Ben settled back in the car as we began our drive through Arusha, the centrally-located Tanzanian town which is full of tourists about to embark on, or returning from, a raft of magical African adventures. Ben’s among the many who provide that experience, and he’s become a good friend. This is my third trip with his growing firm, e-Trip Africa (http://etripafrica.com)/, which has lately taken off.
Last year, the elderly owner of the large house that he and his young family were renting passed away. Today that lovely, expansive mansion is a guest house, with all the original antique furniture, dense green grounds and plenty of space to expand. (https://www.booking.com/hotel/tz/the-researchers-rest.html) Ben’s family lives upstairs. They manage the place, don’t own it, but it provides the perfect spot for them to have a base of operations as well as listen to what travelers have to say about their experiences.
In fact, since not all the folks who stay here use e-Trip, Ben and Aurelie get an earful of all the complaints and issues folks have with other operators. It’s a perfect way to do just the opposite. Ben’s way of being is extremely gentle. This way he can listen, advise, and in every way learn from those who pass through here. For my money that’s an excellent way to better craft his own business. That’s one reason his operation continues to grow. He attends.
Before he retired upstairs to be with his family, Ben and I caught up. He and his French-born wife Aurelie have lived here for some time now. They regularly have to re-apply for their visas, which is increasingly a challenge under the new Administration. That Administration is seeking to outlaw the teaching of English, which would cripple kids all over the country. Swahili isn’t exactly a widely-spoken language outside Africa, and since English is the language of most major enterprises worldwide, that would isolate this country rather badly.
But then, more and more leaders are doing just that: isolating rather than collaborating. It’s a distressing trend.
There are other distresses. A good friend was killed by a poacher not long ago. His widow continues the work. The risk comes with the reward of doing your best to protect what little is left of Africa’s great wildlife. By the time Ben’s two boys have reached adulthood, those keystone species will likely be wiped out. Corruption, mostly. It’s a lucrative business. Greed is quickly killing off the very reasons why many of us travel to Africa in the first place. What saddens me is that at some point, the leaders who have allowed themselves to be manipulated by money will not have the the offerings to entice those of us who have the money to travel here. In parts of Tanzania around Lake Natrone, for example, local villagers extract a “white tax” from foreigners who happen to drive through their dusty towns, just for the crime of being white.
While this may make a great many folks angry, let’s be clear. Whites have done plenty of the same to African populations. There’s an unfortunate justice in this. I’m not without humor about it, but what makes me the saddest is that while these poor populations are being exploited to poach what is left of the great mammals that roam Africa, they also rob from their futures. Tourism will suffer, and with it, many jobs and opportunities for their kids.
Not all news is bad. These things you take in stride. No matter where you live, there is a mix. For Ben, his work involves organizing once-in-a-lifetime trips for people from all over the world. This afternoon he was chuckling about how others imagine that he’s out on safari all the time. Classic Instagram thinking.
In fact, most of the time he sits at his computer, largely like I do. The marketing, managing and administrative work involved in his business has grown beyond his and Aurelie’s ability to do it all, with two young boys in the house. He’s hiring and training more people to help out with those aspects of his business. So rather than be off doing manly man things in the jungle, he is more worried about getting out of shape. Tomorrow he’s going to join me on my Mt. Kenya trek. He’s asked me to be kind. He’s 25 years younger than I am. He’ll do just fine.
Right now he’s in the kitchen speaking Swahili to Eddie, the house boy (it’s a local term), who is magical with a cooking spoon. Ben employs a significant number of local folks. In fact, when the owner of this house died, one of his very first concerns was the population of people that the previous owners had employed their entire lives. His swift move to change the place into a guest house saved a great many jobs. As well, a chunk of his profits go to local charities. I visited one in Moshe, at the base of Kilimanjaro.
These are among the many, many reasons I love Ben and his family, and continue not only to patronize his business, but support him any way I can. They do good work.
Between Ben and his wife they speak about six languages, perhaps more. Ben’s originally from Wyoming. So how does a Wyoming boy end up running safaris for international clients, married to a lovely Frenchwoman, and with two great kids in a great big house in the middle of Arusha, Tanzania?
I’ve known Ben long enough to understand how little pure luck had to do with it. Back in the early days, when e-Trip was still making a name for itself, they had to compete with the big operators who possessed sophisticated marketing techniques and big budgets. When I first put out an inquiry about a safari, the big boys responded with high five-figure pricing. I don’t have that kind of money, nor do I want to go on a cookie-cutter safari expedition. Someone on Trip Advisor took mercy and referred me to Ben.
It only took one conversation before I understood that this was the right company. They listened, asked terrific questions, were sensitive to my budget constraints. They had no issue when I asked for a tweak here and there.
Ben and Aurelie suffered through plenty of users who would ask them to design the perfect itinerary, then take it elsewhere to save $200. Ben’s learned through long experience that that amount can be the difference between being in a high-quality 4x4 which gives you comfort all day, offers big windows for photos and AC when the heat gets too much, and a miserable, crowded ride. In fact they just invested in two brand new high-end vehicles. We drove by them on the way into the guest house grounds.
Ben and Aurelie have lived here long enough to have formed close alliances with a great many concession operators. They’ve also hired, trained and developed highly competent guides. The porter team that took me (and Aurelie, because Ben didn’t want me summitting alone) to the top of Kili had a at the time been together six years. That’s unheard of. There’s a good reason for that: they’re well paid, they don’t struggle to survive, and they’re well-treated. One of the young men who accompanied me up Kili five years ago is now much more senior and working hard at school to further develop his skills as a guide and safari leader.
I have written multiple reviews for my trips with Ben’s company. More so, though, I enjoy the growing friendship. Their existence in Africa is a bit of a knife-edge. Ben and his family live in two-year chunks at the whim of the Tanzanian government. Their wifi is slow and spotty. The power goes out without warning. Regularly. Some months nobody picks up the garbage (with the exception of local baboon troupes, but that’s a whole other issue entirely). If you don’t have someone watching your house, when you travel- especially for a long time-it’s common knowledge. People break in.
Dear friends doing good work are murdered.
The government is capricious. At any time, ex-pats could feel a boot in their butts, and all their investments, the people they employ and all the business on which they pay taxes to the Tanzanian government could go the way of the dodo bird. It happened to spectacular disaster in Zimbabwe, which only recently removed him from office- now in his nineties- after a complete ruination of his country’s economy and the hopes of multiple generations (http://diplomacybeyond.com/articles/heart-of-darkness-how-robert-mugabe-ruined-zimbabwe/).
This could happen to Ben’s family and business, too.
To my mind, Ben and his wife are still living a dream life. They deal with the uncertainty by working with what they know right now, the facts as they know them, and with a commitment to providing amazing experiences. They have provided well-paying jobs to porters, guides, housekeepers and many more. Worked hard to ensure a better life for many of Tanzania’s orphans.
They are anything but rich, if you only consider money. But they are rich as Croesus (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Croesus) if you consider their quality of life, daily adventures, the love they have, their healthy happy kids. All that, and they provide custom, once-in-a-lifetime adventures. And helping provide to kids who otherwise might not have a future at all.
His kids are rich, too. His boys play outside. In all weather. In the trees, on the grass, with their animals. Neither has a cell phone. They laugh, cry, wrestle, battle, plead for chocolate. Growing up speaking multiple languages. Watching Mom and Dad work magic with what they have. What I admire about Ben and Aurelie is that they juggle all the vagaries of life with aplomb. They simply make it all work, and as a result, a whole lot of people benefit.
If they have to leave, Ben’s considering France. He can keep on running his safaris. His family will have the advantage of learning and using even more languages. They’ll be close to Africa- it’s an easy straight shot south. No guarantees. What I know is that they will work with what comes their way when it gets there. And I will still be friends with them, because they will be making a difference wherever they land.
That’s a life well-lived by any measure.
Not bad for a kid from Wyoming.
Not bad at all.