Saturday, July 19, 2014

8 Things I Learned About Myself While Roughing It in Tanzania and the Serengeti

1. I'm definitely not a happy camper. But as my personal motto says, I'll try anything twice, and until the Serengeti, I'd never tried sleeping in a tent or inside a sleeping bag even once. Now I can say I've done both three times. I'd like to also say I'll never do it again, but unless you have the financial resources to splurge on "glamping," the only way to experience/explore any relatively unspoiled expanse of nature and wildlife as remote as the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area over the course of several days might be with no-star camping accommodations -- especially if Winnebago vehicles are prohibited due to the rough 4x4-ready terrain.

In other words, some day I'll probably find myself once again sleeping just above the flat earth enveloped in nylon in some other national park and/or nature reserve somewhere else in the world.

For all of the lack of creature comforts (and comfort) at the Serengeti and Ngorongoro campsites where I spent three consecutive nights last weekend, or even a fence to provide a middle-of-the-night buffer between campers and wild animals, sleeping inside a tent did have its upside: You haven't lived until you've woken up in the wee small hours to the sound of snorting/growling/roaring, felt something brush against the side of your bedroom, and wondered if that zebra, or elephant, or lion, is looking for you.

2. I'm a lot less fearful than I thought. I'm not sure if the more experienced campers in my tour group were just teasing me, or if I had just cause to be afraid of lions roaming through the camp in the still of the night. (And the morning after the second one, Haloise, a young woman in my group, told me that she saw a pride of lions wandering through around 2am.) "Try not to leave your tent after everybody has gone to bed," one of the Serengeti guides warned us the night before our departure. I kept an empty 1.5 liter water bottle in my sleeping bag to use as a makeshift urinal just in case.

I didn't have to -- at least not until the third night when I was too lazy, not afraid, to walk 50 meters of so to the toilet. Otherwise, at 4am when I woke up needing to go, I picked up my flashlight, unzipped my tent, stepped out and walked unafraid to the ablution/toilet facilities, which were actually scarier than any wild beast. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't secretly hoping to encounter the king of the jungle on my way back. Of course, I'm always more brave (and stupid) when I'm really groggy.

3. Wildebeests might do it, but I don't travel well in packs. I always knew I prefer going solo to doing duets, but I haven't traveled in a large group since eighth grade when I went on a National Honor Society trip to Washington D.C. I had a great time then, so the jury was still out on whether I could get into group travel now. I'm glad to know I can do it if I absolutely have to (and frankly, the idea of trekking through the Serengeti solo doesn't exactly give me a peaceful easy feeling), but my idea of a perfect holiday is being able to choose whom you see most of the time and when and whether you want to speak. I'm all for a little (a little) idle chatter to make eight or more hours a day on the road go by faster, but making small talk during breakfast, lunch and dinner is so not relaxing.

4. I must really have baby fever. Tanzanian children are among God's cutest creatures, but a baby baboon or a baby warthog? Give me the baby version of the ugliest animal, and I'm immediately aaawww-ing over it as if it's the sweetest thing I've ever seen. The cub lions, by the way, very well might be.

5. I like to watch (just watch, without taking photos). As I observed the safari crowd jostling for the best shot, it became clear to me that in trying to capture the perfect moment, so many of them were missing the moment. An elephant's slow approach is much less impressive when viewed through a lens or in video replay. Of course, that's easy for me to say, considering that I might be the world's worst photographer/videographer -- and I have the blurry Serengeti photos to prove it.

6. I'm so not a bird watcher. But storks and eagles and vultures are pretty cool, and after a while, I found myself noticing the smaller birds, even the ones that weren't blue, red or green, without having them pointed out to me. I also saw a living owl for the first time at the Masai Mara Museum and Snake Park in Arusha, and it was just as creepy as I'd imagined it would be. Do they really go "Whooooo"?

7. I can survive in a WiFi-free zone. In fact, after one day, I didn't even really miss the Internet anymore. Of course, that's not hard not to do when you're too busy doing without electricity, hot water, and a washroom that's not stinky and muddy and doesn't make you want to gag on sight/site to think about updating your Facebook status.

8. I can sleep through the night -- or most of it. I had such vivid dreams in Tanzania that I must have been actually sleeping for more than a few hours at a time for the first time in months. In East Africa, I averaged one or two wake ups a night, which might still not be the most restful sleep, but it was a welcome change from my 2am, 3am, 3.30am, 4am, 4.30am and 5am wake-up times in Cape Town. I'm not sure if it was the fact that I didn't take any afternoon naps, or if it was limiting my liquid intake after 6am, or if it was the mosquito net casting a certain calm over my sleeping environment, or if there's just something in the East African air, but I am sure of this: Some of the best of times in Tanzania were in the middle of the night in my dreams, which made the mornings after even lovelier. But I already knew I'm a total morning person, and sunrise in Tanzania following a relatively decent night's sleep made me even happier to be alive -- and awake!

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