Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tanzania and the Seventh Trip to Mokhotlong

Anu and I headed out early on Friday morning to start our 2 weeks of vacation (the PAC treats us well, we get 22 days of vacation per year). After a rough start (one of our tires has a slow leak and was almost flat in the morning; oh, and the car wouldn’t start), we made the 3.5 hr drive to Joberg pretty uneventfully. Our friends recommended this great economy airport parking for a whopping $1.25 US per day. We had our tall Castel Lager on tap at our favorite airport restaurant (it was after noon somewhere in the world) and caught our flight from Joberg to Arusha via Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar, where we stayed at the Outpost Lodge under torn mosquito netting (malaria prophylaxis: I was on doxy, Anu was on prayers).

Saturday morning, after a brief breakfast sprinkled with E. coli (as Anu would find out later), we met our driver and cook, Marco and Abdullah, and headed off on safari. We spent the next few days seeing tons of animals in famed sites such as Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater, and the Serengeti. Yes, The Serengeti. I had to repeat that to myself several times during the trip. This huge area of plains, acacia trees, and heards of thousands of grazers was something just seen on the Discovery Channel and not something that I'd ever go to. Of the three sites, Ngorongoro was perhaps the most beautiful. As we descended in our 4x4 early Sunday morning, Anu and I felt like we were driving through the Garden of Eden. Vibrantly garbed Maasai herders were the only humans moving through this huge area inhabited by thousands of animals. The animal density here was amazing. Every where you looked, animals grazed, ran, and rested, giving little care to the various Land Rovers that crawled over the landscape. Over the four days of safari through Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro and the Serengeti, we saw herds of zebra and wildebeest, over 30 lions, water buffalo, hippos, leopards, cheetah, flamingos, cranes, hyena, you name it (well, no rhino, but we had seen some great ones back at Kruger Park). One early morning in the Serengeti we awoke to find a pack of elephants walking through our campsite. We were very glad that they were in a good mood.
Though the camp food was impressive (items of note: vegetarian quiche and creme brulee), we were glad to get back to civilization where we were able to eat an amazing dinner at Onsea House. We met gourmet Flemmish chef, Axel, who prepared one of the two best meals I’ve had in
Africa (the second one was also made by him, one week later) – a 5 course meal of vegetarian fair paired perfectly with choice African wine. We joined Heather Crouse, pediatric ER fellow and friend who came in from Houston a few days before we got back from safari.

Mt. Kilimanjaro

We needed that great meal, as the next morning we started our trek to Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in all of Africa. We were greeted at our hotel in the morning by our team – enough guides, assistant guides, porters and cooks to make a few soccer teams (19 in all). Climbing the mountain was an interesting, if not fun, experience. The hiking wasn’t impossible, but it was no cake walk. The scenery was not beautiful, but definitely exotic – more like a science fiction writer’s depiction of a planet in another solar system. The camp food was getting a bit repetitive by now, and sleeping in a small tent with Anu after not bathing for several days was getting a little difficult (I have no idea how he smelled, I couldn’t make it past my own foulness). The outhouses were pit latrines where you basically tried to do your business through a hole cut in the floor without getting anything on your feet. Somehow I managed to not use a single squat toilet in all of southern India but was forced to learn here, where my quads were often shaking from the strain of the day’s hike. I could go on and on about the woes of eliminating on Mt. Kili, but I’ll spare you the details. Flora was scarce, and Fauna more so – mostly four-striped mice that tried to get into your tent and ubergrande crows that would probably go for your eyes if you didn’t make it successfully to your campsite in time. We discovered first hand that in addition to worrying about mountain illnesses such as AMS (acute mountain sickness), HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) and HACE (high altitude cerebral edema), perhaps the most troublesome if not most dangerous form of these diseases was HAFE (high altitude flatulent explosions). I had heard of this entity but felt that it was most likely a myth made up by mountaineers to keep weaker people off their mountains. Let me tell you. It is a reality.
We began our trek to the summit a little before midnight. It was cold, real cold. The headlamps accented the glittering ice on our tents as we began our ascent. Aside from the temperature, we were blessed with great weather. The wind was low and the rains from the day before had stopped. We were greated by heavenly stars, an orange moonrise and the glittering lights of Moshi city so far down that you felt like you were in a plane. The climb took us from around 4,600 meters at campsite to the peak at around 5,800 meters. During the hike, climbers experienced symptoms from mild headaches and nausea all the way to vomiting, confusion, and loss of balance. I was pretty lucky. The last couple hundred meters were pretty tough. As I wondering if any of my toes would be frostbit and was nauseated and really tired, I had this great image of all of my family and friends watching me as I was climbing. Anu says it was due to hypoxia, but I had a huge endorphin rush from imagining all my family and good friends from Texas and Santa Rosa right there with me, cheering me on, giving me the support I needed to get to the top. So, to all my family and friends out there, thank you. I don’t know if I could have done it without you.

We made it to the summit right before sunrise. Our guides gave us chocolate bars and sang local songs that sounded like prayers of thanks to the mountain gods. The top is all snow and glacier, beautiful, breath taking, and very cold. You certainly don’t feel like you are in equatorial Africa. I took some good pictures with Heather’s fancy camera, and some OK ones with my own basic digital cam (those included here). What a feeling of accomplishment. What a feeling of, thank God I never have to do that or anything like it again.
The descent was long and hard on the knees, but it was great to sleep at a better altitude. The shower back at our hotel was wonderful; I probably lost a kilo of dirt. We had our second great dinner and then flew off early the next morning to Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. We stayed at Fumba Lodge, a picturesque beach resort where I read The Time Traveler’s Wife, ate great food, and watched the ancient Moorish dhows sail by. Beach time with nothing on the agenda was exactly what I needed after the mountain. I'll add some photos later; my camera was out of batteries by this time. I’m thankful for Heather for doing so much of the ground work for this trip. She was a good traveling partner and put up with my complaining and eccentricities. I’m also thankful for Anu, who I’ve traveled with to more countries than any other person (10), and who continues to still be a comrade even after all of that.

Mokhotlong (Seventh Trip)

After a whopping 2.5 hours of sleep the night we returned from Tanzania, I woke up early and headed off to Mokhotlong for outreach work. As usual, it was, as my friend put it, a mixture of successes and frustrations. The health providers are getting more comfortable with the management of children with HIV, antiretrovirals are being distributed more widely, and more people are testing so they know their HIV status. Frustrations included seeing advanced disease that should have been treated months or years ago (a child with a case of Potts disease – TB of the spine that causes disfiguration and sometimes paralysis, seen in a 6 year old orphan), continued stigma (an entire family present in clinic, both parents looking thin, an adolescent child with signs of HIV infection – diffuse lymphadenopathy and bilateral parotid enlargement, and their brand new baby; no matter what we said about the benefits of testing and treatment, the father was deathly afraid of knowing his status and wouldn’t let us test him or any of his family members), and poor access to care (a first time mother presenting at the end of clinic with her one month old baby that had a blueberry muffin type rash for a week and was in status epilepticus; we were at a rural health clinic in the mountains, the anti-seizure medication was expired by 8 months, and there was no oxygen or breathing mask available; we made the drive back to the hospital in record time, started emergency measures and the child made it through the night, though his prognosis is grim). I’m back in Maseru now, and I’ve spent the weekend being a veg around the house, catching up on some much needed bumming around.

Hope you are all doing well,



Cheryl said...

RabbittJust wanted to pop in & say I loved this trip for sure! Oh, the memories you are making! Also, wanted to let you know I'm really gonna miss your Mom & her hugs everyday when she retires. Glad she lives close...for now. God Bless you my friend-Cheryl

Astrid Sanchez said...

Guauuu mucha aventuras... =) que lindos lugares...grandes experiencias... Espero que estes muy bien.. ciudate mucho.. recibe muchos abrazos de tu amiga Astrid

yasmin said...

the kilimanjaro!! your writing lets me for just a moment in time experience some of the things you have experienced. thanks for sharing.