Red. That was one of the first impressions that Tanzania made on me during my first full day there. The soil was so red that it reminded me of Georgia red clay, the kind that my mom found impossible to remove from our clothes after my sisters and I had had particularly messy backyard adventures. I was surprised that, despite the fact that Kenya and Tanzania are neighbors, their respective landscapes and climates seemed so different. Tanzania seemed hotter and drier but still seemed to sport a much more varied topography: dry, scrubby bush would suddenly become lush, green, almost jungle-like vegetation, and in the distance were mountains of various heights (unsurprising, given our proximity to Mt. Kilimanjaro).
Our first stop was a local tour that gave us a glimpse into the lives of various Tanzanian ethnic groups. From agriculture, to woodcarving (by the Makonde, who came to Tanzania from Mozambique during the latter country’s civil war), to the production of banana beer (which I found to be surprisingly tasty, given that I dislike beer), we got to sample different aspects of local culture. The tour ended with a lunch of local foods, some of which reminded me of the food that I ate growing up. Needless to say, this was the best meal that I had eaten thus far on my trip.
Our next stop was a game drive in Lake Manyara. I must admit, this was my least favorite game drive of the trip. Unlike in Kenya, where the drivers frequently threw caution to the wind to get us as close to the animals as possible, Tanzania is much more strict about requiring drivers to stay on the marked paths. That, combined with Lake Manyara’s mostly thick, rainforest-y cover meant that the only animals that we got to see up close (or at all) were those that came close to the road. On the plus side, though, we did spot (just barely) a resting python, heavy and swollen from a recent meal.
The next day, we visited another Masai village. This time, the visit was much more pleasurable. Unlike in the village that we had visited in Kenya, the Masai people in this village insisted on our participation in their traditional dances. The men were up first. Each guy from our group took his turn trying to jump as high as a Masai man, in an attempt to win a Masai bride. Of the three guys from our group to join in, two got failing grades from the Masai men. One of our guys, though, earned the approval of the Masai. “Do I win a wife?” he asked, excitedly. “No,” they replied, “but you can have a goat.” He demurred.
The women were up next, and this involved the ladies from our group being bedecked in Masai jewelry and doing (or trying to do) a dance that requires some hopping and some shoulder bopping. I guess, because I have dark skin, too, the Masai women expected me to do very well, so they were pretty insistent in correcting my form and forcing me to pay close attention. I did my best to represent; fingers crossed that I was actually successful. After that, on our way into a hut to learn more about the Masai way of life, a young Masai girl pulled me aside and insisted that I take her picture. I have to say, this girl was confident, and for good reason: she gave good face (Madonna would be proud), she smized (thus earning the Tyra stamp of approval), and she know how to pose. She could definitely be the next Naomi Campbell–well, minus the anger issues and the unsavory connection with blood diamonds.
In any event, once we made it inside the hut, the woman who had been my main dance partner and instructor earlier grabbed my hand and sat me next to her while our guide gave us more information, much of which we had heard before at the previous village. One new wrinkle, though, was the concept of bride sharing. Apparently, if a man is away from home and his friend sticks his spear into the ground in front of the absent man’s home, the fried gets to sleep with the absent man’s wife; the woman has no say in the matter. On the plus side (?), given the high possibility of uncertain paternity, Masai tradition requires a man to be responsible for any children borne by his wife. While hearing about this was a low point, the visit ended well: we were able to buy some trinkets to support the village after some (thankfully) pressure-free shopping, and one member of my group broke out his touchscreen cellphone to teach some of the young Masai men how to play Angry Birds–a true cultural exchange. Afterwards, my group got back in our vehicles and moved on, towards the Serengeti.
The scenery on the drive was beautiful, with dusty mountains in the background and dry, short-grass plains in the foreground, where the colorfully-dressed Masai grazed their cattle, goats, and sheep. Along the way, we stopped at the Ngorongoro Crater, to which we would return later on the trip–thank goodness, because the lighting and fog conditions were such that my first pictures of the crater were quite disappointing. After lunch, we toured the Oldupai Gorge (often incorrectly referred to as “Olduvai”; the name of the gorge comes from “oldupai”, the sisal plant that grows in the gorge) and learned more about fossils and the Leakeys’ work there. We continued our drive, passing adolescent Masai boys with traditional white face paint (we were allowed to take their picture after paying for the privilege; good old free-market economics, if I ever saw it) as well as a mirage–it looked like there was water in the distance, a welcome break from the sere landscape, but we soon realized that we never got any closer to the water, no matter how far we drove; pretty cool.
We finally arrived to the Serengeti, going on an afternoon game drive. Though it was overcast, we were able to see a male lion (its mane blowing behind it in the wind), a cheetah, and, most important (for “Lion King” fans, anyway), Pride Rock. Afterwards, we settled into our lodge. The people there were very kind, but they provided the worst service ever. Seriously: taking 30 minutes or more to bring a drink, forgetting drink orders, mixing up drink orders, charging the wrong people for the wrong orders, etc. That being said, the lodge had a rustic beauty as well as breathtaking views of the Seronera Valley. Wildlife, including giraffes and elephants, lived withing spitting distance of the lodge and could be seen from the lodge’s poolside chaise lounges. Even rock hyrax, though a bit smelly, and purple-and-sunset-orange lizards made their homes alongside the human inhabitants of the lodge.
On our first morning game drive in the Serengeti, I was shocked by how many Land Cruisers we encountered, much more than in the Mara. I hadn’t expected this because the Serengeti is more than seven times the size of the Mara (which is actually just the continuation of the Serengeti into Kenya) and receives half as many visitors. Fortunately, we still got in some good sights. We saw our biggest family group yet of elephants: a baby rolled around on the ground; a slightly older elephant sprayed itself with the dusty soil; and, two adolescent males were play-fighting in the background. We also saw warthogs (allowing me to get my first, good, up-close shot of the notoriously shy creatures), a pair of Egyptian geese, yet another lion, and yet another leopard (again, we had amazing luck on this trip in seeing the big cats). Our final sight was a small hippo pool, bulbous bumps of hippo flesh poking just above the water’s surface. We did not know it at the time, but this sight was a presage of both disgusting and hilarious events to come.