Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Humbling Experience

I came on this trip ready for pretty much anything, open to any experience, and hoping to learn something about a part of the world I had only read about and seen through the lens of popular culture. It has been an amazing, busy, and rewarding trip to be sure. I had a lot of fun and saw some amazing things, but as we prepare to make the trek to the airport to fly back to the states (where the real work of planning the program for the college begins), mostly I am humbled.

I am humbled by the kids at Cura and the people who work so hard to make their lives as good as they are. Nothing in the world could have prepared me for my time with those children, and when we left the village on our last day there, I felt a little helpless. All of the ways that we in the west imagine we can help - sending money, sponsoring a child, collecting books, donating to charities - seem almost ridiculous when you are here. When I was out playing "OK, Who Took My Hat This Time?" with the kids, it made me feel like there would never be enough we could do. So I guess we just do what we can.

I am humbled by the generosity of all of the people I have met along the way. So many people went to such effort to welcome us and make us comfortable here that I can't actually imagine what it would have been like if we were merely hopping from hotel to hotel like an average tourist. Everywhere we have gone we have been met by old friends of Hayden's or we have met knew friends who have worked hard to get us what we need when we need it. Jeff, Courtney, Paul, Gerald, Rose, Ole Kina, Lucy...thank you all so much for opening your worlds to me. I only hope that someday I have the chance to return the generosity.

I am humbled by the country and its challenges. I'm no expert in third world politics, but I can see that the rapid globalization of western culture has already made a radical imprint on this country in some very troubling ways. In Nairobi especially it is apparent that growth and consumption are outpacing infrastructure at a dangerous clip. Add a glacially measured government decision-making machine and the near future doesn't promise to get much better. The city is sprawling and growing vertically while the roads and systems are being patched together. And still? The people here are wonderfully optimistic, hopeful, and proud of Kenya. If you studied the issues and problems of Kenya on paper only, you might write it off as another hopeless third world country, but when you talk to people about their country, you can't help buy into their hopefulness. Things will get better here in part because the people want things to get better. In that way, I think Kenya has a better long-term shot than the US. The people here are tapped in, they know what is going on, they read the newspapers, and they actually engage in meaningful discourse about current events. So it might be slow and it won't look like it would in the west, but Kenya will figure some things out. I just hope they do it by importing less Hannah Montana and WWE and creating more of their own popular culture standards. But maybe that's asking a bit much.

I am humbled by the environment. Our safari in the Maasai Mara was an experience I will never forget. At one point I compared the mechanisms of it to the whale watching enterprises in Puget Sound (the game drivers communicate on radio to tell one another where the animals are, for example, just like captains of whale watching boats do) but from there the comparisons simply crumble away. I don't know what I was expecting, exactly, but it wasn't the nonstop game viewing that we had. In the promotional materials sent to us by the tour operator, it was mentioned that we would not be able to walk from our tent to the main camp without an askari to guide us. I thought this was at least partly for show: have the Maasai tribesman make the wazungu feel safer and give them a photo op. The lions just outside of our tent on the first night convinced me.

From there to the island village of Lamu was a radical change of venue, but Lamu was no less amazing. An island with no roads, a town where donkeys are the primary form of transportation, and a living, celebrated history that goes back to the 1500s. I wasn't tempted, but I can see how westerners would show up in Lamu and never want to leave (anyone thinking about it should get a good look at the managers of the Peponi hotel to see what the long term effects of living there really are...yikes).

But places are nothing without the people. And as I get ready to pack up, it is the people that are on my mind: kind, generous, interesting, successful, strong people. Thanks to everyone for making this such a wonderful trip.

But mostly thanks H, for sharing this part of your world with me.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Back in Nairobi, by the way

Just for clarification...

We're back in Nairobi now, after an uneventful flight back from Malindi and a quick stop, for old time's sake, at Carnivore. We've been struggling with internet connections and mourning the loss of MJ, of course, but otherwise all is well!

We head to the airport tonight (mid-day your time) to start the trek home. Back in touch then, of course!

News (Finally) from Hapa

What have we been up to since my last post?? Well...

We flew from Nairobi to the Maasai Mara on 28 June, where we were met at the airport by James, our charming and able guide for our two-night stay. On the drive from the Ol Kiombo airstrip to the Kicheche Bush Camp, James spotted three snoozing cheetahs… which felt like a very good game-viewing omen for the upcoming two more days! We felt even better when I spotted four more and James declared me "at least half-Maasai." Mmm hmmm. I was actually more excited about spotting a rock-shaped, rock-colored tortoise in the road and about the familiar music of bells on the cattle grazing in the distance.

Our tented camp was luxurious and largely unoccupied, so we got royal treatment! Larry and Francie, the New Zealand couple who shared the camp with us, were good company, and the nearby lions entertained all of us throughout the night with their impressively raucous mating.
Our early morning drives resulted in all kinds of game sightings, including, on the last day, lions over a fresh kill. We also saw herds of elephants, water buffalo, zebras, giraffes, hyenas, jackals, hippos, all manner of antelope-looking beasts, countless birds… I’m missing a lot on this list, I know. But even absent James’s excellent tracking skills, it would have been worth it just for the lushness of the landscape: the grasses were door-high to our vehicle, and the golds and greens and blues all around us were breath-taking.

Our "sundowner" cocktails were pretty good, too…

Two days was enough, though.

So we moved on to Lamu! We flew back to Nairobi to change planes, then had a somewhat bumpy ride out to the coast, on a much larger plane than I remember ever making the same trip on before… The Manda airstrip was unmistakable and familiar, though, as was the choppy crossing from Manda to Lamu on a low-slung wooden boat (which, by the way, had the same motor as the one in OUR new/old boat, making conversation impossible at anything but a shout).

We stayed at a gorgeous old house in Shela called "Fatuma’s Tower," named for a Swahili woman who lived there alone some centuries ago, but now owned by a lucky Italian couple that now also makes Shela home. The place is set at the back of the village, so the dunes and the accompanying trees were our view out the back windows, but the top of the "tower" afforded views of the whole village, out to the water. The whole place had an open-door and open-window policy, so the breezes kept us cool and we lived large, Fatuma-style. We had private breakfasts and dinners each night, prepared and served by the immensely talented Saidi---and I succumbed to the temptation to decorate my feet, old school.

We walked to Lamu town, of course, and I had incessant sensory-memory flashbacks of making that trek several times a day… We dropped in at the post-office, where the telephone booths I once used to call my parents (collect) now constitute a communications graveyard in the front walkway. Sigh. We strolled through town, visited the donkey sanctuary, marveled at the Hapa Hapa’s enduring presence at the waterfront, and were generally kept busy responding to all of the cheerful greetings and inquiries about how we were enjoying our stay.

We had to also, of course, hit up the beach near Shela---which is radically changed since I was last here! The view across the channel, for one thing, is now populated with enormous foreigner-built mansions, and the worst of it was right around the bend: apparently some Italian with more money than taste has built a private residence, right on the point of the dunes, designed to look like a monstrous sand castle. Argh!

Fortunately, I was able to drown my sorrows at the deck at Peponi, which opened for the season on 1 July. Perfect timing! Oh, and of course, we adjusted our cocktailing location according to the weather---blistering sun? Right out in the open. Torrential rain? Under the awning. Repeat.

We left Lamu on 2 July and headed to Malindi. I never spent a lot of time in Malindi back in the way back, but I was looking forward to seeing one of its most prominent residents again: Ole Kina!

He met us at the airport (where we entertained ourselves during our wait by counting the mangoes on the tree in the parking lot: 65!) and escorted us to the resort he and his wife own: the Seaview. We haven’t really left the resort since, actually--at least not to explore town on our own. We’ve been lounging by the pool most of the time (boring, we know) and occasionally making the trek into town to take advantage of the Book CafĂ©’s internet access and computers. Greg’s gone on a couple of runs (in this humidity? Insane.) and we’ve strolled down the VERY windy beach where bands of teenage boys play pick-up soccer that somehow incorporate the gusts into their game plans.

Otherwise, we’ve mostly just spent time with Ole Kina, his lovely wife Lucy, and their three children, Nareiyan, Shorua and Santoni. They are incredibly busy and productive people, with holding and activities all over town.

Ole Kina treated us to a visit to his favorite place: their property at Sabaki River, where he’s taken it as his personal challenge to, before he dies, "plant more trees than have ever been cut down for his life’s comfort." They’ve already managed over 100 thousand mangroves and 50 thousand or so others… so I’d say he’s well on his way.

The property stretches from the river, to the dunes, to the beach, and we got a tour of it all in the company of Ben, the very man who was reported in the BBC for being dragged up a tree by what must have been a very ambitious, very enormous and very buff python.

It is the morning of 7 July now, and the power is out at the hotel, where we’re now having coffee on our patio and watching the millipede I stepped on yesterday (my Facebook status update shortchanged the creature by many hundreds of legs---my apologies!) make its way across a beam, back toward the room. Awesome! At some point, we’ll wander back into town so I can get this posted and we can check in on our Blackboard classrooms. We’re "teaching" this summer, after all…