Safari Day One: the Tarangire

We left Arusha after picking up a couple from a nearby hotel.

I was excited to see what other areas of Tanzania looked like. Arusha had not matched my idea of what it would be, and I was excited to see what other surprises the country had in store for me.

I had imagined Arusha being a kind of rurally-idyllic town…what Arusha actually is is a bustling city of dilapidated-looking but generally well-constructed buildings. The air is always heavy with fumes or motorcycles, cars and vans —I’ve never been more thankful for state inspections in America — and sidewalks full of feet. (I didn’t get many pictures of the city itself since I didn’t like flashing my camera around.)

The town was a mix of paved roads and roads of dirt. The way to get around was on foot or matatus —15-seater small vans that seemed filled to the brim with people when I rode them in Tanzania, but which later, in Kenya, defied logic and physics with the number of people squeezed into them. Taxis were also a fair bet, but you had to know who to call and how much to pay, and I knew neither of those things.

Heidi and I walking from the hostel to the matatu

Heidi and I walking from the hostel to the matatu

The Arusha people I never really got to know, as I didn’t have a chance to interact much with them. Some wore what I have stereotyped as “traditional African dress” but more wore western cloths. Children always seemed to be wearing their school uniforms — something that would be true in every place I visited throughout the two countries. Produce markets on the side of the street sold everything from bananas to avocados to coconuts. Impressive to me was the vendors who wheeled tires, or jeans, or socks, or shoes in huge wheelbarrows up and down the city streets to their destination.

where I bought my daily avocados and bananas

where I bought my daily avocados and bananas

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One thing that did meet my expectations was the women toting goods on their heads. I saw everything from dress shirts to shopping bags, to long sticks to buckets of produce balanced perfectly atop women’s heads. I was, and still am now, endlessly amazed at this ability.

From the city, there was a fantastic view of Mt. Meru, which sometimes allowed its summit to peak out over the tops of clouds (thought not in the image below). Many suggested the view from Mt. Meru was better than the one from Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The view of Mt. Meru from the hostel doors

The view of Mt. Meru from the hostel doors

So anyway, we traveled out of town the morning of October 4, after picking up a couple who Heidi and I came to really enjoy, despite their strangeness and their sometimes difficult behavior. They were near our age, the woman’s name being Sherri and the man’s one that I could never remember and felt too silly to ask for after days sitting in the car with him.

After a brief stop at a gas station to fill up — during which Heidi and I marveled at a group of 6 men sledgehammering the dirt-rock ground apart, one blow at a time, we left Arusha behind. Soon the world around us changed. Perhaps my love of goats and animals clouds my vision, but what I remember most of this time was the number of herds of goats and cows and donkeys being led along by what was generally a child, perhaps followed by a stray dog.

Every child I saw sparked a litany of questions that I still wonder about: was that child’s days filled with only herding goats, or was there a school they attended. Were they happy, or a version of happy? Did they want to leave their town, or were they happy there? Were they excited to become men and leave the goat herding to their children, or younger brothers? If every child is a blank canvas, these children always left me wondering what kind of lives they would paint — or that would be painted for them.

There were cars as we made our way to Tarangire National Park, and though their fumes were just as bad as they had been in Arusha, their numbers were fewer. I wrote in my journal as we traveled, marking down my impressions, noting the interesting things I saw — the shops on the side of the road that had been fashioned out of scrap pieces of corrugated aluminum, or the wooden structures that looked like one strong wind would blow them down.

Tarangire National Park was the first stop, and at the gates, I got a glimpse of the hugeness of the safari tourism industry. While we were one jeep on the road, at the Tarangire we were one of dozens — and we were going on a safari in the offseason. I could just imagine the overwhelming swell of cars that would pack the parks during peak times. After parking in the lot with the rest of the jeeps, all the drivers would go into the permitting area of the national park in question to pay and get permits to stay for however long they needed to, a process that generally took 15-30 minutes.

all the jeeps of tourists waiting for their drivers to get permits.

all the jeeps of tourists waiting for their drivers to get permits.

Once in the gates, I immediately saw my first giraffe, busily chomping at leaves while we drove by, standing up with our heads popped out of the sunroof and taking pictures. The day was filled with the fewest animals, and while some came close to the van — like the momma baboon with a baby holding onto its stomach, or the zebras crossing the road, and the momma and baby elephant chomping grasses together — many we saw from afar. It didn’t matter. Having never been on a safari before, having never seen any of these kinds of animals in anything resembling their natural habitat, I was smitten! At lunch, Heidi and I were thrilled to have our food stolen by a hungry, sneaky, fast and unbelievably adorable monkey, and then to see that monkey pop into jeep after jeep by way of the sunroof to search for food.

By the end of the day, I’d taken hundreds of pictures with my sometimes blurry camera and was as happy as can be.

my first giraffe! before going on safari, this was the animal I was most excited to see, and it greeted us as we arrived! (I ended up having a different favorite animal though, which we'll talk about later...)

my first giraffe! before going on safari, this was the animal I was most excited to see, and it greeted us as we arrived! (I ended up having a different favorite animal though, which we’ll talk about later…)

A zebra and its baby

A zebra and its baby

an elephant and its baby

an elephant and its baby

the smallest antelope

the smallest antelope. this is not a baby. it is this species size

more antelope-types. they all have actual names, but I forget them.

more antelope-types. they all have actual names, but I forget them.

it was fun to see giraffes and palm trees at the same time :)

it was fun to see giraffes and palm trees at the same time :)

the scenery

the scenery

a sleepy lion. they are all sleepy. all the time. except when they're killing things.

a sleepy lion. they are all sleepy. all the time. except when they’re killing things. she was our first lion!

the lunchtime monkey who stole some of our lunch. maybe we let him? he was just SO cute.

the lunchtime monkey who stole some of our lunch. maybe we let him? he was just SO cute.

at the watering hole, elephants, zebras and antelopes

at the watering hole, elephants, zebras and antelopes

That first night we slept at a place that had plastic/canvas tents that were attached to personal, though outdoor, showers (with hot water!) and a (flushing!) toilet and a sink with running water! It was basically the most luxurious scene to come ‘home’ to at the end of a very sweaty, very dusty day. Our cook, Noru, made a wonderful meal for us, which we ate in the large, outdoor ‘restaurant’ in which there was a television playing soccer and a bar serving Heidi and I beer. It was the first of three nights of the same evening meal for me — a vegetarian curry-type meal with green beans and sweet potato and perhaps plantains. It was preceded by a soup and (white) bread and followed by a fruit plate. In short, it was DELICIOUS.

In my food- and beer-induced stupor, I managed to send a message to my family and to Joe via the place’s wifi (!) and the SPOT messenger I’d taken with me, and fell asleep in Heidi and I’s shared tent (the couple had refused the opportunity to sleep in the same tent together) almost immediately.

Destination: Tanzania

My trip to Africa was wonderful, challenging, different, motivating — all the cliché words one might use to describe their travel to a place they’d never been and which was very, very different from their home. The trip was complex, with amazing highs, with lows, with loneliness and a feelings of soaring independence. It is this variability that has made it hard to write about it…I had initially thought that maybe one blog post on “Africa” as a whole would be the way to go.

But with that strategy, the subtleties are lost. Only the events would be described, not the emotion or the small moments. So instead, using my journal as a reminder, I am going to write several posts that revisit my time in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. I hope you guys enjoy reading about what it was like there, and that it perhaps interests you in visited as well!

I arrived at the Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania with a cab ride scheduled to get me to my hostel 45 minutes away in Arusha. The only itinerary I had to follow was to, eight days from then, meet up with a friend in Nairobi, Kenya. I had a flight out of Dar es Salaam (a nine-hour bus ride away from Arusha) to take me there — but I would end up canceling that plane ride in lieu of a much cheaper, more beautiful and more convenient bus ride.

My taxi driver was incredibly kind. I was a little nervous at first because the taxi was just this random old Civic with no clear taxi indication. But I trusted that the hostel sent him (and that I didn’t have many options anyways) and, after trying to get in on the wrong side of the car, because they drive on the “wrong” side of the road, I asked him about himself. Using some broken English, he told me a little about his life. He hadn’t gone to school because his family was poor — 5 brothers and sisters from his mother, 36 (!) from his father. He had two kids of his own, and one of them — a boy — was in school.

As we talked, I tried to take in the scene around me, but all very, very dark. With no lights on the road, I would only see the short bit illuminated in front of us. To the right and left was a hint of brush that was immediately swallowed by a deep darkness. There were many motorcycles, bikes, and even more people walking on the side of the road to get where they were going.

I arrived at the hostel at around 10pm and thanked my very friendly cab driver for the ride and the conversation.  I was greeted by the manager there, Kareem, who was Canadian and full of information about the hostel and how to get around the town, though lacking the warmth that I’d  expected.

He showed me around very briefly and set me up in a dorm room where, despite what the website said, there were no lockers to lock up my stuff. There was, however, an adjoining bathroom with a shower, which would sometimes have hot water, and sometimes no water, over the next ten days. After scarfing some (delicious) leftover dinner, drinking some clean water from a cooler that they always kept full, brushing my teeth and taking a hot shower, I fell asleep tucked into my mosquito net and woke up early to my first Tanzanian morning and to hundreds of cockle-doodle-doos.

The courtyard of Ujaama Hostel: I'm sitting on an outdoor couch, looking at the water tower, a line of laundry drying and a table where many of us ate our meals.

The courtyard of Ujaama Hostel: I’m sitting on an outdoor couch, looking at the water tower, a line of laundry drying and chairs from the nearby table where many of us ate our meals.

My excitement that I seemed to be on Tanzanian time was premature given the fact that after eating breakfast, I promptly slept for another eight hours.

the bunk bed at the hostel had mosquitos nets that you wrapped around the bed when sleeping

the bunk bed at the hostel had mosquitos nets that you wrapped around the bed when sleeping

I woke up just in time to join three students on a walk to the store and then join the whole hostel crew – about eight of us – on an excursion to a super swanky bar.

I say super swanky because this was a place where almost everyone in attendance was white, a rarity. It wasn’t swanky in the way things might be here in the States, but there were western toilets – another rarity. There was an outdoor bar where you sat at picnic tables protected by large canvas umbrellas. And the food was very, very expensive compared to local prices — 3500 Tsh ($1.75) for a beer  and 4000Tsh ($2.30) for fries (the only vegan thing on the menu for a reasonable price — salads were about $7). It was an expat bar, Kareem told us, and additionally all the safari owners liked to hang out there.

I made conversation, a bit shyly, with a Norwegian girl, Heidi, who I’d met briefly earlier when she’d  suspiciously questioned my purchasing of a can of pineapple instead of buying an actual pineapple (she was right, in general, but my purpose in the purchase had been to get change in Tanzanian shillings).

Despite this not-as-rosy initial meeting, we were having tons of fun chatting under the night sky and she’d been talking about the $600, 4-day budget safari she was leaving on the next day. In almost no time, she’d invited me, I said yes, we left the bar, I packed up my stuff and $600 and went to bed for a 6am wake up call.

I was not so lucky though, as I woke up in the middle of the night to one of the three students who had come in that day from their travels yelling at her friend, Tommy. Tommy, who was standing over my bed. Tommy, who was peeing on/near my bed. Tommy who was so drunk he didn’t even realize what he was doing and who, with the help of his friend, cleaned up the urine that had got on the floor. The small bit of urine on the edge of my bed, of course, we could do nothing about. After that it was tough to go back to sleep. It was made tougher by one of the other students, Nikki, who got very scared after feeling something touch her head and went to sleep with her friend Steph. After listening very carefully for about 30 minutes, we determined that we could at least place the strange sounds we heard as going from a mouse who was pigging out on a bag of chips and then trying to eat its way through the door.

Needless to say, it was a bit of a sleepless night. After being up for so long, rattled by Tommy, and the head touching and the sounds of the mouse, I got very anxious about the safari, and where I would pee, and what it would be like, and tried listening to a meditation recording to put me in a better start of mind. When that didn’t work, I used the wifi to talk to Joe on Facebook a bit and get some courage from him. Then I watched my favorite, easy-watching movie, Kate and Leopold for a while. Finally, with two hours to go before I had to get up, I drifted off.

I was tired and nervous but excited too at 6am in the morning when Heidi and I boarded the safari van. With a day pack full of clothes, sunscreen, shampoo, a towel, a camera, my iPad, and my journal, all that was left was to warn Heidi that she should know I had to pee all the time, and we were off to pick up another couple who would be joining us on the journey.