We had finished our goat roast and had all hiked back to the vehicle to begin our journey back up onto the crater rim high above. Turtle was surrounded by a giant herd of goats, many of which were laying underneath or close by to take advantage of the shade. We handed off my last bag of candy that I had brought to one of the Maasai from the boma who would give it out later so as to prevent a mob scene that would delay our departure. The climb from very near the valley floor to the crater rim is quite steep and as you ascend there is a sense that you are traveling through time as much as you are altitude. In this region, man took his very first footsteps on this planet and the importance of that fact does not go unnoticed.
Along the road, we encountered more giraffe enjoying the thorny acacia that only they can eat with their foot-long tongues. They are truly skittish animals that will begin to run the moment you stop your vehicle and they look as though they are in slow motion while doing so. They are incredibly graceful animals to watch, but the kick of their rear legs can be quite deceiving as it can be fatal for even lions on the attack.
Our next stop was the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, where a good friend had invited us to stop by for coffee and a tour. The Crater Lodge, as it is simply called here, is known for being the most exclusive lodge in the NCA and perhaps all of Norther Tanzania. It had begun as a hunting lodge in the 1930s and existed as such for many years until, after independence in the early 1960s, it became a lodge for wildlife viewing and not hunting. It is now an enclave of three small “villages,” with a total of 30 rooms, or actually small huts, that have the ultimate in luxury while still maintaining the feel that you are in East Africa. The lodge is frequented by celebrities and others who wish to maintain their privacy and the cost for this is obviously not something that any of us on this outing could possibly afford and certainly not the FAME employees that I had brought here for the day.
It turned out that the Lodge had been closed for the last seven months during the pandemic and that our visit was going to be the first of any “guests.” The staff of the lodge were all incredibly excited to do a test run of their new coronavirus protocols on us before they had to deal with their paying customers who would likely be far more critical than we were going to be. Ladislaus, our host, was waiting for us after we drove through the gate of the Lodge and immediately greeted all of us as we piled out of the car. It had just begun to rain in the area and he had brought a number of umbrellas for us to share on the short walk to the main central building of the village we would be seeing today. As we entered the building, we were again greeted by other employees who carried a tray with soap and water to wash our hands and then another with towels for each of us to dry ourselves before sitting in the plush upholstered chairs and sofas of the sitting room where we were to be served our coffee and pastries.
The word elegance would not fully encompass the feeling that one has entering the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge and that was totally evident as we were attended to by the marvelous staff that were, for the first time, encountering guests in the age of COVID-19. They were, of course, wonderful, and we all enjoyed coffee and tea poured from silver pots into fine china cups along with cookies and sweets that were made by the kitchen for us as Ladislaus answered questions from the others about the Lodge and its history. The views into the crater are spectacular and, as the rain stopped, the clouds seemed to miraculously disappear with a bright blue sky suddenly appearing to everyone’s delight. After we were finished in the main building, though, Ladislaus offered to take us on a tour of one of the nearby rooms so that everyone could appreciate the something of the experience of staying here in this lodge.
All of the rooms have similar, unobstructed views into the crater, both from the king sized bed as well as from the bathroom area where there are picture windows in from of the dressing area and the claw footed bathtub where you can soak in privacy with one of the very best views of the crater floor far below. There are also fireplaces in each and every room as it can get quite cold here on the crater rim which is over 8000 feet in elevation. When we had camped on our original safari in 2009, they had put hot water bottles in our beds to warm them before we retired.
It was clear that the entire group was fully enjoying themselves as this had been an opportunity that none of us would have had most likely if the camp had been up and running so, again, it’s one of those silver linings that have occurred in the face of the pandemic. Everyone was taking selfies and group photos whenever there was a chance to do so, which was quite often, given that we were the only ones there at the moment. This had been a day that none of us would soon forget and certainly not the group that I had brought today and had the privilege to have spent the entire day with here in the conservation area. It is interesting, though, to think of a country in which its citizens are mostly unable to visits these sites (the parks, that is, not the Crater Lodge) of extreme importance in the world and which are national treasures. It is true that the entrance fees to the parks are massively reduced for their citizens, but it is the other costs of a vehicle and fuel that are prohibitive for them. Children are brought here for school trips in buses, but that is a once in a lifetime event for a chosen few of them and they rarely return even if they have been so lucky. Though I have continually wrestled with this dilemma, I was grateful today for having made it possible for my fellow FAME workers to have come and shared this with me.
As we left the lodge and bid farewell to Ladislaus, everyone thanking him profusely for the opportunity to have spent some time there, even as short as it was, we made our way back around the crater rim in the direction of the Loduare Gate at the entrance to the NCA. The chatter and laughing in the back of Turtle were all clear signs that the group had a wonderful day in the crater, of which I had no doubt, but it was still a wonderful affirmation of what this trip had meant to them. Though I normally bring my residents on these trips, to share with them the amazing sights and cultures of Tanzania, there was something quite different in how I felt today, for I was sharing with this group something that was already rightfully theirs and the ability to do this made me happier than you can ever imagine.
Having driven for much of the day, and driving that was often a bit more physical given the roads we were on, I was a bit tired, but had promised Daniel that I would come for dinner tonight after our miscommunication the night before. I dropped everyone off at various spots along the route home and finally made it to the comfort of the Raynes House where there still enough hot water in the kuni boiler (our outdoor wood fired water heaters that are used here) from the morning since I’m the only one staying here. Refreshed, I dressed and jumped in Turtle to head across town to visit the Tewa residence. I have known Daniel and his family since 2009 as he is a village elder of Ayalabe, which is where I volunteered with the kids for several days as part of our original visit here. We had been given the job of doing painting at their school and Daniel was there painting with us, as well as harassing many of the teenagers watching as to why these visitors from the US were painting and they were standing around watching. Many of them pitched in as Daniel can be a force of nature at times and I’m sure that none of them wished to suffer his wrath at some time in the future.
What began as a simple meeting with paint brushes in hand has developed into a long term friendship that has meant so much to each of us. From my first trip back when Daniel invited to his home for dinner, we have spent time together on each and every subsequent visit and I have learned much of what I know about Tanzanian life and culture from him as he was here before their independence and recalls what life was like before that time. But it is far beyond that simple fact that makes Daniel such a special treasure, for he is the most well-informed person I know regarding international events and politics, yet he has never traveled out of the country. His knowledge of US history is often far beyond any of the visitors I bring to his home and he loves to test that fact when we’re sitting outside his home having coffee.
I once asked him what he would think about visiting the US, a place he knows so much about, and he looked at me somewhat incredulously and asked how that would benefit his family and what would be the purpose. In that simple answer, I began to understand some of the differences between our cultures. Life here is very practical and, whether people can afford to or not, travel for pleasure is not something that is on everyone’s mind here. Nor is accumulating “stuff.” When Abdulhamid visited my apartment at home, he was unable to understand why I had so many “things” there, like my huge Native American basket collection that gives me great pleasure in life, but is certainly not something that could be considered practical by any stretch. Walking to dinner one night amid all of the high end shops on Walnut Street in Philadelphia, me feeling very much embarrassed for the incredible opulence that we have, the two of us eventually concluded that the US is a country of “lots of stuff.” Reconciling that view in the grand scheme of things can be very difficult, indeed, and something that I am often struggling with here.
When I had first come, it was always Daniel and I, either alone or with one of his neighbors that stopped by to meet me, but we always had intense conversations on many subjects of life and politics while I was there. In the more recent years, he has insisted each and every time that I bring over the entire group of residents to his home, or to be more accurate, his daughter’s home, to have a delicious dinner with him. This is an event that is one of the highlights of most resident’s visit here, and rightly so, as we have traditional foods of the Iraqw culture, though perhaps served a bit fancier. Daniel shows everyone the replica underground Iraqw home that he built back in the 1990s as a demonstration and has become quite famous as they do not exist elsewhere. He teaches everyone about the original Iraqw culture and traditions for the Iraqw are one of the most populous tribes in this region and make up the bulk of who we treat at FAME along with the Maasai. Simply put, Daniel is a national treasure and a person who I have been honored to spend time with over the years.
Needless to say, it had been an incredibly long day for me and, getting back to the Raynes House that night, I was surely looking forward to some rest that was very soon to come. Tomorrow would be another week of seeing patients here at FAME and I was looking forward to each and every moment.