Friday, January 27, 2012

Tanzania Overview

 Beth and I spent three months in Tanzania in 2008.  Click the link to see the photos!

Greetings from Tanzania! We spent three months in Arusha, a city of 500,000 people located near the northern border of the country. We also visited Mt. Kilimanjaro, Lake Manyara, and the Ngorongoro Crater (all very close to Arusha on the map), as well as Zanzibar Island.
 America has movie stars; Tanzania has Mount Kilimanjaro. During our flight into Tanzania, someone on the other side of the plane yelled, "It's Mount Kilimanjaro!" This prompted everyone from our side to dash over to the other, with our cameras out. (I was afraid the sudden weight shift would make the plane flip!) Thirty minutes later, as our plane touched down at the Arusha airport, we all were still buzzing about seeing Kilimanjaro, whose name means, "mountain that glitters." It was around this time that I decided to climb it, despite not having any training, warm clothes or other equipment.
 When standing on the streets of Arusha, where this photo was taken, Mount Kilimanjaro is hidden by the looming presence of a closer volcano, Mount Meru. Meru is "only" 15,000 feet tall, while Kilimanjaro, also a volcano, is 19,340 feet tall. (By way of comparision, the tallest mountain in Colorado is 14,443 feet tall.) After shopping around, I found a package deal where I could climb Meru one week, and then Kilimanjaro the next. Climbing Meru first is recommended for acclimatization; on the summit of Kilimanjaro, there is less than half the oxygen in the air as there is at the base of the mountain. Mainly because of the rapid ascent to altitude, less than a third of the people who attempt to climb Kilimanjaro reach the summit, and approximately thirty people die on the mountain each year. I was determined to be on the good side of both statistics.
 Tanzania is one of the poorest countries on Earth, and yet it is one of the most expensive countries I have visited, outside of Europe. For example, at the local supermarket, the price for a bottle of sunscreen ranges from $29 to $44. (At the time, the exchange rate was around 1,000 Tanzanian Shillings to one U.S. Dollar.) At these prices, you could be forgiven for simply allowing yourself to get a sunburn and then using the comparatively cheap $12.50 "after sun" lotion! Here are a couple of other examples from the supermarket: a container of grapes is $14.50, and a single plum will set you back almost $20! If you want to eat out at any barbecue restaurant (very popular in Tanzania), or a Chinese or Indian place (there are many), it will cost over $10 a person, before buying drinks. A one-bedroom apartment will cost around $700-1000 a month. Why so expensive? See the next photo.
Welcome to the United Nations' International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The United Nations has spent over $1.5 billion during the past 13 years on this court, which has completed 21 trials, resulting in 28 convictions. The court has been criticized for spending so lavishly, as well as for not involving Rwandans in the process, but it has achieved the first-ever international conviction for the crime of genocide and the first-ever conviction of a former head of state for genocide. Unfortunately, little of the money spent on the Court has found its way into the hands of Tanzanians (and virtually none to Rwandans), since almost all of the judges, lawyers and other employees are foreigners. And wherever the U.N. sets up shop, other foreigners follow and open restaurants, stores and housing aimed at the highly-paid U.N. employees and their relatives and guests. This raises prices generally, creating a "bubble economy," which will likely burst once the U.N. court leaves Arusha in a few years.
 Of course, not everything is expensive in Arusha. Because I had no hiking or cold-weather clothing and supplies, I took to the streets--literally--in search of cheap, second-hand clothing and supplies for my hikes. Street-side clothing vendors, such as what is pictured here, are common in Tanzania. What isn't so common are Confederate flags! This flag seems a little odd, considering Tanzania (mostly the island of Zanzibar), was a center of slave-trading during the 1800's.
 Obama's father is from neighboring Kenya, but many East African have adopted Obama as their own. I can't name a single living Tanzanian politician, but from the hundreds of signs and photos we've seen of Obama, you would think he was running for office in Tanzania. I've had a few lengthy conversations about American politics with Tanzanians, and while Obama is universally loved, the Tanzanians I've spoken with also seem to like President Bush. The sentiment I heard most often was that it is a shame Bush invaded Iraq, because it obscured from public consciousness all of the positive things he had done for Africa.
 These were my hiking companions up Mount Meru (from right to left): Phil, from London; Gideon, a Park Ranger; and Richard, our guide. If you look closely at this photo, you will see that Richard is texting someone on his cell phone, while Gideon is talking on his cell phone. (Gideon likes to hold his cell phone to his mouth rather than his ear. He does a lot more talking than listening.) During my hikes I noticed that while the tourists, such as Phil and I, marvel at the scenery, it is common for the local guides to be passing the time on their cell phones. Almost every inch of Tanzania has cell reception--including on the peaks of Meru and Kilimanjaro. America leads the world in many areas, but it is behind even the poorest countries in terms of cell phone service.
 During the first day's hike, we were basically on a walking safari, encountering buffalo, antelope, monkeys and this tall fellow.
 We began the hike in a rainforest, which gradually gave way to moss-covered trees and beautiful wildflowers.
 I am standing on the edge of the tree-line just before sunset on the second day of our hike up Mount Meru.
 Lest you think I starved during the hike, this is the first couple of courses of a typical dinner. After I would finish one plate, I would be served something else, until I would ask them to quit bringing food.
 Since we hiked to the summit during the night, the first photo I have from summit day is just as the sun is preparing to rise, with Mount Kilimanjaro visible 44 miles away. See the moon at the top-left of the picture?
 I stand in my rented coat and hat with the Tanzanian flag at the summit of Mount Meru. It was so cold, I had to peel my hand from the frozen metal pole!
 This is Gideon's frost-covered back as we descend on the "dark side" of Mount Meru. The frost is perpetually on the ground on this side of the mountain. The city of Arusha, where I spent most of my time in Tanzania, is just to the left of the mountain's shadow.
 We continue to make our way along the ridge from the summit. That's me in the front.
 The frost-covered ridges we traversed in the dark on the way to the summit became much scarier/more awe-inspiring during the day.
 Christian and Anna, two new members of our group, walk carefully along the narrow path. They joined our group because we hiked faster than their previous group; we arrived on the summit an hour before the next group of hikers.
 As we continue along the long ridge, Kilimanjaro is visible in the distance.
 It is still cold as the group takes a break at Rhino Point. It is so named because of the rhino bones supposedly found there long ago. Richard is showing a bone to Christian while Anna shivers in the foreground. Phil, kneeling on the right, brought every hiking gadget known to man. Here, he is adding glucose gel and protein powder to the tea in his hot-water thermos. Meanwhile, Gideon the park ranger is staring at him, probably wondering if Phil was going to spend as much on his tips at the end of the hike as he spent on even one of his hiking gadgets.
Here I am at Rhino Point, and behind me is the long ridge to Mt. Meru's peak, with the Lava Cone just visible on the left of the photo. The Lava Cone used to be the center of the mountain prior to its major eruption 8,000 years ago.
 Having hiked Meru, I was ready to undertake the four-day trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, visible in the distance to the left of my head.
 The fact that I climbed Kilimanjaro seems a lot less impressive when you realize that I had four other people helping me in my effort. Here is photo of my "team" just before we began the Kilimanjaro hike. Richard, wearing the green and black jacket and red hat, was my guide. The fellow in the blue shirt was the cook, and the two other guys to Richard's left were porters, who carried most of my stuff, such as my tent and sleeping bag and extra clothes. All I had to carry was my water and items I needed during each day's hike. Having all of this assistance was embarrassing, but it is required by the park, both for the safety of the tourist and as a way of providing employment to Tanzanians. Behind my group of helpers are other porters/guides/cooks for other hikers. The average ratio of hiker to porters/guides/cooks is around five to one. Yet, even with all of this assistance, the success rate for climbers attempting to reach Kilimanjaro's summit is less than 30%. For instance, Ann Curry and four others from NBC's Today show recently attempted Kilimanjaro with over 100 porters--a ratio of over 20 porters to every one hiker. Yet despite spending nine days on the mountain (climbing the same route as I did in four days), they only reached 16,000 feet (over 3,000 less than the summit) before deciding to turn back due to altitude sickness. It shows that no amount of help or preparation can guarantee success due to the unpredictability of how a person's body will respond to extreme altitude.
 Unlike on Meru, where we stayed in cabins, on the route I took up Kilimanjaro, everyone stays in tents. Of course, a porter carried my tent and set it up for me, and the cook provided me with food, so I'm not complaining! The small bucket, just visible outside the tent, was filled with water for me to wash up--it's the closest thing to a bath/shower in the woods. This was the first night on the mountain, and we were still on the edge of a rainforest ecosystem. (See the foliage outside thge tent?) By the way, the bowl inside the tent contained my favorite food from the hikes: freshly-popped popcorn, cooked with plenty of butter and still warm.
 Along the trail on day two, Kilimanjaro's snowy peak is visible in the distance. If you recall the view of the lush foliage from my tent in the previous photo, you'll notice that the vegetation has thinned out considerably by the time this photo was taken. The hike up Kilimanjaro passes through five distinct vegetational zones/ecosystems on the way up to the peak, 19,340 feet above sea level.
 To the right, there is a browned field where hundreds of tents were set up for the third night. Just below the field is a waterfall, where the porters would retrieve water for cooking and drinking. Although the drinking water was boiled, it contained so much dirt and foreign particles that Richard drank the water through a handkerchief. I tried this but gave up after a couple of days; I figured I was just getting some extra minerals to go with my daily vitamin pill.
 Many porters carry their loads on their heads. By our fourth day of hiking, the terrain had become completely barren.
 Looking to the east, from the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, this is the first glimpse of sunlight.
 This is the same view, around 15 minutes later.
 This is the view to the west, with one of Kilimanjaro's glaciers in the foreground and Mount Meru in the distance. Ernest Hemingway contributed greatly to the mountain's renown with the short story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (which Hemingway later called his finest story). Unfortunately, Hemingway's story may need a new title, because scientists say the snow will be completely gone from the mountain by 2020. In support of a greenhouse gas reduction bill, John McCain once stood on the Senate floor and held up before-and-after photos of Kilimanjaro, showing that the mountain's ice cap had shrunk from 12 kilometers in 1912 to under two kilometers in 2005. Al Gore used the same photos in the film, "An Inconvenient Truth." But if the snows of Kilimanjaro are melting because of global warming (a matter of much debate), I can report that at least on the morning of my visit, it was still pretty darn cold up there.
After spending almost an hour on the summit, Richard and I were ready to head back down, away from the icy wind gusts... but not before one more photo. After all, I doubt I will ever be this high again--at least outside of an airplane.  By the way, see the blue cap of a water bottle peaking out of my coat pocket?  When I departed for the summit at 1 am, the bottle was filled with recently-boiled water; by the time this photo was taken a 4-5 hours later, the water was frozen solid.
 This photo of Richard taking a break gives you some idea of the steepness of the final night's climb to the summit. If you're interested, you can recreate the experience of my summit night quite easily. First, hike a hundred miles uphill during the previous few days. Then, while still tired, get a treadmill, put it on the steepest uphill setting and walk fast for five hours. To add to the realism, turn off all the lights except for a headlamp, lower your room temperature to well below freezing, and get a strong wind machine to blow a steady stream of volcanic dust in your face for the entire hike. To simulate the risk of acute altitude sickness (which afflicts 90% of hikers with pains ranging from a headache to--in the case of approxmiately 30 climbers each year--death), have a hammer randomly swinging in the area of your head every few minutes. And don't forget to remind yourself that you have volunteered for this experience!
 Here is another view of some of the uphill terrain toward the snowy summit. The temperatures were starting to rise, allowing me to show off my secret weapon for keeping warm: under the blue bandana, I had a pair of (clean) underwear wrapped around my neck! It was so cold as I was preparing to embark on the summit hike, and I was so underprepared in terms of cold-weather gear, that I took every piece of clothing I had with me, and put it somewhere on my body. Since I'm now at sea level, typing these captions with all of my fingers and toes intact, I'll call the strategy a success, even if I won't be winning any fashion awards.
 Here is a view of the plateau where we camped the night before departing for the summit. All of those dots in the distance are tents for hikers and porters (keep in mind, many porters pile into a single tent). You can estimate as well as I can, but there seemed to me to be a lot of people on the mountain.
 Richard and I were the first hikers to return to camp after reaching the summit, and after two hours of rest, food and packing, we began hiking further downward. The route we took called for us to hike an additional eight miles downward to another campsite. Because we were ahead of the pack, we were utterly alone during this hike.
 Here was my last view of the snows of Kilimanjaro, before the cloud cover obscured the peak. Most hikers experience altitude sickness when climbing Kilimanjaro (my guidebook actually says 100% of hikers get at least a "screaming headache"). By way of comparision, the peak of Kilimanjaro is higher than Everest's base camp, and Everest hikers take three weeks to acclimatize before reaching base camp. Most Kilimanjaro hikers attempt to reach the summit after only four, five or six days on the mountain. Of course, I had an advantage because I had climbed Mount Meru the week earlier. Probably for that reason, I escaped the treks up Meru and Kilimanjaro without experiencing any symptoms of altitude sickness--save for the acute desire for a huge pizza.
It didn't take me long after getting off the mountain to find myself sitting at this table.  According to Pizzarusha's menu, it has "The best damn pizza in Africa." I'm not sure there's too much competition for that title, but the pizza was good. Of course, anything would have tasted good after spending the past two weeks hiking up two of the tallest volcanoes in the world.
 After I finished my treks, Beth and I visited the Ngorongoro Crater, the world's largest unbroken and unflooded volcanic caldera. The crater was created when a volcano exploded and collapsed in on itself 2-3 million years ago. The crater floor covers 102 square miles and contains a 25,000 large animals, including the highest density of mammalian predators in the world. In the photo, you can see some of the crater wall, which circles the entire crater floor.
The walls of the crater are visible in the distance from all angles.  Eighty percent of the large animals in the crater are born in the crater and never leave.  The other 20% migrate in and out as part of the larger Serengeti migration. The way this zebra is staring at the crater wall in the distance, I'm guessing he's with the majority who never get out.
 Here are a couple of baboons playing piggy-back on the floor of the crater. As we were eating our lunch in the safari vehicle with the windows rolled down, a baboon jumped through the passenger-side window and snatched the driver's food. I've read that, genetically, humans are closer to certain monkeys/baboons than zebras are to horses. But don't tell the monkeys that--they already seem to think they are entitled to our food!
 Here's an African elephant, having a snack in one of the wooded sections of the crater floor.
Young gazelles on the crater floor have to be on high alert, because...
 The crater has many, many lions, who feed on the thousands of large animals trapped in the crater. This lion must have recently eaten, because this small lifting of the head was the most activity we saw out of the lion, and that only happened after our guide threw a rock in the lion's direction. (I would assume that's a violation of park rules.) By the way, in Swahili, "lion" is "simba." Fans of The Lion King will recognize "Simba" as the name of the title character. The Lion King features many Swahili names and phrases, including the song, "Hakuna Matata," which is a popular Swahili phrase meaning, "no worries." Considering the power was out in Arusha about half of the time we were there, we had to do a lot of shugging of our shoulders and saying, "hakuna matata."
 After our safari, Beth and I headed to the "spice island" of Zanzibar.  Zanzibar features some very tasty and very fresh seafood. And some of the best seafood on the island can be bought from street vendors such as these guys. Every evening, they spread out the day's catch on a table (the seafood on this table ranges from prawns and lobster and squid, all near the guy in the "Jesuit Alum" shirt, to kingfish shish kababs and giant crabs). They also offer bread fruit and sweet patatoes (closest to the camera). Once you make your selections, the fish and veggies are thrown on the grill (on the far right) and you have your food in just a few minutes.
 We also ate at some "local food" places, which features fish (closest to the camera), and a Zanzibarian specialty, "pilau rice." Pilau rice features a rice cooked in a broth with cumin seeds, whole peppercorns, whole cloves, cinnamon sticks and cardamom pods. There's a reason why Zanzibar is known as the "spice island."
 Beth on one of Zanzibar's many beautiful white-sand beaches.
 During our one rainy day in Zanzibar, we hopped on a boat and went to an island which houses a colony of giant tortoises. These tortoises, which are second in size only to the ones found on the Galapagos Islands, live to be over 100 years old and eat nothing but spinach. Beth is feeding this fellow some fresh spinach. After I snapped this photo, Beth was still looking at me as the tortoise apparently mistook Beth's green poncho for a giant piece of spinach and took a bite. They may live a long time, but no one said they were smart!
 I also enjoy fresh spinach, so the tortoises had some competition!  No one said I was smart either.
 In addition to enjoying the tortoises and the beaches, we went to the middle of the island for a tour of a couple of spice farms. Zanzibar historically served as a base for voyages between Arabia, India, Africa and Europe. Because of its central location and good climate, virtually every spice that can be found in a typical grocery store was planted on the island for export all over the world. Spices still form a major part of island's economy.  Thanks to a local kid who followed us on our tour, I was supplied with the only tie I wore in Tanzania.
 This is a photo from our plane of a small island near Zanzibar called Chumbe Island. Notice the reefs around Chumbe Island, which were part of Tanzania's first marine protected area and are regularly ranked as among the most beautiful reefs in the world. If you look closely, you can just make out the outline of a lighthouse on the left side of the island.
 Here's the view from the aforementioned lighthouse of the inhabited side of Chumbe Island. There are seven "bandas" on the island for guests, all shown here. Beth and I were in the farthest banda to the left of the photo. Notice the solar panels attached to each banda, which are the sole source of electricity on the island. Also, the roofs are designed to funnel the rain into storage containers located under each banda, which provide the water for the sink and showers. These and other touches led one of the leading travel magazines, Conde Nast, to name Chumbe Island the world's best eco-resort a few years ago.
 Here's the lower level of the banda.
 And here's the partially open-air bathroom. (The shower is on the other side of the mirror.) The compost toilet doesn't use water. Instead of flushing, the guests shovel dirt and leaves (in the basket beside the toilet) into the toilet, which functions as a closed chamber wherein the waste decomposes without any sewage leaking into the ground or sea. The rain water, stored under the banda, is filtered and pumped to the bathroom with a solar-powered pumping/heating system.
 Here's the view from the bedroom, with the window open. The roof is made of palm fronds held together with bamboo poles and coconut rope, and it is designed to funnel the wind through the banda. That's what counts as air-conditioning!
 The food was delicious, but we hardly noticed because we were so transfixed by the view from the dining table. And because there are so few guests allowed on the island, Beth and I had the room area to ourselves--the few other guests had their own amazing views.
The entirety of Chumbe Island is an ancient coral reef.  Because my camera is not waterproof, we don't have any photos of the most beautiful feature of the island: the amazing reefs and colorful fish. We spent a few hours snorkeling, and you can take my word on it--they were amazing.  Above the water, the view was not bad either.
We left Zanzibar and returned to Arusha. Like most other areas of Tanzania, Arusha has a major crime problem. (Remember, there's 70% unemployment.) As the sun goes down, all the stores and offices lock their doors and metal gates and most of the pedestrians get off the streets. As mazungus (white people), we are told by almost everyone we meet never to walk at night, since our skin color signals us as people carrying money and valuables. Thus, after dark, all traveling has to be by taxi. And even before dark, the streets aren't always safe. One of Beth's classmates was less than 20 feet from her apartment at 5:30 p.m. (still full daylight near the equator), and had her purse taken by a kid with a knife. Thankfully, she wasn't hurt. A passing taxi driver jumped out of his cab, chased the kid and retrieved her purse--although the cabbie got a nasty knife wound for his troubles.
 Beth and I were not been immune to Tanzania's crime problem. We were riding to our teaching job in one of these crowded local minibuses when, after five minutes on the bus, I realized we had left our teaching plans at the hotel. So we jumped off the bus, only to discover that someone sitting next to Beth had surreptitiously cut the side of her backpack with a razor and removed her cell phone and glasses. (We replaced both without too much expense.) An hour later, while I was teaching, a student asked what was wrong with the back of my pants. It was only then that I noticed that a hole had been cut in the rear of my pants, near the wallet. The guy had not managed to extract the wallet, presumably because we jumped off the bus too quickly for him to finish his work. I always knew that someday my absent-mindedness would pay dividends!
From our vantage point, the majority of the people don't let the high unemployment and crime problems get them down. For instance, if you look closely, you'll see none of these guys' feet are touching the ground! Church groups frequently gave public dance performances, such as this one in the town's main square.
 Here are some other dancers at the school where Beth taught (and I made a few guest appearances). After the school day ended, the youth group practiced dance routines.
 Here's Beth teaching. Beth had given the students (mostly in their 20's) an article to read and selected vocabulary words from the article, which are written on the board beside the Swahili translations. Despite only being in the country for a few months, Beth became conversant in Swalhili.  On this day, the kids also learned about Halloween (see the board?). Although none of them had heard of the holiday prior to entering the classroom, after we gave them each a handful of candy, I think they decided they approved of Halloween!

The school is in an area of town where tourists are rarely seen, and Beth and I attracted a lot of attention. After class, a group of younger kids usually waited for us to leave and enthusiastically followed us while we walked to the bus stop. They only knew a few words of English, which they would repeat over and over again, until they couldn't speak because their laughter got in the way. When I think back to my time Tanzania, this is this type of scene that I'll remember the most.

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