Whether I'm trying my best to not fall off an Icelandic glacier, or standing in an ice-cold stream in Austria, or watching a lioness snack on a zebra on the African plains, or (more often) just sitting at my desk overhearing 16-year-old girl gossip, every day's a holly-day for me.

Monday, July 12, 2010


To them, sacrifice is 3 day ground instead of overnight air shipping for their 50 inch HDTV." - Christopher Buckley, Boomsday

It's kind of surreal to think about what I was doing at this time two or three weeks ago. It's hard for me to believe that I was in Tanzania looking at a waterfall or a Maasai warrior or a lion eating a zebra and now I'm lying on my high thread count sheets, typing on a laptop under an AC vent AND a ceiling fan, listening to music that is coming from my computer and being wirelessly routed to various parts of my house.

I bought an avocado today and lamented the ones we ate in Tanzania. Then it struck me that as I was becoming annoyed at paying a dollar for an unripe, tiny avocado, a family in Africa could be eating for an entire day with that dollar. As I spent several minutes deciding exactly what kind of honey -maple -spice-smoked-basted-glazed- turkey I was going to get at the deli, I thought about Rose, who told us that she and her family eat meat only once or twice a month. I wouldn't say I've experienced culture shock since my return, as some people do, but I definitely have moments like these today where I feel a tinge of guilt about how ridiculously convenient our lives are. I've also realized that with those conveniences come complications. I came home and marveled at how wonderful air conditioning is. Then I paid $1800 to get mine fixed. I thought about how easy our lives are because of technology, and how miraculous it is that I can drive down the street and talk on a phone that's smaller than my hand. Then I got my phone bill from my Africa trip. Ooooppps! I spent $70 on a new pair of Nikes and felt guilty that I can drop that amount of money in ten minutes when it would take weeks, if not months, for a laborer in Tanzania to earn that.

It's hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that there are places in our world that are SO VASTLY different than the US and that we can get to those places in 24 hours, spend some time there, and then bee-bop back on a plane and be back in our safe, clean, little world in another 24 hours, ready to show everyone the 4000 photos we took with our $1500 cameras. The paradox of it all is that we spend so much time and money making our lives move more quickly, making things easier for ourselves, making life more convenient with our cell phones and remotes and laptops and iPads and drive through banking and online shopping, that we don't even realize that we're actually complicating things way more than we need to. Life is definitely harder in Tanzania according to our definition of "hard," but it's also much more relaxed and less complicated. They definitely understand what's really important in life much more than 98% of Americans do. And, yes, I include myself in that 98%. I'm not quite sure who has the right idea. I am extremely and eternally grateful to live in this country, and trips like this make me realize what a privileged life I lead, certainly not because I am any more deserving of this life than Rose or Dominique or Killerai, but simply because I was fortunate enough to be born here. But I wonder, am I really any happier?

Thursday, July 1, 2010


I'm home! Got in on Wednesday afternoon and am trying to get adjusted to life again. I slept fitfully and was wide awake at 3:30 this morning. We're back in class today to finish up our blogs, books and photo editing.

I've decided to do one huge blog post that covers the entire trip so it's a little easier to read and in chronological order. Well, actually, I'm not quite sure if easy is the right word...there's A LOT to read! You might want to set aside a chunk of time...or break it up into smaller chunks. However you do it, thanks for reading!


June 12, 2010

Torture (tor’ chur) – noun, verb: Being trapped in the Amsterdam airport during a four hour layover, knowing that there’s so much to see, mere minutes away, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Anne Frank house, I will return.

The coolest thing about the Amsterdam airport so far is that they have ORANGE toilet paper. UT TP!! (Pictures to follow when I can upload). I must come back to this country.

We survived the first leg. I tried to sleep, but wasn’t overly successful. I shared some quality time with the Prince of Pop (This Is It) and woke up the guy next to me with my laughing at The Hangover. The sky during the last hour of the flight was amazing. It was still dark enough to see the stars, but the pinks and reds of the sunrise were just starting to peek over the horizon, and we could see the curve of the Earth. The clouds below looked like fields of snow.

So far we’ve had one backpack left on the plane (but retrieved after much panic), the top half of a tripod missing, the bottom half of a DIFFERENT tripod missing (convenient) and one tripod left in a car (okay, MY car). We haven’t lost a child yet, so I consider the first 12 hours a success.

In 11 hours, we will arrive at the village. In 11 hours and 3 minutes, I will be asleep on my cot in the village.


June 12, 2010

We arrived in Arusha after a pleasant flight from Amsterdam. The most pleasant part of the flight was the delicious CARAMEL CRUNCH ice cream they served as a snack! I missed the dinner because I happily (and as usual) traded food for sleep. Getting through customs was easy… a little too easy, actually. One of my bags didn’t come around at baggage claim, and I immediately started mentally listing all the things I was never going to see again in my lifetime. I’d already started thinking about what color my next pair of Nikes was going to be when I saw a bag that looked identical to mine being rolled out of the area. I rushed over to the girl attached to the bag, slyly tried to read the tag and then just gave up on politeness and reached down and flipped the tag over.

ME: “Uhhhmmm…I think this is my bag.”

BLONDIE: “No, this is my bag.”

ME: “Wow, your name is Holly Hartman and you’re from Houston too and we have the exact same bag and you wrote on your tag with magenta sharpie?!” We need to find Fran Tarkenton and that perky Kathy-what’s-her-face and that hot John guy with the great hair and resurrect ‘That’s Incredible’ ASAP!”

OK, I didn’t really say that, but I certainly wish I had snapped to that quickly. She apologized (kinda), admitted that she hadn’t looked at the tag (duh!) and headed on over to the lost baggage claim desk. Sorry, blondie.


JUNE 12, 2010

It was very dark on the ride to the village, so impressions of the village didn’t come until Sunday morning. But driving to our village of Maji ya Chai (water and tea) was interesting for many reasons, namely the lack of any regard for traffic laws and the fact that they drive on the left. We safely arrived and piled out of the van. I didn’t go to sleep in three minutes as I predicted I would, as there was much to do in getting our rooms set up. AND, the mamas, as they are called, who are taking care of us had left us a very nice meal. The food has been delicious and much more plentiful than expected. My Africa weight loss plan is not going to work. They are big on carbs, which means I am going to be big on carbs.

The compound where we are staying is nicer than I expected, but still very…”basic.” We are staying in a large brick building in small rooms with bunk beds. The bathroom has three stalls, two of which are currently working, and flushing is always a gamble. There are three showers, two of which have lights in them, but they are ice cold. More on the bathing situation later. I’m pretty sure a yearlong study by some PhD entomologist could be done in just ONE of the bathroom stalls. I didn’t come here afraid of bugs, but if I had, I certainly wouldn’t be anymore. They are everywhere, all the time. It’s become a fascination to see how many different types of bugs I can find in the time I go to the bathroom.

The priorities when we arrived were getting our mosquito nets set up, eating and sleeping, in that order. The mosquito net situation, especially mine, was challenging, to say the least. The one I was sold at REI is pretty much useless for anyone sleeping in a BED, so Peter, one of our Nat Geo leaders, was nice enough to loan me one from the compound that actually hangs from the ceiling. It looks a little romantic, like I’m the Queen of Sheba, sleeping under a canopy. In actuality, it is a necessary evil. Getting in and out of bed is quite the ordeal, as I have to make sure that my bedding is “exposed” as little as possible. Basically, I have to climb to the top bunk on a ladder that is about as wide as one of my feet, use the hand that’s not hanging on to the ladder to untuck the mosquito net just enough to dive through, then QUICKLY tuck it back it in so no bugs sneak in. Once I am “tucked in,” all is well, but going to the bathroom in the middle of the night is on an EMERGENCY basis only.

After getting our rooms in order, we headed over to the kitchen/dining area for a late dinner. The kitchen consists of a sink and a stove…no refrigerator. Nothing gets refrigerated, but it doesn’t go bad. I do not understand at all how this works, but it does. I was thrilled to see avocadoes and natural peanut butter and honey, two things I eat at home all the time, on the table. THE AVOCADOES ARE GARGANTUOUS and soooo good. They are three or four times bigger than the puny ones we have, and they grow everywhere in this area. We had our dinner, had some introductions and basic information sharing and then headed to bed. I slept for maybe three hours. The kids were awake and talking at 4 a.m. The body clock has definitely not adjusted.


June 13, 2010

I get up at 6:30 every day, and our first day here was no different. Those of you that know me well…pause for a moment and re-read and reflect on the beginning of my previous sentence. I GET UP AT 6:30 EVERY DAY HERE. Breakfast was at 7:00. Each day, three different students cook breakfast for the group. We’ve had eggs and pancakes every day thus far. As mentioned earlier, I am eating well!

We dressed in our Sunday finest and headed “just up the road” to church. “Up the road” here has a bit of a different connotation here than at home. “Up the road” to me means someplace that I can walk to in five or ten minutes or drive to in two or three. Apparently, “just up the road” in Tanzania means anything from one mile to 15 miles away. The walk to church was a 45-minute stroll though some rocky terrain, but it was the best walk I’ve taken in a long time. I was not expecting to see so many people out and about. Of course it seems perfectly logical now, but I hadn’t really thought that through. No one drives – they all walk or ride bikes or small motorcycles. The best part about any of our walks is the children. They spot us from across the fields and start RUNNING towards us as fast as their little legs can carry them, screaming at us in Swahili. Obviously, I am not sure what they are screaming, but I like to imagine it is something along the lines of, “MOMMMMMMM!!! There’s a huge group of white people in front of our house!! Can I go see them!?!?” The children love walking with us wherever we go and they spontaneously hold our hands as we walk. We have started seeing the same children over and over as we walk, so we recognize them now and know their names.

After our first 45-minute walk “just up the road,” we arrived at a Catholic church that consisted of a very basic brick building with a tin roof, a dirt floor and wooden benches. We participated in the service, which was very interesting to observe. They sang quite a bit and we then sang Amazing Grace for them. When we finished, they spontaneously started singing Amazing Grace back to us in Swahili. Sarah and Claire also sang a song in Swahili that they had learned in church choir. I was so proud of them for being so brave!

We returned home to another delicious lunch and then had a Swahili lesson with our new friend, Mkala. Mkala is a retired teacher who taught primary school in the village for 35 years. He is a fascinating man and has been very helpful, especially in translating for us. The students then went out exploring the village in groups of three. I opted for a nap!


June 14, 2010

Today was the first day of our community service project. We began digging up an existing water line so it can be repaired and a second one can be added. Many of the areas in the village don’t have water, or at the very least, clean water, so repairing and adding the line will provide water for one of the outlying areas. We used pick axes and shovels and dug up the line. The local workers that were helping us worked at a pace 10 times faster than us, but they were very patient and kind. I have always been in awe of those that work in the heat all day doing manual labor, but “in awe” isn’t even close for me anymore. I don’t understand how people do that every day, day in, day out. I have never been so tired and so dirty in my life. It was satisfying work and it felt great to know we were helping others, but I sure am appreciative of working in an air-conditioned building all day!

We worked from 9:00-12:00 (more or less) and then took a break for lunch and went back to work more in the afternoon. As we worked, the villagers walked by us and went on about their daily lives. They would stop and greet us and thank us. We saw women and children carrying water buckets on their heads, old women hunched over their walking sticks making their way to the market and men hauling huge stalks of corn on the back of their bikes. It is customary to greet the elderly (or anyone older than yourself, actually) with the word shikamoo (pronounced shcamo). It literally means “I place myself at your feet,” but it is basically just a way of showing respect to the elderly. The elderly are very respected here and our students are doing an excellent job of greeting them appropriately.

We met a woman named Rose as we were working. Rose spoke English and invited Cathy and me to go to her house. We will be going there tomorrow, which I am very excited about.

After we returned from working, Peter and Erin (the NG leaders) brought us all Cokes/Sprites/Fantas. The kids (and I) were pretty excited to see that. We had dinner, and I then took a “bucket bath” because I am waaayyyy too wimpy to deal with the ice cold shower that is my only other option. I was FILTHY from the day’s work, so not bathing was definitely not an option. A bucket bath consists of filling a ten-gallon bucket about a third of the way full with hot water that has been boiled over a fire. Cold water is then added to the boiling water to get it to a reasonable temperature for bathing. You then stand in the shower stall (and IN the bucket if you’re so inclined) and “bathe” with a washcloth and the bucket water. Me taking the bucket bath, especially the part where I tried to dunk my head into the bucket to wash my hair, was certainly a new experience for me. It did the job though. And anything is better than the other option. However, after two days of standing in and shoveling the black Tanzanian soil, I don’t think my feet will ever be as clean as they were when I arrived. Somebody needs to call Hollywood Nails on Voss before I get back and let them know that on July 1, they need to bring in the big guns for the pedicure I am going to need.

I went to bed early and slept really well for the first time since arriving. Tylenol PM is the greatest.


June 15, 2010

I was sure that I was going to be too sore to get out of bed this morning, but I managed. I put on the same dirty clothes I wore yesterday…I don’t have enough clothes here to ruin another pair of pants and shirt. And they are definitely permanently dirty. I don’t think this kind of dirt can be Shouted Out. I don’t even think Billy Mays himself could do it if he rose from the dead and went after it with Oxyclean. So off to breakfast I went in my dirty work clothes and we ate….wait for it….waaaiiiittt…eggs and pancakes (but today’s group got CA-RAZY and added cinnamon and bananas!)!

We shoveled through the jungle, literally, and by day’s end, we had dug about 1600 feet of trench. We got much further than expected and made a big dent in the beginning stages of the project. Cathy and I got to punch out a little early to go visit Rose at her house. She came to get us and told us her house was “just up the road about five minutes.” About 20 minutes later, we arrived. We walked THROUGH THE JUNGLE to get to her house and the biggest ant I’ve ever seen bit my leg. It was clinging to my thigh, and when I pulled it off, it drew blood! I was sure my thigh was going to balloon up within minutes – not a look I’m really going for – but, surprisingly, it didn’t.

Rose’s house was very nice – a small stucco and brick house with very nice windows and nice landscaping. Her husband is a teacher. We met her two children, Angel and Honest, and her neighbor’s daughter, Happiness. The children were very dressed up and Angel shook our hands and said in a whisper, “Good afternoon, madam.” We asked why they were so dressed up and Rose said because she knew we were coming and she knew we would want to take pictures of the kids, which of course, we did!

She showed us her kitchen, which was a separate shack type building with a low bench on the ground near a fire pit. That was the extent of the kitchen. She also showed us her four milking cows, 12 goats and 100 chickens! She sells eggs for extra money and told us that she has sold about 1100 eggs in the last three weeks. Her house had separate bedrooms and a living area, which is a rarity here. It is customary to give a gift when visiting someone’s home, usually food or something useful. We took Rose an avocado. One avocado. She gave us two avocadoes and four bananas. Ooops. Luckily, we had some MHS tote bags on us that we gave her and when she walked us back ALL THEY WAY TO OUR HOUSE, about a 30-minute walk, I ran in and got some more gifts for her children. On the walk home, Rose revealed that she is expecting another child in September. She also worked into the conversation that she’s not too crazy about her mother-in-law. Must be universal. As we got to our gate, she asked us for our address and said she would write us. I hope she does.

When we arrived back at the house, a women’s drumming group performed for us, which was fun to watch and served as a great photo opportunity for the kids. We then met six Tanzanian students that are in an educational program at a nearby cultural center. They will be spending time with our students, translating for them and showing them around the village, while our students will help them with their English and their photography skills. Within 20 minutes of the two groups meeting, they were laughing, joking, singing, rapping…really fun to watch. The Tanzanian students left after dinner and Cathy, Peter, Erin and I spent the next few hours looking at our students’ photos from the day and giving them feedback. They are just starting to get the hang of the manual settings and we’re seeing some good work. Then another Tylenol PM and another good night’s rest.

June 16, 2010

POLISI!! AKA, Why Are There 15 Tanzanian Men With AK47s Standing In Our Yard?

This morning started with omelets, hash browns, bacon and biscuits and gravy. Juuuuust kidding – we had eggs and pancakes. We split into two groups and the first group, my group, went to visit the Upendo Leprosy Home. Many of the students were nervous about visiting, some because they were concerned that leprosy is contagious, but more just because they were concerned about being saddened by what they were going to see. The actual visit turned out to be much more uplifting than we expected.

Mkala had arranged the visit for us and arrived to walk us to the center. Apparently there was some miscommunication about the time we were supposed to leave, so we were running late. And I literally mean RUNNING. I am told at least once a month that I walk really fast. Mkala could lap me three times in a walking race. The man is in his 70s and told Peter that he doesn’t drink more than a liter of water every two to three days. It must be the Maasai in him (the Maasai tribe are genetically predisposed to surviving on very little water). We RAN part of the way to the leprosy center and finally made it. A German nun who runs the center greeted us, and she told us a little bit about leprosy and the residents of the center.

The residents there were mostly elderly men, all of who had leprosy at some point in their lives, but not currently. They were all sitting outside their rooms, and we stopped and talked with them as best we could and shook their hands. We were allowed to take photos and everyone got some great shots. One man was talking to Jacob, who is Korean, and the nurse told Jacob that just the night before the man had been watching an Asian team play in the World Cup and asked her how they could see through their eyes to play soccer. Jacob took it all in stride and laughed and looked at the man and said, “See, even I can see you through these eyes.” The man laughed and went on and on in Swahili. I assume Jacob is the first Asian person the man has ever seen in person.

After lunch, we visited the dairy farm next door. The property it sits on is beautiful – huge trees and a grassy hill that slopes down to a running stream. It reminded me a lot of how my in-my-dreams-Hill Country property is going to look. In Texas, the property would be at least a million dollars. I’m pretty sure I could get it a little cheaper here.

After dinner, we helped the kids upload and evaluate their pictures. Just as we were finishing up and getting ready for bed, I heard Cade say something about AK47s. I just thought it was Cade being Cade, maybe talking about the next gun he was going to buy (ha!), but when I heard him say, “Peter is in the driveway talking to some guy holding an AK47,” I decided I might oughta’ get up and investigate. Sure enough, Peter was in the driveway talking to some guy holding an AK47! Turns out, the polisi (police) from the nearest town (Usa River) decided that 10:30 at night was a perfect time to go visit the white folks down the road, and they felt they needed a small army to do so. Peter came back in, asked us to all quickly get our passports and told us to keep the kids inside their rooms and out of sight. all of which we did. Erin went to the door for a minute and then quickly got on her cell phone to Munka. Munka is the local “fixer.” I like to think of him as The Wolf from Pulp Fiction, but much nicer. He deals with the renting of the house, making transportation arrangements for us, dealing with the staff at the house, etc. Basically, if there is a problem, Munka is the man to call. And this was DEFINITELY a problem. Erin didn’t get Munka right away, and as she was continuously trying to call him, we could overhear Peter talking to one of the policemen at the door. He was asking a LOT of questions…why we were here, how many were here, where we were from, etc. In the meantime, several of the girls in the bedrooms were getting very scared and upset (rightfully so). I was standing around the corner from the door, out of sight, but able to hear the conversation at the door. At one point, the police officer seemed to get very agitated, and I felt pretty sure we were about to have 15 AKA47s walking through our door. Luckily, Erin was able to reach Munka and the “chief” officer started talking to him on Erin’s phone. The conversation lasted a while, but apparently Munka talked them down because the story all of a sudden turned. They told us that they were simply there to check on our safety and to make sure all was well. At 10:30 at night. With 15 officers. And AK47s. Thanks for looking out for us, polisi!

Peter handed the passports back to Cathy so we could get them back to the kids, and lo and behold, my passport was nowhere to be found. Erin and Peter were still outside talking to the house staff/guards about the situation, so I wasn’t sure if one of them still had my passport, or if one of our new friends had decided to take it back to the station with him. I was a bit panicked, and started thinking about the beauracratic nightmare it was going to be to get a new one. I’m pretty sure just living here for the rest of my life would be easier. Luckily, after about 15 minutes of me contemplating how much it would actually cost to buy the dairy farm next door so I could live here forever, Erin came in and discovered that she had laid my passport on her bed.

After Erin and Peter came back in, we had a “team meeting” to talk to the kids and calm their nerves a bit. They asked several questions and re-hashed the event and then seemed to be OK. The whole ordeal lasted almost an hour, and by the time everyone’s adrenaline levels got back to normal, it was almost midnight. Erin and Peter handled the whole thing very well, which we appreciated greatly. And thank goodness for Munka!


June 17, 2010

This morning started with our students setting out to take photos around the village with the UAACC students. Cathy and walked quite a ways to the main market in Maji ya Chai. I was envisioning taking lots of pictures of produce and beans and chickens, but the second the cameras came out, the kids swarmed us. They LOVE having their picture taken and love seeing themselves on our digital cameras even more. We took LOTS of pictures of the kids and sang Semama Ka, a children’s song, with them. It means “Stand Up, Sit Down” and that’s pretty much what you do in the song, with a few Ruka, Ruka, Rukas thrown in (jump, jump, jump). We learned the song in our Swahili lessons with Mkala and when we learned it, we were a little perplexed as to why he was teaching us a song that is basically equivalent to Ring Around the Rosie. We figured out quickly, though, how useful it is. We have used it MANY times on our trip with the kids.

After lunch, we ventured into Arusha with Mama Killerai (one of the mamas that cooks for us and takes care of things) and Dominique. The market was INSANE! So many people and so much stuff everywhere – tires, shoes, produce, skinned goats hanging in windows. We wove in and out of the stalls and bought Maasai blankets, jewelry, coffee, t-shirts, and COLD bottled water. Jacob even bought a GUITAR! A bright green acoustic guitar. The street vendors followed us around nonstop, relentlessly trying to sell us necklaces or wall hangings. One in particular followed us for so long that Cathy finally bought his ENTIRE supply of necklaces. We all got a necklace and wore them for the rest of the day. We had the best shopping luck at the Maasai market, where the vendors’ favorite line was “It’s free to look!” Isn’t it always?

We ate dinner at a Greek restaurant, but most of us had pizza. It took a lonnnng time to get our food and there were intermittent power outages as we waited. The waiters would run outside and do something to the generator and the lights would come back on. They also brought the food out all at different times and the last few kids that ordered pizza didn’t get it because the kitchen ran out of ingredients. The waiters just brought out random meals instead of the pizza. It’d basically be like ordering fajitas and being brought lasagna in an American restaurant! No one seemed to think twice about it. The kids handled it really well, and it made me realize how demanding Americans are in restaurants. We made it home and fell into bed after a long day in the big city.


June 18, 2010

Let me just start with this: At 7:30 a.m., Peter was trying to light a fire and he singed his hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. And this was probably the least dramatic event of the day. Today. Was. Crazy.

After a delicious breakfast of pancakes and eggs, we loaded up in a van and headed to a nearby orphanage. Everyone was looking forward to meeting the children, especially Kylee. The orphanage was much nicer than I expected, and the kids seemed to be well taken care of and happy for the most part. We sang with them, played soccer, toured the facilities and talked to the children as much as possible. They did a dance for us and one little boy (the one pictured at the top of this post) who looked to be 3 or 4 (but was probably 5-6) could SHAKE IT like no child I’ve ever seen. Someone needs to find him an agent because he could make it big. I took hundreds of pictures and videoed him. I’m actually trying to figure out how to get him home in my suitcase without getting caught or causing him any harm. Sooo cute. And, ONCE AGAIN, our Semama Ka sang came in very handy with the kids.

We left the orphanage and headed to a nearby market. Unlike the Arusha market that had EVERYTHING a Tanzanian could ever need, this market was basically a place to buy produce and livestock. As Kylee calls it, it was a goat field. And a cow field. The Maasai in the area are the herders and sellers of livestock, so there were hundreds of Maasai men in their colorful Maasai blankets gathered in the goat field, selling and negotiating their sales. A couple of them also tried to negotiate a deal to buy Erin. I mentioned in my very first post that I might as well be going to Mars because I didn’t know what to expect from this trip. Of all the experiences so far, this was definitely the most “Mars-ish.” It was like nothing I had ever even been able to imagine in my little American brain.

We were given 30 minutes to explore, and my group went with Mkala, who was accompanying us again today. Most of the people at the market were not too enthusiastic about having their picture taken, so we tried to “steal shots.” We held our camera at our hip and tried to shoot pictures, but I pretty much got 87 pictures of the sky.

We met back at the van after exploring the market and then had lunch. We ate at an outdoor “restaurant” that served traditional Tanzanian food. The real purpose of our trip to the market, however, was to buy two goats. We are having a party on Saturday for several members of the village and will be serving goat. Peter, Erin, Munissi and Dominique set off to find two perfect goats while the rest of us waited at the van. A teenage boy approached Sarah and Claire and started talking to them. He said his name was Barack, “like your president,” and he basically started a little impromptu motivational speech. A large crowd gathered around us – because we were such a large group of mzungu (Swahili for “white person”) most likely! And to hear Barack preach.

After about 30 minutes, Peter and Erin emerged from the crowd, dragging two very reluctant goats behind them. The kids named the goats Appy and Trey, short for appetizer and entrée. Munissi and Dominique literally loaded the two LIVE GOATS into the TRUNK OF THE VAN and off we went. We dropped off the goats (and Munissi and Dominique) at the end of the road to our compound and headed towards a nearby waterfall.

Just when I thought our day couldn’t get any more surreal – I mean seriously, will I ever again in my life be in a vehicle with two live goats in the trunk? - the ride to the waterfall proved me wrong. What started out as a bumpy but pleasant ride through a mountainside village quickly turned to a really good workout. The dirt roads up the mountain were wet in places (and who knows about the safety rating of the tires on our van!), so we couldn’t make it up the hill at least four different times. We all piled out and pushed each time this would happen. Well, most of us would push. I pushed twice and took pictures twice. Kylee and Camryn stood by as the background models and posed for me in front of the bus as their friends were pushing a van up a hill in Africa. Gaaawd love them (that’s for you, Katie A.!). The pushing attracted a lot of attention from the villagers and delayed our trip significantly. On a couple of occasions, though, not all of us had to get out…just enough to “get some weight off.” On one such occasion, the four or five people pushing would get the bus going and then run along the side of it and dive through the door of the van to get back in. Kylee and Camryn decided to try this and the dive back into the van was one of the top ten funniest moments of my life. Camryn did a Superman dive back in and flopped onto the nearest seat, as Kylee ran at full speed, arms pumping, waiting for her turn. They both made it back in, and all I could think about was Little Miss Sunshine Goes to Tanzania. I took a picture of the whole thing that I will post at some point when I have internet access that loads faster than one page per three minutes.

When we got as far as the van could go (because there was no more road), we got out to hike the rest of the way. It was quite a jaunt up a pretty steep hill. Peter and Erin, who have both climbed REAL mountains, were laughing at us, I’m sure, but for those of us that live at sea level, it was a workout. OK, for SOME of us it was a workout. Mkala ran up the hill. We walked for 45 minutes or so and finally reached the waterfall. It was beautiful and made for some great pictures. We stayed for about 30 minutes and then headed back down the mountain.

I was afraid we would never see our van again, but lo and behold, our driver hadn’t abandoned us. We headed down the mountain, which was a much easier drive than getting UP the mountain. Until we came to a small hill in the road. The driver, learning from the last FOUR times we’d gotten stuck, knew he had to punch it to get up the hill. So he did. Aggressively. And then he lost control of the wheel and the entire van slid off the road into a ditch, stopped only by an embankment on the side of the road. It could have been so much worse than it was. The windows were open, and Cade’s arm had been hanging out the window moments before we slid off the road. We could have hit an animal or a person on the side of the road. We could have slid into a house. In the end, it was a scary few seconds that will make for a good story for years to come.

We finally got home about 8:00, ate some dinner, relived the day that was surely one of the weirdest days any of us had ever experienced and then quickly headed to bed. We had to get up the next morning to GO ON A MOUNTAIN HIKE! Hadn’t we just done that?!? Erin and Peter very wisely decided that we’d had plenty of excitement for one day, not to mention enough physical exercise, so we cancelled the hike and went to bed knowing that we could “sleep in” - 7:30 instead of 6:30!


June 19, 2010

We woke up a little later than usual today, which was nice. Don’t get me wrong, it was still way too early for my liking, but we did get to sleep in a little. And amazingly, I am getting used to this thing called 6:30 AM. We spent the day cleaning the house and packing for safari. We could only take part of our stuff on safari, and we sent the rest of it to the O’Neal’s house, which is where we will be staying after we return from safari. I spent an hour or so doing some much needed laundry. Doing laundry here is about as sophisticated as taking a bath here and involves two buckets instead of one. The second I put my pants from our ditch digging days in the water, it turned black. I am not well versed in doing laundry by hand, but I was at least smart enough to realize that I needed to do them last. The clothes still aren’t CLEAN, but at least they aren’t FILTHY anymore.

We also spent some time preparing for the dinner we hosted for some of the village members. (I really want to type Village People, but I’ll refrain…). The mamas did the bulk of the work, but some of the students helped wash and peel vegetables, and a lucky few got to help slaughter the goats we bought yesterday.
Slaughtering a goat for a guest is a symbolic gesture reserved for special occasions. Mkala showed up with his long, sharpened knife around noon and got right to it. Some of the students chose to watch and some opted out. Lindsay and Cade helped hold the goats and were right in the big middle of the whole production. I tried to watch from afar and lasted about 20 seconds. The second I heard the goats “whimpering” (is that the right word? What sound does a goat make right before he is about to get his throat slit??) and then saw the blood and the still-moving legs, I was out.

The skinning and cutting up of the goats took an hour or so and then the meat went onto the fire or into some of the dishes. Babuu (which means “grandfather) lives at the compound and oversees the grounds keeping. He was in charge of roasting the goat over the fire for the dinner that was to start around 5:00. Interestingly, on a different note, we also discovered after our police run-in that, while the 15 men with AK47s were standing in our yard, Babuu was hiding in the bushes with a machete! He was looking out for us, as he did the entire time we were at the compound. Babuu is in his 70s (he says he doesn’t remember how old he is) and probably weighs 140, but I bet he could’ve given the policemen a good fight!

Later in the afternoon, our safari truck arrived. Besides an 18-wheeler, it was the biggest truck I’ve ever seen. The tires were at least four feet tall. We had to climb up a ladder into the truck and when sitting in it, we were probably 15 feet off the ground. It was purchased in the 80s and built in the 60s and had been used as a military transport truck. It has its ORIGINAL engine and the model name that appears on the grill is MAN. The boys LOVED the name and it was thereafter called The Man Truck.

Before dinner, Sarah, Claire and I were taking some photos in the sunflower field and didn’t realize that most of the guests had arrived and the party had started. Some local gymnasts/acrobats were performing for everyone, and we were missing it because the sunflower photo shoot was taking so long. The girls spent about 15 minutes laughing at me because I always ask people to count to three when they are taking a picture of me, and I don’t smile until “three.” For whatever reason (that I still don’t quite understand), Sarah and Claire found this to be ridiculously hysterical, so our photo shoot lasted much longer than it should have. I left the sunflower field before the girls and saw that the guests and the acrobats had already arrived. I turned around to run back to the field to get Sarah and Claire and tripped on a tree root and fell flat on my face into the rocky dirt. I immediately turned around to see if the village residents had seen me, but thankfully, the monstrosity of the MAN truck was blocking their view. I laughed out loud at myself and then checked for blood. Nothing major.

Sarah, Claire and I joined the group and dinner was served. Basically, we had goat in several forms. Roasted goat, goat in rice, goat stew, goat intestines…it was the Bubba Gump of Goat Dinner. I tried one bite and REALLY wanted to do it, but just couldn’t. I am fully aware that I eat animals pretty much every day of my life, but they aren’t in my backyard five hours before doing so. Sorry Appy and Trey. We appreciate your sacrifice.

After dinner, we sang Deep In the Heart of Texas for our guests, and the chairman of the village thanked us for being there and for our community service. Sarah and Claire asked Mkala if they could sing the Swahili song they sang at church and wanted to know what the words mean. Mkala informed them that the song was NOT in Swahili at all! I wonder what the people at church were thinking as they watched Sarah and Claire sing a song in some random language that wasn't English nor Swahili!

After the community members had left, the students, Cathy, Peter, Erin and I gathered around the campfire and shared some thoughts about our time at Maji ya Chai. Everyone talked about their favorite activity of the trip so far and reflected on what they had learned and seen. For the most part, I think they are really starting to “get it” - being here has made them realize what a wonderful life they have and how fortunate they are. For me, that is the best thing that can come from being on this trip.


June 20, 2010

We started today with a minor emergency. Rachel and Cade were in the kitchen cooking breakfast (eggs and pancakes!). Rachel fainted while she was standing at the stove, probably from low blood sugar, and fell into the hot pan and burned her face. Thank goodness Cade was right there and got her off the stove. Jacob ran to get Peter and Cathy and me. By time we got to the kitchen, Rachel was moving and responding, but it was obviously still really scary. Peter and Erin handled it really well and Rachel was brave through the whole thing.

We got a little delayed in leaving for safari, but eventually we were packed up and ready to go. Our safari guide, Killerai Munka Killerai (Munka’s son) and our driver, Simon, came in to introduce themselves and go over some of the guidelines of the trip. The one that proved to be most important was the bathroom issue. They explained that the truck’s tires needed to be checked often, so anytime we felt the need to “check the tires,” we could simply request to do so. Let me just say, the tires got checked a LOT in the six days we traveled around in the Man Truck.

We climbed, literally, into the MAN truck and off we went. The Man Truck is covered with a khaki green canvas canopy and the “windows” are always open because the canopy is always secured at the top of the roof. It was raining and quite chilly when we left, and we had a five-hour drive ahead of us. We bundled up in jackets and Maasai blankets, looking like we were going to war in our huge tank of a truck. The roads were VERY bumpy and many times getting through the trees on either side of the road was treacherous. They branches would come into the truck and scrape up our arms if we weren’t quick enough to duck out of the way. Most of the trees in the area are covered in huge, spiny thorns that serve as a defense mechanism for the trees so that animals won’t eat all the leaves. Basically, they’re God’s barbed wire. The thorns are HUGE - some as long as three or four inches. On more than one occasion, I had to pull one of those babies out of my arm – one time six at once!

As we drove through the villages along the way, the residents came to the roadside and waved. We made quite the scene – 17 muzungus (white people) bumping down the roads in a ridiculously huge vehicle. It was interesting to see the villages and the shops along the way. We even passed a hair salon called Texas Hair Dressers. I wasn’t quick enough to snap a picture, but was fascinated to think about how the owners decided on the name. I wonder if everyone who gets their hair done there leaves with really big, Texas hair?

After an hour or so, the landscape started to change and became more of what I would call “stereotypical Africa.” We drove through miles and miles of very arid, brown agricultural land dotted with crude mud huts. We began seeing the Maasai tribesmen herding livestock, some of them young boys. They too would run to the road and wave at us. This happened so often everywhere we went that we started to feel a little like celebrities.

As we were getting close to our first campsite, Killerai pointed out a freshly killed wildebeest (probably by a lion). Many of the kids got out of the bus to see it…I opted to check the tires. Killerai noticed that there was still meat on the dead wildebeest and decided to cut some off so we could eat it later. I watched in horror as he pulled out his ponga (knife) and started carving off huge chunks of wildebeest leg. About four hours later, I was thanking him…it was some of the best grilled meat I’ve ever eaten. Does anyone know where I can buy some wildebeest meat in Houston?

Just a few miles up the road, we saw several giraffes and zebras. The cameras started snapping like we were the paparazzi outside The Ivy. I was in awe of the giraffes and couldn’t take enough pictures. They stood still for us and almost seemed to pose before they gracefully walked back into the brush. A few minutes later, Cade spotted a snake in the road. We couldn’t tell if it was dead or alive. Killerai jumped down to check it out and said it was a very poisonous snake called a puff adder. Luckily, it was indeed dead, but “still warm,” according to Killerai. We all took turns checking it out and HOLDING it. Yes, I held it. By its tail end. It was mushy and warm and very unnerving, but how often do you get to hold a very recently dead puff adder in the middle of the Tanzanian brush?

We arrived at camp and the camp crew and cooks, several of whom were local Maasai tribesmen, had already set up our tents, for which I was VERY grateful. We ate dinner, which was probably the best meal we’d had to date. We were talking around the campfire when Killerai noticed a scorpion of Kylee’s pant leg. He brushed it off and warned us to be vigilant in watching for them when we were around the fire. I asked him later what would happen if we were stung – how poisonous they were and how painful the bites were. He told me they were very painful, but that they could “taze” the area and that would stop the spread of the poison and ease the pain. I was very unclear on what he was talking about and positive that he didn’t really mean “taze” as in a taser gun. I didn’t really question him, though, and assumed I was just misunderstanding him. Let’s just hope no one gets stung!

We headed to bed early, knowing we were going to be hiking early the next morning. Yes, I slept in a tent, on the ground, alone, in Africa. My mom claims I’ve slept in a tent before, but I definitely don’t remember it. Lots of firsts for me today.


June 20, 2010

I woke up at 6:30 this morning to the sound of a bird that cannot be from this planet…the sound it made was unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It was sounded like part bird, part frog, part pig. I got dressed quickly – it’s AMAZING how fast I can get ready when I am not doing my hair or makeup! We had a campfire breakfast and set out on a hike and mountain climb. The Tanzanians would certainly call it a hill, but I’m calling it a mountain. Killerai said he thinks the peak is at about 4500 feet, so that makes it a mountain to me. At first, it was just a steep walk, but by the end, we were doing some real rock climbing…very basic rock climbing, but more than most of us have ever done. Again, Peter and Erin were probably yawning at the “adventure” of it all, but the kids and I were thinking we were doing some pretty major climbing. At one point, we had to take a HUGE step off a tree limb and plant our right foot onto a rock ledge that was no more than three inches wide. We then had to put our left leg on a rock wall opposite our right and kind of shimmy through a sort of cave. It was pretty scary to leave the tree limb. The cavern below wasn’t that deep, but certainly worthy of a broken arm if we had fallen. Everyone made it through, some more quickly than others, and we all felt very proud of ourselves. Camryn even has video evidence of me accomplishing this task because I know most of you that know me will never believe I did this.

After about four hours of walking, hiking, crawling and climbing, we reached the peak and looked out over the savannah. The breath-taking view was straight out of The Lion King. We took tons of pictures, had a cookie break and then made our way down the mountain. Some of the camp crew met us at the base with a small truck and while we were waiting for everyone to get to the truck, Travis went to check the tires. Jacob was nearby and saw a snake try to strike Travis. Travis jumped about four feet off the ground and quickly came back to the truck! Danger averted. Again. We then started piling into the bed of the truck. There were 17 of us, and I was sure there was no way we would all fit – at least not safely! I looked at Killerai with a “is this safe??” kind of look and he said, "T. I. A. – This is Africa.”

Yes, it is.

After dinner that night, some Maasai dancers performed for us and Paola, one of our camp crew, told us a story about when he killed a lion that was attacking his cattle herd. Killing a lion in the Maasai culture is an event that is hugely celebrated and makes any man that does it even manlier. As we were wrapping up the evening, a scorpion on the back of her leg stung one of our students, Tracy. Killerai and Simon jumped up, looked at her leg and said, “Hang on, we have something to help you.” They returned from the truck and sure enough, they had a taser. They told Tracy what they were going to do and she, like any of us would be, was more than a little skeptical. They assured her that it was the only way to stop the pain and the spread of the poison. This taser was definitely not the hi-tech, cool Star Wars looking taser gun Americans are used to seeing. It looked like one of those two-pronged conductor rods we used in sixth grade science with a battery pack on the other end. Killerai held the business end of the contraption to Tracy’s leg and Simon pushed a button on the other end, and we definitely knew that it was working! Then Killerai told her he needed to do it again, I suppose for good measure. Can you imagine? In the span of five minutes, Tracy was stung by a scorpion and then tazed, not once, but twice! Poor thing. She handled it well and within an hour or so, the swelling and pain had subsided.

I’d say Tracy wins so far for best Africa story.


June 22, 2010

This morning we packed up camp and set out on a hike. The packing up of the tent was a new experience for me. Cathy and I helped each other and managed to get the tent in its storage bag after a few tries. Did I mention how grateful I was that we didn’t have to SET UP the tents? Taking it down made me realize how awful I would be at putting one up.

We went on a morning hike in the hopes of seeing some animals. It turned out to be a lonnnnng walk through some VERY tall grass and rocky dirt. We saw very few animals, but we certainly saw lots of animal poop. Killerai would point it out to us and talk about its qualities. We are all very well versed now in wild animal poop. We also saw lion throw up! That was a climactic moment of the hike. And a dead turtle. And checking the tires in this environment was a new experience for all of us. There was nothing but really tall grass to hide behind, with God only knows what crawling through the grass, so it was an adventure for all the girls. Boys have it so much easier! The hike was not the highlight of the trip for us, but I was very proud of how well everyone handled it. We were all very ready to get back to the truck, but the kids kept a positive attitude and didn’t complain.

We met the truck at the designated point, had some lunch and left for our next campsite. We saw lots of animals that afternoon, so that definitely perked everyone up. We hadn’t seen any elephants yet, but we saw plenty this afternoon, including some babies. Camryn was out of her mind with excitement at getting to see elephants. One young male elephant came really close to the truck and trumpeted for us, which was really cool to watch and hear. I would estimate no less than 1000 pictures total were taken in about 15 minutes.

The campsite where we stayed was just a few hundred yards from a Maasai boma. A boma is a small compound of homes that all belong to one chief Maasai and his wives and children. We were scheduled to visit the boma and meet some of the residents a little later in the evening. First, we did some much-needed laundry and took even-more-needed “showers.” And by “shower,” I mean stood behind a screen, under a tree with a bag of water hanging over my head. The first few people to use the bags had a warm shower because the sun had heated the water. I was the last person to get to the shower, so it was definitely not warm. And poor Peter and Erin didn’t make it at all. It was definitely the most interesting (i.e.: uncomfortable) shower I’ve taken, but it was also one of the best ever after three days of hiking and living outside.

Before we went to the boma, some of the tribesmen came to our campsite to welcome us. Once again, they brought a goat. As I already mentioned, it is a significant gift to slaughter a goat for someone, so we were most appreciative of the gesture. Watching the actual slaughter, though, was once again, a little more than some of us could handle. Several students watched and took pictures, but some of us just stood quietly to the side and didn’t actually watch. The Maasai don’t kill goats by slitting their throats like poor Appy and Tray. Instead, the suffocate the goat. I THINK I understood Killerai to say that they see this as more humane, and, because the goat doesn’t struggle as much, the blood doesn’t rush through their bodies, so the meat is more tender. After the goat had died, they bled it out and asked if anyone wanted to drink the blood. To my amazement, seven of our 13 students drank it! I have some great pictures of Kylee with a big ol’ clot of goat blood on her teeth. I was disgusted and impressed all at the same time.

We walked over to the boma and met the chief, Paolo. He spoke English and showed us around the boma. His father, who had seven wives, had been the chief until his recent passing. Paola, the oldest son, took over as chief and currently has three wives. We got to go in one of the huts, which is something I could NEVER imagine I would ever do. The women build the huts with grass and cow dung. In fact, the women do pretty much ALL the work in the bomas except take care of the cattle. The hut was about the size of my kitchen (not big!) and consisted of a main room with an open fire burning and two VERY small bedrooms. The particular hut we saw housed seven people and was probably about 400 square feet.

After seeing the hut, we spent a few minutes buying some beaded jewelry from some of the wives in the boma and then returned to our campsite. Paola, his brother and some boys from the boma joined us for dinner and then spent about an hour answering questions. We then danced around the campfire with them for a while, thanked them for their hospitality and headed to bed. Another day of seeing places I never even knew existed.


June 23-24, 2010

We headed to a new campsite today in Tarangeri Natl. Park. On the way, we stopped at a few other places to see animals and we definitely did…elephants, giraffe, more zebras than I can count, cape buffalo, warthogs,…THOUSANDS of pictures taken today. The kids seemed to be reenergized by seeing all the animals and were very excited about the pictures they were getting. Right around dusk, Simon discovered that we had a flat tire. It seems to me that we would have had to run over a machete to flatten one of the Man tires; nevertheless, we had to stop and Killerai, Simon, Cade and Travis changed the huge tire as the rest of us snapped hundreds of photos of the sunset. We got to our campsite after dark and met Massimo Bassano, the National Geographic photographer that was going to travel with us to help the kids improve their photography even more. We had some dinner, Massimo told us a little bit about himself, and we headed to bed so we could get up bright and early the next morning to head to the Ngoragora Crater.

June 24, 2010

We spent the day in the Man Truck and once again saw some great wildlife. We saw hippos and baboons today for the first time. We drove towards Ngoragora and stopped along the way at various places. We drove through a region that is famous for its red bananas, so of course we had to sample them. We got 16 bananas for about six dollars and shared them on the truck. They are red on the outside and are a little bit sweeter than a regular banana. The produce in Tanzania is delicious, and we’ve been eating plenty of it. The avocadoes are HUGE and so good, the mangoes are delicious…it’s all good. We also stopped at a grocery store and several of the kids bought COLD Cokes (a rarity) and candy, which made them very happy. I could’ve gotten a diet Coke, but was OK with just having water. I haven’t had diet Coke withdrawal issues nearly as much as I thought I would.

As we were heading away from the store, Killerai asked Simon to stop the truck under some trees so he could point some birds. There are 10,000 species of birds in the world, and 1000 of them are in Tanzania. Am I officially old now because I was interested in knowing about the birds? I think I know the answer to that. Anyway, as Killerai was pointing out the birds, Jacob, who had JUST switched seats with Camryn, yelled, “hey! They just pooped on me! And this is my only clean shirt!” Poor Jacob.

We got to our campsite, which was about 20 minutes from the gate of Ngoragora. It was a much nicer campsite than the first two, namely because it had electricity, which meant we could charge/use our laptops, and, more importantly, HOT SHOWERS! Oh, how much more I appreciate hot water and my nice shower now that I’ve been on this trip. It’s a luxury we take for granted every day. I took full advantage of the hot water and finally had a proper shower.

Massimo talked to each student individually about their photography from today and gave them some suggestions on how to improve. We had to be up at 5:30 on Friday, so I was in bed by 10:00. Seriously, 5:30???


June 25, 2010

I was awake, dressed and fed by 6:00 a.m. Weird. But required. Killerai wanted to get to Ngoragora as early as possible. Ngoragora is a wildlife preserve area that has a large crater in the middle where LOTS of animals go for water. BUT, it’s not actually a CRATER, it’s a caldera. Not quite sure what that means…something about how the volcano did or didn’t form or cool or spew. I’m sure Google could clarify. Regardless, it’s where all the cool lions and zebras and such hang out.

The Man Truck was too big to go into the crater, so we split into three groups and three different jeeps. Thank heavens these trucks had closed windows, unlike the Man Truck. IT WAS FREEZING!! It’s winter in Africa right now. I realize cold and Africa seem to be an oxymoron, but the wind and the moist air at 6:30 a.m. was crazy cold. The trip from the campsite to the edge of the crater took about an hour and the kids were very quiet on the way there. It was grey and overcast and everyone was pretty subdued for the first several hours of the safari. We were seeing some animals, but nothing we hadn’t already seen. Then our safari driver heard on the radio that there was a lion kill in another area, so we hauled butt to get over there. That definitely perked the kids up.

When we got to the area where the lion supposedly was, we knew we were definitely at the right place. TRUCKS EVERYWHERE. People crawling out to the roof of their jeeps, cameras going crazy. We literally waited in a line of traffic to see the lion…not something I had considered as a possibility on safari. We waited for about 20 minutes and finally got close enough to see a lioness having an all you can eat zebra buffet. Eventually, as we were able to move up in line, we were no less than 20 feet from the lioness. For some reason I really don’t understand, I wasn’t at all scared or grossed out. It was disturbing to watch, but fascinating. And the lioness was beautiful. We spent at least 20 minutes watching her and then jetted off because we heard that some cheetahs had been spotted. We were like the paparazzi again, going from Brad Pitt to George Clooney (hmmmmm….wonder why I chose those two celebrity names in my simile?). We did indeed see the cheetahs after a LONG search through bushes and rocks, but they were too far away to get good pictures. We had lunch and then spent the rest of the day seeing more animals, including a baby hippo and her mother. The only animal we didn’t see was the black rhino. I really wanted to see one, but they are very endangered and very rarely spotted, especially at this time of year.

On the ride home, my group told stories and basically had a “what is said in the jeep stays in the jeep” bonding session, which was fun. We got home, had some dinner, looked at pictures with Massimo and headed to bed. Our last night of sleeping on the ground. Bummer.


June 26-29, 2010

We had a much more relaxed morning and left the campsite at about 9:00. We were heading back to Maji ya Chai, but the kids were itching to shop again, so we stopped at a “gift shop” (not exactly a shop…gift hut?) right by our campsite. They had some good stuff, but the prices were CRAZY. I tried to buy a few things and asked the price. A bowl that Cathy had bought for 15,000 shillings at another shop was 80,000 shillings here! When the man taking the money told me the price, I kind of laughed and said “80,000 shillings!?!?” He yelled at me and said, “If you laugh, get out! Business is sacred in Tanzania” I didn’t know if I should laugh again or feel bad, but we definitely got out.

We drove in the COLD WIND again for six hours. I spent part of the time talking to Killerai. I was looking at a Women’s Health magazine, which prompted some interesting conversation about the differences in our cultures regarding women and what constitutes “attractive.” It’s a completely different viewpoint there – one that makes a lot more sense. We also talked about housing costs, cars, education…I learned a lot from Killerai about life in Tanzania.

We dropped Massimo off so he could get to the airport in time, and headed back to the Maasai market we went to last week so the kids (OK, not just the kids…Cathy and me, as well) could shop some more. We were there for about an hour and were definitely able to spend our last shillings.

We then made our way up a lonnng, bumpy road to our final destination of the trip. We are staying at a compound called the United African Alliance Culture Center. Pete and Charlotte O’Neal, Americans who lived in Kansas City in the 60s and were very active in the Black Panther Party run it. They are fascinating people who have created a place on their beautiful property that has benefited hundreds of children.

We met Pete as we hopped down from the Man Truck and he shook my hand and said. “How y’all doin’?” I did a double take and asked him if he had just said “y’all.” He told me his “people” were from Texas and he still says y’all after 30 years in Africa. I felt right at home.

We got settled in our rooms and had dinner. The cook here is named “G” and he is a GREAT cook. He is 21 and finished culinary school a while back. He is also, apparently, is a mind reader, because he had made us Mexican food for dinner! It was the best meal I’d had so far. I could’ve eaten three plates of it, but I controlled myself to one. The get tan and skinny in Africa plan is not really working. After dinner, Pete offered to let us use the phone to call home. Our students have had very little, if any, contact with their parents, so it was fun to hear them call home. I even teared up a few times watching a few of them talk to their moms and hearing their moms on the other end of the line screaming with happiness when they heard their voice.

UAACC houses 20 orphans under the age of 10, provides clean water to the surrounding community from taps right outside the walls of the compound, and serves as an arts and education center for college aged kids in the area. Kids apply and are accepted to come to classes there, and are able to do so for free. They take art, English, music, editing, etc. These are the same kids that we had met the week before our safari, so it was good to see them again. We met and played with the orphans, all of whom were adorable, happy, smiling children. The grounds at UAACC are beautiful and the walls and building are all painted with colorful murals. There are lots of references to Black History, the Black Panthers and African heritage. It’s really an impressive place to see. My bedroom was painted as well, and right over my bed were three really well done pencil drawings of Tupac, Snoop Dog and Bob Marley. It was interesting to wake up to those faces every morning.

On Sunday, the UAACC students taught our students a traditional dance and song. It took a couple of hours for them to learn it. It was fairly complex and involved a lot of hip shaking that was pretty funny to watch. Cathy and I mostly took pictures and video of the whole production, but towards the end, I joined in, which made it even funnier to watch. Our students then taught the UAACC students the Cupid Shuffle. It took them about 15 minutes to perfect it. Later in the day, the UAACC kids performed some traditional African dance for us and some members of the community who had come to watch. Then our kids did their dance for everyone. I was so proud of our students for being so willing to do something out of their comfort zone. They did a great job and had a great time doing it.

That evening after dinner, Pete showed us a documentary about his involvement in the Black Panthers, his reasons for going to Africa and his community work since living in Africa. He then spent about an hour answering questions and going into more detail about his life. It was fascinating to listen to, and I think the kids learned a lot. The thing I was most pleased to hear him say was his acknowledgement that people can change for the better. Pete admits to doing some very bad things early on in his life, but has since devoted his life to bettering the lives of others.

On Monday, our students had time to work on their blogs and get their photos organized and edited. After lunch, we had a “forum” discussion between our students and the UAACC students. The purpose was to allow them to ask questions of each other in an attempt to let them learn more about each other’s every day lives. The questions the Tanzanian students asked were fascinating. One student asked how we felt when the U.S. played England in the World Cup since England was the country that colonized us. My students looked at me with very puzzled looks on their faces. A few of them explained that A. professional soccer is not overly popular in the US, so many people wouldn’t be paying attention to the game and B. we definitely don’t have hard feelings against England. I would venture to say that most US students would have a hard time even realizing/remembering that England “colonized” the US. I think the question is indicative of how much more aware students in Tanzania are of the idea of colonization and segregation in various parts of Africa and South Africa. I asked the UAACC students what they worry about or what causes them stress in life. Three students answered: HIV/AIDS, rape and “going against God.” I thought this answer was the most significant of our discussion. What a different life they live than our students. This question also prompted a long and interesting discussion about the stigma that still exists in Africa about getting tested for HIV. One student also asked us if it was true that the U.S. allows “men to marry men” and they also asked us about relations between blacks and whites in the U.S. Another asked why we had the pyramid with the eye on our dollar bill…sadly, none of us could answer that one. I need to investigate that! I am thinking something about the Masons…or something else religious. Didn’t Nicholas Cage in National Treasure address this?? We also learned that, apparently, most Tanzanians think all Americans are LOADED. Of course, by their standards, we are, but we tried to explain that Jay Z and Snoop Dog, the Americans they know, are NOT representative of the wealth in the US. They told us that a family in Tanzania can eat for a dollar a day. We explained that we buy a bottle of water or a Coke for a dollar. It’s all relative.

The discussion with Pete last night and the students today were some of my favorite parts of the trip because I really learned so much about the culture and everyday life of Tanzanians. For me, that is the real reason to travel.

That night, after dinner, our students presented their On Assignment projects that they'd been working on. The children watched the presentations and were very well behaved throughout. One of the boys was sleeping on Kylee's lap and started snoring. Kylee wanted to stay there forever. After the presentations, the kids disappeared. We thought they were going to bed, but in a few minutes, they came back out, singing a song and presenting a "farewell cake" for us. We all sang and danced. Jacob played the guitar and Mama Charlotte sang with him. The children went to bed and then Travis busted out his laptop, hooked it up to the speakers and did a little DJing for us. The UAACC students and our students had a dance party, and also spent some time learning some really cool new night photography tricks. It was a great way to end our stay at UAACC.

On Tuesday morning, we awoke to heavy rain showers. This was the first rain we’d had like this. I found it appropriate weather for our last day there…a little sad about leaving.

We spent the day packing – quite an undertaking – and left lots of clothes for donation. I left my Nikes as well. I like thinking that someone in Tanzania will be walking around in tennis shoes that I walked around Houston in. G fed us well throughout the day and we were packed up and ready to go by 5. Unfortunately, our bus that was supposed to take us to the airport was very late. We were supposed to leave at 5:00, and at 6:00, we were still waiting. Once again, Munka to the rescue. We called him and he sent a different bus for us. We made it in time and prepared for 27 hours of travel! We flew to Dar Salaam, waited on the runway for refueling, flew eight hours to Amsterdam, waited four hours there, then flew nine hours to Houston. That last flight was verrrry lonnnnng. The redeeming part of the Amsterdam/Houston flight was, once again, the caramel crunch ice cream and watching Invictus. I wish I had watched it BEFORE I went to Africa! (YES, I realize Invictus is set in SOUTH Africa, but still…).

We got off the plane, got through customs with just a small hitch (a lost passport!) and headed out of baggage claim as a group to find everyone’s parents. It was so fun to see the kids see their parents. We told the kids goodbye and reminded them that they needed to be at school at 9:00 on Thursday to finish things up with their photos and blogs and the photo books they’re creating.

What a trip. Literally and figuratively. What an opportunity. I feel so fortunate to have gotten to go on this trip and am so appreciative to Cathy for planning all of this and inviting me to go along. I saw things I would never have seen as a tourist on my own. I traveled with some excellent travel companions and once again, after traveling out of the country, came home much more appreciative and grateful for everything I have. Africa was much different than I thought it would be. I thought I would be sad much more than I was and that the people we encountered would be sad because they have so little. It was quite the opposite. Of course it made me sad to see so many children in need, but virtually everyone we met was friendly and for the most part, people seemed happy, despite the fact that their lives are so much harder than ours. I wish every American could take a trip like the one I just took….