Thursday, January 20, 2011

Just finished Mt. Meru

I've just returned from a 3-day hike to the summit of Mt. Meru (14,980 ft / 4,566m).

Yesterday, my German companion and I hiked for 15 hours. I think my big toenail is going to fall off.

More photos to come...

(Thanks to David, my fellow hiker, for the photo above)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Hash Day - or a Series of Unnecessary Asides

Hashing is a popular pastime in Moshi. At a Hash, one or more "Hares" lay a trail, which is then followed by the remainder of the group, called the "Hounds". The trail can include false trails, short cuts, dead ends, and splits, etc. to make it a bit tricky.

A hash is held by the local chapter in Moshi every two weeks. I first heard of Hashes during my University Studies Class at Ole Miss, but never actually joined a Hash until last week. Knowledge of the Hash was about the only useful bit of information I took away from the curiously-required University Studies course my freshman year, which was mostly made up of esoteric trivia such as the difference between a "college" and a "university", why the Lyceum's architects chose ionic over doric for their columns, etc. etc. Regardless of how useless the class was, I actually drove through the night from an illicit James Taylor concert in Birmingham to make sure that I didn't miss the 8am start for this class. As for why the trip to Birmingham was "illicit", well that is another tale for another day...

As for the Hash, there were plenty of parents with their kids, some of whom were backpacked, so we figured it had to be an afternoon of good family fun.

Not this one.

This one involved climbing through a river - over and back 4 times - and scrambling down, and then up from the inside of a valley with Townes on my back - screaming - for about an hour. Luckily, we had a world record holder to assist us through the rough bits. His name is Simon. As you can imagine, Simon is incredibly fit. He is a Tanzanian who first learned to run when he enlisted in the Police Academy in Tanzania, which strangely enough, is known to be a forming ground for some of East Africa's great runners. If his status as a world record holder doesn't provide a sufficient idea of his level of fitness, Simon has run up Kilimanjaro in 6 hours assisted, which means that people help him with food and water, and 9 hours unassisted. Unassisted is even more impressive than the name implies because it requires one to forage for water en route, since it is too heavy to pack the required amounts up the mountain.

Did I mention that Kilimanjaro is the name of the local purified water brand? "N'taka kununua Mage" is Kiswahili for "I would like to buy water". The lady at the pharmacy taught me that.

When it comes to general level of fitness, I have to give credit to Tony Horton and his P90X series. He's really helped my general level of fitness over the past 3 months. Especially the Yoga. I had always been someone who was mildly interested in Yoga, but never particularly interested to take the time. Sure I had seen photos of poses like "Tree" and "Corpse" and "Happy Baby" and laughed at them. Who hasn't? But when you add them to a 90 minute work out they start to make sense. All I can say is that there are things I can do at 33 that I couldn't do at 21 and it's not because I can do 12 push-ups: It's because of Yoga.

And as a point of reference, it takes 3-5 days for an average hiker to acclimatize and ascend Kilimajaro.

So, back to the Hash: at the end of the trip, I must admit that the cold beer never tasted so good, and Townes was happy at the end to play with the dogs, so we couldn't really complain.

As for beer, it's quite tasty here and, I must admit, it has been refreshing to see Tusker on the menu again. It reminds me of the days with Andy, sipping Tusker and thinking of our numerous odd encounters in Kenya. Plus, likely the most elaborate spreadsheet ever created for measuring poinsettia value...

Any way, as for Townes and hashing. I think he'll stay home for the next one, and likely will not be hashing again until some odd professor recommends it to him....

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Toward Machame

Last week, we went with a friend of ours, Peter Ray Mwasa, to visit Machame. Machame is one of the villages heading up the mountain toward Kilimanjaro. Due to the altitude and tree cover, it's a pleasant place to spend time when it's too hot in Moshi. Plus, Peter's friend kept a small lodge featuring local food, Mbege (the local drink) and a tour of the nearby waterfall, so we had stuff to do. When we arrived, we were led into a small gazebo covered in banana leaves where the feeding and drinking would begin.

Peter knew we were interested in local stories and legends, so he asked if someone was available who knew the Chaga lore. Like the Massai, the Chaga are a fairly large tribe in the Kilimanjaro area. They have adopted a lot of modern ways, such as Western clothing, going to Christian churches, etc., so we were interested to learn more about their pre-colonial lifestyles.

Soon after the initial drink of tea and soup (banana gravy soup is the best way it can be described - Townes had 3 bowls...), the storyteller arrived. He was 89 years old and claimed to be the great grandson of the famous Chaga chief. We knew for certain that he was old. But if we needed more proof he showed us his identity card, yep, born in 1912. Additional proof, having his grandson literally yell the questions in his ear, and to top it off he spoke such an outmoded version of the Chaga dialect that our host could only understand 50% of what he said.

Not to miss an opportunity for so much Chaga wisdom, we asked for tales of how Townes could become a good man in the Chaga tradition.

The answer, from what I understood, was to drop him in the jungle for 7 days without food and if he makes it back, he's a man. Certainly, there are days when this method sounds attractive, but we may wait a year or two.

The rest of the day involved hiking, watching traditional methods of roasting, pounding and drinking coffee (no filter, lots of sugar and teeth covered in grains), as well as a taste of Mbege the local brew served in a calabash mug the size of which would be the envy of any beer-loving German...

Overall, it was a fantastic day. The food and company were great - and heck, Mbege was much better than I had expected. Thanks to Peter for a great outing!

Pounding the coffee before roasting:

Townes and his favorite waterfall activity, throwing stones:

The storyteller and one of his translators:

Mbege, the local brew

Our host preparing the coffee beans,

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Things you see on the street

There is a cottage industry of tool sharpeners who hone metal with modified bicycles. The guys attach a circular whetstone to the bicycle gears and spin. There will often be several of these machines in a row; and with the cyclers manically peddling without movement, bent backs with sweaty brows, and hot orange sparks flying into the street, the scene is reminiscent of Dante's Inferno.

Or at least a really bad spin class.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Perfectly balanced?

(Thanks to Peter Ray Mwasa for the photo. He's a local artist. You can see his work here.

Thursday, January 06, 2011


This is Townes's friend, Prosper. He hasn't had many occasions to play with him, but Townes made the most of a Prosper marathon on Christmas day. At the first meeting, Townes was a bit suspicious - who was this kid who wanted to play with my cars? There was a bit of hoarding, a bit of foot stomping, followed by some throwing, but Prosper handled him deftly - in hiding behind the sofa, then quietly grabbing a car and sneaking around the other side, Prosper swiftly overwhelmed Townes's defense and the game was on.

It turned out to be a great day. Townes completely wore himself out with running and (happily) screaming, while Mom and Dad enjoyed some great Tanzanian cooking.

Now the question is: Propser, when are you coming over to our house?

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Flashback: My Day as a Tro Tro Driver

I suppose as we get closer to the end of the sabbatical, we are justified in posting a few flashbacks about our time in Africa. One of the more memorable moments in our last days in Ghana was taking the helm of Richie and Maggie's school tro tro. Richie doesn't have a driver's license, so I took the helm to test the tro tro's road worthiness before letting the school kids pile into the van.

For a 20-year old diesel VW van, it was actually in pretty good shape. It had the original diesel engine, a fairly fresh paint job and only a slightly shaky transmission. Compared to a lot of tro-tro's I've been in (see post, "Tro Tro Transport"), it was top notch.

Richie and I crawled in, cranked her up, and rocketed through Ankaase and Ejuretia, up and around curves at not quite breakneck speed, picking up strangers and wishing that we could start a transportation business - being an obruni driver was a bit like being an extraterrestrial and the notoriety would certainly have given us a competitive advantage. Richie even had me driving back into the villages, which involved taking this massive, two-wheel drive van through offroad experiences suitable only for only the most rugged backwoods 4WD vehicle.

Yes, trees were backed into.

And yes, at one point eight villagers were coaxing me out of a tight spot.

But man, it was awesome.

PS - Thanks to Rachel Kesselman, Cy Johnson and FedEx for the quick inter-continental coordination to get the international driver's license (pictured above) in our hands. Africa wouldn't have been the same without it!

Monday, January 03, 2011


As part of our Christmas break, we headed to the Ol Masera tented camp near the Ngorogorno crater. When we arrived, the Slovakian proprietress, Barbara, was in Arusha, so the first couple of days were spent with the Maasai who staffed the camp. They didn't speak much English, so there was only a bit of small talk and a lot of misunderstanding. Despite the lack of verbal communication, we got a strong impression of our hosts' kind temperament, as well as their culture.

When Barbara arrived the next day, we learned more about the Maasai. Barbara has been in Tanzania for a little over 40 years, speaks fluent Swahili and understands the people and surrounding area quite well. Barbara told us of the Maasai's relative disinterest in the modern - and mostly Western - culture that is changing Tanzania. Many Maasai have stuck to their traditional occupation as cattle herders, still use tribal markings, such as facial scarring and decorative stretching of the ear lobes, and live fairly simply in round, thatched huts in the areas around northern Tanzania and southern Kenya.

So what are their observations of us? I'm sure they have many, but a particularly interesting one relates to clothing. The Maasai wear sweeping shawls that adapt well to the changes of temperature in this region, and are critical of Westerners and our tight clothes, which they refer to in their Maasai tongue as "fart smotherers".

I like my farts smothered, and the Maasai we met certainly seemed to appreciate his mobile phone.

I suppose life is full of compromises.

The landscape around Ol Masera, taken from our tent: