Archive for October, 2012

October 30, 2012

A School in Tanzania: Part 2 of a Family Adventure

Children of Tanzania

Following is part two of Ed Prutschi’s story of his family’s adventures on our Thomson Family Safari last July. For more photos, go to http://lawandstyle.ca/the-crime-traveller-in-africa-part-two/ You can follow Ed on twitter @crimetraveller

We’re driving along a reasonably well-maintained two-lane highway outside of Karatu, Tanzania. The smooth rush of asphalt beneath the thick tires of our Land Rover feels like a soothing balm to my jarred fillings and aching back after four days of bouncing around the bush trails of Arusha and Tarangire. Our driver turns off the highway onto a rust-red dirt road and begins picking a path through the stones and discarded bricks. A large dog, clearly a recent victim of the highway — its skull split open like a cracked melon — oozes fresh blood into a ditch beside the road. I’m trying to block the wretched sight from my nine- and seven-year-old daughters when they are distracted by the piercing cry of Wazungu! Wazungu! A small band of children, led by a pantless child in a dusty blue sweater who looks no more than three, are running beside our truck crying out in Swahili “White people! White people!”

We are on our way to Ayalabe primary school — a visit that has been in the works for nearly nine months. With the assistance of our superb tour operator, Thomson Safaris we were connected through their charitable arm to two students at the school close in age to my daughters. My girls entered into a pen pal relationship. They would craft a short note in English which we would email to Thomson’s Boston office that was then forwarded to their office in Tanzania. In milliseconds, the message travelled the 12,000km between Boston and Arusha. The timeline expanded there considerably as the e-mails had to be translated into Swahili, printed out and delivered by staff on their next trip to Karatu. Then the student would write her own reply which would eventually be picked up again by Thomson, brought back to their Arusha office for translation and emailed to us. At times it felt akin to speaking through tin cans attached by an epically long string.

In all my months planning this trip, the focus was firmly set on maximizing unique wildlife encounters. The fact that Thomson would arrange a school visit registered as an interesting sideshow to my primary travel objectives. But now, nine months later, we were only a few hundred metres away from the school and my mind was filled with mixed emotions and apprehension. What does a 30-something English-speaking lawyer with a big screen TV in the basement, an Xbox, and a few too many pounds courtesy of three (or more) square meals a day say to a nine year old Swahili girl who just spent two hours walking over 10 kilometres on an empty stomach through grassy plains and along dusty roads just to get to school in the morning? What would my sweet over-privileged white girls have in common with their pen pals?

Our trucks pull into the school’s driveway and the scene is pandemonium. A sea of uniformed children clad in purple and blue come rushing out to greet us. They crash over the vehicles like waves breaking on the surf, jostling to get a view of the visitors through the dust-caked windows. The entire school, 475 students, has been given time off in anticipation of our arrival. I crack open the door of the truck, pushing it slowly to avoid shoving any of the children aside. This must be what Justin Bieber feels like. The school’s principal, a distinguished looking man who stands out from the mass of children in his lime green button down shirt, clamps a powerful grip on my hand and introduces himself.

The principal leads us on a tour of the grounds beaming with pride as he shows off the newest classrooms built with the assistance of our tour company’s charitable arm. With corrugated tin roofs and stone floors bursting with thin wooden pews for the 45 students crammed into the class, they are simple but functional. I immediately think of my daughters’ classrooms back home in Toronto, each equipped with state-of-the-art internet-enabled digital SmartBoards. The class I am standing in now doesn’t even have electricity. The box of simple school supplies we carried with us (pencils, highlighters, crayons, sharpeners, erasers) seems particularly meagre at this moment but is accepted as if I had handed over gold bullion.

The principal is addressing the class in Swahili. I am assuming he is introducing us as he points to each member of our small group in turn and I recognize the word “America.” When he gets to my family I hear “Canada” and then a long pause followed by blank stares from the assembled students. He says something in Swahili, the word “America” again, and then cups one hand on top of the other as he repeats “Canada.” I’m guessing the True North may not be on the Tanzanian primary school geography curriculum.

The class rises, hands on their hearts, to give a stirring rendition of the national anthem followed by a song in English exhorting the listener not to pollute the earth. Our girls are finally paired up with their pen pals. They stare at each other blankly for an awkward moment before the principal motions for them to shake hands for pictures. They look like tiny diplomats fresh from a treaty signing, clasping each other’s hands in a formal pose. The entire school then spills out onto the soccer pitch. A ball is tossed on the red earth and the principal produces a whistle. Suddenly, 475 pairs of legs are hunting for that single ball. I am at a loss to distinguish between the teams — if there even are any. It’s pandemonium of the best possible kind.

As the morning progresses, groups of kids break off. I spy my wife, the speech pathologist, surrounded by a throng of children who are teaching her how to count in Swahili. My daughters are leading long lines of school kids as they shuffle along the periphery of the soccer field. They’re each holding hands again with their pen pals but this time the stiff formality of the photo op has been replaced by a genuineness and warmth. My heart melts. I bring my camera up to my eye — as much to conceal the tears welling up there as to document the moment with a photograph — when I feel a hard tug at the back of my shirt.

“Pitcha? Pitcha!” The boy mimes the act of taking a picture and I turn towards him and snap away. I rotate the digital screen to face him and he smiles at his own image. In seconds I am mobbed. Dozens of children are shouting “Pitcha! Pitcha!” They paw at the camera until I finally relent and let one take a photo of me with his friends. Then my newly minted photographer goes into full paparazzi mode holding down the shutter and snapping dozens of photos of anyone he can find.

It occurs to me that — accounting for my camera, lens and external flash — I’ve just placed a piece of technology whose value might exceed the gross domestic product of the entire school into the hands of a 10 year old.

Too soon our guides are calling and we are ushered back to the waiting trucks. We roar off in a cloud of red dust and to the waves of hundreds of hands. As if to highlight the gulf that separates Western privilege from the difficult but rewarding life eked out in rural Tanzania, we drive only a few short kilometres up the very same road as the school before arriving at our opulent lodging for the night — the truly decadent and amazing Gibbs Farm. Sitting on our giant four-poster bed, the gauzy mosquito netting pulled aside and a roaring fire crackling in our bedroom, I reflect with my kids on their visit to Ayalabe. My seven year old is humming a Swahili tune she had learned while my nine year old updates her wildlife checklist in her safari journal. In three hours at a school half way around the world, my girls have gained knowledge they could never have obtained in a lifetime back home.



October 23, 2012

Galapagos Islands: Fun Facts

Blue Footed Boobies!

I admit, before I went to the Galapagos myself there was a lot that wasn’t clear to me about these islands. But there are so many interesting things to know! Maybe if you start now you’ll absorb more while you’re there. Amaze your friends with these Fun Facts:

The Galapagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago belonging to Ecuador, set 550 miles west of its mainland.

The islands are considered one of the most active volcanic areas in the world. Recent eruptions include Cero Azul on Isabela in 2008, and on Fernandina in 2009.

There are 13 main islands larger than 1 square KM; 3 small islands; and 107 rocks and islets.

Only five of the islands are inhabited; Baltra, Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela, and Floreana.

Isabella (the largest island) and Fernandina (the youngest, at 1 million years) are still forming.

Espanola is the oldest island – 3.5 million years!

Floreana was one of the first islands to be inhabited, and since the 18th century whalers have dropped their letters off at its ‘post office ‘- a wooden barrel!

Isabela is the only Galapagos island the equator runs through, and it is the only island where penguins can be found in their natural habitat in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Humboldt Current brings cold water to the Galapagos; June – November the water can be 22C / 72F. December – May the water warms up to about 25C / 77F (brr!)

A REALLY interesting book about life in the Galapagos is My Father’s Island by Johanna Angermeyer. The Angermeyer Inn is still family run today on the island of Santa Cruz.



October 18, 2012

Memories from Father to Son

Balloons over Cappadocia

Following is a journal entry written by a father from California to his 11 year old son, while they were visiting Turkey with Thomson Family Adventures. We love that Bruce has been keeping this journal for Jacob since he was born. Do you keep a journal for your kids too? Such a great idea, and it’s not too late to start!

June 28, 2012

Weʼre having a marvelous time in Turkey. Two days in Istanbul and two in Cappadocia so far. Yesterday, we got up at 4:30 a.m. to go hot air ballooning over the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia It was surreal as we lifted off, watching the crew on the ground get smaller and smaller. We drifted all over the region, with what seemed like a hundred other colorful balloons dotting the skies. After we landed (and a short nap), we went to the underground city of Kaymakli–eight levels of rooms and “buildings” where Christians would hide from invading Arabs. Afterwards we had lunch at Mustafaʼs (our driver) house. We were served on the floor by his wife and three daughters. After lunch, the girls showed us some Turkish dancing and even you and the other boys joined in.

But it was the end of the day that was the best. We drove into town and met a group of local boys and girls, including your pen pal, Yusuf. None of them spoke English and you and your friends certainly didnʼt speak any Turkish. But it didnʼt matter. We mixed up the kids and played an exhilarating game of soccer. You were our key defensive player, and we won 9-8 (as if anyone was really keeping score). Then all of the kids; boys, girls, Turks, Americans, walked into town for ice cream All of you were completely exhausted, hot, drenched in sweat and incredibly happy. What an experience. You were so sweet and kind to your pen pal–high-fiving him and putting your arm around him while you were both eating ice cream. Sort of a dream day; Iʼll remember this one . . .



October 15, 2012

17 to Infinity: It’s a New World of Travel

Wachirathon Waterfall, Thailand

Family celebrations don’t stop just because the kids get older. Think of all the reasons: High school graduation. College graduation. Admission to college. College graduation. Admission to graduate school! Graduating from grad school. A job offer! Before they go to work for 80 hours a week. Celebrating a job well done…..

Or it’s Mom and Dad’s wedding anniversary… the 25th. The 50th. The 60th.

Or big birthdays! Their 21st, or 25th. Our 50th. 60th. 70th. 80th.

All of these occasions are times we want to gather together with family, to share and appreciate the memories we’ve built over the years. And to make new memories to carry forward. Maybe you want to be with just your family, or maybe you want to join other families at the same stage of their life. Either way, it is a pleasure to have someone else do the dirty work, while you relish the anticipation of the adventure ahead.

As our kids get older we have more flexibility to travel at the fringe of peak season, and to enjoy more sophisticated encounters. Why not take advantage of this new stage of life and learning, and explore the world together?

Family adventures are not just for kids anymore.



October 11, 2012

Five Things to Think About Before You Book Online

Oh, China!

Do you wonder why experts say you should book an international adventure through a professional based in your home country? Maybe you think you will save by going direct to someone ‘at the source’? After all, the internet gives us access to millions of options. Too many! But when you travel to exotic locales it really makes a difference to plan with someone who understands your own ‘native culture’, as well as the place you are traveling to. Think about:

5) Oh the misunderstandings you can encounter! A Five Star hotel in another country is not necessarily a Five Star hotel to our North American standards. Even ‘clean and comfortable’ can mean something very different in another culture. In fact, many countries cannot even rate their hotels on any standardized system we know. (And believe me, peanut butter there is nothing like peanut butter here.)

4) Different cultures have different expectations, rules, and customs. Sometimes you don’t mind winging it, to see what you’ll find. It’s part of the adventure, especially when you are young, single and carefree. But when you’re with the kids it’s comforting to have a solid interpretation of what you are heading into – and a local guide with enough experience to manage your expectations appropriately.

3) Maybe you have a food allergy, a sleep disorder, an aversion to bugs in your room. You’ll fully appreciate discussing your concerns with a friendly expert who speaks your language and understands your sensibilities, someone who will give you straight answers and solid advice – not gloss over the particular challenges of your destination.

2) The currency, the packing list, the information on charging your iPod…don’t you want that from someone who understands what you expect and need? Don’t guess at what it will be like, or spend hours researching online. Just refer to the complete predeparture booklet we’ll send you!

1) Internet Advice? Fun to search for late at night, but does it really pertain to you? Remember, you don’t know who is reporting, what they value, and whether their comments accurately address your needs. It is so much more useful to have a conversation in your native language with a professional who has been where you’re going. Someone who can listen to your needs and interests, and deliver the right things to you.

How much risk do you want to take? You probably (hopefully) wouldn’t hand over your savings to something you read about in a Yahoo forum (no offense, Yahoo). Likewise, be sure you invest your valuable vacation dollars and time so you can get the best return available. Look for an expert who has been there. And always ask for references!



October 5, 2012

What’s Happening for the Holidays (v. 2012)

Paddle into the Underworld in Belize

Traveling over the holidays is a popular trend. Some families do it as a personal celebration; some do it to get away from the rush at home. But ALL families love seeing how other countries celebrate in their own way. Here are a few ideas:

Did you know that if you go to Baja over Christmas you may be invited to our guide’s home to help decorate the Christmas tree, Mexican style. Then afterward, how about hunting for scorpions with a black light? Pretty cool, yes? Or travel on our December 26 trip, and have the opportunity to celebrate New Year’s Eve with a bash at the famous Hotel California – we have a few tickets we’ll include with your adventure!

On December 24th the largest and best Christmas pagent in all of Ecuador takes place in Cuenca. If you join our Galapagos Islands and Inca Ruins December 22 you’ll have the chance to partake of the Pase del Niño festival, an all day event filled with music, floats, and costumes. Or try the Galapagos MultiSport Adventure December 25, and enjoy a miraculous New Year’s Eve stargazing from your campsite on the beach.

Belize will be celebrating an event we just might not ever see again. December 21 represents the end of the Maya calendar, and the end of the 13th B’ak’tun, the Maya’s linear long count cycle of 394 years. Though recently Maya calendars have been found that continue on in time, no one disputes this is expected to be a great time of change and transformation, and the festivities will be plentiful throught out the month. Arrive just in time for ‘the end’ on our adventure December 21, or come later (December 27) and celebrate New Year’s Eve on the beach. Either way, it’s a Mayan adventure from beginning to end.

Peru, Costa Rica, Panama – all of the South and Central American countires have deep traditons surrounding Christmas and the New Year, and each country tells the story in their own way. There can be special markets, festivals, fireworks. No matter your own traditions and holidays, why not learn how others do it?

Really you should be planning for December 2013 – so if you haven’t figured it out yet for THIS year it’s time to make a plan!