Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A great town called Glasgow...

I’m sitting in a great little café in Glasgow called ‘Where the Monkey Sleeps’. It’s an appropriate name given the brass monkey weather outside and I’m enjoying a respite from the chill (cold today even by Glasgow standards) wind outside with a great coffee to the tune of classic Led Zeppelin pumping out nice and LOUD. I’m listening at the moment to “When the Levy Breaks” and it’s reminding me how much I love and miss LedZep. This basement café comprises an eclectic but welcoming mix of nooks, crannies, armchairs and vivid album art wall coverings. Grace Jones, Parliament, Talking Heads, Iron Maiden and a hundred other record jackets stare down at me like reminders of a bygone era, asking why we have forsaken the great music of the LP era.

It’s such a contrast from last week in 35 degrees in Dar Es Salaam. Scotland is having an unusually cold winter and although I’ve missed the worst of the snow and sleet, the hills around are still snow capped and it struggles to push much past zero degrees each day. Fortunately it’s mostly sunny which makes the chill surrounds quite beautiful and I’ve enjoyed a bit of hiking in the hills near Perth and the coastline of Carnoustie so far. Scotland is such a mix of urban sprawl, rolling hills, farmlets and ancient villages that it defies summary. The urban sprawl has it’s own problems and is hardly beautiful but you can’t help but fall in love with the countryside and hamlets here. It’s especially seductive on a sunny day but I’m not fooled into thinking (however much I might like to) that it is always like this.

I’ve been meaning to write about my 5 days in Serengeti, Ngorogoro Crater and Lake Manyara but it’s been OBE’d (Overtaken By Events). Suffice to say it was brilliant! I spent 5 days in a modified Landcruiser Troopcarrier standing up through holes in the roof like the turret of a tank. I had been thinking of just driving through the parks myself but you see and understand so much more with a professional guide. African Scenic Safaris (www.africanscenicsafaris.com) were great and I’d give them a big thumbs up if you’re looking for a great way to see the Serengeti. It can be pretty full on experience though. Who would think it could be exhausting each day just sitting in a 4WD but the 5 of us (plus driver/guide and cook) managed to collapse into our tents exhausted each night after our pre-dawn starts and sunset finishes. The entire trip was great but highlights in particular included:
  • dawn balloon ride spotting animals from the air drifting 50 feet above the vast, vast plains of the Serengeti
  • sunset over the Serengeti and sunrise over Ngorogoro
  • seeing the sheer abundance, density and diversity of animal life in the region
  • watching Wildebeest being born
  • being mesmerized for ages just watching lions and cheetah hunting
  • seeing lion cubs suckling beside our vehicle

Biggest highlight for me though was being alone on foot with a 5 tonne bull elephant at the Ngorogoro Crater campsite. After watching him skirt the campsite for a while, eating his way through a swath of vegetation just outside the campground I wandered down about 40m past where the sensible people had propped to photograph him and positioned myself where he’d have to walk by. He ambled along to about 20m away and we held eye contact for 5 minutes or more which was amazing! One of those moments like motorcycling or abseiling. Words fail me but the feeling is something like being suddenly reminded of what it means to be truly alive and present in the moment.

Elephants I’m told will tell you when they don’t want you any closer. Apparently the body language starts with ear flapping, goes on to trunk raising, moves through trumpeting and a 45 km/h gallop, before ending (should you still be stupid enough to be within range) with you being trampled into pink squishy mush. As you can imagine, I was paying particular attention to the body language of my newfound friend but to be honest it was pure conjecture on my part. I’ve learned in life though to trust my instincts and they were saying that I could have gotten much closer, perhaps to 5m even. I was sorely tempted to do so and the internal debate raged. In the end I reflected that if Anton Turner, a professional guide, armed with 15 years experience and a high velocity rifle, could be tragically killed by a bull elephant the week before I was due to meet him then it would be a good risk management decision for this unarmed biped with precisely zero experience to exercise caution. Hence, after 10 minutes I moved back to our campsite with a huge, huge grin, some amazing photos and a determination to learn more about elephants in order to do it again. It was a rush that left me feeling very tranquil but also very alive! A special moment in life and my personal highlight of many highlights.

Since then I’ve spent a few days in Dar, swimming and planning for next season in Tanzania. I managed to get pulled over and ticketed by police for the first time in Tanzania just a few hours before the end of my 6 day drive. Strangely enough, I was pulled over again for the second time in Tanzania about 10 minutes later. The fee for not having a registration certificate with me was 20,000 TSH (~USD$15) for which I demanded a receipt and duly received one. The second time I was stopped, I was offered the choice of paying 40,000 TSH “with receipt” or “20,000 without receipt”. Seems like you can in fact negotiate it down to 10,000 and a bag of cashews if you don’t need a receipt though. So it goes in Tanzania and much of the world I guess. When in Rome...

I’ve been in Scotland for 5 days now and the cold weather is a huge difference but the least of the differences from my past few months in Tanzania. One of the things that I love about travel is that vague confusion that comes from frequent changes of location - waking up in the morning to different lands, environments, accents, languages, weather, cuisine, culture and more. The slight disorientation, vague and subtle though it is, somehow pleasantly frees you to see the world (and yourself) anew again. Eventually it fades as you get used to your surroundings but I’m enjoying it while it lasts.  In a moment I'll savour the experience of soaking in the sights and sounds of Glasgow as I head back to the train station along the darkening streets at sunset.

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