Safari blues

“Excuse me, sir—we have a problem.” The safari director, who had been hovering by the restaurant door, approached my table as discreetly as he could. I was enjoying lunch with Ruth Krulfeld of George Washington University, the other SAS faculty leader, and looking forward to our early afternoon departure to the Serengeti.

The 18th in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2019) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/

            “What’s the problem?” I asked, determined to continue my lunch. The director looked uncomfortable. “Perhaps we should discuss it in the hotel manager’s office?” I looked at Ruth and she nodded. We got up and left the room.

            The hotel manager was direct. “Room 103. When the housekeeping staff went in to clean this morning, they found a terrible mess, and a red substance splattered on the walls. Maybe it’s wine, maybe it’s blood. The staff are afraid to clean it.” Ruth and I understood the concern; in a country where HIV/AIDS rates had been rising, people feared contact with what might be contaminated blood.

            “This is a matter for the police. We may have to press charges for malicious damage,” the manager concluded.

            My mind was racing. On the road trip from Arusha, I had read an article in The Economist on the appalling conditions in Kenyan prisons. I didn’t imagine those in Tanzania were much better. Ruth and I didn’t want to return to Dar and report that we had left a couple of students rotting in jail.

            “Before you call the police perhaps we should talk to the students?” Ruth suggested. “I’ll find them,” I volunteered.

At the restaurant, I identified the two male occupants of 103. One claimed the toilet had overflowed and that he had tried to clean it up. Their stories started unraveling when it turned out that a third student had thrown up in the room. Three students had gotten so drunk that they didn’t remember what they did. 

Ruth and I were shocked. What sort of message did this send to anyone—the hotel, the safari company, ordinary Tanzanians—about how Americans behave and their respect for others? After it was determined that the red stuff on the walls was wine, not blood, one student offered to pay $100 for cleaning. I thought this was on the low side but was told that a larger bill would make the police suspect the hotel staff of corruption. Ruth and I assured the manager the conduct was not typical of SAS students and apologized on behalf of the program; the manager agreed not to file a criminal complaint.

Two days later, on the bus back to Dar, I shared the Economist story on Kenyan prisons with the students. They did not seem contrite, appearing to write off the incident as an expensive prank. I told them Ruth and I had compiled a report to the Executive Dean. They might face disciplinary charges, or even be sent home. They did not seem worried about the consequences. As it turned out, they were right, and we were wrong.

You can’t keep things like this quiet, so word about the trashed room spread quickly among the group. Most students were disgusted, and angry that the departure for the Serengeti had been delayed by more than an hour. The mood improved as we saw more wildlife, including the first giraffes of the trip.

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Franky found a place where elephants were crossing the road. They almost seemed to pose for us, the babies trying to emulate the moves of the adults.

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We joined other vans to see lionesses and cubs prowling along a creek, occasionally pulling meat from a grey animal carcass. Franky guessed it was a Cape buffalo. Suddenly, a female elephant appeared. The lions scattered, crouching and waiting to see what she would do. Slowly, gently, her trunk reached down and lightly caressed the body, alighting and moving, touching, prodding. It was one of the saddest things we’d ever seen. We left the scene with heavy hearts, knowing the waiting lions and vultures and jackals would take their turns in this cycle of life and death. The safari director surmised that the baby elephant had succumbed to illness, because lions would be no match for a mother defending her baby. He told us stories of seeing mother elephants pushing dead babies for several days, trying to bring them back to life. Someone recommended a book called When Elephants Weep.

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Next week: Soaps and movie palaces