Friday, February 27, 2009

Chilling with the Mountain Gorillas: Another Inexplicable Experience!

A video/pictures really would be the best way to bring alive this experience...but you will have to wait until I get home (March 18) when I will be able to upload them. For now, here is a brief summary:

6 of us hiked with a guide, 3 guys with guns, 1 guy with a machete and 2 trackers. After a 2 hour steep hike uphill on a narrow, overgrown, muddy path, the trackers began to make gorilla noises, calling out to our gorilla friends. We then were led off the path and literally began walking through the forest's mountain side - over bushes and through trees with a machete swipe here and there to clear the path.

And then there he was, a huge Silverback, named Charlie, sitting there munching on bamboo. He then got up and walked to the rest of his family. We followed him and then just sat there in the forest with the gorillas all around us. At one point, a young gorilla came out of the trees and stared right at me - an arms distance away. The guide calmly told me to move to the side. Me, not so calmly, shuffled to my left as the juvenile gorilla playfully crawled right by me. Amazing!

NEXT STOP: Saying goodbye to Sharon, Bwindi Forest Walk, Chimpanzee Tracking.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Zanzibar: Oh, the People You'll Meet

It's amazing how beach fronts can look similar no matter where you are in the world. When you look at the long sand coast with palm trees and blue water, it could be Hawaii, the Philippines, or in my case, Zanzibar, Africa. However,there are some interesting experiences that came out of the various characters we me during our 3.5 day Zanzibar island excursion:

1) The Passengers: We stayed at a remote resort on a beach cove on the East coast. It was an hours drive from town, $100 return taxi drive. To save $$ and to add to the adventure, we took the local transport, 'dala dala,' for $2. It's an open-air truck bed with 20 passengers sitting on top of each other - an intimate setting and a great way to meet the locals. People got on and off carrying their belongings that either joined us in the truck bed or got strapped to the top of the truck. Along the way, we were accompanied by sacks of coconuts, a bike, brief cases, a car rear-view mirror, bags of mangoes, and stacks of banana/straw leaf sheets (enough to make a thatched roof of a home). My favorite passengers were the mothers, who passed their babies, like a sack of potatoes, from stranger to stranger as they got in our out of the dala dala.

2) The Muslims - Zanzibar is unique from the rest of Tanzania in that it was influenced by Omani Arabs and it has retained the Arabic-style architecture, cobbled, mazed-alleyway streets and a Muslim society. When roaming through the streets, it sometimes felt like we were in the Middle East, not Africa.

3) The Shopkeepers- "free to look, Free to touch" or "i make you a good deal" was the chorus we heard from the persistent shop owners.

4) The Greeks - There were two 40 year old Greek guys that we kept running into on the island. They were disappointed with Zanzibar's island offerings, constantly comparing it to the Greek isles. I found it humourous that they were expecting a better nightlife in a Muslim town.

5) The Saints - The 2 most directionally challenged travellers falsely had confidence that we could guide ourselves through the labyrinthed streets back to the Dala Dala station in the evening. We smartly realized the flaws in our plan and stopped into a hotel for directions. Artheman, a hotel employee, was getting off work and offered to walk with us to the station. Kenyan-born and an Obama fan, he weaved us in and out of the alleys.We arrived to the station to find that our Dala Dala was no longer running. It became his mission to get us home safely. He did not trust us to go with the taxi drivers at the station. He wanted to call his friend to pick us up, but his phone was dying. So, he went to the local market and asked a stranger if he could use his phone. This man happened to be an off-duty taxi driver. It too became his mission to get the Americans home. A round of Fantas later, the off-duty taxi driver's friend arrived and safely drove us home. No money was expected for their assistance, only big smiles and waves were exchanged, along with 'Hakuna Matada' (no worries).

6) The Runners - Sharon and I watched the sunset on the beach in stowntown because the people watching was enthralling. Kids were jumping off boats and restaurant owners and fisherman set-up stalls, selling cane juice and every seafood imaginable. My favorite was the group of men, who ran laps back and forth on the beach and then would line up to do aerobics..meanwhile guys were doing flips behind them.

7) Rain Man - We had a 45 minute taxi ride to town driven by Rain Man. He literally read each English sign to us on the drive and shared the ethnic origin of the hotel owners for each hotel we passed. He then became 'The Pusher" letting us know, he can get us marijuana or whatever drug we wanted. His Rain Man antics began to make sense and I'm convinced he smoked a big blunt before driving us.

8) The Gapers - As we left Zanzibar on a ferry, I sported my sling and Sharon carried her pack on her back and my pack in front of her. Tourists and locals gaped at us, and no one offered help. But, Sharon was a champ, patiently waiting to board the ferry,with 80 extra pounds hanging from her.

NEXT STOP: Drive from Uganda to Rwanda to chill with the Mountain Gorillas.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Taking Bets...Did they make it to the Summit of Mt Kili?

Apparently, the porters told their friends and family that they were supposed to be on the mountain for 8 days, but the 2 women likely will only last for 5 days. Well, we made it to Day 6.

The stakes were raised. The porters were now asking themselves, what are the odds that these two women will summit on Day 7 and should they bet their tip money/drinks/load to be carried in favor of the American Duo? From their point of view, the odds were against us. Sharon started getting nauseous from the altitude and puked on Day 2. And again on Day 4. And me, well, my handicap was obvious.

On the morning of the summit, our guides lagged and while everyone began hiking to the summit at 12 a.m., Team 'Ralph and Gimpy' did not start ascending the mountain until 2 a.m.

I looked like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, dressed in the following:

Feet: 3 Smart Wool socks and Toe Warmers
Legs: 1 thermal, 2 running pants, 1 ski pants, 1 gaiters
Top: 1 running tanktop, 1 hooded thermal, 2 running long sleeve tops, 1 North Face Shell jacket, 1 North Face down jacket, 1 water-resistant ski jacket, and of course, 1 sling
Hands: Latex gloves, 2 pairs of ski liner gloves, hand warmers
Neck: Scarf
Head: Running cap and ski mask

Our guide wanted to catch up with the groups that left earlier, so he led us at a quicker pace than I was expecting. As we kept getting higher and kept going at a brisk pace, it was getting harder to breathe through my nose and I felt like my heart was beating fast.

To be honest, it was more of a mental challenge than a physical challenge. My first distraction technique was to sing songs in my head that had the word 'walk' in it.

Placebo: "Walk away to save your face. You never were a genious."
Violent Femmes: "When I'm a walking, I strut my stuff and I'm so strung out...."
The Police: "Giant steps are what you take...walking on the moon."
Frightened Rabbit: "I been working on my backwards walk. There's nowhere else for me to go.."

Then I got sick of hearing myself sing in my head. So I turned on my iPod, set it to shuffle and I broke down the hike into music sets. Each set contained 5 songs. When I listened to 5 songs, I cleared the set. I figured that 3 sets of 5 songs = 1 hour.....Oh, the things you do (or I guess what I do!) to keep my mind busy. So, off I went 'clearing my sets' and I followed the Big Dipper up the mountain.

In less than 6 hours, we DID it! We reached the 'Roof of Africa!!' We saw the sunrise near the top and the glaciers were sparkling in the sun. I can't tell you what a sense of accomplishment it is to know you reached an elevation of over 19,000 feet!

The return down the mountain was nuts. It was a steep, downward slope, consisting of a silt/sand-like texture. My guide took my arm, told me to just let go and to trust him. I tightened my sling and off we went, flying down the mountain. It felt like we were cross-country skiing downhill.

My return to camp was priceless. The porters popped out of their tents when I arrived. I had a big smile on my face and I gave them a thumbs up. There was some murmuring and my guide confirmed that I made it to the top!

Two porters, who I did not know, came up to me and asked to take their picture with me. (My 30 seconds of fame :P). I assume that these are the porters that won the bet...they either will have a lighter load to carry on the way down or someone owes them drinks after the mountain!

And on Sharon's descent down, she puked one more time, just to be sure she left her mark and lived up to her mountain nickname, 'Kilimanjaro Ralph'.

Overall, I am still in disbelief that I just hiked Mt. Kili. It seems like a dream.

And while around 4 a.m. during my summit, I vowed to myself that I would NEVER do something like this again, I now can't help but think.....What's next?!?

Top 10 Dislikes and Likes while hiking Mt. Kili

Instead of recounting every detail of the 6 days leading up to the day of the final summit (19,340 feet), here's a summary of our hike highlights in a Top 10 format:

Top 10 Dislikes

10) At first, I had the hot soup on my list of likes, but by the end of the trip, the daily bowl of soup began to taste like hot melted butter and became nauseating.

9) Hiking in the morning/day, but not getting lunch until 3p.m. We all know that Jeanne gets crabby when she's hungry.

8) Waiting in the cold, drafty mess tent for lunch or dinner and feeling frozen, despite the fact that I'm wearing all of my layers of clothing.

7) Loose rocks on a steep downhill.

6) Potentially being the dirtiest I have ever been in my life, smelling of a mixture of sweat, dirt and tiger balm. Jenn, aren't you glad that you did not come now?

5) Walking so slowly to prevent altitude sickness that it felt like we were on a death march up the mountain.

4) Arriving to the camp to find that our tent has been perfectly placed on a slanted slope, causing me to spend the whole night sliding out the tent door.

3) Waking up in the middle of the night with the urge to pee and having to decide whether I can hold it all night or whether I could find the starry sky as enough motivation to get me out of the tent.

2) Outhouses with small holes where people have aimed poorly, resulting in puddles of piss and piles of poo.

1) Climbing up a steep, rocky mountain side (Barranco Wall) with only 1 arm. Imagine rock climbing with one arm tied behind your back and no harness. 1 slip and I would tumble down the mountain or one wrong movement and I feared dislocating my shoulder again. At this point, I stopped and wondered, "Maybe I am truly crazy for attempting this." I could not have made it up that wall without the help of my guide (see Top 10 likes #2).

Top 10 Likes

10) Arriving to our campsite after hiking in the morning/noon and snuggling in our sleeping bags, drinking tea, reading or snoozing.

9) Having mastered the art of putting my contacts in with one hand.

8) Learning Swahili and carrying a conversation with the locals using the 11 words I know.

7) Looking down on the clouds below us.

6) Seeing the mountain that we'll attempt to summit on Day 7 get closer to us at every campsite.

5) Our daily serving of hot porridge.

4) Our -30 degree celsius sleeping bag. I wish I could summit the mountain in it.

3) Sharon's endless patience and asistance since I am a gimp and can't tie my shoes, brush or braid my hair, roll up my sleeping bag or mat, etc.

2) Shabaz, our guide. Out of all my trips and tours worlwide, I have never had such an amazing guide. He never doubted my ability to hike the mountain. He was a chatty Kathy, full of mountain knowledge, tourist stories and motivational talks. He was acutely aware of our needs and was there to help me through every slippery patch or rocky slope. At one point on the Barronco Wall, I hugged him with all my remaining enery after he literally pulled me up the steep, rocky mountain side when I could not pull myself up the rock and I though I was going to plummet to my death.

1) Peeing under the most beautiful, clear, starry sky that I have ever seen with a view of the glacier capped Mt Kilimanjaro. The stars truly twinkled.

NEXT STOP: Attempting to summit Mt Kili (19,340 feet)

Pole Pole

Written on February 9, 2009

When I first arrived to Tanzania, the common phrase I heard from the local people was "Pole," which means I'm sorry. They wanted to let me know they were sorry for my injury. From the tourists, the common question asked, accompanied by a look of fear, was "did you do THAT on the mountain?" Once I told them 'no,' but I'm climbing the mountain in a few days, their frightened stare was replaced by a look of disbelief, as if I was crazy.

90% of the comments seemed to be negative, such as "how are you going to climb the mountain with 1 arm?" or "you'll get too cold up there." I brushed off their remarks by cheerfully replying: "I will do my best" or "It's no colder for someone with 1 functioning arm than someone with two!"

And for the remaining 10% of the replies that were words of encouragement, I was grateful. So, when they said, " You're climbing the mountain? Good for you. You can do it!" I smiled and said, "See you at the top."

With that, Sharon and I left the sea of stares and comments from the peanut gallery and got into the jeep with Shabaz, our guide, who looked at us and said: "i will make sure you summit." I liked him already!

We drove 4 hours past sunflower fields and pine forests and finally arrived to our more remote path up Mt Kili, Lemosho route. With a porter carrying my pack, an assistant guide carrying my day pack, and a helping hand from Shabaz or a hiking pole for balance, we started ascending up the mountain.

The persistent phrase that we are bound to hear for the next 8 days is "Pole. Pole." When you just say "Pole," it means "sorry." When repeated twice, it means: "slowly, slowly."

I don't know where "Pole, Pole" derives from, but my interpretation is, if you don't go "Pole Pole" (slowly) up the mountain, you'll be "Pole" (sorry) because the altitude will wipe you out.

So, "Pole Pole" it is.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Circle of Life

How do I describe the last 5 days in Tanzania? I was brainstorming titles for this blog post, looking for a phrase that will encapsulate the experience:

- Be very quiet, I'm hunting Rhinos
- Animal Planet
- Garden of Eden
- The Big Five - Lions, Elephants, Rhinos, Leopards, Water Buffalo
- The making of Simba
- Lions and tigers and bears, Oh my! (minus the tigers and bears)

I settled on The Circle of Life since I witnessed both the mating of lions and killing of prey (to be described shortly). They did not show this in the Lion King! A 4 to 10 word title can't capture the experience, but I will try to give highlights of the trip and supplement the description with pictures and videos at a later date....

Day 1

- Found out from the pharmacist that I was overdosing on my pain meds. I now know each pills pupose and prescribed amount. (This is a highlight for my liver. The rest of my body/mind rather enjoyed the drug induced state).

- In Lake Manyara Park, an elephant, who I call Keyser Soze, stepped out of nowhere and crossed the road in front of our jeep with his big ears flapping. He continued to walk into the bush " And like that, poof. He [was] gone."

Day 2

- Drove through the land of the Maasai Tribes (cattle herders). The Maasai people dress in bright red/purple cloth, are adorned with beaded jewelry and have stretched out earlobes. It is an amazing view to see massive fields of green and then a splash of bright red surrounded by cattle.

- Was petted by a Maasai person, who wanted to touch my sling.

- Crossed the lush green hills and into the Serengeti, which stretches for miles on end. The land is arid with dry grass, but then there are pockets of green trees and vegetation. Words can't describe the immensity of the Serengeti, nor can photos paint a clear picture.

- There are over 1 million Wildebeest in the Serengeti. As we entered the park, we were surrounded by a sea of Wildebeast on either side of the road.

- Saw the original fossil footprint of "Lucy," Australopithecus afarensis, who walked in this area of Africa almost 3.6 million years ago.

- Saw 2 lions sleeping. The female woke up, followed by the male. He proceeded to mount her in front of us, despite her lack of enthusiasm. After a mere 10 seconds, the action stops and the female walked away...likely underwhelmed by her mate's poor performace. (video to be posted shortly).

Day 3

- Saw a leopard jump from a low branch to a high branch.

- Watched 2 giraffes swinging their necks together, like a synchonized dance

Day 4

- saw a hippo outside of the water, which is rare, and he ran across the road in front of our jeep. For a 300+ lb animal, these creatures have some wheels.

Day 5

- Drove into the Ngorongoro Crater, which is the only crater I have ever seen that is filled with life - 30,000+ animals are here.

- And a rhino crossed the road. Learned that he can beat a hippo in a race. And if he charges you, move to the side b/c they do not have lateral movement. They are dumb as stumps apparently.

- Finished my artistic creation called "The Butts of the Beasts" - a montage of rear-end shots of my favorite animals. A true work of art.

- Saw a pride of lions slowly take down a buffalo. They literally sat there and gnawed on his ass while the buffalo was still alive and standing - lasted for at least 3 hrs...a bit disturbing. (And yes, my non-vegetarian friends, video to follow.)

So, all in all a successful and entertaining safari shared with Sharon (cousin), Chris and his two sons, Chris and Charlie from San Diego, and Natalie from Alaska.

Next Stop: One-armed Jeanne (inspired by the nickname one-eyed Willie from the Goonies) and Sharon are ready to take on Mt. Kilimanjaro (19,000+ ft)...

Stay tuned for the update in 8 days!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Final Trip Summary - Kenya to Tanzania

Written on February 3, 2009

# of hours: 10 hrs
# of passengers: 28
# of pee stops: 1
# of bumps in the road: infinite
# of off-roading detours: every 800 yards
# of pain meds: 11 pills
# of people staring at me: everyone (including tourists)
# of inquiries about my shoulder: 9
# of people sharing their dislocation stories: 5

Final Trip Report: Drugged up and happy to be off the bus

Next Stop: Wildlife Safari (5 days)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Pebbles is off to Tanzania

I have left our luxurious set-up at Lisa and Kristoffer's house in Nairobi. Rebecca, thanks so much for putting me in contact with them. They were amazing. I feel like I have known them forever!

My cousin, Sharon, is here with me. She is a life-saver, packing my backpack, tying my shoes, etc. I am a gimp.

I am a bit of a site to see. I asked Sharon to pull my hair up into a high ponytail so it will stay out of my face. I look like Pebbles, And I think I will sport this look until I can take off this tank-top and shower. And let's be honest, that is not happening any time soon. This tanktop and I are becoming one. Sorry Sharon.

I have a large, foam, peach sling wrapped around my body. When I first arrived to Nairobi, I was surprised that noone stared at the white girl. Now, I am a walking freak show. Any plans to slide under the radar and be somewhat inconspicuous are over.

So, Pebbles, in Day 2 tanktop is off on an 8 hr bus ride to Tanzania. I'm a slightly concerned as to how I am going to make this journey. The small van / bus is packed with 27 people. I don't think it is physically possible to fit anyone else in here. But, never say never - it will be a cozy journey. Also, the bus seems to get air time with every pot hole. I think this situation is calling for the yellow and blue pills - no more messing around with just the pink and purple ones.

An experience, right?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Trip to Nairobi Hospital

So, I was planning on a different post. It was supposed to talk about how i wore the same clothes for 72 hours waiting for my bag to show up to Nairobi. And how I experienced how Kenyan government works when all of my property was demolished by the government in our game of Kenyan Monopoly. And how I spotted my first giraffe, zebras and warthogs on our way to our Gorge walk at Hells Gate park. But of course, leave it to Jeanne to have the following happen to her..........

I have done Gorge walks before in Australia where I was scaling the sides of gorges and i thought i would plummet to my death. Hells Gate was a relatively tame hike with occasional rocks that needed to be scaled or climbed down from. 

So let's just cut to the chase. Over halfway through the hike, i was lowering myself down from a rock to the ground and i heard a pop and then another loud pop. This was followed by a plethora of expletives - all with different variations of a 4-letter word that starts with F.  

I had a moment of envisioning Lethal Weapon. So, while i was on the ground, i tried to thrust my shoulder toward the dirt, trying to emulate Mel Gibson to pop my shoulder back into place. Damn Hollywood. It does not quite work that way. 

After realizing i was in the middle of a gorge and no one could carry me out and i was not going to get air-lifted out, I sucked it up and finished the hike - luckily it was only 15 minutes.

We then made our way to the local hospital (7 minutes). Pictures to follow. I was with Kristoffer (lisa's husband) and his two Danish friends, Stig and Stefan. They were awesome...and I think i almost broke Stig's hand as I was using it like a squeeze toy to help me ignore the pain. The doctor played around with my arm to test the mobility, and I screamed out more eff-bombs. It was then advised we drive to Nairobi to get x-rays since their xray machine was broken. I passed up on the injection of pain meds. The idea of getting poked with a needle in Africa sounded worse than the pain. So, the doctor made me a make-shift sling.  I should note that he had to borrow Kristof's swiss army knife to cut the bandage. Why the hospital did not have scissors... i don't know.

So we purchased some oral pain meds and we drove back to Nairobi (2 hours) through the pot-holed streets. Good times.

So, to make a long story short, i got expedited through the queue  at the hospital in Nairobi and the doc said my shoulder was dislocated, but it popped back in on its own. Maybe my Mel Gibson move worked after all. The x-rays said i did not fracture anything, so that's good.

So here I am recounting the tale. I have a fabulous cocktail of pink/purple pills and red ones and a glass of wine. I am in a sling, pictures to follow...

But i am still hopeful that i will be able to make my safari and walk up Mt Kili...very slowly. The bungee jump might be out. 

This is one way to start Day 2 of my 49 day trip.....