The recorded ramblings of an unschooled writer, aspiring biologist, amateur equestrian, ardent bookworm, avid music appreciator, increasingly addicted runner and college student spending the summer in Ely, MN.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Who needs Robert Redford when you can fall for Tanzania?

Who needs Robert Redford when you can fall for Tanzania?
October 3, 2009

I feel like I’m in a movie right now. One of those stereotypical white girl goes to Africa and falls in love movies that I can’t stand the plot of and want to turn off except for I just can’t because the scenery and cinematography are so amazing. Except for, there’s no Robert Redford or Ralph Fiennes – I’m just in love with Tanzania itself!

This morning we took a large motorboat (but literally, a wood sided, singled motored boat) from the island of Zanzibar to the Tanzanian mainland, to a small area called Pembe-Abwe. Sadly, I appear to have forgotten my favorite jacket, my mom’s black KATU fleece, back on the island. The trip took four hours and I enjoyed every minute of it. The sea was bright and smooth – Meryl, Rachel Y., Miles, Natalie and Kim all took naps on the boat and I found the rolling motion of the water so relaxing that I closed my eyes too for just a couple of minutes, but was so excited to see everything that I couldn’t keep them shut longer than that. We saw flying fish (though they were so small and speedy I don’t think I quite managed to capture them on video), tons of sea birds and even some dolphins playing (I did video a bit of that – though mostly I was just too entranced to be of much use with the camera at that point).

Seeing the dolphins was incredible. I felt the same way watching the dolphins swim and leap as I do watching a horse gallop through a field kicking up his heels. It just is such a feeling of awe to see a creature who is sheer muscle and power be so graceful, to watch them play – it looks like they just take such great joy in the way their bodies are perfectly suited to their environments.

I’ll be honest: as far as biology goes, my interests are pretty limited: animals (and of course, the ecology and environment that surrounds them and must be understood in order to understand the animals). And within animals, I’m very much biased towards mammals, as I’m really intriuiged by creatures who have highly specialized social groups and structures, yet are still very definitely individuals with individual preferences. I wish very much we were studying dolphins on the trip! And I’m working on figuring out a way to put my camera in a plastic bag or something so that I can leave it on the boat while we are snorkeling. That way in case we catch dolphins on or way to or coming back from the reefs I can videotape them more. They really are so incredible. And so intelligent too. And one of the most beautiful things I have seen in my entire life.

As far as animals I want to see in the wild, dolphins are definitely at the top of the list. In no particular order, a short list of animals I want to observe is:
1. Chimpanzees
2. Gorillas
3. Dolphins
4. Leopard
5. Cheetah
6. Ocelot
7. Jaguar
8. Lion
9. Zebras
10. Hippos
11. Elephants
12. Grizzly Bears
13. Polar Bears
14. Blue whales
15. Harbor seals
16. Sea otters
17. Orcas
18. Timber wolves
19. Kangaroos
20. Jackals
21. African Wild Dogs
22. Snow Leopards
23. Siberian Tigers
24. Fennec Foxes
25. Red Pandas
As you can see, the list is not very short (and this isn’t even close to everything…), very mammalian centered and not at all centrally geographically located. But hopefully I’ll see at least a few more during my trip!

After our arrival in Pembe-Abwe, we meet two of our three safari guides/hosts for our biology studies in Tanzania, Mike and Thad Peterson. They and their brother Daudi, run Dorobo Safari Company and they are the coolest guys! Their parents moved to Tanzania from the US, so they grew up here (but went to the ‘States for college) and now all three of them own this amazing stretch of property along the coast as well as lead safari trips. Seriously – as much as I’ve tried to avoid proposals, I would definitely accept an arranged marriage into the Peterson family. They are really that cool. Plus, they have a huge and friendly German Shepard who is beautiful and sweet and I already love.

The place where we are staying is amazing. We are living in groups of three to five in wooden A-Frame structures raised off the ground (to keep the creepy crawlies away, we hope) and we can step out our doors to find ourselves about 100 feet away from the beach. There are coconut trees everywhere and even though it is hot, a gentle breeze sweeping in from the ocean is never too far away. The air tastes salty and fresh and I can finally feel the smog from Nairobi working its way out of my lungs.

There are two groups of these A-Frame structures. The first set (which I have been joking with my beach house mates should be called “Princess Land”) is where almost all of the girls on the trip are living. It is also very close to the central area where we all meet, eat, etc.. Each of the A-Frames has its own internal shower and a western style toilet. My roomies and I ended up on the other side of things with the guys (and Alex and Mara, who has the trip assistant leader and the professor’s daughter kind of get the short end of the stick by default) because we thought being away from the main hub of activity would be nice and we didn’t think that sharing a “long drop” style pit toilet was that big of a deal – after all, safari is coming up pretty soon. And our bathroom is actually quite nice, a step up from anything in Riruta. And as Rachel was relieved to discover this evening, bats do not indeed live in the pit as she had feared so all is well.

The best part of our slightly more “rustic” accommodations is that we have an outdoor shower. It is a little enclosed thatched stall with a shower head (powered and heated by solar power), but the top is open to the sky and the fact that I could see the palm leaves blowing in the breeze above my head against a blue sky and smell the salty air while I showered made it one of the single best showering experiences of my life, even though my shower became more like a party as no sooner had I stripped off my bathing suit and lathered my hair up with shampoo than Alex and Mara came by saying “Hodi?” (Hello?/Anyone home?/Can I come in?) wanting to come in and get water for their laundry.

We have been reunited with all of our luggage and I’m very excited to sleep in my cozy sleeping bag and on top of my as yet unslept upon brand new sleeping pad. We have a ton of space in our A Frame as Natalie was originally supposed to stay with us, but she and everyone else decided they couldn’t deal with being “so far away” (a 1/10th of a mile…if that) and not having a toilet and they’d rather squeeze 5 people into one of the bigger A-Frames. Rachel and Lydia are each sleeping in one of the back corners and have left me closest to the door given my preference for waking up “pain in the ass early”.

I practiced using my snorkel gear today. I love it although always have a slight moment of panic the first time I go to take a breath with my face under the water, but it is short lived and I think I’ll get over it! Kai, who is a fabulous swimmer and snorkler, having grown up in a beach house in Manzanita gave me some really fabulous tips and I was trying my very best to emulate how gracefully he swims with his fins – though I know I wasn’t succeeding.

In other exciting news, Lydia gave me a pair of running shorts she bought that don’t fit her. They are bright green and given that I’ve been wearing them around with my orange long sleeved dry fit shirt, a purple tank top and a purple bandana on my head and the fact that they are very short and a tad high waisted unless rolled down, I’ve been called Jane Fonda more than once today. I was called Jane Goodall while eagerly filming the monkeys the other day…who knows how many more famous Janes I can resemble by the time the program is through. Expect many pictures of me in my Jane Fonda outfit – it is likely to be my reef snorkeling uniform.

I also went on several beach wanders today with various people. They were such great fun and so beautiful. I am going running with Alex and Laila tomorrow and can’t wait.

I also got two phone calls today! The first was from my dad. I was SO excited! I could barely talk to him as I was hurrying towards our debriefing for the rest of the week meeting, but he’s going to call me back very soon. The second call was not actually for me, but was still amazing. Rachel’s boyfriend Chris has apparently become a reader of my blog (Hello, Chris!) and got my phone number off of one of my recent posts and called, introduced himself and immediately told me that he was the creeper who got my number off the blog (serious bonus points for actually uttering that phrase). I was so excited for Rachel that he called and pretty much freaked out and babbled at him that I would wake her up and ran right inside our A-Frame from where I was out sitting paging through the “Tanzania” Lonely Planet Guide and killing time and woke her up and she was very happy, so that was fantastic.

I love it here so much. I feel even more alive and more at home here. Right now there is not even a headlamp to be seen, just a lantern by each A-Frame and the moon is so bright and full, with a huge, gorgeous halo, so I can still see the surf just faintly. The only sound is the rustling of the palms as the wind is starting to pick up and a few birds bidding each other goodnight.

One of my favorite songs (“The Tide” – yes, Renn you can take all of the credit for introducing it to me) has a line that goes “Heaven’s not a place that you go when you die, it’s the moment in life when you actually feel alive, so live for the moment…” and even though I’ve always thought that was a beautiful sentiment, I don’t think I’ve ever quite understood what it means. But I think I’m starting to get it.

There have been so many moments today, little individual perfect moments, like seeing the dolphins jump, the time a big group of flying fish went whizzing by right in front of our boat, stepping into the shower to look up and see palm trees, staring up at a moon that is so bright that even the scientist part of me can’t even for a second comphrehend that it’s a lifeless hunk of rock instead of some, otherworldly impossible place, breathing as deeply as possible because the air itself here feels energizing, meeting a small yellow and black fish in my preliminary snorkeling expedition…
And I was able to enjoy them without thinking or worrying about tomorrow or if they were important in the big scheme of things, or if I was silly to think they were so amazing. I was just totally in the moment because I feel so comfortable here.

Though we were warned about snakes, scorpions, sea cones, etc. (and I am being careful), I feel like I’d much rather take my chances with them than the people and cars of the city. Normally it takes a long, difficult run or a good gallop on my horse to make me feel any sort of sense of peace. Here I feel that just by being here – there’s something almost magical about it.

If you ever need to really get away, I can tell you where to go!
-Hill

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