Africa blog part 1: Austin to Moshi -- It's just the beginning...
December 25, 2005 - Christmas day
Well, it's been quite an eventful few days! I'll just start from the beginning...
Thursday, Sean picked me up after work and we drove to Houston and stayed with my brother for the night. Mia took a huge liking to me and wanted to be picked up, and Kai could not stop calling me Alyssa (that's my sister).
Friday morning, we left early to try to get to the airport 3 hours before our flight in anticipation of holiday travellers. After all, it was the Friday before Christmas, which falls on a Sunday this year. I usually go to Intercontinental from southwest Houston. We were coming from Katy this time, and tried 1960. I thought it was along 45 north of 1960 because I knew it was way the hell out there. Well, we hit the Woodlands and knew that was too far. Good thing we built in that extra time! Anyways, after asking directions at a gas station, turning around, and taking the Hardy Toll Road south, we finally arrived. We parked at the expensive overnight lot because neither of us knew what "City Economy Parking" was...
Luckily, the line was not long at Terminal C, and although we were at the wrong terminal to check in (should have been at Terminal E), the lady let us slide (our plane was leaving from C, so it just made sense to go there). My camelbak set the x-ray screener into confusion, so I had to explain myself. I told him pretty much that I'm crazy and going to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. He laughed and asked if you could drive up it. Everyone at the airport was unbelievably in good spirts which was nice, especially this time of year. Houston was no problem. We got to our gate with plenty of down time to spare.
Our plane arrived a tad late. We boarded late. Then we sat on the tarmac for a while. The pilot said that we'd still make it to Newark on time...
Well, once a plane is late, it screws up everything at other airports as well...We finally landed in Newark some 45 minutes late. We had a 2 hour connection. No need to panic, still had some time to work with. BUT...the plane taxied around what seemed to be the entire Newark airport trying to find a free gate. Finally, we found one. HOWEVER, there was no driver for the jetway. We waited and waited and watied...
Finally, we got off the plane. We had to re-check in at Newark since we were switching from Continental to British Airways then. Now, we were on a pretty tight time crunch. We got to the BA desk and the guy (who, by the way, worked really freakin slow!!!) said that we just got there in time to get boarding passes. Phew! However, he said it takes Continental 1 hour to transfer bags, so there could be a good chance that our bags may be delayed. He told us that if they do not arrive in Nairobi, then fill out a claim form for lost baggage in Nairobi.
Well, we ran for it...literally. We had to clear 3 security checkpoints. When we were in line at the 3rd checkpoint, they had a last call for boarding our flight. Shit. We had quite a ways to go through the line. Sean got the cojones to ask people if we could jump in line. Amazingly, people were nice and let us go. He went through first, and went running to the gate. Then I went through, only to be blocked by two bratty little children that would not get out of my freakin' way. I was so ready to push them over. Finally, they moved. I took off running as fast as I could, with boots in my hands as I did not even have the moment to spare to put them back on. I got to the gate -- Sean and I were by far the last 2 on the plane. The flight attendant who greeted me at the door said that I looked like I had just climbed a mountain (oh, how ironic...).
We finally got to London and luckily did not have to clear immigration and recheck bags. Otherwise, it would have been another near miss/missed flight. We had enough time to use the airport loo and then stand in line for the Nairobi flight. Ahhh, our last leg of the journey.
My period started near the end of the London-Nairobi flight. I was so excited about it starting (now you think I'm crazy), but for good reason. It meand that it wouldn't happen on the mountain...yes!!!
We arrived at the Jamo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi, not knowing if our bags made it or not. Immigration was easy -- we simply bought a transit visa for $20. Then made it over to the luggage claim to find that our bags did not arrive. At least we were somewhat prepared mentally for that. We talked to a BA rep and filed a claim, and had her put down to send the bags to Moshi -- we didn't have a physical address but only a hotel name. She would not take that so she left a nubmer we could call back to BA to give them an address. As we were in line, the line grew tenfold behind us. Then the BA rep said, snickering, "Well, if you fly into Nairobi, you have to know that your bags may not make it." Great, just great...
A note about the two bags lost...
1) Duffel bag I'm supposed to bring to Moshi for the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project
2) Duffel with Sean and my stuff, a lot of mountain gear -- we can make do with what we have on us but may need to rent trekking poles and buy a poncho (however, now I have a truely bare bones wardrobe for the climb)
In other words, it's not the end of the world if we don't get our bags before the hike. It would be extremely nice if we did.
It was about 10-ish pm, so we decided to leave after filing the report. We booked a cab right by customs -- it was the official airport taxi. We just figured it would be safer this way, especially at this time of night. The girl booking our taxi was so nice. She commented how she loved my hair and that it was an African hairstyle. I had to tell her that I dyed it ;) I paid since Sean didn't have a $20 bill (yeah, pretty steep), but I had to completely empty out my purse to find my wallet. I took out the Swahili book as it was blocking everything. Then the girl says, "Oh, you know Swahili?" I told her I was trying to learn and knew a few basics. She seemed quite impressed and wished us well.
On our way to our taxi, we were accosted by a safari tout who calls himself "Mr. Safari", and has been "recommended in the Lonely Planet". Yeah, what a crock of shite.
Our cab driver was a nice guy. We exchanged a few pleasantries in some basic Pimsleur Swahili. But the man was an awful driver!!! Cutting people off in round abouts, running over curbs...welcome to Nairobi!
We stayed in the Meridian Court Hotel for about $40 for a double -- just for a night. It's kind of expensive, dirty by American standards, but decent and secure -- there were 2 armed guards outside the front door.
This morning we took the shuttle from Nairobi to Moshi. We were greeted by Lucy of Steenbok. Steenbok had arranged the shuttle service with Riverside. Lucy was extremely nice and wanted to take good care of us. I told her about our bags getting lost, and she asked for the information so that she could try to push it through from Nairobi. Sean and I ate breakfast at the hotel and Lucy was already on the ball calling British Airways.
We loaded into the shuttle bus with a bunch of annoying dorks from who knows where America. One guy had a tattoo on his arm. Now I love tattoos..but...his tattoo was some mathematical crap, derivatives or something. Seriously. You might as well tattoo "DORK" on your forehead. Dorks..they may have been book smart (maybe?), but they were travel stupid. Key indication -- we saw them at the luggage claim yesterday -- one girl carrying around a fancy digital camera with a thin strap around her neck. With a simple snatch and grab scheme, you know that won't last long. Heck, I kind of liked the camera and could pull a scheme off...but I'm not that kind of person. I know I sound so mean, but these people were freaking annoying. Try getting stuck on a bus for 8 hours with 7 annoying people...
The ride down to Moshi had some fantastic scenary. We went from the city of Nairobi to the arid lands nearby where the Maasai herd cows and goats, to a lush area with a mountain with a gorgeous slab that looked like a trad climbers wet dream, to Mt. Meru, a layover in Arusha, then to seeing Mt. Kilimanjaro mysteriously enshrouded in a thick layer of clouds.
The border crossing in Namanga proved interesting as well. The bus took us to the Kenyan border office. The official looked at my warped, beer soaked passport -- I told him that I travel a lot. He stamped it and I went on. One of these days, they're not going to let me back in the US with that passport...There were touts on the Kenyan side saying, "Tanzanian visa right there, I'll take you there." These are just scam artists as next to the Kenyan immigration office is a hotel and some other shops. No telling what evil they're up to.
I asked our driver and he said that he drives us to the Tanzanian immigration. We loaded onto the bus while Maasai women put beaded jewelry against the windows of the bus trying to sell us their goods. The driver took us to the Tanzanian immigration, parked the bus. Then we walked across the street. Our driver took people's passports who needed visas (me, Sean, and an Aussie guy), fast tracked us through the system and got to the front of the line, while the annoying dorks had to stand in a long line -- they'd gotten visas ahead of time but needed to declare their arrival. There was a bit of confusion, but we got our visas to us before the annoying dorks finished. One of the annoying dork guys complained to us that it was the fault of the people who didn't have visas -- the reason it was taking so long. Sean was quick to tell him that we got ours done, hook line and sinker, and HIS dorky ass friends were the ones taking forever to get through. Hmph!
We got to Arusha and switched busses. Sean and I got on first and picked seats. The annoying dorks complained about how they got crappy seats. Poohoo, cry me a river.
We made a 45 minute stop in Arusha. There was a hotel there but the lunch was way too expensive, like $10-$12US, so we skipped out on it. Sean and I got back to the bus to discover new people on it (Alexa, Brian, and Megan were on the bus, who would later join us for the climb and safari, but we didn't know that at the time). We got our good seats. Then the dorks came, late, and said, "How are we all going to fit in here???" Holy shit, get a grip people! There were about 3-4 seats extra even with all of them on.
The ride from Arusha to Moshi was nice -- we started seeing glimpses of M. Kilimanjaro's expansive base. The top was covered in clouds, so we really had no idea what it looked like. Sean seemed ready to punch one of the dorks as they wouldn't shut up the entire time. But alas, they were the 2nd group to leave the bus. Ahhh..peace at last. The bus dropped us off at the Keys Annex.
The Keys is a nice hotel. First things first, shower. I'd been wearing the same clothes for 4 days straight, sweating in them (only pair of warm weather clothes I have). I gave Sean a Will Heron shirt I had printed for Christmas last night in Nairobi. Well guess who's wearing the shirt now!? Me! :) I had to borrow it because my shirt reeks of stench.
Kilimanjaro obscured by the clouds - view from the Keys Annex
We took a cab to Moshi to use the internet. My Swahili learning attempts really came into play then. Our driver did not speak English, so I used what little Swahili vocabulary I knew to say "kompyuta" and "internet". Luckily, he understood. We gave him 4 (nne) dollars for the ride and he seemed happy with that. As we closed the door, he said, "Baadaye" which means "later". He wanted to wait for us to take us back. Crap, how do I say, "We're going to stay in the center" in Swahili??? I just told him, "Hapana, bwana", and pointed to the ground. We told him in English that we're staying here. Don't know if he understood, but he got the message.
We internetted for a bit, emailed Steenbok to give Lucy the address of the Keys Hotel, and I emailed Karen of the Kili Porters Assistance Project to let her know what was going on with their bag as well.
It was about 6:30pm and we walked over to the Kidoroko hotel to meet up with the Christmas gathering Boots trip crew, only to find that by the time we climbed the stairs up to the rooftop, there was not a soul in sight. We'd just missed everyone. But we saw Kili in all her majesty, coulds gone, top revealed -- only a little bit of glacier left on top.
Walking around this first day out was a bit of a culture shock syndrome for us. We got a lot of stares, comments, "Hello"s, etc. We were frustrated, dealing with the luggage situation, tired from 36 hours of air travel/transit and 8 hours of bus travel...
We caught a cab from the Kindoroko to the Keys with another cabbie who did not speak English. Sean broke out his Swahili. It's been interesting thus far. I feel that we need to beef up on our vocabulary.
We decided to eat dinner at the Keys -- we hadn't eaten since breakfast...some 12 hours before. Our bodies were in some weird beyond-hunger state. They had a special Christmas dinner menu. I was pretty excited about it. Only to feel nauseous after the appetizer, retire to the room, and puke my brains out. Then I felt better, sucked down water, multivitamins, and a glucose tablet. I'm sure it wasn't the food but all the events leading up to dinner and a bad case of dehydration as well.
December 26, 2005 - Monday
Today has proven eventful as the rest of the days so far. First things first, we called British Airways to try to locate our bags. Sean spoke to the rep and found out that 1 bag was in Nairobi. They could either send it to Arusha or the Kilimanjaro Airport, but not to Moshi. He couldn't understand her though. We called Donovan to get some advice, then had the receptionist talk to BA for us. She also had trouble understanding the lady as well. They had no status of the other bag.
Long story short, Donovan found out the bag going to the Kili airport is the porter project bag. Everyone's been cool about the situation and I've had lots of clothes offered to me to borrow.
A bit after noon, we met up with some of the group at the reception desk. Donovan was checking people in. I met Court, Daisy, Sara, Sean, Madhu, Freesia and others. A lot of people seemed to show up all at once.
Some people were heading into the city, but Sean, Daisy and I decided to have a late lunch at the hotel. Donovan found us and introduced us to Zamo, who works with the Porters Assistance Project and was going to give us the hookups to get gear. I wrote up a short list for Zamo -- trekking poles, fleeces, ponchos, etc.
Later Madhu, Jonathan, Soyan, and Cindy joined us. We grouped together in the restaurant for the briefing. Donovan introduced us to the Boots staff and our guides, Nickson and Freddy, and to Zamo. The briefing was just climb, safari, and general info. Quick and short. After the briefing was a trip up the mountain to 6000 ft.
I couldn't make that trip because I had arranged to go to the Kili Porters Assistance Project office to pick out gear to borrow. I sent Sean away on that trip and took a $5 (expensive, but the guy wouldn't bargain) taxi to town. I met with Ana, who was volunteering at the office. Then I met with Karen Valenti, the project coordinator. It was so nice to finally meet with her after all the communicating we had done. I admired the work she was doing, and at the same time, she was really excited that I had volunteered to be a courier. It was also nice that my efforts of good deeds had come full circle -- I helped bring a bag down and yet I ended up being in need and they were there to help me out.
Karen showed me the closet of jackets the lend out to the porters and spoke to me about the program. I was fascinated and wanted to ask a million questions, but my cab driver was impatient, so I had to cut it short. From the porter project, I was able to borrow a poncho, 2 light Cloudveil sweatshirts, a long sleeve capilene Patagonia shirt, and a light fleece for Sean.
I went back to the hotel and hung out in the garden for a while, then sat outside of my room (Sean had the key).
For dinner, some went about town and a big group of us decided to eat at the hotel. Madhu hooked me up with a clothes -- a tank top style bra, a sleeveless shirt, a long sleeve shirt, and a short sleeve shirt. Then we went to have dinner. It was Soyan's birthday and Jonathan had arranged to have a cake baked for his wife -- such a sweet gesture. I wasn't very hungry since I was ill last night, so I ate sparingly. The staff finally found the birthday cake and brought it out. We all sang happy birthday