Tuesday, November 13, 2007

mom's visit continued

The next day we were to meet Sebastian and his family, along with Lisa, to go on safari in Nakuru National Park. Mom, Becky, Leah, Megan, Teri, her kids and I drove in the morning to Village Market, an upscale shopping mall for expats, up the street from Teri’s “Little America.” On Friday mornings they hold one of the city’s ‘Maasai Markets,’ a trade fair with traditional (and many more nontraditional, “touristy”) crafts and clothes, and Mom and Becky wanted to check it out. The items are often high priced, and the vendors bargain hard, but with a little Kiswahili and some luck you can occasionally find a really good deal. It actually turned out to be more reasonable than I expected, and everyone walked out with their arms full of treasures and gifts for people back home or themselves.

Seb, Lisa, and the others met us at Village Market. We loaded up with food and water and departed for Nakuru, to visit the national park and to meet Seb and Esther’s family, who live nearby. The trip was punctuated by a stop at the Rift Valley escarpment, a scenic point on the outskirts of Nairobi, on the edge of the Central Highlands, with sweeping views of the valley below, the purported ‘birthplace of mankind.’ It has always been one of my favorite stopovers in Kenya, where the floor of the earth is scattered with hills and extinct volcanoes, rising suddenly out of the flat expanse like piles of dust swept under the rug. The first time I stopped at the overlook, the sky was so clear and the view so expansive I was looking down on black storm clouds crawling across the countryside to the left with bursts of lightning and thunder, while to my right the sun was bright, baking the homesteads and villages dotting the land. The stop is a popular tourist attraction for visitors heading to any of the national parks out west (Maasai Mara, Nakuru, Naivasha), and vendors take advantage by selling cured sheepskins, hats, and curios.

The roads in Kenya are notoriously bad, compared even to surrounding East African countries which are considered less developed, and the stretch of highway between Gilgil and Nakuru is one of the worst in the country. It is less than 100 km but it takes several hours to traverse, as the traffic of trucks, matatus, and safari vehicles fight for space on the dusty, potholed road. At one spot about five kilometers outside of Nakuru our vehicle blew out a tire, and we spent thirty minutes or so suspended on the edge of an incline (why Seb decided that was the best place to change the tire is beyond me) trying to position the car jack under the axle of the wheel. The passing traffic was sympathetic, and several vehicles paused to offer help, but once the jack was in place Seb and I made short work of the exchange while the womenfolk looked on admiringly (…). We finally reached Nakuru town around 6pm and hunted for a modest hotel. Seb, his wife, and their daughter Pauline were planning to stay with their family just outside of town, so they dropped us off and we said goodbye til the next day.

They returned the next morning to collect us, and we fueled the vehicle and bought food for the day before heading to the park. We had discovered that the popular ‘Bike with the Rhinos’ fundraising event and bike race was taking place that day, and were worried that some of the trails in the park would be closed to vehicle traffic, but park officials merely expected safari-goers to share the road with the bikers, so it didn’t hamper our trip in the slightest (save, perhaps, for a lone thirsty biker who, when offered a drink of water, ended up taking the whole bottle). Nakuru National Park is known as a “bird watcher’s paradise,” an exciting prospect for Leah, who had become something of a birder after spending several months banding birds in Arizona and birdwatching in the Everglades. Unfortunately, upon our arrival, she realized that she had left her binoculars at Teri’s house, and all we had to work with was one small pair which she had brought as a backup but which, in the end, served its purpose.

I felt bad for Sebastian, who was driving for the entirety of the trip, so I offered to man the wheel on safari so that he would have a chance to enjoy the sightseeing himself. He readily agreed – it was a win-win situation for both of us, since I had been on safari on numerous occasions but hadn’t had an opportunity to drive in the last two years (Peace Corps doesn’t allow it). Although Seb and his family were born around Nakuru, and have lived their entire lives in Kenya, they had only been on safari once previously, during a two-hour drive through Nairobi National Park when Flave and John were visiting. I expected it to be exciting for them, and for Seb and Pauline it seemed to be – Esther, on the other hand, spent most of the time sleeping and only perked up once or twice to admire one of the many gregarious warthogs in the park. I stayed at the wheel for the duration of the safari, except for a few tough spots where the dirt track turned to sludge and Seb reluctantly stepped in. He was a fearless and expert pinch-hitter in those situations, maneuvering the 2-wheel drive van through patches of mud and standing water that even the rangers were wary of traversing.

Nakuru is known for two main attractions, flamingoes and rhinos, and it didn’t disappoint. They report a population of flamingoes greater than 1 million, and the largest rhino population in the country. While the prospect of seeing a lot of awkward pink birds didn’t excite me very much, the sheer number of them was impressive, and it wasn’t until I actually caught a glimpse of them from a distance that I realized the scope of their existence. They are so prolific that seen from a distance of a mile or more the edges of the lake are tinged bright pink. Up close the mob of birds is staggering – hundreds of thousands of flamingoes stand together, flapping their wings, squawking, dipping their heavy curved beaks into the shallow waters, and flying short distances only to land again and disappear into the crowd. The families of birds extend about a hundred feet into the lake, and are packed in so tightly that they are a part of the lake itself. Just beyond the flamingo edge, clutches of storks drifted in the crystal waters, unmoving statues gliding along with the wind.

The white rhino is equally impressive, not as much for the number of them, but for the enormity of one. A full-grown male would stand as large as our vehicle itself, a massive armored hulk, docile if unprovoked but fearsome if threatened. They wander, graze, and nap at will, and others make way. One rhino we encountered, lazing in the sun on the dry lakebed just outside of flamingo territory, barely flinched when we approached, and only raised his head slightly when I gunned the engine for his attention (don’t judge). He was likely the largest of the bunch we had seen, though it was hard to tell from his position – it’s difficult to describe the size or the bulk of him and the impression it left on us. He, and the others we encountered, made it easy to believe that he was left over from the dinosaur era, blundering through the aftermath of that fateful meteor and into the present with 1,000 pounds of dumb determination.

After spending the whole day in the park with barely a bite to eat – except for an incident at the picnic area when Lisa almost got jumped by a full-grown male baboon over half of an avocado sandwich – we were famished, and drove to Esther’s family’s home for a late evening supper. Kenyan women are notorious for preparing enormous meals, much larger than a normal person could possibly stomach, and forcing huge quantities onto their guests. Esther had been taking it easy on Mom and Becky, but her mom made up for it now. From the moment we walked through the door to the small, lightless mud-floor sitting room, to the moment we left an hour and a half later, we were eating. We didn’t actually get to converse with Mama Esther at all – another trait of Kenyan women, who place more importance on satisfying a guest than actually ‘entertaining’ him – but we caught the occasional glimpse of her as she slipped into the room laden with ever-increasing dishes of food. Mom, Becky, Leah, and Lisa bowed out early, but I soldiered on as I was trained to do by my Mama in Kitui. Megan, the social butterfly, missed half of the meal for playing with the children littering the compound, and came in for a few bites before disappearing again. By the time we left we were stuffed like greek olives and were walking dead, barely managing to drag ourselves into the vehicle for the hour-long ride back to our hotel.

We woke up late on Sunday and drove up to Menengai Crater, the rim of an extinct volcano just outside of Nakuru town, where we took pictures and had a picnic lunch (this time, thankfully, baboon-free). We took a different route on the way home, passing through the Aberdare mountain range instead. We stopped at several points along the way for Esther to bargain with the locals over the price of bags of carrots, which were the juiciest and sweetest (I speak for all of us) we had ever eaten. The route we took traverses the edge of the Central Highlands, where the air is clear and cold and heavily sweatered sheep graze on lush patches of verdant grass. It is a stark contrast to the dusty, dry climate of Nakuru and the Rift Valley, and very telling of the agricultural productivity of the Kikuyu region. By the time we reached the Aberdares the sun was setting and air was cold as a steel knife, but we kept the roof of the vehicle open to look for elephants, which are numerous in the area but difficult to spot. The Aberdare range is encompassed within another of Kenya’s national parks, and is one of dense old-growth forest, providing a safe harbor for a variety of wildlife but allowing limited viewing. Signs of elephant traffic was everywhere, from fresh, huge piles of scat to leveled clearings, where trees recently stood. Thanks to Becky’s eagle eyes and Seb’s quick reflexes at the wheel, we caught sight of one near the road and slightly down an embankment, lumbering through the thick brush as if out for a light stroll. He was a full-grown lone bull, but despite his massive stature he managed to disappear into the foliage within a few minutes. By then, satisfied, we were finally willing to close the roof-top and settle into our seats for the rest of the ride home.

The next couple of days passed quickly – I’m not even sure what I did for a couple of them. On Tuesday we traveled to Lisa’s site, Ngoliba, where we had a sort of potluck dinner with some of Lisa’s Mamas and their kids. After we ate the girls, Megan included, decided to put on a dance party, and while one of them tapped out a quick rhythm using a spoon and a chair, the others gyrated and swung and threw themselves around the room. I understand now that they probably wouldn’t have felt so free were I not the only man in the room – only after someone mentioned it did I realize that I was one man in a room of about twelve women and girls.

The next day we hiked to Fourteen Falls at the base of Kilimambogo, down the road from Lisa’s house. I had never been there – it’s a scenic place, with the wide mouth of the Athi river spilling over the falls in fourteen separate streams, and is popular with Nairobi tourists and other Kenyans on holiday. For that reason there are about a dozen young guys loitering around the entrance to the area, pestering visitors to pay them 50 shillings to jump from the top of the 30-foot falls. Megan was desperate to see this feat, but after Lisa and I told her it wasn’t worth it, she refused to consider paying more than 20 shillings (of Lisa’s money). She bargained hard and one boy, finally convinced that it was her last offer, climbed to the top of the falls and sprang off into the churning water below. It was very anticlimactic but some parts of the falls are pretty rocky and appear dangerous, so there was something of an element of danger to excite onlookers.

I realize I didn’t mention Megan but for a few times during my account of their trip, which is fairly misleading. Ever the 8 year-old, Megan remained in the spotlight (or tried to) for the majority of her visit, always vying for the complete attention of at least one of us, and usually succeeding. But thinking back on the trip, in my memories Megan was just another traveler on the same road, certainly a complement for a girl as young as she is. Her last night in Kenya I realized how lucky we had been, as she threw a fit over some petty circumstance. She spent two weeks in Kenya, a land ultimately foreign to her, without complaint or commotion, and actively sought out other kids – with whom she could barely communicate – to play with when she was bored. She was probably the most low-maintenance 8-year old that has ever traveled to Kenya.

They left suddenly, in the early hours of the morning, with their hand-made African dresses tucked far away in their luggage with the rest of their souvenirs (and some of mine). I was somewhat sad to see them go but also, as any host must feel after such a visit, relieved. I knew that I would see them again in a few months.

Leah didn’t fly out until that night, so we spent the day together, taking in the Nairobi sights that Mom and Becky had seen before she arrived – the elephant orphanage, the giraffe center, and Nairobi city itself – but for me, who had seen all of the sights on numerous occasions, it was just a good chance to catch up with my sister, who I hadn’t seen in a long time and who I missed tremendously.

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