Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Years Eve


This is an exercise in absurdity. Our hotel prefers cash payments due to their electric problems, but also with the bank's electric problems. They cannot always get the credit card to go through. They could do it the old fashioned way of calling it in, but they claim they cannot always get through. Yada, yada, yada. For a large expensive, full service hotel, you would think they had a better back up system to aid the guest. When they do take credit cards, they ONLY take VISA, not MasterCard. So my questions that went unasked are why they do not warn guests in an e-mail prior that they first of all are having the electric problems on the island, which may cause disruptions, second that they would prefer cash, and third that ATMs that work are as rare as the Red Colobus monkeys are on Mars. The worst part of this is that the hotel 236 Hurumzi, is owned by an American who opened it over ten years ago and has expanded it ever since. You would think he would know better by this time how to handle tourism, but he admitted to us that he does not even own a credit card. All well and good for him, but he is not the guest.

My original intent was to pay the bill using my MasterCard debit card on our euro account. This was not going to work if they only took Visa. Being hotter than 6 feet from the sun's surface today, Ron suggested we take a taxi to the Barclays Bank where we knew our MC and their ATM would play nicely together. The taxi took us to the bank passing the People's Commerce Bank along the way, where only Visa is accepted, but they had a line snaking 2 blocks long, none of it in the shade. At the Barclays, I jump out. There is a mob, not a line, but a mob. After a few hand signals from non-English speaking natives, I come to find out they are waiting to get into the bank itself. Only 2 are allowed inside at a time. There were only 4 people ahead of me for the ATM. Jackpot! Well, for 5 minutes it seemed like a winner, but then an armored truck pulled up. The security guard with a big fat machine gun made everyone leave the area. Only the person standing at the ATM in the middle of a transaction was allowed to finish. Ron was sitting the air conditioned taxi waiting. When I popped back in, the driver suggested another bank. That bank had 2 ATMs, but no line. Suspiciously, I approached. No electric on either one. The guard confirmed they were not working. Back in the taxi, we went to another. Same story, different bank. The fourth bank had a line, so that was a good sign. I was number twelve. There were 2 women in there together who were taking so long, the guard went in twice to yell at them. Ten minutes later, they emerged and they were already in there when I arrived. Calculating how long it would take me to reach the machine, standing in the hot sun, watching Ron and the driver sit in the air conditioned car, I put curses on the hotel, Zanzibar, Tanzanian banks, and everyone else adding to my discomfort in the heat. I jumped back in the taxi telling Ron the hotel could take a credit card and like it. This was their fault after all for not warning us. Just by chance, I had the driver take us back to the first Barclay's bank. No truck, only 3 people in line for the machine, I jumped out, told Ron to send the taxi on his way. It had now cost us more than twice the original amount quoted. Eureka! I was able to get the money needed.

Walking back, we went through the big market. I bought another bag of vanilla beans for less than what I paid on the spice tour. I had him through in a bag of red saffron too. We stopped at the Zanzibar Coffee Company on the way. It is not air conditioned, but they did have fans and it was cooler than outside. When we made it back to the hotel, we counted out our money.

After paying the hotel and paying for the New Year's dinner tonight, we had about $6.00 left over for all day New Year's Day. Oh, hell! Originally, we had booked the New Year's dinner here at the hotel, which was supposed to be quite a show with entertainment and multi-course meal, but when we checked in we saw that it was $125.00 per person. There was no way we were going to pay that, so we canceled those reservations right quickly and hoped something else would turn up. With the electric issues, it was iffy which restaurants would be open and who could cook, but we found that the Fort Museum had a buffet and entertainment three nights a week. One of the nights was Thursday, which happened to be New Year's Eve. We booked it for $25. each. 

On the way, I started thinking about our lack of funds, so took the Visa ATM card with us. We went to the bank that has the long lines all of the time, because it was closest. Ron fussed that we could do this tomorrow, but I insisted that doing it after the sun has set was smarter than during the heat of the day. At the rate people were going through the line, he estimated we would finish in an hour. An hour tonight was better than 2 tomorrow. When we were 4th in line, people came out crumbling, all natives. When I asked someone what they were saying, I did not like the response. The machine is out of money. Well, I would not take that for an answer, so while the rest were moaning, I moved forward. Like hitting the lottery, the money spit out. We could eat another day.

At the fort, we bought our tickets. The "restaurant" is outdoor seating at the edge of the historic fort built by somebody to protect their conquered goods from being ripped off by some other invader who really had no right to be here to begin with. The buffet was simple at best, not having 1/2 of what is advertised for other dinner buffets. Rice, chippata, stewed vegetables, beef on a skewer, chicken, fish, and fruit. Drinks were extra. Supposedly an all-you-can-eat buffet, it all disappeared after the first half hour. The entertainment consisted of a drummer, and accordianist, and two female singers who sang to us in Swahili. Grand total, there were 8 of us there for dinner and 2 others who were there for the show only. By 9:30, it was all over. Such a festive New Years were were having.

To work off that one shot at the buffet we had, we walked around the park. It was grounded and the food vendors were there selling their food. Deciding that this year was not going to be as festive as the last two, we returned to the hotel. Outside on the street, three dancers were performing Swahili dances. All the neighborhood came to watch, so we sat and watched also. When they were done, we went to our little cafe for a cup of tea. Moments later the dancers and drummers followed us in and gave us a command performance, but their command, not ours. It was fun, but by 11pm, we were in bed reading and slept through the changing of the years.  

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Dolphins to Monkeys


Being punctual, we were sitting outside waiting for our tour guide to show up at 8am as they told us he would, but at 8:2o, he finally showed, and took us to the van. There 2 Norwegian young woman were being roasted alive waiting for us. After he had us captive, the guide took off again by foot into the streets once again, leaving all four of us to prematurely experience what hell must be like. Getting out of the van was not a option; there was no shade to hide under. The driver returned alone, drove off and picked up 2 others at yet another hotel, followed by 2 more from where we started. I wonder if they were not ready when he went initially to get them, so we had to make a return trip.

Along the route to the beach, our guide and driver stopped at the outdoor market, at a car parts place, and some roadside stands, all for unknown reasons. We all suspected he was doing his weekly shopping or running errands for extra money. We didn't get to the beach where our boat was waiting until 10:30. For those of us who were going snorkeling, they fitted them with fins and a mask. I had no intention of going in the water. Little did I realize at the time I had no choice.

All of the dhows, the boats they use, looked lovely as they floated out at sea during low tide; however, I had no idea how they were going to get us out to one of them. Thankfully, I did not wear jeans today, because we had to walk to the boat. Yes, we walked about the length of six blocks wading through the water to the frick'in boat. The other nugget we had not been warned about was that you cannot go barefoot through the water due to sea urchins and coral that will slice your feet open. I had on my Crocs sandals, Ron his Birkenstocks (is water good for leather?), but the others were not all so lucky. The couple from Uganda actually did go barefoot rather than ruin their good footwear. It took them twice the time to reach the boat as the rest of us. Mountainous lumps of coral, hardened over the ages were treacherous to walk over, causing each couple to work as a team in stabilizing each other to make it safely, or  cameras were going to become floaters. By the time we reached the boat, the water was up to my knees, approaching my thighs. Since I am taller than most of the others, they were practically wading.
Basically, the Lonely Planet book had it correct, Frommer's forgive me. A number of dhows chase after the dolphins and stalk them like suspects in a murder mystery. Really, I felt like we were on a wet version of a fox hunt. Dolphins were the foxes, dhows were the dogs chasing them down, and those of us diving in after them were the hunters. Dolphins being intelligent, love this game of hide and seek and can dive deep and reemerge a distance away. The way the next 2 hours went were like this. Dolphins were spotted, never more than 4 and probably the same 4 the entire time, what would we know? All boats would rush over to where they were swimming, all divers would jump in the water to catch a glimpse, the dolphins would freak out, and swim away. Divers would climb back in the boat. Repeat scenerio. Repeat scenerio. Repeat scenerio. 

At the last attempt to witness dolphin majesty, the 2 Norwegian, the 2 Brits, and Ron started feeling something strange. Jellyfish were stinging them. Each of them had burning little red bumps, Ron the least, but he did pull out a bit of a barb from one. No one became ill, just uncomfortable for an hour or so. That was the end of the good will hunting for dolphins.

Back to shore, the tide came in a bit, so the water was higher, meaning the boat could get 2 blocks closer to shore then when we went out. Soaking wet, we went to a lunch spot on the site, included in the fee. Ah, the fee for the tour was a topic of conversation. The Uganda couple paid $30 each for theirs, the Brits paid $50 each, the Norwegian and we paid $40 each. The Brits fee did not even include the Jungle tour, which ours did. The Ugandans thought they were paid up for seeing the monkeys and the Norwegians were clueless about the second part of the tour.

When the guide came and said "Are we ready to see the monkeys?" everyone said sure, thinking we were all going to get this extra. When we arrived, he announced we were the only ones paid up and the others would have to pay 10,000 shilling a piece to go forth. The Brits joined up, the rest stayed behind. We were issued umbrellas being the rain forest, following the local guide, a sweet young man, like little ducklings. He pointed out red mahogony, regular mahogony, different plants, insects, and even a fresh water crab. We were all hot, humid, sticky from traipsing through the Indian Ocean twice getting to and from our boat, all we wanted was to see the famous Red Colabus monkeys. This is the only place in the world where they exist. Our guide was reciting things like he had learned them for the school play, so we felt horrible when we pushed him along. One question lead to detailed responses, prolonging the experience. We all learned not to ask more questions. Finally, we had to say "Just show us the monnnkey." At that, he walked us back to our van. We thought we missed out for bad behavior; no monkeys for us. Instead, we had to walk down the dirt road we drove in on and to the forest across the street. This is where it gets fun.

Ron being the eternal social worker, tells the two Norwegian girls to follow us across the street, since we have left the paid area. The guide, the two Brits, and I are up ahead and almost to the monkey habitat. The guide turns around and sees two intruders and asks them where their tickets are, when Ron pipes up "They are with me" like that should hold some authority. Unless they could produce tickets, the guide refused to take another step, so no one was going to see the monkeys. I told Ron more than once when I was a kid, I loved reading Ann Landers, the advice columnist. My favorite answer she would provide to writers is M.Y.O.B. Mind Your Own Business. He just refuses to follow the advice. You get him on a van with 6 others and he is trying to orchestrate everyone's life. He thinks he is a combination of social worker, cruise director, entertainment director, and guest relations all in one. Finally, finally, we were able to see the monkeys. Adorable! Now, I can say I saw the monkeys that only exist in Zanzibar. My life is complete now.

When we reached the hotel, I literally showered with my cotton safari pants on. It was the best way to get them washed and get the salt water out of them at the same time. Then, I soaked them in more laundry detergent along with my t-shirt and showered myself yet again. 

Later this evening, we went to The Spice Road Restaurant for dinner. We went first to the Archipelago Restaurant, but it is Halal (Muslim law), so no alcohol is served, including beer. Ron suggested I go over to the Monsoon Restaurant, buy a couple of beers and meet him at the Archiplago Restaurant, but when the waiter wanted to know why I did not want the bottles opened, he refused to sell them to me. Aside from the beer, the menu was not inviting for me since it was mostly fish, making the beer a moot issue.

When we went into The Spice Road Restaurant, there was 1 other diner in the whole place. Hoping this was not a sign, we allowed ourselves to be seated. By the time we left, they were turning people away, not free tables.
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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Mercury Rising


At breakfast, the clouds flirted with us, teasing that they just may drench us with rain to clear the air. If we showered with our clothes on, we could not be any wetter than we were. Oh, how I do love watching others struggle up those stairs to the breakfast rooftop patio. It does my heart good that it is not just me who finds this a sadistic morning challenge.

Concerned about shopping before the holidays, not knowing if that means a thing here, we went to the ATM machine. Now that we know the locations of five machines both working and none, we can make the trek to the farthest away in twenty minutes. The good old Barclays was not working again today, but there is no bank behind it to reason this out.  A security guard outside was kind enough tell us it had moved to the big market area. What is he  is securing without a bank is in question as is why they keep a small lobby air conditioned when the machine is non-functional. Another banking trick for keeping rates artificially high, perhaps.

The real Barclays accepted my euro account card without a hiccup and spit out lots of bills with multitudes of zeros on them. I could feel my shopping gene vibrate and twitter. Ron had other ideas, though. We stopped at the Anglican cathedral. It stands of the land that the last slave market was maintained. The altar is where the last slave auction took place before it was declared illegal. In the back is a heart wrenching art piece of slaves chained together with only their upper bodies fully sculpted. One of the people significant in the end of slavery was Dr. David Livingstone. In the church is a crucifix made of the wood from the tree that he died under here in Zanzibar. His heart was buried here, but the rest of his body was sent elsewhere for burial.

After a cold drink, we did make it shopping to buy the lounging pants I wanted, a t-shirt and two scarves as gifts. It was oppressively hot, so we were in slow, slow motion stopping yet again at the Serena Hotel for another cold drink before heading back to the room. The skies finally gave way and released its pent up tears, flooding the streets in a matter of twenty minutes. We allowed ourselves to get soaked briefly, but shop hopped the rest of the time. Then it dried up and became Finnish sauna steamy once again.

When we returned, Ron was looking at our reservation for this hotel and they have us down for a 'week', but checking out on January 1st, not the 2nd when our flight is. The reservations person will not be in until tomorrow, but we have another tour booked leaving at 8am. Something new to worry about.

For dinner, we went to Mercury's Restaurant named after Freddie Mercury of Queen fame. He was born here in Zanzibar, though the restaurant's only relation to him is his name. It sits on the beach with a marvelous view of the boats coming in, the children swimming and the young men doing acrobatics. We arrived at 6pm, but dinner service did not start until 7pm, but we were pleasantly entertained by the scenery on the beach in the meanwhile. The peddlers come by the railing selling their goods. Each has a more dramatic story than the last and I am certain parts of the stories are true. Who wants to set themselves up for rejection time and again, day after day if they had a choice. There has to be a limit of what you can buy though, so Tough Love has to set in.

To work off dinner, we walked through the park. It was mobbed with people eating. Knowing the salaries, I can only wonder how they can afford to live, let alone eat out.

One disjointed observation is about the children. It is not uncommon to see 3-5 year olds walking the streets alone or playing somewhere without an adult anywhere in sight. Often, we have seen children I would guess to be about 7-9 years old, holding other smaller children walking the streets or standing on the roadsides. 
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Monday, December 28, 2009

Add Spice to Your Life


Vanilla beansImage via Wikipedia
The only gratification I get from mountain climbing up to breakfast is that once there, I can witness those younger than I huff and puff up the last flight of stairs. The view of the seashore is a pleasurable event, though the clouds always look ominous. A quick turn brings the towers of mosques, the steeples of churches, and the dome of the Hindu temple. Any more turns and all there is on offer is are the tin roofs of buildings and homes, with some weather worn block housing in the distance.

By 9am, we were waiting patiently for our Spice Tour guide to pick us up. The 3 Swedish people joined us by fifteen after the hour, but the guide did not show for yet another fifteen minutes. There were so many for the tour, they had 2 vans full, both with air conditioning, so no riots broke out. At $15. per person, it is a popular tour. After filling our van, we drove for about twenty minutes to a spice plantation where we were turned over to another guide with very good English.

I started taking pictures of the different things, but soon realized that when I went back to look at the pictures, I would not remember one from the other, realized it was pointless and quit. What was of interest was that many of the spices are not indigenous to the island or the country. Some came from then Persia, others from Mexico, and Thailand. Which can from where? I cannot tell you now. I told you I would forget.

What was interesting was that vanilla is grown on a vine and has to be grown under trees to protect it from the sun. Vines we saw were strung from tree to tree like a clothesline. The long pods were not ripe yet; green they do not smell vanillay yet. The flowers have to be hand pollinated, resulting in the high cost of vanilla beans. We were treated to some jackfruit right off of the tree. We have eaten this is in Thailand and Malaysia, but it was fun to try again. What we did not know were oversized seeds are edible if boiled first, though we did not get to try them that way. There was also the duran, which has a smell like rotting flesh with the saying "Smells like hell, tastes like heaven". Some parts of countries ban the growing or even the sale of it due to the odor it emits. Other fruits we tried were fresh litchi and rambutan. The guide explained that some people think they are the same fruit, but actually they are two different fruits. One has a spiky out layer, the other is smoother.

Fewer spices were displayed due to the season, but we did get to see nutmeg. Once the pod is opened, the red outer layer is called mace. When the mace is removed, the nutmeg is the inner spice. Cloves grow like just like they look in the bottle, but green and need to be dried once picked. Cardamon was another. Cinnamon is the bark of the tree, when cut in a proper fashion, the tree will heal itself; the bark is renewed and the tree is unhurt. The curled sticks of cinnamon are from smaller branches of the tree. Cinnamon that is ground comes from the larger trunks of the tree.

Walking in the brush, underbrush, and between trees, I walked into a large root sticking up out of the ground and hit my left foot sending me to the heavens to view the stars, even when the sun was blazing. After I recovered, it did not seem too bad, but later my two smallest toes turned lovely shades of purple and swelled like the little piggies where one went to the market and the one who stayed home.

Lunch was included, so we were transported to a village where people were building their home of tree branches and roof of reeds. We were directed to a large open room, a roof, but no walls, where mats were placed on the floor and asked to find a place on the mats. Removing our shoes before the mats, we complied by grouping in fives. Lunch was a yellow lentil dish very Indian looking, spiced rice with cinnamon, and spinach (OH, NO!). Although it was never mentioned, I suspected the meal was prepared with a number of spices we had seen. I found the flavors delectably outstanding.

After lunch, we visited the obligatory stand where we could buy some spices. I had thought they said the vanilla beans were 2,000 shillings a bag, so picked up 7 bags. When the guy started counting, he counted individual beans, so I took back 5 bags and put them back. As he gave me the running total, I added a bag, not wanting to spend more than 15,000. In the end, I had 7 bags of vanilla beans, one bag of cardamon tea and one of Marsala tea. He must have been so confused by the end of the whole transaction, he did not know what had happened. Actually, neither did I until I got back on the van and counted what I had received, more than I had anticipated to start.

The rest of the tour was a trip to the beach. How this relates to spices, is beyond me, but they were going to spend 2 hours there before returning to town. A whole group of us said we did not want to be crispy critters on the beach causing them to fill one van to return us to downtown again.

For dinner, we went to the park to find our friend from last night. He recognized us immediately and worked his charms. When so many things look different or you have not had it spiced in just such a way, eyes take over where the stomach should have control. On our plates were chicken kebabs, falafel, sweet potato, plantain, coconut bread, and salad. Everywhere we have had chicken either here or in Kenya, the way they cut it up is so foreign to us, plus, no chicken dish is served boned. Even the kebabs had bones, so when you are eating on the cement wall in a park on a paper plate, it does get to be challenging. Managing as best we could, we put away a good portion of the meal, but we did order too much. If we do it again, we need to order one thing at a time. As good as the sweet potato was, it would have been delicious with butter. Plain, it is too dry to swallow after the first bite without something to drink and our friend did not sell drinks.

Now that we have the territory down pat, it is nothing to walk around in the dark at night. Dozens of Islamic women in their religious dress are out on the streets as well. I have often wondered if those who keep their faces covered are ever able to eat out. It would make it difficult when only your eyes are showing through.

Back at the hotel, we stoppeed for a cup of tea at the cafe. We were speaking to one of the young waiters there about his job. He convinced us he loved it. He works six days a week and earns 100,000 shillings a month (140,000 is $100). From this, he is saving to go to college to...are you ready for this? to become a waiter. At first, we thought we had misunderstood him, but he said it again. They teach how to properly set a table, how to offer excellent customer service, how to present the meals and so on. What they do after those 2 hours is beyond my imagination. As I was ready to probe further the owner walked in, started talking to us, so I never was able to ask anymore.

Only 40% of the population of the island works in salaried positions. This explains why so many are selling cashews, DVDs, and scarves on the streets. But then again, when you have to pay for an education starting with primary school, only the lucky get to get ahead.

On a different note, we found that Zanzibar is semi-autonomous from Tanzania. Zanzibar has its own parliament and president, but Tanzania is still the overseer as a national government. They do send members to the Tanzania parliament and vote in the Tanzanian presidential elections.
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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Money Woes Is Me


Thunderstorms this morning, making the air feel like we are swimming around the room. Humidity does not begin to describe it with the oppressive heat. Last night, we left the screened windows open for air; the ceiling fan was working overtime too. When I peeled myself from the sheets, it was obvious it had rained in. Luckily, my computer and camera were on the shelf under the closed window.

By the time, we made our way down our 2 flights of stairs, across the hotel and then 4 flights of stairs to the breakfast room, artificial resuscitation would have been welcomed. These stairs are not really stairs, they are like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Each one takes a contortionist movement of the legs to reach the next step. A Slinky going down them would give up in disgust and refuse to go further than 2 steps out of fear of heights. Though, the staff run up and down them like they were nothing, but the staff is mostly under 25 years old too. 

Armed with umbrellas that we never needed, we went to explore the city. A walking tour is offered, but we did not make it in time to book it, so we hoofed it on our own starting at the seaside and working our way through the maze of streets. With the electric problems, customers need to shop and plan out where to eat early in the day or there may not be as many options past 4pm. Sunset is at 6:15pm every day and by 6:45pm, it is dark. We were told this is because of the proximity to the equator. It was the same in Kenya, too. If you are looking for a glorious sunset, don't sneeze or you will miss out. 

One of the shops we came across has a number of batiked items, jewelry and hand woven scarves. Many of the products support the Masai Women's Collective to aid them in being financially independent. One of the things that attracted my attention were wonderful lounging pants, one size fits all. The skinny salesman/artist showed us how they work for keeping them in place. I had the idea of getting 2 sets for each of the bedrooms and one for each of us. Guests can use them for lounging or to come to breakfast before showering and then we just launder them when they leave us. They are wonderful 'hang-around' on a lazy day type pants; my kind of clothing. We picked out other things we wanted to buy as gifts, but without cash could only promise to return. Supporting a women's collective and young artists makes me feel like my money is well spent.

Our next venture was to the market. Stall after stall, it was not much different than Cairo or Morocco, but smaller. Everyone has a bargain; everyone wants to sell you something. The items of choice are vanilla beans and saffron. Both are dirt cheap here. In CA, the supermarkets used to keep both under lock and key due to the expense and theft. Here you can buy either for $2.00 a pod for vanilla or a packet of saffron. I will stock up before we leave. At the market and everywhere else people are hawking bags of cashews, spices, or DVDs of Swahili top ten hits. Not that I am interested, but I am curious if there really is a DVD of music in the wrapped cover they offer.

We decided we had better find an ATM and get some cash. What we had was wearisomely low. When we found the bank, there was a long a block long to use the machines. Where these due to the electrical problems or just a run on the bank? I stood in line for over thirty minutes while Ron tried finding another bank. When I finally found the machines in eye sight, I saw the Visa logo only. This was a concern since our bank ATM is a MasterCard. Sure as there is a death at the end of life, the machine would not accept my card. But, it did not inform me of this right out. We played cat and mouse with false hopes before it flashed "REJECTED, cannot make this transaction". Two blocks away was a Barclays Bank, so we went there. Suspiciously, there was no line. We went in the door, it was air conditioned. We could have stayed there for longer if the "We are sorry for the inconvenience, but this machine is currently not working. Please try again later" message flashing on the screen was not so discouraging. Now fear was creeping in. Most places do not take credit cards, but even if they could, without electricity then cannot run the cards. They have not learned or don't want to bother calling it in the old-fashioned way.

Diagonally from Barclays a half block down was another bank. I went there, but no machine at all. The bank had closed down.  With cash concerns, we returned  to our room to think things out. Some of my best ideas come when I am on the computer and sure enough, I remembered while uploading some posts that our other bank card was a Visa debit card. This is not the account I wanted to draw from, but if push came to possibly having to steal to get money, we would do it. First, we returned to Barclays. It did say to check back later and this was later. Now the damn machine was not even lit up. Someone must have shut off the generator. Back to the other bank, with fingers crossed, it swallowed my card and spit out cash. Hope of shopping trips returned, not to mention eating another meal after the provided breakfast. 

Now feeling flush, we went to the Old Fort where there is an old fort, hence the name, but also a tour booking service and tourism information. We booked the Spice Tour for tomorrow. As luck would have it, three Swedish people from our hotel arranged the same tour and requested an air conditioned van or they would  not go. Thank you Swedes.

Across the street from the fort and on the waterfront is a large park that was refurbished and reopened this year. By 6pm, it was filled with food venders cooking on grills and selling their foods. One such was grilling a root type vegetable which we had never seen before.  There was a young couple eating one nearby. I took a chance they were tourists and asked about it. It is called a maniok (we are not sure of the spelling). It is similar to a potato, but a bit different taste. We tried one and it was good, especially hot off of the grill, but not as good as it could have been slathered in butter. Another foodsmith nabbed us to show us all of his offerings. He could have been named Neptune; he had every type of sea creature ready to grill as well as potatoes, sweet potatoes (African are a bit different from what we are used to), chicken or beef on a stick, falafel, and coconut bread. After his whole speech, we turned him down and went to our cafe next to the hotel.

The soup of the day was pumpkin with coconut milk. Could I resist? No! It was delicious; so good in fact, I could have forgotten about a main dish, but I had a chicken fajita, also recommendable. Tomorrow night, we may just may attempt the food on the go, in the park, for dinner.
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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Boxing Day, Where is My Box?


Happy Boxing Day!

This is our last day with Anwar and the last of the safaris for a little over a week. Last night I overindulged with the spinach on the buffet. Spinach  and pumpkin will always get me for second helpings, but this is not a good thing. Spinach treats me the same way as eating two bowls of stewed prunes does others. I am paying for it this morning, but knowing I made trouble for myself, I set the alarm for an hour earlier than need be.

This will be a short safari drive in Lake Manyara Reserve, because we have to catch a flight to Zanzibar at 2pm. They have the whole assortment of animals in this reserve, but almost immediately, we came across a bull elephant just lazily strolling down the road. Anwar had to stop as the animals have the right of way. He was explaining to us that one time he was caught blocking an animals thoroughfare and was fined $200 general fine and an additional fine of $5o for each person in the jeep.

As the elephant walked by us within petting distance, I just wanted to reach out and cuddle him. When I started cooing at him, Anwar shut me up explaining that could agitate the bull into doing something destructive to the car. Okay, cute, but dangerous still. I get it. There ia a large hippo pond with numerous hippos; two started fighting, but it happened and ended so fast, I could not get it on camera. We were only able to stand at a railing to view them, which was fine, we had seen a number of hippos. This reserve is know for its bird varieties. We saw numerous birds we had not seen before. Baboons ran rampant and should try practiciing birth control. There were more of them than I had ever seen anywhere. Some were doing the nasty on the road, while others were doing the nasty to themselves on the road or on the side of it. Oh, tourists, let's put on our show.

The hotel packed us a picnic lunch, surprising since we checked out long before a normal lunchtime. We had a 2 hour drive to the Arusha airport for our TanzAir flight to Zanzibar. Being the travelers we are, we thought we should be there 2 hours ahead of time for security and all that hubbub, but when we arrived at 12:15, we found the check-in did not begin until 1:00pm. Anwar's boss showed up with our tickets. He received so many kudos on Anwar's performance, he grinned from ear to ear. Anwar told us over lunch, he did not work at all in November. Promising to do our best to send clients his way, we gave him his tip and said good-bye. Living only 20 minutes away, he was going to spend the rest of the day having Christmas with his family and neighbors, though he is Muslim. His wife was a Christian, but converted to Muslim along with his three kids.

At an airport this small, it is a comedy act, but actually they are well organized. All flights on all of the airlines check in at one counter with one man doing the check-in and one weighing and labeling the luggage. Although there was a horde of people, we checked in and received boarding passes relatively quickly. Next was move to the  loading area, where everyone is allowed, those flying and those saying good-bye or hello to an incoming flight.

Without warning, we had a downpour. Being we were flying on a 30 seat Cessna, we had to wait out the rain. This turned out to be a good thing. I had to acquaint myself with the men's room three times before we finally boarded. I kept thinking as long as they have my luggage, they will not leave without me, but in reality, the plane is so small, they could have dumped my luggage in a heartbeat. There were no seat assignments, just grab a seat filling up the front first. Being 2nd and 3rd, we sat right behing the pilots and could have given them back massages along the way. However, it was so hot in the plane for this hour and twenty-minute flight, we fell asleep.

At the Zanzibar "International" Airport, hardly a bite bigger than the one we left, the luggage was off-loaded by hand onto a rack, not a conveyor belt. Everyone had told us that finding an ATM machine in Tanzania was going to be difficult, but while on the safari, we had all meals included, so had no need for cash. Now, it was an issue and the airport we left behind had no ATM machine. Fortunately, the Zanzibar airport had a row of money changers, so we converted euros to get by, especially for the taxi ride to the hotel. Warned to use the authorized taxis regardless of offers by others, we did and had a set rate of 13,000 T shillings. When the driver pulled up next to a mosque and said this was as far as he could go, we were nervous, but he continued that the roads to the hotel were too narrow for cars. Instead, he walked us to the hotel, 236 Hurumzi.

What an amazing hotel it is, called 236 Hurumzi, the address where it sits. Originally, the building was built by the Omani Arabs. The front section was built by Tharia Tiipto who was principal financial advisor to Sultan Bargash. Tipton also served as Head of Customs. In 1863, when the slave trade was officially ended, the British made it a law that all slaves were to be freed. Those who had made investments in their slaves refused to relinquish the money spent, so the British  government reimbursed them for their losses. It was in this building that these transactions were handled. Hurumzi is derived from the Swahili Uhuru-mzee which means "Free the men". Tom Green, an American from Kansas, bought the first property and restored it. Now including the properties at 236, there is also 240, 234, and 235 creating 24 spacious and luxurious rooms. All rooms are decorated in a mixture of Persian, Indian, and Arab elements. As he restored each part, locals offered to sell him bits and pieces from destroyed buildings. It is truly unique. Our tub is the size of a wading pool. All of the furniture throughout the hotel is antique.

All of this goodness is not without a down side. The island of Zanzibar receives its electricity from the mainland. On December 10th, the government decided to refurbish the underwater cable. In light of this, there has not been any electricity since December 10th. The hotel has a tremendously large generator that runs 18 hours a day. However, smaller businesses and restaurants who are not as fortunate can only stay open if they have their own generator or during daylight hours for stores. Commerce aside, the average citizen has no electricity, no running water as the pumps are electric, so they are stuck. The hotel has its own wells, so water is not an issue here.

So, we finally are settled into our room by 4:30 and want to explore, but first we want to put our credit cards, the computer, and other cash in the room's safe. We follow the instructions, but it does not work. Multiple attempts later, we call downstairs for aid. A young man comes up with a bit of a smirk like he is going to solve our problems. He lost his smirk mighty quickly. He could not get it to work either. Believing that if he went for the printed instructions, it would help, but when he returned with them in hand, it was useless. Finally, they decided that the battery needed replacing, but the manager would not be back until 7pm. Wifi is supposed to be available, but I could not connect. When I asked reception, she told me to use the lobby and gave me the password. It did not work. We tried the password every which way, but no deal. She finally suggested I go upstairs to the office, where a password is not needed. It worked, but then I had to sort through 657 e-mails to get rid of the spam while uploading my little YouTube videos to include in earlier postings.

By this time, it was 8:00, they had just finished replacing the batteries in the safe, it worked again, and we were ready to go out and explore. Problem...the city had no electricity, so all of the alleys and byways were black as a witches stereotypical cat, so we couuld not see a thing. Next door to the hotel is a cafe that is part of the hotel, so we ate there, came back and went to bed.
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Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Christmas


It was a white Christmas outside this morning, not with snow, but fog. Trying to find the crater floor was impossible, with the fog shrouding all views. We had dismal thoughts for our safari drive. Ron tried waiting it out hoping the sun would shine through and clear it up for some morning pictures; it did not happen. Breakfast was nothing special for Christmas. They must have felt the two desserts last night was their contribution.

When we met with Anwar, he said that the floor of the crater would most likely be clear as the fog rises. What he explained to us was that everyone, except hotel staff can only stay in the park for 24 hours, this includes all guests at any hotel on the rim. The rim is part of the park. Driving on the crater floor is only allowed from 7am to 4pm. Hence, if you checked into your hotel at noon on one day, you only have until noon, the next to get your drive in and get out of the park entirely. This makes an interesting concept for a hotel to be a one night stand exclusively.

As elusive as they are, we were witness to two cheetahs walking the plains in our direction. Stopping the van to watch, they came right toward us crossed the street and then looked like they had a gazelle in their sights. Along with the gazelle, there were three wildebeests in the area, but Anwar explained they were too large for a cheetah to attack, so they were safe. However, one of them did strange twisting and turning like he was trying to warn others of danger. Slowly, the gazelle walked in the direction of the cheetahs, although we whispered our encouragement for it to stay away. It was then that Anwar spotted a herd of gazelles, which would have given the cheetahs a better chance of scoring. It was almost as if the gazelle was fretful for the others and kept pacing.

Now, a whole herd of tour trucks were in the area, but the cheetahs were unfazed. One plopped right in front of a truck's tire and watched the happenings around. It was a lengthy time before they both moved on across the street and continued walk, stopping to observe, and then moving on again. We moved on after the potential excitement was over.

Once again, there were thousands of wildebeests and zebras, but neither were skiddish with the jeep going by, so we were able to stop and view them fairly closely without them running off. During the drive, we saw 8 black rhinos, but all in long distance sightings. Not even our zoom camera lens could make them out clearly enough. Anwar told us the difference between black and white rhinos is the upper lip. Black rhinos have a protruding upper lip like a trunk to assist them in reaching leaves from a tree.

From the beginning of the drive, it was sprinkling, but we had the top popped up to view. Then it started to come down heavily, so we had to close it as I was getting soaked in the back. The two guys, Anwar and Ron, were fine in front.Then we had cheetah sightings, so up the top went again rain or not. Two were traveling together and came right by our truck.

Anwar explained that the soda lake was akaline. It is only populated by flamingos. We could see thousands of them from a distance, but the roads do not go close enough to see them like advertisements would have you believe. None of the other animals will use this lake, preferring the fresh water lake instead.

By noon, we were ready for lunch. The lunch area was without any tables or chairs, so we ate in the truck. The ground was muddy swamps, but the view of a lake and the crater rim were brilliantly green make the scenery delightful. We decided to call it quits by 2pm and went to our hotel to check in. We are staying on Lake Manyar; as it turns out it is still one of the same chain that we stayed in the last two nights, with the same room deficits as the others. When we arrived, we were able to get clear views of the lake, which were lovely. The outside bar sets on the edge of the viewing area, so we had a beer to breathe in the views. There are baboons galore, so you have to watch your things while sitting at the bar and we were warned to keep our balcony door locked or the baboons will come in and steal things.

Beer with 5% alcohol prompts a nap. It was delicious sleeping for 2 hours. There is a special program tonight for Christmas. Some choir is coming to sing, then Mrs. Somebody will play a piano concert. 

Well the children sang their hearts out for over 2 hours. They must have been exhausted, but clearly eating up the applause.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Skipping Christmas


Pardon for skipping on Christmas greetings, but the wilderness does not decorate, so I have lost track. Hotel decor has been from laughable to please stop trying. Our last hotel in Kenya was playing non-stop Christmas carols all day yesterday. There is something unnerving hearing Elvis sing about a blue Christmas when in Africa, or I am dreaming of a white Christmas. Well if I were, I would have stayed home.

So this Indian run, Chinese constructed, Tanzanian hotel gets poor marks also for sound quality. We are on the ground floor. In the bathroom, above the sink is a permanently open window with screening. Everyone walking by laughing, talking, yelling, comes filtering in. Keeping the bathroom door closed does not help since the room door is flimsy at best and not flush, so sounds vibrate it. For once and this may be a historic event to put on the calendar, I slept soundly and Ron was disturbed by the noise. Three cheers.

Anwar was ready for us by 8:30 and so were the animals. It was a fantabulous day of viewing. We found a lake of hippos, counting forty before we lost count of the rest and those coming downstream to join them. There was another leopard spotting in tree with its fresh kill in storage in the tree trunks waiting for chow time. A little leopard turtle crossed the street in front of us. Lions were everywhere. We found some in the kopjes (pronounced copies) rocks nursing young or just relaxing in shade. Kopjes are technically called inselbergs, ancient granite rocks that have cracked with erosion from sun, wind, and rain. They provide water and shelter for plant and animal life, especially important during the dry season on the plain. Other lions were on the ground under bushes.

According to Anwar, hundreds of thousands of zebras and wildebeests were spread across the plains up to the roadside. During migration time, 1.5 million of them cross the river in search of feeding grounds. This is the largest animal migration in the world. The best times for viewing is June to December. Their return migration is May and June. Needless to say, the migration causes a high percentage of deaths from trampling, drowning, or getting ravaged by crocodiles as they cross the waters. Watching hundreds of wildebeests line up to cross the plain was a sight I will not soon forget. Still thousands were spread across the plain as far as the eye could see.

Wildebeests share the same grazing area as the zebras. Wildebeests bite off the tougher grasses and swallow. They have stomachs like a cow, so they are able to ruminate the food later to chew and digest it. Zebras eat the tender grasses and chew before swallowing. Like the wildebeests, there were thousands of zebras interspersed. There were a group of six zebras all lined up with their backs to us. My first thoughts were they were having a best butt beauty pagent or they were asking "Do stripes make my ass look bigger?" Zebras are so funny. They seem to like to play this game of "Get me if you can". They will stay so close to the road or even cross it until you are very near them and then they take off like a lion is after them. Some of the less intelligent wait for us to pass them and then get spooked. "Oh, I should have run. Okay, let me do it now." Wildebeests have the sense to run as soon as you close in on them. Then they stop and turn around to look at you. "Are you chasing me yet?"

Stopping at the Serengeti Tour Center, we followed the metal wildebeest signs and footprints in cement to various levels, each offering education information about the park. It was entertaining, educational, and well put together. As we left, the sky became dark suddenly and it poured rain, the first time during our trip. Temperatures dropped from the mid-80s to about the 60s. All of the ruts in the road flooded immediately, causing our jeep to slip, slide and at some points spin like the pointer on a wheel of fortune. Anwar had it all under control, but we were concerned we would get stuck in mud that we would not be able to escape from. By the time we reached our lunch spot, our white jeep was totally muddy brown.

Tonight's stop over is the Ngorongoro Wildlife Lodge, run by the same Indian group as last night's hotel. It sits on the rim of a crater created by volcanic eruption. Tomorrow, we will venture down to view the wildlife as well as see the soda lake, which I don't know yet, what it is. Supposedly, only one day is allowed in the crater itself to keep it from being overwhelmed with tourism. The only lodges are up on the rim, none in the crater itself. Regardless, the vistas from the hotel were breathtaking, until the cloud coverage came in. Then it rained again obliterating everything.

Ron has been handing out Hungarian Christmas candies to staff member, who seem to really appreciate it. They do have some trees with lights, but only balls of cotton for decoration. At dinner, the dessert was a Royal Plum cake and Christmas pudding, but the Brits in line ahead of us disparaged both attempts. We tried both without complaints. African music and dance were tonight's entertainment. Same, same, but different than before.

Have to get to bed so Santa Claus will find me. I do hope he found that note I pinned to the door with my forwarding address.
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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Passing Over


Once again, the sounds of silence were not to be had. Noise, noise, noise from next door. Six in the morning is an ungodly time to have eat breakfast. My digestive juices don't start flowing until 8am at the minimum even if we did get up at 5:15. Joseph would be waiting for us at 6:30 as we have a "long" day ahead of us, but he leaves us at the Tanzania border to be greeted and continue with a different guide/driver. The rendezvous was set for 10am, but that did not happen. For the first time, Joseph lost his way and could not find the right way to the border. Of course, since there are no street or directional signs anywhere, it is reasonable. He stopped 5 times to ask directions. People either seemed to not know or gave the incorrect information.

By 11:20, he finally had us parked in front of Kenyan Immigration Offices. The young officer had us fill out a short form and stamped our passports. A short drive across a lot had us in line at the Tanzania Immigration Office where we lined up with the rest. A young officer asked us where we were going. Duh, we are in the Tanzania office, we are coming to see you. He gave us each a short form to fill out and then told us to skip the line moving to the second window. After asking for US $100 for EACH of us, we had our one year, multiple entry Visa for Tanzania. Pointing out that there was some mistake, we were told it was $50 each and we only wanted a single entry Visa. No mistake, due to some treaty or other the US and Ireland of all places no longer get single entry, but only multiple. The cost is the same, so trying out a brogue would not have helped at all.

When we left the office, Joseph was antsy, ready to turn us over to Anwar, our new driver/guide. We moved our things from a room van to a less roomy, less comfortable jeep. Anwar showed me the sign he had ready. It showed "Run Shmitz and Ryan James". I asked Anwar if this were a transitional vehicle, but darn it all, it is all we get until we fly off to Zanzibar. Anwar is young, friendly and I am sure we will enjoy him. His English is moderate, so it takes some getting used to his accent. He was telling us that Tanzania has over 144 languages with Swahili the official one. Kenya has 44 languages with Swahili and English as the official languages.

So bear in mind, we left the lodge we had stayed at for three nights, at 6:30. We road the bumpy, rutty, pitted, roads until getting out of the car when Joseph had to fix his shock absorber, and then not again until we received immigration. Climbing back into the jeep at 11:30am, we were cramped in there until we stopped for lunch along the way. We had an hour of reprieve, before continuing onward. In Tanzania the roads are paved, a real blessing; however, there is a speed bump every fifty feet. If it ain't one thing, it's another. Ride, ride, ride, doze, chat, ride. We reach the gates of the Serengeti National Park. This is an extension of the Masai Mara National Park on the Kenya side. The two are separated by the countries borders. The Serengeti is the size of the State of Connecticut, so that will give you an idea of the size of the country. Tanzania is the largest country in Eastern Africa and includes Zanzibar, which is an island.

Once we reached the park gates, we said good-bye to paved roads and back to the bounce by the ounce. Anwar kept stopping to show us animals along the way to the lodge. We had to remind him we had been on numerous safaris this trip and others in the past. As much as we appreciated this, we really wanted to get back on two legs and out of a vehicle. Miles and miles away, we finally reached the lodge by 7:00 pm. I thought for sure if the park was the size of Connecticut, we started in NY and drove to the MA border in the time it took us to get here. We are staying at the Serona Wildlife Lodge. People here are not nearly as friendly as any of the places in Kenya. Even  driving here, we received nasty to hateful looks from those we passed on the street, but this was similar to our reception here. There was nothing warm or welcoming about it; in fact, they could not find our reservation. It finally turned out that it was due to Run's Shmitz's name being misspelled. After wiping some of the dust off with the wet towel given upon entering, it went from sparkling white to dusty brown within minutes. Later, jumping into the shower, another coating turned the tub into earthenware.

Interesting note, we found that all of the places we stayed at in Kenya as well as this one and a number of others are owned by Indians, India Indians, though the land is leased only. The properties here in Tanzania are still owned by the government, but Indians run the business and Chinese laborers do the construction. This place is huge, but still under construction. My eyes sparkled when I saw an Internet Cafe sign, but they lost their luster when I looked in the window to see there were desks, but no computers. The gift shop is empty and the fitness room has all of the newest equipment stuffed into one corner. 

We are only here for one night, so we will survive. Interestingly, for as upper class as this is portrayed, the buffet is the smallest of any place we have stayed. I also am curious how places in countries like this receive their star rating. Under normal circumstances, to reach a 4 or 5 star, certain requirements must be in place. These include a phone and a television in each room for starters. Not one place has had these, though a television would be rather pointless, but a phone would be helpful with wake-up calls.

At dinner, we had a funny event. Eating away, a young person of the staff comes to our table and stands between Ron and I. I asked if there was something she needed, but she moved her head in Ron's directions, but he was not paying attention to her in the least. When I said something, she  started in saying "Sir, you forgot to sign for your drinks from the bar." The receipt book she had in her hand had whiskeys on it and 12,000 shillings as the amount due. We both said we did not order any whiskey, nor did we have anything from the bar. She walked away confused and disappointed. You know how it is; all white men with white hair and beards look alike. Of course, she was confused.
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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Masai Tribe Videos


Masai Tribal Videos

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Zebra, Makes a Body Strong


Our 6:30am game drive for two hours...this is supposed to be a vacation right? Aren't vacations about sleeping in? Well, the animals are not going to wait for you to plan your day, so you catch them when they clock in for the day. Drive, drive, drive. Two female lions roaming the plains, when one starts strutting propelling into a full run. We could see small things moving around the grasses, but could not tell what they were. Joseph said they were mongoose. Then the lion pounced and you could hear an shriek. The last utterance from that mongoose making some snake rejoice.

A short distance away, there was an area with more vans than a used car lot, but half of the tourists are not staring in the direction that we are. We are staring at the two female lions sprawled on the ground under bushes, one obviously nursing, but no cubs in sight. Joseph pulls up the van when room allows. Now we know what the others were engrossed in; another lionness polishing off her breakfast, the remains of a zebra. As National Geographic as this was, I still felt for the zebra. Do other zebras miss him? Will he or she be missed. Gosh, Fred was such a great zebra; too bad about the lion incident. Oh, well, more grazing room for me. Someone pass me that greener grass over there.

The rest of the day was our own, but Joseph had offered to drive us to the Masai village for a 'cultural' experience. Ron said he wanted to go, so we arranged a time that allowed us a couple of hours of relaxation first. Even sitting in a van for hours can be exhausting as ridiculous as it may sound. As we were sitting on our balcony reading, Ron read in the tour book that the Masai village experience was 1,000 shillings per person, but you could bargain them down. Joseph had quoted 2,000 each. Just as we were debated whether or not we should go, Ron ensued "It is a once in a life-time experience" and then continued reading from the book that this was a touristy thing to do and we would not get much culture there. What to do, what to do? We voted 2-0 to go anyway.

We were greeted by "Ben", a new Masai warrior had just earned his promotion by returning from the wilds after a year of living off of the land, but with a group of other young warrior-hope-to-bes. Ben had excellent English. It seems he was schooled at a boarding school from grades 1-8, but the money ran out due to the drought, so was not able to continue. He told us there is no free education in Kenya, not even primary schools, so every parent has to pay for their child's education.

Their huts are made of tree branches with mud and cow dung and it is the women's job to build them. There is a 'room' for calves, one for goats, while the parents sleep on one side of a room separated from the children's area by the cooking area. All rooms combined do not make it 150 square feet. The children's sleeping area is for up to 5 kids, both boys and girls. We did not think to ask about toileting. Now that Ben is eighteen and finished his warrior training, he is living in a bachelor hut with 9 other young men, but they all still return home to mama for all of their meals. He said they move every 5 years, because termites infest the wood in the huts. To keep the environment clean, they burn down the entire village and move to an entirely new area.

We were only a couple of a handful of tourists visiting. We watched the dancing by the women, the dancing by the men, and their famous jumping up and down. The one who jumps the highest according to the chief is able to take a wife without paying the dowry of ten cows. All others pay in beef. Each man can have up to 10 wives if he has the 10 cows for each dowry, but the problem is that there are only two families in this village, so incest is rampant.

The reason they all wear red is because lions are afraid of red, so when they are tending their cows or sheep, they can scare away lions with their red clothes, which are imported from Nairobi. When we were ready to leave, Ben tried getting us to buy a beaded necklace with a lion's tooth on it. It supposedly was from the lion he had to kill for his warrior trials. Had it been me, I would have wanted every tooth as a memento of my stupidity, I mean bravery. Lions are endangered here. We went round and round refusing as politely as we could, when he pulled out his bargaining skills telling me that going back and forth was the way to make a deal. I explained a hard lesson to him. In order to successfully bargain, there has to be supply and demand. He had the supply; I did not have the demand. It seemed that I had to be really blunt by saying, you have something to sell, but I have no desire to own it at any price, therefore, there is no leeway for negotiations.

A different tactic was to show us the "elementary school" they were building, but had to stop due to lack of funds. We negotiated a donation of 1,000 shillings, half of what he wanted for the tooth, but with no cash other than the 4,000 we already paid, we could not do it. He rode back to the lodge to collect. He had to walk back and it was fifteen miles if it was a mile, just for the 1,000 shillings, so it must have been really important to him. It was not until later that I wondered what happens to the school house when the village is moved and burned to the ground.

Relaxation was the order of the day for the rest of it. We read, napped, relaxed, packed for leaving tomorrow. I had just finished a tremendous book called The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. Our mode of operations is to bring books with us that we will enjoy reading, but are not attached to, so they can be left behind lightening up the luggage. I had left an Elizabeth George book in our first hotel in Nairobi. When the young porter came for our luggage, he spotted it, calling it to our attention. When we said we were leaving it, we both have read it, he beamed and said he would love to have it. That is the secondary joy of a book. Back to the point. The Gargoyle is a book my office-mate gave me. I thought it would be a tosser for sure, but no. This is a keeper for sure. I will use parts of it for my creative writing course. It is Davidson's first book. Sincerely, I hope he did not burn himself out with this one. His storytelling is imaginative, realistic, yet all through the book, you keep telling yourself this could not happen, but what if... 
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