September 27, 2011

The very serious business of SSG

The word "safari" conjures many images.  Off-roading 4-wheel drives and kiswahili on walki-talkies; sleeping in tents out in the bush; migrating wildebeast vs. hungry crocodile; lions, tigers and bears, oh my!  Wait... that last one isn't right.  It doesn't often conjure images of pot-lucks and late-night dance parties on the porch.  But that's the type of safari you get when you have Friends in High Places, specifically one who works as a giraffe researcher at the Soysambu Conservancy at Lake Elementeita, Kenya.  Not only did we get private game drives in the conservancy and real beds in a fabulous old colonial house equip with two fully-functioning kitchens, but it also came complete with its own Weimaraner!  
Hallo Weimaraner!

Not to be outdone by the accommodations, transportation also stepped up with a snazzy pop-top van.  That is, the top detaches and pops up about 4 feet up so that you can stand and peer over the side during game-drives, whilst still enjoying the shade.  Or so you can ride in silly ways like this.  

Just loungin'.

But we weren't simply in the business of lounging and drinking and cavorting and making silly animal faces- NO- We were also in the very serious business of Seeing Some Giraffes!
Hallo Jerafes.  Where ya heading?

Ah, I see.  Just crossing the road.  That's cool; carry on.  

What?  You invited the whole family to cross?  Do you think I have all day???

Okay, okay, so we did have all day.  No need to rush, giraffes.  There's still time for a picnic with the flamingos down at the lake and catching up with the buffaloes... Just a quick visit though; African buffalo are notoriously aggressive and rival hippos for human fatalities.   

Lake Elementeita flamingos.

  "Run away! Run away! Run away!"

Zebras, on the other hand, are much more pleasant, if (allegedly) stupid.  If there are any unamused zebra enthusiasts out there, I'm not saying it's true-- it's just something I heard.  Or perhaps I should say that it's something I herd (tehee hee)..... Sorry.  So, Zebras.  Or Zeh-bras, as the rest of the world calls them.  Either way, the're very plentiful here.  Zebras in the game parks, zebras on the side of the highway, zebras on your way to the airport.  It's like going to Montana and seeing cows, I'm guessing; I've never been to Montana.  In Soysambu, they're making a plan to introduce lions to the park within the next several years to cull the zebra population and restore some natural order.  But until then, they're so stylish.

Black and white and red (once the lions get to 'em) all over.

Speaking of carnage, we also visited some hyena dens, complete with old bones and less-old carcasses of kills dragged inside.  Was it smart?  Perhaps not.  Creepy?  You bet.  Bats?  At least a couple.  Carcass fumes?  I'd rather not think about what I inhaled there, quite frankly.  Was it like in The Lion King (3D)?  Just like!  Who knew Disney was so true-to-life?

Don't go in there, Simba!

Mean buffalo... he probably deserved it.

Oh Kenya weekends, is there anything you can't do?

September 22, 2011

33 hours in Mombassa

I don't often have songs stuck in my head, but this one Beatles refrain will just not quit. A four word phrase that just loops in a way reminiscent of a mantra: "I am the walrus." Only, the version that plays in my head is a slight variant: "I am the lobster." I wrote that in an e-mail the other day regarding the unseemly sheen of my weekend sunburn, and somehow it stuck (In the same way all of my clothes stick to my skin by aloe vera gel adhesive properties). I am the lobster. Goo goo g'joob.

But how tiresome to hear me complain about a hot and sunny weekend on the coast! Best I begin touting it instead. Mombassa- the East African port city where marriage of Arab and Kenyan culture spawned what became Swahili: the language, the food, the fashion-- it's all a fusion between two separate continents, set in the salty sea-level swelter.

Disembarking the train in Mombassa with 33 hours stretching out before us, we headed straight to the spice market. Buckets of fragrant powders, leaves, and grains, curries, coffees, teas, vanilla, paprika, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, saffron.... the list goes on!

The choices were too bountiful; I couldn't decide. I panicked! I bought 5 grams of cardamom. Cardamom? I have no idea what this spice is. I have no idea why I bought it. And now, I have no idea what to do with it. Any recipe suggestions? Cardamom? Cardamom? Beuller?

In the spice market. I am SO EXCITED to be drinking coconut water.

When traveling with a limited amount of time, one learns to prioritize. Museums, souvenirs, historic sites- not all can make the cut. Sensibly, we chose to make Priority #1= Food. Lunch, snacks, bakery, drinks, street food. Mombassa and the surrounding coast is rich is seafood and coconut curries. Also, delicious drinks. Below, a street vendor selling a drink made of pressed sugar cane, lime juice, ginger, and ice. He has 2 glass mugs, so you shill out the 30cents, sip your drink while loitering on the sidewalk, and then return the glass for him to reuse (and wash?).

Squeeeeeezed sugar cane with ginger and lime.

Priority #2= Balcony spotting. Mombassa is a reputed zion of balconies. The story is that the Muslim women were supposed to remain indoors (for housework, chastity, you know, the usual) yet still wanted a way in which to watch the world go by.

Balcony spotted, on your left!

With the Mombassa tour (food & balconies) successfully completed, we took a ferry and matatu down the coast to Diani beach for the night. The southern Kenyan coast is lined with swaths of sandy beaches and towering palm trees.

The pictures may paint it as remote or isolated, but don't be fooled-- you're sharing the shore with lazy camels and sharing the foliage with chatty Columbos monkeys. I've been to my share of beaches but have never felt sand as silky as this.

Shadow holding flip-flops and a warm can of Tusker beer.

I don't know if I'm ashamed or proud to admit this, but I just realized that I've owned this skirt for 10 years. And I can't sing its praises enough- it never wrinkles, never stains, and is knee-length- perfect for traveling. Most successful relationship ever! Here's to another 10 years, skirt; this warm beer is in your honor.

Day 2 (Yep, all of that was just in one day) brought an excursion into the Indian Ocean for boating, snorkeling at the Marine Park, and lunching on a coral island. We all piled into a pirate-style boat and headed out for land's end as dolphins swam along side to guide our way.


Where land becomes ocean.

So 33 hours in Mombassa, and what did I learn? That I have crazy eyes when drinking coconut and food tastes much better when you have to bludgeon it into submission. Fact.

September 19, 2011

It goes clackety clack

The overnight train from Nairobi to Mombassa: they say it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Which I now realize is quite the clever double entendre. Is it once-in-a-lifetime because it's an elusively rare gem of an experience that one will never be lucky enough to capture twice? Or is it because after you've experienced it once, you realize that once is quite enough; no repeat performance necessary.

For those who are fulfilling a decades-old dream of colonial elegance, perhaps the former. For those who live in Kenya, complete with repeat access, probably the latter.

But nonetheless, I did it! I traveled. By train! Who doesn't love trains? And lions! Who doesn't love lions?

The Nairobi train station on a Friday night is a mix of bustle and repose, as people either shuffle out of town or patiently await their turn to leave.

Going somewhere swiftly.

Going somewhere slowly.

Boarding with a cane and head full of luggage.

The overnight train leaves Nairobi at 7pm(ish) and arrives at the Kenyan coast in Mombassa at 10am(ish) the next morning, endowing passengers with a solid 13 hours of throwback colonial sophistication in a first-class sleeper car. Supposedly. But if you're thinking of the smooth, bump-free train trajectories of Europe, you're thinking of an entirely different brand of transporation. Dial it back by about 100 years to the 1890s when these tracks were built. Reflect upon the various nicknames this railway had: "the lunatic line" and "the iron snake." Recall that in one year a pair of lions (only two!) killed somewhere between 28 and 135 rail construction workers (so, aptly, the Kenya railways logo is a lion?).

Most notably, a night on this train is a ride through history, if not a restful night's sleep. It goes clackety clack and rocks back and forth with every chug. It's the type of train on which you'd send a no-good fella' packing with a one-way ticket to a soundtrack of "Hit the Road Jack." A choo choo train in the most literal sense.

So then what's the point? Why not just pay the extra $20 to fly down to the coast in an hour? Why, because you would miss this:

Sunrise over Tsavo park.

Dawn from the breakfast car.

And as you draw closer to Mombassa, the landscape changes to pineapple plantations and small villages where the children run outside to just wave and wave and wave at the train. If you lean far enough out the window, I'm sure you can hear them hollering, "Howareyou?I'mfine!"

Pineapples, all the way down.


Certainly there's an elegance, a romance, to train travel. An elegance shaded by a crimson hue when you think of the bloody history, not only from lions but also from an invasion into the land of the native peoples. If not the current pinnacle of luxury and glamour, the trip is evocative. Sensory and historically weighty, it probably is a once-in-my-lifetime affair... Clackety clacking our way through Kenya.

September 15, 2011

A little bit dreaming

A PhD had never really occurred to me until I got to grad school where it seemed like everyone was doing it. So I thought about it, and I thought about it some more, and I still didn't really want to do it. None of the reasons compelled me. I don't want to be a professor; I don't want to be a PI; and I don't want to be a student for another 5 years. But, at long last, I have finally found a compelling reason for getting a PhD:

I want to be able to say- in the midst of a large staff meeting- honestly, unabashedly, and preferably in a Belgian accent (although I'm not sure this is conferred with an advanced degree), "I'm sorry, I was a little bit dreaming. What was the question?"

I'm sorry. I was a little bit dreaming. I love that.

The Nairobi sky, walking home this evening. I was a little bit dreaming.

Actually, I had been writing something to post on here earlier this week- Monday, to be precise. I was going to take you through a narrative of the Nairobi weekend, and I was going to show you this picture of the bar that has salsa classes on Sundays, complete with disco lights, mirrored hearts on the walls, and a ceiling sponge-painted to resemble a cloudy sky:

But priorities shifted on Monday when an oil pipeline exploded in the Industrial Area slums. You could have seen the news on any number of outlets that day (NPR, CNN, NYT, Fox, BBC, Daily Nation, etc., etc.). The death toll has fluctuated among sources, but seems to have settled at approximately 75 deaths reported. My understanding of the situation leads me to believe that this is very likely an under-reporting.

I was at work and actually unaware of the day's events until later in the evening when my roommate came home. She had been working in a clinic in that area and treated/referred many of those involved. There is much to say about this, and I'm not sure that my thoughts are well digested enough to present here coherently, but 2 things have stayed with me this week:

First, people were running towards the oil spill instead of away from it. To collect oil. Oil for their houses, oil for their cars, oil for sale. This also happened in Kenya in 2009 with an overturned petrol tanker, where everybody rushed to collect the petrol with their jerry cans and the scene exploded. This visual speaks to the economic situation of life in the slums here better than any statistics can.

Second, I keep thinking about what Camille told me about treating those who were injured. People who had 3rd degree burns over 100% of their body. Mostly, I keep thinking that they're going to die (if they haven't already). That's what she said- that you can't survive with 3rd degree burns over 100% of your body. You get a toss-up between hypothermia, dehydration, and infection, but you don't get to survive. The whole idea is surreal: men riding in on motorcycles, walking around the clinic, being fit with IVs, getting referred to the hospital... yet they won't make it.

I didn't ask how long they'll live. I was going to, but the conversation took a different turn. Now, I'm almost glad I didn't ask. For all I know, they could still be in this living limbo, not yet succumbed, at home with their families, a little bit dreaming.

September 6, 2011

Nairobi Orange

Beauty, they (the people who say pithy things) say, is in the eye of the beholder. And to an extent I'm sure that's true. After all, we all remember The Office rift caused by the Hillary Swank: Hot-or-Not debacle. But on the other hand, there are also some things in which, I say, the beauty cannot be disputed. Like this:

Santorini, the vast blue view from Oia, 2004

Sadly, there's no place that looks like that around here. Don't get me wrong- Kenya has a wealth of natural beauty; if I were to say otherwise, people would be after me with pitchforks, and rightfully so. There's beauty here, and here, and here- almost everywhere you turn... but not so much in Nairobi. Or perhaps I've been so blinded by of smog and shopping malls that I've been too distracted to see it.

So I decided to start a hunt for the beauty in Nairobi. Not just at the highlights like the National Park or Giraffe Manor, but in the city's details: my walk to work, at the grocery store, heading downtown. And after I started looking, so many things started popping out at me that I needed to compartmentalize in order to handle the volume of aesthetic details emerging. I choose compartments of color.

Today: Nairobi Orange/Gold

Gate down the street from my apartment. The security issue is another aspect of Nairobi, in addition to smog and shopping malls, of which I am not terribly fond. Everything is behind an impenetrable wall: apartments, restaurants, NGOs. But leaving aside the literal and symbolic exclusiveness, it's at least nice when the gates are attractive. I love that this one is the color of the Golden Gate Bridge. Not sure exactly what's inside it, but I do spy a stack of 4 tires. Hopefully of no relation to Michael's missing tires story.

Antique croquet set at Karen Blixen's house. My favorite lawn game if you discount assembly and dessembly time (otherwise bocce might win for portability and convenience). Favorite part of the Karen Blixen tour is when the guide points to a picture of her husband and says, "There he is- The Syphilis Man." That has to be one of the worst epithets to go down in posterity.

Side of the road, as seen from a taxi during the rain, returning home from a stormy picnic under tents with blankets and wine. Heading inside for hot showers, tea and cookies.

Clay pots at one of the plant nurseries that line busy commuter roads for miles. I have no idea how anyone stays in this business, as the supply is huge (literally, miles of baby tree saplings growing in plastic baggies) and I've never once see anyone purchase a plant or a pot, but it all adds a nice horticultural ambiance to the cityscape.

September 4, 2011

Hippos can't jump

In my opinion there is no better way to spend a Sunday than on a boat (followed closely by 'at a winery' or 'in bed').

My last full day in Seattle happened to be a Sunday, and it also happened to be gloriously sunny and summery. The article on Seattle's mere 78 minutes of Summer even points specifically to that day: July 2. Not only was it the height of glorious weather, but someone knew someone who had a boat, and somehow I was invited to spend the afternoon sailing, grilling, and watching the sunset from the middle of Lake Washington. Stupendous.

Only, I couldn't go. My room was a mess, my suitcases were empty, and my flight was in less than 24 hours. I tried packing faster, considered pulling an all-nighter, bargained with a higher power, and yet the boxes still refused to fill themselves. Even sulking didn't help; I wasn't going to get on that boat. Le sigh. I cursed my luck, shook my fist in the direction of Kenya, and went back to tossing clothing around the room.

Two months later, I still dream of sailing in Puget Sound, but I no longer curse Kenya because it finally gave me my sought-after Sunday On A Boat.

Sunday on a boat on Lake Victoria, to be precise. Land of the Luo, home to the hippos, nosh for the Nile. Drifting through tangled mangroves, where bright yellow male birds build nests in hopes of attracting a female; if the female doesn't like the nest, not only will she refuse to mate with it's creator, she'll tear it up. (Life lessons from nature?). And birds relaxing on a Sunday boat of their own:

Hauling in fish, and colorful nets drying in the sun:

A lot of travel seems to happen at an approximate 45 degree left tilt... The captain here is hiding behind his sail but amazingly managed to avoid capsizing.

And the highlight- a hunt for hippos! Hungry hungry hippos. After an hour or so, we came upon a family of 4 (including a baby hippo!), bobbing above and below the water's surface.

As we made concentric circles ever closer, I asked "Aren't hippos rather dangerous?" The guide's reply, "No, no no, they're not aggressive." Questionable expertise, given that a quick Google search on "hippos" and "aggressive" tells me that hippos kill more humans than any other animal in Africa (aside from mosquitoes). Google search also told me that "Hippos can't jump." Seems true enough... I believe the internet..

But as I type this, there were no hippo attacks upon our party. Perhaps they were having a weekend relax as well. No question about it, Sundays were made for lazing in boats.

September 2, 2011

5 differences between Nairobi and Seattle

When I got to Kenya, people kept asking me about experiencing the phenomenon of "culture shock." So much so that I started actively looking around for it ("Do I feel shocked by this? No? How about that?") in a hyper-sensitized sort of way. Sure, there are armed guards checking car trunks for bombs at all shopping malls, the radio plays a ridiculous amount of Boyz II Men, and there's no Yelp Nairobi (although I'm eagerly awaiting that day), but these things are hardly shocking. Living in Nairobi is quite the same as living in any city: Wake up, press snooze, press snooze again, roll out of bed, go to work, read and reply to lots of e-mails, go to the grocery store, cook dinner, rinse, repeat.

My routine is thrilling, I know.

But with my 2-month anniversary of living in Kenya soon approaching, I've reflected back on several ways in which my life here is different that it was back in the U.S. Thus, I present, in no particular order:

5 Ways My Life in Nairobi Differs from My Life in Seattle:

1. I like CNN.
To be fair, the primary exposure I had to CNN in Seattle was the clips that were rebroadcast on The Daily Show, and it is Jon Stewart's job to point out the ridiculous segments. But then again, when the scrolling headline reads, "Beyonce doesn't like the word Bootylicious" it doesn't take too much work to find the silly in the news reporting. International CNN is leaps and bounds above its U.S. counterpart... Perhaps it's just the illusion of British accents, but I feel so informed!

2. English.
Everybody speaks it, but the jargon and phraseology is so different that I have to relearn how to word myself in order to be understood. I have to ask the driver to "pick me" rather than "pick me up." Anytime anyone has planned communications about professional matter they are "liaising." And insurance plans are called "insurance schemes." This last one slays me because we're actually having quite a bit problem with our insurance company here being less-than-upfront, and I can't help thinking, "Well, you probably shouldn't have signed up with a scheme, now should you?"

3. Sarcasm as a foreign language.
It's not understood by the majority of people, which makes it like a secret code language. Since English is the only language I'm fluent it, I've never been able to communicate privately in public spaces, but with sarcasm, the sky's the limit! Approximation of a real conversation:

Laura: "Oh good, is this Boyz II Men again?"
Kara: "Yippee, I love Boyz II Men!"
Anjuli: "Although we've come to the eeeeennd ooooff the rooad, and just caaaaan't let you goooo."
Taxi driver: "Yes, they're very nice, aren't they?"

4. Meaningful relationships with taxi drivers.
I have 20 phone numbers in stored in my address book; 11 of them are in the Ts.

Taxi Evans
Taxi Evans2
Taxi Jeffrey
Taxi Matthew 6a-12a
Taxi Patrick- nights Steve
Taxi Peter
Taxi Peter- richard
Taxi Sammy
Taxi Samual 5a-8p
Taxi Steve
This phone

I rotate who I call based on and informal algorithm of rates, hours of operation, how chatty I feel that day. Jeffrey and Samual when I don't feel like talking; Peter and Steve when I do. I also still can't remember my own phone number.

5. I can't be sneaky.
Not that I'm generally that sneaky in the U.S., but coming from Seattle, my iridescently pale skin makes it impossible to fly under the radar here. There was recently a week-long workshop for another department at work, and they catered a mouth-watering lunch buffet every day with spiced lentils, fresh juice, greens, meats, breads... yum. My coworkers all stopped bringing their lunch that week and just hopped into the buffet line for freebies. Day 1 was OK, Day 2 I got raised eyebrows, and Day 3 I realized they were on to me. Started bringing my lunch again. Can't be sneaky.

6 (A bonus). Avocados are bigger than bananas.
The avocados are the approximate size of dinosaur eggs (could make a bowl of guacamole out of 1) and the bananas are itty bitty (need 8 for banana bread). This might seem trivial, but I still haven't gotten used to the way my fruit bowl looks.