Saturday, June 30, 2012

“Please put your lifejackets away!”


“We do not need our lifejackets anymore,” a voice commanded over the intercom.

Lifejackets? Everyone was in a panic at the sound of that word. We watched as one of the flight attendants carried back a jacket that had been inflated by a trigger-happy unattended minor.

Who said anything about life jackets?

The South African woman sitting next to me and I looked at one another. I knew her expression mirrored mine. A combination of confusion and fear.

We had stopped in Zanzibar for a few hours because of a problem with our second engine. When we returned to the plane, the engine that had had problems was now running. They told us they didn’t want to turn it off in case anything happened again.

Shortly after takeoff, I noticed that everyone on the right side of the plane started looking around, pointing, and exclaiming. I glanced at a window across the aisle from me and noticed that one of the propellers had stopped turning. One of the South African woman’s daughters began exclaiming in Afrikaans.

The air-conditioning had stopped working so the flight attendants were going up and down the aisles handing out cups of water to both cool and calm us. Their faces and demeanors were the picture of serenity. They hadn’t begun panicking, so I told myself that that meant I didn’t need to worry either. I also thought that could be a clever trick they were playing to keep chaos from ensuing. At any rate, I tried to convince myself that if we were in any real danger we would turn around. We had taken off only moments earlier.

“Are we going to turn around?” The South African woman asked.

“We are going to fly and land with one engine,” the flight attendant responded, smiling calmly. It was a short flight—only 20 minutes from Zanzibar—to Dar, so I figured we could make it. I could tell that the plane was tipping slightly to the left, possibly in an attempt to keep the plane from losing control. Before we knew it, the captain announced that we would be landing—the only thing he’d said since the engine had gone out.

The descent was rather smooth, but once we touched down to the ground the plane began shaking from side to side, lights flickering and everything. I gripped my armrests as tightly as I could. Not a thought was going through my mind other than a classic African hymn I had grown up hearing since childhood. My God is a good God, yes He is! One woman’s hands flew up, one on the roof of the plane, one in the air praying fiercely. We began to slow until we eventually rolled to a smooth stop. After a momentary pause, all of the passengers broke into applause.


In all of that, the thing I found most odd was the lack of compensatory customer service. In America we would have been given all kinds of vouchers and air credits to keep us happy, whereas here, the pilot gave us a simple apology for our late arrival and “rough” flight and then sent us on our way. Strangely, that was the thing I found most jarring in that whole situation…

Friday, June 29, 2012

In Transit


I have finally learned to work the Tanzanian airline system. Well...sort of.

Having already paid TZS 70000 to bring both of my suitcases on the flight to Arusha, I decided to try to trade one of my suitcases for a carry-on-sized one from my colleagues. That way, I could check one suitcase to Dar and carry on my backpack and their suitcase. Foolproof, right?

When I arrived at the check-in counter, I found that my bag was slightly overweight. Not a big deal, I could just rearrange a few things or pay the extra TZS 5000/kilo. Once I got all of that nearly sorted out, the woman behind the counter looked at my carry-on.

“That’s too big.”

Oof. I was hoping to avoid this struggle. I’d had my friend take out enough stuff such that the carry-on didn’t stick out at all. I knew it would fit in the overhead bin, because it was smaller than my backpack. I didn’t want to bring this last point to her attention, however.

After trying to reassure her that it would fit, while also trying to cover up the size of my bulging backpack, she had me weigh it. Her coworkers stationed at other counters, as well as the shuttle driver began to crowd around where she was standing. This was probably the most action they’d seen all day. They all gasped a unison, Ayyahhh! when my carry-on came in at 12 kilos.

“The weight limit is 7 kilos for a carry-on.”

I had been traveling alone for the past 3 years with all sorts of overweight luggage, over-sized carry-ons and the like. That TZS 70000 I’d had to pay had been a blow to my pride and I refused to let it happen again. I dropped to my knees. No, no in defeat, but in full on offense—I was going to rearrange like a master. I pulled out the small duffle bag that I had purchased for just this sort of situation and began puling things out of the carry-on. If I was going to have to pay an excess luggage fee, I was going to make sure I at least had as much in something I could put on the plane as possible.

They all eyed the duffel bag like spectators watching en extra handful of passengers attempting to squeeze into an already overstuffed Daladala. Everyone knew it couldn’t be good. Weight: 11 kilos. I sighed, beginning to accept defeat. Having been satisfied to see the Daladala overturn and begin to burn, the shuttle driver began making his way back to his station. The others followed suit.

“So what should I do?” I asked, “in America you can have two carry-ons—one to put above and one to put under your seat. Can I not do that?”

She thought for a moment. She looked left, she looked right. “Put a few things into there,” she said, pointing at the carry-on. I reluctantly moved my friend’s GRE books—the heaviest load in the suitcase—back into the suitcase. With each book, I watched the total weight go up by one kilo. “Okay, when you get on the plane, put the bag under your seat and put your backpack on the top.”

She was letting me go... free. I looked at the scale, and then at her. “Is there nothing else?”

“You can go.”

“Asante sana, dada! Asante sana,” I just managed to breathe out before gathering up all of my things and scampering off before she could change her mind.


So now here I sit in Zanzibar—yes, Zanzibar—reminiscing on this happy moment while I wait for our plane to be fixed. Don’t worry, just your typical case of deplaning for engine problems. I’ll still arrive hours before my friends and it’s nice to have the time to sit and reflect. It’s also a bit of foreshadowing of what Zanzibar will be like for our trip next week!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

City Report: Arusha


We have been in Arusha for a total of eleven days and this morning we are leaving for Dar.

I know it’s a little early to say as I readily approach the end of my third week in Tanzania, but I think Arusha might be my favorite Town in Tanzania. Because of its high altitude, Arusha is significantly cooler than any of the seaside towns we’ve been to thus far. You might want a medium jacket until about 10 or 11 am when the sun melts away the cloud cover. Arusha is also an incredibly clean city. Aside from the occasional corncob, you’re not going to find too much trash on the ground, which is perfectly fine with me. Fewer rats.

As the hub city for safaris, tourists—wazungu—are not hard to find, although they tend to stay in nicer parts of town than we do. We only encounter them as we walk briskly past places you could easily mistake for Europe or America such as Africafe or the Blue Heron Pizza Garden—a garden surrounded by a high wall where they sell pizza and salads—or Shoprite. The first time I passed Africafe, I couldn’t help but laugh. It was filled with people whose skin was the opposite color of the coffee they were drinking, and they were paying close to Starbucks prices for it and the food they were eating. Perhaps they knew that they could get these things for less than one-fourth the price even a few doors down, but it was much more likely that we didn’t. We seasoned Arushans, on the other hand, did.

After a few days of wasting thousands of shillings on taxi drives, we began to venture out of our safety net by walking around the town. It helped us get to know it a lot more quickly, and saved us quite a bit of money. We also got to know quite a few people and places as we passed them each day on our way from one side of town to the other.

Food:
Can I hear three cheers for Sweet Bite? Very aptly name, this joint with the typical Tanzanian fare was one of our favorites. Enormous portions and dirt-cheap prices. What more could you ask for? While Arusha does have tons of expat-friendly restaurants—I’ve even seen a sushi restaurant—we preferred to frequent the types of places where the waiters don't speak much English. Restaurants such as Kulan’s, Mehboob’s BBQ (yeah, we know), The (2G) Restaurant, and the like. At these sorts of places you can never go wrong with Wali Ro(a)st (the “a” is optional) which costs around TZS 2500-3500 ($1.50-2.25).

Notice: There are also places nearer to the outskirts of town that are a bit cheaper than this. They’ll usually have enormous banners that you can see quite easily from the street announcing their prices. This is most likely a lie and they will tell you that the promotion is over, but the food is usually good enough.

Also, Mehboob’s has 4 different types of grilled chicken. Do not be fooled: they are all exactly the same. And what they give you doesn’t taste like any of the descriptions, but it’s still good!

Markets: Mount Meru Market (aka the Maasai Marktet, it’s near the clocktower roundabout) is fantastic. However, if you don’t have basic Kiswahili skills or are white they will rip you off immensely. I actually made quite a few friends in that market (I went there far too often) and even received two marriage proposals. They know me there as the Girl from Cameroon. There is also someone selling something at every street corner and a few places in between.

(Hoorah for new categories!)
Sights:

Mt. Meru is a mountain near Arusha that always stands proudly in the distance. Unlike Kili at this time of year, you can see Mt. Meru most days, and it’s a rather incredible sight at that.

Arusha has a fantastic Cultural Tourism Program (which is just near Africafe so you can go there right after your TZS 5000 muffin!) which provides area tour excursions ranging from a half-day to four days to places such as maasai villages, waterfalls, Mt. Meru, local schools, camel safaris, and the like. The best part about these is that the profits go back to the community. While they tend to be slightly overpriced (be careful because they will cheat you), they’re still a great, relatively inexpensive way to spend your time.

Stays: Hotel Flamingo is a dream. We’re currently getting the resident rate (TZS 35000 for a double) because we had our Supervisor help us out, but even without the savings would be worth it. The hotel is incredibly clean, the water is (almost) always hot, and the staff will even cut and peel your mangos for you!

Notice: The girl at the front desk smiles and laughs a lot. You may assume she’s laughing at you and your inability to open the door or work the remote, but she’s really just like that.

Also, our Boss says Hotel Miami Beach is not as good and more expensive, so don’t be fooled by the price.


Warning: I’ve heard that Arusha is supposed to be a very dangerous city. We haven’t encountered any mishaps (thank God), but I’ve heard quite a few stories. Everyone knows someone who knows someone—that sort of thing.

There is a particularly rude scarf vendor one street down from Sweet Bite who will most likely refuse to give you good prices and won’t sell you a Pashmina for any less than TZS 8000, even if you want to buy five.

Always make sure to add up the bill yourself. Some restaurants will add on random fees just because they assume we'll just go ahead and pay. Which you probably will. Let's just go ahead and call it a wazungu tax.



We all adore Arusha and will miss it immensely when we go. We extended our stay here for an extra day because we love it that much. A day in Arusha vs. a day in Dar? When the opportunity presented itself it was a no-brainer…

We have a running joke among us that when we have too many taxi drivers phone numbers, or begin to know our way around the place then that’s when we know it’s the time to go, but with Arusha we were absolutely content with befriending the Mango Guy down the street or the duffle bag vendors on the street corner or the man who tries to sell us paintings every single day. It was the closest we’ve felt, I think, to being safe and comfortable. The closest we’ve come to something we could want to call home

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nants Ingonyama Bagithi, Baba


These are the opening lines to the “Circle of Life” from the Lion King. Did you know this actually means, “Here comes a lion, father”? And that it’s actually in Zulu as opposed to Kiswahili (even though the Lion King takes place in the Serengeti in Tanzania where Kiswahili is spoken)?

Or maybe I’m the only one who was never obsessed enough with the Lion King to look these things up when I was seven.

Anyway, we’re back from safari and I’m now almost embarrassed for how reluctant I was to go when the trip was first planned at the beginning of the summer. I initially thought that the day safari my family had taken in Zimbabwe in ’99 was enough to last me a lifetime. I don’t think I’ve ever been so wrong.

I’ll just start right in:

Tarangire:

After stopping by Shoprite—an expat’s dream of a grocery store and the beginning place for every safari company, apparently—for our water, we began the 3-hour drive to Tarangire National Park. Our tent was set up for us at the campsite (an enclosure in the savannah surrounded by a rather barbaric-looking wall of rocks) near a particularly ferocious pile of some sort of termite-looking insect which we were assured would, “go down into the ground at night,” we were on our way.

Almost as soon as we began betting on what would be our first animal to see, we began seeing elephants and wildebeests. We were all so excited, heads eagerly popping out of the top of the safari Land Rover, cameras poised in preparation for all of the awesome shots we were about to get.

So the way a safari works is you basically just drive through the park and stop along the way to take pictures. Okay, duh, I know, but you can have your guide stop for as long as you like while you take scores of shots of the same herd of zebra in succession. You also have a personal cook who makes you breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which is great.

Call me ridiculous, but I found it so odd that all of these different types of animals lived in such harmony with one another. I never would have expected zebra to share grazing space and live so symbiotically with the wildebeest, for example. Perhaps we have something to learn from them (#clich├ęsallday).

Highlights:

Feasting Lion: One of the things we noticed on safari is that the more jeeps stopped in one place has an exact correlation to how cool the sight is. For instance, during our first experience with halted jeeps we got to see a male lion eating a zebra. Considering seeing lions is not very common in Tarangire, we were incredibly lucky to see such a sight, even though it was rather far away.
Zebra: We must have seen hundreds of them on the first day. They’re really fascinating creatures. I never got tired of seeing their strangely-striped coats. I also had this odd fixation on wanting to ride one.
Lunch: It was our first Wali-Kuku-less meal in quite some time, so it was particularly pleasant.

The Park: This was my second favorite of the parks. Tarangire is mainly savannah, and the terrain is absolutely gorgeous. Zebra, giraffe, and elephants are in abundance here. Watch out for tsetse flies. They cause African Sleeping Sickness. This was the only park in which we encountered an enormous amount of them.

Manyara

Lake Manyara National Park is near a town aptly named Mto wa Mbu—River of Mosquitoes, though we were assured they did not carry malaria in this region. This park is particularly famous for its bird population. Almost entirely forested, it was quite a surprise that Manyara was so different from Tarangire. I wasn’t quite sure what I had expected, but I didn’t expect such vast terrain differences between the two places.

Highlights:
Okay, here I have to admit that I was very bad during this trip, and slept almost the entire way through.

I know. Please feel free to gasp and tisk as needed. The thing about Manyara is that it offered a lot of the same animals as Tarangire. After a particularly restless night—I’ve found that I can sleep anywhere but tents—and an entire day of safari-ing the day before—and maybe a tsetse fly bite or two—I just couldn’t manage to keep myself awake.

I will admit that the lake was quite a beautiful sight and it gave us our first flamingo and hippo sightings!

While in the Manyara area, however, you can pay to visit a Maasai village, which we did, although that excursion deserves a blog post all its own…

The Park: Most guide books will tell you that you do not want to end your safari with Lake Manyara National Park. While the park promises tree lions, it is rather difficult to see any animals, as the trees provide them with much more cover with which to hide from the scary, freakish safari jeeps. If you can’t visit one anywhere else, the Maasai village visit would definitely make it worth it, though.

Ngorongoro Crater

After two days of straight driving and animal watching, I was entirely unconvinced that the third and final day was going to be any better than the previous two. Most people we had heard from said that Ngorongoro was their favorite of the parks, but I couldn’t quite comprehend what that meant since, up until then, they had all been rather similar.  I had even less hope when we arrived at the park at around 8:30 am and the entrance was almost entirely obscured by fog. And when I say fog, I mean the kind where you can’t see a foot in front of your face. After driving for about 20 minutes our guide stopped briefly at the “Viewpoint” which we couldn’t see. Because of the fog.

As we drove farther and farther and the fog burned away in the wake of the rising sun and we could finally see the crater my mouth dropped open just wide enough for me to put my foot in.

I have never seen anything so beautiful anywhere in my entire life.

Despite the altitude-induced cold and the blowing wind, we rode the rest of the way down standing out of the top of the jeep so as not to miss a second of the beauty. I can’t even begin to describe it, but I’ll give it a shot.

The park is surrounded by mountains on all sides with an exceptionally interesting cloud cover that hugs the top of the mountains and looks ready to roll over the side. The terrain was an incredible mix of rain forest, savannah, and lakes that provided the most beautiful colors and the most diverse mix of animals we had seen thus far.

Highlights: We got to see all the best animals up close at Ngorngoro

Flamingos: You can spot their brightly-feathered bodies from kilometers away. What starts out as a reddish haze in the distance is only more spectacular up close.
Hippos: Are such odd creatures. So fat and cute yet so dangerous. You never really want to see these from too close up.
Lions: Our second massive safari jeep pileup resulted in yet another lion sighting, but this time the lions were only a few feet away. There was a lioness and a lion and though the lion was sleeping, we all just stood there watching in awe. Once the lion woke up (and tried to mount the lioness until she attacked him) you could hear the cameras clicking like mad, overpowered only by the collective groan as he knelt down and went back to sleep.

The Park: I’ve never had such an overwhelming revelation of the beauty of creation before. This park was by far my favorite, and the only one I don’t think I could ever tire of seeing. Seeing Ngorongoro easily overtook my disappointment at not getting to see the famous Serengeti. Leaving the park, we all stood up and watched the retreating terrain as we climbed higher and higher out of the crater. Silently, we reflected on the inexplicable beauty of what we had just seen and each confirmed that we would have to come back again to see this.

Tips for Safari-goers:
·      Bring binoculars.
·      Bring a zoom lens, extra batteries, and your camera charger (there are outlets in the jeep)
·      Don’t wear white
·      Don’t wear shorts (you’ll look like an idiot)
·      Don’t wear safari gear (see above)
·      Don’t eat in the car (it will attract animals)
·      Don’t make loud noises when you are stopped near elephants (they will attack you)
·      You can, in fact, take showers at the camp sites (although a Wet Ones bath may work just as well)
·      The tea, hot chocolate, coffee, and popcorn they give you when you sit down to dinner is, indeed, free (although soda and alcoholic drinks are not)
·      Wear a hat or cover your hair (trust me)

I will reiterate the guidebooks here and tell you not to end with Manyara. I’d say if you’re going, you might want to start from there. That way, things will only get better. Or, you might just skip it all together and just do the Tarangire-Ngorongoro-Serengeti circuit. But whatever floats your boat.

Now, I know that all any safari-goer really wants is to see a lion (don’t try to deny it, it’s true), but if you ever have the chance to go on a safari, just do it. There’s nothing like waiting with bated breath as you wait for a herd of elephants to cross the road. Nothing like watching a group of zebras riding off into the sunset. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing like watching sleeping lions or hunting lions or eating lions, but the raw magnificence of the untainted terrain is really something I think everyone should experience in their lifetime.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Best of Both Worlds


As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, we’re all having an incredible time doing this internship with APHFTA. The fact that I’m having such a good time is utterly laughable now because, as those of you who are close to me know, I spent an entire anxiety-ridden semester worrying about the internship—the lack of concrete details, living situations, project creation, etc. I’d been warned by past Sandbox interns that there was a severe lack of organization and details before arrival in Tanzania—and sometimes even for a while afterward—but that it would be an incredible, one-of-a-kind work experience that would be unforgettable.

For me, what makes this experience so unique is the way it so gracefully maneuvers the delicate balance between independence and supervision and work and travel. We spent our first few weeks under the tutelage of our “boss” a former Harvard student who graduated in 2010 and designed the program we’ve been teaching to the doctors, nurses, and receptionists. Since he is only a few years older than we are, it very much has the feel of a typical Harvard student-run organization—where we are expected to make a lot of decisions on our own and get the job done with little assistance from older, more experienced people such as professors or teaching fellows—but with the backing of an entire national organization to help us when we are in need.

Last week when we split off into our two teams (one to Mbulu and the other to Tanga), I was in the Tanga group under the supervision of an APHFTA coordinator who sort of became our Tanzanian mother, and to whom we also referred as Madam President. She was absolutely incredible. She always made sure we were safe and taken care of, and always did her best to make sure we got to do whatever we wanted. My teammates and I were convinced that her mobile phone doubled as a genie. As soon as we mentioned that we wanted to see something such as Amboni caves or go on a camel safari, within five minutes of whipping out her phone, she had procured us an incredible deal, usually less than half the price of the ones we found on our own. Staying with her gave us the confidence to be able to maneuver various Tanzanian cities and towns on our own, and—perhaps most importantly—she instilled in us the iron fist and stone face needed to be a good haggler. Time after time at the market in Tanga we'd run back to her thinking we'd gotten a good deal, only for her to go back with us and have them cut the price by another TZS 5000 and sometimes more.

Right now, however, we’re on our own. Our boss has gone to India for a two-week vacation, our supervisor has gone back to her hometown in Moshi, and we’re able to continue doing what we’re doing with complete competence. It’s fun to see each day pass as we get more and more familiar with the town we are in. We walk a lot more these days, now that we feel comfortable enough with the town to not need the safety of taxis. We try different restaurants (although Sweet Bite will always be our second home—after Hotel Flamingo). We have conversations with strangers using what Kiswahili we know and learning more in the process. We buy fruit on the streets and engage with school children passing by. I'd like to think that we are truly experiencing Tanzania.

Each night when we gather into one of our hotel rooms to hangout or watch a movie, the conversation usually touches on how lucky we are to be here, and what an experience we’re getting. We’re getting the best of a summer of travel as well as work experience. The combination of these two things is relatively hard to come by in an undergraduate summer experience. We have already spent quite a bit of time in 3 different cities, and have 4 left. Rather than staying in one town doing repetitive jobs as many of our friends are doing back home and even internationally, we get to see and experience so much of Tanzania as we work. I often wonder incredulously how I got lucky enough to be able to see such beautiful towns and cities while also teaching and learning so much.

We’re really getting to know places and people and I truly believe that this is a blessing. We’re growing in independence and street smarts and people skills and so many other things and yet this summer experience is such a gift to us.

And even with all of this we are given time to ourselves. By the time this posts I’ll be on a three-day safari to the Ngorongoro, Manyara, and Tarangire parks, and later in the summer we are taking a weekend trip to Zanzibar.

I’m wondering if it’s ever going to be possible to top this…