which had been scraped away by the force of the waves, is back; a beach reconstruction or “nourishment project” was completed along three quarters of the Gulf Coast before taking a break for the nesting season of the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles who make their homes here.

RoShelle Gaskins, the city’s tourism coordinator, takes us on an upbeat city tour, starting us out along the Seawall. This 10.5-mile barrier is home to the nation’s largest sidewalk, she informs me. More importantly, it protects the city from the vicious wall of water that a hurricane can bring. It was built by the survivors of the devastating 1900 hurricane that nearly wiped Galveston off the map, and it saved the island from this one. That hurricane, which killed over 6,000 people, is still on the books as the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. But even as devastating a blow as that one couldn’t keep Galvestonians down. So it was a foregone conclusion that Ike wouldn’t, either.

“We love this place; we’re connected to it,” explained Gaskins. “We don’t mind having to pick ourselves up again. It’s just a part of life.”

Still, the storm’s impact weighs heavily on the city’s residents. And it hurts to consider how much less national attention Galveston has received than post-Katrina New Orleans, where church groups, volunteers and celebrities flocked to lend a hand. Some volunteers have come to help out with the rebuilding effort, but nothing on the scale of New Orleans. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush have raised $2.2 million to help with the coastal recovery efforts since Ike, just a tiny fraction of the $130 million they raised after Katrina.

“People keep asking us, ‘Why don’t you call some celebrities?’ We have – but they don’t respond. They don’t want the burden of having to respond to every storm now.”

She’d had her hopes pinned on Houston native Beyonce, whose family hails from Galveston. But her sole benefit concert benefited only Houston.

There’s another factor, too, she added. The same week that Ike battered the Gulf coast, the nation’s first black candidate was chosen to lead the Democratic ticket, and the biggest bank bailout in the nation’s history took place.

Meanwhile, Galveston rolled up its sleeves and got to work. “We didn’t sit there and cry; we just got up and did what we had to do.”

Trials and Tributaries in the Big Thicket

A kayaker can easily lose her way in the labyrinth of the Big Thicket's cypress-tupelo swamps. (Tracy L. Barnett photo)
A kayaker can easily lose her way in the labyrinth of the Big Thicket's cypress-tupelo swamps. (Tracy L. Barnett photo)

BIG THICKET NATIONAL PRESERVE —Ranger Leslie Dubey lifted a paddle and dipped it into the still brown waters, her kayak gliding as noiselessly as the great blue heron that just slid across our path in these cypress-tupelo sloughs.

Two decades spent probing this once-impenetrable wilderness and interpreting it for visitors have made Leslie a true Big Thicket denizen. So naturally, when I followed her into the bayou on a sunny Saturday in March, I left the navigation to her and focused on the scenery, alternately shooting photos of the ancient trees and glassy water and trying to keep up. I was mindful of the danger for my cameras should I hit a snag and tip overboard, but the risk of personal danger had not yet occurred to me.

 Soon enough, it would.

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A misty morning at Indian Springs Campground
A misty morning at Indian Springs Campground
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