Letter #1

February 9, 2011

So folks, tonight we are packing to move to our next safari location, but this one, where we've been for two nights, has been lovely. Now, by lovely, I don't want you to imagine that the environment isn't hot, dry, harsh, and somewhat dangerous, for it is all of these. What we would think of as normally comfortable is, here, Protected (we have Masai warriors standing watch through the night to make sure the elephants, lions, and other nocturnal feeders that roam freely through this River Camp feed contentedly and without disturbance to the visitors.

We each have a 4- to 6- inch silver capsule on a string that is to be pulled for emergencies only. The definition of an emergency? Something INSIDE the tent, only. A tree can hit the ground just outside your entrance, and there is no emergency-just nature, which is what we came to enjoy, happening.

 

 

In a rough way, the River Camp at Tarangire is perfect: casual, efficient, well-run, clean-in African terms, nearly luxurious. The manager, "Johnny," was born in Zimbabwe, brought up for about 12 years in South Africa, and settled in Tanzania in his dream job about six years ago after the death of his wife. A graduate of production management for a German company, he chooses to live the rest of his life in the beloved land of Tanzania. He is a good mother hen, overseeing and tending to a pack of boys and men who obviously adore him.

The food is palatable. The "tent" that Ellen Forbes and I are housed in is a mega-platformed affair with a high thatched roof, "walled" with zipped three-layered "windows," romantically-draped and gauzy mosquito netting, full showered bathroom, and 4-poster beds that are excellent, if you like beds firm and slightly uncompromising. It was surprising, given the swelter of most days, to see blankets and quilts on the beds. And we needed them all in the night. The trick: one, or even two cool to cold 90-second showers at night without drying off. By the time we have evaporated to dry, the second time especially, our body temperature has converted the steamy evening to balmy, and as we drift off at an remarkably early hour, for me anyway, I am pulling up the sheet and patting the quilt into place.

The service, provided by members of at least half a dozen different tribes (out of Tanzania's 120 tribes), is kind, courteous, and instantaneous. Many of the staff are of the Masai tribe, distinguished from their brothers by their height, slim erect carriage, and magnificent colors: deep ruby, royal purple, midnight blues, all woven together in graceful cloths that may cover them head to toe or be thrown elegantly over shoulders and head, with another long tunic beneath. They all carry long staffs, signifying their ownership and mastery of cattle. Those same staffs, tipped with one or two spear heads, represent their accomplishment of manhood, which includes killing a lion single handed.

I alternate back and forth between profound gratitude at being a citizen from a kinder, gentler land, and profound respect for the people whose ability to live in harmony with this land has produced such a sense of grace and peace in their faces. The Masai, in particular, have tended to stay with their traditions, continuing to live in thatched roof mud huts in gatherings called, I think, bomas, although that may be the word for a village.

 

 

 

They trust their own herbal remedies, many of which we might do well to borrow from what we've heard), and resourcefulness. We took a nature walk with three Masai, one the apparent herbal leader, perhaps something of a specialist in herbs, and the other two armed with spears and a variety of sticks, which we would learn about later. They showed us remedies for strengthening women after childbirth, for easing the joints, for eradicating severe frontal lobe headache.

One of the most commonly used remedies is elephant dung smoke, which operates like a first-try remedy for almost everything. Elephant dung is surprisingly interesting. (Elephants eat almost 24 hours a day because their digestion isn't terrific, and it takes that long to get the nutrition needed to move their huge selves around the plains. But they can't digest the grasses very well, and so the dung is full of undigested grasses of all kinds that dry into a highly flammable substances ideal for starting fires (which the Masai did for us later.

You really can start a fire by spinning a stick in a hole of another stick-all you need is three really strong men spelling each other for up to 15 minutes). In fact, dung of all kinds in Africa play an important part of animal health. If your own elephant diet doesn't give you enough calcium, you can pick some out of the dung of a nursing mother, which I've actually seen an elephant do (even before it was evacuated!). If you're an elephant and can't find a nursing elephant handy, you can always eat dirt, or hyena dung, which has a huge amount of calcium because of all the bones they gnaw on.

Transitioning from dung back to people (no shits in our group), our company is somewhat motley, consisting of John and Nate, two doctor business partners who decided to junket off together leaving their wives at home; Lulu, a lady in real estate; and her across the street friend Lynn who recently sold her company, which she used to run with her recently-late husband. Lynn's life has taken her from a dust-bowl-ruined South Dakota farm with no running water to today when at almost 80, she has flown half-way across the world in a plane, something she never dreamed she'd be able to do to the next state, let alone to another continent. A couple from north of San Francisco, Jack and Tamara, round out the company, making us eight in all, including Ellen Forbes and myself, both 68-year-old Shalomers.

Ellen (pictured below) is extraordinarily fast and well-organized, I fly by the seat of my pants as a rule. I only made it here as prepared as I am by the grace of helpful friends (thank you yet again, David, and the numerous others who shared advice) and the flexibility I've developed during five years of travel and training.

Gonja and Ellen

Our Tanzania lead guide is Mgonja, a native of Arusha, father of two, and graduate of the national school on environmental preservation and tourism (or words to that effect). He loves helping people have fun, and in line with that and his love of wildlife, he plays mother hen to between 2 and 16 people at a time once or twice a month. I'm boggled by his ability to spot distant wildlife without binoculars.

He is assisted by another man, Prosper, a lovely man whose warm amused care for us makes everything feel safe and kind.

They both treat me with good humored tolerance, as I've had a little trouble getting myself efficient. Spraining an ankle the first night didn't help, although I'm grateful to say that it's mending rather faster than I had feared.

We've seen, sometimes up very close: elephants, lion, zebra, warthogs, water buck, impala, dik dik (adorable), jackal, baboon, vervet monkey (so funny), and giraffe. Ah, the giraffe-largest heart of any land mammal, able with a prehensile tongue and lips to live on acacia, a tree with thorns almost 2 inches long. They are surreal. Also mongoose, a variety of beautiful birds, and baobab trees. Baobab trees have enormous trunks topped by a wig of green leaves, sometimes decorated with weaver bird nests, which makes them look like some scruffy Christmas decorations thrown at the mammoth tree by a less than enthusiastic dustman.

As of this particular writing, we've been on the road less than two full days, and I've given you only a few highlights. Don't worry, I won't burden you with all the details. Suffice it to say, it's been very rich and varied. We travel in vans with rooves that lift straight up so that they form a canopy that protects from the sun while at the same time offering enough clearance for passengers to stand up, see, and photograph. The vans are reasonably comfortable, but the roads are definitely not, and we have been enjoying/enduring "African massage" with hopes for smoother tracks ahead.

Time to retire for our 8 am departure tomorrow (6 am the day after for the visit to the Bushmen).

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