We loved Turkey. We may have ended up there largely due to COVID restrictions, but what an awesome time. Stir crazy is stir crazy, though, and we were ready to move. In normal times, you need to plan a safari in the Serengeti a year or so in advance. We (Jenna) did it three weeks out. Next stop, Tanzania.
A Final Seafood Meal and a “Quarter-Hearted” Turkish Cat
With two weeks in Marmaris - not a huge town - we found ourselves going back to a particularly good seafood restaurant a few times. It was a few blocks inland from our place, and we stumbled on it by mistake the first time we went.
There’s always a danger in touristy areas of falling victim to a tourist trap restaurant. Plenty of places look good but just don’t blow you away. And, this was the vibe coming out of a lot of the beachfront spots in Marmaris - places to take pictures and enjoy the view, but not necessarily get a great meal.
Using her TripAdvisor local-language technique, Jenna found what looked like a good restaurant, a little spot tucked back in a residential area of Marmaris. The further from the seafront you walk, the fewer Russian/British-themed bars and hotels. The town gradually transitions to quiet, hillside neighborhoods of tree-lined roads, beautiful landscaping, and private homes. Famished, we set off to twist and turn our way up the hill to this restaurant.
Fast forward thirty minutes - including a little backtracking - and we found our spot. Boarded up. Apparently, it had closed the week prior for the season. Back to square one. But, too hungry for more stressing/researching to find a restaurant online, we decided to duck into another restaurant we’d passed on our walk - awesome decision.
Called TurgutReis Balik, the place had wide-open windows looking from the street into its dining room, and there was a massive display of fresh fish on ice right in the front door. This’d work, and what a meal! Grilled fish, shrimp casserole, fish soup, and a massive loaf of fresh-baked bread to soak everything up. When we left absolutely stuffed, we knew it’d be a regular spot during our time in Marmaris.
And, delicious food aside, the cats really solidified this decision for Jenna - plenty of them hanging around out front. And, every once in a while, a particularly bold one would dash through the door to try and grab some table scraps. This seemed to be par for the course - none of the locals seemed too concerned, and the restaurant staff would only chase them off with a few sprays of a water bottle if they got particularly meow-y with guests.
So yeah, it was pretty clear that this would make a great place for our final Marmaris dinner. The food certainly didn’t disappoint. And, it turns out this is a really nice life for cats. One cute little guy (yes, Jenna’s cat obsession is slowly rubbing off on Chipp) ended up under our table. He gave a begging meow that we definitely couldn’t categorize as enthusiastic. Not even half-hearted, it was really more quarter-hearted, almost a I’m-a-cat-so-know-I’m-supposed-to-beg-for-food-but-am-really-not-too-into-this meow.
True sucker that he is, Chipp sacrificed a delicious, soaked-in-butter-and-garlic shrimp, setting it on the floor for the cat. Little punk took a sniff of it and walked away - pretty nice life when cats can turn their noses up at a tasty shrimp!
“Wait, Did They Just Cancel Our Flight?”
Understatement: traveling in the COVID-19 era poses some additional challenges. Of particular relevance to us, any international flight can be cancelled at the drop of a hat. Normally, this wouldn’t matter to us - just roll with the punches.
But, flying to Tanzania, we had a little less leeway, as our timeline was pretty tightly coupled. We needed to get to Arusha - gateway city to the Serengeti - to meet our safari guide. Well, let’s rephrase that. We didn’t need to, but we absolutely didn’t want to lose our downpayment, so we definitely wanted to get there as scheduled.
With that as context, Jenna spent a large portion of the week leading up to our trip on the Qatar Airways website, hitting the refresh button on the flight status page. Chipp typically takes a more laissez faire approach to these situations, assuming things will work out. Jenna, as frequently discussed, takes a more, well, involved (read: stressed) approach. And good thing she does!
Two days before departure, after countless confirmations that our flight remained on schedule, Jenna let out a: “Wait, did they just cancel our flight? They did!” Yep, apparently the airline had cancelled our flight - without sending us an e-mail. Stupid Chipp would’ve showed up at the airport, none the wiser. Jenna, on the other hand, went into full-on scramble mode.
For the next several hours, Jenna called, e-mailed, Facebook messaged - every possible avenue of communication - with people from Qatar Airways. Eventually, she figured out some PhD-level itinerary that involved a couple-hour cab ride, a discount airline flight up to Istanbul, and catching a different Qatar flight from Istanbul to Doha, and Doha to Arusha, Tanzania.
We’d ultimately arrive in Tanzania at the same time as our original itinerary - but not without some serious travel planning jiu jitsu on Jenna’s part.
Forgotten Bags, a (Very) Rare Tourism Promotion, and the Perks of Royalty
For all of Jenna’s awesome work figuring out our travel, she’s not getting a free ride in this post. After an early morning ride from Marmaris to the Dalaman Airport, our cab dropped us off at the terminal. Gathering our bags from the curb, Jenna’s face turned ghost white.
Jenna: “My bag!”
Without thinking, Chipp dropped his own bags and sprinted off towards our departing cab, about a 100 yards away by that time (not an easy feat given his current fitness level). Fortunately, a helpful bystander let out a serious whistle, and the driver must’ve heard and seen Chipp in his rearview mirror. As the cab stopped, Chipp (thankfully) slowed to more of a light jog - and recovered the bag. Crisis averted - and no pulled hamstrings in the process!
Minus this less-than-auspicious start, the trip went smoothly. Door-to-door, it worked out to about 30 hours of travel - long but largely uneventful. We did get the opportunity to see some pretty unique things during our travels, though.
Strolling through most airports, you see plenty of big ads for different beautiful places - beaches, mountains, resorts, and countries all around the world. Turkey was no different in this respect. Where it did differ was the specific promoted destination. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is a “country” recognized by a grand total of one other country - Turkey. Yep, pretty strange walking through the Istanbul airport and seeing a big travel ad for vacations to a place not recognized by 99.9% (arbitrary statistic) of the world’s countries - little different than seeing a “Visit Mexico!” poster.
Speaking of special treatment… Flying Qatar Airways, it shouldn’t have surprised us to cross paths with some of the Qatari royal family. As we peons waited in line to check into our Istanbul to Doha flight, we watched a big family receive slightly different treatment. Accompanied by several bodyguard/luggage-carrying types, these folks clearly didn’t do the “line thing.” With our check-in process put on hold, these - quite clearly royal - people casually played on iPhones as the airline staff scrambled/coordinated with the earpiece-wearing meat sticks to check in their dozens of Louis Vuitton and duty free shopping bags: you there, servants, do things for me.
While inconvenienced, this also fell into the well-that-was-interesting category - part of traveling the world. Couple hours later, as we were clearing COVID protocols to board the flight, we’d experience there-are-two-different-worlds, round two. Standing in a seemingly endless line, we could only smile watching this same family get escorted through a side door onto the jetway, protocols be damned. Not sure who has the better life - the royal family, or the spoiled Turkish cats!
Geopolitical Considerations and Surface-to-Air Missile Concerns
Once the important people had been escorted to their first class accommodations, we normal folk boarded. Smooth travels from Istanbul to Doha, but things got strange again flying from Qatar to Tanzania.
For the past few years (though recently revised), the Gulf countries have boycotted Qatar. The historical and political rationale for this boycott are both beyond our understanding and the scope of this post. But, from a practical perspective, it meant that Qatar Airways flights couldn’t fly over Emirati or Saudi airspace.
On modern flights, you can track your plane’s progress on the in-flight entertainment screens installed in the seat in front of you. Kind of like Google Maps - but with an airplane - it gives you a good sense of where you are in the world.
Naturally, we found it wildly disconcerting to see our flight flying through the Strait of Hormuz. Banned from overland flights, the Qataris had to shoot this gap between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula - one of the most dangerous transits in the world. Our flight obviously made it through without issues, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t hold our breath a little bit flying next door to Iranian airspace - especially with half of our party having grown up in Ukraine.
Kilimanjaro Over the Clouds and A Drive Into Arusha
With Hormuz behind us, we both tried to sleep a bit as we headed out over the Arabian Sea towards East Africa (Jenna by closing her eyes, Chipp by requesting more of the complimentary red wine). A few hours later - despite significant grogginess - we were treated to a pretty cool view. Looking out the left side of the airplane, we saw an endless blanket of clouds - broken only by Mount Kilimanjaro’s snow-capped peak rising up into the sky. Absolutely incredible.
No, we would not be attempting to climb Kilimanjaro. Jenna was pretty sure that Chipp’s claim of being able to do it “on heart alone” would conclude with a heart attack. Per usual, her reason trumped Chipp’s illogical - though sometimes romantic - plans. So it was cool still getting a chance to see the famous peak, if only from the sky.
A few minutes later, we landed at Kilimanjaro Airport. Arusha - our destination city - had an airport, but it just served local flights. Instead, most people heading out towards Serengeti and the other national parks in Tanzania’s northern reaches arrived here. After the standard customs and COVID screenings, we grabbed our bags and headed out to the parking lot - not a difficult trip, with the airport only being as big as a basketball court.
Kilimanjaro International is about an hour outside of Arusha’s city center, and we didn’t know how the taxi program worked here. Instead, we worked with our safari company to line up a van to our hotel.
Most people going on safari in Tanzania skip Arusha altogether. Instead, they head to secluded, walled-in resorts on the outskirts of the city, spending a night recovering from international flights before heading out to the national parks. As this was our first time in Africa, we both wanted to spend some time in the city proper.
And, that’s exactly what we’d do. Staying at a hotel in the heart of Arusha, we’d spend the next three days before heading out on safari exploring the city. But first, sleep. Arriving at our hotel around 11am local time after roughly 30 hours awake, we checked in, drew the blinds, and immediately fell asleep.