Tanzania

October 20, 2016

12 Reasons I Love Tanzania

land-rover-large-elephant-beside

From July 1994 to July 1998 our General Manager, Jim, lived in Arusha, Tanzania while working for Thomson.  He loved his time in the country and still thinks about it, quite fondly, today. He put together a list of his 12 favorite reasons why he loved living in Tanzania.  The best part about his list is that you don’t need to live there to experience them— just visit! If you take a Tanzania family vacation we’re sure that you’ll run into a few of Jim’s favorite things.

The Weather

Living at 4,500 feet where the daily highs were in the low 90s and the evening lows were in 60s just can’t be beat.  I got to wear shorts and Birkenstocks every day, something that was easy to get used to.  When I would come back home to Boston for vacations each April, with cloudy skies and cooler temperatures, didn’t always feel great!

The African Sky

I spent many nights sitting outside stargazing.  The sky was so rich and full of stars, the galaxy looking like you could reach out and touch it, I would have to go outside early enough to make heads or tails of the constellations.  Keep an eye out for the Southern Cross during night safaris on your family vacation, it was my favorite.

Rugby

The Arusha Rhinos was the local rugby team and they were willing to let this old man (42 at the time) play on their rugby team for a year.  I wasn’t much good but learned to love the sport.

Fresh Roses

I am a sucker for beautiful roses.   There are so many rose plantations in Tanzania that I was always able to pick up a bucket (4 or 5 dozen) of roses for a few dollars.  Luckily my wife, Kim, loves them as well so our house was always adorned with the latest harvest of reds or champagnes.  To this day when someone does something great in our office I need to get out and buy them a dozen roses.  It’s just too bad they aren’t still a few dollars!

Africa Stays with You

I didn’t have a clue what this meant before I left the States but after spending four years in Tanzania, I understand and know it is true.  I have an attachment to Tanzanians, to the country, the wildlife and to the landscape that I will never lose.

Genuine Respect

There’s a greeting and exchange in Swahili that takes place between young people and any elder that they meet. The young person would say Shikamo and the elder would reply Marahaba.

There is no direct translation, but in essence, the younger person is showing respect to someone who is older and wiser than they are, and the elder responds with a thank you. Here in the states if you are older and struggling with something like technology you may get an eye roll at best and a “man are you dumb” at worst.  In Tanzania, that just won’t happen.

Family and Community

I worked with a very successful and smart tour guide who was constantly short of cash.  I finally got up the guts to ask him why.   He explained to me that every time he came back from work with his pay there was a line of people from his village outside his door. They needed cash for school fees, medicines, food and other necessities.  Saying no was not an option for him.  He always put others first and wanted to help.  Put me to shame.

Incredible Memories

My first son was born in Tanzania in March 1997 and got to go on safari with me three or four times before we moved back to the U.S.  He was given the name Msafiri mdogo mdogo by my co-workers which translates to the junior junior (little little) journeyer.  He’s now 19 and in college. While this won’t happen to you on your family safari, there are plenty of memories that your family will make on a vacation in Tanzania.

Lifelong Friendships

In addition to the wonderful Tanzanians my family met, we crossed paths with people from all over the world.  We now have friends from Australia, England, Canada, South Africa and much more.  We will always share that wonderful time in Tanzania.

Amazing Scenery is Never Far

Where else in the world can you drive two hours and be at Tarangire National Park or Gibbs Farm.  Getting to spend weekends at a safari lodge in Tarangire, where alternating between swims in the pool and watching for game drink at the Tarangire River was the daily regimen, was incredible.  One weekend we watched a group of young lions practice their hunting skills with zebras at the river for drink.  They weren’t successful.

Fresh Fruit

It was right in my own backyard.  Our little 3 room ranch on 2 acres of land came with bananas, oranges, avocados (boy did our shepherds love these), passion fruit, papaya and custard apple.    There is nothing better for one’s weight and cholesterol level than snacking on these rather than chips and cookies. You’ll be able to see and taste all of the fresh fruit you can while on safari.

Safari

Going on safari in June 1998 with my family and my brother was amazing.  Finding ourselves in the middle of the migration in the Southern Serengeti was a once in a life time experience.  Words cannot describe wildebeest and zebras as far as we could see in every direction.  Having a 15 month old barking at a sleeping lion who turned and growled at him will be a story told for years to come and of course exaggerated. I’m pretty sure in the last telling of it he walked right up and gave the lion a kiss on the nose!



December 29, 2015

Five Great Reasons to Visit Tanzania in March

One of our favorite countries in the world here at Thomson, and a top destination in the world, is Tanzania. To start, Tanzania is the premier safari destination in East Africa.  After being in Tanzania for just a short time it’s easy to understand why the country is so great. The people are incredibly kind and friendly, the landscape is vast and gorgeous, and the opportunity for wildlife viewing is breathtaking. This is something that families can experience any time of year when traveling to Tanzania. But just as anything in life, there are upsides and downsides when choosing what time of year to take a family vacation. One of the best times to visit Tanzania is during March. While the list of reasons is virtually endless, we’ve narrowed it down to five of the top reasons to visit Tanzania in March.

Tanzania Culture

Zebra and Wildebeest Migration in the Southern Serengeti

Wildlife is always abundant in Tanzania; it’s one of its biggest draws. But in March the herds of zebras and wildebeest follow the light rains to graze on the tiny shoots of grass that sprout up just after the rain falls. This makes the herds predictable and always in a high concentration which draws out the nomadic predators like lions, hyenas, and cheetahs. It makes it near impossible to miss out on an amazing wildlife experience.

Calving Season

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March is the tail end of calving season for wildebeest. Seeing the thousands of young gnus (baby wildebeest) is very special. Watching them get their legs underneath them and trotting around new to the world is a sight that not many people who go to Tanzania, get to see. This is truly unforgettable.

Everything is Cheaper

During March flights to Tanzania can be anywhere from $500 to over $1000 cheaper. The same goes for hotels, camps, and parks. This all helps bring the price of your trip down by about $3000 per person. Also, hotels, flights, camps, and parks are always more enjoyable with less of a crowd!

Europeans Tend Not to Travel to Tanzania in March

One of the worst parts of traveling to an astounding country with some of the best photo opportunities that you could find is battling other travelers for the perfect shot or trying to set the perfect frame with no one in the background. This is what makes traveling during low season or at off-peak times so desirable. The only reason March is less crowded is because Europeans tend not to travel to Tanzania, for no specific reason, in March. Your family can go to a popular destination like Tanzania and feel at ease knowing there won’t be a ton of tourists.

Timing is Great

Many schools have one or two weeks off in March. This makes the timing for a safari great. When the kids are off from school and most other activities also on a hiatus, what better thing is there to do than go on safari? Whether you have a shorter break or a longer break we have a safari that will fit into your schedule!



September 22, 2015

See the Big Five on Safari

There is a lot of talk about the Big Five when talking about going on an African Safari. You may have heard the names, but do you really know the Big Five? The Big Five was a term coined decades ago by big-game hunters to give a nick name to the five hardest animals to hunt on foot, mainly due to the danger involved. Conservation efforts have greatly reduced the hunting of the Big Five, the term Big Five has been reclaimed by conservation groups, tour companies, and travelers as a nick name for five of the most magical creatures that the world has to offer.

The African Lion

Brothers we saw heading to get water. They had just eaten.

A pair of male lions spotted on safari

One of the most iconic animals in the world, the African lion is one of the most sought after animals for safari goers to look for. It is easy to distinguish male lions from female lions. Male lions boast magnificent manes, one reason it may be the most recognizable animal symbol in the world. The largest population of lions can be found roaming the national parks and plains of East Africa. Seeing a lion in the wild can easily be the highlight of a safari!

The Black/White Rhino

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A lone rhino out in the bush

There are five species of rhinoceros in the world and two of them, the white and black rhinoceros, are native to Africa. Interestingly enough, the white and black rhinoceros are not at all distinguishable by color. There is no consensus as to why the white rhino became the “white” rhino and the black rhino was only given its name to show a difference from the white rhino. The main difference between the two is the shape of their mouths. Black rhinos have a pointed lip that they use to eat fruit from branches and the white rhino has a flat wide lip making it easier to graze on grasses. Both species can be found in East Africa. The black rhino is critically endangered and the white rhino is listed as near threatened.

The African Leopard

Leopard cleaning its chops after eating a Baboon in the Masai Mara

A leopard relaxing out in the grass

The most distinguishing characteristic of the African leopard is its gorgeous coat of fur which ranges from pale yellow to deep gold with black spots all over.  Leopards are very skilled at adapting to different habitats and can be found in much of sub-Saharan Africa from mountain ranges to savannahs and grasslands. The only climate they will not be found is in extreme desert environments. Leopards become the most active between sunset and sunrise, making late night and early morning safaris the best time to spot them!

The Cape Buffalo

He's an old soul this one

He’s an old soul this one

Adult buffalos have a large set of horns on its head and have what is called a fused base creating a bone shield across the top of its head forming a “boss.” The Cape buffalo is one of the most successful grazers in Africa living in swamps and floodplains. They have very few predators and are regularly able to defend themselves against lion attacks. It is not rare to see packs of Cape buffalo stopping at a watering hole in the Serengeti!

The African Elephant

Taking the kids for a sip of water

Taking the kids for a sip of water

The largest of all the Big Five animals is the African Elephant. In fact, the African bush elephant is the largest land mammal in the world and it is also one of the most intelligent. The elephant is recognized quite easily by its large body, huge floppy ears, long trunk, and a beautiful pair of ivory tusks. The African elephant is vulnerable and soon may be placed on the endangered list if poaching does not stop. While on safari though, it’s a real joy to see elephants picking leaves off of trees or strolling down the road.

The Big Five can be seen in a handful of African countries, but Tanzania is widely regarded as they best. With annual events such as the great migration, going on safari in Tanzania gives families an opportunity to seen not just the Big Five but other incredible animals as well. Seeing amazing animals in their natural habitat can easily be the highlight of any family vacation!



March 25, 2015

What’s a Rafiki?

 

Rafiki” means friend in Swahili!

Ellie,_Grace,_Savannah_Ian_and_Henry_with_the_mentor_in_the_Taurus_mountain_hike

Did you know that each Thomson Family Adventure—with eight or more guests—is accompanied by a rafiki*? Our rafikis work with our guides; their main purpose is to enhance the overall trip experience, and especially to engage the children in their new surroundings. We used to call these companions “mentors,” but the job title didn’t convey the rich benefits of this staff member. We settled on rafiki as an acknowledgement of our flagship destination, Tanzania—and so you would ask “what’s a rafiki?”

Depending on the trip, the rafiki may be local to the destination, or may be American. While the job description may vary with each trip, there are some constants to the work. In essence, a rafiki is the “fun person” on board who provides lots of opportunities for recreational and bonding activities, especially among the children. A rafiki comes prepared as a resource, always offering a fun activity or great information.

 

Barnard_Galapagos_group

A rafiki’s job is:

• To provide kid-friendly enrichment activities for up to an hour each day, enhancing the overall trip experience
• To provide organized fun for kids that helps them get to know each other
• To provide things for kids to do during delays, flights and long bus trips
• To give parents the chance to relax and enjoy a stress-free trip because their kids are engaged in interesting activities that help them appreciate other cultures.

A rafiki is not:

• A babysitter. While there are times when the rafiki will supervise the children, he or she is not there to discipline or take over parental duties.
• A tour guide. The local guide is the trip’s expert on the country visited. Any questions about the itinerary or the country should be directed to the guide. This includes food and lodging issues, concerns about excursions, and questions about local culture or native flora and fauna.

Here’s what past travelers had to say about their rafiki friend:

 

Mentor_and_Grace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TANZANIA:

“The guides and rafiki were exceptionally wonderful and very kind! They answered all our endless questions… This is the best trip I’ve had”

–Jennifer Wineman: 12/22/14

 

“Our favorite part of the trip was the animals and hanging out with the rafiki and other kids. We were glad to have the rafiki along as he was willing to discuss political and social issues.”

–Maguire: 07/25/14

 

“Hooking us up with two other families with kids the same age may have been the highlight of the trip. They all bonded well, facilitated by the rafiki. This was appreciated and the rafiki was really good at this work.
–Rosentreter:  07/25/14

“The rafiki was wonderful. He was smart, informative, warm, and great with all ages. He was committed to ensuring a great experience for us all. He was fun to be around, funny, adventurous, attentive, and patient, all with a good sense of humor.”

–Lori Rafkin: 12/21/12

 

ECUADOR:

“Our rafiki made our trip perfect and so easy. She was smart, helpful, energetic, and highly knowledgeable. Do not underestimate the rafiki as a big part of the trip’s success!”

–Freeman: 02/19/11

 

“Our rafiki kept the kids happy and taught them a lot in a very fun way. She was great.”

–Smith-Barr: 02/19/11

 

“Our rafiki very much enhanced our overall travel experience with activities and games. He became part of our family.”

–Doug Listman: 12/21/11

 

COSTA RICA:

“The rafiki was good and especially helpful with the kids.”

–Jeff & Shari Grimes:  06/16/12

 

“Our rafiki was great with the kids, enthusiastic, and energetic.”

–Zilkha: 02/18/12

 

 

SMITHSONIAN:

“The rafiki initiated and anticipated… a great help and enhancement to the trip. She was really a pleasant surprise, how having a rafiki made a better vacation both for the kids and adults.”

–Barb Barney:  07/05/14

 

“It was a wonderful trip. The guides and rafiki made it especially nice. Would highly recommend the trip and hope others got the same guides and rafiki.”

–Linda & Leland Foster: 07/13/14

 

“The rafiki was the nicest and smartest person in the entire world.  She was so nice and I am sad to say goodbye to her. She (and the other family) made the trip.”

–Trip Gorman: 12/26/14

 

“Our guide, rafiki, and photographer went above and beyond to help the children bond with each other and make the activities fun. They enabled the adults to have a great time also.”

– Whitman: 03/15/14

 

*NOTE: There are no rafikis on our Trips with Teens and 20-Somethings, and certain custom and private trips.



December 5, 2013

Family Reunions – Five Ways to Make it Work

Together in Peru

Together in Peru

The holidays have always been a time for families to come together, and more than ever families are meeting up in a new location, to share new experiences as well as each others’ company.  Whether it’s holiday time, a hard earned graduation, a milestone anniversary or birthday or just an excuse to get away, a family reunion can be a legacy trip of a lifetime. So how do you ensure your time and financial investment don’t go to waste?

1) Plan ahead! If your family is flexible and has an excellent sense of humor, a regrettable last minute decision to ‘wing-it’ may give you material to laugh about for years to come.  But if you prefer to not spend your vacation troubleshooting and negotiating every day, you’ll take your time and start planning for next year. The perfect villa, the right hotels, the ideal guide – those things don’t wait for late planners.

2) Support, Support, Support . Leave yourself unfettered to nonstop planning. Whether your familiy is 6 people or 26, knowing someone else is managing tasty on-time meals, arranging safe and reliable transportation, and showing you the best things to do – this is the gift of freedom to enjoy every minute with your family without a care in the world.

3) Use local expertise on the ground. Don’t try to guess how long it takes to get somewhere or what activity will be best when, or how to find the special secrets of your destination. Make use of a local guide experienced in family, and committed to showing you the way while managing every detail in advance. An unexpected plus: a terrific guide makes everything more fun!

4) Make every day count. Instead of unscheduled days wandering aimlessly while bored kids glue themselves to their video games, try experiencing new things together.  One terrific group outing to start each day gives you a framework, and something to talk about forever. Your afternoons can be more restorative or more active, depending on each person’s desire – hang by the pool, playing board games – or head out shopping or hiking. Then everyone unites again over a wonderful dinner, to reflect on the day. Plenty of together time, plenty of flexibility!

5) Consider a thread of special meaning to weave throughout your vacation. For some it’s a community project, or starting a family journal together. It might mean creating a treasure hunt (we can do this!), or a quest to check off your list of flora and fauna. With the help of your reunion planners and guide these things can be simple for you to include, and inspiring for your family to do together.

During this 2013 holiday season start dreaming of what can blossom for you and your loved ones in 2014. Maybe it is hiking at Machu Picchu, zip lining in Costa Rica, or snorkeling in the Galapagos.Imagine the flora, fauna and music of Brazil, the souks and mountains in Morocco, or breathtaking wildlife in Tanzania… Whatever your dream, enjoy it with your family!



July 30, 2013

A Heartwarming Tale of Rescue on Safari!

The magic of an African safari is something no family can fully prepare for. Everyone’s experience is different, loaded with spontaneous cultural and wildlife encounters that couldn’t possibly have been written into an itinerary – that’s what makes a safari in Tanzania remarkable.

A prime example is the unplanned wildlife rescue mission undertaken by the Hartz family on their recent Tanzania Active Safari for Families with Teens. Jennifer, Eric, and their four teens were riding along in their safari vehicle, wildlife viewing in the Eastern Serengeti Ecosystem, in the private nature refuge that Thomson guests have exclusive privileges to visit. Suddenly, they spotted a Kori Bustard (a large, mostly ground-dwelling bird) hobbling along with something sticking out of its back.

They followed the bird in their rover, hoping to help in any way they could. Upon closer inspection, the Hartz family and their driver realized that the poor thing had been struck between the shoulder blades by a Maasai arrow. Hunting on this property is strictly prohibited, but somebody had attempted to make an illegal dinner out of this Kori Bustard. The family, along with their guide and driver, removed the arrow as carefully as possible, applied Neosporin to the wound, and patched it up to the best of their ability. Afterwards, they sat back and watched as the bird went on its way, concerned but gratified in the knowledge that they probably just saved its life.

That uplifting tale of chance and compassion is exactly the type of thing that makes a safari such a special family adventure. In addition to saving an unfortunate Kori Bustard, the Hartz family had plenty of other wonderful experiences… a bike ride into a village quarry near Gibb’s Farm where bricks are hand-made by local workers, and a rewarding encounter with friendly and enthusiastic Maasai children, to name a couple. But this unexpected act of kindness and teamwork is something that will surely stick out as a particularly fond travel memory!



May 28, 2013

How a Family Adventure Feels at 17

Hannah and Frank

We received this email  from 17 year old Hannah whose family lives in New Jersey. We know how our guides can impact adults and children alike, and we never tire of hearing about it. These are the life changing experiences we travel for!

“I’m writing to give you feedback on one of your Tanzania staff members, Frank Julius.

I went on a family safari in Tanzania over the December holidays (2012) with my mom, dad and 15-year-old brother, and Frank came along as a mentor. We met up with a family we hadn’t met before with two kids, ages eleven and eight.

As a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old, my brother and I weren’t in need of the same type of mentoring as the other kids were. Instead, Frank became a friend to us. He played soccer and goofed around with the younger ones, but Frank and I also had interesting intellectual conversations, discussed our lives and compared cultures. He has incredible people skills, is able to shift seamlessly between adults and children, and developed lasting relationships with each person on our trip, regardless of age. The two families went in separate trucks, and we always hoped Frank would end up in ours.

I was also incredibly impressed by Frank’s intellect. He is so well read, world-aware and ambitious. I was amazed to hear that he speaks six languages, and we enjoyed practicing Spanish together throughout the trip. As I observed with all the other Thomson staff members, he was very knowledgeable about the animals and wildlife. He went beyond just facts about the animals, permeating our observation with jokes and anecdotes.

Without Frank, this trip would have been a completely different experience for my family and I. We had amazing luck with sightings in all the parks, took incredible pictures and had wonderful stays at all of the camps, but what was most impactful to me were the people I met along the way. Everybody was lovely, but I developed an amazing friendship with Frank. We continue to keep each other updated through Facebook today, and I hope to keep in touch with him for the rest of my life. Anybody who gets to go on a Thomson Family Safari is in for an amazing experience, but a trip with Frank is guaranteed to be all the more unique and memorable.”



January 23, 2013

Around the Serengeti in 80 Minutes

Rising above the Serengeti

Following is part 4 of Ed Prutschi’s story of his familys’ Thomson Family Safari in July 2012. For more photos go here. You can follow Ed on Twitter @crimetraveller

It’s 4:30 a.m. when I hear a voice at the flap of my tent.

Jambo Edward!” It’s my guide sing-songing the traditional Swahili greeting. He’s wrapped tightly in a fleece sweater to ward off the cold, while clutching a kerosene lantern in his gloved hand to stave off the darkness. Today, we have planned the ultimate capstone to our Tanzanian safari — a sunrise balloon ride over the Serengeti.

I grab an extra cup of coffee and push steaming mugs of cocoa into my daughters’ hands before crawling into the back of our Land Rover. We bounce through the inky darkness at speed, pausing only when our driver slams on the brakes to avoid a baby hippopotamus. We inch our way cautiously past the massive mother following closely behind her calf and continue to our launch site.

After a short pre-flight briefing, I’m lying on my side stretched out awkwardly in a compartment of a giant wicker basket that has been tilted to lie horizontally. My nine-year-old daughter is beside me, giddy with a combination of excitement and lack of sleep. I can’t see them but somewhere underneath me, in a separate compartment, are my wife and seven-year-old. Tongues of super-heated gas belch massive noisy flames less than two metres from my head. The intense heat is a shocking contrast to the crisp cold of the Tanzanian pre-dawn. The blackness of the Serengeti plains is quickly giving way to dappled muted smears of purple and streaks of orange as we race against the rapidly approaching sunrise.

I clench my teeth and grip the side runners, anticipating a lurch as we tilt vertically to begin our ascent. Instead, I experience a gradual weightless feeling as we float into position and begin drifting upwards. The powerful heaters fire intermittently up into the belly of the balloon but I am struck by the intense silence that exists between the flaming blasts. Our pilot, Captain Frank Bellantoni of Serengeti Balloon Safaris, cracks a joke under his breath about Serengeti air traffic beating the daily grind along Highway 401. I stare at him slack-jawed and he chuckles. “I’m from Guelph, I could tell from your accents that you guys live close to home.” Two international flights, a bush plane, and countless kilometres along an off-road dirt path in a Land Rover and my balloon pilot turns out to hail from a town 30 minutes down the highway from my house. Small world indeed.

My reverie at this amazing coincidence is broken as I am suddenly blinded by the appearance of the sun. The difference is dramatic as I begin unzipping layers of fleece, my face already perspiring in the heat. We glide over a pool, soundlessly floating just 20 feet above the water. The grey blobs I initially thought were boulders crack open giant maws revealing enormous stained teeth. Hippos.

Captain Frank hits the jets and we begin to gain altitude. We skim past a tall acacia tree and stare down at a vulture’s nest. The mother bird glares at us with fixed black eyeballs. She ruffles her feathers but stays fixed to her perch. We are close enough to count the eggs huddled protectively under her belly. As we clear the tree and continue our ascent, the criss-cross of thousands of trails begins to unfold. We have arrived here just a week late for the grand spectacle of the Great Migration, where 1.5 million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras pound the ground into zig-zag patterns.

A pair of bat-eared foxes dart out of a burrow while a group of five dik-diks appear to defy gravity as they bounce over a thin stream. A lioness suddenly senses our proximity and I can see the muscled fur of her shoulders tense, her ears twitch and flatten, as she turns her head skyward to watch our strange contraption pass overhead. We climb higher and higher until we can clearly see the ribbon of emerald green marking the path of the Seronera River slashing its way through the brown and tan coloured plains.

Too soon Captain Frank announces that we are approaching our landing site. The balloon descends, the basket bouncing as it hits the ground before gripping the dirt and finally tipping smoothly over, leaving us lying on our backs staring up at the blue sky. Our safety latches are quickly unhitched and champagne flutes are pressed into our hands (fresh orange juice for the girls). We toast our successful flight before being driven just a few hundred feet where, in the shade of a giant acacia tree, we settle in for breakfast. Toast. Fruit. Eggs to order. All while a group of disinterested wildebeest, zebras and gazelles chew their own morning repast within sight of our tables.



November 1, 2012

Meeting the Maasai; Part 3 of a Family Safari

a blending of cultures

Following is part 3 of Ed Prutschi’s story of his familys’ Thomson Family Safari in July 2012. For more photos go to http://lawandstyle.ca/the-crime-traveller-in-africa-part-three/. You can follow Ed on Twitter @crimetraveller

He’s wearing an Obama toque.

The cracked, weathered face and hesitant gap-toothed smile don’t take me by surprise. I succeed in keeping my eyes from fixating on the dangling fleshy earlobes that hang like ropes of silly-putty from his elongated ears. But I can’t get past the swirl of black knit cotton emblazoned with the American President’s name that sits atop his shaved head like an inverted soft-serve ice cream cone.

I’ve travelled over 12,000 km from America’s shores but party politics knows no bounds. Or maybe he just wants to keep his head warm during the cold African nights.

***

Taking a break from the game drives that have become routine on our safari, our truck jostles and bumps across the barely passable dirt track until we arrive at a dense thicket of thorn bushes arranged in a circle. We are joined by a guest guide who loftily introduces himself to me as “Johnston, your Maasai ambassador.” Johnston is a living breathing example of the incredible contradictions apparent in the lives of this semi-nomadic pastoralist tribe. He is rail thin and clad in the distinctive red cloth and beaded adornments of the Maasai. Around his waist, a belt loop grips a wicked-looking machete while on his other hip is strapped an Android-powered smart phone. Leaning on his wooden staff, he switches easily between English, Swahili and Maasai. University educated in nearby Nairobi, Kenya, Johnston tells me he hopes to develop a career combining his ambassadorial skills with environmental and wildlife protection.

We bend our heads and follow Johnston under the low-hanging thorn branches that mark the entrance to the Maasi boma(village) we have come to visit. It’s immediately apparent that these Maasai do not lead an easy life. Their homes (known asmanyata) are built of thatched wood held together by a mixture of mud and cow dung that dries into a kind concrete after baking in the hot sun. Slabs of corrugated steel sit as makeshift repairs to an occasional leaky roof. We are invited into one of themanyatas. The blackness inside takes on a palpable physicality as we choke on the remnants of the hundreds of cooking fires that have been lit here over the years. Young children wander about the village caked in dust, barely clothed, and swarmed by flies. And yet, to say that the Maasai are “poor” is an over-simplification.

As I talk at greater length with our guides, I learn that some tribes have amassed substantial wealth. This is particularly true for those tribes on whose land the gemstone Tanzanite has been discovered. Wealth itself cannot be measured by Western standards when speaking of the Maasai. Although some talked of trying to save enough money to purchase a motorcycle or a phone, the true measure of prosperity in their community is the size of one’s cattle herd. Several days earlier, as we drove between the lush environment of the Ngorongoro Crater towards the vast flat plains of the Serengeti, we were stopped on the dirt road for many minutes as a group of Maasai shepherded a line of humped Brahmin cattle that snaked into the distance as far as the eye could see. One of our guides, a Maasai himself, whistled softly from the front seat of the truck and tipped his head in respectful acknowledgement as they filed past us. “That is a very rich man,” he said.

But standing here in the middle of this isolated village with no running water, electricity or medicine, it is apparent that the Maasai we are visiting today face tremendous challenges. Despite efforts by the Tanzanian government to push the Maasai into embracing modern assimilation, most members of the tribe are fiercely protective of their cultural traditions. While the government has succeeded in discouraging the hunting of lions that long formed a coming-of-age right for the Maasai, polygamy is the norm and ritual circumcision is still practiced around the age of thirteen. An awkwardly painful procedure for men, it is widely accepted as genital mutilation and torture when practiced on women, as the Maasai still do. I ask one of the men about the hardships of Maasai life, expecting complaints about food, schooling or healthcare. Instead he replies through my translator, “The biggest problem we have now are the leopards. They come each night and try to eat our cattle.” Um, right. Leopards.

Whereas Johnston seems casually at ease with us, the Maasai villagers keep a safe distance from our group at first, staring at us with bemused expressions that I can only imagine mimic closely the bewilderment our own faces reflect back at them. I train my camera on a group of young children. No one mugs for the camera, or even smiles. Johnston explains that while he leads groups like ours several times a month, each batch of tourists is taken to a different boma. This ensures that the fees paid by the groups are shared equally across the many different villages but also has the side-effect of creating a dramatic cultural experience for both sides. I ask Johnston when the last time a group like ours visited this boma. “Probably never,” he answers.

My daughter snaps a pic on her iTouch, stretching out her arm to show the children her shot. They step back reflexively. But then, slowly, necks crane forward to stare. Whispers and giggles begin to break out. The adults inch forward a bit leaning over their children to see what all the fuss is about. Ten minutes later I may as well be at a bar-mitzvah. The entire tribe is laughing and shouting loudly as they take turns posing for pictures. The adults start lining up kids in different combinations motioning for us to take more shots. I comment on the beauty of a man’s beaded earring and next thing I know, he’s clipped a pair to my lobes.

The following day, a group of the Maasai come to our tented camp and allow us to join them in traditional Maasai singing and dancing. One of the tribe’s elders is surrounded by the children in our group as she relates an ancient folk tale to the kids in her native tongue. Although Johnston is translating line-by-line, most of the meaning is relayed through her incredible intonation and wildly exaggerated body language.

In the afternoon, we visit a nearby women’s cooperative where the females of the tribe work with wire and beads to craft souvenirs. Shopping in the middle of the Serengeti was not what I expected when I departed for Tanzania, yet we happily leave behind some much-needed greenbacks and return to our camp laden with necklaces, bowls and decorations.

In the end, it is the many contradictions of the Maasai that make them most fascinating to me. A young warrior juggling his wooden spear in one hand and his cell phone in the other; an elder, her broad shoulders hunched under the weight of dozens of beaded necklaces, relating ancient Maasai myths to my daughters while sipping a bottle of Sprite to quench her thirst; and of course, my Presidential Maasai leaning on a crooked wooden cane in front of his manyata wearing an Obama hat atop his head.



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.