Posts Tagged With: Kenya

My Seven Wonders of the World

At some point all of us have fallen into the quicksand powers of distractify.com. Who doesn’t want to put off _____________________(insert any task of importance) in favour of scrolling through gauzy photos of the world’s best beaches or caves you can sleep in? I’m a sucker for all those treehouse and igloo hotels. I can’t get enough of the sunsetty images that channel humidity and kick up that inner well of travel-induced adrenalin. It’s nice to put our brains on slide show mode and dream from the comfort of our home and pajamas.

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Every time I distractify I’m eager to see how many of the coveted places I’ve been to. It’s like a scavenger hunt I didn’t even know I was actively a part of. On a recent post of 41 Secretly Incredible Travel Destinations I felt an inner glow to see the Ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt included. Ohhh, and Giant’s Causeway in Ireland! Been there! And Grindavik, Iceland. But having scored only 3 out of 41 destinations I thought I should create my own list. Because what’s secretly incredible to me didn’t make that list and wherever we choose to travel, it’s like love and our devotion to certain coffee beans or dog breeds or Sons of Anarchy. It’s deeply personal but the neat part is in the sharing and finding overlaps with each other. Surprisingly, album-creeping on Facebook has presented unexpected travel ideas and networking—from lattes at D’Espresso in New York to a $100-a-plate fish and chip joint in the Yukon to the merits of running a marathon in France.

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In no particular order, I’ve flushed out my personal seven wonders of the world. With time, I’m sure this list will be revised again and replaced with more marvelous encounters, but at this very moment—these places are deeply embedded in my mind. Come see why.

1. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

I’ve always been enamoured with Dian Fossey’s brave and brazen attempt to protect the mountain gorillas of the Virungas from poachers. I have the January 1979 issue of National Geographic that refers to her as “Miss Fossey” throughout. In tandem, Miss Fossey and Jane Goodall brought Africa to my bedroom in Brantford, Ontario. Of course, just as every 10-year-old envisions a fancy marine biologist or vet career, I thought I might be a primatologist and observe gorillas eating bamboo all day long. Somehow I became a massage therapist instead (and sometimes massage backs as hairy as gorillas I suppose), but, for one surreal moment, I slept in those verdant mountains of Fossey’s tuned into the echoes of life and death.

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Only 32 $500 US permits are issued per day at Bwindi. Our permits were included in a package with G Adventures—otherwise, they are issued on a lottery basis. The encounters with the gorillas are strictly timed to ensure that they are not inundated with human distraction. The hour begins upon the first sighting and armed rangers are quick to get the group moving out of the area immediately. You can’t help but feel Dian Fossey’s presence, struggle and the patience in her passion.
But that hour? That musky smell of gorilla deep in your nose? The wet jungle, hot piss and humidity stays with you. Being spitting-distance away from a docile silverback and youngsters somersaulting about is a pure wonder. Have you ever held your breath for an hour? Have you ever been so transfixed by your surroundings that the trance feels like a super drug you might not be able to shake? This is Bwindi.

2. Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

The guide book warned us that sometimes startled drivers slam on brakes or skid off the road when they come over the rise and see the lagoon for the first time. Despite expecting it, and realizing that we were nearing the lagoon, the sudden appearance of sheer dream-like icebergs bobbing along stops everything dead in its tracks. Your conversation, your mind, the rental vehicle. Wow.

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On the edge of Vatnajokull National Park in southeast Iceland the 18 square kilometre lagoon is full of calved icebergs making a silent procession towards the Atlantic. The layers of sky blue and black ice make for a photo frenzy. Unfortunately, we had 160km an hour winds whipping off the lagoon and threatening to blow us into the Atlantic as well.
The lagoon has been a Hollywood star, providing the setting for James Bond, Batman and Tomb Raider flicks. On a side note, in the wind shelter of the nearby cafe, we sucked back perhaps the best latte on the island. Though, the view over the latte froth might have greatly influenced us.
Even with gale force winds and bare skin pelted with fine gravel and debris, the magic of that lagoon still shakes my marvel meter.

3. The White Desert, Egypt

We were already high on life after staying at a Shali fortress in the Siwa Oasis. We’d spent days traveling around by donkey, watched the sunrise over the salt flats, drank hibiscus tea and smoked the sheesha pipe by a fire after being buried in a traditional sand sauna. We had eaten camel stew on the rooftop of the fortress under a bazillion stars, soaked in cold springs and discovered a thermal lake. Yes, we were fully spoiled by the makings of a very dreamy time in Egypt already.

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Of course, we already had knotted stomachs and daily blasts of diarrhea, but, travel can’t be 100% sunshine and lollipops. Oh wait, we did have 100% sunshine and 100 degree days. It was the desert after all. After barreling along unmarked ‘roads’ ( I use the term as loosely as our bowels), we entered the White Desert. The alien landscape is 200 square kilometers of bone-white natural sculptures that resemble hawks, hearts, mushrooms and pythons. Without a guide, you would never find your way out. The silence here is almost overwhelming. Far from any source of light or noise pollution, the White Desert is a retreat for all your senses.

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After hours of being awe-struck, the pink and tangerine hues that dusk brings upon the stone and sand makes way for an incredible cosmic show. Here, you sleep under the stars and remember how tiny and insignificant your presence is.

4. Bartolome Island, The Galapagos

I had five solid Jeopardy categories that dominated my childhood. Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Birds of North America, Pop Tarts and The Galapagos. I made sure my dreams came true the year I turned 30. I was headstrong about seeing the blue-footed boobies, frigates and tortoises that I had become consumed with.

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When I arrived in Quito, Ecuador (flights depart from Quito to Puerto Ayora—a 1,000km flight west to the Pacific isles), I met a charming Aussie who insisted we drink pisco sours and try guinea pig. Something went sour in my gut and I’m not sure who or what to blame. The following morning I had a bowl of entirely raw eggs, so, whether it was the pig, the pisco, the Aussie or the eggs, I’ll never know. Add a huge, rolling Pacific to that mix and I was throwing up most days of the nine day trip. But, despite heaving overboard, I was stunned for nine days straight.
The boobies and the frigates performed and displayed. The animals and birds of the Galapagos have no predators, and, incredibly there is no fear of humans. You can be mere feet from sea lions and iguanas. I was in birding la-la land.

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Bartolome was probably the island that struck me with the biggest wow wave. Like Neil Armstrong said, it’s the closest landscape to the moon that you’ll find on earth. The hardened lava tubes and windswept harshness is nearly unsettling. Barren and beautiful—a sharp contrast to the chain of islands that are alive and vibrating with bird life.

5. Michamvi Peninsula, East Zanzibar

Have you ever felt like you’ve walked into a postcard? The beaches are icing sugar white. The water is so many shades of blue that a paint company could find a whole new line of Indian Ocean tints.
It’s breezy and soupy with African heat. The sky is an opposing mix of brilliant blues and sometimes it’s difficult to determine the ocean from the sky. Sunrises here made me want to write poetry and smoke long menthol cigarettes (not really Mom).

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The tide tables were erratic and amazing to witness. At night, the ghostly roar of the waves pushing back in woke Kim up, even with ear plugs. Watching the tide pull out was like listening to the ocean funnel down a far away drain. It was a torrent of water rushing reverse through the tidal beds.
We spent hours squatting by the pools, looking at the black urchins and tiny starfish. Some of the pools were hot tub hot by noon. The water was as clear as the Perrier I’m drinking—no guff.
Here, life revolves around the tides and the flux of fisherman and women collecting seaweed were indicators of this balance. After heading to the Rock for a beer, we learned quite quickly of the speed and power of the ocean as we high-stepped it back to our lodge. The coral cliffs and coral underfooting made for a nervous and grateful walk back. Inlet to inlet the level of water pushing into shore proved that Mother Nature is boss.
Whether you find yourself on a dhow at a distance, on the balcony of the Rock, having a blue marlin burger at Ras Mchamvi or distracted from your book at Kichanga Lodge, the Indian Ocean and its ever-changing “oh-my-god-look-at-it-now” beauty has established the benchmark for all oceans.

6. Masai Mara National Park, Kenya

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It’s Out of Africa in 3D. It’s blonde savannah, blurs of zebras, trumpeting elephants and sun-bathing lions. I had binoculars fixed to my eyes until dark. And at night? Falling asleep in a tent with Masaai keeping watch by a snapping fire and hearing a cheetah in the distance (think of a log being sawn in half—that’s how they sound). This is the good Green Hills of Africa-esque Hemingway life. In the morning the flies are incessant jerks though, swarming your milky tea and dive-bombing the surface until you have a pool of 30 flies in your mug. Oh, and their fly friends are buzzing in your ears and hanging off your eyelashes.

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But, if you can surrender to the fly annoyance and forget about all the red dirt up your nose (where the flies are sometimes too), a safari in Kenya is a bonanza of animals. It’s a full time job to take in all the meerkats and water buffalo and dik diks and impala without rest. Because you don’t see just one—you are bombarded with fauna.

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Before VCRs were invented (or, maybe they were and we were just unaware, content with the old TV aerial and snowy five channels in the country), I used to record Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness on my tape deck. I’d listen to old episodes about this very view in my lower bunkbed. The real thing will make you want to return—physically and mentally whenever you close your eyes.
I can’t tell you how many about-Africa books I’ve read since I’ve been to Uganda, Kenya and the Congo. But, to get in the groove—shortlist these:

The Poisonwood Bible—Barbara Kingsolver
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight—Alexandra Fuller
West With the Night—Beryl Markham
Land of a Thousand Hills: My Life in Rwanda—Rosamond Halsey Carr

7. Caye Caulker, Belize

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There are no cars here and this is so refreshing. And, the fact that there is ‘nothing’ to do (hurray!). Kim and I get so lusty thinking about a Belizean retirement. The beach shacks are simple, life is simple and the curries are outstanding. Every single thing we ate on Caulker was instagram-worthy. I’m talking tangy shrimp ceviche, ham and Cheese Whiz waffles, perfect fried chicken and fire-breathing curry from Fran’s. Oh, and then there are the panty-ripper rum drinks to enhance the sunsets where everyone gathers for an applause-worthy show.

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We spent time on the mainland (Placencia, Cahal Pech and Hopkins Village) and zoomed out on a choppy ride to see the Blue Lagoon and the red-footed booby colony on Lighthouse Caye, but memories of the coral island just 8km by 1.6km wide resonate bigger and brighter.
If you want a break from the wi-fi and masses of people, you can truly live here barefoot. No shirt, no shoes is really no problem. Ever.

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Okay, so now I get why those distractify lists are always 40+ destinations long. At seven wonders, I’m cutting myself short. My best advice? Travel with someone you adore and can’t get enough of. And, advice to myself? Buy a new hoodie and hat already!

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Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Nairobi Nights

I had spent the last seven hours issuing threatening glares to the rambunctious SpongeBob SquarePants kid “seated” behind me who had Riverdanced on the back of my seat from Toronto to Amsterdam. Luckily I was able to turn my fixation to the burning sky of electric orange and grapefruit-flesh pink as the plane chased an eternal sunset. Crossing time zones at 800km/hour allows for such remarkable displays, creating skyscapes suitable for inspirational posters. The clouds looked like they could be walked upon, billowy white like my great-grandmother’s hair in the morning, and then, to the west–ribbed like sand from ebbing ocean waters.

My fidgety seatmate was like a Jack Russell, minus her tongue up my nostrils and exploring my ear canals. She was deaf in one ear, and because I am a fantastic mumbler, she quickly gave up on communication with me and read all the information tucked in the seat pocket in front of her, including the barf bag and how to exit the plane in case of emergency. Is that even an option?

The KLM flight attendants were as lovely and manicured as Bob Barker’s Price is Right wing-women. They passed out smoked almonds with pearly smiles, and I shot a pearly smile back. Thank god for European airlines and their pooh-pooh reaction to the peanut allergies that have created frantic high-alerts in North American elementary schools and airlines (who serve garlicky Bits & Bites as a shoddy substitute). Now, even packages of peanuts come with disclaimers: “This product may contain nuts.” And everything that doesn’t have an iota of a relationship with peanuts, like popsicles and tampons, also come with a disclaimer, “This product may have come in contact with tree nuts or dairy.”

When the plane touched down at Schipol in Amsterdam at 6 a.m., anticipation, the fuel of dreams, longing, cravings and travel, percolated under my skin that was beginning to feel like ever-tightening sausage casing. My whole body had become a whoopee cushion of puffiness. The blood that should have been inching towards my feet was leaking into my eyes, making them as pink as an albino rat’s.

My head had felt like a shook-up snow globe since I left Abbotsford on June 22nd, and now, finding myself on the Leidesplein in Amsterdam, walking through extended whiffs of skunky pot, calm was returning. I didn’t even care that I spent most of my day completely lost. I had 12 hours before my flight to Kenya, and I didn’t stop walking for 10 of them. I tried slimy smoked eel and cod at a herring shack near the Singel canal, had a sleeve of Palm and a “tosti” (poor excuse for a grilled cheese) along another houseboat-studded canal and poked around some supermarkets in between (discovering Paprika Lays potato chips, cans of already mixed gin and tonic and brie wheels as big as the tires on my Suzuki). I wrote reassuring postcards to indicate my aliveness to potentially fretting family members and Wanda, walked through the Red Light District with a non-averted gaze and took a cruise along the ambient canals in a four-language guided tour. At this point my head was snapping back uncontrollably in a narcoleptic-type sleep. The girl beside me must have thought I had Tourette’s, without the swearing part.

I returned to Schipol airport confident that I had avoided a deep vein thrombosis with all my walking. I was unscathed and proud of myself for not getting smucked by a bike or a moped. They both seemed to be coming at me from all directions the entire day as I navigated the cobblestoned streets with names a minimum of 26 letters long, all ending with “splein,” “strecht” or “straat.”

I boarded the plane again, taking my coveted window seat with leg room adequate for a chihuahua and watched dreamy Amsterdam go poof under the cloud cover. Drifting through another eight-plus hours of flying time, I arrived ruffled and cramped in Nairobi, where everyone deplaned in a non-orderly fashion. Like the crush of excited children wanting to whack a birthday piñata. It was like the mobs you read about where six people die from getting trampled. I not-so-kindly told the guy behind me that standing closer to me didn’t make the “line” go any faster. It was one of the survival lines I frequently used in Uganda.

I had completely forgotten about the miniature personal space bubble that Africans manage to maintain. My brother Dax and Wanda would have already thrown punches. Instead of inching forward in line, I purposely leaned back into the guy leaning on me—ha! Reverse psychology, but I bet he didn’t even notice, or care. I was sleepwalking to the Lubumbashi gate when I learned that my Kenya Airways hop-over to the Congo had left an hour and a half early–proving that the concept of “African time” can still be predictably unpredictable.

The 20-hour flight delay I had in Toronto barely registered now as I had to digest the news of the hitch that came with missing the connecting flight. Unfortunately, because the Congo isn’t exactly a tourist mecca, outgoing flights don’t run at the same Westjet-greyhound-pace to sun-soaked destinations like Hawaii and Puerto Vallarta. I was told by a hot and bothered gate agent that the next outgoing flight was in two days, on Saturday morning. I could have flown to Addis or Johannesburg, but that would only take me further from my destination, to pace in a different airport.

Tired, without energy to battle and bitch, I made arrangements for Saturday with the backpack on my back slowly compressing my last remaining discs. I had intentions of crying, but was too dehydrated. I accepted my fate gracefully while the angry woman at the wicket beside me vocalized what I more accurately felt. She yelled so loud for so long that I had a ringing in my ears like one gets after a rock concert. I asked Hot and Bothered where I could find a phone and was told that there weren’t any. Baggage lockers? Nope, none of those either due to security reasons. Internet? Two dollars a minute—oh, and that guy, who sells magazines at Gate 9, he will let you use his cell phone for $4 a minute. Phone sex operators don’t even charge that much!

I phoned Chantal in the Congo, who was anticipating my arrival that morning. I emailed everyone else to vent and moan and illustrate my new surroundings. Missionaries and dusty travelers, barefoot and curled up in balls along the hallways, the ripe scent of armpits, like wasabi striking my brain. There was a mosque and a meditation centre being used as surreptitious napping quarters, stores selling giraffe carvings and beef samosas being sold for close to the same price as a carving and a one minute phone call. By now, my bags had already become a part of me, and delirious from lack of sleep I skulked to the Transit Lounge where I was told I could sleep for four hours for $25US.

This is where I found Betty– who herded me into her tourism office of faded safari posters from the 70s. She force-fed me the idea of staying at Central Park Hotel downtown. Her first quote was $170US a night, and we’re not talking Royal York glamour and rose petals floating on the bathwater. The dated pictures she pressed into my hands showcased a bed as big as a tennis court (which turned out to be true), wi-fi in the rooms (not so true), a FREE gym (not true) and a bright bathroom that would allow me to take a shit and shower at the same time due to the proximity of both.

Betty insisted that I would be bored anywhere else and pushed the Central Park digs on me. And she would only accept cash and quickly escorted me to an ATM where she calculated how many Kenyan shillings I would need. I trusted her, but entering 25,000ksh into the ATM key pad made me quiver a little. It was the equivalent of $350US she told me more than once. When I asked about cheaper options she assured me that I would be robbed. “See your laptop—GONE!” She snapped her fingers for emphasis. “Everything you own, if you stay somewhere that I do not recommend, will be gone. Then you will say, Betty, why you not tell me about this and I will say, I did, Jules Trotsky. I did.” I corrected Betty on my non-Russian last name and she asked if I was racist. Then she asked where I was really from, and when I said Canada, she had already guessed it. “You have all this hair on your face that I could shave. It is for the cold in Canada I guess.” Betty was obviously a charm school grad. She then went on a rant about developed countries like Canada bringing the swine flu to Africa. “But, I will live longer than you, probably. My skin makes me resistant—you go pink and get rashes like the other white people, not so resistant. Like Michael Jackson, he tried to go white, and now—look—dead.”

Betty did overextend her customer service by coming with me to the hotel with the hired driver, to tuck me in properly. I was pleasantly surprised with the interior and after a tepid shower under a showerhead that emitted water like a fireworks display, I ordered a room service: a buttery omelette, sausages sweet with nutmeg, milky tea and then collapsed in bed for five hours. Desperate for a workout when I regained consciousness, I went to the gym (the #1 reason why I picked Central Park over the other hotels where I would be robbed) and spun on a bike for an hour listening to Kenny Rogers, Africa`s hero. I had also forgotten about Kenny, Dolly and dear Celine Dion being blared in all the bars and buses.

Feeling brave and dismissing the tragic massages I had in Uganda with the woman who had me lie on a bed covered with a red checkered tablecloth while she made my hair into a bird`s nest with oil, I booked an hour with Priscah. “She is the brown one, not the dark one,” I was informed at reception. “Selena is the dark one.” It was euphoric and all-encompassing massage, meaning, if I were a Thanksgiving turkey, I was basted everywhere. There are no borders or polite draping with African treatments. In fact, I didn’t even blink when Priscah climbed on the table to straddle me and massage my ass while Kenny sang “The Gambler,” again.

Content after a kaleidoscope day of emotions, I made my way to the hotel bar for a warm Tusker and a curious chicken curry that came with a baseball-sized serving of ugali (maize flour with water). Before returning to my room I asked a staff member about a local wildlife orphanage called Sheldrick`s that I was interested in visiting. He gave me sketchy details, but I thanked him profusely anyway. “Maybe you would like to show your appreciation with a payment, madam. I will accept US dollars for my help.”

Ahhh, yes. Everything has its price in this world. I remind myself that I am in Africa and that what I spent on my flight is more than a nurse’s annual salary in Nairobi. And so the adventure continues. The only worrying part is that due to the unexpected delays over the last few days I have almost finished my first book (Attachment by Isabel Fonseca) which leaves me with two books—Growing Pains (Emily Carr`s autobiography) and Love in the Time of Cholera (which I assume will slow me down a little). Worst case scenario? I’ll write a book if I run out of words to read.

Until the next dispatch, hopefully from the Congo…

I remain, Jules Trotsky.

To read all the naked details of my Ugandan massage experience:

http://julestorti.wordpress.com/2009/05/07/marriage-proposals-muslims-and-massage/

Categories: Congo Line: Once Upon a Time in Africa, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Dung Balls and Flies in My Eyes

January 11, 2009

Dear Diary, it has been a month since my last confession.
I am writing from the reliable internet connection that is Canada, wearing more layers of clothing than I packed when I left for Africa. My skin is finding the air temperature that speaks of snow a bit alarming. And so I dream of those days when…

December 20th, Wanda and I board a cramped Kenyan Airlines flight to Nairobi. Contrary to popular thought we are not carjacked, pickpocketed or held hostage by machete-wielding rebels. Instead, we are welcomed by a smiley population who believes us to be from America, and are quickly brought into intense conversations relating to all things Obama. Kenya actually had a beer called Senator (in Obama’s honour) that has now been proudly renamed President.
Wanda had made arrangements for our accomodations through the mayor of Mission, BC, our sleepier neighbouring community. The mayor is Kenyan, and his brother James still lives in Nairobi. Rapid emails back and forth led to a connection through James to stay at his friend’s property, The Klubhouse. I am generally leery of places that should start with the letter ‘C’, but have been somewhat creatively changed to ‘K’ for koolness. Like kafes and krafty korners and klubhouses. The Klubhouse in the shiny midday sun seemed impressive and promising. Hell, it was a karwash, a dance klub and a hotel to boot, what more could one want? Oh, karaoke apparently. We soon learned that the Klubhouse was Nairobi’s premier dance destination spot for twentysomethings. There were three disco-balled dance floors that pumped music so loud my intestines vibrated. There were signs warning of speed bumps ahead so you didn’t spill your Tusker beer between the Karwash and dance floor. Our hotel room, all 6′ by 6′ of it, was situated nearly beside the DJ’s turntables. That night I awoke to a abysmal karaoke version of ‘We Be Jammin” completely convinced that someone had slipped something into my drink, and that I had fallen asleep on the dance floor.
Wanda was still a bit furry from 19 hours of flying and took a magic sleeping pill that left her snoring through Lionel Ritchie ‘Dancing On the Ceiling’ and Mariah Carey on repeat. For the Mission mayor discount, I could handle the soundtrack as the bar did eventually close at 3 a.m. The parking lot that was a showcase of BMW car alarms sounding off petered out into the thin night air.
The following morning, after an African trucker breakfast heavy on the watermelon and pineapple, we were picked up by a slick army green Landcruiser by Elijah, our intrepid safari guide. We had a guide, a driver and a cook, and the open ‘road’ of Kenya before us. The drive to Masai Mara would be 6-8 hours of a dust-choked landscape. Looking out at the arid expanse, we would see a dozen ‘dirt devils’ spinning in tight cylinders towards the sky. Twisters of dirt followed us, and made Uganda seem as emerald green as Ireland.
Our first night was spent with two Masai warriors keeping watch by the flames of a fire. We were in lion country, and there were elephants to contend with too. We heard both, at a comfortable distance, and in the morning we came upon evidence of the elephants very nearby. Wanda was a bit wide-eyed with all the sounds of Africa just outside the not-so-protective nylon walls of our tent, while I fell dead asleep after the first roar of the lion.
The campsite was idyllic, and we were gently awakened by the tinkle of cow bells as a herd made their way past with two warriors pulling up the rear. We had tea with flies around the fire and soon found the idyllic surroundings unbearable. Flies were landing on our skin like we were covered in honey. I poured a second cup of milky tea and had five fly bodies backstroking across the surface. They stuck to my eyelids and buzzed in my ears. “They’re of biblical proportions,” Wanda commented, retreating to the no-fly-zone of the tent.
Luckily, the flies didn’t join us on our walking safari. We followed the heels of the cattle with Elijah pointing out dung of different species. It was Shit I.D. 101, and I was fascinated by the elephant crap the size of soccer balls. In contrast the dik dik (a tiny knee-high antelope) left behind a trail of dark chocolate Glosette raisins. Even cooler was stumbling upon a dung beetle ball—a perfect baseball-sized gift that he would present to the dung beetle gal of his dreams. I marvelled at how rock-hard and white hyena shit was from a scavenger’s diet of bones. It looked like golf balls and I was tempted to stuff one in my pocket for my golf-crazy father. Oh, what a laugh he would have with the boys when he passed around his lucky hyena poop golf ball on the ninth hole.
Wanda, wilting like a potted plant in the African sun, had turned into the paparazzi. Armed with a new Canon Powershot 9.0 MP with 40X zoom, she took over my role as Chief Photographer. We were on the world’s greatest scavenger hunt—and Wanda found the ultimate treasure, a zebra tooth. Our eyes were always on the ground, as a sloppy misstep on a ball of elephant shit would bust an ankle for sure. And there were leg-swallowing aardvark holes to dodge too. We discovered a giant porcupine quill the size of a cocktail stirrer and chewed sap from a tree that made my molars stick together in a frightening lock-jaw sensation. There were fruit bats in flight, helmeted guinea fowl scurrying across the ground, bounding impalas and stunning lilac-breasted rollers (I was in a bird-fuelled narcotic state. There are over 1,000 species of birds in Kenya, while all of Canada boasts around 600).
Walking through the dusty scrub was like stumbling across an abandoned graveyard. Not only were we avoiding an ankle roll on giraffe turds, but we had to be aware of tumbles on wildebeest jawbones and zebra vertebraes. The oppressive heat was already creating a wobbly oasis on the horizon, the zebras and water buffalo seemed smudged and greasy against the horizon.
And, everywhere we walked, it smelled distinctly like canned Vienna sausage.

Following the hoofprints of hundreds of impala, we arrived at our destination, a Masai village, population 56. The cattle and goats outnumbered the Masai tenfold. And the god damn fly numbers made me wonder if we were about to experience an apocalypse.
Thorny acacia tree branches were used as effective fencing against lions with a midnight craving for a beef entree, but I figured the flies were the best army the Masai had in keeping anything away. Babies were covered in flies and lice, and trachoma (an infectious eye disease causing blindness)was rampant. (Blinding trachoma epidemics occur in areas of poor hygeine, proximity to cattle, flies, lack of latrines and water).
The Masai children approached us in loud little crowds, and it is customary for them to bow and present their heads to you. When they bow, you are to touch their head. I felt awful chanting Purell over and over inside my head, but Wanda felt the same self-protective reaction. I had been to many impoverished villages in Uganda, but the Masai village was a startling exposure to the link between unsanitary living and the greedy hands of disease. The village dogs seemed dead, scrawny and raw with open sores. They barely raised their heads when we passed.
A warrior (who was busy text-messaging on his cell phone, spear in the other hand)invited us into his home, a mud shelter with a window/smoke hole the size of a grapefruit. I felt the strong pull of a panic attack coming on, as the narrow entrance gave way to thick, suffocating darkness and very cramped quarters. As our eyes adjusted we could see two simple thatched bed frames, and an enclosure for the young goats who slept inside at night (to protect them from the equatorial cold nights). There was a kitchen that consisted of a small fire pit, a few pots needing an SOS pad, and a 3′ by 3′ space in the centre. A family of five lived in the space of a GAP changeroom.
When we emerged from the hut, enterprising women in the village had laid out colourful beaded bracelets and necklaces that we could buy. They fidgeted as we examined the beadwork closer, pulling on their ear lobes, long and spaghetti-noodle like from years of wearing guages. They were far less aggressive than the Masai at the national park gate who used intimidation tactics and dangled bracelets in the Landcruiser window with angry glares and persisent barking to buy or else.
We left the village, crawling with unseen insects and suspected lice, feeling more than disturbed. Wanda wanted to save the children. I wanted to save the dogs. The debate around the fire that night was about the happiness of the Masai. Wanda believed that under such trying, survival-mode conditions, that they couldn’t be happy with their lives–when everyday was such a chore. Walking miles to gather water in a jerry can to boil and drink, labouring to keep fires burning to make rice, and following slow-moving cattle across the lonely plains. She felt there were so many things that could make their lives simpler. But there is always that initial confusion, that our western way is better, easier. Wanda asked the young Masai boys if they became bored watching their cattle all day. They didn’t, and they couldn’t even comprehend the word ‘bored’. It’s what they did. Life was about following the cattle, they were herders. And text-messagers.

On our second day we pushed on to the national park for a game drive. I couldn’t believe the abundance and diversity of wildlife before us. Eye spy with my big eye: giraffes, ostrich by the dozen, zebra, a serval cat (pygmy cheetah), a non-pygmy cheetah, a family of elephants in a mudhole (so close we could see the blink of their flapper-girl eyelashes). The youngest rubbed against it’s mother, and the sound was like that of grainy sandpaper on wood. Baboons scampered off the road, hippos poked out of the surface of water, their beady eyes like submarine periscopes. Harpy eagles pulled the bleeding guts out of a leggy African hare, crowned cranes and secretary birds slipped in and out of the sun-bleached grasses. We slowed to watch seven feamle lions stretched out in the shade like drowsy housecats.
Later in the day, when we came upon three male lions with bedhead manes, we were convinced that we wouldn’t see anything else that would top the awe of sharing breathing space with lions. Or watching the tender touch of trunks between the elephants. Electric blue and red agoma lizards skittered off hot rocks and the ground glittered with sparkly quartz stone. Long-faced hartebeest stood in quiet herds with topi and impalas. There were birds with startling, irridescent feathers every colour of a Crayola crayon box, piles of bones of lives long gone, dirt devils turning and spinning upwards, termite mounds of industriously-built columns, warthogs with erect tails on the run and gazelles like Bay Street commuters.
We watched a goshawk down a long-tailed starling in three swallows, a la National Geographic.And the cheetah, as elusive as the black rhino (which we didn’t see), was a rare sight that we embraced. But then, as elated as we were, a sickening weight was felt in our stomachs. Wanda tapped my shoulder and I turned to see the rush of safari vehicles roaring across the savannah. When we had pulled up, there were three vehicles, and when we asked our driver, Sammy, to pull away, seventeen vehicles had circled the cheetah. It was in obvious distress, panting and low to the ground. There was nowhere for it to escape. I actually had tears in my eyes, thinking of how wrong all of this was. This was not how I wanted to see a cheetah. Cameras clicked and zoomed. I was part of the ignorance, and hated it. Cheetahs are predatory and can’t climb trees. Safari trucks often interrupt their feeding, as they have to abandon their kill (which is quickly eaten by scaengers). Elijah explained that grazers like gazelles and elephants are less disturbed by vehicles and tourists, but often, in parks where tourism and game drives aren’t strictly enforced, cheetahs and lions can starve.
Already, Masai Mara has established a ‘recovery area’ where safari vehicles are not allowed to traverse. Even though vehicles are supposed to keep to the designated roadways, the cheetah-spotting resulted in several safari companies abandoning the road in hot pursuit of a closer sighting. Would a glossy picture of a terrified cheetah surrounded by 17 vehicles be worth it? I didn’t want that memory.
As we drove off, rangers were arriving at the scene to break up the glut of vehicles. In Botswana, only three vehicles can be stopped at the same location at one time. Masai Mara is hoping to implement this same ruling. Because the daily park pass is only $40 per person, it is largely accessible. In comparison, to track gorillas, a one day permit (allowing one hour of tracking) is $500 US. Only 32 gorilla permits are made available each day, and the one hour (spent with one of four gorilla families in Bwindi) is strictly enforced by the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
We left the park with mixed emotions, thrilled for what we had the opportunity to see, but tasting the repercussions of our blatant invasion. A group of Masai boys waved wildly at us as we passed, their hair dyed copper red (with clay and animal fat) for a circumcision ceremony. The tallest boy wore a real lion’s mane on top of his head, which Elijah told us indicated that he had been the first one to spear the lion in the hunt. Their red shukas against the barren landscape were arresting. After this initiation ritual (which happens around age 14-15) the Masai boys will spend two to three years alone, learning the survivor skills necessary to be a Masai Warrior. Hell, Outward Bound only dumps you for an overnight solo experience—imagine three years!
Driving out of the park, we stopped for cold Tuskers at Keekorok Lodge, a posh place that most certainly has been splashed on the cover of GQ Travel (with an off-season rate of $450 a night). With the buzz of an afternoon beer and the endorphins of a game drive percolating inside us, we returned to our more modest accomodations at Mara Springs: a permanent canvas tent with cockroaches as big as Tic Tac boxes, an almost entirely hot shower, a toilet (with a seat!) and resident vervet monkeys who threatened to break-in with little hands accustomed to undoing tent zippers. Not exactly GQ-worthy, but more square footage than the Klubhouse/Karwash/Knightclub in Nairobi. Here we fell asleep to nattering hornbills and barking baboons, not Billy Ocean and Celine Dion at concert-levels.

All too soon we were back in the sour stink of the Nairobi airport. The public washrooms had no running water, and the clothes I had on had developed a smell of their own (Vienna sausages?), and were almost in a disposable state.
At a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, Kenya became microscopic under our feet. We topped the clouds and I closed my eyes,already anticipating our next safari. We had been spoiled in Kenya, travelling by ourselves. In a few days we would meet a grumpy Swiss, a saucy Swede, three brassy Americans and a controversial Vietnamese French-Canadian and make our way across Uganda. It already had the making of a bad reality TV show. Twelve days, and we couldn’t vote anyone off. Wanda and I hoped the group would be mildly cohesive. If the travellers were annoying, we hoped they would at least be annoying and non-English speaking. If all else failed, we would become non-English speaking quite quickly.
Stay tuned for Unbridled Uganda.

Categories: Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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