Wednesday, December 24, 2003
12/20/03 to 12/24/03: Once Shannon and I finished giving the Beast a complete tune up and rotating the tires, we set out on the long drive back to Dar es Salaam. After almost seven months of experiencing completely unfamiliar places, people, and things, it’s crazy how excited we got over coming back to a place that was familiar. We have very rarely been in the same place twice, so visions of the Subway, the brand new movie theatre, and the YWCA became out inspiration to keep driving. It’s a good thing we had some inspiration too, because the Beast was acting very strangely. The steering wheel felt incredibly loose and it would veer completely across two lanes for no apparent reason on a moments notice. Even though the combination of melted asphalt and overloaded big rigs have combined to create huge tire ruts in the roads, we still couldn’t understand what was up. Was our steering box wasted? Was our steering column bent? Was it the wind? No matter what it was, that eight-hour drive to Dar was one of our scariest yet. There’s nothing quite like speeding along as a huge double-trailer’d truck is racing at you in the other lane, not knowing if your car is suddenly going to veer right into oncoming traffic. Luckily we made it in one piece, but I was convinced I wasn’t leaving Dar without figuring out what was up. Car troubles aside, our time in Dar es Salaam lived up to all our expectations. The security guards at the YWCA and the manager at Subway welcomed us back like family. We were probably a little starved for friendly faces considering Christmas was just around the corner, but either way it was great to see people who were happy to see us. It got better from there as Amalia, our friend from Iringa, flew in from London the day after we arrived, and her friend Sush from South Africa arrived the day after. Amalia and Sush have lived all over the world and have a million things to be proud of, but they are the kind of humble, fun-loving people that just make you feel good to be around. After enjoying some incredible Thai food overlooking Dar harbor we managed to fire up enough energy to tear up our first real nightclub since Capetown. My groove skills were a little rusty, but it was still a blast to go big for the holidays. In-between all this craziness I was still trying to figure out our mystery steering problem. Without a solution I was going to be stranded in Dar, so it was definitely weighing on my mind. When I arrived at the workshop recommended by our trusty Subway manager, I was committed to stay there until we found a solution. Six hours later, the entire front of the Beast was laying in pieces and we were no closer to figuring out the issue. Our steering box was fine, everything was lubricated, cleaned and replaced and they couldn’t find any problems at all. Then the shop manager wandered over and started laughing. When I gave him my “What the hell are you laughing at” look, he pointed to our front tires. They were two completely different sizes! We had been driving with one of our spare tires on the rear driver’s side wheel for months, but since it was on the back, it didn’t cause us to swerve and we never noticed the size discrepancy. When we rotated the tires in Arusha, the undersized tire ended up on the front, and began to reek havoc on our steering. Six hours and a complete re-build of our front end later, we realized that all I had to do was change the front tires! After sheepishly paying my giggling mechanic, I drove out of the shop with a little more humility and the sincere hope that our Canadian friends that sold us the Beast had no idea that BOTH our spare tires were two sizes too small. Since new tires were ridiculously expensive, I decided to risk looking for used tires in one of the Dar es Salaam townships. This turned out to be one of my favorite experiences of the week. The Kirako Township was absolute chaos, and I was probably the only Muzungu (White person) for about ten square miles, but the first local I came across agreed to be my guide and we were off. If you can imagine trying to fit 250 mini buses and about 4,000 people into a one-lane road about a block long, you can imagine a typical street in Kirako. Incredible. Luckily the massive bumper and winch on the front of the Beast can be a great people mover, so my guide and I were able to make progress rather quickly. Since everyone and their brother is busy selling something, the shops sprawl out for miles in every direction. Luckily there’s a pretty slick system in place. My guide and I just walked up to a tiny hair salon (Wood crate with a set of hair clippers inside) where about twenty “Runners” were waiting for requests. I told them I was looking for two used tires, a windshield, some hood latches, and a four-wheel drive wheel lock (That my previous mechanic said I would never be able to find) and three of them sprinted off in all different directions. About ten minutes later they each presented several different options of everything I was looking for. I couldn’t believe it. Not only was everything almost new, but it was also about 75% cheaper than anything I’d seen at a normal parts store. Part of me wondered if the parts had been stolen from the last tourist who ventured into Kirako, but I decided to put those negative thoughts out of my mind and get down to dealing. As I dropped off my guide/translator on the way out of the township, I was pretty fired up on the whole experience. What looked like a chaotic garbage dump from the outside, turned out to be a friendly, efficient, and extremely well stocked budget shopping mall. Nice!
Friday, December 19, 2003
12/6/03 to 12/19/03: While Rishard was busy jumping off bridges and rafting class five white water in Zimbabwe, Shannon and I were busy breaking pieces off the Beast en route to Arusha, Tanzania. I don’t think we lost anything major, but the “Snap, crackle, pop” we heard on every bump convinced us it was time for some major service. However, before our trusty Stallion could shack up for some well-deserved R&R, she had to get us through the amazing Tanzanian National Parks at the Ongorogoro Crater and Lake Manyara. By now you’d think we would have been “Park’d out” but each of these national monuments had something unique to offer. The Crater is basically a HUGE fish bowl created by the collapse of an ancient volcano that was supposedly bigger than Mount Kilimanjaro. There is water available year round and the animals love the place. Lake Manyara is one of the only places in the world where you can find tree-climbing lions, and while we weren’t crafty enough to find them, the park was amazingly beautiful. While Shannon and I were cruising past the splendid views and coming nose to nose with enormous Elephants, I couldn’t stop thinking about Kilimanjaro. Climbing to the highest point in Africa had never been a definite part of the agenda (As if there was an agenda), but driving past it on the way to the Crater had peaked my interest. When was I ever going to get this chance again? Never mind that my shoulder was felt like it was falling out of its socket from some mysterious injury, my budget couldn’t handle the $700 price tag, and my body was far from prepared. What would I remember more? Slinking away back down to South Africa, or summitting a 19,340-foot peak? I know my friends from San Diego are laughing by now considering I used that same argument to help convince them to do a wide variety of off-the-wall things, but I guess you treat others as you want to be treated right? This internal dialog was only enhanced by the taunting I had received earlier from my good friend Jamie Brown: “Are you going to climb that 19,000 ft peak or what tough guy? I mean it is right in your back yard right now! I am surprised you can’t see it from your sleeping bag. They say the glaciers are melting, that global warming stuff sucks, you better get up there ASAP.” Nice Mr. Brown. Nice. To make a long story short, I pulled the trigger. I’m not sure how Shannon tolerated my “Analysis paralysis”, but looking back, I can’t believe I ever considered NOT doing it. I think that’s how it is with almost all major decisions you get a gut feeling about, and my gut was definitely doing the talking when it came to Kili. As four porters and two guides piled the gear and provisions for my 46-year-old German co-climber Carlos and I into a minivan, I was still in a daze. My mind was drunk on a mixture of fear and excitement and I loved it. The love quickly dissolved into pain about two hours into the hike when I realized my heel skin was already rubbing off and my first-aid kid was on the back of the 19 year old Porter than had raced about 3 miles in front of me. I think the lesson I was supposed to learn here was how to ask for help, because after applying Carlos’s blister killing bandages, I was all good. By the end of the first day, I have to admit I was a little worried. With one day behind me, and five more in front, my heels were on fire, my large intestine was on the warpath, and my shoulder felt like it had a red-hot ice pick sticking out of it. What’s crazy is that the psychological tricks my Pink House roommates and I learned in preparation for the San Diego Rock N Roll Marathon are what saved me. It’s all about what you choose to think about. You can either visualize success or visualize failure. It’s all a choice. It’s about consciously deciding what to think about. Luckily for my legs and my guide, I spent the next 63 kilometers choosing to think about how grateful I was that I was going to make it. In fact, when my stomach was threatening to slingshot my breakfast all over Carlos and my brain was screaming for oxygen, I would chant “I’m so grateful we made it, I’m so grateful we made it, I’m so grateful…” under my breath and my legs would just keep going. Our guide, Emanuel was a huge help as well. In addition to making sure we were hydrated by constantly asking if we were pissing clear or not, he kept us mentally distracted with some great stories about East African politics and fast Tanzanian women. Even with Emanuel’s careful stewardship, the summit day was a killer. In the book “The Alchemist” the main character learns that when you are chasing your dream the world conspires for you, but just before you get there, everything gets harder than it’s ever been before. That’s exactly what I was thinking when we broke the ice off the outside of our tent at midnight of the fifth day to begin our ascent. After hiking / stumbling for exactly six hours and rising almost 4,000 vertical feet, Carlos, Emanuel, myself, and our backup guide Joseph found ourselves enjoying one of the most beautiful sunrises of my life from the roof of Africa. Peak experiences. This is what my friend Peter Berg would say life is all about. Peak experiences…
Friday, December 05, 2003
11/31/03 to 12/5/03: After a day of inhaling Nando’s chicken sandwiches and paying out the nose for US dollars in Nairobi, Shannon and I were bright eyed and bushytailed when Rishard Bitbaba (AKA: Big Balls Bitbaba) burst onto the scene at 6:30AM on November 30th. Rishard is one of the most passionate, energetic, amazing guys I know, and it was an incredible boost for Shannon and I to have him join us for six action-packed days in Kenya. The night before, in typical last-minute-planning style, Shannon and I had booked the three of us on a three-day safari into Kenya’s pride and joy, Masai Mara national park. It was a little frustrating, but very relaxing to find out it was actually cheaper to pay for an organized safari vs. drive the Beast to the park ourselves. Apparently they jack up the prices for “Out of Country” vehicles to encourage tourists to use local operators, and after compressing my spine for six hours on Kenya’s road from hell the day before, I was looking forward to having someone else drive. The safari was definitely a budget operation, but it was worth every dollar. The “Great Migration” of Wildebeests and just about every other animal, was just leaving Masai Mara for the Serengeti when we arrived, so the herds were ENORMOUS. Imagine coming over a hill to see 4,000 Wildebeest grazing in the midst of thousands of Zebras and hundreds of Giraffe’s. Breathtaking. During the EIGHTEEN hours we spend racing around the park, we managed to see, or take pictures of, Monitor Lizards, Crocodiles, Vultures, Hippos, Wildebeests, Hartebeests, Secretary Bird’s, Tope’s, Waterbucks, Elephants, Lions, Cheetahs, Hyenas, Jackals, Water Buffalo’s, Zebras, Springboks, Dik-Dik’s, Fish Eagles, Warthogs, Giraffe’s, Eland’s, Gazelle’s, Steenbok’s, Ostriches, Mongoose’s, Hawks, Aardwolf’s, Baboon’s, Vervet Monkey’s, Impalas, and Black Rhino’s. My sisters have been hammering me for more information about ANIMALS, so I hope you don’t mind the mega-list. Paying for the safari also made me realize that even if Rishard and I both had Shannon’s excellent “Game viewing eyes”, we still would have been no match for the network of Swahili-speaking minivan drivers in the park. I’m surprised the animals can find any place to hide! This brings up an interesting dilemma. The three of us are fairly responsible, environmentally friendly tourists, however, we didn’t exactly scream in protest as our driver/guide drove off the trail to get us SUPER CLOSE to the animals. In Namibia and Tanzania the rules about staying on the main roads are very strict, very clear, and very well enforced. In Kenya there were so many crisscrossing trails it was hard to tell where the road ended and the grass began. While breaking the rules (If there are any in Masai Mara) was great for our photography, it was horrible for the park. I guess that’s the theme of the past couple weeks. How can you get people to see past short-term benefit to long-term consequences? Or similarly, how can you get people to make short-term sacrifices for long-term benefit? The challenge appears to be the same whether you’re talking about removing agricultural subsidies, enforcing rules in Kenyan parks, or choosing between the gym and the television. Speaking of challenges, Rishard, Shannon, and I got to experience first hand, what it’s like to live in a Maasai village. For about $6 each we got the full tour, including a welcome dance and the ability to take as many pictures as could fit in our cameras. We were a little apprehensive that it would be a staged, forced, uncomfortable experience, but the villagers were incredibly genuine. They answered even our most off the wall questions and were extremely proud of their sparse existence. The Maasai survive as cattle, goat, and sheep farmers throughout Eastern Africa and their unique, red, checkered blankets make them stand out wherever you see them. Consistent with the theme we’ve found throughout Africa, the women do the bulk of the work in the village. They build the houses out of sticks, mud, and cow dung, raise children, gather wood, and generally run the Maasai household. This massive workload may explain why each Maasai man may have as many as three to four wives. What was interesting was to learn from one of our Peace Corps friends that many of the Maasai women may have three or four boyfriends on the side that they use to get things their husbands won’t give them. According to our Maasai guide, this may happen, but no one in the village ever talks about it, especially with tourists! Even though the level of poverty was intense, there was no way to remove the perpetual smiles from the snot and fly covered faces of the children. Nintendo or no Nintendo, these kids were incredibly full of joy, generosity, and love. It was overflowing. Just look at the pictures. After bidding goodbye to our new Maasai friends, and surviving the roller coaster road back to Nairobi, Shannon, Rishard, and I promptly sat down at a restaurant appropriately named “Carnivores” and ate many of the animals we’d seen on the safari! The Warthog balls and the Hartebeest fillets were great, but I could have passed on the Ostrich steaks. Anyway, it’s a good thing we stuffed our faces, because the road to the coastal resort town of Mombasa we tackled the next day was quite a calorie-burner. Shannon and I had read about the road to Mombasa in the paper a couple days before we left. The head of the Kenyan Road Worker’s Union was quoted as saying the entire road should be shut down. He said the bypasses created to allow the new road to be built were completely out of compliance and people were dying on them EVERY DAY. The receptionist at our campsite just laughed and claimed the Union leader was playing politics, but his words were ringing in our ears as we hit the first bypass. This was also Rishard’s first real ride in the Beast, and while the laying out in the back can be comfortable, there’s no seatbelt, so I’m sure Rishard was as anxious as we were. After all the build up, the road wasn’t all that bad. We encountered the typical road condition changes at each political province, and we passed four overturned big rigs, but other than that, you could have put that road in almost any country East of Botswana and no one would have known the difference. Whether the Union leader was playing politics, or we just got lucky, the tropical coastline of Mombasa made the drive worthwhile. What we didn’t know as we were casually riding the ferry across Mombasa bay to the resort beaches, is that the US State Department was in the process of issuing a fresh travel warning for Kenya. According to the December 2nd warning, “The U.S. Government received an anonymous warning detailing terrorist threats aimed at American and Western interests in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, specifically the Stanley Hotel and the Hilton Hotel. The timing of the threat is within the next several days.” Shannon and I had spent most of the previous day looking for maps in both of those hotels, and while it seemed incredibly safe, I guess places always SEEM safe before an attack. The worst part of the warning was the impact on tourism in Kenya. The employees at both Tiwi and Diani Beach, just south of Mombasa, claimed that almost all 1st world travelers pay attention to the State Department warnings, and a large portion of the Kenyan resorts are close to bankruptcy because of the worldwide fear created by the US. I could argue that the terrorists create more fear than the US does, but considering the fact that the State Department warning was based on “un-corroborated” evidence, the resort workers might have had a point. The argued that if a country pisses off America, the State Department just issues a travel warning based on an “un-verified” tip and wipes out that country’s tourism industry and a large portion of their tax base. Of course on the flip side, if the State Department gets an “un-verified” tip and doesn’t issue a warning, and then the tip is right, then the State Department gets crucified. Surprise, surprise, another complex problem with no easy answers… Terrorist threat or no terrorist threat, scuba diving, beach lounging, and club dancing in Diani Beach was the perfect end to the Kenyan leg of Rishard’s trip. When I first heard about Rishard’s trip and dubbed him “Big Balls” for being the first of any of our friends to visit us, I couldn’t believe how much he was fitting in. One day in Amsterdam, six days in Egypt, six days in Kenya, three days in Zimbabwe, and two days in Capetown. Talk about an over-achiever! We didn’t think he would be able to pull it off and still enjoy each moment, but Rishard runs on rocket-fuel. By the time we dropped him off at the Mombasa airport he was on fire for Zimbabwe and we needed a nap!