Tuesday, September 18, 2007

VOSS Water Gone Sour

When traveling, water can be trouble. Today I learned that having a bottle of VOSS water in your bag could be serious trouble. In its cylindrical glass container, VOSS water is not only artesian, but also trendy and overpriced. I only had a bottle because it was complementary at the Radisson SAS in Cape Town. Handling a bottle of VOSS is evocative of Nicholas Cage disarming a biological weapon in “The Rock,” and removing it from a carry-on bag is nearly as tenuous and poignant a moment.

“Sir, what’s in your bag?” An attendant asks after my boarding pass has already been flagged, and my South African entry stamps are off. “Did you arrive into the country on a domestic flight?” Pause – how is this possible to enter the country on a domestic flight. “No,” I reply. But little did I know that my VOSS water was speaking louder than I.

In a series of unlikely and incompetent mishaps, I managed my way through security. When I disposed of my VOSS water after downing it in one glorious and pricey quaff, I caused alarm when it clanked into the recycle bin. “Sir, what did you do with that container?” Recycled it, of course. Aparently despite my green shirt and green intentions, this was a bad move. I was questioned for five more minutes.

Cape Town Delight

Cape Town began inauspiciously with a lost bag in JoBurg. Known as “Gangsters Paradise” because of its organized crime and License Plate code of “GP,” this was not the place to lose a suitcase. Thanks to a discerning South African Airways oficial, I managed to get my bag forwarded onto Cape Town only 2 hours late.

When I arrived I saw my sign and driver waiting. First things first, I learn that he’s my VIP escort, and he’s been shot four times. Yes, four times, and stabbed five times. As his client, I’m a disappointing precursor to his next, a man by the name of Bill Gates.

He had a sturdy walk, and a head that pivoted like an owl’s. He was circumspect and cool behind dark sunglasses, and he escorted me to our vehicle through the night. His vigilence stirred concern. Was this seriously necessary after Dar es Salaam?

He checked me into my waterfront room, and was back at 8am to retrieve me with an earpiece, and a touring agenda. After a jaunt and coffee in the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, we embarked for Cape Point. On the way we spotted numerous whales offshore, stopped to admire penguins in Boulders, and walked around Simon’s Town. Once to Cape Point, I hiked to the lighthouse, and we took snaps aside the signs for the Cape of Good Hope. On return we passed around the other side of Table Mountain, took a stroll on Long Street in downtown, and took a coffee and a Wimpy burger on the edge of Cape Town’s largest township. “Best coffee in Cape Town,” he claims.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

South Africa Bound

While my routed flight from Dar es Salaam to JoBurg will be exciting, as it allows daytime cruising over Mozambique, it puts me into Cape Town just past 2200, an hour late for the Twenty20 World Cup at the world-famous Cape Town grounds. A point of jealousy with my Indian friends, my serendipitous timing is but slightly off, but enough to preclude the possibility of a Twenty20 match.

Perhaps it means I’ll have to wait until 2010 for a South African World Cup, football rather than cricket, a preferable swap according to predilection and patience.

Mchopa On Board

After completing his website in DreamWeaver, we took the MacBook Pro to Mchopa and his streetside art shop. We displayed the eponymous Mchopa, the gallery, the story, the integration of online media, and the availability to purchase via Google Checkout. After a quick interview with Gregory about his inspiration, to be incorporated into the website, we popped the nails on over 30 canvas paintings, stacked and rolled the masterpieces, and packed them like a textured roll of Masai sushi.

Gregory Mchopa is prolific, and he is talented. We’re going to give this a go with the 50 initial paintings for which we covered his materials. He is risking time and effort; we are risking our faith in his ability and a modicum of cash. A minor barrier to entry, the investment is worth the opportunity of bringing East African art to the United States with online facility, and ease of purchase through Google Checkout. Plus it’s fun.

Tutaonana TechnoServe

Saturday marked my final day as a TechnoServe and Google.org consultant in the “Believe, Begin, Become,” business plan competition in Tanzania. A four-hour morning panel with those members of the ICT group, and an afternoon lecture on leveraging the Internet, left me with mixed feelings. Sadness, relief, and a profound hope that some of my ideas and messages had stuck.

I gave my microphone thank you to the 75 entrepreneurs, and was subsequently struck by their warmth and appreciation. Though I had direct one-on-one consulting sessions with over 20 entrepreneurs, double that number came to personally thank me for my time and journey. One woman asked that God’s angels protect me, while many others wanted to give their regards to my family. Some came with firm handshakes, and others with business cards. Flashes popped, and conversations circled. Some came with last-minute hopes that I could solve a persistant problem. Others simply wanted to say thanks and ask when I’d return to East Africa. Many wanted my impressions.

Opportunities are ripe in Africa. Infrastructure is less and standards are perhaps lower, but the very strengths of America engender market saturation. African problems can be seen as weaknesses, or as market opportunities. Entrepreneurs, like those inspiring, ambitious individuals whom I met in Tanzania, will fill those gaps so long as they have knowledge to create, and the investors who believe in their abilities.

An Uncommon Group

On Saturday night we convened for an unlikely meeting of lives. Issac invited a number of us over to his home for dinner in Dar es Salaam. Our taxi bounced slowly over the potholed road, leading down darkened dirt paths toward Issac’s home. Only our headlights illuminated the hollowed holes and shadows of the road, each beam darting through the dark night to illuminate coming switchbacks.

When we arrived at Issac’s place we made our way from the road. Down the street a radio crackled and the exuberant voices of children made the dark comfortable. A few lights buzzed outside crumbled concrete walls, and plastic lawn chairs made for luxury furniture, or at least evening comfort. White paint curled on the concrete walls, and a thin gray revealed a structure beneath a faded aesthetic.

We limboed a clothesline and made our way through the colorful linens and jeans, over a rocky concrete floor toward Issac’s door. Aside it was mounted a poster featuring his roommate’s sister, a famous Tanzanian actress now working in Mauritius. My sister also used to live in Mauritius, so solidarity is easy to find. David posed aside his sister, giggling with a huge smile above his broad national team rugby-shoulders.

We entered a room with a smooth, cool floor, and pillows tossed in four corners. “Lost” was on DVD, and Shanaia Twain echoed from the back bedroom from an antiquated tower CPU and clunky monitor. We met David’s girlfriend, admired their traditional pencil art, their 15 pairs of shoes, and Spice Girls poster, and smelled the wafting scent of dinner. Beef, Kilimanjaro beers, and chiapati bread was served. I felt like I was home in India. We turned off "Lost," lost in conversation.

Our unlikely group grew and changed. Paul, a consultant in his late 60s who had grown up in China, Tanzania, and Boston, Josh and I, Americans at 24, Manu, a German, and four 20s-30s Tanzanians sat reclined in a Dar es Salaam living room. Conversation remained in English, but was punctuated by Swahili and smiles, for the former always drives the latter. Beers marked the hours, and we exchanged stories until 2am. Issac showed me a photoalbum of his life, asked me for Berkeley MBA advice, and allowed me to pick from a series of Batik fabrics that would become my shirts.

At the end of the night we told our “Asantes” and performed a number of stylized handshakes specific to East Africa. I have a feeling I’ll see these guys again somewhere.


Few places in the world captivate us with a flavor and aesthetic, a comfort and a beauty that makes us yearn for return. Zanzibar does. Unlike any other place I’ve seen, Zanzibar has a vibrance that brings culture, color, history, and religion to life.

The second day of Ramadan, we arrived by charter plane in Zanzibar from Dar es Salaam. For $50 each way, we hopped a 12-seater that crossed the narrow channel between mainland Africa and the former Omani slave-trading island of Zanzibar.

Evocative of the Middle East, Africa, and a Johnny Depp pirate film, Zanzibar is as exotic as they come. Palm fringed, green-water beaches curl their way around the island. Dolphins jump offshore. The call to prayer echos through the aged, historical streets of Stonetown while men in white shuffle to and from the mosque. A tourist melange ambles through the colorful streets, but the culture is untarnished. Arab dhows idly drift as white silhouettes on a blue-green horizon. Doorways into unknown worlds are framed by intricately carved Zanzibari wood. Beards, vibrant hijabs, jewels, crooked teeth and big smiles, deep green foliage, and dirt roads paint life outside of our car windows.

“Shukran” and “salaam” are as common as” Jambo” and “Mambo,” as the Arabic legacy lives now mixed with the Swahili coast trading language. In Zanzibar we incorporated my patented bargain-your-way-to-the-most-expensive-resort-and-use-their-concierge strategy. We taxid for $1 under par, and entered the lobby at the Serena Hotel. We booked a Spice Tour, and tour of the former Slave Caves on the Northwest coast. An all-day expedition, we paid $35 for a private car around the island.

Our Spice Tour took us to an authentic local village. As we ambled our way through the huts, callling “Jambo” out to smaller, smiling faces, we were able to see a number of spice plants. From cloves to ginger to pepper to cinamon to menthol to nutmeg to vanilla to tumeric to lemongrass, we crushed the leaves of each plant and learned of its scent. Most spectacular was the cinnamon bark. A knife to cinnamon bark revealed Ruby Red and a craving for cinnamon gum, or at least a bite of the bark. The root of the cinnamon tree has a menthol scent.

Magical, encapsulated in time and color, Zanzibar is truly incredible.