Saturday, 5 February 2011

Kenya 2011: From Lake Naivasha to Mount Kenya

When I awoke on our seventh day in Kenya, I knew I had definitely crossed over from "mildly unwell" to "definitely sick," but I couldn't really pinpoint what was wrong with me. It felt vaguely like a migraine, except with more of the side effects than the headache itself. All I knew was that I could barely stand the thought of eating, let alone the actual act. Thus began several days of meal-skipping.

Nevertheless, when we stopped at the grocery store in Naivasha on our way out of town, I did run in and stock up on various supplies, including several bottles of Coke (to combat car sickness, should it become an issue), many Snickers bars (because even when you have no appetite, you have to give your body something to run on), tissues (my Western allergy pill wasn't enough to combat everything that Kenya was throwing at me), and toilet paper (because I'd had no idea just how few of our destinations would actually supply their own, causing my roll to quickly vanish!). We also swung by the bank in order to visit the ATM one last time before we entered no-man's-land. Outside, there was a Kenyan soldier carrying, in a very obvious manner, a very large gun. This was not the first time I'd seen armed patrolmen up close--they're all over the place in France, for instance, and they were quite prominent in some US airports shortly after 9/11--but it was the first time that it had ever given me pause. I'm not sure why it felt different here, but it definitely made me feel vulnerable to walk past him in order to visit the ATM; the irony is that he was stationed there to protect people like me, since any locals with burglary on their mind would be sure to pay attention to a white foreigner.

Soon enough, we were on our way again, driving towards a part of Kenya that contained habitat unlike any we'd previously been through. Shortly after we left Naivasha, we began climbing to higher elevations, into the fertile, wet, forest-covered mountains. At first I thought I must be seeing things, because I recognized some of the trees as cypresses and others as eucalyptus species, none of which are native to Kenya. It turned out that, though we were in a recognized/protected park area, there were also plots of land set aside to raise cash crops--such as timber. Another important cash crop in the area was tea:

(Kenyan tea plantation, as seen from our speeding bus.)

I know that Kenyan tea plantations have a terrible reputation (for paying workers ridiculously small sums of money for outrageous amounts of work), and I also know that introduced, agricultural crops are never as "good" for the environment as endemic species, but still I found the plantations quite beautiful to look at. That turned out to be a good attitude, given how many miles of them we passed through. The really amazing thing was when we'd pass workers out in the fields and see them meticulously harvesting leaves by hand, them tossing them into enormous baskets suspended behind their backs by leather straps wound around their foreheads. It is an indelible image for a tea drinker (or, at least, should be) and will ensure that I appreciate every single cup of tea that I brew from here on out. It also will ensure that I buy fair trade products, so that at least I can rest easier knowing that the local workers were paid a little bit more for their efforts on my behalf.

As we passed through this amazingly verdant mountain region, our new bus driver, Peter--we'd swapped buses that morning--pointed out all sorts of things he thought we'd find interesting. At first he was mainly concentrating on plants and animals, but after I started asking questions about culture, he also identified people, places, and practices. For instance, as we slowly made our way across a set of train tracks, I asked him why I had yet to see any trains running. He said that the trains in our region were not for passengers, but for goats, and that they only ran every once in a while. When they did, goatherds would load animals onto the train so that they could be shipped to markets in distant towns. The butchers there would slaughter the goats one by one, keeping the rest in a little herd out back until they needed new products to sell in their stores. I also learned about what kinds of animals the locals hunted for food (it's illegal to hunt many things, but of course that doesn't always stop people), and local names for plants. When we passed through a large market area, Peter explained how people without cars could get from distant villages into town in order to sell produce like pineapples, bananas, and mangoes (they take buses, and tie their boxes of fruit on top). At one point we passed someone driving along in a donkey cart, and Peter asked if anyone did that where I came from. I told him that almost nobody did anymore, but that there was a group of people called the Amish who were famous for doing everything without electricity, and who used carts/carriages pulled by horses or oxen. Peter was unfamiliar with "oxen"--it didn't occur to me that it was an uncommon animal in those parts. He also said that the Amish must only be found in small "villages." It was only then that I really thought about how amazing some of our Western towns and cities might be to people who were used to thinking on the scale of "villages" (Nairobi has approximately 3 million people, but it's the largest city in East Africa--the "towns" you pass through on a daily basis are much, much smaller than the typical Western equivalent).

Having Peter as our driver was great. Not only was he friendly and knowledgeable, but he also refrained from driving like a maniac. He was pretty much the exact opposite of our former bus driver, Joel. Joel may have been a fan of the Cleveland Indians, but that was pretty much the only good thing I could say about him. He constantly drove as though we had a gun shot victim in the back seat whose life depended on our getting to a hospital extremely quickly. He couldn't stand being behind anybody on the road, so we were always weaving in and out of lanes in order to pass slower vehicles. Joel also despised--despised--dust. I don't know how any African can hate dust and manage to not go crazy, because it is absolutely unavoidable. All the same, Joel did everything in his power to avoid exposure to dust. First and foremost, he tried always to be the first person to leave a place, so that he wouldn't have to drive behind someone and the dust they had kicked up from the road. This meant that we were sometimes barely able to look at certain animals before we were speeding off again. Secondly, he was constantly closing the windows--not just his window, but other people's windows--using the electronic controls. This wouldn't have been so bad if we'd had air conditioning, or if we weren't sitting in a metal box on wheels. I would rather be dusty than get heat stroke any day, but Joel didn't see things my way. There were also several times where we nearly hit animals--cows, goats, sheep, dogs--that didn't get out of the road quickly enough as Joel passed by. This includes animals that were in the middle of making an organized, shepherd-controlled crossing. Joel just laid on the horn and pressed down the accelerator, while the rest of us clutched our seats, squeezed our eyes shut, and tried not to get too miserably carsick. You can see why I was so relieved to make Peter's acquaintance.

Mid-way through the day, we stopped at a curio shop to eat our packed lunches and do a bit of shopping. Usually, these sorts of shops take cash only, but I noticed that this one took credit cards. Thus, I decided to pick out souvenirs while I had the opportunity to pay for them all on plastic. The place was enormous, filled with carvings, jewelry, fabrics, masks, bowls--the standard fare that we'd soon be seeing in all the curio shops where we stopped. As I wandered up and down the aisles, I soon realized that I was being followed. I tried to ignore my "tail," but eventually he started talking to me and I couldn't play deaf forever. What you soon realize after arriving in Kenya is that all white people are assumed to have money; because all the locals want that money, it is absolutely impossible to get by unnoticed. The whole time I was there, I kept wondering how white Kenyans go about their daily lives without being driven crazy by people mistaking them for tourists. In any case, my pursuer was one of the shopping assistants scattered throughout the store. At first he just made small talk, asking where I was from and what we were doing there, but then he started telling me all about the various wares that I was looking at. Initially I found it very disturbing to have someone up in my face while I was trying to shop--I have always hated being accosted by salespeople--but after a while I started to find it interesting. He knew what all the things were made of, what region they'd come from, and what their local names were, so in a way it was kind of useful. Also, it was such a big shop that you could easily pass by something that you wanted, without even noticing it; rather than wander aimlessly, I could ask to be taken to something. I was very surprised to find that I was actually enjoying myself.

(Beadwork calla lily. Earlier in the day, we'd passed several calla lilies growing by the side of the road, so I thought this would be a nice reminder of the journey. Also, it goes perfectly in one of the new vases my husband and I got as a wedding present.)

(My little hippo carving. I liked how he looked partially submerged. My only regret was that I did not also buy the warthog carving that I found at this curio shop. I thought I might have the chance to buy one elsewhere, but I was wrong--this was the only place we encountered that sold carvings of more "unusual" species. Now I know what to keep an eye out for next year!)

Eventually, once I'd picked out a slew of things for myself and other people back home, I was ready to check out. This was the moment I'd been dreading, since I knew that I was going to be quoted an absolutely ridiculous total that I was then supposed to haggle down to a more reasonable amount. I had never haggled before; I felt very uncomfortable at even the idea of doing it. All the Kenyan veterans had given me advice beforehand: Go into the deal with a clear idea of what you feel is reasonable to pay, start bidding at about half of that, and let it go up from there. However, the price that I was quoted on this occasion was, from the beginning, almost exactly what I thought was fair--I was buying four fabrics, a beadwork flower, a bracelet, and a small animal carving, all of which I could probably have had for about 8,000-10,000 shillings. I knew that I could have paid that tiny amount for the purchase, but I felt that it was worth about 16,000--if I were buying in the West, that's what I would have expected to pay. A part of me wanted to be a cheapskate and save as much money as I could, but another part of me thought, "You've got the money, 16,000 would be a fair price, and you're way better off than the shopkeepers and artisans, so just give them what you can." So when I was asked to pay 17,500, I was caught off-guard by how close it was to my mental limit; I asked the salesman to bring it down to 16,000, he returned with 16,500, and we called it a deal. All in all, I'd done a pretty abysmal job of haggling, but at least I'd given it a try. I was proud of myself for stepping out of my comfort zone. And, just as importantly, at least I didn't feel cheated by the whole transaction.

After a couple more hours of driving, we finally reached our camp at the base of Mount Kenya. Our first order of business was to set up our tents while it was still light out. I had a small one-person tent, so it wasn't long before I was finished moving in and ready to do a bit of birding around the campsite.

(Our campsite at the base of Mount Kenya. My tent is the beige and grey one in the middle of the shot; the pink mug on the cement bench around the tree is mine--I was making myself right at home.)

I didn't have to go far--about 20 feet away from my tent was a fence, just beyond which was a sharp slope down to a small creek (or tiny river--I'm not sure which). Predictably, this wet habitat had attracted several species of birds, all of whom were flitting about the highest branches of the trees, picking off insects and sucking nectar from flowers. There was also a raucous baboon troop running from one bank to the next, using a fallen log as a bridge. They liked to stay near the camp because they could plunder discarded food from the rubbish pile:

(Baboon rummaging amongst the rubbish.)

There were also some colobus monkeys, looking for all the world like gigantic, tree-climbing skunks. Later on in the evening, we knew we would encounter another interesting species for the first time--the tree hyrax. We had already seen rock hyraxes in Hell's Gate; they look similar to groundhogs (but are actually related to elephants, despite all appearance to the contrary). Their close relatives, tree hyraxes, are pretty much what you would expect--groundhog-looking animals that hang around in trees instead of rocks. Only a couple people ever actually saw them, tracking them down by pointing flashlights in the trees until they located hyrax eyeshine; however, absolutely everyone heard them. As soon as the sun goes down, the males begin vocal performances that last pretty much all night, though they are loudest just after dusk and just before dawn. The introduction sounds like a rusty gate or door being slowly opened, and I think it may be made during an intake of breath; the major part of the performance is definitely an exhalation, a loud shriek that sounds kind of like a screaming child or a stuck pig. I would imagine that it would be quite terrifying if you were unprepared for it, but we had all been warned. My husband and his students had stayed at this campsite prior to joining us at Lake Naivasha, and several people complained that they weren't able to sleep very well because of all the hyrax ruckus. However, I was beginning to droop after our incredibly long drive and my full day of battling the mystery illness. We were then forced to wait until 9 PM to eat dinner (not that I ate much). By the time I'd finished my food, I was so tired that I would have slept soundly even if a hyrax had climbed into my tent with me (which, thankfully, one didn't).

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