Stone Town, Zanzibar

Our clothes firmly stuck to our bodies, we open the door to our room and an air conditioned oasis greets and beckons us inward.  We happily comply and drop our bags, our cranky mood lightens as each fibre of our clothing retreats.  The room is beautiful, with high ceilings, stained glass and intricately carved doors.  The tub is odd, small, round and tiled.  There is a shower and finally I’m treated to a “Hollywood” shower and take full advantage.  We climb into our four poster bed and quickly fall deep asleep.

We awake early, excited to explore Stone town and our hotel.  We eat a hot breakfast, complete with most excellent coffee and prepare to meet the rest of the group for our formal City tour and a chance to learn.

The Guide explains some of the features of the doors that we admire.  I decide today I will photograph doors and envision creating a montage of sorts once I get home. I happily snap away while the Guide narrates.  He tells us that carved chains around the doors informs people that a Slave Trader lived at that address.

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If there was raised brass on the doors, it was designed to keep elephants away.  I wonder if that would work thinking of the elephants we just saw in Tarangire ripping apart the baobab trees with little effort.  Its unlikely that it would work, but is pretty and decorative.

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The town has effectively preserved its past.  There is an Arabian influence and the predominant religion is Muslim, though other faiths are also represented.  Everyone seems to live in relative harmony.  The electrical wires above our heads are ancient and not to code.  It is amazing that there is any electricity and that the place has not burned to the ground.

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There are many clocks in this town, but none tell the current time.  Still, they are correct twice per day. There are vendors each sitting outside their tiny shops, beckoning to the people that pass, each claiming that they have the best price.  We have no time to shop, but promise we will be back later.  They shrug, their livelihood is not dependent on whether we purchase, there is less desperation here.

We walk to where the Slave Trading occurred, sadly not so long ago. We are taken to a holding area where the Slaves were kept prior to going to market. It is a sad place with a small window to the outside and chains to leash people inside, it is oppressive. The Guide shows us the whipping post outside where the Slaves were whipped to separate the strong from the weak.  The stronger would fetch a better price.  The Guide tells us that the Slaves would adopt a saying, “Lay down your hearts, for now you are slaves.”  They would accept their lot, as to fight and struggle would be futile.

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It is always moments like this that I’m ashamed to be Caucasion. The Guide helps to lift some guilt when he  tells us that in many cases the people were stolen from their villages, or lied to about work,  by their own people who would profit by providing people to Slave Traders.  Many Slave traders were from the same country too, though of course many Slaves were eventually sold to Caucasians in other parts of the world.  It seems as though there was plenty of blame to go around.

Travelling to Stone Town, Zanzibar

We bump along safari rutted roads which soon change to a pock marked road and then to a smooth highway where we zip along at what feels like breakneck speed.  I check the speedometer and we are not speeding, just a sharp contrast to the last week of crawling along in search of animals.

I’m excited for the next part of the trip where we will be sleeping in real beds and have the opportunity to be clean daily.  I look out the window at the scenery that passes too quickly, though at times details are clear.  People sit on the porches, lounging in the hot sun, while the work of their homes piles up around them.  I mentally complete the work of painting, repairing and landscaping to create a prettier picture.  There seems to be no urgency here.  I wonder how the people are able to relax with so much work?  Perhaps there is a balance and my life and the one viewed here are at either end of the spectrum.  I wonder if my seemingly endless lists of to-do’s and must-do’s rob me of the present.

We meet up with the other group to tour a coffee plantation.  John and I are excited about the prospect of a proper cup of coffee.  We stand through the inservice of how coffee is made, though there is no opportunity to either sample the wares or to purchase a cup of joe.  I think of how this could be marketed and envision a coffee shop where one could buy a coffee and have a snack while relaxing in the beauty of the plantation.  I wonder why this has not been created and decide that the only ones that would partake would be tourist folks who have been on a camping safari and have climbed Kilimanjaro without a proper cup of coffee.  Its still a pretty place and there is a proper toilet that includes toilet paper.  I wash my hands and let the water run over them, while I wash them not once, twice, but three times.  I look in the mirror and for the first time in a week look at my face.  I smile at my reflection, happy to be back to civilization.

We arrive in Arusha, a third world place mixed with first world, a city struggling to be current.  The car horns honk incessantly while the goats amble down the centre of the road.  There are smooth concrete sidewalks that gradually turn to rubble.  There are people begging for food while they stand in front of a restaurant.  There are well made buildings, high-rises mixed with shantytowns.  There are many big name companies represented, and I wonder about the salaries that are earned.

We stop at a gift shop, there are no locals shopping here, it has been created for tourists.  It is a pretty place, with sculptures, restaurants, coffee shops and expensive bric-a-brac. It is an oasis in a sea of poverty.  I feel guilty, as its clear this place is not open to the people who live in this city, the people that call Africa home.  This pretty place is for the pampered, spoiled people who only visit. For two weeks we have had the opportunity of seeing the place on the same level as the guides and now we are back to being sheltered from the people.  Our experience will now be more pedestrian and like the sculptures surrounding us, fake.

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We meet with the Director of our Safari experience.  She asks us for feedback, we  provide, though its soon clear that she is only interested in positive feedback.  She seems to regard us as spoiled.  It is doubtful that any of our suggestions will be put to use for subsequent groups.

We find out from her that our flight to Stone Town, Zanzibar will be delayed for several hours.  At first it will be four hours, then later we are told it will be six hours. They have found a Safari lodge for us to wait.  We have no rooms, no access to showers, but we are in a pretty place.  There is a pool, bar and restaurant.  Our mountain of luggage and lounging bodies occupy a large portion of the bar area.  I order a cheeseburger and fries and  relish every bite.  It tastes most excellent and rivals any burger I’ve had back home in  beef country, Alberta.

It’s finally time to go to the airport.  We get through customs as a group and then sit around and wait as minutes turn to hours and then several more, Africa time.  In what seems like forever, the time arrives to board the plane to Zanzibar.  We have been waiting all day.  We arrive the next day at 1:00 a.m.  The humidity immediately assaults despite the early hour.  My clothes instantly stick to my body and my body greedily sucks up the moisture.

We are greeted by our tour guide, such a friendly man with a beautiful smile.  We begin to walk towards the waiting bus and then a shout causes us to abruptly stop.  One suitcase has gone missing and we must all check our bags against the claim checks to find out the claim check that corresponds to the missing bag.  This is akin to solving the theory of relativity at this very late hour.  We all work through this task and the bag is found after checking the last tag.  We climb aboard the air conditioned bus and amble through the narrow streets of Stone Town.  I’m excited to explore in the light of day, but for now my eyes are forward as I travel ever closer to a shower.  We arrive at the Dhow Palace, obtain our room keys and haul our too many bags up the three flights of stairs to our room.

Walking with the Ranger

We pack our camp and prepare for our walk with the Ranger and our drive to our final park, Tarangire.

The Ranger greets us and leads us along the top of Ngorongoro crater where we have an aerial view of the caldera. He smiles but is a man of no words intent on his task of leading our group. John tells me later that the gun he carried would not have been effective against predators. Good thing we only saw four donkeys!  Good thing John kept this knowledge to himself.

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Kilimanjaro fallout continues to pester as I have no feeling in several toes and each step I’m reminded how much I’ve come to rely on all ten. I wonder if the feeling will ever return, or if this is my new normal?

We arrive back at the Safari vehicle, say goodbye to the Ranger and begin our vehicle climb out of Ngorongoro. It is beautiful, lush and green; a sharp contrast to the dust bowl of the caldera.

We see young Maasai men with their faces painted and heads shaved. Stephen tells us that they have just been circumcised. He further advises that during the surgery the boy receives no medicine and must not move a muscle or cry as this would bring shame to his family. He must be a warrior.  Girls are also circumcised and they are allowed to cry though they must not kick at the knife. It is a harsh coming of age.

We meet up with the Lodge group at our lunch break. It’s always a treat to stop at places where we can shop and have the potential for cold ginger pop or even a cup of brewed coffee. The retail shops and restaurants are set up for Safari folks with their inflated prices and costly brik a brak. We buy only a few trinkets as the shopkeepers are not interested in haggling. A few minutes up the road, Stephen stops to purchase cigarettes for John. He leaves us and instantly the vehicle is surrounded. We are offered sale day pricing for nearly identical merchandise and we happily purchase.  In seconds the word is out and layers of people converge asking, then begging us to buy. The prices drop, we are tempted and buy again, a thick glut surrounds our vehicle and our senses are in overload. Stephen returns and shoos everyone away and we are off.

We continue our journey to Tarangire. We are close as we see a sign with a picture of lions in trees. Stephen tells us we may see this at Lake Manyara, the only place where lions climb trees.  It is believed the they have adapted to get away from the tse tse flies, though this is only one thought. A few moments later we see a small pride of lions in a tree. We watch for some time as the cub tries to find a comfortable position. I wonder if the fire department would attempt a rescue?

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We arrive at our campsite, our last home for the final two nights of our Safari. Our site is next to a dry river bed and the centre is a large baobab tree. It is pretty and somewhat shaded but the neighbours are less than desirable as we step out of the vehicle and begin swatting tse tse flies and bees.

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Our water for washing is thick with bees. This is the end of the dry season and the bees are thirsty. I quickly wash and then throw away the water attempting to redirect the bees from the door to our tent.  We swat constantly and shortly it becomes exhausting. I think if I lived here, I would adapt and wonder if the lions are on to something?  We retreat to the swat free zone of our tent and read before dinner. The situation improves dramatically as night falls and the pests sleep.

I lay awake concerned as our campsite is exposed and we are in the tent farthest from the Guides. I’m in the farther cot and only the canvas separates me from the many predators.  It is at moments like this I wish for the safety of a proper structure. John sleeps well, perhaps he doesn’t want to feel it coming?  I remain alert for both of us until I succumb to sleep and dreams.

Thankful

The night is magical as the stars peak through the canopy of trees above. We sit around the campfire and wait to be called for dinner. I think of our family and the Thanksgiving dinner that will be enjoyed half a world away. There will be too much food and too many choices, thanks difficult due to the sheer abundance of things to be thankful and yet little appreciation. We seem always searching to find thanks in our world of plenty. Tonight our thanks is crystal in its clarity. We have little of our typical comforts and abundance and yet in a small campground in Africa I look to the heavens and give thanks for life, for sight, for love. I am at peace.

Dinner is served and is special as we have all purchased wine and share with each other. Our meal is a simple stew, our mood festive.  The usual fare is extra tasty tonight. We each share what we are thankful for on this night. I’m thankful for John’s understanding, tolerance and love when I’m at my least loveable. We are both thankful for our family and our newest grandson. Collectively, we are thankful for the opportunity to travel, access to clean water and our new friends. We smile at each other under the glow of the camping lights and commit this night to memory.

After dinner we gather again at the campfire, our bellies full, wine in hand and chat. We learn more about each other. Stephen explains the education system in Tanzania. He has two sons, they wear uniforms to school and education is critical to achieving a better life. Our Canadian group talks of the places we would like to visit and what is next on our agendas. Stephen is strangely silent. I ask him if he travels and he tells us that this is not possible. It is not easy for a Tanzanian to travel freely. Many countries are concerned that they will not leave once they arrive. We are silent as we imagine what it would be like to not have this freedom, to have a passport that closed doors. Hussein joins us and we chat about religion. He tells us that his friends and family wonder how he can spend time with us as we are not Muslim. Stephen explains the difference between Muslims and Christians. He says that if a church of Christians are praying and a group of Muslims gather and state that the people in the church are stupid, the Christians would be tolerant. If the opposite were to occur, the Muslims would defend their religion using whatever means was required. Hussein smiled and agreed. It is an interesting glimpse into a different belief system. Its interesting that everyone’s beliefs are so intertwined into the fabric of their being. It is thought provoking to hear another way. We fall silent thinking about the words that have been spoken. On this night, we have solved the word’s problems as we are understanding of differences and not needing or wanting to force change.

We are soon off to bed. We will stay here two nights, and are excited about not needing to pack up tomorrow or drive around aimlessly at the end of the day while Stephen and Hussein shout into the radio at our camp staff, as our camp is not ready, yet again. They speak in Swahili but we have become experts at picking up non verbal cues and listening for the click of Stephen’s tongue and rapid head shake that symbolize his displeasure.

We sleep sound content with our full bellies, wine buzz and knowledge that the Maasai warrior will keep us safe from any predator.

Meeting the Maasai

We are on the move. The days are predictable and the program imposed. In many ways we are children, being told what will happen next and having little say in where we will go, or what we will eat.  I’m out of my comfort zone where I call the shots minute by minute.

We climb into our safari vehicle arrange our gear and prepare for another long day. I’m always bitter at the beginning of the day, my mood improving with each animal sighting and subsequent photo. We are on our way to Ngorongoro Crater and to get there will travel out of the Serengeti.

The animals are so plentiful and we stop for a time to watch the Wildebeests and Zebra decide whether they should cross the dry river bed to follow the rains.  Stephen knowingly advises that their survival depends on this decision. The Wildebeests look confused and I recognize this immediately having been lost in more than one subdivision, looking for a patient’s home.  The Wildebeests have an extra level of difficulty as they need to pass by crocodiles who are waiting to cull the herd, whereas my lack of direction will only make me late.   We ask if they should cross and Stephen tells us they are already on the correct side. The lead Wildebeest is in charge of making a decision for the herd and lacks GPS, he must go on instinct.  We are kindred spirits and I send good thoughts to the leader that they will stay where they be. It’s a harsh place where wrong decisions can mean the end of life.

SONY DSCWe meet up with the remainder of our group.  It’s great to see them, unfortunately, Illness and sunburn has plagued some of them. We chat about the animals we have seen and our respective accommodations. They are staying in lodges.   John has found fresh brewed coffee, wine and pringles. I’m in love all over again with him, such a treat. The place we have stopped is set up for tourists, complete with proper toilets and running water.  I linger and enjoy soap and savour the moment by allowing the warm water to run over my hands.   We enjoy our boxed lunches and sit at tables surrounded by an oasis.  Too soon we are off bouncing along in our respective safari vehicles.

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A short distance away, Stephen stops the vehicle,  reaches for the binoculars and tells us he spies a Cheetah. We are awestruck that he can see a speck on the horizon and know its a Cheetah.  When asked, he smiles and with an expanse of his arms he gestures at all we can see and tells us this is his office.

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We are asked if we want to stop at an authentic Maasai village. The consensus is yes though our decision is motivated chiefly by a chance to get out of the vehicle. The cost is $50.00 per Safari vehicle. The Maasai who appears at the window to collect our money sports an expensive watch. It seems there is nothing authentic here. We leave the vehicle and they dance for us just outside their village. The focus of the dance is jumping high. We are then split into groups of two each with our own guide and enter the village.

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We duck inside a home and as our eyes adjust to the darkness, gradually the space comes into focus. It’s small and smoky as fires are lit inside with little ventilation. It is the job of the female to build the home, while men are valued for their herding and hunting skills. The children are filthy and all seem to be suffering from illness. Later Stephen tells us many of them suffer from AIDS. We are ushered around a circle of items that they want us to buy. As we walk it is clear that the lives of the women and children will not change with the buying of a trinket and though there is not much I can do for them, I choose to not buy to fund another watch. The man walking us around is not happy with this decision and the tour for us is at an end.  He begins to usher us out when I remind him we have not seen the school as promised.  He brightens and ushers us into a dismal building, says something to the teachers and students and we are treated to stares by all. We go to leave and are asked for a donation to support the school. We decline and are given the bum’s rush out the back entrance.  We hear from the others in our vehicle that  if a trinket was bought, the children in the school would perform.  We all agree this is a tourist trap.

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A very short distance away we see authentic villages, children waving with happy smiles and families proud and hard at work. It costs us nothing extra.  We travel through this area and see children tending goats, some as young as 4 or 5 years.  They seem happy, though I can’t help but think that their childhood is compromised.

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We stop at our home for the night, tucked into the woods with a canopy of trees overhead.  Its beautiful.  A Maasai warrior will stay the night with us.  Stephen tells  us that they are paid as we are camping on their land.  The Maasai is friendly and helps with the chores needed to make dinner and camp. I know that I will enjoy a deep sleep comfortable in the protection of the Maasai warrior

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Lions

We finish our lunch and are on the move.  We travel a short distance, and Stephen points out the Cape Buffalo that was watching us eat. I did not realize how dangerous Buffalo are, a member of the big five. Stephen tells us that the big 5 are the 5 animals that are most challenging to kill. There have been instances of injured Cape Buffalo attacking the hunter when maimed. They are very interesting to photograph with their hairless human like face and perpetual bad hair day.

Cape Buffalo

We are told we will see at least four of the big five but depending on our luck we may or may not see the elusive rhino. It’s sad that the poachers take their horn and leave their carcass to rot. The horn is apparently an aphrodisiac and fetches a high price. Money is always in short supply in this country and I’m not sure who my anger should be directed, the consumer or the poacher. It’s complex I decide and unsolvable by me at present. I’m mad at everyone

We continue bouncing along. Hussein, the driver of the other Safari vehicle spends much time on the radio and stops to chat with everyone that passes. He gains valuable intel in this manner.

There is electricity in the air and we are off speeding over the terrain. A leopard has been spotted. We arrive to a glut of safari vehicles on both sides of a gully. I position my camera, ready. The leopard bursts through the brush and despite having the camera set to burst I repeatedly miss the shot. It’s exciting and I force myself to control my breathing to steady. John fares better as his approach is one of studied anticipation and he waits for the shot and is rewarded. We stare at the beautiful spots and strong body on our small camera screen while the scene unfolds in real time. We set the camera aside for now and watch. We are in the moment. The leopard seems agitated with our attention, I voice my concerns, Stephen agrees and we move along in search of other subjects.

Leopard

Zebra, Wildebeests, and Buffalo barely warrant a second glance, their numbers so plentiful on the Serengeti. It’s difficult to believe that only yesterday we were excited to see one, now we look beyond them for rarer sightings.

Serengeti

We see groups of Giraffes coming from all directions congregating in a gully. They float across the land and we compare their spots. We never learn why they meet here. We never tire of watching.

Giraffes

There is more excitement and we are told Lions have been found. As we bounce along, I imagine they will be far away and hope we can get a few good photos. We arrive and I can scarcely believe my eyes, they are only a few feet away. This is a small pride. There are a few females, babies and a single male. He is young with his barely there mane. I had secretly hoped for a larger mane but we have to start somewhere.

Later, we see larger prides, males with full manes, males with scars, lions with full bellies next to a zebra carcass and lions in the process of making little lions. They are secure on the top of the food chain, our presence only warrants a slight glance, a lazy roll over and then they fall back to sleep.

Sleeping lions

It’s late now, our day in the vehicle reaches it’s 12 hour mark as we make our way to our home for the night. We eat our dinner and go quiet as we listen to the sounds of the female lions calling their babies a short distance away.