Author Archives: Dan

Official 2-month Beard Update

Friends, Family and Strangers —

Like Luca Brasi, the beard sleeps with the fishes.

The 100-degree heat of Bagan, Burma (to-be-blogged about) and my desire to eat soup again without needing to shampoo my face afterwards led me to have it shaved.

For those of you who supported the beard, thank you. For those who opposed it (a well-organized militia led by my sister Amy), I completely understand — it was pretty gross. And for the 99% of you who couldn’t care less, I completely understand that too — we’ll be back to blogging about more interesting parts of the trip shortly.

Here are the before and after. And please excuse the nudie photos in the background… an international requirement for male barber shops:

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(I still needed to shave that beast myself after the barber was done with me).

My man charged me $2.50 for the standard haircut (the old “Burmese schoolboy” chop) and said it would be another $2.50 for the beard. Probably the first beard the barber has ever shaven. My taxi driver stuck around and got a real kick out of watching.

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And now back to finishing our Africa posts…

Kilimanjaro: Pre-Climb Prep and Mbahe Farm

(By Jill)

When we landed in Tanzania, not only were we a little unprepared for the visa situation, but we were also a little off on our itinerary dates and packing lists. Instead of starting the Kili climb on Feb. 6th, we were scheduled to start Feb. 7th — which was a welcome surprise as we had been on-the-go and were in need of an extra day of rest, not to mention some extra time to pack.

Our first morning in Moshi started with a leisurely bike ride around town with Simon as our guide.

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Then we headed to the SENE office to take a look at our gear and see if we were missing any important items for the climb. Conclusion: we were missing every single important item found on any basic Kili packing list. There are people who show up to climb Kili with every accessory imaginable — Osprey daypacks, Camelbacks, a 10-day supply of electrolyte tablets, and warm clothes sufficient for the Canadian arctic. Then there was us…

Simon took one look at my low-top Merrel hiking boots and was beside himself. My boots were beyond insufficient, we had zero warm clothes for the summit (which is 0-10 degrees F.), no suitable daypacks, and my headlamp was somewhere in southern Chile. The list goes on, but let’s just say we felt like we had shown up with a bag full of swimsuits and flip flops for a 7-day climb of Africa’s tallest peak.

Thankfully, Simon rescued us again. He gathered extra gear from the SENE office (mostly men’s sizes for Dan) and raided his wife’s closet for me (thank you, Tara!!) the only thing missing was boots for me, which Simon insisted I rent at the trailhead.

After lunch at Moshi’s best pizza place, Joseph (of visa-rescue fame) drove us up to Mbahe. Mbahe is Simon’s family farm in the foothills of Kili, where all SENE guests stay before and after the climb. The farm is like a pre-Kili retreat center — fresh air, beautiful rolling hills and waterfalls, gardens filled with fruits and vegetables, and an amazing staff to make you feel at home. And at 6,000 feet, Mbahe also gives guests a chance to acclimatize a bit before the trek.

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Our Mbahe host was Wilson who at age 67 had guided over 1,000 successful trips to the summit before Simon recruited him to work with guests at the farm. Wilson was a fountain of climbing words of wisdom (“Nothing easy is worthwhile doing” and “You are number one! Not number two!!” were repeated in my head many times during the tough moments) and made us feel at ease about our climb.

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After settling in, we took hot showers, ate a delicious farm fresh dinner, and slept for ten hours straight — only to be woken by Wilson’s knock at 8am the next morning.

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We spent the next day walking around the farm and surrounding village, including a stop at the nearby Marengo trailhead where I succeeded in renting some awesome hiking boots. Woohoo!! Once I had the boots on, both Dan and I started feeling much better about the climb.

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Wilson and our guide, Ayumwi, walked us through the map of the Machame route, pointing out each campsite location and elevation. We also practiced taking our vital signs (which we would do every morning and evening on the mountain) — oxygen saturation, heart rate, respiration patterns, and water intake. We quickly realized we were in very good hands with SENE.

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Then it was goodnight Mbahe, goodbye peaceful farm and cozy bed (+ running water, electricity, episodes of ‘The Good Wife,’ etc…) and onto our big adventure….

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Rwanda Part 2: Gorillas in the Mist

(By Jill and Dan)

After much anticipation, the gorilla tracking day had arrived. We woke up at 5:45 AM for an early breakfast, then drove into the village where all gorilla tourists, guides, and drivers convene. The guides and trackers meet and divvy up groups based on hiking ability and gorilla location. There are 19 gorilla families, about half for research and half for tourism. We were assigned to the ‘Kuryama’ family (Rwandan for ‘sleeping’), along with six other tourists and one guide, Augustin.

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We drove a short distance to the park entrance and were met by a large group of porters. Many of the porters are ex-poachers, hired by the government as a way to offer an alternative career to poaching. Hiring porters is a good cause, can be very helpful, and for $10 seemed like a no-brainer. Our guide, Magezi, highly encouraged us to hire one for each of us. Of course, the two oldest couples in our group didn’t think they needed the porters, and they got CRUSHED on the hike up. Slipping in mud, totally exhausted, and ended up Shanghai-ing our porters to carry their stuff and help them through the mud. Oh well. At least one of them was a dead-ringer for Larry David (we added one photo of him in this post — you’ll know).

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The hike into gorilla territory was about two hours uphill along private farmlands, then another hour through the thick jungle with the trackers. The trackers used machetes to cut back brush, and it was a good thing we wore gators because we were about a foot deep in mud at some points. It had rained all afternoon the day before, but we were lucky to have zero rain on our hike, especially because the gorillas run unexpectedly as soon as the rain begins.

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After an hour through the jungle and days of anticipation, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, there was a rustle in the bushes, then an enormous tuft of black hair. We found the Kuryama!!
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Per tracking guidelines, we had one hour to spend with the gorillas. We had gone from a group of ten humans, to a group of ten humans and ten gorillas. We were amazingly close to the gorillas, and at one point a juvenile ran by us and brushed against our legs. The gorillas sat eating, chomping on ‘white celery,’ completely undisturbed by our presence and endless photos. They eat, roll on their backs, and tumble down the hill to find more food. Pretty nice life.

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At one point we did get a bit too close to the family, and a huge silverback stood up, pounded his chest and roared (just like Jungle Book) which did the trick — we were all scared out our minds and hiding behind each other, even as Augustin commanded, ‘Do NOT panic!! Walk backwards slowly and do not turn your backs.’

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The cutest member of the Kuryama family was the baby. It was so little and cuddly, rolling around on the ground, acting silly and putting food on its head. It took every ounce of strength not to grab it and run.

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The one hour flew by and in no time we had to say goodbye to the gorillas and make our way back out of the jungle. Though we had high expectations for tracking they were still exceeded — we never imagined we’d get so close to the gorillas. We also loved the experience of tracking them by foot, and standing with them in their natural environment. It’s completely different than a driving safari.

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The price tag for gorilla tracking permits is exorbitant and still increasing every year as they try to limit the number of tourists. This was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us — not only because Rwanda is so far away, but also because the permits are a serious investment.

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So another amazing experience in a country I never imagined visiting. I now have very fond memories of Rwanda — the children crowding the streets as our truck drove up the mountain, waving their hands, running along with us, yelling ‘hello!’ ‘good morning!’ or ‘good morning teacher!!’ (they start each school day greeting their teacher with ‘good morning teacher’ – and it sticks 🙂 ). The people we met in Rwanda were happy and welcoming. The scenery is picturesque, green, clean. And the gorillas, of course, are magical.
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Rwanda, Part 1: Kigali and Beyond

We headed to the “Land of a Thousand Hills” to track the mountain gorillas (Part 2, coming soon to a blog near you) and started off with about 36 hours in Kigali.

We met a solid young American lad named Martin within about 15 minutes of arriving at dinner at our hotel and agreed to explore the city together. Martin is from Newton, MA and I forgive him for attending Williams College, the quasi-rival school of my beloved Middlebury.

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Visiting the Genocide Museum was the core of our day in Kigali, which was a gut-wrenching experience. In three swift months in 1994, one million Rwandans were killed, two million displaced, and hundreds of thousands more were tortured, raped and maimed — we passed multiple people on the streets about our age with missing limbs. This all happened in a nation of only eight million people at the time, so it truly devastated the entire country. It was pretty near impossible to comprehend.

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While the genocide haunts all Rwandans alive today who lived through it, what’s really amazing to see is how the country has bounced back. Rwanda today is extremely safe — we’ve heard people refer to it as the “Switzerland of Africa.” We felt totally safe walking around the city day and night. The economy is booming. Education and healthcare are top priorities. And there a number of really interesting policies, such dedicating the last Saturday of the month to cleaning public spaces, which virtually everyone does, including the President. They use close-knit community structures to apply peer pressure in positively reinforcing ways.

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The following morning our awesome guide, Magezi, picked us up to head three hours north to Parc National de Volcans where we would have a free day before our gorilla tracking. The drive is gorgeous, with rolling lush green hills and private farmlands covering the entire landscape.

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The hotel was definitely our nicest so far (we hadn’t stayed anywhere “nice”), which was a welcome treat. But it was still very remote — no Internet and a generator ran only a few hours a day to provide electricity. They light a fire in your room and put hot water bottles in your bed (Jill’s new favorite thing on the planet) to keep you warm at night.
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It’s a pretty secluded property, so we headed out the main dirt road for a long walk. We made it about 500 yards before meeting a few super excited kids about 10-12 who insisted we come with them to go see their school and meet more of their friends. We asked them where it was, they pointed through the woods to nowhere in particular, so naturally we said “sure” and wandered off into the woods with strangers, just like our parents taught us.

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More kids kept popping out of the woodwork — literally — including four-year-old Eme (in the pink hoodie and younger brother to the tall boy in the tan shirt).

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Eventually we did clear the woods and came across their school, where even more kids joined the flock.
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After an hour or two we wound back around to our hotel, where they all insisted on getting our email addresses. Pretty fun little excursion for our first afternoon in Northern Rwanda, and we came back to a dance performance happening on the hotel lawn. The next day would be the gorillas… Stay tuned.
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Beard Update, one month in

Been growing this thing for exactly one month strong and it’s still coming in hotter than a Brian Wilson heater.

It itched so badly the first week I was scratching my face like a mountain gorilla with fleas. I always knew I had a thick beard but this thing is THICK. Thanks Dad. Pretty sure I can shave it and turn it into the wool carpet Jill always wanted and save us a few hundred bucks.

Alright, below is the official one month photo op: front, left side, right side, and satellite sky cam views.

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Cape Town: The Townships

Most Cape Town guidebooks will lead you to the conclusion that the Cape Flats are dangerous townships (slums) and should be avoided. But when we asked around Cape Town about worthwhile things to do, we repeatedly heard that a guided walking tour through the townships was not to be missed — it was the best way to understand how a huge percentage of the black population still lives.

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Our hostel arranged a tour with Mamnkeli, who lives in the Langa township and now gives professional walking tours there. As a tourist, especially a white one, Langa and the other townships are not places you’d want to go unescorted — and it did feel a bit voyeuristic — but it was incredibly moving to see and probably the most memorable thing we did in Cape Town. Without that tour, we would have had a very sheltered impression of the city.

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Langa covers about 1,200 acres near the Cape Town airport and is one of several townships in the area. Langa was created in 1927 and is the only township set up prior to apartheid (1948). Designed for 5,000 people, it is now home to over 70,000. It’s the oldest but also the smallest. The official unemployment rate hovers around 40 percent, but it’s tough to gauge.

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Many of the homes are converted shipping containers, which are actually some of the more expensive shelters there, and they are typically shared by two families (maybe 7-12 people). There are also the “hostels,” which are effectively dorms that had originally been built for migrant workers but are now overcrowded multifamily homes. Mamnkeli says he’d much rather live in the shipping container homes.

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Mamnkeli also took us to a local pub, which is just a dark shed with a large beer barrel in the back and a few benches along the walls. You pay seven rand (less than a US dollar) for an “all you can drink” day pass. The owner needs at least five people at a time, since they fill up a bucket that you pass around the room. We thought we were just going to see it and have Mamnkeli explain how it worked, and were definitely surprised when we learned we were expected to try it. After Mamnkeli gave the overtures and took his share, I gave it a whirl. I was then totally shocked when Jill took the bucket from me and drank a bit. Way to go, babe. The beer is pretty light in alcohol, and some of the locals just sit around the pub all day. It was a little sad, but super interesting, the most out-there thing we’ve tried, and I wonder how long it takes for our ghiardia to set in.

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[Preface to this next section: this is how we understood the distinction, so if anyone knows better, please correct me in the comments]. You hear South Africans talk about “Blacks” and “Coloureds” as distinct ethnic groups. At first it struck me as just a politically incorrect way of saying the same thing, but it was actually an official distinction in the apartheid era. Blacks were natives such as Zulu or Khosa. Coloureds were half white and half black, which typically meant an Afrikaner/Dutch father had an affair with or raped a Black woman. The government would physically separate Blacks from Coloureds — meaning if a Black woman had a Coloured child, the child would often be separated from the mother and placed in a different township. As a result, Langa is still basically 100% Black. Mamnkeli later drove us through one of the neighboring Coloured townships, where virtually 100% of the residents are of mixed race. Understandably, there is still a great deal of resentment among Coloureds of both whites and blacks. Mamnkeli said it wasn’t safe for us as white tourists or him as a black South African to walk through that township, so we had to drive (which was a bit unsettling to do, to be honest). It’s a sad reality in the aftermath of apartheid.

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Mamnkeli assured us we were totally safe the whole time and that he’s never had an issue on his tours. I honestly felt more safe walking around the Langa township than I did at certain times in the City Bowl. While many of the residents live a tough life with just the most basic wants and needs met (and sometimes unmet), we still saw a lot more smiling and laughter than I might have expected. The people generally seemed friendly, hospitable and just doing what they could to get by. It was definitely an experience we’ll never forget.

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