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Rafiki: Friend

More than a Name
Rounding out the Swahili words I was familiar with prior to Tanzania is the simple word “rafiki.” Rafiki means more than just the name of the wise, prophetic monkey in the Disney movie. It means “friend.”
Like in Ghana, Tanzania was a remarkably friendly country, with well-intentioned strangers everywhere, ready to lend a hand or help where possible. Relationships in Tanzania are born first from conversations and lengthy greetings, then by common interests and purposes. In Tanzania, I made a number of great friends that will not soon escape my memory. But, as tends to be typical of me, my most memorable friends were those I played soccer with: Jakob and Castro.
Castro
When my small plane landed in Mwanza, my backpack and I skipped the baggage-claim hassles and went straight to the streets, where a taxi-driver asked if I needed a lift. He introduced himself as ‘Castro’ (maybe not a typical Swahili name), and proceeded to drive me to my hotel on Lake Victoria. Along the way, we talked soccer, and arranged to meet later in the day to go out to the soccer fields by the airport. I wanted to watch some good soccer in northern Tanzania. Castro had other plans for me.
After I arrived, Castro handed me his cleats, and showed me his ankle. “Swollen, see? Injured last week.” While he hobbled around as the referee, I put his cleats to use and played striker on his team. Through soccer – which remains the one global language that transcends verbiage or grammar patterns – Castro welcomed me into his group of friends. No longer seen solely as a ‘Mzungu’, I was now a rafiki. And I was invited to return the next day to take part in a more official match.

Jakob
How’s this for a random act of kindness: walk a wandering stranger through your village for 20 minutes to get back to the main road. Show him your home. Ensure his safety. Translate for him when necessary. Jakob – my 15 year old impromptu tour guide in Mwanza – did all of these things for me, the lost, aimlessly wandering white guy who stumbled upon his village. On the walk, he showed me his home, introduced me to his brothers, and made sure my valuables were out of sight when we walked through the crowded part of his neighborhood. Through some Swahinglish, we exchanged life stories over a Coke once we returned to the main road. His showcased his soccer skills for us, juggling a soccer ball made from plastic bags, a rock in the middle, and fishing-wire.

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Safari: the Journey

The Swahili word ‘safari’ means to embark on a journey. To go away. To move between two points. Thus, you can have a successful safari without seeing lions, elephants, or giraffes. And in Tanzania, the thrill of the safari is the process of the journey itself. Like life, the safari is not about the destination so much as it is about the ride itself.

With this meaning in mind, I went on several safaris over the course of my stay in Tanzania.
Zanzibar
It started with a two hour ferry ride across a sliver of the Indian Ocean to arrive at the turquoise waters off the Zanzibar coast, and ended with a terrifying 12-seater flight back to point A three days later. As the previous post describes in detail, my journey to Zanzibar was a weekend I’ll never forget.
Mwanza > Musoma > Arusha > Dar es Salaam (by bus)
The second largest city in Tanzania, settled on the southernmost point of Lake Victoria, Mwanza made a great stopping point during my trip’s second safari. The city itself is pleasant; smaller and more spread out than Dar es Salaam, it has a more communal feel than either Arusha or Dar. Capri Point provides a nice spot to look out over the fishing boats and trading vessels traveling across Africa’s largest lake, and the market – accessible and friendly – shows the life of the city.
People often provide the defining memories of a safari. And the Tanzanians I got to know in Mwanza were truly gracious and welcoming. I was invited to join the airport’s soccer team – consisting of taxi drivers who shuttle foreigners from the airport to the nicer hotels in town and several airport employees. Though I didn’t produce a goal, I was able to provide an assist en route to a 2-2 draw against another local team. Our team wore Manchester United replica jerseys (completing my transfer from Arsenal to Manchester United; see last summer’s post from Ghana). Lake Victoria was beautiful, and Mwanza was an excellent launching point for my safari back to Dar.
From Mwanza, I took three bus rides in three days to return to Dar es Salaam. My safari took me first north to the fishing town of Musoma, then back east via the Serengeti to Arusha, and finally southwest past Mount Kilimanjaro back to Dar es Salaam. After spending 25 hours on a bus in 3 days, I emerged with a new appreciation for paved roads and deodorant, as well as several new friends and fun stories from the journey across Tanzania. It was truly a great safari, and the highlight of my trip.
The Mzungu Safari…
With 18 days in country, I was able to spend some time on what a Westerner (“Mzungu) considers a true ‘safari’ – driving around for hours in hopes of seeing some of nature’s most incredible creatures in the wild, before they run off at the sight and sound of a vehicle. With friends from the embassy, I traveled to Mikumi National Park, a small game reserve a few hours southwest of Dar, which proved to be a very inexpensive yet successful alternative to the Serengeti. And, as mentioned, my safari from Mwanza to Dar took me on a micro-safari through the Sergenti itself, though my bus-driver’s break-neck race-pace down a road full of pot-holes and gravel sent the herds of zebras scurrying and kept the larger game out of sight. Still, seeing these animals in the wild – whether at Kruger in South Africa or Mikumi in Tanzania – is truly awe-inspiring.
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Hakuna Matata: Zanzibar

“Hakuna Matata.”

I can say with confidence that this wonderful (Swahili) phrase, meaning “no worries,” was the first I fully internalized. I suppose I owe my thanks mostly to Timon and Pumba of The Lion King. But if the Disney movie taught me what the phrase meant, Zanzibar showed me.

White sand beaches. Narrow, winding alleyways. Silhouettes of dhows sailing on turquoise water against orange-pastel sunsets. Everything about Zanzibar is exotic and welcoming. And to cap it all off, the phrase “Hakuna Matata” not only embodies the island’s pace and way of life, but surfaces regularly in conversations.
I found this phrase remarkably easy to incorporate into my exchanges with the locals during my 72 hour stay on the island…
-Bad pass on the beach-side soccer field? No worries. “Hakuna Matata.”
-No, I don’t need a taxi, a tour-guide, or a porter. Just walking. “Hakuna Matata.”
-You’re trying to sell me that painting for three times what it’s worth? I’m not buying it, but “Hakuna Matata” anyway.
-No idea what I’m saying in English? I can’t understand your Swahili, either. “Hakuna Matata” (and a smile).
Making the most of Zanzibar
Language-training aside, my stay in Zanzibar was superb. Zanzibaris are understandably welcoming to the tourists and foreigners who are driving their economy. And tourists who came to Tanzania to relax could easily spend a week in Zanzibar: the beaches on the east coast are pristine. Snorkeling, sailing trips, and tours of the island’s spices are easy to arrange. And Stone Town has enough to fill several days worth of historical sight-seeing alone.
With just two full days and a morning in Zanzibar, I spent a night on a quiet beach on the east coast in the pleasant village of Jambiani, spent Saturday evening walking the winding alleys of Stone Town and eating at Foradhani Gardens, and spent Sunday touring the Old Slave Market at the Anglican Church as well as the old Palace Museums. And if soccer is your sport, as it is mine, then stopping by the sporting grounds to join a pick-up game is an absolute must.
If I could do Zanzibar all over again, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. Except, perhaps, pick up a bit more Swahili than just the one phrase. But no worries. “Hakuna Matata.”
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My Crash Course in Swahili

Tanzania: my introduction to East Africa.

Having traveled to West and Southern Africa, I found myself wanting to experience the culture on the Swahili Coast. Time allowed for a three week trip to Tanzania, a country world-famous for its game parks (notably the Serengeti), Africa’s highest peak in Mount Kilimanjaro, and its white-sand beaches.

Yet after a couple of days on the ground in-country, warning signs appeared that my choice to visit Tanzania would produce two unfortunate and closely linked consequences: high costs and tourists.
The costs of tourists.
You would think that in a region of the world – Sub-Saharan Africa – where 50% of the population makes less than $1 a day, costs of travel and food would be cheaper than in the West. Not so in Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital of the country. Nor is it so in Arusha, the tourist-capital of the country. Nor in Zanzibar, the beautiful and historic island a two hour ferry ride off the coast. See the trend?
Because of Tanzania’s popularity as a tourist destination, prices in urban centers – especially in areas where Mzungu (foreigners) are likely to be present – rival the costs of living in the suburbs of a US city.
“If I wanted to relax, I would not have come to Africa.”
The second consequence happens to be the tourists themselves. It’s difficult to enjoy parts of the country simply because of the population density of foreigners, eager to take advantage of the white sands, the views, and the wildlife, without the slightest interest in the history and the people of Tanzania.
As a result, taxi drivers, hotel managers, and travel agents flocked to me over the course of my time in Tanzania, eager to tell me where I could go to ‘relax.’ But that wasn’t the purpose of my trip. As Paul Theroux puts it in his travel memoir Dark Star Safari, “If I wanted to relax I would not have come to Africa.” Rather than relax with the other foreigners on the white-sand beaches a stone’s throw from barefoot children living in homes made of mud, I wanted to see the real Tanzania. Ultimately, it would require leaving the urban centers entirely.
Still, despite the negative externalities of my choice to visit Tanzania, the benefits outweighed the costs in the end, and the country’s people, history, and culture left me with yet another unforgettable visit to Africa. It was a crash-course in Swahili, where I learned new phrases and realized that I already had some of the language built into my vocabulary.

Hakuna Matata, Rafiki, Safari.
Those three Swahili concepts account for the better memories of my time spent in East Africa. In the next three posts, I’ll elaborate on each one.
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Arizona: Grand Canyon

I’ve seen some awesome sights in some extraordinary places: the Swiss Alps, the South African Savannah, the beaches of Ghana. But nothing I’ve seen compares to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The sheer scale of the Canyon and its intricate rock faces against the backdrop of the wide clear blue sky are simply incredible, and leave you breathless.

Of course, I enjoyed these views with Jordan, so my experience is probably a bit biased in the positive direction. Still, the Grand Canyon was one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been.
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World Cup Week 2 Recap

Our second week of the World Cup was stellar. Of the eight teams we watched play in the last four games, four would go on to make the quarterfinals (which kick off Friday July 2). We were also able to witness live what many are calling one of the best sports moments in World Cup history on Wednesday, June 23.
Sunday June 20 – Brazil v Ivory Coast.
The appeal to this game was straightforward: the world’s best team against Africa’s best team, live in the biggest stadium in Johannesburg. Brazil, FIFA’s number one ranked team going into the tournament, were the favorites against the Ivory Coast squad, and proved their superiority in an impressive 3-1 win. The game’s atmosphere was stellar. South Africans mostly supported their fellow African side, a team that features Didier Drogba who plays for the English Premier League club Chelsea. There was no shortage of incredible talent on the field, and also no shortage of great goals in the match. It lived up to our expectation as one of the best games we were able to see in South Africa.
Monday June 21 – Spain v Honduras.
The Spain-Honduras game was one of our late additions. When we realized that the Spain game was at Ellis Park on a day where we had no other games planned, and tickets became available, we instantly decided it was an opportunity too good to pass up. We had better seats for the match than any of our other games, and watched as Spain regained its form and beat Honduras 2-0. David Villa scored two incredible goals, and Spain showcased soccer at its finest. Of the teams we were able to see play, Spain was probably the most enjoyable side to watch.
Wednesday June 23 – USA v Algeria.
In terms of excitement, I would put being in the stadium Pretoria in the 92nd minute of this match up against any other exciting moment of my life so far, including the hat-toss at West Point just a month earlier. It took 90 minutes of soccer plus 90 seconds of injury time for the US to get the goal it needed to stay alive in the tournament. But when it finally happened, the crowd erupted into a moment of complete euphoria. We hugged everyone wearing red, white, and blue, and celebrated the goal like true fanatics. It helped that my favorite US player Landon Donovan scored the goal, too.
What made the evening even more exciting, however, was the blitz out of the stadium, as Logan and I sprinted to meet our host, Mr. Verwey, as we prepared to drive to from Pretoria to Joburg for the night game at Soccer City.
3 hours later… – Germany v. Ghana.
Our original itinerary didn’t feature this double header; we had planned only to attend to the Germany-Ghana game. Yet when tickets became available for the USA-Algeria match just an hour away from Soccer City, we knew we had to try to make the quick trip and experience both games in the span of just over six hours. And in the end, it was a great decision. Germany, Logan’s favorite non-US team, played brilliantly and got the win they needed to top the group and advance to the elimination stages. Meanwhile, Ghana also advanced out of Group D, and thus prepared to square off against the US in the round of 16. We were happy with both results. And seeing another night game in Soccer City was the perfect exclamation point on our World Cup experience.
And so ended our World Cup run: in 11 days we saw eight games live in three different stadiums in Johannesburg and Pretoria. Expensive? Yes. Worth every dime? Absolutely. The chance to watch the world’s game at its highest level in Africa was the experience of a lifetime for the two of us. It was a trip we’ll never forget.
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World Cup Week 1 Recap

Logan and I are half way through our World Cup dream-trip. So far we’ve seen four games. Blogging has been difficult here… the World Cup coverage is 24/7, so Logan and I are taking full advantage. Here’s a quick recap of our action here so far.

Sunday June 13 – Ghana v Serbia.
Our first live World Cup game, we ordered tickets to this match because of my support of the “Black Stars” after my time spent in Ghana last summer. The Ghanaian crowd was incredible. Ghana flags flew proudly throughout the stadium, drums played alongside the vuvuzelas, and the match provided some tremendous action. In the final minutes Ghana broke the deadlock by scoring a penalty kick. They went onto win, making them the first African team to win a game in the first World Cup on African soil. Appropriate post-game celebrations followed, as fans from Ghana and South Africa stayed long after the final whistle to celebrate and cheer on the players, who acted as if they had just won the World Cup. We enjoyed the game at the Luftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, a phenomenal venue. It was a great World Cup debut.

Monday June 14 – Netherlands v Denmark.
Our second game was Holland v Denmark on Monday. This was a hugely anticipated game in the group-stage, which made it exciting to watch. The highlight for us may have been just taking in the sights, sounds, and sheer size of ‘Soccer City’ in Johannesburg. 83,000 fans were present for the match, mostly South Africans and Dutch supporters. We cheered on the Dutch in our orange as well. Holland had the clear advantage going in – in support, in skill, and even in the chairs in Soccer City (which are painted orange). They went on to win the game 2-0, and Logan and I enjoyed it from great seats in the lower-level. This was the first of four games we have at Soccer City while here.

Thursday June 17 – Argentina v South Korea.
Lionel Messi is one of the most entertaining players in the world to watch, which is why Logan and I ordered tickets to the Argentina v Korea fixture Thursday. Our seats were in the highest section, which gave us more of a tactical perspective on the match than the more typical up-close-and-personal action shots you get when you watch a game live. The game was of huge importance to both teams, as they entered tied at the top of the table in Group B. Messi was spectacular, and was involved in each of Argentina’s four goals. The Argentine’s won 4-1 in a match that was hugely entertaining to watch. 82,000 fans were on hand, with most supporting Messi’s Argentina.

Friday June 18 – USA v Slovenia.
USA-Slovenia was our most anticipated match coming into the tournament, as we were psyched to get the chance to cheer on the Yanks in person. We woke up nervous Friday morning, both knowing that the US
could not afford to lose to Slovenia, or their tournament would effectively be over. Our South African hosts came with us to the match as well, which made it that much more exciting for all of us. We had incredible seats – eight rows up from the action. The only down side was the way the first half unfolded. Slovenia scored twice. All of a sudden, our high hopes for the US side seemed pretty bleak. But my favorite US player, Landon Donovan, provided the spark three minutes after halftime with a great goal to turn things around. All of a sudden the crowd was alive and optimistic, though still on edge. Michael Bradley’s late goal brought euphoria to the mostly pro-American crowd, and Maurice Edu’s late goal would likely have caused celebratory riots had it not been called back. Still, a 2-2 draw was satisfying. The US lives to play another day (Wednesday, vs Algeria). The good news? Logan and I bought tickets to the Algeria game in Pretoria. We can’t wait.

And that’s how it stands after our first four matches. We used our better judgment and decided to purchase extra tickets to US-Algeria and Spain-Honduras this week, meaning we’re just half way through our games. Lots more pictures, stories, and memories to come.

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Kruger Park Safaris

I didn’t expect to have a staring contest with an elephant on this trip. Our time in South Africa was intended to revolve around the World Cup. But with three full days to travel and settle-in before our first live game Sunday afternoon, our hosts decided to surprise us with a trip north. Cue the elephants.

More accurately: cue the animal kingdom.

During our first Safari Thursday afternoon, we saw four of the ‘big five’ in less than three hours. Elephants, rhinos, leopards, and buffaloes were among the incredible animals we saw. At times, we sat and waited as elephants crossed the road in front of us. We watched giraffes eat from treetops, zebras and impalas grazed in the open plains, and hippos splashed around in the water. Baboons and hyenas made their way along the sides of the roads we drove down, taking no interest in our vehicle.

At times it felt like I was dreaming. Songs from the soundtrack of The Lion King made their way through our heads, as we took in the phenomenal scenery and unbelievable wildlife. The soccer games will likely still be the highlight of this trip for us. But my staring contests with the elephants, giraffes, and buffalo of Kruger Park are engraved in my memory forever.

To prove that a) I wasn’t dreaming, and b) I’m not making this up, I’ve posted the best pictures from our time on Safari below. Enjoy!

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Bafana’s Opening Match Fan-Fest

“Viva Bafana Bafana!”

Logan and I didn’t have tickets to the opening match of the World Cup. And in some ways, I’m glad. The experience we enjoyed at a gathering of some 30,000 South African locals in the northeastern part of the country was one that I’ll never forget.

South Africans, who had been anticipating the start of this World Cup since they were named the 2010 hosts six years ago, woke up Friday morning ready to support their home side. Gardeners, shop-keepers, taxi drivers and everyone in between wore their yellow and green jerseys. South African flags lined the streets, hung in store windows, and flew on cars throughout the country.

We watched the opening match at a rugby stadium in Nelspruit, one of the host cities. Arriving a few hours before game-time, we bought some replica South African jerseys, and prepared for the most anticipated soccer game ever to be played on African soil. Prior to the game we watched the official opening ceremonies for the tournament, and as it neared game time the stands and playing surface of the Nelspruit stadium became entirely jam-packed, shoulder to shoulder with South Africans. Game on.

The match didn’t disappoint. South Africa’s team, nicknamed “Bafana Bafana,” had the entire country behind them, including the fan-fest’s crowd. With Vuvuzelas blaring, the fans danced and cheered through a scoreless first half. Logan and I made friends with a few locals and enjoyed the passion in the stadium as South Africans savored the moment.

When the second half started, we made our way to the middle of the mayhem to take pictures of the scene. As we started to move back towards our seats, we caught a glimpse of the play building up on the big screen: a South African player broke loose with the ball in the mid-field, and played it through to a Striker who received it well in space. Two beautiful touches later, the ball was in the back of the net. South Africa’s team – the unlikely underdogs – shocked Mexico and scored the first goal of the tournament in beautiful fashion.

It was at that moment that Logan and I were given a true South African welcome to the World Cup. I watched a grown man, cigarette hanging from the side of his mouth, jump on my younger brother – throwing his arms around his neck and his legs around his waist. Logan – unfazed – proceeded to twirl the two of them in circles, cheering uncontrollably. It would have made a great picture; and I would have taken it, had I not been in the middle of a series of my own hugs and screams of “Viva, Bafana! Bafana!”

The colorful crowd, the proud flags, and the ear-shattering noise set the tone for an exciting World Cup in which the home team will be a true competitor. Enjoy the pictures!

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