Zanzibar: Stone Town!

December 31, 2017

Stone Town is the crown jewel of Zanzibar.  It has just about everything a tourist would want, with new mystery around each corner, other-worldly charm, and a well-developed history.  When I visited Venice in the 1990s, I loved wandering until I got lost in the maze of passageways, and Stone Town offers a very similar experience.  I hope you’ll enjoy my tale of this remarkable place!

We think of coral as something to be preserved, but the substantial coral reefs around Zanzibar made these calcium carbonate “rocks” the most abundant building material in the area.  Large coral chunks were mixed with lime to create thick walls to keep the tropical heat and humidity out.  Buildings were constructed close together to keep the passageways shaded from the sun.  Most of the construction took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Today, motorbikes and bicycles compete with pedestrians in the warrens of Stone Town.

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The wall of the Arab Fort, as seen from the inside, reveals its coral construction.

The Arab Fort is still quite a powerful sight, though it is one of the oldest stone structures in the city.  The site was first used for a Portuguese church, but the destruction of Portuguese power at the end of the seventeenth century meant that the Omanis were the ones to fortify this site.  Today the fort sits between the House of Wonders (Beit al Ajaib, 1883) and the Forodhani Gardens (1936).  Over its long history, the fort has served for defense, a prison, a slave holding area, and then a British ladies’ tennis club, staffed by volunteers from the Girl Guides (the Girl Scouts are a later parallel). It now houses a amphitheater for arts events, and the interior hosts many booths for vendors of African art, clothing, and henna tattoos.

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Entrance bastion of Arab Fort at the North corner

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A Zanzibar door in good repair. Many were quite worn.

As we walked through the tangle of passageways, Zanzibar’s sumptuous doors kept drawing our eyes.  They were frequently made of Burma or East African teak (the former is now quite rare in the wild).  Kevin, our guide, noted some of the differences between Arab and Indian styles.  Indian doors generally comprise at least two parts; the “female” door incorporates the center post, and the “male” bears a chain lock.  Many doors feature an array of brass studs; this design element reflects grand doors in India designed to withstand the attack of a war elephant.  Many doors we examined featured a motif of clove plants, reflecting their dominance as an export for this spice island. A repeating motif on the door frame resembled the chains of slaves.  No history of Zanzibar can be complete without including its role in the slave trade.

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St. Joseph Catholic Cathedral is very much in service!

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Jaws Corner illustrates the state of repair for much of Stone Town.

Our tour passed east across Stone Town, and we encountered the Catholic cathedral, built at the end of the nineteenth century by French missionaries after an earlier success with a mission in the 1860s.  The church is most easily spotted from the water; the neighborhoods of Stone Town press close to it, and there’s barely a plaza in front of its entrance.  I would have loved to have seen the interior, but apparently the Old Testament art was damaged in a 2014 restoration.

Our walk passed by Jaws Corner, Zanzibar’s local traditional coffee corner.  At most hours of the day, you can watch elderly men play dominoes and solve the problems of the world.  The small plaza is surrounded by “baraza:” stone benches that are typical of Stone Town.  Small flags flutter in the breeze from lines high above the corner.  In the last couple of years, a new mural of a famous shark has been added to decorate the space.

Our navigation led us to New Mukunazini Road (where we’d found a working ATM), so soon we had reached the eastern boundary of Stone Town.  Our destination was the Former Slave Market, now a museum dedicated to memory of the lives destroyed by the East African slave trade.  The facility is supported by the World Monuments Fund.

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The beauty of the grounds masks its sinister origins.

The museum is notable for the local detail that it conveys to the visitor, with historic photos of the people and places that drove the East African slave trade through this island. The boards were able to explain the complexity of the groups interacting in the African interior, such as the Angoni who fled from the violence in 1830s South Africa, or the Yao, a group that joined with the Portuguese to enslave others. The museum also names individuals who made a fortune from slavery, such as Mlozi, who used an army of mercenaries to capture slaves in the Great Lakes region; Rumaliza, Sultan of Ujiji, who became wealthy from trading both slaves and ivory (once a tusk has been cut from an elephant, the group found slave to carry it; both could be sold at the same site); and Tippu Tip, who became outrageously wealthy in the diverse nation-scale economy he managed.

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Exhibit from National Museum of Tanzania

I was moved to learn that the United States served as a principal driver for the ivory trade, since ivory played a similar role to that of plastic in today’s economy. The museum has quite a lot to say about the end of the slave trade (only the third treaty for this purpose “stuck” in Zanzibar: 1873). I was saddened to learn that the government never worked out a proper plan for how to improve the lives of former slaves. For most, repatriation was unlikely (slaves abducted as children might not be able to detail their former homes), and concubines might find that accepting freedom meant leaving the children they bore for former masters. The museum houses two storage cellars where slaves were once secured, and a chain is still there to tell the story of physical bondage for resistant slaves.

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Beyond claustrophobic

With that, we returned the area outside the museum, and we were in the Anglican cathedral yard. On this Sunday, the church was full of parishioners singing Christmas songs! We stepped inside, and I recorded some of the lovely singing we had enjoyed from the nearby Riverman Hotel.  Construction of the cathedral came in 1879, just six years after the closure of the slave market.

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Minarets and steeples live side by side in Zanzibar.

From there, we walked into a modern market along Creek Road.  I haven’t had a lot of exposure to duriens or jackfruit from my years in the United States, so I was delighted to see them in person.  We stuck with purchasing more cool water; durien fruit, in particular, does not smell particularly nice, even if it tastes good.  Our next stop was the British Darajani Market, built in 1904, with divisions for fish, beef / goat meat, and a world of fruits and spices. it was glorious, once we got past the fly-ridden meat areas!  The spice section seemed to have every possible flavoring on display.  I was reminded of the shop we had passed earlier in the day that distributes a red spice made from baobab seeds.  We acquired a bag to munch later.

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The 1904 Darajani Market, with the Anglican cathedral spire at the left

As we passed from the market stalls behind Darajani, we passed the Emerson Hotel on Hurumzi.  Our guide mentioned that a museum dedicated to Princess Salme was next door, and Natasha and I made a mental note to check into it later in the week.  Our path meandered past the rear portions of the beachfront palace, and then we had arrived at the House of Wonders!

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The House of Wonders desperately needs its current restoration.

The second sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, constructed the House of Wonders (Beit al Ajaib) in 1883 as a ceremonial palace and reception hall.  The building was named the House of Wonders due to its inclusion of electric lighting and of an elevator.  Its appearance is unmistakably British colonial, perhaps because it was designed by a British marine engineer.  The wide verandas and tall ceilings (made possible by iron columns) make for a very distinctive shape.  Recent collapses of internal and external structures, however, have closed the history museum inside; significant restoration work was underway during our visit.

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Freddy Mercury performing in 1977, by Carl Lender

We had just one more stop before the end of the tour. We came to a crowded spot on the road, and we saw signs on the wall of a hotel that explained that this was the building that Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the rock band Queen, first called home! His parents were Persian in origin, but they lived in Zanzibar at the time of his birth. His original name was Farrokh Bulsara. Mercury’s origins help to explain some of the lyrics used in his songs, such as “bismillah,” which means “in the name of God.”

After lunch at the Lukmaan Restaurant (with knock-me-over hot chai tea) and a nap at the hotel, we returned to the streets for our first swim on the island. We reached a beach right at the point of Stone Town. At 4:30 the beach was quite empty; we took turns guarding the backpack and swimming. Katharina, a German woman who had joined our tour of Stone Town, joined our group.  We had all gotten the same idea about a swim.  As the sun dipped toward the horizon, more locals came out to enjoy the water. A fair number of guys demanded the chance to talk with the women. Natasha rather enjoyed a “fat chat” with a 12 year old who wanted to practice his English. Katharina, on the hand, had to explain that the “no touching” rule would be enforced quite vigorously.

On our walk back, we enjoyed a yummy drink of sugar cane squeezings, flavored with lime. Natasha and I came back to the Lukmaan Restaurant for dinner and then retired to our room. Neither of us was awake when the New Year arrived!

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Zanzibar: too close to the fire

We awoke this morning (the 30th) to a terrific din upstairs.  It sounded very much like the ceiling had collapsed in a room on the floor above us.  Natasha poked her head into the corridor and learned from a fleeing resident that his room had been on fire.  Any thoughts we had about the earliness of our waking (5:30 AM) vanished, and we hurriedly jammed our things into bags and rushed downstairs.  The hotel staff felt it wasn’t a big deal; the fire was out, wasn’t it?  At no point had we heard a smoke alarm.  I scanned the building from the outside and saw nothing amiss.  Eventually we accepted a key to a different room on the first floor where we hurriedly showered and then piled into a taxi for the ferry dock.

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Photo courtesy of Ctrip

We arrived just after 6 AM in a teeming mass of people, all trying to board a ferry to Zanzibar for the new year holiday.  Our hotel taxi dropped us at a special office that handled business class tickets.  Our broker took me through the locked door of the ticket office, where he arranged for the sale of two Azam Marine tickets (with returns on January 6th) for $160 USD.  Locals would have paid 140,000 shillings (~$63 USD) for the same booking.  The fare depleted quite a lot of the dollars we had on hand, but we anticipated handling the rest of our bills with debit cards and the shillings we had already acquired.  With tickets in hand, Natasha and I went for breakfast in the capable hands of Abdullah, one of the porters.  We enjoyed the omelets, but it seemed downright weird that they supplied us each with a cup of very warm milk for me to dip a tea bag and for Natasha to dump in a pouch of instant coffee.

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Photo by Incat Crowther

Boarding the ferry was again expedited with the help of our (now two) porters, who simply ignored the long queue of people with economy tickets.  We were processed through metal detectors by a tough-looking sergeant who held a baton like he was born to use it, and then we waited 45 minutes in a departure lounge.  We chatted with a group of Spanish teachers on holiday.  When the doors opened to let us onto the catamaran, we fell in with the crowd and occupied a couple of the business class seats.  I think I fell asleep just minutes after we pushed away from the dock.  When I awoke, Natasha spent some time asleep.  Her eyes fluttered open as we completed our two hour transit (the distance is around 84 km), making a sharp turn for the new harbor at Stone Town, which is the old part of Zanzibar City.

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Panorama of Stone Town, as seen from the ferry (cropped from Colors of Zanzibar)

My navigation to the Riverman Hotel (near the Anglican Cathedral at the center of the east side of Stone Town) was stymied by my picking the wrong way to turn as we left the harbor.  There are pretty clear streets in a band around the outside of Stone Town, but the middle streets are quite narrow and poorly labeled.  I took us much too far south when Natasha noted that she wasn’t going to be able to walk too much further with her two heavy backpacks.  The heat and humidity were quite overpowering, I must admit!  We hired a cab who drove us clockwise around the whole loop to reach our hotel.  He even walked my bag to the hotel, which was around half a kilometer from the parking lot.

When we reached the hotel, we learned that air conditioning was not actually available, but the manager promised he would have a great room for us the following day.  For now, we had a relatively small room with a large, canopied queen bed, with mosquito netting all around it.  The recurrent trouble we encountered was that credit cards would not be usable (despite the contrary information on Booking.com).  I hiked out into the sun to find a working ATM.  I was glad to see the green and white logo of the CRDB once again.  To pay the $350 USD bill for seven nights, I needed to withdraw the maximum number of shillings twice from the machine.  I crossed my fingers that the bank didn’t clamp down a security lock on my card.  The manager seemed impressed that I had circumvented the currency problem so quickly.

Natasha and I ventured out for lunch soon thereafter.  We found a delightful hole-in-the-wall cafe called “Mom’s Restaurant” that served us pilau with spinach and beans in coconut sauce.  We had a lovely chat with two Koreans who had decided to make their own life plan rather than follow some of the rigid rules of Korean society.  From there, we wandered south-west, eventually reaching the traffic circle where we had hailed the taxi earlier in the day.

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This arch at the Kenyatta and Vuga Roads circle served as a strange attractor to our wandering paths through Stone Town.

This time, we found a tourism service that had several cool tours available.  We signed up for one tomorrow morning (Dec 31) that supplied a history tour of Stone Town, and we signed up for a second one for January 1st that drove us to see a nearby spice farm!  We paid 62,000 shillings for the first part, denuding our wallets of most of our remaining local currency.  We’ll owe a similar amount tomorrow.  Our chat with the staffer (from nearby Kenya) was really pleasant, and we discussed the possibilities of a return trip to see the north of Tanzania (Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti, Olduvai Gorge, and the Ngorogoro Crater).

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A milkshake and an ocean restoreth my soul.

From there, your heat-stroked travelers wandered in search of cool refreshment.  We found a restaurant on the beach and watched the waves roll in and the dhows sail by.  Natasha enjoyed some iced lemon tea, and I happily slurped a chocolate milkshake!  We wandered along the beach a bit.

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Many kinds of boats compete for anchorage near the harbor at Stone Town.

Soon we headed back to the hotel, passing by a series of mosques in the center of Stone Town.  We had heard the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer throughout the day.  Of course Natasha knew just the right words to greet the older gentlemen sitting on the mosque steps (“Salaam-Alaikum”).  We returned to the hotel room, drained from the heat.  We had reached Zanzibar.  Who knew what might come next?

Zanzibar: transiting Dar es Salaam

Preparing for our trip to Zanzibar looked straightforward on its face: nail down some flights and ferries, pick some hotels, secure a visa, and acquire some cash.  The route through these obstacles, however, was more complex than we had appreciated.

The preparation

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Flight path

I had first realized Zanzibar might be a good destination when I learned that the discount Mango Airlines flew directly to Zanzibar from Johannesburg.  Once we tried to square their flight schedule with our availability (starting Dec. 29th), however, we ran into problems.  Mango flies between JNB and ZNZ just twice a week, on Tuesdays and Saturdays (both directions on both days).  Once we combined the cost of JE926 and JE927 with a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, we were looking at a higher cost.  Instead, we opted for a similar flight on South African Airways: SA322/SA188 on the way north, and SA187/SA377 on the way south.  This flight pair, however, landed us in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, rather than Zanzibar itself.  We would need to take the ferry to and from the island.  We decided to face the challenge of ferry tickets on the day we needed them.

First Rule of Travel: school holidays are when everybody travels.

We picked hotels during November 24-27th via Booking.com.  Even though we made our reservations a month in advance, it still seemed that a lot of our options were already out of space.  We decided on the Iris Hotel in Dar es Salaam for our overnight to catch the ferry (it’s a short taxi ride from the ferry terminal).  Our longest stay would be seven nights at the Riverman Hotel, located next to the Anglican Cathedral to the east side of Stone Town in Zanzibar.  This hotel was a bit of a compromise because it was relatively inexpensive but required sharing bathrooms with other guests.  We would wrap up with three nights in the posh Harbour View Suites at Dar es Salaam.  I supplied my credit card for all three sites.  Almost done!

Second Rule of Travel: don’t leave the visa for the last minute.

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image by adlerweb

My American passport meant that I needed a visa (Natasha was home free as a South African).  I realized too late that Tanzania has established only a high commission in Pretoria, not a consulate down here in the Western Cape.  On December 15th, I printed copies of our hotels and flight itinerary, a one-page visa application, and proof of payment ($100: Americans are required to get the more expensive multiple entry visa).  Along with two passport photos, I couriered all of these materials with my passport to Pretoria.  Then I waited… too long, in fact!  When I phoned the consulate on December 22nd, I learned that they’d long since finished the visa but were waiting for me to arrange pickup.  I called the copy shop to set up the courier, but I received the distressing news that SWE courier service was on holiday break and would not resume service until January 6th!  I panicked but lined up FedEx Express to retrieve my passport on December 27th.  I was quite panicky until I was able to retrieve my passport from the FedEx offices at Cape Town’s airport on December 28th for my flight on December 29th.

Tanzania is certainly a tropical country, and that meant we needed to think about disease.  Yellow fever and malaria are both rather unpleasant conditions endemic to the area.  Both Natasha and I visited the travel clinic for inoculations against yellow fever (receiving little yellow cards to provide as evidence), and we received stern warnings about mosquitoes, pledging that we would use chemical deterrents and stay securely behind mosquito netting at night.  Those little yellow cards would be required by immigration officials along the way.

The arrival

Our flights on South African Airlines were completely fine.  We were surprised at the smallness of the jet that brought us here from Johannesburg (an Airbus A320?), but it was one of the gentlest landings I can remember. I am very grateful to have acquired my visa in advance of the trip; it would have been possible to have acquired it at the airport, but things felt a little chaotic down there, and they dealt only in cash. We tried first one line for immigration and then for another, but an American family produced a twenty-minute delay on the first line, and an American woman produced a ten-minute delay on the other. In the end, they processed me through the Tanzanian citizen line, while Natasha completed immigration on the first booth where we’d stood in line.

We were both a little concerned about acquiring cash. My efforts to get Tanzanian shillings or U.S. dollars in Cape Town had been foiled when my bank required far too much paperwork for practicality (passport, visa to remain in South Africa, work contract, travel itinerary). I had visited a foreign exchange business at the Tyger Valley Centre, and they reported that Tanzanian shillings were available nowhere within South Africa!

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This sign meant my Mastercard was about to yield some currency!

We tried two different ATMs at the Dar es Salaam airport. The first was an NBC bank kiosk, and it simply wouldn’t allow any of our cards to withdraw cash. The second was a green and white CRDB bank kiosk, and that worked much better. I withdrew 200,000 shillings (the equivalent of $90 USD), and Natasha pulled a smaller amount.  Travelers definitely need to have currency on hand; the economy in Tanzania runs on cash.

The taxi drivers were on us like flies. They were sad to see us wandering to the tourist information booth to acquire a map. A taxi driver got behind the counter to help us. When he expected payment for the tourist map, we turned away and pursued a taxi option from the flock. We negotiated a rate for a taxi to the Iris Hotel (the airport is some distance southwest of the city center) from dollars to shillings; they seemed satisfied with 75000 shillings ($34). Our driver led us to a vehicle that looked like a Toyota Prius V, though it did not seem to be a hybrid.

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Our route from the airport did not allow for much creativity.

The drive to town in the fading sunlight was not particularly remarkable. Hawkers can be found at any intersection, and the pedaled ice cream carts were a nice touch. The industrial district looked friendlier than similar districts in South Africa, in part because of better landscaping but also because there were no shacks. Once we hit downtown, the traffic was more stationary, and then we turned off the road to a pitted dirt track leading through a night market, and then we were at our hotel.

A member of the hotel staff at the Iris volunteered to walk Natasha and me over to a local restaurant.  She and I used the tried-and-true “point and nod” approach to pick some beef-and-vegetable mix and some rice.  We enjoyed it thoroughly, though the meat was a bit tough to chew.  I wonder if this could result from traditional slaughter methods rather than carefully regulated municipal abattoirs.

Our guide, by the way, put a new spin on a controversy that had consumed Natasha and me as we prepared for the trip.  Was it “tan ZANE ee ə,” or was it “tan zə NEE ə?”  Our guide, however, provided a rather different answer: “tan ZAHN yə!”  Consider our worlds rocked.

Zanzibar: Slavery, Ivory, and Cloves

History has always been accompanied by myths that seem almost real: Plato’s drowned nation of Atlantis, King Arthur and Merlin at Camelot, Qays and Layla in the ancient Arabic world, the Queen of Sheba, and the Sultan of Zanzibar.  One of my surprises from living in Africa is to learn that Zanzibar is a real place with a fascinating history.  Every year, tourists from South Africa go there in droves.  Over the New Year holiday, I took the opportunity to visit there myself with my favorite historian, Natasha.

Putting Zanzibar on the map

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The marker points to “Stone Town,” the nineteenth century city built from coral and lime.

Zanzibar is an archipelago off the coast of East Africa.  The largest island, Unguja, is approximately the size of Oahu, the third largest island of Hawaii (and the one on which two-thirds of Hawaii’s population resides).  In the case of Zanzibar, the full population is 1.3 million people, with 45% living in the region facing the coast of Africa, in and around Zanzibar City.  Zanzibar City itself is split by “Creek Road” (recently renamed for Benjamin Mkapa) into the nineteenth century Stone Town to the west and the more modern city to the east.

Zanzibar is only six degrees south of the equator, and that brings with it good news and bad news.  The good is that being close to the equator means that summer and winter temperatures are not very different from each other.  The bad is that the typical climate of Zanzibar is hot and humid!  I brought my broad-brimmed hiking hat and a pile of long-sleeve T-shirts to stave off sunburn.

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Seyyid Said ibn Sultan founded the line of Sultans of Zanzibar.

The long view of Zanzibari history

The upcoming blogs will walk through different historic sites that tell the stories of a particular time in the island’s history, so I thought it would be useful to talk about the broad sweep of events for Zanzibar to explain why it is such a unique place:

  • First century CE: Greek voyagers record the existence of “Menuthias,” an island thought to be Zanzibar, in Periplus Maris Erythraei.
  • Sixth century CE: Ruins at Unguja Ukuu attest to a substantial iron-using agricultural and fishing community.
  • 1107 CE: The original mosque at Kizimkazi was constructed, representing the arrival of Arabic settlers from Shiraz, Persia.  The combined population of Bantu and Arabic settlers developed the Swahili culture under the leadership of a Mwinyi Mkuu, or paramount chief.
  • 1503 CE: A Portuguese fleet under Rui Lourenço Ravasco exacted tribute from Zanzibar, marking the start of Portuguese dominance in East Africa.
  • 1698 CE: Fort Jesus in Mombasa fell to Omani Arabs, ending Portuguese control over this region.
  • 1828 CE: The Sultan of Oman, Seyyid Said bin Sultan, moved to Zanzibar, marking a shift to direct Arab rule over the “Swahili coast.”
  • 1896 CE: The British enforce their authority to name the next Sultan of Zanzibar in the “Shortest War in History.”
  • 1964 CE (January): The Zanzibar Revolution culminates in violence between the Swahili-speaking population and the Arabic ruling class.
  • 1964 CE (April): Zanzibar forms a union with Tanganyika.  They choose the name “Tanzania” to reflect their two names plus “Azania,” an early Greek term for Africa.
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Kiswahili usage dominates the areas shaded in yellow.

Many Americans perceive “Swahili” as the language of Africa, though it is more limited in scope than that.  In fact, Kiswahili is a remarkable African language because it was a trade language that evolved to merge Arabic words and grammar with a collection of Bantu languages.  Over many centuries of usage, it has gained quite a lot of flexibility.  Though it was originally written in Arabic script, today one will frequently see it written using Latin letters.  Looked at more broadly, Swahili represents an entire culture, not just a language.

Why does Zanzibar matter?

From the brief summary of its history above, it is apparent that many civilizations wanted to control Zanzibar.  The title of this post summarizes its allure in three words.  Zanzibar became the central market of the East African slave trade, accumulating stolen lives from the inland “Great Lakes” region of Africa all the way down to Sofala in Mozambique.  This inland network also made possible the export of elephant ivory from hunters deep into the continent.  Ivory was hugely valuable in nineteenth century, taking on the role that would later be filled by the twentieth century invention of plastics.  Finally, plants from all over the world would thrive on Zanzibar and its mainland possessions, transforming it into a “spice island” that was heavily dependent on slave labor.  The production of cloves in massive plantations became a signature of sorts for this area.  (Fun fact: the Afrikaans word for cloves is “naeltjies,” meaning “little nails.”)

I hope you will enjoy this series of posts as much as I enjoyed my trip to this island!

 

Moscow: One last bit of wandering

November 2, 2017

The last day in any place is always bittersweet. I want to be home, but I don’t want to waste the opportunity of time in another place. My responsibilities in that place have ended, but my email threatens to enchain me as soon as I return home. Of course, the thought of my loved one at home makes me weak in the knees! I tried to be realistic with my plan for the last day, but reality had a few surprises in store for me.

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A view of “Moscow City” from my hotel room

Ditching the luggage

Saying farewell to the Korston Club Hotel was no challenge. I would not have to hold my breath to avoid the smell of smoke as I exited my non-smoking room. I would not have to endure more self-promotional posters on every surface. Most of all, I would not have to listen to more of their advertising jingles in the elevator. After a heavy breakfast at their buffet, I strapped together my 26 inch roller back, my backpack, and my laptop handbag and rolled across the street to the park. The weather had finally changed from drizzle to clear skies, but that also meant the temperature had dropped. I rolled down the paved road to the metro stop and bought metro tickets.

To start the day, I navigated to Paveletskaya, the train station in SE Moscow from which I would catch the Airport Express train to DME airport. I had realized only the night before that I was leaving through DME rather than SVO. I’m awfully glad that someone at the conference asked me to confirm the airport! Paveletskaya required me to switch between the red train and the circular brown route, and this time I was doing it with all my luggage in tow. I hit some runs of stairs that were less than pleasant, given all the gifts that now occupied my bag. In any case, I was at the train station pretty quickly (despite having gotten on the brown line in the wrong direction at first).

Obviously I didn’t want to tow all that freight throughout the day, so I found the luggage storage office. I panicked at first because I passed one that had obviously been out of operation for years. Once I reached the right place, though, I learned that I needed to show my passport and pay 270 RUB in cash to leave each bag. I swallowed my pride and shoved my laptop back into my backpack, surrendering only the roller bag. Now I was free for more ambitious navigation! I hopped the green line into the city center.

My plan: the Kremlin

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No, Marx has not been exiled from Moscow!

My goal was pretty straightforward. Since my flights to South Africa began near midnight, I had the entire day to play. I would enter the Kremlin to see the classic buildings inside! I popped out at the (Bolshoi) Theatre exit. I paid my respects at the statue of Marx in its square. As I walked past the State Historical Museum, I heard a loud voice advertising its neighbor, the 1812 War museum (when Alexander I faced down Napoleon’s troops). I continued with steadfast determination.

Next, I saw the line for Lenin’s tomb. It seemed I might get through in an hour or so. I passed onward to Red Square and gazed again at St. Basil’s Cathedral. Hadn’t I seen an entry to the Kremlin on this side? I could not see where I could enter.

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It is hard to photograph St. Basil’s without a mob of people!

In any case, I thought I should probably plan for lunch before going in so I would be fully fueled for exploration. I walked past the GUM mall again, this time to the block on its side away from Red Square. I saw a few churches, but it seemed I had moved substantially away from the tourists. I found a pleasant restaurant for lunch, and I lingered over a meal of eggplant casserole, flower tea, and bread. I have been re-reading the “His Dark Materials” trilogy from Philip Pullman, so I read for a little while. The restaurant played an album of covers by a band with a mellifluous tone. It was surprising to hear a soothing version of “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes. I wondered if I should tell the waiter of the time I was driving in a parking lot when Jack White jaywalked in front of me.

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Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

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My father in the late 1960s

Now fed, I was ready to enter the Kremlin! I entered a set of gardens on the northwest face of the fortifications. I paused respectfully at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I looked at the soldiers standing guard and reflected that my father might have played some similar role during his time as an Honor Guardsman in the U.S. Army. I continued on my way, seeing raised places in the marble sidewall to represent particular cities in Russia that were home to particular struggles, such as Stalingrad. Of course, the names were written in Cyrillic lettering, challenging my ability to sound them out. After two weeks in Russia, I found it a lot easier to sound out many words, though some of the complex sounds stubbornly resisted my efforts to memorize them.

I reached the bridge for entry to the long axis of the Kremlin at last, but something was wrong. The staff entrance was live, but tourists could not enter. Instead, I saw a signpost indicating that the Kremlin was… CLOSED? I was uncertain whether the change reflected an ordinary Thursday or was due to preparations for the century anniversary of the October Revolution (which is in early November, by the modern calendar).

Well, figs!

Interlude: Dave attempts an alternative plan.

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This baptism from a millennium ago has had far-reaching consequences.

The sunlight was lovely, and even though the breeze was cool, I decided to continue to the massive statue of Vladimir I that I had seen from the far side of the road a few days ago. It did not disappoint at close range. It has very dramatic detail, and some trick with his eyes makes them seem to peer right at the observer. I was able to examine the panels of relief behind him, and I saw that his baptism as a Christian was certainly the aspect of his rule that the monument celebrated. I encountered an Indian tourist, and he and I took photos for each other. He mentioned that the museum of 1812 was pretty interesting. I looked to the south and saw the massive church with five golden spires at the side of the Moskva River, another tourist site I had considered for the afternoon. I turned my back and walked the length of the Kremlin back to the 1812 museum.

It was closed.

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Spoiler: Napoleon withdrew his troops at great cost!

In the absence of a plan, Dave improvises.

I wandered a bit in the area beyond the museum. I knew it was an area that offered interesting shopping, so I pushed into those neighborhoods. I asked a shopkeeper about bookstores in the area, and she pointed me up the road on the opposite side. I’d found her suggestion approximately a block and a half later. The shopkeeper greeted me by replying that she had no books in English. I pointed to one on the table and suggested that I’d enjoy taking a look. She shrugged. My interest in the shop grew as I realized she had large-scale posters from the Soviet era hanging around the upper shelves. I found books of smaller versions, but no poster tubes. Her shop seemed to have a fair number of history books, but of course they were in Russian. In the end, I found three books that I wanted, at “non-tourist” prices:

  • A book of fairy tales by Pushkin, one of Russia’s favorite authors
  • A book detailing the life of an American who served as a nurse in Siberia during the Russian Civil War
  • A book showing postcards from a variety of Russian cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

As my brother might once have exclaimed, “SCORE!” I was ready to check out when the sales clerk uttered that word that brings so much terror to the visitor: “Rubles.” No, my credit card had no value. Happily, the nearest bank was within sight.

I realized on my jaunt to the bank that the neighboring shop was also a bookstore. I found the copy of Lonely Planet’s Russia for 1800 RUB (just over $30). That might have seemed a better deal before this trip. I considered getting their “Eyewitness Top 10” for Moscow (I liked the St. Petersburg one), but I was again out of cash. In any case, this shop had piles of English-language books, but they were almost all paperback. I moved on up the street.

Sharing Lubyanka with filmmakers

Just like that, my feet had returned me to Lubyanka Square. The memorial service was a memory. The center point of the service, a stone set in the square to remember victims of political executions during the Soviet Era, was surrounded by red flowers (chrysanthemums?) and bottled candles. I was reading its sign when a young Russian asked me if I could move to the side. He and his cinematographer were filming an older gentleman, relating his narrative about (one presumes) a friend or relative who died during the Soviet Era. I didn’t have anything in particular to do, so I sat at an out-of-sight park bench to watch their work.

It seems that the director was adopting a cue-and-response interview. Occasionally they would stop the older gentlemen, re-set to another camera angle, and then restart. The gentleman seemed to be willing to humor them, even shooting some “B-Roll” of his wandering in an arc around the stone monument. From time to time, the older gentleman or the producers would shoot an eye in my direction. Given the location (in front of the KGB building) and the presumed material, I realized they may be concerned that I was watching them for reasons other than my whimsical nature. While the cinematographer modified his equipment, I asked the director to capture a photo of me with the stone.

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This Solovetsky Stone is partner to the one I saw in St. Petersburg.

Starting my journey south

With that, I had no other plan but to return to the rail station, acquire an Airport Express ticket (500 RUB) and rescue my luggage. All of that went smoothly. The Airport Express run was really smooth, taking around 45 minutes from start to finish. The train dumped us essentially across the street from the airport terminal entrance, so the worst part was dealing with everybody’s desire to rush off the train at once!

Once at the airport, I had more than an hour before boarding passes would become available, so I ran for some dinner upstairs, then returned to the line for Emirates Air. I hadn’t checked in online from my hotel this morning, and I got a nasty surprise when I arrived at the desk. They could not immediately give me a seat assignment, and the flight was oversold! I waited two minutes in a bit of a sweat where the agent could see me. Happily, my suspense ended very rapidly and she handed me two boarding passes. I had what looked like a middle seat on the way to Dubai (the shorter flight), but I discovered that it was the emergency exit row, with nobody to my left! I was on the aisle for the long leg to Cape Town. After passing through immigration, baggage, and customs, I returned to the arms of Natasha.  That feeling spells “HOME” for me!

 

The birth of a new conference

November 1, 2017

How does a new conference enter the academic calendar? I was encouraged by the example set by the Clinical Proteomics / Post-Genome Medicine meeting (ClinProt 2017), and I thought it might be useful to talk about some of the things that the group did really well, while relating a bit of what unfolded for me in my last day at the conference.

Logo_BGRS-shrinkFirst off, this is far from the first meeting to take place in Russia on the subject of human proteomics. The Russian Human Proteome Organization has been operating since 2002, and it sponsors two distinct meetings yearly. The main meeting takes place in the city of Kazan each October. Members who are particularly interested in bioinformatics may participate in an annual meeting at the city of Novosibirsk (Bioinformatics of Genome Regulation and Structure / Systems Biology). The RHUPO has also successfully organized a big event for the world HUPO; in 2009, Dr. Alexander Archakov hosted the third Human Proteome Project Workshop in Moscow!

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Human Proteome Project, Moscow (2009)

The ClinProt 2017 meeting seemed special in that it sought to foster connections among many different institutions within Russia; the program was salted with several investigators across Europe and the broader world, but the emphasis seemed to be on developing networks within the country, including multidisciplinary links. As I look across the eleven-member organizational team in the conference program, I see five different research institutions, all in Russia, represented by post-doctoral scientists. This team of junior researchers will all have valuable experience for the future, and senior scientists who attended the meetings will remember who they could rely upon when trying to solve a last-minute problem before a talk!

I would catalog several things, then, that the organizers did right:

Skin in the game
Because several institutions contributed organizers, more schools sent speakers, poster presenters, and trainees. In total, 350 people registered, and 274 attended. That’s pretty great for a first conference!
Personal touch
Several speakers mentioned that they had been recruited by an organizer who knew them from prior contact. Since professors frequently get spammed by for-profit conferences, these personal contacts made a difference in getting the names they wanted for the meeting agenda.
Detail focus
I heard several of the organizers quietly worrying about whether something was going to go just right. Throughout, it was clear that each person knew what his or her responsibility included. The team was definitely committed.
Industry works
I occasionally hear academics sneer at the inclusion of instrument and reagent vendors in speaker rosters, but their participation in a meeting adds more than just money. I was glad to see a representative from Helicon lecture on the value of CyTOF for cell counting applications, since I am mentoring a student working with such data.

I became aware that we had some special guests today as I lingered in the speaker ready room. Several people in suits made an appearance. I had a rapid conversation with Sergey Suchkov, an M.D. and Ph.D. who has a relentless energy about him. He has a strong interest in developing relationships among BRICS nations in the field of “precision medicine” (sometimes called “personalized medicine”), and he wanted to talk about some possibilities between South Africa and Russia in that space. We agreed to touch base this afternoon when he could introduce me to another M.D. Ph.D. friend of his who has become involved in genome bioinformatics. That meting put forward some interesting possibilities in tuberculosis, which has become problematic in the Russian prison system. I hope we will be able to define some projects we can pursue together in this space.

Right away, though, I had to leave our discussion to teach my afternoon workshop on performing post-hoc quality control assessment in large-scale proteome projects. I was very grateful that the conference organizers could add a link to their website so that participants could download the R statistical script and input files for the workshop directly from the link above. That way the conference attendees who needed to leave Moscow early can still get access to the tutorial.

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Image from my paper with Xia Wang introducing “IDFree” metrics

This was my first time to teach a workshop on quality control. My normal curriculum has emphasized protein identification or the recognition of post-translational modifications. Since I am now chairing the HUPO-PSI working group on quality control, though, it was a good time for me to put together some training materials in this space. I chose a highly visible data set, the 1425 LC-MS/MS experiments that the Vanderbilt team produced from colorectal cancer samples for the National Cancer Institute CPTAC program. The workshop would focus on recreating figures that Xia Wang at U-Cincinnati had scripted in the R statistical environment from tables of QC metrics that my team had generated.

I was really pleased with the dozen or so students who attended the workshop. Their questions were very good, and their understanding of the statistical concepts was at a very high level. To give one example, a student asked how differently the files would have spread in my plot of the first two principal components if we had used ordinary PCA rather than robust PCA. Another asked how hierarchical clustering would visualize these data in principal components space. These are not the questions one encounters with people who have never seen PCA before!

So color me impressed. This meeting ran like clockwork, and the students came ready to learn. The speaker list did not have some of the biggest names in world proteomics, but in fact I trusted what I was hearing more because it came from investigators who had worked at the bench more recently. I am of course grateful for the time I’ve been given to see Russia first-hand, but in the end I was brought here to teach and to learn. I enjoyed both missions!

 

Feeling very far from home

October 31, 2017

I think professionals of all sorts are often surprised by the ways in which emotion can invade their work lives, and scientists are no exception. On October 31st, I found myself struggling to come to terms with being in Russia on a day when the first indictments were announced in response to the Russian government’s intervention in the most recent U.S. presidential election.

I have read before that jet lag is difficult to distinguish from a combination of exhaustion and dehydration. On Halloween I asked myself why I found it so hard to be productive at the ClinProt 2017 meeting. The answer, I think, was a combination of exhaustion and grief. The exhaustion is easy to explain. I left from South Africa on October 19th, so the 31st marked my twelfth consecutive day away from home. Even if much of my trip was vacation time, I tend to use a lot of energy on my vacation days!

Why would I be feeling grief, though? Some of it stemmed from the loneliness of being away from Natasha and my friends in Cape Town. I also felt a pang at spending the day in a place that doesn’t celebrate Halloween with the enthusiasm we do in the United States. The principal push, though, was a sense of loss from the unraveling of United States institutions.

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Public Domain image of Robert Mueller, III

Around twenty-four hours ago, Special Investigator Robert Mueller announced that George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy advisor to the Donald Trump presidential campaign, had admitted guilt in lying to the FBI. He had attempted to hide the fact that he made several attempts to connect the Trump campaign with his contacts in the Russian government. Two “bigger fish” in the campaign, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, have been arrested and are now facing twelve charges ranging from conspiracy against the United States, money laundering (apparently attempting to hide the fact that they had been paid by the Russian government), failing to disclose the fact that they had been paid by foreign governments, and making false statements to law enforcement.

I think most of my readers have inferred that I disagree with almost all of President Donald Trump’s actions since taking office. I would really like to believe, however, that he thinks his actions are what the country actually needs. I once heard that Alberto Gonzales, previously the Attorney General under George W. Bush and now the Dean of Belmont University College of Law in Nashville, claimed that no President of the United States could ever take an action that he (or she) believed would hurt the country. To the contrary, it seems obvious to me that President Trump has behaved in ways that are already hurting the United States. Just the same, I have wished that President Trump believed his actions are justified and appropriate. The fact that two people so close to him face charges of conspiring against the United States erodes my hope that President Trump actually wants what is best for the United States.

Of course, we have known since January of 2017 that the United States intelligence community believes it has proof that Russia intervened in the U.S. presidential election. My sense of this claim is that it takes at least two forks: 1) The Russian government wanted U.S. citizens to feel less faith that its elections were fair, and 2) The Russian government wanted the undermine Hillary Clinton’s reputation to diminish her standing if she were able to win the election. When I was planning my trip to Russia, I had to ask whether I was willing to visit a country for which the government would attempt such an influence.

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An image for high school classmate Jason P. from “Rocky IV”

I decided that the people whom I would meet in Moscow had no part in such an attempt. I know that the scientists here already must deal with challenges in acquiring equipment because United States laws place special restrictions on exports to Russia. My goal in coming here is not so different than my goal in conducting research and mentoring in South Africa, really. I want to see the community of researchers throughout the world become more adept at retrieving information from their data, seeing that their clinical research aims are just as intended for the betterment of humanity as my own are.

1412867676245I have said before that I am a Global Citizen. For me, this means that where I see public health threats, I want to place my research efforts on the other pan of the scales. It means that the suffering of a person counts the same no matter the color of his or her skin, his or her gender, his or her religion (if any!), and his or her nationality. I believe that all the life of planet Earth is worth protecting. I sure hope that Earth’s governments will help rather than hinder that mission.