Rich's Travel Blog 2006

Here is my travel blog for 2006. My 2005 travels can be found using the link below on the right.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Deep Sea Fishing, Tanzania

Sunday, November 19, 2006

I don’t know anything about deep sea fishing. Or at least I didn’t until yesterday. When my friend Kenji invited me to join in on a fishing trip off the coast near Dar es Salaam, it sounded like fun. I’ve had a good month or two of adventures and this sounded like a nice opportunity for more. I am aware that people pay tons of money to do this sort of thing and when I had a chance to do it for free, I jumped at the chance.

Kenji is a friend of mine who also works for Harvard. His background is a mixture of Japan, New Caledonia, Hawaii, San Diego and Washington DC. I can’t remember how it all fits together but suffice to say that the ocean and the climate here make him feel right at home.

Our jobs don’t interact much but our social connections through our employer have led to us becoming good friends. He’s a big surfer and, unlike me, has taken advantage of the ocean here. When he arrived in Dar with his board I assumed it might end up being more for decoration since it’s not apparent that there is any wave action higher than the waist of a very short person. But, in fact, Kenji and a couple of other guys have sniffed out many a surfable wave. As in many places it’s seasonal but if I were to sign on to stay here longer term, I might be tempted to track down a board (not easy since there are no surf shops here).

Also coming on the trip was Olivier. Like me, Olivier has never been deep sea fishing before. Not to say he doesn’t get out much, Olivier is an active Quebecois who does everything from surfing to ice climbing. He’s coming to the end of his one year in Tanzania and this would be one of his last hurrahs. Like us, he works in development and his plan is to take a couple of months off in the Great White North over the holidays and then seek out employment in Indonesia, home of some of the planet’s best waves.

Our skipper would be J.J. He’s apparently one of the most respected fishermen in this part of Tanzania. He’s a white Tanzanian that owns a few boats all located here in Dar. In addition to being a commercial fisherman, he also does expensive deep sea fishing trips for hire. I’m not sure which makes him the most money but my guess is the latter. He’s an unshaven, unkempt guy with closely cropped hair and at least two teeth missing. His unassuming nature is not atypical for fishermen nor is the fact that he’s very set in his ways. He calls the shots when you’re on his boat. Period.

He’s also not a very touchy feely guy and conversation isn’t one of his strong points. He doesn’t initiate discussion much and won’t really follow along if you do unless it has something to do with him. My impression could very well be a bit jaded given that he was focused on this fishing day but maybe not. J.J. surfs with Kenji from time to time and he’s apparently not overly conversant then either.

When Kenji asked if I could come he was hesitant, asking who I was and why I should join in. He’s justifiably careful about who gets on his boat, especially if they’re not paying him a ton of money. Kenji told him I was leaving the country soon and it would be a fun last experience in Tanzania (it may in fact be true but who knows at this point). He told Kenji to go ahead and extend the invite. In the end, I think we made a good audience all day long as he demonstrated his art and he seemed content to show us his world.

The reason the trip was free for us was that we were simply joining in on one of J.J.’s workdays. I would not have been opposed to paying for the experience but maybe not at the rate he normally charges. In any case, he was going out to do his thing and we were just tagging along. This gave him no responsibility to make us happy, entertain us, make sure we were comfortable, etc. We just provided occasional conversation and reeled in fish from time to time. And we brought food and beer. J.J. likes his Tusker.

We were a bit late getting started. We were supposed to be there by 5:45am but J.J. was late. His power went out during the night; he and his wife had no fans or AC and were not able to get much sleep. I didn’t get much sleep either but it was due to mosquitoes getting trapped on the inside of the mosquito net.

We met at the Yacht Club on the peninsula in Dar. We loaded in the coolers, expensive fishing poles and other miscellaneous stuff into the dingy and headed out to our home for the day. The boat had plenty of room for all of us and it appeared as though we “tourists” were going to be spending most of our time protected from the sun by the covered part of the boat.

The boat had two levels, each with its own steering console. It was the upper console where J.J.’s wife Maddie would drive all day, most of the time alone. Maddie is an interesting character. She’s originally from Milan, Italy, but she’s been in Tanzania for quite some time. She speaks fluent Swahili though she and J.J. communicate in English. Olivier described her as someone who was probably hot once upon a time. She’s actually still very pretty but she has sort of a hardness to her. Her hardness is not just appearance. Maddie is tough as nails. She drives a boat like a seasoned veteran (which she is) and knows fishing inside and out. She also seemed very focused on fishing so I’ll reserve judgment about her overall manner outside the context of the fishing day.

Some people exude toughness even when you don’t know much about them. Maddie is such a case though I do have a bit of evidence. A couple of years ago while out fishing, she had a fishing line tangle around her thumb. Having spent all my prior fishing days catching relatively miniscule freshwater fish, I would learn the power of these deep sea creatures. On this day she became an unfortunate victim as the large fish at the other end of her line bolted in the opposite direction. Her thumb was removed from her hand in addition to tendons reaching up to her elbow. I have a hard time fathoming the pain she must have felt that day as they tried their best to stop the flow of blood and begin working their way the long distance back to shore.

Fishermen are often very superstitious. They get it inside their head that there are things that negatively affect your luck, most of which it’s difficult to prove one way or another. J.J. has it in his mind that fish are sensitive to certain smells – some of it may very well be true. In this case he admitted to not having a first aid kit because the smell repels the fish. It’s true that they would not have been able to prevent the loss of her thumb but they may have been able to make the whole thing a bit less agonizing.

So one would think that the experience would have been instrumental in once and for all putting a first aid kit aboard. Alas, not long after recounting the story to us, J.J. received a nasty finger cut while removing a hook from our first fish. On his boat, the medical kit is the same as the tool kit. Out came the electricians’ tape and a rubber band.

The last member of the crew was Baz. I’m not sure how to spell his name but this was how it seemed to be pronounced. If he ever reads this, my sincere apologies. Chances are, however, he won’t get around to it. Baz works long hours. He’s a Tanzanian with very little English and no formal education – the profile of many of his compatriots. He grew up fishing and was smart enough to go beyond the traditional fishing techniques. Several years ago he hooked up with J.J. who took on the skilled crewman and he has been his right hand man ever since.

He seems to be a real likable guy though we never spoke much. Part of it was the Swahili and part of it was simply the fact that, like J.J., he never stopped working all day long. He basically spent the whole day in the hot sun manning and baiting the poles, assisting us rookies, keeping the deck clean of fish excretions and whatever else needed to be done. He and J.J. seem to work together seamlessly. There was rarely need to speak as the two work in harmony side by side, each with their own tasks, sometimes overlapping when necessary. Maddie steered the boat from her seat above and her role too was mostly without need for conversation. They’d done this hundreds of times and for us it was like an art.

We began the day by heading out past the end of the Msasani Peninsula towards the open water. You can really feel the difference in the swell once you pass the tip of the peninsula. We then proceeded past Bongoyo Island and continued on another kilometer or two. Fairly quickly we had a tug on one of the poles and Olivier got the first call to reel it in. It was a big fish in my book but relatively small compared to the normal catch out here. As he pulled it in we could see that it was a striped bonito. I know less about fish than I do fishing so I can't tell you anything about it - if it's good, if they're plentiful, etc.

We then had a long gap of time before we had any more action. We could see fish out on the water occasionally but they weren't taking our bait. Flocks of birds were tracking schools of fish and they were helpful in identifying their location. Maddie, from her perch above us, would sometimes head in their direction or go elsewhere based upon whatever else she saw (or sensed).

Finally another hard tug on the pole allowed me to spring into action. It was hard pulling for someone who's used to river and lake fish. At one point it felt as though I'd lost him but I later found out that it's common for them to swim in the direction of the pull for a period of time. As he got closer to the boat I think he sensed his doom and the battle took up again in force. The expensive rod and reel do make a difference and it ended up not being that difficult to pull him aboard. Baz and J.J. helped to fetch him from the water. It was a 35-pound mahi mahi, officially the largest fish I've ever caught.

Things picked up after this. Kenji caught a baracuda. Olivier reeled in a kingfish. We kept seeing the sailfish with their black, ribbed fins sticking up out of the water. We were anxious to pull one in. I didn't realize that they are as sought after as they are. When fishermen return from the day's fishing, they put up flags for certain select fish to reveal their good fortune. A red flag is for sailfish, yellow is shark, etc. It's sort of informational and sort of bragging.

When someone has a fish on the line, we learned that the other lines need to be brought in. This keeps things from getting tangled. It seemed unfortunate to me to pull in all the lines just in case you could snag another one while heading through a school of fish but J.J. was clear that once you have them on the line, it's money in the bank. The priority is to make sure the damn thing gets in the boat.

The day was long and often hot. Again, the outing wasn't for our benefit. It was another day at the office for J.J. and his crew.

At one point J.J. received a hard tug on one of the lines. We were alerted by his aggressiveness with the pole. Soon we figured out why. All of the sudden out in the distance a large sailfish jumped completely into the air.

This battle would end up taking several minutes. The fish was strong and fought hard. Maddie had to periodically manoever the boat to react to its movement. As the sailfish was pulled next to the boat, Baz reached over the side and snagged it with a large hook. Into the boat came seven feet and almost 60 lbs. of fish. I'd never seen a fish this big except in photos.

We ended up catching a few more and eventually it began to get dark. J.J. ended up pulling in a second sailfish, not quite as big as the first, and we began to head back to the Yacht Club. We were all pretty tired, most of us lacking sleep, and having spent a day in the elements. I'd fought of seasickness at different times early in the day but nothing that serious. It may have also contributed to my fatigue.

As we cruised in to our mooring spot, it was almost completely dark. It was nice having been on the water for the day. It reminded me of sailing a couple of times with my brother. It's a good feeling and ever time I do it I think that I must aspire to some sort of boat-related hobby. The fact that it never sticks probably means that I never will. I'll just tap into other peoples' water hobbies periodically to get my fix.

We then unloaded the boat of supplies and fish onto the dingy and made our way to shore. The fish were carried up to the scales for the public weighing. It was impressive to see the crowd at the club gather round to see the big sailfish that was hoisted up first.

We sat and watched, drinking water and collecting our bearings. Being out on big swell for twelve hours necessitates an adjustment period for those of us who aren't used to it. I actually had the equivalent of bedspins when I got to bed that night.

It wasn't an easy day (and I'd wished to have kept the mahi mahi) but was pretty cool spending the day with the legendary J.J. Another cool Tanzanian experience.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Arusha National Park, Tanzania

Sunday, November 5

When Curtis, Jenn, Priya and I returned to the Ngurdoto Mountain Lodge after our time on Kilimanjaro, we were exhausted and needed some time to chill. The girls would soon be heading off to Dar es Salaam and my brother and I found ourselves with all day Sunday to kill before the rest of the family arrived that evening. Even though we’d be embarking on a major safari, for some reason it occurred to me that Curtis and I could zip off to Arusha National Park just for a few hours. He had yet to see any animals and though he’d be getting his fill soon enough, we couldn’t resist the chance.

I knew the Arusha National Park entrance wasn’t very far away from the lodge. In fact it turned out to be even closer than what I’d thought – 10 minutes. The perfect afternoon activity.

We’d made an acquaintance with a taxi driver in the area and Curtis put the idea to him while I checked with the hotel. Walter was clearly cheaper and we decided that what he was offering was worth it.

When he returned from taking Priya to the airport, Walter came by and off we went in his old white sedan. We’d had rain and the roads were not that great but my experience has been that these people know what their cars and do and what they can’t. Overall, the cars here are very tough. They have to be.

Walter is from the Meru tribe and grew up in the area. He had plenty of interesting things to comment on as we drove and really turned out to be a pseudo tour guide. He’d also done this sort of thing many times before so he knew the park well.

We paid our entrance fee and within 20 minutes of getting in his car we were in the presence of a group of colobus monkeys. I’d seen them before a few times but never this close. They are one of the coolest creatures. Their long hair, crazy faces and graceful nature make this a big highlight. This is a national park and we were only allowed to get out of the vehicle in certain areas. Fortunately for us, the monkeys were in one of those areas.

After a few photos we loaded back into the car and off we went. Very soon we were surrounded by a troop of baboons. I was already thinking that, bang for your buck, Arusha is a pretty decent place.

Baboons are also a favorite of mine. They are very expressive and the longer you watch them the more you can get a feel for their moods. I’m just guessing but I doubt you can get the same sense from an impala.

We cruised around seeing bushbucks, zebras, giraffes, buffalos and other animals. This is by far one of the lesser frequented national parks in Tanzania. We saw very few other safari vehicles considering how close it is to populated areas. Arusha town is the key starting point for the Northern Circuit crowd (Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara, etc.) and most pass on this park.

I’d been here once before. The park includes Tanzania’s second highest mountain, Mt. Meru. At well over 14,000 ft., all of the park is more or less in its shadow. I climbed it last year (we were turned around by weather before getting to the summit) and the entire climb as well as our lodge is located in the park. One cool thing about the Meru climb is that it’s like a walking safari and hike all in one since you see animals throughout the entire first day of the hike. The guide is even required to carry a gun to ward off dangerous animals until summit day.

Another highlight for this hike is the birds. We saw all different kinds. I don’t know my birds well but for some reason they stood out on this afternoon. There are a few small lakes in the park and a couple of them contain large flocks of pink flamingos.

The lighting of the day was constantly changing. It the season of the “short rains” so we’d get intermittent rain and sun. Sometimes added to photography; other times it took away from it.

The buffalo in Africa are some of the meanest looking creatures in existence. The just look bad ass. I think they can be fairly aggressive so you have to keep an eye on them. Because we stayed in the car we were fine, of course, but on our hike last year headed through stretch where they were not far from us. Without the protection of a vehicle you don’t want to get them excited.

Before leaving the park we drove to the Ngurdoto Crater. We had some muddy road to get up to the rim but I was really hoping to get to see it. It turned out to be a bit less fascinating than I’d hoped but then again we didn’t see much of it. We’d about had our fill for the afternoon and it was time to head back to the lodge. Besides, I think we’d gotten more than our money’s worth out of Walter.

Once back at the lodge we had a bit of time before heading to the airport to pick up the family who was arriving from Kenya. Our Northern Circuit safari would beging the next morning...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Lushoto, Tanzania

October 21 - 23, 2006

With Eid (celebration of the end of Ramadan) coming, a few of us decided we'd take off to the hills for a break. Priya and I needed to do some more hiking in preparation for our trek up Kilimanjaro next week. It's not tough hiking but it's better than being at sea level.

What started as a small group turned out to be pretty large. I wasn't even in the group that initiated the weekend. I'd been talking with Afriroots about organizing a trek in the Uluguru Mtns. similar to what I did last year. When I learned that others were headed to Lushoto, I figured what the heck. We can do our hiking there.

I figured it would be nice to rent our own transport. With a group of 10 or so, it seemed logical that it would be less expensive and a lot more convenient. It turned out to be convenient but that's about it. Not only was it more expensive, it was uncomfortable as hell. I was told it would be more comfortable than a daladala - the beat-up vans that are the core of local transport in Dar es Salaam. As it turned out, it was basically a daladala. It may have been slightly cleaner and a bit more reliable but it was more or less the same rock hard, narrow seats with no leg room. People were nice since it wasn't entirely my fault but I did feel a bit responsible for the pain in the ass (literally) mode of transportation.

The drive there was longer than expected. The driver was prudent, which was nice, but pretty slow. I guess with the number of deaths from car accidents in this country, I shouldn't complain. It's just that with low blood sugar and an uncomfortable van, I was surprised everyone was in as good a mood as they were. In addition, we stopped in Segera (near the turnoff to Tanga) for lunch. It took about an hour and a half, the portions were small and it was crappy food. I'm not normally a whiner but I guess I'm developing less of a tolerance for unnecessary stuff.

The weather was mostly cloudy and even rainy at times. As you hit the turnoff in Mombo to climb towards Lushoto, the drive gets considerably prettier. You wind up the hill following along a stream. The area had had three days of non-stop rains so the stream was swollen and presented a few very nice, brownish falls. The road is single lane part of the way and a bit sketchy in places. I'm guessing, given how people drive here, it gets its share of casualties.

We'd booked rooms at the convent that we stayed in last year, St. Eugene's. It's such a cool place. Very clean. The sisters are great. The food's good. The grounds are beautiful. The cooler climate is much more to my liking. I probably should have made more trips to Lushoto during my time in Dar so far but oh well.

After settling in to our rooms, we decided to go for a walk and shake some of the drive out of our bodies. It's about 3 kms. to town, just about the right distance for what we had time to do given the amount of time before dark. We walked around town, took some photos, all the while accumulating an entourage of children. It's pretty funny really. There's no shortage of wazungu (foreigner) visitors to Lushoto it seems but I guess it breaks up the monotony of their day. I'm sure they get handouts sometimes as well. We offered them the ability to see themselves on our digital cameras but that's about it. As easy as it would be to give the kids small amounts of money, I shudder at the thought that kids are developing the image that that's what wazungu are - walking money machines. Also, once word gets out that you're giving, watch out. It could spoil the rest of your walk. I plan to cover the topic of giving in another blog but for now, suffice to say that the need here is daunting. You can’t give every time you see need. It’s impossible. You need to be strategic and give in a way that is thought through, provides the greatest benefit possible and serves whatever it is that you feel strongly about.

So anyway, we cut our walk short around dark and caught a lift back to the convent in our conveniently waiting daladala.

The next day we had our breakfast in the convent and headed out for our hike. We followed more or less the same route as last year and we hooked up with Kibwana, the same guide we had. He’s a good guy and he seems to be doing well. Priya had mailed him photos after the trip last year. One of Priya with the kids from his village made its way to the glass case on the front of the convent. She was recognized by the nuns and they remarked how happy they were to receive the photos. People often say they’ll send photos or emails when they encounter each other traveling but they never do. It’s pretty cool that she does.

The hike was similar to the one last year. There were chameleon sightings, lots of children, nice views, etc. One thing we didn’t see last time were the colobus monkeys. We saw several this time. They’re the cool black and white ones that look a bit crazed with the black face and the long hair.

We returned to Kibwana’s village in the hills above Lushoto. They seemed happy to see us. Kibwana and his wife had a baby since we were here – pretty damn cute. He has also mostly completed his house and is building another one in Lushoto. Good to see that his tour guide thing is going well.

We worked our way to Irente Farms where we had lunch, the same place as last year. It’s such a cool thing they do. They lay out a spread of food from the area – bananas, oranges, passion fruit, cheese, cucumbers, homemade bread, jam, juice, carrots, etc. We had our fill and carried on towards the Irente viewpoint. It’s a pretty spectacular lookout point, basically a cliff, facing south to southwest with the road to Arusha passing in the valley below. It was a bit hazy but it was still nice.

We stopped briefly at the horrendously ugly Irente View Cliff Resort to decide our plan of action. The hotel is a new-ish monstrosity owned by the previous president Mkapa. He appropriated himself some pretty select land and proceeded to build one tacky structure. The makuti (thatch) roof is good but everything underneath is pure cheese: fake brick, florescent tube lighting, aluminum doors, clocks with cigarette logos, and so forth. Not sure what the theme was but I would have gone with something a bit more Tanzanian.

The van met us part way on the descent back to Lushoto and just took us back to the convent. We toyed with the idea of going to see a falls but the majority had had enough at that point. It was good to get back to the convent, have some dinner and relax.

The next day we headed back to Dar. Nothing eventful on the way home. That’s usually a good thing. Kilimanjaro next week…

Friday, October 20, 2006

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

May 4-7, 2006

The idea of going to Dubai actually was launched over three years ago in Monterey. My friend from grad school Susan and her new husband (though they’d been together 13 years or so) Mostafa, were headed there on a new chapter in their lives. Susan had signed on to teach at Dubai Women’s College and they were to make the United Arab Emirates (UAE) their home for the next three years. I had a standing invitation to visit them in their temporary new home.

I figured that the chances of me visiting them from Monterey were slim. I was nestled in my job at CSUMB and it’s a helluva long ways away. Besides, it wasn’t on the top of my list of sites to visit if I were going to take that much vacation and that much expense. Little did I know at the time that I’d end up living in sub-Saharan Africa, a “short” six-hour flight away.

The last time that I’d seen them was at their wedding in the Carmel Highlands. It was the first time I’d met Mostafa and they seemed like a good match. They’d been all over the world and Dubai was going to be a stint abroad before settling back into their life in California. Though he was from the Middle East (born and raised in Egypt) he’d lived most of his adult life in Western culture – mostly in Germany and the US. He liked it and the three years that they would spend in the UAE would solidify in his mind that his adopted country, the US, was “where he’d like to be buried” using his words.

I caught them in the very last days of their life in Dubai. It wasn’t by design; it just worked out that way. I took the night flight from Dar es Salaam via Nairobi and my plane was, as I’m accustomed to these days, delayed. As I sat in the Dar terminal at 2am I was thinking about my 48-hour delay in December. Dar seems to be my Hotel California.

I arrived fairly rested in spite of the sinus infection that I had acquired a couple days before. I would battle it the entire weekend. Flying in I could already see some of the famous construction that’s giving the city its new notoriety. Then looking around the shiny airport I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. This was definitely Oz.

One will invariably use a lot of superlatives in describing Dubai. It’s pretty far out there when it comes to opulence. I’d heard a lot about all the construction, new outrageous hotels, the palm-shaped, manmade islands being built off shore, but this place is even crazier than I’d expected. Driving to their apartment was a treat compared to Dar simply because the roads are all paved. Maybe I’d been a bit less in awe coming from someplace besides Tanzania but it’s still pretty impressive. The roads are full of nice cars and this city in the desert somehow manages to have plenty of green grass around their freeways.

It was the UAE weekend – Thursday and Friday. It’s common in Muslim countries to switch up the weekend to make sure you get Friday off. Other countries choose Friday and Saturday so that they’re a bit more in sync with the West.

The UAE is a fairly strict Muslim country though it’s less in harsh on non-Muslims than others. It’s against the law to speak out against the government but Western clothing is tolerated in most places. Ramadan, the 30-day Muslim fast, is strictly enforced such that grocery stores and restaurants are closed to everyone during daylight hours (pain in the ass for the thousands of non-Muslims who simply would like to have lunch but people make do). Americans aren’t required to have a visa but anyone who has a passport that has been stamped by “Israel” (and they really put it in quotes in their documentation) is not allowed. And so forth.

Susan and Mostafa live in the New Gold Souk building. It’s a glossy, 9-floor structure with a bunch of gold shops on the main floor. Gold is one of the main commodities sold in Dubai. It’s everywhere – the 24-carat good stuff. I refrained from purchasing any but there’s so much of it that it is enticing.

Their apartment is very nice with lots of marble and a good view of the city and Rashid Port, the main port of entry for a place that has to import pretty much everything except sand. The apartment is worth something like $3,000 a month, well above Susan’s housing allowance but that was the going rate for a decent place in a decent neighborhood. I didn’t actually see any bad neighborhoods but that must mean areas where peoples’ Mercedes are from the previous decade.

Actually, there are poor people. The people doing all this construction are primarily Indian and Pakistani workers who are treated badly – so much so that there have been several articles published on the subject and human rights organizations are keeping the heat on. They don’t have affordable housing (they’re allegedly crammed 8-10 to an apartment) and they’re not allowed to bring their families. They work 24 hours a day in either two or three shifts depending on their situation. You can hit traffic jams at any hour of the day or night. It’s the real “city that never sleeps”.

After catching up with Susan and Mostafa, the former and I headed out to the old city to catch a glimpse of what Dubai used to be like. In reality, there isn’t much of old Dubai left. As late as 1970 the city was a tiny village on a small inlet of the Persian Gulf only about 20 miles across from Iran. When the oil wells were located and exploited, things began to happen. Fast. The city grew exponentially and the Western consumption of the “Texas tea” made all the Emirates’ nationals rich. Though they are still very rich, it was determined several years ago that the wells probably only have another 20 years left in them. They needed a plan B and that was to be tourism. I don’t know if they took risk management classes at UNLV but for some reason they thought the desert would be a good place to bring tourists. They set out to reinvest their opulent wealth into creating the most amazing make-believe land since Vegas. And that’s what’s happening now.

However in the process of this modernization, they realized that tourists also like old stuff and the few older buildings had mostly gone the way of the bulldozer. So they decided to create a National Museum, a small area that is somewhat of a “Pirates of the Caribbean”-esque walk-through museum which attempts to portray life before petroleum. It’s pretty interesting and, at least for me, accentuates the tragedy of their bludgeoned physical history. Old Arabia is sadly hard to find in Dubai.

After the museum, we caught a boat around “Dubai Creek”. It’s not really a creek but some sort of salty inlet from the Gulf. There is no fresh water in Dubai. The entire city quenches their thirst, flushes their toilets and waters their lawns with desalinated water. I’m not sure how they do it and it has to be outrageously expensive but they do.

The boat took us up and down the creek. These boats are somewhat of a trademark and are one of the few things that are refreshingly old. Many of the wrinkly boat drivers are even older and in considerably worse condition. Our driver cruised around for about a half hour and then dropped us off at the old souks (markets). Susan and I walked around smelling the spices, looking at the gaudy jewelry and fending off aggressive Indian and Pakistani vendors.

After we’d had our fill of the souks, we decided we needed to get back and get ready to go out for dinner. Mostafa is extremely punctual (and he’s an avid weight lifter) so I didn’t want to be late. He’d made arrangements for us to go to this fancy hotel downtown and have all-you-can-eat cheese and all-you-can-drink-wines from around the world. All I could say was woo hoo! I felt like a country bumpkin coming from backwards Dar es Salaam and having all this good stuff available to me. Needless to say we all took advantage of the all-you-can.

Friday morning Mostafa prepared us omelets. The guy even includes all garnish and stuff. He’s become quite the cook over the time that they’ve been in Dubai since he hasn’t been able to work as much as he'd hoped. He discovered substandard pay for his skills and experience and some other reasons so he opted out. In any case, once they’d decided on heading back to California at the end of Susan’s contract, he decided that he’d spend the rest of his Dubai time working out, cooking and running the house. Not a bad gig but it does get old.

We then headed out to new Dubai – which is pretty much all of it. We aimed first for the Burj al Arab Hotel, the only seven star hotel in the world. I think they had six star hotels, looked at this thing and decided that they needed a new category. It’s pretty incredible. I confess that I did not go inside for two reasons: 1) we didn't feel the need and 2) you have to pay just to go into the lobby. We had a full agenda anyway so maybe next time.

Some of the outrageous construction projects are as much a credit to innovation and imagination as they are a blight to the environment. They are endless.

I’d heard about the man-made palm-shaped islands jutting out into the water and loaded with fancy homes. What I didn’t realize is that there are three separate similar projects. All palms. All loaded with luxurious homes. One of the island string “palm fronds” is actually in the shape of a Arabic text – a line from a poem written by Sheik Mohammed, the Crown Prince of the Dubai Emirate – with houses being built on it. I don’t know if I explained that well but if you’re curious, there’s always Google.

Then there’s the 300 or so man-made islands in the shape of a map of earth. No joke. I was told that some of this was Donald Trump’s idea, which wouldn’t surprise me. Either that or it was some guy on crack.

They’ve also begun the new world’s tallest building. They’re about 20 stories into it so far. They’ve got a long ways to go. The builders refuse to announce the official projected height of the building because another building is going up someplace else and there’s a bit of competition.

After cruising among the endless half-built skyscrapers we drove past the indoor ski area smack dab in the middle of the desert. Yep, in case you’ve never heard of such a thing they built a ski run with real fake snow, just like in Sun Valley during the spring. It’s pretty amazing. Apparently they hand out coats, gloves and the works for the snowy desert outing. Didn’t go in there either but I swiped the interior photo off the web.

I did go in a mall after that. Dubai is like a lot of hot cities where people prefer to shop in the great air-conditioned indoors. They have everything you’d ever want and every fancy chain store on the planet. Even being deprived in Tanzania, I still have a short attention span for the shopping mall. We finally took a break and had some Thai food that sent smoke coming out my ears. We decided that was pretty much it for the day and we headed home.

Saturday, with the UAE weekend over, Susan had to work. Mostafa and I did the manly thing and worked out in their gym. Their building has a full gym, two bowling lanes and a spa. They also have a tennis court, pool and barbeque area on the roof. Very cool.

Afterwards we did the less-manly man thing and headed for the mall. Mostafa has a favorite coffee shop in there so after sampling aftershaves and roasted peanuts we set up shop and read the paper. Malls give me a rash so after a while I went in search for a new activity. Off to the grocery store we went to buy things for dinner and so that I could get some stuff to bring back to my deprived African home.

When you walk in the store it looks like Albertson’s or something. A lot of the products are different but the US has successfully exported the concept of the supermarket. There of course is no booze (though you can get it in some restaurants and hotels as I found out). Pork is hard to find in the country though you can find it in a few grocery store “back rooms”. This one had such a place and I ducked in for some swine. I actually don’t normally eat much pork but there was something attractive about the whole forbidden thing. Besides, with my refrigerated packaging and the reappearance of electricity in Dar es Salaam, I’m one of the few people in the world that would think to export a bunch of mortadela and salami from a Muslim country.

For dinner Mostafa whipped up some mean chicken fajitas. It was great and he’s become a pretty good cook. I guess it pays not to work, so to speak.

That was about it. I took my morning cab to the airport and spent the rest of my UAE currency on duty-free wine and chocolate. Back to the rain of Dar es Salaam.

Mt. Meru, Tanzania

April 12-17, 2006

Of the many things to do in Tanzania, Mt. Meru is not usually on people’s list. There are some good reasons to choose other things to do. It’s sort of a pain to get to. It’s a hard climb. Its sister, Mt. Kilimanjaro, is only about 30 miles away and happens to be the tallest mountain on the continent. Moreover, her name if often mispronounced. If Meru (may-ru) were human she’d be suffering from a multitude of complexes.

Nonetheless, some friends and I decided it was something we wanted to do and we started making preparations. The fact that Priya and I were going to be in South Africa the week before was good news and bad news. The downside was that it complicated planning with our two climbing companions who were in Dar. The upside was that our camping supplies were minimal and Cape Town has good outdoor stores.

Our unofficial leader was Jenn. She sort of launched the idea and Priya and I latched onto it. I’d been wanting to do it and when she mentioned doing it during this particular Tanzanian holiday it sounded ideal. Jenn is from upstate New York and has lived in a few different parts of Africa over the past few years. She speaks decent Swahili and made a lot of the arrangements. I’ve known her for a few months and I figured she’d make a decent climbing partner. She’s thirty-ish, energetic and seems to enjoy new challenges. She and two others did the scuba certification with me a couple of months ago.

Our fourth person on the trip would be the Irishman Joey. I’d met him briefly and we had a short lunch to discuss the trip but I didn't know him very well. My rough assessment was that the four of us would be able to pull it off the climb.

We started from our place with a very overloaded taxi. The driver was very accommodating, however, and the five us knew there’d be a big tip in it for him. We got to the bus station and boarded almost immediately. The bus we were taking, Scandinavia, is notorious for leaving on time. And we did.

The ride to the Arusha area was long and hot. There was no AC for some reason but it never got unbearable. We made frequent stops to get our regular harassment from the police and the trip ended up being much longer than we’d anticipated. As we got closer to our stop the weather began to look more and more ominous. Sure enough, about a half hour before our arrival it began to sprinkle. By the time we were unloading our stuff it was pouring. We had arranged transportation from the stop to the lodge and the driver fortunately was there. Unfortunately, however, he wasn’t the most accommodating. He pulled up in front of where we’d been waiting. As we scrambled to load our things in the downpour, our discourteous driver remained seated in the shelter of his Land Cruiser. Once we were fully drenched and out of packing options, Mr. Driver forced himself out of his seat to unlock and open the rear door of the vehicle. We hurriedly loaded the last of our things and dove in. As we all sat in the Land Cruiser completely soaked there was a brief silence as the rain pounded the metal roof. Mr. Driver proceeded to complain about the fact that we made him get out and get wet, saying that it was “unfair”. Naturally we were incredulous at his self-centered attitude (uncommon to Tanzanians who are not only usually more welcoming but rarely bothered by any sort of weather conditions). A few “in kind” comments were fired back in his direction and thus began the more or less frosty, conversation-less, rainy, two-hour, bumpy, have-to-pee-all-the-way drive to Momela Lodge.

Not to say that it wasn’t beautiful. We drove through a number of cool villages, which don’t seem to get a whole lot of traffic. Kids were waving at us the whole way partly due to seeing a vehicle and partly because foreigners were on the inside. We also passed a lake loaded with flamingos and as we approached the lodge a dozen or so giraffes were scattered about.

Arriving at the lodge we had time to basically check in, scope out our foggy surroundings and get ready for dinner. Our mountain didn’t reveal itself to us until just before dinner as the clouds began to part.

It was a beautiful sight. It’s a Mt. St. Helens-esque volcano with a large blast zone. In the middle there is a cinder cone that hasn’t seen much growth over the past century. The top is rock and cinders with vegetation increasing to full on rainforest at the lower altitudes.

After dinner we went to bed fairly early. The lodge is rather large with individual cabins and huts for a capacity of probably about 150 people. Giraffes roam everywhere, especially in the morning, and there are supposedly other animals as well. The lodge was founded in the 1950’s when the John Wayne movie Hatari was filmed. Not only did they film the movie there, the original lodge was simply the housing that was built for the actors and workers. Once the filming was over they turned it into a lodge. I haven’t seen the movie but rumor has it someone in Dar owns it. We’re going to see if we can’t check it out.

We didn’t really have that early of a start and it turned out to even be a slower start than we had anticipated. Everything was slow at the park entrance as we waited for this person and that, paid for this thing and that, etc. It wasn’t a big deal since we only had about 4-5 hours of hiking to do. The main concern was the fact that during the rainy season the area experiences consistent rains. We were concerned about getting caught in them making for mor precarious hiking. Shortly after 10am we finally hit the trail with our armed guide Tino and our three porters. The porters actually took off on a different trail than we did and we didn’t see them until we arrived at the first hut. We had cloud cover for the start which was a good thing. We saw lots of game including buffalos, bushbucks, warthogs, colobus monkeys (the kind with long black and white hair), baboons and more giraffes.

Joey had gotten sick the night before he wasn’t in good shape for the first day. I felt sorry for the guy but he was a good sport and didn’t complain the whole way. We kept a slow but consistent pace. With the exception of a couple of short stretches, we were rain free most of the hike. But as we were arriving at our first hut we had a nice little downpour to dampen our things for the evening.

After we settled into the hut, we filtered some water, fired up the stove and proceeded to have the first of many cups of cocoa. We still didn’t have a view of Kili but we had a nice one of our own peak. I was joking that we’d eventually end up spending too much time looking at Kilimanjaro, that we might make our own mountain jealous and subject us to her wrath. How prophetic it turned out to be.

On day two Joey didn’t seem to be getting any better. We had been wondering if it weren’t food poisoning but this long into his sickness we were now thinking it was something else – hoping it wasn’t something that would get much worse as we got further from help. Nonetheless, he seemed ok enough to head out and off we went. The trail stayed consistently steep but in pretty good condition. We took it fairly slow and took occasional breaks, each time checking on Joey’s status. Less than an hour into the day’s hike, Priya glanced behind her and caught the first glimpse of the famous Kilimanjaro.

After nearly a year in Tanzania and flying over the top of the damn thing four times, I had never seen it before. Now, here it was in all its glory. It really did exist. I have to say, it’s pretty majestic looking. At just under 20,000 ft., a mile or so taller than any mountain in the lower 48 US states, Kili is a big ass mountain – even from our vantage point about 30 miles away. It was the first of many amazing views to come.

As we arrived at Saddle Hut we noticed a decent crowd. We’d seen almost no one on the trail up to that point so it was a bit surprising. That’s one of the benefits of the rainy season climb. Here however, a couple of groups had just descended from the summit and were working their way down. It was promising. We figured if they could pull if off, we could.

We settled in to our routine of filtering water and eating. Since we’d had a decent start that morning, we had more time this afternoon to relax, read and so forth. This is the luxury of the 2 ½ day ascent. If you were ambitious you could get to Saddle Hut in a day, summit and descend the next. It’d be tough but very doable. This way was much more comfortable and given Joey’s condition, it was all we could do anyway.

We had rain off and on that afternoon and evening. It was quite chilly and we hunkered around our stove and hot wine. We met with Tino before going to bed and he warned us that if it’s raining at our 2am departure, it’s off. No questions. The trail is precarious and rain at our altitude would mean snow and ice above. The sky cleared up just before we went to bed so I was feeling optimistic.

My optimism was unfounded. Around midnight the rain began to pound on the metal roof of the hut. Our fate was certain. We would not tag Meru’s summit.

Some time during the night Jenn spoke with Tino and he suggested that if it clears up, we head out to Rhino Point for sunrise. It’s sort of a humble trek to get to the second best spot on the second highest mountain but off we went around 6am. Joey was still ill and this time he opted out. It took us about an hour and we arrived on what is actually a high point on the rim of the crater. From here we would have followed the rim around, slightly down, and up all the way to the summit. It looked tempting and doable but it was not allowed. It would have put us on the rim during the afternoon, something that is against the rules of the mountain due to lightning strikes and torrential afternoon rains that would make the going too dangerous.

As it was, the view was stunning and we were happy. Being so far above the clouds offered incredible views 360 degrees around us. The view of Mt. Kilimanjaro was amazing (above). Our view of the Meru summit was pretty impressive (almost straight above me in the photo below) as well as the cone in the Meru crater. We savored the moment for a while and then descended back to the hut.

With the energy we did not expend climbing to the summit, we later did an afternoon guideless hike to what is called Little Meru. The weather was beautiful and we stayed there for quite some time. We had time to kill given that we didn’t climb the big one and we were spending a second night at Saddle Hut.

The next morning before heading down, Joey was feeling better so he and Jen did an early climb of Rhino point given that he’d missed it the day before. Priya, on the other hand, came down with a serious migraine. I won’t go into details but suffice to say she was a mess. I wasn’t sure how we were going to get her off the mountain. It lasted for a couple of hours beginning around 5am. Amazingly she pulled out of it and was even packed and ready to head down by 9am. Tough as nails. She and Joey demonstrated some pretty solid fortitude.

The hike down took longer than expected. Our quads and feet took a beating largely due to the steepness of the mountain. We had some fun animal sightings and finished the hike with a cool walk across a meadow loaded with giraffes, buffalos and warthogs.

We arrived at the lodge dirty and tired. Fortunately the outdoor brick fireplaces that heat the water for the huts were fired up and we were able to take warm showers on arrival. We relaxed for a couple of hours, had dinner and went to bed.

In the morning Mr. Driver escorted us back to the Arusha bus station. Conversation was just about as lively as our frigid arrival. Our drive took us a short way through Arusha National Park and we were once again treated to lots of giraffes, some disinterested in getting out of our way. There was also a nice meadow of buffalos and zebras just before leaving the park.

We caught our bus at the muddy station and we were off to Dar. Thus ended the failed yet wonderful bid to climb Tanzania’s second highest mountain. My guess is I’ll be back to try it again.