Friday, March 1, 2024

RIP Ali Hassan Mwinyi and remembering the good life in Tanzania

Mwinyi with Michael Jackson
Tanzania became independent from Great Britain in 1961 and Ali Hassan Mwinyi became the East African nation's second president, serving from 1985 to 1995. It was during that time that Tanzania made many of the reforms and economic leaps that made it possible for me to honeymoon for three weeks there in Fall 2005. For that, I'm thankful to Mwinyi, who has passed away from lung cancer at the age of 98 in Dar es Salaam.

He also led the effort to bring sanctions again South Africa for its apartheid and he called out the U.S. for being so weak on South Africa's dictatorial government of that time. Mwinyi had been president of Zanzibar and helped transition that island to be more fully integrated into the country. Before becoming the president of all of Tanzania, he had also serves as minister of tourism and helped transition the country into being a tourist destination His death got me thinking about that amazing 24-day trip-of-a-lifetime I got to take to Tanzania. Here are some excerpts from what I wrote about it nearly 20 years ago.

We landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport in northern Tanzania three days after our wedding. We had a welcome chance to recover from the weekend of festivities at Camp Greenkill, New York and the long flight with a three-night stay at Moivaro Coffee Lodge outside of Arusha, a town of about 300,000 residents that serves as the launching point of nearly all safari expeditions. We lounged by day at the lodge's pool and enjoyed Tanzania's fine selection of beers by night on the deck of the lodge, gazing out at the dark night and brilliant stars. When we weren't battling the huge brown spider that took up residence in our room, we were ingesting what would become the staples of our diet for the next three weeks: excellent coffee, rice and curries, eggs, and fruit. We also took a walk in a local village that is located in a crater and supplies fairly fertile ground for terrace farming of crops such as coffee and banana trees. Then we took a taxi into Arusha and walked around the markets, which sell items ranging from spices to Masaii medicine to crafts and carvings to dried fish.

After finally being rested up, we got picked up and traveled by Land Rover through many dusty villages and over bumpy roads to Kibo Hotel, at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We met the eight people who would join us on the climb: Thomas from Switzerland, Eva from Germany, Jen from Nottingham (UK), Mike and Steve from Manchester (UK), Jeremy from Scotland, Matt from Portsmouth (UK), and Claire from Dublin (Ireland). Kili is 19,800 feet tall, is Africa's highest point, and is the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, so we knew it wouldn't be easy. And it wasn't. Kili also features five different ecosystems, so each day, the views and terrain were very different. We started our six-day climb in the tropical rainforest, and we hadn't been hiking for 10 minutes when we spotted several blueface monkeys (similar to baboons) in the trees above the trail. Even though we carried our own daypacks, there were 33 porters, guides and cooks to carry our supplies, such as tents, water, outhouse-cleaning supplies, and buckets of meat. The food was really good and plentiful. The porters set up our mess tent each morning and evening, and the 10 of us enjoyed instant coffee, fruits, bacon and eggs, soup, breads, fish, potatoes, meat curries, and veggie curries. Our three main guides were great – Pashion, Danny, and Strato. Their four rules for a successful climb into the high altitude: be positive, acclimatize by hiking further up the mountain before going back down to sleep each night, walk slowly slowly ("poley poley") behind the guides, and drink at least five liters of water each day. The climb was more or less an easy hike each day, until the summit day. After a five-hour walk across alpine desert (very Star Wars-like), we ate and had three hours to sleep. We woke at 11 p.m. and started the 5,000-foot ascent straight up Kili's peak. At 6 a.m., we reached Gilman's Point to watch the sunrise, and continued on around the volcano's crater rim for another two-plus hours to Uhuru Peak, the top of Africa. It was beautiful and well worth it, despite the rapidly growing blisters on my feet and my sunburned, windswept, frosted-over face. Rachel was dehydrated and hearing echoes every time I spoke, but we made it back down the summit in one piece at noon. We napped for an hour, then ate and hiked back across the desert for six more hours to camp. We took a different route down on the last day, a rapid and sublime hike through the mountain's lush eastern rainforest, where we saw monkeys, a dik dik (mini deer), and a civet (wild cat). Eight of the 10 of us made it to the peak, and we celebrated with lots of Safari and Tusker beer the night we returned to Kibo Hotel, not to mention some long, hot showers.

The next morning, the two of us said farewell to our crew and rode with our driver back to Arusha to meet up with our safari guide. Cyst, a member of the Barabiac tribe, must be the most knowledgeable and friendly guide in all of Tanzania. He supplied us with endless knowledge about the dozens of animals we viewed during our six-day safari. We saw two very rare animals: the black rhino and two leopards. However, we probably enjoyed the elephants, giraffes, and lions the most. They were plentiful and would often walk right past our Land Rover. The bush of the Serengeti and the vast wildlife of the Ngorongoro Crater were endlessly fascinating and emotion-stirring. For example, one group of elephants had some fun with us by pretending to charge our vehicle and moments later, we spotted an elephant that had hurt itself and was dying in a pond with a crocodile circling it ready for some lunch. The animals we saw included ostriches, baboons, vervet monkeys, jackals, badgers, hyenas, genets, mongoose, hyraxes, zebras, warthogs, hippos, cape buffaloes, hartebeests, wildebeests, topis, Grant's gazelles, Thomson's gazelles, impalas, waterbucks, and bushbucks. The only major animals we didn't see were the cheetah and the python. The lodgings were great too. We knew we were staying in tents, but we had no idea tents could be so nice. The Masaii warriors were our hosts each night. They wear all red, have big piercings in their ears, and have a strict diet of milk, blood, and meat from the cows and goats that they herd. Another nice treat: our company booked a really couple from L.A., Jill and Aaron, in nearly all the same lodgings each night for the last two weeks of our honeymoon. Not only were they also on their honeymoon, but Aaron plays in a rock band that I know and like. Small world.

The last seven nights of our trip were spent on the island of Zanzibar, right off the coast of Tanzania. Considering that the guidebooks noted how this is one of the most exotic places on Earth, it was pretty surprising to leave the airport and see trash everywhere for miles and miles. On the other hand, we got to the east side of the island and stayed for four nights in the thatched-roof huts of Matemwe Beach, a gorgeous stretch of white sand, blue/green water surrounded by coral reefs along the Indian Ocean. One day we snorkeled with a group of scuba divers next to "Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt's private island" and saw plenty of striking and unusually colored and shaped fish among the reefs. After three nights of beach bumming, we headed back across the island to Stone Town, a small touristy area along the Zanzibar Sound in the 400,000-population (and 95 percent Muslim) Zanzibar Town. We saw a house that Dr. Livingston "I presume" lived in, and we visited a spice farm. We spent most days wandering through the markets in the narrow alleyways of Stone Town, which Rachel said reminded her of the Arab Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. Each night, we met up with our honeymooning friends and even dared to eat at the risky fish market along the water one evening. The hotel workers had told us to stay away. They had a point. After a couple of bites of my shrimp and lobster on skewers, I set the food down and watched as the street kids of the area made a beeline to my plate. This was certainly the low-point of the African meals, the rest was pretty good, but we were still more than happy to find a couple of pizza places in Stone Town. That's all we ate for the last two days of our time there. There was also a nice coffee shop that afforded us a view of the water and the dangerous road crossing at the center of town. We ended our trip with 30-plus-hours of flights. And, more importantly, we were malaria and yellow fever and typhoid free, and more happily married than ever!

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