People told us that we were crazy for going to Africa on vacation. I was warned about health risks ranging from malaria to the deadliest snakes in the world. People joked (?) about us getting kidnapped. The reaction I most often got when telling friends that we were traveling to Tanzania was... "Why?".
So here is why. I have been to much of Europe, the Caribbean, and South America, all of which are unique and worthwhile in their own right. I had never been to sub-Saharan Africa. Something new and different was beckoning. I wanted to learn. I had heard great things about Tanzania, its people, its sites, and its wildlife. Despite its poverty, Tanzania is known as a safe and stable country friendly to tourists. Despite our friends' and families' worries, we had an unforgettable time; the worst things to happen were a delayed flight and a handful of mosquito bites.
So a little about our trip! We did a 10 day safari in Tanzania with Safaris-R-Us followed by three days in Livingstone, Zambia, home of Victoria Falls. We flew into Kilimanjaro airport where Edwin, our safari driver, greeted us to begin our trip. We visited a Maasai village, did a cultural tour with the Chagga tribe of Mto wa Mbu, met Datoga blacksmiths, and Hadzabe hunters. We visited Tarangire National Park, Lake Manyara National Park, and spent three nights camping in the famed Serengeti National Park, which 100% lives up to its reputation as the premier game park on the continent. We took a bus to Nairobi to catch a flight to Livingstone, where we sipped Amarula on a sunset cruise on the Zambezi river, visited the David Livingstone museum ("Dr. Livingstone, I presume!"), explored the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides of Victoria Falls (which, like the Serengeti, 100% lives up to its reputation), saw endangered white rhinos while surrounded by armed soldiers, and took a day trip to Chobe National Park in Botswana. We then flew to Johannesburg, South Africa, and caught a 15 hour flight back to JFK.
Throughout our trip, we got to know our tour guides, especially our safari driver Edwin, and we reflected as much as possible about our experiences. We deliberately included both cultural and natural components and despite only being there a few weeks, we learned so much about a part of the world that is all too frequently written off or ignored completely. Here are a few thoughts, in no particular order!
1.) People everywhere we met, especially in Tanzania, were incredibly friendly and kind. They also seemed happy, much more so than the average person in the United States, caught in a rat race of work and errands. Everywhere we went, people greeted us with "Jambo, karibu" (Hello, welcome). People smiled and were genuinely interested in foreigners. They were excited to share bits of their cultures and talents with us, and we strove to humbly learn and grow (except for the suggestion John got to take another wife :)). Rural Tanzania is poor, more so than probably anywhere else I have been, but material wealth does not equate happiness and communities take care of each other.
2.) Everywhere we visited was on a very early schedule, dependent on daylight. We would start the day early, at daybreak, and be back at the hotel before dark. Dinner was at 7:30pm, and after that we went to bed. Bars will stay open until maybe 9 or 10. This made sense given the lack of streetlights and the typical petty crime that occurs anywhere after dark.
3.) Two awesome things about Tanzania: solar power was everywhere, and Muslims and Christians coexist and have for centuries. (Tanzania is roughly half Christian and half Muslim.) Go Tanzania! Not so awesome thing: being gay is illegal and punishable by up to 30 years in prison (though it's rarely enforced). Not cool, Tanzania.
4.) The tourist experience in Tanzania, and also Zambia for that matter, is a very well oiled machine, for better or for worse. Tourists are isolated and buffered. (Edwin told us that Tanzania's tourism industry is highly valued, and it's of paramount importance that visitors have positive experiences.) Lodges were almost always walled in with secure entrance gates. Despite the huts and simple lifestyle we often drove past, we were treated to multi-course dinners, welcome drinks, hot towels, and wifi Internet. While it was nice to be pampered on vacation, we also felt uncomfortably separated by the vestiges of British and German colonialism.
5.) The tourist demographics were very different in Tanzania compared to Victoria Falls. In Tanzania we met Germans, Italians, Spaniards, Americans, and Australians, many of whom were doing bucket list trips or family vacations. In Victoria Falls, there were more Americans and more missionaries, many of whom were doing a few days at the falls before going on to do charity work. Our tour guide, Steve, said that the Zambian government will always accept aid because it's needed, but many people "convert" in name only to receive access to services. We proposed Zambian missionaries going to the United States to save Americans, and he laughed.
6.) The nature and wildlife are incredible. All of the national parks are unspoiled, and there is true balance to "The Circle of Life". After three days exploring the Serengeti, I had a new appreciation for what nature is supposed to do. Gazelles eat grass. Lions eat gazelles. Hyenas eat leftovers. Lions die, and fertilize the soil. The grass grows. And so on. There is no overpopulation of any one species, no rampant deer populations to contend with like in Ohio. And furthermore, we were theoretically part of the food chain. Edwin told us that if we walked into the brush alone, we would be lucky to make it a mile.
7.) On a similar note, we saw several animals in danger of extinction. The animals that are really in trouble are cheetahs, leopards, and especially rhinos: we saw only three during the entire trip, and all of them were under armed protection. There are no game drives permitted at night in the Tanzanian parks, so if rangers see someone driving after hours, they assume it is a poacher. Since poachers are generally heavily armed and dangerous, the rangers' policy is to shoot them on sight, no questions asked.
8.) The Tanzanian government does not pave the roads in their national parks, and only admits 4 wheel drive vehicles. The roads are bad and there isn't much infrastructure. There are no souvenir stands, no trash cans, no restaurants, no trail signs, no costumed characters ready to give an autograph. I'm convinced though that this is a good thing. By not implementing these amenities, the government limits who can enter the parks and protects the animals from things like hot asphalt and speeding drivers.
9.) We joked about how everything where we visited in Africa seemed to be "extreme". Extremely poisonous snakes. Extremely big dust devils, the size of tornadoes. Extremely big bees. Extremely weird candelabra cactus trees whose sap is deadly acid. Extremely delicious pineapple. You get the picture.
We had an amazing time on our adventure, and fell in love with Tanzania and Victoria Falls. Just as importantly, we learned so much. Some favorite images are below!