Friday, October 20, 2006

Mafia Island, Tanzania

November 4-6, 2005

A short holiday was coming and I needed to come up with something to do that wasn’t too far but something beyond what could be done on a normal weekend. An island off the coast seemed like the thing to do.

Tanzania has a high percentage of both Muslims and Christians and therefore it recognizes holidays of both religions. That’s good news for me since Harvard has us on the Tanzania schedule rather than the American one. Every November Muslims celebrate Eid al Fitr. It’s the celebration of the end of Ramadan, the holiest time of year according to Islam in which, among other things, Muslims fast for a month during daylight hours. There are a lot of strange things about Eid. One of which is that on Zanzibar during this day men run around pretending to attack each other with banana palm fronds and the women follow singing songs. Par-tay.

Another reason it’s strange, and the reason I’m even mentioning this at all, is that the beginning of the holiday is determined by when the local holy man (the imam) first sees the new moon. It affects when you take off work and how many actual days off you get. If he would have seen the new moon on Wednesday night (I really have to force myself not to think of the groundhog and his shadow), we wouldn’t have had to work on Thursday. You don’t know until that evening. We were calling our Muslim friends to find out if we had to work the next morning. We would then have had both Thursday and Friday off. As it turned out, the imam didn’t see his shadow and Thursday was a workday.

Priya and I booked our flight for Thursday afternoon to be safe so it all worked out. We worked a little over a half day and then hopped in a taxi for the old terminal at the Dar airport where the domestic flights operate. It’s an old building that gives you the feel of the old colonial times. Our small charter plane was delayed from wherever it was coming so we had some time to kill in the rustic old terminal. When the old Cessna 172 finally rolled up to the building, we were ordered to board quickly since the pilot had to make his trip to Mafia Island and back to Dar before sunset and he was running late. The guy looked like he was slightly over 12-years-old so I think it either had something to do with the nature of his pilot’s license or his mom wanted him home before dark.

Mafia Island has been on my list of things to do before I leave Tanzania. It’s the southernmost of the three big islands just off the coast that also includes Zanzibar and Pemba. Mafia (nothing to do with Sicily – the name comes from the Arabic word “morfiyeh” which is comparable to “archipelago”) is actually a collection of several small islands that are part of a marine sanctuary that receives special protection from the Tanzanian government. As far as tourism goes, it’s not too developed yet. I imagine that will come before too long but for now it’s pretty rustic.

The flight takes a little over a half hour and the youngish white Tanzanian pilot seemed to know what he was doing. As our beat up little plane approached the dirt landing strip, I could see people casually walking across it and some goats grazing in the adjacent grass. It was basically a swath cut through the trees. The pilot set the plane down with impressive grace and we taxied in the swirling dust up to the tiny building that is the Mafia Airport.

The hotel’s Land Cruiser was thankfully waiting for us and off we went. We passed through the village of Kilindoni – a rather typical rural Tanzanian town but quite charming nonetheless. There are no paved roads on the island but the bumpy drive fortunately only lasted about 20 minutes. We arrived at our hotel, appropriately named the Mafia Island Lodge, and were treated to a fresh coconut with a straw and a flower sticking out of it. We checked in, went to our nondescript room and then had dinner. During dinner we arranged a snorkeling excursion the next day. Some local guys offered us a trip out to a reef in a dhow (handmade wooden boat) complete with a lunch of fish they would catch while we were snorkeling. Sounded good to us. We worked out a price and met them at the beach the next morning at 10am.

Some other people were there and there ended up being a small group of us on our little half hour trip. We dropped anchor near the reef and we hopped in the warm turquoise water. It was some pretty amazing snorkeling I have to say. I’ve never seen such plentiful and colorful sea life – like swimming in a crowded aquarium except that it was endless. After an hour or two we pulled up on a sandbar and the boys began grilling the white snapper. The rest of us sipped on beers and soda while the hot equatorial sun baked the sand.

I should probably mention the other group of people who were on the excursion since they ended up coming with us the next day as well. It was a group of goofy Quebecois (I’ve yet to meet someone from Quebec who is normal) speaking their crazy version of French and, well, just being strange. I won’t go into what they do to the French language since that’s unrelated to the rest of this but suffice to say I was captivated by these folks. It was their accent, their behavior, everything. I’ve had some experience with Quebecois from working with a few over a period of a couple of years while in Switzerland (and traveling to Montreal with one for a couple of weeks). I don’t know if it’s from the isolation of feverishly protecting your language and culture or inbreeding or what but as long as you consider them a source of entertainment, you won’t get annoyed. And don’t get me started on Celine Dion.

So anyway, it was a nice relaxing day. It really is an amazing place with the color of the water, the coconut trees, the white sand, etc. The East African coast is loaded with one tropical paradise after another, most of them largely undiscovered. We were pretty happy with this one.

After eating we hopped back on the boat and returned to the hotel, showered, had dinner, and planned the excursion for the next day. The plan for Saturday turned out to be similar except we went quite a ways south of the island to a sandbar surrounded by incredible reefs. It was by far the best snorkeling I’ve ever done. Priya had recently purchased an underwater case for her camera so she was anxious to try it out. Pretty cool to be able to capture underwater stills and video.

We were going to have lunch in the same manner as the day before but the tide rose more quickly than our guides had anticipated. Little by little the sandbar began to disappear as people scurried to gather belongings, towels and so forth. Soon the wood and coconut hull fire that had been cooking our snapper fell victim to the waves. The Tanzanian in charge saved the fish but to no avail since they were yet uncooked. Everyone pitched in to load the dhow as quickly as possible in the relentless rising tide, carrying things above our heads and tossing them aboard. As we pulled away from what was left of the sandbar, the unfazed Tanzanian crew of three began to prepare the sail for the return trip.

One interesting thing about a dhow is that all the parts are handmade including the wood-carved pulleys. Going from motor to sail is pretty interesting for a sailing layperson but to a seasoned veteran like my brother it would have certainly been much more fascinating.

On the way back to the main island, we stopped by Jibondo Island. It’s a small island that has around 2,000 inhabitants, who, according to our guide, don’t leave the island that much. It’s an interesting place in that it has no water. No wells. Completely dry. They can’t even make mud to build their huts. They have ingenious ways of capturing rainwater during the rainy season that they use for everything except drinking most of the year. All the water they drink has to be brought in from Mafia.

The folks weren’t overly welcoming, largely because there aren’t any shops or any way to spend money. In other words they had nothing to gain by our presence. We spent a whole 20 minutes or so walking around (bothering) the main village before we turned around and headed back to the dhow. Our annoyance to the villagers was exacerbated by the chief of the Quebecois tribe who decided to do a little dance and walk around with seaweed in his hair. It seemed to amuse primarily his own tribe and I was sensing the damage being done to the white race in the presence of a people who have limited exposure to non-Tanzanians. We couldn’t board our boat fast enough and I was happy to get back to the main island.

Being a foreigner (“mzungu”) is something that I constantly grapple with here. The reference used to refer exclusively to 19th century European explorers, missionaries and colonialists since they were the only non-Africans here. Now it sort of refers to foreigners in general and has somewhat of an economic connotation. I’ve even heard it used in reference to African Americans that are traveling or working here. I should mention that the famous Maasai tribe allegedly used a different word that fortunately didn’t stick. The term “iloridaa enjekat” was inspired by the sight of strange trouser-wearing invaders. It literally meant “those who confine their farts”. Funny guys those Maasai.

That evening was very nice but uneventful. We did have a walk along the beach taking advantage of a completely lightless environment to stargaze. They don’t call this the Dark Continent for nothing. It was an amazing sky full of southern hemisphere stars and constellations I don’t recognize yet. I should also say that it was a nice change to be on a safe beach at night. In Dar you’d never venture out on a casual walk along the beach at night like that.

We flew back to Dar the next afternoon. It was a particularly enjoyable weekend and another great African experience. I may sneak in one more adventure before heading to the States for the holidays. We’ll see.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Lushoto, Tanzania

October 14-16, 2005

When I first came to Africa, I wasn’t sure what sort of time I’d have for running around and seeing things. After heading to a couple of islands and a few safari trips, I figured I was off to a pretty good start. In the back of my mind, however, I knew that the work thing might eventually become pretty consuming and I’d get sucked in. And so it has happened.

My bi-weekly adventure treks have dwindled and my hours of labor have gone from a high number to an even higher number. Sneaking off is going to be tougher as many of the project changes I have been planning go into implementation. The good news is that I will start to see some fruit from nearly a half-year of toil. The admin and finance of an AIDS care and treatment project has been a major challenge both professionally and personally but, at the request of my girlfriend, I will not focus on the pitfalls of my job but spend more time thinking what a cool opportunity this is. As for the bad stuff, whatever happens happens. I will make sure I continue to enjoy this experience as I have until now.

So with that as the background for a much-needed getaway, Priya and I decided to peel my ass away from Dar es Salaam and head to the town of Lushoto. It’s almost due north of here about 5 hours or so depending on your mode of transportation. I’d heard a lot about this place and, given that Friday was a holiday, it was time to head to the hills.

Lushoto was a loose collection of very small Tanzanian villages until the arrival of the Germans in the late 1800's. Because the higher altitude and cooler climate were closer to that of native Germany, the Germans established an outpost there which grew fairly rapidly. For a while it was even targeted to be the German capital in Tanganyika (as it was known then).

To get there we chose to take the bus rather than drive since both our vehicles are of questionable reliability for longer excursions. The “deluxe” bus here is like a beat up Greyhound but nicer than cheaper alternatives. It has the loo in the back and they even come by with a bottle of water once you’re on the road. The main advantage to the more expensive option, however, is that you have a better chance of not breaking down (or so the theory goes). Most bus companies have crappy buses that fall apart in the middle of nowhere. You end up sitting on the side of the road in the hot sun watching a bunch of resourceful Tanzanian guys attempt to jerry rig the beast back to life – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Meanwhile stranded passengers try to flag down passing vehicles to get some sort of transport on towards their destination. Whities (wazungu) have a distinct advantage since there’s a greater chance that we’ll give them money.

After an uneventful but pretty drive, we made it to Lushoto. Priya had made reservations in a convent/hostel. Several years ago I stayed in a monastery/hostel in Cairo (the night I was arrested by Egyptian soldiers) so I guess it’s only fair that I give the ladies a chance at hosting me. There wasn’t a Tanzanian soldier in sight so I figured I was safe.

I tend to like this sort of non-traditional accommodation and this one turned out to be great. St. Eugene’s is in the Usambara Mountains about 3 km. from Lushoto. It's run by the St. Eugene Sisters who were originally formed in Tanga, it includes the Montessori School and Teacher Training Centre near Lushoto which focuses on training young teachers in Tanzania in the Montessori educational system. There is a small primary school attached to the college which takes in fee paying students from 3 to 6 years of age. Some local children are also accepted who's parents are unable to pay the fees. The fees collected go towards the funding of the college, further funding schemes include small workshops where local women make clothes, batiks, postcards etc. these are sold in the college shop. Finally the recently built St. Eugene's Hostel is aimed at tourists visiting the Usumbara area.

The sisters run a very clean place and even produce their own cheese, jam, banana wine and peanut butter. The higher altitude was very nice given that Dar is heating up as summer sets in. At night it was even cool enough to merit wearing a jacket (which I didn’t have).

The nuns have a good working relationship with a hike guide named Kibwana. When we checked in, we communicated our interest in having him show us around. So Saturday morning, after our scrambled eggs, bread, jam and coffee, Kibwana was waiting for us with a driver to take us to the trailhead. His English was decent and the day ended up being a pleasant mixture of English and Swahili. I say pleasant because, while it’s fun to mix it up in my new language, it can be exhausting and it’s nice to be able to bail a lot and fall back into my native tongue.

There are a number of guides in the Lushoto area and it’s going to gradually grow in popularity. As in the case of Kilimanjaro, you have good ones and bad ones. The sisters are very business savvy and are particular about those with whom they do business. Kibwana is not only a smart and trustworthy guide, he happens to be the grandson of a tribal chief. Our hike into the hills took us through his village. I have to say, it was one of the coolest Tanzanian experiences yet.

Kibwana introduced us to his grandfather’s four wives, dozens of uncles, aunts, siblings, etc. Basically the entire village is family. We were welcomed with considerable enthusiasm and the normally shy Tanzanians were working it in front of the camera. We were even invited into one of their tiny homes which is not very common. Afterwards we continued our walk amongst the banana trees and terraced farms. We snacked on sugar cane stalks, berries, bananas, etc. as we made our way towards the rain forest. We saw several chameleons but thanks mostly to Kibwana since they’re pretty hard to spot even though several were up to a foot long. Passing through villages children would call out greetings and often come running up to us. Most people drop what they’re doing to watch the wazungu go by. Occasionally we’d turn around to see kids falling in behind us giggling and/or making some sort of comments. I suppose it’s still a big deal for most of these people to see white people.

We passed many girls heading downhill with tons of wood loaded on their heads. Pretty amazing to see what these ladies/girls can pack on their heads. Because some of them were from Kibwana’s village, they’d occasionally stop and chat. It’s just weird how different it is for these kids to spend their Saturdays working their asses off while most American families can’t get their kids to take out the trash. These kids don’t ask questions. They just do it. They giggle, sing, talk, etc. and they don’t seem bothered by the whole thing. The hike took us to a couple of cool viewpoints and then it wound its way back to Lushoto. It was a full day of hiking and on arriving in town I was actually happy to sit down in a dingy little café and have a soda (you know I’d rather have had a beer but a lot of the places were Muslim-owned). The beer had to wait until I got back to the convent, strangely enough.

The moon was pretty much full and the cool evening was such a nice break from the Dar es Salaam heat. We bought some wine and cheese from the nuns and had a little balcony appetizer before dinner. The food was great – the chicken leg being three times the size of the scrawny city chickens.

The next morning we caught our taxi back to the bus station. We sat in the bus for a while and then felt the thing rocking back and forth. Yes, even the “deluxe” bus was ailing. The rocking was caused by people trying to push-start our fully loaded bus. When vehicles stall here, it’s amazing to see people drop what they’re doing to help push. In the case of a huge bus, the nearby café pretty much emptied as dozens rallied to get us rolling. Sure enough, it worked and we were off to Dar.

Uluguru Mountains

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

In the beginning, all these Tanzanian names sort of sounded like gibberish – Upanga, Udzungwa, Morogoro, Uluguru, etc. Now that I’ve been here a while they seem perfectly normal and the pronunciation is starting to roll off the tongue. One advantage here is that they are pronounced pretty much the way they’re read. The trip to the oo-loo-goo-roo mountains began as sort of a farewell to my friend Josh, an MD student colleague who is returning to the States to finish his final year of med school. A group of five of us (2 more would join us on Saturday) set out by taxi for the bus station where we would meet the Afriroots group, a small start up touring company that is focusing on short trips around Tanzania. They’re a good resource for people that work for international organizations and Harvard has tapped into them on more than one occasion, including my previous trip to the Udzungwa Mountains.

The bus station is another experience in chaos as you might think. There’s a lot of shouting, pointing, arguing, and so forth. In the first five minutes of waiting we saw two fights and tolerated the usual “wazungu” (whitie) comments and attempts to get us to purchase various items. The station, being a transport hub, means that wazungu are more common so you don’t stand out as much as you do in other places. Having said that, it’s a very African way to travel and non-Africans tend to either drive themselves or fly.

The group consisted of Dutch, Germans, an American guy from the UNDP, a Tanzanian lady that has lived in the US for 20 years and the Harvard group. It’s rare to have a Tanzanian go camping as you might guess. Camping too closely reflects the life that most lead on a daily basis (to go someplace without electricity, sit around a fire, do without, etc.). The Tanzanian lady that was with us said it was her first time and she loved it. She acknowledged that she would never have understood why the hell people would do such a thing until she’d been living a Western lifestyle for several years.

We hopped on a locals bus for Morogoro. I’m not sure why things have to be so chaotic but for some reason they do. It doesn’t seem complicated to sell tickets for assigned seating, get on the bus, and drive to your destination. I think the mayhem of boarding the bus took longer than the drive itself. We got on, found our seats and then proceeded to watch the circus of people getting on, getting back off, exchanging seats and yelling the whole time. I don’t know enough Swahili to get everything that was said but I got the gist that they’d somehow double-booked some seats. That was only part of it, however, and it went on and on before we finally pulled out of the station. The seats were less than the width of either the Tanzanian or American ass so we were very cozy (and sweaty) to say the least.

Then there’s the body odor thing. Some Tanzanians have a particular smell that comes from, what I thought was their diet (and possibly the bathing infrequency of those less fortunate). I found out later that there is some sort of bacteria that gets on the skin and in clothes giving off this particular odor. Lack of hygiene gives it a rather pungency, however. Then you have popular sweet perfumes, colognes, diesel exhaust, and so forth. We had about 3 ½ hours of a chorus of smells that does take some getting used to.

I did eat prior to getting on the bus. I had a little chicken and fries baggie thing that is the TZ equivalent of lunch to go. It’s pretty greasy but my healthy eating during the week lends itself to a little weekend whatever. Since I’m not training for triathlons like my baby sister…

We arrived at the bus depot in Mororgoro to the expected chaos. I’d been to this depot a couple of weeks before and it’s quite an experience. It’s a huge field of reddish dirt and hundreds of buses in various size, shape and condition. There’s the usual shouting and running around, people in bright colors, women carry massive loads on their heads, etc. When you get off the bus guys come at you like mosquitoes trying to sell you things and offer you taxis. Being white, once again, you have a hard time shaking these people. Sometimes, even after you’ve refused their offer, they just stand there and stare at you without saying anything, observing you like you’re some sort of freak.

Our group gathered together and boarded a daladala, one of the most common East African methods of transport. It’s a small van that’s usually beat to hell and they cram people in like sardines. There’s a daladala depot near my office in Dar and you see these people diving in to get a precious seat only to be wedged in between a ton of other sweaty, dirty people. If you’re not sweaty and dirty when you get in, you will be by the time you get out. They follow fairly regular routes around the city stopping any time they see someone interested in riding and they have an available square inch or two. They’re about the size of Lisa’s old minivan and a friend of mine said he’s seen 26 crammed inside with various body parts sticking out the windows. It’s quite an experience. This day, however, we paid some guy to give us our own so we had a “comfortable” 14 passengers.

We drove through Morogoro to the base of the mountain and started our hike. Our plan was to go for about an hour and a half or so and meet up with Mejah, one of our guides, who, along with a crew of porters, was preparing dinner and setting up tents. It was starting to get dark as we walked and we were getting a beautiful evening view of the city below us. It’s still strange to do this sort of thing in Africa. It feels very normal to be trekking up a hill with a backpack on my back but every once in a while you’d see something that would remind you that this isn’t the Rocky Mountains.

I shared a tent with Alex, a Romanian guy who has been living in New York City. He’s in Tanzania working for the UNDP. Nice guy and we’re planning on maybe doing some other adventures in the coming months. He’s only here for a year so he’s got pretty aggressive tourist plans like I do.

We arose early, had quick cup of coffee before heading up the trail for about and hour and a half or so to an old German outpost built in 1911. When the Germans were colonizing Tanzania (before WWI caused them to fork it over to the English), they were responsible for building a lot of the infrastructure that the country benefits from today – especially roads. The trail we were using was one of these roads built by the Germans, or rather they had the Tanzanian slaves build it. It’s 4WD most of the way though it’s rarely if ever actually driven anymore. As you get into rainforest at higher altitudes it’s simply single track for hiking only. Tourism isn’t big here yet so the trail is primarily used and maintained by the guys who man the radio tower at the top.

So the outpost was a residence of the guy responsible for this part of the country. There are a couple of buildings perched on the hillside overlooking the draw down to the city of Morogoro. It’s a very beautiful spot and easy to see why the Germans chose it. We set up tents since that’s where we would spend the night. Maja and his girlfriend fixed us a nice breakfast and we headed up the trail towards the summit.

The trail meanders between steep terraced farmed land. The area is inhabited by the Luguru tribe, a very interesting bunch of about fifty clans that take advantage of wiped out rainforest to earn a living. It’s a “matrilineal” society meaning basically that women run the show. Land is the property of women and it’s passed from mother to daughter. As a result, women are very independent and divorce is common. If a man is divorced, he’s sent away with basically the clothes on his back. Unlike most African tribes, baby girls are much preferred over boys.

After about an hour we entered rainforest and the climate changed completely. The Tanzanians have resisted deforesting the upper altitudes and it gives you an idea of what the entire mountain was like decades ago. There is some wildlife, including monkeys, but we didn’t see anything. Most have been chased away by the encroachment of people. A couple more hours and we reached the 3,500 ft. Lupanga Peak. It’s a stunning view nearly 360 degrees around you. A handful of curious Tanzanian guys we up there sitting by a pathetic attempt at a fire. It was the closest thing I’ve been to being cold since I arrived in Africa and I was happy to have carried my fleece pullover.

We took photos, rested, walked around a bit and had sandwiches. Most of the group wasn’t in very good hiking shape and were dreading the trip down. Like my brother often says for the trip down, it’s every man for himself. I flew down the mountain alone, sometimes precariously, well ahead of the group. I stopped occasionally thinking I heard monkeys but saw none. It was fun to be alone in the African rainforest for a while. Fun to be alone period. For safety reasons you find that you’re almost never alone when you go out and about. My job is also pretty interactive too so the solitude felt good.

I arrived back at the outpost and our friends Manisha (Indian) and Antje (my German roommate) had arrived. They’d driven up from Dar that morning and we going to spend the afternoon and evening with us. We sat and chatted as the rest of the hikers filed in over the next 2 hours. The evening consisted of dinner on the porch of the outpost and then later a small bonfire. It was fairly subdued since most of the hikers were pretty wiped out.

Sunday morning we had breakfast, broke camp and headed down. By noon we arrived at a house near the trailhead. It belonged to a prominent Morogoro landowner and he had arranged a nice lunch for us. Since Manisha had driven her Land Cruiser up the day before, we enjoyed the luxury of heading back to Dar with her – a much nicer alternative than the public bus. Our adventure not completely finished, our conversations in the car pointed to another trip to Zanzibar next week. Work hard. Play hard.

Udzungwa Mountains

Tuesday, July 27, 2005

It wasn't just another weekend. It wasn't really just another weekend in Africa.

My bike has been fairly lonely since I retrieved it from the evil customs guys. I've been intending to take it out more but I'm a little gun shy (literally). I found out about this trip organized by these two guys - Mejah (from Tanzania) and Tende (from Zimbabwe) - and jumped on it. We met on Friday at noon downtown Dar. Seven tourists, our guides, and a driver loaded into our white van. The tourists consisted of a girl from Dresden, Germany, five other Americans and me. Mark, a visiting MD, was the one who notified me about the trip. He was with his wife and 14-year-old son. The other two Americans were a couple that turned out to be fairly annoying but nothing that spoiled the trip.

The bikes were stacked on top of each other on a rack that was made for luggage. It was pretty precarious to look at - 7 bikes stacked like pancakes - but they held for the 6-hour drive. I actually wasn't even that sure where we were headed. I had thought it was north but it turned out to be almost due west. We headed towards the city of Morogoro on paved road and continued on through Mikumi National Park. This park is adjacent to the Selous Game Reserve where I was a couple of weekends ago. Driving through Mikumi turned out to be a treat in that we saw tons of wildlife not only close to the road but sometimes walking across it. More zebras, giraffes, impalas, baboons, elephants, wildebeest, and buffalo. Can't seem to get enough of the animals.

We stayed in a town just on the other side of the park called Mikumi. It was a small town and we didn't actually visit much. We pretty much arrived, checked into the hotel, had dinner, and went to bed.

The next day we were up at 5am, had breakfast, and hopped on our bikes. It was nice to be back on my MTB as we headed out on paved road towards the Udzungwa Mtns. It was a pretty strange morning to be honest. It was a bizarre sight for these people to see a bunch of whities riding bicycles through their village. They occasionally get a passing vehicle with gringos but never a crew of seven and two guides with dreadlocks all on mountain bikes. It was like we were on parade. Kids would run to the side of the road shouting "Mambo!" (informal hello) and more often "Wazungu!" (whities). The latter is not really a derogatory term. Just descriptive I'm told. I hear it some in Dar but not that much since we are more common in the big city.

All the attention we drew as we rode started to become kind of a pain in the ass. We couldn't stop anywhere without drawing a decent crowd, mostly kids, staring at us. Some adolescents and adults would try to sell us stuff but the kids just stared. I nabbed a few photos but picture taking is a delicate thing here. Some people are very sensitive about it and if they catch you taking one of them they'll ask you to pay and/or tell you to stop. There's this fear that they are being exploited or being observed in their primitive state like zoo animals. To some extent that's probably true for some safari goers though I suspect that it's more common of the northern circuit crowd (Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, etc.). The other parts of Tanzania tend to be visited by the more hearty crowd like those that live in the country, people who hang out with Tanzanians on a regular basis and are simply capturing beauty or special moments.

In any case, drawing attention gets old quickly. You don't get to enjoy simple observation of the people doing what they do. You see them dropping what they're doing to observe you. I suppose the irony is that if they had cameras they'd be pointing them at us for the same reasons they don't want them pointed at themselves.

We came up to a traveling theater thing that was going on in a very small village of mud huts. A decent-sized crowd had gathered around and were watching with considerable excitement. These people don't get that many distractions like this. It was a very awkward moment. My first thought was, how cool, let's watch what's going on. We all quickly realized, however, that we had to keep it moving quickly to go as unnoticed as possible and not to steal the crowd from the actors. Try as we might to speed through, we still ended up pulling a lot of the kids away causing a pause in the action. Oh well.

Sixty-five kilometers later we arrived at our lunch spot which as a dilapidated old German outpost from the colonial days. With the remnants of the fancy old building as a backdrop, we ate our sandwiches and rested before the big hike up to the falls. Not everyone was super athletic and the thought of a big hike after the long morning on the bike was causing some anguish in the group. Once we got going, however, people were so into the change of scenery that they forgot their fatigue.

This is the only place in the world that you find certain species of animals. Probably the most noteworthy is the red colobus monkey. Neal and I had seen colobus in Selous but not this kind with the dark red on the top of their heads. Sightings are rare and they told us not to get our hopes up. After a few other monkey and baboon sightings, we did in fact get to see a few red colobus. It was pretty cool, I have to tell you.

When we arrived at the falls, we were all drenched with sweat. It was a hot and humid hike and I was SO ready to take a dip. The triple-decker falls was spectacular and well worth the hike. In case you're wondering, I'm the speck in the white water near the bottom of the photo.

After about a half-hour of swimming and jumping off rocks, we continued the hike to the very top of the falls. The view was amazing and I could have sat there for hours. You could see back to Mikumi and Selous, the road we rode in on, etc. So beautiful. We then headed down and, with the exception of a deadly green snake in the trail, the trip down was uneventful.

It was getting dark and some opted for the van to go the last few kilometers to our hotel for the night. I made the mistake of encouraging the American guy and the guides to ride the rest of the way. The sketchy ride on a nasty road with an occasional vehicle nearly running us over and the constant threat of being mugged made for a heart pounding seven miles or so. The primary mugging danger is one that happens here in Dar on lesser traveled roads. The car passes you and doubles back to come pop you and take your bike and belongings. In the middle of nowhere you've got no one to get your back. Even our guides were a bit concerned until the light of the hotel was in sight. It wasn't that I was trying to be daring. It was such a nice evening and had the guide guessed correctly about how far the hotel was, I probably wouldn't have done it. We made it so all is well.

When we got to the hotel you can bet I was looking for a cold beer and a shower. The rooms had running water but just the cold, brownish kind. Consequently they come by with a bucket of hot water and set it outside your door. You take the bucket into the shower and wash the way I learned in the Côte d'Ivoire. You use a cup, add cool water to your comfort level and just keep dumping it on your head and soaping until you are clean or you run out of hot water, whichever comes first. It was actually pretty satisfying.

The guides prepared our meals themselves and they were actually pretty good cooks. We feasted on lentils, mixed veggie sauce, and ugali (the basic staple in East Africa, kind of like dry Cream of Wheat served in a ball about the size of a baby's head).

Everyone was pretty tired so we all faded pretty quickly after dinner. I went to my room and unfortunately failed to remember one of the more common rules about sleeping in Africa. Always pull back the covers and inspect the bed before getting in. Yep, you know where this is going. I read in bed for a while and right as I was getting ready to shut off my headlamp, I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. Thinking (hoping) it was just a shadow from my light, I almost didn't even check to see what it was. I did and a big, hairy spider was crawling in my direction out from underneath the sheet. My only tool under the mosquito net was my Tanzania guidebook and I decided that's yet another handy use for it. I smashed the thing until it was motionless and curled up in a ball. I let up a little because he was so big I thought the juices might make sleeping a bit messy. I tossed his hairy ass on the floor and inspected my bed for any relatives that might have accompanied him. Confident there were none, I went to sleep.

The next morning I looked for him on the ground not wanting to step on him and he was gone. The bastard had been faking death and now was on the loose again. Fearing he might be in my clothes or shoes I held off taking my morning pee until spidey's location was identified. Sure enough, I shook him out of my pant leg. While I sort of had developed some respect for the little guy, I nonetheless finished the job I started so poorly the night before making a mess of the floor.

After a rather slow breakfast, the bikes were once again stacked like pancakes on top of the van. Luckily mine was on top again since it would be removed first at the end of the journey. We went as far as Morogoro before stopping for a late lunch - more veggie bits and ugali. On the drive we passed a nasty accident responsible for multiple deaths. Gruesome sight and it looked like it had been there for at least an hour or so. The police had been there long enough that they figured they'd take advantage of the situation. Our van containing wazungu was waved over and they began the ritual of seeking a bribe of some kind. The obvious target was the bike stack. The invented infraction du jour was that it surpassed the legal height of roof baggage. Having seen Tanzanian buses stacked much higher (and much more impressively) you sort of have to smile when they come up with stuff like that.

I've been pulled over several times now and it's always the same ritual. The cop makes something up and threatens to throw you in jail. You have a conversation about something that you both know is a bunch of crap knowing full well what he wants. You continue to pretend like you don't and he keeps threatening (holding you) until you get frustrated and offer to pay all or part of the amount he came up with. In Tanzania it seems that $20 is roughly the starting point. Impatient or frightened wazungu often start reaching for their wallet fairly quickly. If you're very respectful and not in a hurry, you can often get away without paying anything.

Our guides failed in this instance because the cop told them that we were going to get stopped the rest of the way to Dar and that if we paid this time and he gave us a receipt, we'd be off the hook the rest of the way. He was right on all accounts given that we were pulled over another two times after that.

Other than a dead-ish looking body on the side of the road that had been hit by a vehicle, the drive was uneventful until we were coming into Dar. A spectacular 6-car accident happened right in front our van. Our driver slammed on the brakes and one of our guides stepped out, flashlight in hand, to go help out. It was chaos on the road. Traffic was backing behind us. People came running from all over. Some were yelling for a doctor. As it turned out, I happened to have had a doctor sitting right next to me. Strangely, Mark didn't move a muscle. Now I don't know about these things but it would seem to me that in the land of no lawsuits, you've got to be hard-pressed for a reason not to go at least check it out. I mean you came to Africa to help out Tanzanians and a situation like this presents itself and... well...Mark just sat and stared out at the chaos.

I couldn't resist the temptation and I jumped out to check out the situation. My motivation was less hero and more voyeur. As it turned out, even with all the vehicle carnage, amazingly no one was seriously hurt. When I came back to announce the good news, Mark decided he'd get out and take his voyeur turn. I don't want to be judgmental about the incident. You never know what's going on in someone's mind and what you should do in these situations. Ultimately everything turned out ok so I'll leave it at that.

After being stuck in traffic seemingly forever, we finally were able to maneuver around the accident and get back central Dar. Another Tanzanian adventure under my belt. Now back to work.

Selous Game Reserve

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Last Saturday morning our Tanzanian guide with his particularly Caucasian name, Kenneth, met us at the house at 7am for the drive to the game reserve. Kenneth had 10 years of experience doing safaris. At least that's what he said. Looking at him that you'd think that would have made him about 7 years old when he started. In any case, he ended up being damn good at his job.

Neal, my computer nerd colleague, was the third member of the trio. So Neal confesses to be a bit anal when it come to some things. When I saw that he had three alarm clocks in his posession I figured it out. He met me at the front door with three bulging bags, his safari hat on, and was toying with his GPS. He made a bold confession that he wasn't bringing his laptop. I looked at my tiny backpack and Nalgene bottle and I all of the sudden felt inadequate - like I probably should have thought through this packing thing a bit better. Anyway, Kenneth was waiting so off we went.

The trip started out with the drive from hell. The Selous Game Reserve is the largest in all of Africa but it's far from the most frequented. The roads are much worse than those that lead to the national parks (i.e. Serengeti). A lot of people take bush planes to get there though we decided that it'd be more fun to drive. Silly us. We had 2-lane paved highway for an hour and a half, then dirt road, then nasty dirty road. We came to this small town and bought some diesel - our last opportunity. We even had to carry diesel in the supplemental cans to have enough to drive around the park and then get back out. The fuel stop was also necessary to rid myself of coffee and stretch my legs. I was thinking how happy I was to get out of the Land Cruiser after bouncing around in the back like a rubber ball and then Kenneth annouced that the road was going to get bad from there on in. Get bad? My ass said that the road was already bad.

It actually didn't get that much worse. It's just he kept going the same speed which made it feel worse. Six hours after we left Dar, we arrived at Mbega Camp which was located on the Rufiji River. It's a large river that doubles in size during the rainy season. It meanders for hundreds of miles before it finally dumps into the Indian Ocean south of Dar. The camp was just outside the reserve and would be our home for the next two nights.

We had our lunch overlooking the river, the hippos, and crocodiles with very cool-looking Colobus monkeys dropping sticks on our heads (I think they were doing it on purpose). We then settled into our framed tent which had full bathroom facilities though no hot water. As Neal laid out his alarm clocks, I prepared my stuff for the boat safari which started at 4pm sharp. Everything we did with the guides was either exactly on time or even in advance of scheduled time. It's odd because meetings in Dar never happen on time and people are usually late. This trip was extremely organized and timely. And it was all run by Tanzanians. Good thing we had Neal's clocks.

The boat safari was a 2 1/2-hour cruise on the river looking at the various things both in the water and on the shore. Our guide was a great guy named Ramadani and there were a couple of Germans (the more goofy eastern kind) who joined us. We saw colorful birds, hippos, crocodiles, lizards, eagles, etc. It was very cool. Then there was the sunset. At one point we just stopped and stared at it. Kept thinking, damn, I'm in Africa.

We had a nice dinner prepared for us and the other handful of guests, each at our assigned table. Neal's a vegetarian and that's sometimes a problem in this country. When he announced to the staff that he didn't eat meat they sort of tilted their heads giving him a puzzled look. This sort of thing always makes me uncomfortable. I'm glad I was raised to eat pretty much whatever is put in front of me. I would not have survived in my travels otherwise. One of the guys replied to Neal that it was ok because we were going to be having chicken. Then Neal had to respectfully tell him that chicken is in fact considered meat and that he wouldn't be able to eat it. Thinking sitting with the dorky East Germans might be more relaxing at this point, I got up to go find the guy that had the cold beer. When I returned, the international incident had subsided and it was agreed that Neal was going to be eating eggs. We ended up having a nice dinner before heading off to our sleeping quarters.

During the night hippos and elephants roam the camp. The hippos sleep in the shallow water by day and by night they cruise inland munching on a similar diet to that of the elephants. They get their fill before sunrise and are back in the water pretending they were there the whole time. It's a bit disconcerting to have their fat bodies meandering around the tents. They're not really dangerous or anything, it's just the sounds. Having said that, I read that hippos are responsible for more human deaths than any other animal in Africa. There's something behind those beady little eyes sticking out of the water. There was also a hyiena that was excited about something, probably involving food. Sounded like a hysterical laugh/scream thing. I didn't sleep much that first night.

Yellow baboons cruise the camp area as well. We saw them the next morning. In addition to eating fruit from the trees, they rake through the elephant dung looking for food. Seems like a bad way to get breakfast but elephants have bad digestive systems. They only process about 40% of what they eat (which is why they have to eat 18 hours/day). The rest goes straight through. Makes a nice little buffet table for the baboon.

Day two was vehicle safari. Kenneth knows the reserve like the back of his hand. We saw most of what you might want, much of it up close. The top of the Land Cruiser opened up and we could poke through, look around, take photos and so forth. We didn't see any of the big cats though they tend to be more elusive in reserves than national parks. In reserves you can drive wherever you want. In parks you have to stay on the roads. One advantage to the parks is that the animals get used to you staying on the roads and they are a little less spooked by your presence. Lions, leopards and so forth are consequently more bold.

Other than one elephant mother that got a little aggressive, there wasn't anything scary. I also knew that I was a faster runner than Neal so if anything happened, his demise would buy me some time to get away. Anyway, just the landscape was unbelievably beautiful - even if there had been no animals. It was definitely one of my top all-time travel experiences. At one point we pulled up to a lake and all around us were baboons playing grab-ass, a dozen or so giraffes (some humorously drinking from the lake), waterbucks grazing, impalas (the gazelle not the car), storks and so forth. It was like you think a safari should be but you know it never is. Alas it was.

I didn't want to inundate you with a ton of safari photos. Everybody's are probably very similar. But I had to post a few. If you ever come, you will know what I'm talking about. I haven't done the Serengeti yet but I've heard it can be bumper to bumper there. One of the things that was so nice about our trip is that we were mostly alone, a lot of times not talking. Just watching. Very cool.

The next day we had a walking safari before heading home. It is even more quiet since you don't have the sound of the Land Cruiser. You see and hear things that you don't in a vehicle. We had a herd of wildebeests come running in our direction sending chills up my spine. They stopped about 30 yards from us. There was a slight breeze in our direction so they couldn't smell us and identify what we were. They stared, occasionally snorting, until they gave up and decided we might be dangerous and they headed off.

The drive home was long but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. I sat in the back studying Swahili and looking out the window relishing in the previous days' experiences. It was a pretty eventful few days but I'll stop there.

Pugu Hills

Monday, June 20, 2005

On Sunday we went for a hike in the Pugu Hills not too far outside Dar es Salaam. It's a green area that used to stretch for hundreds of miles but now, due to deforestation, has been reduced considerably. I'm not sure how expansive it is now but it was big enough for us to get lost.

Our small group of four headed out for the hike early enough in the day so as to finish by midday when it gets really hot. We didn't take a guide (my friends Peter and Soyeon wife had been here before) though a guy did approach us offering up his services as our bodyguard. Such an offer is sometimes cause for concern. Either it means it's usually a dangerous area or our refusal will cause him to go get his friends to come back and rob us. Sometimes it's safer just to pony up a couple of dollars and take the guy with you just as insurance. Nonetheless, we said no and sent him on his way. Since the brief chat was in Swahili, I didn't know what the discussion was about until I inquired after we were well on our way. Due to my new-found capacity for travel fear, I might have tried to pursuade the conversation to go in a different direction. I also wasn't sure how much confidence I had in Peter's guiding skills.

It wasn't too long before my lack of confidence was determined to be well-founded. Within probably a mile we had no idea where we were and no idea where we had come from. The brush was pretty dense so it all began to look pretty much the same. We were counting on the sun to keep us heading in what we thought was the right direction. To make a long story short, we stumbled (literally) on a guy who was illegally cutting wood. We startled each other and, after both parties realized that neither was in danger, we asked him if he knew where the lake was (our destination). He motioned for us to follow him and off we went. You just have to assume that he's leading you where you need to go instead of some grisly alternative. We zigzagged through all kinds of vegetation, bizarre looking bugs, monkeys, spiders (and poisonous snakes we found out later), etc., following the guy's impressive knowledge of the deep brush. I took a shot of him from behind (see photo). Given the illegal nature of his work, I don't think he would have appreciated my camera. When we finally came to our destination, we thanked the guy and paid him almost a week's wages for this area (about 2 bucks). He then returned to his deforestation tasks, happy to have encountered a group of dumbass Americans.

After a short picnic, the trail back was easy to spot and relatively easy to follow. The trailhead was at a fairly nice resort-ish place where we had lunch and a couple of cold and very enjoyable beers. Another couple, Germans I think, recounted to us their adventures in the woods in which their guide had a brush with a deadly snake. I decided I was happier with the getting lost thing. It is comforting, however, to do stuff like this with an MD, even if they get you a little lost.

In any case, the view was pretty nice and we were in no hurry to leave. It's funny, I keep doing stuff like this and I always stop to think how cool it is - how lucky I am to have the chance to do all this exploring and adventure. I hope I never take it for granted. I've been doing this sort of thing for a long time and I don't think I will.


Sunday, June 12, 2005

Sunday night at the house. A room full of nerds (including me) sitting around tapping on laptops, holding conversations without looking up. One guy's looking at chest x-rays. Some are reading news. Most are doing email. Fan overhead keeping the room comfortable. Mosquito bastards searching for a small patch of repellent-free skin. Life in Dar.

Don't have too much in the way of creature comforts. It's a lot better than I thought it'd be. We have a TV with some satellite reception but most of the channels are these whacky Indian (dot not the feather) ones that are actually pretty amusing if you sit and watch them. Crazy, over-the-top drama. I'm told that the Simpsons appears every now and then on some channel but I haven't got that figured out yet. Haven't spent hardly any time watching TV to be honest. A little BBC World and CNN International.

Just got back from the beach. Went to a small island called Bongoyo just a couple of miles off the coast. To get there you hop on an old hollowed out wooden boat called a dhow. Some have sails and look like something out of a history book. Others have motors attached to them and, though they are heavy and sluggish, they get the job done.

The island is very nice. We found a tide pool filled with eels, the one in the photo is about 4ft long. Crazy little guys with rather sharp little teeth. The island also had tortoises and a little bay where shark hang out. They tend to stay on that side of the island so we were comfortable snorkling on the beach side. With the exception of a jellyfish sting on my neck, it was a really nice day. When you arrive, you can order fish and chips and just tell them roughly when you want them. They’ll fix them and deliver them to you. Fresh fish.

On the way back the small ferry boat broke down so we drifted aimlessly for a couple of hours until another boat could come tow us in. Life in Africa.

The two primary people I've been hanging out with are Meg who I already mentioned and Priya (a Japanese-American/Brit researcher that will be leaving this week for a month and a half but then returning for another year). They leave Wednesday and more people arrived yesterday. Before long I'll be the 'veteran' showing people around.

This crowd loves to go out. Night before last we went to a Tanzanian party (pretty damn fun). Last night we hosted an American-style bash (except for the roasted goat and brahma hump) with people from all over. Eclectic bunch of people. We kept it going until 3am, got up this morning and went to the beach all day. We go out to dinner/drinks almost every night. I can't keep this pace too long but it's fine for now while I'm getting the lay of the land. Don't tell anybody but my life is not all self-sacrifice to help the poor Tanzanians. I'm reading a book about by a UN guy who worked on aid projects in developing countries for several years and he recounts stories of major partying, sex, etc. I'm finding out that this sort of thing is fairly normal but people don't talk about it for obvious reasons. It's not that bad here but I think people let loose a lot more than they would in their home country. I think if you take your job seriously you see and feel a lot of hardship during the workday. People cope in a variety of different ways in order to get up in the morning and do it all again. I suppose there's also the feeling that "what happens in Dar, stays in Dar."

The other day one of the doctors discovered her purse was missing. Even within our walls with razor wire and rimmed with broken glass embedded in cement, we are potentially crime victims. It's kind of stupid since he had to know he'd be caught. We confronted the three guards and it took them a five-minute conversation in Swahili to determine the culprit. It was the oldest of the three. The poor guy was taken out into the street and beaten right in front of us. It's the way they do things here. We tried to stop them but people crowded around and we were pulled back to the house.

That's another awkward thing here. If you get pick-pocketed and there are people around, you can yell for help. People will come and beat the shit out of the thief. As a result, you are normally in less danger if you are in a crowd of people. It's just that I'm not sure the crime necessitates someone getting beaten to near death for a wallet that has $12 in it. You kind of need to make that call very quickly the second it happens. If you yell, the guy’s likely going to get whacked pretty bad. If you don't, you lose whatever they took. There's another upside to this phenomenon. If your car breaks down, people will always stop to help. You often see groups of people that don't know each other helping to push someone's broken truck off the road. Nice since there's no AAA.

Neal, a guy who arrived last weekend, and I are plotting our first adventure inland. There's a park where we can go on safari without guides. It's not as amazing as the Serengeti but it's supposed to be pretty cool and have much fewer tourists. Meg, the one from whom I got the Land Cruiser, has left. I get the LC all to myself now. Nice to have my own wheels (with the steering wheel on the right). Since it's a beat up ex-safari rig, we're in good shape for chasing down the elephants. This thing's not in any kind of condition to do this but I'm guessing within the next month I'll head out on safari in someone's vehicle.