Safari with mom
My mother recently visited me in Tanzania. Sandy teaches art to elementary students, mostly African-American children, in the poorest neighborhood of Dayton, Ohio. She had 2 weeks off for her Winter Break, so she wanted to spend this break with her son in East Africa. My mother brought a fellow schoolteacher, Sophia, with her, and I had invited an American friend, Cathy, who lives and works in Dar es Salaam. The four of us spent two weeks in close quarters, and in the end it was a fun, interesting, and comical adventure, and a great opportunity for me to spend time with my mother.
The trip was off to an interesting start even before my mother arrived. They had put me in charge of planning an itinerary, and so I had wanted to give them an entire 36 hours to relax in Dar and give the 8 hours of jet lag a chance to wear off before putting them on any public transport. We needed to take a local bus from Dar es Salaam to Arusha, where we would start our safari to the Serengeti and Ngorogoro Crater. The bus trip would be about 10 hours, barring no delays, such as stopping to kick off some passengers before weighing the bus. As anyone, they would be tired after spending 24 hours of flight time, making 3 stops, and switching 8 time zones, and starting the bus ride and safari well rested would be key to maintaining happiness.
Shortly before her departure, I call her over the internet telephone. It was Saturday evening my time and Saturday morning her time. If was supposed to pick her up at the airport on Sunday night (my time), then I knew she must be leaving for the airport soon. “So, you must be heading to the airport soon.” I say.
“No! I don’t leave until tomorrow morning.”
I immediately knew something was wrong. “Well, how can you leave on Sunday morning in Ohio and arrive on Sunday night in Tanzania, especially when we are 8 hours ahead of Ohio?” Either she had already missed the flight or she wasn’t arriving on Sunday night. There was a pause as she searched for the ticket.
“Well, it looks like I arrive on Monday night in Dar!” Sandy says. Somehow, when talking to someone in East Africa, despite a good connection, most things are said with exclamations. I explain that it won’t be a problem. Unfortunately, they’ll now have only 10 hours to relax after they land before getting on a dirty, bumpy, speeding bus.
They arrived on Monday night full of energy and suitcases. They were passing out mosquito repellant, a variety of sunscreens and SPFs, and batteries like a pot-bellied Santa Clause in a mid-western mall. They also pulled out bundles of notebooks, coloring books, crayons, markers, toothbrushes, and toothpaste to give to a school classroom. I still didn’t have a plan for these supplies, despite the one-month lead notice. They finally went to bed around 1:30 am and were woken 5 hours later.
The bus ride took 12 hours. We arrived in Arusha in the late, dark evening and were greeted by a gentleman holding a sign with “Dr. Paul’s Mother’s Safari”. If it hadn’t just taken an 12-hour bus ride with almost no legroom and only one stop for lunch, I would have laughed at this sign a little more than I did.
The next morning, we woke up early and started the 3-hour drive to Ngorogoro Crater, nicknamed “The Garden of Eden”. While driving through the city, our driver pointed to a large tourist-oriented souvenir shop. “See that shop, President Clinton visited that place,” he says. After the driver dropped off his dry cleaning, we were eventually on the road out of town and driving through several coffee plantations.
The drive out to the Crater passes through the Great Rift Valley. The Rift Valley extends from southern Ethiopia to the northeastern Zambia and northern Mozambique. This area is currently considered to be the Darwinian birthplace of homo sapiens. About 5 years ago, archeologists working around the Rift Valley uncovered the oldest known hominoid bones. I think about how much progress has been made in this birthplace of humanity. The houses are still mud huts and the Massai warriors are still nomadic herders who walk and carry a spear. Ah, but the road has been paved since I last visited the area five years ago. This was now my third trip to Ngorogoro Crater and riding the new tarmac makes me smile. It is the only sign of infrastructure development I notice, but I convince myself that they are making progress, albeit slowly.
The road down into the Crater descends 2,000 feet and is narrow and steep. A week after we finished our trip, I learned about a tragic accident on this dangerous road just several days after we passed through. A young, female American student, who was studying as an exchange student at the University of Dar es Salaam, was killed as their safari vehicle blew a tire, overturn on the steep road, and ejected everyone from the truck. Although several were injured, the young female student was the only one killed in the accident. Furthermore, she was traveling with her parents.
After we reached the Crater floor, we first came upon some Massai warriors herding cattle. ‘What a strange place to be herding cattle,’ I thought, ‘given that there are many lions living in the Crater. And I think I would want a little more protection than just a spear.’ I realized they must be rather desperate to find green space for their livestock. It’s partly a result of the ongoing drought that has been hitting this area since 1997.
We had removed the roof of the vehicle, so I stood up and peered out the top like all the other camera-touting tourists. We slowly drove around the Crater floor stopped every few hundred feet to ogle at the various animals. Almost immediately, we saw zebra, gazelles, ostrich, baboons, wildebeests, and warthogs. The density of wild animals living together in this 12-mile wide crater is astounding. It also prompts many questions about co-habitation, such as ‘are hyenas and gazelles okay being this close together?’
Then, someone spots a huge elephant with large, white ivory tusks under a big umbrella-like Acacia tree a few hundred yards in the distance near the edge of the Crater floor. The soft wood Acacia tree has a flat canopy about 30 feet high and is a classic symbol of Africa. Seeing an elephant walk under the tree with a backdrop of the Crater wall is like newly discovering the eighth wonder of the world.
“Oh, look at that!” Sophia says. “This is just like the Discover Channel!”
“Wait, isn’t the Discovery Channel just like this?” I say. “You are seeing the real thing, right here.” There was no response.
We continue driving around and within an hour we spot the Crater’s most famous animal. There are only 13 black rhinos in the greater area and not many more in existence. They have long been poached for their horn, which is considered to be an aphrodisiac in the Far East, and are now on the brink of extinction. The large black rhinoceros is about 150 yards from the road and is walking directly towards us. We wait, cameras at the ready. As the large, strange looking animal approaches it turns slightly and crossed the dirt road just 20 yards in front of our car. Just wonderful to see this large, endangered creature from close range, but I couldn’t help thinking we were in its way.
Shortly thereafter, I spot a female lion lying in the sun on a small mound of dry grass. Then, we see a pair of cheetahs having a siesta in the hot sun. Finally, we arrive at the hippopotamus pool, and watch 20 large hippos resting in the water. They really don’t do much.
We parked the car and ate lunch at the hippo pool. There were 20 large, worn, safari-beaten Land Rovers lined up along the bank. The sun burnt tourists were outside the trucks sitting in the grass. Some had clearly spent a bit of time and money in an apparent attempt to look like Ernest Hemingway. As we finished lunch a large, 5-ton elephant decided to stroll past the row of trucks. The expensive cameras made their way over to collect more evidence that they were indeed on a safari with elephants. ‘The only mammal with four knees’ I thought to myself. As quickly as it started, the sunglasses and cameras were back in the truck and we were off for more game driving.
We drove around the remaining areas of the Crater for the afternoon. By the end of our day, we had seen elephants, zebra, flamingos, marabou stork, secretary birds, jackals, bushbucks, a lion, cheetahs, wildebeests, warthogs, a rhinoceros, hippopotamuses (or hippopotami?), hyenas, vultures, ostrich, baboons, vervet monkeys, Thompson gazelles, Grant gazelles, and Cape buffalo. I’m still not sure if the Cape buffalo are ‘water or land buffalo’, but that was a good question Sophia.
That evening we sat out on the hotel’s veranda at the upper rim of the Crater. We looked out over the entire Crater and watched the sunset. “You’re a long way from Ohio”, I said to my mother.
The next day we drove 3 hours to the Serengeti National Park. The Serengeti is an open plain with some small rounded hills that have been weathered with time. The landscape is much different from the Crater. The landscape in the Serengeti is expansive and gives the appearance that the wild animals and the environment have no boundaries. The animals could roam around for months, migrate hundreds of miles up to Kenya in the dry season, and come back in the wet season for plentiful grass over the endless miles of open land.
With the vast expanse brought about greater challenges in spotting and locating the animals. No longer were there 5 trucks parked around the two cheetahs that were 50 feet off the road. Most of the animals in the Serengeti would be off in the distance, through some trees, or hiding in the grass. The law in Tanzania forbids the trucks from driving off road, which came to appreciate as respective the animals habitat and space. The law is different in Kenya, and my previous safari driver in Kenya had no shame about pulling the truck within 10 feet of a lion napping under a tree.
In the vast openness of the Serengeti we were often looking in various directions when someone would shout, “Oh, look! A giraffe!” Hearing this just created a sense of panic. Everyone yells back, “Where? Where?” as we scramble to spot what might be the last giraffe walking out of sight into the trees. And if the spotter replies with, “Over there!” it just seems to make the situation worse.
So, Cathy and I introduced the clock system for describing the location of animals. We had already used it before with success on a short safari we took a few months back. We explained the only two ground rules. First, the car is the reference point. Secondly, the front of the car is always 12 o’clock. Therefore, if you see an animal off to the right of the car, then the animal would be 3 o’clock. If the animal was between the front of the truck and the right of the truck, then it was at 1 o’clock or 2 o’clock. On the previous safari, Cathy and I would try to be more precise saying, ‘3 giraffes at 1:30, and a 4th giraffe at 2:15’. Whether they were necessary or not, throwing in some minutes was always my favorite.
Everyone seemed to understand the clock system and I thought to myself, ‘this is now going to be an efficient safari for locating animals’. I was confident in our abilities to easily locate all the animals in our path. We could describe the exact location with pinpoint accuracy and eliminate the sense of panic. I would soon realize our accuracy was about as good as the laser-guided bombs falling on defined targets in Iraq.
We drove another 20 minutes before Sophia spotted a herd of zebra. “Oh, look! Some zebra!” she shouts. Panic starts to ensue.
“Okay, where?” someone says. I was standing just behind her in the truck, so I could see she was facing directly to the right, at 3 o’clock. As she searched for the answer, I felt like a parent watching a daughter shoot a free throw in a high school basketball game.
She raised her arm to point. I was mentally cheering her on, but she had to take the shot herself. “Over there, at... 11 o’clock” she says pointing off at 2 o’clock. ‘Oh, hits the rim and bounces out,’ I think to myself. Cathy shot me a look that said, ‘how can I find the animals if people are telling me to look in a different direction?’ I pretend to look for the zebras at 11 o’clock, and we both start laughing in hysterics.
“Well, she was facing 3 o’clock, so to her the zebras were indeed at 11 o’clock”, I say. “Perhaps Sophia’s positioning should be our permanent reference.” We all laugh.
During our game drive in the afternoon, we would see many lions, cheetah, giraffe, hippos, gazelles, hyenas, jackals, topi, baboons, buffalo, hartebeests, a crocodile, vervet monkeys, and tons of zebra and wildebeests. We settled into our lodge, located in the middle of the park, sometime in the evening. It’s odd to think of this full service lodge with a dirty swimming pool out in the middle of this vast national park. The lodge sits on top of a hill and is built into the rocks. Although I can see for miles and miles, there is nothing around but the vast openness of the infinite landscape. Watching the sun set over the Serengeti plain was magical.
The next afternoon, we drove up to a pack?, herd?, or cackle? of about 10 Land Rovers parked and watching a leopard resting in a tree. We joined the modern Hemingways and took pictures for about 30 minutes until it decided to climb down the tree. This brought out some ‘Ooohs and Aaaahs’ from the Hemingways in the pack of now 20 Land Rovers watching the cat.
“It looks like he might hunt the gazelles”, someone from another truck says after spotting a group? of gazelles nearby. Sure enough, the big cat was stealthy moving through the waist-high dry, savanna grass towards the Thompson gazelles. The cat was mostly out of sight, and occasionally the ears or tail would reappear to clue us in on his location. He was moving slowly but steadily towards the small pack of gazelles. I wondered how many of the 50 or so gazelles knew the leopard was in the area, and furthermore if any knew they were now being hunted.
Our driver explained that the leopard must get very close before making his move because although their speed can be explosive, it can’t sustain for very long. The leopard had finally settled about 30 feet from the nearest gazelle. His head was low, but it was fixed on the gazelles. The gazelles are still eating grass and I figured the leopard was being patient for a gazelle to wander over a little closer. There is now an air of intensity and the adrenaline is palpable.
I look around at the modern Hemingways and everyone has their modern gun ready to take the shot. Some had elaborate tripods to stabilize their modern gun, while others had huge telescopic lenses to capture the nose hairs of the leopard as it was making a kill. I imagine someone returning to France saying, ‘Ah, oui! Regard! Le nez-cheveux de la léopard!’ There are now close to 30 Land Rovers lined up along the dirt road, and some drivers had driven off road to position their clients closer to the front. Hoping that if there were to be a kill, their clients would have a front row seats, perhaps even get a little gazelle blood splattered on them. As the leopard had been moving in on the gazelles, so to had the Modern Hemingways moved in on the leopard. Each Hemingway had a camera at the ready, and the closest camera is now about 30 feet from the leopard. It had become apparent that as the leopard is hunting the gazelle, we too are hunting the leopard. Who is going to draw their pistol first?
The gazelles don’t appear to see or know about the leopard existence. They continued feeding and appeared relaxed, at least as relaxed as a gazelle could knowing they were almost constantly being monitored or hunted by something in some unknown direction. One gazelle had wandered over to within 20 feet of the leopard. ‘Go for it! This is your opportunity! Strike!’ I savagely and telepathically say to the leopard.
I study the close proximity of the leopard to the gazelles and the Hemingways to the leopard. Before the leopard has a chance to come of out hiding, grab a gazelle by the neck, and enjoy a good meal, the Modern Hemingways make their move. In an effort to move in on the leopard, one of the truck drivers started his engine. This spooked the gazelles and they ran out of the battle theater. Shortly thereafter, the leopard, realizing he had been defeated on this attempt, came out of hiding and climbed up into another tree. At this point, all of the gazelles now see the leopard and the hunt would have to be postponed for another time. I can’t be certain, but I think I saw the leopard give the middle finger to the Hemingways after coming to rest in the new perch. I silently wonder at what point the leopard will realize his hunting could be made easier by first dealing with the Hemingways.
It is our last day on safari. We are driving around an area of the Serengeti that is off the beaten path. We are the only Land Rover around and it is mostly quiet. It is nice to observe the landscape and some of the animals around the landscape. Announcing animals has all but stopped at this point. Due to Sophia’s never finding a frame of reference that worked for everyone and my mother’s poor eyesight, the clock system broke down. I think I must have asked my mother 3 or 4 times when she last had her eyes checked. A comical situation had built up to Sophia giving the wrong location and my mother, after scrambling to find the animal, saying, “where? I just don’t see it!” as she threw up her hands.
I reflect back on all the questions that had been asked in the previous days. There is a gradual trend in complexity with the questions, starting with the very benign and progressing to PhD dissertation research topics by the end of the safari. First-day safari questions are usually something along the lines of ‘do female elephants have tusks?’, ‘how long to the rhinos live?’, ‘does a zebra need water every day?’, and my favorite, ‘why don’t the animals leave the Crater?’. Over the courses of a safari, tourists seem to gradually remember their lifelong dreams of becoming an animal behaviorologist like Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey. By the last day are attempting to identify their PhD research topic and their questions start sounding like long, complex dissertation titles being presented at a graduation ceremony. Typical last-day questions such as usually unanswerable, and are along the lines of ‘If this lioness mates with the alpha-male lion, would the cub also be raised by other lionesses who mate with the same alpha-male?’ or ‘is that sound made by the zebra a mating call or a warning to other zebra that there is a lion in the grass about 50 yards away?’. Okay, I’ll admit it, I did ask the last question.
For the last-day questions, most of the drivers just start to make up answers. They are however very patient with the simple questions, and I’m sure some questions are asked by almost every group. I think the success of a good driver simply depends on his/her patience at answering questions. I know I would have failed. After the 50th question, I would have snapped back, “Didn’t you read a single damn thing about these animals before you came?” But the drivers don’t, and they are very accommodating.
We arrived back in Arusha on Christmas eve. We had a special dinner at a nice hotel, and ended up discussing poverty, health, and the American education system. So, naturally, it was a fun evening, at least for me. After dinner, Sophia wanted to visit the casino in the basement. She exchanged a US $20 for a small bucket of coins for the slot machines. Within 30 minutes of playing, she hit the jackpot of the machine and won $100! She cashed out and we took a taxi back to our hotel.
On Christmas morning, we flew to a small island off the southern coast called Mafia Island. Our plane was a simple 12-seater, and the 13th person sat in the co-pilot seat. There were three legs for our flight, so with a chance to rearrange on Zanzibar my mother made sure she would sit in the co-pilot seat for the remaining two flights. The landing strip on Mafia Island was nothing more than a clearing of the trees and a dirt strip with a few potholes. This was just enough off the beaten path that it was going to be perfect for a few days of relaxation. We spent Christmas strolling the beach, enjoying a beautiful view of the Indian Ocean, and having dinner in a grassy courtyard under the African stars.
The Mafia Island Marine Park is the only National Park on the eastern coast of Africa and is well known for scuba diving. Since my mother wasn’t certified for scuba diving, I would enjoy snorkeling with her. The next day, we headed out on a traditional, wooden dhow boat for a morning of snorkeling. The colorful fish and displays of coral were absolutely amazing. After eating a late lunch on a small deserted island, we sailed home on the traditional wooden dhow boat.
Sailing in the dhow quickly became my favorite activity. The boat is made of wood from the mango tree, and it typically takes three men several months to craft a boat by hand. The final product is hardly anything resembling good engineering. Later, I would be able to see men constructing a dhow with functional imprecision. A dhow has a central mast, but it doesn’t hold the main sail as would a modern sailboat. Instead there is a boom that can be raised about 20 feet to the top of the mast. The main sail is attached to the boom and the anchor point of the sail is latched to the dhow’s stern. Since the boom is attached to the mast at only one point, it can pivot. The boom usually ends up making a 45-degree angle to the mast and the triangular sail hangs out over the water. While this design may not be the most efficient model, a dhow sails just fine and it’s slow pace is quite comfortable.
The following day, I went on two scuba dives with Cathy. While the scuba diving was amazing and like nowhere else, my mother had the more interesting day. In an adventurous spirit, she had signed up to go swimming with the whale sharks. Yes, not only are they sharks! but they are also the largest sharks! - up to 13 tons large! These sharks feed by opening their large mouths and taking in whatever may be in their path. Therefore, so long as you are not in front of the whale shark, then technically they should be a danger. This would also the first time my mother would be out of my immediate purview, so I was more than a little nervous.
The guide was giving instruction to the boat’s passengers on how and when to jump in the water. “Have your mask and snorkel ready and when I tell you to jump in the water, you jump!” Upon hearing this my mother thought that was the signal to jump, and was quickly in the water. When she came back up she realized she was the only one in the water. She climbed back into the boat and apologized for missing the signal. But hey, what’s wrong with a little practice?
Shortly after this, the guide spotted the whale shark, and he gave the first real signal to jump in the water. My mother wanted to be in fast and she was quick to get in the water. In the ensuing excitement she caught her flipper on the edge of the boat as she leaped into the water. Her flipped was knocked off her foot and was now slowly sinking in the water. Instead of diving down to get it, she looked up at the guide and said, “My flipper is sinking!”
“So dive down and get it!” the guide naturally replied. She refused. The guide jumped in and dove down 10 feet to retrieve the sinking flipper. During this commotion, the whale shark had already swum past and this cost the group their first real opportunity to swim with a whale shark.
Then, there was a second opportunity to swim with a whale shark. She was excited as the guide gave the signal to enter the water. She eagerly jumped in and this time with all of her gear intact. However, by the time she entered the water and looked around, it was already too late. She discovered that the sharks had already swum by, so she clamored back into the dhow.
There was a third and final opportunity to swim with a shark. At this opportunity my mother decided to hang up her fins and observe from the boat. Yes, I could have simply said that my mother swam with sharks, but that wasn’t the full picture. We all shared some laughs that night as she told and retold us her comedy of errors.
The next day, my mother and I went back to snorkeling. Then, another day later, we headed back to Dar es Salaam. Of course, my mother sat in the co-pilot’s seat again.
She and Sophia had only one day to see Dar es Salaam before flying home, and they wanted to visit the hospital. It was a Friday morning, the day I attend the major ward rounds. On the drive up to the hospital I was motioned to pull over by the traffic police. ‘Great, of all the days’, I thought. He saw an expired insurance sticker on the front windshield and he smiled as he realized I was busted. I negotiated him down to about $2 (from $10), handed him the cash and we were on our way.
We arrived outside the Medicine ward and she appeared to be in shock as she looked around. This environment outside the ward is striking. The hospital is a complex and it feels like a walled in compound. The Emergency Department sits across the road. Above the Emergency entrance is a sign reading ‘Casualty’, which I still think is ironic. There were people being wheeled around on gurneys, adults hobbling on crutches, and sick-looking patients wandering about. The buildings are run down and there is trash in the street. There is also abundant activity of people and stretchers with people are being pushed down a dirt sidewalk in the sun
We walked up to the ward on the second floor and stop at the front of the long hall. I see the large group of physicians I would have been with this morning. They are hovering over a patient trying to ‘first, do no harm’. We continue stand at the head of the ward near the nurses’ station. There are no patients in this area, so it allowed them time to digest the scene. It is a lot to take in.
I explain the general situation of the floor and she asks some questions. Sister Kilama says hello. I introduce my mother and she welcomes my mother with a big smile and a friendly greeting in English. I continue to explain lack of resources at the hospital and the situation with the striking interns.
After giving the time to realize that the ward is a safe place, I ask her to walk with me down the long row of beds and patients. She hesitantly agrees.
“This woman is just so thin, does she have HIV?” Sophia asks.
“She is a new patient, so I don’t know her case. She may have HIV. HIV can cause something called ‘Wasting Syndrome’. In fact, my research here is about weight loss, nutrition, and HIV.”
My mother asks how the patient’s acquire food while in the hospital. I tell her that if the patients live within a certain radius of the city, then they must rely on a family member or friend. If they live outside the radium, which is quite large, then the hospital can help them. After I explained this she said, “well, I guess I’ll never complain about hospital cafeteria food again.”
Before I left for vacation, we were in the process of deciding what to do with two young girls with rheumatic heart disease. They will both need cardiac surgery in the next couple of years. However, cardiac surgery can’t be done in Tanzania and their poor families cant’ afford to fly them to India. I wanted to listen to their heart and lungs to see if their conditions had changed. I grabbed my stethoscope and indicated for my mother to follow.
I said hello, introduced my mother, and listening to their little bodies making noises that shouldn’t exist. My mother said, “Would I be able to give them some crayons and coloring books? They are just out in the car.”
“Sure,” I said handing her the keys. She came back in with several coloring books and packages of crayons. I stood off to the side and watched her distribute the materials to the child patients in the area. She is a natural with children. Being an elementary art teacher, she showed them what to do with the crayons and books. I watched the kids as their faces light up with life and excitement. The 5 children in the area started coloring immediately.
I stood back and watched her communicate with these children and their mothers without any common verbal language. But, she didn’t have to say anything at all. I had been seeing most of these children with their mothers for the past month or so, and they had become used to me. It was a special moment to see these children and their mothers warm so quickly to my mother.
Later that night, my mother flew back to the States, and I can only imagine the stories she would tell, and what exaggerations she may use in retelling her stories.