The “most intelligent” city in Africa

CNN reports on the news that Nairobi has been ranked, apparently for the second year in a row, as the “most intelligent” city in Africa.

According to the Intelligent Community Forum, “intelligent communities” are those that have taken “conscious steps” to create an economy that can prosper in the “broadband economy.”

Well that’s definitely misleading: it’s not about intellectual intelligence. The forum merely considers the fact that Nairobi has relatively fast/cheap broadband, incubators for tech startups, and the ability to pay for stuff everywhere using our phones. Yeah, it does. Shrug.

So what?

The reality is that Nairobi is corrupt, dangerous, dirty, and expensive. I don’t think it’s any consolation to Nairobi’s denizens that their city is “intelligent.” Nairobi also has one of the most “painful” commutes of any city in the world. And the insecurity in Nairobbery obviously contributed to Kenya’s abysmal ranking in the 2014 crime index.

All of that doesn’t just stop being important because we can stream YouTube videos without buffering! We should be focusing on metrics that matter, like the Human Development Index or the Global Peace Index.

A Bulgarian Christmas

In my experience a Bulgarian Christmas is family, food, and snow — all in large portions. To be fair, minus the snow, that pretty much describes any time of year in Bulgaria! Allow me to elaborate (and share a few specifics)…

Food

For the purposes of this list family and food are one in the same; recipes and traditions about food are passed down from generation to generation, and food is enjoyed together.

Apparently, according to traditions in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, people are supposed to forgo animal products like meat, eggs, milk, cheese, etc for forty days before Christmas. In practice (and probably more so in urban areas) it seems like people generally only do this on Christmas eve.

On Christmas-eve we had a rather plain looking loaf of bread, baked with only wheat, water, and yeast. At the time I remember it being delicious, but it obviously pales in comparison to the Christmas-day loaf on the right which was baked with eggs, milk, and butter.

Other favorites of mine were pickled red peppers, pumpkin banitsa, and walnut baklava. All meals were accompanied by home-made wine (of which I was told there were 200 liters in storage!). It shouldn’t come as a surprise that my salad-only diet starts today!

A not-so-snowy Christmas?

Much to my surprise, there was no snow when I arrived in Sofia a few days before Christmas. Quite the contrary! The sun was generally out and during the day it was uncharacteristically nice to walk around, have coffee, etc.

After Christmas we went into the mountains to ski and snowboard and there was no snow there either; the trees and grass around our cabin in Borovets were green and the roads were all clean and tidy. Surely this isn’t Bulgaria in winter?!

… and just like that the cabin (and indeed the entire country) was covered in snow. After an afternoon on the slopes and an evening lounging around the cabin, we peeked outside and found several inches of snow covering everything in sight! Quite a transformation…

Snowboarding above the clouds

As terrifying as it was driving on the slender, freshly-snowed-upon-and-then-melted mountain roads, I was glad “winter” had arrived. The next morning it was like the slopes had been reborn. Fresh powder — and more falling from the sky!

The Yastrebets gondola takes you 2300 meters up into the Rila mountains, and when the visibility is good you can see the clouds underneath which Borovets and Sofia are sitting — from above! It’s spectacular (and sidetracking!) to navigate the slopes with such a view.

Snowboarding above the clouds!

Snowboarding above the clouds!

When are you going to Bulgaria?

Bulgaria is beautiful, the food is delicious, and it’s cheap! It was even named one of the top ten countries to visit in 2014 by Rough Guides.

Bulgaria was listed in Rough Guide's Top 10 Countries to visit in 2014

Bulgaria was listed in Rough Guide’s Top 10 Countries to visit in 2014

So, when are you going to Bulgaria?

Five glorious November days in Zanzibar!

I can’t shake the feeling that Zanzibar felt like a combination of Lamu — Kenya’s small island with winding stone alleyways, coconut-infused Swahili dishes, etc — and the Kenyan coastal towns of Mombasa, Watamu, and Malindi.

Here are some of the highlights from my visit…

Fine dining in Paje

A clever entrepreneur built a gourmet restaurant on top of a rock a few meters off the beach in the small Southeast town of Paje. It’s (obviously) called The Rock and the view is absolutely stunning during the day. Blue sky, blue water, sand bars, coast line… perfect.

The Rock restaurant in Paje, Zanzibar

The Rock restaurant in Paje, Zanzibar

And, as if “location, location, location” wasn’t enough, the food is delectable; I believe it was the first time in my life I’ve had home-made cinnamon ice cream. You definitely need to go there.

Changuu Island

There are a number of islands strewn just off the coast of Stone Town, and one in particular is worth visiting: Changuu Island. It’s just about twenty minutes by boat, around 40,000 TZS (~$20), and looks like something straight out of a travel brochure!

Bridge from the dock on Prison Island, Zanzibar

Bridge from the dock on Prison Island, Zanzibar

Halfway to the island, mesmerized by beautiful blue water, I asked the boat driver if he would stop the boat so I could jump in for a swim. #YOLO! Blue water and picturesque wooden bridges aside, this island is also known as “Prison Island” because they used to imprison slaves there before shipping them off.

On a less depressing note, there is a colony of Aldabra giant tortoises there which dates back to 1919, when they were apparently sent as a gift by the British Governor of the Seychelles. The sanctuary has quite a number of them, some of which are over 150 years old! Sadly, the species is now considered vulnerable to extinction, so go pay your $4 entrance fee and marvel at this beautiful creature while you still have the chance. Oh crap, that’s depressing too.

Miscellaneous highlights

Here are some of the other memories I have from my visit:

  • Street food at Forodhani Gardens near Stone Town — try a Zanzibar pizza or a shawarma!
  • Snorkeling, or rather, riding on a dhow to go snorkeling — hot sun, blue sky, blue water, and the wandering star fish in our boat…
  • Fascinating history of Stone Town — human greed, which we’re doomed to repeat. :(
  • Where has grilled octopus been all my life?!

Go to Zanzibar!

After my 5-day glimpse of Zanzibar, I have to say that I’d recommend it over Kenya’s coast for anyone looking for a taste of coastal East Africa. Kenya’s coast is equally beautiful, but Tanzania — and therefore Zanzibar — is cheaper, the people are nicer, and it is definitely less dangerous. Even without the threat of extraordinary “terrorism”, you’re much more likely to get plain ole mugged in Kenya than in Tanzania!

Side note: sometimes I catch myself generalizing about “Kenya” based on experiences I’ve had living in Nairobi for five years. I know it’s not fair (and I usually correct myself), but it is what it is. If you really want to come to Kenya, you should probably just stick to Mombasa and the South coast (like Diani), and avoid Nairobi altogether.

A Dusty Raisin

The Hunger Angel paperback

The Hunger Angel paperback

Herta Müller’s The Hunger Angel is a strange, depressing, and fascinating look at post-World War II Europe. The narrative is one I hadn’t heard before: internment and forced labor of Germans in Soviet work camps as payment for damages sustained by the USSR during the war. While the novel is technically fiction, it is based on real-life events experienced by Müller’s mother and a personal friend, poet Oskar Pastior. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the whole forced labor of Germans after World War II thing…

Although I found the mood of the novel rather somber, Müller’s writing is sometimes downright hilarious!

Once a dusty raisin was lying underneath the little white formica table. And I danced with the raisin. Then I ate it. And then there was a distance deep within me.

The Hunger Angel was originally written in German, so reading passages like the above in the English translation made me feel like there was something lost in translation. After finishing the book and reading Müller and translator Philip Boehm’s afterwords, however, I no longer feel that way; I think the author was trying to convey the physical, mental, and spiritual deterioration of the characters. In that light, it’s easy to understand how peoples’ conversations, thoughts, and actions wouldn’t always make sense!

All in all I really enjoyed reading the book. The Hunger Angel was unique for me because I had never heard this particular post-World War II narrative. I’ve picked up a few more books by Herta Müller and I’m curious to see how they compare.


German Parliament is Hip!

When you walk into the building complex in Berlin which comprises the German Parliament, you see modern architecture, art and history exhibits, casually-dressed staff (young and old), cafés, restaurants, ATMs, solar panels, books, underground tunnels, etc. It’s kinda funny, but the first thought I had as I wandered down the hallway to the History of the Reichstag exhibit was, “This reminds me of Google’s campus in California.

I didn’t see any goats mowing the lawn or communal bikes with Chrome wheels, but German Parliament is pretty hip!

Berlin is chilly in November, but the Reichstag building is fascinating!

Berlin is chilly in November, but the Reichstag building is fascinating!

Weather and Silicon Valley startup culture aside, there appears to be a functioning body of representatives making laws here!

A few observations

Some unique (albeit clever, and slightly humorous) things I learned about how the Parliament is run:

  • There are special indicators on clocks and other fixtures throughout the complex which, depending on their color, indicate whether Members of Parliament need to be physically present on the floor for a vote. Apparently it’s not uncommon to see people running from all over the complex to the floor when these votes are on!
  • If the winning vote for a bill can’t be determined merely by a show of hands, the Members leave the floor and then re-enter one by one through special doors marked Enthaltung, Ja, and Nein — abstain, yes, and no.

I’ve never been to Washington, D.C., but it’s hard to believe the stodgy United States government has done anything like this!

Take the tour!

If you’re ever in Berlin you should definitely book a tour of the Parliament; Germany is doing a lot of things right and the Parliament is a great place to see and feel where some of that takes place.