Monday, August 1, 2011

Trip Highlights

We often put faith in our memory to remember those experiences that are most amazing or life-changing. Our faith is exaggerated as the details of those memories slowly fade in time. I remember that I went on a month-long backpacking trip to Tanzania and Mozambique, but the little details are gone, forgotten, lost. What a shame. What a relief I preserved them in my journal and within the pages of this blog. I am going to share with you a few of the highlights of our trip; the things I thought I would never forget, but alas, they are already foggy with time.

DUSTINY
Dustiny is the name we gave to our experience across the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater. Everything just seemed to work out perfectly, like it was destiny, except we were very dusty at the end of the day, therefore, DUSTINY!
The adventure began in Mwanza, where we spent two days looking for an office to buy tickets for the bus that would take us on the northern circuit across the parks. We wondered the streets of Mwanza on the faulty directions and whims of those we met. The office could not be found and the last story before we gave up was that the office was not actually in Mwanza, but a town two hour away. So we got on a bus for the two-hour ride that didn’t lead us to the office at all, but the Stop Over Lodge on the edge of the Serengeti and Vincent. Vincent helped us organize tickets for the bus, but during our walk down the road running parallel to the park boundary, we met another source of valuable information at the gift shop next to the entrance gate. He informed us that locals, and some tourists, arrive at the gate early in the morning and organize cheap rides with safari cars returning after jobs and dropping their clients. We opted to try. Fortunately, there was a driver of one such car staying at the Stop Over Lodge for the night. Vincent introduced us and we began negotiating. As we crawled into our tent that night to sleep, we were still not sure what we were going to do. The next morning, we made a last-minute decision to take the ride. We packed our camp and loaded our bags in the car, then we climbed into the backseat. The driver and his friend jumped in the front and we drove down the road. The sun was just peaking over the horizon, bathing everything on the plain in pink, golden sunlight. We arrived at the gates, paid the entrance fee, and, as we drove through the gates, the safari began.
I could tell the Serengeti was going to be different from our local Rwandan Akagera Park the moment we passed through the gate. I thought Akagera was an amazing opportunity to see typical, magnificent African animals, like zebras and giraffes, which we did when we visited, plus it is right in my backyard, only an hour or two from Kiramuruzi. It quickly became apparent how scarce animals in Akagera were and how populated the Serengeti was in comparison. The deserted plain near the boundary quickly became one teeming with animals. Huge herds of zebras and wildebeest were grouped everywhere. I love zebras and was astounded by the overwhelming number. In addition, it was almost time for the wildebeests annual migration north and we saw the first steps of the journey. Herds of wildebeest, thousands in total, were traveling in formation. At one point, they were crossing the road before our car. I was amazed by their organization, patience, and wisdom. They seemed to be standing in a long line crossing the road a few beasts at a time in single file to ensure safety. I swear. We saw packs of giraffes meandering and feeding in the distance, their awkward gait as they moved and their long necks stretching to reach the tops of the trees. We saw an overflowing pool of hippopotamus, their large bodies slipping past and crowding each other until they were just one large, moving amoeba in the mud. There was also a crocodile stealthily swimming nearby, eying the birds on the shore and contemplating his next move with intense yellow slit eyes. A highlight of the day was spotting two leopards napping in a tree. Our guides had eyes that were trained in spotting animals in the monotonous, but beautiful, countryside. They came to an abrupt halt next to the tree and pointed. It took Sean and I a moment to find the sleeping cats in the tree even with our binoculars. The leopards were suspended in the tree branches, their legs thrown over the sides and their paws dangling down, the midday heat causing them to fall into a deep lethargic slumber. In another neighboring tree, another type of cat, a female lion, was also asleep. The safari animals were taking their afternoon siesta to avoid the hot sun. Later, we passed another group of lions sleeping in the shade of a parked safari car. The passengers were a bit nervous, but lucky to see the lions so close. The lions cuddled, stretched and tossed in their shady refuge. We drove up and one separated and wondered to his own block of shade made by our car. I had the urge to reach down and pet him- he looked so sleepy and cute- but restrained myself by images of lions tearing their prey to shreds. We began moving again and passed another lion couple playing on the side of the road. In the crater, we saw a shallow pool with a flock of standing flamingos. Such strange, but cool looking creatures, flamingos. Pink, long-legs, cartoon-like, just like what you would expect based on our only impression from tropical images. Ostriches, another strange bird, were also abundant, their large bodies balancing precariously on their thin legs stuck out next to herds of zebras and wildebeests. Finally, as we began our ascent up the steep slopes of the crater, we saw wild elephants in the distance. I have only seen domestic elephants. Seeing such large and regal creatures in the freedom of their own environment is breathtaking. We also saw herds and herds of impalas and Thomson’s gazelles skipping by, families of baboons causing mayhem, vultures feeding on corpses, a few topi and buffalos in the mess, and a grey-crowned crane, long-crested eagle, and velvet money as we drove past. Many of these animals we never saw in Akagera, and definitely not in the great number that existed here. It felt like we had stumbled upon an animal paradise, like in The Land Before Time when they finally find the Great Valley, lush and plentiful and thriving. The Serengeti Park, full of animals, is also the land of the Maasai people. We passed natural hut villages surrounded by fences in the park. Maasai herdsmen were directing herds of cows across the vast, open space. Villagers were conducting their daily activities. Some Massai stood on the side of the road in traditional costumes and ran after cars, begging for money and goods. Their faces were painted, they wore brightly colored woven fabrics, jewelry was piled on their necks, wrists, and ankles, and they carried carved walking sticks. I have never seen such a traditional people, their culture nearly untouched by outside influence, definitely not Western. What an interesting thought and rare occurrence.
The only animal we did not see was the rhinoceros, but they are incredibly rare. Even so, the day came together perfectly, was better than we could have ever imagined, and we left grateful and in awe. It was just pure dustiny.

ZANZIBAR
Zanzibar was my first encounter with the ocean in over a year and a half. That is a long time for someone who grew up on an island and has never lived far from the shore. I love the ocean. It is a part of me. Without it, as I am in Rwanda, I feel incomplete, like there is a hole in my being.
We arrived at the main dock on Zanzibar by ferry. We were immediately captured by the small, winding, confusing streets of Stone Town. I knew the maze-like streets would be a challenge for me, so I stuck close to Sean and our guide, not wanting to get lost, which later I did, desperately, on numerous occasions, as soon as I set my foot out the door of our guesthouse. The ancient stone architecture was fascinating and beautiful. Buildings, walls, fortresses, archways, the stone white but touched by age. After finding a family-run guesthouse, we made our way out to the ocean. There are no large beaches around Stonetown and the one we found was small, littered with rocks, and near the port. But, it was the ocean and the beach. We swam in the water and relaxed on the shore. The water was warm and blue. Traditional dhow sailboats were anchored in the port in the distance. How amazing it felt to be in the ocean again in such a cool place, the imagery a mix of African and Arab influences.
On our way back to the hotel after our swim, we stopped a local restaurant for a drink while enjoying the sunset and observing the scene of people unloading a cargo ship that had just docked. The sunset was intense, everything you would imagine of an African sunset over the ocean, the colors of yellow, pink, and red churning with and sparkling off the azul of the ocean. As we walked, we stumbled upon a night fish market. The evening was deepening and lamps spotlighted the feast that was spread across each table in piles of different kinds of seafood. We allow ourselves to be ushered and convinced that a snack of brochettes of seafood, vegetables and bread was a good idea. We returned to our hotel to clean up after our exploration, before returning to the night market for dinner. This time, we sat on a wall along the shore as we ate our meal of fresh seafood. We treated ourselves to a drink, a real drink, another rarity of my life in Rwanda, at one of the fancy restaurants in town. The style of the place was rustic. We sat at an outside tables with a trellis of flowering vines protecting us. The night was warm and breezy. Perfect and comfortable. We ended the evening with dancing to live music at a local bar and dance club along the beach.
The next day we arranged for transportation. We drove to Paje, a town on the south east end of Zanzibar Island, where we stopped for lunch at a beachside resort, Sun and Shore. Their restaurant was in a huge and expertly-constructed gazebo, the beauty in the details of the roof, log supports, and d├ęcor. The fish was fresh, cooked until it flaked from the bone in bites of perfection, and drowned in sauce. After our meal, we lay in the chairs under an umbrella made from banana leaves. Needless to say, we didn’t make it any further that day. We spent the night at a place down the beach from Sun and Shore, but returned for drinks and dessert later that evening. After dessert, a terrible wind storm picked up. No rain, just howling wind in one, unchanging direction for hours on end. We sat on the bench on our deck and watched the storm rage around us.
We awoke to the fishermen wading out in the water to their knees to fish. Their calls and singing started at dawn. We saw the sun rise over the ocean, one of the differences between being on the east coast where the sun rises, instead of sets, over the water. We took an early morning swim, packed, and left to find Internet. We decided to leave that day. Although we would have loved more time to explore Zanzibar Island and get to know Stonetown, we wanted to move on to the next adventure in our limited time. That is one of the shames of traveling with only a short time. We must ignore our desires to “stick” in places we enjoy. We must move on to the next place, which we may enjoy more or not as much. Eventually, we understand that we had to move on to experience something new, but the moving on is extremely difficult when we have found somewhere we love and would love to stay.

MUROMBODZI, GORONGOSA
Boy, am I glad we moved on. On the flight to Mozambique, I read a story, two stories, in the airline magazine about a place called Gorongosa, a town, park and waterfall in central Mozambique. I looked it up in the guidebook and found one paragraph about it. It sounded like a cool place. In addition, we were busing down to southern Mozambique and needed to identify places along the way to break up our trip down the country. Gorongosa seemed like a great place to stop. We took a 10-hour bus from Quelemane, another breaking point, and arrived in Villa Gorongosa around midday. After lunch, we spent an hour preparing for our excursion and searching for a ride to the base camp for the hike to the waterfall that was mentioned in the guidebook. The villagers we spoke with had never heard of such a place, except one man, who said the waterfall was gorgeous although he couldn’t help us get there. Finally, we found an adventurous taxi driver and his group of friends who agreed to drive us in search of the camp. We climbed into the car with our stuff and provisions, and no idea where we were going or what the future would hold. We drove out of town, searching for the dirt road mentioned in the guidebook. At a turnoff, we asked the villagers around a group of huts if the base camp was up this road and they answered yes. We followed the dirt road until it turned to an overgrown path. After a while of jostling over the ruts and stones of the path, being whipped by overgrown and exploding grasses, we came upon a stream running across it. Sean and I exchanged looks that said oh too clearly that we were done, our efforts failed, we would not be going to the base camp or waterfall, before the driver pushed the pedal and the car launched through the water and up the opposite bank, to our surprise. After laughing and continuing on the overgrown path, passing through a small village of a few mud huts, we arrived at a clearing that we were told was the base camp. We got out of the car, as children gathered around us and a quiet man emerged from the darkness of a mud hut in the center. He introduced himself as Carlos. Sean began talking to him, sharing our plans to hike to the waterfall and our need of a place to stay. He agreed to let us camp there in the clearing and they left to inform the village chief. He even offered to be our guide to the waterfall. The driver and his friends left in their car, promising to return in two days to take us back to town so we could continue our travel.
We set up camp, much to the surprise of Carlos and the amazement of the children. You see, Carlos kept exclaiming, “You are going to sleep there, on the ground, with only that?!?” To which we answered, “Yes!” I think they expected “muzungus” (not sure what the word is in Portuguese, but muzungu seems universal and good to use) to stay in hotels with comfortable beds like the one we lunched at in town. Imagine, the first muzungus to stay in town, camping with blankets on the hard ground. They were confused by the contradictions taking place in their mind, but our action won their support and respect.
We spent the evening playing sports, soccer and Frisbee, with the kids who had gathered in Carlos’ front yard to watch us. Then, Carlos took us on a short tour of town, a very short tour because town consisted of a few mud huts hidden in the tall grasses and fields of corn. He invited us to accompany him to a community event, drum circle and dancing, that was taking place at the church next door that evening. He left us alone at our camp while he joined his family for dinner. We sat around a smoky campfire in the open gazebo in the field, making sandwiches from the provisions we bought earlier in town. Then, we crawled into our tent for a nap before the event. We were tired from our early, long journey. We planned to join Carlos later. Somehow, somehow, SOMEHOW, we slept through the pounding drums and loud singing taking place at the church next door. SOMEHOW. I don’t know how. We awoke the next morning. We missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and experience. We have never been so disappointed. In fact, taking a nap and missing the event may be one of my biggest regrets.
That morning, we set out on the hike to the waterfall. We walked outside of town, through cornfields on narrow paths, towards the mountain looming in the distance. The mountain is shrouded in local folklore. Very interesting. A magical place. At night in our tent, we could hear the sounds that Carlos informed us are local traditional witch doctors conducting their ceremonies on the hillside. Visitors are not allowed to wear shoes or red clothing when hiking the mountain.
A short distance into our hike, we passed what we soon learned was the real Murombodzi Base Camp. Carlos was just the community health worker and we were just camping on the lawn of the Muromodbzi health clinic. Great for me, as someone who is interested in community health and working with the health system in Rwanda. Silvestre, the old man in charge of the camp and organizing treks to the waterfall, joined our team. He was bursting with information about the mountain and waterfall, as well as just a nautral gossiper, enjoying the opportunity to converse with people. Not many people visit Murombodzi or the waterfall, probably because they don’t know about it. After a rigorous hike up the mountain, a view of the flat countryside interrupted by rock peaks and mountains stretching below us as far as the eye could see, we entered the forest and emerged at the waterfall’s edge. Silvestre led the way as we climbed up the side of the waterfall to the higher stage. The water rushed by and over the rim, falling to the depths below, as we stood in its shallow, calm edge. Magnificent. Beautiful. Furthermore, we had the whole waterfall to ourselves, no other tourists exploring nearby. It is not often we get such a unique opportunity, with attractions typically being exploited quickly and overrun by tourists. We were the only people, surrounded by nature, witnessing nature’s greatest example of beauty. We bathed in the clear water and lay out on a flat stone in the sunshine to nap.
On our hike back to camp, we passed many interesting experiences in our journey. The mud-hut towns were full of people, looking up from their activities as we walked through and curious about what we were doing there. Women sat on the side of the trail with big baskets and bags full of corn on their heads or laying next to them. We stumbled on a man passed out on the side of the road. In our worry, we awoke him, only to find he was drunk and began chasing the local children. More children were playing at the school. They began following us, singing and dancing. We met more children on the path and they joined in. One woman sent her child to give us a stick of sugar cane. We missed a turn in the road, got lost, and ran into Carlos who had ventured out to search for us.
The next morning, we were worried that our driver would not return to pick us up and about how we would make it back to town and civilization. There were no other means of transportation. Fortunately, the driver returned, although he was a bit late, picking the strings of our worry. We returned on the overgrown, bumpy path, through the stream, to the dirt road that led us back to town, the small village of Murombodzi lost in its surroundings. From there, our journey continued to southern Mozambique. But Gorongosa was an unexpected, surprising break. We ended up enjoying our experience there. In fact, it became one of the highlights of the trip. Who would have guessed based on the magazine articles and one paragraph in the guidebook that it would be so amazing?

TOFO BEACH
I have found a little paradise on earth called Tofo, Mozambique. We knew Tofo was going to be nice. We found this little destination while doing research before our trip. It was our final destination on the whole trip, a place we knew we would love and could relax for a few days before heading home. It turned out to be just that.
We took a matatu from Inhambane on the other side of the large point and arrived in the little beach town of Tofo. It didn’t look like much at first- sand roads with little shacks lining them, a few buildings, hotels, restaurants, and bars. But, as the sun set and evening fell, we walked out onto the expansive white sand beach. I could feel the frustration and stress of a years work in Rwanda and travel through Africa float right on off my shoulders and out to sea. The sand squeaked, yes squeaked, beneath our feet, it was so fine. We laughed. Even the sand is musical in Africa.
We found a palace outside of town, a stylishly rustic house we could rent for our stay, lost in the sand dunes and away from the commotion of town. There, we established ourselves, unpacked, and relaxed. It was across the street from the main surfing beach, the waves breaking on the point reef, so Sean could surf, close enough to town that we could visit everyday when we needed, but we could also walk in the opposite direction and find deserted stretches of beach, with nothing, absolutely nothing built in the rolling sand dunes from the shore. We took an afternoon walk in that direction to explore. There was no sign of civilization as far as the eye could see, only deserted, beautiful beach and ocean stretching for miles in every direction We were the only people, no more significant in our surroundings than a speck of sand. We flew our kite in the dunes. Our house was also right on a rocky point, with a great view of the ocean and a cooling breeze that brought the sound of waves right to our doorstep. I lay in bed, letting the sound sooth me to sleep and wake me in the morning as I came to consciousness.
Town was small. Nothing much. A market. Some shops and restaurants. We didn’t spend much time there beyond necessity. Our focus was exploring, doing things, taking advantage of the beach and ocean. The first day, we laid on the beach in the sun and swam in the ocean, bodysurfing on the waves. It just so happened that a swell came in the day we arrived, so the waves were bigger than normal and great for surfing. I went for a run along the shore, to clear my mind and stretch my legs after so much time and travel cramped in bus seats. We tried to kayak and snorkel, but gave up, our efforts pounded by the waves.
One day, we were walking along the beach when we saw a fisherman’s boat being hauled ashore. The fishermen pulled a huge sailfish from its belly. We were shocked that they were able to catch such a huge and aggressive fish with such a little boat, no bigger than your typical rowboat. We watched as they debated the best method of sectioning it, then went about the task. They cut and sawed and twisted until manageable portions lay on the beach caked in blood and dusted in sand. We bought two small fresh fish from the men. That night, we barbequed the fish in sauce and made potatoes, rice, and grilled vegetable to accompany them. Our feast was delicious and we were very satisfied chefs.
There happened to be a red moon eclipse our last night in Tofo. As we cooked our meal, we periodically ventured outside to check the status of the moon. As it turned to darkness, it was outlined in a red light. Further, unlike other eclipses I have witnessed, this one lasted hours. The following night, the moon was still red, although no longer covered in shadow.
Tofo supplied all the comforts of a resort without being built up and crowded like a normal destination. That is what made it such a little paradise. It was quite a discovery. I didn’t want to leave. I would have stuck if not for Sean’s rationalizations and the call of responsibility, work and home. I know that, even if I do have the opportunity in my life to return to this special place, it will never be the same. Tofo is the type of place that is going to be discovered on a mass scale, this blog is probably contributing to that, and will be built up and changed forever fast. Suddenly, the things we loved about it will not longer exist in the same way. That is why I am preserving it here and in my mind the way it was when we were there. Undiscovered and breathtakingly beautiful.

Here are the highlights of our trip, the places that I say I will never forget, but now I definitely won’t forget, because they, what we did and how they were, are preserved in the permanency of the written word.

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