Thursday, December 14, 2006

Guten tag

Much time has passed since i wrote last. pole (sorry). i've officially passed the one-year-at-site marker, which means that i now have less than a year left in kenya. the date came and went without much ado, and it was only recently, when my friend brian mentioned the fact, that it registered in my mind. the past year has been emotional for me, to say the least, at times dragging by and at others speeding past in a blur. looking back now it seems as if it were only a few weeks ago that i swore in as a peace corps volunteer. when i was younger days stretched slowly into weeks, and summers lasted for years. it was as if i was immersed in a pool of eternity, immobile and immune to time's effect; now that i'm older i feel like i've emerged from the pool and can only watch as time drips off of me and dries up into faded memories in the sun.

in early november, after a brief trip to nairobi for halloween and to support a few volunteers competing in the nairobi marathon, i returned home to mabanda, committed to staying at site until thanksgiving. that commitment lasted about two days. things changed when i received a call from another volunteer, who told me that a german film company needed white extras to play soldiers in a movie they were filming in kenya. it was a three part mini-series staring iris bergen, a famous german actress who - rumors among the extras has it - posed for playboy in the 70's. rob - the volunteer who alerted me about the opportunity - had spent ten days with the company in lamu, and told me that they were moving on to amboseli national park for a week. brian and i discussed the idea for a few minutes and decided that we'd be crazy not to go - we had actually heard of the opportunity before lamu but didn't want to spend so many days away from site. after those 10 days, though, we looked back and realized we had spent the majority of them in nairobi and not at site anyway. that helped us to legitimize our impending trip.

the film company picked us up in nairobi on sunday morning in one of their private safari vehicles for the 5 hour trip to the park. there were about eight other "white" extras - several israelis, indians, a couple of brits and one uruguayan - in the caravan, and during the long ride we struck up a conversation with a british fellow named justin who was sharing our vehicle. we told him that we were living in kenya as volunteers, blah blah, and asked what he was doing in the country. he told us that he was in the final stages of a bike trip that has lasted four and a half YEARS! he left britain almost five years ago and has traveled on his bike onto and across every continent - save antarctica - stopping only briefly in certain countries to make some cash. from the UK he biked across europe, down through sw asia, india, china, indonesia; hopped over to australia for several months, then flew to canada; biked lengthwise across canada, down through new york and the east coast, across the midwestern states to seattle, south through california and into mexico. he continued biking through central and into south america, traversing the continent's entire length until he reached the southern tip of chile. then he flew to south africa, where he began his african journey north. this was when brian and i met him. i suppose that somewhere in the back of my mind i knew that people like justin existed, but i assumed that they stayed off of the radar of normal society, relegating themselves to the outskirts of civilization to the brink of oblivion. you weren't supposed to meet such people - such normal, though gregarious, personable people - in your everyday travels. but then again, i suppose these travels aren't entirely typical.

we arrived at our lodge that afternoon, congratulating ourselves for our good fortune as we gorged ourselves with delicacies from the buffet, staring past the lodge's boundaries to mt. kilimanjaro, which loomed only a few hundred kilometers in the distance. the largest mountain in africa, at just over 19,000 feet, kilimanjaro is an incredibly massive mound of earth. while it may be 10,000 feet shorter than everest, it has distinction among mountains of the world as the tallest peak outside of a mountain range, as well as having the greatest elevation gain from base to peak (everest's peak may reach an imperial 29,000 feet, but mountaineers start the hike from base camp at 17,000 feet - which, incredibly, already matches the height of africa's second-tallest mountain, mt. kenya). the mountain peak remained swathed in stormclouds for most of the seven days we spent in amboseli - except for the last two days of our stay, when its snow-laden plateau emerged against a piercing blue sky. even when it was submerged under a heavy cloak of cloud-cover, the mountain astounded me. its breadth was such that the gentle slopes of the mountain's base stretched almost over the line of the horizon.

we began filming the day after our arrival, and had to report to costume and makeup at 7am. brian and i were both outfitted as british soldiers, complete with bucket hats and 'paddies,' obnoxious wool cloth strips that were wound tightly around our boots and socks up to mid-calf. there were about 20 white extras in total, many who had in a later convoy from lamu, and we were split between german and british troops. after filing through makeup - consisting of a rigorous application of sunscreen - we piled into safari vehicles again for the drive to the film site. the 30 minute journey took us through the heart of the park, past dense swamps packed with water buffalo and giant hippos, past families of wrinkly elephants, past stiff-jointed giraffes, past an ostrich couple engaged in an elaborate mating dance, until we arrived near the outskirts of amboseli, where a broad, dusty plain of cracked mud lay, festering in the scorching sun. dozens of equipment trailers were clustered around the director's bright blue tent, and off to one side milled a group of horses, already saddled up for the shoot. as soon as we got out of the vans, a member of the film crew approached us and asked who knew how to ride a horse. i've ridden a horse maybe three times in my life, but hell if i was gonna miss this adventure for something as trivial as a lack of experience! i said sure, mounted a gentle mare named sunset, and she and i trotted together across the barren landscape that expanded under the omnipresent gaze of kilimanjaro and his crown of ivory. we strode together like this for 30 minutes or more, warming up for the coming scene. just before we were ready to film, however, sunset was stolen from me by a german stuntman who was afraid of horses. i sulked for a few minutes as i joined the attachment of armed foot soldiers, but overcame my disappointment quickly as i realized what the scene entailed.
in this scene, the british soldiers marched and rode into an ambush of german soldiers, who killed most of them. for this effect, the film crew had dug a series of eight or so 'graves' in the earth, in which the german soldiers were buried up to their necks. as we trudged forward, the german extras sprang up and fired blanks towards us - knocking two of the officers off of their horses (hence the stuntmen), and in at least one of the takes scaring the horses into a full gallop and out of sight. the rest of us - foot soldiers - were instructed to act confused, and to die, or to run away in fright. i chose a combination of the two, bailing like a coward until a bullet caught me in the back and i collapsed in a cloud of dust. after three or four takes we had nailed it, apparently, because we broke for lunch. after lunch we were done - a full days work (extra pay for those of us who had ridden horses) - and were released back to the lodge, where we lounged by the pool and played billiards until dinner. it is a rough life, this acting gig. we only worked for three of the seven days we spent in the park - the rest of the time we spent swimming (and getting paid for it), or reading, or playing scrabble, or going on safaris with an incorrigible wild game-lover and hopeless womanizer from israel named 'ohad' who badgered us daily into the trips. he would sneak up on us in the midst of a scrabble bout and pester us in his gravelly smoker's voice and slurring accent with statements like "so, we go on game drive, no?" or "what else you gonna do, sit here and play your scramble?" and, once, famously, "don't count your breaths, bwana...count the moments that take your breath away." somehow, he always convinced us.

brian and i had originally intended to go back to site after amboseli. instead, we were told that they needed two extras to travel up to nyeri (about 2 hours north of thika in the central highlands) with them for a day of filming, after which they would finish up with two days of shooting in thika. brian and i, the only two extras who actually had other things to do, volunteered for the job. for the nyeri shoot we played british officers on horseback again, coming across a prostrate iris (the main actress, you'll remember) in a misty banana plantation. in the scene, i stand guard a few feet away while brian gets off his horse and brings a canteen of water to her, cradling her head in his arms as he sates her thirst. if you ask me, we performed above and beyond the duty of an extra. but i'm not complaining.

the thika shoot was really interesting for me, seeing as it is kind of my 'hometown' in kenya. we filmed one day at the train station, for which they had brought an old steam engine up from nairobi. they had hired about 100 extras for the day, most dressed as civilians in three-piece suits and top hats or as wives in corsets and frilly, billowing dresses. brian and i continued to play soldiers, german in the morning and british officers in the afternoon. the following day - the final day of filming in kenya - we were in downtown thika, where they had roped off two blocks and dumped a ton of sand in the road. i finally got a picture of the film's budget - they were obviously paying a tidy sum to the shop owners for closing down for the day, and they had replaced all of the storefronts with german signs and memorabilia, painting some of the buildings and removing metal gratings on others. i even found out that the camera they were using to film was one of three in the world designed by george lucas for the digital filming of the star wars prequels. needless to say, the ordeal drew a huge crowd of local kenyans, who stared and gasped at the to-do in throngs on the street and on roofs above us.

the movie, called 'afrika mon amour,' received some bad press during their stay here for pay discrepancies among extras along racial lines. white extras received twice as much pay as their indian counterparts, and five times as much as black extras performing the same work. the film company justified the pay scale with an economic explanation, saying that white males are a small minority in kenya, and are often harder to lure away from their higher-paying positions (though they neglected to mention that most of the white extras were travelers, just passing through). i'm sure you're thinking "well, damn right, it's about time white males got a break in this world." or something like that...

brian and i made it back to site after about 10 days with the film company. one of the great things about being a volunteer in a rural village in kenya is that things move so slowly that even after a week-long absence from work nothing has really changed. perhaps that is one of the sad things about the job as well. but i try not to focus on that.

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