Posts Tagged ‘Tanzania’

Aping around in Africa

July 20, 2009

(“Where they Went,” published May 24, 2009, Boston Globe)

Debra Walk on safari in Seregeti, Tanzania

Debra Walk on safari in Tanzania

WHO: Debra L. Walk, 60, of Revere.

WHERE: Tanzania and Uganda.

WHEN: Three weeks in November and December.

WHY: “When I turned 50, at a spa in Utah, I thought, in 10 years, you’ll be 60. Where do you want to be?” Walk said. An African safari was the answer. “Elephants are my favorite animal, and the thought of being so close to them was really exciting, with me being confined and not them. I saved for 10 years, and it was worth every penny.”

Debra at at the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania

Posing at Ngorongoro Conservation Area

INSTANT KARMA: Walk started with a two-week “classic safari” with Thomson Safaris, which featured several days of wildlife viewing. When she spotted an elephant the first day, “I screamed,” she said. “Later we were so close to them we could see their eyelashes. Our jeeps were surrounded by them. It literally took my breath away. We spent four days on the Serengeti, and we were there during wildebeest migration.”

Debra with guides before boarding the plane to leave the Serengeti to Arusha, Tanzania

Debra with her Serengeti guides before boarding the bush plane for Arusha

KINFOLK: Walk arranged for her final week to be in Uganda, and set up gorilla and chimpanzee activities through Adventure Trails. She’s drawn to the animals because “they’re our cousins and I think eventually they’re not going to exist anymore out in the wild. Humans are destroying their habitat.”

GROUP OUTING: She spent the first few days in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a rain forest known for its mountain gorilla population. “You’re allowed to spend up to an hour with them. You can’t eat anything, run around, or make eye contact with the silverback, the leader, and you can’t use a flash. There’s a good chance you’ll see them, but it’s not guaranteed.” Walk was lucky enough to see gorillas on both outings. “We spent an hour with the second group. The silverback’s first-in-command was no more than five feet from us and actually posed for us.”

Debra standing on the equator in Uganda

Debra straddles the equator in Uganda

PERSONAL ATTENTION: Her trip ended with three nights at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary on Lake Victoria. “Even though elephants are my favorite animal, my favorite day was on Ngamba when I got to walk with the chimpanzees. One of them jumped on my back and I gave her a piggyback ride. I have a tattoo on my wrist, and she was grooming me, trying to get it off with her fingernails. She untied my shoes, pulled out my laces, and tried to relace them.”

The roads traveled are two-way streets

April 27, 2009

I wrote the essay below for a special travel section in the April issue of Ode MagazineIt’s on their website as well.  If you don’t know Ode, I suggest you check it out. It’s at a magazine stand near you. (Borders, Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble, etc. Or better yet, buy a subscription and keep Ode alive.  Its tagline is: For Intelligent Optimists. Hey, that’s me! And I’m guessing you, too.

This farmer in Lombok, Indonesia plows with an ox-plow

Farmer on Lombok Island, Indonesia, plows his fields the traditional way

The Eiffel Tower. Big Ben. The Taj Mahal. Only 20 years ago, these were the notches on the traveler’s money belt, which, incidentally, was stuffed with travelers’ cheques. Today we’ve been there, done that. Affordable airfare and Western wealth (yes, we’re still comparatively wealthy even now, in the midst of the credit crunch) have brought travelers to every corner of the globe. We hop on transcontinental flights armed with our debit cards, functional in cash-dispensing machines from Dubai to Denali.

But simply seeing the sights is no longer enough. We want to stray from those beaten paths, dig deeper, get a read on how the locals live, work and play. This can include eating at a restaurant favored by residents instead of Westerners, participating in an outdoor adventure or visiting sites not found in most guidebooks. In industry jargon, it’s called “experiential travel”-travel we live through instead of look at-and it’s never been more popular. It’s popular because it’s typically cheaper than traditional travel; money is tight but we still want to go on vacation, some of us to faraway places. And it’s popular because we want to tread more lightly during our trips, in terms of our impact on the environment and on the people we visit. We want to give something back.

The desire to experience a different culture through activities and people goes deeper than adding another notch to the money belt, though that plays a role, too. It’s as basic as life. It’s our fellow human beings who transcend us. At the end of the day, we recall the burka-clad woman on the train reciting prayers as much as we do the centuries-old treasures in the museum.

A polar-bear-shaped license plate from Northwest Territories

Diane's much-coveted gift from locals in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, Canada

When I think back to one of my life’s highlights-seeing the northern lights in the Northwest Territories, Canada, during 2002-I also relive the hospitality of the citizens of tiny Fort Smith, who cooked for me, took me dog sledding and gave me a polar-bear-shaped license plate that hangs in my house today. The most lasting impression of my 11-week backpacking trip to Europe in 1982 is my still-enduring friendship with Federico, who lives in Vicenza, Italy. In my home state of North Carolina, as I travel to research a farm-travel guidebook, the farmers stand out as much as their bounties or the sweeping rural landscapes.

Diane (left) met Federico Lauro in the mid 1980s

Diane and Federico Lauro in Vicenza, Italy, in 1986. And, yes, they're still in touch.

My reaction is hardly unique. While I’ve done a fair amount of traveling of my own, I’ve also interviewed hundreds of people over the past eight years for a column I write for The Boston Globe called “Where They Went,”  about other people’s trips. Without fail, these travelers will recount adventures, sights, tastes, but almost always add: “The people were the best part. They were so nice, so warm, so welcoming.” Those people’s stories are the ones they recount to me again and again, especially if they were allowed a look inside a community or a family.

These days, even the most mainstream tour operators include experiential travel on an otherwise-standard tour. For example, in the 2009 Grand Circle Travel land and cruise tour “China and the Yangtze River,” participants will not only visit the Great Wall, Beijing and Hong Kong; they’ll tour a kindergarten or senior center and have a home-hosted lunch. “You’ll see local customs enacted first-hand as your gracious hosts prepare and serve a typical Chinese meal,” the itinerary reads. For the traveler wanting a less-staged version of hospitality and sightseeing, many cities have forms of community-based or locally led tourism, which originates with citizens instead of national or international tour operators.

A local guide prepares a meal for a 2-day hiking trek on Lombok

One of our local guides prepares an Indonesian meal during a hiking trek up Mount Rinjani (12,224 ft.) on Lombok.

Digging deeper also requires that we set aside our demands for a money-back-guaranteed quality and “safe” experience. That can be instructive in itself. I recall a community-based “ecotourism” hiking trek my husband and I chose on the island of Lombok in Indonesia. The guides lit our campfires with the help of splashes of gasoline from the jugs they carried and they littered along the way. I later reported these issues to the organizer, who lived in the capital of Mataram, miles and worlds away. He was extremely apologetic, as he’d been trying to get the villagers to understand tourism basics. On the other hand, I saw the real way of life there. It was worth the trade-off. And I was much happier to donate money to people in the village than to an international travel outfitter.

These school children on Lombok are excited to see two cycling tourists

Schoolchildren in a tiny village on Lombok are excited to see two cycling tourists

After hearing me speak about the virtues of getting off the tour bus, one African safari tour operator told me proudly how at the end of his luxury lodge-hopping trip in Tanzania, he takes his clients into the city of Arusha to visit poor neighborhoods and give trinkets to the local children. “Everyone came away deeply moved,” he said. “The crazy thing was, after seeing all that big game, what I heard from them was it was the most memorable part of the trip.” I suggested he consider moving the outing to the beginning of the tour, so it would be on their minds as they met Tanzanian workers along the way. “Oh no, that would be too much for them,” he said.

Perhaps our challenge as citizens of the world is to decide how much is enough-and then go soak it in. Even if the recession has wiped out a quarter or more of our wealth, we’re still rich by global standards. Experiencing how other people live, whether in Appalachia or Addis Ababa, will make us even richer. And likely them, too.