The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Arusha’s airport is called Kilimanjaro International Airport, which appealed to my sense of glamour. But there was no huge square-topped volcano anywhere to be seen, that first morning I woke, though I walked all around the hotel property craning my neck in various directions. “It’s that way,” several helpful hotel employees told me, waving their hands vaguely, “but you can’t see it during the daytime.” There was a mountain–Mount Meru, no slouch in the big African volcano department–but I had not read anything by Hemingway about Mount Meru when I was fourteen years old. And anyway, Mount Meru was devoid of snow. I scanned its peak hopefully with my binoculars, just in case.
That first day in Africa I fought the feeling that (hornbills aside) I wasn’t actually in Africa. Arusha is at an elevation of about 4100 feet. But it felt to me like Central America–banana trees and bougainvillea and hummingbirds, which in Africa are called sunbirds. The air felt tropical, and to me tropical implies sea level, and some part of me expected acacia trees (they came later, of course) instead of huge hardwoods, scrub instead of flowers. The buildings I could see, when I peeked through the hotel gates, were low-slung and brightly painted, and the trees were full of weaverbirds, chattering and flipping upside down and flitting in and out of their tennis-ball-in-tube-sock looking nests. I’d first seen weaverbirds in colonies in Costa Rica, hitchhiking with my ex-husband twenty years ago. At breakfast, there was an array of tropical fruit, papaya and pineapple and even the cooked bananas beloved of Central Americans. The coffee was delicious, just like in Central America. Even the smells–woodsmoke and dust and flowers and faint whiffs of diesel every now and then, with an occasional undernote of sun-baked tin–were Central American smells. Perhaps it was just the hangover from the last big trip I’d taken, which was to Honduras, with my mother, the winter before.
I walked around the hotel grounds, but there wasn’t terribly much to explore. My mom napped, and I dragged a chair out under a flowering tree of some sort, and looked at the birds. I saw a mongoose, loping along in front of the little thatch-roofed hut next door, which delighted me to no end. (I had to look it up, of course.) I saw an ordinary housecat, which I assumed was, oh, a lion or something, a very small special lion native to hotels, until I came to my overexcited senses. I saw something called a mouse bird, nesting right above my head, and I saw something called a firefinch, which the bird book described as “confiding.” (But he didn’t tell ME a thing!) Every single bird was brand new, a life-lister worth writing down.
In the late afternoon, we went for a walk with one of the hotel staff, through fields of coffee plants and sausage trees. Sausage trees are like something out of Richard Scarry–huge normal-looking trees, with what appear to be giant sausages hanging from the branches. Alas, I have no pictures of the sausage trees. The “sausages” are a type of gourd, apparently, and Africans make beer from the fruit. They’re the size and color of those things you hang off the side of a boat, so it doesn’t knock against its moorings, and they weigh a ton. However, here are a few rather paltry pictures of the hotel environs. My pictures, in general, are not great, and I apologize. They do absolutely no justice to their subjects, and I am a lazy and forgetful and inconsistent photographer.
This is where I saw the mongoose, right along the bank of bougainvillea, in and out of the shadows.
Here’s the lion. Unlike the mongoose, it held still to be photographed. It also came over to be petted. I figured it had never seen any people before, and so didn’t know to be afraid of them.
This is the view from my birdwatching perch, right outside our room.
All these photos look even more anemic and disappointing than I feared: trust me when I tell you that the colors were brighter, the sunlight more intense, the sky bluer. The lions fiercer.
Here was a bit of wildlife I found in our room, along with its nemesis.
This particular insect, like the lion featured above, was much more ferocious and intimidating in real life. We pulled the mosquito netting around our bed, my mother and I, and slept straight on till morning.