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Back from Tanzania

I had the vision of being the highest geek on software freedom day 2005 ("high" refering to altitude...). In fact, had everything gone the way of my vision, I would have seen the sun rise on software freedom day 5,895 metres about sea level, on Kilimanjaro's highest point "Uhuru Peak" on the volcano Kibo.

But things did not turn out the way I envisioned them. We reached the last camp before the Big Day of the peak ascent, at 4,700 metres ASL just fine, although the altitude was biting. I had been plagued by headaches ever since we passed 4,000 metres three days before, and Aline's teeth were acting up (following the fuck-up by her dentist and the haphazard emergency surgery performed the day before departure). Anyway, according to plans, we ate loads of carbohydrates that evening, went to bed at 19:00 hours, and got up at 23:00 to start our ascent at midnight.

The climb was painful, and more so than anything I had previously experienced. At maybe 30-50% inclination, the soil a mixture of fine gravel and sand, every step bore the high risk of slippage, losing precious centimetres on the vertical axis. Every time I felt my weight unsupported by the loose ground, I'd have to restabilise, which cost me around two draws of breath each time. Worse than the mere physical strain was the psychological pain associated with every step, and every misstep. Imagine yourself in deep snow, trying to run. That's what it felt like. Hours on end. In the blackness cut only by the cones of our torches.

We ascended for almost 3 hours, always keeping in mind what our guide said: "soon it will be level and easier". Bullshit. At around that time, maybe 5,100 metres ASL, the altitude started to get at me badly. Suffering from low blood pressure and weak circulation, no amounts of water or sugar could counter the increasing headache, and the feeling of dizziness that would chase every slip, every misstep, and every unexpected stone on the way. At the same time, the temperature, estimated between -15 and -20 degrees Celsius was finding its way to my toes, despite the two pairs of socks I wore. I had expected everything else but to freeze on my toes, which was a first in my lifetime. In retrospect it wasn't so surprising: I had never gone out in such temperatures with plain hiking boots.

Still motivated, we kept at it for another one and a half hours, reaching an estimated 5,300 metres, when we decided to accept that computer/office geeks can't just go out and climb the highest mountain of Africa without training, and turned around... a very wise decision, especially in the light that we would have spent another 7 hours or so on the same terrain at the same inclination.

While Aline had little problems getting to the previous campsite, it took me at least twice as long, iwith my circulation about to collapse. An hour into the descent, which was a mindless stumbling one step after the other (thank $DEITY I did not break anything), I started to faint several times, three, four, five, I forget. Once I came down hard on a stone, sprained my wrist; my knees ached, but I was in a different sphere of sensation, acknowledging, but not feeling the pain. I was driven by the mere desire to get down, lie down, sleep, stop worrying. I was at the end of my (will)powers, completely physically exhausted, and my brain had turned into purely reactive mode.

I had never reached such an extreme before. By the time the camp site was in sight, the sun was rising. From the moment I saw our tent, it took me more than 30 minutes to reach it; and I am not exaggerating when I say that it was with the last bits of power left in my body that I opened the entrance, undid my shoes, stripped all clothing, and passed out into the sleeping bag.

Waking up two hours later -- for it was essential that we quickly went further down to prevent altitude sickness -- I felt the same weakness I remember from the food poisoning I contracted in Vientiane, Laos, in the beginning of this year (that's what you get from eating Pad Thai in the Chinatown part of the Laotian capital): a weakness accompanied by a complete lack of motivation, and a massive headache. Unable to sustain myself in a sitting or standing position, it took me more than an hours to pack my stuff and get out of the tent (update: Aline insists it took her more than an hour to get me out of the tent), but after starting the descent to the final camp at 1,900 metres, every step brought relief, as the aching in my knees intensified throughout the 2,800 metres of elevation we descended in seven hours or so.

It was still an amazing experience. The different levels of the mountain give rise to almost all climates you'll find elsewhere on the globe: rain forest, stone deserts, green meadows, dunes, snow and glaciers. With increasing altitude, you had to become more and more conscious of your breathing, which inevitably caused you to enter a somewhat transcendental state, not too different from meditation. The experience went for all senses, for your entire conscious self, it filled the space of your awareness and at the same time conveyed an overpowering sense of freedom and optimism.

In the end, we were glad to have given up, and still mighty proud of having gotten as far as we did: 5,300 metres above sea level. Neither of us would have thought we even get that far -- a fact we admitted only afterwards though. Since the peak of that trip, I've heard tales of those who made it to the summit and not back. Given my experience on the descent, I can all too well imagine. Seriously.

If I were to try Kilimanjaro again, I would not go with the standard 6 day programme. I would spend 9 days on the same route (the "Machame" route), 2 to get up to 4,000 metres, and then raising the altitude of the camp site by no more than 300-350 metres every day, by ascending 1,000-1,500 metres and descending that minus 300 in the afternoon. Unfortunately, this piece of advice came to me only afterwards. Update: I've been told that above 4,000, you don't spend more time than necessary, actually. So instead, it would have been good to spend more time above 3,500 metres before then going for the final climb.

As did a lot of revelations. In general, our local agent here in Zurich, Globetrotter, left much to be desired. The actual trip was organised by A&M Africa Tours, and if we had to summarise it, we'd say: bad consultation, and absolutely inadequate to travellers of our age (and budget). But of course, noone told us that in advance. But the blame, of course, also rests partly with us, because we were insufficiently prepared for the trip, having done close to no research on the destination, mostly due to lack of time and our eventful weeks leading up to the trip. With more information, we would have opted for more than 6 days, and we would have done without the "luxury" option -- a separate tent for eating and being, as well as a broad variety of foods and snacks throughout; one type of chocolate, or just tea would have sufficed. And we'd have been just fine eating pasta every day.

With more information, we would also not have gone on a 5 day safari. We spent one day in Tarangire National Park, then almost an entire day just getting to Serengeti National Park, had a full day there, then another full day of getting back, and finally a morning in the Ngorongoro Crater. It was quite exciting at times, seeing lions hunt and eat, observing cheetahs, elephants, rhinos, leopards, crocodiles, gnus, antilopes... tell you what: it does get very thrilling when an elephant bull starts running towards your jeep as the driver tries to back up faster and faster. Anyway, neither of the two of us is really the kind of person to just sit and watch for a full day, and definitely not for five days in a row. At the very least, I found the time to eat through A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami, a rather weird novel by one of my more favourite contemporary novelists, about a sheep that rules the world (or not), and any number of fictitious (or not) characters walking about in the cold mountains of northern Japan.

Our tour operator for the Kilimanjaro climb and the safari was Shidolya Tours. Altogether, they do not warrant a mention really, for their practices left the bad aftertaste of a cheat and rip-off company. Nevertheless, their equipment was of good quality and there were none of the major showstoppers and delays reported by other (cheaper) operators. If you do not pay attention to every one of the dollars you spend, they may just be okay for you, expecting you to tip your mountaineering crew 3-5 times the average amount, or substituting inferior tents (costing half the price) for the promised luxury at one of the better lodges during the safari, without letting you know.

So if I were to go on a safari in Tanzania again, I would spend two days in Tarangire and skip the Serengeti, or fly there. But in retrospect: three days would be enough for me... more than enough. And if I were to go on safari again, I would not place myself in the mid-range lodges, which charge around $150 per person per night for a simple room and a crappy breakfast. Tents, or the low-end hostels, further away from the game, would have done just fine.

Speaking of food: I tried hard, but Tanzania seems to be not the place to go for culinary experiences. I am aware that the country is very poor and famine-struck all over, and we witnessed a lot of that. However, Laos or Cambodia are hardly richer, and most of my time there I spent just eating whatever I didn't know yet. In Tanzania, it's very difficult, if not impossible to get non-westernised food, so we ended up munching on pasta and pizza and steak and whatever else our stomachs were already used to. In three weeks, I managed not a single time to eat amidst locals, for the organisers seemed to go through lengths to impose a separation based on our social status as compared to the locals. That sucked, and direct contact with locals was what I missed the most on the entire trip.

Anyway, breakfast in Tanzania sucks and is mostly limited to dry toast with jam, and shitloads of eggs, eggs, eggs, eggs, eggs. If you are lucky, there are fruits and porridge. If you are lucky. We did good in taking some soft cheese with us to add some variety to the morning diet.

So after 6 days of intense hiking and 5 days in a vehicle with wings trimmed, we were ready for the proverbial island -- but not after Aline's dental problems intensified and we had to find a dentist in Arusha to get some pieces of plastic our of her gums, which was fortunately accomplished quite professionally by a Nairobi doctor who was visiting. With 6 days left on our trip, we boarded a flight to Zanzibar and shortly thereafter found ourselves on an island where Africa meets Arabia meets Asia.

Much to our surprise, and also contrary to what we've been told, an hour's drive worth later, we ended up between the towns of Paje and Jambiani, on the south eastern coast of the island, far away from civilisation. The sense of dependence filled us with discomfort as we realised that there was no shop to get water, and no means of transportation other than taxis and rentals, and those were completely overpriced, especially at the hotel at which we ended up: Hakuna Majiwe, meaning "no stones", which alluded to the entire hotel area being made up of fine, white sand.

It was quite lovely. We had a bungalow to ourselves, with a nice bathroom, 30 metres to the sea, and almost no tourists in sight; the perfect location to read one book after the other, or just to do nothing. The scenery was perfect, the hotel less so. Run by a circle of Italians (the Mafia?), it seemed that the main purpose of anything at this hotel was to suck money from its clients. Water was twice as expensive as elsewhere, a rental bike three times the average from other places, Internet a measely $5 for 30 Minutes. All this, combined with our somewhat restricted cash resources, dampened our experience just a little, but similarly to the safari lodges, we were simply misplaced. The other clientele seemed to have less of a problem leaving larger sums of money behind. It was somewhat of a shame that our agent put us into this place, when the hotel Paje by Night, 2km down the beach, would have been a much better match for our tastes -- at a third of the price. Or the new Pakachi Beach Hotel, about half way between Paje and Jambiani (which served the best food I've had throughout the entire trip).

Without access to money and credit cards not accepted (and a general lack of desire from our side to feed their throats by paying their ridiculous prices), we soon found ourselves budgeting our days over the small amount we had left -- without much trouble as we started to simply walk to other places for dinner, and enjoyed ourselves quite a lot in doing so.

We spent the first day just poking around the tidal flat, inspecting the various lifeforms of the sand and water. It's quite a fun experience to walk around barefoot, stepping on crabs and plaices, and thinking about all the other animals that could actually inflict pain -- of which there are quite a few in the Indian Ocean. That afternoon, after walking the 5 kilometres to Jambiani and back, we arranged for a rented jeep for the next two days.

With the car came the freedom, and early in the morning we set off to the west part of the island, to Zanzibar Town. An hour later, we decided to first go on the obligatory spice tour, and we soon found ourselves amidst cinnamon and pepper trees, between bushes of lemongrass and "Touch Me Nots", exploring ginger roots, pineapple plants, and learning about other exotic spices, such as cloves, turmeric, saffron, and the many others for which Zanzibar is famous.

We then went for Stone Town, the infamous throbbing heart of Zanzibar, with its alleys and buildings, doors and transcultural architecture. It wasn't so touristy in the end, and we enjoyed ourselves with some light shopping (and at least one hour in the "Zanzibar Curio Shop", an amazing junk-shop with antiques and other goodies, where it would have been easy to leave several hundreds of dollars, were we to have had them). After a visit to the "House of Wonders" museum, we topped off the day with the obligatory stop at the Forodhani Gardens food market, where one stand after the other offered all kinds of seafoods. I could not resist the temptation to treat myself to lobster, crab, and other goodies, despite the warnings I've heard about the not-so-freshness of some of the more exquisite meats. Stuffed, we then embarked on the adventure to get back to the other side of the island in the dark, having a compass but otherwise no desire to stop and ask (for safety reasons). We succeeded.

Safety is a topic of its own. In general, it seems unsafe to walk about after dark, for risk of getting mugged. We respected this threat in Arusha, taking taxis anywhere, but after learning that the 2km between Paje and our hotel in a taxi would be $10, we were somewhat forced to do what they told you not to do, which is to walk back from the various restaurants at night, in the dark, on the deserted beach. We never carried more money than necessary, nor any other valuables, and come to think of it, we really didn't look like there'd be any gain in mugging us... and nothing happened. It's still quite a thrill to be walking in a pitch black night between the sea and the bushes, barefoot, accompanied by the rustling branches, the sound crabs make when they eat, and the rhythmical sound of the waves -- especially after seeing a local fisherman suffering a pretty deep wound on his hand from the claw of a crab of only 15 centimetres diameter. So in the end, it was more the wildlife that caused our adrenaline levels to heighten, not the allegedly Bad Black Men.

The next day -- our third -- we fell for the biggest tourist trap on the island, which would have to be the dolphin tour. The idea is simple: you leave early, arrive before the "other tourists", take a boat out, see dolphins, and try to swim with them. We had a good head start, were among the first, had our own boat (after feeling ripped off again as the guy tried to impose more than twice the quoted price on us), but what followed was painfully pathetic. We saw dolphins, a number of times. I even almost touched one. But there were about ten boats around, idling until one would spot the dolphins somewhere else and all ten boats then full-throttled their stinking engines to tail-chase the animals. When the boats caught up with the fish, everyone took a plunge for them, but the fish obviously fled. It's them choosing to swim with humans, not the other way around, but the supply-demand link for standard tourists seems to make the boat operators think the other way.

We got annoyed and left early, then took our jeep off the main road and cruised along the coastline back to our hotel. With a careful watch over the gasoline metre and a constant fear of breaking an axle, we maneuvred terrain not exactly made for cars, but eventually reached Jambiani safely, treated ourselves to a beer and then stirred up the village a little by distributing balloons to the kids and elderly alike. It was great to see so much joy caused by as little as some plastic balloons, and astonishing to find children quarrelling, crying, or just gazing in admiration within seconds after the wind caught the first balloons.

The remainder of the day, as well as the last two days of our vacation, we engaged in active passiveness. I read Giles Foden's novel Zanzibar, which started out with very nice images of the island we now knew, and a promising set of characters, scenery, and plot. A third into the book, however, it degraded to the standard American action romance, Tom Clancy style, of well-researched facts mixed with venturesome conspiracies and cheesy knickknack, and of course, a hero and a weak girl who can't help but fall in love with each other, in great detail. I should have just put the book down after a hundred pages and turned to Hemingway earlier, having now started both, "The Green Hills of Africa", as well as "The Snows of the Kilimanjaro" with no outlook of finishing them anytime soon in the day-to-day life to which I now returned.

So now we are back from a trip that left mixed feelings. It was likely the last trip I booked through an agent, at least when the destination is a developing country. And it may well have been my third-to-last trip to Africa, still eyeing South Africa as well as Egypt (and still being attracted to Congo and the Ivory Coast, but not feeling suicidal enough yet). In the end, I wish I had had more of an opportunity to meet locals in natural settings, not continuously in the white-man-with-money vs. servant arrangement. I had no problem with that during my trips to Southeast Asia, and it is definitely what I missed the most during the weeks in Tanzania. Or maybe I am simply more fond of Asia? I did find myself comparing a lot, which seemed silly at best.

One of the most disturbing things about this trip was, however, the contrast between the high prices tourists had to pay for everything, and the poverty lining the streets. It is important for tourism to pump money into countries like Tanzania, and that is part of the reason why I end up spending way more than intended during trips to Southeast Asia. However, in Tanzania is just feels as if the money goes into the deep pockets of a few, and the vast majority never gets a cut. And the way tourism in Tanzania seems to be separated, segregated from the real Tanzanian life leaves no real option to change that.

So having been badly advised and left mildly angry at the organisers, Aline and I still spent three marvelous weeks together, answering questions about our relationship, and finding new ones. If after three weeks of 24/7 togetherness, you part ways and find yourself missing the other within a matter of hours, that speaks for itself, doesn't it?

PS: no pictures in this post. My camera broke half way through the trip, and we managed to leave the other one on the plane on the return flight to Amsterdam. Smart, eh? Maybe I'll followup with some good ones, should we get the camera back from Kenya Airways.