«       »
October 26th 2007 by Tina
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.


5 Responses to “Safari Concluded”

  1. Little Bear Mom on 27 Oct 2007 at 12:11 pm #

    I laughed my ass off at this on for at least 5 minutes.

    “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.”

    You go girl!

  2. Matt on 27 Oct 2007 at 3:16 pm #

    “Snobby ass”…… love it…

  3. Jean Nelson on 28 Oct 2007 at 3:23 pm #

    I didn’t know your Dad was stubborn! I’m with you on the toilet paper-yuk!!! What an experience. Can’t wait to see you at Christmas.

  4. Constance on 29 Oct 2007 at 8:42 am #

    Aaron & Tina,

    I catch myself checking each day to read about the new adventures you are on. I find myself laughing out loud here at work and everyone saying “what is so funny?” I have enjoyed every post and look forward to “shadowing” you on your upcoming trips.

  5. Andrew Leonard on 03 Nov 2007 at 6:46 pm #

    What do you mean there is no Santa Clause?!?!?!?!?!?!!!!!!!! 🙂