Thursday, November 29, 2018

Getting Lost in Stone Town

Exploring Zanzibar

There are places in this world that beg to be explored by foot.  Without an agenda.  Without a map.  Without a cell phone.  These are places of intrigue, beauty and history.  Unexpected surprises await around every corner.  Such a place is Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar.

  It is a small triangular area of maze-like alleyways.  Its old buildings are made from hardened coral, sand and mortar.  The whitewashed paint is streaked with age.  Intricately carved doors, shutters and balconies grace almost every building.  Declared a World Heritage Site in 2000, its unique blend of African, Arab and Indian architecture is now guaranteed preservation. 

Stone Town is frozen in time.   

 Although I hired a guide my first day so I could orient myself, it didn't seem to help.  Once you are inside the narrow dark streets, all sense of direction vanishes.  Wisely, I made sure I knew how to get back to my hotel from the beach.  The beach was my focal point.  From there, I could always find my way home. 

 "Which way to the beach?" was a question I asked every single day.  And many times.  Because I always got lost.

I did not mind being alone in this place.  The muezzin's call to prayer conjured up warm memories of my life in Saudi Arabia.  Arabic greetings rolled off my tongue easily.  And yet, the whole island had more of a Caribbean vibe to it than Islamic or East African.  Music and laughter filled the air.  It was warm and balmy.  The correct time was anybody's guess.  No one seemed to care.

I felt safe and welcomed here.  Locals often approached me out of curiosity. "Why are you alone, madam?  How old are you?  Where is your husband?"    At first I was annoyed by these pointed questions, but then realized they were truly concerned.  And a bit baffled. "How can you go back and forth between shillings and dollars so easily?" one guide asked.  "My grandmother could never do that."      

Weaving in and out of neighborhoods.  Stepping over chickens and loose cobblestones. Shopping.  Sight seeing.  Dreaming.  Eating samosas and curried lamb.  Watching sunsets, dhows and ferries.  My days alone in Stone Town were truly magical.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A Coffee Plantation Tour

Arusha, Tanzania

On the way back to Arusha, our safari group drove by this lovely coffee plantation.  I asked my guide about it and he suggested I take a tour during my week-long self-imposed exile (while my travel buddy was climbing Kili).

 The tour started in the lobby of the Arusha Coffee Lodge.  The lodge is surrounded by one of the largest coffee plantations in Tanzania.  I admit I was feeling lonely and a bit abandoned by now, and when I set foot on these beautiful grounds, pangs of envy threatened to upset my happy disposition even more.  The lodge was gorgeous.  Is that waiter serving champagne?  And look at those croissants!  Why, oh why, hadn't I stayed here instead of the Ilboru?

Because, my dear, a one night's stay is $500, that's why.


But back to the tour . . .

It didn't take long for me to get back to my normal self.  Not only was my coffee guide extremely knowledgeable, but he was funny and kind.  I was having a blast. There was only one other person on the tour, a woman from Chicago who had time to spare before her safari began that afternoon.
I had no idea that coffee production was such a long and complicated process.  How anyone ever figured it out is beyond me.   These coffee trees must be nurtured.  They need shade and lots of water.  Rust and disease are constant worries.  As is drought.    Each new plant takes about four years before it bears fruit.  When the "coffee cherries" turn red, they are ready to be picked.  Then peeled, milled, dried and roasted.
As we strolled through the rows of coffee, our guide pointed out the monkeys in the trees above us and the giant holes in the ground below.  "Aardvark dens," he said.  "But they only come out at night."

So do thieves apparently.  These wooden blinds are used by security guards.

 Aardvarks and coffee poachers.

 Only in Tanzania!

However, the very best part of the tour was the freshly-roasted cup of coffee we had at the end.  I swear (really!) it was the best coffee I have ever tasted.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Cultural Heritage Gallery and Museum

Arusha, Tanzania

While grounded in Arusha, I took a taxi out to the Cultural Heritage Center twice.  For one thing, the architecture of the main art gallery is amazing with its glass-paned drum shape and giant shield.  If you love art, this is a "must see" destination.  The art is stellar.  And, yes, pricey.  But if you're tired of seeing neon rhinos and wooden elephants in the hundreds of curio shops that line the safari routes, then be prepared to be wowed.  I saw an exquisite oil painting of a lion with Mona Lisa eyes that sent chills down my spine.  A red sold sticker was next to it.  Some lucky (rich) person had bought it for $12,000!

Just walking around the campus is fun.  There are whimsical life-sized animals that will make you laugh.  There are historical dioramas that will make you sad.  There are souvenir shops and two restaurants.  But the main reason I came here for the second time was the museum on the lower level of the art gallery.  There were masks, sculptures, furniture and artifacts from all over Africa.  Everything was well documented.  I felt like I was taking a class in African Tribal Art 101.

One of my sons joined us for Thanksgiving dinner this weekend and noticed the West Africa guidebook on my coffee table.  "Mom, I don't believe it.  You just got back from Africa and you're already planning to go back?"

Of course.  Duh.

Only my second trip to Africa won't be about seeing wild animals; it will be about buying art.  Beginning with the Ivory Coast for Baoule, Dan and Senoufo masks.  Ghana for an Ashanti sculpture.  Cameroon for a beaded fertility doll.  Benin for one of those fabulous bronzes.

Because I had already bought a Makonde Tree of Life sculpture, I did not buy anything.  "Just looking, thank you very much."  (Although, I confess, I came very very close.)  Since the Cultural Heritage Center is located in Tanzania, the Makonde art was exceptionally good and some of it was very original.  I picked up a mahogany cheetah with long, slender Giacometti legs.  It was signed by the carver.  So beautiful it made my heart ache.  But there is no bargaining here.  Prices are fixed and this particular beauty was $380.  

Do I regret putting it down?


And that is why I am going back.


No regrets.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Six Days at Ilboru Safari Lodge

Exploring Tanzania

I had prepared myself for a major breakdown as I said goodbye to my travel buddy.  He was off on an 11-day climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  And I was left behind.  Surprisingly, I didn't shed a single tear.  Surprisingly, all I felt was relief.

After he left, I made a beeline to the pool area, plopped myself down and ordered a cappuccino.  The staff at the Ilboru Safari Lodge got to know me very well that week.  And they took very good care of me.

After an exciting, but exhausting two week safari, I was more than ready to do nothing but swim, sleep and read.  This lodge was the perfect place to unwind and recharge.  It is located north of Arusha on five acres of land, manicured to perfection with exotic plants and trees.  The restaurant food was delicious.  I especially enjoyed the three-course dinner in the evening with hot home-made soup and roll, an entree and dessert.  Wine or beer was also available.

When I got bored I arranged for a driver to take me into town.

The Ilboru is a popular start and drop-off point for Tanzanian safaris, so for me, it was a default choice of lodging.  I had G Adventures book the extra days for me.  Easy-breezy.  Stress-free!  It turned out to be a very good decision.

I was incommunicado with my travel buddy.  By Day Six, I figured all was going well with the climb (since he didn't show back up) so I continued with my plan to fly to Zanzibar.  I was rested.  And happy.  I would meet him in Stone Town in five days time.  


Monday, November 19, 2018

Ngorongoro Crater Hyberbole

The Most Beautiful Places on Earth

Pick a superlative--amazing, incredible, breathtaking--they all apply to the stunning ethereal blue-green vistas of the Ngorongoro Crater.
                                                                       from Lonely Planet's Tanzania Guide

Our safari group added to the Lonely Planet sentiments with gasps of awe.

 "It's like a Monet painting."

"It's a Garden of Eden."

Gorgeous.  Surreal.  Dreamy.  Biblical.  Unbelievable.  On and on it went all day long.  At the rim's viewing platform.  Down the red dirt road to the bottom.  And the entire two hours of our game drive.

The Ngorongoro Crater is an extinct volcanic caldera in the Great Rift Valley of northern Tanzania.  It was formed 2.5 million years ago when a massive eruption imploded the mountain's cone.  The crater covers an area of 102 square miles and within this boundary live the largest mammals on earth.  Mountains encircle the crater's floor.  Springs and a lake provide water.  It is a self-contained marvel.  A veritable Shangra-La for animals.  The world's largest zoo.

It is no wonder it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
There are strict regulations regarding tourism here.  The number of vehicles allowed in the crater is limited.  Safaris must pick a time slot, either morning or afternoon.  There is absolutely no double-dipping and all permits are checked coming and going.  Our slot was early morning so we were up at 5:30 am in order to get to the entrance gate as soon as possible.  The park gates open at 6 am and close at 6 pm. There is no off-road driving allowed and only five vehicles are allowed around an animal or kill. 

Because of these rules and regulations, the Ngorongoro Crater is an unspoiled natural wonder.  It is one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Once the hyperbole subsided, we became a rather somber, subdued group.  In a few hours our safari would end.  We would ascend this enchanting world into the real one.

We begged our guide to stay a bit longer and this is when he told us about all the rules and regulations.  Picking up on our depression, he wisely began to recount all the wonderful things we had seen and done in the past six days. We stopped one more time at the viewing platform above the crater for one final look.

Clearly, he had saved the best until last.