Traveling across the timeless landscape of the Great Rift Valley, once again on my journey to Karatu and FAME, I am constantly reminded of the history of this region. It is measured not in centuries or millennia, but rather in the millions of years and generations of the human race and our ancestors that have lived here and have gone on to settle the remainder of our planet. This is my Mecca, or my Nirvana perhaps. It is what I have always dreamed of doing with my life and had never believed I would accomplish. And now I am here again, in this magical place where I am not only able to experience something I never thought possible, but I have also been blessed with the opportunity to help others in the process while sharing it with the residents and others I bring with me twice a year.
Having left Arusha midmorning for this trek, we of course were immediately immersed in the midday traffic of this congested city that has far too few traffic lights and far too many motorcycles crisscrossing to and from in front of you while trying to avoid the many pedestrians risking their lives to cross the street. Driving here is not for the timid, that is for certain, and once we find ourselves finally on the other side of town it is clearly a relief. I’ve commented on the traffic police here many times as they do not control traffic, but rather set up stops to check that everyone has the appropriate paperwork with their vehicle in addition to the other essentials such as a first aid kit, reflectors, and a fire extinguisher. As we just break out of town, we are flagged down at the very first stop and I’m asked for my international driver’s license which I thankfully have. I’m asked where were are heading and when I said “Karatu,” he immediately replied “safari?” I told him that we were going to FAME Medical and when he asked me if I was a doctor, I immediately replied “we’re all doctors.” I’m sure he was somewhat taken aback with the three young female residents traveling with me as the culture here clearly hasn’t caught up, but he proceeded to thank us for our service and waived us on without the usually shake down that has happened to me in the past.
Through the town of Makuyuni where we turn right while the main road continues to towards Tarangire National Park and its tsetse flies that Laura and Kelley so enjoyed during our visit there last October. On towards Lake Manyara, where Hemmingway wrote his Green Hills of Africa and his story of hunting rhinos in the 1930s (there are no more rhinos there, of course), and the village of Mto wa Mbu (Mosquito River) that sits at the entrance of the national park there. We slowly climb the escarpment out of the valley with the immense view of the lake and its surroundings behind us and the lush hills that form the Mbulumbulu region and beyond it, the Ngorongoro Highlands that form the rim to the famous crater bearing the same name and one of the highlights of a visit to Northern Tanzania.
Driving down the steep incline from Rhotia, we finally catch a glimpse of Karatu in the distance, a very dusty orange this time of year which is the dry season, but still bustling with more pedestrians than vehicles and the continuous commotion of a commerce that is based on the tourist industry as every safari vehicle heading to the crater or the Serengeti must travel through and resupply here. It is a frontier town reminiscent of the wild west or perhaps Alaska during the Klondike gold rush. There is always that sense that you are journeying into the unknown regardless of how familiar you are or how many times you have traveled forth from here. Perhaps it is that sense of the unknown that has continuously drawn me to this place of wonder.
We finally arrive to FAME just in time for lunch, the highlight of my day here. Maize and beans with a side of mchicha, a delicious dark green vegetable similar to spinach, was being served in the canteen where the entire staff of FAME eats together every day for the midday meal. After lunch it was a tour for the residents with Alex, the volunteer coordinator par excellence here at FAME. After the tour we’re ready to drive the short distance to drop our bags in the house when we discover that one of our rear tires is flat. Another every day occurrence here and something you just have to learn to live with. It usually happens to me once a visit so perhaps this will be it. After jacking up the vehicle, I finally accepted help from Hamsi and several others as each tire and wheel weigh in excess of 75 lbs. Unfortunately, the good spare on the back of the Land Cruiser is held with a lug nut of the wrong size for our wrench and is unable to be used and the other spare has seen better days in another life. Down to one of the tire shops in Karatu, I discover that our flat can’t be fixed, but at least we’re able to free the good spare so I’m good to go for now, but will need to find some good tires to put on before we head into the bush on Sunday. Just another small hurdle to overcome here and something one takes in stride.
Wednesday night is now the expat night at Happy Days, a small tavern I have enjoyed since I’ve been coming here and one of the only reasonably priced places to get a decent meal in town. There are many high end lodges, but that’s an extravagance we can only consider a few times during our visit. There are so many young volunteers here in town, working at one of private schools, orphanages or microfinance organizations here. We’re the only medical volunteers, of course, and everyone is half my age or younger. It’s still nice to share experiences with an international crowd and the stories are so varied of what has led everyone to this country. There was a young man there who had been at the American School of Field Studies two years ago and reminded me that I had seen him following a minor head injury back then. I remember him and he has returned here as so many do time and time again. There is just something about this place that gets under your skin and never lets go.
We’re home at a decent time tonight as we have our first day of clinic in the morning and everyone wants to be fresh and rested.