September 25th to October 5th, 2003
(9/26/03) We arrived in Amsterdam this morning after an uneventful flight from Dulles airport on KLM. Amsterdam is a stop over in the long haul to Tanzania. We had comfortable seats in the exit row, the flight crew was delightful, but the meal was terrible, and, as always, yours truly got very little sleep – due, in part, to the kicking child seated behind me! Thank goodness we decided on an extra day to rest up before the adventure begins! We got an early check-in at the Sheraton Amsterdam – connected conveniently to the airport by escalator – a breeze! We were able to have a nap and a shower before heading into town – an easy 15-minute trip by train, right from the airport!
We wandered around downtown and finally found one of Paul’s favorite local pubs – Café Belgique – that specializes in Belgian beers. There we washed down a toasted ham & cheese sandwich with some of the local specialties -- the heavier dark ones for Paul (Rochefort 10 and Casteel) and a lighter “blonde” beer for yours truly, the “beer wimp”.
Next stop was the Anne Frank House and Museum – a sobering and fascinating piece of history – extremely well presented. It was incredible to be in the rooms where 8 people shared that horrible ordeal. I now must read her diary again, and highly recommend this stop to anyone visiting Amsterdam. (I also highly recommend the Van Gogh Museum – visited during my first trip to Amsterdam.)
We ended our afternoon at Paul’s other beer pub favorite from his business travels – The Wildemann – where we met two couples from Cork, Ireland and spent several hours sharing stories and email addresses in hopes that we may meet again. Paul and Helen entertained the rest of us during a passionate political debate (Paul was drinking numerous pints of “Bush” beer, while Helen was defending Mr. Clinton!) – concluding with the declaration that they were “best buddies”!... It was a fun day!
Since jet lag was setting in, we hopped on the 7 PM train back to the airport and had Burger King carryout in our hotel room for dinner! (The room service rates were ridiculous!) Tomorrow we leave at 11:30 for a long flight to Africa…. Now, hopefully, some sleep…..
(9/28/03) We’ve been in Africa almost 24 hours – an amazing place… and the adventure has just begun! Yesterday was another travel day, with several hours spent roaming Amsterdam’s beautiful Schipol airport before the 9-hour flight to Arusha, Tanzania. The plane was packed with a majority of young people with backpacks and hiking gear – probably off to tackle Mt. Kilimanjaro – the highest peak on the continent at > 19,000 feet.
Arusha’s tiny “Kilamanjaro International Airport” was an experience – especially the “Passport Control” where no less than four people studied each document! Our driver – Sakala – was there to meet us and provided a friendly bundle of information during the 45-minute drive to our hotel. The Mountain Village Lodge was just beautiful, with a lovely view of a small lake, Mount Meru, and spectacular landscaping. Our room was designed like a small native hut, but round thatched roof, mosquito netting, and comfortable beds. We enjoyed a late supper in the restaurant with some delicious South African white wine. We then relaxed outside our “hut” with a cognac by candlelight under a clear, star-filled sky… A beautiful African welcome!
Sleep came easily (it was after midnight and yours truly did not sleep the night in Amsterdam – possibly due to the nap, an evening coffee, or anticipation? We got up at 6:15 this morning, showered, stuffed a few things into our still-unpacked duffel bags and headed to breakfast after touring the beautiful grounds in the daylight. Delicious fresh fruits, fresh squeezed juices (mango, for me!), yogurt and rolls were my choices – Paul had scrambled eggs and cereal.
We were then given a tour orientation by Augustine, and found out that were were a tour group of two! No one else had booked with Park East for this safari. (We found out later that business – especially American – fell a lot after 9-11… and more after the Iraq war began….) We considered this news both a plus and a minus. On the plus side, we’d have our tour guide to ourselves for a very personalized adventure – but on the minus side we would miss the opportunity to meet other interesting people.
We headed off at 8:30 with Sakala driving and Herry Christopher as our guide for the tour of Ngiresi Village – his hometown of 3,000 people. After traveling for a while on the “main road” (a 2-lane paved road without shoulders that stretches from Cairo to Cape Town, with Arusha as the mid-point!), we turned off onto the narrowest, bumpy dirt road we’d ever experienced… during which we heard and felt a large, loud crash – which turned out to be a broken torsion bar! However, we continued on through an extremely poor village area, passing countless people walking along this narrow, dusty, and often steep “road” in the foothills of Mt. Meru – about 9 kilometers from “Arusha town”. Most of the people we passed were dressed in their beautiful and colorful native dress – walking to church. Others were working hard hand-tilling or picking their small plots of land, while the children waved happily to us as we passed. Guilt and sadness does not begin to describe our feelings! We were assured by our kindly guides that the “white people” (tourists) were appreciated for what they have given to their economy.
This was further reinforced, however, when we were privileged to meet the mayor of the village at his modest farm, where he explained the Tanzania Cultural Tourism Programme (www.tourismtanzania.com) . He explained that it was initially supported by the Dutch government, and now is funded by outside contributions, allowing the member villages to improve their tiny, overcrowded primary schools by making desks, buying books, building additional schoolrooms and housing for teachers, providing assistance to widows and their children, etc. In addition, they started a program, financed by the government, where families that qualified (by terracing their land to prevent erosion and planting grass, etc.) would be given a cow. If the cow was bred and gave birth to a female, they were required to give that new cow to another qualified family in need. Already, from just 8-12 cows, they now have 200 serving families by providing milk and fertilizer (fed on leaves from the countless banana palm trees). In addition, at the mayor’s farm, they recycle the dung and urine from his 2 cows to provide natural methane gas for his small cooking burner. Nothing is wasted!
Herry took us on a fantastic walking tour of part of his village – over narrow, dusty, and sometimes steep trails – to the school (grades 1-7) which houses 1000 students in just 11 bare rooms (~80 children per class, sharing handmade wooden desks), the spring water stream where drinking water is gathered in buckets and carried home on the heads of the women up steep hills (Click for Video)– and where clothes are washed and laid out on the grass to dry, the bare fields where the children play soccer with a “ball” constructed of tightly packed plastic bags – to the subsidized homes of widows with children, consisting of round mud huts (~20 ft in diameter), with compartmentalized space inside for keeping one cow and 2 sheep at night for warmth, a small central wooden fire pit for cooking (no chimney), and two sleeping areas – one for the mother and daughters in a bed made with stuffed animal hide, and a small bed inside the entrance for sons under age 14. (Needless to say – no electricity or plumbing!) We were graciously allowed to tour one of these homes – poignant and awkward…. We’ve always tried to count our blessings, but this trip is already pushing us to reconsider how truly blessed we really are for what we so often take for granted…
Yet, in spite of the abject poverty (average wage of villager ~ $300./yr – starting teacher salary ~ $75./month) – these are wonderful, proud and happy people. They labor hard and long in the field – all by hand, with babies strapped to their backs – but are looking forward to a brighter future for their children. Herry, our village guide, attended the little school we visited, then walked 9 KM each way into Arusha for 4 years to attend the secondary school.. When he passed his exams, he qualified to attend a boarding school for a year – then proceeded to a college in another city for 1 ½ years to attain his certificate in tourism. When he doesn’t have clients, he helps his parents on their land and hopes to one day marry his girlfriend and have “just two children”. His English is almost perfect (all classes from secondary school on are taught in English), and he also speaks Swahili (the national language of Tanzania) and Massai (his tribal language) – “plus a little French”… Young men like this are beacons of light and hope for a country that just got its independence in 1964 – a bloodless turnover of power from the British, who came to this country several decades earlier to rescue them from the “terrible ordeal” of occupation by the Germans… and before that, the Arabs, per our guides.
Sakala met us at the mayor’s house (after exchanging vehicles!) and gave us a driving tour of Arusha (some impressive new buildings, but many oppressed areas) that included, of course, two stops for shopping. I did succumb at the Cultural Center and chose my Christmas gift – tanzanite earrings! Then, after lunch at Redd’s Restaurant (a nice buffet in a beautiful setting on the grounds of a coffee plantation) we headed to the small local Arusha airport where we waited an hour for our delayed plane – a single prop 12-seater – that finally arrived to take up to Lake Manyara – our next stop and the start of the real safari adventure. The airstrip was a single dirt runway!
We were met by our driver-guide Zablon – a delightful young man who will be with us throughout the safari. Since it was already 4:00 (and the National Park closes at 6:00), we opted for a game drive before going to the hotel. We had an incredible first outing in just 1 ½ hours. After entering the park in our 4-wheel drive, we were met by dozens of baboons acting as a “welcoming committee” – performing enjoyable antics. Further on we witnessed a “breeding herd” of elephants with three large females, one “teenager” and a baby. Then countless birds, giraffe, zebra, hippos, flamingos, blue monkeys, buffalo, warthogs, wildebeest, marabou stork, Eqyptian geese, and knob-billed ducks. We were amazed to find out that the area immediately around Lake Manyara had been devastated five years ago by El Nino rains, which caused the lake to rise to such an extent that all the trees for hundreds of yards were killed. It destroyed the natural habitat and the flamingos are now just returning to their former home – but the remaining dead trees are a testament to the destruction. However, the grasslands have returned and are a welcome grazing spot for the herbivores, which we were able to enjoy.
We arrived at Lake Manyara Serena at ~ 6:30 PM– a beautiful complex on top of the escarpment overlooking the valley and lake in the “Great Rift”. Again, our room is comfortable and charming in the native style. We were informed at check-in that we were scheduled to have a “Bush Dinner” at the edge of the escarpment at 7:30. We invited Zablon to be our guest We were led by a guide down a long winding path by his flashlight to an open area overlooking the lights of a distant town. Here the three of us were served (by 6 people!) a buffet-style four-course meal of assorted cold salads, soup (vegetable and rice), assorted barbequed (“on the spot”) beef, lamb, chicken, kingfish, and spinach, mixed vegetables, potatoes, “stiff porridge”, and assorted desserts, fruits and cheeses. It was hardly what we expected for a “Bush” dinner – but a special evening nonetheless – with an enjoyable local companion.
It was an incredible day – with many more to come, I’m sure! Africa is a cultural and educational delight for both of us. Tanzania is a young country with a lot of promise and special people… Now it’s midnight… (To BED!…)
(10/02/03) WOW! The pace of this safari has been much more hectic than we expected! It was a challenge to get the postcards written – so the journal will have to be slowly constructed from my scribbled notes and memory as I attempt to review each day filled with games drive highlights and the long cross-country drives to new hotels – all different and each with its own unique beauty and style. (It is now 5:30 AM – We’ll have a quick breakfast at 6:30 – then begin our game drive at 7:00 today!).
Since all of the hotels are part of the “Serena” group (one of the best), I’ll note the similarities here and add the special features later as I reconstruct the days’ events. The staff at every hotel has been the friendliest and most attentive that we’ve ever experienced – and it’s genuine. Because tourism is extremely important in Tanzania’s economic growth, all hotel workers (and guides) are required to attend a college program after completing secondary school, and classes at both levels are taught in English. Hotel workers are paid well, by Tanzanian standards – ~$75-150/month.
Most of the Serena hotels in Tanzania were built in the mid-1990’s and have all of the comfort and conveniences you’d expect in any nice hotel – but they’re located in the “middle of nowhere!” All have pleasant bedrooms decorated in African style, an outdoor porch, terrace or balcony for sitting, private baths with shower, and full 220 electricity 24 hours a day. In addition, there is always an interesting gift shop, a bar, and a huge restaurant with buffet service for all of the side dishes. At breakfast you can choose from a selection of cereals, breads, cheeses, wonderful fresh fruits and juices (incl. papaya, passion fruit, orange, pineapple, melon), yogurts, strange sausages, bacon, “pancakes” (more like crepes) and eggs made to order (omelets were best). Lunches and dinners were large, including a salad bar (shredded cabbage instead of lettuce), more fruits and cheeses and smoked/deli meats, and the opportunity to order soup (these were wonderful, incl. cream of snap pea, pumpkin, mushroom, fresh broths and chowders) and an entrée – many with Indian spices, incl. chicken, turkey, lamb, beef, and fish (local tilapia, Nile perch or kingfish). Other side dishes included a variety of sautéed, roasted or stewed vegetables, rice dishes, potatoes, pasta, and a local favorite – “ stiff porridge” –which is wonderful with vegetables or a thick stew. Desserts at all meals were outstanding. We certainly never had to worry about going hungry, although sometimes the meats or fish were dry and a little strange to our taste. (Of course, they don’t have any fattened cows in this country, since the herds walk miles twice a day for water!)