Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Fake Spring Break

         I thought it was sort of weird that our spring break for this program was in February, but I decided just to go with it. But after my dad had made plans (and bought plane tickets) to come visit me during the break, which was set for February 24-28, I learned that when February and March both begin on a Saturday, it can result in some mistakes in course calendars. Indeed, the break was supposed to be March 24-28, but it was too late to change our plans, so, throwing caution to the wind (not really; I was super upset about missing classes), I left the university behind and flew to Dar es Salaam, where I met Dad, and the next day to the Serengeti via Arusha. We met our guide, Fidelis, and started out. The Serengeti is rich with wildlife—in our first two days, we saw four leopards, one of which wasn’t far away.
This family of elephants was taking turns rolling around in two small mud puddles, and when the adolescents and adults tried to sleep, this one-to-two-year-old calf was impatient for them to wake up.

On the 24th, we came across the scattered members of a pride of lions, gathered in small groups a few meters away from one another. This group had just finished eating, and there were two others behind them (lower-ranking members of the pride) who were still having their lunch.

While we were still enjoying the great view of these lions, we were surprised that Fidelis drove away and we wondered what could be better than this sighting. We soon found out, when we were the only car in the area and five feet away from a male and two female lions. One pair decided that while only one car was nearby was a good time to mate, though they probably didn’t think I was going to talk about it on my blog. How embarrassing.

            As amazing as the Serengeti is, it isn’t always crawling with fantastic animals. Actually, it was such a great time for us for the same reason as it was for the predators—it was time for the migration. Every year, thousands upon thousands of zebra and wildebeest travel in small groups, large groups, and alone to find better grazing areas. Both species are traveling with their young, as the wildebeest are in their calving season and the zebras have given birth a few months ago. In the words of Fidelis, “Where the end of your sight is, that is the end of the animals.”

And while our sight was able to catch thousands of zebras and wildebeests, it took Fidelis’ sight to catch the cheetah. She was lying in the grass, stalking slowly, just feet at a time, toward a group of zebras and Grant’s gazelles. Patiently we waited, and patiently she stalked, getting closer and closer to her prey until finally she felt confident that she could catch something. She passed by the gazelles, though, which were closer to her, and went for a zebra foal. She was fast, but not fast enough. Dejected, she plopped down in the grass—though cheetahs are the fastest land animal, reaching speeds of up to 70 kilometers per hour, they are sprinters, not distance runners. She would have to wait at least 30 minutes before trying again.

The migration doesn’t take place only in the Serengeti, and we crossed with the herds into the Ngorongoro region. And the migration doesn’t take place only on land, either. These wildebeests had to cross a wide lake with their young, who jumped with anticipation as they prepared to cross or with triumph as they emerged from the water.

In the Ngorongoro region, we had another fantastic cheetah sighting, this time of a mother relaxing with her cub, a one-year-old male who was very playful despite being almost full-grown. He wasn’t content to let his mother sleep but tapped her with his hind legs and swatted her head with his tail, all of which she ignored. There are several ways to tell cheetahs and leopards apart, including the cheetah’s round versus the leopard’s rosette spots, the cheetah’s slimmer, more shoulder-heavy build, and the distinct “tear marks” on the cheetah’s face. Also, cheetahs can’t climb trees. But this guy didn’t know that yet, and he decided to give it a go.

        Ngorongoro region is also home to Oldupai Gorge, which is often mistakenly called “Olduvai Gorge.” Oldupai is a Maasai word for a specific type of plant found in the area, but the gorge is an archeological site where the first remains of Australopithecus Boisei were discovered by Mary Leakey in 1959.

            While the gorge is an important site for the discovery of past peoples and animals, the equally famous Ngorongoro Crater is alive with creatures of the present. Maasai men and women lead their cattle over the green grasses and zebras, wildebeest, elephants, lions, crowned cranes, hyenas, ostriches, and several other species graze and play in an Eden-like harmony if the predators aren’t hungry.

        On the 26th, Dad and I made our way to Lake Manyara national park. It’s a much more low-key setting than the Serengeti or Ngorongoro, but we had a special reason to be there—it is one of the closest accessible areas to Kiteto, where my sponsor child, Sarah, lives. On the 27th, I left Lake Manyara with Elisante Daniel, a Compassion International representative, and our driver, Bw. Patrick. I use the word “close” loosely when I describe the distance between Lake Manyara and Kiteto. It took us about eight hours to get there, and we got one flat tire and got stuck in the sand once on our way. When we got to Kiteto, though, the journey was well worth it. I met with three Compassion representatives, and with her pastor, from whom I (along with the other sponsors) had received letters with updates about what’s going on in the community. As I was talking to these lovely individuals and waiting for Sarah to come with two representatives who were picking her up from her house, I wondered what her reaction would be and whether my visit would be boring or inconvenient for her. But when I saw her, she was smiling and ran to hug me. I visited her house, and her family and neighbors were very welcoming too. We spent the time exchanging gifts, playing games, and talking (with Elisante translating at times and at other times with me trying my best with my limited Swahili). The visit was amazing, but just as amazing have been the past three years being Sarah’s sponsor and communicating with her through letters. If you want to, you can check out the organization through which I sponsor Sarah at


  1. It sounds like your mix up worked out after all. I would love to see a cheetah. What an incredible experience your having! BTW, it's Miss Tammy from VA.

  2. Very true, Miss Tammy! It was an awesome experience!

  3. Hi! I enjoyed this! I think I'll show it to my students tomorrow on the projector - it's very educational!

  4. Julia those are some amazing pictures. You all really went on a lucky day!!!! Karibu tena Tanzania!!!:)