Here is a little video as a follow-up to our blog post about our chimp and gorilla treks. Click on the image below to play the video:
After a trip to the Serengeti, you would think we would be a bit sick of seeing animals, but our trip to Uganda was based around seeing some animals. However, these are a very unique set of animals that can only be found in a couple regions of the world: the endangered Mountain Gorillas and Chimpanzees.
Mountain Gorillas – Bwindi Impenetrable Forrest
There are currently less than 900 mountain gorillas in the world and they can only be found in Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo. They do not survive in captivity, so it is not even possible to see a mountain gorilla in a zoo. The parks take the conservation of the gorillas very seriously and the permit to go into the park is ridiculously expensive (but at least is supposedly used to fund the protection and conservation of the gorillas). Once you find the gorillas, you are only allowed approximately one hour to observe them and take pictures before you have to leave, so as not to disrupt them too much.
Chimpanzees – Kibale National Park
This was supposed to be the appetizer of the trip because the chimpanzees are not as rare as the mountain gorillas and often are skittish and hide way up in the trees, but actually this ended up being an even better experience than seeing the gorillas. We had heard from past stories that it can take several hours and hiking for many miles to see the chimps, and even then you might only get to see 1 or 2 chimps from a distance, but we really lucked out on our trek. As soon as we entered the jungle, the chimps could be heard hollering loudly. The sounds the chimps make was really quite overwhelming... and slightly intimidating. As we approached the raucous group, we found a few that were hanging out on the ground and let us get within a few feet of them. Then the leader of the group arrived with a few of his friends and the place went nuts. There were over 40 chimps around us, screaming their heads off, running back and forth past us, climbing up and down trees and swinging from branch to branch. You really felt like you were a part of their community with all the noise and commotion going on around you. One of the guides that is with us has a heavy duty machine gun, as the chimps are much stronger than us (5-6 times stronger), so they make sure things don't get too out of hand.
Here are some pictures of the chimps...click to enlarge:
Although both experiences were really enjoyable, being able to get so close to the large group of active chimps really made it stand out. The pictures here obviously don't express what the noise was like, but I am working on a video compilation that should be ready in the near future, so check back!
My enduring image of Uganda, the pearl of Africa, is rolling green hills and banana farms. After learning to love the scrubby bush and maize fields that dominate Zambia and Tanzania, I found these green hills of abundant bananas and plantains and the rivers and lakes in Uganda shocking. It seemed that they must be growing plenty of food in great quantity and variety. However, my observations were not the whole story, as we witnessed first hand that hunger and food security are still huge obstacles faced by Ugandans everyday.
Our last day in Uganda we stood at the source of one of the world's most iconic rivers: the Nile. Outside the town of Jinja, at the juncture with Lake Victoria, the Nile is surrounded by Uganda's history in the form of huge rundown former colonial homes and even the former vacation home of Idi Amin. As with most tourist attractions in Africa we saw, there was much more thought to selling the trinkets than to marking the significance of the site. Slightly down river, a shrine to Ghandi stands, because part of his remains were scattered here at the beginning of the Nile. Just one of many things that surprised me about Uganda. We tried to balance tourism and experiencing local life here and found both to be even more rewarding than our expectations allowed.
Yes, they actually use that phrase in Tanzania, and apparently not just for tourists. I was constantly repeating it in my head when I arrived at the tiny "airport" in Arusha for our flight to the Serengeti. It was my first time on a small plane. I am a bit of a nervous flyer, so the 12-seater, single-engine propeller plane without a co-pilot made me uneasy. I felt even worse when the pilot began shooting pics outside the window with his iPad before we left. Then, right before we took off, he failed to mention our stop as part of the flight's itinerary! Risking a big eye roll from my significant other, I raised my hand and asked the pilot about the oversight. After some conversations with the ground crew and a double check of his schedule, he realized he was looking at the wrong date. Despite the precarious start, we made it to the Serengeti. These are the risks we take to see animals in one of the most famous parks in the world.
Fortunately, we arrived without a hitch and our stay in the Serengeti was quite a memorable event. We expected this experience would be different from the game reserve in South Africa. but we weren't sure how. In addition to seeing different animals that we had not seen at all during our first safari (e.g. leopards, zebras, elephants, hyenas, buffalo, alligators, hippos out of the water, etc.), the wildlife was just much more abundant here (we saw herds of 50 elephant, hundreds of buffalo and thousands of zebra). The wide-open plain of the Serengeti landscape was also vastly different from the thick brush in South Africa. This was both an advantage and disadvantage. As an advantage, we were able to spot much more wildlife and a lot quicker in the Serengeti due to the wide-open spaces, but sometimes it was nice in South Africa to be rewarded with a view of lions after a 3 hour, boring trek to find them instead of just stumbling upon a pride.
Highlights of our trip would include having giraffes stumble onto our campsite, rolling up to 5 ton elephants mating and then having others in the heard give us nasty looks and noises while they passed within feet of the car, a lion mother playing daycare leader for 11 cubs, giraffes fighting by lazily throwing their giant necks at each other and getting to check out a pair of cheetahs with some fresh kill. The variety of animals, density of the wildlife and giant herds I think truly sets the Serengeti apart from anywhere else in the world. Definitely an unforgettable experience.
And for the best part, some pictures! Let us know which is your favorite animal...we love receiving comments on our blog! (BTW, mine is probably the Zebra. I was amazed at how distinct and impressive they look in person).
Click here or on the picture below to see our full album!
It would be easy to make a post about how idyllically beautiful Zanzibar is: the smooth, white sand beaches, the clear turquoise water, the coconut trees everywhere. However, the culture and history of the place make it fascinating to explore and led us to experiences beyond the usual island paradise.
After a few days in Stone Town (and some of our best meals of the trip), we headed to Jambiani, a beach on the southeastern coast of the island. It was amazingly beautiful, even on the days when it was overcast or cloudy. One of the most interesting things about this place, again, is how different cultures have influenced the place. There is the typical beach-rasta vibe with obligatory reggae music and Bob Marley flags. However, it's a bit strange to be on a beach in a swimsuit, when all the local women have their heads covered. Is it disrespectful? Or is it okay because they have become used to the weird habits of "Muzungus" and furthermore, make much of their living off these crazies?
The "friendly beach hustle" seems to be the way most people make money. There is a wide and deep network of people affected by our decisions to go snorkeling, take a taxi, or rent bikes. Take snorkeling: one guy recruits you on the beach, then he goes and rents your mask and flippers from another guy in some random village house, then he hires another huy to take you out on his boat and pays yet another one to climb a tree to get you a coconut at the end. Seemingly, every transaction, we made involved 15 different people. It's fascinating to try and figure out what is going on behind the scenes, One guy, self-named Mr. Jambiani (which is the name of the beach), became our buddy. He made us cool island hats and we enjoyed hanging out with a local who was in it for friendship, even if he did make a few bucks off of us.
See below for some more pictures from Zanzibar.
For captions, hover over a picture for captions or click to
open a gallery with bigger pictures:
Inevitably while traveling for a year, one needs to take care of some basics: I desperately needed a haircut. The hot humid weather of Dar Es Salaam coupled with not having had a haircut in 4-6 months brought things to a head (no pun intended). I'm not very picky about my hair but I assumed it would it be tricky to find a hair salon in Dar. Although there are countless salons, I really have no idea if a typical Tanzanian hairdresser has experience cutting frizzy, white girl hair. I only had a proper haircut in Africa once before, at a posh salon catering to ex-pats and wealthy Zambians, where the blow dry cost twice as much as the cut itself. I wanted to get away from that experience and also that price point.
I asked a pharmacist who appeared to be Indian, if she had a recommendation for a hair cuttery. Tanzania, as much of Africa, has a large population of people of Indian descent. Often, they own businesses and shops. Particularly in Tanzania you can see a lot of Indian influence in the culture, the cuisine, the religion and the styles of dress. The pharmacist gave me directions to a place a few blocks away. We found it easily, although it was odd that the all the windows were tinted so you couldn't see in. As we walked in, the owner frantically shouted “Oh there are no men allowed inside.” Oops. Strike one—cultural faux pax. We apologized and Jed left to find an internet cafe.
I returned and she took me back for a hair wash. I felt like I was in a secret ladies society behind the tinted windows. Not surprisingly, most women in the shop were Indian, except the two ladies washing hair. When the boisterous owner sat me down in her chair, and asked me what I wanted I said, "just a trim." She wrinkled up her face and said “You definitely need a change. You need to make your cheekbones more noticeable.” From her tone, I knew I would not leave that chair with the haircut I envisioned. The lady took out a haircut magazine that looked like it was from 1994. She thumbed through it for a long time and finally showed me a picture of a terrible haircut (think the original Jennifer Aniston) that I would never be able to style as we backpack through Africa and beyond. I tried to emphasize I wanted it long and easy and able to pull back. So she went to work. The first snip was already more off than I wanted.
We chatted as she snipped away. She assured me I would be very happy with the cut. 15 minutes later she was done; It was certainly the fastest haircut I'd ever had. It was pretty close to the '94 Aniston I was dreading. However, the damage was done and I faked my enthusiasm. The elderly granny getting a pedicure assured me it looked MUCH better. I paid only 10,000 TZ shillings, or $6. Hair grows back, so I'll chalk it up to a cultural experience. I will say its already growing on me a bit, so maybe my new hairdresser knew what I needed more than I expected. And for only $6 and 15 minutes of my time, I guess I can't complain too much...
After our 30 hour train ride from Cape Town to Johannesburg went relatively smoothly, Caitlin didn't have much trouble trying to convince me to try another long African train ride, this time an alleged 40 hour ride from Zambia to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. We took a bus from Lusaka, Zambia to the train station that was supposed to arrive at the train statino 3 hours before the train left, to ensure that we didn't have any troubles getting on the train (we still hadn't purchased our tickets). After a 30 minute pre-departure sermon, broken tail-light (which caused everyone to have to switch buses), a car randomly pulling the bus over and one of the passengers having a seizure on the bus, we pulled into the train station at 3:58pm for the 4pm train. As literally nothing has ever left on time in Africa, and we had read stories of the train leaving up to 19 hours late, we weren't that panicked. However, people were yelling at us to get moving, but we assumed they were just randoms trying to hassle us, so we took our time. But not later than 30 seconds after we got on the train, it was moving (we still hadn't even had time to buy our tickets yet!) As the train only leaves twice a week, we were 30 seconds away from a long, uncomfortable stay in the middle of nowhere.
Compared to the South African train, this train definitely was in rough shape: there were holes in the floor, most of the cars did not have running water and the electricity could only produce a flicker of a light in our rooms. The train was also very, very bumpy. All through the night, I would be awoken by extremely violent shaking, screeching and large jolts which caused me to panic that we had just falling off a cliff. Not surprisingly, the train arrived late...the whole journey ended up being over 52 hours. Despite the long, arduous ride, it was actually a pretty enjoyable experience. The scenery was beautiful (lovely mountains, villages and the train even went through a game park). The food was surprisingly good; I ate the $2 roasted chicken for all 3 dinners! We also made a couple of American friends on the train. Sipping down some beers with some friends helps make 52 hours feel like 48.
Here's a brief look at how our nights went on the train (our first "Vlog", i.e. video blog)!
To say the road was bumpy would be the understatement of the year. Setting off the dirt “road” to the rural Zambian village where Caitlin had spent two years during Peace Corps was a nausea inducing experience. We were thrown from side to side as the taxi driver drove over giant bumps, up inclines, and steered around 3 foot ditches in the middle of the road. It felt like the world's worst roller coaster. Our driver even blew a tire (which I presume is a usual).
With no electricity, the days can be a bit slow for a western visitor, and I found myself spending about 5 hours of my time cracking one of the many thousands of peanuts the villagers gave us as gifts. From what I could make out due to my limited dialect, the villagers were very friendly and welcoming. Per local custom, every single person must have a formal greeting exchange with everyone else they pass by that day. So if there were 3 of us and we were meeting a family of 10, we had to have a full formal greeting exchange with every single one of them. Most of the children have never left the village and most of the adults have never gone further than the extremely small “town” (i.e. a few shanty shops) 23 miles away. The kids are all very obedient and seemingly love to help any adult with their chores. There is an interesting mix of conservative village values, such as no pre-maritial touching of any sort and no mentioning of the bathroom, with seemingly liberal attitudes, such as many women openly breast feeding in front of me.
Overall, I felt truly lucky to be getting this unique, non-touristy experience of seeing how real rural African's live their lives. Here are some photos of the village and the locals. Despite their sometimes lack of smiles, they really enjoyed having their pictures taken (they so rarely have photos taken, they are not used to smiling)
Zambia for me felt familiar, like going back to your college town. I was excited to eat nshima, the staple food, test my memory of the local language and see the beautiful landscapes and my friends in the village. I was excited for Jed to see how amazing the people of Zambia are and how they are warm and generous despite the inherent adversity of village life. However, I was admittedly nervous to return, for many reasons. Maybe my friends in the village had moved or passed on. maybe the school I had worked with was no longer in use, leaving an education dearth where there is a great need. Maybe no one would remember me or care that I came back.
To my surprise, I found little improvements in my former community and of course, they were happy to see me and welcomed me as if I had never left. While the government schools I worked with were still having the same inanely long meetings about the same topics they can't seem to resolve, the community school in my village that I worked with most, had recently been upgraded to a government primary school. This makes a huge difference: now the school will be assigned a trained, salaried teacher, where previously the teachers were volunteers from the village. The upgrade also means new school buildings to replace the mud/thatch structures where the kids had previously been learning. They will receive textbooks and supplies instead of hand-me-downs.
I was happy that a few ambitious villagers have had some new opportunities. One friend of mine is enrolled in a teachers course and we found him at the roadside doing research for his assignments on the internet on his non-smart phone! I would not have thought anyone in my village knew what the internet was, although he may be the only one. Another of my good friends got a job as a field officer supervising Early Childhood Development programs in the area, resulting in a preschool in the village. All these things gave me hope for the kids I came to love.
Unfortunately, some things change and some things stay the same. A few drunk men still accosted us, wreaking and slurring. Some girls in grade 6 or 7 when I was there now are married with a couple kids. People who are sick still have to walk 5k to get to a clinic. However, as we say in the village, "pan'gono pan'gono," or little by little. Hopefully, I'll return in another 5 years and find peoples' lives improved in new ways and maybe I'll be able to contribute in some way.
Besides a visit to Morocco last year, this is my first time in Africa. Although South Africa, where we just came from, definitely has a lot of elements of “Africa”, it is also pretty cosmopolitan and built-up, so I was excited to get to Zambia to see what I imagined is a more “typical” African country.
Trying to get off the bus in Lusaka, I could barely move as 15+ taxi drivers climbed over each other to try to get on the bus and grab us as customers. Lusaka is the “big city” in Zambia, but except for a few malls, it very much looks like a developing nation. The streets are filled with make-shift wooden stands where street vendors sell the locals all sorts of everyday goods (these are not tourist shops in any sense). The food shops have flies buzzing around all the food, but the food is surprisingly tasty (and very cheap). The majority of the vehicles have cracked windshields from the rocks kicked up on the dirt roads.
Besides visits to the capital Lusaka, the towns of Chipata and Petauke and to Caitlin's village (blog posts on the village to come later), we also made a stop to one of the biggest waterfalls in the world: Victoria Falls. I have been to Niagara and Iguazu falls in Brazil, so I was curious to see how this compared. I was not disappointed. The falls are beautiful and were gushing water. The mist sometimes obstructed the view (as often is the problem with giant falls), but it was still fun as the mist turned into rain pouring down on us as we crossed bridges by the falls. As a side spectacle, there were baboons everywhere. Dozens would walk down the stairs and expect you to move out of the way (which we more than willingly obliged). Although the babies going for rides on their moms' backs or sliding down railings was cute, the 150lb dads who looked menacingly at us were quite intimidating.
Overall, Zambia was a great chance to interact with friendly locals, experience African culture and sample some local fare (see our food picture gallery).
P.S. If you are interested in the local trends, this song is all over Zambia right now:
By Caitlin and Jed
Our first attempt to take the train in South Africa failed miserably. the various websites instructed that you could only make bookings online, no less than 3 days before departure. As we were approaching the day of departure, we repeatedly emailed and called both companies, to no avail. When we turned to our Safari guide Jessie for advice, he laughed saying "this is South Africa, man. nothing happens online." (In the distinctive Afrikaans accent that I find impossible to mimic). Not wanting to risk the debacle of showing up at the station and having the tickets sold out and nowhere to stay, we gave up and instead flew to Cape Town from Johannesburg, for twice the price.
Determined to take the train at some point though, we went to the train station on our first day in Cape Town. Naturally, the office for ticket sales had closed at 11am that day. The next morning, however, we finally secured our tickets back to Joburg! Only then did I read that the train had been out of bedding for the last few months, due to a strike of the train-bedding-providers (who knew they had a separate train-bedding provider union?!). Writing this from the cozy blankets of the train, 3 hours into the supposed 26 hour journey, I can say we are very happy that they are no longer on strike and I hope they got everything they were bargaining for. (The train has no heat and is pretty cold). We are cozy, though, entertained by mountains and vineyards out the window. It's definitely better than the Zambia to Tanzania train we will take in a few weeks, which will be almost twice as long and much less comfortable.
After many times where we stopped and Jed nervously asked "are we broken down" and I let him know this was just standard African train procedure, the train finally did break down. We were told that they were going to have to get us to Johannesburg on buses, but that we were in too remote of a place to get the buses to us, so they weren't sure what to do. We were told it would be about a 3-4 hour delay, which normally wouldn't be so bad on a 26 hour ride, but we were pretty close to our destination and after 20+ hours we were a little restless. Fortunately, they miraculously ended up fixing the train instead and we arrived only about 4 hours late in total. Surprisingly, it was overall a pretty pleasant journey and a nice change of pace from the bumpy airlines.
Our previous blog post discussed all the wonderful things about Cape Town, of which there are many. We also wanted to try and see the other side of South Africa though, so we decided to do a tour of some of the townships around Cape Town (e.g. the slums). It was a bit of a weird scenario as you really want to be able to experience the townships with as little intrusion as possible...you feel weird looking like a bunch of voyeurs riding around in a van full of tourists taking pictures. We ultimately found a happy medium, signing up for a personal tour with a resident of one of the townships.
Our tour began with an inside look at the “apartments” of one of the townships. In a single room about the size of a college dorm room live 3 entire families. It has only 3 beds, meaning either the entire family shares a bed or all the kids sleep in the one kitchen that is shared by 18 families. As you can see in the picture, the conditions are pretty rough...the air felt very stale and was hard to breathe even for the few minutes we were in there. The families have very little possessions, because of the lack of space and fear of theft (and of course cost of goods). Each family had about a small suitcase worth of belongings (e.g. the family on the left only have whats on the bed and that suitcase on the shelf). Our township tour leader, Laura, told us that in the worst apartments in the township, each single room is shared by 8 families. As elections or big events come, such as the World Cup, the government tries to make things look better and build a few new apartments to move people out of the ones falling apart, but it is always a short, small scale project and the new ones aren't even that much better.
Next we explored the shanty town portion of the township, which is full of makeshift shack houses. The advantage of the shacks is that you get privacy as you don't share with other families, however they are very poor, unstable structures that are susceptible to fires that spread through the community or break-ins. There are also no toilets in the shacks, and the community thus shares a single outhouse style toilet or uses buckets that are changed once a week.
Lastly, we got to visit a pre-school that Laura founded from the funds gathered doing tours . Like everything else in the townships, it is a bit makeshift (the school is 4 storage containers put together), but this was definitely the uplifting highlight of the tour. As soon as we came in, 200+ screaming, smiling kids ages 3-6 came running over to us, demanding high-fives, giving us giant group hugs and singing songs. As per local custom, they all wanted to rub thumbs together and say “sha” meaning essentially “for sure” or “everything’s cool.” Although sometimes pretty cramped in the small rooms, they seemed generally happy and are able to learn some basics and also get three meals, which is more than most the kids in the township who aren't able to participate in this school.
Overall, it was a very interesting, informative and worthwhile experience. Similar to how our country had/has social and economic issues following the end of slavery, the end of Apartheid in South Africa has not meant equality for many of the black and colored residents of South Africa. However, Laura is a beacon of hope for her community Guguletu, and we only wished we could do more to support her and her wonderful school. For more information on Laura or if you find yourself in Cape Town, check out http://laurastownshiptours.co.za/about/about-laura/.
Written by Caitlin
This is Caitlin and Jed's blog about our adventures.
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