Saturday, March 21, 2009

Jambo! Karibu Tanzania!

I thought writing a blog entry about my trip to Tanzania would be easy, but it turns out that it's not. I wish I was a better writer because I don't think words, and even pictures, can convey what a great experience this was. Despite a number of headaches getting there, I arrived at Ndarakwai Ranch, where my safari began. The ranch is private land, so the animals that roam there are protected from poachers and predators.

From the back porch of my tent, I watched a huge tribe of baboons walk onto the property in the morning and walk back out at dusk. Monkeys played in the tree just outside my tent. The sounds of Africa at night are fascinating... until about 11:00 when it's time to use earplugs in order to get to sleep.

I spent 2 full days with a guide and we went out in a car and also on foot. There is a watering hole on the ranch that attracts the animals, especially during the dry season. But the real joy was exploring the property and finding elephants, zebras, giraffes and other animals all around us. Tracking a group of giraffes on foot was a very cool experience. Early March is the end of dry season so there isn't much flora to look at, but it's a great time of year to see the babies. All the animals I saw had at least one baby in the group.

The next part of my trip took me to Ngorongoro Crater. This is an amazing place. Amazing. I saw everything I had hoped to see and more. Elephants, zebras, gazelles, lions, hippos, flamingos, rhinos, and birds whose names I can't remember.

And if that wasn't enough, I also visited Lake Manyara National Park. The highlight there was the group of hippos resting themselves at the small pond. They reminded me of the sea lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco - big fat gray creatures lying on top of each other and occasionally barking at each other.

After my safari adventure, I spent a few days lying on the beach in Zanzibar. I only have one picture - the view from my back porch - because all I did was lie on the beach and read. Aside from a little annoying attention from a couple of locals, it was a very relaxing way to end my African adventure.

Monday, March 16, 2009

C-130 Ladies Room

Because my arrival home has been delayed and I am unable to upload photos from my Africa trip, I thought I'd share a mini-adventure from Amman - Baghdad - Kuwait flight (bad weather diverted us to Kuwait for a couple days).

The flight was on a C-130, an Air Force cargo plane that was designed for transporting cargo and hardened soldiers; it was not designed for transporting spoiled diplomats who cried when the Department stopped providing upgrades to business class, and it was certainly not designed for women. As part of the introductory briefing on board, the airman explains that for men who have to... relieve themselves, there is a fold-out urinal along one of the walls. For women, they have... a bucket.

What was supposed to be a 90 minute flight turned into a 4 hour trip. Some of us ladies just couldn't hold it anymore, so someone requested that accommodations be made. The airman, bless his heart, said, "gimme 5 minutes." He assembled a makeshift ladies room that consisted of a bucket, a small toilet seat obtained from God-knows-where, a plastic bag, and a tarp. Tragically, I did not take a photo of the C-130 ladies room, so the best I can do to share the experience of going to the bathroom on a C-130 is to describe it in the following way:

Step 1: Carefully make your way up and over the cargo pallet in order to access the ladies room from the un-tarped side.

Step 2: Don't look too closely at what you're about to sit on.

Step 3: Try to get as steady a footing as you can between the cargo pallet and the wall, compensating for the 40 degree slant on which the ladies room toilet has been temporarily set.

Step 4: Do your business and pray to Jesus that the tarp protecting your modesty from the rest of the passengers doesn't fall down.

And that is how a lady goes to the bathroom on a C-130 while it circles Baghdad.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Madagascar Reflections

I arrived in Madagascar a week ago to stay with a friend of mine who works at the Embassy in Antananarivo. Despite the ongoing threat of political protests, I explored the city a bit and enjoyed a few good meals. "Tana" is a confusing city to get around - narrow streets with no signs (not even to tell you that it's a one-way street) and a lot of pollution. I can't say I was sorry to get out of Tana and go into the countryside.

Our weekend road trip got off to a late start Saturday afternoon because my friend was obliged to hang around to see if the planned demonstration would turn violent. It didn't, so we hit the road and arrived in Ampefy in time to take a bottle of wine onto the hotel terrace and enjoy the sunset and a lightning show before having a nice dinner.
The next day we drove off-road to see if we could find the Chute de la lily waterfall. A group of kids accompanied us on the 10 minute walk, carrying baskets of volcanic rock souvenirs on their heads. I tried balancing a basket on my head as we walked along, which amused the local kids immensely. The rural villages are often just small mud and brink dwellings and the people live off the land. Pineapples, bananas, and other fruit I don't recognize are sold along the road just about everywhere.

The highlight of my trip to Madagascar was my visit to Andasibe and Vakona Forest Lodge. I arrived on Monday, just before lunch. The lodge is beautiful and there is amazing wildlife all around. The lodge has its own lemur island reserve. I have to say this was one of the most fun things I've done. The lemurs are well-accustomed to humans and eagerly approach when they see people coming (and smell the bananas). To be able to touch and feed them was incredible; and to see them close up and watch them leap from tree to tree was almost unreal. A canoe ride to the other islands allowed me to see other species of lemurs, the ring-tailed lemurs being the most entertaining.

After such an amazing experience, I wasn't ready to go back to my cottage, so I walked up the road for a while. Some kids saw me and yelled out, "Bon jour" and squealed with laughter when I responded, "Bon jour." English is only just now starting to be taught in school, so I wasn't able to communicate much with the locals. But their excitement at seeing me was enough. I got back to my cottage just as it started to rain, so I sat on the porch and enjoyed watching the birds and listening to the mysterious sounds of the forest. Sitting there doing absolutely nothing except enjoying where I was made me wonder how I was so lucky to be there.
The next day, I hired a guide to lead me through a nearby national park. Being the intrepid explorer that I am, I was well-prepared for an arduous 4 hour hike, but instead I was distracted every 30 seconds by a giant colorful butterfly or a camouflage gecko or a kingfisher or an unusual plant. We also saw 2 kinds of lemur, including the Indri. They are much harder to track in the wild than on Lemur Island and it's certainly harder to keep up with them stumbling along the forest floor while they are flying through the trees above. And they don't cooperate with people trying to take their photo. For this reason, I'm particularly proud of the photo I finally got; even though it's really not that extraordinary.