Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

For the past 55 years, Gouda's sister city in Norway has presented a giant tree as a gift to grace the square in front of its medieval City Hall.  A ceremony has been held the second Tuesday of December each year, since then, to light the tree. Electricity in the entire square is turned off as candles light the windows of every house and building surrounding it.

I've wanted to go since 2008, but for one reason or another was never able to.  This year I didn't let anything stop me, and even convinced my friend Jeannine to join me in standing around in sub-freezing temperatures for a few hours.

We were filled with the Christmas spirit as soon as we stepped out of Gouda's train station. Carollers sang at every corner.  Floating lanterns filled the canals.  Roads were lined with votive candles.  A Christmas market was held on the street leading to the square.  Everyone was in a joyful mood.

And then... there was tree lighting magic!

Friday, December 17, 2010


Life really doesn't get much better than:
 eating gruyere in Gruyere

and gouda in Gouda.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Learning how to say no.

My family may laugh when I say this, but I really don't like being mean.  Maybe to pacify said family members, I should clarify my statement by saying, I really don't like being mean to people who don't share my immediate bloodline.

As I'd walk down the streets of Stone Town with offers to go out for drinks or dinner, instead of saying 'no' like I should have, I softened the blow by saying 'maybe'.  The only problem was, to them maybe meant yes, whereas for me maybe definitely meant no.

On one of those dinner offers from a local loiterer, I provided my one worded reply.  He wanted to meet by a tree near the evening market right at sun down, as he was Muslim and was fasting due to Ramadan.  Again, I threw out another 'maybe'.

He kept true to his word, and was waiting for me when I walked to the main square with Michael and Gina. When he asked if I was ready to go, I stammered out an apology explaining why I couldn't, but asked him if he wanted to join us at the street market for food.  He declined stating that he already booked a table for us at a restaurant.  I held my ground, sort of, ... since I agreed to 'maybe' have dinner with him a few nights later.  But I added the stipulation that it must be at the street market. 

As the days pressed on, he'd wave from his local hangout whenever I passed by on my way towards the square. On my final night in Stone Town, I planned on having dinner at the street market with two people I met at Chumbe Island.  I informed them of our potential guest, and explained I was happy to have them as chaperons.

Before the sunset on the horizon that night, and the call to prayer was heard, I again crossed his path.  He smiled and asked if I was ready to go. "To the street market, right?," I inquired.  He looked at me with exasperation, "no, the restaurant.  I booked a table Claire. You're not going to do this to me again are you?"  After discovering that the supposed restaurant was in the center of the city (about 5 minutes away, down dark winding alleyways) I explained I wasn't comfortable in going, and again suggested the street market.  "What, don't you trust me?" he questioned.  The response in my head was no, but verbally was "well, I just don't know you."   "What do you mean," he demanded, "we've known eachother for 3 days!"

I held back my shocked laughter as best I could and mumbled that I was sorry, and again explained I just didn't feel comfortable.  "We're good people, ClairePlus, I paid money to reserve the table."  "You didn't pay money," I responded disbelievingly.  I wanted to end the conversation and walk away, I was tired of reasoning with him.

Instead he went on to explain he didn't want to eat at the street market because it was too expensive.  I informed him that I had eaten more food than I could handle the night before for less than 5 dollars. He just looked at me and said "do you know how much money I paid to reserve the table, Claire?  30 dollars - that's what I paid for the table."  "Why would you pay 30 dollars for a table when you say the street market is too expensive?"  He hesitated for a moment and replied "you don't trust me."   And that's when I finally responded, "you're right, I don't."

He stared at me for a few moments, flashed me a fake smile, then turned to walk back over to his loitering spot while saying "Welcome to Zanzibar... welcome to Zanzibar."

Monday, December 6, 2010

like Robinson Crusoe, it's as primitive as can be

Alcove facing the Indian Ocean

Call it paradise, a haven, or whatever you'd like, Chumbe Island is what I call heaven on earth.  It really couldn't be anything less, especially when arriving there from a crowded and dirty location.

My cottage for the day

As we pulled up to the remote island on a small wooden motor-boat, I was in awe with the purity of it all. It is a research island where no rock is left unturned.  Only a total of 15 people are allowed access to it each day.  Each small group consisting of those 15 people are given an eco-friendly cottage during their stay.  The water used in the cottage is collected from the rain and stored under the foundation in large tanks. The heat and electricity comes from solar paneling located on the rooftops.  And the toilet is "flushed" with two scoops of leaf compost.

The main focus of the research is on the overly abundant coral reef.  After the few seconds it took for my brain to finally allow me to breathe through my mouth instead of my nose, I could hardly believe an hour and a half had gone by when our snorkeling instructor told us it was time for lunch. The color of the coral was so vibrant, and the species of fish beyond anything I had seen before.

I could have stayed for days and days.  If only Utopia didn't cost so much...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

dala dala

On the morning of my third day's stay in Zanzibar I was running to catch my transportation, except I really didn't know what I was looking for.  The street market it was located near was abuzz with commotion, people walking to and fro, others cramming themselves around food stalls, all of which I tried weaving in and out of.

I made plans that day to go to the opposite side of the island to visit friends I had met on safari. I was craving relaxation, and on top of that, I was craving a location where I could actually lay out on the beach.

The man, which my two star hotel employs as a five star concierge, spent a great deal of time researching the best mode of transport for me to take to the resort.  When I declined the initial private taxi offer which would cost me $60 each way, he provided a second offer of a small group van costing $10 each way.  I was perfectly content sharing a van with a few other people for a fraction of the price of a taxi.

The evening before my excursion, however, the concierge gave the unfortunate news that the sharing van didn't pass by my friends' resort. Again I was faced with the prospects of having to subject myself to an astronomically priced taxi ride.  That's when the concierge chimed in, "then again, there's always the dala dala."  "The what-a what-a?," I replied.  He tried explaining, but already had me sold with the words '$2 round trip ride', so failed to listen to anything else.  Thankfully I didn't know what I was getting myself into.

As I turned the corner of the last fruit stand, I saw the top of a moving vehicle, with a sign indicating it was the one I needed, just about to leave the station.  Before I had time to process anything, I waved them down and grabbed hold of a hand which was helping me on.

A dala dala is the local transport, and due to the number of side glances I got, I'm assuming is not regularly frequented by tourists.  I was squeezed onto a bench, already filled with people, that lines the walls of the truck. I couldn't understand why the conductor was waving more people in, but I soon found out. When there wasn't a centimeter of space left for someone to squeeze onto the bench, the narrow aisle way left to walk in and out from was lined with kneeling bodies. There was no sense of personal space.  Elbows were jammed in faces.  Heads were laying on laps. And we were encompassed in male body odor.  On top of that, diesel fuel was hurdled towards us the entire hour long drive.  I gasped for air, wondering how the locals could live to a ripe old age when their lungs had to be filled with soot.  

But I relished the experience. I sat wide-eyed, trying to absorb everything that went on.  I counted the heads of 27 people jammed into the truck bed.  I watched as bikes, potato sacks, and other items were thrown on the roof and then taken down just as quickly when the person departed. And then there were the awkward conversations I held, initiated by men whose faces were two inches away from my own.

So I logically suggested it to two Americans I met the next day who were planning to visit the other side of the island.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

self invitation

My first afternoon in Stone Town found me in my hotel room, after a day of wandering the streets, wishing I were somewhere else.  Anywhere else.  I was tired of the loitering, the cat calls, the men asking me to come look at their shop, their sister's shop, their father's shop, or asking if I'd like to have dinner with them.

Although Zanzibar is an East African island, it was founded by the people of Oman. Nearly the entire population is Muslim.  Mosques dot the city streets in Stone Town.  Women are covered from head to toe in burkas.  Arab mentality encompassed the area.  And to top it off, my visit was right in the middle of Ramadan. As much as I would have enjoyed my stay had I been accompanied by a companion, I felt highly uncomfortable all alone.

Had I not been alone, I'm sure I would have taken the time to soak up the beautiful architecture, the vibrant colors, the kindness of others welcoming me to Zanzibar every 5 steps I'd take.  The sites and sounds would have enveloped me, instead of overwhelm me. Wishing I were anywhere else is something I had never experienced before.

But there I sat, in my hotel room, mentally creating a game plan for the rest of my Zanzibar stay, determining to fill it up with daily excursions.

Due to Ramadan, the street market and most restaurants weren't opened until sun down, which was around 6:30pm.  While on the roof of the hotel, writing in my journal to pass the time away, my mind was racing with the options presented to me.  I could:  a) walk the dark streets -there are no lights- of Stone Town on my own to get food, b) go to bed hungry, or c) find someone who would allow me to accompany them.

Having been my first evening there, I didn't know the lay of the land, and I didn't know how people acted when the lights were out.  Although I've always been fascinated with the Muslim/Arab culture, I really didn't know how to react in it, and the many books I've read didn't seem to help calm my concerns.  I really didn't want to go out alone.  Not in the dark.  Not on the first night. And I wanted to go to bed hungry even less than that.

There was a couple on the rooftop with me, planning their next day's activities.  I surveyed them. I tried coming up with tactful ways to invite myself to join them without seeming like an inconvenience. So I struck up a conversation, just so they knew I wasn't crazy, or strange, or anything else that could have popped into their mind had I asked if I could be a third wheel for the evening right after saying the initial hello.

Michael and Gina were kind and gracious people.  They humored me as I took their attention away from their guide book.  I hinted at being wary of walking around alone at night.  I might not have hinted well enough.  So we returned to our previous tasks for a few minutes, until I gained enough courage to request if I could intrude on their previously planned evening.  But when I did, they smiled and welcomed me along.

As we walked the city streets that night in the dark, with our flash lights, I started appreciating the beauty of the buildings. I enjoyed the sites and sounds, the curves of the road, and the hidden alleyways. And as an added bonus, I was introduced to an amazing restaurant I wouldn't have discovered otherwise.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

in search of paradise

My safari only lasted 6 days, but I wasn't about to fly all the way to Africa to spend less than a week there.  I had to come up with another activity.  Being alone, however, limited my options since I tried to keep safety in mind.  I wanted nothing more than to spend a few relaxing days basking in the sun on a white sandy beach off the Indian Ocean. 

I limited my limited options even more by only allotting a small budget on that relaxation.  I very well could have payed another thousand-plus dollars on a nice resort on the Kenyan coast and been quite content, I'm sure.  But since living in Holland has emphasized my penny pinching nature, I couldn't justify spending yet another thousand on top of the other thousands I spent the first 6 days there.

Sadly, that threw what limited options I had out the window.  From what I had researched, I couldn't find a place on the coast that I would feel comfortable wandering alone in with the budget I had.  But it was during that research that I discovered Zanzibar.  It looked like the perfect place: small, cheap, safe, and even has a budget friendly hotel which is run by a Dutch woman.  It had to be fate, and I couldn't pass it up.

Little did I realize though, the island was completely different than I had anticipated.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Divine intervention

Sometimes my penny-pinching attitude overrides my street smarts (aka. lack of better judgment).  Due to flight schedules, I was forced to spend one night in Nairobi before venturing on to Zanzibar.  When researching accommodations for that night, I thought of the thousands I was spending on 6 luxurious nights' sleep in the bush, and decided I could rough it just once.

I found the perfect place: cheap and relatively near both airports.  When I asked to reserve a single room, however, I was informed that all rooms were booked for that day.  Instead, another option was offered:  to sleep in a rented tent and sleeping bag.  I debated and debated, and searched a few more locations, but the $11 price tag for an evening's stay was enough to persuade me to make the reservation.

I still didn't feel completely comfortable with the decision I had made, but I remained bull headed and determined to see it through. Thankfully, in my case, an angel was sent to intervene.  Mary Anne arrived at the Mara Camp the same time I did. She is friends with the manager, Penny, and had come from Nairobi to spend a few days of relaxation.  During that time we had some intriguing discussions about the novels she has written, such as "My Warrior Son", and "Nomad".  Once she found out I had an evening layover in Nairobi, she asked where I was staying.  She had never heard of the accommodation, but after telling her the street it was located on, she was quick to offer her home to me.

As it turned out, the street name of the accommodation I was supposed to have boasts the same name and general location as  Kenya's largest slum, Kibera.  Mary Anne was a wonderful hostess, providing me with a 4 poster bed, on-suite bathroom, a personal tour of the city and the aforementioned slum, along with feeding me a beautiful cheese souffle dinner at the end of the day.

The best part of it all, though, was that my 5 star Nairobi treatment cost less than it would have to sleep in a rented tent and sleeping bag, as it was FREE.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Monday, November 8, 2010

Ancient tradition? Or modern day knowledge?

In the Mara I was paired up with a lady from England named Cathy.  She had been on safari a few times before, loved birds and was thirsty for knowledge.  Meaning, she was great to travel with since she opened my mind up to a number of new observations.

At one point her thirst produced a question I wouldn't have otherwise asked in my desire to know more.  We had been talking to our guide, Joseph, who is Maasai.  We asked him of his culture; how old he believed it was.  He stated that he, and other tribesmen, believe the tribe is thousands of years old, having traveled south from Mt. Sinai.  It had me thinking, and when I made mention of the 12 tribes of Israel, he said it is believed that the name Maasai is derived from Manasseh, Joseph's son. He stated that non-tribesmen believe his tribe originated from somewhere in the Sudan.

He spoke of how most men have more than one wife.  He is the oldest of his father's sons, being a child of his father's first wife.  There are five.  When he was a child, the Kenyan government mandated all Maasai tribesmen to send one child to school. Joseph was sent because he was the only one of age.  Most fathers send the least favored child to school, that child is generally born from the least favored wife.  The seemingly harsh infliction is a huge blessing for the unpopular son.  In the end, that son turns into a great blessing for his father and rest of the family as well, since he is the means of financial support for them.

When Joseph was around 14 or 15, the age at which most men in his tribe reach adulthood, the government placed a ban on killing wild game.  Until that time, teenage boys, to prove their manhood, would spear a lion. The boy who's spear first pierced the animal would be honored and allowed to wear the lion's mane around his neck. Now there is no ritual accompanying their circumcision into adulthood.

It was upon hearing that which caused Cathy to pose the question I wouldn't have otherwise asked. "What about female circumcision?," she inquired.  He explained that after a girl's first menstruation, she too is circumcised. Before Cathy's question, I tried feigning ignorance.  Although I had heard it common in Africa, it still left a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I couldn't help myself at that point, I had to ask, even though it wasn't my place.  "Joseph," I said, "will you circumcise your daughter?"  He responded that he didn't want to, but unless tradition changed by then he would have to, since it's hard to find a man who will marry an uncircumcised woman.

As saddening as it to see an ancient culture desintegrate, Joseph saying most people doubt the Maasai will be around in 100 years, it is wonderful to know that modern day knowledge is being brought into the tribe, and the end of barbaric and brutal practices is in sight.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

In case you ever wondered:

There's no better way to feel at one with nature than by peeing in an African bush while wildebeest graze in front of you.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Common ground

Wildebeest are indecisive creatures.  I could see it clearly as we sat waiting at the waters edge for their inevitable crossing.  It appeared as though they were fighting an internal struggle.  Their nature dictating who they are, animals who at times must cross the river.  Their judgment bidding them otherwise.  They knew of the dangers, the possible death.  Yet that desire to cross is ingrianed in them.

They would skirt around the water's edge for minutes on end before turning back around, their judgment getting the better of them.  Part of me wondered why they even bothered.  After all, many had just come over to our side of the bank when we arrived.  Why go back?

Then again, maybe it was just a game to them, or a time to conquer fears, like I had done a few days prior at the waterfall.

No matter what the reason was, during the 40 minute wait to watch them cross, I came to the realization that earth's creatures, human or otherwise, all face challenges or struggles. Most importantly, we all have an innate desire to reach the other side of those challenges as conquerors.

(skip to minute 6 to strictly see them crossing the water)

Monday, October 25, 2010

rugged conditions

Camping.  In a tent.  In Africa.

Not everyone is up to the challenge.  Not everyone has a desire to sleep in the bush with only thin sheet of canvas protecting them from the wilds of Africa.  And not everyone is able to forgo modern day amenities.

But I'm not everyone.  And boy, did I rough it.

First, let's talk sleeping arrangements.  Even though the tent was large and spacious, all I had to sleep on was a nice, plush, queen sized bed that was turned down every night.   Hello?? Where's my 4 poster bed??

Second, the toilet.  Granted, it was located inside the tent's bathroom area and had running water to it, meaning it was flush-able.  But it was only an ivory toilet with a wooden seat -- what about the gold plated throne that my royal tush deserves?

Third, the wash basin.  Yes, the hand made copper basin was situated atop a beautiful wooden table, adorned with candle lanterns and a large framed mirror.  But, I was forced to use a pitcher that was regularly filled with hot water to wash my hands.  Honestly, where's the sensor faucet that automatically turns on when I wave my hand beneath it??

Finally, the shower.  This may have been worst of all.  Although two of the camp employees carry a heavy bucket of deliciously warm water to fill the shower basin the moment you're ready to shower; although you're able to revel in the exotic location you're in as you pull on a cord attached to the shower head, allowing the water to release; and although you're able to feel extremely relaxed with the candle lit lanterns flickering on the nearby wash basin table, while showering under the bucket shower filled with warm water... the water eventually runs out! (What does it matter that soft and fluffy towels take the place of the warm water?  All that matters is that it's gone).

So, can't you appreciate all I went through?  The suffering I experienced?  Aren't you glad it was me, not you, that was subjected to the nearly archaic accommodations at the Offbeat Mara Camp?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Luxury Location, part Deux

After bidding adieu to Sosian, I drove two hours to the landing strip, boarded a plane and flew 45 minutes south to the Masai Mara. The stark difference between the two locations were immediately apparent.  The Mara was hot, flat, brown, and a never ending expanse of land in every direction.  And then there were the flies. They swarmed in the thousands... tens of thousands... hundreds of thousands, and especially loved the midday sun.
The Masai Mara is an extension of the Serengeti, near the border of Tanzania.  Twice a year the wildebeest migrate across the border, in the winter they go from the north to the south and the summer from the south to the north.  My trip was timed perfectly, as the wildebeest were at the tail end of their migration north.  They dotted the land as far as the eye could see, yet, Penny, the Offbeat Mara Camp manager, stated it looked nearly empty to her compared to a few weeks prior.

While we waited 20 minutes for the next plane to arrive with 2 more guests at the Mara Camp, Penny suggested we go on a drive.  Not once did I think we'd find anything, with the previous experience I had at Sosian, in only 20 minutes.  But 5 minutes later we sat gawking at a lion cooling itself under the shade of a tree.
I was in awe at the vast number of animals we saw in such short periods of time.  From my tent I was able to see a sea of animals grazing nearby. Every few minutes on drives we'd stop to see yet another animal.The ease in which to see the animals was amazing.  They were everywhere.  And I was thrilled.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

My African family

It sounds strange, I know.  But maybe it was the fact that I was alone and in a way vulnerable, so they pulled me into a protective embrace.  Or, it could have been the all meals, the activities, car rides and nearly every other moment spent together in a new environment.  Then again, it could have just been the Sosian mentality and their naturally friendly attitude.  Whatever it was, after 3 days, it felt like they were family.

Monday, October 11, 2010


Kenya is the home of two tribal groups, the Maasai and the Samburu - the latter being an offshoot of the former.  In the Laikipia region, the Samburu tribe is more prominent.  Both tribes, however, are cattle herders.  They do have to follow regulations and keep their cattle in certain areas, because the bells of the cows scare off the wild game. Other than that, the land is just is much theirs as it is the animals' that roam free.

After seeing Samburu tribesmen walking on foot with no weapons for protection, I had asked Annabell how many tribesmen die from elephant attacks (or any other animal for that matter).  She replied, on average, there are 2 tribesmen a year that die, but having a knowledge of the land and the animals, they're usually quite careful while walking in the bush. 

On the way to the waterfall, Albie and I had to slow down due to an elephant bull in the road.  The bull moved over and hid himself behind a bush.  Hid as in, he positioned himself in a way that people on the road can't see him, but he can see them. A few moments later I spotted a few Samburu tribesmen.  Albie spoke to them in Swahili and the next thing I knew we had 3 extra people in the car with us.  
We turned around and drove them safely past the elephant.  They got out and thanked us before going on their way.  When we passed the elephant again, you could see in his eyes and in his posture that he was on the hunt, waiting for an unsuspecting victim.  Who knows what could have happened had we not driven them past the bull.

The night of my birthday we were able to visit a local Samburu village. As we drove into the village they all greeted us with a handshake.  It appeared as though they were all excited to see us, and welcomed us warmly.  They sang and danced for us, and grabbed our hands to join along.  We were invited inside one of their mud huts, which lacks any light except for the small fire they had burning on the floor inside. Their humble conditions were even worse than what I had seen while living in Brazil.  But what amazed me in Brazil and more so during the visit to the Samburu village, is that their meager dwelling didn't stop them from having wonderfully happy countenances.

After getting a shot of the first person I took a picture of, I turned my camera around so they could see how it turned out.  They laughed and pointed, and others gathered around as well.  There came a moment when the image screen was so full of fingerprints I wondered how they could even see the picture anymore. After that, one person after another would request I take their picture so they could see it afterward. When I switched from my camera to my camcorder, a few boys started gathering around me. Although I had doubts if the Samburu people had ever seen the pictures taken of them before, I was well aware, in the way the boys were in awe, that they had never seen streaming video from a camcorder.  It was such a beautiful experience, to see the excitement in their eyes for something we (from first world countries) have come to take advantage of.

(What's not beautiful is being unable to download my video directly to my blog, but having to go through YouTube in order to do so.   P.S.  I know the video is long, so I won't be offended if you skip through most of it).

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Sosian Birthday

Tea time was every day at 4pm.  Before we even arrived at the veranda, where tea was served, the table would be full of cups, plates, warm tea, and cake - a different cake each day, to be precise.  The day of my birthday, however, was different.

The plates were out, the cups were out, the tea was out... but there was no cake to be found.  I knew something was going on.  Annabell, the manager, was rushing around, whispering to one employee or another.  I thought, "Oh cute.  They're going to light candles on the cake for me.

Boy did I underestimate the extent of my cake surprise!

Friday, October 1, 2010

African sunrise

Every morning on safari was the same.  Up at 6am when the sun is just starting to show itself in the horizon and out the door by 6:30 when the sunrise is at its peak in brilliant colors.  The wake-up call is provided by someone at the lodge or camp with greetings for a good morning, and a tray waiting outside your door with a drink of your choice.

I'm not a morning person.  I'm far from it.  But if I was greeted every morning the way I was on safari, I'd be up at 6am, without complaint, every morning for the rest of my life.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Lion hunting

Because the landscape at the Sosian Ranch is so rustic and finding animals isn't as easy as in the plains, their neighbors had put tracking devices on the wild dogs and lions.  The neighbor's reason for the tracking device is for scientific purposes. Sosian's reason for the tracking device is to find the animals for their guests.

My second night there, Steve and Albie (the guides) took Vanessa, Anne, Matt and me (the guests) on a lion hunt. We drove along the dirt roads while Albie held the antenna and listened to the beeps coming from a signaling device.  The closer we got the the animal, the faster the beeps came.  This is how the hunting went... Albie listening and Steve driving down the dirt road, with the rest of us sitting in anticipation, knowing we were getting closer and closer with every turn of the wheels.  And then... we stopped.

The next few seconds happened in such quick succession it's as if my mind was too slow to capture it all.  Albie handed off the signaling device to Steve, and picked up a 325 caliber rifle as both opened their perspective doors and stepped out.  It's one of those moments you wish you were seated in a stadium with the giant screens showing an instant replay in slow motion, because you weren't certain you saw the play correctly.  At least, that's how the four of us sat... in shock and confusion.  Unsure of what had just happened and what was going on, eager for an explanation.  When Steve told us all to get out of the car, our response was in unison:  "wait...what?"

See, the thing about the tracking device is, although it beeps faster the closer you get to the animal, it doesn't give an exact distance.  Meaning, you never know if the animal is 5 feet or 50 feet in front of you.  You just know that it's really close.

Wary, we stepped out.  We looked at eachother with wide eyes.  I'm sure I wasn't the only one who's heart started beating just a bit faster.   And wouldn't you know it, but the first thing we did was walk through grass that was knee high.  I kept thinking: "DIDN'T THEY EVER SEE THE LION KING??"  You know, the part where Simba's dad is teaching him to hunt, so they get really, really, low in the high grass in order to keep their prey unsuspecting until the last moment,... when they pounce!

So I grabbed my camcorder and had it rolling. If I was going down because of a lion, I wanted the video played at my funeral.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Best. Breakfast. Ever.

It's not that the food was beyond anything I've ever eaten before... although, it was good.  It was the free entertainment that accompanied it that set the meal above any other that I have ever had. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Acrophobia: fear of heights

At 16 while training to become a lifeguard, I had made a comment to my trainer about the distance between the lifeguard stand and the diving pool.  To be honest, I was a bit afraid that if anyone was in need of my lifesaving skills, and I was required to jump from the stand into the pool, I wouldn't make it.  I could see myself jumping and skimming the edge of the pool, hurting myself - which would make me unable to perform my ever important duties of saving someone from a watery grave.

She took my comment as though I was afraid of heights- which, in fact, was also true.  But since I'm speaking honestly here, saying I have a fear of heights is an understatement. It's beyond a fear... and I don't even know if there's a word for that. 

But to squelch my trepidation, she decided I should jump off the high dive ...a 10 foot drop into the water.  Fear jolted through me as I climbed the ladder to the top.  My heart rate increased as I slowly made my way to the edge of the board.  And before I was given the OK to jump, I was breathing so deeply I thought I'd make myself pass out.  But I did it.  I jumped.  And I felt so relieved to have it over with, until my head came back out of the water and my trainer was shaking her head and stated, "no, no, no... you closed your eyes! You ALWAYS have to keep your eyes on the victim until the very last second you reach the water. Now jump again, but this time: keep your eyes on me."

So I did. And I kept my eyes on her, until half way through when I was asked by her co-trainer to look at him... and I did.  I came out of the water to the sound of rolling laughter.  Between laughs they were able to get out the words "you know...ha ha...the wall  clock...ha ha...that looks like a cat...ha ha...with the big eyes that move back and forth?  Ha ha... you looked exactly like it... ha ha!"  But at least I pacified them and didn't have to jump again. 

My real concern, however, wasn't even met.  If the need ever arose that I'd have to jump off the lifeguard stand, I didn't know if I could leap far enough out to hit the water before inevitably hitting my head on the cement.  See, as afraid as I am of heights, that fear is increased ten fold when lateral distance is involved. Thankfully, no one ever came close to drowning on my watch.

Age hasn't diminished my fear, even in the slightest degree. But when I neared the waterfall, located on the Sosian Ranch property, I wasn't going to let it stop me from jumping.  My entire trip to Africa was about reinventing my independence.  Breaking out of the shells of fear I protect myself with.  Becoming a new, fearless, woman... one able to conquer anything she sets her mind to.

The waterfall is 30 feet high. Three times the distance from the high dive I jumped half a lifetime ago.  But I paid it no mind as a group of us climbed the cliff leading to it. It wasn't until we reached the top that my heart started racing.  We walked across rocks in the river as water rushed around our feet and over the edge we were making our way towards.  Two brothers, who were barely teenagers, urged me to jump first.  I couldn't do it.  So I watched as their little bodies flew over the ledge and into the water below.  I continued watching as two other people made the plunge.

But when I could use the excuse of waiting for others no longer, I stood paralyzed.  It was if I was 16 years old all over again, on the lifeguard stand forced to jump.  My feet were planted on the small rock that served as a platform, too small to provide a running jump (or even a large step for momentum) over the rocky ledge that protruded out a few feet below.

I continued to stand,  unable to move.  All I could think about was hitting my head on the way down and not making it to my 30th birthday the next day.  I looked down at the four people happily waiting for me below.  I looked over at the two behind me that wouldn't jump until I did, to make sure I landed safely.  And I stayed that way for 5 minutes. 

My hands became numb and tingly.  My knees started to buckle underneath me.  I had to hold on to the rocky shelf for support.  I couldn't get myself to do it.  I couldn't get myself to jump.  Finally, everyone decided to encourage me by counting down from 10.  The entire time I gave myself a mental pep talk, and when they reached "1", I found myself free falling in the air. 

I did it... and I was no longer that scared 16 year old girl, afraid she wouldn't make it to her 30th birthday the next day. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Luxury location

My travel agent had provided me with two accommodation suggestions in her initial email to me.  One was a luxury lodge and the other a luxury tent.  She mentioned I could stay at one or the other, or possibly both, for the duration of my stay.  There's no way I could have chosen between the two - and I'm so grateful I didn't - so I split my time in half.  Three days were spent in the Sosian Ranch and three in the Offbeat Mara Camp.  Both were so completely different, inside and out, that it felt I was on two separate vacations.

Sosian Ranch located at red dot
Sosian is located in Kenya's Laikipia region, right on the equator.  The elevation is high enough that its geographic coordinates barely play a roll in its temperature.  Even the equatorial neighbor, Mt. Kenya, has stumped scientists with its snow covered peak.  During the days the weather was warm enough to wear summer clothing, in the evenings the temperatures dropped to the point of needing long pants and a jacket.

The landscape was just as diverse as the weather.  It was green and lush, with rolling hills in some areas, rocks that shot out of nothing in others.  There were rivers and waterfalls, forests and prairies, and bushes everywhere. Due to all of the above, animals aren't overly abundant, however there are diverse species of animals not found in other areas of the world.

Grevy's Zebra
The Grevy's zebra, for example, is only found in northern Kenya.  Unlike their brother, the common zebra, Grevy's are taller, have rounder ears, and stripes that are so close together you could mistake the zebra for a bar code.  They also happen to be my new favorite.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

from an email to my family

Saturday 14 August 2010

I'm at a loss for words, this has been the most incredible experience so far, and I've only been in Kenya for 8 hours.  Once I arrived at the airport, looked around, saw the in airport mosque, and the dilapidated building, I had a split second thought of : "I'm in Kenya... alone... what was I thinking??"  But that thought went as quickly as it came.

I made it through customs (receiving my visa on arrival), and got my bags all within a 45 min time frame.  My driver was waiting for me as I stepped out to the lobby. He drove me over to the Wilson airport, which isn't an airport by any western civilization's standard.  It's comprised of a number of small buildings, each building (which may contain 2 rooms) is for a separate airline.  I was told by my travel agent that I'd get the flight tickets, etc, on arrival, so I thought my driver would have it.  (Logically).  But no.  He dropped me off at Air Kenya and said that they'd take care of me. But when I went to check in (with a man standing behind a desk made of plywood), he said I needed to be at Safarilink airlines, based on the itinerary my travel agent gave me.  So, someone walked me over to the next building and handed me off.  After my bags and I made it through the security checkpoint (which is all there was inside the Safarilink "airport"), a Safarilink representative and I came to realize that something wasn't right since my name wasn't on their passenger list.

I was driven over to the main office, where a guy tried figuring everything out for me, told me not to worry and to come back in an hour.  (My flight wasn't scheduled to leave for 2.5 hrs - per my itinerary).  Thankfully I had a contact name on said itinerary, and the airline rep made numerous calls to her.  Finally (without a moment to spare and an hour before the flight I thought I was scheduled for) they figured out that I was in fact supposed to be on an Air Kenya flight. I was driven over to the correct building by a guy who was in no hurry and made conversation with every person we passed.  The Air Kenya representative apologized for the inconvenience caused due to the initial confusion.  He asked me if my bags had already gone through security at Safarilink.  When I told him it had, he smiled, said OK, and took my bags directly to the plane without passing them through security there.  I went to the reception desk, and was greeted with more apologies and my correct itinerary for the remainder of my stay.  I quickly passed security and walked out to the small 12 seater plane just as it was boarding.

But, the thing is:  everyone was SO kind.  SO helpful.  I don't think I've met people as kind as this before.  Part of me wonders if it's because it's their culture, or if it's because they work off of tips.  I'd like to think it's the first.  And not once did I feel stressed or worried at all.  I knew they'd take care of me and get things settled.  Which is so unlike what normally happens on a trip I take.

The plane ride was so neat, we landed in a small city called Nanyuki, where the airport was a landing strip and a few small shacks.  I was greeted by one of my guides from the Sosian Ranch who was also my driver.  He's a walking encyclopedia.  On our 2 hr drive to Sosian I saw dik-dik's (the smallest relative of the antelope), giraffe, zebra, ostrich, wart hogs, and elephants!  And I wasn't even on a real game drive.  It was awesome.

As soon as I arrived at Sosian, the owner, Annabell, greeted me at the door, took me in and showed me around the breathtaking ranch.  She then took me to my cottage... and ho-ly cow.  It's spectacular!  I kept wanting to pinch myself.  THIS IS GOING TO BE THE BEST BIRTHDAY EVER! 

I had lunch with Annabell near the pool - and it was a feast.  She said we'll have tea and cake around 4 which is only 2 hours later.  I don't know if my stomach will have space.  I'm going to get fat here.  But after tea we'll go on a game drive, eat dinner in the bush, then have a night drive on the way back to the lodge.

I'm in love with Africa.  Seriously.  Maybe I'll stay...