Even though we had been popping anti-malaria pills for weeks now (which came with a great side effect: hallucinations! More about those later), getting yellow fever and cholera vaccines, and hosing down all of our safari clothes with permetherin insect repellent, I still couldn't believe we were going. For seven days, it would be the two of us -- along with our safari guide and our safari cook -- driving through through the vast uninhabited savannah of Tanzania and camping amongst wild animals. An African Safari always seemed out of reach to me, the kind of trip that other, crazier, and I'll be honest -- older people went on.
Tanzania was awhile ago, but I found it hard to write about because it never felt like there were worthy words to describe it all. Still don't think there are, but here I go anyway...
Arusha was more placid than usual when we arrived because Eid al-Adha was just around the corner. In anticipation of the holiday, many things were closed and even banks and ATM's had been completely drained of all their cash. Our Safari guide was mystified that two Americans would spend two entire days in Arusha. Typically in Arusha, planefuls of Mount Kilamanjaro climbers and those starting their Safaris are unloaded and rapidly cycled through the city to their onwards journeys. Wasting no time, making sure not one excess moment is spent in Arusha aside from stopping at the store to pick up supplies. It seemed we were the the only tourists left in the city, especially as we entered the Soku Kuu central market and a warning from a fruit vendor was shouted from across the bustling market:
"We are not animals in a zoo! No pictures!"
We weren't taking any, but no question about it, the message was for us. Once in awhile, a stray intrepid traveler would quickly pass through the market to gawk, oggle, and click-click-click a few photos. Then, as quickly as they came, they were poof. Gone. Outta there. Other than that, we were pretty much the only tourists in sight most of the time. This is how I knew she was calling out to us. As my fingers idly crumpled cellophane bags of spices and tiptoed over sidewalks drenched with watered down freshly slaughtered animal blood, her words vibrated over and over in my mind. We are not animals in a zoo!
Seconds later the tables were turned and I became the animal in the zoo.
I could feel hands on my head, frantically petting my hair. I waited for something else to happen, something worse, and for a split second wondered if my parents had enough cash to pay my potential kidnappers ransom money (probably not), because I was pretty sure I was about to be Taken. But it didn't come. When I whipped my head around, I came face to face with the broadest of grins. My straight, long hair had become the fascination of several people who were now surrounding me. I slowly backed away, and after I got over my initial shock, I actually found it hilarious.
It was nothing but innocent curiosity, though?still somewhat uncomfortable, so I took the entire market experience as a warning of sorts. 'We are not animals in a zoo' echoes in my head during all of my travels as a gentle reminder to be mindful of others and to never photograph anyone without their permission.
I HAD NEVER EVEN BEEN CAMPING BEFORE, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
After Arusha, we made our way to Mkuru Camp, an eco-friendly and low-impact camp located inside a Maasai Steppe. The Maasai people are one of the most recognizable Nilotic ethnic groups of that inhabit Kenya and Tanzania, since they usually live near big game parks where tourists Safari. In Mkuru we would stay in tents, go on camel safaris, and visit a Maasai village
A three minute walk from our tent is where a Maasai family -- which consists of a man, his six wives and their thirty children -- live and work. Their dwellings, or Bomas, are circular huts made with straw and plastered with mud, water, and cow dung. We would get to see it all soon, but first it was time for our first safari dinner cooked over a fire, a good night's rest before our camel safari the next day, and my first time camping ever.
I PEED IN A CUP BECAUSE I WAS FRIGHTENED TO DEATH
The anti-malaria pills made me do it.
(Warning: skip this next part if you don't want to read a story about urine)
Remember how I said that one of the side effects of malaria pills were hallucinations? Also remember when I said I had never been camping in my life before this trip? Well, as you can imagine, this made for a great combination! This is a disgusting story but it paints a pretty good picture of the realities of safari and how loopy these pills really made us. Just something to keep in mind if you're already teetering on the edge of crazy, like I am.
After dinner, we retired to our raised tents to sleep; at first I was very excited to be sleeping amongst the great animals of Tanzania. It was surreal. But then, the malaria hallucinatuons started to kick in, and sinister thoughts started to creep into my mind.
Every five minutes or so, I would become convinced that a savage animal was trying to claw its way into our tent and gnaw on my girlfriend and I for dinner. I would grab the flashlight, scan our tent wildly, then shine it in directly into her eyes until the blinding light woke her up, so I could ask if she heard it too.
I would say that this was grounds for her to break up with me immediately, except we took turns freaking out. All night. The entire time this was going on, I was desperately trying not to pee in my pajamas. I refused to go since the bathroom was outside, where I would definitely be eaten by a Wildebeast. As the minutes ticked on, I just couldn't wait any longer, except now I was absolutely convinced that the animals were hanging outside of our tent plotting with their buds about the best way to murder us, they just couldn't figure out how to unzip the tent. I wasn't about to do the work for them!
I woke my girlfriend up for the 100th time with the sound of my pee trickling into a cup.
I'd say she could have definitely dumped me after witnessing this horrifically disgusting act, except she did it too. I think it brought us closer. Eventuality, our bodies got used to the medication and the hallucinations faded.
(Proof I am not the only person who has gone crazy after taking these anti-malaria pills HERE)
The next morning, we rode camels through Tarangire National Park and pretended to be normal people who don't wake each other up every five minutes in the middle of the night with whatever insane thing their anti-malaria pill hallucinations are telling them will happen:
This camel licked me right before this photo was taken. He looks pretty pleased with himself:
MAASAI BOMA VISIT
The next afternoon, we walked over to the village where the Maasai family were awaiting our arrival in front of their six bomas. All thirty seven of them, along with their goats, cattle, and dogs. After our introductions and presentation of the gifts we brought, the head wife took me for a tour inside one of the Bomas. It was suprisingly dark and cool inside despite the flicker of flame in the kitchen, which was cooking Ugali for the entire family. When I asked if I could touch one of the built-in shelves, she proudly boasted that she also built all of the Bomas and tells me that all Maasai wives are responsible for building their Bomas. "So what do the men do?", I asked. She cackled and whispered close to my ear:
She is joking, of course, as Maasai men are responsible for the cattle and animals the family owns. For the Maasai pastoralist, cattle is currency, a measure of wealth, and also the main source of nourishment. Raw meat, raw milk, butter, fat, and blood are staples in a traditional Maasai diet. Cattle blood is retrieved by piercing the neck and letting blood from a cow without harming or killing the animal. Several liters of blood can be gathered at one time while still keeping the animal alive. Sometimes the milk is mixed with blood for special ceremonies.
As a filipino who grew up eating Dinuguan (a pig blood stew), eating blood was not shocking to me at all. Still, we did not participate in what has been dubbed by other visitors to Tanzania as a "blood milkshake".
The Maasai dependency on cattle is slowly dwindling. Fifty years ago, when the Maasai people were forced from the Serengeti to Ngorongoro by the British, their diet had to adjust and adapt. Scarcity of cattle, restrictions set by the government, and appropriation of their land have forced the Maasai to reluctantly turn to farming to supplement their diet. Imagine that after hundreds of years of eating one way, you are now forced to farm for the first time and eat things you aren't used to. Enter Ugali, made from maize, and a key dietary supplement to the Maasai people of Tanzania and many other peoples across Eastern Africa. It is relatively cheap, stick-to-your-guts filling, and similar to porridge, oatmeal, grits or polenta in that it it provides a substantial and mild flavored backdrop for a variety of savory or sweet accompaniments. Since it is so doughy -- almost like a paste -- the best way to eat it is to roll it up in a ball and use it for sopping up meats, curries, and soups.
The head wife of the family we visited donned her wedding jewelry just for us, and asked us to take a photo of her. After we did, we realized it was because she wanted to see herself on the screen. This turned into an hours-long game with all of the wives and their children. It's a fact: no matter where you are in the world, people like to look at themselves. And can you blame her? Just look at her jewelry!
Cattle can no longer be relied upon as a sole source of income for the Maasai, and to make money for food and school for their children, the Maasai women sell their intricately beaded handicrafts to passing tourists. No two pieces of the vibrant jewelry are exactly alike, which makes them even more treasured.
SWATTING AWAY FLIES AND HANGING OUT WITH GIRAFFES IN TARANGIRE, aka "LITTLE SERENGETI"
The reality of a Safari is this: you spend a big chunk of time in a Jeep doing game drives through the vast and empty savannah looking for The Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, black rhinoceros, and African buffalo). Jacking myself up with caffeine was an absolute must to keep from falling asleep during these long and bumpy drives. To this day, I still have a soft spot for instant coffee, which was all that was available and I actually started to enjoy. It got me through the long stretches of time where we might not see any animals.
When I would feel our safari guide shut down the car engine, a feel a rush of adrenaline would shoot through my veins and I would hold my breath as hard as I could. Since it is so important to try to not and disturb the animals as much as possible, I got really good at perfecting my Silent Scream. It was SO hard to contain the excitement I felt getting to witness the rare beauty that is seeing these majestic animals in their natural habitat.
When we weren't popping out of the jeep to get a better look at big game animals, we were curled up under blankets (in sweltering weather mind you) trying to escape the continual, aggravating, agonizing bites of horse flies. It was really difficult to stay silent while getting bitten by those pesky horse flies, especially while worrying that what just bit me could possibly be the deadly Tsetse fly. Each time I got bit, I was sure it was a Tsetse, that I now had African Sleeping Sickness, and that I would probably be dead in about 12 days. Give or take. All that said, nothing compares to seeing hundreds of elephants, especially baby elephants, cross right in front of your jeep.
The closest I will ever get to a giraffe in the wild:
DISTURBINGLY FRESH GOAT CURRY
I wasn't exactly sure what we would be eating on Safari when our guide asked us before the trip if we had any dietary restrictions. Eating on Safari has its unique challenges. Or, I should say, eating on a budget Safari has its unique challenges. We were on an inexpensive mobile safari, which is essentially camping with a chef and a guide to help with equipment and cooking. The food has to be easily transportable, relatively simple due to limited cooking options, and carefully planned out because of how remote lodging will be. All ingredients and spices need to be prepared and sourced days or weeks in advance.
When our cook passed back our first brown bag lunch filled with barbequed chicken and chapati filled with fragrantly spiced minced meat, I knew we were going to be fed very well. Breakfast was usually a very simple meal of fruit, juice, instant coffee, tea, and toast. Lunch equally simple and typically a vegetable samosa or a sandwich. Every night for dinner, we started with soup such as the classic Tanzanian coconut potato soup as an appetizer and curry served with Ugali or rice as the main course. The curry changed every night, sometimes it was vegetable heavy or sometimes, goat leg that tasted so fresh I was pretty sure I had previously come face to face with that exact goat. Who was now swimming in coconut milk and spices (thank you goat).
After one last dinner of disturbingly fresh goat curry, we flew from Mt. Kilamanjaro to Dar Es Salaam, Zanzibar
Zanzibar was the luxurious part of our trip with its impeccable sand-as-soft-as- flour beaches and it's calm turquoise waters. Before we vegged out beachside with little plans other than drinking mojitos, we headed to Stone Town (commonly also referred to Mji Mkongwe as it's called in Swahili). Since we didn't have much time, we took a guided tour. The bewitching city -- once a thriving coastal trading hub for spices and goods -- retains much of its Indian, Arab and European architectural, cultural, and culinary influences.
WHAT TO DO AND SEE IN STONE TOWN:
At this park, there is waterfront night market that is set up with rows and rows of street food stalls overlooking the oceam. Here, you can sip on sweet sugar cane juice, snack on samosas, and a wide range of other international foods such as pizza and burgers.
World's Last Open Slave Market
Now home to an Anglican church, for a small entrance fee you can gain a deeper understanding of Zanzibar's dark disturbing past by touring what once was the world's last open slave market. Up until 1873, slaves were brought to Stone Town, where they were chained, whipped, and sold before being transported to the Middle East and North America.
You can't leave Spice Island without a visit to a bazaar to pick up some spices to take back home with you. Nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper, curry powder and cloves are vital ingredients to Zanzibari everyday cooking, so be on the lookout for those --especially cloves, which are so important in Zanzibari history that used to be traded for gold in the 16th century. You will also see many stalls selling vanilla beans and saffron for much cheaper than you can find in the states -- just make sure to shop around first and skip those that appear overly parched and old or you can get easily ripped off.
It could be because this was the first real bed we got to sleep on after 7 days of a camping safari, or maybe it was because it was on a pristine beach (that I couldn't have come up with in even my wildest of dreams) but our hotel on Nungwi was pure bliss. HIDEAWAY was just steps away from the beach, and the most perfect place to relax, unwind, and finally feel clean.
After a few days of doing absolutely nothing we were itching for adventure and booked a boat to take us to nearby wild and relatively untouched Mnemba Island. It seemed impossible to believe that a more idyllic beach than Nungwi could exist, but it does, and it's on Mnemba Island. The sand is as blinding white as sugar; the water unbelievably clear, serene, and warm. Included in our tour was a simple lunch of barbecued fish, rice and vegetables cooked right there on the private beach.
THE ROCK RESTAURANT
Possibly the most breathtaking restaurant in the world, The Rock Restaurant is quite literally a restaurant on top of a rock off the coast of Michanwi Pingwe beach. They serve European dishes with a touch of East African flair, such as Tambi (local Swahili spaghetti served with stir-fry fish,vegetables, and spinach in creamy Swahili coconut sauce), squid In tandoori, and coconut milk with spinach. If it is low tide, you can walk to to the restaurant, but if it is high tide you will need to take a boat over.
The total cost for our Safari + Zanzibar island time with Calabash Adventures was $1500 USD each (not including airfare) , which is a complete bargain as far as safaris are concerned. They organize private itinerariea at all price points and are also extremely helpful with visa and vaccine information. Click HERE to visit their website.
Mchicha is one of the many curries we had while on safari; it is made with spinach, coconut milk, onions, tomatoes, curry powder, and one surprising ingredient -- crunchy peanut butter. The peanut butter makes this curry very rich and filling even though it does not contain any meat. It can be served with rice or Ugali. (Click HERE for an Ugali recipe)
2 lbs spinach
1.5 ounces peanut butter
1 yellow onion
2 tablespoons curry powder or paste
1 cup coconut milk
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
Rice or Ugali for serving
1. Chop spinach, onion, and tomato.
2. Whisk together peanut butter and coconut milk in a bowl until fully combined.
3. In a large pan, heat butter over medium heat, season onion with salt and curry powder and saute until onions are translucent, about 3 minutes.
4. Add tomatoes and spinach and cook until spinach is soft and wilted, about 5 minutes.
5. Pour in peanut butter and coconut mixture, lower heat to low, cover, and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Stir frequently as mixture will thicken quite rapidly and easily burn on the bottom if not carefully watched.
Serve with rice or Ugali.