Archive for October, 2007

October 31st 2007
Lamu and the Now Legendary Captain Barracuda

Posted under Africa & Kenya

Lamu is one of several islands that form a small archipelago off the coast of northern Kenya. It had been described to us as a backpackers’ island with cheap accommodations and nearly uninhabited, white sand beaches. We arrived by ferry, optimistic about five days of inactivity. I wanted to catch up on some writing, read a couple of books, eat, drink and lay on the beach. Period. We’d imagined days spent on the beach and nights in the seaside lounges so, with our packs in tow in the sticky afternoon heat, we checked out a few “mid-range” hotel rooms, in which we only intended to sleep. We selected a sea view room at the Bahari Hotel, negotiated a reduced rate for a four-night stay, and paid cash up front. We had reconnected with Marie, from our safari adventure, on the bus from Mombasa and she also took a room at the Bahari.

Happily relieved of the burden of our packs, the three of us strolled along the shorefront road. The people of Lamu were easy-going and happy, always greeting us with a friendly “Jambo!” when we passed by. The population of the small island is primarily Muslim but the men were unlike any Muslims that we had yet encountered; they were dreadlocked, Rastafarian Muslims in Bob Marley t-shirts and surf shorts who live life “pole pole” (slowly, slowly). They say “Welcome to Paradise! Hakuna Matata! No worries, Mon.”, which we immediately loved and adopted into our own vocabulary for the next five days. In stark contrast, the Lamu women were fully concealed but for their eyes, more commonly than in any other place that we’ve been. They generally didn’t speak to us except to return our greeting and, even then, only sometimes.

The city is located upon an industrial shoreline, dotted with hand-made wooden boats. There are large, commercial fishing boats, small motor-powered ferries, and dhows, which are long, wooden sailboats. It didn’t take long to discover the single tourist attraction that almost every dhow “captain” was trying to push: a day sail to the neighboring Manda Island with fishing, snorkeling, and a nice fish barbecue on the beach with coconut rice and fresh fruit. It didn’t sound particularly appealing, especially after one look at the dhow itself, which clearly offered no shade from the intense island sun.

We spent the next morning at Shela Beach, which was a good forty-minute walk from our hotel. The soft, white sand beach was every bit as pristine and beautiful as we had imagined but more raw than we had expected. There were no resorts or restaurants whatsoever, meaning no shade structures or services. The few other inhabitants were some scattered tourists and a few random locals. Our only refreshments and sun protection were those which we’d packed in our bags. The water was calm and warm, isolated from the Indian Ocean by the islands of the archipelago, and we swam and played like children for a couple of blissful hours. We relaxed and read on the shore until we were sufficiently sweaty and sunburned and then packed up and walked back to town. It would be our only day at the beach but our first swim in the Indian Ocean was the highlight of our stay on Lamu.

We spent the remaining days hiding out from the oppressive heat, which seemed to infiltrate every establishment on the island. Our sea view room turned out to be especially hot with not even a whisper of a sea breeze blowing through the open windows which warmly welcomed a swarm of mosquitoes each night. Aaron and I each got food poisoning on separate occasions and spent respective afternoons huddled in vile misery. I personally lived for the hearty breakfasts each morning, which never made us sick and had the most delicious mangos that I have ever tasted. All of the fresh fruit in Kenya has been amazing: pineapples, apples, bananas, mangos, papayas! They are sweet, juicy bites of perfection that sweep me away to a tropical paradise, if only in my imagination.

Our chance meeting with the Now Legendary Captain Barracuda came during one of our many aimless strolls down the industrial shorefront road, just before sunset. We came across a couple of sun-kissed tourists who were just stepping off a dhow onto the dock. We had all but sworn off the dhow trip but when we curiously inquired about their experience, they said that we should just do it, that it was a nice excursion. From behind them, a friendly and unobtrusive local stepped off the boat and introduced himself as the captain of the ship. “I am Captain Barracuda!” he said proudly. We began to entertain the idea of a dhow trip once again and felt that the recommendation of those tourists had been good due diligence in choosing a captain. We booked a trip for the following morning, leaving at 9:30am and including fishing and a fish barbecue on Manda Island. We gave Captain Barracuda a small deposit to buy the food and felt satisfied with our decision.

The next morning, however, our dhow trip began to go south as quickly as it began. When we arrived at the established meeting point, Captain Barracuda said that the two other passengers were running late and he was going to check in on them. After almost an hour, he returned alone and rather disappointedly said that he would take the three of us. We boarded the boat to find few comfortable places to sit and nothing in the way of fishing equipment or provisions. Something just didn’t seem right but I ignored my instincts, which were shouting at me to disembark immediately and forget about the whole thing. Soon the crew boarded, as well as a fourth passenger, a single, cheerful Iranian girl, and then we were off. The sky was overcast with thick clouds and the sail to Manda Island was pleasant. The crew had raised two Bob Marley flags at the stern and almost immediately lit up a joint, which they passed around amongst themselves. Cool, I thought. Maybe if they get stoned enough, we’ll get serenaded by five Muslim Rastafarians singing Marley songs and this party could get interesting. No such luck.

The dhow anchored off the Manda Island shore and we all stepped onto the beach. Captain Barracuda informed us that we had started too late to do any fishing but that we could eat our fish barbecue, which was available whenever we were ready, under a shady tree. Some of the crew walked down the shore and others stayed on the boat. We found some shade near the beach and set down our things. I was dying for a swim and almost immediately waded in but the bottom covered with rocks and the water was so hot that it burned my sun-kissed shins. There would be no swimming that day. Before long, we wandered over to the tree, under which our barbecue was to take place. There was a man cooking over a fire so we lay down in the cool shade of the tree and waited. Soon a group of young people joined us under the tree; they had just returned from fishing and were having a wonderful time. After over an hour of waiting to be served our meal, one of the crewmen from our boat joined us. In just a few short minutes of conversation with him, we managed to uncover the dishonest schemes of Captain Barracuda. As it turned out, we were speaking to the captain of the ship, a very cool, friendly guy who had been told by Barracuda that we had paid only 300 shillings each for a sail out to the island and nothing else. The real captain knew nothing of our arrangement for fishing and lunch and was certainly unaware that we’d paid more than twice that much. The fish barbecue being prepared was for the other group and not for us! The dhow trip ended abruptly with a dramatic confrontation with Captain Barracuda and a silent sail back to Lamu. Everyone in the crew was now aware of the deception that had taken place. The real captain was cool and apologetic as he too had been swindled. Back on land, Barracuda begrudgingly refunded the majority of our money after we threatened to report him to the tourist office. Lamu is a small island. I am certain that our experience will scar his livelihood as a dhow “captain” for a long time. It really is unfortunate that greedy scam artists like Barracuda can sour what might otherwise be a pleasant experience for all.

Two days later, as we ferried away from Lamu toward the Manda Island airport, we were happy to leave. Despite the heat, the mosquitoes, the mediocre food and the dhow scandal, we don’t regret the experience. The Lamu people were warm and welcoming. The streets were safe to walk alone at night and the views really were spectacular. We saw at least ten baby donkeys, much to my delight. The uncomfortable moments were separated by fresh-squeezed juices and crab cocktails at sea view restaurants and cold beers with the moonlight reflecting on the quiet, evening waters. For most exotic destinations, there is value in simply experiencing them. For many, Lamu truly is paradise, even without umbrella drinks and air-conditioning.

The Manda Island airport was a group of thatch-roofed pavilions with small airplanes. Our flight was quick and comfortable and, as I took in the aerial view, I thought about the discomfort we could have spared ourselves if we had flown both ways. Our bus rides were hot, sweaty, bumpy and foul-smelling but also exhilarating. It is easy for people of moderate means to fly from one air-conditioned tourist location to another, completely isolated from the local population but those people miss out on so much of the colorful culture of Africa. We endured the discomforts alongside the locals and for that we were granted unparalleled landscape views and a powerful glimpse into the beating heart of Kenya. No regrets.

That said, we spent our last night in Nairobi at the Hilton. We decided to treat ourselves after a fulfilling but rough two weeks of travel in Kenya. Actually, when we entered the lobby to find out how many of our precious Hilton hotel points it would cost, Aaron took one look at my face and knew that we were staying, no matter what. With Aaron’s corporate Hilton status, we were upgraded to an executive suite and checked in right away.

We jumped around like monkeys when we discovered the air-conditioning vent, sofa, three kinds of thick, fluffy towels, an array of fragrant Crabtree & Evelyn products, and a hot water pot with a lovely assortment of coffees, teas and biscuits. We had not experienced this level of luxury since we left our home sweet home in Texas and since then we have developed a whole new appreciation for it. I vowed not to leave the premises until they kicked us out the next day. We bought tickets for a shuttle to Tanzania the next afternoon and spent the evening in true relaxation mode. It is amazing how a single blissful night of comfort can rejuvenate the mind, body and spirit. We took the remainder of that night “pole pole”, sipping tea, watching movies and enjoying every detail of our little slice of paradise. “Hakuna Matata, Mon”. We had no worries.


October 28th 2007
Mombasa Momentarily

Posted under Africa & Kenya

Back in Nairobi, we slowly reacquainted ourselves with civilization and recovered from the harsh conditions of our safari. We had preconceived a glamorized image of an African safari and had failed to mentally prepare ourselves for the strenuous bone-rattling travel. Four long days of jerking, dusty, sun-exposed driving and three nights of roughing it in the wild had left us in a state of exhaustion. We were in desperate need of a vacation.

We stopped by the Indian Consulate in the Nairobi city-center to apply for tourist visas, which we will need for our January arrival. Most countries do not require a formal “visa” for U.S. citizens; we just pay a nominal fee at the airport or border crossing and they give us a stamp, usually allowing us to stay in the country for up to three months. However some countries, like India and China, insist on making things more complicated for travelers, who simply want to spend money in their respective countries, by making us endure the arduous, time-consuming process of obtaining a visa in advance. We have been told by many people whom we’ve met along our way, mostly from Egypt and the Middle East, that our own beloved United States is the most difficult country of all for which to obtain a visa (which I have no trouble believing) so we probably shouldn’t complain. Visas are a necessary evil. We spent two hours at the Consulate, mostly waiting in line, and were instructed to return in five business days to collect our visas. Hmmm…what to do for five days in Kenya? We decided to head southeast by bus to the coastal city of Mombasa where we would spend a couple of days before taking another bus to the island of Lamu.

As we’ve said, the roads in Kenya are awful, even by African standards. Many of the primary roads are paved but even those have gigantic potholes. Then there are diversions every few kilometers where the road is under construction so you look longingly at the sealed highway on your left as you are jerked along the dirt path detour running parallel to it. From Nairobi to Mombasa, we rode the Akamba Express bus, a journey that was scheduled to last 7-8 hours. The dirt roads were undulating and uneven, jarring every organ in our bodies. We finally arrived on a road that seemed to be of the first world variety and were abruptly halted by a third world traffic jam. After an hour at a standstill, the line of cars and trucks in front of us created their own alternate route along the side of the road. The wreckage consisted of four large semi-trucks scattered across the road and shoulder, all overturned and one ablaze. It looked as though a petrol-carrying semi-truck had collided with at least one other truck in an attempt to pass on the narrow, two-lane road. The fiery inferno had melted all eighteen tires and left only charred remains. It was surreal and tragic and, with the way our bus driver was playing chicken with oncoming traffic, it could easily have been us on the side of that road.

After nine grueling hours, we rolled into the dirty, unimpressive city of Mombasa, the largest coastal port in East Africa. Mischievous-looking groups of young men loitered in the dark, dusty streets and, with nightfall approaching, we wanted to quickly find our hostel and settle in for the night. Before the bus had come to a complete halt, it was already swarmed by the aforementioned loiterers, all wanting something from someone. Our packs had been stowed in the baggage compartment underneath the bus and we pushed and shoved our way through the claustrophobic crowd to retrieve them. We found ourselves entangled in a mass of writhing bodies, practically crawling on top of each other for our attentions, all soliciting taxi rides without an official taxi cab in sight. Unable to converse in such disruptive conditions, we ducked our heads, clutched our packs tightly, and bulldozed our way toward the bus station, seeking solace inside its doors. But there were no doors. The bus station was merely a desk in the façade of a building, protected by a cage of painted metal bars. Fortunately, it was indented slightly, which afforded us a few feet of breathing room. With the most persistent of the taxi touts looming a mere five feet away, we quietly discussed that we would indeed need a taxi. In light of the abundance of taxi drivers, we shrewdly negotiated our fare and soon arrived at our hostel. Aaron waited with the bags while Tina inspected the room and when she returned her only response was, “One night.” Sometimes you just get a bad feeling about a place. From the guidebook, Tina picked out an upscale Indian restaurant, named Shehnai, and Aaron was too weary to protest. We decided to splurge after the day’s beating. The ambience was spectacular and the food truly extraordinary. During dinner, we decided to take the earliest morning bus up the coast to Lamu.

We arrived at 5:45am at the Tawakal bus terminal and managed to secure the last two seats on a bus to Lamu. The roads leaving Mombasa were surprisingly well maintained and we were hopefully optimistic about a comfortable ride. We stopped in Malindi after two hours and many of the original passengers disembarked while others boarded, filling the bus beyond its capacity. A few unfortunate passengers sat on plastic crates in the aisle for the remaining four hours. When our journey resumed, we had the unfortunate displeasure of sitting behind a sour-smelling Swahili woman, whose pungent body odor invaded our nasal passages, aided by the breeze from her open window. The cries of infant children and the obnoxious voices of men talking loudly into their cell phones filled our heads but as the bus rolled away, a soothing chanted recitation of the Qur’an began to play over the loudspeaker. We have heard these recitations many times before and have come to appreciate their musical quality. It lulled the bus chatter to a quiet murmur until eventually all we could hear was the clanking of the bus as it hit bumps and potholes. The final two hour stretch was literally, without a doubt, the worst road that we have ever traveled! We clinched the headrest of the seats in front of us, trying to stay in our seats, as the bus lurched from one pothole to another and thrashed from side to side. It was impossible to read or even to think, we simply had to endure it. Other adventurers who have traveled overland in southern and eastern Africa tell us how much worse the Kenyan roads are than anywhere else that they have traveled. It’s not hard to believe. By the time we reached Lamu, we had already decided that we would fly back to Nairobi, whatever the cost.

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October 26th 2007
Safari Concluded

Posted under Africa & Kenya

Day Two of the safari consisted of an eight hour drive to Masai Mara, stopping for lunch at a hotel restaurant in Narok. The meal was buffet-style and mediocre by African standards but filling. Our driver, Ben, had said that he was going to run a quick errand while we ate. After lunch, we wandered across the one main road in Narok in search of Snickers. The first place that we tried wanted to charge us the gringo price so we decided to wander a bit further along the way. Suddenly I felt a mean rumble in my intestines so I sent Aaron and Marie off to find Snickers while I scurried back to the hotel restaurant. After a final showdown with the seat less toilet, I sat on the front step of the hotel to wait for everyone to return and was engaged in conversation with a pleasant Kenyan man who had earlier lured us into his souvenir shop in the hotel parking lot. He was friendly and asked about the cost of living in the States, a seemingly common question among the men that we have met but always a difficult question to answer. He spoke of his wife and two children, all of whom he supported by working at the souvenir shop, which had been his place of employment for the past thirteen years. I couldn’t imagine how he supported a family on that wage. The small shop couldn’t possibly pull in very much profit (though it did seem like all of the safari buses stopped at that same restaurant) so his wages couldn’t come out to much more than peanuts. But that’s the way things are here – people barely scraping by using any means possible.

Aaron and Marie finally made it back – they’d had to walk a long way for cheap candy and a money changer. As the three of us sat on the steps, anxious to move along, there was no sign of Ben. He finally showed up, about two hours after dropping us off. We didn’t know where he had been – he was vague in his explanations – but it didn’t matter. We were aggravated at being on Swahili time but we were at Ben’s mercy to make or break our next three days so there was no point in complaining. As I have said before, no one seems to have any sense of urgency in Africa. This requires an attitude adjustment on the part of over-indulged Americans who are accustomed to immediate gratification and meticulous service. We’re working on it.

The drive was long and harsh. The big windows on the safari bus, while perfect for providing a panoramic view of the wild, have no tint to block out the sun and, of course, there is no air conditioning. As afternoon approached, the sun baked us in our seats. The toxic combination of auto emissions and clouds of dust kicked up by passing vehicles forced me to tie a shirt around my nose and mouth to filter the air. Still, the pollution invaded us and whenever we blew our noses, black dirt came out. I don’t even want to imagine how much of it actually penetrated our lungs, forming an irreversible layer of black silt inside them. I have no trouble believing that the average life expectancy for a Kenyan is 52 years. I suspect that many of them die of lung-related illnesses, brought on my years of inhaling tainted air. When I return to the States, I will never take my clean air for granted again!

So by this time, I have more or less resigned myself to the fact that toilets in this part of Kenya don’t have seats. At first, I wondered whether someone came along and stole them because you can see the two screws where the seat should hinge on. Was there a Black Market for toilet seats? Eventually, as a group, we deduced that it must simply be cheaper to buy toilets without seats, though this makes little sense to me. It’s like selling a wheelbarrow without the wheel. Anyway, with that question moderately resolved, I had just one mystery remaining in my bathroom-obsessed mind. Toilet paper. Most public (and many private) toilets do not provide toilet paper. I have become religious about carrying a roll or two in the day pack, which is always with us. As we traveled longer over land, I started noticing that while I was always packing the paper, no one else seemed to be. Other women and men were not walking around with rolls of toilet paper. What did they use? And for that matter, what did these rural natives use because it was pretty evident that paper products were a scarce resource in general. Even if it is available for purchase, when you can barely afford food or shoes, paper products become a lesser (sometimes nonexistent) priority. Still, I couldn’t get my proper suburban brain around the obvious answer to the question. My naïve wonder finally voiced itself on a later bus ride and my husband’s response brought forth a shocking realization which I might have happily lived my whole life without. “They use their hands,” he said matter-of-factly. “That’s why, customarily in Africa, you don’t eat or shake hands with your left hand…because that hand is used for wiping.” WHAT???!!! I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. I felt like a kid who had just learned that there’s no Santa Clause. He asked if I had noticed the water nozzles inside the stalls, which I didn’t recall. I had always assumed that they used leaves or something. Of course, this was the obvious answer but I could never allow the thought to materialize in my brain until Aaron said it out loud.

Ladies and gentlemen, I feel as though I have just deflowered your virginal ignorance by bringing this rather uncouth matter of potty etiquette to light and for that I apologize. As difficult as it is to stomach these thoughts, it is thrilling to be shocked and enlightened in the ways of the world. The next time you walk out of Sam’s or Costco with your 24-pack of Charmin double-rolls, be sure to say a little prayer of thanks for the wonderful comforts that you are afforded simply by being born on a different speck of this giant rock we call Earth. If you ever feel dissatisfied with your lot in life, with the bounty of your labors, come to Africa, my friends, and be humbled by your own vanity. Look into the eyes of a young man trying to sell you a bag of nuts or a banana through a bus window in the blazing sun and you will see true desperation, the very essence of the human struggle for survival. The pain and despair in those eyes is far beyond anything I could begin to understand. I find myself wishing that I could buy all of their nuts and bananas and wooden figurines…that I could fly in a lifetime supply of Charmin double-rolls to each village, but it would bring no long-term benefit. When the Charmin supply ran dry (which it inevitably would because they would find multiple uses for it), they’d just have to go back to using their hands, only they would now know the difference. But I’m off on another one of my long tangents! Back to the safari!

After the eight hour drive from Nakuru, we finally arrived at our campsite just outside the Masai Mara. Our collective energy was low. We had, however, heard and read great things about the Masai Mara and our equally great expectations fueled our fires for an early evening game drive. By the time we made it into the park, the sun was falling toward the horizon so we knew our hunt would be short. For the first hour, we didn’t see much – a few zebras and gazelles, which seem to be common, and scattered families of wildebeests.

The wildebeests are unique in their appearance and amazing to encounter in large numbers. They are more slender than buffalo but have similar black horns. Their faces are a cross between a horse and a buffalo. They have meek temperament, quickly scattering to either side of the road as our bus approaches. They seem to be a favored victim of the lions because their carcasses are frequently spotted decomposing to bones and dust.

Every year, the wildebeests migrate from Tanzania to Kenya to graze on the rich grasses of the Masai Mara. Around this time of year, they can be seen slowly migrating back to the Serengeti, family by family, for the season. We would see many wildebeests in the Masai Mara, though we were told that the majority had already made their way south.

The highlight of our first evening game drive was a family of elephants that we spotted near a stream, lined with lush grasses. The elephants – three babies and two adults – ripped clumps of grass from the ground with their powerful, flexible trunks and curled the grass right into their mouths. Before they had really begun to chew that mouthful, the trunk was already trolling for the next bunch. If the grass was stubborn, the massive gray specimen would use their big feet to kick the roots, loosening the grass for easy collection. They were beautiful and we watched them for a long time. After seeing these incredible animals in their natural habitat, so harmonious with nature, we are ruined for ever going to a zoo again without feeling the pain of their captivity. The same goes for all zoo animals, which always seem depressed in their claustrophobic, confined spaces, made to resemble their natural habitats.

We arrived back at the campsite, in desperate need of some rest and relaxation. This second camp boasted toilets (no seat) and showers in the huts, though only with cold water. Three wooden stalls of communal showers had hot water and a noisy, diesel-powered generator provided electricity from 7-10pm each night. Despite my aversion to all communal bathrooms, Aaron and I decided to make the walk to the hot showers. The inside walls were a bit moldy, the shower head was rusty, and I could see bugs crawling up the walls in the dim light from above but the water was hot and sometimes when you’re that filthy, you just don’t care. We had a good, hot dinner in the dining hall while we waited for our camera batteries to recharge and then sat by a campfire with Marie and two of the camp hands.

There were four Masai tribesmen keeping watch over our camp through the night. The one who tended our fire explained that the Masai are used to this duty; they stand guard over their cattle each night to protect the helpless cows from becoming steak tartare for the hungry lions. The Masai tribes inhabit all of the land surrounding the wildlife park. They are distinguishable by their bright, punch red sashes in varying patterns of stripes and plaids. According to the camp guard, they are the only Kenyan tribe that has maintained the traditional tribal ways of life; the other tribes have all become westernized. The men carry wooden sticks, resembling spears, but they are supposedly just for recreational use. As much as scratching around in the dirt could be entertaining on a cold, quiet night of lion duty, I would personally enjoy the extra layer of security that a long spear affords when walking anywhere around here in the day or night.

The Masai men also have the stretched ear lobes from wearing the large, round tribal disks in their ears. By the looks of our guy’s lobes, his disks were at least twice the diameter of a quarter. None of them actually wear the disks now, though. They just have the deformed, stretched lobes as evidence of a trend which is perhaps out of style this season.

After a single chorus of Kumbaya, a campfire requirement, we all turned in for the night. As Aaron and I lay in our twin BFZs, built like Fort Knox, we were overcome with exhaustion. My initial inspection for bed bugs had brought a satisfactory result and we actually slept in the linens provided rather than lining them with our silk sleep sacks. After the electricity went out at ten, we read a bit longer by headlamp and then nodded off to sleep. The next day would be long – a whole day on safari – but despite our restful night, nothing could have quite prepared us for the harsh conditions that Day Three would bring.

Every day that is begun with a nice, leisurely breakfast has the makings to be a great day. In Kenya, every day has begun with a breakfast fit for royalty and Day Three was no exception. Sufficiently powered, we headed to the minibus, excited about our prospects of a fruitful day in the Masai Mara. Marie had had problems charging her camera batteries the previous night so Ben said that we could stop at a safari lodge inside the park, where she could buy batteries in the gift shop. This was a big mistake! The lodge was plush and luxurious. This is how the other half lives, the two-week vacationers who have jobs and can afford to drop a thousand bucks a day on a safari. The lodge had a beautiful, rustic wilderness-themed lounge, a perfect place to cool off with an ice cold beer and share safari tales at the end of the day. And the bathroom (yes, I am obsessed)! Sparkling, pristine, fragrant and with unlimited paper! I thought that I had died and gone to Heaven! I didn’t want to leave, didn’t want to go on safari that day, just wanted to stay in that air-conditioned paradise all day and get reacquainted with a life to which I was once accustomed. A life with unlimited toilet paper. Knowing the impossibility of my desire, I begrudgingly walked back to the minibus, inwardly pouting, sulking and wallowing in self-pity. Satiating my champagne tastes on a Spam budget is a challenge to begin with and two nights of camping have already taken their toll on my frazzled nerves. In the interest of preserving the integrity of everyone else’s good time, I got my “snobby ass” back on the bus without the slightest protest.

We drove off into fields of green and gold, our cameras cocked and ready. Masai Mara is much larger than Nakuru so you drive a longer distance between animal sightings. It requires a bit more patience. We saw numerous herds of wildebeests, much to Aaron’s delight. Zebras are so common here that I wonder why they are not used for animal labor since they seem stronger than donkeys and mechanical labor is in such short supply. I think they must either be too beautiful or simply incorrigible. It is surreal to see them in the wild with their striking stripes seemingly tattooed onto their muscular bodies.

Aaron had been talking about witnessing a kill for quite a while now and I found myself developing my own obsession. I started seeing the herbivores through the eyes of the predatory lion. I noticed what tasty-looking drumsticks the zebras had, the meaty racks of ribs on the wildebeests, the tender side of the gazelle. When we found lions, I found myself trying to send them telepathic messages. You’re getting very, very hungry. How about a nice zebra drumstick with some fava beans and a nice Chianti…fffffff. But my crazed antics didn’t phase the lazy lions in the slightest. They only wanted to sleep and who could blame them? It was almost midday and the sun was bearing down on us, man and beast, with a brutal intensity.

We drove to the river where the wildebeests must cross during their migration. The river bank next to the bridge that we crossed was covered with putrid-smelling, rotten carcasses of the wildebeests that were unfortunate in their attempt to cross. It was difficult to see (and especially to smell) all of that death but that is nature. Thankfully, we crossed the bridge quickly and I could breathe again without a handkerchief over my mouth and nose.

I was feeling the initial pangs of hunger rising inside me and was jubilated when we pulled into a clearing where Ben said that we would have our picnic lunch. After nearly four hours of driving in the jolting bus, we were all ready for a reprieve. We stopped among several other minibuses and Ben pointed to a spot on the river’s edge, where we could sit and watch the hippos. He then pointed to a tree under which we would meet for our picnic whenever we’d had our fill of hippo action. We had heard about this Hippo Pool, as it was called, which was supposedly also full of crocodiles, and we were salivating over the prospect of seeing both. We sat on the rocky edge and immediately spied several sets of purplish hippo eyes poking through the surface of the water above their totally submerged bodies. In the thirty or so minutes that we sat, waiting for a hippo to raise its massive body out of the cool river and into the blazing sun for our photographing pleasure, I managed to get my own little sun kiss that would mark the beginning of a torturous downward spiral of my safari spirits.

We have been faithfully taking the antibiotic Doxycycline as a preventative for malaria and one of its decidedly inconvenient side effects is a heightened sensitivity to the sun. I must confess here that my own complacence played a part in my misery for I knew the effect of the drug and still hopped out of that bus without dousing my overly susceptible skin in SPF 55. What harm could be done in thirty minutes, I thought. Was I smoking crack? No, and I would pay the price for my laziness and ignorance. As I began to feel the rays penetrating my skin and heating my blood beyond a comfortable level, I realized that it was time to run for shade.

We found Ben and our bus beneath a big tree, which afforded plenty of shade for us all. At the sight of our ravenous faces, he laid a blanket on the ground and began pulling our lunch out of the bus. Keeping in mind that whatever food was in the bus had ridden around with us for four hot hours, I couldn’t fathom what the camp chef could have reasonably packed for such conditions. As I sat on the blanket and watched the answer to my question unfold before me, my heart sank. Lunch: cole slaw (he called it cream salad), pre-made sandwiches with a single thin slice of mystery meat and a few withered slices of tomato and cucumber between three slices of white bread, mayonnaise, boiled eggs, a can of beans, warm bananas, and a stack of sliced pineapple covered in plastic wrap, which was covered with flies before it reached the plate. As I suspiciously examined my sandwich, my mind wandered to the food safety course that I was required to take during my waitressing days. Four hours between 40 and 140, rang through my head like a broken record. Food that has been sitting between 40 degrees and 140 degrees for more than four hours will begin growing bacteria that can be harmful, and potentially fatal, if eaten. Despite my growling stomach, despite Aaron and Marie hungrily devouring their sandwiches and eggs (no one touched the cream salad), I couldn’t bring myself to eat a thing! I sat there drinking my water and calculating the number of hours until dinner…about seven.

Our party was soon joined by a group of curious monkeys that were doubtlessly awaiting our scraps. I contemplated launching my untouched sandwich over to the tree from which they spied – at least someone could enjoy it – but my conscience prevented me from this small monkey kindness. Every American, at some point in his childhood, has been guilted into cleaning his dinner plate because there are children starving in Africa and we shouldn’t waste food. In our overabundant world, we go on to waste many more things than food without another thought of those African children. It struck me, however, in my famished, fly-infested, sweaty delirium, that it might be culturally insensitive to feed my unwanted sandwich to the monkeys in front of people who might actually have known or been those very starving children. It comforted me to see Ben toss them a few crusts but I still left my share of the food to be packed up and dealt with at camp in any way they pleased.

While Ben packed up the picnic, I noticed that my liquid lunch had run right through me so I grabbed my trusty roll of toilet paper and walked with Aaron to the restroom. He was sensing my intolerance to all things natural and tried, in his sweet, lighthearted way, to cheer me up. I called upon every ounce of mental strength to perpetuate an emotional turnaround, to put on a happy face for the sake of my fellow travelers. Just as I began to feel an air of positivity and even acceptance of the seat less toilet that I would momentarily endure, I opened the door to the toilet stall and came to face what I had heard about but never actually seen – the squat toilet! No! I stood staring in disbelief and disgust. Aaron urged me inside and said, “Just go!” Of course, I thought, Aaron’s words having jump-started my short-circuited brain. This is the toilet and I have to use it. I took two steps in, took one quick look inside the small hole in the center of the cement slab floor and, out of sheer fright, forgot my strategy of preventing even the slightest breath of putrid air in through my nose. One whiff and I was done. I plowed out of there with my sack of paper untouched and a scowl on my face that could have pierced steel. My dear husband, sensing the catastrophe at hand, asked why I didn’t “just go” to which I sharply replied, “I’d rather piss in the woods!” and subsequently stormed off. This was not entirely true since the thought of getting caught with my pants down by curious monkeys or unnamed bugs seemed even less appealing. Nevertheless, if I could wait to eat, then I could wait to pee. My sheer stubbornness, a chromosomal gift from my beloved Daddy Dearest, would see me through this if nothing else would. Back on the bus, I prepared my nerves for five more hours of safari.

We pressed on through the bush, seeing lions, giraffes, zebras, wildebeests and elephants between the bumpy stretches of wilderness. I spent most of the afternoon crouched down, holding my vest against the window to block out the invasive sun. Aaron kept watch for animal sightings and I would perk up temporarily when we came upon a lion or a giraffe. In the late afternoon, when I had almost completely (but quietly) lost my sanity, we discovered three cheetahs, also hiding from the oppressive sun in the shade of a bush. They were panting hard in the heat, which did not detract from their spotted magnificence. In their hiding place, they were well-camouflaged by the bushes. We might have driven past without noticing them at all. Fortunately, there is a radio system by which the safari drivers inform each other of the animals’ whereabouts.

The sun can play tricks on your mind when it’s in a playful mood. You hear stories of thirsty desert travelers seeing mirages of watery oases. When the afternoon had reached its heated peak, there was not a shady seat on the bus. Sunburned, starving, dehydrated and overheated, my mind turned to dreams of the coldest beers that I have ever had the pleasure of consuming. An icy schooner of Shiner Bock from Railhead, a pint of Honey Brown in a chilled mug at Old Chicago, an icy bucket of mini Coronas on the Frog & Firkin patio in Tucson. I crawled into delusions of swimming in those icy glasses and somehow survived the day. Whoever came up with the idea of sending people into the bush for eight consecutive hours had malice in his heart. It is simply too much! Aaron and Marie both agreed, without the bias of my various woes and ailments clouding their perspectives. At camp that evening, we ate a quiet dinner and went directly to bed.

Day Four began with a 6:30am game drive. I had seriously contemplated sitting this one out but the cool early mornings are the best time to catch a lion on the hunt and my newfound predatory inclinations urged me onto the bus once again. Our final game drive was rather uneventful. We didn’t see any kills, though we did see a wildebeest carcass fresh enough that not even the flies or vultures had yet taken their turn. Startled by the gory remains, I decided that witnessing a kill would have haunted me in the same way that movie scenes of vicious killings make me shudder even years later. I am frightened by the ferocity of man and beast, of the reality of death in nature. Nature is at once beautiful and ugly and some parts of it are better left a mystery.

The grand finale of our safari was a group of three lions – a king and his two queens – perched atop a hill, enjoying a morning snooze. We watched them for a long while, trying to make a permanent memory of their golden majesty. They appeased us by lifting their powerful heads just enough for a few final photos and then ignored us completely. With that, we drove off and, after a quick but satisfying breakfast at the camp, we began our journey home. Overall, the safari was a truly unique and amazing experience. The animals and the landscapes were fantastic. We learned more about the animals in four days of faithful observation than in all of our years of school combined and we learned some equally significant lessons about ourselves, namely that I have some serious bathroom issues to address, that our fair skin burns like toast in under thirty minutes, and that I am not a camper!

The Bush House seemed like the Ritz after three nights at camp. Had we returned to anything more luxurious than our basic hostel room with its normal toilet, hot shower, and unlimited utilities, I think we would have gone into paralytic shock of the senses. I guess the most important lesson learned from our safari adventure is that, no matter how unpleasant your circumstances may seem, things could always be worse, and sometimes it’s healthy to experience a little discomfort to make you appreciate what you have.


October 23rd 2007
Safari Prelude and Day One: Unhappy Camper

Posted under Africa & Kenya

Safari Itinerary:

Day One – Leave Nairobi at 8am to drive to Lake Nakuru National Park, stopping for lunch. Arrive at campsite in early afternoon, drop off bags, leave directly for afternoon game drive. Dinner at campsite.

Day Two – Leave Nakuru campsite at 8am to drive to Masai Mara National Reserve, stopping for lunch. Arrive at campsite in late afternoon, drop off bags, leave directly for evening game drive. Dinner at campsite.

Day Three – All day game drive in Masai Mara National Reserve, from 8am to 5pm. Dinner at campsite.

Day Four – Early morning game drive at Masai Mara, from 6:30am to 9am. Late breakfast at campsite. Depart for Nairobi, stopping for lunch, and arriving around 5pm.

Happily stuffed with another delicious continental breakfast at Bush House, we were picked up by the safari driver/guide. We picked up one other French Canadian girl downtown and soon we were off – just three of us in a 7-person minibus! The road to Nakuru was rough: dirt and gravel with occasional sections of blacktop pavement so full of potholes that our driver played slalom with them, and with the oncoming cars that were also swerving to avoid them. I spent the majority of the ride alternately engrossed in the novel of the moment and staring out the window at the beautiful country. The colors of Africa are unlike those in any other place. The soil is the rich red of fertility – think “burnt siena” in the Crayola crayon box. This fertile earth begs to be reaped and sown; it is ripe with vitality, brought to life by the sweat of generations of toil. Life is not easy here and age does not exempt anyone from doing his or her share. I saw women my parents’ age (or maybe younger but aged by their labors) carrying large bundles of wood on their backs. Farm women work stooped over, their hands never idle, for hours in the sun. Men work hoes, one chop at a time, through the yielding earth while children as young as five or six single-handedly tend to herds of sheep, cattle or goats. People wave, especially children, to the minibus as we roll by. Schoolchildren, all donning uniforms, play soccer and climb trees in the schoolyard. The towns are tiny, rural and poor. There are makeshift houses and storefronts, serving simultaneously as hotels, restaurants, butcheries, and pubs. There are service stations and souvenir shops, selling water and snack items as well as the usual hand-carved wooden crafts – safari animals, tribal masks, jewelry – none of which we want to carry around in our backpacks. It is their beautiful art and their livelihood but, realistically speaking, a wooden giraffe would never make it past the garage (once we have a garage again, that is) and would inevitably be sold at a garage sale for fifty cents. We manage to tactfully (mostly) avert the souvenir touts along the way and arrived at our Nakuru campsite on schedule.

I should take a moment here to lay the foundation for the upcoming story. First and foremost, I am not a camper. When Aaron and I had originally discussed the particulars of our journey around the world, I firmly stipulated that while hostels would be an obvious necessity, I prefer to have a private bathroom whenever possible and absolutely NO CAMPING! As we priced the safaris, we discovered what we already knew to be true – even a cheap safari is expensive. I succumbed to the allure of the wilderness; somehow rationalizing that sleeping in it would intensify the safari experience, and agreed to a camping safari. Regarding my camping background, my parents were, are, very much “indoor people”. We always stayed in nice hotels when we traveled, though certainly not five star. Camping, or even something like a Super 8, was never considered. I have the utmost appreciation for the level of comfort that I was afforded as a child. I, having a naturally adventurous spirit, was always drawn to outdoor activities such as camping, boating, hiking, rappelling and other sports though my opportunities for such things were few until I flew the Midwestern coop for the desert terrain of Tucson. Things changed dramatically for me in Tucson. Not only did I meet a plethora of likeminded people but the weather permitted outdoor adventures almost year round. I hiked the desert mountains like a mountain goat, quickly falling in love with Mount Lemmon, Sabino Canyon and Madera Canyon among others.

I camped a few times in the mountains, mostly just overnights – and that suited me well. My friends and I would hump our tents and gear, as well as food and water, up the mountain. We would set up camp, build a fire, cook dinner, stay up late talking, and then head back down the mountain the next morning. I love everything about a campfire from gathering the wood to watching the last embers burn until you’re cold enough to turn in. The few other times that I camped for more than one night involved a boat and a lake. We would spend the days on the lake and the nights in the camp. Those camps always had communal showers and toilets but we slept in tents. The boat friends were the kind of campers who had all of the fancy camping gadgets so they were able to create an outdoor home of sorts. It was cozy but a different level than the mountain camping. My point is that I have camping experience.

I should also note that it has been about six years since my last camping excursion and I have lived some of my most plush and comfortable years since then (not counting the years in my parents’ house). I’ve grown a bit older since then and slightly less adventurous in regard to rugged living, although the past fifty-one days of travel have taken their toll on my yuppie snobbery. I generally like my habitat to be clean and bug-free. I always prefer a private bathroom with a hot shower. I am past the point of coping with dorm-style rooms, shared with grungy twenty-somethings and dirty, co-ed communal bathrooms. Other than those specific requirements, I can function in the bare minimum of comfort. After fifty-one days on the road, we have reduced our standards of comfort and cleanliness to the levels required for this journey. I brush my hair usually once a day, right after my evening shower. It looks like a lion’s mane in the morning so I either run my fingers through it until it stays out of my face or sweep it up into a messy pony tail. I wear makeup on rare occasions when I won’t sweat it off before noon. We usually function on two or less cups of coffee per day. We wear the same clothes over and over again with no regard for fashion; I wore sandals with socks today and didn’t care. My outfit for the day is determined by the weather and which of my two pair of pants is cleaner, as opposed to which ones are clean. Clean has become a relative term. We wash our clothes in hostel sinks and bath tubs or we take advantage of cheap laundry service when it is available. Our hygiene habits have not diminished. If anything, they have improved. We don’t want to get a cavity on the road, especially in Africa! We use bottled water to brush our teeth, when necessary. Many of the beds are old and uncomfortable, with big dips in the mattresses. Many of the bathrooms are moldy and dirty. In short, we are pretty rugged these days, especially for two yuppies, fresh from the ‘burbs. But now let’s get back to the camp at Nakuru…

After a rough, dusty ride, we arrived at the campsite. We followed the proprietor as he showed us the communal showers and toilets (which made for one unhappy camper) and then led us to our tent. The toilets were the normal porcelain bowls but with no seats! This works fine for number one but NOT for number two! The very thought of this heated my blood to a slow simmer. Aaron, however, is much less sensitive about these things. He tells me (in his all-knowing “I’ve traveled more than you have” tone) that this is not the worst bathroom situation that I will have to endure. Needless to say, I am not comforted by these words. The tents are permanent so they aren’t so much like tents as basic stone and mortar structures with cement slab foundations and metal slanted roofs. They are not totally enclosed, however, thereby allowing full access to the local bug populace. Inside were three twin beds with heavy but worn blankets and linens. After our initial (appalling) inspection of the camp, we dropped our bags and headed out for our game drive.

At the entrance to the park, our driver/guide, Ben, got out of the bus to pay the entrance fee, at which time we noticed two small, curious, grey monkeys with black faces. One had climbed onto the passenger side window of the minibus next to ours and was eating some kind of medicine tablets that it had stolen from the dash, much to the astonishment of the Asian tourists inside. The monkeys, called Vervet Monkeys, according to Ben, seemed domesticated and unshaken by the throngs of tourists and guides around the entrance.

As we made our way into the park, our adrenaline was already pumping in anticipation of all of the animals that we were about to see. Our cameras were charged and ready for action. We saw zebras almost immediately, striking in their splendiferous black-and-white yin yang coats. Many wild animals, through the process of natural selection, develop exterior features that are protective or blend into their environment to camouflage them from predators. The unmistakable stripes on a zebra’s back don’t conceal it from anything. Zebra’s seem to exist to be beheld and admired, to make little zebras, and to occasionally provide dinner for a few hungry lions. We would see zebras throughout the entire safari, grazing the days away, peacefully co-existing with the other herbivores, and I would never grow tired of them.

Soon we arrived at the lake, where literally thousands of pink flamingos lined the water’s edge. I have never seen anything like it. The lively birds squawked, fluttered, and fished: bending their long legs at the joint and poking their heads into the water. We stood on the shore, about ten meters from the flamingos – a sea of pink against a breathtaking mountain-and-waterscape. Interspersed with the flamingos were large, white pelicans, equally boisterous in disposition. With their shorter legs and deep, orange beaks, they stayed closer to shore, entertaining their audience with dramatic take-offs and landings on the water. The shore was lined with trampled flamingo feathers. The birds lined the shore for as far as we could see. I wondered why we couldn’t just set up camp here but then remembered that there was much more to see. The Flamingo Party was simply the opening act. Still, as we pulled away, I was sad to go. The pictures don’t do justice to the magnificent panoramic view but they will have to do.

The roads inside the park are rough and uneven, often snaking through the meadow grass; the safari ride is rough, no matter what kind of vehicle you’re in but I found myself realizing that there is, after all, a practical use for a Hummer. Somehow I don’t think that Hummers will make it to Africa for quite a while. Even the swankier resorts and safari companies all seem to use the same white, nine-seater minibuses with the pop-up tops.

Ben pulled our bus into a clearing, where a seemingly vacant house stood in the center. He said that we were stopping for a quick cup of tea (which we believed because we have come to observe that most Africans, unless they are trying to sell you something, exhibit no real sense of urgency about anything) but we pulled around the back of the house to discover, much to our delight, two sleeping lions! As we marveled at the male lion’s giant golden paws, he seemed much more oblivious to the three minibuses full of gawking, photo-snapping tourists than to the swarm of flies that plagued his afternoon snooze. Now that we had seen the King of the Jungle, we set out to find the rest of the Big Five: leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhinoceros. They are called the Big Five because they were once the most sought after prizes for the game hunters. Now that the locals have realized how lucrative the business of safari tourism is, I doubt that the guardians of this great Golden Goose allow greedy poachers to diminish their lion population for sport.

We encountered a herd of buffalo, grazing in the meadow, barely lifting their black-horned heads to pay us any mind. Sleek, graceful gazelles, more nimble and skittish by nature, darted quickly out of our path. The males have long, shapely horns for fending off predators while the females have none. We found it difficult to get a good photograph of them because of their timid behavior combined with the driver’s inability to master the sneak attack. We would have a perfect shot in our sights as we approached but, instead of stopping at a safe distance, he would clumsily trudge through the herd, scattering them to either side of the road and by the time the clunking bus came to a halt, we had a great view of little gazelle butts scampering away.

We slowly made our way to the top of the mountain range, spying rhinos, giraffes and a waterbuck, and stopped to take in the view of the lake from above. We could see the entire mass of flamingos, spanning the shoreline. In the late afternoon sun, the mountains across the lake and the puffy, white clouds above reflected on the calm, glassy surface of the water. As we took in the wondrous view, we were met by an enthusiastic group of baboons that were climbing around the lookout area, scrounging for tourist scraps. A sign warned us to refrain from feeding them so as to minimize baboon menace and Ben explained that that they can become aggressive over food. It is screamingly obvious which baboons are the males. Their genitalia are nearly identical to human male genitalia but the organs hang, in flesh-colored contrast to the animal’s grey, wire-haired body. The only baboon photo that we kept was one where the animal’s arm discreetly covers it so as to avoid baboon pornography on our website. The baboons were playful and we enjoyed watching them clamber around, looking for mischief. There was a group of men, who were constructing a small shade pavilion and, as we were walking back to our bus, about ten baboons had nonchalantly climbed into the workmen’s truck and were rummaging around. When they were inevitably discovered and shooed away, at least half of them scurried off with some booty from the truck. We were thoroughly amused; the workers less so.

We pressed on, gradually descending the mountain to the far side of the lake where we came upon a family of rhinos. There were two massive adults and two smaller ones; each of the smaller ones was paired with an adult and they were learning to spar. As Ben excitedly, and perhaps over-ambitiously, pulled in for a close view, one of the adult rhinos turned toward us, huffing and stomping its enormous feet, threatening to charge. Quickly realizing his error, Ben thrust the gear into reverse and hit the gas. When we had retreated to an acceptable distance, Mama Rhino relaxed and resumed her lesson. For a heart-stopping moment, we felt the rush of being on the receiving end of a charging rhino horn. The four heaving masses of bulk playfully sparred along the lakeside as we watched in amazement from the safety of our bus – safety meaning that the bus, with a good head start, could probably outrun a charging rhino.

The Rhino Show was followed by an encore of zebras, buffalo, more rhinos (including a baby that didn’t even have its horn yet – so cute!), giraffes and gazelles and, as we were heading for the exit, we witnessed the grand finale, the climax of our Nakuru safari: the leopard! It was snoozing on the branch of a tree, its fashionable leopard spots shining in all of their splendor in the setting sun. The elusive cat was graceful and elegant as it sprawled out on its branch with its two front paws dangling on either side. I’ve seen numerous photos of leopards in my life but none, however artful, have quite compared to watching the living, breathing thing. Even as it lounged on its elevated perch, my heart raced at the thought of the ferocious agility of an animal that fiercely pursues its scrambling prey, tears it to pieces with razor-sharp fangs and claws, and then ambles off to find a place to sleep. For all of the leopard’s spotted beauty, its untamed power is what inspires awe and respect in the observer. After the leopard sighting, we safari-goers rode away with a giddy satisfaction.

Nakuru is one of the smaller wildlife reserves so you see animals frequently. Our senses were overloaded with the thrill of our discoveries and we were hungry for more, like hunters after their first kill. We still needed an elephant to complete our Big Five repertoire. We wanted to witness the annual wildebeest migration from Masai Mara to the Serengeti and Aaron desperately wanted to see a lion kill something. We were simultaneously charged and weary as we pulled into our camp.

Each camp had a cook who prepared our meals. In Kenya (and most of Africa, I suspect), there is very little processed or pre-packaged food served. Each hot meal consisted of a meat (usually in a rich sauce), vegetables and a starch. Fresh fruit, either bananas or perfectly ripe pineapple, were a sweet ending to every meal, though we usually completed it with a Snickers bar in our tent afterwards. The fresh food is a most welcome change for our processed, preservative-laden American palates.

Our campsite was equipped with electricity but we were informed, upon returning to camp, that there was a blackout that night. After our dinner by candlelight, the evening chill had completely dissipated the afternoon warmth and darkness had fallen. We were exhausted from the day and retired early to our tents. Despite the layer of dust and grime that coated our bodies, we decided to forego showering in the dark, unfamiliar communal stalls. Luckily, we had packed our headlamps, which helped tremendously in the setup of our beds as well as our late night bathroom trips. Aaron went to work, creating his BFZ (bug-free zone) by tucking his mosquito net snugly under the edges of the mattress on all sides, while I arranged my nightstand accessories: book, headlamp, lip balm, water. Since it was brisk outside, I was planning to sleep in my clothes. As I pulled back the covers on my bed for a quick inspection, I immediately spied a suspicious-looking bug. It was tiny and ant-like but had more pronounced legs and antennae. I flicked it away – no big deal – and continued my inspection. Another one. Flick. And another. Flick. After the fourth miniature intruder was discovered, I cursed under my breath and gave my poor, unsuspecting husband that tight-jawed, bug-eyed, “This is why I don’t go camping!” look to which he lovingly responded by lifting a small section of his pristine BFZ so that I could climb in. “Yours must have them too!”, I exclaimed, my temperature rising. We finally agreed that it was better not to look and I crawled into his BFZ, which probably already had bugs with permanent residency under the mattress. I was bundled in cargo pants, wool socks, a long-sleeved shirt over my pajama top, and a scarf around my neck. This constricting, claustrophobic bedtime ensemble actually saved me a lot of hassle during the three occasions throughout the night that I had to walk the cold, dewy path to the lidless toilet – I only had to slip on my shoes.

After about two hours of solid restlessness and the creepy crawly jitters that I had for weeks after watching Arachnophobia, I finally nodded off to sleep. I woke once during the night to the feel of something biting my ankle. I tucked my pant legs into my socks and made it through to morning. Whoever coined the phrase “Don’t let the bedbugs bite” was definitely a camper. It’s like a game and the bedbugs have the home court advantage. I awoke thinking not of the three more days of thrilling game drives ahead but of two more nights of camping to survive!


October 22nd 2007

Posted under Africa & Kenya

After a wonderfully uneventful (not counting the person who smoked a cigarette on the plane!) flight from Amman, we arrived in Nairobi around 4:00am. We had prearranged a ride from the airport to our hostel, the Bush House and Camp, so we collected our bags and headed toward the exit, where the usual pack of taxi touts anxiously stalked their prey. We looked for the sign with our name on it…nothing. The touts were all simultaneously vying for our attention but we managed to fend them off for about fifteen minutes until we finally came to grips with the fact that our ride was not there. The touts were asking all kinds of questions about where we were staying but we were hesitant to provide any information out of fear that we would somehow be scammed. When you arrive in a new country, you don’t know exactly how things work so it’s best to be on guard, especially at 4:00am. We did eventually give up the name of our hostel and one of the drivers immediately dialed it on his cell phone and handed the phone to Aaron. The groggy proprietor, having been awakened from her peaceful slumber, said that our driver should be there and that we should wait a bit longer. Sure enough, a sign soon appeared bearing the name of our hostel in permanent letters – I think the driver had fallen asleep waiting for us. The car was compact, beaten up and rank with body odor, to which I was particularly sensitive in the wee hours of the morning. My other four senses may have been half asleep but my nose was sharply offended by the pungent, sour stench coming from the front seat. Strangely, I considered this an improvement over the stench of cigarette smoke in the Middle East – excessive inhalation of body odor won’t kill you (or at least it hasn’t been proven). About twenty minutes later, we reached the Bush House and Camp, which was surrounded by a tall security gate – a good sign. We were shown to a clean, spacious room with twin beds and a large bathroom and, just as the sun was beginning to rise, we nodded off for a few hours of good sleep.

The next morning, we were treated to a scrumptious complimentary breakfast of a fried egg, two slices of Texas toast, a mysterious-looking but tasty sausage and crepe-style pancakes. Eager to check out the town, commonly referred to as “Nairobbery” by locals for its high instance of tourist crime, we took a “matatu”, or minibus, into the Nairobi city-center with a group of travelers whom we had met at breakfast. The matatu is similar to the Israeli sherut in every way except that the matatu has a separate conductor who collects the money. A ride costs 20 Kenyan shillings (about 30 cents) per person. The ride into town was fascinatingly scenic. Straddling the equator, Nairobi is beautifully landscaped with a diverse and colorful combination of tropical plants and trees. The dirt side streets are lined with lush grasses. The most striking of the trees is tall, full and covered with lavender blooms. The bright blooms wash the city center in light purple radiance.

The most obvious difference that we noticed upon our arrival in Nairobi was the change in skin-tone. We had arrived in a sea of black faces. The Kenyans have been a most refreshing reprieve from the Middle Eastern Arabs who seemed to look upon us with suspicious disdain. The Kenyans definitely look at us – we are pretty close to the only white faces on the streets – but with a pleasant curiosity. We are greeted with “Jambo!” (which means hello in Swahili), a smile and a handshake. Everyone seems happy and easy-going. As a Caucasian American, I think that it is a healthy and mind-opening experience to be a minority. I am already amazed at my heightened sense of self-awareness as I walk down the streets.

In downtown Nairobi, the attire is modest and formal. In the heat of midday, the men wear suits, blazers, cardigans, collared dress shirts and slacks. There is hardly a t-shirt or blue jean in sight. The women wear colorful African-style dresses with matching headscarves; some wear suits or modest American-style dresses. There is also a Muslim presence so you see the berkas and fully-covered faces. Babies are tied to their mothers’ backs with long scarves – strollers and baby carriages are non-existent. The streets are full of activity; everyone seems to be on his way to somewhere, dressed to the nines. Most Kenyans in Nairobi speak fluent English as well as their native Swahili, which is a tribal language as exotic and colorful as the people. As I watch the men and women walk the streets, I observe a sense of dignity and pride in their gait, in the way they hold their heads high. It is not vain but endearing. At the same time, the despair on many of the faces is inescapable. Kenya is one of the more civilized and affluent African countries but still unemployment rates are high while quality of life for many is low. There are many people and seemingly too few opportunities so you see people sitting around, without anything to do. People seem to want to work, though. You see a lot of shoe shiners, car washers, people selling things like candy, fruit or magazines on the sidewalk, way too many safari touts, and many construction and road workers. There is little use of heavy machinery so manpower is essential.

We wandered around town for a few hours, checking out some safari companies. As soon as we walked into the first safari company, touts from the other agencies in town swarmed around us, shoving their business cards in our faces and all trying at once to get us into their offices which were conveniently close by. After listening to three salespeople deliver identical safari pitches, we decided to think about it over lunch. The salesperson inside the third office recommended Simmers, which boasted traditional African food. We weren’t yet feeling adventurous enough to sample the liver or intestines on the buffet so we ordered burgers and pasta off the menu instead. The remaining safari touts – about eight of them – had led us to Simmers and proceeded to stalk the exit while we ate, waiting to advance on us again. We spotted a back door exit but their eyes were fixed on our table from outside; there was no way to get out unnoticed. As we walked out, they were all over us but, surprisingly, when we told them that we had already decided on a company, they faded into the distance. On the streets of “Nairobbery”, we felt perfectly safe, though we have heard that it is a different place after dark. We have no desire to find out for ourselves. Back at the Bush House, we enjoyed a communal, home-cooked meal and made final safari arrangements for departure the following morning.

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