October 28, 2012

The entire day!

It turns out my dad may have been right, all those mornings growing up when he used to say that sleeping in until 9am was WASTING THE ENTIRE DAY.

I woke up at 5:45 this morning, and by mid-day I had run a marathon, invented a mango-mimosa, baked some raspberry-lemon curd muffins, and washed the dishes. 

… Did you catch that?  The “run a marathon” bit?  Although, I suppose the more correct use of quotation marks would probably be that I “ran” a “marathon,” where the "marathon" was actually a 10K road race, and the "running" was a bit of jogging, interspersed with walking, chatting, and taking goofy pictures. 

 Even the guy speed-walking with the tiny backpack thinks I’m a fool.

Today was the annual Nairobi Marathon (42K, 21K, 10K, or 4K family fun run), sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank, and staff from my work went together as a team-building event.  The theme was “Run for a Reason,” as a certain portion of the proceeds go to some sort of blindness-prevention program.  However, the theme’s subtitle is much more explicit, though it ranks at least top 5 on the list of things that really don’t need to be said. 

 “Run with your feet.  Bank with your fingers.” In case there was any doubt.

We started the 10K run at Nyayo Stadium, by “those big ugly birds that live on the way to the airport” as everyone knows them. 

Ugly birds.

It rained last night, and the streets were still retaining water, which added some sporadic obstacles to an otherwise tame course.

Goofballs are goofballs all over the world.

The best thing about the race was that they closed off downtown Nairobi to car-traffic, so we got to enjoy the city on foot without threat of getting smushed by a wayward matatu.  For those unfamiliar, this is downtown Nairobi:

Uhuru Highway.



And we ended thusly:

We have built team.  

After crossing the finish line, we came across a guy in very short shorts who was leading an aerobics class with no followers, so we joined in for our cool-down, and I think he appreciated the company. 

Show some leg!

Now stop surfing the internet, Dad; you’re WASTING THE ENTIRE DAY!

October 24, 2012

All about the elephants

They say it's all about the elephants in Amboseli, which is true, but it's not the reason they say it.  The animals you see on safaris, unlike zoos, are unpredictable, and prudent tour companies want to manage expectations to avoid unhappy clients.  They don't want to get your hopes up about seeing a cheetah that never makes an appearance.  Even views of Mt. Kilimanjaro which towers above Amboseli National Park are hedged with uncertainty: "Well... it's possible the clouds might burn off tomorrow morning... but maybe not."  

But Amboseli elephants are indeed so plentiful that you can be guaranteed all the sightings you'd want.  

Trunk swinging, tusk tusking.

Biggest, baby, bird.

Fighting?  Playing?  It's the Rorschach test of elephant interactions.

Our group got lucky.  Within 20 hours (2 game drives and an evening of campfire under the stars) we saw elephants, zebras, giraffes, ostrich(es?), hyenas, baboons, buffalo, lions, cheetahs, and Mt. Kilimanjaro.  

On the move in front of Mt. Kili.

Escorting us to our campsites outside park gates.


Not only that, but we saw elephants, zebras, ostrich(es), hyenas, baboons, buffalo, and lions cross the road without being able to generate any good jokes.  We were elementary comic failures!  

Why did the water buffalo cross the road?    

Getting to Amboseli from Nairobi is fairly painless, as far as Kenyan transit goes.  The roads are smooth and direct, about 3 hours, and you only need to make 1 stop at a random ranger station just outside of Nairobi to pay your park entry fee.  It's clear from the park's sign that it's a stop-over rather than a destination, as plaintively noted on their welcome sign.   

  Needs friends; doesn't know how to play hard to get.  

October 16, 2012

Is this plane perforated?

Everyone's familiar with the things you don't want to hear on a plane.  Things like, "We seem to be having a problem with the left engine," and "y'all should probably put on your oxygen masks now."

But to encounter something you don't want to see on a plane is much less common.  

No flight gates (or limits on carry-on items) in the domestic terminal of Jomo Kenyatta.

Approaching the plane for boarding...

And in case you need a clearer view:

Cut here.

YES, it says "Cut here in case of emergency."  
Cut it why?  With what?  Giant scissors?  A machete?  Is this plane perforated?!

If someone can tell me what exactly this all means, I'd be very appreciative.  We never got any clarification, as the plane never left the ground.  Turns out, there was a problem with the left engine and we were relegated to wait several hours in the terminal for the next available vessel.

October 9, 2012

Not a morning person

I can count the number of times I’ve seen the sunrise over the past 5 years on one hand, and I won’t even use all my fingers.  That is to say, I’m not a morning person.

There was that time I was camping resourcefully in Paros and couldn’t get back to sleep because my "bed" was a pool floatation toy and my "blanket" was covering myself with a layer of all my clean (and probably some dirty) clothes.  So I got pastries from an early-opened bakery and ate them down by the sea at dawn.  And there have been a couple early morning flights that took-off in the dark and saw the sun climb with us.  

And if there were any others, I’ve probably repressed them.  (Waking up in the dark in a Seattle winter doesn't really count as sunrise, since that’s simply a miserable part of living in the northern tundra.)  

So you may all be shocked to hear that not only was I awake for dawn last weekend, but I was even awake (and hiking uphill without breakfast) several hours before it.

Follow the head-lamp, into the dark.

Dawn on a hillside.

Naturally, there was a good reason.  I'm not that much of a fool to go stumbling around a snake and bat-ridden African forest in the dark without cause.  The sunrise over Kakamega forest in Western Kenya is reputed to be beautiful.  And, burning off the low-lying fog, it is.  

Foggy forest of rolling hills.

The Kakamega forest is Kenya's section of the once-robust Guineo-Congolian rainforest that used to span the continent continuously from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.  These days, the ancient forest is broken into smaller, disjoined tufts in each country, but the quality has not diminished.  Butterflies, birds and baboons all frolic in the elder trees.  And the tall hill-side grasses provide a soft resting spot after a several hours hike (without breakfast).

Stalking prey in tall grasses.


You can fly or take the bus to Kisumu from Nairobi, and Kakamega town is about a 1-2 hours further by matatu.  If you are planning the sunrise hike, you can sleep at bandas in the forest area and wake up ready to go.

My only tip for improving this experience: bring breakfast.

October 4, 2012

How to stay safe in Nairobi (don't get smushed)

"Living in Nairobi is perfectly adequately safe, as long as you use common sense and take basic precautions" is what I tell everyone who asks.  Because safety is invariably among the top concerns people have when moving here.

I've never had any problems, but it's all too easy to get complacent.  The top crime here is theft, and I know people who have experienced muggings of varying intensity and snatch-and-run phone thefts.  Below are my personal tips for staying safe in Nairobi (or anywhere you go).

Taxis are your friends!
Don't get robbed:
- Don't walk after dark.  Ever.  Never ever.  Especially alone.  This generally means don't walk after 6:30pm because dusk falls very quickly here and crime spikes.  You can still enjoy the vibrant nightlife of Nairobi: taxis are your friends and they're not terribly expensive.  Just be inside (a house, taxi, restaurant, bar) by 7pm.

- Keep the doors of your car or taxi locked when driving.  Car-jacking is a thing here.

- Keep the phone numbers of reliable taxi drivers.  I have had luck meeting drivers during the day at a grocery store, etc., and then storing their numbers to call when needed.  I try to avoid taking taxis with people I don't know after dark.

- Carry a purse with a long strap to go over your chest.  These are much more difficult to snatch than a purse that just rests on your shoulder.

- Protect your backpack.  Backpacks are hard to snatch, but very easy to unzip and reach inside.  When I walk with my laptop, I use my luggage lock to close the zipper of that compartment.  When traveling on a weekend trip, I put all valuables in a separate purse that I carry in front of me, so my backpack only has clothes, toiletries, etc.  I did this in Mombassa, and my backpack got burgled in the crush leaving the ferry, but all he got away with was some used tissues.

- Don't use your cell-phone or i-pod while walking (generally).  I can get away with this because my cell phone is so cheap that no one wants to steal it.

- Develop stealthy camera skills.  Living or traveling in a foreign country probably means that you want to keep your camera on you at all times and take pictures of things around town.  Do so surreptitiously.  I'll identify what I want to photograph, pull out my camera and quickly snap the shot while still walking, and immediately put it back in a safe, zipped bag.

If you do get robbed, limit the damage:
- Spread out your valuables.  I leave most at home and only carry a bit of cash and 1 credit card on a daily basis.  If I have made an ATM withdrawal and have a lot of money to carry, I put some in my wallet, some in my pocket, and some in the bottom of my bag.  That way if you get robbed or pick-pocketed, it won't be everything.

- Find out what identification you need.  You have to present ID anytime you use a credit card in Kenya, but my Washington state drivers license suffices, so I leave my passport at home.

- If you're really worried, carry a decoy wallet with a small amount of cash.  This can be given to satisfy a mugger and send him on his way.  It is better to give a little cash than nothing, as this will prevent further hassle and strife.

Don't get smushed like a bug:
- Pedestrians do NOT have the right-of-way in Kenya.  If you are crossing the street outside of a designated cross-walk and you get hit by a car, it is not the driver's fault.  This means it is never the driver's fault, because Nairobi doesn't have more than a handful of (completely faded) pedestrian crosswalks.  Traffic right-of-way is conferred with size: Bigger = I'm going first.

- Cross the street with care.  I try to cross with a group of people.  Old ladies are the best for this- if you can find a lady about to cross the street, just stick next to her and you'll be fine.  If you're doing it on your own, just remember that you don't have the right of way and cars will try to run you down.

- Keep aware when walking on sidewalks.  Not only because the pavement is craggy and crumbling, but also because cars will often end up driving on them.  Either they're trying to bypass traffic, they've been edged out of the street by bigger cars, or the street has too many pot-holes, so driving on the sidewalk is smoother.

Non-existent cross-walk

Generally reduce the amount you get hassled:
- Limit flashy clothes, jewelry, watches, etc.  In Nairobi, you can wear pretty much anything you want, but why bother calling more attention to yourself with short shorts?  Knee-length is always a safe bet.

- Learn some local phrases.

- Program your embassy's phone number into your phone.

- Carry a flashlight and band-aids everywhere.  (You never know)

- Be friendly but not engaging.  If you are a mzungu, people will be interested in talking to you (or pointing at you).  If someone tries to talk to me while I'm walking alone, I generally smile and say hello, but then turn back ahead and continue walking at the same pace.  (Note, this tactic also works well in the San Francisco Tenderloin).

- If you need help (you're lost, you need a taxi, you want to know if an area is safe) ask a security guard. Security guards in hotels, apartments, and malls tend to be a better resource than the police.  Police in Kenya are apt to request small bribes to get things done.  Security guards at a hotel know that their employment depends on their honesty and helpfulness.

That's all just to say that Nairobi's a generally safe place, but taking precautions never hurts.  The bottom line is to make yourself a less appealing target than the next tourist who walks by (sorry next tourist).