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.


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.


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.


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.


Africa Day 13: Snorkeling Mnemba

Posted in africa 2008, personal, travel at 2:14 am by wingerz


Day 13: 3/27, Mnemba Atoll


Going snorkeling today! Already feel a bit sunburned – It’s impossible to tell whether I’m tired, burned, motion-sick, or affected by yellow fever or malaria.

We ride over to the port in a small van – 8 of us cram ourselves into six seats. Ellen, Dong, Paul, Panos, Marina, Paul, Ishan, Jen, and I occupy the top deck of the small boat after getting outfitted with snorkeling gear. We are heading to Mnemba Atoll, off the east coast of the island. It is a private island, so we won’t be allowed to actually go onto the island. The boat ride out is about an hour, and it is beautiful and dramatic thanks to the looming storm. The water here is a light turquoise over the sandbanks, deeper blue where there are rocks and coral, and dark blue over open ocean. The clouds are quite amazing. We drop two guys off into the water with an ice bucket so that they can prepare lunch and we go off to Mnemba.

Fishing is not allowed in the area, so the sea life is plentiful and colorful. The snorkeling is fantastic, even though I am not wearing corrective goggles, which makes the whole thing more of an impressionistic experience. We see zebra fish, parrotfish, angelfish, butterflyfish, rainbow-colored fish, tiny blue fish, schools of black fish and yellow fish, sea stars, and all sorts of coral.

After we have our fill, we head back to the beach for lunch, which is a gorgeous whole fish that has been marinated, wrapped in foil, and cooked. The storm rolls through and we watch from underneath a thatched roof.


Africa Day 12: Paradise

Posted in africa 2008, personal, photos, travel at 4:03 am by wingerz


Day 12: 3/26, Tanzanite Resort, Zanzibar


Surrounded by thatch umbrellas and turquoise-blue waters. Getting here was quite an adventure – we took the ferry over from Dar. Not unexpectedly there were many more passengers than seats. Boarding the boat was total chaos. People were everywhere, trying to push their way past our huge backpacks (unsuccessfully, once we coordinated our positioning to block them out). The ferry cabin was air conditioned but I spent most of my time looking out from the back of the boat since I didn’t get a seat. Zanzibar has a very large Muslim population, so we saw a lot of men wearing turbans and women in body-length clothing. On the back deck people tried to find places to sleep. One man with a bag full of snacks kept throwing his wrappers overboard. After the multi-hour ride, we made it off the boat with all of our stuff.

* * *

The boats in the harbor are of all shapes and sizes – a large Chinese cargo ship, distinctive dhows, and small sailboats. The water here is very beautiful. We relax outside for an hour or so before some grey clouds roll in. Looks like we will be here for three nights – hoping to snorkel tomorrow, visit Stone Town the day after.

Sea urchins and jellyfish populate the nearby coastal waters, but that doesn’t stop Abhinav and Sim from swimming. Salamanders run around near lights (in the evening), looking for unsuspecting moths.

The resort consists of several small cottages and a large open dining area with a thatched roof. The daily menu is written on the chalkboard; typically the choice is between fish and pasta. The food is simple but nicely done. Besides our large group, there aren’t many other guests. We’re right on the water, with beaches to both sides of us. We’re happy to spend the last part of our trip in a relaxing, do-nothing setting.


Africa Day 11: Dar, Home away from home

Posted in africa 2008, photos, travel at 4:06 am by wingerz


Day 11: 3/25, before bedtime

Had a fantastic day in Dar, thanks a lot to Jen and Ellen’s planning. Dar is a lot less intimidating than the first time we passed through. Maybe we are getting more used to the environment. Have noticed the foreign influences on architecture. Overall no trouble from the locals, though some of them look seedy. I really like the idea of negotiating cab fare up front, then you know the driver is incented to get you to your destination quickly. Overall very enjoyable but totally packed day.


The day starts at the local market, selling all sorts of goods, from shovels to scythes to pots to buckets to CRT TVs. The non-perishable goods are in an open 2-storied structure. On the way back we walk through the food market, which is starting to get busy. The smell of dried fish is especially pungent. Tomatoes and peppers are arranged in small pyramids.


Next stop is the National Museum. Highlights include a biology section with humanoid skulls from all over the world (mostly Africa). They also have a women’s art exhibit with some beautiful wood carvings. One of the artists welcomes people into the exhibit, each of her works has a brief explanation of the meanings, which I enjoy reading.


We see a packed carpool as we taxi between locations in the city.


Lunch at Chef’s Pride. Goat stew is excellent. Fast, tasty, and cheap.


We visit BRAC, a microfinance nonprofit based in Bangladesh. They only lend to women running small businesses who make less than 2000Tsh (less than $2USD) per day. Groups of women in the neighborhood work together to hold each other accountable for loan repayment. The focus is on sustainability for the borrowers and low overhead costs for the organization (about 10%).


Stop by a crafts market on the way back. Bombarded by shop owners pushing their wares from the moment we step off the bus. Everywhere we turn – Welcome! Karibu! Is free to look! In the middle of the market, many people are hard at work producing wooden crafts; wary supervisors give us dirty looks. Some workers carve, many sand. Two gentlemen, on separate occasions, ask me for my shoes. One persistent salesman follows us to the bus.


I go up to the 8th floor to take some pictures. People-watch for a bit – the rooftops come alive in the cooler evening. Two women sit on a swing; a mother and two children sit at a plastic table; someone is doing laundry.


Eat dinner at a Thai restaurant, where we celebrate Panos’s birthday. The kitchen staff has a sense of humor, as the phallic banana split demonstrates.

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