East Africa and England, August 2001: The Game Traveller|
Updated August 31, 2001
|Special Report: Contest Results added November 1, 2001. See bottom of page.|
A shuttle to the airport, an early check-in, lunch at a nearby hotel - it's gotten to be a pretty smooth routine that I can follow without thinking. I suppose the hotel's driver feels the same way about his job. After lunch, I ask the front desk clerk for a ride back to the airport. She calls the driver on the intercom and asks, "can you make an airport run?"
From somewhere outside he replies, "sure," then hops in the van and takes off, leaving me at the front desk. It will be a half hour before he realizes that this was a run to the airport, not from. The hotel has another van and driver, and he gets me to the gate with plenty of time to spare. Paul shows up with considerably less time to spare, arriving at the gate just as I'm heading down the jetway, but that's close enough for British Airways.
As usual, the next step in the routine is a day-long nap at the Gatwick Hilton. Officially, days rooms are not available until 9:00am, but I've never been refused even when arriving before 6 - until now. Ilsa, the She-Wolf of Hilton International, explains:
We spend some time deciding what to do. The Meridian Hotel is in the other terminal, much more expensive, and probably just as full as the Hilton, so we decide against checking there. There's not much to do but sit and wait, and since Ilsa has guaranteed us that we won't get a minute's break on the availability, we'll have to wait for the stroke of nine when we can turn the tables and demand our rooms. Sitting at a table full of food is more inviting than sitting in the lobby, so we head downstairs to the restaurant. We're not particularly hungry, but there's nothing else to do at Gatwick airport at 6 in the morning, so we sit down to a hearty English breakfast. It's not a memorable meal (other than for its exorbitant price), but we manage to use nearly an hour with little scenes like this:
I do a little shopping while Paul strolls around outside, then we meet at the front desk for check-in at 9:00 sharp. The rooms are ready, and so are we.
In the evening we have a fine meal at the Meridian hotel (having spent quite enough on food at the Hilton), then board the plane. I have a bulkhead seat which gives me the little bit of extra legroom that my 6'5" 300lb. frame needs. My seat is by the window, and the middle and aisle seats are occupied by fellows of similar height and weight. The one in the middle obviously has a finely-tuned sense of humor: he offers to trade seats with me. I also have a sense of humor, so I laugh.
I skip most airline meals, but at the end of a nine-hour flight I'm ready to brave a shrink-wrapped chef's surprise. Shortly before landing, breakfast is served. The juice and tea are welcome, as is a small muffin, but whose idea was an egg, mayonnaise, cheese, and mushroom sandwich? I return mine intact.
Paul and I fill out visa application forms on the plane. Paul amuses my companions by coming down the aisle to ask me, "why are we going to Nairobi?" Of course, his completely rational motive is to ensure that we both write the same phrase next to PURPOSE OF VISIT on our forms, but several passengers near me chuckle at this question all the way to the ground.
When the plane comes to a stop, we three king-sized guys pry ourselves out of our seats, congratulate each other on surviving the flight, and then vow never to set eyes on each other again. Paul and I wait while nearly every other bag on the plane is unloaded before ours appear on the luggage belt. During the wait, Paul meets some neighbors who are going on a safari; they'll be leaving Nairobi shortly, so we won't have a chance to see them again, at least not in Africa.
A taxi takes us to the Safari Club where we're warmly welcomed by the staff, who have come to know us rather well. We make a little polite conversation, but since I have gotten no sleep on the plane (as usual), and Paul has gotten very little (rather unusual), we quickly make our way to our rooms and fall fast asleep. In the evening we have dinner at the ground-floor restaurant, discuss our plans for the next day, and then turn in for the night.
I'm well rested after sleeping most of yesterday, and since I didn't eat much on the flights, I'm looking forward to a big breakfast. My first challenge of the morning is my door: the chain refuses to budge. After a few minutes of struggling, I manage to apply my entire bulk toward forcing the chain out of its slot, and I'm free to leave the room. When I explain why I'm a few minutes late, Paul tells me this will be an interesting item for my travel page. You be the judge.
After breakfast we're off to see Andrew. As usual, his computers are crying out for my attention, so I spend the day working on them while he and Paul discuss ACEG-WILMA strategy. It's a relief to see that the staff has been taking reasonable care of the machines -- keeping the virus protection up-to-date and so forth -- so I only have to figure out a few rather obscure problems rather than overhaul the entire operating system.
After I finish with the computers, I join the strategy discussion, not that I have much to contribute on the subject. I'm reasonably alert thanks to yesterday's naps, but jet lag and Lariam are taking their toll on Paul, and his energy level is visibly declining. Andrew is making a number of serious points that contrast with Paul's original plan for the partnership. He finds it useful to make them in my direction even though the message is clearly directed at Paul. Eventually the discussion winds up, and Paul and I return to the Safari Club.
Paul gets some much-needed sleep and then a few laps in the pool. I make a run to the local internet cafe and attend to some work before we dine at the Inter-Continental Hotel. While I'm online, I take a minute to check the status of our contest entries; Paul and I are entered in the Fantasy Composer Contest conducted by Washington's classical music radio station, WGMS, and I've scored pretty well -- although haven't won any prizes -- with my team, The Academy of Saint-Martin-in-the-Grave (somewhat abbreviated on the official webpages due to name length restrictions). Paul's team, PachBach, ShuChop, & HumperWag, consistently appears near the bottom of the standings. I have three other teams entered as well: Moot Counterpoint, One cellist short of a septet, and No Soap. If you're interested, you can track the progress of all our entries (and even enter a team of your own) for a few more weeks at the WGMS website, www.wgms.com.
Paul has some strategic work to pursue with ACEG this morning that doesn't involve me, so I'm free to get some computer work done. I redraft some pages for DIT and write my travel report, then head down to the internet cafe. Response times are terrible, and the connection fails so frequently that I give up and walk to another nearby cafe. The results are the same, and the staff inform me that all of Nairobi is experiencing an internet slowdown. I manage to upload my little travel report and update one page of the WILMA site, but the files for DIT are too large, and I cannot transfer even one of them without losing my connection. The connection is functioning just barely well enough for me to check the progress of the WGMS contest. One of my teams has found a place on the "favorite names" ballot, so I send out mail suggesting that my friends "vote early and often." I encourage all my readers to do the same!
When I return to my room, the staff have cleaned it as usual. They have also cleaned my ThinkPad. Cleaning a ThinkPad is easy: just wipe a damp towel across the surface. I've left mine open with the keyboard exposed, so that's the surface they've wiped.
The TrackPointer is missing. That's a small button in the middle of the keyboard that acts like a mouse. It's often called a "cat tongue" because of its rough surface which lets the user get a grip on it with his fingertip. The rough surface also adheres to fabrics, and I surmise that a single stroke of a damp towel must have whisked mine away. A search of the desk and floor reveals nothing, so it must have been lost in the vacuum cleaner or laundry. I carry two ThinkPads with me, with the second one accompanying me just in case of emergency, so this emergency was remedied with a quick transplant.
In the afternoon I join Paul at ACEG, and we get some more work done on our partnership. Aside from our common interest, each organization also has its own distinct agenda, and it takes some time to figure out how we're going to balance our diverse objectives. We make good progress, and we're happily surprised to hear that Dunstan will be joining us tomorrow.
After our meeting, Paul and I feel the full effects of jet lag and fatigue grinding us down. It's a bit unusual for me to feel this way two full days after the flight, but I can hardly keep my eyes open as we walk back to the hotel. We both turn in for late afternoon naps - probably the first I've taken since I was a child - and get up in time for dinner at the Grand Regency, which is my choice since I have a craving for iced tea. They remember me and my recipe, and serve me two tall, perfect glasses. It seems I've effected "change on the ground," as Paul always likes to say.
Most of the day is spent with Paul, Dunstan, and me meeting with Andrew and others at the ACEG office to discuss the ACEG/WILMA strategy. As the morning wears on, Andrew proposes going to an Indian restaurant for lunch; I balk politely. One of the other participants suggests Chinese, and the group finds itself in concensus for the first time today. A reservation is made for 12:30; we finally break and walk to the restaurant after 1:00, but our table is still waiting for us. I note with some trepidation that the person who suggested this restaurant has excused himself from lunch at the last minute.
Eating habits among this group are varied, and we have some lively conversation and make some jokes while deciding on what to order. We tease the waitress and probably annoy some of the other patrons as well, but what can you expect when Paul and Dunstan wind up at the same table? The menu features a number of appealing items, and when they arrive they live up to their promising descriptions in taste, presentation, and size. A large whole fish is the lone minor exception: its division among several of our group requires serving techniques I last observed in Quest for Fire, but I'm told that it was tasty nonetheless.
Discussions continue later in the day, and while much remains undecided, we're making progress. Unexpectedly, WILMA gets a chance to place a short article in a prominent publication that's just about to go to press. It's the quarterly bulletin of an organization represented at our meeting, and if we're going to beat the deadline, we have to move fast. Paul agrees to draft a page to be reviewed by Dunstan and then e-mailed to the publisher.
Paul and I split up after the meeting, and I do some more work on the DIT website. I now have over 500Kb of files to upload, but I still can't get a reliable internet connection anywhere in the city. I do manage to connect to WGMS and see that the leader in the "best team name" voting is Chopin Brocolli [sic]. Egads. If you want to vote for a pun (as opposed to my distinguished The Academy of Saint-Martin-in-the-Grave), at least vote for the Metro Gnomes!
Paul and I breakfast in the hotel restaurant as usual, and Andrew and Dunstan come by while we're finishing and join us for tea and coffee. Paul has prepared the bulletin article, so he, Dunstan, and I go upstairs to review it while Andrew goes to his office. We make substantial changes and come up with something that meets our approval, then take it over to Andrew's office. Paul and Dunstan feel that, while we were invited to simply write something and send it directly to the editor, the text really should be reviewed by the director of the institution that published the bulletin. I'm of the opinion that we should simply send it since we're practically at the stop-the-presses point, but I'm just the computer guy and am accustomed to getting things done in microseconds. We leave a copy with Andrew in anticipation that the director will come by and look it over sometime today. Andrew has a lingering computer problem stemming from some old software (or was it an old Pong injury?), so I promise to come back later and upgrade it.
Editing has taken up half the day already, so we're off to lunch with another of our colleagues, David. He takes us to a French bistro a short walk from our hotel. There we get both a blackboard menu, whose steep prices take us aback (and we're accustomed to hotel restaurant prices), and a fancy printed menu whose prices take us a bit further aback. David knows the restaurant well, and he asks for the "other" menu. A third version appears with affordable prices, and we order from that one.
There's plenty to talk about over lunch, but it's all business, so I won't go into detail here. The food is good, and while my beef Stroganoff isn't exactly authentic, the gravy is tasty enough to merit a second basket of bread. I pay with a credit card, but David advises me to tip the waiter in cash since a tip on the credit slip may never make it to the right pocket. Sure enough, the slip doesn't even have space for me to write in a tip, so I leave some cash as we leave.
In the afternoon we meet Andrew's fiancee, who has a wealth of experience in socioeconomic development. She and Paul have much to talk about, but I know that Andrew's upgrade will take some time (his computers are the slowest I've worked on in years), so I excuse myself and go to the office. The upgrade process consists of choosing the configuration, which takes about ten minutes, and then letting the software do the work, which takes over an hour. There's nothing for me to do during this process, so I open up my ThinkPad and play with my new graphics software. It's strange to be the only nerd in an office: I'm drawing alien landscapes with translucent mountains and floating pyramids, and nobody's looking over my shoulder saying, "cool!"
When the upgrade is finally completed, I once again try to upload some large files at the "Two Shilling Cafe." That's not its real name, but it charges 2 Kenyan shillings per minute while all the other internet cafes charge 3 or more, and the quality is about the same at all of them. The main line is still clogged, and I make no progress at all. I can't even upload a file containing a logo to accompany our bulletin article. The director of the institution said we could include one, so I want to put a high-resolution file out on a server where the editor can get it, but the connection is so bad that I have to admit defeat after an hour.
Paul and I meet at the hotel. The director did not review our draft, and we're not at all certain that the publication deadline hasn't already passed, so we decide to send the article right away if we can. The only machines we can use at this late hour are in the hotel business center, and when we get there we find them both in use. We wait in the lobby for a while, and it isn't too long before one is free. A sudden burst of speed in the connection inspires me to try uploading the logo file again, but two quick failures convince me that persistence is futile. I have similar troubles trying to upload the small document file, but I'm determined to get it through. After a half hour I finally get it e-mailed to the editor. Then I try to get Paul to vote for my team on the WGMS website; he's willing, but the connection fails completely just as the contest page is about to load. The administrator of the business center is aware of the poor performance and asks us how many minutes of real work we got out of our session, and she charges us accordingly.
Once again we're not especially hungry after our late, large lunch, so we have a light snack in the hotel lounge before turning in for the night. On the way to our rooms, we stop by the front desk to reserve a van to the airport for tomorrow's 7:30 flight. The clerk recommends leaving the hotel at 6:00. In an unprecendented role reversal, Paul expresses concern about delays due to rush-hour traffic, while I, reluctant to spend any more time at this particular airport than is necessary, think a 6:00 departure will be plenty early. We accept the clerk's recommendation and head to our rooms.
Paul's phone rings at 6 in the morning. No, he hasn't requested a wake-up call. The driver is ready to take us to the airport and is wondering where we are. Ah, you may notice that I didn't specify "a.m." or "p.m." in yesterday's report about making the van reservation; it seems I didn't tell the hotel clerk either. Paul explains the mistake, and while the driver is, as Paul puts it, "cheesed off" to be up at this hour for no reason, there's no need to apologize to Paul: he's still getting accustomed to East African time and was already wide awake when the call came in.
After breakfast I go to the front desk to make the correct reservation. We'll have to negotiate rush-hour traffic on our way to our 7:30pm flight, so the clerk and I agree on a 4:45pm departure. I also spend fifteen minutes or so sweet-talking her into letting us check out of our rooms just before we get into the van. That's a new record for me (for late checkout times, not for schmoozing with the staff).
Paul and I spend the morning with Andrew talking institutional strategy (Paul) and technology (me). Like all travel days, this one has a packed agenda, so it isn't long before we're off to another meeting; this one is at the Fairview Hotel with some people from the regional Catholic University. We take a taxi from the Safari Club that immediately gets tied up in a traffic jam. Traffic signals are not functioning in downtown Nairobi, so we crawl through tie-up after tie-up and eventually arrie at the Fairview about a half hour late. The folks we're meeting are old old colleagues of Paul, and they understand the challenges of Nairobi traffic, so they're happy to see us and have no complaint about the delay.
One of our party is attending a wedding in the afternoon, so we waste little time ordering our food and drink. He wonders aloud why anyone would plan to get married on a Friday. I explain that it's an old Canadian custom. Little does anyone suspect that on this very day my virtual wife, a Canadian, is also getting married; I decide not to mention this event, however, since our luncheon party is not cyber-savvy, and any explanation would take longer than a trip across downtown Nairobi without benefit of traffic signals. For those of you who really want to know, I'm single in real life, but my virtual wedding took place about six years ago in my favorite alternative universe, Genesis (genesis.tekno.chalmers.se).
The food arrives. Paul gets something served in what look like a cremation urn. Everyone seems pleased with their meal, and my smoked salmon sandwich is excellent. I'm delighted by its size and quality, and my only regret is that I consume all of it before a friendly cat comes to visit. I would have liked to give her a bit of salmon, but she seemes quite well fed -- she's probably a pet of the restaurant or hotel staff -- and she's very happy with just a head-rub from me. Paul is engaged in a discussion of fundraising strategies for the University and doesn't even notice the cat. I'll never understand some peoples' priorities.
After lunch our taxi driver returns and fights his way through the snarled traffic back to the Safari Club. He makes good time, and I have an opportunity to get some work done at the Two Shilling Cafe before packing and leaving for the aiport. Once again, we spend considerable time in tie-ups, but our early departure gets us there with time to spare, and we're among the first passengers to learn that the flight has been delayed to 9:00pm.
We check our bags and go up to the departures area. A large renovation and improvement project is underway, and we pass extensive areas that are being expanded or completely rebuilt. The corridors are better lit and cleaner than I recall from previous trips, so I'm not at all distressed to be spending extra time here and am looking forward to a much improved waiting area in the near future. However, we need something to occupy our time now.
The departures area doesn't include any attractive cafes or lounges, so we observe a sign directing us to a "transit restaurant" and decide to give it a try. The route takes us back to the big WELCOME TO NAIROBI sign, but just before the immigration desk another sign recommends a sharp right toward the elevator. We go up to the 5th floor and find the transit restaurant.
It's an unexpectedly elegant place complete with posh decor and linen tablecloths, but Paul and I only want a place to sit and perhaps have something to drink. We decide to turn back and grab a stool at one of the counters in the departures area, but when we turn we find ourselves facing the entrance to the British Airways Executive Club lounge. Hmmm...
The door to the Club is locked. I suspect that the young lady in a British Airways uniform whom we encountered as we exited the elevator was the attendant, and she must be taking a break. We stand in the hallway for several minutes, occasionally musing on our chances of getting into the club without a booking on B.A. and being economy-class passengers (through the glass door we can see the Club interior is divided into Business and First Class sections). After a while we surmise that since the B.A. flight to London (their only flight of the day) isn't boarding for hours, the attendant probably figured she had time to go into downtown Nairobi for dinner. We already know what the traffic is like there, so there's little chance she'll be back any time soon. Dejectedly, we go downstairs and trudge back to the departures area, where we pull up a couple of stools and have a cold drink.
While stuck in traffic, Paul has been explaining various principles of socioeconomic development to me. I had a break when the taxi driver wanted to discuss local politics, but Paul always gets back to his favorite topic if nothing distracts him. I decide that I've had enough of this for today and launch a preemptive strike: I begin to explain computer graphics. Specifically, I demonstrate my virtual landscape design program, Bryce. I even have a visual aid: my ThinkPad! Perhaps if Paul would bring out some charts and graphs I'd find his talks a bit more interesting.
I give Paul a quick demo of Bryce functions. It only has a few - make something (like a rock or a tree or a lake), move something, change something, but each of these functions has an astounding number of variations, far too many to explain in one sitting even to someone who really wants to know. But at least I can quickly demonstrate the "fun factor" of such programs with the RANDOMIZE button. Once you've selected and positioned an object or surface in your virtual landscape, this button tells Bryce to reach into its bag of tricks and apply a random selection of surface, lighting, structural, and other effects. It's an easy way to design something interesting, albeit far from realistic, with a few keystrokes, and in couple of minutes I have completed the rudiments of a weird landscape.
Paul either (a) actually finds this activity interesting or (b) has acquired an ability to feign interest convincingly, and he says he'd like to see the full high-resolution rendering of our little design. I push the RENDER button. It quickly becomes obvious -- well, after about an hour it becomes obvious -- that our drawing will take a lot more computing power than my battery can supply, so before it's completely drained I put the computer in pause. We're both intrigued by the sheer magnitude of processing time required to accurately render our design, so I promise to save it for posterity whenever it's finished.
At 8:00 we go to the gate.
We hardly begin our snacks when agent 2 comes and tells us the plane is boarding. We finish our snacks at a leisurely pace and board the plane when we're good and ready.
We have business class seats. It says so on our boarding passes. I take my spacious, comfortable seat, and ask Paul which seat is his. He says "4C," and another passenger blurts, "no, I'm in 4C." General brouhaha ensues, and dragoons are dispatched to quell the disturbance. One particular dragoon explains that the seating chart for a different plane had been used to print the boarding passes, and one by one he banishes us from the Eden of Business Class into the barren wasteland of Tourist. As I trudge south, he advises me that "empty seats are plentiful there!" A glance backward confirms that the same can be said of the Business cabin.
The plentiful empty seats are occupied one by one by refugees like Paul and me. The refugee directly behind me is new to this world, less than a year old, and she complains bitterly and loudly about the injustice she has witnessed. Oddly enough, her wailing puts me to sleep, and I catch a fifteen-minute catnap on our one-hour flight. While I'm not sleeping, I take a look at the inflight magazine and notice that our hotel in Dar es Salaam, the New Africa, has just introduced free bus transportation to and from the airport. There's no way to reserve a ride at this point, but I look forward to using the service on future trips.
Upon arrival, I exerience another first: the passport officer actually recognizes my rare one-year business visa, and he processes me with a quick stamp and a wave-through. Paul still needs to take a few minutes to explain the use of business visas to the officer in his line. We get our bags in record time, and we're quickly past the customs checkpoint and off to the taxi stand. Along the way, I notice a porter from the New Africa Hotel holding a sign with some other passenger's name on it. I ask if he can also take Paul and me in the bus, and he's more than happy to do so, since his original party has somehow already gone to the hotel. Paul and I pile into the bus, where in-flight (in-drive?) entertainment -- music -- and refreshments -- soft drinks -- are all part of the free service. We're soon at the hotel, checked in, and asleep.
I've left my ThinkPad running all night. It's been working on the Bryce image that Paul and I "designed" yesterday. I find that it's still processing and estimate that it will continue into late afternoon or evening.
Paul and I meet for breakfast. The buffet at the New Africa isn't quite as appealing to me as the Safari Club's, but the rolls are fresh and the tea is served in big pots so I don't have to ask for three at one sitting (as I do at the Safari Club). We talk business and let the conversation wander into territory only vaguely related to socioeconomic development, but after a solid week of work in Nairobi our brains need to get out and play a bit.
At the local internet cafe we process our e-mail. Paul returns to the hotel while I upload the DIT files that have been backing up for several days. Once I see them on the low-resolution screen at the cafe, however, I'm not satisfied with them, so I send mail to DIT telling them that I'll be posting improvements soon.
Back at the hotel, I bring Paul a few files from the internet and work on some technical problems that have been plaguing his ThinkPad ever since he upgraded to Windows 98 from 95. I find plenty of useless files left over from the old operating system and some oddities in the configuration files that could only have arisen during the upgrade. I clean them up but still can't fix one lingering glitch; the remedy probably requires some software that I left in Washington, so Paul has to live with it until we get back. It doesn't stop him from doing any work.
In the evening we eat at the rooftop Thai restaurant, then return to our rooms to see
what Bryce has created. The image is finished, and we think it's worth using even if it's
only the product of a couple of clicks on the randomizer button. Paul tries to think of a
way that WILMA could use the image, but I have a better idea:
It's one of those work-in-the-hotel days. Paul is still absorbing the lessons we learned in Nairobi and revising WILMA's overall strategy accordingly. I have some work to do on a big new WILMO project, so after breakfast we retire to our respective rooms and work all day on our ThinkPads. In the evening we decide to try something less expensive than our usual circuit of hotel restaurants and other touristy places and walk to a local fast-food center. Paul picks up something from Hurry Curry, and I get a "steak surprise" from Debonair Pizza. It's not bad, and a quarter of the price of our typical dinners, so we agree to put this place on our regular dining list. After dinner we head back to the hotel for even more work and then sleep.
Paul is busy on the phone in the morning while I work on some documents and further refinements to the DIT website, then we begin meeting with our local colleagues in earnest. One brings us news about significant progess on the DigIT Africa front, and before the next meeting we make a run to the internet cafe. We have inbound and outbound messages aplenty, and while Paul returns to the hotel after a half hour, I need another 90 minutes to finish my online work. As I walk back, I realize that I've left one of my neon yellow diskettes (they never get confused with anyone else's diskettes around here) at the cafe, but the folks who run the place know me so well that I expect they'll hold it for me. In a way, I'm glad I left it behind, because otherwise I wouldn't be able to think of a nifty title for today's report. Rumors that I left the diskette behind precisely for this purpose are unfounded.
Back at the hotel, some more of our colleagues have arrived. Our discussion of their problems with a local bank leads us to give it an Armington-Laughton rating of BBB- (Bank Behaving Badly, with negative attitude). We encourage our colleagues to change banks to avoid the trials this one has been inflicting on them, such as check-clearing delays of more than a month. On the bright side, they report progress on their main projects. Unlike in Nairobi, where we've had to make significant course corrections, we seem to be headed in more-or-less the right direction in Dar es Salaam, and while events tend to transpire a bit slower than we anticipate, we perceive that our efforts and those of our colleagues (who do the really important on-the-ground work) are beginning to bear fruit.
We have more meetings with our local colleagues and continue to get news of slow but steady progress. In the evening we return to the fast-food complex with one of them, Aidan, and our pleasant experience a couple of days ago emboldens us to order with reckless abandon. Paul orders Chinese food; I get a burger and fries. What we get is a learning experience. If, as the saying goes, anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger, Paul and I are ready to pump iron.
As we sit at the outdoor table with Aidan, he asks about my favorite radio station (which has nothing in common with the music played at the complex) and about my experience with online games. I advise him that all of this has already been covered in my travel report! But then I tell him anyway (most of the time, nothing short of laryngitis will stop me even if nobody's asked). Aidan is a Dungeons and Dragons fan, so he has some interest in Genesis and in my new project, which uses game technology to do work. He promises to check out my pages, so Aidan (and everyone else who hasn't already done this): scroll back up, find the link to WGMS, and vote for me!
I forgot to put a couple of items in yesterday's report: my yellow diskette was waiting for me at my usual internet cafe, and we got a phone call from our colleague Mahmoud in Zanzibar. Paul had sent him e-mail suggesting a meeting, and he called to express interest but only had time to see us on Saturday morning.
I avoid airline food. On most trips I have a substantial meal just before a flight. Then I skip the airline meal, whose smell alone I usually find offensive. This procedure has served me well on cross-country and transatlantic flights, but the long trips south of the equator have proven to be too much to take without at least a snack. I suppose I could bring along something of my own to eat, but my baggage tends to be packed full already. Years ago, before I began my airline food boycott, I had some success ordering kosher meals; while I had no religious reason to order one, I found them to be of better quality than the standard airplane fare. I suggest to Paul that we order special meals on our next flight, and Paul agrees that we have little to lose in the experiment.
Paul and I discuss plans for Zanzibar over breakfast. We already know that a big conference is taking up most of the hotel rooms, but we'd still like to combine a little sightseeing with business, so we decide to try for a Thursday afternoon departure and Saturday afternoon return. He goes to a meeting immediately after breakfast that I'd also planned to attend, but since there's so little time before our intended departure, I skip the meeting and instead go directly to the travel agency.
The agency is located inside the Royal Palm Hotel, formerly the Sheraton. Little has changed since the new management took over, and the staff greet me cheerfully as always. The travel agent recognizes me immediately -- I've used her services several times before -- and asks how she can help me. She rolls her eyes audibly when I tell her about our trip. She's already aware of the fully booked hotels, and she gives me little chance of finding accommodations on such short notice. However, she says she'll try, and she promises to call me at the New Africa later.
Across the hall from the travel agency is the British Airways office. Inside I find a friendly agent and inquire about special meals. A kosher meal is reserved for Paul with just a couple of keystrokes; now what would I like?
Well, what is available? The agent pulls up a list on her computer screen and begins to recite: low protein meal, high protein meal, diabetic meal, no-peanuts meal, seafood meal, and on and on and on. I stop her when she gets to the low-purine meal. Purines, in case you don't know, are compounds that promote the production of uric acid, an excess of which causes gout. I already know what foods are high in purines, and I don't like them, so I ask for this kind of meal.
The agent wants to be sure that I know what I'm getting, so she reads the list of foods which will not be included in this meal: liver, brains, kidney, heart, mackerel, herring, anchovy, and on and on and on. Don't be fooled; these foods all appear regularly in standard airline meals, but they're usually labelled CHICKEN. She reads the list of foods which may appear in a low-purine meal: lobster, shrimp, eggs, butter, sugar, chocolate. Oh yes, I could let her go on and on and on, but I'm already convinced, and I have a full schedule today.
I confirm the low-purine meal and head back to the hotel, stopping for a quick internet check along the way. I see that my team, The Academy of Saint-Martin-in-the-Grave, is doing well in the WGMS radio "best team name" vote, but that no new entries have arrived for SECRET MYSTERY CONTEST NO. 1. Obviously everyone who reads my page is still thinking hard, trying to come up with a brilliant title.
The principal of DIT arrives to take us to lunch. Yes, today's report IS all about food. Some people have commented upon reading my reports that all we do is eat. Yes, we try to eat something every day, and beyond that we work and sleep. If you want to know about our work, go to our business websites! And I do not write webpages in my sleep. Not yet, anyway. Stop complaining and play my game.
John (first mentioned only a tirade ago) apologizes for Richard (now you have to go back and read ALL of my previous reports to figure out who he is), who can't come to lunch due to other commitments. We pile into his roomy Land Cruiser, squeezing DIT's accountant between us in the back seat (a holdover from Tanzania's socialist days, standard procedure requires the presence of an accountant whenever the Institute is paying for lunch), and head off to the Oyster Bay Hotel. There we take a table in a raised gazebo with a sweeping view of the Indian Ocean. I regret not bringing my camera: not only would I like some shots of the ocean vista, but I'd like to get a couple of the assortment of toy parrots and toucans that dot the gazebo interior.
The conversation over lunch is resoundingly upbeat: DIT is moving ahead on several fronts, and I see an immediate opportunity for WILMA to promote their programs in the USA. Since, as I've been told, all we do is eat, yes, we eat some excellent kingfish and, to my surprise, the hotel serves excellent iced tea. All is well, but suddenly all gets better.
John tells us that we've been very helpful to DIT over the past year, and he wishes to express his gratitude. He presents us with two large foil-wrapped packages. As one might expect from an Institute of Technology, they're very securely wrapped, and Paul and I have to struggle a bit to get through the sturdy foil. Inside are two impressive carvings; Paul's is a little taller than mine and all its figures are people; mine is a little shorter but it has both animals and people. That's about all I can say about them since I know nothing about African art, but we're both quite pleased with our presents, and we thank John for his generosity (and in absentia Richard, who selected them). The carvings should just barely fit in my oversize suitcases.
We go back to the hotel, where one of the porters takes an interest in our carvings. He gives us a little background on the images, and although he can't tell us any story that the images represent, he can relate the traditional interpretation of some individual figures. The big snake on mine represents magic. Cool!
Paul and I work on some documents, then go back to the internet cafe to send them to our colleagues. Paul realizes that he's copied the wrong document to his diskette, so I do my work while he goes back to the hotel to get the right one. I have a little free time while I wait for his return, so I recheck the WGMS site. My team has been left far behind in the voting, with Chopin Broccoli taking a commanding lead thanks, no doubt, to the corrected spelling. I suspect that someone is using artificial means stuff the ballot box, but I have no proof; I'll leave it to the game's administrators to decide which votes are valid and which are not.
By the end of the day, the travel agent has not called. I'm willing to accept this as a sign that she could not find us rooms in Zanzibar. Paul and I decide to try for a one-day trip by plane on Saturday. Then, because all we do is eat (or so I have heard), we eat dinner.
We meet in the morning with our colleague Stan and discuss some projects of the Save the World Fund. Afterward, Paul returns to the hotel while I go to the travel agent to inquire about our trip. Her office is so crowded when I arrive that I can hardly squeeze in, and it's obvious that I won't be served for a long time. Still a bit miffed that she did not at least call yesterday, I stand there long enough to shoot her a glance that says, "hey, remember me?" She smiles, undoubtedly misconstruing my glance to mean "my hovercraft is full of eels" or one of her other favorite Monty Python quotations, and then I leave.
Not far from the travel agency is the Air Tanzania sales office. Since Paul and I are resigned to a day trip, I only need air tickets, so this seems like the best place to get them. It seems that way to a lot of other folks as well: the office has quite a crowd waiting for service. There's no queue and no numbering procedure, so the service goes to the swift, or in some cases, the large. I wait patiently -- I am the latest arrival -- while a few other customers make their transactions, but when the masses hesitate, I stride up and plant my bulk before the agent's desk.
All I want is two round-trip tickets from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar. Air Tanzania flies between Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. I want to travel on Saturday. Air Tanzania does not fly to Zanzibar on Saturday. Precision Air flies to Zanzibar on Saturday. Air Tanzania does not sell Precision Air tickets. Off I go to Precision Air.
All I want is two round-trip tickets for Saturday from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar. Precision Air will be happy to sell me two such tickets. The agent observes that I am Very Large (her capitals), and advises me that the plane is "small." For this 20-minute flight, I can deal with "small," so I book it anyway. I hand the agent my Visa card and am about to ask for a low-purine meal when the agent hands me back my Visa card. Transaction interruptus! Precision Air does not take Visa, nor American Express, nor MasterCard, nor Diners Club, no, not even if you say please, not even if you are Very Large. They happily -- nay, euphorically -- take US greenbacks. Do I have 232 of them with me? Uh, no, I am not in the habit of carrying such quantities of cash in my pocket, but I think I can acquire such a sum. Through PROCESSES THAT YOU, DEAR READER, WERE NEVER MEANT TO KNOW, I acquire the cash, return to Precision Air, and buy the tickets.
I send Mahmoud e-mail telling him of our travel plans. Paul phones him and leaves a similar message. Paul, who embraces both "chaordic" principles -- that is, a combination of chaos and order -- and the concepts in Charles Handy's book, Beyond Certainty, lusts after order and certainty in this matter. He wants to hear that nothing has arisen that will prevent Mahmoud from seeing us in Zanzibar. I say we go anyway, and if Mahmoud can't see us, we check out the Zanzibar Film Festival. Paul is not eager to spend $232 on a movie. We await word from Mahmoud.
I am dismayed -- nay, demoralized -- at the meager response to SECRET MYSTERY CONTEST NO. 1. I mope down to breakfast and glumly drink my two pots of tea, then begin my work day.
I spend the early hours finishing the first draft of the concept paper on my new project, the "virtual campus" mentioned on the Getting Started page of the WILMA website. During my morning trip to the internet cafe I send the draft off for comment to the other WILMO personnel and do the usual e-mail check, then go to the WGMS radio site to see how my team is faring in the Best Team Name vote. Alas, the ballot box is clearly being subjected to electronic stuffing, and a sudden surge of support for my team may even indicate that one of the stuffers is working on my behalf. I appreciate the votes I've received, but I request that no extreme measures be implemented to support my moribund chances of winning.
The incoming e-mail contains a message from London. The person who had planned to let me into the apartment I'm renting next week cannot keep our appointment, so she has left the keys with a local realtor. The message asks me to please advise whether I will be arriving outside of the realtor's normal office hours. After perusing the message thoroughly, I send the only possible response: what are the realtor's normal office hours? I await word from London.
In the afternoon we make contact with Mahmoud and confirm our meeting in Zanzibar. Last Week Syndrome, as described in reports on previous trips, is beginning to materialize, and as the afternoon progresses we have more and more visitors. They mostly bring good news or material we've been expecting. In particular, Peter tells us that he has received a commitment for substantial funding, prompted in part by the documents and website that Paul and I prepared, and that he has been offered a piece of land on Mafia island. No, this island has nothing to do with organized crime; it's an African name whose syllables have a disconcertingly familiar ring to Americans and Europeans. Although we advise Peter that promoting any project called "Mafia Youth Center" will be an uphill battle, we agree that it's an offer he can't refuse.
Peter's land is a stretch of prime beach. I suggest calling it the Costa Nostra, but Paul makes me be quiet. Peter plans to make it an education/entertainment center where young people can enjoy themselves while getting information on reproductive health and AIDS prevention through games, music, and shows. Peter has been getting good results recently with puppet shows, in which scenes can be presented that would be difficult with live actors, and he plans to continue these at the new beach center.
Stan arrives, and while he and Paul work on some documents, I go to the lounge and visit with Stan's colleague David. He's doing legal research in Tanzania, and he explains some of the work he's been doing recently. A topic he thinks I'll find particularly interesting is a recent development in the wireless phone industry, and he spends considerable time describing the conflict between a major wireless company and its regulatory commission. The company was awarded a lot of prime frequencies, whose availabilty is limited, and now the commission wants some of them back to distribute to competitors. Naturally, the company is resisting this effort, and David is keeping a close watch on the legal maneuvers.
Stan and Paul join us when they've completed their task. Paul mentions our chronic difficulty in making and keeping appointments here; David has a good grasp of business pratcices in Tanzania, and he gives us the the benefit of his experience. He explains that making appointments is largely a waste of time here; he's had much more success simply dropping in on people during their likely office hours. Sometimes he has to wait, but overall he wastes far less time than Paul and I do trying to get meetings with people. We find his observations consistent with our own experience, and we resolve to start doing things the local way.
I repeat: I am dismayed -- nay, demoralized -- at the meager response to SECRET MYSTERY CONTEST NO. 1. But I have no time to mope today; we're off to the airport at 6:30 for our flight to Zanzibar. The flight departs and lands smoothly and on time, and we're soon through customs and ready for a day of work. Yes, yes, I know: we're still in Tanzania, but we get another stamp in our passports anyway.
Mahmoud meets us at the airport and takes us to his office. He's a senior manager of a major wireless company, and the same topic that David was describing to us yesterday is paramount in his mind. When we arrive at his building, he asks us to stop at a bulletin board and read numerous articles about the telecommunications commission and the competitor that doesn't want to give up its valuable frequencies. We skip the ones in Swahili, but we still have plenty to read before we move on to Mahmoud's office. There we meet Kassim, who provides us with copies of the articles on the bulletin board and a few more that wouldn't fit. He advises us that he's only giving us the ones in English, and I joke that I'm disappointed there are none in Russian.
Mahmoud asks if I really speak Russian. Since my Russian friends aren't around to debate the point, I say yes. Kassim reveals that he worked for 28 years in Russia and knows the language rather well. We talk a bit in Russian, and I'm surprised that I'm able to converse at all after several years without practice, but Kassim and I are able to understand each other quite easily. Mahmoud comments later that he had absolutely no idea what we were saying, and since I realize that it was impolite of us not to let him in on the conversation, I am providing a translation for his benefit:
Kassim leaves to perform other duties, and the three of us talk at length about the current situation in the Tanzanian wireless industry. Paul and I feel that WILMA may be able to provide some help in this matter, and Mahmoud is receptive to a fresh approach. We make plans for a broader meeting before our departure from Tanzania, then Mahmoud invites us to his home and to lunch.
At Mahmoud's home, Paul tries something that I would not dare: he sits (with his host's permission) in a grand, antique chair. It seems quite sturdy, the result of fine craftmanship and a lot of expert labor, but I still don't sit on anything I can't afford to replace. After we meet Mamoud's wife and talk a bit, we all drive to Mtoni Marine resort for lunch.
At a shady beachside table we feast on lobster and grilled fish. Members of Mahmoud's extended family, some visiting from as far away as Toronto, join us, and we discuss our experiences. We while away the remainder of the day here until it's time to leave for the airport. As we part, we get an open invitation to dinner and entertainment anytime during the next few days in Dar es Salaam, but Last Week Syndrome will probably prevent us from accepting.
Mahmoud's car gets a few scrapes on the underside as it carries my weight over the airport speed bumps, but he gets us to the proper check-in desk in plenty of time and makes sure we're properly processed by the airport tax collectors. We're soon on the return flight to Dar es Salaam. Once in Dar, we catch a taxi and get to the New Africa Hotel with no problems. I walk out immediately to check e-mail at the internet cafe before it closes. Along the way, as usual, a dozen drivers call out, "taxi? taxi?" Ordinarily I just shake my head, but today I respond in my best Firesign Theatre voice, "no thanks, I just had one." I use this line four or five times before a wide grin from one of the drivers assures me that he gets the joke.
We decide to relax a bit today and sleep in an extra hour. After breakfast we get back to work, Paul on the beginnings of the wireless project and me on some other documents. We finish just in time for Neema to pick us up for lunch. She takes us out to the Slipway, one of our favorite spots, and although our first-choice restaurant is unexpectedly closed on Sundays, we're just as happy to take a table at the Japanese restaurant next door.
Neema has great news: she's on this month's cover of Femina magazine, a periodical aimed at young African women. The issue has only been out for a few days, and the publisher is already reporting a surge of positive response to the cover and the story about her. Aside from the "cool factor" of being on the cover of a glossy magazine (with plenty of pictures inside as well), Paul and I think this can be a big boost to her effort to get the Kambona Foundation rolling. With a new baby (who's also on the cover) and two jobs, she doesn't have much time for the Foundation right now, but we're all convinced that she should, as Paul puts it, "catch this moving train" of sudden celebrity.
After lunch we visit the bookshop on the Slipway's lower level. Paul asks if they have a recent volume that he's found particularly applicable to our work, Birth of the Chaordic Age by Dee Hock. He has to spell the title (which combines the concepts of chaos and order) several times just to discover that it is not available. Plenty of fresh copies of Femina are on display, so we pick up a few for friends and family, then go to the internet cafe -- one of the few that are open on Sundays in Dar -- to check our mail.
Back at the hotel, there's plenty more work to do, so we sit at our computers until late in the evening. Last Week Syndrome is in full force: meetings are stacking up between now and our Wednesday flight, we have a backlog of documents to prepare and discuss with our local colleagues, and I still haven't figured out how I'm going to pack our carvings. There may be little or no time to post travel reports until I get to London, so use the slack time to work on your SECRET MYSTERY CONTEST NO. 1 entry!
We're off to the offices of a major mobile phone company, Mobitel. Last Week Syndrome forces us to squeeze in this trip between visits with some of our local colleagues, and we're disappointed to come away with the impression that there's little or nothing we can do right now to reduce tensions among mobile phone firms and regulators. Add to this our adventure in finding the right building -- we're told it's on Ohio Street, but it turns out to be a half-mile away on another street -- and we've lost over an hour on a day with no time to spare. We return to the hotel and apply our efforts to a project proposal that Peter must submit in a few days; this work occupies us late into the evening.
After breakfast, Paul and I get back to work on Peter's proposal. I've been cleaning up some of the formatting in the main document, and when I take the results to Paul, he asks me to put the changes on his ThinkPad's hard drive. I copy my version to his hard drive.
Paul spends the afternoon redoing the changes he had inserted early in the morning, and I rework some complex tables. Word tables can be tricky, and it doesn't help that Peter has been using some terrible samples as the basis for his. Built with carriage returns and freely inserted lines rather than proper table cells, the tables lose their readability (such as it is) whenever a single element is added or changed. To make it possible to edit the table section of the proposal, I first have to extract all the table text and reformat it into cells. It's hours of work, and Paul and I spend another day sitting and typing.
By evening, Paul has more-or-less reinserted the text he wrote in the morning, and I've got the tables cleaned up. I combine our revisions into one master document.
I am truly amazed at Peter's nonchalant reaction. He literally loses work all the time to Microsoft Word's random failures, and he's gotten quite accustomed to simply rewriting whatever he's lost. I'm not so accustomed to such losses, and after Peter leaves I spend considerable time trying every last trick I can think of to retrieve the lost document. I finally give up when closing time for the restaurant downstairs approaches; we head there at 10:45 and order dinner, and we're both so tired we're just about falling asleep over our plates. We've each spent about ten hours at our keyboards today, and for the first time in many years my hands are just plain sore from typing. Tomorrow we have an afternoon flight to London, so there's no room for more errors; before bed, I make sure I have everything in place to repeat the merger of our two documents. Then I turn in, confident that if I'm well rested tomorrow morning I can repeat the merger in an hour or less.
I repeat the document merger in 58 minutes. I feel pretty good about that, since I still have time to pack and have lunch before the flight. Ordinarily I'd skip lunch and have a large dinner just before boarding the plane, but since I've reserved a tasty low-purine meal, I decide that I'll try to survive on airline food tonight.
Paul ends my low-purine reverie by remind me that there are still plenty of revisions needed in Peter's document. We've only cleaned up major structural problems with the proposal, but a lot of details require an explanation from Peter before we can improve them. Peter shows up promptly at 10:00am, and he and Paul work together while I begin packing. Paul suggests that we could all work on the same document separately and then consolidate our changes, but in light of our recent misadventures I recommend serial rather than parallel processing.
I make a quick internet run. There's no e-mail that requires immediate attention, so I log off, tell the nice ladies at the combination beauty parlor and internet cafe that I'll see them again in about 90 days, then I return to the hotel. At the front desk I book a 5:00pm departure on the airport bus and then outdo my previous performance in Nairobi by negotiating a 5:00 check-out time at no additional charge. I report this to Paul, who is impressed and relieved not to have to evcuate his room while still in the throes of revising Peter's proposal.
I take Paul's carving to my room to see if it will fit in my suitcase. Richard must have sneaked into my room and taken some measurements before he picked out our gifts, because the carving fits into my largest case with no more than a millimeter to spare. Mine fits pretty well next to Paul's in the same case, and I pad them with lots of clothes. Everything else has to go into my other case, and while I manage to fit it all in, it's not so much a process of packing as of cramming.
We take a lunch break at the Royal Palm hotel, formerly the Sheraton. We go here because the British Airways office is in the hotel, and we check in early to get exit-row seats. The friendly agent remembers us from previous visits, and she locks in adjacent seats in the exit row for us. I advise her that we'd rather not sit together, but she shows me her screen, on which there are almost no unclaimed seats, and says that this is the best she can do. Well, I've got my legroom assured and low-purine meals reserved, so I thank her and tell her to look us up when she visits Washington later this year.
Peter, Paul, and I sit down to a pleasant and relaxing meal. The food is quite good -- lunches were always the Sheraton restaurant's best meal of the day -- but we're all a bit on edge due to the considerable work still waiting for us at our own hotel. We finish and head back, this time with Paul doing some rewriting in response to detail supplied by Peter, and me getting some feedback on my table revisions.
Most of what I've done to the tables turns out to be correct, and we soon reach a point where I'm finished showing Peter my work but Paul isn't ready for Peter to review his latest additions. I give Peter a crash course in Word tables, but he soon loses interest. He asks me if I can teach him how to animate PowerPoint presenttions. I've never used PowerPoint, so I say sure, I can teach him. In a few minutes we have our first animated presentation finished, and in a few more minutes Peter is happily using the full repertoire of action and sound functions.
When Paul is ready for us, we join him and attend to the last revisions with Peter and Paul looking over my shoulder while I type. Both of them have an annoying habit of either putting their hands in front of my face to point out something that needs changing (from my perspective, the thing they're pointing to is invariably obscured by the hand) or waving their hands at the screen for emphasis (emphasis of what, I don't know - all they're doing is blocking my view of the document). I remind them that putting their hands between me and the screen interferes with my work. They continue.
Peter suddenly has an idea. He asks me if there are waterfalls in South America. I say that I believe there are three and continue typing. Peter suggests that someone could build hydroelectric plants at each of the waterfalls to provide power to rural areas. I suggest that if all the waterfalls were surrounded by hydroelectric plants then there would be no waterfalls. Peter counters that if the water were allowed to spill out of the top of the hydroelectric plants then there would still be waterfalls. I vow to find Peter a fundraising opportunity in Ottawa in January.
As 5:00 approaches, I remind Paul and Peter repeatedly that we are just about out of time. At a little past 5:00, we finish. I merge all of our changes and save them as a document on Paul's hard drive. Then I save that document on five different diskettes. I give two to Peter, one to Paul, keep two for myself, and announce that it's time to go. Within two minutes I'm wheeling my cases down the hall, and Paul follows right behind. We check out. Stan comes by to discuss something with us. We say no way. Goodbye, Stan, goodbye, Peter, we got a date with a plane. We pile in the bus and are on our way.
At the airport we check in quickly, and the very friendly agent from the BA office gets us passes to the business class lounge. It's comfortable but crowded, so while Paul sits down with his ThinkPad to make more revisions to the proposal, I have a drink then go back to the main airport to walk around. It's the first chance I've had to relax since we began the Peter Project, and I am happy to simply slouch in front of a fan and cool off.
Soon we're called to board the plane. Paul and I are in the interior seats of the four-seat center section. It's a tight squeeze, and Paul opts for another seat on the leg from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi, but on the leg to London the plane is full, so we're stuck with each other for another eight hours. We get snacks: Paul gets a "kosher" selection of fruit, I get a "low purine" tomato and cucumber sandwich. In my hands it quickly becomes a cucumber-only sandwich (I loathe tomatoes). The sandwich is much more appealing to me than the standard snack -- a candy bar -- served to the masses, so I declare my special-meal reservation strategy a success already. Paul is a little less enthusiastic.
We have legroom in our exit row, but little else. The passenger on my right, in an aisle seat, tests my flexibility by leaning against me. I fit so tightly into my seat that I cannot give way even if I'm willing, and on top of that I want to preserve as much of Paul's room (on my left) as I can.
The flight attendant seeks us out.
I spend much of the flight standing up. On long flights, it's the only way to prevent my leg muscles from cramping severely, and it's not a bad way to meet some friendly people. We tall travellers tend to congregate at the back of the plane and begin conversations by commiserating about the inadequate space, then go on to talk about our travels in general. I meet an Australian fellow (he calls himself a "bloke") who recounts a sudden violent encounter during a nighttime stroll (walkabout) in Nairobi with a couple of friends (mates). The Aussies managed to fight off their attackers, but they'll not make that mistake again. I tell him about WILMA's work, and he offers me encouragement; he's all in favor of (rootin' his boot for) anything we can do to improve the conditions he observed.
Paul and I separate at Gatwick airport. He continues to the USA; I collect my luggage and catch a train to London Bridge rail station, then continue by taxi to Canary Wharf to get the keys to the apartment I'm renting. My taxi driver hasn't been to Canary Wharf before, and we take a few wrong turns on the way to the real estate office. I even ask a maintenance man and two security guards for the Canary Wharf Complex about the location of the office, and I get two wrong answers and one "don't know." The complex is a big as a small town, and like the rest of the Docklands area of east London, it's built around multiple levels of bridges, footpaths, and one-way streets. After about a half hour of searching, the driver and I decide that the building before us must house the office because it's the only one we haven't checked yet.
I walk into the building and find the real estate office. I'm exhausted from yet another sleepless night on a plane, and I'm in no mood for jokes. The agent finishes his business with another client and then greets me. I introduce myself and request the keys to the apartment. He responds with a blank look and "what apartment?" At this point, I'm don't even have the energy to write this episode as dialogue, so I wait patiently for enlightment to rain down on this man from above. After a minute of silence, it does! He remembers the arrangements we made over a month ago, and he quickly gets my keys and sends me on my way.
Back in the taxi we make our way through the extensive construction that characterizes the entire Docklands area and find my building. The driver has shut off the meter for part of the morning's search, so I haven't racked up an outrageous bill. I pay him and find my apartment. Finding a London address is often a trial-and-error process for me, and in my fatigued state I still have to ask a resident even when the correct building is right in front of me. He gives me accurate directions -- first time this moring I've had that kind of luck -- and I'm soon safely inside and asleep.
I spend most of the day working on assignments left over from Dar es Salaam, but I manage to take a little time to stock up on my favorite British delicacies and walk around the Docklands area. It immediately becomes my first choice of areas to live in if I were to move to London for a long stay. Other than feasting on crayfish tails and smoked salmon, my evening is spent doing nothing and enjoying it.
I'm feeling well rested and ready to get back to work. Mostly it's online work, made convenient by getting an account with a British ISP and dialing in from my apartment. My primary concern is to contact the people I've come to meet and arrange our schedule. I already know that some of them won't be able to attend, and that suits me just fine since the apartment turns out to be completely inadequate for the entire group.
The apartment has two bathrooms but only one towel. There is no teapot, pitcher, napkins, or tumblers. There are plates, cups, saucers, and flatware, but there's not a single sharp kitchen knife. Throughout the apartment, the furniture is low, hard, and cheap; lighting is poor, and there's no air conditioning. Since London is experiencing record high temperatures (it's literally warmer here than Dar es Salaam today), and the Docklands area is in the midst of a building boom, I'd really like to shut the windows to keep out the construction noise, but the heat makes this impossible. My spirits brighten with a walk outside. This time I bring my camera, and I take a series of pictures from just outside my apartment building (the brick structure at far left)
which I splice into one panoramic shot:
This area is the West India Docks, opened in 1802. It's the only part of the Docklands that still has original buildings from the early 1800s. These and other "upriver" cargo docks were in continuous use until the 1970s, after which time the area suffered from neglect, as did many American cities' waterfronts. In the past few years it has become the center of a massive redevelopment effort and now sports an assortment of residential and commercial sites, some built from scratch and others housed in renovated historic buildings.
Nearby are the Millwall docks, opened in 1868 and specializing in handling grain:
Both the West India and Millwall docks are a long walk or sail from the Thames River, and the entire Docklands (known generally as the Isle of Dogs although it's really a peninsula) is a maze of narrow waterways, overpasses, drawbridges, and tunnels. The architecture is a haphazard mix of styles with clever juxtapositions of old and new. Obsolete cranes, too expensive to remove, are secured, painted, and left in place as decoration, a sturdy old pier serves as the base of a modern office building, and a quiet residential cul-de-sac looks like a great venue for a toy boat regatta.
Here's a shot of a drawbridge control tower and an apartment building. The tower looks to me like a monster out of an old Roger Corman film, and that structure on top of the apartment building must be a UFO landing pad.
The various pedestrian passages make the entire Docklands look like a giant Chutes and Ladders game, and it feels good to explore it all on foot after so much sitting at my ThinkPad over the past week. I'm feeling quite refreshed when I return to my apartment in the evening.
Today is devoted to meeting with my London clients and dealing with the horrors inflicted on one of them by Windows ME. The "ME" stands for Millenium Edition, probably becau it will take Microsoft that long to debug it. Fortunately, I work faster, and in a couple of hours I've got it tamed. At about the same time that I finish work on the computer, the last of our meeting attendees arrives, and we have a long, constructive talk.
There's not much at all to report today. It's a Bank Holiday, and it's the hottest one on record, which leaves me feeling lethargic and ever more in need of air conditioning. I do some exploring on foot and by Docklands Light Railway, much of which is elevated and gives passengers a good view of the area. No, I don't take my camera -- it's my day off!
My clients and I resume our discussion today where we left off two days ago. Again, we make good progress, and I do a little more computer work for my clients before heading off to another meeting, this time over dinner with my colleague Miguel. He's been doing some work on the virtual campus (first mentioned August 17) that we need to discuss, and we're both big seafood fans, so we meet at one of London's oldest, poshest, and snootiest restaurants, Wilton's in St. James's. It's a formal -- some would say stuffy -- establishment, and while many people understandably avoid this kind of restaurant, I love to dress up and play the part of the demanding customer once in a while.
I arrive before Miguel and immediately assume my role. I haughtily reject the first table offered me, then point to another and demand it. The maitre d' takes me to it forthwith, and a waiter rushes to pull out a chair for me. I sit, glare ever so briefly at the chair as if it were somehow... imperfect, then settle back in a manner that lets the staff know that, for now, I will let whatever inadequacy I just observed pass without mention, but any future failings may push me to the breaking point.
My table is at the far end of the restaurant from the door. The maitre d' gestures with a broad sweep of his hand and says, "now you are master of all you see." At Wilton's, when they make this kind of statement, they mean it. Miguel arrives, and he is escorted directly to my table. Throughout the evening, the service exceeds even my pretended expectations as waiters hover around our table, unobtrusive yet anticipating our slightest need. We spend most of the evening talking about work and our various other adventures, then -- after I pay and leave a generous tip -- we walk to the Undergound and go our separate ways.
Today is dedicated to shopping. I want to bring a few gifts back for friends, but anything I buy has to fit in the little space left by the African carvings I'm carrying. It's easy to find nice gifts in London, and I have time to pick up some business-related items and have a liesurely lunch before going back to the apartment to pack. Fitting everything in is a challenge, but I manage to pack everything without putting undue strain on the carvings or anything else breakable. The last item to be packed is my computer. I use the British Airways online check-in service and squeeze in a few more hours of WILMA work before closing all my cases and going to bed.
I phone for a taxi. I describe my location in the Docklands at length to the taxi dispatcher. I should charge for this service.
The taxi arrives shortly. I pile in with my suitcases and am off to the real estate agent to return the apartment keys. After a wrong turn (the address is South Colonnade, but the building is labelled Canada Square), I make the drop, and we head to London Bridge rail station. British Rail is as efficient as ever, and I'm soon at the airport.
I take my bags to the Quick Bag Drop counter. That's where one takes bags if one is already checked in (ny phone or internet). Twice I'm asked my flight destination, and twice I'm told to go to another desk when I say, "BWI airport," and then twice I'm told that I'm in the right line after all when I say, "but I've already checked in online." It's OK; it's a new service.
On the plane I get a low-purine lunch. The appetizer is smoked salmon - not Scottish, but good - and poached salmon with potatoes and broccoli. It's much better than "not bad," which is all one can generally hope for from airline food; it's good. I eat everything but the enigmatic red dessert, then settle down to my third viewing of Shrek this month. A snack of ice cream and afternoon tea are also pleasant surprises, as is the flight attendant who brings them to me: she remembers me from the flight to Nairobi, a sign that I've truly become a "frequent traveller."
Tea is served - on my tray, anyway - with a low-purine prawn sandwich and a little wrapped treat. The treat has a name: Hello, Bee Bee. There's no other description or list of ingredients, but it's a harmless-looking pair of pale round cookies or crackers with something sprinkled on them. It turns out to be salt on one side and sugar on the other, an unexpected taste that's memorable for its oddity alone. Overall, the low-purine meals are a vast improvement over standard coach fare, so I plan to request them on a regular basis.
On the ground at BWI, my bags are among the first down the chute. I'm through immigration and customs in a flash, then in a homeward-bound shuttle less than a half hour later. As usual, my bags show scuffs and scratches indicative of hard handling, but the carvings prove to be unharmed thanks to the tough Samsonite shells and a lot of padding with clothes and shoes. I'll hardly have a chance to decide on a place to put mine before it's time to start planning my next trip.
Special Report: Contest Results
The initial round of voting ended in a tie between
and the winner in the runoff vote was
, submitted by Catherine Armington.
Catherine wins a tin of Selous Tea from Tanzania. Thanks to everyone who participated.
Look for more contests on my travel pages and on a new Games page to be posted at
SECRET MYSTERY CONTEST NO. 1:
The initial round of voting ended in a tie between
and the winner in the runoff vote was
, submitted by Catherine Armington.
Catherine wins a tin of Selous Tea from Tanzania. Thanks to everyone who participated. Look for more contests on my travel pages and on a new Games page to be posted at Laughton.org!