Wageni Wangu (My Guests!)

18 10 2011

Just a few weeks ago, I had my first visitors from America come to stay with me for a little over a week. My friends Chris and Amber made the long haul over here to Africa to take in the sights and the sounds. We were able to coordinate our trip so that they came during my mid-semester break, thus minimizing the number of days I would miss class. I’ll walk through our itinerary then send you a link to some of the pictures. As a note, my friend Chris took the vast majority of the pictures. He bought a camera that blows my little cannon handheld out of the water so after about half the trip I gave up and let him assume the role of photographer. I think in order to view the photographs on Facebook however, you need to be friends with me because of the security settings. So if you are not friends with me on Facebook, shoot me a request!

Chris and Amber arrived on a Sunday morning. I left my village the previous Friday evening after school to come and pick them up at the airport. Other volunteers have had a private car or something similar pick visitors up but 1) that costs a lot of money and 2) I figured I’d try to give them a realistic feel for what life in Tanzania is like. So the Sunday morning they arrived, I met them at the airport. I know that they were pretty stoked to be coming out to visit, but I have to say that I was also pretty amped up to show people what the heck I’ve been doing and where the heck I’ve been living for the past year. Pictures and blog posts can only give you a small taste of what an experience like this is like, seeing it in person is a whole other thing. Luckily their flight came in more or less on time, and after exchanging greeting and welcoming them to “the motherland” we hopped in a cab back to the “Econo Lodge” in Dar. The airport is about a 20 minute drive outside the city and luckily it was a Sunday so traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as it usually is. We got to the hotel, put our bags down, and Chris and Amber finally got to relax for a few minutes after about 20 hours or more of travel. After getting refreshed we went out into Dar to grab a bite to eat and to buy our ferry tickets for our return trip from Zanzibar. We ate at a little vegetarian indian place that I like to go when I’m in Dar. I know, vegetarian indian, I was skeptical at first, but the samosas (fried bread on the outside with fresh peas, potatoes, and carrots inside) as well as a dish called ‘thali’ which includes chapatti, rice, and more delicious sauces to dip your carbs in than you can shake a stick at. After thoroughly putting ourselves in a food coma, we walked down to the ferry docks and purchased our tickets. The ferry dock area in Dar can be absolutely crazy, especially if you’re new to the country. I remember that the first time I went to Zanzibar, I was so confused as to where to go to buy my ticket that I almost got scammed into buying a fake ticket off of some random guy, but at the last second realized my impending mistake. After taking care of business, we went back to the hotel for a little R&R. I could tell that after the 20 hour trip my guests were wiped out. After crashing at the hotel for a few hours to recharge the batteries, we went out to a cool rooftop indian bar (yea, another indian place, but I am thankful for the indian influence, especially on the food). After arriving there, we decided that we’d just have a few drinks and enjoy the view of the city and grab a bite to eat somewhere else afterwards. It was awesome catching up my friends over a few cold safari lagers; I sometimes think about how difficult it was to leave all my friends I’d make back in Atlanta. A lot of other volunteers came to the Peace Corps straight out of college and thus avoided starting to “put down roots” and creating a life of your own in another city. Of course I missed my friends from college, and we still keep in touch, but everyone kind of went their own ways; some to med school, some to law school, and for the others like me, got an actual job. Anyway, on our way back from the rooftop bar, we decided that our best option would be to get take-out pizza, buy a few beers to take back to the hotel, and play a little scrabble. This way sound like an underwhelming way to spend your first night in Africa, but for me, good pizza, cold beer, and catching up with great friends is about as good as it gets.

The next morning we got up early and headed over to the bus station. Depending on the bus line here, traveling bus can actually not be a bad experience. Again, maybe I’m just lowering my expectations since I’ve been here in Africa for about a year, but I think Chris and Amber would agree that for the equivalent of 12 USD the 8 hour to drive to Iringa wasn’t a bad deal. We arrived in my banking town of Iringa in the early evening. I booked us a couple of rooms at my go-to-guesthouse in town so that they can see where I come on the weekends here, what my idea of “luxury” consists of, and where I crazily follow Michigan football via Skype. As we were relaxing at the guesthouse, I found out that a handful of other Peace Corps volunteers were in town, so we decided to meet them out at some of the local waterholes that us volunteers like to frequent. I won’t go into details, but I think they got a taste of Tanzania and Africa that you wouldn’t normally get if you booked with a formal tour company. I think their biggest shock was how large the beers are here. They are about 1.5 times the size of a beer in America, and for the equivalent of 1 USD, I think they enjoyed sampling the varieties such as Safari Lager, Kilimanjaro Lager, Serengeti Lager, and the local papaya gin, Konyagi “The Spirit of the Nation”.

After an eventful night out on the town in Iringa, we woke up early in the morning to hike up to a huge rock overlooking the city called “gangilonga” which means “talking rocks” in the local kihehe language. When you are approaching the lookout from below, it’s quite stunning how similar it looks to Pride Rock in the movie “The Lion King”. After the relatively short hike and reaching the summit, the view is pretty awesome as it overlooks the entire valley and city of Iringa. We were lucky enough to run into some kids (probably skipping school, although they claimed it didn’t start until later) and we got some pretty neat photographs with them. After the hike, we then visited my favorite breakfast joint where I go to get fresh chapatti and chai ya maziwa (tea with milk). This place is about as authentic as a café gets here in Tanzania. It’s a bunch of Tanzanian mama’s huddled over coal ovens cooking chapatti, rice, beans, ugali, and spinach singing songs in Swahili. After fueling up on chapatti, we met up with our driver and headed off to Ruaha National Park for the safari portion of our trip. Upon arriving at our lodge, we were met by the manager of the resort who took our bags and led us towards the main area where the buffet lunch was being served. As we walked towards the main lodge, the manager said to us “we have some guests in camp today so we’ll take the long way around”. Chris, Amber, and I looked at each other puzzled as to why we had to make way for some random guests. As we approached the lodge however, we saw why we took the long way. The camp reserve we stayed at, Mwagusi, strives to blend in as much as possible with the natural surroundings and thus isn’t enclosed by fencing of any kind. Therefore when we arrived, there were a couple elephants walking right through the camp, just minding their own business. Chris, Amber, and I couldn’t believe it. As we sat down for our buffet lunch, and I emphasis the buffet portion because I planned to gain some weight on this trip and take a break from my daily intake of rice and beans, we marveled at the view. The main lodge overlooks the riverbed, which now during the dry season is completely dried up, however monkey were scrambling across, giraffes were grazing, and our “friend” in camp happened to be munching on the leaves of a tree right behind us. We have pictures of us standing literally 5 feet away from a full grown elephant while casually dishing out our delicious food onto our plates for lunch. When you look at the pictures, they truly look like they are photo shopped. After finishing up our lunch, we checked out our actual accomodations, and then planned to go on an evening safari. When I was led to my room, I was blown away. Like so many things here, it was indescribably beautiful. I had my own private veranda which overlooked the dry riverbed with a hammock, sand floor, and couches. Then in the bedroom portion I had my own luxury beds with various chairs to relax in. Further in the back of my ‘personal banda’ was an open air shower/bathroom. I’ll stop here because you need to see the pictures to get a real feel for how amazing it was.

On our evening game drive we were lucky enough to see a leopard in a tree, lions, a giraffe carcass being eaten by jackals and vultures, elephants, zebra, as well as a multitude of various bird species. For our first half-day safari, we got extremely lucky. Then upon returning to our camp, returned to our personal bandas, and washed up in our open air showers with our solar heated water. A lodge employee then came to escort us to a various place within the camp for dinner. The first night we literally had dinner in the African bush. A bonfire was setup where we sat around with the other guests sipping on wine and conversing about our activities that day. Several times during the evening I stopped to think “this is a little different than my village”. Again for dinner there was a buffet and I took full advantage. The following day we did a morning game drive then came back to the lodge for lunch. It’s worth noting that we were probably the youngest people at this place by at least 30 years. However, hearing about where some of these older couples had been and the things they’ve seen was really quite fascinating. After sharing a few mid-afternoon beers with an eccentric german couple, we went out for another evening game drive in which we saw another leopard, dik dik (mini antelope!), as well as another pride of lions. The second night in camp we had dinner IN the riverbed. It was surreal. The area where we ate was surrounded by oil lanterns with a huge blazing bonfire in the middle. The experience at this place was unbelievable, and I’m hoping that when my family comes next year, we will be able to stay here again. I can just see my parents, aunt, and sister being blown away.

The final day we again went for a morning game drive before making the rendezvous at the airstrip INSIDE THE PARK to fly out to Zanzibar. During the morning game drive we were lucky enough to see monkeys, baboons, and ostriches. I’m sure you’ve all seen pictures of an ostrich, but seeing one in person really is unreal. The sheer size of the things is stunning. Next to the lions and the cheetah this was probably the favorite thing that we were able to see inside the park. After yet another successful game drive, we arrived at the airstrip. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we booked tickets to fly from inside the game park directly to Zanzibar bar. Turns out the airstrip is nothing more than a dirt runway that is slightly elevated and sloping down at one end to assist in the plane stopping. When the plane arrived, I thought to myself “that is the smallest airplane I’ve ever seen”. It was like one of those planes you see in the movies, a little twin engine Cessna airplane with enough space for about 12 people. The same guy who checked us in was the same guy who helped us get our bags into the plane who it turned out was the same guy who flew the plane; aka the pilot. As I boarded the plane, I couldn’t help feeling a little like Matthew McConaughey in “Sahara” or Leonard Decaprio in “Blood Diamond”. We taxied to the end of the airstrip and after a bumpy trip down the runway made it up into the air. Our flight path took us to another game reserve in the southeast part of the country called Selous. The view from the air really was stunning. As we were taking off and landing, you could see the herds of elephants and giraffes wandering around and the river that snaked through the park. We made two stops in Selous, then finally made it to Dar es Salaam where we transferred into another tiny place for the 20 minute flight over to Zanzibar. The flight to Zanzibar was also fantastic. The view of the teal blue water and coral reefs from above was something out of a national geographic magazine. After touching down in Zanzibar, we met up with our tour guide, then driven to our accommodations. When we arrived at the hotel, I quickly realized that the place we were at was NOT the place I had stayed at previously. As it turns out when my friend Chris was booking our rooms, I accidentally told him to book a place called “Annex of Abdallah” rather than the very quite nice place I stayed at before called “Annex Two”. A red flag should have gone off in my head when Chris told me the guy asked him if he was sure he didn’t want to stay at a nicer place after I told him to book “Annex of Abdallah” to save us a few bucks. We arrived in our room which consisted of three beds, no pillows, only 1 sheet per bed, no self-contained bathroom, a rickety old fan, and no garbage can. It reminded me of a family trip we took when I wa a kid. My family booked at a place that looked nice on the website, but in actuality was a train wreck in reality and my mom and sister started crying about how our Easter was ruined. I had a similar feeling as I stood in this room looking at how unbelievably bad the place was. We immediately we called the guy who helped us book to see if we could get moved to a place that was a little bit nicer, and luckily we were able to move to hotel that actually had sheets on the beds and clean towels. After a tenuous start to the Zanzibar portion of the trip, we were able to recover and went out to the open-air food market down near the water in the “Stone Town” portion of Zanzibar. This is a place where many vendors sell fresh seafood, fresh pressed sugarcane juice, and little bundles of joy known as “Zanzibar Pizzas”. After enjoying some delicious pizza (more like calzones), fresh sugar cane juice, and some not-so-fresh seafood as we found out, we headed to a small little bar just inside Stone Town that had phenomenal appetizers and cold beer. After enjoying a few cold safari lagers (Chris really took a liking to the safari lager while he was here) we walked down to the water to a more upscale little restaurant with a patio overlooking the water called “Freddy Mercury’s”. If the name sounds familiar it’s because Freddy Mercury was actually a member of the famous rock band “Queen”. He was actually born in Zanzibar. This bar was dedicated him and had all kinds of memorabilia related to Queen decorating the inside. Freddy Mercury’s specialized in more exotic cocktails. I ordered something called “Obama’s Dawa” (Obama’s Medicine) and Chris ordered another fruity drink that we normally wouldn’t be caught ordering in a normal bar back stateside.

The next morning after a breakfast of fresh fruit, toast, eggs, and chat on the roof of our hotel overlooking Zanzibar, we departed for our Spice Tour. If you’re not familiar, Zanzibar is most famously known for the wide variety of spices that are grown on plantations throughout the island. We were taken to one of the plantations where we got to see spices that you probably use every day but have absolutely no idea where they come from. We were able to see/taste black pepper, nutmeg, ginger, aloe, cocoa as well as various fruits such as star fruit, coconut, custard fruit (it actually tastes like custard!), pineapple (did you know it only yields one fruit per year per plant?), and oranges. After the tour of the crops, we were able to sample a host of the fruits, some familiar such as oranges and grapefruit to the aforementioned star fruit, custard fruit, and mini-bananas. After the spice plantation, we got to have an authentic Tanzanian meal at an actual Mama’s house. Even though I’ve had my fair share of traditional Tanzanian food, the food at this place was really good and I think that Chris and Amber really enjoyed it as well. We were in the courtyard of a house, sitting on straw mats, sharing food out of community dishes, so it really was about as Tanzanian as you can get.

After all of us completely stuffed ourselves, we jumped back into the car and drove to the daladala stand where we’d use the public transport to get up to the resort we were staying at. I told Chris and Amber that we could save about 50 USD by taking the public transport instead of a taxi, and so they agreed. Plus I figured it was another good opportunity to show them another slice of what life is really like in Tanzania. However, when our car from the spice tour pulled up, the daladala was about to leave. So we frantically piled into the daladala (which was already jam packed) and basically crowd surfed to the back of the thing. For me it was pretty standard, but I could tell by the look on Chris and Amber’s faces that they were thinking “what the hell did Glenn sign us up for”. To be honest, the first half of the ride was pretty brutal, even for Tanzanian standards. We were literally stuffed into this car like a can full of sardines. I have to give them both credit though, they didn’t complain and I think Chris may have even fallen asleep at one point during the ride. After finally arriving at the daladala stop on the north part of the island, we unloaded our bags and followed the signs to our resort, Matemwe Beach Village. As we walked into the place, we were blown away. Everything was absolutely gorgeous from the open air main lodge, to the pool area with poolside bar, so the view of the beach through the palm trees. Again I’ll refer you to pictures that Chris posted online because words don’t do it justice. In addition to the scenery being absolutely unreal, the food selection at this place was phenomenal. I hate to belabor the point but going from eating rice and beans/peanut butter and honey sandwiches every day to fresh oatmeal, French toast, gourmet omelets, and fresh fish was quite the treat. The combination of fresh tea and coffee at sunrise on the beach and the ride on a traditional boat called a ‘dhow’ along with the near perfect weather made the final leg of our trip simply amazing.
The last step of our trip was to take the ferry across from Zanzibar back to Dar. The previous time I took the ferry to get to Zanzibar, I really had no issues in terms of the roughness of the sea. However, for whatever reason on our way back to Dar es Salaam, the ocean was extremely rough. There were a good number of people that go severely seasick. Luckily we had no issues, except for the fact that due to an error on my part, we ended up sitting outside in the baking sun instead of inside the first class room with air-conditioning and TV. Overall though, I really think that Chris and Amber enjoyed their trip. I know I thoroughly enjoyed having visitors and am already looking forward to next year when my parents, aunt, and sister come out to visit. I think by that time, after my experience using Chris and Amber as the guinea pigs, I’ll have the planning nailed down so that their trip will be just as smooth.

To view the pictures from our trip, just go to my Facebook wall. I’ve shared the links to them there so they should be accessible. Enjoy!




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19 10 2011
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