I realized we had entered a different world on the drive from the airport to our lodge in Moshi. Women walked along the side of the road in traditional brightly colored gowns balancing all manner of things on their heads. We passed a group of people gathered around a large water pipe, filling jugs to take to their homes. All roads that turned off the main road are dirt with large ruts and potholes. Many of the houses we passed are constructed of sticks and mud. Motor scooters carried everything from a family of five to reclaimed lumber from an old house to a tank of explosive gas used for welding. Cows, goats, chickens, and donkeys wandered along the road side. Towns consisted of shop stalls with crowds of people selling everything from bananas to firewood to used car tires. The roofs were mostly made of rusted corrugated steel which radiated heat from the bright sun. Meanwhile we cruised by all of this in our air-conditioned car. In retrospect, the vast majority of our experiences in Africa were observations through the window of a vehicle. We did venture out a few times on foot with a guide, and it became clear that going out by ourselves with the kids would not be enjoyable nor safe – especially in the cities and in the national parks.
We stayed at the Honey Badger Lodge just outside of Moshi for our first five days in Tanzania. The Honey Badger Lodge’s mission is to encourage tourists to experience some of the local culture as well as organizing safaris and Kilimanjaro treks. They support a school located just behind the lodge for local children who are too poor to attend secondary school. The Honey Badger, as with all the others we stayed at, was an oasis of comfort, calm, and quiet.
Dale was our local guide for a couple of days of our explorations. Dale is an experienced mountain guide, having climbed Kilimanjaro over 75 times and I got an opportunity to chat with him while driving and over a beer at the lodge after we returned. He did his best to give us insights into the people and culture as well as the natural sights.
We drove up to one of the entry gates for Mt. Kilimanjaro, where many of the treks start. We saw a few porters starting up the mountain, they each carry 20-25 kilograms (44-55 pounds) plus their own pack of about 10 kilograms. They move up the mountain faster than the guests (who only carry a day pack with water and granola bars) and have camp set up when the first guests arrive. The guests are continually advised “Pole Pole” (Swahili for slowly) to avoid altitude sickness and dehydration. Normally there are five porters for every guest to haul the gear and food up the mountain. The average pay for a seven-day trek for one of the porters is about 80,000 shillings (~$50 USD) plus tips. We had considered a trek up Kilimanjaro, but the extreme altitude is problematic for the kids. Also, we would have had to haul our mountain gear all over Europe for 3 months. But mostly, after hearing the stories of a Canadian woman staying in our lodge (who was fit and 20 years younger), we realized that the trek would have required some serious aerobic training for Suzanne and me to make the summit without huge amounts of suffering (and complaining).
Further down the slope of Mt. Kili we took a quick tour of a defensive cave system that the local Chaga tribe used when the Masai tribe came raiding. The caves were in use as early as the 1960’s. During droughts the Masai would drive their cattle up to higher altitudes to graze, causing conflict with the folks already using that land. We scrambled our way down the dirt walled tunnel and our guide explained how the Chaga would go underground with their (very small) cattle and wait for the Masai to leave. Similar to the defensive strategies we learned about in Europe, there were passwords and “killing holes” where guys with spears would stick you if you didn’t have the right word. Suzanne has a touch of claustrophobia, but she handled the tour without freaking out.
We also toured a traditional Chaga home which had a place to sleep, a place to cook, a place for the livestock, and a place for visitors to sit. The house is round, has a thatched roof where grains and other food stuffs are stored. The smoke from the cook fire filtered up through the food and the thatch, deterring insects from inhabiting the roof and eating the food.
We also took a short steep path to a waterfall where we took a break to swim in the cool river. After the hike back up the path, Dale asked if I would like to try banana beer. A cold beer sounded great, so I said “sure”.
We walked a short distance up the road and turned into the yard of a house. There were about ten men sitting around the yard drinking something out of cups made of dried gourds and a stick. Dale led us up the path to some bench seats and explained to the woman who ran the place that we wanted to try her banana beer. She disappeared into her house for a couple of minutes. She reappeared holding a traditional gourd cup full to the top with a brown liquid. Hmmmm…. I asked Dale, “How much alcohol is in this banana beer?” He shrugged and said “It depends on how she made it. It is different everywhere you go.” Hmmmm… fair enough. It was too late to ask if it was safe for me to drink without offending Dale and our banana beer hostess. So I took a drink – that is why we packed antibiotics – right? It was nothing like I expected. Banana beer is made with non-sweet bananas, it has a bitter taste, and the pulp is not filtered out of the brew – so it is chewy. We passed the gourd around and everyone in the family had a taste. No one wanted a second sip. Then I was sitting there with a gourd full of beer, our beer hostess, 10 local patrons, and her 5 year old son (nick-named Obama) sitting directly across from me. I could not put the gourd down because the bottom is not flat (this seems like a real design flaw in a drinking vessel). We were clearly the center of attention and I was concerned that if I didn’t continue to take a sip now and again I would offend our hostess. By the time we stood up to leave I had finished off about half the gourd. Our hosts appeared satisfied with my efforts, so I counted it as a successful banana beer outing.