Friday, August 14, 2009

The Five Senses of Tanzania

In Tanzania…

I tasted: banana stew; fresh-squeezed passionfruit juice; ugali; chicken marsala, beef stew; tea with goat’s milk; dessert bananas the size of a lipstick; honey straight out of a hollow log; Kilimanjaro Premium Lager; African avocados; green oranges; home-brewed banana beer

I smelled: incense; clove spices; instant coffee; lemongrass tea; BBQ chicken with “secret” African spices; tiny chili peppers plucked from a bush; trash being burned in the dirt streets and gutters

I touched: mud squishing between my toes as I waded through a pond; countless handshakes and hugs from friendly Tanzanians; high-fives from children roaming school hallways; a gnarly Bao Bao tree; animals carved out of smooth teak wood

I heard: roosters crowing at all hours; a class of 4-yr olds clapping and singing a welcome song to me; a monkey telling others of my approach; crickets in the bush; enthusiastic church singing; a young child screaming after being bitten by a beetle; rain drops being caught in tanks to harvest water; Afro-Caribbean drumming; the rustling of critters in thatched roof huts; elephants trumpeting a warning

I saw: red, brown, and green coffee beans; cheerful sunflowers standing guard over rows of corn; hundreds of partially built houses waiting for more money to continue construction; bright pink pick-up trucks (driven by men); the President of Tanzania driving by with his entourage; men straining against the load they pulled on their carts; a bull elephant tossing a camping tent in the air
Kwa heri (goodbye) Tanzania

Fab Photos

Here are my top three "money" shots:

The isolation and vastness of the Serengeti.

Graceful, gentle, playful creatures.

His or her stare bores through my soul.

My Hippocratic Oath

Overheard at the hippo pool- a gleeful Italian tourist pointing at a hippo and exclaiming "Lookee da heepo, he shake-a his butt!"

Watching hippos in the Serengeti convinced me that hippos have The Life. They sit around in communal mud ponds all day, keeping cool in the blazing sun. Occasionally a random bird may land on their back so they lazily do a slow-motion 360 degree roll-over in the mud. Ghastly sounds emit from their bodies, but it is socially acceptable because everyone does it. Their food and water is right there in the pond in which they are sitting- kind of like those swim-up-to-the-bar swimming pools in Las Vegas and Hawaii.

So, inspired by the hippos, here is my Hippocratic Oath:
I, Melanie Hopson, do solemnly swear that I will go to the mud baths in Calistoga sometime in the next year.

Here Kitty, Kitty!



Saber Cat


Lion vs. Warthog

A great source of entertainment on safari was watching lions hunt for warthogs. The female lions do most of the hunting because they are lighter, faster, and more nimble. This is what the male lions do:

Here’s how they do it. The lion spots a warthog from afar. Then she crouches in the grass FOREVER, seemingly plotting when to pounce. She creeps a little closer to the warthog and then crouches again FOREVER—waiting to pounce. She repeats the crouching, waiting, creeping, and waiting cycle over and over again.

The warthog, in the meantime, is just rummaging around on the ground for whatever disgusting thing that warthogs eat, ignoring the lion who could kill him, and going about his business without a care in the world.

Finally after what seems like HOURS and after all that trouble, the lion springs up and half-heartedly chases the warthog. The warthog scampers away and says “Nanny nanny nanny. You can’t catch me!” And the lion turns in another direction muttering something like “Stupid warthog. I didn’t want to catch you anyway…”

I saw encounters like this happen 3 times. I have read that lions are only successful at catching something one out of five times. I saw 3 unsuccessful attempts, so I guess I should have stuck around longer if I wanted to witness a nice gruesome killing. But it’s clear to me that “the thrill of the hunt” is a misnomer 4 times out of 5. It’s more accurately “the tedium of the hunt.”
Lion vs. Warthog

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Roughing It

"Reminds me of my safari in Africa. Somebody forgot the corkscrew and for several days we had to live on nothing but food and water."
-WC Fields

Baby Photos

Baby Elephant

Baby Lions

Baby Zebra

Baby Giraffe

Baby Wildebeest


Animal Sighting Checklist

What I saw on my 5 days of safari:

Blue Monkeys
Bush Buck
Dik Diks
Reed Bucks
Saber Cat
Water Bucks
Water Buffalos

Skunked on:
Black Rhino

Italians on Safari

Safari Traffic

For those who have never gone on safari, basically what you do is you get into a Land Rover (British) or Land Cruiser (Japanese) and they are outfitted so that the roof flips up so you can stand up in the truck and spot animals to your heart’s delight.
Safaris go out looking for animals for 4-5 hours in the morning, and 3-4 hours in the late afternoon. Mid-day is siesta time for the animals and the safari adventurers. I don’t wish to appear unhumble when I assert that I am a darn good wildlife spotter. This is simply a certified fact—ask my friends who have traveled with me. So I spotted critters that the driver/guide didn’t even see—but in his defense, he did have to drive the whole time, while all I had to do was hang out the top of the Land Rover.

Even though I had a safari truck pretty much to myself (ok, there was one other woman in my truck, but she didn’t like to stand up), this is not to say that there aren’t hundreds of other safari trucks racing about the wilderness. They have people like this guy who apparently brought along the Hubble Space Telescope.
And occasionally there is a real traffic jam as safari drivers radio each other about a exceptionally good animal sighting, and all safari trucks high-tail it over to the location to crowd around a bored and blasé feline. Then you get a traffic jam that would rival any Los Angeles freeway.

The Mighty Serengeti

I’ve seen a few documentaries about the Serengeti- with robust voice-overs by James Earl Jones, dramatic footage of animals stalking each other, and a hushed narrative of someone explaining exactly what the animals are thinking as they trudge through the wilderness.

But nothing prepared me for how magnificent the Serengeti is. The highlight of my trip to Tanzania was spending 5 days camping in the Serengeti. It’s indescribable, but I’ll take a shot at it. The place is vast. You can see desert and savanna (rolling grasslands with scattered acacia trees) for miles. And yet everywhere you look there are some animals to watch. You can’t spit a watermelon seed without hitting an impala or gazelle.

It is dry there. There are some watering holes that the animals naturally gravitate towards, but not many. The moon was full while I camped out, and at night there were millions of stars lingering around the Milky Way like teenagers at the mall.

I can count on one hand significant traveling moments in my lifetime when I have found myself grinning from ear to ear and completely and totally ENJOYING every second of my existence. I experienced that in the Serengeti, standing up in my safari truck and peeping my head out the top while the driver drove me along bouncy, dusty roads out in the middle of nowhere.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Unclear on the Concept

This is what a pretty typical local business looks like in Tanzania. There are myriad small business owners who slap a shingle up on a corner of their home, and call it a restaurant/store/clinic/etc.

What amused me were the names of the businesses. I kept in mind that the Tanzanians speak Swahili and that English is NOT their native language, but it was still funny to see what they posted on their businesses. Some were just slightly off.

A few examples of business names I observed:

Monster Club (a bar where the Abominable Snowman can relax and toss back a few drinks?)

Wimpy Restaurant (do you get fired if you start to go to the gym too much?)

Money Maker Pumps (unapologetically capitalistic)

Nicer Medics (I'd rather get checked out by "Sexier Medics")

Giraffe Executive Inn (built with extremely high ceilings?)

And the award for The Most Unclear On The Concept goes to:

The Modern Traditional Clinic


Market in Marungu

Here are some photos of a typical market that I strode through in a small village called Marungu.

Spices in bulk. Not unlike Costco!

Bananas are BIG BUSINESS around this village. In front of her bananas is this female CEO who refuses to accept any glass ceilings.

Booze in Tanzania

I did some taste-testing of some of the local “fire water”.

Banana Beer
Home-brewed. Strong. Chunky. The texture was like a cup of sawdust stirred into a root beer float. I drank it from a hollowed out gourd, and the taste was like something I imagine Hawkeye and BJ distilling in their MASH tent.

A catch-all name for a liquor that isn’t vodka and isn’t gin but tastes somewhat like both of them mixed together. It comes in little packets like the “Capri Sun” juices favored by American children, but the contents are a lot more flammable. Tanzanians drink them down like shots, then discard the packet. They are littered everywhere.

Drinking is a problem- especially in rural areas. People are bored so they drink. People get drunk and lose their good judgment. People lose their good judgment and have unprotected sex. People have unprotected sex and contract an STD or HIV. People contract HIV/AIDS and get sick and die. See the problem?

Mount Kilimanjaro

When I was there, Mount Kilimanjaro didn't peek out from behind the clouds very often, but when it did it appeared to be an enchanting mountain.

However, most of the people I met who had just climbed it weren't enchanted in the least.

"Are you glad you climbed it?" I asked.
"Oh yea! It was great!" they replied.

"Would you climb it again?" I pressed.
"Noooooooooooo......." was the usual answer.

I have good guesses as to why no one wants to climb it again.
o It may be that it takes about 6-7 days to walk up and come back.
o It may be that the last leg of the summit is climbed in a sleepy, exhausted state of stumbling after only 2 hours of sleep.
o It may be that many people get nauseous from the altitude.
o It may be that some people don't like the expedition partners they got from the bad luck of the draw.

As you can see, I heard from plenty of people about the experience of climbing Kilimanjaro. And that will suffice for me. I'd rather chew aluminum foil for 6-7 days than climb up that mountain. Or any mountain, for that matter.

"Mountain climbing is extended periods of intense boredom, interrupted by occasional moments of sheer terror." Anonymous

A Dry and Thirsty Land

It was hot today and I felt dehydrated so when I got home I poured a cool, tall glass of Hetch Hetchy water out of the tap and drank it down. This is in contrast to Tanzania, where I was constantly asking myself the questions “Where is the water? What do they drink?

From reading the newspaper and watching news shows on television, I have always had a vague idea that Africa is short on water. But after spending three weeks there I really get the picture. It is dry. It is arid. There aren’t many wells. There aren’t many rivers. There just aren’t a lot of water sources. When I arrived in Tanzania the rainy season had just ended and they didn’t get enough rain which meant that the corn crops were already dying, and it also means that quite a few farmers are not going to be able to earn their living this year.

The amount of time, money, and energy that goes into securing drinking water is surprising. Here is a photo of some rural people gathering around a well to fill up plastic canisters.

Then from there, someone hauls the heavy water canisters around for miles by foot or on a bicycle and delivers the clean water to people who have purchased it. It’s a lot of work. And it’s probable that if water was more accessible then tons of energy and money would be freed up to do something more useful and perhaps sustainable in order to make living conditions better for the African people.

I know there must be quite a few nonprofit orgs that focus on providing water to sub-Saharan African countries, but they must not be very high-profile because I can’t name even one. And truthfully, I’m not going to research the matter because I don’t feel particularly led to be a solution to that particular problem. But I never know who reads this blog, so I will put the issue out there as a real concern for the people in Africa. Do with that knowledge what you will.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Obama Mania

Tanzanians are big fans of President Barack Obama. When walking down the street I occasionally had someone call out to me “Hey wazungu! Obama!” making a connection with me by approving of my President. In a nod to capitalism there are numerous vendors selling Obama paraphernalia such as posters and screen-printed cloths like these:

I saw lots of evidence of Obama adoration that I wasn’t fast enough to take photos of—like the name OBAMA painted on the sides of bridges or on cement walls by the road. My favorite Obama sighting was a local business where there was a painting of Obama’s face and the sign read “Obama Hair Salon.” Next time President Obama visits Africa he really is going to have to get his hair cut there.

I asked some of the older children at the orphanage why they were so enthusiastic about Obama. One of the more thoughtful ones replied “Because he is one of us! He is half African and that makes us feel like we can be the President of the United States.” I see.

I did manage to capture this homage to Obama on the back of a bus--where Obama’s portrait is sandwiched between the words “Emergency Exit”—hopefully not a prophetic word for our Commander in Chief.