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Alive in Africa
Vique Martin

My name is Vique Martin and I am 28 years old. I have wanted to go to Africa for six years. I finally realised that ambition with a trip to Kenya and Tanzania. For me one of the main goals was to see real lions (a minor obsession of mine). The best place to see them is on the plains of the Serengeti. So, I went there, finally.

First was a week in Kenya, then a week in Tanzania. I inherited the money to go when my mother died five years ago. This was my "Africa moneyÓ and no matter how broke I got I refused to dip into it. It took a long time until I found a friend who had the funds to make such a trip. When I finally found someone, I jumped at the chance. We plotted and planned for a month, bought our tickets, and flew off to Africa two months after that. The whole trip cost around $2,500. All you need is a friend to travel with, a Rough Guide/Lonely Planet book and the dough. The rest is up to you. I have split the writings up into two parts. This is part two about Tanzania. Part one appeared in August/September issue of Clamor.

An hour or so into Tanzania it looms ahead of us in the clouds. It's so large it's breathtaking. Mount Kilimanjaro. It's so fucking intense to finally see it. The biggest mountain in Africa is right there, to my left, in all its glory. Sitting on the bus speeding along on the bumpy roads, staring at the view. And I knew it was only the beginning.

This area of Tanzania is so rich with natural beauties it's mind-blowing. Mount Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater are just a few. But these were the ones that I had decided I wanted to see, more than anywhere in the world. And now I am here.

Darkness in Africa seems to come out of nowhere ¨ one minute (around 6:15 p.m.) you notice the light fading -- and the next it's pitch black. By the time we enter Arusha, our destination, it's 7 p.m. and really, really dark. Having only been in the two biggest cities in Kenya, we were not really prepared for the town of Arusha. It seemed awfully dark, and it was very quiet, despite it being a Saturday night.

As we disembarked the bus we were met with tourist operators who offered us rides to hotels for free. We declined and found a taxi. After several trips to sold out or overpriced hotels we eventually found one. After checking in I finally started to relax. Driving around in the taxi, having accommodation problems, and feeling like we were in a much more remote location than before, I was actually more scared than at any other time on the trip. It was SO, SO dark. It's hard to explain -- we are so used to lights EVERYWHERE. Even the cars drive with only their side lights, not their headlights, on.

Once we were in our own room and it seemed pretty safe, I started to get used to the quiet. Even started to enjoy it. We freshened up and then hit the most recommended restaurant in our Lonely Planet guide -- Spices and Herbs Ethiopian restaurant. And what a place! A fairly large, sparsely decorated room, with lots of open doors and a really warm atmosphere, playing Frank Sinatra. Beautiful old-fashioned gramophones were in each corner of the restaurant and there was Ethiopian art everywhere. The owner was a really lovely woman, and we chatted with her before, during and after the meal, which was the best Ethiopian food I've ever had. The beets were to die for.

Feeling like Arusha wasn't such a scary place, we relaxed and enjoyed our evening, which was good, as the next day was a real challenge. We had to book a safari. After talking with some really dodgy people who seemed to have no license as a safari company, we were introduced to a man called Sammy, who the dodgy dude wanted us to have as our driver. He turned out to be extremely non-dodgy and took us to his "real boss,Ó who was a lovely man. We haggled and debated and tried to figure out our options. After a lunch with a friend of a friend, a man called Bobby who lived in Arusha, who gave us advice, we decided to go with "real boss-manÓ (as he became known to us). We haggled the price some more and debated our choices.

Both of us had envisaged camping on the safari, rather than staying in the nasty lodges that are full of rich Wasunga (African word for foreigners, which we used rather excitedly whilst we were on safari, to refer to other whiteys (and sometimes ourselves), even though we were never really sure whether it was a neutral or negative term). However, there are only three ways to do a safari. The first option is to stay in little blue nylon tents, which you imagine boy scouts might camp in --not the kind you would imagine would protect you against a lion. The fire is supposed to keep the animals away! Plus, where we were going we were told that the campsite itself was subsided and muddy and really shitty. Second was the lodge option, which had the advantages of hot showers and a comfortable (?) bed. Third was the kind of camping we had imagined, in heavy green army kind of tents. This is called "luxury campingÓ and is a much more expensive option than the lodges. Also, we would have had to take a cook with us on the whole trip -- which meant another person in the safari land rover (at the moment there was only us two and Sammy, the driver). And we'd heard horror stories of bad cooks, not enough food, and vegetarians having to pick the meat out of casseroles. It sounded like a risk.

So, we took the soft option and went with the lodges, especially because it was the very end of the low season, so it was only going to cost us an extra $30 each for three nights. It seemed worth it just for the food option -- I'm vegan and allergic to yeast, and my travel companion is a strict vegetarian and always hungry. I don't regret our decision at all. It also lessened the chances of getting bitten alive by all of the millions of bugs and malaria carrying mosquitoes. Those damn bastards.

So, we went for it (time was running out) and we handed our dough over. We'd manage to get thrown into the bargain an afternoon (it was now 2 p.m. or so) trip to the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro and we were anxious to set off. We just had such a good feeling for our driver that we just went with this instinct, and we were very lucky. Sometimes it's good to follow one's guts.

The drive to Moshi, and then Marangu, which lead us right to the foot of the mountain, took around two hours. It was beautiful. From about a third of the way we got the best view of Kilimanjaro and we stopped and took pictures. It is a majestic, breathtaking sight. So powerful and just so damn fucking BIG.

We stopped several times actually. We took photos of the fields of sunflowers, the maize and the banana trees. Lush vegetation was everywhere. Everyone that we passed was friendly. Children all waved to the car, especially if they were waved to first. The towns seemed similar to Arusha, which made where we were staying look like a huge city in comparison. There were many people in all of the villages and by the roadside in Tanzania wearing traditional Maasai clothing. The striking image of the people going about their everyday lives wearing the beautiful red clothing is one that reoccurred throughout the region.

As we passed through Marangu we started climbing upwards. We couldn't see the mountain now, as we were driving up the foothills of Kilimanjaro itself. The part where no cars can drive is approximately one third of the way up the almost 6,000 meter-high mountain, and that was our destination. Justin wanted a picture by the sign. The foothills were increasingly beautiful as we climbed higher and higher. The sides of the road were littered with houses and there were people walking everywhere as it was around 5 p.m. People were coming home from school and work and going on with their everyday lives whilst we drove through them half hanging out the windows in our excitement.

Their response to our invasion of their community was to stop and stare at our vehicle, and look at us until we were out of sight. The children all waved and at one point about ten of them started chasing us up the street shouting "Wasunga, wasunga,Ó with huge smiles on their faces as they waved to us. People stopped what they were doing and shouted "Jambo, jamboÓ (hello) as we drove leisurely by. Sometimes people seemed like they were unhappy with our being there, but the second I smiled and waved, they warmed and waved and smiled back. At one point we drove past a large group of ladies, all wearing really brightly coloured clothes and carrying various things on their heads (washing, produce, etc.). They seemed to be cross that we were driving through their community, but I turned to face them as I stuck my whole head and shoulders out of the window and smiled and waved. Their faces all broke into smiles and they raised their hands to wave back. There I was rushing up Mount Kilimanjaro with fifteen local ladies wishing me well. I felt truly lucky.

The actual gate to the mountain was a bit of an anti-climax, but I took some pictures of Justin in front of the sign, and we headed back into the land rover. We had been pummeling Sammy with questions the whole drive and he'd been really informative and solved many mysteries that had been niggling at us regarding African customs. We had talked to him about the Mbege beer that our Lonely Planet book had mentioned, as Justin was curious to try it. It was specific to the Chagga people who live on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro and in and around Moshi. It's made of bananas and millet and you can only buy it there, in their pubs and cafes -- not bottled or anything like that.

So, as we drove back down the slopes of the mountain and passed a bar, the men sitting outside shout "Jambo, karibuÓ to us (hello, welcome). Sammy pulled the land rover to a stop and said we should try some Mbege. As we got out of the car, three little boys came running out and we stopped to photograph them. It was hard as they wouldn't stay still, they were SO excited. We crossed the road and entered the outdoor seating area of the bar. Five men were seated around a large wooden table. Sammy said we should sit and he disappeared inside. One of the old, Chagga men half stood and held out to me a bright blue plastic cup that was almost the size of a bucket. All the men were smiling warmly and repeatedly greeting and welcoming us in both Swahili and English. Sammy came back out and gestured that we should take it and drink. I insisted that Justin do it first. He's brave when it comes to tasting unknown things. He went for it and said it was pretty good. I followed his example and it was. It's like grainy flat banana-ish beer. It's only about 2 percent alcohol, and we sipped away.

We gave Sammy some money and he went in and bought us some, and brough it to us. The custom, so we learn, is that one person buys it and everyone shares from the same, extremely large, cup. We bought small ones, and as you can see from the picture taken -- they were in no way small. So we shared their cup and then they share ours. Justin and I taking wussy sips, the locals and Sammy taking huge gulps. Sammy's from a different tribe, having grown up about 20 miles south of Arusha, neither Chagga or Maasai, but they welcomed him with open arms. His explanation for this later is that all Tanzanian people love everyone, whether they are from their own tribe or not. Sounds like a great philosophy -- shame the rest of the world couldn't learn from them.

So, there we were, sitting a third of the way up Mount Kilimanjaro, sharing buckets of Mbege beer with the local Chagga tribesmen and I felt on top of the world. I'm seated between Justin, my travelling companion, and Sammy, our driver. I look as though I am so happy I might explode. It was utterly and totally one of the best experiences of my life. The men were so friendly and lovely and spoke incredible English. But I have to confess I don't remember much of the conversation. I was too busy flying high. We talked about where we were from, what we were doing in Africa, how we liked it, where we were going next, and where we had been. They talked about their perspective on hospitality and teased me for not drinking enough beer and they explained how the beer was made. It was so incredible to be welcomed into their community -- to be invited in and to share from their communal cup and engage in interesting, and funny conversation. They were making jokes and were such warm-hearted men, and I could have stayed there forever. Sammy pulled us away, as we had a two-hour drive home and he wanted to make the most of the light. I thanked the men and said my farewells, and we were on our way again.

We stopped when we were nearly home to take photos of the sun setting over Mount Meru, which is the mountain that shadows Arusha. It was beautiful, as was the rest of the drive home, but I was exhausted. Another fine Ethiopian feast awaited us before we fell into bed. I was beside myself with excitement, as the following day we were leaving on safari, and I was finally going to make it to the Serengeti. I was finally going to see real lions.

After sorting out the practicalities for the safari (buying supplies, changing some money, etc.) we were on our way. Caught my first sight of coffee plantations -- providing the first thrill of the day. It was to be overshadowed in a big way. I was on my way to the Serengeti.


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