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Monday, October 25, 2010

Confessions of a Game Park Snob

We confess: we are game park snobs. Bonified. It started with mild criticism and comparison, which overtime grew into full blown snobbery. It peaked in the Serengeti when we were following a leopard lead given to us by a park guide. In hot pursuit I was rounding a corner and forced to an abrupt stop by a mother elephant grazing alongside the road. The mother was protecting her baby by standing between us and the grazing tike. She was pretty much in the road and we couldn’t get around her. We sat, impatiently in the car trying to make our move, annoyed by her presence deterring us in our leopard pursuit. Yes, we are in a game park to see the animals, I see the hypocrisy.
In our defense, we’ve been spoiled. We’ve had the opportunity to experience some of the best game parks in Africa. We’ve been to world famous parks like Etosha in northern Namibia, Botswana’s Chobe and The Serengeti in Tanzania as well as a number of small, lesser known reserves established and ran by some remarkable individuals dedicated to preserving the diversity of Africa’s wild things. All are great in their goals of setting aside and preserving wild spaces for a host of animals living constantly under threat of habitat loss, but not all parks are equal. In fact, we’ve been pretty much ruined by our experience in Maasai Mara. Fortunately for us, it is one of the last parks we’ll visit along our route. I don’t think there are many north of Kenya. But let me tell you, Maasai Mara was like the biggest finally you could imagine; it is a veritable spectacle of wildlife.

Our visit coincided with the tail end of the wildebeest migration so we got to witness hundreds of thousands of these gorgeous creature on their annual migration south through Maasai Mara across the Mara and Grumeti Rivers and back into The Serengeti where they’ll spend most of their year grazing before returning again in July/August. We saw lions mate! What a sight. One night, while we were (illegally) bush camping, a lion approached our car - just as we were dozing off to sleep – startled by our presence roared its head off; the noise was so incredibly loud it rattled the car! I didn’t go out to pee that night. And there was a Momma cheetah and her six adorable cubs, beautiful crested cranes courting one another along the sandy banks of a stream, vultures, storks and raptors galore, a leopard passing just beyond our picnic spot, a pack of hyenas devouring a wildebeest, lion cubs devouring wildebeests and vultures and Marabou cranes devouring a wildebeest. I mentioned there are hundreds of thousands of wildebeests didn’t I? Well, not all of them make it and the number of predators and scavengers seem to somehow keep the balance in check. It was animaltastic! Every day was a spectacle.

But being in a park loaded with animals doesn’t mean you are necessarily going to see them all. I mean, in Mara you’d have to be blind to miss the grazers, but the cats and some of the more elusive animals don’t necessarily hang out along the road. However, as game park snobs, we’ve acquired a few skills along the way to help ensure success. For starters, we discarding many of the park rules; in Africa there are a lot of rules, but very little enforcement and what little enforcement there is are so dang nice and friendly that a polite oppsy, or sorry is enough to get you by. Secondly, we have all but stopped looking for animals. Now we can sit back and enjoy the scenery. What we do look for are other park guides; parked cars are a dead giveaway for something cool lurking in the bushes. And lastly, we ask the game drivers where the goods are. They all have radios and they know who hangs out where. So why reinvent the wheel? Instead of two pair of eyes we have an entire game park full of eyes doing the scanning and searching for us.  We swoop in and snap the photo.

We hope that you enjoy the spectacle.
Sending our love from the half way point,

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Becoming Maasai

Chris, our car’s previous owner, told us that we would love the Maasai. We do, but we didn’t know we actually be adopted by them. Glenn and I now have a Maasai mother, Momma Maria, a chief as a father (although I don’t think he is aware of this detail), ten siblings and an entire village of friends and extended family.

According to Wikipedia, and largely confirmed by our new friends: Nelson, Francis, Justice and Dickson, the Maasai are one of Africa’s most vibrant tribal groups. Spread between southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, population estimates are hard to calculate due to their semi-nomadic lifestyle, but census reports upwards of 900,000 individuals. Maasai men often take multiple wives who bear multiple children, so if there aren’t yet 900,000 there will be soon.

The Maasai have a fascinating history. Their societies are structured according to coming of age rituals; boys are tested for courage, strength and bravery before being initiated as a junior warriors, then senior warriors and finally, after marriage, as elders. Early European explorers and slave traders were afraid of the Maasai, and like the Zulu of Southern Africa, left the Maasai people alone, unaltered by a hideous slave trade that tore apart many of Africa’s indigenous tribes. Much of the old way of life is still preserved; the rituals and customs are largely intact. The Maasai’s distinct dress, warm respectful nature and vibrant ornamentation are just a few reasons they are so widely recognized around the world. 

Our first encounter with the Maasai was in a bustling market in Narok Kenya. The crowd was shoulder to shoulder and I just had to get out and join the fray. With Glenn clutching tightly to my hand we bobbed and weaved our way through the crowd of men in plaid shugas and women draped in primary colored sarongs, and beautifully adorned in strand upon strand of brightly colored glass beads . We bought some onions and potatoes which led to sarongs and beaded bracelets, but I just couldn’t resist the elaborate beadwork expertly woven into beautiful geometric patterns.

That night we camped with the Maasai in a community run campground just outside the entrance gate of Maasai Mara National Park. The next night we were sleeping in the village with our new friends. I asked Nelson, a young leader and mentor in his community, what is it about these young boys that make them so special? They are so very polite. He told me that the Maasai have a very strong reverence for life and respect of one’s elders. Yes, that is exactly what we felt: revered. It was lovely.

We were welcomed into their village, into their homes and into their daily world. Maria, the chief’s first wife went as far as adopting us (after a valiant effort in selling us some gorgeous handicrafts). We danced, sang and jumped with the Maasai. We chewed disgustingly bitter twigs that were supposed to make us invincible (but after 15 or 20 twigs GP and I gave up: too gross and no superhuman epiphanies) and chatted around the campfire. We felt Maasai. Does that count?

All our love,

For more photos of the Maasai go to: 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

To Go Round and Round (Aimlessly)

Glenn has often said that people at home have no idea what Africa is really like. You can’t know a place until you’ve combed its beaches, driven its roads, perused its markets and met its people; and even then you’re limited to your own personal experiences. We had no idea what it would be like. No idea.

When the locals ask us what America is like, Glenn has a fairly standard reply, “It’s like another world.” And he is right. It is. But what is it about Africa, that is so different? I’ll see if I can give you an idea by recapping our day.

We woke up in Jinja, Uganda in a little campground perched a couple hundred feet above the raging White Nile River. I only had 2 eggs so I asked Glenn if he would mind getting some eggs from Omar, Jinja’s chapatti guru. Omar makes damn good chapatti and although he isn’t in the business of supplying eggs to tourists, he has good fresh eggs and doesn’t mind sharing. Omar’s stand is about 10 steps from the camp entrance and any interaction with him is delightful. We ate our breakfast under clear blue morning skies and decide to head for the Kenyan boarder.

Despite the nonsense in our overland books, border crossing - up to this point - has been a breeze; we’ve obtained all necessary visas at the borders without incident. We even set up camp in the immigration parking lot when crossing from Mozambique to Tanzania so that we didn’t have to drive after dark (a bad idea in Africa). Our books advise us to split-up, so that one person can watch the car while the other obtains the necessary visas and fills out the paperwork; otherwise (the books warn), you might be missing a few ‘parts’ when you return to your car. I even tried abiding by this advice until a kindly Burundi immigration officer assured me that I could come into his office because there were, “no teeves here.”  I had to translate that for Glenn too, no teeves, no thieves. The past 4 or so countries we have decided upon the spit-up-and-conquer strategy mainly for efficiency, not protection: Glenn heads off to clear the Carnet (our cars passport) and I get the visas. Within 15 minutes we are back in our car crossing over. Today was no exception.

With a few Kenyan Shillings in our pocket we stopped just across the border to buy air time, a new sim card and some fruit. The vendors line the streets for about a mile into each country, selling everything you could possibly want for your journey onward: flip-flops, produce, tyre repair services, spare-parts, trinkets and meat (anything from captive live chickens to various fly encrusted carcasses hangin by a leg under the hot African sun). Their makeshift stands are a bricolage of bits of this or that and scraps of whatever they could find tied or pounded together using rubber tubing, twine made from palm fronds, scraps of rusted metal, discarded plastic bags and the like. For a couple of dollars I returned to the car with an armload of booty: one pineapple, six bananas, a papaya, four lemons, six eggs, two mangoes, a bag of tomatoes, a stalk of sugarcane and two avocados.

While I am waiting for my change a small girl walks up to me, reaches out and strokes her little brown fingers down the length of my arm as she says, “Mzungu how are you?” There is a sweetness in African children that I have never experienced before and my heart melts. We were told, by a black Congoleze Mzungu, that Mzungu is a Swahili word meaning rich person or provider. Wikipedia explains the origin of the word as:

The etymology of the word stems from a contraction of words meaning "one who wanders aimlessly" (from swahili words zungu, zunguzungu, zunguka, zungusha, mzungukaji-meaning to go round and round) and was coined to describe European explorers, missionaries and slave traders who traveled through East African countries in the 18th century.

We were originally told that it meant white person, but this isn’t totally true. Many Indian merchants, missionaries and wealthy blacks are also mzungus. Mzungu is a good thing to be and even before you know the history of the word, you can tell that it is good from the way it is sang out from the mouths of the people.

Our Kenyan welcoming crew and lunch companions.
An hour or so later we stop just off the main road to have lunch. We are quickly joined by a dozen men, of all ages, who seemed to be passing by. The men are laughing, asking questions and showing us their gardens. We are asked to take photos, so we do. The men show us the hill where the Obama tribe lives, just there across the way they say pointing to a little nubbin of a hill off in the distance. We are welcomed onto their land and into their day, warmly. We eat our sandwiches and say our goodbyes.

A couple hours down the road we roll into Kisumu, Kenya looking for a place to camp. The first option we chose from our GPS Tracks for Africa program sight unseen. One lap through the dilapidated grounds and a gander at the outbuildings and we continued on our way to the next closest option. It wasn’t dark yet and we weren’t desperate. We have standards you know. The next lodge was beautifully nestled on the edge of Lake Victoria, but they wouldn’t let us sleep in our car, so GP decided to relieve himself in their driveway as a group of onlookers laughed. One of the lodge employees walked over to solicit a boat trip and ended up giving us a tip on a place to camp just down the road.

For those at home: public urination is widely accepted throughout Africa. You should see the crowds of sprayers/squatters when a bus loaded to the brim makes a pee-pee stop along the road.

We pull into our third and final destination. Glenn walks into the lobby of a small unfinished, yet dilapidated, hotel and is greeted by the staff. When he asks how much it would be to camp for the night the first lady turns to him and says that he needs to ask the receptionist. Glenn then turns to the receptionist and asks her how much it would be to camp for the night. The receptionist says that she doesn’t know, he will have to ask the Manager. Finally Glenn turns to the manager and asks a third time - since all three people were standing in the lobby together - at this third and final request all four of them bust up laughing. This is so Africa.

We set up camp and I started dinner. The cook walks over to Glenn, takes his hand in hers and asks, “ Is your wife cooking?” Yes, Glenn replies. “Can I see what she is cooking?” Sure, he says as he opens the door and she climbs into the car with me (at this point we had not met). We chatted for a few minutes and she asks me if I would like to try some of her food. “I would love to,” I reply. Within 2 minutes the cook returns with a plate of food for me: chapatti, pulau and a delightful shredded vegetable salad. In turn I give her the rundown on what I am making for dinner, and pass out tasting spoons to the three girls (in Africa groups grow quickly) who are now sharing my kitchen. We were having red pepper and shallot quesadillas, guacamole and salsa. They had never tried Mexican food before, so I gave them all a taste.

The conversation went something like this:
[Girls] Where are you from?
[Me] The United States.
[Girls] Oh. Is that where this car is from?
[Me] No. The car is from Cape Town.
[Girls] Oh, you’re from South Africa?
[Me] No. I am from the United States. The car is from South Africa.
[Girls] Oh. What are you making for dinner?
[Me] Quesadillas. It is a Mexican dish that you make with chapatti, cheese and whatever you have.
[Girls] Oh. You’re from Mexico?
[Me] No. I am from the United States. The food is Mexican.
[Girls] Oh.

I laugh as I write this. Things here are funny, simple and completely different than you would imagine given the media reports. Every day is something new, someone new and you just never know what to expect. How do you explain a complete stranger walking up to you calling you her sister while clasping your hand in greeting or a young cook taking your hand in hers and asking about your dinner. There is a gentle raw sweetness that isn’t cloaked in a veneer of ego, attitude or social distance. You are part of the tribe of Africa, wherever you go, you are greeted, welcomed and included. How do you explain such a place?

This was our day.

Sending my love from Africa,