Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Safari Sleeper Effect

MP, CA --I finally wrestled Flickr into submission and posted all of my Tanzania photos on my account. Alas, I haven't titled them yet. But you'll get the picture.

Most travel is better in the doing than in the sharing. But while sorting through the photographic evidence of my misspent February, I made a curious find: When it comes to safaris, the slide show beats the schlep. Indeed, the interplays of predator and prey, the landscapes soaked in beauty, the holy-cannoli-is-that-a-hippo-flipping? moments that I witnessed two months ago are astounding me now even more than before.
Ever the social scientist, I've named this phenomenon the safari sleeper effect.

I must admit: when I embarked upon my six-day safari to Tarangire, Serengeti, and Ngorongoro national parks--the durations and locales that all the guidebooks recommended--my baseline for amazement was abnormally elevated. I had just spent three weeks living by my spinal cord, as Vonnegut wrote, crashing along on my bike and hoofing up mountains, inhaling every pixel of this hypersaturated world. Somehow breathing dust in a Land Cruiser for six days with David--by now like family, for better and for worse--and two German tourists (though lovely people) just wasn't buttering my biscuits.
"The soft life," David calls it, this sitting still in a metal box and feeding on carbs four times a day. One starts to feel like a veal calf. And indeed, after weeks of dodging my own pointy hipbones--which exertion had exposed like storms unearth fossils--I felt the familiar layer of fat finding its way home.

I also objected to whatever economic forces had sucked all the black people out of the national parks. After so many days of being one half of the white population in town, I was dismayed to realize that the majority of visitors to Tanzania--rounding the safari circuit in their identical khaki kits, replete with Tulley hat--most likely depart with the impression that Tanzania is a majority-white country. "Whitey is everywhere," I would say in Kiswahil to our guides, who always laughed at my small subversion.

But when I got home and snapped open my camera, I was finally and properly wowed. "Yeah, I guess watching those two cheetahs hunt from the termite mound was pretty rad," I thought.
"The pachyderms making an elephant's breakfast out of that grove was tres fab, too," I conceded.

The wildebeests feeding their calves warmed the cockles of my heart all the more stateside.

The goofy lionesses sunning their bellies raised a more seismic chuckle... did the giraffe nibbling the clouds.

The zebras weren't just standing there; they divided the plain from the sky.

And I was, and continue to be, all the more grateful, every day, that sometimes the world or this life cracks itself open and lets me peek in.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Eat Strange Things

MP, CA -- "Eat strange things." These were my friend Lera's last words to me before I departed for Tanzania. I knew I would disappoint her, for not only is Lera the world's most brilliant, eloquent, and charming expert on language and thought (get a load of Lera on yesterday's "All Things Considered"), but she is also the bearer of the most inquisitive taste buds and lax disgust reflexes that I know.

And I? I am a vegetarian, 20 years gone. Although I count myself among the most adventurous of my ilk, I stop short of rolling up my sleeves with Lera and tearing into the oxtails, or the entrails, or the offal, or the tripe, or the smoked sea monster.

Despite my chaste herbivority, Lera embraces me as both sputnik and dinner guest. When breakfasting in, say, Aceh, Indonesia, and served fish heads in spicy rice, Lera gets two servings of fish heads and I get two servings of spicy rice. Because she has mad Bahasa Indonesia skills, she delights in ordering "noodles in crab sauce without the crab" for me. Back stateside, she tolerates my gustatory shortcomings with admirable aplomb: although she wants nothing more than to roast a whole hog, and is lactose intolerant, she always has a vegan entree and six gourmet cheeses for her benighted plant-eating guests.

Traveling through Tanzania, though, I tried to snap pictures of things that I would eat if I had Lera's omnivorous proclivities. I found the first candidate in the Stone Town meat market: unidentified ruminant heads, gleefully butchered. (see above)

Fresh squid? She would take two--one for now, one for the road.

Salted lake fish, padlock-style? Check.

Of course we would share the bicycle of jackfruit, although Lera would pass up the chance to ride the demon machine.

I'd eat the durian just to show that it's not the smell of rotting flesh that bugs me, but the fact of flesh itself.

I'm a little embarassed to admit that what I ate over there strongly resembles what I eat over here: a bolus of starch coupled with vegetables spiced just so. In Tanzania, this combo is called "ugali and sauce." The East African innovation is that the ugali--stiff grits--doubles as the utensil: Using the non-toilet hand (i.e., your right hand), you pinch off a mouth-size bit, roll it into a ball, press a thumb in to make a scoop, rake up some sauce, and pop the savory profiterole into your mouth.

(To round out the meal, you buy cashews wherever possible and eat eggs for breakfast because Tanzanians haven't quite yet quite learned that "vegetarian" does not mean "does not need protein.")

I also drank loads of Tanzanian coffee, such as the brew that this man serves in the center of Stone Town.

Recently, Lera has developed her weirdest yen yet: She needs blog posts. Two a week, in fact--one from me, and one from that beguiling Irish wordsmith, Dervala. Otherwise, blogmonster LB gets hongry. And we can't have that.

So from now on, Dervala and I will be posting to our blogs at least every Tuesday, whether we need to or not.