A long entry… but what a week

The dust devils spin across the ground in Arusha, Tanzania. Mt. Meru stands guard, dominating the skyline, while Kilimanjaro is a whisper of snow in the background. I am standing inside a Maasai village, where a warrior by the name of Ollie is giving a guided tour. The Maasai children follow us, grabbing our hands. They know the “1, 2, 3, whee” game off by heart and after 5 minutes our arms ache from swinging, often two children at once. Sarah is a natural with children. She has them falling off her arms and on both hips. The Maasai women beg us to buy their jewelry and other wares. It is hard to refuse, and my bargaining skills get a work out.

The Oasis group are camped out at the Meserani Snake park. As the name suggests, there are hundreds of snakes about (behind glass, of course). I get to see a black mamba – the animal that had me intrigued about Tanzania from Roald Dahl’s “Going Solo”. I am much happier to see it behind glass than under my feet. It is one of (if not <B>the</b> most dangerous reptiles in Africa. The snake park owners push the feeding of the snakes early for our viewing pleasure, and we watch tiny chicks fight unsuccessfully for their lives. The morbid sight keeps us so enthralled that we nearly miss our own dinner. Thankfully we jog back in time for bangers and mint-flavoured mashed potatoes. Ah, the camping life. Only 54 more days to go of it.

I know I haven’t yet recounted the meet-up with the Oasis truck (and 22 new people!) However, since I have been many many days without internet, this entry will be long enough without all the boring travel details. Suffice to say that so far the group gets along really well, and that everyone we have met so far have been fantastic.

Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti

The jeeps fit 8 people plus the driver, so it is a tight squeeze. I sit up front with Dave (the driver), but mostly I stand on the chair and pop my head up out of the enormous sun roof. When all our heads are up, we look like meercats peering out of their burrows. Ngorongoro Crater is my first ever true game drive.

An anomaly of nature, the crater formed over 200 million years ago when a massive volcano – three times the size of Mt. Kilimanjaro – collapsed in on itself. Now, due to the presence of an enormous lake, animals flock to the crater in the dry season. People flock there too, and we are far from alone on our safari.

Driver Dame gives some of us in the jeep nicknames. Sarah is “giraffe” (“because she is tall like one”), Jason is “teacher” and I am “ma-china,” which is a Swahili word meaning “Chinese.” This is after he inquired about my heritage. It is a common question over here, as if the guides and locals I meet are infinitely curious about the past and family background. A boat driver in Lamu thought I was Arab – he himself was from Oman. Driver Dave could have sworn that I had African heritage – hwere he gets that from, I have no idea.

We pass by two black rhinos in the distance.

“Ma-china,” says Dave, “do you want to shoot a rhino?”

Well, you can imagine my reaction to that. But when I looked over at him, he was grinning from ear to ear.

“You would get much money from a rhino horn. They are believed to give men sexual virility. For the men with many wives.”

This and many other interesting facts are distributed in a similar, wayward manner throughout the day.

From the Ngorongoro Crater, we drive to the Serengeti. We do a brief dusk game drive before setting up camp. It is the most isolated camp site that we have been to so far. We are right in the middle of the Serengeti; a giraffe strolls by metres from our tent, while in the dark of night we can hear the cackling of hyenas and the roar of a lion. The night comes quickly in Africa. It surrounds us, engulfs us, until we can see nothing but the moon and sky. The sky is resplendent with stars. Sarah, Jason and I sit outside in our sleeping bags – covered in mosquito repellent, of course – and search for shooting stars. We see them. It is magic.

We are up at 4:30am for a sunrise game drive. Our most spectacular sightings so far happen within these short hours. Water buffalo trundle across the road in front of us. A leopard leaps out of the grass and snatches a bird out of the air. A hyena’s den is just off the roadside, and we see the babies suckling. One curious hyena approaches the side of the truck, so close you could almost reach out and touch it. But most spectacular of all, three male and one female lion sit right next to us, yawning and growling while patiently having their pictures taken. Lions are such posers.

We have seen all the Big Five in two days: water buffalo, rhinos, elephants, lions and leopards.

From the Mountain to the Coast

Another 4am start, and we are all fast asleep in the truck. Stu, the truck driver, pulls over and Stu, the tour guide (confusing, I know), shakes us out of our reverie.

“Mount Kilimanjaro,” he says to the confused and sleepy faces. “The sun is rising over Mount Kilimanjaro, and there are no clouds.”

It is a first for our tour guide. The view is spectacular. We are all wide awake to whip out our cameras and we shoot the mountain with the sun rising in the corner. The snow is visible at the top. Then we all pile back into the truck and fall asleep – 13 hours of driving left to accomplish before we reach Dar-es-Salaam and more importantly, Zanzibar Island.

The resort that we are at on Zanzibar Island is called “Paradise” – and the name states the obvious. Crystal clear blue water laps up onto white sand beaches. Our hotel is on stilts up out of the water and when the tide is in, as it was during dinner, the waves lap beneath our feet. The seafood here is delectable, and I have been dining on prawns, king fish, red snapper and all sorts of wonders.

Sarah and I have decided to get our PADI scuba-diving certification while we are here on the Island. Today was packed with theory – and a trip to a 5-star resort to use their swimming pool. If ever I found a perfect honeymoon destination, that 5-star resort could very well be it. Our Paradise hotel is housing us at $15/night. I can only imagine what it costs people to stay at Ras Nungwei (the 5-star) but whatever it is… it can only be worth it. After wiping the drool from our chins, we completed all our closed water dives in one long and exhausting morning.

Tomorrow will take us out on our first real open-water dive, and then onto a beautiful marine park. Scuba-diving is half terrifying, half relaxing. I’ll tell you which half after the break…

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Pole Pole

Sept. 18/2007
Things you will be glad your Mum made you bring while travelling:
– Wind-up torch
– Quick-dry underwear
– Duct tape

Things you’ll be glad you stole from the airplane/train:
– Pillow
– hand soap
– eye mask

Things you wish you had brought with you:
– earplugs
– universal sink plug
– friends from home

I always used to think that a mosquito net looked like curtains over a princess bed: romantic and soft. In reality, it is hot, sweaty and claustrophobic under one of these things. After finishing a plate of fish (tilapi) that looked like it had literally just left the ocean and died on my plate, we return to the hostel, torches at the ready. We already know the electricity is out. Coincidentally, an electrician is working on the electricity as we walk in the door. But the poor man has forgotten to bring his own torch, and is working by the feeble light of a mobile phone. Now there’s progress for you! Jason graciously offers his torch for the job but alas the good travel karma goes unnoticed by the gods… there will be no lights until tomorrow morn. So instead, I write this by LED light under the mossie net, with the blaring of the Noor mosque loud speakers in the background. Sleep, methinks, will be hard to come by.

September 20, 2007

The two days since my last journal entry have been a whirlwind. I have since lost the aforementioned LED light and the overhead lights in our train cabin have died. When the train stops you can hear the crickets chirping outside. It is the perfect mysterious atmosphere in which to recount our time on Lamu Island.

The bus ride up was hellish. Despite a 6:30am start, we didn’t arrive until 3:30pm. The three of us were crammed in behind the driver and had a full view of the mayhem that was to befall us. Baboon crossings, goats, bicycles, very unsafe overtaking, potholes the size of craters and – yes – a little hydroplaning were all part of the experience. Worst of all was the unexpected side effects of the doxycycline (malaria tablets), which added nausea to our list of grievances. Needless to say, when we arrived on the dock to ferry to Lamu Island, we were all questioning the worth of the journey. Lamu itself is its own world. The town rises up out of the water on a steady incline. The roofs are mostly thatched or else open to the sky. And most of all, there are no cars. It is the most peaceful place we have encountered since arriving in Africa. Only the loud speakers of the mosque invade the tranquility of the medieval town and even that I find more evocative than disturbing.

We check into easily the nicest guest house so far – Casaurina. There is a sociable rooftop patio where we meet the “Prince of Peace” (the chuef) and other travelers from around the world. Then we take off into Lamu, beginning with the walking tour found in Lonely Planet but then abandoning the guide book to just see where our feet take us. I haven’t felt as safe anywhere as I did in Lamu. The streets are narrow and full of people, but we don’t get hassled. The children wave, shake our hands and say “Jambo,” while we sip our cokes (or, in my case, tonic water) and just strolled for a couple of hours.
It was only Sarah and I who made it out to dinner. We sat on the terrace of Bush Gardens and enjoyed the evening breeze off the ocean. It was one of those idyllic nights you envisage before travel – no hassle, no noise, no worries, hakuna matata. Actually, the favourite island phrase is “Pole Pole” (pole-ee, pole-ee) or “slowly, slowly.”
I can’t say that we take this island advice very often. Our travels so far have been hectic, strenuous and anything but ‘slow’. But when we finally did take it – as Sarah and I did that night – it made all the difference in the world.

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Our Colonial Routes

Sept. 17, 2007

The tea in Kenya is milky and delicious, and the Nairobi Java Hut on Kenyatta Avenue is our favourite haunt. Our bags are tucked neatly out of sight in the corner and we have come here for respite from sweaty backs and dust-filled throats. We kill a good 45 minutes here, and the 2 hours before were taken up by watching “Disturbia” at a local cinema. At $4, a movie seemed like a splurge – consider that we try to keep our daytime activities under 100KSh (about $1.25). But we are stuck today, held captive by the shoulder straps and hip pads of our backpacks. Time passes slowly.

At 5:30pm we are at the train station. We try to buy snacks for the ride but although the supermarket stocks rugs and TVs and toiletries, there is little by way of food. A package of nuts and some custard creams suffice, along with plenty of water and toilet paper. The best advice I ever received: always carry your own toilet paper. After lending out some white gold sheets to a French woman in desperation, we board our ancient looking train with hundreds of other backpackers. There is no electricity at first, but we are some of the lucky and streetwise few who have brought torches.

With two loud blasts of the horn, the train chugs out of the station and we wave goodbye to Nairobi from the dining car. An unimpressed German lady is eating with us; she is not amused by our cheerful giggles at the incongruity of trying to eat a bowl of mushroom soup on a rickety train. But we are impressed. We made it through “Nairobbery” unscathed and even – God forbid – enjoyed ourselves as well.

To quote every traveller’s bible “Lonely Planet”: There’s absolutely no reason why a streetwise traveller can’t survive… Nairobi.

Well, we survived and perhaps, even, we grew.

Sept. 18, 2007

For all that I have heard about “Africa Time,” I think that they are trying to trick us. The guidebook tells us the train ride should take 14 hours. Our ticket has 17 hours scribbled on the front. In reality, it takes us 16 hours almost exactly… I am sure that this is a plot to make us believe that African trains are always early as opposed to late!

I barely sleep at all on the train, thanks to an extremely noisy cabin next door. As it gets light, Jason and I watch the dusty red earth fly by. Then at 7am we are fed breakfast. We spend the rest of the train ride relaxing, reading or staring out the window and waving at the gorgeous children standing by the train tracks. We pass by rich towns and shanty towns, although far more of the latter. We see goats and cows and Sarah even saw a monkey, but no wildlife beyond that. We pull into Mombasa and grab a taxi to the New People’s Hotel. It is conveniently located next to the bus station to Lamu… and it is just as basic (if not more so) as our hostel in Nairobi.

Mombasa is home to Fort Jesus and the Old town. We spend some time walking around with our guide, Jamal. He is Muslim, and explains to us about Ramadan. We are travellers, so it is acceptable for us not to fast (also we are not Muslim), and we eat some red bananas at the Market. In Mombasa, we have had more trouble with people harassing us than in Nairobi. But we are in a very touristy part of town, and once we selected a guide, we were not bothered any more.

Tomorrow will be another long day of travel. Excitement is building for Saturday, when we will meet the rest of the Oasis Coast-to-Coast crew. Hopefully they will have good books to read…. I have finished my backpacking murder mystery and am anxious to swap for some new reading material!

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Get me some crocodile… and make it snappy!

Jason, Sarah and I sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the 126 bus to the Bomas of Kenya. Packed like sardines, we watched in horror as the bus lurched out of the station, nearly knocking over the hoardes of pedestrians who passed by. The bus ride itself was reminiscent of a ‘mexican massage’ I received in Cozumel not too long ago – plenty of potholes to keep us on the edge of our seats! At our destination, we had to fight to get off the bus. But as soon as we had arrived, we knew we had come to the right place. Immediately the air was fresher. The grass was greener. And we saw a pair of warthogs… our first wildlife, what a bonus!

We arrived a good time before the main festivities were about to begin. With my UofT student card, I managed to convince the ticket officer that we were all students, and he gave us half price tickets. Then we took a tour of some traditional African tribal homesteads or “bomas”. Now I finally know what ‘Boma’ means! We saw Kikuyu, Masaai, and a whole slew of others that I cannot remember for the life of me. But the main attraction was the dancing. We sat in a huge auditorium in the style of an African lodge. The beat of African drums started up and the dancers poured out in their amazing costumes.

It was completely surreal. It is one thing to view these tribal dances on exhibition at Walt Disney World or in a convention centre. But to know that you are in Nairobi, listening to the drums and watching the acrobatic dancing twirl all around you… it is quite something, and I truly recommend it to anyone looking for an out of this world experience. Yes, Nairobi is a dirty, busy, dangerous city. And yes, you can’t spend forever here. But if you are passing through, it would be a great shame to miss out on Kenya in miniature.

To celebrate the first night of our 9-month adventure, we went out to Carnivore: one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. The name speaks for itself. Meat of all kinds is caved at the table, and as long as our white flag is still flying, the food is brought all night. Apart from the traditional selection of steak, pork and chicken, there was turkey, lamb and ostrich. No crocodile unfortunately… although we tried very hard to convince our waiter to bring us some! It was delicious and filling. Well satiated, we taxied back to the hostel and settled in for the night. What we didn’t expect on the drive home was to see a body in the middle of the road. A young woman had been hit by a car as she tried to jay walk across the road. In a coarse way, it is hardly surprising. The road rules are non-existent, the driving erratic and the pedestrians are bold. It was a harsh reminder to us to be careful and vigilant at all times. It is especially comforting to be in a group of three. We have each other’s backs. We are watching out for one another. And we will make sure we look both ways.

Tonight we will board our 14 hr train to Mombasa. We have sleeper cabins booked, albeit 2nd class, but we get dinner and breakfast served. Our bags are with us in the internet cafe, and we try our best to ignore the strange looks we get as we wander the streets of Nairobi fully geared up. Monday morning brings the true spirit of Nairobi to life… if we thought Sunday afternoon was bad, we had another thing coming! We will try our best to spend the next few hours as discreetly as we can. Our plans in Mombasa will hopefully take us further north along the coast to Lamu. I will let you know. For now, it’s back to the streets!

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Nairobi

Dust. Dust is my second impression of Kenya. My first is of wonderful, helpful people who lead us to the front of the line at security and pass us through in under 5 minutes, and pick us up at the airport as promised. But it is night, and I can’t see anything of Nairobi. So my next impression of Africa is one of dust: a reminder that I am no longer at home.

Our driver throttles down empty streets to the 7USD/night hostel – which, as you can expect, is nothing like what we expected. A little side road leads to a rusted gate. We unload and follow our driver down a narrow alleyway behind a house. Isn’t this exactly what the guidebooks tell us not to do? It’s late, almost 11pm, and the driver bangs on the door. There is no answer for a nervous few seconds. Then we are allowed in, and we enter a wide courtyard, washing lines weighted down by clothes crisscrossing over our heads. The hostess of the inn splits us up. Sarah and I share a double bed. Jason is alone in another room in a bunk. There are no other westerners, or even any other guests as far as we can tell. All together, we sit on the big double bed and laugh. There are showers. Sit-down flushing toilets. Warm covers. Is there really any more we can ask for?

The morning brings a different tale. We are woken before 6am by clanging and scraping of knifes and forks. Just outside our room, a group of school kids from Ghana are eating breakfast. I throw my sleeping bag liner over my head and try to catch a few more winks of sleep. It doesn’t happen. By 8am, I decide to venture out to have a shower. Turning on the water heater, nothing happens. I experience my first freezing cold African shower. It is not pleasant, and turning off the taps shocks my hands. I run back to the room in my sarong, and Sarah braves the shower in my place.

Breakfast is served outside our room, Weetabix and eggs and oranges. Tea is made with warmed milk, no hot water. We flick through the Lonely Planet guidebook to East Africa that I brought along with me (and thank goodness!) and decide where to head for today. Then the driver takes us down to the train station and we book our tickets to Mombasa.

Nairobi is a crazed city. If I could taste the dust in the air upon our arrival last night, it is visible everywhere during the day. The weather is overcast; not hot, but quite humid. Every bus and car and matatu is covered in a thin smear of red dust. We are the only Caucasian people in the city, so it would seem. We wander, no real direction in mind, head to a bank and internet cafes but of course it is Sunday – forgot that minor detail. Luckily we find a bank that is open 10-11 on Sundays. And, obviously, an internet cafe that is featured in Lonely Planet and so draws the attention of several other travellers. Suddenly we don’t feel so alone.

Today will take us to the Bomas of Kenya and Carnivore Restaurant. Adventure awaits, and I cannot tell you how glad I am that we are following the path less traveled.

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