Thursday, June 30, 2011

Still More Zebras? -- Day 4 (Thursday)

Today is our full day in the Masai Mara and it does not disappoint.  A day of dueling telephotos and herds of safari vans, but a day of  what seems like phenomenal luck as we see an incredible show of this very exotic wildlife.

We find what must be the same pride and park right next to them.  The females saunter past our vans and sit in the sun as the 6 cubs cavort in the bush.  Eventually, they feel the need for motherly comfort but struggle to find a path between our vans to get there.  What a show!   We then find the 2 males lounging on a distant hill and after a time, they get up and walk casually past us.  One walks to within 10 feet of the van and stares me down for a minute or so before walking on.  

Two of the cheetah strike a pose on a sloping tree trunk.  A bit later we encounter all 3 again and they have a very fresh kill (zebra) that they share for lunch.

After our lunch, we decide to take in the "Masai Village" excursion.  We are welcomed to a small compound (a circle huts within a thornbush fence with an open gathering area in the middle) and our host is a secondary school graduate in Masai garb whose English is quite good.  After he makes sure that we all pay $20 to the chief's son, he gives us a briefing, then takes us inside the compound for a hopping dance from the young men and then a welcome dance from some of the younger women, before our tour of one of the huts.  It is mud (dung, actually) walls over a stick frame with a mud, plastic and thatch roof and inside, a main room with rock and mud stove + 4 tiny side rooms and a larger one for the young animals (keeps them from nursing so that the Masai can milk their goats and cows).  The hut seems advanced compared to the very simple Luo and Kikuyu huts that I've seen (typically with a single mud partition and a primitive 3-stone fireplace).

Then it's time for the "gift store."  (Ever notice how you can't exit the museum without going through the gift shop?)   The masai funnel us into an adjoining circle of stalls where they display, family by family, crafts that they have made (which all look suspiciously alike).  And the hard sell begins in earnest.

Could be that it's just my problem, but this whole experience has been a bit uncomfortable for me.  I feel a little exploited and exploitative -- coming as very foreign tourists to peer at how they live, in what appears to be a compound a little forced into non-advancement (none of the tin roofs evident everywhere else), with them all on display, and forking over their equivalent of 4 days' wages from each of us and then hit up with outrageous prices for goods that are not indigenous nor relevant for local markets (tourist only).  On the other hand, it's not like they can't use the money (hopefully, the chief shares) and it is a powerful cultural experience for us.  I think I just feel that we've put them in an unnatural situation because of the lure of tourist money and that becomes everyone's focus.  And I just can't wait to get to Achungo.

Late that afternoon we venture out again in our vans for the sights. 
"What is that large herd on that distant hill?" 
"Just some stupid zebra."  

As we become a bit inured to the increasing commonality of the exotic, I become famous for my teasing reference to how we find zebra in every direction on every drive.  But not just zebra--we have no problem finding elephants and gazelles and giraffes and an ostrich and warthogs and lions and cheetah...

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Hitting the Road for Masai Mara: Day 3 (Wednesday)

It's a miracle!  We all made it to Nairobi without delays and we are finally together!  Ron had arrived a day early and met us in the airport.  Susan's flight made it with only a slight delay.  At last we are together and on our way to a Safari (a SAFARI!).

It takes us about 1/2 hour of eating exhaust (driving behind "lorries" as we now call large trucks) before we get out of Nairobi, but the roads are good.  After about another 1/2 hour or so, our appreciation for the road quality degrades and soon we're on rough road.  After an hour of potholes, we suffer another hour of potholes, and another hour of potholes, but finally we transition onto....(wait for it)....dirt roads!  It seems like we're driving the entire continent of Africa.  It's wearying.  A few are dozing but that's not easy since we're all sitting in vibrating chairs that never turn off.  It's starting to really feel tiring when the call goes out:  ZEBRA!  And we discover that we're getting close to the animal park.  Dotting the hills alongside the road we can now see pockets of zebra and an occasional lone wildebeest (it's a shaggy, skinny cow with a long goatee).  And we are awakened with excitement and anticipation.

After thousands, maybe hundreds, of hours of travel (okay, a day and a half), we finally arrive at our tented resort: Sarova Mara.  Our rooms are luxurious half-tents, half-cabins with full bathrooms and wonderful beds.  Beds are places where you can actually stretch out with your legs fully extended.  You can completely relax on a bed.  In fact, they are perfect for sleeping.  I discover that beds are nothing at all like the airplane seats that I've spent the last 2 nights sleeping in.

Lunch-time!   The Sarova serves up a delightful, highly varied and somewhat exotic buffet for every meal in a lovely dining room.  We are escorted to our designated table and have the best meal we've had in days (or has it been weeks?).

After a break, we head to the vans for a late afternoon safari.  Up goes the van top so that we can stand up and look out at the wildlife.  And there's a lot to see, as it turns out.

In a few hours of whipping around on the dirt roads and tracks, we end up encountering a zoo-full of exotic animals:  huge herds of zebra, gazelles of all sizes (from tiny Dik Dik and Thompson Gazelles to graceful Impalas and Giant Elands), elephants in small groups, a handful of warthogs snorting and scurrying, and a full pride of lions.  Lazing about are 2 males and at some distance 3 females with 7 cubs (guess the men don't get involved in childcare?).  And we come upon 3 cheetah laying in the grass on a hillock -- each are laying quite flat with only their head raised, each with gaze fixed on a small herd of gazelle grazing on the next hill over.  They do not move, they don't even twitch, they just keep their focus on dinner, waiting for their chance to burst from zero to 60 (in 3 seconds!) in pursuit.

It's been quite a day.  As we wait around that evening for the restaurant to open for supper, a troop of red-clad Masai arrive and put on a jumping dance.  Michael Jordan's air time has nothing on them!  Maybe the NBA needs to put in some cement courts around here and build up their international recruiting?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

In-Flight: Days 1 and 2 in transit to Nairobi

From all across America we gather.   To be more precise, we have teams leaving from San Francisco and from Baltimore and the first time we would ever meet them was to be at Heathrow on our way to Nairobi, and the first time the entire team would be together was not to be until Nairobi itself.

Only 7 of us (Kathy and I and Suney, and the Sullivans: Julia, Chris, Ana and Drea) were leaving together from SFO, but even at that, it takes us a while to all gather what with delays in our rides.  And then our first major obstacle:  only those on the original ticket with Monte (i.e., Kathy and Suney) can take advantage of his Gold Card with American and take 2 bags, so we have to pay for 4 extra bags!  Ouch!  But we are not going to leave behind all the books, games, clothes and shoes that we are bringing to our Achungo children.

After some trouble getting through security (in our frenzy to avoid paying for it as a checked bag, one carry-on has liquids and that means going back through check-in again), we finally make it to our gate and then to our plane to L.A. and after a plane change, our overnight to Heathrow.  (This is getting to be a long trip already!)

The master plan in Heathrow is to meet our Virginia contingent (Julia, Meg and Clare) and also Susan (flying Virgin Atlantic on miles) in Terminal 3 at EAT restaurant (seems like an obvious name and a handy meeting place, right?).  Our American flight disembarks at Terminal 3, but just so we don't keep things too simple, we actually have to get our Kenya Airways tickets at Heathrow (American couldn't issue them).  And that means going to Terminal 4 (via the long walk, the escalator and the tram).  Then when we try to go back to Terminal 3, we're told we can't get past security because our tickets are for Terminal 4.  We've managed to make text contact with Susan from Terminal 3, but eventually we all just give up on getting together. 

But the "Virginia Girls" must be here in Terminal 4 -- they're getting on the same outbound as we are!  I'm starting to worry as I look around.  We grab a bite to eat and then head to our gate -- no VGs there.  Woops, gate change.  We get to our new gate with about 30 minutes before boarding and I finally spy 2 women looking like they're looking for someone and it's them!  Reunited for the first time at last!!  Hugs all around and then, it's time to board.  So much for all the "get acquainted time" I'd planned for Heathrow.  Chalk it up as  "Monte's miscalculation number 99."  I think we need to find someone who knows what they're doing to lead the next trip!  (at least that's Monte's opinion)

Another long night on a plane and we land in Nairobi.  Now if we can just all make it through immigration and get visas without a snag, and  if Ron (who stayed overnight in Nairobi, having arrived earlier) and Susan (whose plane arrives an hour after us) can just find us and then the safari van drivers arrive in a timely fashion and all our luggage make it and .....  Will wonders never cease -- it all comes together and before toooo long we're all in our 2 vans with the third loaded with our 24 bags and we're off to Masai Mara!  Wasn't that easy, though?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Pre-Trip Prep

For months before our trip, our team took opportunities to get together to study and prepare.  Let's just say that in some ways these were virtual meetings since 3 teammates were on the East Coast (Julia, Meg and Clare) and one was in SoCal at school until a few weeks before the trip (Ana).

But we did our best to share what the trip would be like, how to prepare financially, medically, mentally, culturally, spiritually and also just by getting to know each other and build rapport.  We also began to plan what we might do while there and what things we planned to bring.

Our last meeting was a massive packing day.  Everyone came with a second bag to load with all the things we planned to take to Achungo for the children and teachers.