A Little Adventure… Going on an Incredible Safari in Tanzania’s National Parks

A quick (and grainy) snapshot from the Kenyan-Tanzanian border. I had already been stamped out of Kenya but didn’t have enough cash to make it into Tanzania. Highlight: the kind Canadian I was about to beg from is in the shot.

Arriving in Tanzania started on a shaky note. I hadn’t realized someone robbed me of my cash my last day in Cape Town until I stood at the border between Kenya and Tanzania. I gutted my bag and found nothing. I sat miffed among my scattered possessions, wondering how my cash had vanished. The very cash that was meant to buy my Tanzanian visa. Others in my van had already returned with their visas, and I had only managed to scramble together $50 in three different currencies from my stashed cash in secret parts of my bag. But that left me still staring sheepishly at the border official when I proffered my passport, cash, and a weak explanation. I just didn’t have another $50.

To say he was unimpressed with my story is an overstatement.

No amount of further searching was going to come up with more cash, so I started phase two of the plan: charmingly beg.

I needed another foreigner—likely the only ones willing and able to lend me that much cash—but the border was fresh out of foreigners. So I sat. And my bus waited. And we sat some more. And I finally found a kind Canadian woman who assumed me a travel noob and graciously lent me a crisp $50.

For as much as it was a debacle for my confounded bus driver (he couldn’t understand why I would have gotten on the bus without cash), the event ended quickly once I passed over the cash. I profusely thanked the Canadian, promising I wouldn’t stiff her—we later met up in Arusha so I could pay her back.

Luckily though, that snafu at the border wasn’t a herald of my time in Tanzania. A spate of kindness and fun followed me throughout the country. With my focus on responsible tourism, I’ve use many of the stories here on A Little Adrift to share what grassroots tourism looks like on the ground, and the impact travelers can have on local communities when they use their tourism dollars effectively. And it’s still something I care about deeply, but sometimes travel is just about fun and the realization of a bucket list item. It’s about making it to the top of that dream mountain, standing in front of an architectural wonder, or—for me—hanging out of a safari car window treating a pack of lions to an enthusiastic photo shoot (clarification: I was enthusiastic… the lions were decidedly unimpressed).

And so, this story shares just that: the photos and anecdotes from my four days on safari where I bumped along the dusty red roads of the Serengeti and pretended I was on assignment for the likes of Discovery Channel or National Geographic. I joined a group of four Danes and split the costs with them. Together, we took a four-day budget trip through Tarangire National Park, Serengeti National Park, and the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.

the serengeti

The Serengeti

Sunrise safari in the Serengeti

Dawn arrived over the Serengeti in blinding flash of color—slashes of fluorescent fuchsia and blue lit the horizon beyond the flat acacia trees as my truck rattled down the dirt road for our sunrise safari. The sun began to warm the land and the animals stirred. Us five safari-goers wrapped our jackets tighter against the chilly morning, our heads poking from the top of our safari truck.

We sped by herds of tiny impala—delicate of feature and gait—as they grazed.

Zebras and ostriches roamed the fields and high grasses. But we pressed on, our truck speeding down the straight stretches of ochre road past the small animals: we had higher hopes for our morning safari. The big cats prowl in the early hours and on day three of our safari, we were hoping for a sighting of a live kill.

Twenty minutes later, we jolted to a stop on what had looked like a passable road. Three of the safari truck’s tires were deeply mired in a gushy black mud. It was the first week of rainy season, so though not surprise, we had all hoped the rains would hold out.

But, of course, it’s not an adventure if something doesn’t go wrong. Our driver pulled tools from the back of the truck and attempted to create some traction under the mired front tire. It was a no-go. An hour had passed and we were still forbidden from leaving the safari vehicle; the four Danes and I passed the time by watching the sun crawl higher across the sky. The cool pinks of morning burned off and transitioned into golden tones and scorching light.

stuck in the mud getting out of the mud serengeti

Soon, another safari truck saw our plight and pulled over to help. Minutes later, they too were stuck in the mud, the couple in their car lamenting at their derailed safari. At that point, our two driver/guides decided we weren’t likely to get eaten if we exited the truck, so they let us out. Really though, they just needed our man-power. We banded together for the next 20 minutes, shuttling rocks and branches from a nearby rock outcropping to the holes dug into the mud underneath our mired tires.

With all the rocks and sticks we could find now under our wheels, the drivers floored it and with a cheerfully wet sucking sound the tires were free. We all chased after our safari truck, beating the mud from our feet before we piled into our spots once again. All told, it took about an hour and a half before we were once again rocketing down the road in search of animals. The morning hunts were over, but our driver had word from the other guides and he promised us a treat that would make up for our lost time.

He was right.

Lions in a tree!

a lion sound asleep in a tree

lions sleeping in a tree tree lions

And a lot of them. We counted six in total, though I am fairly certain a stray tail hanging down the back of the tree belonged to a hidden seventh. There morning jaunt tuckered them out, and didn’t do more than yawn and shift as we pulled up to their napping spot.

We continued our Serengeti safari, and I cooed with enthusiasm at each new sighting.

The water buffalo dotted the grassy fields with utter nonchalance, their only outward acknowledgement of onlookers being a brief flicker of their tail. We passed a watering hole for the local giraffes and watched one ungainly guy form a triangle with his legs as he bent to drink. Nearby, that same watering hole seemed to feed into a swampy area that looked straight out of a movie. Tall curved palms angled over a small pond filled with hippos submerged in the dull, muddy water.

Dark storm clouds in the Serengeti

Vultures crowd around a kill Giraffes River

Later, I squeed with fangirl levels of enthusiasm when we spotted a leopard. The leopard slunk around our truck for several minutes before meandering into the grasses along the roadside.

One of the more heart-stopping moments of the safari was watching that leopard pause about 100 feet from our truck, his spots pronounced among the hay-colored grass. Seemingly done with posing for our cameras, he shot us one last indolent shrug before sinking into the tall grasses. He vanished from sight without a trace. The tall grasses shrouded his body, and the soft breeze made all the grasses sway, effectively masking his disappearing act. They told us rule number one of the safari was “never, ever leave the safari truck,” and it wasn’t until that moment when I truly understood why our guide was so hesitant to let us help gather stones and rocks when we our truck was stuck in the mud.

Spotted leopard

leopard A water buffalo with a bird on its back giraffe

zebras running

hippo swamp

monkey Pied Kingfisher bird Ostriches Serengeti river

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Cool air caressed my face as the safari car took a soft right turn and descended into the Ngorongoro Crater, the largest volcanic caldera in the world. I pulled my scarf tighter, though the days were hot, the sun had yet to burn off the layer of mist settling over the gentle slide of green hillside.

We had camped under a giant tree on the rim of the crater, and I woke just before dawn to catch every moment of sunrise. And it was a beauty. Wisps of pink shifted into a deep red, and by dawn the entire campsite activated and began to ready for another day of safari exploration.

Sunrise on the crater rim

Camping on the crater rim Zebras at dawn

Formed two to three million years ago, the Ngorongoro Crater houses all the Big Five animals (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo, and leopard) and most of the others too, thanks to its unique shape and range of climates. Rainforest covers one wall of this inactive crater, making a soaring backdrop to photos on the grassy plains and swamps in the center of the crater.

Politics play a role in this region of the world, as they do across most arable land in the world. The Crater used to be open grazing and living grounds for Maasai cattle, but now that the Tanzanian government has designated much of the region as national parks and protected land, the Maasai are allowed to graze their cattle in the open plains, but they have to leave the crater area by nightfall. We zigzagged the region for four days and each time we exited one of the parks, within minutes we would begin to pass small circles of huts, manyattas, where the Maasai were given rights to set up roots and graze their cattle.

Maasai in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Children tend the goats A local Maasai school near the manyatta Manyattas on the hillside

With less movement available to them, many Maasai in the area set up pop-in programs to take advantage of the tourism dollars zooming by in safari vehicles every day. Though I had plans to visit the Maji Moto Cultural Camp in Kenya a few weeks later, the group voted to stop at a road-side Maasai settlement, paying $10 per person to tour the huts, view their small school, and learn a little about their culture.

I found the experience contrived. Though their setting was stunning, it seemed the Maasai donned their tourist personas just for our 20 minute visit, then went back to their daily lives… an addendum to their lives now that seemed necessary for their survival, but also sadly out-of-place for their values and way of life. It would provide a stark contrast to the program that Salaton built at Maji Moto in Kenya, which creates an environment of respectful interaction between tourists and Maasai. Sating the tourist’s curiosity while using the funds to maintain the integrity of his culture and their values, and underlying it all, a cultural exchange for both sides.

All that being said, there is far more I need to learn about the region before I could give knowledgeable commentary on the politics between the government, the Maasai, and tourism.

What I do know, is that the Ngorongoro Conservation area is one of the prettiest places on earth, and I can see why the government has taken steps to protect the land, ecosystem, and animals.

Fields of white flowers Pink flamingos

We cruised for several hours through the grasslands, spotting a herd of elephants with the longest tusks I had yet seen. Poaching is a serious problem across Africa. Many of the tusked elephants I spotted in the other parks were younger, the older elephant’s tusks had been removed for their safety. But the unique shape of the crater allows the government to effectively patrol the area, and the mature elephants sported massive ivory dipping in a graceful arc from their face. Perhaps wisely, the oldest elephants maintained their distance—our vehicle wasn’t allowed to off-road so we glided past them in layer of damp morning hovering over the green landscape.

Within a couple of hours we found several lions lounging in the late afternoon sun. After giving them a full photo shoot session, we headed to lunch at the swamp near the Ngoitokitok Spring. Hippos belched and gurgled in the water. Birds soared. I could wax poetic, but suffice to say, it was pretty.

Lion

Lions near our vehicle tired yawning lion Friendly lions

Elephants Crowned Cranes Zebra reflections

A quiet picnic at Hippos at Ngoitokitok Spring

Happy, happy hippos at Ngoitokitok Spring Ngoitokitok Spring hippos

Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks

I booked my safari through African Spoonbill Safaris. As a solo traveler, I had few options on a budget and really no selection. I showed up at the hostel and asked them to help me find a tour to join. Within three days, Benson called me over, excited to tell me that four Danes had room in their safari car if I wanted to join their trip. So I packed up and headed out. Their tour included Tarangire National Park, which is one of the lesser known parks (I had never heard of it), but is famous for its elephants.

The park is full of baobab trees, a favorite of the elephant, and thus it’s easy sightings of large elephant families.

Elephants

Monkey Impala

Looking out at Lake Manyara

Rainbow over Lake Manyara Photo-opp on the rim of the crater

The safari days were like poetry, each one ending with a slow retreat. The animals stirred around dusk. Most began to make their way to hideaways far from the roads zigzagging their home. Our group pitched tents each night and we ate dinner by the dim glow of flashlight, sleeping to the roars of lions and snuffling of nearby buffalo.

Lions at dusk seregeti outlook

Elephants in Tarangire National Park

Quick Travel Tips

African Spoonbill Safaris: I used them and they were a very budget option, working to put small groups together interested in splitting the costs of the safari.

Green Living Hostel: A hostel outside of Arusha and very quiet. They have just the loveliest staff and were incredibly helpful. They also run a lot of local projects and can help arrange short and long-term volunteering in the area. There is a lot closer to Arusha’s city center, but this worked as a landing spot for a couple of days to arrange a safari, and would make a nice base for rural volunteering.

TPK Expeditions: Highly recommended for a higher-end safari experience. It’s woman-operated organization committed to paying their guides fair wages and giving them opportunities to further their education. I will use them to climb Kili next time I visit.

Other tips:

  • Though some budget travelers opted for a self-drive safari split with friends, they missed a lot of the great animals because they didn’t have the walkie-talkie network of guides sharing when the Big 5 were on any given day. I recommend having a driver/guide.
  • Camping on the rim of the crater was magical. Some higher end tours don’t include this, but I loved it because of the chance to see sunrise from the rim at that exact spot.
  • Longer tours (5+ days) go deeper into the Serengeti and they are more specific about making sure you see a live kill and that sort of thing.

And you can view all photos from the safari in this gallery.

A Little Water… Floating Gardens, Fishing, and Farming on Inle Lake

Growing up I didn’t much care about the word “ecosystem.” I took many classes on Florida history (they made us study state history extensively–at least twice before graduation!), and the Florida Everglades was one of those places I took for granted until I reached adulthood, started to care more about the environment and realized “holy cow, there are some intricate and interesting ecosystems!”

Inle Lake Fishermen, Burma
Men fish the shallow waters of Inle Lake from long, flat wooden boats at Inle Lake in Burma (Myanmar).

This epiphany carried over to the present, and into my days navigating the marshy waters, thin canals and open expanse of rippling waters on Inle Lake in Burma last month. The most iconic photos of Inle Lake picture the fishermen, their conical nets resting on long wooden boats as the men paddle with one leg wrapped like a vine around the wooden oar digging into the placid lake waters. It’s a beautiful, practical custom that, in all its “foreignness” to the Western eye, pulled my focus as I marveled at the old-school nets in place of a modern fishing pole, the lazy motion of leg-led rowing and not a boat motor. The male fishermen stand on the bow of the boat so they can see down to the lake floor, and their legs are a powerful way to more easily row through the marshy weeds that grow nearly to the surface since Inle Lake averages just seven feet deep.

Boats on Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).
Looking deep into the weeds and water grass, the fishermen on Inle Lake fish for both trade, and for their dinner!

But that’s just one tiny, indelible piece of life on Inle Lake.

The super productive ecosystem around this shallow 44.9 square mile lake created a separate lake culture, different from the Bamar majority in Burma, and even different from the Shan minority group, even though Inle Lake is within Burma’s Shan State. Instead, an Intha culture and language grew, specific to Inle, where the lake and its ecosystem have allowed the culture to thrive.

traditional wooden house, Inle Lake
A tall wooden stilt house sits over the canal waters, laundry drying in the sun and boats stored underneath!

The villages embraced their creativity over the years in order to make this lake environment their home. Myths even surround the founding of the culture–some believe a former king banished part of the Royal Army from Burmese land, and to keep their word they created moved onto water! Floating land created from dried and hardened weeds and floating hyacinth secure the floating huts and bamboo villages to one fixed spot.

No joke, floating land.

floating tomato gardens, inle
Dense vegetation on the floating gardens, in particular, stop-light red tomatoes grow well in this ecosystem.

And once the Intha mastered the floating land, then agriculture became a cinch—after all, they have an endless supply of water. So, as our driver navigated the canal waters, I watched farmers slosh around their cultivated square farms of land, marveling that oxen and humans both easily traipsed around the water farms.

Some farms are kept on much thinner land, and miles of fragrant tomato plants tumbled over each other on the lakes surface, beautiful birds dipping into the canals near the gardens when they spotted fish from above. So, now you’re wondering, okay, they have stilt houses, floating land for farming, and gardens, but why doesn’t it all just float away?

I puzzled over this mystery, I even spent time musing out loud about hundreds of 10 foot tall bamboo sticks poking out from the lake in every direction. Ah, the sea of khaki colored bamboo affix a garden to the lake surface. Then, the gardens are tended, sold, and moved if need be in the future.

Floating gardens, Inle Lake
The tall sticks hold the floating gardens in place on Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

Genius!

The entire lake sustains a purpose-built community around the ecosystem.

Fishing.

Crops.

floating gardens burma
A worker tends to his floating garden on Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

Animals.

water buffalo, burma
A giant water buffalo is out for his late afternoon snack and a stroll in Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

Temples.

Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).
Temples floating on the shallow surface of Inle Lake

And the seagulls.

Feeding the seagulls was a highlight of the trip. Over the past five months I watched Ana guffaw with laughter at random moments, and smile with patience and curiosity as locals explained the inner workings of something to her, and even frown with concern at the treatment of street animals.

Ana is delighted to watch the seagulls circle overhead while we fed them on Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar). A hand feeding the birds at Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

And the seagulls on Inle Lake brought sheer joy. She abandoned all thought of being a serious preteen and she and her friend M (from GotPassport.org) threw chunks of deep-fried dough with childish abandon. The birds swooped down to pluck chunks out of their hands and noisily fought over bits flung into the air. And as the sun set over Inle Lake, we cozied into our warm blankets and all enjoyed the bite of cool in the air and the squawk of birds tailing our speeding longboat.

Sunset Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).
Warm blankets and a content smile accompanied a spectacular sunset :)

Far from subtle, behind us a maze of saffron and pumpkin exploded into the sky nearest the setting sun, while a quiet rose tint settled on the surrounding mountains and we jetted back into the small town center for fresh dinner and a warm bed.

logging elephant trek laos

A Little Quandary… Ethics and the Elephants of Asia

Ana and I left the other tourists traveling on the slow boat down the Mekong River with their jaws agape when we nimbly jumped off the boat’s thin, rickety ramp onto a giant sand dune with just a small smattering of thatch-roofed houses sunk into the hillside several hundred meters beyond. The boat reached Tha Suang, a tiny blip of a town, and we were the sole tourists venturing into the more rural Sainyabuli province in Laos. Our target end-destination? Hongsa, a town I visited on my round the world trip three years ago.

Tha Suang, Laos
Welcome to Tha Suang, a small and dusty town on the Mekong River in Laos.

There were so many reasons for the trip back to this small town: the friendly face of an expat guesthouse owner in Hongsa, the chance for Ana to see the slow pace of life in rural Laos, and to ride an Asian elephant. You see, while I have my doubts about the ethics of the elephant tourism industry in Southeast Asia, my 11 year-old niece was very keen on the experience. One of her dreams at the moment, is to work in animal conservation and one day reverse the gradual extinction of endangered animals. This school year, conservation has been a strong focus and we talked it over, discussed a lot of the issues about the current treatment of elephants around the world, including the elephant logging industry, and she decided she wanted an up close ride and elephant trekking experience in Laos, where they still use elephants for logging.

feeding an elephant bananas
Ana is amazed by the elephants swift removal of the banana from her hand in Hongsa, Laos.

Three years ago, I rode an elephant in Hongsa as well — there’s a lure and a romance to riding an elephant through the green jungle and living-out some elephant meets Tarzan fantasies. The quandary part of this comes down to the where . . .

After reading up on my options three years ago, I picked Hongsa because I could rent a logging elephant for the day and give him a break from long hard days of hauling trees, rather than risk over-working a tourist-camp elephant. And perhaps by convincing myself that a day eating through the jungle with me was easier than his logging duties could appease my guilt and indecision to be honest. Even looking pack, however, I think it’s a very complicated topic because I have gone so far as to tentatively endorse riding elephants in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, where that activity is among the only actions that have saved the elephant in that part of the world.

elephant eating bamboo
The elephant snacks on bamboo in Laos.

With that in mind, Ana and I ventured off the more well-worn backpacking route through Laos to the same rural town I last visited in early 2009 so she could learn more about the elephant logging industry in Laos, meet an elephant in person, and make her own decisions about elephant tourism.

The wooden bell around the bull elephant’s neck thudded with a cheery ring as the mahout directed him toward the loading platform — Ana gasped when the elephant’s broad shadow blocked out the sun and dwarfed her petite figure. The elephant’s dull, grey skin was wrinkled like that of an old man celebrating his long-awaited 102nd birthday; we both tentatively patted his coarse, hairy stomach as Ana buzzed with nervous excitement, passing the bundle of bananas from hand-to-hand.

A huge bull elephant munching on trees at the Jumbo Guesthouse in Hongsa, Laos. An huge Asian elephant in Laos. Jungles, rivers and rice paddies on a rural elephant trek in Laos.

She is fascinated by these animals and carefully studied his small expressive eyes, his sneaky trunk (the bananas she she was still holding in her hand had the elephant probing her hands and pockets with enthusiasm), and the thick chain wrapped around his ankle.

I’ll spare a full description of her experience (I walked along beside the elephant), and instead point you to her post and thoughts about the elephants we met, but I will note it was a beautiful trek through what I consider one of the prettier regions in Laos (but who am I kidding, the entire country is photogenic). Deep brown waters flooded many of the rice paddies, enveloping the weak green stalks, and at points on the trek we heard the tinkling lilt of grainy music drifting out from the wooden houses on stilts.

rice paddies in laos
The rice paddies and wide open fields of rural Laos, outside of Hongsa.

And after an hour perched behind the mahout, jilting from side to side and watching the world pass by from 10 feet above the ground, we stopped for lunch and she informed me of her theory — if she stopped riding him, maybe the mahout would stop poking him with the sharp metal hook, and instead let him eat more of the bamboo and plants lining the red mud paths. She told me that though she liked the idea of riding an elephant, she now decided watching him walk around and do his “elephant” thing was better all around for the elephant and for her.

I agreed and at this point figure the day was a success — she fulfilled her dream to ride an elephant, either way we gave a logging elephant an easier day, and Ana learned for herself (instead of me prattling at length about my own beliefs) about some tough ethical dilemmas facing the elephant tourism industry in Asia.

It’s worth pointing out that the bulk of my issues with elephant tourism stem from the way elephants we domesticate elephants, but not necessarily the domestication in general. The level of cruelty needed to force elephants into submission is not like breaking a horse; it takes beatings, days of abuse, inciting pure fear in the animal, and a whole host of other actions I did not share with Ana, but are startling in their level of pure brutality.

chain on elephants leg, Hongsa, Laos.
The chain around our elephants leg, Hongsa, Laos.

You see, that’s the issue here, because the domestication of elephants is nothing new to the world; in fact, for thousands of years (well into the BC era) humanity has revered the elegance of the elephant. We used the ancient art of storytelling to weave this giant beast into the myths of gods and goddesses, into legends speaking of ultimate power and wisdom. Indian mythology is ripe with elephant imagery, each story bestowing ever the more power, grace, and awe on these animals. Images of Indra, King of the Gods, draw power from the idea of this God mastering and controlling Ayravata, his elephant steed. While Ganesha, a deity know as the “Remover of Obstacles,” has an elephant head and is arguably the most popular and recognizable of the many Hindu gods.

Ganesha, a popular and prominent Hindu God
Ganesha, a popular and prominent Hindu God

Humans have waged war with elephants for centuries, their brute strength and intimidating figures were likely the deciding factor determining the outcome of many skirmishes and battles throughout history. An issue cropping up now, though, lies within globalization, tourism, and the world’s connectivity. Our growth means massive habitat loss for the Asian elephant, more demand for their productivity in questionable trades (such as the elephant logging industry which is illegal in Thailand, but still legal in Laos, Myanmar, and other areas of Asia), abuse, and a novelty factor in tourism that has put this beautiful animal on the world’s growing list of endangered animals.

eating elephant
An elephant munches on trees and bushes outside of Hongsa, Laos.

These are the elements I see within the elephant tourism industry — a lot of gray areas. And there is so much more I haven’t mentioned; the animals often sustain skin injuries from the chairs needed to haul tourists—their curved spines cannot easily support the weight — and, they need a lot of time throughout the day to eat enough food to sustain their enormous bodies (there is often not enough time to both eat and fulfill tourism duties).

Former logging elephants will often have broken backs or  malformed legs from the dangers of the job. And it’s these very same elephants, the former logging elephants that are now forced to earn their feed by spending hours upon hours hauling tourists. Numbers are dwindling because owners often cannot afford to allow the mothers the time and light load needed to gestate for 22 months, and when they are born, the baby elephants are destined for the tourism industry as well.

A baby boy elephant and his mom A frisky two small boy elephant in Hongsa, Loas.

This is the first side of the coin, later this month Ana and I will visit the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai. The Nature Park is a conservation center allowing full elephant-tourist interactions but without the riding aspect. We’ll learn more about these beautiful animals and Ana is excited to see some of the current conservationists working to preserve the Asian elephant’s place in future generations.

Through other travelers I greatly respect, they have told me this park is one of the best spots for ethical elephant tourism in Thailand, so Ana and I will report back with more information soon.

Baby camel in Wadi Rum Desert

A Little Story … Of Camels, Culture, and Jordan’s Bedouin

Unrelenting Indian sun bounced off the yellow sand, sneaking under my hat and slowly tinting my skin red as I cautiously posed next to my camel for a photo-opportunity. Before my brain even registered the aggressive nip Krishna the camel aimed in my direction, my guide intercepted, creating a needed wall of safety between me and my camel. Minutes later, as I focused the camera and zoomed in on Krishna I caught a shot of the camel spitting and jutting his head at my cousin—clearly she had gotten to close.

The novelty of the experience propelled me happily enough through my two hour ride and I left India still loving the look of camels, those huge lips, eyelashes, and long gangly legs, all angles and awkwardness, but not so much the animals themselves. They just didn’t seem to rate on the friendly-meter and certainly didn’t come close to “loving” creatures.

***

Nearly two years later, I furrowed my brows and gazed out the window of my air-conditioned car at the sun-bleached sands of the Jordanian desert stretching on either side of the highway. Sedate brown and beige camels were dotted across the desert for miles, all walking and munching on the sparse olive-green grasses daring to sprout from the dry earth. Behind these camels a lone figure, head wrapped in a faded red keffiyeh scarf, treading a slow, measured and solitary path across the barren landscape.

A Bedouin man tending his camels.

A Bedouin man treks across the desert after his camels in Jordan.
A Bedouin man treks across the desert after his camels in Jordan.

His slow pace, a pace echoing his nomadic ancestors, a direct contrast my modern car whizzing across the stretches of highway dissecting Jordan. My car slowed down when Rami, my driver, noticed my fumblings. A quick snapshot before the moment passed. And then we barreled onward, toward Wadi Rum desert where I was assured I would find more Bedouin, more camels, and yes, answers to feed the bubbling well of questions forming in my head.

Captain’s Desert Camp, Wadi Rum, Jordan

In desperate need of coffee after stowing our bags, Jodi and I met our guide, Ali, inside the giant dining tent at the Captain’s Desert Camp; it was an off time of day we were quite the sensation as Ali introduced us to the servers, workers, and other guides. The workers began making our coffee when I noticed an impish man trying to get our attention with emphatic gestures toward the tent’s back window; our curiosity sufficiently stirred, we couldn’t resist looking.

Camels!

Say cheese! Smiling camels in Wadi Rum, Jordan
Say cheese! Smiling mom and baby camel give a good-natured pose for the camera.

Not just one camel either, but four! Two knobby-legged tiny, awkward little baby camels playfully nipped at their mothers in a patch of sand at the rear side of the enclosure.

Skipping with joy, I propelled myself out the door behind Shabula, the impish man exited to show us his prides and joy. Caution was my first instinct as we neared the camels, my experiences in India flickering warnings—surely these mother camels would be doubly aggressive with protective instincts on high alert, right?

Shabula shows love and care with his camels in Wadi Rum, Jordan
Shabula’s baby camel returns his affection with a love nip in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Without a hitch in his step, or even a moment to warn the camels, Shabula greeted the closest mother camel with smiles and affection, before angling left and calling the four week old camel over to us like it was merely a goofy little puppy.

He showered the baby camel with affectionate hugs and invited us to come for a snuggle and a kiss. Up for most anything, I stroked the baby camel’s soft curly hair and planted one on him.

Shabula let's me pet the 4 week old baby camel at Captain's Desert Camp in Wadi Rum, Jordan.Moments before I got a smelly kiss from the baby camel! Wadi Rum, Jordan

Those ten minutes spent in the sandy enclosure can only be described as frolicking with the camels….and who would have ever thought you could do that?! Shabula’s genuine affection and love for each camel filled the enclosure and his interactions highlighted some of the core philosophies of desert life.

The Bedouin: Respect and Generosity

This is the point where I cop to knowing very little about Bedouin culture before I arrived in Jordan. The Bedouin are, in the simplest terms, desert inhabitants. And with a bit more to it, the Jordanian Bedouin are traditionally and culturally nomadic camel-raising tribes living in the Badia, a semi-arid desert covering 80 percent of Jordan.

Wide open spaces in Wadi Rum, Jordan
The wide open spaces in Wadi Rum, tinted orange by the setting sun, Jordan.

The Bedouin I met throughout Jordan were adapting to modernity and many were now semi-nomadic, settled near schools, and raising goat and sheep in addition to camels. Our desert camp was an intriguing experience because of the direct access to the culture, the ability to ask my very specific questions. Many of the guides and workers are first generations from the fully nomadic lifestyle of their parents, and their culture is still imprinted on them.

Talking to our guides, taking tea inside their family tents, and observing behaviors and protocol throughout our Bedouin interactions highlighted two prominent aspects of Bedouin culture: respect and hospitality.

Making fresh coffee over the fire at a Bedouin tent near the Feynan Ecolodge in Wadi Feynan, Jordan
Making fresh coffee over the fire at a Bedouin tent near the Feynan Ecolodge in Wadi Feynan, Jordan

Every interaction, every new fact and facet fit into this cultural framework. Respect for the family unit, traditions, and their animals. Shabula cared for his animals, respected them, and honored the camel as integral to his life. During my visit to a Bedouin community in Wadi Feynan , Abu Abdullah respected his family unit with grace and friendliness as he warmly invited us to tea while kindly asking to photograph the community respectfully.

He protected his cultural customs, while also displaying the absolute Bedouin hospitality; throughout the hour we spent in his tent we were offered numerous glasses of traditional tea and coffee; an offer that would be made to any visitor as a direct and unshakable Bedouin custom.

So, What Makes the Difference

I started this musing with reflections on my camel experience in India largely because the disparate experiences are a hiccup in mind when I witnessed the Bedouin’s  cultural respect for their animals. I never knew camels could be sweet and affectionate, but there was Shabula, not the exception, but rather a close and accessible example.

Shabula takes a tender, affectionate moment with his camel in Wadi Rum, Jordan
An early morning nuzzle from one of the camels on our sunrise ride in Wadi Rum.

To understand the Bedouin better, the camel is a logical starting point. Camels play a pivotal role in how nomadic tribes are able to actually traverse such vast open and inhospitable spaces. I have this picture in my mind of every clichéd Hollywood film set in the desert: of course the camel is there, and a local tending the camels. I’ve long known camels equal deserts, but why is something I’ve never bothered to ask before. Why is the camel better than, say a horse?

Mommy camel at the Desert Tent Camp in Wadi Rum, Jordan
A happy mommy camel at Captain’s Desert Tent Camp in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Asking that questioned yielded a long litany of reasons why camels may just be the most highly evolved animal on earth today. The have physiologically adapted to an extreme environment and several camel characteristics are unique only to this animal and prove the role of evolution:

  • Camels store fat for food/energy in their hump (not water).
  • Their super long eyelashes and sealable nostrils evolved to combat sand.
  • A camel’s body has a totally unique water usage system for cooling the animal, circulating blood cells and and ensuring it can’t actually over-hydrate (like humans can!).
  • Certain breeds can carry as much as 900 lbs on their backs (though it’s rare for them to carry this much).
  • The Bedouin use every part of camel, but especially rely on mother camels for protein-rich milk.

That’s why a camel rocks in general; for the Bedouin, the technical details are secondary to the function, they may not have known that camels have evolved with oval-shaped red blood cells rather than circles to facilitate blood circulation, but they did know they could take off into the desert for weeks without exhausting the animals (and yes, I wikipedia’d that fact :).

Vast vistas of Wadi Rum, Jordan
Vast Jordanian vistas looking out over the deserts the Bedouin regularly traverse with camels, fire, and family.

The relationship between Bedouin and camel trumps most others–the animals are the cornerstone reason behind their cultural traditions. Without a camel, often called the “Ship of the Desert,” humans didn’t (and maybe even still don’t) have an effective way to live and cross open desert. The bottom line comes down to respect the camel for the fundamental survival of the Bedouin lifestyle and culture.

***

A woman at the desert camp in Wadi Rum summed it up, the Bedouin live for three simple things: family, fire, and camels. Each one of these tenants is honored and respected and the results were visible as I talked with Bedouin guides, tribes, and when I dreamed up a whole life story for that lone Bedouin figure trekking through the desert, making his way back to his campfire and family, camels in tow.

turtle diving

A Little Video Memory … Turtles and Tranquility Underwater

Solitude. Tranquility. Utter peacefulness. That’s what it’s like underwater; you become a part of a world outside of human society – we can go down there for a visit, but it’s not ours.

I learned scuba diving the summer before leaving on my travels; my first stop was Australia and I was bound and determined to be comfortable underwater before hitting what I considered the mac-daddy of all sites, the Great Barrier Reef.

A Little Inspiration…A Pastel Sunrise Over Wadi Rum

The gentle vibrations from my iPhone slowly cut last clingy strings of dreams from my thoughts as I pulled myself awake. Looking at the gaps in the tent wall showed just the faintest tint of color lightening the morning sky. The dead silence surrounding me at the Desert Tent Camp in Wadi Rum invited me to curl back into my heavy blanket and claim another hour of sleep – 5:00am seems barely human for a wake up call.

My iPhone was on to me though, and just as my eyelids drifted closed the phone’s insistent buzzing woke me again. Oh yeah, a sunrise camel ride.

A Little Secret…I Watch You When You’re Not Paying Attention

Tucked away into a small corner of a local coffee shop, I’m watching you and you don’t even realize it. The curiously strong coffee clutched in my fist makes me look just like you, but instead I’m listening, assessing, judging, and filing away my observations.

You’re telling a story, and I’m watching the way you fling your hands into the air to emphasize your point. Then the quietly demure nod of the server when your Western sentimentalities embarrass her; she takes your order and scuttles away, now ensconced behind the safety of the service counter.

I people-watch.

I watch from park benches and coffee shops, sidewalk stoops and crowded markets.

Very full and busy Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai, Thailand!

Dense crowds make my heart seize (there’s just something unnerving about being so tightly packed that I’m breathing a stranger’s warm and moist exhaled breath) so instead I escape behind the crowds. I squeeze between the market tables and perch on small stool behind the market stalls. The vendors smile; they understand.

Then I watch and take note.

Behavior changes when you have no perception of being observed. That’s my favorite part. The vendors and tourists know they’re in a market surrounded by people, but they hide behind their language differences and perceived anonymity.

Street food vendor at the Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Locals assume the tourists won’t cotton on to the teasing if it’s done in Thai, and conversely, rapid exchanges in Swedish only go so far when I can obviously tell the couple is arguing over which person is about to take the role of “bad cop” in the pending price negotitations for a tacky souvenir (that they will regret. Trust me; it’s  funny, but not a keeper).

The thing is, none of those overcome the body language. The cultural cues are written on our bodies and that’s what I’m watching.

Friends visit the Taj Mahal, India.

In India, husband and wives rarely hold hands, but yet it’s a cultural norm for male friends to handhold and touch, and for women to hold hands with other women.

The French touch and gesture openly.

Young Japanese tourists are easily spotted by a face full of carefully applied makeup and a sense of style I’ve resigned myself to never actually possessing no matter how many copies of In Style I sift through.

And the Thai women like to giggle and gossip. They talk more crap about you while you’re getting your massage than you could possibly imagine.

You know how common knowledge says “you’re imaging things, people aren’t that interested in talking about you?”

Not quite true. Traveling and being intrigued by culture is a two way street – I’m here in Thailand learning about their culture, and they are staring right back at me, making assumptions and observations about Americans. The night markets in Chiang Mai are a breeding ground for gossip and trained ears pick up on the buzz of farang, farang, farang (Westerner, Westerner, Westerner) from the lips of locals as they gossip.

My people-watching props vary from city to city. Sometimes it’s an ice cream cone; other times a notebook and a shady tree. I’m unobtrusive and everyone is subject to scrutiny, tourists and locals alike, it’s fascinating to see not only a window into the local culture, but also how other people digest the culture.

Dog peeking out of shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

I find myself wondering: Has anyone else noticed the women scootering around the city on impossibly high heels? Or the forgotten street dogs, mangy and sad with tattered, dingy sweaters indicating…? I’m not sure. Perhaps that someone does care. Or maybe it’s a single crazy old lady in town knitting sweaters, chasing down dogs and swathing them in clothes?!

I don’t people watch for answers, but instead for the endless streams of questions and perpetual food-for-thought.

Sheep in Connemara, Ireland

A Little Travel Memory … The Sheep of Connemara, Ireland

In an effort to add some regularity here, I’d like to start a weekly post called “A Little Travel Memory.” A photo and mini story from current or past travels…perhaps a neat person I’ve met along the way, or a photo that has a bit of a story but not enough for a full blog post…or perhaps just a random memory.

Sheep Amongst the Heather Connemara

Ireland is one of those countries that I can’t help describing melodramatically; the country just speaks to my soul. On the Diamond Hill hike in Connemara, Ireland I spotted this sheep among the fully blooming purple heather, which brings to mind the lovely song “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go” that I used to sing back in high school when I worked at a Renaissance Festival for a couple years … it’s such a calm and pretty song and a beautiful one to have stuck in my head during solitary hikes in Ireland.

Sheep are not a novelty to most people, especially the Irish, but I couldn’t help snapping this shot because I grew up in suburbia, far from any farm life and pastures, and it calms me to take in these landscapes so different from the ones I logged in my early years of life.

You’ll notice the sun is shining in this shot. In a rare moment of total cooperation the universe gave me two weeks of perfect weather, which is an anomaly for Ireland. Bright sunshine followed the previous week’s heavy rains so the entire countryside blossomed into a riot of purples, yellows, and greens. The Irish had crispy red cheeks from sunburns by the second week of sunshine because it was so out of character for enduring blue skies.

My dad has always wanted to live in Ireland but he grew up in Panama during his childhood and Florida as an adult–he says he can’t deal with the overcast weather. I can’t fathom what he means because the weather on the entire trip  thus solidified that I now have an entirely false sense of perspective concerning Ireland’s notoriously rainy and stormy climate and for some unknown reason I left with a bizarre love of sheep?!   ;-)