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.