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Tour the Southwest in a Hot Air Balloon

Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival

The romanticism of a hot air balloon flight is alluring to many and while you can probably take a ride in nearly all 50 states, there’s something special about the Southwest. This post will highlight rides in both Phoenix, Arizona and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

What Should I know about a Hot Air Balloon Flight?

 

Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival
Balloons flying at the annual Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival

So the basics are that hot air balloon flights typically take place during sunrise and/or sunset as that’s when the air is the stillest. I have experience with very early (yawn) sunrise rides. The way it works is that you book with a company and they will send one of their chase vehicles to your hotel to pick you up pre-ride. This is usually at the crack of dawn, say 5-5:30am. Yeah, early. Next, you’ll drive out to their launching site which could differ depending on the day and the direction of the wind but it is usually an open field. Once there, you’ll watch the crew—for lack more industry specific terms here—unfold and blow up the balloons. This is honestly an incredible sight to see, as it really puts into perspective how big these machines are. For the ambitious, the crew will often let you help with set up if you ask nicely.

The whole set up time might take 30-45 minutes or so. Then, you get in! Now if you’re thinking of a rickety old basket hanging from the balloon, think again, as the baskets in real life could not be more different. They typically fit anywhere from 6-12 people (depending on their size) comfortably. That’s a huge basket! And the baskets are broken up into compartments so there might be 2-3 people in each compartment rather than all of the riders together in one area. This is so the weight is evenly distributed and if something really cool is seen from one side of the basket not everyone tries to rush over there at once to see it beacause that could easily be a recipe for disaster.

Your pilot (yes, in America hot air balloon pilots are FAA certified with the same airman’s certificate you’d have to get to fly any other aircraft) shoots up a few good bursts of hot air and the crew lets go of the holding ropes and you’re off!

So what does this feel like for the flyer? This is by far the most common question I ever got from travelers who were weary of going up in a balloon—especially for those who get motion sickness. Let me be the one to tell you, it feels like nothing. Truly, being in a hot air balloon is completely motionless. If you were to close your eyes while you were taking off, I doubt you’d even realize when you were one hundred feet off the ground–it’s that still. And for those afraid of heights it naturally depends on the severity of your phobia but if you keep your eyes trained on the horizon it shouldn’t be much of a problem.

Hot Air Expeditions
Hot Air Expeditions gets ready to fly in Phoenix, AZ

While in air, you’re able to view the incredible mountains around you and don’t be surprised if your experienced pilot takes you up and down in elevation. I personally enjoy being closer to the ground to see what’s happening on the desert floor. On some of my flights, I’ve seen jack rabbits and coyotes running around which has been a cool experience from a birds-eye view. I’ve also had my pilot talk extensively about operating balloons and show off a few gravity tricks (involving water) mid-air. Of course, not every pilot is chatty but most are willing to answer any questions and speak about their positions as pilots.

Landing can be adventurous. A still, soft landing can be as easy as touching the ground, lightly bouncing a couple of times and then touching the ground again. A rough landing might mean that the basket touches the ground, drags a few yards and topples over on its side. Before you land, your pilot will instruct you with the landing brace position you’re to be in while landing as to not incur injury and believe it or not, the rough landings are usually more fun.

When you land whether it be in the middle of a desert field or off the side of the highway, your chase team will fetch you and take you back to your hotel.

Often times, balloon companies will take landing one step further in creating a special moment for the flier.

My personal favorite, Hot Air Expeditions, will set up picnic tables for you wherever you land and set out breakfast (usually a small quiche, apple slices, cheese, and a croissant of some variety) and champagne. They will toast you with The Balloonist’s Prayer before giving you your flight certificate and sending you on your way. It’s a magical experience in the desert.

Rainbow Ryders Hot Air Balloons
Rainbow Riders flying over the Rio Grande River in Albuquerque, NM

In Albuquerque, New Mexico I’ve flown with Rainbow Ryders who fly in multiple locations. One of the perks of the flight scenery there is flying over the absolutely gorgeous Rio Grande River. And if you happen to be in ABQ for the annual Hot Air Balloon Fiesta—an outstanding event that I’ve been lucky enough to attend twice while on tour—it’s great to couple a flight with your time at the event. Rainbow Ryders will also toast you with champagne post ride and present you with a flight certificate to commemorate your ride. They too provide post flight refreshments but it’s more of a selection of juices and granola bars—not a full picnic breakfast.

While preparing for your flight you should plan to wear closed toed shoes (for the possible rough landing) and I would always suggest a baseball cap or other hat to men especially who might be lacking thick hair. The closer you are to the flame, the hotter it will feel on your head. Now, this warmth is welcome in the winter months, as even the desert is cold at dawn during winter but the flame can be quite hot during summer months so take precaution. It is a hot air balloon after all!

In my experience, the average time spent in the air is roughly 45 minutes to an hour and the whole excursion usually lasts about three or so hours. So, if you’re choosing to do a sunrise flight you’ll be done and ready to carpe diem by the time you’d normally wake up.

What others are saying about Hot Air Expeditions:

Trip Advisor

Yelp

Experience Scottsdale

What others are saying about Rainbow Ryders:

Trip Advisor

Yelp

Balloon Fiesta

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Japanese Cherry Blossoms in Washington DC

Cherry Blossom Jefferson Memorial

On our first podcast, we chatted about the history of the famous Japanese cherry blossoms in Washington, DC. We wanted to share a small photo gallery with you that highlights Eliza Scidmore (without her influence the cherry blossom tree gift may have never happened), the resistant women from the 1938 Cherry Blossom Rebellion, and bathers enjoying the Tidal Basin in 1922. Some of the history we referenced about the cherry blossom rebellion came from the National Park Service. The NPS also has an excellent timeline (with more photos) of the history of the Washington, DC Japanese cherry blossoms here.

 

We hope you enjoyed the podcast. Questions? Email us at scuttabout@gmail.com

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Back in time…lapse: Copacabana

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Just about this time last year Lauren and I were in South America for our honeymoon. Trust me, there will be much more about that later…so consider this a teaser.

I shot this time-lapse on Copacabana Beach with my GoPro on the day we flew into Rio. It was an overnight flight and I slept for, maybe, 15 minutes.

So for the majority of this shoot I was fast asleep. This is also, by the way, the last time we’d see the sun for another three days. All of that is another story for another time.

A few things about this shoot. I love the cross currents of the clouds. It’s also fun to watch as the guys walk up and down the beach hawking their wares. Towards the end you’ll see as the beach starts to clear out a bit, and the attendant runs back and forth taking down umbrellas.

And if you really want to be freaked out…watch my toes twitch away as go full jet-lag comatose.

 

 

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Back in Time…lapse: Acadia

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Ok, here’s a new series for you. All time-lapse videos shot by me, mostly back in the day. But, who knows…maybe this will inspire some more updated versions.

A little background.

I’ve never been a terribly good photographer, but I love capturing the scene. So I started messing around with time-lapse photography once I bought a proper DSLR. I never really perfected the process, but I always had a lot of fun shooting.

When you’re standing by your camera as it shoots for minutes and hours you really start to notice the rhythm of life in that spot. I always thought that the stories of what happened during the shoot were always better than the final product. And here we are.

I think I have 40-50 separate shoots stored on my hard drive. Some haven’t even been processed. Some desperately need to be processed again, and what better reason. I’m not going to make this a day-themed thing (like #timelapsetuesday (although that’s kinda good)). I’ll try to throw at least one a week up, maybe even two! I’m really trying to stick to this whole no rules thing.

So, onto today’s edition.

I shot this from a cabin that Lauren and I rented up in Acadia National Park in Maine. It was while we were still on the road and we took some time off together in the autumn to check out the park (which may be the most beautiful place in the world during that time of year, and yes we’ll get to that in another post).

One of the nights we were there my friend Rhyan and her boyfriend Seth stopped by with many beers. I had set up the camera to track the stars, but I didn’t anticipate the tide. Honestly, I think I drank a bit much and completely forgot that my camera was set up outside, which is really what makes this time-lapse.

I love how the clouds zoom across the sky. They give a gorgeous sky an additional depth. In the background Orion rises to the top of the frame and disappears. Clearly we spent a lot of time on that dock, and rightfully so. It was a gorgeous evening. But the neatest thing to watch is the tide. It looks as though someone punched a hole in the earth’s crust and started draining the ocean. The batteries in the camera died, otherwise I would’ve loved to watch the tide continue in recession. There’s another version from this cabin that I shot the night before, I’ll have to find that and post it as well.

 

 

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Instagrammed: November 1-8

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UPDATE: I have no idea why these pictures aren’t embedding. But you can see them along the left side of the browser if you’re on a Mac or PC. Otherwise, you’ll have to actually click the links like it’s 2008…sorry.

 

Ok…back to the Instagrammed tradition that’s not really a tradition. The whole point here is to offer a little background on the pictures, especially since this was also a New Year’s Resolution.

 

Staring at the stars! #dc #astronomy

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Staring at the stars! #dc #astronomy

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This shot is from our tour of the U.S. Naval Observatory. I wrote a whole post about that if you’re curious!

 

A Masonic sunset! #dc #secretsocietiesofinstagram

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A Masonic sunset! #dc #secretsocietiesofinstagram

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I was on 14th Street working on a story and after the interview I cut down S Street and ended up stopped at the intersection at 16th. I looked over at the Masonic Temple, which was catching the setting sun beautifully. This is where riding a bike is awesome. I just hopped up on the curb and took a couple shots. This place may be a future post all it’s own. (not pictured: Dan Brown)

 

The First Amendment…on a building. Silence that. #DC #constitutionalamendmentsofinstagram

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The First Amendment…on a building. Silence that. #DC #constitutionalamendmentsofinstagram

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I was at the Newseum for a work project previewing a new exhibit. I took a lot of photos of that, but I’m not allowed to share those. Nonetheless, this is the exterior of the building facing Pennsylvania Avenue. A fitting place for the First Amendment. This wall may be my favorite piece of the building’s design. Also, I’m damn proud of that hashtag.

 

Nobody likes this photo 🙁 That’s OK, I like it! It’s actually a bit confusing if you’re not sure what you’re looking at. I have little nooks all over DC that I use to file my stories. This one is among my favorites. It’s the courtyard between the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. The space is enormous, and I have pretty good luck getting a chair and a table. It’s also a gorgeous spot. I often use it after covering Metro meetings, which happen in the cramped concrete brutalist belly of the Jackson Graham Building. Needless to say the courtyard is quite the escape. The picture here is of the roof reflected off my iPad as I write scripts following a Metro meeting.

@julienoblick tries out for a Gap commercial #fallfashion

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@julienoblick tries out for a Gap commercial #fallfashion

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@julienoblick tries out for a Gap commercial #fallfashion

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I only posted one photo from Asheville and kinda dropped the ball on my resolution here. It’s OK, I’m still batting above .900 for the year on this. But, in this case the story why is actually better than any photo I could’ve posted. So Friday was spent driving after work until about 1am when we made it to the cabin/creeper house (more on this in another post). There were no good chances to put a photo up. Then on Saturday, I spent much of the day watching Penn State/Northwestern because we were in the South and the B1G doesn’t exist down there…but at least I got to watch the last three minutes on a real TV (not a good thing). This photo is of my friend Julie acting like she’s never seen leaves before. If you can’t tell, Asheville’s pretty terrific in the fall.

 

Rock Creek Park is always terrific this time of year! #dc #fall

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Christmas Trees in America

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Remember last year when I enlightened you on the world’s largest Christmas store in Frankenmuth, Michigan? It’s seriously the best. This year, I’d like to share a collection of Christmas trees in America that I’ve photographed over the years. So many, that there are a few trees whose location I’ve forgotten. Holiday oops.

Coast to coast, north to south, these trees bring joy to thousands of people each year. Hopefully they will bring some to you too!

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You Make Me Feel Like Dancing

Flamenco

This week’s Travel Photo Roulette competition is being hosted by Turtle Travels and the theme is dance.

Here’s an interesting note: we don’t take a lot of pictures of dancers. We love to dance, we’re both amazing dancers(in our own minds) and we’ve spent more than our fair share of time in dancy, dancy, fancy places. But alas we have few photos to prove it. So we may as well be lying.

This is the second time in as many Travel Photo Roulette competitions that we’ve been exposed…er…underexposed.

With all that said let’s go to the dancing pictures:

#1. Lauren took this one…and it’s fantastic for so many different reasons. I remember we were eating dinner on the beach just watching this guy do his thing for about an hour:

A guy doing an awesome breakdance routine on the beaches of Zanzibar as the sun was setting.
A guy doing an awesome breakdance routine on the beaches of Zanzibar as the sun was setting.

#2. When we were in Namibia we ended up on a township tour of Mondesa, which is on the outskirts of Swakopmund. These guys came out to sing and dance…and they were awesome. The two things that stick out for me on this one: their smiles, and everyone in this part of the neighborhood came out to dance along.

Swakopdancer
These guys came out at the beginning of our tour of Mondesa, a township adjacent to Swakopmund in Namibia. The colors are fantastic…and the dancing was catchy.

#3. I was at a dinner in Barcelona a couple years back…can’t remember the name of the place…but on stage were flamenco dancers. The lighting was subpar, which invited slow shutter motion blur madness. I love this shot because the dancer spins herself into this weird amorphous voodoo doll-like shape. Any other blur in this photo is because of copious amounts of sangria.

A Flamenco dancer in Barcelona moving too fast for my shutter
A Flamenco dancer in Barcelona moving too fast for my shutter

#4. I couldn’t let a post about dance go by without a photo of the baddest dance party of them all: THON. It’s the largest student run philanthropy in the world….46 uninterrupted hours of dancing (although back in my day it was 48). Sure Happy Valley isn’t the most exotic of travel destinations in February…but this is a damn good show.

The longest and largest dance party there is..
The longest and largest dance party there is..

So which of these should shuffle/waltz/electric slide their way into the competition as our entry?? Feel free to jump into this dance circle…or keep sitting at the bar sipping your drink. Whatever.

 

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Mountain Madness

Grand Teton Lake

So we take part in a little online travel-blogging competition every few weeks. It’s called travel photo-roulette. It’s a neat concept that forces me to look into the archives of my photo-library for a specific theme. This time around the theme is “mountains”.

Diving into my library I realized something pretty funny: While I climb a lot of mountains, I don’t really take the time to actually photograph said mountains…(contrary to one clients former observations-I’ll tell that story tomorrow because it deserves its own post.)

Maybe that’s the other reason I enjoy this competition. It seems to re-enforce the importance of always being aware of your surroundings. Conforming to the theme from the mind of another blogger  forces you to think about your subject matter in a different way. In this case I’m pissed for not having taken more pictures of mountains;)

With that said here are the photos I narrowed it down to these (Although I’m positive that there were many in my library I just glossed over)…feel free to let us know which one you think is the best:

Sitting high above the Delaware Water Gap, cut by the Delaware River below, this is the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey
Sitting high above the Delaware Water Gap, cut by the Delaware River below, this is the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey
A biplane flies into the Delaware Water Gap...it was pretty neat to watch.
A biplane flies into the Delaware Water Gap…it was pretty neat to watch.
Aspens fire up a bright yellow in October
Aspens fire up a bright yellow in October
A wider view, although the lake is too much the subject
A wider view, although the lake is too much the subject
I love the texture of the pebbles and stones at the bottom of this lake
I love the texture of the pebbles and stones at the bottom of this lake
Removing the focus from the lake's bottom and putting it back on the Grand Tetons
Removing the focus from the lake’s bottom and putting it back on the Grand Tetons
I really wish I had closed the aperture more on this for a wider focus...easily my most frequent photography mistake
I really wish I had closed the aperture more on this for a wider focus…easily my most frequent photography mistake
Close stones far mountains...there's a neat symmetry here
Close stones far mountains…there’s a neat symmetry here
The rolling tops of the Shenandoah
The rolling tops of the Shenandoah
From Skyline Drive, along with the Blue Ridge Parkway ranks as the most iconic mountaintop drives in the East
From Skyline Drive, along with the Blue Ridge Parkway ranks as the most iconic mountaintop drives in the East
Or the "Matterhorn of Namibia". Certainly not high, but they way these mountains jutted from the desert was striking
Or the “Matterhorn of Namibia”. Certainly not high, but they way these mountains jutted from the desert was striking
From the portal...this is a scene that is tatooed on my eyelids
From the portal…this is a scene that is tatooed on my eyelids
The wide-shot of the Yosemite Valley. Among the most beautiful places on the planet
The wide-shot of the Yosemite Valley. Among the most beautiful places on the planet
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Museums We Love: Newseum

Newseum

A deciding factor for Kris and me to make the move to Washington, DC was the rich collection of museums that embrace the city. By no means are we shy to admit that we are complete history nerds and will happily geek out on anyone who wants to accompany us to a place that stands to educate others through, well, a lot of really cool stuff. Because really that’s the simplest way to describe museums, right? They house millions of articles of stuff. Stuff that once belonged to royalty or presidents or was a part of a historical event. Stuff that’s from nature or beings that lived billions of years before us. Stuff that is art and stuff that is what only a tiny percentage of humans consider art. Regardless, it’s all really cool STUFF. Get it? Fabulous, let’s keep moving.

 

So, Kris and I decided that since we love all of this historical stuff and have many ties to the museum environment here in DC, we would try to highlight the museums and current exhibits we think are pretty rad. Read for enjoyment, to further your knowledge or to put in your back pocket for your upcoming DC trip. I’m starting with one of the very few museums in DC that is not free. We’ll get to the freebies later. I’m choosing to look at the Newseum because it is perhaps one of the best museums in the world for people who are intrigued by media and journalism. And it houses some of the most amazing stuff we’ve ever seen.

 

A look at the interior of the museum before they open
A look at the interior of the museum before they open

The Newseum is a 250,000 square foot space that dedicates itself to the news—over five centuries of news to be exact. It features seven levels of exhibits, theaters, and galleries. Some of its permanent exhibits really strike a chord with those who were born in the 20th century. Like the eight pieces of the intact Berlin Wall that stand high in front of the three story guard tower that once loomed near Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. Or the mangled and rusted antenna that once sat perched atop the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City before it was destroyed during the terrorist attack on 9/11. Perhaps your interest lies more on the history of news reporting and newspapers or Pulitzer Prize winning photographs. The Newseum has galleries that feature both. Do you remember the Watergate scandal or the Unabomber? Yep, both are covered at this museum. All with a focus that is taken from the journalists point of view, something that sets this museum apart from others.

 

Recently, Newseum launched three exhibits that highlight different aspects of John F. Kennedy’s administration. First, Creating Camelot explores JFK’s presidency through the lens of Jacques Lowe, Kennedy’s personal photographer. This exhibit gives the viewer an intimate look into the family like of JFK including many photos of stunning Jackie O and their children. Second, Three Shots were Fired features the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, again through the eyes of those who were reporting the incident to the nation. It also includes artifacts like the typewriter JFK used aboard Air Force One, the personal schedule Jackie had for Nov. 21-22, 1963 with her own handwritten notes, and numerous personal belongings of Lee Harvey Oswald. Lastly, A Thousand Days is a Newseum original film that illustrates the fabulousness that the Kennedy’s brought to the White House. A glam that many consider has yet to be matched. These exhibits will be on display through January 5th, 2014.

There's a chopper in the atrium!
There’s a chopper in the atrium!

 

When you visit the Newseum, don’t forget to spend time lingering by the entrance, as here you’ll find the front page of a newspaper from each of the 50 United States. These change daily and viewing them is free. Be sure to also take some time out on the balcony looking over Pennsylvania Ave. You’ll have breathtaking views of the Capitol and National Mall. Newseum tickets cost $21.95 and are good for two consecutive days.

 

Newseum

555 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

Washington, DC 20001

888.639.7386

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The Long and (not so) Bouncy Road to Arusha

Arusha Road ME_1

Expectations are funny things. They tend to be more counterproductive than anything, usually leading to disappointment. It’s rare to match reality with imagination. But as I watch the sunrise over Nairobi, that’s exactly what’s happening.

A morning look from the rooftop of my hostel in Nairobi
A morning look from the rooftop of my hostel in Nairobi

The sun rises orange, hot and magnified by an immeasurable amount of atmospheric dust stirring beyond the horizon. Pillars of black smoke, at home a harbinger of trouble, rise innocuously from sporadic garbage and tire fires throughout the city, injecting an acrid taste into the air. The streets teem with noise and movement and energy. A generator chugs to life below, delivering electricity to the building.

This is exactly how I pictured Africa.

I drink a cup of rocket-fuel-coffee and watch the sun ascend. I like how Africa looks under the sun.

After sufficiently soaking in the scene, I grab my bags from the room and head downstairs to check out. Frederick is already there waiting. I told him I needed to grab a shuttle to Arusha in Tanzania, he just nods and loads my bags.

As we drive, I discover he’s never left Kenya, not even to Tanzania. This guy knows exactly how to get there, he knows how close it is, but he’s never been.

“I must always work. But perhaps one day, I would very much like to go to America,” he said, not taking his eyes off the road. Driving in Nairobi is worse than a stereotypical Michael Bay chase scene. It seems as though every turn brings another obstacle that must be dodged, braked for or run through. Only a passing interest is given to traffic signals and the road paint has faded, along with any desire to maintain orderly flow. Cars without damage are like albino alligators. Fully one-third of the pedestrian population has a death wish.

“This is the largest traffic circle in East Africa,” Frederick proudly proclaims. I’d argue it’s more like a traffic centrifuge. Once a vehicle enters, said vehicle is immediately forced to the inside of the circle until it can build an escape velocity that will allow it to dart across four lanes of traffic, smashed into the space of three lanes, and turn onto the desired road. I saw something like this in a movie once.

We turn onto a street lined with shuttle vans. As we drive down this street, I’m confronted with my first bit of African bedlam as dozens of different guys rush up to the window trying to get me onto their van. Frederick parks the car.

It's a bit like the wild west getting a shuttle in Nairobi
It’s a bit like the wild west getting a shuttle in Nairobi

“Just stay here a minute, do not listen to these men,” he said before walking up the street. Meanwhile, one driver after another pitches his services.

“Where to go? Mombasa, Kampala, Arusha?? I take you there.”

“I take you, where do you need?”

“Come follow me, I help you find your way.”

I waved them off, but there was no saying no. I’m still green in the ways of street negotiating and denial. Frederick came back.

“Ok, follow me,” he grabbed one of my bags and parted the sea of drivers. We walk up to a van and before I can confirm that this is my shuttle, some guy grabs my bags and ties them onto the top. That’s as good an answer as any. I tip Frederick again and he smiles and walks back to his car. He was all hustle, and he worked harder than he needed to, and he was integral to making my initial impressions of Africa good.

They manage to cram twenty-five people into this van, but I’m lucky, I’ve scored the seat next to the driver. This means an extra inch between my knees and chin, no worries about vibration induced osteoporosis caused by sitting over the rear axle and I can skip the awkward spatial invasion conversation that comes with cramped seating.

The bonus of the seat was a gigantic window that slid open enough for me to hang out. And hang out I did, for most of the ride like a gigantic yellow lab with my tongue dangling out. As everyone else slept, my eyes widened with every mile: this was Africa passing by me at an alarming speed.

Matatas sped by even more overloaded, darting in between traffic as at least one person clung to the outside of the vehicle. They don’t even stop, they just slow down enough for someone to dive out while another person dives in. They have slogans painted on the windshield in gaudy glitterized paint: Jesus Saves, Inshallah, Wayne Rooney. If I could have painted one it would have read: Just Pray!!:/.

The first rule of overtaking in Africa is that there is no rule of overtaking in Africa. My adrenal glands are working overtime, and I sit ready to bail out the window instantly should the situation warrant.

There is no sound in the van, aside from the ever-present rattling and jostling of a moving vehicle. The driver, Joseph, had the conversational skills of a cactus, and yet for a guy that didn’t talk his phone rang constantly—So this is Christmas…I figured him for a Christmas-lights-up-all-year kind of a guy.

A snaking line of trucks sit parked on the side of the road, the body of this snake leading into a town. Nmanga, the border.

The last three hours of empty landscape yields to a mass of humanity crowded against an invisible line. Maasai women with bald heads and heavy necklaces, doubling as earrings stretching their lobes, tried to pawn bracelets and necklaces and wooden sculptures. My open window was a magnet for anyone trying to sell anything.

Joseph pulled up to the immigration building and killed the engine, he got out and opened the side door and said nothing. One by one we filtered into the building to get our exit stamps. One sign read: Do Not Take Pictures Around Here! Another warned of con men and swindlers on the road ahead. After getting stamped, I went outside and sat on the curb, a dozen different men trying to get me to walk over to their shop. Con men! Swindlers! I got back on the van and closed the window avoiding eye contact with anyone who approached.

A football field separates the two borders, about a hundred trucks sit in transit limbo waiting on paperwork or bribes to continue onward. Pedestrian traffic kicks up a dusty mixture of Kenyan and Tanzanian soil.

I walk into the Tanzanian immigration building, it’s formerly white walls now covered in dirt and dust, a fan above churning time-and-a-half off-kilter in it’s waning days of service. The slightest of tremors will surely send it into the arms of gravity, falling and chopping off the head of an unsuspecting tourist in Final Destination-esque fashion. The customs official snatches away my passport and $100 before disappearing for close to twenty minutes. In spite of the fan’s best efforts, the room is sweltering, everyone inside is saturated in sweat. There was little relief outside as beggars begged, peddlers peddled and inspectors inspected.

The official came back with a stack of passports and started shouting names, inaudibly behind the bank-teller-thick glass. I just waited until a US passport was held up, hoping it’s mine. Success.

Back on the van we continue through a Tanzanian town, the mirror image of its Kenyan neighbor. People flock to international frontiers as these towns provide a steady stream of passersby who might buy a soda, a shirt, a hand-carved giraffe. It also provides a steady stream of suckers who are likely to fall for a million different scams at the border. It’s like reverse cellular mitosis as people push together at the membranes of these countries, finding nourishment on the fringes.

The drive is alien,while still incorporating familiar aspects of my past travels: Golden hills reminiscent of California, the deep red earth of the Australian outback, the low desert shrubbery of northern Arizona. It’s also transfixing, my seat offering the perfect vantage point. I probably took about a thousand pictures of acacia trees. I was enjoying the moment, not caring if anyone looked at me as a snap happy tourist. The road stretches ahead rippling softly like a grey ribbon blowing in the wind. Dust devils swirl on both sides giving the scene an eerie apocalyptic feel.

Scanning the horizon to my left I notice the ground sloping at a gentle incline growing proportionally steeper as it continued…until it disappears into the clouds. The effect is mirrored opposite where the first half disappears. This was a mountain, a gargantuan mountain, it had to be Kilimanjaro. But it didn’t seem impossibly high, as I continued following the incline looking for the top, which I assume to be veiled in the clouds. That is until I look above the clouds. Shimmering brighter than the clouds below atop a dark grey tower were the glaciers of Kilimanjaro.  My stomach flips, a new dose of adrenaline coursing through my veins—I signed up to climb that?!?!?

And there she is...Kilimanjaro the top rising with the clouds
And there she is…Kilimanjaro the top rising with the clouds

I stare at it for close to an hour until the road turns to the southwest feeding into Mt. Meru, Kili’s little sister blocks the view. Scattered villages along the roadside appear with their mud brick homes and thatch roofs. At regular intervals traffic yields to herds of goat and cows crossing the street, led by a Maasai herder clad in red. Women balance unthinkable objects on their heads walking to what seemed like nowhere in particular.

The cows always have the right of way
The cows always have the right of way

The road itself has been shockingly good for the most of the way, thanks to the Chinese. Small sections reverted to dust and boulders, but they were always short diversions. The road didn’t really fall apart until it wound around Meru towards the town of Arusha. The last hour of the drive is how I anticipated the entire drive to be: spine-crushingly bumpy. The traffic became less predictable as I watched calm, silent, peaceful Joseph transform into Mr. T with road rage, deep guttural curses bellowing from his mouth. Our quiet van became a combat vehicle bouncing about the road dodging traffic, animals, ravines and whatever else popped up. It was the country version of driving in Nairobi. Joseph’s black knuckles turn white as foam dripped from his mouth, the steering wheel violently spinning left or right as the corresponding two wheels on the turning side would become momentarily the vehicle’s only point of contact to the earth. Meanwhile, the white people onboard turn whiter with every A-Team van turn, and the Africans sleep.

Just as my heart was about to quit working on me we land on pavement again and soon enough we are passing through the bustling center of Arusha town. Arusha is famous for three reasons: it’s the gateway to the Serengeti, it’s one base point for Kilimanjaro and it’s the place were peace in Rwanda was brokered. There is a United Nations sanctioned prison in Arusha designated specifically for criminals indicted in the Rwandan genocide through the early and mid-90’s. The town is also considered to be the mid-point on the Cape-Cairo road.

A not so paved road...it's alright my back needed readjusting anyway
A not so paved road…it’s alright my back needed readjusting anyway

For me it marks the point where I change to another van heading to Moshi. I unload my bags onto the other van and grabbing the front seat again. Hordes of peddlers try to offload a Walmart variety of touristy souvenir knickknacks probably made in China. These guys are aggressive, and drunk. One guy tries to sell me a bracelet, and I still had yet to learn how to just…say…no…With even the slightest opening these guys will exploit you, and fifteen minutes later you’ll own an entire curio shop and wonder what the hell happened. If these guys were Americans they’d be sales force all-stars making six figures, but instead they are in Arusha, drunk, pushy and trying to sell items barely worth $1. After fifteen different rebuffs this guy finally resorts to the nuclear option of African sales pitches.

“Come on, just help me out. You can really make a difference in my life,” he said looking me square in the eyes. And he had me. Until the new driver of the van, a young Tanzanian Simy, pushed him away shouting at him in Swahili. The guy backed off to the curb standing with the rest of the rejected street vendors. I felt strangely bad about how this played out for days, until I heard that line repeatedly along my travels. A single line targeted to exploit European and Anglo-American white guilt for financial gain, an extraordinarily savvy sales technique…one I witnessed work time and again.

The final trek into Moshi is only about an hour and a half, although it feels disproportionately longer. Passing through the center of town we wound about a traffic circle, sponsored by Coca-Cola. Through the circle a wedding procession complete with brass horns and drums dances its way through the traffic. A German behind me frantically digs for his camera, but by the time he reaches it we are already past, he curses auf Deutsch.

We cross a set of railroad tracks and the road returned to dust. The dirt in Moshi is chalky and red, easily rising into low orbit with the slightest disturbance. The tracks only see a train from Dar es Salaam once a month, the rest of the time they are pedestrian super-highways. They are busy with kids walking to and from school, adults doing the same to work and others just walking.

The van turns into a gated complex, my destination for the day. It was the Springlands Hotel, the base used by the company I am climbing with. Inside, the courtyard was bustling with activity, as groups of climbers had returned from their trek. Gear was being off-loaded while a few of us were checking in. I met a representative from the company, Gap Adventures, that I was climbing with. He gave me the lay of the land and asked that I attend a meeting the following evening.

I didn’t sleep a bit on the way down, the drive was just too interesting…even though it was comparatively boring to what I’d see later in my travels. Needless to say, a few days worth of exhaustion caught up with me. I dropped my bags in my room, which had another bed in it…that other bed had been slept in by a mystery roommate whom I would never meet.

The only impulse more powerful than sleep at this point is hunger. The “complex”, as we came to call it, had an on-site restaurant serving a buffet every night. Easy enough. I walked in and sat down next to two people who were on the shuttle with me. We hadn’t talked throughout the ride, and now I knew why: they were about as interesting and engaging as goats. I was too tired to drive the conversation, so we sat there and ate in silence. Well not exactly silence, there were two tables, with eight or so victorious climbers each, basking in their collective accomplishment.

It may have been the exhaustion, but a bit of a panic attack set in.

I was here alone. What if the people in my group were as boring as the people I just ate with? What if the people I just ate with are in my group? What if I hate everyone I climb with? Why are none of my friends here? What if I don’t make it to the top? If I don’t make it to the top where am I going to find a blue screen where I can take a phony photo of me at the top?

A billion more questions race through my head at the speed of light. I got up, walked to the bar, ordered a Tusker, sat at a table in the courtyard under the stars, drank the warm beer and took a deep breath. Kris, these questions will answer themselves in due time. You’re here for the experience of the mountain, whomever you meet is complimentary to the experience not determinant to it. Enjoy the southern hemisphere sky and upside down Orion. Finish this warm, warm beer and go to sleep.

And that’s what I did.

 

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