"We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles, rather than by the quality of our service relationship to humanity." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A safari, a hot shower, a vest, and one unforgettable smile

A year ago, had someone told me that I'd be sitting in an internet cafe, listening to swahili all around me, and watching a storm roll in while attempting to write a blog entry about going on safari, I'd have thought he was crazy.  But, here I am.  Now that I've been here three weeks and am somewhat adjusted to my surroundings, I have to stop and remind myself where I am and how incredibly unbelievable the entire thing is.  Going on safari was even more surreal.  After growing up seeing animals in zoos or on Wild Kingdom episodes, seeing them in their natural habitat was surreal to say the very least.

Thursday afternoon, Kennedy and our safari driver Sam, picked us up.  Sam, a large teddy bear of a man with a warm smile to match, stood next to an old tan Toyota Landcruiser that looked as if it had seen a charging elephant or two in its time.  Some of the black framework had been painted - with a brush, but it looked tough and rugged with its two spare tires on the back.  I remarked that it seemed a tad excessive... (more foreshadowing?  Yep.).  He wore khaki trousers and a plaid shirt.  Once the bags were in the car and all five of us loaded, he slipped on a khaki, multi-pocket khaki vest, gave us all a toothy grin and we were on our way.

We traveled six hours, most of it on bumpy dirt roads, toward the central part of the country.  Palms and coastal vegetation gave way to red soil and baobob trees.  We passed through villages of mud huts, under the Uluguru mountains and passed the sisal fields (you know, the straw-like rugs from Pottery Barn).  As the sun set, we traveled through Mikumi National Park and watched herds of impala, giraffes, and a few elephants from the highway.  After turning off the paved roads and traveling up an impossibly bumpy dirt road in pitch black for two hours, we arrived at our stop for the first night, lit only by an occasional flourescent bulb.

The Twiga Hotel, while in a beautiful setting, was anything but restful.  Knowing that it was one night, we all sucked it up, looked past the ants, tucked in our mosquito nets extra tight, and enjoyed our first look at television (albeit in swahili) in three weeks.

Needless to say, it wasn't the best night of sleep ever.  With the morning, we were excited to begin our hike through the Udzungwa mountains.  Along the 6.3 km hike, we saw a variety of monkeys and medicinal trees (including one that, according to our guide, "Is like Veee-agra.  So to give energy to your friend." After passing a large pile of dung, our guide nonchalantly informed us that there were elephants in these mountains, along with leopards and deadly mamba snakes.  Awesome.  Luckily, the fiercest thing we saw were the long and wide stripes of soldier ants, carrying eggs through the forest.

After passing two waterfalls, we came to a cliff that overlooked a lush green valley below.  This was the top of the highest waterfall in the park.  Sugar cane fields stretched as far as the eye could see, along with smoke from small villages and small bunches of trees.  We sat, at the top of the 590 foot waterfall and took in the magnificent view.  Pictures simply can't do it justice.

Once we descending the mountain, we had lunch in a small village, and drove back into Mikumi.  We arrived just after dark at our tented camp.  I wasn't sure it was possible to be darker than Bagamoyo, but the camp's generator was the only power for miles around.  Tiny lanterns dimly lit the walk and one could make out the thatched-roof main building.  A tiny woman, in her sixties and with a charming South African accent, called up to us and we went in to register.  She explained a few ins and outs, and sent us down a stone path to our tents.  The tents were actually hung on top of a wood-planked raised deck, under another thatched roof.  Each tent contained two beds, a full bathroom, and all of the accoutrements of a normal hotel room, minus the solid walls.  It was beautiful and a welcome treat.  Two words:  hot shower.  My first since arriving in Africa.  Heaven.

We ate a wonderful dinner involving the absolute luxuries of real butter, dairy, and chocolate mousse, before moving to an open deck where we could hear the call of a bushbaby (a small, large-eyed primate) and the shine of a flashlight revealed one in a nearby tree.  Charles, one of the proprietors, explained that they would eat out of your hand.  He grabbed some dinner rolls, called them over, and we watched as they fed just a few feet away.  The generator would be turned off at 10:30, so we left the dining area and were escorted to our rooms by a masai in full costume carrying a lantern.

While the bed was comfortable, the night was cold and full of very strange noises.  We were staying inside the park, so this was to be expected if not comical.  Early Saturday morning, after a breakfast including another first in three weeks, real (not from powder) coffee with real cream, we met Sam and his vest, piled in the Landcruiser (now with the roof raised for viewing) and bumped down the hill toward the plains of the park.

After seeing giraffes, elephants, ridgebacks, impala, buffalo, wildebeast, and warthogs, we had still not seen the elusive lion.  We called out "Simama tafadhali!" when we needed to stop and take a photo, followed by "Tunaweza kwenda!" when we were ready to continue. Each time we passed another safari vehicle, Sam would stop and discuss progress.  It sounded something like, "swahili swahili swahili hapana (no) swahili swahili swahili simba (lion)."  Thinking that we wouldn't be able to find one, we moved toward the main gate to take a break for lunch.

Sam stopped the truck near a beautiful tamarind tree.  Thinking that it was a rather nice looking tree, I pulled out my camera to take a picture.

"Lion." Sam whispered.

Now, I looked and looked and looked, and I was pretty sure that I saw no lion, but Sam insisted, backed up the truck and turned off of the road toward the tree.  The two females lounging in the shade under the tree came into focus as we drove the truck around them, not ten feet away.  In no time, other vehicles arrived.  We returned to the road and watched as some people, completely oblivious to the obvious danger, got out of their vehicle and allowed their young child to walk around before the drivers yelled at them to get back in their car.  Sam was the hero of the day, receiving grateful slaps on the back from other drivers, knowing that their tips had just risen dramatically.  We cheered him on as we left for lunch, him smiling in his safari vest.

We took another sunset game drive that afternoon, this time viewing hippos, crocodiles, birds, and baboons before dinner.  On Sunday morning before heading back to Bagamoyo, we took one last game drive and saw all of the animals we had the day before.  Again, the lion was elusive.  So, we went back to the main gate, took some final pictures and were about to load into the car.

"Tunaweza kwenda, Sam!"
"There is male lion.  Eating lunch."
"Yes.  A buffalo was killed by a truck this morning.  I saw it.  Drivers had already cut off its legs for steak.  Now, a male lion is eating."
"Well, what are we standing around, taking pictures for??? Let's go!"

Once we arrived at the rather gruesome sight, we saw him.  He was resting in the shade of a nearby tree a few feet away from the unfortunate water buffalo, more majestic than anything I've ever seen.  The king of the jungle.  Words simply aren't enough.  Vultures circled overhead and landed in nearby trees.  He wasn't too active, however, and we watched him for about 30 minutes before heading back toward Bagamoyo.  Sam slowed at one point to warn some drivers near a broken down truck that there were lions nearby.  He entertained us with stories of how many truck drivers are attacked and killed by lions in the park each year. 

The trip home was rather eventful.  We needed both of those spare tires.  The first was replaced in a tiny village.  While we stood near the truck, the villagers all came out to watch Sam change the tire and to stare at us.  I was able to talk a little bit with a few children.  Most were shy, but one little girl and her stunning shy smile took my heart.  When Sam was finished and we went to load into the car, I gave each of the kids a fist pound or a high five and took my seat.  The little girl ran up to my half-open window, stood on her tip toes and reached her hand toward mine, saying no words.  I gave her another high five, said "Baadaye!" and watched as she smiled from ear to ear and returned to her friends.  It was one of those moments, miniscule and larger than life at the same time.

After returning back to Baga to the open arms of the CCS staff and to a new group of volunteers, I fell into bed exhausted and reviewed the weekend with another of my bulleted journal entries so that I could remember it all.  And, while I'll always remember the beauty of the animals and of the savannah, stretched out as far as the eye could see and dotted with the silhouette of giraffes, elephants, and others, I'll never forget driving through the bush.  Smiling at children, running from their mud huts and waving excitedly at us, watching kids playing soccer with a homemade, lopsided fabric ball, seeing the bicycles laden with rice or containers of water or the women, carrying children and rice and water all at once...but most of all, the children and those heart-stopping smiles.  That's the stuff of Africa.

Someone once told me that Africa has a way of hooking you when you least expect it and, once hooked, it never leaves you.  I think I'm there.

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