Sunday, October 31, 2010

Of the Masai

On our way to Tarangire National Park, home to a whole lot of elephants, we passed by what our guide called the Masai Market. If I recall correctly, our guide, whose English was generally excellent but occasionally ran aground on more complex concepts, told us that this happened once a month, and we were lucky to happen upon it. He also told us that the Masai, holding on to their traditional lifestyle, mostly don't use money; they hold wealth in cattle. And this market is where they get together and buy and sell cattle.

Which of course leads inevitably to the question: If you use cattle as your form of currency, and you're at a market buying or selling cattle, then what are you paying with? Are they actually just trading one cow for another? Our guide explained that some of them were certainly moving away from that and asking joining the money economy, but one has to assume the old, pure version of Masai culture also had a cattle market, before they were corrupted by money.

So anyway, these are the pictures the Staff Photographer took of various groups of Masai at the market, which our guide assured us was fine as long as we were taking a picture of a group, even though the Masai generally aren't real big on having their picture taken. We still feel kind of bad about it. But the crime was in taking the picture, which is done - not in actually posting the picture online, right?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Discount Lion Safari!

Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.

Or Perhaps it should be Discount Lion Safari! (or, "You're the fattest thing I've ever seen, and I've been on safari!" It's tough to pick a good Simpsons quote to entitle a post about safari.) Safari ain't cheap (neither is Kilimanjaro), but I guess that's why we're getting danger pay in Afghanistan. Or maybe we get danger pay because people here want to kill us... in any case, after Kilimanjaro, we went on safari and we saw a ton of cool animals, as demonstrated by the convenient slideshow above.

Safari is a great activity to follow up a week of walking up a mountain - since it involves basically sitting around in a jeep and having a guide point at animals for you.

The big surprise is just how many animals there are. You go to a National Park in the U.S. and if you spend a couple days driving around or hiking, you just might come across a moose or a bear. In the National Parks of Tanzania (we went to Tarangire, Manyara, and the Ngorongoro Crater), you mostly have to be careful you don't run into any of the elephants or ostriches or warthogs because they are everywhere. Also: zebras, wildebeests, impalas and various other antelopes, baboons galore, black rhinos, hip-hop-opotomuses, cape buffaloes, giraffes, birds, birds, birds, bats, and probably some other stuff I'm forgetting. It was seriously like the Lion King; there's just all sorts of animals running around all over the place hanging around each other. Highlights included adorable lion cubs and what looked like actually a kind of half-assed attempt by a lioness to catch a zebra.

Your correspondent managed to mostly keep Elton John's "Circle of Life" out of his head during all this. Mostly.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Walking to School

Sorry, we're behind on our publication schedule in many regards. So here's a picture we like from Tanzania - in fact shot out a car window, so the skills we've acquired in Kabul are really paying off.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Stars of Kilimanjaro

For your correspondent, one of the highlights of Kilimanjaro was the fantastically dark night sky. We were at high elevation, distant remove from any city of any size, and had moonless evenings, culminating in a new moon for the summit night (one starts climbing the last stretch at midnight - either because the mornings are clear and the afternoons cloudy, or because the scree is easier to climb when frozen, or just because you need the time to do the long up and the even longer back down all in one day). The stars couldn't have been any better, and the gradual lightening of the sky at sunrise from the summit was one of the most beautiful things your correspondent can recall witnessing.

Our evenings, when we were stationary enough for night photography, were at the established camps on the route up, which range from a nice cluster of tents on a scenic ridge to an unpleasant jumble of groups packed into a small clearing that felt like yuppie refugee camps. They did provide something for the foreground of these star photos, but also routinely led to someone with a flashlight walking through the frame.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Remaining Snows of Kilimanjaro

Pictures from the top of Kilimanjaro - yes, there's still snow. But if the label of Kilimanjaro Beer bottles is to be believed, it was once covered with snow, and now there are only glaciers in a few spots. They're still huge, but it's easy to forget when the only thing next to them for comparison is, uh, Mount Kilimanjaro.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Guides of Kilimanjaro

Battling through freezing temperatures, bouts of violent vomiting, and efforts to tempt us off course with canned meats, your correspondents made it to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. We took a pretty leisurely route - a full seven days on the mountain when some do it in five - and the walking was pretty easy. Only the actual summit day was really strenuous, unless you count the strain of puking up cream of carrot soup and M&M's, which your correspondent did a couple days before summiting.

Not unlike Machu Picchu, while the actual climb was not that grueling, the humbling part is watching the porters zip by you, carrying forty pounds of gear in a canvas bag balanced on their heads. Of course the Peruvians did it while wearing handmade sandals -- at least these guys mostly had shoes or boots that they had inherited from previous climbers, many of whom apparently cast off much of their hiking gear at the end of the trek. (I wouldn't be surprised if these clothing donors were people not unlike the guy I met at the very beginning of the climb, decked out in new North Face gear and fancy gaiters, who struck up a conversation by asking me if I had ever climbed a mountain before - as this was his first.)

In our group, we were joined by five Aussies, some of whom were likewise new to walking up mountains. I'm not sure how one picks Kilimanjaro as their first hill to go up, but they all made it to the top, aided by Red Bull and the premium ("heaps better than Spam") canned ham that they brought along for sustenance on top of what the tour company provided.

The amount of food that the tour company provided was ridiculous, and the very friendly guys who served us each meal were maternal in their efforts to convince us all to have a second (or third) helping of that night's meal. We had an excellent cook, who also cut a striking sartorial image with a plush stuffed snake toy worn as a scarf at all times. He was only the most flashy of a group of at least twenty guides, porters, and other helpers who accompanied the seven paying customers up the mountain. It's not generally the way I would prefer my hiking trips to work, but in our current situation, there was no way we were going to do the legwork to figure out the logistics of doing Kilimanjaro with less assistance. I find it a bit embarrassing to pay some other guy to carry my tent up the mountain for me, but then again talking with the guides, the competition to get those jobs as porters is pretty fierce - so I'm guessing that none of them as worried about the vaguely colonialist optics of hiring porters while on a trek as I was. Or at least they hid it well.

One last picture - Lucas fetching us hot water to wash up after hiking. It was a tough life:

Tomorrow: More from Kilimanjaro!

How I Spent My Fall Vacation, Part 1

We have returned after an extended vacation in darkest Africa. We will now endeavor to tell you all about it in a way that is comprehensive enough for our own purposes without being comprehensive enough to put readers to sleep. But if we err, fret not - we'll be back to the Afghan content soon.

So the above picture is not, in fact, from darkest Africa, but rather glitziest Dubai. Our transit time to Tanzania was significantly longer than expected.

First of all, it should not be a big surprise that Kabul International Airport (KIA) is possibly the worst commercial airport your correspondent has ever been to, beating out no small number of crummy developing-world airports. Perhaps not unreasonably, at KIA, one has to go through security to get into the airport. As in, there is only one door to get into the terminal, and you go through a full metal detector and baggage x-ray within a few feet of entering. This has the predictable effect of creating a line a hundred yards long just to get into the airport building. And then there is an equally long line to go through passport control where a couple immigration officers do a leisurely check that your visa hasn't expired, while another five or six immigration officers sit around and do nothing. Immediately after passport control is another security checkpoint.

We were still in the line for passport control when our flight was supposed to be taking off. (Thanks for the timely drop-off, motor pool!) But I guess Safi Airlines is used to this syndrome, since they held the flight at least an hour for those of us trapped in the passport line - which was great for us; maybe less great for others trying to make a connection in Dubai.

Eventually we made it though all the lines, got to our gate and were allowed onto the beat-to-hell bus that takes you out onto the taxiway to get on the plane. Which bus proceeded along, past all the planes in sight, away from the airport facilities, to the end of the pavement... and then proceeded to off-road along some dirt ruts for a while until we reached the next bit of pavement, where our plane was waiting for us. And the aviation industry is reportedly the second biggest source of revenue for Afghanistan.

In any case, with that ordeal behind us, the next stop would be Dubai, where everything would be modern and efficient and encrusted in diamonds. True enough until we went to check in for our 4:00 PM flight and were informed that it would be delayed until 4:00 AM. Ethiopian Airlines kindly bought us lunch at the food court and got us a hotel in Dubai. So we decided to do what people from all over come to Dubai for... shopping!

Well, sort of. We basically just started walking from the cheap hotel Ethiopian Air put us up in and came across perhaps the wold's tackiest gift emporium, featuring delights for young and old alike. Assuming the youngster in your life wouldn't be freaked out by these creepy dolls (they're probably somewhat less creepy when not presented as a wall of young hanging victims):

Or perhaps your creative youngster needs to be reigned in with these fascist coloring books that have one page that shows you the correct colors to use on the facing page and then a space for "evaluation" of their coloring skills on a scale of one to five stars:

Not that it was just for kids -- who doesn't have a special someone on their Christmas shopping list that might want a rhinestone-studded decorative spider for their home?

We giggled our way through the store (which was department-store huge), and spent another couple hours wandering around what seemed like a pretty ordinary Dubai neighborhood, with shops and restaurants catering mostly to the Filipino "guest workers" who do all the actual labor that the Arab oil barons won't. We then made it back to the airport and on to Addis Ababa and then Arusha, Tanzania without further incident, which is where the vacation was supposed to start in the first place, and where we'll pick up tomorrow.