Monday, June 24, 2013

Retrospective: The Gifts of Kenya

It's hard to be back from this particular trip. Possibly because I wrote a number of the blog posts when we were already home, I had the luxury of "staying" in Kenya for an extra week. I'm feeling sad and a little empty that it's over. But I've also had time to think about the particular blessings of this recent journey. That often happens to me after a trip. People will ask me about it, and I'll find certain stories coming up over and over, being retold. That's how I come to realize what the high points were.

1.  I remember when we first decided on this personalized safari to Kenya. The price was a good deal higher than any of our previous trips. In fact, according to our annual budget, we're now out of travel money until next spring. I console myself with the fact that we'll be living more frugally and will replenish the money we borrowed from our savings to do this. I hope that will happen.

What I've learned from this financial splurge is that if we go the cheap route every time we travel, we may miss out. I'm not saying we should fly first class instead of coach, or we should buy entire new wardrobes, or we should be luxurious in what we do. I'd be uncomfortable with choices like that. But for this once-in-a-lifetime trip, we needed to spend what we spent to have the experience we had. Sometimes you get what you pay for. We were well cared for.  Every bed was comfortable; every meal was good. In addition to those comforts, we had magnificent game drives and met interesting people. If we were doing this trip for the first time again, there's not a thing I would change - except I would bring my walking shoes home with me instead of leaving them in our last tent! So my Bag Lady is taking another look at her tendency to dig in her heels at the idea of spending money, just for the sake of digging in her heels. That may be based on fear, and I'm ready to give up the fear.

On the other hand, we're still budget travelers most of the time. We belong to two travel clubs. We do home exchanges. We drive a Prius on our road trips.

2. I've shifted a bit in my perspective on getting older. We spent two months in Tucson last winter in a 55-plus resort. We loved the activities and the people. But we missed seeing families with young children as well as different ethnicities. I get newsletters and magazines geared to the 55-plus demographic and I read them; there's lots of advertising about retirement centers.  I feel like I was being encouraged to be older and do "older" things. I felt older.

In our 15 nights in Kenya, we stayed from one to four nights in seven different places. We got around mostly by Land Rover, with two short internal flights. We went on fourteen game drives. They were either from 6:30 to 9 a.m. or from 4 to 6:30 p.m. To go on those drives we had to climb into a Land Rover, pulling ourselves up by handles and sliding to the ground afterwards. We did that. As a matter of fact, there wasn't a single time that Peter offered to help us. That was because he could see he didn't need to. And on those game drives, we were mostly standing up, with our heads out the roof, balancing and adjusting and shifting our weight in response to the roads. Now, we weren't going on hikes, or river rafting, or climbing mountains, or mountain biking. But we were active.

Just because I will be 65 in three months doesn't mean I'm on my way out. So, since we got home, I've been thinking about now get involved in my community in ways that are more diverse. And, for now, I am no longer reading the 55-plus newsletters and magazines.

3. On our game drives, I was completely focused on what was around me - the sights and sounds, the animals in groups or alone, the degree of alertness displayed. I watched herds of zebras and troops of baboons and families of elephants and prides of lions. I listened. I was not worrying about my back, or money, or the state of the world. I wasn't thinking about what I'd have for dinner or whether we had brought along enough cash for tips. I was in the moment out there. My mind was completely absorbed in what was going on around me - and I was part of it. If you had told me I'd enjoy every minute of 35 hours of game drives, I wouldn't have believed you. I know better now. I will be looking for absorbing ways to occupy my mind now that I'm home. I decided to leave my hypochondria on the African savannah, so I'll need other things to think about!

4. We had multiple opportunities to donate money to worthy causes: an elephant orphanage, a giraffe sanctuary, a chimp rescue agency, an orphanage, an education fund. We'd decided to wait until we got home to decide whether - and where - to contribute. Having experienced two weeks of Kenya, when we got home we set up monthly donations to two organizations. One is the Samburu Youth Education Fund, which provides funding for education for outstanding students from tribal areas. The other is FINCA, a microbanking organization benefitting women.

There are many needs in the world. Art and I are fortunate to have more than we need. I like the phrase, "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime." We want to teach fishing. And I now think we have a responsibility to help. I just finished a book called The Soul of Money. The author's contention is that our culture is all about acquisition and money, and that each of us will benefit more by considering how we can use our money toward ends that align with our highest values. Or, I'll add, our time.  I want to do more of that.

We bought a few souvenirs. We have a walking stick, a medicine man, and a Maasai family, all made from wood. And a small knitted elephant. And a few necklaces. But the main gifts are intangible. They're the blessings, the Gifts of Kenya.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Home again: The Bag Lady thinks about Kenya

We've been home for over a week now. My jet lag is gone. My calendar is mostly full. But Kenya is still in my mind. When I look at the pictures, I'm still there. I have a friend who says whenever she talks to a person who has been to Africa, and the subject comes up, the person gets a certain look on their face. I have that look now.

Kenya is unlike any place I've ever been. And I learned so much.

1. It's not "darkest Africa" as I heard when I was growing up. Kenya is a country full of sunshine and energetic, enthusiastic, friendly people. It has its share of entrepreneurs in the city and in the countryside, its educated and its not, its optimists and its grouches, its middle class and its wealthy and its wretchedly poor, its city dwellers and its tribal pasturalists. And its hopes.

2. The places where we stayed - an upscale downtown hotel, a cottage on a farm, and multiple game lodges - had some of the finest customer service I've ever encountered. From friendly morning greetings when coffee and cookies were delivered to our tent, to excellent mealtime service, to a willingness to take care of any issue that came up for us, we couldn't have asked for better. The effort made to make sure there were power and extension cords for our CPAP machines was commendable. Even where the  electricity was from a generator, and the generator was turned off at night, the camp staff provided us with an inverter so we could use the CPAPs all night. I would give five stars to any of the places we stayed.

3. Kenya has fabulous thunderstorms. Four afternoons in a row, we were treated to a natural symphony. We live in an area where these things are infrequent, so we appreciated the experience. We also loved the sound of monkeys playing on the roof of our tent - once we figured out what the heck the noise was! And a baby elephant trumpeting from the middle of the road. And the chants of the Samburu and Maasai dancers. And the silence, on the game drives, when Peter cut the engine and we sat and watched and listened.

4.  We felt completely safe everywhere we went, and in good hands with our experienced outfitter, George, and guide, Peter. If you are thinking about traveling to Africa, I recommend you get in touch with George Gituku at Sandrage Safaris in Nairobi. He will create the itinerary of your dreams - for just you, or for you and a few friends. I asked many questions before we decided to go to Kenya, and many more before we left, and George answered them all.  He met us at the airport on the night we arrived, spent the next day with us in the Nairobi area, took me to his optometrist to fix my bent glasses, lent me his modem for two weeks, bought us a powerstrip to use, shared a final meal with us and dropped us off at the airport at the end. We couldn't have asked for more.

And be sure to tell George you want Peter to be your guide. We have had many guides in our years of traveling, and Peter is the best.

5.  I made a decision to leave my hypochondria on the African savannah, and so far it has remained there.

6.  I knew about how nature works, but watching all those animals on their playing field, I got a new and wondrous appreciation for how it all fits together. I feel honored to have spent time in the midst of the animals.

7. If you are standing up in a vehicle, on bumpy roads, for two and a half hours in the morning and two and a half hours in the late afternoon, you get good exercise for your back and legs. You forget you are eligible for Medicare in three months. And you come home with lower blood pressure.

8. I no longer believe in zoos, except possibly as rescue facilities. The animals belong in their natural habitat. I'd like to see other ways to inform people about animals - surely we can do that with the technology available to us today. Two elephants in a compound, no matter how well equipped and well fed, are no substitute for their family in the wild.

9.  My husband Art is a seasonal hunter. For two weeks I got to watch him hunt every day - with his camera. It was a treat.

10. The trip was worth every single cent we spent. Those are the Bag Lady's very words.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

On safari: Going home

After two weeks in the African bush, going home was a jolt. Usually I'm planning ahead for home stuff for the last few days of a trip, but this time I'd been so engrossed in our experience I hadn't thought about it.

Leaving the Masai Mara on the last day, we experienced the two shortest flights of my life. The area has multiple airstrips and stops are made if there are pickups or dropoffs. So our first flight was five minutes long, at a low altitude, to one airstrip, and our second was four minutes long, to another. The flight to Nairobi after that was just 40 minutes. We emerged from the baggage area to a hectic, noisy city full of traffic and people.

We spent the afternoon at the Serena Nairobi Hotel to rest up. Art took a shower while I logged into the internet. It was good to be in touch with the wider world again. We had bought a walking stick at Enkerere - wood with carvings of the Big Five (elephant, rhino, leopard, buffalo and lion), and the hotel staff wrapped it for travel. And, for the first time in our 20-plus years together, we ordered room service. Not enough time to go down to the restaurant, but too hungry to wait for dinner.

We were short on time because we had an appointment with a young man we'd never met. Last month we hosted Penny and Gary from Minneapolis; they're members of our travel exchange group. When we told them about our upcoming trip to Kenya, Penny said, "I used to work with a nurse from Kenya. Her name is Harriet and she lives in North Carolina now. She moved to the States so she could work to support the education of her three sons. I'll call her and tell her about your trip." And she did, right then. Harriet told her we should meet up with her son in Nairobi, that he would be glad to do that.  I was reluctant, but didn't say anything, because if I'm supposed to say "yes" to opportunities that come up, how could I justify saying "no, thanks"?

Anyway, for our last afternoon we'd made arrangements to meet her son Ken at 2:30 at our hotel. He arrived at 4:05. African time, I'm thinking, or maybe traffic. We chatted for about 15 minutes, and then a man came up to us and said, "I've been eavesdropping, but in a good way," and joined our conversation. He's in some kind of nonprofit/marketing function in Kenya, though he is originally from Toronto. He gave me his card and asked me to email his mother and let her know I saw him and he's fine! We excused ourselves and went upstairs to get ready to check out. When we came back down, fifteen minutes later, Ken, "the son of a friend of a friend", and Brodie the eavesdropper were still in the lobby engaged in a conversation. I wonder whether they were doing business of some kind. When I got home I emailed Brodie's mother and relayed his message to her.

George picked us up for a final dinner at the Pampa Grill Churrascaria, a Brazilian restaurant, where we ate multiple kinds of meat by the slice - including crocodile - and then drove us to the Nairobi airport.

I was not looking forward to the 24-hour trip home, but it turned out to be not too bad. I fell asleep before takeoff, in spite of eight full hours of sleep the night before. For our five-hour layover in Amsterdam, we checked into a room at Yotel, a hotel inside the airport. We slept for a while and took a shower. That refreshing interlude made the nine-hour flight from Amsterdam to Seattle a little easier. It was weird, as usual, leaving Europe at 10 a.m. and arriving home in Seattle at 11 a.m. of the same day.

The next two days were pretty much lost to me as my body readjusted to our local time and we reemerged into our normal world. It's a very long journey between Kenya and Seattle - both in physical distance and in my state of mind.

Monday, June 10, 2013

On safari: The last game drive

Our last game drive was the day before we left Kenya. I felt full hearted at all we had seen and experienced. I told Peter I'd like to spend some time with elephants. I suspected Art wanted to spend some time with giraffes.

A serval cat. Peter said they're nocturnal so this one was an unusual sighting.

Notice the hippo prints in the sand. It had rained the night before.

A mama hippo and her baby.

Hippo trail from the river to the grazing area.

Giraffe hiding.

These two male giraffes were "necking" - fighting with their necks. The winner gets the girlfriend standing nearby.

Roost for cormorants and egrets.

A solitary buffalo - the most dangerous animal.

Youngsters scuffling.

A thunderstorm was approaching. As we drove across the savannah, we were the only vehicle in sight. All the animals had disappeared into sheltering places. Lightning flashed across a dark sky. Peter was giving us a final gift - solitary time on the savannah.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

On safari at Masai Mara: Camp encounters at Kichwa Tembo

Here's Kichwa Tembo, where we stayed for four nights at the Masai Mara. I think it was my favorite place, but maybe that's just because we stayed a while rather than moving around with all the packing and unpacking.

This is Mary. She works in Reception and helped me with my internet problems the first night. We talked several times and she's now a Facebook friend.

TaTa Communications was having its awards retreat, so there were lots of IT marketing types in the camp. They were a cheery, noisy, international group. From the snippets of conversation I overheard, I don't think anyone was relaxing much. So much thinking and networking going on!

One day the TaTa people took picnic lunches into the bush, so Kichwa didn't serve lunch to the other half dozen of its guests. Instead, we took a quarter-mile walk to a neighboring camp and were served there. Nearby we saw a party of four having lunch. As it happened, a young girl was celebrating her birthday. The camp staff knew about this and celebrated with a song and a dance and a cake. Here's a video Art took of the celebration.

The girl's mother is an American actress. Do you recognize her? I'm not naming her because I think celebrities are entitled to privacy when they're on safari, and I don't want search engines picking up my blog post.

Art couldn't resist one wildlife shot within the restaurant.

That evening dinner was served outdoors. We were one of the few tables not occupied by TaTa Communications people. The woman whose eyes I had met watching the lions the night before came up to me. "Do you live in Maine?" I was wearing a Schooner Heritage hoodie, which probably prompted her question. "No," I said, "but I've been there several times, sailing." She said, "My sister went to college in Maine."

"Where did you go to school?" I asked. "Wellesley," she said with a smile.

"Where do you live now?"


"Wow. That seems like an exotic location."

"My husband works there."

"Oh, your husband works for TaTa?"

"Yes. He's the CEO."

She smiled and left. A few minutes later, our server Kosen came over and said, "The lady says that your drinks while you are here will be paid for."

The woman's name is Sui Ling Chea. I watched her as she circulated among the guests. I could tell she was a good listener; she seemed interested in each person she spoke to. I Googled TaTa Communications; it is a very large company. The CEO's name is Vinod Kumar. I spoke with him briefly in the buffet line at dinner. Both of them seem like class acts. I must admit, to my embarrassment, that the idea of a leading telecommunications company being headquartered outside of North America seemed odd to me. I am behind the times!

Kosen, our server at Kichwa Tembo, exemplified the courtesy and professionalism we found at all the camps. Kosen was raised in a village "about an hour and a half drive from here" and is educated. He is aware of the cultural changes that need to happen in the rural areas of Kenya. "FGM", female genital mutilation, became especially troubling to him when his sister explained the complications often experienced by women following the procedure. He said he has ideas that he wants to take to his village, but in his culture his information will not be accepted by his community unless his parents have first approved what he has learned and communicated to them - and so far they have not bought in to his ideas.

As I listened to Kosen, it occurred to me that when a person in Kenya becomes educated, he may leave his village culture behind, or he may return to the village and retain it, or he may straddle both worlds. "Tell me, Kosen," I asked. "When you work 45 days at the camp and then go home for two weeks, what do you do there?" He said, "I check on my cattle."

"How many cattle do you have?"


"Who takes care of your cattle when you're working at the camp?"

"I pay someone to do it for me."

I'm wondering what it takes to make the cultural shift between the old ways and the contemporary.  Does it take educated parents to provide a way? Or a lot of motivation on the part of the young person?Our driver, Peter, has parents who are teachers, so he's the second generation of educated Kenyans in his family. George, an entrepreneur, is the first generation in his family.  Both men are contemporary, articulate, well informed, and conversant on many topics.

In a Kenyan village, if parents want their children to get an education, they may have to decide whether their son should go to school or whether he should stay home and tend the family's cattle. If a girl, they may have to decide whether she should be educated or whether she should be married off to an older man, perhaps as his third or fourth wife, for the bride price of the cattle. Letting go of the traditional roles for the sake of educating a child may be a big decision. The education can result in the offspring providing for the village in some important way - but it's a more long-term outcome as opposed to the immediate result of cattle being tended or received.

One day I talked to a young man with a group of Americans who were finishing up their work on a water project as part of World Vision.  He told me the most pressing need in Africa is for clean water. I asked Kosen what he thought. I also asked Peter. Both of them said education was more important - that when a person became educated, he could figure out how to get the water to his village. I'm reminded of the adage, "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime." Kosen actually said he thought if water were available within a village, so people didn't have to walk a mile or so to get it from a river, they might get lazy!

I so appreciate the perspectives of others - especially when they lead me to changing my own.

On safari: Guests of honor at Enkerere village

At the suggestion of Tom, who'd been our friendly advisor planning this trip, we planned a visit to the Maasai village of Enkerere. The chief, Kipas, has known our outfitter, George, for more than a dozen years. Tom had suggested we buy a goat from the village and then have the goat roasted to share with the villagers. Originally we'd considered spending a night at the village in one of the guest huts, but we changed our minds when we realized there would be no electricity for our CPAP machines, plus the outhouse had not been completed. So we decided it would just be an afternoon visit.

The men of the village greeted us.

George had included the price of the goat in our safari. When we arrived at the village, the goat was tied to a tree.

Three of the villagers prepared the goat for slaughter. They laid the animal on branches and placed their hands on it. One of the villagers placed his hands around the creature's mouth to smother it. Chief Kipas said, "Some people would shoot the goat, but I don't believe in that."

In the ritual of killing the goat, the animal is honored by the villagers. Once it is dead, its throat is slit and one man puts his mouth on the throat and drinks some of the blood. Then he takes a cup and fills it with blood. I'm thinking other men of the village share this cup, but most of the men were down at Kichwa Tembo dancing for other guests, so I wasn't around when the rest of the blood was shared. It reminds me a bit of some contemporary religious practices elsewhere in the world.

If you're interested in observing this ritual, here's a video of it.

Two men prepared the fire to roast the goat. Just like the Boy Scouts do it, I think.

While the goat was being roasted, Art and I were taken to a hut in the village and, in a ceremony, given Maasai names and a blessing. My name is Nashipai (Happy Woman) and Art's is Oloshipa (Happy Man). I told Peter they should have named me "Woman Who Talks". Having been with me for over a week with my many, many questions, Peter just laughed.

This is the chief's mother. Her Christian name is Maria. She is 92.

The newly named Maasai couple.

The village of Enkerere has been moved and rebuilt in the last year. My understanding is that the new location is closer to the grazing grounds for the cattle, but I heard there might have been a lease involved. It's hard to know when ancient traditions and modern happenings are mixed.

The women danced for me, and I, as a new Maasai woman, was expected to join in.

The women set up the marketplace for their handicrafts. Art and I were the only buyers. As before, we bargained for the items we wanted. Then, after payment had been made, the woman presented us with several gifts - and several gifts to send to Tom, who they remembered from several years ago when he stayed at the village for a week. George, our outfitter, told me Tom had insisted on staying there, so George dropped him off. But he called Chief Kipas several times to make sure Tom was okay!

The roasted goat is being served.

Chief Kipas and I eat first.

The goat tasted good, but I didn't have any silverware or napkins! I decided licking my fingers was the best way to get the grease off.

Everyone in the village got a slice of goat meat.

The village has many cows, and they don't recycle the manure. We and the other adults were constantly brushing flies off ourselves. The kids were apparently able to ignore them.

We had brought school supplies and Tootsie Rolls to give out. I gave the school supplies to Chief Kipas, then the Tootsie Roll bags. The chief gave the candy out to the children. There were about 35 children, I think. Some of them came through the line more than once! 

Peter and a friend waited by the vehicle while Art and I went with Chief Kipas to watch his cattle coming home at the end of the day.

The calf gets to nurse, and then the cow is milked. Such a contrast from the mechanized milking at the commercial dairy.

I decided not to try my hand at milking.

It was after sunset by the time we said our goodbyes to the chief and his villagers. I was grateful to be spending the night at the tented camp rather than in the village hut.