Sunday, 20 February 2011

Kenya 2011: From mountain to Mara

I happened to wake up relatively early on the morning after our trip to Mount Kenya. Except for the cooks bustling around in the kitchen area, and the baboons making their constant racket in the treetops, the camp was fairly still and quiet. I decided to be indulgent and treat myself to my second hot shower in two days--water temperature was dependent on how many other people were simultaneously draining the resources of the hot water tank (which, incidentally, was heated 24-7 by a live fire that was built up from whole logs that were dragged over by camp staff). Since I didn't know what our living quarters would be like at the next camp (fewer showers? more showers? a private residence?!), I figured I'd take advantage of the fact that I had the entire bathroom to myself. Not surprisingly, I found that it was much more comfortable to take a dawn shower in hot water than in the normal tepid-to-cold temperature with which I had been making do.

Unfortunately, that was the high point of the next several hours of my day. When it came time to pile into the vans and begin our long day on the road, I was assigned to a bus group with not one, but two sick students. Both of them had been dealing with some sort of stomach bug for pretty much the entire trip. One of them was on the mend, but still wanted to be positioned next to a bus door in case she needed to make a quick exit. The other was still fairly under the weather, and asked (demanded) that she sit up front next to the driver in order to minimize stomach trauma and help prevent any embarrassing illness-related accidents. Now, I am not a heartless person, but I was feeling a bit unwell myself, and on top of this I get carsick. I was incredibly displeased to find myself stuck in the middle seat in the middle of the van, where there was quite a lot of swaying and very little leg room. All the other instructors told me I should just tell the sick students to suck it up, and take the front seat for myself, but on the off chance that someone might end up vomiting (or worse) inside the bus, I did not want to be responsible.

Needless to say, I was very glad when we finally stopped for lunch, so I could get out and stretch my legs. Yet again, we had pulled over to a curio shop, and I did a bit of browsing while waiting for lunch to be prepared (I was still looking, in vain, for one of the little warthog carvings that I'd stupidly passed up at the first curio shop we'd visited). I stumbled across a beautiful pair of serving spoons that I ended up paying way too much for; I managed to bargain the guy down a little bit, but not nearly enough. I knew I was being taken advantage of, but I wanted the spoons and I just wasn't feeling well enough to haggle more intensely, so I gave in. Part of the reason I was asked to pay so much was that the store owners claimed the spoons were made from ebony, which they weren't--and it's a good thing, since ebony has been extremely over-harvested. It is a common technique among African artisans to craft things from lighter woods, then use boot polish and ash to color them so they can be passed off as ebony. Most of the time, you can be fairly certain that the black wooden trinkets you're buying are fakes. I have since proven the fake-ness of my spoons by (inadvertently) scrubbing off a bit of black while wiping them off, revealing their inner whiteness.

Late in the afternoon, we made a second stop to withdraw cash and buy groceries before entering the virtual remoteness of the Masai Mara (remote, that is, if you are looking for an ATM, but not if you are looking for a cell phone signal, oddly enough). We were dropped off at a curio shop where we could use the toilet, but then we walked down the street to visit the bank and grocery store. This was the first time we had been allowed to walk around a Kenyan town freely--normally we drove everywhere. Not only were we not driving, but we also were permitted to splinter up into smaller groups, rather than walking in a huge, safe herd of people. I had become so used to having protection around me at all times, either in the form of vehicles or people, that I almost felt naked strolling down the sidewalk. It was nice to feel that we had a bit of freedom--that is, until we were spotted by the local trinket salespeople. They descended upon us ravenously, like a flock of pigeons who have located a cache of bread crumbs left out in the park. It turned out that we were very tasty bread crumbs. The salespeople were mostly hawking jewelry--the beaded bracelets and necklaces for which the Masai are famous (they are strangely similar to the handiwork of Native American bead artisans). The amazing thing was how ridiculously cheap things were--easily a tenth the price of similar products that we'd seen previously in the curio shops. Students started buying like it was their job--I saw people walk away wearing three, four, five new pieces of jewelry. In their defense, not only was the jewelry ridiculously cheap (each piece no more than 1-2 pounds given the exchange rate), but it was also difficult to keep the salespeople away from you. Even if you did cave in and purchase something, they would immediately try to get you to buy something more, or they would rotate around so that as soon as one salesperson was gone, another was up in your face. I won't quite say that it was harassment, but it was definitely close. There was constantly a handful of jewelry being thrust in your face, with someone saying "This one?" or "Over here!" If you did manage to find a bit space for a moment, there was inevitably someone lingering nearby, watching you, ready to recapture your attention with an "I'm over here!" or "Here I am!" as though you'd accidentally wandered off and were trying to find your way back. It was intense.

Although we briefly lost some of the salespeople as we walked up to the grocery store--the streets were too crowded for them to hound us all the way there--they did eventually manage to find us and resume their efforts. Outside the grocery store, one of the male sellers inquired about how many cows it would take to purchase one of our students as a wife. I am fairly certain that the conversation was all in jest, but I think all of us wondered if maybe, just maybe, he was serious. Our group leader gently steered the discussion away from the specifics of the student's bride price to the generalities of marriage among the Masai. We found out a typical bride price (20-50 cows, a bit less than the 200 our group leader said our student would cost), how the price was paid, how long it took, and other interesting and surprising details about Masai weddings (such as, for instance, that it is permissible to live together as husband and wife even before the entire bride price has been paid, as long as there has been a "down payment," and additional payments are made in installments).

When we arrived at our campsite an hour later, there appeared to be an intense storm rolling in behind us, so we hurried to get tents up before the deluge hit. The ground was covered with huge acacia thorns, some of which were 2-3 inches long; more than one student sustained a foot injury in the rush to wrangle the tents into place.

(A distant view of the campsite and its lethal acacias. When we first arrived, I was peering up into the branches in search of birds, when I happened to spot two giant bats snuggling together while hanging upside-down from the branches. I didn't realize it, but we had some serious bat-lovers in our group; they came over and determined that these specimens were yellow winged bats. They were quite hefty animals, with impressively large ears. I was proud of myself for spotting them, especially since they earned me some serious kudos.)

In addition to having space for tents, the campsite also had seven or eight cabins, which were assigned to the instructors and the two sick students. From the outside, the cabins didn't look like much, but looks were definitely deceiving. When I approached mine, the "Simba," here is what I saw:

("Simba" cabin. It's actually a permanent tent made from thick canvas. It is situated on a cement platform in back and a wooden porch in front; there is a second layer of waterproof canvas forming a canopy over top the roof of the tent. The green squares in the wall are all mesh windows and look in to the bedroom/living room; the white part at the back is the wall to the private toilet/shower area.)

But when I opened the flaps to go inside, I found a hardwood floor, Persian-style rugs, and regular furniture. Best of all, there was even a private bathroom, so I had my own toilet and shower area, complete with hot water (!):

(The inside of my tent/cabin. I slept in the bed on the right so I could take advantage of the mosquito netting, though I did not encounter any blood-suckers the entire time we were in the Mara. However, I did encounter some sort of mystery mammal, which I did not see in the flesh but whose presence I inferred by the gifts it left me in between the sheets of my bed--some poo samples and a nice little nest of shed fur. I decided to sleep in my sleeping bag on top of the comforter.)

(A view into the private bathroom, which was separated from the main living area by a flap that could be raised or lowered.)

As soon as I saw the Simba, I knew it would prove to be the nicest place that I stayed in during the entire trip in Kenya. It was a real shame that it was one of only two places where I would be without my husband, since it would have been fun to enjoy the luxury together (also, much more comfortable in comparison to the other places where we had to share space). I took a small wander around outside my front door, looking at the birds off my porch and enjoying the view as the dramatic weather rolled in:

(In the field behind the fence, we could see wildebeest and several types of antelopes. In the middle of the night some of the other students and I heard some snuffling outside our tents, which we suspect may have been aardvarks, whose scrapes had been found in the vicinity. We also heart some dramatic yipping/howling sounds from hyenas and possibly also jackals.)

Because we'd arrived at the camp relatively late in the day, dinner would be a long time coming, since the cooks needed to unpack all their supplies before beginning the preparations. By 7 PM or so, I was already feeling exhausted and I knew there was no way I could manage to wait until dinner (which ended up being ready at around 11:30 PM). On top of the sleepiness, I was also still dealing with the mystery stomach illness; I had managed to nibble on my usual Snickers bar earlier in the day, but that was about it. Rather than force myself to stay up for a cooked meal I knew I would only peck at, I decided to treat myself to a little evening in. I grabbed a cup of tea from the kitchen tent, put some music on my iPod, whipped out my novel, and lay in bed eating crackers with peanut butter. Not very exciting, but certainly an improvement over being scrunched up in the van, riding down a bumpy road, as I had been all day. Even better was going to sleep around 8:30 or 9 and getting a full 8 hours of sleep before our early morning the following day.

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