This is Africa

I can actually say that I survived roughing it in Africa. Yes I know, anyone who knows me does not believe that statement, but believe it fools! I did it! This girl, right here, Tara Sonnemaker, chose to sign up for a three-day safari in Eastern Senegal at Nikolo-Koba National Park.

Around 7 am, we all stumble onto these rundown, small, dirty, stinky buses, not prepared for the adventure we were about to have. An hour later, we arrive at the Bandia Saly Reserve, a different park. Going to this safari was not originally part of our schedule, but I wasn’t going to complain if it meant seeing more animals. We hopped in these legit safari trucks that fit about 25 people and drove past the gates into “the wild”. After driving around for a bit, the driver suddenly stops and points: a giraffe!! This cute little giraffe stops and stares back at us; perfectly posed for the camera. After getting over that awesome moment, we drove on and saw zebras, monkeys, buffalo, ostriches, and elands. I have the most amazing footage that I will post when I’m back to civilization. I can’t believe that I was so close to zebras and giraffes!! Childhood dream accomplished.

When I say I endured Africa, a lot of you might think I’m referring to the wilderness and climate, but let me tell you, that was the easiest part of my journey. The hard parts were whenever we had an issue with Africa trying to westernize. The buses were so far behind our standards that I think I would’ve rather traveled on a horse and buggy. At least on that we wouldn’t have had flat tires or run out of gas. Okay I’m joking I know that the bus is the better option, but the ride definitely pushed some people over their limits. 11 hours later, after riding in a hot and bumpy bus, we pull up to the entrance of the park in the dark. The headlights of the bus shine on the gate and I laugh that this so-called gate is the only thing keeping lions and rhinos and elephants from terrorizing the villages. Ha! Imagine if the states were like that. Fallou (our amazing tour guide) gets out and talks to the park officers. Usually, the close the gates at 7 pm, but we called ahead of time to keep it open. 30 minutes later, we were told we were just waiting for our hotel manager to drive out of the park and lead us back in. Though it took forever, I was happy to have a guide – wouldn’t want to get lost in the jungle!! Our hotel manager shows up and we start our drive into the park. All of us were thinking it would be a short little drive, maybe 20 minutes, but no. An hour and a half later, we roll up to our camp.

We sit down for dinner at 11 pm. All around us are noises we don’t recognize; the only thing separating us is a 3-foot wall and pure darkness. After we are led to our huts, which are complete separated from the main buildings of the camp. We walk in to find, ah, more darkness. No lights, no air, and no clue what to do; we walk back out and tell the manager the power is out. He kindly apologizes and goes to fix it. A lot of girls (oh did I mention there are no guys on this trip, only 41 girls) were past their limits and freaking out that the power was out. I for one could only think about sleeping in a safe hut away from all my lion friends. The power flicked back on a few minutes later and everyone cranked their AC. Unfortunately, the camp wasn’t ready for 41 sweaty and irritated girls and the generator pooped out for the rest of the night. Lucky for our hut, we were passed out at that point and didn’t realize we were drenching ourselves in sweat as we slept.

The next morning, we crawled to breakfast at 7 am and had the most amazing coffee with jam and bread (no Julie Andrews, not tea). Then, the reason we signed up for this: the safari trucks pull up. Everyone casually SPRINTS to the trucks to claim their spot for the next 3 hours. Again, this place was not meant for any number of people over 30. They brought 4 trucks for 41 people. Next thing I know I’m getting yelled at in some language I couldn’t even attempt to decipher to get inside the truck. The normal people, aka the ones who didn’t run to the trucks, got shoved into the cabs of pick-up trucks, because there was no more room on top. I was pretty bummed, but that feeling only lasted for about 2 minutes. We start bumping along this dirt road with red dust flying into our faces from the truck in front of us. Tree limbs drape down and smack girls in the face as we go flying by. Tall weeds jump along side our trucks make our legs itch constantly. I roll up my window and enjoy the cushioned seat of the cab. Problem solved.

We drive along the jungle and fields with no animals in sight. The only animals we saw were planned trips to two different villages: one where they had a caged leopard, and one where they had domesticated warthogs. So that was fun. We drive back to camp and sit down for lunch. They had warned us at breakfast that monkeys like to visit during mealtime, but after a disappointing safari we weren’t expecting anything. As if cued exactly by the bread set down at the table, little monkeys jump down from the trees surrounding us. Here we go; Planet of the Apes part 4. They jump up to the rock wall behind our table. One starts the rally by climbing up on some girl’s chair and onto the table. He reaches for the plate of bread; some brave soul across the table reaches for the same plate. This monkey and this girl literally get into a tug of war with this plate. The monkey finally gets spooked by his far-removed cousins staring at him and grabs a piece of break off the top of the plate and takes off into the bushes. One by one, these monkeys take their turns attacking the table. One runs down the entirety of the table, knocking every glass over on his way. We learned rather quickly that it was a much better option to just give them the bread. When the real food came, the manager took a slingshot and aimed it at them; I was hoping that he wasn’t going to actually hit them. Turns out so were they. Is if trained to, all the monkeys took off towards the trees and did not come back.

After lunch we got back in the trucks for our afternoon safari, this time I was sitting up top. We bumped through the same trails for quite a while then paused to witness two antelope… uh… making love. So that was interesting. This trip was way more fun than the last safari basically due to our awesome driver that made us feel like we were in the Indiana Jones adventure ride at Disneyland. Even though we weren’t seeing animals, we were driving like a rhino was chasing the truck. The sun was setting and so were our hearts on finding animals. We had gone all day and had only seen antelopes getting it on. Finally, this huge group of baboons starts running through the jungle about 20 feet out from us. First we slowed to get a good look, then we kept the same pace (which was fast) as them for a good 5 minutes! They were flying through the shrubs and were letting the world know they were there. I have never heard a hundred baboons screaming at the same time – until this moment. We turn a corner and our driver slams the brakes. They had started crossing our trail to the other side. Casually, we sat inches away from them as they walked across our path. Now that was freaky. I felt like at any moment some angry alpha was going to jump from the jungle and just beat the crap out of us. But our driver didn’t seem too concerned. This street crossing took forever as baboons just kept coming out of the bushes. After a while, they thinned out and we were able to drive past. We raced the sun back to our camp and said goodbye to our invisible elephant friends that we just knew were out there. Our faces were covered in red dirt and our hair was tangled with grass, but we were happy.

After dinner we fought over the showers and couldn’t have been happier to climb into bed. Our wake up call the next morning was at 6 am. The only good thing about getting up that early was that it meant air conditioning on the bus instead of to our hot huts. To save you the long story, just go back and read the first part of this story. Imagine all of the problems we had getting to the park, then put them here: ______. We had a flat tire, our air conditioning broke, we were stuck in traffic, and everyone had to pee every 5 minutes. But, we got back to the ship only an hour and a half past “on-ship time” (aka the entire ship was waiting on 71 people) and we made it in one piece. I have never been more excited to take a shower in my life.

My experience is Africa was authentic. I am so glad I chose to challenge my comfort zones. I had an amazing adventure and came back respecting Senegalese culture and their way of life. But, I also came back with a new wave of gratitude for my life and my culture. The world has so many different perspectives, and not a single one is wrong. I have been bitten by the travel bug and don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied with where I’ve been: just where I’m going next. For those who struggle with other cultures and ideas, I challenge you to see the world differently than you do now. Though you might disagree with some aspects, it is not your place to judge. “One sign of maturity is the ability to be comfortable with people who are not like us.” – Virgil A. Kraft

Moroccan Flavor

Wow! Africa! I can’t believe I can cross out Africa from my bucket list… what a culture shock. I’m not going to lie; sometimes it felt like I was in the Middle East more than Africa. Everyone is Muslim there and they speak Arabic. It was still super cool to experience, but I am glad to be heading to Senegal next, where I can really get a taste of African culture.

Alexa, Mo, Anna and I (1 brunette and 3 blondes) jump off the boat in Casablanca and exit the port. As soon as we walk out to the street, we are bombarded by dozens of taxi drivers (both legit and not) speaking in 4 different languages. We were warned but definitely not prepared for the lack of personal space this culture offers. They begin to touch our arms and come closer and closer to our faces as they decide what language we speak. After we finally convince them to give up, we wander our way aimlessly towards the tower of the Hassan Mosque: thank God you can see it for miles (I’m so punny). After what seemed like forever, we find ourselves in the plaza of the Hassan II Mosque, the second largest mosque in the world, after Mecca obviously. I’m still amazed by it’s vastness and beauty and honestly still wondering why our churches in America don’t look this cool.

Just dying for a cool pair of Moroccan pants for our camel treks we hunted for a medina. Lucky for us the old medina was minutes from the ship. Unfortunately I think our perceptions of a medina were a little off, at least with this one in Casablanca. Men smiled and tried to pull us in or asked if we were lost. I quickly rounded everyone up and pushed through the crowd, looking for a main street. Finally, we found what seemed like a not-so-sketchy street and were relieved. Of course as soon as we calmed ourselves down, ‘Bam Bam Bam!’ What we thought were gunshots blasted through our eardrums. Detecting where the sound came from, we turned to find these teenage boys lighting sparks and laughing at us. We couldn’t even hide the fact that we were spooked. So, we quickly found our way out. What a great first market experience right!?

Anna and I signed up for this field program that took us to a traditional Moroccan restaurant, belly dancers and all. That was awesome and the food was delicious. We felt so much better being with a group and a guide that knew where we were going. The belly dancers grabbed some of the students and taught them a couple moves. The night was fun and lively and perfect: until I got a text from my roomie telling me that my field lab meeting time changed from 7:30 am the next morning to 5:30 am. Shit.

5 hours later. Good morning!! We all meet and are told our day will consist of a 3-hour bus drive, a tour and lecture from the ministry of agriculture, a tour of a farm and water irrigation system, and a return bus ride. Yay.

5 hours later. Oh don’t worry I’m still on the bus. Yeah, believe it. After a 5-hour bus ride we walk off the bus onto straight dirt with a ditch of water. Literally there was an open pipe carrying water to the fields and a hole in the ground where water was churning around. Our professor was pissed. He had planned this fantastic lab that the field office shut down, so they ended up planning our day. Funny thing was they turned his plan down due to the transportation time (a 1-hour train ride), yet our trip included a sketchy 5-hour one-way bus ride. Logical, I know. On the way to this fantastic ditch in the ground we were stopped by the police 4 different times; all because they saw white faces and wondered why the heck tourists would be in this area. So that was fun… SO fun that our professor cancelled the paper worth 20% of our grade and gave us all full points. Ha.

After those wonderful two days, Anna and I headed off to Marrakesh – hoping it would be better than Casablanca. All of our other friends did camel treks through SAS that left the day before, since we had field labs we were forced to rough it on our own. Two blondes wondering around in Marrakesh – should be adventure right?

Fast forward past the hot train ride – we get to Marrakesh and what do we do? Well find food and Wi-Fi of course! After rejuvenating ourselves, we hop in a cab and show the driver the address of our place. We drive for 10 minutes then get caught in the weirdest kind of traffic I’ve ever been a part of: donkey carts, pedestrians, bikers, motorcycles, cars, trucks, buses, and the occasional goat are all fighting their way through the crowded road. A half hour later we break free of the jam and our driver weaves through cars. All the sudden we come across this march of people blocking the road, instead of honking like our driver had been doing nonstop, we just sat there. It was only from driving by that we saw the wooden frame of a bed with a blanket slung over it, carried by six men, that we grasped it was a funeral procession. As freaky as that was, I was super glad that Anna and I got to witness that.

Turning what was supposed to be a 10-minute ride into a 45-minute ride, we were dropped at a square and told this was the address. We were lost. But, thanks to my handy-dandy trip advisor app we turned down some sketchy alleys and found a little door up to our waists. After a few knocks, a women opened the door with a sweet smile. She welcomed us in and asked for the reservation name. We walked into this beautiful courtyard with pillows and tables and candles throughout. Our room was adorable and so were our hosts. Aziz one of our hosts, walked us through the neighborhood and showed us everywhere we told him we were planning to go. The medina was an 8-minute walk and the El Jadida square (the main square/mosque) was only 6 minutes. Anna and I successfully haggled for some Moroccan pants and head to our sunset camel trek!

HUMP DAYYYYYY! Our camel trek was so cool but I was super glad it was only an hour-long ride. Those camels are crazy! They were adorably scary. Anna and I met these super cool people from Chicago that had actually heard of Semester at Sea and were asking us questions about it the whole time. We rode our camels into the palm frond desert until we reached a traditional Berber home where they served us mint tea and delicious bread. After our little break, we hopped back on our beasts and trekked back through the palm trees.

We headed back to our hotel and crashed until 8 am. We spent our last day wandering the medina for last minute gifts, and let me just say that we were pros at haggling by this point. I have a backpack full of things from Marrakesh and the total money I spent was under 30 dollars! Woohoo! Morocco was a cool place and extremely different. I think a lot of people were nervous about such a different place but I was sure glad to get out of Europe and try something new. Next up – a true African country: SENEGAL.