Best of Africa

7 02 2009

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 6.30.08- 10.25.08

If you tell someone in the US that you’re traveling to Africa, they are generally intrigued and apprehensive at the same time. Aren’t there children walking around with AK 47s? Aren’t there strange rare diseases? What about the wars?

After traveling Southern and Eastern Africa for almost four months, I can tell you that I saw more guns in the country of Guatemala than I did in the continent of Africa. In fact, a group of black South Africans was surprised to learn that all Americans didn’t walk around carrying guns. They had gotten this idea from American movies. To tell you the truth, most of the Africans we met couldn’t afford to buy a gun. With the exception of Cape Town and Nairobi, I felt completely safe walking around all of the towns and cities we visited.

As for our health, the travelers diarrhea that plagued us in Latin America was gone during our African travels. I think people forget that strange and rare diseases are strange and RARE.

While I would not recommend going to Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Somalia, or Zimbabwe right now, the surrounding countries are peaceful. The situation is not dissimilar to Panama. The majority of the country is fine, but I wouldn’t travel through the Darien Gap in eastern Panama, which is held by Columbian rebel groups.

Africa has some of the most exotic and amazing experiences of our trip. I have ridden an ostrich, held a baby cheetah, bungee jumped off the world’s highest bungee, slept on the floor of a mud hut, hand fed wild hyenas, kissed a giraffe, pet a baby elephant, and stood 30 feet from a silverback mountain gorilla. I have met some of the most hospitable and amazing people. Children would come up and hold our hands just to walk with us. Adults would ask us where we were from and how we liked their country. Just when I thought they would try to sell me something, they would say “Welcome to my country.”

While travel in this country is rough, a few flights between cities can alleviate most of the headaches we encountered. So I highly recommend that you visit the following places.

Best of Southern and Eastern Africa (South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia)

Best City: Cape Town, South Africa. Take a cable car up Table mountain for views of the bay, eat at fantastic restaurants, and visit the aquarium. Just don’t walk around at night.

Best Town: Zanzibar, Tanzania. Many of you will get Christmas presents from Zanzibar because it sounds cool to give someone a present from an island called Zanzibar and because they have great shopping. One of the highlights of the trip was feeding spinach to a 100 year old giant tortuous. If you need an exotic vacation, this is the place to go.

Best Meal: Restaurant Addis in Cape, Cape Town, South Africa. This restaurant was so good that we decided to add the country of Ethiopia to our itinerary. It’s not often you can say that about a restaurant.

Best Local Food: Ethiopia. Injera is a like a sourdough pancake. You order small side dishes of amazing spices and meats. You pour these on your injera, and tear off small pieces of the bread and scoop the food into your mouth. Now, I don’t mind paying for a good meal and I really don’t mind paying $1.50 for a fantastic meal.

Best Coffee: Ethiopia. In the late 1800’s the Italians tried to colonize Ethiopia, but they were defeated. Thus, the Italians, the best coffee makers in the world, came into contact with the Ethiopians, the best coffee growers in the world. The result was the best cappuccino I’ve ever had. We visited Cafe Tamoca in Addis Ababa four times every day for coffee.

Best Beach: Kendwa Beach, Zanzibar Island, Tanzania. The water is so turquoise and the sand is so white that you wouldn’t have to Photoshop your pictures for post cards.

Most Beautiful Country: Uganda. After looking at a flat expanse of dust for two months, Uganda the lush green country of Uganda is a welcome change. Lake Bunyoni is like a scene out of Lord of the Rings.

Most Beautiful Women: Ethiopia. Alissa, don’t ever let John Michael visit this country.

Best Animal Adventure (Chris’ pick): tracking Gorillas in Uganda. Bushwhacking through the Impenetrable forest is slow going, but standing 30 feet from a 450 pound gorilla is incredible.

Best Animal Adventure (Laura’s pick): safari in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania. Elephants, lions, buffaloes, giraffes, zebras, hippos, gazelles. It’s expensive, but worth it.

Best Animals in Captivity (Chris’s pick): Baby cheetah in Nairobi Animal Orphanage. Don’t miss the pictures of Chris holding this tiny ball of fuzz.

Best Animals in captivity (Laura’s pick): Giant Tortuous, Zanzibar, Tanzania. Turtles may move at the speed of molasses, but if you have a stalk of spinach in your hand, they will run you down.

Favorite Cultural Experience: Ekwendeni, Malawi. If you have friends in the peace corps, go visit them for the most authentic cultural experience you will find.

Best Place You’ve Never Head Of: Ilha de Mozambique. Guidebooks always talk about “off the beaten path.” Well, we’re still not sure if there is a road between Beira and Nampula in Mozambique. We had to take a plane flight. The island makes you feel like you’ve gone back in time. This is one of Chris’ favorite places in all of our travels.

Friendliest People: Ilha de Mozambique. You will leave Ilha with ten new best friends, fifty new pen pals, and wanting to adopt all the children on the island.

Most Bizarre Experience: Feeding Wild Hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia. Hyenas have the best endurance of any animals in the savanna. They can run for miles without tiring. They have the strongest jaws, which can bite through bones. And we fed them strips of meat with our hands.

Best Adrenaline Rush: World’s Highest Bungee Jump, South Africa. If you’re gonna jump off a bridge with an elastic cord tied to your feet, you might as well do it off the highest bungee jump in the world. I screamed all th way down.

WORST OF AFRICA

Worst Roads: Kenya. Prepare to spend hours bumping down unpaved dirt roads with pot holes the size of the Grand Canyon.

Worst Hassle: Arusha, Tanzania. We had two guys follow us around for two hours trying to sell us a tour. We tried to eat lunch so that they wouldn’t follow us, but they waited for us outside the restaurant. We did not use their company.

Worst Food: everywhere except Ethiopia. While there are some great restaurants in major cities, most towns have restaurants where you pick from: rice and beans, rice and greens, rice and chicken, beans and chicken, or rice, beans, and greens.

Most Emotionally Wearing: Ethiopia. You have to bargain in Ethiopia for everything from the room where to sleep to the bottle of water you drink. Everyone is trying to make a buck off you. Many people will start bargaining at outrageous and insulting prices. If you walk off, they follow you down the street.

Toughest Place to Travel: Northern Mozambique. Fly or rent a car.

Most Overrated: Lake Malawi. The lake is beautiful, but I have come to learn when someone describes a place as “chill” that means the only thing they did when they visited was smoke.





Zimbabwe

20 12 2008

Posted by: Laura

We had been talking and drinking beer with a man from Zimbabwe for about an hour. While discussing the differences between our cultures, we laughed when he told us that he still owed his in-laws a goat from the dowry he paid to his bride’s family in order to marry her. He laughed when he found out Chris and I had been dating for four years and weren’t yet married. He shook his finger at Chris and said, “If she were my daughter, I would chop your head off!”

After another round, he paused and said, “So I want to ask you a serious question: What would you do if your democratically elected leader took control of the military, arrested leaders of the opposition party, and began torturing citizens?” Then our friend began to describe the current situation in his country.

As he spoke, I tried to imagine President Bush siezing control of the military and throwing Obama in jail.  It just seemed too far fetched.  Then I tried to imagine the other horrific events our Zimbabwean friend had just described about his life. His brother’s arm chopped off above the elbow because of his support for the opposition. Thinking about the political aspirations of my own brother, Andrew, this thought made me shudder.  Our friend described roadblocks every 35 miles. The only way to buy gas, he explained, is on the black market. And even then, it is not possible to get diesel at all, so you can’t run any farm equipment. Since Zimbabwe was known as the “breadbasket” of Africa, I thought about the farms of Mississippi and imagined tractors sitting idle on Highway 49. He added that the agricultural situation gets more complicated. In the future when Zimbabweans are able to operate their farm equipment and produce crops again, half of their crops have already been sold to China in return for money that has already disappeared.

According to CATO Institute, inflation was 89,700,000,000,000,000,000,000%  on November 14th, 2008. Our friend told us that a liter of cooking oil costs 420 billion Zimbabwean dollars. Going to the grocery store to buy milk, eggs, and bread requires a bag full of money. You pay at the checkout counter with bricks of money. You have to spend money as soon as you get it. If you are paid in the morning, then the money has depreciated by afternoon. I thought about standing in line at Kroger with a backpack full of almost worthless bills.

Finally, I tried imaging Mississippi with a population of 12 million people (8 million adults) and 3 million of them infected with AIDS. “What would you do?” he asked.

Chris said he would go about his business and try to lay low, staying out of political trouble.

I thought about it, then asked, “Do I have kids?”

“Yes, I have four children,” was his response.

“Then I would take them and leave,” I replied.

Our friend considered doing the same thing. Then he consulted his father and the elders of his family who asked him: Where will you go? If your really doing this for your children and you take them to another county to raise them once you bring them back, they will be strangers in their own home. After weighing his options and realizing his bank account was full of a  worthless currency, our friend decided to stay.

Over the next three hours, our friend told us his life story. He related  tragic stories about the current events in Zimbabwe with such a matter of fact tone, that it was hard to realize they are actually occurring. Out of respect to his anonymity, I won’t post the details of his situation, but I will say he has been a positive  influence in his community.  Since he cannot speak freely in his own country, he seemed eager to share his story with us.  We all need to tell our stories at some point. I’m glad I was there to listen to his.





Lord of the Rings in Uganda

18 12 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 9.27.08-9.28.08

We generally ignore the Lonely Planet descriptions of cities and towns. It seems that every place they describe is the most beautiful place in the country. The towns usually don’t live up to their hype. But after ten months of traveling, they finally got one right. Our guide book described Lake Bunyonyi in southeastern Uganda as a scene out of Lord of the Rings. Green rolling hills surround the lake, which is dotted with small islands.

lake_bunyonyi

We almost didn’t make it to Bunyonyi. It would have taken us two days of travel to get from Bwindi National Park to the lake. But we met an Irish couple, Brian and Deiredre, on their honeymoon who were also visiting the lake in their hired car.

They offered to give us a lift and confirmed our belief that the Irish are the nicest travelers in the world. A ride that would have taken us two days on public transportation only took us six hours. As it turns out Brian and Deirdre both compete in triathlons, so I asked them about their competitions and missed being able to consistently work out.

We spent two days exploring the lake. We hiked up one of the many green hills surrounding the lake and were rewarded by fantastic panoramic views. Today most of the islands exist off tourism and non profit projects. Some of the islands have interesting histories. Bwama island was formerly a leper colony.

bunyonyi

The smallest island on the lake is still known as Punishment Island. Until the early 1900’s unwed women who found themsevles pregnant would be left on the island to starve to death as their punishment. This horrible custom was accompanied by another interesting situation. In most African tribes, the men must pay the father for the right to marry their daughter. But if a man was too poor to pay the bride price, he could canoe out to the island, rescue the girl, and have a bride (and child) for free.

After our visit to Bunyonyi, we decided to head to Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, where we were planning to visit the Ssese Islands. We bought a bus ticket to the town where we could catch a ferry to the islands. After 8 hours on a bus, I kept wondering why we hadn’t arrived at our stop. Chris asked the person sitting next to us how much longer until  our stop and we found out that we had passed it an hour before. Most small African towns do not have signs stating the name of the town. I am convinced that the bus didn’t actually stop where we were supposed to get off. If it did stop then I am convinced I did not want to get off in that town. Since it was night we decided not to get off in a random town to try and backtrack.  As we rode back to Kampala, the final destination of the bus, I was reminded that no matter how well you plan your itinerary, you never know what you’re going to end up  seeing.





Gorillas in the Mist

9 12 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 9.26.08

If you step directly in the footprint of the person in front of you, then you’re less likely to slip. Chris has large feet and made deep prints in the muddy tangle of vegetation that sprawled across the jungle ground, so I  easily stepped in the imprints of his hiking boots. We were walking through Bwindi Forest in southern Uganda only a few miles from the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bwindi literally translates as Impenetrable, an accurate description of the dense green surroundings. Once we found the gorillas, I wasn’t sure how we were going to see them through all the foliage. Our group consisted of seven tourists, two guides, and two armed guards, for protection in the unlikely event that we would encounter members of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army), a rebel group operating in northern Uganda.

laura

Before we entered the forest, we had walked for an hour through farmland of banana trees and fields of tea leaves. Children with runny noses and dirty faces smiled and waved as we passed their mud huts. We hiked up a few hills and got fantastic views of the lush green hills and terraced farmland. Our guide led us to the top of a hill so we could make radio contact with our tracking team. This group of men left a few hours before we were even awake to find the gorilla family and radio the location to our guide.  Technically, they were tracking and we were just trying to dodge vines and roots.

chris-leaves

Once our guide got the location, we turned off the main path and walked single file into the jungle. The two guides swung a machetes to clear a path for us. Since we were bushwhacking our way through the jungle, we progressed slowly. After thirty minutes of navigating down a muddy hillside, one of the guards tapped me on the shoulder and pointed across the ravine.  I saw a branch shaking. About fifteen minutes later, we found the gorillas.

Although mountain gorillas are terrestrial, spending most of their time on land, they climb trees to feed on leaves and fruit. When we arrived, the entire family of gorillas was still enjoying breakfast. The trees were alive with activity as the gorillas swung from one tree to the next. We sat down to wait for them to come down.

Chris and I had been sitting on a log for forty five minutes, when the male silverback dexterously descended from the tree directly above us. We tried to scurry out of his way, when our guide told us it was too late, just sit still. Chris and I found ourselves 30 feet from a 450 pound silverback gorilla. The rest of the group slowly crept up behind us.

chris-and-gorilla1

Although we had been on two safaris, this experience was different. I was not securely locked in a four wheel drive jeep. I was sitting in the forest staring at a large muscular primate. While his stature was impressive, I was most surprised at how human looking his eyes were. He almost looked like someone dressed up in a gorilla suit. I had to remind myself that the tough skin on his chest was not plastic. Our guide had told us not to make eye contact with the silverback, but the moment the gorilla sat down 30 feet from us, I forgot everything he had told us.  I watched his human like expressions as the rest of the group joined him.

Before the silverback descended he gave his group a sign so the other 25 members came down from the trees to rest. Three younger males who had not yet begun to grow the distinguishing grey hair walked past us on their knuckles and hind legs. These members will some day challenge the current silverback for control of the group or leave their family to form their own group. Each group has a well defined chain of command. Our guide pointed to the ones who passed and explained where they were in the hierarchy. Four mature females walked past us with babies clutching their chests. The rest of the group consisted of younger males and females. I was surprised at how much larger the silverback was than the rest of his family. Some of the smaller females looked like giant stuffed animals. Until they looked at you with their eyes and then the looked human.

As we slowly moved around the periphery group, the guides would show us where to walk and would whack down stray branches so we could get pictures. You can’t use the flash on your camera since it could irritate the silverback  so most of the pictures turned out very dark.

The highlight of the gorillas was watching the younger ones play. The toddler sized gorillas playfully fought with each other. Occasionally they would ambush one of the adult gorillas who swatted them away with one hand. The youngest ones swung from the low branches of bushes. They had not learned the coordination of the silverback and would often fall from branches that broke under their weight. They would swing from one branch to the other, miss their handhold and tumble to the ground. Unfazed, they continued to play.

A mother cradling a three month old baby to her chest lay down near the playing youngsters. The baby continuously fidgeted and grabbed at its mother. At one point, the mother reached down to get something out of its eye.  She allowed our group to get about 15 feet from where she lay.

After our allotted hour of watching the gorillas, we began the trek back. As we walked, Chris humored me as I began playing a game “Who would win in a fight a gorilla or a lion? Who would win in a fight a gorilla or a….”





We Didn’t Get Robbed in Nairobi

30 11 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 9.15.08- 9.21.08

At some point Nairobi, Kenya earned the nickname of Nai-robbery. We personally talked to two different sets of travelers who had been robbed during their stay in the capital city. Needless to say, we were worried when we arrived. We had pre-arranged a safari to Masai Mara National Park, so our tour company picked us up from the airport and dropped us off at our hostel. (We would recommend our tour company and guide, Tom. To contact then email Edwina at Info@africatravelwaves.com)

dscn4278We left early the next morning for a five hour drive to the Masai Mara. Each year the wildebeests migrate between Serengetti National Park in northern Tanzania and the Masai Mara in southern Kenya. While the Masai Mara is not as beautiful as the Ngorongoro Crater where we had our first safari, the rolling green hills dotted with thousands of wildebeests and hundreds of zebra is an amazing sight.

A tribe of Africans known as the Masai lives near the park where they shepherd goats and cows. The tribe members are easily distinguished by their stretched ear lobes and their bright red cloaks, which they wear as a warning to predatory animals. While they are not technically allowed to herd their cattle within the park, the park officials look the other way when water is scarce.

I guess one of their cows wandered off and died or was killed in the park. A few minutes after we passed the park gate, we saw a group of vultures fighting over the fresh carcass of a cow. Those vultures, who were not strong enough to fight their way to the meat, sat with their wings outstretched to warm themselves in the sun, others flew overhead in the circling flight pattern that always indicates death. I can now say that I’ve seen a vulture pecking out an animal’s eyes, and it’s not a pretty sight.

dscn4425When the wildebeests migrate, the lions generally follow. A few minutes after we left the cow carcass, we saw a lion and a lioness. Our guide, Tom, explained that they were on their “honeymoon,” a seven day period when they leave the pride to mate…an average of once every 15 minutes. Sure enough, fifteen minutes after we started watching them, the pair started to mate. I realized that in our first two stops in the Masai Mara we witnessed the beginning of life and the end of death. We ended up seeing a good bit of both during our two day safari.

copy-of-rscn43561We found a lioness guarding a half eaten zebra. She sat panting in the dry heat. Tom explained that the lion would normally drag the kill into the shade to give her relief from the sun and to deter other predators from attacking. However, we were in a wide expanse of flat grassland and there were no trees within dragging distance, so the lioness sat suffering in the heat while flies buzzed around her blood spattered head. A few minutes after our jeep arrived, the lioness walked over and plopped herself down in the shade of our jeep. Tom quickly rolled up his window as she approached. Chris and I peered out the pop-up roof of the jeep and looked at the lioness who was sitting only a few feet below us. She barely glanced at us. “Anyone need a bathroom break?” our guide joked. dscn4345We sat for a few minutes getting some close up shots of the lioness and her kill before our guide turned on the engine. We wanted to stay longer, but Tom

 told us that the lions sometimes crawl under the jeep. They don’t move when you turn the engine on, so you are stuck until they decide to leave.

We passed a zebra sitting on its own, no herd in sight. We watched it attempt to limp away as our jeep drove closer. “Lion food” our guide commented as we drove past. “That zebra won’t make it through the night.”

When you are on a safari, you are sometimes driving across the savannah and you look to the horizon to see grassland, clusters of trees, and the occassional giraffe neck moving across the plains. Other times, you will see a cluster of jeeps in the distance. Some of the companies have two way radios, so they are able to obtain up to date animal locations from other guides. Most guides just look for groups of jeeps.  Another car spotted a cheetah with a wildebeest kill. The scene quickly turned into an 18 jeep traffic jam. One inconsiderate guide drove too close to the animal which hissed and backed into the tall grass.

dscn4292

After spotting a few more pairs of lions, a herd of elephants, and a family of warthogs with six little baby warthogs, we headed back to Nairobi.

Walking around the city during the day, we were very careful. We left most of our money in the hostel each time we went out. At night we only took taxis, even if we were going a half mile down the road. From our point of view, the city seems to taken steps to curve its negative image. Armed guards stood on many corners of the city and happily helped us find safe taxi companies. A guard outside the Ethiopian restaurant near our hostel escorted us back to the hostel one night after dinner.

dscn4464As we explored Nairobi, we realized how much it had to offer. We visited a Baby Elephant Orphanage where we got to pet three-month-old elephants.  We watched the one-year-old elephants get fed with a bottle and then play in a mud hole. I tried to listen to the elephant keeper as he explained the process of reintroducing them into the wild, but it was so hilarious watching 12 baby elephants splash in a mudhole, that I didn’t learn much more than baby elephants are incredibly funny and playful.

dscn4483

Nearby the Elephant Orphanage, we visited the Giraffe Sanctuary, where climbed a gazebo so we were eye level with the giraffes and fed them pellets. You hold the pellets in your hand and the giraffe reaches it’s long purple tongue to eat them. While the elephants form attachments to their keepers, the giraffes will only let you touch them if you have food in your hands. Chris got a little too close to one as he was taking a picture. He watched through his camera lens as the giraffe almost head butted him. Don’t worry, the camera is fine.

dscn4585

Apparently it was a Field Trip Friday at the giraffe center because a group of a hundred school children in uniforms were lined up waiting to feed the giraffes. The giraffe keeper was having a hard time handing out food pellets and warning the children to keep their fingers together and away from the giraffe’s mouth. I immediately went into teacher mode, grabbed a pail of pellets, and started putting them in the outstretched hands of the school children. I was impressed that each child thanked me (in English) as I made my way down the line.

Nairobi also has an animal orphanage attached to the city’s national park. Unlike the elephant orpanage and giraffe sanctuary programs, the animals here are not able to survive on their own and will never be released into the wild. Most of the animals are found by park rangers in the national parks. They are monitored for a few days to make sure they are actually abandoned before they are sent to the animal orphanage. We arrived at feeding time and watched as chunks of meet were thrown over the sides of the cage. I stood in sickened amazement as the hyena crunched through the bones of it’s dinner. I quickly walked back to watch the warthogs and crowned cranes.

bird-2

So, this is Africa and money creates and bends rules. We had heard from other travellers that you could bribe the zoo keepers at the animal orphanage to allow you to pet the animals. We slipped one of the zoo keepers a few dollars and found ourselves in a backroom with two baby cheetahs. The cubs were only two months old and were so cute. They clung to our shirts with their tiny claws and made chirping noises. Even Chris, who doesn’t normally use the word “cute” to describe anything small, agreed that they were cute. We were only allowed to hold them for a few minutes, but holding the spotted ball of fuzz was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. While many travellers still cringe when talking about Nairobi, we found it to be one of our favorite African cities.

baby-cheetah1

 





The Island of Lamu

24 11 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 9.10.08-9.14.08

Women in black burqas float along the narrow alleyways in clusters. I can’t help but to glance at them and they can’t help but look back at me. I can see their eyes follow me. You don’t have a lot of peripheral vision in a burqa, so their heads turn as I pass.

I am on the island of Lamu, a devoutly Muslim community off the coast of Kenya. The alleyways only allow pedestrian traffic, so donkeys provide the main form of transportation. They carry people and goods: bags of corn, grain, firewood, and building supplies from one side of town to the other. They look better fed than most domesticated animals I have seen in Africa. However, they litter the stone streets with their droppings. As you walk through town, you have to keep one eye on the ground to dodge the donkey landmines.

It is the month of Ramadan. During this time, Muslims fast from sun up to sun down in order to practice patience, humility, and sacrifice. For tourists, that means that only two restuaruants in the whole town serve food during the day (and one is closed on Sundays). But we didn’t come to Lamu for the cuisine, we came to see the culture.

As we walk down the main street of town, I sneak furtive glances through the arched doorways of the mosques, which I am not allowed to enter. Since Muslims pray on mats and not from pews, the men roll their mats out and nap in the afternoon heat as they wait for sundown. If you walk through the main plaza in front of the Old Fort, men and young boys gather around tables and play a local game that looks similar to backgammon.

As sundown approaches, the fasters wait patiently. They hold food wrapped in aluminum foil. As soon as the megaphones cry from the minarets scattered throughout the town, they break their fast. The shops close for thirty minutes or so as the shop keepers join the rest of the town in the streets. People roll out straw mats and share food. We buy fried balls of dough, potatoes, and samosas from the food stalls and eat in the streets with the rest of the town.

As I watch the festivities, I notice that only the men are participating. A few women sell food in the main square, but very few women are in the streets. I generally see groups of women shopping at night, when I am walking back to the hotel after checking email. Each time we pass a group of burqa clad women, I stop to wonder. The thin layer of cloth covering their faces can either be a personal decision or a prison.

When I visit predominantly Muslim communities, I wear long skirts and long sleeved shirts, even if it’s a million degrees outside. As a woman traveler, I have a different experience when I walk around town with Chris than I do when I walk alone. I have never felt threatened, but when Chris is not with me, I notice that mens’ gazes linger. They approach me more often to ask if I need to charter a boat, a city tour, bus tickets, or any other number of things a traveler could possibly need. They simply start conversations. As soon as I mention that I’m in a relationship, they stop talking to me as abruptly as they started. When I walk around town with Chris, it is like I don’t exist. Any business transactions are directed at him, even if I’m buying the  item. I have to admit, I have taken advantage of the situation. When touts try to sell me a tour or take us to a hotel, I simply point to Chris and say he handles all the financial decisions. I walk happily down the street, while Chris is swarmed with people trying to earn commission off us.

Some women choose to cover their faces and hair because of the freedom they feel. After travelling through Africa, I understand the freedom on annonimity. While I struggle to understand the burqa tradition, I am not naieve enough to think that my culture is any better. Western women spend hours obsessing over their bodies, scrutinizing their flaws, and wondering how other people are judging them.  As a teacher I become saddened and frustrated as I watch my students grow from fifth grade to twelfth grade. Their shorts get shorter and their necklines reveal more.  Parents often support uniforms because they say it brings a level of equality. Many Muslim women support burqas for this same reason.

Travel often creates more questions than it answers. I can’t ask these women why they wear a veil. They seem unapproachable to me. When I see them looking, I smile, but I have no idea if they smile back. They float through their lives as I wander through mine, but throughout the day we all dodge the same donkey shit.





Ngorongoro Crater

31 10 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 9.05.08-9.07.08

Our campsite was perched on the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater. The crater was once an impressive volcano thought to be higher than Kilimanjaro. Due to an intense explosion a bazillion years ago, the volcano imploded creating a crater 2,000 feet deep with an area of 102 square miles. Today the crater is one of the best places to see zebras, wildebeests, hippos, buffaloes, gazelles, and of course, lions. From our campsite, you could look down at the valley and see the black dots of grazing animals.

We had just eaten breakfast and I went back to our tent because, of course, I wasn’t finished packing. Chris saw the elephant before I did. He had just brushed his teeth and was walking out of the bathroom when the elephant walked out of the trees and towards the tents. Yelling is the last thing you want to do when a wild elephant is standing thirty meters from you, so he just watched it.

I was in packing mode, so I didn’t see the elephant until he was in front of the tent next to ours, about 20 meters away. I only remember looking up at huge tusks. According to Chris, I looked around in panic, then stood up and ran Napoleon Dynamite style with my hands straight down. Once I was a safe enough distance away, I watched the elephant walk through the rest of our campsite.

I shouldn’t have been too surprised. The night before an elephant had walked into our campsite, walked over to the water spigot that supplied the campsite with water, and used his trunk to turn the faucet on. He drank until he was full, the walked off…and left the water running. Running away from an elephant is the equivalent of drinking ten cups of coffee. I was wide awake and quickly finished packing. We piled in our car to drive into the crater.

When we signed up for our safari, we were put in a group with two other girls, both living in New York. Megan, originally from California, is also on an around the world trip (see Mr. Louis other people do this too). Amanda had taken a few weeks off from work to visit Megan while they toured Tanzania. The four of us instantly hit it off. We spent the dead hours in the car comparing travel notes with Megan and cracking up at Amanda’s off-the-wall comments.

We descended into the crater down a steep dirt road. Within five minutes of entering the park we found ourselves surrounded by a herd of grazing wildebeests. The animals were accustomed to the car. A few glanced our way, but most of them just kept munching grass. I had never seen a wildebeest before, not even in a zoo. They are hilarious looking creatures because they all have beards, even the baby ones and the females. The zebras and wildebeests generally graze together, so our next stop was a herd of zebras. Megan and Amanda had been on safari for five days, so they waited patiently while we marveled at the fact that each zebra has a different set of stripes. Chris was snapping pictures like crazy, while Anwar, our guide, kept repositioning the car so Chris could get the perfect shot.

The Ngorongoro crater has one of the highest densities of predatory animals (aka lions). We drove up a small hill, which the lions often use as a lookout to stalk prey. We saw a group of jeeps near the bottom of the hill and figured someone had spotted something. Three lionesses and four cubs were sitting together. As we drove up, two of the lionesses and the older cubs started off to hunt. The others remained behind. We watched the lionesses walk across the grassy plain while the cubs bounded after them. As our expert guide backed the car up and drove down the dirt road to follow the hunting party, Amanda chanted excitedly, “Kill, kill, kill! I want to see a kill!” This cute, energetic girl was cheering for blood. I thought to myself that watching wild animals in the Savannah just brings out the best in people.

The “Big Five” is the name given to a checklist of animals that every safari goer hopes to see. The list includes lion, rhino, leopard, elephant, and buffalo. First of all, I find this list silly. It doesn’t include giraffes or zebras (maybe zebras aren’t large enough). After seeing both leopards and cheetahs, I like cheetahs better. When I first heard this list, I wondered how buffaloes made it into the safari royalty.  Then I watched two lionesses (and two cubs) walk about fifty meters from a buffalo. The sheer size of the buffalo came into context. The hunting pack eyed the buffalo, and the buffalo continued chewing and stared back as if saying, “Wanna rumble?” The lions decided to walk on. I decided that any animal that a lion chooses not to attack deserves recognition. The lions made a half hearted attempt at a small herd of antelope, then walked to a section of the park with no roads, so we were unable to follow them.

Our next stop was the hippo pool, where we watched these giant creatures sitting in the water trying to escape the unrelenting heat. Poor Chris was stuck in the car with three other girls who would cheer each time the hippos yawned and laugh hysterically when they rolled over to cool their backs and showed their pink stomachs. I had asked Anwar to find a baby hippo. When we pulled up to the pool a cute little hippo was floating around.

We ate lunch near a different lake, where we could see hippos in the distance. Chris mentioned that he knew most of the animals because they were hanging on the wall at his family’s farm. After seeing the horrified expressions on Megan and Amanda’s faces, he quickly explained that his grandfather and uncles had gone on a hunting trip in the 70’s (when it was legal). He attempted to explain the hunting culture of the South. They are now both excited to come visit us when we get back to the States.

After lunch we saw another pride of lions taking an afternoon nap, more zebras, wildebeests, elephants, and a hyena before our jeep climbed back up the dirt road and back to our campsite. The sheer number of animals you can see in the crater in a matter of a few hours is amazing, and the scenery is fantastic.

I found out that Amanda was a runner as well, so the two of us went on a run before dinner. Our guide instructed us to stay in the campsite, so we ran around the perimeter. I didn’t mind running in circles because I was so thrilled to have a running buddy. We spotted an elephant at the edge of the camping area and made a detour to avoid getting too close to it each time we passed it. I have dodged puddles, bikers, cars, other runners, the occasional deer, but this was my first elephant dodging experience.

Chris’ mom had sent us Uno cards in a care package, so Megan, Amanda, Chris and I broke open a bottle of wine. After reminding ourselves of the rules, we played a vicious game of Uno. Chris won the game within a few minutes. Megan, Amanda, and I battled it out for second place. Megan fiercely threatened to rip apart anyone who dared to challenge her for second place. She had to settle for third place after I got second.

While safaris are one of the most expensive activities on our trip, it was an amazing experience. We used Arunga Expeditions (www.aruexpedition.com). Our guide Anwar Abdallah was fantastic. Please request him if you go on a safari. He was informative and answered all our questions. He would definitely win Mario Cart because he was able to maneuver between other safari cars and get us great views without blocking anyone else’s view.

Due to technical difficulties, we will have a delay in posting our Ngorongoro pictures. These pictures are amazing, so please check back for updates.