December 14 – 16
After Kigali, we started making our way to Tanzania. Our first destination was the town of Arusha, a town that serves as the jump-off point for the famous safari tours and for Mount Kilimanjaro. To get there we went overland. The trip was pretty rough – we spent 2.5 days on all kinds of busses and roads.
We entered Tanzania at the Rusumo Falls border. The actual border crossing is a bridge over a muddy river with a view of an equally muddy waterfall:
Crisp Bills Only
The VISA for Tanzania costs $100/each when you go with your US passport (perhaps another situation where we should have used our Israeli passports). We knew the price ahead of time, so that wasn’t a shock. But this time there was another problem. When we gave the border officer our dollars, he spent an unusually long time inspecting each bill, especially the edges. He triaged the bills into two piles, and returned one of the piles to us saying “these are no good”. We said “what do you mean they’re no good? These are legitimate US dollars that we got from the ATM in America?!” What he said is that the closest bank to this border station only has a machine to accept US bills for deposit, and that machine is very finicky. If the bill has any tears or folds, it won’t take it. As a result, the border officials only accept the crispest of bills. We were hoping to offload a bunch of our smaller bills (20’s) because we noticed that we sometimes get a better exchange rate when converting larger bills (50’s and 100’s). Unfortunately, too many of our 20’s were deemed not worthy. So, reluctantly, we gave up some of our larger bills. Pnina was pretty pissed off.
From the border we took a matatu to Kahama, where we had to stay for the night. The matatu was so fully stuffed with people that one of the locals actually complained to a policeman at one of the checkposts. The policeman forced the last-to-board guy to get off right there in the middle of nowhere. Still, up in the front row there were seven of us, four facing forward, three facing back, with our legs all interlocked. It was kind of uncomfortable. I had my left knee just a little too deep in this one guy’s crotch.
In Kahama we met a local guy, Amani, who joined us for lunch. He got his training as a civil engineer, but he said it’s just too difficult to find jobs in that trade. So instead he works as a union representative. The interesting part of the conversation with him was when he told us that his elder daughter has epilepsy. In America I think it would be unusual for someone to reveal such a private thing to near strangers, but I guess here it’s OK.
From Kahama we took a bus all the way to Arusha. The ride was supposed to take 12 hours, 6 AM to 6 PM. But our ride took 18 hours. Why so long? Because the bus kept breaking down. Each time, the driver would pull over and crouch under the front to fix whatever was wrong – we never figured out what it was. But each time the fix was only temporary, and sometime later the bus would break down again. Our longest stop was about 3 hours, totally in the middle of nowhere:
We rolled into Arusha after midnight. Pnina and I checked into the Monje Guest House, which was our base for the next couple of weeks.
Serengeti and Kilimanjaro – Logistics and Prices
The next day we spent several hours making plans for the rest of our time in Tanzania. The problem was that we were starting to run short on time before our flight to Ethiopia, and there were a few things we really wanted to do: a safari in the Serengeti, a climb up Mount Kilimanjaor, and a visit to the island of Zanzibar.
We realized that the only way to accomplish all three was to book an extra flight from Arusha directly to Zanzibar and back, thereby saving us the 2 days of travel in each direction. The flight, on Precision Air, cost $312 each. We were lucky to get some of the last available seats on the flight as this was holiday season.
Having booked the flight, we set about looking for a tour company to take us on the safari and up the mountain. Competition is fierce. Arusha has more than 200 tour companies, all of which do essentially the same tours. You have to bargain. In our case we visited 7-8 different companies to compare prices. What we found is that there is only so much wiggle room to reduce the price. We went with a company called Shidolya and we ended up getting the 4-night 4-day safari for $560 each, and the 5-day mountain climb for $800 each. Sounds expensive? Yup. This was our second bout of sticker shock (the first was when we went gorilla tracking). Why so expensive? Once again the government is to blame. For example, out of the $800 we each paid for Kilimanjaro, about $520 is for park fees.
If you book these tours, you should know that you can get a better price by joining other people on the safari – the jeeps can accommodate 5 or 7 people, and if the jeep is full then everybody gets a better price (you share the cost of fuel, car entrance fees, and guide fees). On the other hand, when you go on Kilimanjaro it doesn’t make too much of a difference whether you go it alone or join other people. There’s not much fuel to burn because you’re on your feet all day, and if you add more visitors then they add more guides and porters, so the cost doesn’t change much.
We certainly didn’t bring this kind of cash with us, so all of a sudden Pnina and I had a dilemma – how to pay for all this? Our ATM cards only allowed us to take out so much money per card each day, so we went about visiting the ATM at every possible opportunity – before the safari, after the safari, and after the mountain climb. Each time we had to remember that a new day actually begins at 11 AM, not midnight, because our banks are located in America. At one point we were overzealous and one of Pnina’s cards was confiscated by the ATM! The machine just swallowed up the card without even prompting us for the pin or anything else. Crap! I guess our daily withdrawls looked kind of suspicious to some bank software out there. As a result, we were able to withdraw less money the following days, which made it even harder for us to pay off the trips. But the guys at Shidolya were really gracious about our financial issues. They allowed us to pay for the trips in steps, and they even gave us multiple rides to the bank to make it easier. Thanks Shidolya!
Having shelled out all this money for the tours you’d like to think that you don’t need to pay any more. But you’re wrong. Why? Because this doesn’t include the tips! On the safari you have a driver and a cook. The driver generally gets $25/day from the group, while the cook gets $15/day. OK, not so bad. But then you have the mountain trek where you have a huge entourage. Pnina and I had one guide, one assistant guide, one cook, and four porters, and each of them gets a daily tip from $8 to $25. This really adds up. We found it kind of annoying that these tips are pretty much obligatory, as opposed to what tips should be – extra money for an exceptional job. But we kept in mind that these guides, cooks, and porters are at the bottom of the ladder, and they tend to get screwed with low wages while the members of parliament pocket the fat proceeds from park fees.
War Crimes Tribunal
Arusha is an appropriate place to visit after seeing the genocide memorial in Kigali. Why? Because Arusha is the place where the war crimes tribunals for the Rwandan genocide are taking place. Why Arusha? Apparently it’s considered the center of East Africa, and it was used for various negotiations when some (few) people attempted to thwart the genocide. We heard from other travelers that the tribunals are open and free for visitors to attend, and we thought it might be another interesting angle on the aftermath of the genocide. And it turned out that the Shidolya office is in the same complex where the tribunals take place, what a coincidence. But then it also turned out that the tribunals were on recess for the holidays on each of the days when we happened to be in Arusha. So unfortunately we missed them.