Africa 2008: The complete journal

Posted in africa 2008, personal, travel at 1:20 pm by wingerz


Nearly 8 months later, I’ve finally finished my travel blog. Good thing I kept that notebook – it’s probably one of the smartest things I’ve done this year. Really wanted to share this experience with loved ones since they may not get the opportunity to go themselves. Had a good time scribbling into it at airports and before bed every night, sometimes by the light from my headlamp. Going to post a few more entries on how my camera enjoyed the trip before I’m completely done with Africa. Eventually I’ll get around to posting some thoughts on our trip to Europe over the summer, but that may wait until next year.

Day 0 & 1: Prelude
Day 2: We have arrived
Day 3: We’re on safari!
Day 4: View from above
Day 4: Lion tracking
Day 4: Eulogy for a goat
Day 4: Fun with Maasai
Day 5: Detour to Lake Manyara
Day 5: Luxury camping
Day 6: Descent into the crater
Day 7: Waiting for school
Day 7: End of safari
Day 7: Off to Rwanda
Day 8: Remembering the genocide
Day 9: Gorillas in the mist
Day 10: Shopping in Rwanda
Day 10: Leaving Rwanda
Day 10: Travel arrangements, Africa-style
Day 11: Dar, home away from home
Day 12: Paradise
Day 13: Snorkeling Mnemba
Day 13: Sunset dhow cruise
Day 14: Zanzibar for tourists
Day 15: Seeing sealife (and eating it)
Day 16: Going home
Back from Africa

Africa Day 16: Going home

Posted in africa 2008, personal, travel at 12:49 pm by wingerz

Day 16: 3/30/2008, Dar airport, waiting for security


Our trip has come to its end. Everyone is ready to go home – we miss the comforts and faces though not so much the routine. The students will have lots of fellow Spring break travelers to share their adventures, but I’ll be going back to the office. Have really enjoyed the trip, as every place was incredibly different – the plains and steppe of northern Tanzania; green hills of Rwanda; bustling, hot, humid streets of Dar; and the tropical paradise of Zanzibar. Overall the people have been friendly and welcoming, but not always not helpful.

Traveling with the group has been great. Unfavorable situations are a lot less stressful and downtime is spent chatting rather than getting frustrated. Particularly happy to have company while wandering through crowded markets and being assaulted by aggressive vendors. Driving through Dar yesterday evening seemed a lot less intimidating than on the first morning. The unfamiliarity has faded away, but we still wouldn’t venture out on our own. I will miss my travel companions greatly. And I feel extreme gratitude towards Bob and Abhinav, who strategically selected our destinations, deftly maneuvered through the bureaucracy of the African travel industry, kept 20 travelers happy with activity and meal selections, and always maintained an air of calmness (even after Abhinav realized that he was staying in Rwanda while his bag was heading off to Dar es Salaam).

I’ve been surprised at the pleasantness of the trip. I admit that I assumed the worst when it came to our living conditions and overall comfort level. We didn’t get sick at all, which probably has a lot to do with this. Another part of this was starting out with limited accommodations (no running water, no structures) to a final night in the trendy Millennium Towers. It’s amazing how much you appreciate a simple campsite with electric lighting and running water when you haven’t had them for a few days.

We sent in our deposit check on January 6th after several weeks of discussions. At the time I figured that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as Jen and I would probably never come on our own. The trip has exceeded my high expectations, and I’ve got several thousand pictures and several thousand words to help me remember it all. Our hope is to return to Africa some day because we only scratched the surface of the beautiful, exotic continent during our two week trek. Maybe we can get Bobhinav to plan a reunion trip for us.

In a bitterly ironic turn of events, I left my camera bag on the taxi after we got dropped off at home. Thankfully the Meeses (who shared the cab) picked it up for me.


Home sweet home

Posted in family, food, home cooking, personal at 3:21 am by wingerz

goofing off at the dinner table

In my life I’ve seen several different kinds of Thanksgivings. Growing up my mom would cook a ridiculous amount of food to feed 20-30 Chinese graduate students from Caltech. In college I’d head down to NYC where my aunts and cousins would host all-day eating affairs. Most recently we’ve been going to NYC to meet up with Jen’s family for the holiday (though in 2005 they came to Boston). This year we stopped by Jen’s for dinner and mah-jongg last night and got on the road at 6am this morning to come home to Los Angeles, my first time here for the holiday since 1996. Ellen, Will, and Wilson joined us for the feast, so I pretty much had all of my favorite Southern Californians at the dinner table.

The cooking was pretty low-stress since I did the baking yesterday. The menu:

Bread with roasted garlic
Spinach salad with orange dressing
Roasted turkey with gravy
Mashed sweet potatoes (made by Jen (!!!))
Mashed potatoes with turkey and corn (brought by Wilson)
Sticky rice with mushrooms and sweet Chinese sausage (made by Mom)
Pecan Pie & Apple Pie, with vanilla ice cream

The food turned out pretty well. Very happy to be home again. Missed you, Nimes – we’ll cook up a storm at Christmas this year.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Africa Day 2: We have arrived!

Posted in africa 2008, personal, photos, travel at 1:45 am by wingerz


Day 2: 3/16, Dar es Salaam

We arrive early this morning off our second consecutive red-eye. We apply the first of many coats of DEET and sunblock. Abhinav arranges for three vans to take us through Dar es Salaam to the Skipway, a boatyard converted into a touristy area. On the drive over, I am surprised by the number of people on the sidewalks – walking, waiting for buses, riding bikes. The vans and buses are a popular mode of transportation, and they are packed completely full of people. I don’t spot any conspicuous foreigners for almost the entire ride into the city.

Our van driver warns us against holding our bags in our laps for fear of having them yanked away through the windows. This definitely scares me, not sure how likely this actually is. At one large intersection there are amputees begging for money at every island leading into the intersection. At another, a man pulls his pant leg up to reveal a bloodied bandage wrapped around his thigh.

The weather is hot and humid – about 85 deg F when we landed at 730am. I immediately regret not packing another pair of shorts. The sweat has made our griminess from not bathing a bit less noticeable. We see some beautiful views of the water on the way to breakfast. There is lots of vegetation including some beautiful flowers (orange trumpet-shaped blossoms). Breakfast (eggs and toast) is simple but satisfying. We head back to the airport to catch an hour-long flight to Arusha on a small dual-propeller plane, four seats across. They serve mini-sandwiches, hopefully I won’t regret eating them.

The Arusha Airport is tiny. The baggage claim is a luggage cart, hauled over by an airport worker. Mt Meru looms above, its summit obscured by thick clouds. The drive into Arusha takes us through neighborhoods of decrepit buildings – many of them adorned by Tigo logos (Tigo is a popular mobile service provider). Assorted scenes – vegetables for sale laid out on blankets, a guy urinating by the side of the road, lots of people out and about, riding bikes. The downtown area looks like it’s in better shape.

Travel time so far:

5 hours to London
14 hour layover
9 hours to Dar
5 hours layover
1 hour to Arusha

We look forward to a shower, decent meal, and a good night’s rest.


Which DSLR should I buy?

Posted in equipment, photos at 2:14 am by wingerz

my baby

With Black Friday looming and Christmas around the corner, it’s a good time to look for deals on cameras. A few weeks ago a friend of mine asked me for advice on purchasing a first DSLR, so I thought I’d share some thoughts. I am not making any specific camera recommendations because I haven’t been keeping up on all of the latest models.

Figure out whether you really need a DSLR. There are lots of good reasons for it, but don’t just get one to have a new toy. This mentality will most likely get you a boxful of expensive camera equipment that you won’t appreciate. Do you want to take more artistic photos? Do you just want to take better-looking photos in general? What sorts of subjects are you going to shoot? Do you want to make big prints? Answering these questions will help you determine which features are important to you and which accessories you’ll want to invest in upfront. It’ll also help you figure out whether a point-and-shoot can satisfy your needs. The Canon G-series (the latest is the G10) is a line of outstanding point-and-shoot cameras (and you can can plug an external flash into the hot shoe).
Figure out your budget. This is crucial. Sky is the limit when it comes to purchasing a camera and gear. Don’t forget to set aside money for extra batteries, memory cards, and a bag to lug your gear around with you. (And a flash and monitor calibrator, if you listen to my advice.)
Strongly consider an external flash. If you are planning to take a lot of indoor photos (and who doesn’t?), the ability to bounce the light off a ceiling or wall (instead of aiming it straight ahead) makes a striking difference. If I lost all of my camera stuff and had to reacquire everything, I’d get the 50mm prime first and this second.
Strongly consider a monitor calibration tool. Every monitor is different. When I first started goofing around with my images I didn’t know why all of my prints were oversaturated (they looked way too red). It’s because my monitor was too cool (in color), so whenever I made corrections I overcorrected.
Figure out what mount your friends have. Canon/Nikon (or something else, but these are the most common) – it’s not that important from a quality standpoint because they are all good, but it is from a lens-borrowing standpoint. Wouldn’t it be great to take your friend’s wide-angle on vacation? Or at least a test drive before getting your own?
Don’t buy more camera than you need. The more expensive models are only worth the money if you need the features. They have better build quality, are usually weatherproofed, can shoot more frames per second, have better sensors (for better low-light photography), and (slightly) better processors (The high-end models also have full-frame sensors). Some new models can also shoot HD video. The important thing to realize here is that a digital camera body is a computer, so in a few years you’re probably going to be upgrading anyway. For casual photographers it rarely pays to ride the front end of the technology curve. Just remember that a lot of really great photos were taken with the previous generation’s models.
Figure out what lens you want. Most first-time DSLR purchasers aren’t really sure what they want. On the Canon side, the 18-55 IS kit lens is a decent starter lens. The 50mm f/1.8 prime ($90) is also a no-brainer; getting a body and 50mm is not a bad way to go if you’re trying to save money. It’s great if you can postpone any decision to purchase an expensive lens until after you’ve had a chance to see how much you enjoy using the camera and figure out which end of the zoom spectrum you’re more interested in. I do a good amount of research at fredmiranda.com, always keeping in mind that many of the reviewers have a lot more money than I do. Three observations: you get what you pay for, IS is a very, very nice feature to have on a lens, and exceptional lenses are very heavy.
Do more with less. No matter what you get, there’s more to research and buy. Make a decision and be happy with it. Instead of reading more gear reviews, get out there and take photos.

My first DSLR is a Canon Rebel XT, purchased nearly two years ago when the XTi was already out. At $500 it was the cheapest body I could find at the time, and it’s served me well. It’s been a great camera to learn on, and even though I really enjoy photography, next time around I’ll probably stay at the low-end of the Canon line rather than jumping up to the 50D level.


Africa Day 0 & 1: Prelude

Posted in africa 2008, personal, photos, travel at 1:30 pm by wingerz

Need to catch up on a handful of journal entries since I jumped straight into day 3 when I first started writing. Almost done!

Day 0: 3/14 Boston, MA, Logan

It still hasn’t sunk in that we’ll be in Africa in two days. In the first few hours I’ve already realized that traveling in a group will make things a lot easier. Tomorrow (a 15-hour layover in London) will probably be stress-free but after that I don’t know what to expect. Should be the experience of a lifetime, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be pleasant. Biggest worries – geting sick / getting robbed / losing camera stuff. The rest has been mitigated by traveling in a big group. Mostly looking forward to going on safari.

Day 1: 3/15, London

London is a bit underwhelming, but I think it is partially my fault. I would love to come back some day. We take a walking tour with an eccentric guide who tries to shepherd a huge group of us along the Thames, and I just stop paying attention. I also haven’t done much research ahead of time, and someone else is holding the guidebooks so I don’t really feel all that invested in learning about things we see. Too damn tired to have the patience to enjoy the Tate Modern, though I think it is a great museum (and Jen really likes it).

We have lunch at the bustling Borough Market. It’s a huge, huge farmer’s market and food court. I am mesmerized by all of the options and delicious smells. I eat a lamb burger, baguette, and chocolate croissant.

London seems quite mundane in comparison to what’s in store. Glad that tomorrow is another travel day because it will ease us slowly into being in a completely foreign land. Safari should be a low-stress way to kick things off.



Posted in food, home cooking at 3:21 am by wingerz


After mixing a batch of olive oil dough, I made a few pizzas. Still haven’t completely perfected my technique yet. I didn’t follow these steps the letter – I think as long as you get the dough thin enough and have a good means of transferring the pizza on and off the baking stone, you’re in good shape. At this point you can’t really screw things up too badly. I made prosciutto and arugula pizza and portobello mushroom pizza

Summarized from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day

1. Preheat a baking stone in the oven for at least 20 minutes at 550 deg F (or as high as you’re comfortable with, since the cornmeal will smoke and set off smoke detectors if you don’t have good ventilation).
2. Prepare all toppings (so that the pizza doesn’t spend a long time on the peel, where it can stick).
3. Dust the surface of the refrigerated dough with flour and cut off a 1-pound (grapefruit-size) piece. Dust the piece with more flour and quickly shape it into a ball by stretching the surface of the dough around to the bottom on all four sides, rotating the ball as you go.
4. Flatten the dough with your hands and a rolling pin to 1/8″ thickness. Use flour to keep the dough from sticking to the board and rolling pin. You may need to take a break to let the dough relax to allow further rolling. Place the rolled-out dough onto a liberally cornmeal-covered pizza peel.
5. Distribute toppings. Don’t cover the dough thickly; leave some of the surface exposed.
6. Sprinkle cheese over the surface of the dough.
7. Turn on your exhaust fan, if you have one. Slide the pizza onto the stone. Check it in 8-10 minutes (longer if your oven temperature if lower).
8. When it’s done, pull it out and allow to cool slightly before serving.


Africa Day 15: Seeing sealife (and eating it)

Posted in africa 2008, personal, photos, travel at 2:22 am by wingerz


I wake up early to take a short walk along the beach. I find a few ghost crabs that scurry back into their holes and venture out when they think I’m gone.

In our guidebook I’ve found a nearby aquarium (the Mnarani Natural Aquarium). Bob, Abhinav, and Sim agree to accompany me. We walk along the beach. A young boy sells us shells by the seashore (for about $8 each), and a group of local villagers walk their blue net out to deeper waters.

A few things worry us when we reach the aquarium – a $2500 Tsh entrance fee (the book said it was $1000 Tsh, about $1 USD), a pile of turtle skeletons, and a rickety ticket stand next to a rickety wooden fence. I am going in regardless of how shady it looks and the others decide to follow. As we enter, we see buckets of young turtles lining the inside of the fence. They unsuccessfully struggle to escape. The main enclosure is a natural lagoon. Several large turtles swim by slowly, and our host grabs a pile of seaweed to feed them. He drops several pieces in, and the turtles come to the surface, chomping voraciously at the floating seaweed. As they eat, water is propelled from their nostrils in small spouts. Their shells, covered with geometric designs, are incredibly beautiful. They flap gracefully through the water.


The turtles start out as fish-eating creatures but later switch to eating seaweed when they become less mobile – too sluggish to catch fish. In the wild, only 2% of the young turtles survive. We hold some of the baby turtles. Abhinav tries to convert them to vegetarianism before they are ready.

Our host also feeds the kingfish living in the lagoon. He chucks a small piece of fish up into the air. A fish zips along the surface to snatch it as it lands in the water. He does it several more times.

The aquarium is a very pleasant surprise, well worth the cost of admission.

* * *

The trip is coming to an end, but that doesn’t mean that we’re in the clear. We run into a little misunderstanding at the airport (fortunately all of us make it back to Dar) and another at our hotel. Turns out there aren’t enough rooms for us. Arrangements are made for us to stay in another hotel which is nicer, but a bit further away. We don’t mind so much because they agree to throw in a couple vans to take us to dinner and the airport in the morning.


For our last dinner we dine at the Moevenpick Hotel. The seafood buffet is amazing in its variety and quality. The highlight is the raw fish stand – you pick your seafood then they grill or steam it. I eat three incredibly succulent crabs (2 grilled, 1 in curry sauce). I also sample just about everything else – shrimp, calamari, barracuda (very tasty). There’s lots of other delicious stuff as well, and we all eat until we can’t eat anymore.


Africa Day 14: Zanzibar for Tourists

Posted in africa 2008, personal, photos, travel at 12:54 am by wingerz


Day 14: 3/28, Stone Town


Zanzibar is known for its spices, so we visit a spice “plantation.” It turns out to be kind of a tourist trap, but it’s still good fun. Our guide takes us around the grounds, where he unearths roots and cuts leaves and barks for us to taste and smell. He’s amazed by our collective knowledge as we identify many of the spices on our own. We’re trailed by three boys who cut, fold, and weave leaves into accessories for us to wear. The fresh coconuts and fruits (especially the pineapple) are very good. I pick up a few packets of saffron (which have made it into our new kitchen).

We eat pilau (spiced rice) for lunch at a local restaurant in Stone Town. The meal is fast, cheap, authentic, and tasty. Not much more you can ask for. Bob falls to sleeping sickness after eating.


We spend the afternoon touring Stone Town, the main town in Zanzibar. Starting from an old slave marketplace (including the dark, oppressive holding area), we wander through the twisted, narrow streets to the market and over to some of the other landmarks. Some of the doors are intricately carved, signifying the wealth of their owners. Colorful shutters open above street level. Stone Town is a great place to walk around; it feels completely exotic, and right as you feel yourself getting hopelessly lost you find your way back to one of the main streets. We shop for a while and watch the sunset from the roof of the Africa House Hotel before heading to Mercury’s for dinner. We have a decent meal outdoors at the highly Americanized restaurant.


Africa Day 13: Sunset Dhow Cruise

Posted in africa 2008, personal, photos, travel at 1:08 am by wingerz


Day 13: 3/27, Nungwi


After we return from snorkeling, we head out on a relaxing sunset cruise. There is tons of goofiness, undoubtedly fueled by a cooler full of beer. We take turns jumping off the top deck, and since the boat is moving so quickly we grab onto a line and pull ourselves back into the boat. Once the light starts to fade, the sail acts as a great reflector of light.

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