curious since 1978

Off the Beaten Path: Tanzania

IMG_2516Our African adventure really begins in Detroit. Mike and I sit at the airport bar to have our bon voyage beer. Glasses clink, drinks go down – great start already. Next to us at the bar sits a tired, anxious looking man. Nervous flyer maybe? He turns to ask if we’re on the Amsterdam flight to which we nod. He double checks the time of departure to which we answer. Conversation begins. His dad passed yesterday and he’s on his way home to Denmark for the first time in 4 years. They were close, the Dane and his dad. He looks near 50, but I’m sure the passing of a parent would temporarily add a few years to one’s face. Visibly needing someone to talk to he tells us his story – At 35 he needed an adventure and left his home country to live abroad for the first time. He lived in Alaska where he ran survivor expeditions for adventurous tourists, then to West Virginia to train police dogs and most recently to Toronto where he met his wife and decided to settle. The man drinks a bit more beer and then, presumably contemplating life and his great loss, says that in all of his travels the one great thing that he has learned is that material things aren’t real. Family, friends and traveling to learn new things about the world, other lives and yourself, well that’s where it’s at. You really can’t take it with you. He’s right, of course, and there’s weight to his delivery and his words that make them real and somewhat momentous. However, in our vacation mentality we simply nod in agreement and probably, and slightly awkwardly, say the wrong thing. Time’s up. We say our forever goodbyes and board our flight.

A short 25 hours later we land in Arusha and a whirlwind of a 3 week trip begins. Here goes: We go on Safari in the Serengeti with our tour guide, Sylvester, and chef, Mgosi, who is one of the funniest people (and best cooks!) we’ve ever come across. We see the Great Migration (!), get chased by a lion and don’t shower for days. I learn to use “squatty potties” and that my daily regimen back home of lotions, eye cream and face wash may, in fact, be useless. We learn to be less wasteful when it comes to water and by consciously using small amounts we realize that we have indeed been wasteful with it back home. A storm comes that night. When we don’t hear rain angrily spattering our tents, we listen to laughing hyenas, chucking zebras and gossiping Wildebeests throughout the campsite. This causes me to painfully contain a full bladder for hours inside the dark tent. We are up at 6am for an Africafe, which I quickly learn to love and look forward to each morning. Instant coffee, whodathunk? Baboons invade our campground and the guides chase them off. We leave the Serengeti and drive to Ngorongoro Crater on a one lane road through fog so dense that we can’t see oncoming traffic until they are swerving out of our way. We set up camp on a chilly look-out. The wind is so fierce that our tents fold in half throughout the night. An elephant roams our campground in search of water and my bladder holds tight yet again. The sun’s light allows relief. Africafe. We drive to the crater where we finally see a Rhino – Big 5 complete! Giraffes, hippos, elephants, many different horned animals and a multitude of birds and exotic flowers fill our memory cards. We visit a Masai village where we dance with the African tribe. I realize my dancing is universally terrible. We sit on a bed of sticks and cow hide and I feel embarrassed when I think of my queen sized pillow-top, throw pillows galore. We leave the village and head to Singida on a city bus 135% full and I relish in the fact that I can smell as bad as I do and fit in just fine, better probably. I close my eyes most of the ride in fear of the speeding bus flying off of a mountain. When I open them I realize from the calm faces surrounding me this race pace is normal. I begin to embrace the adventure. We make our way to Brian’s home away from home. It’s not as I had imagined; it’s comfortable, warm and inviting. I meet his “pet” chickens and a neighborhood dog, Clifford. We then meet Phillip, a fellow teacher, and Adam, a student who frequent’s Brian’s house. They’re just as excited to meet us as we are them. We gather in Brian’s living room and talk until I’m asleep. Sun is up. Africafe. We walk to get milk from a dairy cow down the street so that we can make breakfast. An elderly woman pumps the cow’s utters. After straining the milk once or twice it’s poured into an Orange Fanta bottle and we’re on our way.  Embrace it.  Phillip and Adam join for breakfast. Phillip learns to flip a pancake as Mike teaches Adam Backgammon and Adam teaches us Swahili. Issa, a friend of Brian’s from the village, joins soon after. We all walk to Brian’s school and I realize how very much we stand out in the village. Stares, giggles, finger points, followers. We arrive at the school and I’m amazed at how big it is and how bright and airy the classrooms seem. We see the library that Brian worked on so diligently and was able to see come to fruition prior to his departure. I hold back tears upon seeing this permanent reminder of his dedication in person. I realize the power of one.  We leave the school and hike along fields full of goats, cows, sunflowers and litter. Littering is normal here and I feel sad that this beautiful place is speckled with so much plastic. We quickly assess that the Orange Fanta bottle used for the cow’s milk early that morning was recycled litter. Embrace it.  We hike up rocks and dirt and reach one of the most magnificent views of all my life. We sit together looking out over Singuida and eat freshly picked guava. We don’t all speak the same language, but laughs are shared and the moment is magical. Phillip has us over for a traditional Tanzanian dinner. We meet his wife, Beatrice and their two lovely daughters. I don’t believe everyone when they warn me Beatrice’s chili sauce, aka pilipili, is that spicy. I regret my stubbornness as the burn sweeps over my mouth. I focus instead on not using my left hand, a Tanzanian faux pas.  Issa has us over for tea. We eat Raw Sweet Potato and Papaya picked from his garden and drink tea that has a striking similarity to Froot Loops. My protruding belly is proof of my current state of happiness. We take pictures in the sunshine with Phillip, Adam, a few curious neighbors and Issa’s family, including one of Brian giving them a ‘thank you for having us’ chicken. We go home and do laundry in the same buckets we did the morning dishes behind Brian’s house while curious neighborhood children climb a tree to study us foreigners.  I think how sad I am to leave this simplicity behind. How life can exist beyond cell phones and noise and stuff.  Brian has a gathering of friends that night, including a man called “Sweet Baby Jesus”, I believe due to his perfect hands and another with the moniker of “King Taster” because he was able to pick out 13 beers perfectly in a blind taste test.  We learn to play ‘Last Cardy’, Tanzania’s answer to UNO. We don’t all speak the same language, but we laugh until our eyes fill with tears and for that night we’re not strangers who live 9,000 miles apart, but friends in a living room, drinking beer and playing cards. We leave Singida the next morning and I can’t take enough pictures of Brian’s home to try and hold onto the memory and feeling I’m left with – bliss. We load into a regular sized mini-van full of 11 people, which I’m disappointed in when Brian tells me his max has been 22, plus chickens. The van speeds down a crumbling dirt road to a city bus that is 155% full this time with a few cackling hens. I’m a pro at this point and calmly read the 5 hour trip full of pot-holes, slamming brakes and one very loud woman preacher. We meet a local man on the bus who takes us to a local spot and we sit with him and have a beer. He’s a dog breeder and fills our ears w/ stories of his life and dogs. Stories we’d never know had we not traveled halfway around the world. It makes me wonder what other stories are out there that we’ll never hear. The next night we meet with other Peace Corps volunteers and play another new card game, ‘Resistance’, in a lively African bar which is packed for a World Cup game. One of the volunteers is wearing a shirt with brightly colored tarantulas throughout the material. He’s a Coloradan who loves bugs so much that he wants to stay in Africa another year to study them. The other is a curly haired environmentalist from Connecticut who temporarily adopted an African puppy and vents his frustration of not being able to convince the people in his village to grow a certain vitamin filled vegetable.  I look at these three volunteers and I wonder to myself if they will ever be able to fully explain to their family and friends about their lives in Africa, all they’ve seen and how they’ve changed. How they spend a full day getting to town, exhaustingly negotiate prices for hours at the local markets just for a few days’ worth of food, raising chickens and goats to kill and prepare them for dinner, not always having access to running water, electricity or toilet paper or how rare it is to speak to someone who understands your native tongue. A life that is half a world away, but seems worlds apart.  A two week adventure for me, a current way of life for them.  We fall asleep late and wake up early in a haze of the ‘The Big 5’,  African beers this time. Africafe. We drive to Kilimanjaro and hike day one of the 19,000 foot climb, which we thought was going to be a maximum of 4 hours and are regretting our choice 8 hours later. We talk about coming back to complete it one day. With tired bones and achy muscles we fall asleep early and we awake the day of our departure. One final Africafe. One final look at the busy streets lined with elephant sized potholes, children playing too close to the road, jaywalking goats and cows, women carrying every imaginable good on their heads, cars frantically whizzing past farm animals and motorcycles carrying barrels of hay, brightly colored clothes adorning passers-by, dogs with protruding rib cages, onlookers with dusty faces and many thatch huts sprinkled about. Embrace it. We drive to the airport and what seems a farewell gift from Tanzania, our first clear day. We stop for a picture in front of the now visible Kilimanjaro. We arrive at the airport, say our goodbyes and board our flight. A lifetime in two weeks. I can’t even begin to imagine two years. We spend our 30 hour fight going back and forth between trip chatter and quiet reflection. One can’t visit anywhere and not feel different upon leaving. I cannot help but think of the Dutchman’s words and how true they ring through my ears. His same words that began our trip also ended it, and Africa proved them to be true.

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Let me preface the below w/ the fact that I’m not a TZ travel expert, but here are some tidbits of info I gathered before and during my travel to TZ and a few I wish I knew prior.

To do and not to do:

Do: Learn basics in Swahili. Just as the french say “Bonjour or Bonswa” with each meeting of a person, Tanzanians say Jambo or Mambo to mean “hello”, “how’s it going” to each passer-by.  Not to be confused with Jamba, which means “fart”. We were lucky to have Mike’s brother, Brian, but I do wish I spent a bit more time learning the basics.

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Don’t: Southpaws, this is for you. As my friend Trinka thankfully informed me prior to my trip, do not eat with your left hand, especially a shared dish. Using silverware w/ my left hand seemed to be okay, but shared finger dishes are a plenty here and considering the left hand is traditionally meant to wipe what your mama gave ya, it is considered faux pas to eat or shake hands w/ your left.

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Brian and Mike enjoying a Mgosi delight at our Serengeti campsite

Do: Pack a head lamp. Electricity isn’t always available and when it is, there’s a chance it could fail.

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Do: Pack wet wipes. Along w/ electricity, showers aren’t always accessible, especially w/ hot water. I packed a few packs of these wipes and went through every last one.  Along these same lines, pack some travel kleenex packs to double as toilet paper. TP isn’t always available because, as mentioned above, Tanzanians often use their hands and some water in a nearby bucket.  I was happy to have the option.

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Don’t: Dress without the culture in mind. Tanzania is a traditional country with blend of Muslim and Christian so dress with respect of this. Women should cover their shoulders and wear loose fitting pants or skirts down to mid calf. The Tanzanian cities are a bit less traditional when it comes to clothing, especially w/ tourists, but you’ll feel more comfortable wherever you go in the appropriate duds. Beyond the culture, wear more neutral colors on safari. Also, the tsetse fly is attracted to shades of blue and black.

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Myself w/ Issa’s wife and daughter, Rhonda

Do: Pack an empty large mouth gatorade bottle if you’re planning on camping. I really wish I had this handy each night. The campsites are extremely safe, but you are among wild animals so walking alone at night to the restroom should be avoided, as should a UTI – hence the bottle.
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Do: Pack some form of motion sickness medication if you ever find it necessary to take. Between the pot-holed dirt roads and flying speeds, screeching stops of the bus, I found it helpful.  I did buy mine in a pharmacy while there. However, it cost me $10.

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Don’t: Forget earplugs. Besides the long flight with a strong chance of an “adorable” screaming child, wildlife is like a college campus and only gets louder at night. Mike took a pair and slept like a champ as I tossed and turned a night or two without them.

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Do: Haggle! The markets for goods and food have no set pricing. You can always get them down because prices will surreptitiously be marked higher for tourists. However, don’t forget that you’re sometimes haggling over a couple of dollars or less, so if you have it to spare, maybe let the seller win this round. Also, do prepare yourself for getting bombarded in busy markets. Sales tactics here are to ambush you with questions or get you to look at their goods until you buy something. I came back w/ a few unnecessary items due to this. Hey, it works!

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Don’t: Take US dollars older than 2006. They won’t be accepted in most places. Also, 20’s have the lowest exchange rate. 50’s are better and 100’s the best for the exchange rate, but harder to receive change.  Almost everywhere accepted U.S. dollars, fyi. We always had shillings on hand just in case. You’re able to get shillings out of the ATM’s.

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This and that:

After knowing all that Brian has done for his village of Ilongero while working w/ the Peace Corps and seeing the library first-hand, I am now adding The Peace Corps to my annual donations. If you’re interested you can hop onto their website and peruse different grants. 100% of your donation goes to the project of your choosing. My guess is that under 50 people donated to the library so it goes to show that you really can make a difference.

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Safari means “journey” or “trip” in Swahili. A journey indeed – beyond visiting The Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, we were also able to plan day trips and set up pick-up/drop-off at the airport w/ the same company, Original Tanzania. This was great because we were with the same guides so you’re able to develop a relationship and share an openness with questions.  This helps to create a more unique and better learning experience, not only concerning wildlife, but also the culture. Mgosi (pictured below 2nd from left) even called us one evening that we weren’t with them just to ensure we made it home safely. They also set up every hotel, campsite, etc. Sarah was our contact person w/ O.T. She was extremely patient w/ our many questions and took the worry out of the planning our of our once in a lifetime African journey.

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There are plenty of places to stay in Arusha that may be fancier than the ones we chose w/ Sarah through O.T., but as travelers we prefer the lower-key places that are a bit more affordable and more true to the experience. That being said, they had warm showers, comfy beds and felt completely safe. The two I recommend are The Outpost Lodge and Ilboru Safari Lodge.

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We tried many Tanzanian dishes that were splendid! Don’t pass up the red or mini bananas (I don’t know exactly what the little guys were called).  I’m a vegetarian and had zero difficulty finding food that fit my dietary needs. Some local dishes to try are Ugali, which is basically a cornmeal porridge and Chipsi Mayai, which seems to be a french fry omlet. Add a little pilipili sauce (Tanzanian chili sauce) and it’s simply divine! I ate the latter no less than 5x during our two week trip. I said vegetarian dishes were easy to find, but I never said they’d be the healthiest options. Anyways, fries should be a vacation staple! Also, if you’re using a safari company, don’t forget to ask if you’ll have a cook in your trips (I believe most do) and let them know if you have any dietary restrictions. Mgosi, our chef, made the most wonderful vegetarian dishes for me. We ate a crusted vegetarian quiche for breakfast one morning! The boys ate goat, chicken and beef all cooked and spiced perfectly. The food was heavenly!

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As you can see from most of the pics, there are two items that I used every single day of the trip. I used them to block sun from my forehead, keep my hair out of my face and to keep warm on chilly nights. I highly recommend these two for travel due to their multi-purposes: My scarf and my head wrap.

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Finally:

Blame it on naivety, blame it on the news, blame it on the 8 “pre-cautionary” vaccinations I received to go on this trip – whatever the reason was, I was a bit nervous before heading to Africa. I read numerous stories about negative happenings to locals and tourists, but then I realized that, consciously or not, I was searching for the bad. I started to spin my search differently and quickly realized that the positives FAR outweighs the negatives. As with any city, take precautions with your belongings and yourself. The same could be said for Paris, NYC, Chicago, Rio, etc.  I’m happy to say that I never once felt unsafe and can’t wait to travel here again!

Kwaheri and Asante!

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A few through the eye of the camera:

(see the rest here)

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