Ok, so now you've figured out how we decide where to go. So let's go!
En route (that’s French for ‘on the way’) to our first real African experience, we had a healthy 6-hour layover in Amsterdam. A short train ride into town made sense as even the impressive Amsterdam airport can wear a little thin after a few hours. Besides, I’d always wanted to experience the city best known for it’s open-mindedness, if only for a short time. After leaving the train station, I realized the ‘dam’ in Amsterdam stands for ‘damn, it’s cold!’. Packing for a vacation in equatorial Africa didn’t prepare me for wandering the streets of Amsterdam in February. It was chilly, but not so cold so as to deter the legions of cyclists utilizing the extensive bike path system in the city (note to pedestrians - walking on the bike path, which looks just like the sidewalk to me, is potentially fatal).
The ultimate goal of the experience was to find the flower market, famous for its displays of tulips. In spite of suffering from mild hypothermia, it dawned on me the market might not be in full flower during the last leg of the Dutch winter. Still, a good soldier follows orders, especially when issued from the sugar momma.
Along the way we noticed the slightly tippy nature of the architecture in Amsterdam (none of the buildings seem perfectly vertical) although there seems to be no immediate danger. As we walked along a side street, I watched a fellow step behind a curious structure made of curved metal walls. He then turned around in such a way as to stare through a conveniently placed, eye-high gap in the wall. It occurred to me it was a public urinal just as we made eye contact. Quickly averting my eyes toward the building we were passing, I immediately made eye contact with the full-figured, scantily-clad woman standing in the window. I didn't think we were in the red light district but apparently independent operators can be found anywhere downtown. In retrospect I hope I didn't breach window shopping protocol . Since my viewing options were suddenly severely restricted, I promptly took great interest in the sidewalk directly in front of me. Ann and Perri were oblivious to my plight. I’ve just got to stop being so observant. And speaking of observations, the smoke drifting from each coffee shop we passed confirmed the Dutch legal opinion on cannabis use was being fully embraced by the populace. We eventually made it to the market and back to the safety of Schipol International airport, where our Kenyan Airlines jet waited patiently.
|She knows how to dress for Europe in February.|
|You won't find this at the Calgary farmer's market with Harper at the helm.|
The resort itself was of the disturbing all-inclusive variety, complete with swim-up bar and buffet suitable for binge eating, not to mention the pasty Belgians who overdo it on the first day and spend the remaining 2 weeks in the shade. The staff, who were friendly to a fault, were always willing to share Swahili words with you if you showed the slightest interest. Apparently, we were the only ones who did. One significant difference from previous vacations was the variety of guests' nationalities, hailing from countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, South Africa and Australia. Eavesdropping on poolside chatter was not an easy proposition (for me they all could have been speaking French). Another difference was the unbelievable water temperature. The surf was literally bath temperature and the water color was that perhaps-not-so-fake turquoise you often see in vacation ads.
|This could be a picture off the website, but I really took it from our balcony.|
While we were there, we took part in the usual touristy day trips: snorkeling, a spice farm tour, and a poorly guided trip through Stone Town, a Unesco world Heritage site, featuring such highlights as a 19th century slave market, and, much more importantly, the birthplace of Freddy Mercury. I'm not sure the local Muslim community realizes he was a flamboyant pop star who died of AIDS, but maybe they do and don't care. Other than the fantastic seafood lunch on the snorkeling trip (best lunch ever!), I can’t say the first few days were remarkable. Perri added some drama by being sick to her stomach for a couple of days, much to the chagrin of our driver. But to her credit, she refused to be left behind. We managed to disregard every traveller website about eating in Africa by having lunch in a local restaurant in Stone town. Although it looked a bit dodgy, I had the curried mussels and lived to tell the tale. Perhaps my intestinal parasites are territorial and won't tolerate any incursions.
|This tortoise was alive during Victoria's reign even though it doesn't look like he is now (just sleeping, probably).|
Before the vacation, Ann suggested we load up with school supplies in France and make a donation to a local school in Tanzania. So, one day, while Ann was off snorkeling, Perri and I befriended a Maasai fellow on the beach who agreed to take us into the local town to visit the school. We arrived during recess and the headmaster gave us the overview: lots of students and not enough supplies. On the way back, I realized we could have done a lot more. For those of you who have a conscience and plan to visit developing nations in the near future, look up the ‘packing for a purpose’ website to give you some ideas.
|The English teacher at work?|
|She might go to school.|
|Ole and Jackson - they really are Maasai. Don't let the sunglasses fool you.|
Our first expedition was a late-day river trip, which was exciting when we first saw hippos. Then less so when we kept seeing them for the next hour or so (there are a few hundred who live along that stretch of river). Perri may have seen a crocodile slipping quietly into the water, and we all saw a goodly number of strange birds (at least, strange to us). Again, we were the only three on this excursion, which I expected to be unusual, but proved to be the norm.
|There were many of these.|
Later in the afternoon we climbed aboard one of the range rovers for game drive, where we once again had a private experience. We were delighted to see some monkeys, baboons, antelope, a few zebra and a bunch of giraffe. All told, we were quite happy about the trip. We weren’t sure what we missed, although at dinner another group, who had been there almost a week, assured us it was unusual to see anything more interesting. They were hoping to see some elephants before they left, but weren’t counting on it.
|Our guide spoke quietly, but was certainly effective.|
|I'm not even sure what this is exactly.|
|Warthogs - they're just funny.|
|Giraffes are cool and very photogenic.|
On our last night we were surprised by a bushbaby (no photos but there are such things) while we played cards after dark. Imagine a large squirrel, then notch up the cuteness factor about 5 clicks. They make a funny sound that suggests they're disappointed and upset at the same time, even when they're happy, or frisky. I honestly couldn't say where this one was coming from, emotionally, but it returned to our hut for a noisy encore at about 3 a.m..
A few short hours later, we climbed into the truck for our last drive (still, just the three of us). The morning held little promise as the wind was up bringing the distinctive odor of rain, or was it failure. I was convinced we would get a nice, wet three-hour drive where indistinct blobs sitting under distant trees would be described as possible examples of African wildlife. In the first hour I was reminded of the Jeff Goldblum character in Jurassic Park explaining how he hates being right all the time. Just when we were all resigned to seeing nothing more than a few bush bucks, and Perri and I had begun taking pictures of trees, the guide stopped the truck and pointed to the horizon. “Elephants”, was all he said, before racing the truck off the road in the general direction he had been pointing. Darned if he wasn’t right. He parked the truck in such a way that the entire herd of perhaps 25 animals, including a number of little ones, walked right past us. Very cool. They made almost no sound except the occasional tearing sound when one reached out and grabbed a substantial amount of foliage off a passing tree and shoveled it into his or her mouth, an eating style with which I am familiar.
Mark it down as a successful day!
On the way back, Perri and Ann were jabbering away like a couple of kids on Christmas morning. At least they were until the guide quietly said ‘lions’. And darned if the guide wasn’t right again. This time we found ourselves literally parked in the midst of a pride of lions happily enjoying the remains of their breakfast baboon. We were gob-smacked (I’ve been dying to use that word). After ten minutes of listening to the sounds of bones being crunched a few meters away, I was reminded I hadn’t had breakfast yet. There was also a non-eaten baboon, who was at the top of a nearby tree (the only nearby tree) loudly voicing his displeasure at the demise of his buddy. I think he also realized it was going to be a long day waiting for the lions to have a nap and move on.
|I think she had breakfast...|
|But I don't think this young male had, and I really didn't like the way he was looking at me.|
Breakfast – packing – flight to Dar es Salaam for a nice meal then 4 ½ hours of sleep before the marathon travel day home.
Overall – both Tanzania and Zanzibar are pretty cool.