And a joyous New Year to all of you! Hopefully 2023 ended on a high note.
While most people head home for the holidays, Cindy and I usually go on an extended vacation. For the most part, we travel to places that are somewhat remote. Past trips have taken us to Morocco, the Galapagos, and the Amazon. This time we explored Tanzania.
Based on its portrayal in the works of Hemingway, various documentaries, and those sweeping Hollywood epics, Africa has always been a place of mystery and intrigue to me. I have come to the age that if I do not head to these destinations now, I might never be able to experience them. Having spent my life working hard, I am fortunate to have built up enough cash reserve to make these dreams a reality.
With the guidance of a couple travel advisors as well as good friends, we worked out an itinerary that looked very doable on paper. Following the six-week European concert tour, we did not have much turnaround time before departing on our adventure. I suppose we could have just gone from Lyon straight south but taking a week to regroup at home seemed like a better idea.
It is not so easy to get to distant lands from St. Louis. You can’t even fly to San Francisco nonstop. The travel started with a short flight to Detroit, a three-hour layover, and then a second flight to Amsterdam. During the three additional hours waiting for the third flight to Kilimanjaro (this already sounds exotic, doesn’t it?), I took the time to re-read Hemingway’s short story as well as watch the film, not discovering much about Tanzania in either.
Our checked luggage unfortunately did not arrive with us in Kilimanjaro, so with only two small duffel bags, as well as backpacks, we would be without a lot of stuff for a few days. Thinking about it, we realized how fortunate we have been throughout our travels, as this has rarely happened. The last time was in Siberia about six years ago.
After an hour or so at the lost-luggage office, we were finally whisked away to the luxurious Legendary Lodge near the town of Arusha, about an hour from the airport, where we spent a day and a half recovering from the long journey.
Even though I wasn’t quite ready to become a tourist, we headed out the next day for a brief tour of the area. Most of the roads are dirt and gravel, but a few paved highways connect the various cities. Most people get around on motorcycles, sometimes with five passengers per vehicle. There are no helmet laws. The other means of transport include those strange little cars called tuk-tuks, essentially small, motorized taxis. But walking is the way for most people.
Tanzania is certainly not a wealthy country, and as with so many places around the world, there seems to be a disappearance, or at least a redefinition, of what we would consider the middle class. Generally, the people seem happy enough and make the very best of what they have rather than fret over what they do not. Nevertheless, what they see in the movies and on television must certainly weigh on them, at least the younger generation. There was a time when education was so minimal that only a few could participate in formal learning. That is changing, and the realization of what is out there will be a major factor in how the Tanzanians move forward.
Often, you see both women and men carrying unusually large burdens on their heads, and how they manage to balance these without using their hands had been a mystery to me until now. It turns out, they use a padded platform that sits on top of the head and helps keep everything in place. I am still not going to try it.
Cindy and I visited the Cultural Heritage Center, a contemporary set of buildings that serves as a commercial point for the selling of tanzanite. The owner of the store went about telling us the history of this blue, diamond-like gem, which is among the rarest of stones since it can only be mined in a couple of sites in the country. One would have to be well versed in its various cuts to know how much a piece should cost. The center also has numerous other artifacts for sale as well as sculptural representations of the creatures we would see as our trip progressed through four destinations within Tanzania.
Our internal flights were on very small planes, mostly one-propeller, which had strict weigh restrictions for luggage, with Cindy’s photographic equipment taking up most of our allotment. So, it was kind of a bare-necessities trip. The various airstrips—you could not really call them airports—had the usual security protocols. You go to a specific area and wait for your plane to fly in from another point. Turnaround time is rather brief, and the departure schedule changes from day to day. Most flights were mid-morning so that once we arrived at a location, the drive to the lodge would encompass some sightseeing.
But what we encountered just ten minutes after getting into the jeep taking us to Chem Chem was totally unexpected. After adjusting to the seats in the Land Cruiser, we headed out from the landing site and encountered five giraffes, taller than any I had ever seen in a zoo. The Tanzanians are very protective of the environment, striving to maintain the balance that nature has laid out. No hunting takes place in the Serengeti, and visitors are instructed never to leave the vehicle, even when the animals seem calm. These safaris are for photos and viewing only, all under the watchful eye of the government officials and locals.
Since this was the first true stop on our safari, some basics of customs and language were in order. For example, we learned that yes, they do say, “Hakuna Matata.” It means “don’t worry” and existed long before The Lion King. Swahili is the main language, but all the people we met also spoke English quite well. When you greet someone, “Jambo, jambo” is the friendly way to do it. Now, Lionel Richie began to make sense to me. Handshakes can be done the traditional Western way or by fist bump. Smile a lot.
The roads are filled with rocks, crevasses, and obstacles, making for a more-than-bumpy ride. All the jostling can take a toll on passengers. After a couple of days of this, I felt that in addition to the amenities provided, they might want to include neck braces and a tube of Preparation H.
As we headed towards our destination, elephants came into view as well as a myriad of birds and other creatures roaming about in their natural habitat. When we emerged from the bush and its trees, a vista the likes of which you cannot begin to imagine unfolded. Spanning the horizon, it is all too much for the eye to take in. All you can do is look in wonder at what nature has accomplished. Nothing can prepare you for the grandeur of this sight.
Two hours later, around one o’clock, we arrived at the Chem Chem Lodge and were greeted by several members of the staff. This would be true of the remaining three lodgings, as well, but each had their own special way of doing it. Here it was with clapping as you drove up to the front. Cool washcloths were refreshing after the dusty ride.
There are several ways to enjoy a trip to this part of the world, but as I mentioned earlier, age plays its part, so if I can be driven somewhere, that is just fine for me. Here, as with most of the lovely places where we stayed, the rooms were basically large tents. They had coverings to protect from inclement weather, and all the doors could close so that moths and monkeys could not get in.
Each had outlets for electrical devices, but it was not until the final stop that we could really use the internet. Getting away from the ills of the world is mostly what vacation is about for me. And when you finally reconnect, you learn that not much has really changed.
We followed the same pattern at each of our stops. Arrive, settle into the room, have lunch, go on a three-hour drive, have dinner, and go to sleep. The reason for the early nights was to be ready for a six- o’clock trek the following morning, and that meant getting up at an hour that does not exist for musicians.
The “Big Five” must-see animals on any trip here are lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards, and Cape buffalo. We had seen two of five within the first half hour in Chem Chem and would cross another two off the list on the first full day. But then there are all the other beasts, large and small, that make this place so wonderful. Rather than give you a day-by-day account, let me just give a few highlights.
Cindy became enamored of the guinea fowl, with its colorful head and strange wings. This is the only bird that has not figured out how to veer to the side of the road and not plow straight ahead when a Jeep is approaching.
Her goal here was to get a photo of a hippo yawning, and she met that objective on the next-to-last day of the trip. I was getting a massage back at the Mwiba camp, so missed the live action. But I did see a few hippos on our first day. A good dentist would be in order.
It was migration season for the wildebeests, when more than two million make the journey to areas where vegetation is plentiful. You have to see it to believe it.
I never knew that there were so many zebras in the world. They inhabited all the areas we visited.
We came across a small elephant herd and one mother who felt that our Jeep got just a little too close to her and the kids. She charged towards us, trumpeting along the way, even as we turned on the engine and dashed away. Our guide told us she was just showing off for her children.
Leopards were a bit hard to come by, but we did spot one in a tree, lazily ignoring those of us who might have made for a tasty afternoon snack.
Vultures are big, ugly, and noisy birds. They tackle the remains of whatever is left of a carcass, in this case, an impala. About a hundred gathered at the site, with the weaker ones standing by waiting for any leftovers.
A pride of lions was also making a meal out of an impala. The sound of teeth meeting bone is quite disturbing.
Monkeys are cute; baboons, less so. Both seemed to enjoy jumping on our roofs at night.
The variety of bird calls would make Messiaen very happy. Listening to each and hearing the responses could be all-consuming. One bird sang a constant 3/4 pattern, with the first note higher than the other two, that became annoying after a while. I kept putting the “Blue Danube” to it in my mind.
At two of the lodges, we were greeted with songs from the staff. A friendlier and more helpful group of people cannot be found anywhere.
We visited two indigenous tribes. First were the Maasai, dressed in flowing robes and long scarves. Perhaps it is not for us Westerners to question them, as these people live in harmony with each other and the land while maintaining their cultural traditions. Many work at the lodges, and you can see how they are adapting to the new world order. Hopefully, they will not lose too much in the transition. Upon arrival at their village, we were greeted with song and dance. Many items were for sale, including jewelry, utensils, and beaded representations of the animals.
Tanzania is home to more than 120 different ethnic groups, each with its own language, and one would expect that there might have been some conflict over the centuries. Although no one appears to be at outright war right now, tensions still exist.
I had the opportunity to visit the Maasai’s main opposition, the Datooga, who live a very different lifestyle. Their village is much smaller and more dominated by the women of the tribe. They did not regale me with songs and dances when I visited but were unbelievably hospitable, with the children eager to hug me and present me with a two-day-old goat. I politely declined to take it home, but three of the young people who surrounded me could have been a possibility.
The settlement of the conflict basically involved the government deciding who got what land, where the boundaries would be, and how many cows each tribe could have. Stealing a bovine is considered a high crime and could easily set things off again. But coexistence is becoming more commonplace, and as we move ahead in time, I suspect that the rapid pace of technology will become more and more a part of these people’s lives. Let’s hope that most of their traditions remain in place because it is the celebration of our differences that makes for a truly wonderful planet to live on.
I could write so much more about this extraordinary adventure, but hopefully I have given you a little taste of what it was like. Although I will probably not get back here again, as other destinations are on the horizon, this trip will linger in my memory. With the help of Cindy’s ever-growing photographic skills, this remarkable part of the world will be available to me whenever I want to revisit it.
Work beckons with interesting musical adventures to come. See you next month.
Wishing you Hakuna Matata,