Saturday, June 9, 2012

In Tanzania, surprises at dawn

IRINGA TOWN, Tanzania – I had an awful night. Mosquitoes kept buzzing in my ear and I kept turning on the light to hunt for them. I awoke for good at 3:30 a.m. to watch the Boston Celtics play miserably against the Miami Heat in a key playoff game; the Celtics lost badly. Still, I managed to pull myself out of a depressed haze to lace up my running shoes and explore this town in southwestern Tanzania at cold dawn.

The dirt road headed straight up and I labored trying to keep stride. Finally, it leveled off and I ran along a ridge road, passing scores of blue-uniformed primary school kids on their way to the classroom. About 10 minutes into the run, I passed by a gigantic boulder about a quarter mile above me. It was bald and majestic and formidable.

I saw a man ahead and stopped to ask how I could get to the boulder.

“You take that path just there,” he said, pointing to a trail behind him.

“Is it hard?”


With such surety, I thought what the hell and ran to the trailhead. I ran-walked and then scrambled over tree roots and rocks for 10 minutes before I reached the base of the boulder. I had no idea how I would climb the sheer walls of the rock, but when I reached the base it became obvious. A crack about 18 inches wide split the boulder in two and hefty rocks formed stepping stones for 20 yards up. I wedged through the crack and pulled myself up and out, and made my way to the summit.

What a view – and what a surprise: Already there were two young guys of Asian descent atop the boulder. They were sitting with their backs to me and I could hear the music coming out of their earbuds. I gave a small shout so as not to spook them and one turned to wave; the other ignored me. (I thought maybe it wasn’t his idea to get up for an early morning hike.) Not wanting to intrude on their space, and giving up any hope of a nirvana-like alone-with-the-world meditative experience, I took in a last view of the valley and hills that stretched for miles – the red sun rising on the east, the white moon full in the west – and made my way back down.

I heard chirping immediately and saw to my right what looked like a pissed-off rock hyrax.

Hyraxes resemble woodchucks or groundhogs, but its closest cousins (I know this obscure fact from a long-ago safari tour) are elephants and sea cows. Anyway, it continued chirping away at me while standing on its hind legs and I could see little hyraxes scoot around the rocks behind it.
Apparently I was intruding on the space of all kinds of living things at dawn in Iringa town, so I ambled off, running up and down hill paths for another half hour.  All around me, blue and green and yellow birds criss-crossed like mini-rockets, skimming the tassels of golden yellow high grass. The sun warmed my back. This felt like being in Africa. I had that moment, I had worked up a sweat, I was ready to face the day, mosquitoes, Celtics, and a hyrax hissy fit overcome.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Running into Giants in Tanzania

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania -- It’s good to be running in a foreign place again. Two things happen almost without fail: I see something shocking, and I shock myself with a new thought about something at home.

This morning, the shocking sight came first. I went running at daybreak (6:30 a.m.) along the Indian Ocean along a rutted path a few miles outside Tanzania’s largest city. I passed a group of men sitting under a large shade tree, perhaps a group of elders gathering on an important topic, and the road narrowed to the width of a bicycle path.

And there, right in front of my footfall was a beautiful conical shell. I narrowly missed stepping on it, and I stopped to reach down to pick it up, when …. OMG, there was a huge ugly snail in that shell, with two twisty and GINORMOUS antennas poking out of its head.

It was the Giant African Snail. I recoiled. I inched backward. I had known about the Giants from my earlier time living in Africa.  But they had never stopped me in my tracks before.

They are so nasty that they have made a list of one of the 100 top invasive species in the world. It is a pest that eats through natural ecosystems and crops, killing commerce, and, when eaten (who would eat them?) possibly causing eosinophilic meningoencephalitis. It is a type of meningitis that causes headache, neck pain, visual disturbances, and in some cases death.

One scientist even has said that the Giant African Snail was a hazard that could cause car crashes. Really. Here’s the quote: “A. fulica are also a general nuisance when found near human habitations and can be hazardous to drivers, causing cars to skid. (Mead 1961).”

The one inches from my finger was pretty huge -- as big as my hand. A fat boy. (Actually they are hermaphrodites, so it’s more accurate to call them fat boy-girls or fat hermies.) As I straightened up and backed away, I had the senses to look around me and there were more! Dozens more! All Giants, their tentacles slowly shifting in the air. I jumped like I was on a bed of hot coals, sidestepping them somehow in my distress, until I was in the clear.

The rest of the run didn’t quite measure that level of yuck. But I did have a revelation about one of my children, a high schooler who provides endless concern in large part due to his sloth-like, or Giant African Snail-like, behavior when it comes to school.

He just won’t study. Or rather, he will only study for an hour on the night before a test, or write a major paper for an hour the night before it’s due. Then it came to me on the run. I’ve been missing the signs all along. He is not a cousin to the Giants, he is a Savant. Must be. How else could still get very good grades? That’s the way I’ll think about him from now, throw that worry to the wayside, and believe blindly he’s on the right path. And for this newfound peace of mind, there’s only one thing to thank: the snails.

Next stop: Rural southwest Tanzania, west of Iringa. Maybe I’ll get dust in my shoes.