August 29, 2011

It was splendid

What I forgot to mention about last week's camel derby was that it was also my birthday. Which makes sense, as I actually forgot about my birthday itself for long swaths of the day as well. Bumping and thumping along a dirt road for many hours will jog things like that straight out of your head. Apparently.

My last birthday was a goodbye to San Francisco and all the hominess and stability that it entailed. This birthday dawned with a trek across the Kenyan countryside. I will refrain from waxing too interpretive about the changes incurred in a single year, but I think my recent trajectory is best illustrated by this pictorial juxtaposition:

Wine and s'mores at dusk before moving to Seattle (Aug 20, 2010)

Layers of clouds at dawn while flying over Kenya (Aug 26, 2011)

The airplane picture is from this past weekend's trip to spend time with Anjuli and Laura in Kisumu.

For as much as I hate waking up early (and even more so, getting out of bed early), I love flying at dawn. Although I suppose this isn't terribly odd, since no one could possibly deny that the aesthetics of seeing a sunrise from above the clouds are impossibly beautiful. The last time I flew at dawn was from Seattle to San Francisco, and in my groggy state I sincerely thought that the lakes dotting the Pacific Northwest were pools of liquid gold on the earth's surface. Then I woke up a bit more and realized that the gold rush ended 150 years ago (and also, that "pools of liquid gold" was a ridiculous notion). But still, it was splendid.

The flight from Nairobi to Kisumu lasts a mere 30 minutes, and as such we barely had time to breach the top layer of clouds, spending most of the flight gliding between them. Not particularly accomplished in topography, but having a decent working knowledge of Kenya's layout, I think we saw the summit of Mount Kenya ascending through the clouds.

And other Rift Valley ranges peaking through as well.

A 'Good morning!' from Kenya.

August 23, 2011

On the road

When you tell people that you're going to compete in the Maralal International Camel Derby, the response you get is overwhelmingly, "You're going to do what?" Followed by either, "That's awesome!" or "Why??"

And it IS awesome, although I can't specifically point to why. It's camels! It's dirt! It's camping in tents! It's more camels and lots more dirt! It's beautiful Samburu colors in the middle of the desert:

It's also blisters on your fingers and riding 10k on a burlap sack. It's warm $2.00 beers from a make-shift tent with chickens sitting beside you. It's children who follow you around with face-paint and teenagers who just laugh and laugh and laugh to see the Mzungus on camels. It's label-making "camel race-lady" magic:

No, this isn't my trophy, sadly enough. My first camel (in an act of foreshadowing, perhaps) refused to walk even as far as the starting line. My second camel took me on a leisurely stroll through the landscape of northern Kenya and downtown Maralal, moseying us into an uncontested last place out of 40 or so competitors.

How slow were we going? We were going so slow that the camel in front of us (the penultimate camel, if you will) was being pushed from behind by his handler. Pushed. And he was beating us. But we overtook a few people with saddle malfunctions in the home stretch and ended up crossing the finish line in a solid 4th-to-last place.

But a wise friend recently reminded me, "Don't forget to travel" and, as such, I must note that a majority of the weekend was spent on a bus. An itty-bitty squishy bus with all of our possessions strapped onto the roof with a tarp. A bus that went "kaTHUNK... eeeeeeeeee... kaTHUNK.... oooohhhhhggg gmmggzzw," and spent much of each 10 hour trip tilted at a 45-degree angle to the left. The pictures below reflect the real travel.

The time when our bus got stuck in the mud trying to ford a miniature lake in the road, when we all got out to lighten the load and examined mosquito larvae in puddles until a truck with a rope came by to tow us out:

When we saw zebras grazing to our right:

When we saw zebras grazing to our left:

Funny lookin' Dr. Seuss trees (Agave):

And trees regal in the sunset:

When we finally understood where the "kaTHUNK.... oooohhhhhggg gmmggzzw" sound was coming from:

When we stopped in town "fix" our wheel, and the children formed a critical mass of squeals around our bus and the local restauranteur got confused about two blond people ordering the same meal and never brought me mine, despite asking for it thrice (I think she thought we were the same person):

When, after two hours of maintenance at the gas station, we were on the road again... I can't wait to be On the road again:

When the bus broke down again about 10 minutes later, and the sun went down, and we devised plans for saving our camera memory chips in case of a roadside mugging, and we ended up hiring local matatus to drive us the last four hours to Nairobi but they didn't know the way:

And still we smiled.

August 16, 2011

And see where it takes us

I feel as though there's little I can say now to top the grandeur of Mt. Longonot, which, to be fair, has enough grandeur to overshadow a great many things. But the day before it had been just lovely as well, and I'd feel remiss if I were to just sweep it aside like a neglected toy.

On Saturday, I took an ex-pat field trip to Brown's organic farm outside of town for a cheese tasting and gourmet lunch. I hadn't originally planned to join the trip. I had already tried some varieties of Kenyan cheese and, quite frankly, wasn't much impressed. But I had nothing else to do, and I've learned over years of social trial-and-error that most of the best experiences come from simply saying "Yes." (File under: What DARE and Nancy Reagan don't want you to know).

Yes, let's get on this ferry and see where it takes us.
Yes, let's buy a cheap bottle of wine and sneak it down to the hot springs.
Yes, I will go ask Lewis Black to dance.

(Of course, there are some exceptions. Most notably, "No, I will not get in your van, no matter how much candy you offer me." And "No, I think I'll pass on the ruffies tonight, thanks.")

So with a free afternoon and a desire to get out of the city, I said "Yes, I will join the cheese excursion!" Or at least a moderately-enthused, "Sure, why not."

And it was lovely. Some days are simply made of beauty, and this was one of them. An elegant colonial farmhouse, set among the trees in a beautiful jungle.

Three happy dogs (including a puppy!) running around with tongues lolling out while piglets rolled in the dirt and Colobus monkeys played in the trees (or on the roof among climbing vines).

"That's right, chicken coop; I'm looking at YOU."


We tasted white strawberries and cherry guavas picked straight from the garden. And when the rain came calling, we cozied up to the fire to sip wine and snack on grilled halloumi: Chili, yogurt mint, and lemon marinade.

Next, the official tasting of 11 homemade cheeses with scrumptious honey and chutneys. And just when you feel ready for a post-feast nap, out comes the gourmet lunch, all sourced from their organic farm and gardens.

There was also some cow-milking and a tour of the cheese-making facilities, but those details are a little foggy under the food-enchanted haze.

By the time we got back to Nairobi in the late afternoon, the rain was pouring down in buckets. With no appetite for a proper dinner, I baked a batch of banana-avocado bread and ate it warm with a bit more wine, while the rain nearly-but-not-quite drowned out the sound of my favorite movie. (The Station Agent, if you're wondering).

I can't think of much better.

August 15, 2011

The stunning expanse

It's Monday morning, and I am in pain. From the sunburn on my neck, through the tightness in my back, down to the soreness of my feet. But mostly it's my legs. My poor, unassuming legs, who had no idea what was being asked of them when they got out of bed yesterday.

Which is all to say that I have hiked the (reputed) highest volcano in the Great Rift Valley that runs from Lebanon to Mozambique, dividing Africa on two tectonic plates.

I know it looks like I Photoshop'd myself in, but I was there- at the top- honest! Behind me is the inside of the volcano backed by its highest peak, but what you can't see here is the mountain we already climbed to get to where I'm standing. And we lunched on the crater's edge:

Only about an hour's drive from Nairobi, Mt. Longonot rises approximately 2780 meters above sea level and produces magnificent views of Lake Naivasha and the valley below.

Not only did we hike up the mountain-- we then clawed and scrambled up steep slopes of loose lava pebbles to reach the highest peak and continued to trek along the narrow narrow path around the entire crater rim.

It's a journey not for the acrophobic or unsure-footed. The most trecherous part is the view: To the left, a volcano overhung with enchanting mist. To the right, the stunning expanse of the Kenyan Rift Valley. It's all breathtaking and bedazzling and just begging for one mis-step off the path to tumble your way back to the valley floor.

Scrambling up to the top:

And a view of crater and rift from the highest peak:

And words acquiesce to the power of nature.

August 9, 2011

A maze of corrugated tin

I don't remember when I began to hear about Kibera. I was certainly unaware of it upon arriving in Nairobi. The first few times it was mentioned, I probably siphoned it away with all of the other words I don't understand (cities, street names, Swahili dialects). But soon I came to know what a Google search can tell you in an instant: Kibera is a serious slum.

I took this picture from the grounds of the CDC Kenya. An international beacon of health overlooking notorious squalor; irony with a view.

If anyone saw The Constant Gardener with Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz (which I did not because it looked scary and thus went against my never-watch-anything-scary-lest-you-have-nightmares-for-months policy), parts were filmed on location here. According to people who seem to know things, Kibera is either the first or second largest slum in Africa. There is another massive one in South Africa that may be larger, but apparently that one has wide-spread electricity so it's upgraded to something akin to Slum 2.0. Kibera is Slum Beta.

But this isn't a competition, and even if it were, it's impossible to get any kind of accurate population count. Varying estimates have listed the Kibera population as anywhere between several hundred thousand to several million.

Several million people living here:

Over 40% of the patients who receive HIV services at our clinic are residents of Kibera, and on Monday some of my coworkers took me in to see what it's like. I'll admit I was expecting something pretty awful. Michael told me stories of people who were vigilant about not leaving any valuables in their parked car, only to return and find all four wheels missing. I also heard about sewage running in rivers through the streets (which is true, especially after the rains), and the intense slum violence after the 2007 elections, where whole swathes of the town were torched and mobs uprooted these steel rails (the international railway from Mombassa to Uganda passes daily through Kibera):

But everyone knows that lowered expectations result in pleasant surprises. So, I've been sitting on this experience for a few days, mulling it over, trying to figure out a way to articulate my feelings above a third grade reading level, with minimum success. But I will still do my best:

I want to say that I enjoyed it. That I was pleasantly surprised by the sense of community I found, with shops and commerce all around (fruit stands, butcher shops, shoe stands, hair salons, CD stands), with lively music playing around each bend, no car traffic, and kids laughing in the streets.

We visited the Umande Trust BioCenter latrines where "human investments" (as they happily euphemize them) are converted into gas energy for heating stoves of a communal kitchen.

And we visited a school in summer session, which was made of nothing more than a maze of corrugated tin where you have to duck and climb a ladder to reach the second floor, but the children excitedly speak in unison, "Hi how are you visitors?We are fine.Thank you for visiting our school!" And I was pleasantly surprised that no one sent their kids to ask us for money (despite the dire need), as is often done on streets around the world. Instead, kids ran up to shake our hands and then ran off giggling and whispering.

"Motto: The roots of education are bitter, but the results are sweet."

But you can't ever admit to enjoying exposure to such extreme breaches of human rights and decency, where flying toilets act as an accepted solution to the threat of violence, where open sewage running through the streets brings contamination and disease to the kids playing in it, and where the average family lives on $1 USD per day. Perhaps what I mean to say is that I found parts of the experience to be uplifting where I expected nothing but an onslaught of despair. Or that it made me feel as though the work we do here has a direct impact on those most in need- that same sense of community connection I used to feel walking through the Tenderloin in San Francisco.

Or maybe I've realized a personal preference for open sewage vs. the unrelenting diesel smog that pervades the rest of Nairobi.

Mostly, I am left with the feeling that I would like to learn more. That I would like to go back, if opportunity presented itself. That this is a place in which I would possibly like to do future work. If only to suss out the feasibility of a SODIS community intervention, the first thing that jumps to mind when I see miles of corrugated roofing.

August 7, 2011

A fair note of mischievousness

Anjuli brought the sun from Bondo to Nairobi again to spend this weekend with me and Laura. At some moments I am overcome with the wild implausiblity and extraordinary nature of three friends drinking tea a half-globe way from Seattle. But the majority of times it feels perfectly natural to cook dinner, cavort, and simply sip tea together. Lots of tea. Yummm tea. As Jake aptly put it, home becomes the company that you keep, the place where your people are.

Today we took another tourist excursion to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where they raise baby elephants that have been orphaned and ultimately re-release them into the wild. Apparently, they have discovered that tourists are a litigious bunch:

Elephants are orphaned when their mothers are die at the hands or ivory poachers or from natural causes like droughts, and they do extremely poorly as orphans in the wild. Even in the conservatory, they need constant nurturing and attention. They are all fed a milk formula from bottles, and the really young ones (the youngest currently at the Trust is 3.5 months old) have keepers that stay with them 24 hours a day, including sleeping along side them in the stables! Perhaps the above warning is appropriate given that the babies like to suck/chew on people's hands, similar to infant thumb sucking. Not that the trainers are much heeding that advice...

They also like to toss dirt in the air, with a fair note of mischievousness.

And to snuggle/wrestle with each other. There are 11 elephants currently at the trust, ranging from 3.5 months to about 2 years, and they split them into 2 groups by age. Apparently the smaller one here (pictured below) was supposed to stay in the younger group, but she's so attached to the bigger one (they were rescued at a similar time) that when the bigger one graduated to the older group, they had to bring the young one along as well so she wouldn't be sad.

We also saw a rousing (sort of) game of soccer (football) between one of the elephants and a pack of warthogs.

After the elephants was a trip down Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep in Out of Africa) memory lane, but first a surprise detour to say hello to some nit-picking gorillas. Gotta stay groomed!

And finally, the most delicious curry-buffet lunch ever consumed, in the beautiful Karen Blixen gardens. Western menu prices and chalk-full of mzungus (white people/foreigners) with some vaguely uncomfortable reminders of the colonial days, but out-of-this-world food.

And delightful company.