Saturday, October 22, 2011

Welcome to Tanzania: Don't F*** With the Elephants

In 2005 I took it to the next level.

It had been 2 years since I'd left my love-hate relationship with Los Angeles behind and headed to South East Asia for a change of scenery.  I had traded a thriving medical practice, a house at the beach and a celebrity-laden speed dial for spicy street food, tsunamis, government coups and freedom to travel.  It was a good trade.  The only problem with this kind of free time is that your friends still have to work.  You can only go solo to so many movies before you begin to re-crave the kind of relationships and camaraderie that only happen during employment.  I was used to being useful and I was getting bored.

There were still a few good causes lying around. I went to Africa for a scattered charity project or two, but it wasn't really enough.  I felt like I needed to dig in.  There's only so much you can accomplish in a few weeks in a charity project. Unfortunately unstable environments, much like random chaos, tends to return to instability when they are not being looked after. If I wanted to try to fix something that could possibly stay fixed,  I had to take it to the next level.

In Africa this is funny
You can't make these kind of milestone-life-events happen by sitting around, so I headed to Ethiopia on a project designed by my friend Teddy, the founder of US Doctors for Africa.  Travel to Ethiopia had always been a dream of mine.  It is the basic dream of anyone who listens to too much Bob Marley.  Ethiopia is unlike anywhere else in the world and visiting it is an amazing experience. Ethiopia is not just another country, its more like another planet, but that's not what this story is about.  My friend Teddy has the gift of knowing how to bang elbows with the big boys.  At the time I was in Ethiopia he was banging them with a high ranking adviser for a certain popular, handsome, democratic ex-president from Arkansas (I hesitate to mention his name  because I cannot specifically recall the terms of confidentiality agreement I signed).  This ex-president had an AIDS foundation was just beginning to ramp  up the foundation's presence  in Africa.  They had started a project in Tanzania, Ethiopia's neighbor to the south.  They were looking for a few good doctors.  I'd made contact with the foundation's Country Director in Tanzania and was invited to fly down and have a chat.

I entered the scattered chaos of Bole International Airport in Addis Abbaba (it is as much an outdoor market/general hangout as it is an airport) and in a few hours I was in the scattered chaos of Julius Nyerere International Airport, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.   Every new city is a new Visa On Arrival and a new negotiation with an entrepreneurial, if not predatory, taxi driver. He was happy to take me  the long way to my hotel.  

Dar es Salaam.  The name sounded so exotic.  It suggested visions of Arab merchants travelling from North Africa in trade ships selling spices, fabrics and tobacco.  I liked it as soon as I got away from my taxi driver.  It is a port city on the Indian Ocean with white sand and water more blue than you will ever see in the Caribbean.  Mysterious Zanzibar Island is only short boat trip to the Northeast.  I met with the country director of the previously mentioned, but unnamed foundation.  Coincidentally we had graduated in the same class at the University of Pennsylvania 23 years before.  The project sounded interesting and I found Tanzania's three national beers (Safari, Serengeti and Kilimanjaro) to be really excellent African brews.   The stars had aligned.  I'd return to Thailand and prepare to come back to Tanzania for a possible six months or until the project was done.  I was back on the job.   

Enter:  flies in the ointment, wrenches in the machinery.  I knew my girlfriend would not be happy with my extended absence from Bangkok.  Then again she'd experienced my shitty moods when I'd run out of things to do in a day of retirement.  Much to my disappointment, I'm a better person when I'm working. Free, light-hearted time makes me a dark thinker and a somber man.  I suppose I'm meant to be doctoring.  I take solace in being a Buddhist and knowing that reincarnation is a possibility. Next life I still may grow be a highly gifted slacker.  

As expected, she wasn't thrilled with the idea. But she's always tolerated, if not supported, my adventures and whims.  I would leave in six weeks. 

Three weeks later we found out she was pregnant.  We'd been trying to have a baby for almost two years at that point.  Only when I decide to hit the road again and head to the wilds of Africa does she finally got knocked up.  Guilt set in from both directions.  Stay for her pregnancy or dissapoint a village (remember:  the wife of the guy who started this foundation wrote that it "takes a village").  I decided I would go to Africa, but come back to Thailand for a half-way visit.  As the son of Jewish parents I'd learned long ago that it is silly to think that I would  ever eliminate guilt.  It was more realistic and practical to just manage it.

I started to do some recon work on Tanzania and specifically the village where I'd be deployed.  I read about the deafening, pounding waterfalls of Lake Victoria and the wild Serengeti, arguably the best safari region in all of Africa.  Also there was the dense green forests of Arusha, the city at the base of legendary Mount Kilimanjaro  (the mountain that must have been named  after my favorite Tanzanian beer).  I would be going to none of these places.  My destination was a remote sprawling town seven hours west of Dar es Salaam called  Illula (E-LU-LAH).   Illula is a small, flat, dusty, drought-ridden village that was essentially the equivalent of one hundred thousand person truck stop in the middle of the country.  Even Google could only come up with four topics about it (none of them helpful).  I did learn that the local people there spoke Hehe, a tribal language and not Kiswahili, which didn't matter because I spoke neither.  There was no further doubt that this would be a next level adventure.
It takes more than a condom ad........

Question:  Why would one of our most popular ex-presidents be interested in putting money, effort and time toward  fighting HIV in a little known, dusty truck-stop in the middle of Tanzania?  (Here comes the educational part.)   You probably didn't know this, but Tanzania produces an AMAZING  tomato.  The TanzanianTengeru 97 tomato is legendary in East and South Africa.   How does it get to East and South Africa?  Trucks.  What else goes on these truck?  Truck drivers and the occasional passenger.  How does a passenger get a ride on one of these trucks if they don't have the cash to pay the driver?  The answer:  Sexual Currency.  This is something known in the NGO (non-governmental organization) world as "Transactional Sex."  In redneck America we've all seen those facetious bumper stickers on random trucks and vans:  Gas, Grass or Ass--no one rides for free.  In Africa they drop the Gas and Grass.  This is absolute fact.  Thus the transportation of tomatoes (and other products) had become one of the biggest  vehicles for spreading HIV in Tanzania and the rest of Africa.  My particular job was to embed myself in a small hospital in the middle of Illula,  build and staff an HIV clinic, and get the government to continue to run it after we left.  No small task.

The man, the legend:  Abdallah
I had to get to Illula and I was not going to be hitching rides in trucks. I needed  reliable transportation and a seasoned driver.  On the day of my departure from Dar es Salaam  I was introduced to Abdallah.  He was going to be my driver and translator for the duration of my stay.  Abdallah was a thin, dark, fifty-ish year old Ugandan man with a strong East African accent. He had a booming, definitive radio-announcer voice that you wouldn't expect from such a slight man.  Abdallah had driven all over East Africa and could drive like the wind.

The ride out to Illula worried me.  Abdallah didn't say a word and when I tried to engage him in conversation I only got a  succinct, closed ended answer. When I offered him water he looked annoyed and refused every time.  I asked him to stop twice for a piss stop on the side of the road.  He stopped for me, but never got out of the car.  I was wondering what I'd done to upset him.  We'd only just met that day.  I played a Game Boy I had bought  for this trip to pass the time. After six hours on the road and my last piss stop I said, 
I don't need to pee pee, I'm in the zone

"Look Abdallah, we're not delivering nuclear bombs or government secrets here.  We're not even on a timeline.  You can take a rest if you like"

He took a deep breath, looked at me and said:

"Daktarrrri, I am a prrrrrrrofessional driver.  I have drrrrrriven for the UN and many imporrrrrtant people in my life.  I do not drink waterrrrrr or speak  or pee pee when I drrrrrive."

Thats cool, I thought.  He's in his zone.  We all should probably be in that zone.

Abdallah was a good friend and confidant from that moment onward.  We lived in a two bedroom shelter in the middle of the hospital courtyard.  We had no running water, but we did have electricity for most of the day until the power grid would break down.  As one of only a handful of people who spoke English in this town, he was my fragile connection toward getting the things I needed to survive.  He single-handedly negotiated a weekly influx of Serengeti Beer to our local cafe, The Malibu.  The Malibu was a plastic table and four chairs put under an old ripped umbrella in my neighbor's front yard.  He had a 7-11 type display front refrigerator, but only the light worked, not the refrigeration.  Still, it kept the bugs off the drinks.

A woman from the village was assigned to look after us in our house. Abdallah said her name was "Mama." Mama was a short round woman about sixty years old with a perpetual smile.  I couldn't understand what she was saying, but I knew she was a devout woman because every fifth word sounded like "Jesus."   She kept the place clean, cooked our meals and brought a bucket of water in from the village well every morning.  The bucket held exactly the amount of water I needed to shower and put in the toilet to make it flush.  Some mornings, for a moment of luxury, she heated the water on the cooking fire in the back yard.  

One afternoon mama came in and spoke to Abdallah.  He looked at me and said, "Daktari, mama says she wants to know what you would like for supperrrrrrr.   She says she has found a chicken."  Ordinarily I love a good cooked chicken, but East African chickens are skinny anorexic little beasts who are at best mostly tendon and feathers.  The other choice was goat. I'd had goat with Piri-Piri sauce the night before and it gave me terrible gas and heartburn.  Chicken it was.  Enter Abdallah, the slayer.

Abdallah was one of the few Muslim men in the village and adept in the Muslim-prescribed method of slaughter, Dhabihah (Dhabihah uses a well sharpened knife to make a swift, deep incision through the throat, carotid artery and jugular vein, but leaves the spinal cord intact.  More education). Mama had tasked him with the kill.  The house was quiet and I sat in the main room writing reports for the ex-president's office in Boston.  Suddenly a  loud scream and gurgling sound came from the kitchen that sounded like fresh roadkill in the last seconds of life.  The scrawny chicken had met it's end.  This was like going to a McDonalds built next to a dairy farm.  Even hot sauce was not going to make this meal better.  If this didn't make me a Vegan, nothing would.

My favorite times in Tanzania were the weekends when we were able to get out of our dusty village and go to other dusty villages.  There was a game reserve called Mikumi only three hours away from the hospital.  Abdallah said he knew the way.  Mikumi was not a large popular game reserve like Serengeti or Arusha National Park, but it was still full of wildlife.  We were offered a guide to travel with us to enhance our safari experience, but after an hour we figured out that he was the worst guide in the history of African safaris.  Upon questioning we found out that this was his first time in the park as well,  so we dropped him off after lunch and struck out on our own.  There was no more than a handful of other visitors to Mikumi.  With so few people and no guide, it made the experience more special. It gave me the opportunity to do more of the fun things on safari that are not allowed or recommended.  I chased giraffe and zebra on foot through the bush stupidly ignoring the  fact that this was breeding ground for Puff Adders and African Cobras.  We chased down herds of wild pigs down bumpy dirt roads that made our 1982 Landcruiser shake and rattle. I was having a blast.  This was a day of my dreams.
I can't catch you, but I can chase you

Then there was the elephant.

I'd lived in Asia long enough to become acquainted with the presence of elephants.  In Bangkok on any given day entrepreneurial country men would  walk  adult, twelve foot tall elephants down busy Sukhumvit road.  They charged twenty baht (sixty cents) for bags of sliced sugar cane that tourists could feed to the beasts. There are few things in life more thrilling than hand-feeding an animal that could reduce you to dust in a moment.  Statistically if that happened,  it probably wouldn't happen to me, so I fed and petted the elephants every chance I got.  Apparently African elephants are the angry cousins and not the docile social creatures from Asia.  The day I discovered this was the only day I ever saw Abdallah get angry.

Yum.  Zebra chasis
We'd decided to trust the map we'd taken at the park ranger station and were horribly lost.  I wasn't worried because we had a few hours left of sun and plenty of time to find a road that looked like it went somewhere.  After chasing Zebras through Cobra-laden bush, finding a road to somewhere seemed like no challenge at all.  We drove slowly ahead and saw an old solitary elephant walking in the bush.  Elephants don't usually travel alone so I figured this one had been pushed out of the pack and was going the way of old and useless animals.  He was nearly 50 feet from crossing our vehicle's.  Abdallah slowed down.

"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Daktari, I am letting him pass."
"Well pull up a little closer.  I want to get good picture of him"
"Daktari, I would not advise this.  The elephants can be verrrrry harrrrrrsh."
"Ah, we'll be ok.  In fact pull right up on the road, right in his path.  Let's see what he does."
"Abdallah, we'll be fine.  He's an old elephant. And this landcruiser is faster than he is.  And you used to drive for the UN.  Just pull up a little bit."

I didn't think he would do it, but Abdallah probably thought I knew what I was doing.  He inched up and stopped right in the path of the elephant.  He was about twenty-five feet away.  He stopped, looked at our Landcruiser and let out a long, low groan.  It seemed like none of us had been in this situation before. I got a good look at him and started snapping pictures.  He was old, battle-scarred and wrinkled, but he was big.  He hadn't looked this big from further away. He shook his ears and tusks at us and groaned again.  

"Daktari, I............."
"Abdallah, keep the car in first gear.  Don't take it out of gear."  I could hear Abdallah murmurring  "harrrrrsh, harrrrrsh................"
You don't wanna mess with me

The elephant let out a loud scream--as high pitched as Abdallah's voice was deep.  Then he lurched forward and headed for the Landcruiser.  He was quick off the ground for a big guy.


Abdallah popped the clutch and we swerved and fish-tailed up the bumpy dirt path.  I kept snapping pictures.  The elephant slowed down after we bolted.  He didn't want us.  He just wanted us out of the way.  He was bigger.  Law of the Jungle.  Abdallah drove another mile to make sure we were clear and then stopped.  Two giraffes were on a walk up ahead and stopped to see what we were doing.  My heart was pounding.  For me, this was as cool as it gets.
Asian elephant attack:  kinder, gentler

"Daktari, I must speak with you regarrrding something:  I am a husband and a father and this was verrrrry  dangerrrrrrous!  Verrrrry dangerrrrrrous!  I will not do such things again!"
"Ah, sorry, Abdallah.  I don't want you to get angry.  I knew you could do it."  Then I showed him the pictures and he let out a smile and shook his head.
"Daktari, I hope I will surrrrrrvive this job with you."

We were still lost, but found our way to the park entrance after about an hour.  Daylight was nearly gone.  A  goldenrod and blood-colored sunset came out of the sky, the kind you only see in Africa.  I was in no hurry to get back to dusty Illula.  Better to travel back during daylight on Sunday.  I remembered that we'd passed a motel on our way in not far from the park.  It was about five miles up the road.  We found it in a few minutes and pulled into the gate.  The sign read:

Genesis Motel and Snake Park.  

There was no question. We'd found our place for the night.


  1. erik- fantastic (as always) great on many levels- eager to get follow ups on the adventure into fatherhood

  2. You know with a newborn I have about .05 seconds to choose between eating or urinating and today it was to read your blog because I LOVE your writing and your stories. Keep 'em coming!

  3. Just a little something to go with your story... I'm sure you've encountered a few!

  4. Ha! Brings back did such a fine job in Ilula!!