Africa

Going to Africa ruined my life. Mark’s too.

I’ve discussed my journey towards learning to love Virginia here in the past. We came here pretty much for the jobs and in fact for a while I lamented the fact that I liked my job so much that it made it difficult for me to consider leaving Virginia, which it took me a long time to warm up to. But eventually our fabulous regional, state, and national parks and wildlife refuges and abundant wildlife – including my foray into wildlife rehab – won me over and I found that I was able to set aside some of my hatred of the traffic, McMansions, terrible drivers, and annoying people to make room for love of our natural resources. I’ve felt an increasing sense of inner peace in the last few years, a true happiness in life. Little did I realize how tenuous that transformation was, because going to Africa ruined it.

We went to Shenandoah National Park yesterday. There were no lions, elephants, giraffes, or zebras. It was depressing. It didn’t help that it was FREEZING and gray and we missed pretty much all of autumn while we were gone, but even if it had been the most splendid day imaginable, it wouldn’t have been the Serengeti. There’d still have been no lions. At one point on safari I realized that once I got home, my beloved wildlife refuge, where I revel in seeing a bald eagle or a glimpse of a fox, was going to seem extremely small and unexciting. How am I going to recapture the joy I’ve always felt there when I’ve been ten feet away from AN ENTIRE LION PRIDE?

I’ve heard a lot of people say that going to Africa changed their life. In a way, it didn’t really change mine because before I even left I told my travel agent that after this trip I wanted to return and work with cheetahs, because he’s involved in cheetah conservation and said he’d help me do so. And sure enough, I’ve returned from our trip and I want to return to work with cheetahs, so am I a different person?

Yes and no. I’m even more interested in doing hands-on work in wildlife conservation than I was before, but that’s a path I was going headlong down anyway. I realized that I think I could kill a poacher and feel no remorse, which is an uncomfortable position for a pacifist, but I really, really, really, really hate poachers. (And many of them have no more compunction about murdering humans than they do wildlife.) I think what’s changed in me is Africa has become real, and with that, the possibility of doing something different with my life – at least for a while – is staring at me. Africa never seemed real before. I’d watch the occasional nature documentary, and I look at a lot of wildlife photography, much of it taken in Africa, but it always seemed very far away and very, very different than my life. And it is both of those things, but it’s also suddenly become accessible because I’ve BEEN there and I can so easily imagine myself going back. Fairfax, Virginia suddenly seems so small to me. Too small. And so full of people who care only about themselves.

Although I rather anticipated all of this and as I said, I fully expected to want to return to Africa after our first trip to work with wildlife, our trip had an even more profound effect on Mark. Whereas I’ve been positively giddy about the trip for the better part of a year, Mark didn’t allow himself to get as worked up in anticipation as I did. I spent months preparing for, reading about, and basically obsessing over the trip, but although he’s the one that had been saving up for the trip for a couple of years as a surprise for me, it wasn’t until we GOT to Africa that he seemed super-excited about it. But he loved it. Really loved it. Much more than he has ever loved anywhere we’ve gone. And what he loved the most was a bit surprising to me because Mark is NOT a people-person by any stretch of the imagination, but what Mark loves about Africa are the people. We went on a cultural visit to the village of Mto wa Mbu near the Ngorongoro crater rim, where children ran up to us. Most of them wanted their picture taken, which they then wanted to see on the camera’s LED:

But even if you didn’t have a camera, which Mark did not, they just grabbed your hand and walked with you. Mark was overwhelmed by the inherent trust they had. In fact, Mark was so moved by it that he wants to return to that village or another and teach children. Which wasn’t quite the reaction I was expecting from him, although in a way it makes sense because he really is good with children and he’s quite awesome at teaching chess to children here at home.

It wasn’t just the children Mark liked; he was shocked by the friendliness of everyone. Everyone you meet in Tanzania offers a friendly “Jambo!” (“hello”) and “Karibu!” (“welcome”); it’s totally unlike Washington DC. They are a very welcoming folk! People stop to help you in Tanzania just because they want to help; no ulterior motives. I’ve experienced that occasionally here at home, but it’s always been such a rare and beautiful thing because it’s so unusual. But it’s just how people are in Tanzania. Mark once asked a man in Stone Town why he was helping him and what he wanted in return and the man looked at him like he was crazy for thinking he’d want something in return for his help.

So that’s that: Mark and I both plan to return to Africa for some sort of extended stay, Mark to teach children and me to do wildlife conservation. I’m not sure when this will happen, but Mark’s teaching himself Swahili and I’m contacting various people about cheetahs.

I’ll talk a little more specifically about our trip, including some thoughts on being vegan in Tanzania, but it will probably take me a couple of posts. We did national park safaris for the first week and then spent a week in Zanzibar, so I’ll likely break it up into at least two posts.

Sunset in Tarangire National Park:

I’m often annoyed at home that buildings are obscuring my view of the sunset. This was definitely NOT a problem I encountered in Tanzania. And African sunrises and sunsets are just amazing. So amazing that even Mark, no more a morning person than he is a people person, was happy to wake up to watch the sun rise every morning.

Sunset over the Rift Valley:

Next up: my love affair with African wildlife.

Comments (5)

A trip to Amsterdam!

You thought I was going to say “A trip to Africa” didn’t you?? Well, the Africa post is a-comin’, but it just so happens that the best flight to Tanzania originated in Amsterdam and we have friends that live in Amsterdam, so I decided we would grace said friends with a few days’ visit before heading on to Africa. This broke the 17-hour total flight time in half AND gave us an opportunity to spend Mark’s birthday with one of his oldest friends. Win-win!

Brad and April are the ultimate hosts. Everyone should be so fortunate to have such gracious friends, especially ones that live in Europe! To keep this somewhat food-related I’ll say that being vegan is absolutely no problem in Amsterdam, although it’s made even easier by friends that make you vegan pancakes and waffles every morning and vegan dinners most nights. (Yeah, sometimes I make myself sick thinking how lucky I am.) I was very lazy and let Brad cook for us most of the time, barely lifting a finger to help, but one meal I’ll share with you was lunch at Terra Zen Centre, which Brad discovered on his phone and led us to. Their website says they are open noon to 10 p.m. every day, which may be true, however, when we arrived around 3 p.m. or so, the door was locked and there was a sign up saying “please call”. Now, I’m one of those people who wonders “who uses their phone to make calls???” (a sentiment my father finds difficult to grasp) and in ordinary circumstances I’d probably have just walked off to find some other place to eat; in a metropolis like Amsterdam, finding vegan food is easy enough you don’t have to rely on the whims of all-vegan restaurants. And in fact as a visitor to the country, I didn’t even have a MEANS to call them, so if we hadn’t been with a local who had a phone with service, we’d have had no choice but to forgo Terra Zen Centre. But Brad was feeling intrepid and he dialed the number. After many rings, someone finally answered and said he’d be there in 5 minutes.

Five minutes later the chef arrived on a bicycle (because it’s Amsterdam), unlocked the door, and ushered us in. The dining room was unassuming: a couple of tables with a bench, mismatched chairs, and old tablecloths. The only written menus featured various types of pot. But the chef reappeared and told us what our food options were that day, which I don’t really remember the names of but basically we were able to choose what sort of carb we wanted: brown rice, noodles, or roti, as well as the protein: tofu, tempeh, or beans (we each got a different one), and he’d be serving us a perfectly balanced meal around that. I took a couple of bites before I remembered to take a photo, but here’s what mine looked like – I got the tempeh, which was delicious:

It may not look terribly pretty but it was totally scrumptious! We all loved it, including Brad, who is an omnivore, and who plans to return to Terra Zen Centre even when we vegans aren’t around. It was yummy and filling, but also felt very healthy. So if you find yourself in Amsterdam, I highly recommend this place, although if you are a tourist and you don’t have phone service there, you may want to find some way to call them before you head over there to verify their hours that day.

You may think I wouldn’t encounter too much wildlife in a city, and although it wasn’t like being on safari (safari fun coming soon!), I DID actually encounter some fun wildlife. First of all, there are a ton of grey herons just roaming around the city. I took this picture at a market:

And this one:

I thought it was strange at first to walk right up to so many herons in the middle of a city, but it makes sense considering Amsterdam is full of water. ALSO strange were the flashes of bright green and squawking I saw and heard in a tree as Mark, Brad, and I walked in the rain with all our luggage at 9 a.m. in the dark before the sun rose the morning we arrived (if it makes an appearance at all, I don’t think the sun rises until about noon in Amsterdam in the winter). I was curious, but it was raining, our luggage was heavy, it was early, we were tired, and basically I made a mental note to ask Brad about it later. Then I forgot until we were walking through a park and Mark saw a flash of bright green and asked, “what’s that green bird?”, and I chimed in, “yeah, what’s up with the neon birds??” and Brad said something non-committal about parrots. So I did a little internetting when we got back to his place and I learned that there is a colony of wild rose-ringed parakeets living in Amsterdam, descendents of pets that were released in 1975. They’ve somehow thrived and as they don’t pose a threat to the native species, the locals like having them around. They certainly surprise the tourists though!

Anyway, obviously I was then on a mission to find and photograph these parakeets! Dutiful Brad did some research and decided the best place to go looking for them was Flevopark, so off we went, in the rain of course, because that’s how Amsterdam works.

I liked Flevopark.

And yes, we found the parakeets!

No tourist to Amsterdam can post a series of photos without a windmill, right? This is actually Brouwerij, a brewery, where we had a pint.

And how about a bunch more photos of Amsterdam being very Amsterdam (i.e. rainy, canal-y, and full of bikes)?

It pretty much rained the entire time we were in Amsterdam, as it does.

But I did see at least one glimpse of the sun:

And despite flying on a tiny plane through a rather bad storm over the Indian Ocean to get to Zanzibar, we saw plenty of sun in TANZANIA, coming up next!

Comments (2)

Raptor Conservancy of Virginia fundraising

Hello; long time no blog. I know, I’m a terrible person. I’m actually preparing a post about our trip to Africa (spoiler: it was the greatest trip in the history of all trips), but in the meantime I feel obliged to pass along some information about a Raptor Conservancy of Virginia (where I volunteer) fundraiser that’s going on right now because we need money! Buy a spiffy RCV T-shirt with a picture of a great horned owl on it and support Virginia wildlife!

There is not much overlap between raptors in Virginia and Tanzania – they don’t even have hawks in Tanzania; instead they have a lot of eagles – but since I just got back from Tanzania a few days ago and it’s all I can think about, here are some Tanzanian raptors to enjoy in this post, with way more Tanzanian wildlife (and yes, food) coming up:


Brown snake eagle


Juvenile Verreaux’s eagle


Martial eagle


I need to figure out what this one is!


Black kite. There were swarms of these at Ngorongoro crater and our guide warned not to leave the vehicle unattended or they would swoop in and steal things. As we ate lunch in the car, we watched a lady eating outside right in front of our car. A kite saw her sandwich and looked hungrily at it. She hastily hid the sandwich behind her back. Think about that: she hid her sandwich BEHIND HER BACK from a BIRD. That was flying over her head. That could see the tempting sandwich just as easily BEHIND her as he could IN FRONT of her. And who did in fact snatch that sandwich right out of her hands, causing her to bleed. Which she kind of had coming….

That wasn’t the only blatant act of food theft we witnessed by wildlife, but the other involved a very devious monkey stealing food that WAS hidden better than that. :)

Comments (2)

« Previous entries