Thursday, December 31, 2009

Back in Kigali

Well it seems like a million years since I was last able to access the internet for more than 3 seconds so of course there are a million things to tell.
My last post was while I was waiting for the bus to Musanze on Christmas Eve. Well that was definitely not meant to be. After waiting around all day I never ended up getting on the bus. I think my bus was going to be at 6 or 6:30 or something like that. I guess Christmas Eve is pretty much the same everywhere. Basically, even though I had a ticket, travel was going to be a nightmare. I got to the bus station and it was like a mob scene. People were pushing a shoving to get on buses and the station was loud and packed with people and chaos. Bus stations anywhere in the world don't tend to be the safest places. Packed bus stations in Africa are really not the safest places. I keep my stuff pretty well stashed in different places so I would be pretty hard to pick pocket but it still just doesn't feel very safe being in that tight of a space in a mob scene like that where you really can't quite tell what is going on. People kept telling me different buses were mine, which turned out not to be. Finally, I remembered my taxi driver had told me very specifically in his non-english that the guys in the blue shirts worked there so check in with them and they would help me out. Blue is a pretty common shirt color but somehow I finally figured out who the workers were. After asking the same guy about 4 times if this was my bus he finally somehow conveyed to me that he would keep an eye on me and let me know when my bus was there. He kept true to his word and came over and got me when my bus arrived. But once again everyone was pushing and shoving to get on the bus. These are not the normal buses you picture. They are like mini sizes of buses with seats that come down in the middle so everyone is completely crammed in and there is no extra space for bags so you sit crammed in between people with barely any leg room and your bag generally goes on your lap. I have a backpack (not popular with the locals on crowded buses, especially not on Christmas Eve). I am already claustrophobic so this mob scene was getting to be a bit too much. Then people actually started fighting over seats on the bus. I called Greg, the Rwandan guy who was arranging my gorilla permit and my accomodation in Musanze, and I told him what was going on and he promptly told me not to get on the bus. He said to wait until the next day and it would not be nearly as crazy. I immediately departed the mob scene and hopped in a taxi to the nearest hotel.
So my Christmas present to myself was a night at a fairly nice hotel - bathtub, hot water, television, even a wash cloth to wash off two weeks of travel grime. That evening three Rwandan people called me to make sure I was safe, the guy from my previous hotel, my taxi driver and Greg from Musanze. They all just wanted to make sure I was tucked away safe somewhere for the evening. This does not happen in the U.S. I thought it was pretty nice. So I took a hot bath, laid in bed and watched CNN, and could not have been happier.
I woke up Christmas Day and went down to the hotel restaurant for coffee. There was a dark haired girl sitting at the table next to me and she had a book about Rwanda that looked very interesting so I asked her about it. Her name is Michelle and she is from San Francisco. We both quickly mention that the other is the very first female solo traveler either one of us has met in Africa. We realize we are a bit of a novelty here. She is 37, has traveled a lot, and is generally just very cool and interesting. We talked a lot about fears we have being solo and being female and it seems we both have a lot of the same experiences traveling alone. My new bus ticket had me departing at around 2pm so I had some time to kill that day so we decide to walk to the bookstore where she got her book. We passed by a massive church that was full of parishoners singing so we stopped in for a minute just to listen. It was really very moving to see, in this town that held such horrors 15 years ago, hundreds of people singing and celebrating Christmas. We walked around for a while and took pictures of all the cute kids dressed in their Christmas finest. Michelle had met a guy that was volunteering here at a hospital and he happened to be in the city so we met him, Kelly, for lunch at my favorite cafe, the Bourbon. We had a very nice Christmas lunch and I was really glad just to have some cool people to share a little of my Christmas day with.
Turned out Michelle also had a gorilla permit but hers was not until the first of January so unfortunately we were kind of doing opposite travels. Finally it dawned on me she should call Greg, my permit guy just to see if it would be possible to change the day of the permit. He said she should just come out to Musanze and it was very possible to change the day.
I left Kigali in a massive rain storm. Going up through the mountains was pretty nerve racking. There was so much water coming down the mountain that we were driving through waterfalls and rock falls. All this with some major steep dropoffs to the side. I as so scared I called my Mom just so she would know where I was in case the bus got into an accident. I am really getting used to the crazy driving here but driving through water and rock fall was a bit too much for my nerves.
Two hours later made it alive to the town of Musanze. Greg was there promptly to pick me up and took me off the the guest house I was staying in. Tourism is down quite a bit here this year so I was the only one staying in this house. I was not super excited about this but was just too tired to bother finding anything else. Greg was kind enough to invite me down to the Silverback cafe for dinner so I did not have to be alone for Christmas dinner. I ended up having a very nice Christmas after all.
I was alone in the guest house that night and it was pouring down rain, along with thunder and lightening. I was so tired I just did not have the energy to be afraid anymore and I finally had a great nights sleep.
I stumbled out of my room the next morning to go track down some coffee and Delphi (she looks after the house) was waiting for me and said I was to go to the office for my morning coffee with Greg. We had talked about me doing a town tour the next day but I had thought I was just suppose to call him after I got up. In my delerium I just said ok and left with her, no camera, no water, no shower. I thought we were just going down to the office. Turns out this was the beginning of my day tour. I got to the office and they had this really nice traditional Rwandan breakfast all laid out for me with porridge, toast, tea, etc. This was all great but honestly I just wanted some coffee. My guide for the day, Hassan, was already there and ready to head out. Now it is finally hitting me this is the tour so I tell them I have to run back and get my camera and some water and after this we head out. I really had no idea what to expect but it really ended up being such a nice day.
OK, have to go. Will finish later.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Nothin' But Time

This is how things go when traveling. My taxi driver came to get me today to take me to the ATM and then to the bus station for my bus to Musanze. This should have taken about a total of 20 minutes. BUT it turned into about 2 hours. Nothing is simple or as it seems when you travel.
I knew ATM's that accept international cards were hard to come by in Rwanda but I knew you could go into the bank to get money. I did bring quite a bit of cash from Tanzania, but, as usual, it is going fast. Since I am headed out into the countryside for up to a week, I did not want to have to worry about running out of cash so I decided I better really stock up.
So my taxi driver, Bosco, comes to get me and we head to bank #1. Side note - this is how great the people are here, Bosco escorted me everywhere. We get to the bank to see this mob gathered around the doors and the guys inside are trying to push the mob back to close the doors and lock them. This kind of freaked me out because when you are traveling you often don't know quite whats going on. I have no news contact and can't understand many of the languages around me so if there were some national emergency or problem I may not figure it out for a while. (Rwanda is right next to the DRC which has major problems and there is occasionally some spill over. All the guide books tell you to check the travel warnings before coming. So you can understand my paranoia) It also bothered me because Bosco did not speak a lot of english and he could not quite explain what was going on but he just kept saying that it was not good. OKAAAAAY!!!
Then we go to bank #2. They do have ATM's but they do not work for international cards. They tell me to go upstairs and they can take care of me there. So turns out I could get cash off my card but the fee was something like a flat rate of $35. I thought that was a little crazy. When I came in yesterday I was able to use and ATM at the airport but the airport is pretty far away. So Bosco and I discuss the situation. It would actually be slightly cheaper for me to just have him take me all the way back to the aiport. It would cost a lot but I would rather have the money go to him than the stupid bank. So we drive like at least 30 minutes out to the airport where I was, fortunately, able to get more cash.
Then we have to go to the bus. We get to the area where the bus is and, because of the holiday, it is a total mob scene. I get a little freaked out here around bus station areas, especially with the mob scene. Generally bus station areas here are not the safest but when traveling this way you can not avoid them. So Bosco insists on leaving me in the car and going and getting my ticket for me. Hmm, maybe not too safe for me here? I don't know. So I give him like 25,000 francs. I keep getting the currency here mixed up with Tanzanian shillings but it is significantly different.
So after what seemed like and eternity of "scared little white girl hunkered down in the car" he returns with my ticket. However the buses are packed and I can not leave until tonight. So I now have a ton of time on my hands and no where to go. Fortunately the internet place and my favorite coffee shop are within walking distance.
Bosco goes to drop me off and I pull money out of my pocket to pay him. He keeps telling me I already paid him. We sat in the car for like 5 minutes going back and forth about this because I was sure I had not paid him. He just kept laughing at me and telling me I did. He keeps telling me something about the money I gave him for the bus. Finally it dawns on me my ticket was not 25,000 francs but 2500 francs and I am just getting my currency mixed up.
Anyway that is just one little story of how helpful and nice everyone has been here so far. He could have totally taken me for like 40 bucks but he just kept arguing with me til I understood. He gave me his number. He will definitely be my taxi driver when I come back.
Also wanted to let everyone know that I do get the posts you put on here and I REALLY appreciate. It makes me feel really good to read them and it also is kind of cool to know a few people are interested in my little adventure here.
Traveling solo, no matter how many people you meet, will always have it's lonely times. So every bit of contact with the outside world makes a big difference. So again thanks, it means the world to me.
P.S. You will have to excuse all my spelling and grammar errors. For some reason the spell check does not work on the computers here.
P.P.S. Seems there really is no national emergency. Guess that particular bank was having some issues.

Merry Christmas from Rwanda

Most of you are probably sleeping right now but it is mid day of Christmas Eve for me right now. Today I am headed our, by bus, to the town of Musanze (Ruhengeri). This is the closest town to the gates of Parc National Des Volcans, which I believe means National Park of the Volcanoes where I will do the gorilla tracking. (They speak a lot of french in Rwanda although the national language is now english it used to be french). Being in the city did not seem like the ideal way to spend Christmas. Kigali is ok compared to a lot of the places I have been. Although after walking around yesterday I do want to retract a few statements made earlier like the ones about it being like a European city and such. I definitely saw that I am still in Africa. It takes a bit longer to see it here but it still has the same grittiness and uneasy feel as everyplace else I have been.
Yesterday on my flight over here I met two women from Latvia who were traveling around East Africa together. And, as my luck would have it, they also happened to be staying at the same hotel in Kigali in which I was planning to stay. So, once again, I was able to share a taxi and have a little companionship on arrival in a new country.
The girls I met thought perhaps they were going to be able to get gorilla permits for Christmas day. I was a little crushed as that would have been my ideal day to do it instead of the 27th. Turns out they ended up getting permits for today so they had to immediately head out of Kigali. I could not switch my permit to the 25th but I think there is a good chance I will get a permit to go track the golden monkeys. I believe this is the only place you can find them and they are highly endangered. Initially I was not so interested in going to see them but I figured since I was already at the park it would be a great way to spend Christmas day. There were a few other national parks I wanted to go to while in Rwanda but they are all much harder to get to. Rwanda's tourism industry is still being established so with out your own transport many places are hard to reach and of course being on my own getting my own driver is much too expensive. Also, now that I have decided to forgo Southern Africa I have a little more time to spend in East Africa which means I can spend a little more time doing things in Rwanda and Uganda. I really, in the end, am very happy about this. Now I can take a couple of extra days at the park and add on some other trekking. Other possibilities are hiking up the volcano, hiking to some beautiful lakes, hiking to Diane Fossey's grave (of Gorillas in the Mist) where she is buried along side many of the gorillas she studied. Now I am not on a tight schedule so I can arrange a few different treks while I am in Musanze.
I feel like I am repeating myself right now. I lay in bed at night and think about all of the stories I want to tell then I get in front of the computer and go blank.
The temperature in Rwanda has been really nice. I really thought being so close to the equator that it would be really hot. I am so close to the equator that when I take the bus ride north to Uganda, which is about 7 hours, I will actually cross over the equator. The sun definitely feels stronger and I burn much more easily here, but so far other than Dar and Zanzibar, the temperature is always nice.
People in Rwanda have been great so far. Of course mostly I have been dealing with people in the service industry. But really so far everywhere they are chatty, smile a lot, joke a lot, and are always willing to help you out. Even the guys on the street selling stuff, once you say know they just back off. Well, except for the magazine guy. Yesterday I had to walk up to the actual "Hotel Rwanda". I was not going to check out the hotel, even though it has become a major tourist attraction. Lots of people were butchered there 15 years ago so I did not really want to go but one of the safari companies I wanted to price was inside the hotel. Anyway on the way up there were a few guys selling U.S. and European magazines. They are much more expensive here. One guy kept following me and begging me to buy until I entered the hotel. Then of course he was waiting for me when I left. He just kept begging me to buy it so finally I cracked. Though it looks very civilized there is still a lot of poverty here so it is hard not to want to help them out at Christmas time. So I ended up paying, like, $7 for a Time magazine I did not really want. Oh well, hopefully it helped him out a little. I guess being aggressive paid off.
There is a cool coffee shop here just up from my hotel. Truth be told, I had read about it and that is kind of why I picked that hotel. It is called Bourbon coffee and they make actual Rwandan coffee. East Africa is well known for its coffee but most of the good beans are exported so it is really hard to find the good stuff. The Bourbon did not dissapoint. It is up on a hill side and has a great veranda overlooking the city. They sell beans from different areas of the country and they also have great food and pastries. Of course this will be my hang out when I come back to Kigali.
There are still a few things I want to see around the city. There is a genocide memorial which I guess really gives a clear perspective on the tragedy.
So off to see gorillas and monkeys. I don't know what the internet will be like out there but hopefully I can find something.
Have a great Christmas!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

"Rwanda Express"

After a short 2 hour flight up and over Lake Victoria, I have safely arrived in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. It is very strange and not remotely what I expected but a nice change of pace. It is a huge switch from Tanzania which is hectic, dusty, gritty, chaotic. In contrast Rwanda is almost a bit too Stepford Wives. It is all so civil and organized. It is hard to believe that is was only 15 years ago that hacked up bodies were literlly stacked up on the streets here during the 1994 genocide. In 100 days over 1 million people were shot, machetied, hacked up, men women and children, killed by men women in children. This equals 10,000 people a day and Rwanda is a very small country. If anyone has seen the movie Hotel Rwanda I am actually in the town where that hotel is. If you have seen the movie you remember the brutality. It really does not seem possible that it occured right here. I feel like I could be in any European city.
I met a girl last night in Arusha who works at the Rwanda War Crimes Tribunal which is situated in Arusha. This is where they are still doing trials for all of the major players in the genocide. She had recently been to Rwanda and she said basically the same thing. That it was almost creepy how civilized it is now. Like they just wallpapered over what happened. It is a highly policed state. Guys with guns even walking around the mall.
What is strange to me is that a very large number of civlians were perpetrating the killings. In such chaos certainly you would never really know who was doing what. Surely many of those people still walk the streets of Kigali. It is weird to think I may be walking past people who hacked up men, women, and children. Morbid I know but you can not help but think about it when you first arrive here.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

When Life Gives You Lemons..... Go To Paris?

I did not mean to leave the last story as a cliffhanger. Honestly by the time I do all my trip research online my time is always almost out. And Zanzibar internet was pretty much impossible to find. That story seems so old now. So much happens in a day.
Obviously I made it out alright. Finally on the outskirts of town this cute Swedish couple flagged us down for a ride. I can not tell you my relief when they got in. It was one of the scariest rides of my life. Sometimes the shuttle drivers have fun by racing each other. He was going like 100 miles an hour, that is no exaggeration. Fortunately my cute Swedish couple spoke Swahili and they were yelling at him to slow down. He did a little but it was still ridiculous.
Spent the next couple of days at this amazing beach resort, but sick in my room the whole time. The first dinner was miserable. I was really sick at dinner and looking at all the cute couples and families around me in this really pretty restaurant right on the beach. It was so horrible. I just wanted to get my check and get out of there. I adamantly decided we humans are NOT meant to eat alone. It is really a sad experience and we are social beings. We are meant to have community and, at that moment, sick, I did not feel like I had any community.
The next morning I was at breakfast, alone, again, and this girl came up and said hello. Then she looked at me and was surprised to see I wasn't who she had thought. So she sat down and had breakfast with me anyway. Her name was Precilla and she was from Australia. One less meal alone. She had just come from Rwanda and Uganda and was basically doing my itinerary backwards. She was with a group but she was still a wealth of information about safety, where to go and what to do. So you will be glad to know after this, between Precilla and the cute Swedish couple, I did not eat another meal alone on Zanzibar.
I and the Elli and Daniel (my new Swahili speaking Swedish friends) were going back to Stone Town on the same day so we decided to look into a taxi, hoping it would be much safer than the shuttle and hopefully between the 3 of us not too much more expensive. We did end up taking a taxi and somehow got paired up with yet another Swedish girl, Karin. It was still fast but MUCH safer than the "shuttle". This was a great way to arrive back in Stone Town because we could go in a group to the ATM and to get ferry tickets (much safer). And we could drop our packs and take turns watching them so we did not have to carry them around.
Fortunately Karin was taking the ferry at the same time as me back to Dar. She was out of money and could not get any money from the ATM (happens all the time here). I ended up buying her ticket for her and we decided she could just pay me back in Dar. This was kind of to help her but also for selfish reasons. This instantly gave me someone to arrive back in Dar with and funnel through all the port chaos with a companion which is really much safer.
The ferry was ridiculous. People were pushing and shoving to get on and it was like being up front at a rock concert. I was concerned that maybe they regularly oversold the boat and that was why it was such a mob scene to get on so I had to join in. This is Africa and that is definitely something that would happen. I am pretty claustrophobic so it was really scary. Finally got pushed through to the other side and on to the boat. As it turned out everyone that had a ticket for the 1 o'clock got on. A lot of us had to sit on the floor and it was packed but honestly it was ridiculous. So everyone knew they were getting on but this is just what they do? Crazy.
Anyway, uneventful night in Dar then what was suppose to be 9 hour bus ride back turned into 11 hot sweaty hours back to Arusha. Back to Arusha Backpacker hotel, my safe little haven.
So, on to the lemons part. I realized pretty darn quick after getting here that there was no way I was going to be able to stay in Africa for 4 months. Definitely not mentally and no way financially. I was ok with this, I will still see and do what I really want to do. When I booked the ticket over here, not having a clue as to what to expect, 4 months just seemed like a good amount of time. So I knew for 4 months I did not want to stay exclusively in East Africa so I figured flying out of South Africa made sense. How this made sense since I had absolutely no plan whatsoever I am not sure, but it did at the time. When I booked the ticket they told me I could not change the places but I could change dates for a $250 change fee. So I just booked it thinking if worse came to worse $250 was something I could handle. So now that I know basic costs of things I did a little trip financial planning and figured I could finish up in Uganda then take a flight down to Namibia, do a tour there then end up in Cape Town for a bit then head to Johannesburg to catch my flight home. I figured I would be able to afford to stay til maybe the end of January.
Today was my day to put all the travel pieces together. First thing I had to do was get my flight date changed. I had checked the flights online last night so it seemed like no problem. Well apparently flights have skyrocketed and besides the $250 change fee I would also have to pay the difference in the price of the flight. This came to a grand total of $1800!!! What!!!! Panic!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
If I have to pay $1800, plus I still have to pay for a flight to South Africa (which is not cheap) I would basically have to go home, like, RIGHT NOW! I really did not know what to do. I went and got lunch cause I needed to think. There was no way I could afford to go on with my trip and pay the change fee. There is also no way I can afford to (or handle)staying in Africa til April. I was very panicky and felt trapped here.
Well, they say travel of this sort is all about being flexible. So I had to face reality and start looking at my options. Basically for $1800 I could buy a whole new ticket home from just about anywhere in Africa and by pass having to pay the fee to fly to South Africa. So I got online and started looking at my options. So after 2 hours of researching tickets there was no way I was going to get home anytime soon for under $1200. I researched every option - separate tickets, one to Europe then another home, everything except hopping a ride on a cargo ship. So I found a reasonable ticket from Uganda to - guess where -PARIS!!! Then another reasonable ticket from Paris to San Diego. Soooo, since I was already going to Paris and it was two separate tickets, why not stay for a few day. I have always dreamed of flying to Paris for the weekend - and now I am. So I fly from Uganda to Paris on January 15 then from Paris to San Diego on the 20th. I am extremely disappointed about having to cut my trip this short but really by biggest disappointment is not going to Namibia. I had already decided on the tour I was going to take. I have seen pictures of the enormous sand dunes there and had dreamed of seeing them. But southern Africa will have to wait.
Crazy change of events but that is unplanned travel.
I guess the moral of the story is - never let Amanda be your travel agent.
Its all crazy and weird but I don't regret anything. Paris in January will be freezing but I will have the time I did not have before to really check out the city.
So I had another "Not alone" breakfast this morning with two guys from the hostel and we are suppose meet for dinner tonight. I have decided I am going to make a big effort to not eat alone the rest of the time I am in Africa. It would be a good challenge for me to have to approach people a little more but well worth the effort I think.
I miss home already, where ever that is.
I fly to Rwanda tomorrow and have a permit for gorilla tracking on the 27th. Everyone who has done it says it was one of the most amazing things they have ever done.
Can't wait but NOT excited about flying "Rwanda Air" :(

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Zanzibar Blues

First I will start by saying I did figure out how to call or text my phone from the States. If you dial 011 255 684 059173 that should put you through to me. Not that I think my phone will now be ringing off the hook but if you feel like calling at Christmas that is always much appreciated. My cheapest rates are when I am still here in Tanzania but that is only for a few more days. I leave for Rwanda and gorilla tracking on the 23rd then on to Uganda for a week or so. My phone does work in these places but I guess is significantly more expensive for me to use.
Anywho, I have escaped from the island of Zanzibar. Am in Dar Es salaam (or just Dar to us traveler types) for the night then back to Arusha tomorrow. I could not wait to get out of Arusha and never dreamed I would be looking forward to going back but I guess that feels like my home base now. I know the lay of the land there and feel somewhat comfortable. Also, I have to fly to Rwanda and it was by far the cheapest place to fly from. So, 9 hour bus ride back tomorrow. Yippie.
So I have not been sick in years. I just plain don't get sick. So what happens the second I land on the exotic island - I come down with a fierce head cold. Not sure if it was the heat or what but I felt horrible.
Stepped off the ferry a few days ago in Stone Town, the main port of Zanzibar. Zanzibar has been a main port of the Indian Ocean for like a thousand years and Stone Town has the feel of the old medinas you find in old Arab cities like in Morocco. The whole island is very Muslim and they consider themselved to be a bit seperate from Tanzania (I had to go through customs) although they are still part of the country.
My first night was spent on Stone Town. All the power has been out on the island for over a week and it is thought it will be out for another few weeks. Apparently they don't get to things like, say, electricity too quickly here. Stone Town was SWELTERING so I decided to head out the beautiful beach town of Kendwa up to the north of the island.
People are always out to scam you on this island so you really have to watch yourself. I am staying at very low end places (along with all the other backpackers) so you really don't ever feel like you can trust anyone (not meaning the backpackers). So I arranged to take a shuttle out to Kendwa with the hotel I was going to but you make these arrangements and you never really know how things are going to go. So some guy (big and scary) shows up for me in the morning and says he is my shuttle yet he had no idea where I was going (I had arranged it with the place I was GOING to). All these guys know your business all the time so any freakshow could have heard at the front desk what my plans were and just decided he was my shuttle. So we had to walk down all these alley ways to get to the van. We get there and there are 5 guys hanging around the van. I am quizzing the guy the whole way as to why if he was sent for me does he not know where to take me. Then he wants the money up front. I am not feeling to good about this but I get in the van anyway, keeping an eye on all closest door handles to jump if I need to. We drive all around town without picking up a single other person.
TO BE CONTINUED (internet time out again)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Hotter Than the Sun

I have about 3 minutes on the internet. So I will just say after a 9 hour bus ride, a night in the hottest hotel on the planet, and a little over an hour boat ride, I have made it to the island of Zanzibar. This is still really my first couple of days out really on my own and I have to say what an amazing feeling it is. For the first time in my life I feel like a traveler. It is very scary finding my way through bus stations to hotels and ferry docks. People are all over you from the second the bus stops. But I feel that I am getting into the Africa travel groove and I pretty much meet people everywhere. It is a great feeling to be able to go it on my own. Makes me feel like if I can do this I can do anything.
So the power is out on all of zanibar. This is like saying the power is out on one of the Hawaiian islands. That is how big it is. Everything is running off generator and they are having a major heat wave. I got to my hotel this morning and I was just sitting on the bed and sweat was dripping off me. I can honestly say I have never experienced this kind of heat. Down by the water there is a nice breeze so you have to stay outside. Tomorrow I head to a beach hotel for a few days.
She is kicking me off the computer so over and out.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

O! - M! - G!

UH! So, I don't really know where to begin. It is always kind of a rush here on the computers for one reason or another and I swear it just takes so long sometimes to put the words together. Every time I do a post I log off only to think of about 10 other things I should have said. But - here goes.

I just came back from 4 really amazing days of safari. I think on my last post I told you about how everything just kind of came together for me to book my safari. I was a little reluctant but I just decided on a whim to book it instead of spending days going from tour company to tour company looking for a trip. As a solo traveler it is exponentially harder to book things like safari tours. Many companies shy away from grouping people together that don't know each other and also people are on different travel schedules and want to go to different places. Also to do a tour on my own would be incredibly expensive. So I just went ahead booked the first tour that came my way and I am telling you now, there is no way possible that I could have ended up on a better tour.

First great thing, the thing that can make or break a safari. I got paired up with 4 of the best travel companions I could imagine. I could not have imagined before hand what great people they would be. There were 5 of us on tour plus our guide/driver our cook and a whole lotta stuff, all crammed into one medium size Land Rover. Travel companions - Bev, a 25ish girl from England, Thymon(?) from Holland, and Lase and Cecilie, really cute couple from Denmark. They were my first travel friends so it was hard to see them all leave today. They were all pretty much at the end of their travels so they were a wealth of information to get me on my way with my travels. We had a lot of fun together, lot of great conversation, lots of joking around, we really never ran out of things to talk and laugh about. And we really just all seemed to be similar types of travelers. We are all backpackers, they have all traveled a lot and were very interesting people.

We did pretty much one of the typical circuit tours of northern Tanzania. The first morning we, the three singles, met Lase and Cecilie at out campsite just outside of Myanara National Park. Had a great breakfast then headed into the park. This was my first safari experience so everything was exciting. We saw baboons, giraffes, zebras, warthogs (with 3 cute little babies), an enormous lake filled with flamingos. The tour company sends along box lunches for us. We stopped at a little picnic spot not too far from the Lake Myanara, the huge lake filled with flamingos. There was a huge sandy beach like area leading up to the lake. As we were having lunch a whole family of giraffes slowly made there way across the beach in front of us. They move so slowly and gracefully it just makes it seem all that much more surreal.

Then the next day, the day I have been waiting for years, we drove to Serengeti National Park. The day before Paul, our cook, had not been with us. But this day, because we were moving to a new campsite, we had to take him plus ALL of our stuff - tents, sleeping gear, cooking gear, food, everything. They load most of it on top of the land rover but we were still completely crammed into the truck. If you could see how they drive here plus what the mountainous roads look like you would get how claustrophobic it was to be on top of each other for the 6 hour drive to Serengeti. We were totally dreading it but we really ended up having lots of fun. We drove up and over green lush mountains. This area is home to the Massai tribe. They are the nomadic herding tribe of this area. It is really crazy to see them all along the road herding their goats or cattle. They wear very colorful clothes wrapped around themselves but they wear 4 or 5 at a time wrapped in various ways and it is really hard to tell how they keep them on. The women have tons of large earrings running all down the sides of their ear lobes. We saw some boys who I guess were going through their circumcision. At about maybe 12 they are circumcised then they have to go off on their own and take care of themselves for some really long period of time. During that time their faces are painted like black and white masks and they are really kind of creepy looking.

So then you come down out of the mountains and there you are in the Serengeti plains. A totally different landscape. It is so flat the horizon seems go on forever. We had all of our things and our camp is in the middle of the park so even after we arrived we still had lots of driving just to get to where we would set up. We set up in a group camp where there were maybe 3 or 4 other groups set up. So this is the real deal. We are in lion country and we are camping. The cooking structure and the place where we ate were made of cement with really strong wire caging to keep the animals out. But the tents, it was just us surrounded by a little canvas. Bev and I shared a tent and we were pretty much terrified. But I have to admit it was pretty exciting. Once we dropped our stuff we still had time for an evening game drive. Once again the luck was with us. We saw a group of lions very close to the road just lounging around. We stopped to watch them. We had the windows rolled down and all of the roof open. One of the cubs (she was a BIG cub, maybe almost a year old) is bored and gets very curious about us and starts walking up to the truck. We were freaking out but the driver did not move. She came right up to the truck and started clawing at the spare tire and biting at it. At this point I was hovered down in the truck and, from what my team mates said, saying a few obscenities. Of course the guys just thought it was cool and they were snapping away taking pictures. I was positive she was going to jump on the top which we had totally open at the time. Our thought she was just walking behind us, he had not realized she was tearing apart the cover to the spare tire. I can not imagine I will ever again be that close to a lion. Later we saw a beautiful leopard lounging in a tree while her cub was running all around the branches playing. And there was so much more - elephants (whole families), zebras, giraffes, tons of wildebeest, I really can't even remember it all. And then back to camp for our night of the real deal. We really weren't even suppose to get out of our tents at night because the hyenas and sometimes lions walk through at night. WHAT!!!! It was weird because after being so up close and personal with the lion earlier I really wasn't that scared anymore. They just seemed more playful and docile than anything else. I am sure if they are hungry that is a different story. OH, I forgot we had also seen two lions stalking a group of zebras and hyenas. The lions started to run at the pack but that all ended abruptly when a group of stupid tourists came flying up in the their land rover ridiculously close to the lions just so they could get a better picture. I guess there are idiots everywhere.
OK this is just the beginning cliff notes on my last few days but it is not a good idea to be out here at night in Arusha so I should be heading back to the hostel.
I am headed to the island of Zanzibar tomorrow. All my travel companions have gone but hopefully more to come.
I am still trying to work out how to call from the states to my cell phone so as soon as I work it out I will post the info.
I know this all sounds wonderful but I have still been living a very sheltered life since I have been here. Today was the beginning of my solo travels here in Africa and I assure you it is not to be taken lightly. You always have to on your guard here and it is always just a little scary. Even my safari team, a group of well experienced travelers, say Africa it a tough place to travel. But I will take it day by day and step by step.
Next post from Zanzibar.
Over and out.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

I'm not in Kansas anymore OR Texting in Tanzania

What a crazy morning. This was one of travel mornings where some how magic is worked and the universal powers conspire together to propel you forward.
Today was my big travel day in to Arusha. The big town I was dreading coming into because of all the bad reports I had gotten. The taxi ride into Arusha from where I was staying is about 45 minutes and costs about $60. That is a lot of money on a backpacker budget. There were very few people staying at the hotel but I was really to see a single traveler at dinner last night and maybe ask them if they wanted to share a taxi into town. However, I slept through dinner. My body clock is all off so I have been sleeping and waking at random hours.
I woke up this morning at around 5am this morning. I was kicking myself for not going to dinner. Besides the expensive taxi ride I just felt a lot better about arriving in town with someone.
So after I woke up I did my morning meditation. Afterwords I just kept trying to visualize finding someone to share that taxi with. I asked at the front desk but she didn't know of anyone. So I went into breakfast feeling kind of sorry for myself and very anxious to just get into town and get it over with. It was 6:30 am so of course I was the only one there. Then in walks this girl by herself. I smiled and said good morning. We made small talk. She said she was there for 5 weeks to volunteer at her cousins orphanage some 3 hours away. I have been exchanging emails with a woman named India, she is a friend of one of the guys who comes on the boat. She runs an orphanage here in Tanzania. I thought about asking the girl if her cousins name was India but then I thought how stupid, what are the chances. So she mentions the cousin again so I asked her if her name was India. She looks at me like I'm crazy and says "Yes it is". GET OUT! I can assure you there is MORE than one orphanage in Tanzania.
So my new friends name is Bridget. We ended up having breakfast together. Turns out her cousin is sending a driver for her and they just happen to be going through Arusha so she offers me a ride. Bridget is 42, single, and a bit of a traveler like myself. We had a lot in common and we totally hit it off. She has been here before so I was running some logistical questions by her like best ways to make phone calls, etc. She tells me the best thing to do is get a prepaid cell phone. And, oh, by the way, she just happens to have a bunch (8 to be exact) of old cell phones with her that she brought for the kids to play with. Tells me I can have one I just have to get the SIM card changed out. OH and she just happens to already be going to the phone store in Arusha. Is this really happening. My life just got a million times easier in a matter of 10 minutes.
So I really feel like today was my first day in Africa. I have been sequestered in that compound of a hotel way out in nowheresville for the last two days. Her ride, Moody, finally gets there and we head into Arusha. It was just like you would picture it. Little boys driving wooden donkey carts, women carrying baskets of stuff on there head, weaving in and out of traffic with about a dozen near misses. Yes, I was definitely in Africa.
On the drive in Moody asks me if I am looking to go on Safari. Looking at tour companies to go on safari just happens to be like the second thing on my list when I get to town. "Why yes I am". Well of course he just happens to "know a guy". I have traveled enough to know all about the "know a guy" thing. I am skeptical but I tell him I will meet his friend anyway.
Once we get to town I had personal escorts to get me to the bank, the phone store, and the tour company. I meet with his friend Mike. It seems to be what I am looking for and the price is right. But it leaves tomorrow and I am skeptical because it just fell into my lap. Arusha is very well known for tour scams so I figured I should check him out before I book. Did some research on them and turns out they are legit sooo off I go tomorrow for my 4 day camping safari to the Serengeti. Yes I am camping in a tent and yes there are lions and cheetahs in the vicinity. I can't wait.
AND I am now the proud owner of a brand new Tanzanian cell phone. I decided it was easier just to buy a brand new one. Bridget and I have already text each other several times today and I have received at least two phone calls. I am in Tanzania and I have my own cell phone! That just cracks me up. I am really glad I got it. Anyplace else it is like $2 a minute to call the States but on my cell phone it is less than 50cents. That is a bargain for a lonely traveler like myself. Just being able to text Bridget today made me feel better. OH YES, and I can RECEIVE calls and texts for FREE. So my number is +255 684 059173. I think that is exactly how you dial it, plus sign and all. So if you decide to call, remember I am 11 hours later than California time and 8 hours later than Michigan time.
OH and by the way, this all happened before noon today!!!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Alive in Africa!

So this is my second day in Africa. I arrived late Monday night to Kilimanjaro International Airport in northern Tanzania. All my flights could not have gone better, except just insanely long travel time. 4 hours to Detroit, 7 hours to Amsterdam, then another 8 hours to Tanzania. Words can not describe how terrified I was to make this trip by myself. For the last two weeks before I left I had brief moments of being excited, but most of the time I just felt this impending sense of doom. Not like I really felt that something bad would happen to me, I guess I just knew that there were aspects of this that were going to be REALLY hard and I was just really afraid of the unknown. And it probably did not help matters when I received an email from a couple who travel over here every year, just days before I was suppose to leave, saying they were nervous for me traveling over here by myself. I pretty much had a melt down. But I got on the plane anyway. As the flight went on I felt less and less scared, probably because I was just more and more tired. When I arrived in Amsterdam for my final flight to Tanzania I had to walk way down to the very end of the terminal to find my flight. I had this picture in my head that I was going to be the only white face down there. Silly I know, but I was really afraid of standing out. I got down there to see that the crowd looked pretty much like any other international flight, just a mixed bag. There were plenty of folks who looked just like me. People coming to do a safari or climb Kilimanjaro. I stood in line with a girl from Alaska. Her brother lives in Arusha and she was coming to meet him. The flight was pretty uneventful. When we started to land I got pretty choked up. I was finally here, this place I have dreamed about for so long. The airport was just like other small time developing country airports I have been in. No fancy terminal, just walk out of the plane, down the stairs and on to the tarmac. It was night time but I could see the sign "Kilimanjaro International Airport". Now I was really choked up.
I had prebooked a hotel, the only hotel close to the airport. The guy was there to pick me up as promised. I shared the van with a nice Dutch couple. She actually runs an orphanage and a lodge someplace north of here. They gave me their contact information in case I make it up that way.
The hotel is really beautiful (and expensive). But the price of knowing I had a ride from the airport, in this situation, was - priceless. The hotel consists of about 40 individual thatched roof bungalows. The hotel grounds are very lush and tropical with those bushes with the tiny pink flowers (can't remember the name) everywhere. Everything seems more vibrant here. The colors of the flowers seem brighter, the variety and color of the birds, even the green of the plants. And the birds are definitely more vocal in the morning. There is a little hill top pool area. If you go up there you can see the surrounding countryside. The hotel is about 40 minutes from the closest town so it feels pretty remote. Right now I am sitting in a little building with a thatched roof. It is actually the gift shop with one lonely computer off in the corner. A major thunder storm just started. The windows are open. The wind is whipping up and the rain is pouring down. It is actually really beautiful.
I have been here not even 48 hours and I have been pretty much an emotional roller coaster. There are not many guests here. Today I was the only one at lunch. I have some pretty lonely moments. Tomorrow I leave to go into Arusha. Arusha is about 45 minutes from here and it is the town where all of the climbing and safari guide services are. I am nervous. People have warned me not to take the bus or walk alone at night. People get pick pocketed and occasionally purses get snatched. I am scared. But I made the first step and I got on the plane. Now I guess this is just the next step. My plan is to go there to find maybe a 5 day safari up and around the Serengeti National Park and maybe stop at some other National Parks along the way. I have heard it is MUCH cheaper (like thousands of dollars) to just go there and book it yourself. I have read up on reviews of a lot of the tour companies so on that end I feel pretty well prepared. I will just pick out a hotel and have a taxi take me straight there so I don't have to do a lot of walking around with my backpack. I am scared but it is just too desolate around here and I need to start meeting people.
The thunder storm is passing now. I will try to post some pictures if I can figure out how.
All for now. Amanda

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Up All Night

Here we go. I am officially - a blogger. I wish I would have started this blog weeks ago but nothing like waiting til the last minute.
I am due to leave tomorrow (now make that today) for Africa. I was determined that this time (unlike every other major adventure I have undertaken) I was NOT going to be up all night tending to last minute details the night before I leave. But here we are at approximately 12:11 at night and - I am still up getting things done.
The good news - everything I am taking miraculously fits in my backpack (it's like I am Houdini)
The bad news - I cried a lot of the evening cause I'm so scared/stressed/tired
Well, still have things to cross off the TO DO list.