Beaches, Deserts and Mountains – An Oman Road Trip

I had forgotten how beautiful rocks are. I am not talking about little pebbles on the side of the road. I mean vast rock formations, small mountains and jagged cliffs, steep valleys and water-smoothed channels, each reminding you that our existence is just a blink in the vast scale of geologic time. Driving out of Muscat and into the rocky desert landscape of Oman however, brought back an appreciation for the rugged beauty of the earth’s bones.

We had decided to spend our spring break taking a 6-day road trip around northern Oman, visiting some of its famous features, both natural and human-created, and it was definitely worth it!

Day 1: Wadis and Beaches

IMG_6147We left the capital Muscat in the morning, driving out of the city and into the rocky desert landscape the covers much of the country. We were immediately struck by the contrast between the terrain and the structures built upon it. Since its current ruler came to power in a coup against his father in 1970, Oman has undergone profound economic changes. Using the country’s oil wealth, Sultan Qaboos transformed the country, building new roads, hospitals schools and homes all over the country. In an effort to decrease urbanization trends, many of the new houses were built in the countryside. These large white houses, with their cookie-cutter layout often identical to the houses next to them, jut up from the ground as if they had all magically spouted up in the last year. The rock formations surrounding these modern looking communities however, look like they were formed in a prehistoric age, with jagged black hills sticking out of a tan sand and next to other light red mountains whose sides were blasted out to make way for our road.

WhatsApp Image 2018-04-07 at 3.29.30 PMOur first stop was Wadi Arbaeen, and one thing you quickly realize when driving around Oman is that although there are signs telling you when to turn off the main road to find your destination, after that, the signs disappear and you are on your own! This left us crawling down a dusty dirt road, weaving our way deeper into a valley we hoped would contain water. Thankfully after a few scary dips and turns we suddenly came upon a small forest of palm trees growing at the bottom of the valley! We were elated to reach out goal, so I could not imagine what early Omanis must have felt to come upon this verdant paradise after having trekked for days through the barren lands surrounding it. The wadi was a series of streams carved into the dense rock over time and culminating in a much larger pool surrounded by cliffs you could jump off into the glistening waters. Certainly a nice place to spend the heat of the day!

We made our way back out, stopping by the Bimmah Sinkhole on our way to a pebble beach, where we camped for the night. It was a beautiful beach, but for future notice, not a comfortable one!

Day 2: Sur, Turtles and Jellyfish

The next day we were making our way to Sur, one of the larger towns in the area, when we discovered a few more challenges of navigating in Oman. The first was spelling. Translating from Arabic to English is not easy, especially where names are involved. We quickly found that some locations were spelled three or four different ways! Our guide book had one spelling, google maps had a different one and even the official road signs spelled some places differently too! Speaking of google maps, it turned out to not be as helpful as our tech-dependent planning had expected. Even if you managed to find the right spelling, once you asked for directions the app simply stopped, showing you where you wanted to go, but not how to get there! It seemed to be telling us (as my dad would jokingly say at times), “you can’t get there from here.”

WhatsApp Image 2018-04-07 at 3.29.31 PMDespite the navigational challenges, we managed to make it to the city, stopping by a ship building yard where they make massive wooden dhows, the famous ships with triangular sails that used the criss cross the Indian Ocean on regular trade routes. Apparently the builders do not use any plans, relying instead on knowledge and experience as they craft the vessel over the course of up to six months. If I thought building Ikea furniture was hard, these people have it way worse!
IMG_6124We then made our way out to a beautiful turtle conservation center. Apparently the Omani coast is a popular nesting ground for a number of varieties of sea turtles and Oman has put in place a series of progressive laws protecting their hatching grounds. Although it was not the season to see the mass hatching, we did get to visit two little babies who had been found that morning and would be released into the ocean by the staff at night. So cute!

WhatsApp Image 2018-04-07 at 3.39.32 PMWe ended the day at a beautiful sand beach where the water was a cool reprieve from temperatures that had reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit in midday. Unfortunately, the water was also filled with jellyfish! Mostly transparent and not easy to see, one of them got caught on Caity’s anklet and repeatedly stung her, causing an allergic reaction which plagued her the rest of the trip! After that, we decided to stick with the wadis for our swimming…

Day 3: An Oasis and a Lightning Storm

The next day we made our way to Wadi Bani Khalid, one of the most famous swimming spots in Oman. Due to the lack of signs however, we took a wrong turn and found ourselves confronted with a sign reading, “Road is dangerous, only locals allowed”. As we were deciding what to do, a car of tourists comes down the road and they happily waved at us before heading out. Deciding that this must mean the sign is not to be believed, we head up the road…and quickly realize our mistake. The road soon narrowed to barely the width of a car with a sheer drop on one side and a rock wall on the other! We fearfully crawled upward, trying to figure out how to get out of this mess as the locals stare at us with glances that are clearly saying, “Didn’t you read the sign?!” Finally a helpful man comes down and directs us to a place where we, just barely, manage to turn around and make our way back down the deadly decent.

After catching our breath and thanking God we made it down alive, we finally find the right road and walk up to what is basically a natural water park. A series of stunning pools have been formed in a rock valley with larger ponds at the bottom and a series of smaller ponds and creeks that you can explore going upward until you reach the local swimming spot where people come to avoid the tourists swarming the lower pools. It was as close to an oasis paradise as I have ever seen.

Cool and refreshed, we start out for the desert. We didn’t quite know where we were going (as our plan for the night was simply “camp on a dune in the desert”) so we drove around for a bit until a local man pulls up beside us and offers to show us a place to stay. We speed over the sandy tracks out into the desert and he leads us on top of a large dune that turns out to be overlooking his family home. It was perfect…or so we thought.

WhatsApp Image 2018-04-57 at 3.29.37 PMThen begins a series of unfortunate events. It started with a light wind blowing the sand about a foot off the ground. Although the sand patterns were beautiful, we soon realized that it would be impossible to cook outside with sand blowing all over our food. We decide to move our food into the tent, shielded from the wind by the car, and eat a cold dinner. Not long after we thought we adapted to the weather, everything changes. The wind starts hard, whipping sand high up into the around and from the exact opposite direction as before. With the car no longer blocking the gusts, sand is blowing into our tent through the open screen window and covering everything inside the tent! We scramble to close the screen window, throw heavy objects into the corners of the tent and try to clean the sand from our eyes. Just when we think it cannot get any worse, we look through the screen top of the tent and see lightning arcing across the sky in a storm that is clearly moving towards us!

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If we had stopped freaking out enough to take a picture, it would have looked like this…

For the second time in 10 minutes, we gather all our things and move, this time into the car. As we watch the storm approaching, we frantically google, “how to survive a lightning storm in the desert?” to no avail. As we sat in the car eating cold cans of chickpeas and waiting for the next weather surprise, we see headlights coming up the dune next towards us. A car pulls up and it is a couple from the family in the house below our camp! They offer to take us back to their home and we gladly accept. Inside the dark interior, lit only by the car headlights outside, we see the rain start to come down, hard. As we talk with them, we learn that the last time rain had come to this area was two years ago! So as we glumly wonder what will happen to our tent and gear, the family is loudly laughing, praising God and one even briefly goes to dance in the rain. To make the situation even more exciting, one of the sons gets a picture on his phone of a friend who just got hail! In the desert!

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Hail! In the Desert!

Thankfully the rain stops after about 30 minutes as the storm moves on letting us come back to our damp tent as we try to mentally take in what we just experienced. The one day we visit the desert we experience a once in year storm! According to the family, this means we are good luck…

 Day 4: An Old Town and an Ancient Mosque

WhatsApp Image 2018-02-07 at 3.29.40 PMAfter a peaceful and sandstorm-free morning in the desert, we drove out to Ibra, one of the regions larger and older towns. We stopped first at a market organized by and for women before heading out to the older part of town. After a bit of time getting quite lost and randomly driving up an old riverbed, we managed to find one of the oldest mosques in the world which represented a fascinating point is early Islamic history. When the Prophet Muhammad was first creating a muslim community, they prayed in the same direction as their ancestors, to Jerusalem. One day however, Muhammad received guidance to change the direction of prayer to Mecca, an action that tested the faith of many early muslims. In every mosque today, there is a single mihrab which is a notch in the wall indicating the direction of prayer. This mosque however had two! This means that it was built in the time before the Prophet changed the prayer direction and then created a new mihrab to accommodate the change. We were impressed to see such clear connection to events over 1400 years ago!

WhatsApp Image 2011-04-07 at 3.29.41 PMThe old town itself was also quite interesting, filled with old and crumbling houses, but also doors in a Zanzibari style that demonstrated the clear influence that both these places have had on each other. The streets though, were not built for cars. There were many archways whose sides we cleared by mere inches and one point where a turn was impossibly to sharp and narrow, causing us to back down some of these windy roads before barely making our way out the way we came in.

Day 5: A Cunning Wall, a Massive Castle and a Mountain Retreat

Our final night was to be spent high up a mountain called Jabl Shams, but we had some amazing stops on the way. One location was a small town called Bahla, famous for its surrounding walls, incredible fort and…its connection to black magic! The ancient and impressive walls span 13 kilometers and surround large parts of the city. One story of their origin is that one year the tax collector came to get the the towns yearly tribute to the area’s ruler. A women leader at the time said that the town did not have enough money but would pay double the normal amount next year. The tax collector agreed, but when he returned the next year he found that the woman had rallied the people and used the two years of tax money to build a massive wall around the town! For a while after that it seems that Bahla kept its own tax money… :)

IMG_6520In the middle of the town was an amazing castle that had been slowly built over hundreds of years. It had a number of incredible towers, huge storerooms, at least five story buildings and a number of places where defenders could use cannons to rain hell down on anyone foolish enough to mess with Bahla. This fort is also a focal point for rumors of black magic that swirl around the region, and especially Bahla. For example, the UN restoration of the fort was rumored to have been hampered by an “unseen force” that undid the day’s work during the night. Some believed to be due to the fact that the fort was built on the grave of a man stoned to death for practicing black magic over 1400 years ago.  Other stories tell of a tree that held the spirit of a jinn or a mosque that flew from one location to another. A guide in a different town told us of a war where the people from one side fought not with swords but with black magic, causing the earth to quake in the town of their rivals!

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If they had let us take pictures, it would look like this.

After Bahla, we were able to visit Al-Hoota cave, a 4.5 kilometer cave that is 2 million years old. After taking a small train into the cave itself, the guide walks the group through a series of beautiful caverns ending in a small lake that extends further into the cave. Apparently when the rains are particularly heavy, the cave partially fills with water and during flash floods they find everything from small trees to goats that get washed into the cave. Thankfully we did not also bring the rains here…!

We then finished the day with a long and winding drive up Jabl Shams our camp. On the way we passed by a massive canyon called the “Grand Canyon of Arabia”, which was fittingly impressive. Our campsite was up on a large ledge protruding from the mountain and overlooking the entire region, which led to us having a glorious view of the sunset over the far off mountains.

Day 6: A Gang of Goats

WhatsApp Image 2018-04-67 at 3.30.47 PMOur last morning before returning we found out that we were not the only creatures that were camping on the mountain. It turns out a heard of goats also roams this mountain, probably getting a good portion of their food from the campers. We made the early mistake of feeding a lone goat and realized too late that he was part of a gang that quickly surrounded our camp. We had to repeatedly chase them off just to eat our breakfast, which was easier for some, but the alpha goat did not move from his post, even when I gave him a light shove! So we packed up as quickly as we could and headed down the mountain, leaving whatever food we dropped for the hungry gang to fight over.

Our last day wrapped up with a nice and easy drive back to Muscat. We were tired, happy and still had some sand in our ears but it was worth it! Clearly Oman is an incredible country filled with more than just pretty rocks! :)

 

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Lions, Leopards and Elephants, Oh My!

Having just returned from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, I was totally fine with sitting in the car for a few days. My brother Skylar, my wife Caity and I had just piled into a customized tan safari truck and started the long journey out to the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania’s oldest national part and home to over 2,500 lions and 1 million wildebeest.

P1030677We had booked a three-day safari to see the incredible wildlife that make northern Tanzania a top tourist destination. But we had to get there first. It was a 5 hour drive from Arusha just to make it to the entrance of the park. It was raining on the way over, which didn’t seem like a problem until we saw that the rain had turned the dirt roads in the park into muddy, rutted thoroughfares. Although this was less of a problem for our trucks, we later passed a small white car stuck in 8 inches of solidified mud and abandoned. Talk about a family vacation gone wrong!

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Driving out to our first campsite, we also came to realize that the Serengeti is aptly named. Derived from the Maasai word siringet, which means “the place where the land runs on forever”, the park’s geography certainly lived up to this. I would look out the window and see endless grasslands dotted with the odd gazelle or scraggly tree, read for an hour or two more and look up again to be greeted by the exact same view!

Then our guide and driver got a call on the phone from another guide and we quickly turned onto a side road. Since the animals are constantly moving around the park, guides function like a network, passing information back and forth about where to find different animals. In our case, someone had just spotted a leopard (pun intended… :P)! We found it outstretched on a tree napping, which makes sense as leopards are nocturnal hunters. The cluster of safari trucks stayed on the road about 60ft away which was probably good as these cats can run at a top speed of 36mph, jump 20 feet horizontally and 10 feet vertically, making it easy for a leopard jump into the open canopy top of our truck! Watching shows about predatory cats I am always waiting for the close up shot, but seeing one in real life, I was content with binoculars and a zoom lens!

We camped at a large site filled with a number of other safari groups, each with its own tents and cooks. The next morning we got up at sunrise to catch some of the Serengeti’s early risers. Rather than describe in great detail each animal we saw, I will give you the highlights with our pictures and some fun and odd facts about each one :)

P1030648.JPGZebras – Their stripe pattern is as unique as a fingerprint and covers a black skin. This pattern also confuses large predators, mosquitos and dissipates heat. A group of Zebras is called a “zeal” unless you were an ancient Roman, who used Zebras to pull some chariots and called them “horse-tigers”!

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Giraffes – Despite being so tall, giraffes only have 7 vertebrae in their neck, the same as humans! Because of their proportions a giraffes neck can’t reach the ground to drink water unless it spreads its front legs awkwardly. Giraffes also give birth standing, which means that baby giraffes drop over 6ft to the ground when they are born. Ouch!

Hyena – Although they have a bad reputation, it is mostly myth and not deserved. Hyenas are believed to be as smart as many primates and although the pitch and frequency of their laughter can be used to identify social status, they most communicate non-verbally. Also packs of hyenas as mostly matriarchal, as females are larger and even have three times the amount of testosterone as males!

P1030954.JPGElephants – These huge creatures are even more impressive in person. An elephant’s trunk alone weighs 400 pounds, has 40,000 muscles in it and yet is dextrous enough to pick up a single grain of rice. This trunk also helps them eat over 600 pounds of food over the course of a day, often eating for 16 hours a day. Elephants can also feel loss, grief and are smart enough to recognize themselves in a mirror.

P1040001.JPGHippos – These massive creatures can’t sweat, which might be why they spend so much time in the water. Despite spending most the day in ponds or rivers, hippos don’t often swim, instead walking on the bottom of the pond by controlling how much air their hold in. But they can stay under for up to 7 minutes and can even close their ears and nostrils allowing baby hippos to even suckle underwater!

P1030733.JPGLions – King of the…grassland. Lions don’t really live in jungles. They are still impressive animals with the male weighing up to 500 pounds with a roar that can be heard over 5 miles away. Although female lions are successful hunters about 50% of the time, lions also scavenge and steal from other animals for up to half their food. Lions also have a pretty intense “honeymoon” when the male and female mate every 15 minutes or so, often hundreds of times over 3-4 days!

These are only a few of the animals we saw over the course of our drive through Serengetti and later the Ngorongoro Crater. It was an incredible trip and well worth the long drive over the “land that runs on forever.”

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The Top of Africa

fullsizeoutput_117aPlaying ultimate Frisbee after school once a week and walking home a few times in hiking boots does not sufficiently prepare your legs to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. And living at sea level for the last 6 years had my lungs working overtime to draw a full breath in the steadily thinning air.

This was the state I found myself in the first day of my trek up Kilimanjaro, a dormant volcano and the highest peak in Africa. My brother Skylar and I had signed up for a six-day trek that would bring us to the top on New Year’s Day, and although we had done our best to prepare, neither of us knew quite what to expect. Thankfully, we had help. And seeing as our guide, Methley, grew up in the mountain’s shadow and had made it to the top 106 times before taking us, we knew there was at least on person in our group who knew what they were doing.

Day 1: Welcome to the Jungle

P1030271After a long wait to register and check the gear for our group, we started up a gravel road with a gentle incline, leading into a dense canopy filled with tall verdant trees. We had not gone more than five steps when a monkey dashes across the trail ahead of us, grabs a bag of raw pasta from an open pack lying on the side of the trail and sprints off on his two back legs before jumping up into the safety of the trees, spilling pasta all the way! This furry rigatoni robber was our introduction to the Machame route.

After an hour or so of hiking, the road began to narrow until it became a fully-fledged trail, winding its way ever upward through the incredible greenery surrounding us. It was not long however before we started to be passed by porters. With an average ratio of three porters for every hiker, these men and women are the lifeblood of the Kilimanjaro climb. Not only do they carry their own packs of clothing and gear, but each porter also carries 20kg of additional equipment such as food, tents and our extra clothing and sleeping bags. As if this is not impressive enough, porters often carry this extra load balanced on their heads and still manage to hike at least twice as fast as us! For the small group of my brother, myself and Methley, we had nine porters!

We reached our camp just before nightfall and were greeted with our tent set up, chairs ready and hot water set aside for tea. Having grown up camping and being used to unpacking myself after arriving to a destination, this was luxury! And after our first six hours of hiking, we were certainly content to sit and relax while our guide prepared dinner for us!

Day 2: No Switchbacks

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Skylar taking a breather in the alpine forest.

To deal with this challenge, we settled in to what I came to understand as a “Kilimanjaro Pace”: an almost meditative mindful walk with a slight pause in between steps. This speed seems to have been specifically calibrated to make sure that hikers of all ages and fitness levels could slowly adjust to the altitude while still making it to the next camp before it was dark. It was slow, but it got us to the next camp by lunch time.

During this hike we noticed that each day brought us through a different climate zone. We started in the jungle but by the start of day two had graduated into a more alpine forest filled with scraggly trees covered with scraggly moss like wispy green beards. By the end of day two the larger trees were more scarce and small shrubs and brush predominated. It made it feel like we here hiking a lot farther than just 5 km and passing into a different region instead of just a different altitude zone.

Day 3: Rain and Lava

The goal for the third day was to hike up another 800 meters to give our lungs a workout before ultimately camping lower to let them rest. The landscape was now dominated by large boulders and chunks of obsidian, remnants of a long gone but clearly destructive eruption.

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The tower of lava

As we neared our first destination of the lava tower, the weather shifted. Kilimanjaro seems to create its own weather system, with clouds often swirling around the top of the mountain, while the rest of the surrounding valley is clear and bright. We finished the final uphill in our rain gear, focusing just on the section of trail just in front of our feet, walking our Kilimanjaro Pace like soggy zombies until we reached the top. The lava tower thrust out of the rocky ground, extending at least 50 meter vertically into the air, giving a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. Or at least, so I am told. Instead of climbing it, I stayed in the warm tent drinking tea and drying out while Methley and Skylar scaled the slick stones to the top!

P1030415We then dropped down another 700 meters and at least one climate zone as we went from icy rain to sunshine and huge tree-like cacti sprouting from the ground. I was surreal to see the scenery change so drastically in such a short period of time but we were grateful to shed the extra layers we had accumulated in our hike to the tower. We arrived at time just before my legs gave out from the two hours of constant and steep downhill hiking, this time greeted by fresh fruit and avocados filled with pico de gallo salsa. Hard to complain when that is your welcome to the new campsite!

Day 4: Not a Traditional Breakfast

Like most days, this one begins with Breakfast. To our dismay, this turns out to be the name of the 300+ tall rock face that you must climb first thing in the morning in order to start the rest of your hike! To my brother’s joy, this requires us to put away our hiking polls and use our hands to pull ourselves up and across certain sections. Although some hikers struggled here, Skylar was in his element, even going a bit off trail to climb other sections that everyone else walked around!

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We finished Breakfast! Wait…now we have to go up that!?

After getting to the top of Breakfast we are greeted with an incredible view of the peak of Kilimanjaro rising up before us. It was huge, majestic and covered in glaciers on the two sides facing us. Our guide assures us that we will be going around those, but if we wanted to come back and do the Western Breach Route, we would go right up one!

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You can just see it on the left side. 

As we started hiking again, we were greeted by an amazing sight. The ground, frozen the night before had started to thaw in the morning sun. Under the weight of many boots the thawing ice of the trail turned to water and its reflection in the sun created a ribbon of light that snaked across the hills, drawing us toward our destination. It was breathtaking.

We ended the day hiking through the mists that felt like the scene of a movie where the adventures were approaching a lost mountain temple. The landscape was covered in rocks of all sizes and over time hikers have built hundreds of cairns sitting on top the larger rocks like small shrines to the mountain god. It gave the place a sense of eerie sacredness that almost made you feel like a fleeting trespasser in an ageless land.

Tired and footsore, we finally arrived at the base camp, Barafu. In Swahili barafu means “ice”, which perhaps told us a little of what to expect when we would start to climb to the summit that evening at midnight, New Year’s Eve.

Day 5: The Top of Africa

At 11pm our guide tapped on our tent to wake us up. Unfortunately for me, I was starting to feel a sore throat coming up and instead of sleeping had just spent the last three hours staring at the roof of our tent and silently praying that I would have the strength to make it to the top. Skylar in contrast, had fallen asleep thirty seconds after putting his head down and had happily snored the whole time.

After a cup of tea and a handful of roasted cashews, we turned on our headlamps and started up the trail. We just reached the main camp when the clock struck 12 and campers and guides everywhere started singing, flashing lights and shouting “Happy New Year!” We paused for a minute to celebrate by catching our breath and then started one of the most physically and mentally difficult experiences in our lives.

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It felt a little bit like Frodo trying to climb Mount Doom!

Having already hiked six hours that day, we started our hike to the summit at roughly 4,600 meters. By this time the air was thin enough that it was nearly impossible to get a full breath. Even just planting one foot in front of the other was challenging. With each long and slow breath we could only take a partial step, placing one foot just half way past the other foot before stepping again. As we leaned forward slightly, it felt that we were falling in slow motion up the hill, with each step catching us before we toppled forward. As time progressed, my feet also went through progressive levels of pain and discomfort. First it was just s slight ache and tingling. Then my feet went numb. This finally progressed to stage three, where it felt as if there was no padding between my foot and the rocky ground and with each step my shoe’s sole amplified the stress of contact so that it painfully reverberated up my whole leg!

On top of that, it was dark and quiet. Unlike our previous days, there was no gorgeous scenery or interesting conversation to distract us. Instead each person stared at the ground and slowly followed the bobbing light of the person in front of them, weaving up the trail like a line of ants trying to string Christmas lights up a massive tree. Thankfully, I was at least partially prepared for the six hours of painful boredom. I had loaded a four-hour long podcast on WWI and not only did it help distract from the monotony of the climb, it also helped give me perspective. No matter how grueling this hike felt, it was way better than life in the trenches!

P1030529Just as I was questioning my sanity for signing up for this trip and wondering if it was too late to turn around, our guide told us we had reached Stella point, only an hour from the summit! We collapsed on a small rock outcropping and had some hot tea and energy bars. The sun was just starting to crest the horizon, and we could see our final destination, Uhuru Peak, the highest peak in all of Africa. With renewed (and somewhat desperate) vigor, we started hiking again, pulling our drained bodies and protesting muscles ever closer to the top. We passed by Kilimanjaro’s glaciers, massive chunks of ice lit by the first rays of light and then finally made it to the top.

With a tired, incredulous exaltation, we watched the sun rise and bathe the top of Africa in its radiant glow. We had done it! It was still sinking in as we wearily took our picture in front of the sign on the very top, but thirty-two hours and 4,000 m of elevation later, we made it!  We certainly could have chosen a less strenuous way to ring in the new year, but it was certainly worth it. Now I just hope that the rest of 2018 is easier!

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Visiting the Maasai

We had been driving for over an hour and a half from Arusha, a large city in Northern Tanzania located near the main national parks of Kilimanjaro, Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. We were going on a tour of a local Maasai village, but we had yet to spot any villages in this arid, desert landscape. Our guide then directed our driver to turn off on a nondescript side road, almost invisible unless you knew where to look. We had arrived.

maasai-women-greeting.jpgAs our car bounced down the dirt road, the village came into view. A collection of small circular houses was surrounded by a large barrier made from dried Acacia trees, whose branches are covered with long sharp spines that would deter all but the most determined herbivore. As we pulled up to the village, a small group of women and children lined up outside the entrance and began to sing to us in high pitched voices, moving their shoulders up and down so that their wide necklaces bounced on their shoulders. Our guide told us that this was a welcoming song and as the song ended, the children then rushed over and grabbed our hands, leading us into the village.

The women then sang a few more songs to us, at one point encouraging us to join in the shoulder bouncing dance that accompanied the song. When the song ended, our guide, who himself grew up in the village, took us to sit under a tree next to the elders and explained some of the basics of Maasai culture over a cup of very sweet tea.

The Maasai follow a traditional pastoral culture, relying on their animals for almost all of their food and other needs. They eat the meat, drink the milk (and occasionally the blood) of their cattle and even use cow dung to help construct the walls of their round houses. The men will spend most of their time out of the village, moving the cows, sheep and goats from one grazing area to another. In fact, every 3-4 years the entire village might move to get closer to new grazing territory!

The men and woman also live fairly separate lives. While the men are out with the livestock, women stay home to take care of the children. Men and women also eat separately and sleep in separate beds in the small house, with the woman sleeping with the children. Each group also has distinct dances, songs and jewelry and the tribe is governed by a male chief. For this village, the chief happened to be the father of our guide and had eight wives.

One of the most interesting cultural practices of the tribe was the process for initiating the young men as warriors. For the initiation, a group of young men are taken out into the wilderness and taught the necessary skills: learning how to make a fire with only sticks and how to hunt the different types of animals found in the area. Controversially, the young men are also taught how to kill a lion. Traditionally, killing a lion was a right of passage that was necessary for a man to become a warrior. Now however, the practice is banned due to its effect on the lion populations in national parks. Despite this ban, the practice continues in some areas and our guide had himself killed two lions! Each of these achievements is marked on the men of this village by burning a circle or small ring into the arm of the warrior. Like badges of honor, the more scars one has signifies a greater level of accomplishments.

maasai-home.jpgAfter this short talk, our guide took us inside one of the homes, a small round structure with a conical roof made from branches. Women in the village build the homes together, working as a group to construct each part once the materials have been gathered. Inside is dark, with only a small two-inch wide hole in the wall that lets in light from outside. The inside of the roof is pitch black and our guide told us that the old ash that cakes the roof from the cooking flame can be used as an ingredient in home remedies for stomach ailments.

Although the useful ash supply was a benefit, it was hard to shake the feeling that the house could have been improved with a larger window or a hole for smoke to come out. However, this thought reminded me of a story a number of years ago when a Scandinavian NGO once came into a Maasai village looking to address the eye and lung problems caused by indoor smoke inhalation. After redesigning a number of houses with a hole for smoke to escape, the NGO workers started to see instances of mosquito-born illnesses increase dramatically. They then realized that although the house’s poor ventilation kept the smoke in, it also kept the mosquitoes out, protecting the Maasai from a number of diseases! A good example of how one shouldn’t always jump to a “simple solution” to another’s problems, without relying on local knowledge.

fullsizeoutput_fb3As our tour came to an end, our guide asked some of the younger men to gather and perform the dance the Maasai are known for. The men gathered around in a half circle making a rhythmic rumbling in their throats, periodically thrusting their chests toward the center of the circle, while one man started a call and response chant. During the chant the men would one-by-one come to the center and jump high off the ground 2-3 times, often coming down with a hard stomp on the final jump before rushing forward a few yards and then returning to the circle. They invited my brother and I to join and I certainly loved the fun, competitive nature of the jumps, with dancers congratulating those who jumped particularly high.

Exhausted from the dance, we climbed back into the car and drove slowly away from the village. I was impressed by how well the Maasai had adapted in such a harsh environment and by the degree to which they maintain many of their traditions in the face of the social and technological pressures that surround them. But our guide was a testament that this story was much more complex than our short tour could reveal. He grew up in the village, spoke the traditional Maasai language of Maa in addition to Swahili and English, having walked two hours each way to get to the local school. He was initiated as a Maasai warrior in the traditional way (with the scars to prove it) but went to college in Kenya and speaks to his Dutch girl friend on his smartphone while we drive back to Arusha. Just like there is no simple solution, it seems that what it means to “be a Maasai” is not simple either!

An Ungrateful (but useful) Tree

An Ungrateful (but useful) Tree

Example 0There was once a tree growing next to a beautiful lake. At first, the tree was content. But as soon as it was tall enough to see its own reflection, the tree started to compare itself to the other trees nearby. It did not like what it saw. While the palm tree had a long slender trunk, this tree’s trunk was thick and squat. Its pale white flowers were nowhere near as striking as the flame tree’s brilliant red-orange blaze. And even its leaves were not as attractive or shady as those of its neighbor, the mango tree. And so the tree complained and complained to all who would listen, and even those who wouldn’t! One day, even God grew tired of the continual moaning and whining so he picked it up and stuck it back into the earth upside down so no one would have to listen to it any more!

This is one of the many (and hard to attribute) stories you will hear explaining the incredibly strange appearance of the tree we know as the Baobab. Native to sub-Saharan Africa, the Baobab tree has become an iconic image in the region, and it’s not hard to see why! It gets its English name from the Arab traders who started calling the tree “bu-hubub”, which sounds much better than the name used by one of the first Europeans to describe it in 1754: “wooden elephant”. In Zanzibar it is just called Mbuyu.

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The bottom portion are the roots and the upper part is what almost looks like a whole different tree growing up!

I got my first real look at this incredible tree (not counting seeing it as Rafiki’s home in Disney’s Lion King) when we went to dinner at a well-known Zanzibari restaurant that has a huge baobab tree growing up in the middle of the sitting area! My second and more fascinating encounter came on a trip to a nearby island where we saw a Baobab that was easily hundreds of years old. But what was most incredible was not just the age and size of the tree, but its resilience. A few hundred years ago an intense wind had knocked the wooden giant on its side. Undaunted, the tree just kept growing with its entire root base sticking up in the air!

ele_baoab1It was incredible to see such a huge tree growing on a tiny island, but these unique organisms can be found all over different parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the trees place in local legends comes only in part from its odd shape. It turns out that the Baobab is incredibly useful. For travelers, trade routes were often based on the baobab trees growing along the way, and each tree even had its own name. Animals also found the tree useful with Elephants often gouging the trunks of baobabs to get at the water inside.

But resourceful people throughout the years have found uses for the tree far beyond a source for water. Like the native Americans in North America that used every part of the buffalo, every part of this tree has a use.  The fruit pulp (rich in vitamin C) is eaten on its own or mixed in porridge and is also used for making soft drinks. Seeds are used as a thickener for soups, and leaves are eaten as a vegetable or in soups. Fibers from the inner bark are used to make rope and string for basketry, as well as for making beehives. Trunks that have been hollowed by lightning or by humans have been employed imaginatively as a pub, toilet, prison and bus stop. In western Sudan, the trunks were used as water containers. Even the roots produce a dye!

But that’s not all! Roots, bark, leaves, fruits and seeds are used medicinally for an enormous range of ailments, including iron deficiency, digestive system disorders, infections and skin disorders. And for those intrepid adventurers out there, it is said that a decoction made from Baobab seeds will protect you against crocodiles. Is there nothing this tree cannot do!

Although much of its fame might come from its shape or size, it seems that its plethora of uses is a more fitting reason for its distinction. Perhaps if the tree had cared less about its appearance and more about its wonderful ability to provide for those around it, it would have not complained at all.

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The fallen tree will also be on the cover of our next album. We are taking submissions for album names…

 

Celebrating 200 years…

Celebrating 200 years…

5a914fab57c8c67f0f8210e848a0afc3As we were leaving New York City, the Baha’i community there was in the midst of preparing for the landmark 200 year anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet founder of the Faith. In fact, the entire Baha’i world was looking forward with eager anticipation to this date, working hard to plan commemorations across the globe that would fittingly celebrate this important occasion. Although we could not participate in New York City’s celebrations, only a short ferry ride away the Baha’is of Dar Es Salam were planning their own celebrations, and we were invited!

We took the Kilimanjaro V, one of Zanzibar’s newer catamaran ferries, on a thankfully-smooth two hour trip to Dar Es Salam, Tanzania’s largest city and economic capital. We had been invited to stay in the home of a local Baha’i woman and when we arrived, it seemed that the celebration had already started! Her home was filled with what turned out to be the local Baha’i choir practicing their songs about love, unity and celebration for the commemorations the following day. They sang for two more hours after we arrived (enough that by the end knew the songs too!) before leaving us all to rest.

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The incredible physics defying bus

The next day about 35 children, youth and adults packed into an aging bus that was probably made to seat 25 people and could only go forward or reverse by shutting down completely and then starting up again. As we made our way towards the first celebration, we proceeded to pick up even more people! It seems that the laws of physics, and occupant capacity, did not apply to this bus as we must have had at least 45 people mashed together whether seated, standing or, in the case of children, on the lap of another person.

 

The first day of celebrations commemorated the life of the Bab, the forerunner to Baha’u’llah. We were able to attend two different celebrations that day in different neighborhoods. Each one was held in a hall filled with hundreds of beautifully dressed people from different parts of the city, including one of the government ministers, invited as an honored guest. The programs were beautiful and included prayers, song, talks about the significance of the day in Swahili and English and video clips about the life and imprisonment of Baha’u’llah and the Bab. A few highlights: the politician got up and started dancing with the choir,  a youth band formed from Baha’i activities sang the song “We are drops” which is taught around the world in Baha’i children’s virtues classes and seems to have the same tune no matter which country you visit, and an interesting skit by a group of youth about the importance of family unity, but also respecting justice.

IMG_3612We were also fortunate enough that Caity was able to sing two songs with a friend in Swahili and English, using her ukulele. They had been practicing for the last few days and the songs went well, helping to demonstrate the diverse and international nature of the Faith. Also the ukulele was a hit as many people had never seen one before! The children and fellow musicians were fascinated by this tiny “child’s guitar”. :)

The next day we traveled up to the new Baha’i center for the city-wide celebration for the birth of Baha’u’llah. For this event the community had turned the Baha’i center itself into an exhibition on Baha’u’llah’s life, where guests were guided through each of the different stages of his life, from its start in Iran to exile in Baghdad and Adrianople and his eventual banishment to the prison city of Akka. One of the most moving rooms told the story of Baha’u’llah’s imprisonment in the “Black Pit” for many months where he was forced to wear chains that were so infamous they had their own names and weighed over 100 pounds! With the lights off and the floor covered in rusted chains, it was possible to glimpse what this terrible prison might have been like, at once one the the darkest times in Baha’u’llah’s life but also the place where he received the revelation that he was a prophet of God.

IMG_3608During the final program I was struck by how incredible and unlikely it was that this celebration was even happening at all. It was only 150 years ago that the Baha’i faith was only made up of a small band of adherents heavily persecuted in their native land of Persia. Their first Prophet, the Bab, had been martyred at the hands and the government and clergy and their current leader, Baha’u’llah, was living in exile, never to return to his homeland. Yet in the years since, the community has expanded to every country on the globe inspired by Baha’u’llah’s message that “the earth is but one country and mankind its citizens” and “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.”

I might not have been able to celebrate in New York City, but sitting in the audience at the Dar Es Salam Baha’i center surrounded by people of a diversity of nationalities, religions and backgrounds and knowing that similar celebrations like this were happening all over the world was a wonderful feeling. I am sure that I won’t have to wait for another 200 year anniversary to experience it again!

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The children with the signs they would show on our bus ride to the celebrations.

 

Island of Spice

Island of Spice

spice-tour.jpgWhen we came to Zanzibar, I heard people call it an “Island of Spice”. At any market that you visit your nose will inevitably encounter a symphony of smells coming from small stalls filled with plastic bags containing dozens of different multicolored powders. These bags it turns out, are a symbol for Zanzibar’s past as the epicenter of the global spice market.

A significant stage of this tasty history began in the mid 1800s when the Omani Sultan (who had recently moved his capital from Oman to Zanzibar) introduced cloves to the islands. It turns out they grow quite well here and Zanzibar eventually came to produce the vast majority of the world’s cloves, a veritable spice juggernaut! Even in recent history, when spice exports have dropped, clove alone brought in 70% of Zanzibar’s export earnings until 1994! I had no idea that the little pods I stuck in oranges, and drank in chai tea, were the foundation for a spice empire on the other side of the world.

With this history in mind, a number of spice farms have sprung up all over the island as a popular tourist destination where you can see the origin of all the incredible spices that we almost exclusively encounter in powdered form on supermarket shelves.

I recently visited one of these spice farms along with my cousins Gwen and John who were visiting as part of a long tradition of gathering every year to bike long distances in costume together (it’s a long story…). So this meant we could not just visit a spice farm, we had to bike there.

IMG_3485Our trip began by hoisting up our bikes on top of a “dala dala”, Zanzibar’s fleet of modified trucks, vans and busses that transport people all over the island squished together in crowded (but cheap) compartments that always seem to fit one more person, just when you thought that there was no physical way another body could be crammed onto the bench.

Please note, much of the following blog post was written in conjunction with Gwen, a PhD in Conservation Biology, so please forgive any overly scientific language and overzealous plant descriptions :P

We got off near the Guwakamole botanical garden, a 8 acre site directly adjacent to the government agricultural research station KATI. It turns out that the father of our guide Haji had worked for the research station and had been growing a wild menagerie of tropical fruits and spices on this site for decades. Our guide had been leading tours here since 1986. We set off on a slow excursion through the site, stopping every few meters to taste some new and wonderful fruit or plant part and learn about the exotic species that grew here. This was our kind of tour!

IMG_3494As soon as we entered the garden we were intrigued by a weird looking bush with red flowers and spiky black seed pods. We only had wild guesses as to what it was, even when our guide opened up a pod and showed us the small red seeds inside. He gave us a few more clues by rubbing the seeds and revealing a bright red dye and telling us that it was commonly used in food. Because we were still stumped, he finally gave in and told us it was Annatto, the bright red coloring agent. This is one of those ingredients that you often skim over at the end of the ingredients list and we had no idea that it was from seeds. Our guide demonstrated the potency of the dye by painting the lips of one of our biking companions. We subsequently painted our own faces in solidarity so she was not the photoonly ridiculous looking person in the group :)

We then stopped by a small tree with bright shiny leaves and were handed some of them and told to chew on the stem and guess what the tree was. Wild guesses of what it might be revolved around cinnamon (nope, but we did see that tree later and correctly guessed it then) but a cheating look at the tree itself revealed it to be cloves. The clove-shaped green and pink things under the flowers were the dead giveaway. These large floral structures are hypanthia which are hand picked by skilled workers who climb the trees and pluck them from the upper branches and then dry them to produce the little brown cloves that we are familiar with from stores.

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Inside of the cacao

The next quiz was to identify a small tree that had large pods and flowers hanging off the main trunk. This one we correctly guessed to be Cacao, although none of us had ever seen it in person before. As the source of chocolate, we of course were all big fans of this plant to start with, but we discovered that chocolate was not the only tasty part of this fruit if you can believe that! Our guide split open one of the pods and demonstrated how to remove the individual seeds and suck off the sweet encasings. Delicious!

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PhD scientist added for scale

We then encountered a jackfruit, the tropical fruit that we were familiar with from asian candy but had never actually seen as a fresh fruit, never mind one growing on the tree. These fruit are huge, some even watermelon sized, and they too were growing directly from the trunk of the tree! When cut open, the smooth white fruit inside tasted a bit like bubble gum.

During this two hour tour of the garden we tasted dozens of fruits, looked at more spice plants than we could possibly remember, and had such a great time that we decided that running away and living on a spice farm in Zanzibar could be a valid backup life plan. However, because this blog post is getting overly long, we will only talk about one more of the many spices and fruits we saw.

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Nutmeg!

It turns out that nutmeg also grows on a medium sized tree, hidden inside green fruits that were about the size of an egg. If you cut them open, the valuable seed is revealed, surrounded by a pink seed coat that looks strangely alien like. This spice is revered for its taste and medicinal qualities, but apparently also was historically thought to be an aphrodisiac. We didn’t test that part.

 

After a large and expertly spiced meal, we realized that we had to bike home.

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Perhaps the advertising was a bit misleading…

When we signed up on the bike tour, it mentioned there was “some off road biking” but it turns out that this was a serious understatement. Our guide had us pedaling up a trail that looked more like a ravine than a road, through a national forest filled with red colobus monkeys, randomly placed cassava fields and two women carrying 50 lbs of firewood on their heads like it was no heavier than a sun hat. We eventually made it out of the forest and onto the paved road, which was perhaps an even greater challenge. Although bikes are quite common in Zanzibar, there are certainly not bike lanes (or sometimes car lanes for that matter) and we definitely had one scare from a minibus that screeched into the middle of the other lane due to the driver texting. 

 

But, even with some near misses, it was certainly worth the delicious and fragrant journey into the famed origins of this Island of Spice.

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