Instead of returning to Texas for Christmas, this year we are exploring more of the continent we call home.
From neat and orderly Rwanda we flew to Dar Es Salaam, or Abode of Peace as the Arabic is translated. We are here to wait for Anna’s boyfriend Benjamin, and our son Fox, to join us. DAR is a historic, modern city but it is no Kigali. It feels like any number of African cities I have visited lately, each with an ebb and flow to its people, their pace of life and traffic (made all the more challenging by the–more of a preference than a hard and fast rule–left side of the road driving). DAR is relaxed, chill, and feels like we’re back in Africa; not so neat and orderly.
[Christmas Eve Pictures]
While Anna waits for Benjamin to arrive, Suzanne and I attend an English/German/Kiswahili Christmas Eve service. Its held in a beautiful late 19th century AZANIA FRONT LUTHERAN CHURCH. We sing all verses to most of the traditional Christmas Carols to their proper tunes accompanied by an in-tune brass choir, but slightly out of tune with the organ.
The service was beautiful, multicultural, and we leave feeling all Christmasy. I say proper tunes because in Ghana, we often use the British tunes, which Steve refers to as dreadful. In Steve’s opinion, many of the British hymn tunes plod along with no thought to singability, rhythm, phrasing or vocal range. But if these are the hymn tunes you grew up singing, then I guess the fun jaunty German tunes we sing tonight would be too much fun for your stiff upper lip.
[Catholic Mass Pictures]
Earlier, I had gone to Catholic Mass at ST JOSEPH’S CATHEDRAL, a large German 19th-century Cathedral a few blocks away. I had not been to Mass since Camino last summer. It feels good to be back and embraced by the holy rhythm of its worship. I miss the mystery of Mass. The worship in Ghana is about as mystical as a slap in the face, which we will learn is what the word coffee means in the local language Kiswahili. We are warned, “Don’t ask for coffee (slap in face), ask for Ka-ha-wa.” The worship in Mass is gentle, sweeping, and I vow to be more faithful in trying out worship as I travel. I am always looking for honest cultural things to do when traveling, often this means a museum or city tour, but those can feel so staged. Worship feels honest to me, joining the people of this culture as they connect with God.
Talking about staged, on our way out of the safari tented camp, we stopped for a “tour” of a Maasai Village on our way to Kilimanjaro International Airport (another KIA). Our guide Frank, also a Maasai, suggested this stop. We pour of out of the Toyota Land Cruiser and are greeted by 20 Maasai in full costume, after paying what should be $50, but ends up closer to $60 in the exchange to TZS.
These tall and beautifully costumed people dance and sing the welcome dance, dress us in some (foolish looking on us) Maasai clothes, and then invite us into their “village”, which turns out to be a collection of six huts, and a thorn-bush corral, with tables of Maasai arts and crafts at exorbitant prices, prices that won’t come down (much).
In Ghana, to not bargain is an insult, a rebuff of an invitation to friendship, a chance to connect and tell your story, to laugh, listen and be playful. There is none of that inside the not so OK corral. The young but tough lady is grim-faced, and not willing to even engage. I watch Suzanne, an unusually firm negotiator who can always charm the price down, attempt to walk away, and she is stopped and the price falls somewhat, but still, there is no joy in Maasai-town. Suzanne again attempts to walk away from the Christmas ornament and bracelet, things she doesn’t need or particularly want, but is buying to be a gracious guest. This is not fun. Later we see the same items for sale at 1/10 the unhappily negotiated price, further sealing Maasai-town’s fate as a cultural-like experience in much the same way that Olive Garden is an Italian Restaurant.
Driving away, Frank
does damage control explains to Suzanne the difficulty of Maasai life the traditional way, and how much our “donation” will help them. Fox and I notice at least six more of these “villages” set off from the road, with other Land Cruisers parked in front of them, and tourists like us in various stages of Maasai dress, listening to the Welcome Song. This is what I might call staged authenticity at best. But in worship, be it an expat Christmas Eve, or the earlier morning Mass, the experience is real, honest, and I feel connected to the people of this culture, and seek with them how God is known here, as I connect to the Mystery with them.
The Maasai village could have left a bitter taste in our mouth about Frank, but we choose not to let those tastes linger, and trusted that our “donation” would help the people in real ways. He was a kind and intuitive guide, who understood the animals and, while in the national parks, while other Land Cruisers were racing by to find the next big game, Frank would say, “poly-poly,” and when no one else was around, we watched the animals just stroll up to our vehicle, slowly, slowly.
After the boys both arrived, we all fly to Arusha, a wide spot next to the road with one landing strip and a colonial age terminal. Calling it a terminal is kind, or insulting to other terminals, let’s just say it was old, and small – 14 seats in the waiting area, but thankfully no forms to fill out and no screening or X-rays machines.
I thought Ghana was the only place that scanned your bags before you enter the airport as you prepare to leave the country. Sometimes they also check your boarding pass as you deplane, or my favorite leave-the -country exercise is when they look at your yellow card as you leave the yellow fever endemic area (and by the way, according to the WHO, yellow fever is no longer a risk in Ghana, but we still have to do the yellow fever vaccine and card thing). But Tanzania likes to be sure too, so landing in Arusha, after a 45-minute domestic flight from DAR, our bags had been scanned no less than four times, twice in each terminal, and by the time we leave Tanzania 17 days later, they will have been scanned at least six more times.
We meet Frank in outside the dusty Arusha airport and drive a few hours to our tented camp overlooking Lake Manyara. It is dry, and we pass the Maasai move cattle across their dusty expanse.
We arrive at KIRURUMU MANYARA LODGE and it feels good to welcome the new travelers into our party. The food at the tented camp is fresh and delicious and reasonably portioned. The service is the best we will encounter in Tanzania, and everyone seems genuinely friendly.
We’ve seen these tented camps in Ghana, at Zaina Lodge. They are an interesting mix of a temporary tent and a permanent building. Think tent camping with room service, a proper bed, self-contained shower and an inside flush toilet. Plus an amazing view that you don’t have to set up. Plus hot coffee delivered to your tent at 6:30am! So yeah, we’re totally roughin’ it.
At night, a cool night breeze ruffles the tent walls all night long as the mosquito net sways around our bed. We sleep well, and deep. St. Augustine wrote “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” Tomorrow we begin a new chapter of this book we are calling our Christmas Vacation.