Everyone needs a reprieve from the daily grind, and that goes for those of us in fellowship and volunteer programs as well. To the outside world, some view my year in Rwanda as an adjournment from life, when in fact it’s more of an alternate route that I have chosen to take in lieu of continuing on in the same direction I was headed prior to moving here. My year in Rwanda is not a year of vacation, relaxation and rest. In the second term alone, I was responsible for overseeing 97 overnight guests and over 73 day visitors in the Village. One group of visitors blended into the next, and by the end of the term, I felt utterly drained and a bit ragged. 6 weeks of vacation was a welcome antidote. Some people only dream of having that much time off, and here it is part of my reality living in Rwanda. The term break between the 2nd and 3rd final term of the school year began on 21st July, affording me the opportunity to see and do the three things I wanted to experience when I first moved to Rwanda – trekking with the gorillas, exploring Zanzibar, and visiting Cape Town. Along with those adventures, I also had the opportunity to go on my second Tanzanian safari with two of the best travel companions – 2 of my sister-in-laws (who also trekked with me and explored Zanzibar). Before I get too far ahead of myself, allow me to jump back to the first two weeks of vacation, which I spent in the Village. This quiet “down time” permitted me to get my room and house in order, relax, think, meditate, and spend time with the few students who remained in the Village. The Senior 6 (4th year) students were in the Village studying for the upcoming National Exam (somewhat the equivalent of the SATs in America), Senior 5 (3rd year) students were also in the Village, and 25 Enrichment Year (1st year) students were in the Village working with the International Theatre and Literacy Program from NYC. Each afternoon I attended rehearsals with the aforementioned theatre students, which took me back to the days when I performed on stage. To see the magic of theatre manifest itself in and take hold of the students was just enchanting! So many of the first year students are still a bit reclusive and withdrawn, but leave it to the stage to encourage and allow them to emerge from their cocoons and experience the joy of expression! After untold hours of rehearsal, they would leave energized, animated, and full of life – it was magnificent to see. In the end, after 2 weeks of work, a drama was scripted, roles were developed, the staging was set, and the students performed their dramatic play. It was a brilliant piece of art and I sat in the audience looking at all of the kids as if each of them were my own brothers and sisters. I know the kind of therapeutic magic theatre and acting did for me through my many years on stage, but to witness it from a different perspective was absolutely lovely and profound.
To prevent this from being the longest blog entry on record, I am going to break the remaining 4 weeks of my vacation time traveling into several entries, each describing a different leg of my journey.
First up – the Tanzanian safari!
Nearly two years ago to the date, I was afforded the opportunity to go on safari with an amazing group of friends, who are more like family to me than acquaintances. We spent nearly two weeks on a Tauck Bridges safari, which is a “glamping” (or glamorous camping) safari, spending nights in exquisite lodges. This time, my sister-in-laws and I decided to “rough it” a bit and opted to camp - in tents - with wild animals all around us - and squatty potty toilets (holes in the ground). There was nothing glamorous about any aspect of our trip, but it was extraordinary! Two years after I fell in love with Tanzania, I was back. I had dreamed for so long to go on an African safari, and now in the span of just over two years, I have gone on two safaris. That is truly remarkable and fills me with awe!
Day 1 – My sister-in-laws flew from America and met me at the Kilimanjaro airport in Arusha, Tanzania. I had not seen either of them since Thanksgiving, so tears flooded my eyes as soon as I got a glimpse of them in the baggage claim area. A sudden rush of sadness hit me though, realizing for the first time that had my brother Kurt been alive, he very likely would have been accompanying them and going on this adventure with us. Family has become everything to me since my brother’s death, so having two of my sister-in-laws travel literally around the world to see me meant more than the world to me. I don’t have the words to describe my gratitude.
Day 2 – We met our driver Moses and personal cook for the safari (nicknamed rabbit) and traveled to Tarangire National Park, which occupies an area 2850km2, making it the 5th largest park in Tanzania. It is best known for its many elephants and magnificent Baobab trees. After setting up camp, we went for a late afternoon game drive and hit the jackpot – we saw water bucks, buffalo, a cheetah and her baby eating a gazelle, zebra, lions, impala, elephants, monkeys (including one that nearly climbed inside our vehicle!), a dik dik, a jackal, and numerous birds. What a great way to christen our safari! It was so incredible to be back and feel such love for Tanzania – the country makes me feel something very special, unlike anywhere else I have discovered. There is such a sense of serenity that I need to bottle and take with me everywhere I go.
Day 3 - We saw hippos (see photo to the left), hartebeest, giraffe, antelopes, topi, gazelles, more lions, and a warthog today, even with spending much of the day driving from Tarangire into Ngorongoro conservation area, around the top edge of the caldera (see photo below, to the left), and into the Serengeti. It was a long, dusty, and bumpy ride, but the scenery was just breath-taking. On our way, we stopped at a Maasai Village where we were greeted with a traditional welcome dance. The three of us joined in the fun and wore traditional beaded necklaces while we jumped up and down and did a dance with the locals (see photo below, to the right). The day was filled (for me) with two extraordinary sights. The first being the “white faced” Maasai, which I hadn’t seen on my last trip to Tanzania. I was told that every three years, young Maasai men go on a three month journey where they venture away from their Villages and live in the bush. They must do it before they turn 18, so their ages vary. During this journey, they dress in black (a stark contrast to their usual bluish purple and red Maasai attire), and adorn their faces in decorative and ornate patterns of white paint. It is during this time that their bodies recover from a recent circumcision, and when they return to their Villages, they are deemed a “man” and are given a spear and are allowed to begin courting females. At first site, their appearance is a bit ghoulish, yet fantastic and mesmerizing. The second extraordinary sight of the day was seeing 5 lionesses laying out, lounging in the afternoon sun as we drove into Serengeti National Park! It was glorious!
Day 4 – Today’s close encounter was with a leopard! Leopards are such magnificent creatures, elusive and stealthy and absolutely beautiful! After that sighting, we saw 2 cheetahs perched atop a mound, almost posing for the cameras (see photo to the left). We also saw a serval, a hyrax, baboons, blue-balled monkeys (yes, they have fluorescent blue balls), vultures, the infamous Tanzanian love birds (see photo below), warthogs, and hippos galore at the hippo pond. The noises and sights on safari are truly exceptional. It is such a remarkable place and I found myself smiling just from looking around at the landscape. We returned to camp just as the majestic sun set over the Serengeti, and I snapped one of my all-time favorite photos of buffalo grazing (see photo at the beginning of this post).
Day 5 – We saw 17 lions on our early morning game drive! A pride of 7 females crossed our path two times, literally walking within a car’s length of our vehicle (see photo to the right and watch the video below). They were returning from a kill and were smeared with blood, which stained the fur around their noses and mouths and on their paws. What a spectacle and glimpse of the rawness of nature! After all that excitement, we returned to camp, had brunch, and headed back to Ngorongoro.
When we arrived at our campsite later in the day, my breath was stolen from me for a moment – the setting was brilliant, perched atop the ridge, overlooking the caldera below (see photo below). It was absolutely wild, in fact I had to walk through a herd of grazing zebras on my way to the bathroom!
Day 6 – Between the seemingly sub-zero temperatures that made me shiver all night long, and the WHOOOOP calls of the nearby hyenas, I did not sleep well, but that didn’t put a damper on our last day of safari – inside the Ngorongoro Caldera. We finally saw the big daddy lion, with its untamed mane blowing in the gentle breeze (see photo to the left). We found him with is “lady” at the end of their mating cycle. Lions mate every 15 minutes or so for 7 continuous days, once or twice a year, so you can only imagine how exhausted the female lion looked when we found her. A bit further along the path, we joined dozens of other safari cars and could barely make out in the distance one of the 26 remaining black rhinos in the caldera. Further along the road, we came to a screeching halt because right next to the road, literally within arm’s reach lay a lioness, just relaxing as if she didn’t have a care in the world. If I had stepped out of the vehicle, I would have stepped on her – that’s how close she was to us! Just beyond her was one of my favorite sights of the trip – a lion in a tree! (see photo to the right) What a stunning and exhilarating way to finish off our safari!
As our airplane taxied down the runway, Mt. Kilimanjaro came out from hiding behind the clouds (a rare occurrence during this time of year). What a spectacular sight to see out of the airplane window as we took off for our next leg – Zanzibar!