Friday, October 28, 2011

Eastern and Southern Africa Generalities

Note: These are some of Jeanette’s observations from her first time traveling around the continent.

One thing about Africa that I’ve noticed, and this is true everywhere we’ve been except maybe parts of Namibia, is just the sheer number of people always milling about.  In daylight hours the streets and sidewalks are packed with people, some selling their wares, some walking, and many just kind of standing around.  Walking down a sidewalk is a bit like an obstacle course – you have to dodge people, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, giant holes, fruit stalls, blankets laid out with sunglasses, wallets, used clothing, shoes, etc.  This continent is packed with people.  Even when we are on buses in what seems like the middle of nowhere, there is always a village tucked in somewhere and people are walking, biking, or herding their livestock up and down the streets everywhere.

Everyone and their grandmother now have cell phones in Africa.  Upon arrival in Johannesburg we bought the cheapest one we could and it will never be stolen because everyone has a nicer one than we do, even some of Anne’s friends in the village.  It’s been incredibly convenient having a cell phone and service has been better than you’d expect in most places.  There is no real cell phone etiquette though.  People will talk really loudly on their phones at restaurants, on buses, working at kiosks, anywhere.  The worst is when you have paid for a guide and they spend more time texting or making calls than sharing information with you.  It’s become quite a joke with us when we have to wait for our guide to catch up with us because they were on the phone.
Skeleton keys are used virtually everywhere we’ve been on this continent except Ethiopia.  And I have to say I don’t love them.  With more keys than not there is a quirk to opening the door and I’ve spent many a minute standing outside one of our doors completely perplexed as to how to make the key work.  Sometime we take turns trying until one of us figures out the trick, sometimes there is no trick and it just doesn’t work properly.  This is significantly less frustrating when the room is en suite.

The majority of people we’ve encountered wear used clothing and it has been relatively easy to find; the easiest being Tanzania.  Sometimes you will look through a pile of clothes and see a tag still on them from Value Village or Salvation Army.  I’m not sure how the process works exactly, but somehow used clothing is bought in bulk and then sold on the streets for fairly cheap.  I always derive great amusement from looking at all the random t-shirts people wear.   It’s fun to recognize a sport’s team or city I know.  My absolute favorite was seeing a 50-something year old man pushing a cart wearing a New Kids on the Block t-shirt that I think I owned 20 years ago.

One thing I have been thoroughly impressed with is how harmonious people of varying religions here live together side by side.  In eastern Africa Islam and Christianity are the most common religions and there seems to be no judgment of the other religion from either side.  Considering a lot of the anti-Muslim sentiments in the U.S. following 9-11 I find it really refreshing how religion is not a divisive issue here.  The only exception was some murmurings of a small group that wants to institute sharia, or Islamic law, in Dar es Salaam. Most disagree, but we didn’t see much evidence of conflict over the issue. Many people, especially in the villages, also mix Christianity or Islam with a modicum of witchcraft involving things such as curses and genies in Kenya and Tanzania or warding off the evil eye in Ethiopia. City streets all over East Africa are dotted with posters offering services of local witch doctors that can mix you up a love potion or create something to help you succeed in business. Unlike in the western world, for most people these beliefs aren’t seen as being in conflict with major religions.  It’s also been really interesting learning about the spread of Islam from Arab traders on the coast or Christianity from colonial occupation.

We get asked all the time where we are from and as soon as we say the United States I have been surprised by how many people eagerly reply “Obama” or “Obamaland”.  He seems beloved by this entire continent, and it’s been so nice to have a positive reception as an American as opposed to the rare encounter where we are asked why America is systematically trying to attack and destroy all Muslim nations.  In Tanzania, Malawi, and Kenya there is Obama paraphernalia everywhere – t-shirts, backpacks, shoulder bags, khangas, belts and belt buckles, chewing gum, flashlights, key chains, bottle openers, and even underwear (move over Calvin Kline!).  I have to admit, it’s pretty awesome to see it everywhere.  We met a traveler recently who said there is a town in western Kenya we will pass through where we can meet Obama’s grandmother.  I’m considering it.

One thing about Africa that tends to drive me crazy is how slow everyone walks.  There is a certain kind of slow saunter that most people adopt, and it adds to the obstacle course of sidewalks because there is little fluidity to the pedestrian traffic.  It’s a silly little pet peeve of mine that I need to get over but also a factor in me knowing that I could never live here.  Walking slowly is a just a way of life here and I have to accept that.

We made some fairly major changes to our original game plan since the beginning of the trip.  Flights to Madagascar were more expensive than we anticipated so a couple of months ago we decided not to go.  We could have made it work, but it would have meant scrimping on every penny and ultimately we decided to make sure we were able to see what we wanted to see in the places we went.  Also, you can get to Madagascar from Hong Kong or Paris for the same price that it was from Nairobi so we have it penciled into our itinerary for when we travel through Southeast Asia next.   We also decided against going to Egypt due to the political protests going on.  Our original timing would have put us there in late November after Ethiopia and we would have had to fly between the two as Sudan is kind of off limits for us.  Since the elections in Egypt were moved to late November we didn’t want to buy tickets now and then have problems going there if trouble erupted.  Instead, after a month in Ethiopia we fly back to Nairobi then head to Uganda where we will meets Anne’s mom for our last two weeks.  We already bought tickets back to the States for December 14 in time for the holidays.  We fly from Uganda via, ironically, Cairo where the layover is too short to take a quick peek at the pyramids.  Next time.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Kenya Coast

It finally happened. How could it not? Yes, I finally got sick. Usually it’s Jeanette who is suffering from a range of maladies. I seemed to be born to live in squalor. My mother did always teach me that a few germs and a bit of dirt make you stronger, and she seems to be right. But my body finally gave way on the coast of Kenya when traveling with my brother Stuart. I’ll spare you the disgusting details; just assume that certain things are not supposed to come out of certain orifices, ever. Of course, that said, Jeanette was sick, too, and yet again missed an opportunity to go diving. Maybe she’s really not meant to? I mean, it’s just not natural… But I digress.
Due to our unexpected illnesses we spent a day just hanging out in Malindi, a not very exciting Italian resort town on the coast of Kenya. The beach was wonderful, but the town was this weird amalgamation of the typical slightly dirty, slightly chaotic east African town with a rich European resort. My brother noted that it was not nearly as weird as Watamu, a similar town a bit further south. Neither of these towns were destinations unto themselves. They were just stopovers between exciting locations like the Gede Ruins and the Marafa Depression. So here’s a quick summary of the coast of Kenya:
Mombasa: The birthplace of Swahili offers really, really good street food. On the top of the list was fruit. For 30 cents you get a large glass of blended avocado, mixed chopped fruit, and mango-passion juice. It’s amazing. It’s possibly the best street food ever offered. Add to that the super sweet, gooey halwa, and the fried pizza-pocket-like things and one couldn’t ask for more. The town also boasts Fort Jesus, a large coral fort built by the Portuguese to protect the island once they stole it from the local Swahili people back in the 17th century. Then the Omanis took it from them. Go figure. Cool fort, though.
Zanzibar-style door
Kilifi: We went to the tiny town of Kilifi with the hopes of visiting a Kaya, or a sacred forest. In the end, that ended up being too complicated. Instead, we popped into the Mnarani ruins and snake park. The ruins focused mostly on two 14th century Swahili mosques, but the guide didn’t seem to care much about them. Though he told us their history, he also emphatically told us how a group of Americans tried to pick a fight with a group of Arabs who still use the site for prayers sometimes. He followed his obligations and pointed out the tunnel through which slaves used to be transported to the port on the creek, then he showed us his true baby: the snakes. Apparently his family members are snake people. All of his siblings work with snakes, and two died from snake bites. He says his mother is upset whenever he visits because she assumes he’s bringing deadly snakes in his bag. The nerve! He let us hold small pythons and other snakes that he rescued from homes around the area. We weren’t allowed to play with the black mamba though…
Our guide with his true love.

Gede Ruins: Stuart brought the rains to the coast. Apparently he brings the rains everywhere. It poured the day we toured the ancient city of Gede. It’s unclear who built the ancient city that thrived in the area from the 13th to the 18th century. It’s not mentioned in any historical documents of the time. The remaining walled city contains a number of mosques and a beautiful palace with well-preserved arches and latrines. The houses of the rich people packed the area in the inner wall and left only narrow alleys between them, similar to the living Swahili cities of Lamu and Zanzibar. In some of the houses were bits of Chinese pottery, oil lamps, scissors, and other pieces that helped archaeologists determine some of the cities trading partners. They think the town died because the sea moved further away and hindered trading and the water table lowered reducing access to fresh water. I personally think they left because giant biting ants took over the area. When the downpour lessened we tried walking through the forest around the ruins but were chased off by the ants that literally crawled up our pants, biting the entire way.

Blue monkey

Marafa Depression, or Hell’s Kitchen: Many, many years ago a rich village developed near the coast of Kenya. The people had so much money and so many cows that they bathed in milk and refused to share with those in need. As punishment, the gods destroyed their town and left a gapping red and white pit in its place. Alternatively, millions of years ago a complicated erosion process of wind and water wore the sandstone down to create what it is today. I might have to go with the second explanation. We had proof of it because as we walked through the unearthly, striped landscape, it started to pour. Rivers of red silt covered our feet, and the mud squished beneath us to reveal thin layers of red, pink, orange and white. To get out of the canyon, our guide had to lead each of us over a very slippery ridge to the top. I did part of the trek on my butt, because let’s face it, I’m a pansy. Also I like mud. It was one of the best days of the trip, despite being the beginning of the aforementioned illness.

After the depression we spent the laidback day in Malindi before heading to Lamu. As we waited for the bus the next morning, Jeanette finally got to learn firsthand why I carry Benadryl antihistamines, steroids, and EpiPens whenever I travel. I decided to buy a newspaper to read more about the Kenyan invasion of Somalia. A terrorist group from Somalia has been raiding Kenya and abducting foreigners, two from Lamu and most recently two aid workers. They used this as an excuse to enter Somalia, something many suspect the government has been planning for a while. I sat in the small wooden booth used by the bus line as an office. My eyes started itching shortly before the bus arrived and within minutes my eyelids were swelling shut. This could have been caused by multiple things:
1.       The ink from the newspaper – I had never read the Sunday Nation before…
2.       Something in the air in the little office or on the old car seat that served as the bench
3.       Witchcraft
Now, I know that some of you doubt the last possible cause, but I would say you never know. One of the stories in the paper was about a person who was hit by a car and as he was taken to the hospital, some schmuck stole his phone. He posted a sign saying that if it wasn’t returned by Sunday, that person would be cursed. Since another community member was recently cursed and started eating grass, the phone was quickly returned. It all goes to show that what you believe is just as much reality as anything else. It’s not much different than people believing that Jesus can heal illnesses or that picking up hitchhikers in one place will increase your karma and help you get a lift later on. (Let me tell you, hitching karma is definitely real.) So maybe I was cursed, but the Benadryl  quickly knocked down the swelling and completely knocked me out. I think I enjoyed the dusty, bumpy five hour bus ride much more than Jeanette and Stuart. Finally, we arrived in Lamu, Kenya’s version of Zanzibar.
Due to the somewhat recent abductions, Lamu was a tourist ghost town. It was a fun game to count the white folks. We had our ocean view, super budget but with great roof top terrace hotel completely to ourselves.  Firstly, Lamu is hot. Hot like sweat dripping from your knee caps hot. It’s another super laidback town with narrow, maze-like alleys between tall buildings with carved wooden doors. Due to the lack of tourists everybody and their brother was seeking us out to offer dhow rides or other excursions. Unlike Zanzibar, though, they took the refusal quite well. We were content to wander the streets and explore the town on our own. Between random walks, chitchatting with kids who thought it was funny I actually spoke Swahili, and excessively long but tasty meals, we didn’t have time for silly boat trips. We spent most of a morning in the best museum in Kenya which highlighted Swahili culture and was chockfull of interesting bits from old houses, jewelry, and Muslim ceremonies.
Our most touristy excursion was to the long white sand beach about 30 minutes away. Though we managed to not get abducted by Somali pirates while on the isolated stretch, we did get had. As we headed toward the road to Shela beach a very convincing, thin, toothless man fervently informed us that we couldn’t walk to the beach because it was high tide. He insisted that we would walk into water up to our neck. We believed him and hopped into the boat for two dollars each. The infuriating man lied through his teeth. Walking there would have been a piece of cake. When we arrived we told him how angry we were that he lied. I mean, yes, he was trying to make a buck in slow times, but bold face lies just aren’t ethically okay in my book at any time. Once again, we were walking money bags. I wish I knew how to curse him… We gave him half the amount and proceeded to the beach. Swimming and walking on the sand was wonderful, and I burned my shoulders to a crisp, despite many applications of 70+ sweat-proof sunscreen. We walked back to Lamu with no troubles whatsoever.
Which leads me to a point we promised we would share: Lamu is safe. Go there. It’s nice and relaxing. Then fly back to Nairobi because it’s much shorter and prettier and your traveling companions will like it more as will you.

View from our rooftop terrace.

Cache for sacred items in typical Swahili house.

Donkey - the only form of transportation on the island.
City view on our way out of town.
After the coast Stuart returned to New York, and we are now safely in Ethiopia where we splurged on multiple in-country flights and are excited about the journeys ahead. Seven months down, almost two to go!

Reflections on Tanzania and East Africa

We ended up spending over a month and a half in Anne’s beloved Tanzania, a country I have been hearing stories about for years.  Traveling here was made significantly easier for me having Anne as a personal translator.  She has been dubbed the ‘communications director’ for this trip (not just in TZ but everywhere) largely because she speaks so much more clearly than my mumbling, non-annunciating, fast talk.  Of course this role was much more pronounced in Tanzania, and it was fun for me to watch people’s reactions to this mzungu speaking Swahili.  A few people were largely indifferent to hearing her but most were noticeably excited.  There is a long-ish series of greetings in Swahili and as these would escalate you could see people getting more and more excited that Anne knew the proper response.  As we would walk past a person older than us and Anne would properly greet them with “shikamoo” it really was fun to watch pure delight overtake some faces as they greeted Anne back.

Although knowing the language was a huge help for us, sometimes it was more of a burden.  Many Tanzanians rely heavily on tourism as a source of income, and there are touts everywhere (the more numerous and annoying culprits were in Zanzibar and Moshi).  It seemed at times like every other guy on the street would either approach us or greet us (“Jambo”) and Anne would naturally reply in Swahili which made them follow her with more fervor than usual.  It was easier for me to ignore them since it’s all Greek to me.  The touts and children were especially persistent in wanting our attention even when it was obvious we were ignoring them.  One “Jambo” ignored would turn into “Jambo, Jambo, Jambo, Jambo,” “hello, how are you?,” or my least favorite a noise like “hsst, hsst” and men would follow us for entire city blocks trying to get us to buy their wares or book a tour through them or go look in their souvenir shop (“looking is free” – if I hear that one more time I think my head might explode).  I guess I thought traveling as a white person here would get me some looks but not a lot more, instead as Anne wrote in a previous entry, many people see us as nothing more than a walking bag of money.  I am definitely exhausted from being constantly approached.  It makes me feel like I’m always on guard and often unnecessarily so.  Some people are super friendly and helpful; it’s just the bad ones that always try to nickel and dime you.  Aside from the constant stream of beggars, people are always trying to squeeze some money out of us (our hotel staff asking for Tsh 500 because she brought us up our laundry, someone insisting on being our tour guide even though we either know exactly where we are going or don’t want a guide).  I’m tired of being on the defensive.

The touts are the worst but also many random men will greet or approach us I assume just because we are white.  It’s impossible to just walk down a street here and be anonymous.  As a tout or random stranger is chatting us up they always want to shake our hands and while I don’t want to be rude, picking your nose is socially acceptable in this country so I just don’t want to touch people.  I really, really miss my personal space.  Until this trip I have never really been conscious of how Western cultures, while being friendly and polite, also really respect one another’s personal space. 

While every country has its distinct differences, there is a similar feel to Malawi, northern Mozambique, and Tanzania.  It may largely have to do with how developed these countries are (or seemed to me).  There were rarely any supermarkets or large stores.  There are kiosks everywhere selling things, and there will be 15 kiosks in a row all selling the exact same things – rice, water, fake butter, toiletries, some candy, sodas, etc.  Mixed in with these will be kiosks selling kangas or other fabrics.  Outside of South Africa, Namibia, and large cities, women all over the continent wear kangas, basically a thin colorful fabric with varying designs and a quote in Swahili at the bottom.  They come in a set of two so one can be wrapped around your waist as a skirt and the other around your shoulders.  They have infinite uses (we use ours as towels) and can be made into anything.  I actually had one made into a shoulder bag and another into a pair of pants.  The tailor wasn’t very good though so one leg is extremely narrow, the other extremely wide, and the crotch of the pants sits somewhere on my left thigh, so I will have a friend try to fix this for me in FL (hint, hint Lynn).  None of these kiosks, or anything in any store, has a price tag on it.  You always have to ask, and in tourist areas there is a regular price and a wazungu price.  All tourist items are highly negotiable in price.  It’s funny sometimes when a salesperson is really taken with Anne’s ability to speak Swahili as the price they quoted at the beginning will be dropped significantly after a few minutes of conversation.

Most people in Tanzania tend to abide by daylight hours.  This is especially true in the villages where there is no electricity and no excess money for fuel.  Even in cities though the electricity cuts out frequently, and we’ve heard numerous complaints from people about the corrupt government.  People are angry and frustrated, and I will be curious to follow the politics here to see if the uprisings in the Middle East and northern Africa make their way here.

Along with personal space, in Tanzania no regard whatsoever is paid to the level of noise one makes and its proximity to others.  People are loud.  At the break of dawn someone will talk at full volume just outside of your hotel window or door, or play a radio really loudly, or work on a construction project, or drive down the street honking their horn.  We have definitely gotten on an early to bed, early to rise schedule, but I sleep with earplugs most nights.  Religious buildings tend to be some of the worst noisemakers with mosques leading the pack.  The call to prayer goes at about 4 AM every morning via loudspeakers and this sucks when your hotel is right across the street.  We’ve also had the misfortune of staying near Christian revivals where music will start blaring out of really bad speakers as early as 6 AM.  And there was a Hindu Temple in Moshi that rocked out until well past 11 PM.

Once we left Malawi the roads everywhere have pretty much gone to hell.  There are a few main roads that are paved, but often not going in the direction we want to.  Northern Mozambique was probably the worst with parts of Tanzania giving them a run for their money.  However, in Tanzania we’ve been able to use large buses for our long distance travel and that has made things easier and more comfortable, with the exception of a 17-hour bus ride from Anne’s old village to Arusha to catch our safari when Pipa, Pam, and Jay were here.  We had the very back seats on a long, bumpy ride.  The dalla dalla’s in Dar es Saalam were bigger than most other minibus style ones we’ve taken, and Anne wasn’t kidding about them being crowded.  There are about 20 seats on them with a narrow aisle, and that aisle is packed like sardines with people to the point that I didn’t even notice I was being pick-pocketed until I got off to pay and my wallet was gone.
You can buy just about anything you want out of a bus window and many things that you don’t want.  Every time a bus makes a stop, which is frequent despite the word “Express” in many company names, hordes of people will swarm the bus windows selling water, soda, fruits, vegetable, sunglasses, peanuts, snacks, and random things made in China.  In Mozambique you could easily but a chicken out of a bus window, sometimes a goat.

I would say more towns than not that we’ve gone through have a major garbage collection problem.  Some streets are lined with trash and fields littered with trash.  There will be a large “dump” in many towns that looks like an abandoned lot where everyone just decided to throw their trash.  It’s pretty bad how often people litter.  Whenever you have a window seat someone will inevitably ask you to open it so they can throw out their soda can, banana peel, water bottle, etc.
Tanzanian food is generally rather bland consisting of rice, ugali (corn mush), beans, greens, chicken, and chips (French fries).  In fact, you can get chips virtually anywhere and is probably the most popular food item for sale on the streets.  Tanzanian food is surprisingly full of copious amounts of oil – chips, mandazi (balls of deep fried dough), chapati (tortilla-like fried bread), and chipsi mayayi (fried eggs with French fries—per chance one of the best foods ever created, especially covered in cheap tomato sauce/ketchup (can you tell this is Anne jumping in?)). 

Tanzania was really good for our budget in that street food and guest houses were really cheap.  We ditched our tent and sleeping pads in Dar es Saalam so our packs are much lighter and roomier. We pay $10-20 a night for a double room, usually en suite.  The toilet is sometimes of the squatting variety and the shower is just in the same room as the toilet with no separate walls, so you have to move the toilet paper before you shower or it will get soaked.

Kenya seemed similar to Tanzania in some ways, however the parts we’ve been to are more developed.  Nairobi is one of those cities you always hear about following the words “crime”, “theft”, “pick-pockets”, “street boys”, but we were pleasantly surprised by it.  We stayed in the city center area and had no trouble walking around.  The roads to Masai Mara National Park and Mombasa were mostly paved and in good shape, and Nairobi even had a small mall culture going on, a la Johannesburg. (You could get everything from good shampoo to quality chocolate for not that much. It was awesome. A totally different world from Dar, though Dar’s choices are quickly expanding. This is Anne again.)

Tanzania was very scenic which helped on many of the long bus rides.  People are friendly and really enjoyed chatting with Anne.  Whenever we took a taxi anywhere the driver would talk nonstop with her whether she wanted to or not.  Unfortunately we didn’t get to the west side of the country at all mostly due to time.  Tanzania had some major highlights of the whole trip for me - going to Anne’s village, seeing the Serengeti, and climbing Kilimanjaro.

Okay, this is Anne writing now. I loved going back to Tanzania. It was so easy for me to slip right back in. I had never really spent time in Moshi before so I didn’t know how annoying the touts were, but overall I wasn’t terribly bothered. I think it helps significantly that when some random man shouts “I love you,” I can respond in Swahili with “I don’t care.” Everyone just cracks up, diffusing the annoyance of the situation. East Africa was much, much easier for me than for Jeanette for the obvious reason—I called the region home for three years. My Swahili came back very quickly and I feel like I could even have deeper conversations with my friends in the village than I could before. Sometimes age and experience are wonderful things. Of course, even with age and experience, I was still massively over charged on occasions. I don’t know if I could live in Tanzania again, though probably, but I loved going back. I am kind of over the long bus rides, though.  

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Ethiopia Bound

Just a quick note to say that we fly to Ethiopia tonight and will be there for roughly one month.  We have a Kenya blog to write and post but that will take some time.  Our guidebooks warn that internet access in Ethiopia is painfully slow to non-existant so we may not post anything for a few weeks until we return to Kenya.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Warning: This blog entry contains some graphic photos of the circle of life, so if that sort of thing bothers you please skip the photos directly following the part where I talk about the lion eating the hartebeest.

Anne’s brother Stuart flew to Kenya to visit for two weeks and since he’s never been to Africa we graciously agreed to go on a safari with him.  We headed to Masai Mara National Park which is basically the northern extension of the Serengeti in Kenya.  The famous wildebeest migration takes place annually between these two parks.  Unfortunately for us, when we were in the Serengeti the wildebeest were in the Masai Mara and then when we got up to the Masai Mara they had already gone back to the Serengeti.  It would have been spectacular to see the migration but I guess it just gives us another reason to come back.

The park was absolutely beautiful, and much greener than expected.  The clouds were also surprisingly eye catching.  For whatever reason, I didn’t have high expectations about seeing the big cats, and I was happily wrong.  We got very close to lions, two cheetahs, and a leopard, along with the normal lot of elephants, giraffes, zebras, hippos, and several antelopes.

Here are some photo highlights:



Every blog entry needs an elephant photo.

Nap time for this leopard.

Family photo.

Is it just me or is the one on the left smiling?

"Ewww, look what you got on your tail!"

"You talkin' to me?"
Awesome sunset.

"Yeah, I'm a really big male lion, just sitting here while the ladies are out hunting."

At one point our driver got wind of a fresh lion kill, so we quickly headed that direction to find a lioness still panting over a dead hartebeest (type of antelope).  Its belly was already torn open and we stayed for probably half an hour watching her eat.  Despite the obvious gross factor it was really remarkable to watch mother nature in the raw.  There was even something comical in the way she stuck her whole head inside the body/rib cage and came out with the wildebeest’s heart.  This is where the weak-stomached readers should not look beyond. 

Lion popsicle.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Mount Kilimanjaro (the super long version)

Warning: This post is ridiculously long. Feel free to just check out the photos.

All photos are now posted.

The last post told you the punch line, so here’s the back story. A long, long time ago Jeanette decided that if we were going to Africa, we were going to climb Kilimanjaro. I went along with it. We sort of haphazardly looked up information and tour companies as we traveled around the continent, but as of Sept. 19, we hadn’t actually booked anything. Most people book months in advance. However, as luck would have it, we met up with an old Peace Corps acquaintance of mine in Dar, and she suggested a guy. Within 24 hours we had a hike booked for about $300 less each than we’d seen on any website. 

We arrived in Moshi on September 28 and proceeded to do exactly what you aren’t supposed to do four days before hiking the tallest peak in Africa: I bought new shoes. For $30 I got a pair of used men’s Soloman trail shoes which were fairly similar to Jeanette’s. Hiking in the Usambaras taught me that two months of sandals made my feet entirely too big for my old boots. 

To test out my boots and get us going steeply uphill, Pasian, our hike arranger, set up a short day hike to a waterfall nearby Moshi. The hike took us briefly into the rainforest in search of Colobus monkeys. After about 15 minutes, our guide for that day said we had to turn around because he thought he heard rangers. Turns out it was highly illegal for us to be there, and we’re pretty darn sure the guy pocketed the “village conservation fee” we had to pay to go. In situations like this I like to try to change perspectives. I think of it as the dude pocketed about $7, not the dude pocketed 10,000 shillings that could have paid for half a semester of secondary school for a kid I know. Stuff like that really puts a sour edge on things. The waterfall we saw was nice, though, and it was good to stretch our legs. Also, my new shoes fit wonderfully.

The next two days we spent mostly bumming around Moshi. Pasian also had us accompany three of his other clients to the Marangu gate, another part of the park we wouldn’t normally see. He thought it would be good to get to a higher altitude. Near as I can tell, these guys prepared even less than we did. They didn’t even know how warm their sleeping bags were and they planned to summit in just four days instead of the typical five on that route. Well, who knows…

We also rented some gear from a nearby shop – one -30°C sleeping bag for Jeanette, one pair of gaiters, two balaclavas, two warm, puffy down jackets, and two thick pairs of socks to sleep in.

Finally, October 2nd rolled around and it was time for our hike.

Day One - Park Entrance 1800m/5900ft to Machame Hut 3000m/9850ft

Jeanette: I didn’t start the day out with a tremendous amount of confidence.  Other than Lushoto I hadn’t done much hiking in the past few months and know that I tend to wear out quickly when hiking uphill.  For some inexplicable reason I still really wanted to hike Kili.  Maybe just because it’s there, maybe because I like grand challenges, maybe I wanted to see the glaciers before they are all gone, maybe the idea got in my head years and years ago and I couldn’t let go of it.  Either way, it was suddenly 8:45 AM and we were climbing into a van and meeting our porters and guides.  There were paperwork and park fees to take care of, and then we were off.  Once we got out of the van we didn’t see our porters again until camp.  Our guide, Tino, and assistant guide, Frederick, had a few small tasks to take care of and told us to just start hiking pole pole (pronounced po-lay po-lay and is Swahili for “slowly”, advice we would hear and heed about a gazillion times in the next five days).  We followed a dirt road (for rescue vehicles) the first 45 minutes before it turned into an exceptionally well built and maintained wide trail.  We were passed continuously by porters carrying really large loads on their heads.  It seems that most have a small backpack on and then a large duffel bag or basket propped up on the backpack or on their heads.

Tino and Frederick caught up to us within an hour and we were immediately given a pole pole warning by Tino before he stepped in front of us to set our pace.  An hour later we had a lunch break near some pit toilets.  I was surprised to see toilets here but they are a necessity given the sheer number of people on this trail (I will complain, err, talk more about this later).

The trail remained an easy, gentle grade the entire way to Machame Hut, and that evening in our tent Anne and I talked about how surprised we were how well today went.  My confidence rose considerably after Day 1.  Hiking uphill isn’t so bad when you are constantly instructed to slow down.

Anne: When we arrived at the gate it was pretty hilarious to listen to other groups of hikers talk about their high-quality new gear while we putzed about in mismatched used clothing. The first chunk of the trail was through cloud forest – exceptionally green, lush, tall trees with hanging moss and hidden monkeys. It was a fairly easy hike and we were met at the camp by fresh popcorn, hot drinks, and a huge tent just for us. Talk about luxury hiking. (Though other groups also had mess tents and even portable toilets so they didn’t have to use the group squat ones. Sucked for the guys who had to empty the portable toilets every day then carry them on their heads.)
At the starting gate...

Day Two – Machame Hut 3000m/9850ft to Shira One 3600m/11800ft

Anne: The second day of hiking took us through alpine moorland. The trees were much smaller and the landscape was dotted with large volcanic rocks. During our hike we first encountered “Grandpa,” an 84-year-old man who was hiking the mountain with his two grandchildren. Later we learned that he won the hike in an auction and hoped his wife would hike it with him. When she said no, because she had hiked it 30 years earlier, he had others join him. If he were to summit, he would make a world record.

 After four hours or so on the trail we arrived at Shira One, a large camp on the Shira Plateau. The area was open enough for us to finally see the sheer numbers of people who were hiking with us. Fredrick said that one group of 30 people brought 70 porters with them. That wasn’t too surprising. For just the two of us, we had four porters, one cook, and two guides. All in all, including the groups camped at Shira Two, there were about 300 people on that section of the mountain that day.

After resting at camp for a bit, Fredrick took us on a short walk to the Shira Two campsite which is on a different route up. On the way he showed us some small caves and overhangs. He said that until 1989, all of the guides and porters were required to sleep in the caves and cook with firewood. They weren’t allowed to set up tents and mingle with the guests. Though now everyone camps together, the porters and staff still keep to themselves. Mario, our “waiter,” always set up a dinner spot for us separately from everyone else, often in the vestibule of our tent. Even when we took breaks along the trail, our guide would tell us to sit one place then he and the assistant would sit elsewhere. It felt odd to be served, but it was also nice to have a bit of privacy. Overall it felt a bit awkward. 

At the end of day two we were both feeling pretty good. We had started taking Diamox, a drug that helps relieve altitude sickness. It makes you pee a lot.  

Jeanette: Anything that makes me pee more than I already do is kind of tough on me.  I mean seriously, I already have the bladder of a two year old.  Diamox also has some other interesting side effects like making my hands tingle/sting similar to the feeling of when they are waking up from being numb, and it makes my face occasionally feel like it is vibrating.  Very weird.  These symptoms usually seem to last for a few minutes at a time.

We awoke this morning to blue skies above and a sea of clouds below us with Mt. Meru poking out in the distance.  It was so beautiful.  Even though we still had a heck of a long way to go, just having all of the clouds below us somehow made me feel like we were on top of the world.

The hike this day was much steeper than the previous day.  As we were hiking in forest moorland today (shorter stubbier trees, significantly less vegetation that the rainforest) the views were much more accessible.  What shocked me was the literal parade of people (hikers, guides, porters) going uphill.  You could watch the line of people ahead or behind you and I was in awe of my lack of solitude.  One of the reasons we chose this route was because it’s 1) not the one dubbed the “Coca-Cola Route”, 2) you don’t sleep in huts, 3) it’s more scenic, and 4) one guidebook or website I read said that even though this route is gaining in popularity the mountain is so big you still feel like you have it to yourself.  This was complete and utter crap.  The Machame Route was packed with people.  We were constantly leap-frogging with porters and other hikers.  Plus, the larger groups, of which there were many, hiked at a significantly slower pace than we did.  

It turns out that Anne and I were able to keep up a pretty decent pace despite the steeper climb.  At camp we were both feeling well but were surprised at how chilly it was.  We camped on a completely exposed plateau and the wind whipped right through us.  While I first I utterly scoffed at the idea of a mess tent (I mean it’s already weird enough that someone else is carrying my pack for me), it was here that I kind of got it.  It was very cold and windy and I really didn’t want to sit outside and freeze while I ate.  So yes, Mario set up our dinner in the vestibule of our tent and we sat with down jackets on and sleeping bags over our legs and ate a meal with real silverware and napkins.  Far classier than any of my previous backpacking experiences, but I guess I wasn’t backpacking here.  I was only responsible for my day pack.

Mount Meru

From the rocks near the campsite

Day Three – Shira One 3600m/11800ft to Barranco Hut 3950m/13000ft

Anne: This was the first day that took us up to an altitude of over 4,000 meters then back down again. The change was meant to help us adjust to the lack of oxygen. A steady incline led us up to a lava tower, a protruding mass of rock. Then we lollygagged our way back down through alpine desert to our fourth camp.  (Yup, that’s all I got for you.)
Jeanette: Shortly after today’s climb began we quickly left the forest moorland habitat and entered an alpine desert.  Vegetation became sparse and the earth was various shades of brown.
The hike to the Lava Tower at 4600m was up an extremely gentle grade.  The ridge we hiked up was very wide and open with expansive views.  You could clearly see where you were going and where you were coming from.  We seemed to be able to keep up a good, steady pace with no problems.  As per usual we passed the larger groups with ease as they tend to plod uphill in a losing race to a snail.  With no vegetation to block our views, the sheer number of people seen hiking on our same footpath was staggering – porters by the hundreds, some racing ahead of you at impressive speeds, some taking long breaks.  There were hikers galore and by today we definitely recognized certain groups as we passed them (the Really Large Group, the German Group, Grandpa, etc.).  Grandpa was of great intrigue to us and we both wanted the opportunity to chat with him and his grandkids but the timing wasn’t right.

After the Lava Tower we did a short down and an up, and then a long down to Barranco Hut.  As we began our descent we headed into a valley and the views became more limited.  As we approached the camp the views really opened up to a lovely plateau and we could see all the way down to the town of Moshi.  To our left was the Barranco Wall, a giant wall of granite that we had to make it up and over the next morning.  We had a little bit of hail on the descent which turned to a drizzle the lower we got.  The exposed hiking gave the wind free reign to chill me through and through, but nothing too bad.  Yet.

Day Four – Barranco Hut 3950m/13000ft to Barafu Hut 4600m/15092ft

Anne: The trail from Barranco to Barafu was the only section of the hike that included actually slightly difficult terrain. For a small portion of the steep ascent on the Barranco Wall we had to climb up small sections of rock with footholds and our hands and then walk along short, narrow ledges. This is the sort of stuff I hate, but it really wasn’t that bad. In fact, in comparison to a lot of the hiking we did in South Africa and even in random places in Unalaska, it was nothing. I didn’t even get scared. As we were walking down to a river after the Wall, I casually greeted a hiker as we passed, saying something banal like “nice trail today, huh?” He responded with “Nice? Sure, but scary at points.” It made me feel like I’m much less of a pansy than I usually think. 

Halfway between Barranco and Barafu is Karanga Camp. If we had done the mountain in seven days instead of six we would have stopped there. Instead, we stopped for a hot lunch served to us inside of our tent and listened to it hail then rain. Our last two hours of hiking were in rain and hail. We were freezing by the time we reached the campsite, where our tent had already been re-erected. We crawled inside and tried to rest as much as possible before our 11 pm wake-up call and final mountain ascent.
Jeanette: The hike today was very scenic when it was not obscured by clouds.  A common phrase in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor was “don’t like the weather – wait 5 minutes!” and that could certainly be applied to Mount Kilimanjaro.  Clear skies in the early morning seem typical but by mid-morning the clouds start billowing up and blowing in, and then some quickly pass while others linger.  Most of our far-reaching views today were largely blocked by clouds but it was still a very pretty hike.

I enjoyed the varied terrain today although I was surprised at how much my knees hurt by the downhill stretches.  I still blame the Appalachian Trail for wrecking them.

As Anne mentioned earlier, once in camp or on a break the porters and guides seem to go to one side and us to another.  This was never more pronounced than during our hot lunch break at Karanga.  As we arrived I thought it was overkill to see our tent erected but then the light hail quickly worsened before turning into pouring rain.  At least it sounded like pouring rain from inside the warmer, dry confines of our tent.  The tent was huge, easily a 3-person tent with two large vestibules.  As Mario brought our lunch over we asked him to tell everyone to sit with us inside the tent so they would stay dry but he was aghast at this suggestion so we sat in our tent, fully appreciating the cover while eating a fantastic meal, all the while feeling like chumps because there were seven guys sitting out in the rain just waiting for us to finish.  I kept wanting to explain that there doesn’t need to be this division, we’re just not like that, but whatever small efforts we made seemed futile attempts.
When we arrived at Barafu Hut our confidence was high.  We had done really well today despite the harder terrain.  I distinctly remember getting out of the tent at 7 AM this morning and already seeing the Really Large Group halfway up the Barranco Wall, and then when we passed that group before lunch I felt really good.
It was very cold at 4600m/15092ft and the rain/hail had chilled me to the bone, so we holed up in our sleeping bags waiting for dinner just trying to get warm.  One unfortunate side effect of the altitude (at least she is blaming it on the altitude) is that it gave Anne horrendous, and I mean horrendous, gas.  In the tent.  That we were sharing.  After our meal we knew we had to get some rest.  The plan was to wake up at 11 PM, have tea and biscuits at 11:30 PM, then start hiking by midnight to reach the peak at sunrise.

While brushing our teeth before bed we ran into Annie, the granddaughter of Grandpa and it was chatting with her tonight that we got the full story about them.  Annie explained that both he and his wife are avid hikers and skiers so this wasn’t entirely a wild hair for him.  However, should he reach the summit, it would be a record-breaking ascent.

Day Five – Barafu Hut 4600m/15092ft to Uhuru Peak 5895m/19340ft to Mweka Hut 3100m/10170ft

Anne: I am shocked that I don’t have frostbite on any of my digits. Seriously.  When hiking up the mountain in theoretically Gore-Tex gloves and two pairs of socks, I pondered whether I was better off losing fingers or toes. (I decided fingers, since I can always use a voice typing system, but I can’t hike well without real toes.) Long and short, it was cold, it was so exhausting I honestly thought I would fall asleep while walking, and ultimately we made it in awesome time. Jeanette will tell you the rest.

Jeanette: The roughly three hours of broken sleep that I got between 8 – 11 PM last night hardly prepared me for the day’s events, yet I still awoke with an air of excitement.  It was bloody cold so we quickly dressed, ate some biscuits, and were off.  I was dressed, head to toe, in my wool cap, long johns, a long sleeve hiking shirt, a down jacket, down mitten gloves, a pair of pants, rain pants, two pairs of socks, gaiters, and my boots.
Within about 45 minutes the exercise had finally done the trick and for the first time since arriving at Barafu Hut I was genuinely not cold.  The hike began up a steep, rocky incline followed by a short, flat plateau.  As we were leaving camp we could see headlamps dotting the darkness above us, once again we got a later start than many.

While the summit hike began on a good note, within two hours the cold and fatigue I was feeling caused my confidence to drop and with every subsequent hour my confidence plummeted even more.  We had been force fed food nonstop this whole trip, yet before the summit hike we were given a pile of biscuits.  Anne and I each ate a Luna Bar, but whatever energy this provided was quickly sucked up by the exertion.  

I haven’t heard the snow crunching under my footsteps since leaving Alaska, and I always enjoy that sound.  Within an hour of setting off that morning we were already in snow but it felt colder here than ever before.  My feet and toes were freezing and with each step I would wiggle the toes of whatever foot I lifted just to keep the circulation going.   As the altitude increased I couldn’t tell whether I was hungry or nauseous.  We stopped to eat half of another Luna Bar and it helped momentarily.  I had to add my balaclava and rain jacket for protection against the wind.  The previous four days of the hike came so easily that I guess it surprised me to feel so exhausted on this day.

All this time though, despite my weakening condition, we were still passing people right and left.  Although the quicker pace was tiring, I needed it for warmth.  Every time we stopped to eat or add a layer I had to take my gloves off and it felt like my fingers were going numb before I even got the gloves all the way off.  My energy was zapped and I was extremely light-headed.  I remember thinking several times “I wonder if Tino will make me turn around if I pass out?”  As I was seriously considering whether summiting was worth it or not, Frederick said that we were only 5 to 7 minutes from Stella Point, the rim of the crater, and it wasn’t until this moment that I realized I could make it, that I would make it.
After a short break at Stella Point we continued on slowly.  We were completely exposed to the wind at the top and it stung my face but the trail flattened out as we followed the crater rim around and then gradually up another 100m or so.  During this section two guides and three hikers passed us on their way down.  We came around a final bend and in the break of dawn just ahead was the sign firmly planted on Uhuru Peak at 5895m/19340ft confirming that we had made it.  In fact, we were the fourth and fifth hikers there that day (at least from the Machame Route) and we arrived at 5:52 AM.

We had a brief few minutes to ourselves at the top before a large group arrived during which time we frantically tried to take photos.  There was one mishap after another when the batteries in BOTH of our cameras died.  We had spare AAs for the point and shoot, and after we fumbled through that with our cold hands, we had three different people take a photo of the two of us at the top but somehow every single one of these came out blurry.  The ones we took of each other are perfectly clear, however.  At least we’ll always have the memories.  And, of course, this incredibly long account.

I often feel that when a place touts its “sunrise views” they are often overrated.  I know that may sound pessimistic but I can’t help it.  However, I am happy to say that this morning was the best sunrise of my life.  The sun came up golden and red on the horizon and lit up the glaciers to perfection.  

Just as we started the return journey we saw Grandpa and his entourage on their way to break a world record.  It was a wonderful moment.

So here we were 1300m/4265ft above our camp, elated and freezing, ready to head down.  We had gorgeous scenery to inspire us but it didn’t take long for the euphoria to wear off and an exhaustion headache and aching knees to set in.  It was a long slog down, but we were in camp at 9:30 AM that morning, a mere 9.25 hours after setting off.  We had a brief nap and then wolfed down soup and bread before packing up and continuing down another 1500m/4921ft.
At camp I barely stayed awake until dinner, then went to bed at 7:35 PM and I had 11 ½ of the soundest hours of sleep in my life.

Anne at the spot when we knew we were home free.

Just wanted to post this again for good measure.

We really are proud of ourselves.

Best Sunrise Ever.

Glacier whose name I don't remember with Mt. Meru poking up in the background.

Day Six – Mweka 3100m/10170ft to Park Entrance 1800m/5900ft to Moshi

Jeanette:  I could have kept sleeping for hours, but the alarm clock beckoned me awake.  After breakfast it was a short 2 ½ hour walk through the rainforest where we saw several black and white Colobus monkeys in the trees above.

At the park entrance we were given really nice certificates for our accomplishment.  We had one last meal here before heading to Moshi in the car where a lukewarm to cold shower awaited me.

Anne: Walk down was awesome. Trees are great. Monkeys are great. Chipsi mayai (french fries fried with eggs) are great. Also it was nice to be warm again. And, I finished the hike in new-to-me boots without even a blister. It rocked.

It took these seven men to get us to the top.

Rainforest views (sans monkeys because the lighting was horrible).

It was funny at the end. We had our last lunch in a small bar-like-place not far from the gate. A massive group of porters was there changing the money they got from tips from US cash to shillings from some random money changers. The well dressed men and women were giving the porters a decent but not fabulous rate, but it’s way easier for them to change money there than to try at a bank.  It’s a side of the whole business most tourists don’t get to see.  Tourism is such a weird thing…

And with that, the hike was over and less than two days later we were out of Tanzania and onto Kenya.