Saturday, June 27, 2009

Trying desperately to maintain objectivity

I spent some time today doing administrative work at the Cura Home... tracking details like birthdates and spelling and photo records and whatnot. And the process was emotionally grueling. The applications for the children to be accepted at the home were humbling to say the least: the most challenging were the barely literate expressions of such pleas for help as "She is orphan. Please help." The waiting list file was almost too much to bear.

We distributed the collages Quinn's class created today, and there was one collage for every two children in the home. They now have the art work hanging in their rooms, and they created their own reciprocal art project involving tracing and coloring their hands. One girl, Grace, colored the tracing of MY hand and spent the day interested in my veins, my ring, my tattoo... She took this photo.

The girls were more interested in stories and songs and showing me the pre-primary school (where English-to-Swahili translations were written on the insides of corn meal bags and hung on the walls---which is more than the primary school classrooms have by way of visual aides)----but the boys kept Greg very active on the football pitch and playing separate-the-bald-guy-from-his-hat!

We had a lovely dinner with Jeff, Courtenay and Apollo at the end of the day (checked out Nairobi's swankiest new hotel---Tribe---too). Loved that--but nothing beats Cura. Can't wait to get back.

We fly to the Mara tomorrow morning and will be out of touch for at least four days after that... more when we get wired again!

Friday, June 26, 2009

The City

We're getting close to the end of our first stint in Nairobi on this trip. After some safari and ocean time, we'll be back here for a couple of days to wrap things up.

Before the trip I was prepared to be the new guy while Hayden seamlessly rejoined Kenyan life in a familiar place. But aside from the people she knew when she was here before, nothing is the same. Not even her beloved Norfolk Hotel downtown, which is still beautiful and colonial and somewhat exclusive, but has been corporatized by Fairfield Hotels. So in a way, Hayden has been experiencing Nairobi for the first time as well. At least the massively built-up, congested, sprawling Nairobi that we have come across.

Nairobi is a bit of a mess. It's wonderful in a chaotic third world city sort of way, but there are a lot of issues to solve, not the least of which is the traffic. Most of the people we know here never go to the city at all. They live and work in the outskirt communities like Westlands, and they never have cause to go downtown. And why would they? A 10km drive can take an hour or more. So the communities around Nairobi are poised to become their own stand alone cities. It makes me wonder what will happen to the downtown core as the suburban flight continues.

Other uplifting topics of conversation: tribal violence, a rampant Somali financial grab of Kenyan properties (driving up real estate prices). drought, climate change (bringing, among other things, malarial mosquitoes to an area previously untouched by the epidemic), pollution...the list is long.

And yet, it is absolutey beautiful here. Nairobi National Park is right at the edge of town, and villages and communities along the red dirt roads are wonderful.

As I write this we are getting ready to head to Cura for a day with the kids. Tomorrow we fly to the Mara for some serious tourist safari action and then off to some other places that Hayden knew but that are probably unrecognizable: Lamu and Malindi.

I know Hayden is hoping that whatever is causing my narcoleptic behavior in the evenings will go away, but not nearly as much as I am. About midweek I just started getting tired in the early evenings and couldn't fight it. Here's hoping it's just a little jetlag hangover.

While Hayden has happily sampled the cooked flesh on this trip, I have avoided it so far. Last time I ate meat it made me pretty ill, so I'm not keen on trying it here. But I have to say the Chicken and Chips sound pretty damn good...


Jet Lag, Rescued Animals and Me, the Lapsed Vegetarian

Greg has been stricken with late-onset jet lag, an afflication from which I've been mercifully spared so far. So he's asleep... and I'm NOT. Seems like as good a time as any to blog, then!

Today we left right at 9:30am to make sure we arrived at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Karen well before 11am. That's when things get exciting there---and we had a full day of up-close time with rescued animals.

Here's one.

Here are some others... They say that there has been a dramatic uptick in numbers of abandoned, injured and in-need baby elephants lately, so the people at the Trust have been very busy! There was a pretty large crowd of people there today, too, including several classes of Kenyan school children---so I tried to listen carefully to the lecture they were receiving in Swahili. The 6 year olds were definitely understanding more than I was.

On our way out, we were invited to take a peek at Max, the blind rhino. Nobody knew how he was blinded, but the keepers definitely have a sweet spot for this little fella. They spoke gently to him, and he responded by coming over to the fence and letting us rub his hide and horn. Not particularly cuddly, as you might imagine.

After our lunch -- delicious, at Talisman -- we went over to the Giraffe Center. We wished we could have afforded the $700 per night rooms at Giraffe Manor (where giraffes are encouraged to poke their heads through the upstairs windows, into the guests' rooms), but we settled for feeding the two that were out schmoozing with the riff raff like us. Giraffes are much softer than rhinos and elephants... but they've got their nasty habits: mostly sticking their long, slimy tongues into their nostrils in between nibbles of tourist-pellets. Ewwwwww!
We stopped for coffee at Rose's house on our way back to town, and I added a beef samosa at her house to the list of violations I've made against vegetarianianism since I've been here. The roast meat last night was definitely worth it. We'll see what else the future holds in that regard...
We had one more visit with Paul and Gerald tonight, before we headed back to the Bureau to get some rest (Greg) and prep for tomorrow and triage email (Hayden). It's another day at Cura tomorrow, and we've got lots to do! Looking forward to it, of course...

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Yesterday's mini-road trip involved asking our driver, Jeremiah, to take his lovingly detailed Toyota over unpaved roads circling Nairobi National Park... to end up at my former safari-friend's mum's place: Kitengela Glass. The compound is a wacky, surreal place filled with improvised art---and the business is to take recycled materials and create something beautiful. There were lots of busy people---making stained glass, goblets, beads, pottery, etc---and lots to look at!

AND there was a new feature to the compound: a wire suspension bridge over a ravine that is far deeper than these photos can convey! Greg was eager to cross, but I confess that my heart rate definitely increased its pace while I considered joining him...

Do I LOOK anxious?

Good thing I decided to cross, though---my daredevil daughters were apparently flying sailplanes this week, so I can't let them show me up! :)

Greg, of course, had no trouble with this swaying, improbably constructed thing.

On our way back to Nairobi, I practiced my Swahili by naming the animals we saw: punda, punda milia, ngombe... And once we arrived, we made a beeline to the Norfolk Hotel (now called The Fairmont Norfolk, what with corporate take overs and all) for a gin and tonic at the Lord Delamere Terrace, just for old times' sake. The old dark wood bar is gone, and the facade is brightened up, and the little phone cubicle where I used to make my collect calls to the States is now a business center... but otherwise I felt right at home.

Later, we met back up with Paul and Gerald for some Nairobi nightlife that included exclusive guest lists and the most sought-after Nairobi poolside party band.
Today? Karen. For the elephant orphanage, the giraffe center and who knows what else...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Not all work...

We're heading out for the day in 5 minutes, but here are photos of the people we've been visiting...

Jeff, Courtenay, baby Apollo, Jeff's parents (and the two dogs). For dinner on Monday night, but also yesterday for lunch at the Muthaiga Club.

My first roommate at University of Nairobi, Rose Weru---for coffee at Yaya Centre. We got stopped by a security guard for piga-ing this picha!

My University of Nairobi buddy, Gerald Okotch---always the life of the party---for cocktails at Gypsy in Westlands.

And my BEST UoN friend, Paul Wambua (also at Gypsy).... Just like no time has passed at all.
I'm not sure we're coming home... :)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

If you see a lion and you can't run, FAINT.

The city is nice and all, but I much prefer the red dirt roads that kick in just minutes outside the city and challenge even the sturdiest of off-road rally cars... We put our full passenger trust in Nazir, the manager of The Dan Eldon Place of Tomorrow (DEPOT), who mentioned that he's a recreational rally car driver---maybe we'll get a chance to see what his real sports car can do!

Yesterday, we were just in a truck with him and Tambo, one of the DEPOT's workshop facilitators, and they were knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides to everything between Nairobi and Cura.

We went first to the Cura Primary School, where we had a formal meeting with the headmaster and the seven other teachers. One of the teachers has been there for 27 years... and confessed that, although teaching was a fine profession, what she REALLY wanted to be was a British Airways flight attendant. Back in the 70s, that idea didn't exactly go over well with her traditional family!

Alice, one of the others who a bit more inspiringly actually chose teaching as a career path, offered to be our guide through the school, where she clearly commends respect and admiration from her students. We were introduced to the children in all eight classrooms ("forms"), and were warmly welcomed by bright, happy faces! Greg and I played the classic Non-Swahili-Speaking-Cop / Minimally-Swahili-Speaking-Cop game in front of each class: I struggled like an idiot through basic Swahili introductions, hopefully eliciting sympathy from the children, while Greg carried our professional integrity with his respectful English.

We then visited the community library and computer lab, housed at the village church, and made our way (only a matter of yards between each compound, actually) to the Cura Rotary Home and its accompanying community medical clinic. We were humbled at the work everyone has done in this village, but more humbled at the complexity of the issues the village is facing. Poverty and disease are the most obvious of the problems, but the attempted solutions to those issues---the home itself included---have created new and equally pervasive ones: most specifically a sort of class-system in which it appears to be more desirable to be an orphan than not... We've got a lot to think about!

After our visit to Cura, we headed back to Nairobi, via booming banana "orchards" and lackluster corn fields, and had lunch at Kenya's far-superior version of Starbucks: Java House. Again, Nazir and Tambo were fantastic hosts and engaging company as we mulled over our morning and marveled at how different Kenya is from when I last saw it. What is UP with all these European teenagers and their cell phones and double-tall iced lattes?? I'm having a bit of a culture-shock, I confess.

From there, we went to the DEPOT, which is housed in a forest owned by the Girl Guides (Scouts). It's out by the polo grounds and the motocross track, so there's a lot of wide-open space. Maybe that's why the baboons love it so much?! I had forgotten how lumbering and awkward those things look on the ground, and how nimble they are in the trees! The building at the DEPOT was small, since the team building workshops they hold there are primarily from tents in the forest---not luxurious, but definitely an adventure! Which, of course, describes entirely my STA safari all those years ago, in the very Land Rover parked at the DEPOT: Deziree!!

She needs a little attention, of course---but Nazir, along with about $3000---is just the man to give it to her. I think Dan would have loved to know that a Dakar Rally enthusiast would be turning his attention, affection and expertise on his beloved Deziree...

As we made our way back through Nairobi traffic, Greg and I talked about our upcoming plans to head to the Mara, and we all shared our anxieties about lion run-ins. The proverb Tambo offered gave Greg and me some practical advice:

If you see a lion and can't run, FAINT!

That advice seems more sound than the strategy I was operating on 20 years ago: simply to walk up to the lion and rap it on the head. The theory being, OF COURSE, that the lion would recognize its monumental mistake in overstepping his king-of-the-savannah bounds by threatening ME. (Doesn't he know who I AM???) Anyway, maybe we'll try the fainting thing. But we won't play dead for too long, since then we'll have the hyenas to contend with!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Of Cell Phones, Security Guards, local beer and the New York Times East Africa Bureau

What the Hell is That Beeping Sound?

5:00 a.m. on our second full day in Kenya started with a piercing alarm from next door followed by a diesel generator and an incessant beeping sound from somewhere vaguely outside of our room at the New York Times Bureau in Nairobi. Bliss. So I guess we’re up now.

Alarms and sirens and the like are no big shakes in any city, obviously, and especially not in the third world. But as I stood in Jeffrey Gettleman’s office staring out at the flashing lights that accompanied the sirens, it did occur to me that we are 50 yards from the heavily guarded US Embassy here in Gigiri. The new US Embassy. The old one had a bit of a run-in with al-Qaeda not that long ago. And as I was standing there wondering what the alarm was all about, I remembered the headline from yesterday’s “Daily Nation” about al-Qaeda fighters causing concern for local officials as the unrest in neighboring Somalia continues.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…and obviously the middle-of-the-night alarms and power outages are pretty much standard menu items in any third world city. Back to the show:

I keep having to remind myself that next time we come here we will likely have some students with us as we make our way around. As we made the ten minute walk from the NYT (thanks for the digs, Jeffrey!) to the mega-mall around the corner yesterday I imagined the same impulse driving an outing for a larger group: we want snacks and beer. And a cell phone. And an undetermined lunch solution. What a nightmare.

Hayden and I are more than happy to head out with a vague plan and hope something works out. If Jeffrey’s very descriptive if imprecise directions had led us astray (go around the US Embassy, take a left, another left, go straight on the windy road, look for the giant waterslide, turn right) we would have figured it out. But to get a larger group to go along for that ride? I’m pretty sure someone in our future tour group would be unable to resist the urge to take a photo of the “NO PHOTOGRAPHS!- Usipige picha!” signs dotting the lawn of the Embassy. And I don’t want to know under what circumstances those dudes are authorized to take aim with their automatic weapons, thank you very much.

I know that security makes some people feel safer, but it seems like everyone in this city is a security guard, and all of them seem to work for one of three or four private companies. Accountability anyone? So far so good, though. They try to glower at us and look serious about their job protecting that random wooden gate on the road between one neighborhood and the other, but when Hayden waves and smiles and asks them the best way to get to the mall, their true colors show through pretty quickly. Hi fellas. Don’t shoot.

We did make our way to the Village Market, which is actually a mall, not a market. The difference is important because if you ask a local where the "market" is, he will say "On Friday."

This sprawling labyrinth of a mall, complete with a water park, has everything! Fake local artwork? Check. John Mayer on the flat screen JVCs? Check. Curried fried rice? Check. A $30 cell phone and SIM card for our trip. Indeed. I know the basic reasons for it, but it does still strike me as odd that the cell networks in Africa, Asia, and South America are better by far than those in the states. Everyone here has a cell phone. Including us. Weird.

A word about local beers. Imagine for a moment that the only beers available in Seattle were Rainier and Guinness. This is the basic truth of most of the third world. You get one decent local lager (and usually a second version of the same beer sold in a smaller bottle and called “light beer”) and one import that is actually brewed locally. In Belize it was Belikin, and after a week or so of that stuff, we were all ready for anything else. In fact, on the flight here there was a story about Belize in the in-flight magazine and just the photo of a Belikin Bottle on a dining table almost made Hayden ill.

In Kenya we have Tusker. A decent lager that nonetheless tastes as much the vessel it is served in as it does beer. Seriously. The canned Tusker (65 Shillings - or less than a buck - at the local market) the bottled version you get at the restaurants and cafes, taste very different. My goal is to not get so sick of Tusker that I don’t look forward to a few cold ones next time we arrive in Africa.

Luckily last night Jeffrey saved us from Tusker overload by making some champagne concoction and serving a nice red wine with dinner. We also got to hear, from his parents’ perspective, the experience of Jeffrey’s two most recent kidnappings while on the job reporting in Iraq and later in Ethiopa. Bob, Jeffrey’s dad, has an active campaign running to get Jeffrey on the much less dangerous and infinitely more exciting Hoboken, NJ beat. There doesn’t seem to be much traction for that plan.

Our current situation:

We are each sitting at different desks in the NYT East Africa Bureau. I’m poaching an Internet connection from one of the staff computers and Hayden is trying to keep from throwing our new African cell phone through the concrete wall (she’s not big on the technology learning curve, that one. She much prefers things to just work the way they are supposed to, which makes her choice to use Windows puzzling to me). The security guards arrived at their posts several hours ago, and we are heading out to Cura today for the first time. The alarms have ceased, the power is back on, and the sun is up. The two-person staff of the NYT office will arrive in an hour, so I need to stop pretending like I'm a journalist and give up this desk. We have a busy week here in Nairobi and in Cura before heading out on safari and then to the coast.


No Photo Upload

We're at the end of a VERY full day, which started with a massive refuel breakfast at Country Lodge. We checked out the conference facilities there and at its sister hotel next door (much swankier), then met up with the Fairview's Number One Cab Driver: Charles. He delivered us to the NYTimes Bureau, our new digs for the week. Jeffrey got us set up, but he set off soon after for his tennis lesson---lucky guy's on paternity leave!---and we walked up to the Village Market for supplies. We bought a cell phone, plenty of minutes, a Nairobi city and suburbs road map, and several snack items to have on hand while we're locked inside the bureau office at night.

We managed a lunch of samosas and veggie fried rice before walking back to stash our food loot and hailing a cab to take us to the Eldons' house. Riding around Nairobi in the back of a cab is both disorienting for me -- so much is new! -- and weirdly familiar --so much of the new stuff is built around the old stuff!

Our meeting with Mike and Evelyn also included Moses and Daniel from Cura, and Nazir and Tambo from the DEPOT, and it was incredibly inspiring and produtive. We all took voluminous notes over chai and muffins. We have plans, both near and far term, and lots and lots to do!

From there, we took a cab back to Gigiri (the same neighborhood as the NYTimes Bureau), but this time directly to Jeff's house, where we had a relaxing, warm, happy, evening over dinner with Jeff, Courtenay, Jeff's parents, new baby Apollo and the two dogs.

There might have been a few mosquitoes, too. Just in case, Greg and I have decided to start taking our malaria medication in advance of our departure from Nairobi. My friend Paul was hit with it over the weekend, and he thinks he got it in town. Bad news! I'm interested in NOT hallucinating or making a run to the hospital this week, so... fingers crossed, everyone!

We're back at the bureau now---very tempted to use the inexpensive phone line to call the US and hear sweet daughter-voices. I think I'll wait, though, until Wednesday or Thursday--okay, gorillas?

--H / Mama

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Travel and Arrival

Three planes:

Plane One---Seattle to Dallas, in the company of many of America's finest military personnel, and arriving just in time for us to enjoy the inter-terminal rollercoaster train and arrive at our departure gate as our names were being called for final boarding.

Plane Two---Dallas to London, during which we attempted to sleep but also watched "Paul Blart, Mall Cop." After negotiating the labyrinth of Heathrow airport, we boarded right on time, then waited an hour for unidentified "precious cargo" to be loaded...

Plane Three---London to Nairobi, on which our vegetarian meal status was a source of dismay for the flight personnel.

We were met at the airport by Charles, our taxi driver, and escorted to Country Lodge for our first night's rest. All restaurants are closed, but we aren't above a vending machine meal every once in a while. Delicious!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Right Now

As I write this, my children are landing at LAX, the SeaTac Red Lion's computer alert system is processing my 6:30am wake up call request, and I'm wearing a t-shirt I bought 20 years ago, in a Nairobi shop, while listening to Milli Vanilli's lip sync classic, "Blame it on the Rain."

Seems like it's time to go back to Kenya!

I had intended to write a more comprehensive blog post tonight, but the network at the Red Lion is disappointingly slow and I'm somewhat impatient. So this is it for now. But I'm resolving to be more committed to internet communication as of Monday...

Think good thoughts, readers, for our trans-Atlantic jaunt (I'd be happy, for example, if our plane didn't disappear in a lightening storm or experience the sudden loss of a pilot). And check in often!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

We're Off to Kenya!

There is a lot of back story to why it is Hayden and I are about to fly off to Kenya for three weeks. I don't think I can do much of it justice here.

This will be my first trip to Africa, but Hayden went to school at the University of Nairobi and lived in Africa for three years. It has been 19 years since Hayden was in Kenya, so much will be new for her, though I expect her to fall instantly in love with the country again once we arrive.

Here are a couple of links that explain at least part of what we are up to:


We plan to update this blog with photos and stories as we travel, so please check back often to see what we are up to.

Our first week we will be based just outside of Nairobi and spending much of our time at Cura (Shor-Uh), working with the village and orphanage there. Hayden has already done a lot of work collecting sponsorships for the kids at the orphanage, but our long-term goal is to work on developing curriculum and programs to help transition the kids out of primary school and into a sustainable lifestyle in the village.

After we leave Cura we will travel to the Maasai Mara for some safari adventure and then out to the coast to visit Lamu (where Hayden once lived and taught) and Malindi.