Monday, May 31, 2010

Nairobi, Not Bad

Thanks to Kenya Airways cancelling my flight today, I have some time to blog- lucky you!

4 days to kill, so why not head up to Nairobi, Kenya for a little break, in between my other breaks (that and the fact that the Tanzanian safari company booked me a ticket and it seemed easier just to go along with their plan).

I had a typical African bus journey up to Nairobi from Arusha, Tanzania (yes, luggage strapped to the roof)--- dirt road + no AC = me being filthy by the time I arrived 7 1/2 hours later. I could literally feel the grime on my skin and you don't even want to hear about the texture of my hair- yuck. The one, and only, highlight- seeing Kilimanjaro on route.
Since cleaning up, I have quite enjoyed Nairobi--- back to big city life for a few days. There aren't too many tourist attractions here, given I am over wildlife for a while, so I could mostly bum around and not feel too guilty.

I did manage to see a few things...

Day 1- It rained, so I felt totally justified seeing my first movie in months, Iron Man 2 (Review: entertaining). I walked quite a ways to the movie theater with my new American friends Katie, Chris and Diego (Kenya is full of Americans-- I hadn't seen any since S. Africa!), so we saw a bit of Nairobi life along the way. Surprisingly, it is JUST like home, complete with loud, teens talking through the entire movie.

We capped off the day with a trip to Carnivore, a famous Nairobi restaurant, where you guessed it, we ate a ridiculous quantity of meat.

Day 2- Gotta check off the "must does." Spot 1- The David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, where you see baby elephants with the keepers who act as their moms, including sleeping with them at night. Most seemed to be victims of poaching with a few having fallen in wells (yes, just like Baby Jessica!).
Spot 2- Kazuri Bead Factory, which meanssmall and beautiful” in Swahili. It began in 1975 as a tiny workshop experimenting on making handmade beads and now employs mostly single mothers offering free healthcare for them and their families.

Our tour guide showed us the entire bead making process from clay, to bead formation, painting and finally the finished product--- all done by hand. The stuff was beautiful! I am now sporting a lovely white bead bracelet as I type.
On the way back, our taxi driving felt the need to show us the Kibera slums, not exactly sure why, but it was where all the election violence happened a few years back and was eye opening (and shockingly close to our lovely Wildebeest Camp).
The day ended with a trip to the Ethiopian restaurant nearby. Sure, I didn't like Ethiopian 20 years ago, but maybe it is better when closer to Ethiopia? Answer: No, not so much!

Day 3- Sex in the City 2 is playing just up the street, but i HAVE to so something legit beforehand or I will feel like a shallow American.
So I headed into the city center to the Nairobi National Museum, a natural history museum housing a lot of 2-3 million year old skulls and stuffed animals. Not normally my cup of tea, but since a huge amount of the earliest fossils were found it Kenya it seemed like a couple hours worth spending. They had a cool game, obviously for kids, that compared your weight to an animal- i am a warthog (uh oh, the idea of losing weight in Africa seems to be failing. :-(
After that we walked about 20 minutes further into town to see what there was to see, with the end goal being the American Embassy Memorial Garden. As you recall, the US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were both bombed in August, 1998 with hundreds of locals and 12 Americans killed in Nairobi.
The Memorial Gardens and Peace Memorial Museum were quite nice. The documentary playing, while a little sensational, was informative and the gardens very peaceful, with a monument listing the names of the victims and sculptures containing remnants of the destroyed building.
That left my afternoon free to see Sex in the City 2 which was CRAP! It was so bad that I felt cheated of my Shillings!

That's about all from Nairobi. Today I woke to news that my flight to Kigali, Rwanda was cancelled and I am re booked for 11:40PM, so just been hanging in a lovely garden writing my blog.

Happy Memorial Day!

P.S.- On my ride to the airport we were stuck in traffic on what is referred to as 'Supermarket Road'- people were selling everything you can think of, including: oranges, garden shears, pillows and lampshades. Was quite amusing!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Big 5- Check!

Upon leaving beautiful, vibrant Zanzibar, I hopped a 10-seat plane (yes, you could see the pilot and out the front window) to Arusha, Tanzania to start my 6-night safari to the Northern Parks: the famous Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara.

I joined a group with Bob and Daniele, a father and daughter from the Upper East Side (small world!) and a fun couple from Birmingham, England, Jane and John. Tack on a few Kiwi friends we made from another jeep guided by Geoffrey, our guide's best man, and we had a lovely time.

I fear the safari may have spoiled me a bit since the lodges were quite nice, with good service (and okay singing), great showers (ah, water pressure!), stunning views and plentiful food (of varying tastiness). My fellow safari goers thought it was quite amusing that I was critiquing the rooms by the end, knowing I would be back to backpacker accommodations within days- oh well!

I guess if I had thought about it I would have figured that safari is not an activity for the young--- must be what the retired do after cruising to Alaska. Suppose not a surprise since all you do is sit, sit and sit some more while driving hundreds of kilometers in search of animals.
Search we did, and thanks to Robert (our incredibly knowledgeable and patient guide) and Jane (who had a good eye for lions and rocks), animals are what we found.

We saw the 'Big 5'- leopard, lion, buffalo, rhino and elephant, plus a whole lot more: hyena, wildebeest, flamingo, cheetah, zebra, gazelles, impala, warthog, monkey, baboon, elan, jackal, lots of birds, giraffe, hippo, zebra, zebra and more zebra, to name a few.

Sure, there were times we got a little bored and jaded of zebra and wildebeest-- so we just drove Robert crazy with requests for random animals we hadn't yet seen (damn, that bat eared fox eluded us!) and babbled on about random topics including a lot of football talk with John.
The Serengeti is HUGE, so it sometimes took hours of driving the expanse to see wildlife; however, we were fortunate to see the beginnings of the Great Migration, when all the Wildebeest congregate and head up to the Masa Mara in Kenya. There were thousands grazing as far as the eye could see, with their friend the Zebra (apparently they complement each other).

We were also lucky enough to see a Leopard (the most elusive of the Big 5) dozing in a tree right above our land cruiser thanks to some clever (aka pushy/bold/speedy) driving by Robert.

The Crater was animal-rific since they are roaming a fairly small area (101 sq miles), in the world's largest unbroken volcanic caldera created 2-3 million years ago. Here we spotted our first rhino with baby (there were a lot of baby sightings from every animal) and cheetah right next to us (again, thanks to some aggressive driving by Robert that maybe pissed off the other jeeps- oops!). In all the parks, it was pretty amazing how close you could get to the animals- just don't get out of the jeep (Robert explained pretty convincingly how I would be stepped on by an elephant).

The highlight however was the Serval cat mother and baby! We watched forever as mom became increasingly frustrated with a baby that simply refused to walk back to their den--- she'd yell at him, pick him up and carry him in her mouth for a few steps and drop him in the middle of the road, just to have him run back into the bush to nap. This was repeated over and over again to the point that we were all frustrated for poor mom and thought maybe this might be the kill we had been expecting. ;-)
Oh, and the monkey jumping in our jeep, opening a lunch box, taking a samosa and politely closing the box, all within seconds, was another bit of amusement (right in front of the "Don't feed animals" sign, nonetheless!)

On the way to Tarangire National Park, home to the hugest elephants ever, we stopped at Olduvai Gorge, the archaeological site where the earliest traces of man were discovered (this did not ring a bell with me, but perhaps those with a good elementary school education recall?)

Next stop, a quick visit to a Masai village where we were given a tour of their huts, plus a demonstration of number counting by the kids and traditional singing and dancing by the adults. It was interesting, but tours of native villages always make me a bit uncomfortable. It was cool to be able to determine who was married and single based on the color of their clothes- perhaps we should bring this tradition back to NYC?? Robert, being a Masai himself, was great about filling us in on all their customs.

Tarangire, our cool down as Robert referred to it, was chock full of elephants and a little relaxation since we were coming to the end of our safari.

It was a lovely time, and with the exception of some rather obscure animals, we managed to see just about everything in Frommer's wildlife section. If you see a Bush Baby or Genet let me know.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Jambo! Mambo!

As mom used to say, "What, am I speaking Swahili?"

After the last 4 days in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania known for the spice and slave trades, I may just be. All the locals (aka Frank, my new teen friend who I oddly often ran into on the street) certainly want to teach you. (I would like to thank Asante Samuel for helping me remember the word for thank you!) Their first question- where are you from? Instant reply- Obama! So far I have seen an Obama hologram belt buckle, a kids backpack and a cat named Obama. Pretty funny (and so nice to travel and not be embarrassed of our President!)

It is not the only odd thing about Zanzibar-- although I had pre booked a flight from Dar Es Salaam, guys on the street outside the domestic terminal were very aggressive about selling me a cheap seat on a flight leaving in 20 minutes. I am not a big fan of bargaining for anything on the street, much less air transport! I prefer my brand name airlines, thanks!

I am posting now from the most beautiful beach, Jambiani, with powder white sand, aqua water and no people (it is low season, for what reason I am unclear). It is so peaceful sitting by the Indian Ocean (which is VERY salty, btw), in this small, weathered, fishing village.

Since arriving at the beach I have snorkeled in the 'fish tank', an odd spot in the ocean housing a ton of brightly colored fish, and swam with dolphins.

The dolphin swim was a bit bazaaro-- it was more of a dolphin hunt with boats wandering around in search and then chasing the dolphins so tourists can hop in the water and quickly swim with them. The water was really rough, so I was more focused on the horizon line (so as not to vomit) than the dolphins. After hours they were spotted, and while it was kinda cool having them swim by you, it made me feel really guilty since they were obviously stressed and trying to get away.

The other highlight of that boat ride, besides me successfully fighting off sea sickness (it was very touch and go), was the catching of barracuda as we sailed; however, it was quickly followed by a look of shock as they clubbed the fish once on board. All in all, maybe it would have been better to stay in bed at 530am.

Before arriving in Jambiani, I was in Stonetown for two days. Being Muslim, the island takes on a different feel than the other places I have been in Africa, from the calls to prayer to the weathered, Islamic architecture and general vibe of the city (felt much safer). It was really interesting to wander the narrow alleyways to see the ornate doors for which Zanzibar is known. The city has a frenetic energy, with very friendly locals echoing a constant stream of "jambo" as I walked down the street (still an odd feeling not being able to blend in).
Since Zanzibar is know as the spice island, it seems a requirement to go on a spice tour, which was surprisingly interesting. I learned that Iodine comes from a tree, pineapples don't grow on trees (who knew?) and peppercorn (5 kinds from 1 tree) is a ton of work. We also saw cloves, nutmeg, palmetto, cinnamon, vanilla, etc.

While on the tour I made another local friend who made me all sorts of accessories out of palm, including: ring, bracelet, necklace, glasses and a basket to store it all. He even demonstrated the one fruit that is used to make cosmetics (notice his red cheeks). It was really very sweet, unlike the Jackfruit which was way sour.
Well, that is about all from Zanzibar since I may now need to take a nap on the beach -- I know, it's a tough life! ;-)

Reminder: only 5 weeks left of fundraising for my Nepal trek. See link to the right. All support is greatly appreciated! Sorry, wish I could offer a dollar-for-dollar match like NPR :-) Thanks again to those that already donated!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

I Heart Zambia

Yay, Zambia!

As disappointing as Botswana was, Zambia far exceeded expectations. I am sad I didn't spend more time here since the people are really friendly and helpful and the whole country has a really nice vibe.
After a very interesting border crossing via ferry, we arrived at Livingstone, site of Victoria Falls- one of the 7 Wonders of the World.

First a group of us went to the Falls and got absolutely soaked. Again, since we are in peak water flow, the entire span was not visible, but we were able to walk through the equivalent of a torrential rain storm, over a bridge, with upside down rain. At times it seemed like a death trap walking on mildewy paths with no guardrails preventing us from plummeting into the falls (people do die each year, usually walking across the top during low flow). It was so wet, loud and pretty- a great time that left us dripping wet, laughing and thanking Ziploc for protecting our cameras.
We also walked 687 yds down steps to the Boiling Pot where the water from the Zambia and Zimbabwe sides met into a treacherous whirlpool. It was also a great view of the bridge we would be jumping off bright and early the next morning.

"The Big Falls Experience" seemed like a great idea the night before--- the opportunity to bungee, swing and zipline across the falls. I did all three, with 7 other crazy people (Billy, Sandi, and Sophie (Belguim), Val and Mark (Canada) and Andy and Ben(UK)), and will say it is a once in a lifetime experience, at least for me.

The bungee is 110 meters with a 4 second freefall, the 3rd largest in the world. I was shockingly calm about jumping off a perfectly good bridge, but that drop was pretty terrifying after the initial dive. Even more unsettling- the 2nd bounce which is way higher than you expect.

The swing, while sounding gentle, was perhaps equally scary since you fall for what seems like an eternity before swinging back and forth like a pendulum.

Still can't really decide if it was fun, but at least I no longer have the sensation of falling.

To celebrate we embarked on a booze cruise and a long night of silliness since it was also our farewell after 10 days of being trapped on an overland truck together.

I am now in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, after a 7 hour bus ride to catch a flight to Zanzibar tomorrow. The bus ride was actually very pleasant as I sat next to a woman working on a HIV/AIDS project in a fishing village with an 80% infection rate (amazingly sad!) and a high school history teacher who filled me in on all things Zambia and invited me back for visit. I just may take him up on it since I leave feeling as if I missed out on a lot more Zambian hospitality.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Beautiful Botswana

After a great trip to the Namibian sand dunes, I met up with an overland tour through Botswana.

“Beautiful Botswana,” as the bushman song that sticks in your head for days indicates, is a country known for its beauty and animals.

Unfortunately for us, we arrived during peak water flow in the Okavango Delta, so didn’t actually get to see a whole lot of animals.

However, I'm not too disappointed since every day can't be perfection and there were still some bright spots in between the hours and hours of driving, including:

Game tasting- enjoyed a selection of ostrich, zebra, kudu, crocodile and ­­­­­­­­­­springbok before I left Windhoek. Zebra is very tasty, despite what the cheetahs at Na/ ‘an ku se
Bushman walk- a local bushman tribe showed us the different plants they use to cure various ailments, then topped it off with a demonstration on fire making that made us all want to hand over a lighter (not quick!).

Okavango Delta- okay, so there weren’t too many highlights here, but we still had a few good laughs. After a 2 ½ trip in a leaking mokoro (dug out wooden canoe pushed by a long pole) that reminded me of the bible story of baby Moses going through the reeds, we arrived at a patch of land and pitched our camp—picture swampland and lots of mosquitoes!

In the afternoon we embarked on a game walk where we were briefed to run and climb a tree if we got close to a buffalo, run downwind around an elephant and stand still in the presence of a lion; sure, it had us on edge but that was before we knew there were NO animals anywhere nearby, just lots of dung giving us false hope. We did spot a group of zebra and wildebeest which was cool the first time when we scared them away- the noise of a 100 zebras running in the middle of nowhere is shockingly loud (over time it became clear it isn't so tough to find a zebra in Africa!)

The next morning it was a 5am rise for a 4 hour game walk when we just knew we’d be climbing trees to escape buffalo. No such luck, just more zebra and an occasional baboon as we did a forced march through waist high grass (dodging the occasional hole in the ground). By the end of the 4 hours it was hot, we were tired and pretty dejected--- so tired that we couldn’t stop laughing at our new found knowledge of the identity and freshness of dung.

We re-energized a bit with a post lunch swim in the delta in a place they assured us was free of crocs and hippos.

Then there was one more shot at wildlife- the afternoon mokoro sunset trip to get some hippos under our belts. Our plan- look for zebra and we’d probably spot everything else we'd been looking for. While in the group all we managed was to taste the root of a reed (lil sweet) and catch yet another sunset (we all have about 1,000 pictures of sunsets from various places). Other than touring every cobweb in the Delta (with our faces- yuck),we didn’t see anything. Lucky for me and Bea (my mokoro/tent mate), our poler Arms had to pop by a neighboring camp to pick up dinner from his girlfriend and we stumbled upon some giraffe. It was twilight and they were in the distance, but I was still excited to finally see something.

The evening did end well with a singing performance by the poles fireside that was delightful.

Next morning it was back on the mokoro to return to civilization, well, at least running water and proper toilets!

Chobe- Thank god for the Chobe River where we FINALLY saw some elephants, hippos and crocs. A whole herd of elephants were hangin riverside for the perfect photo opp. The crocs were a little more shy, prefering to stay mostly submerged.

Plus, of course, sunset #40!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

To the Desert

When I first read the itinerary it seemed questionable to spend 2 days driving (6 hours each way) for 1 day in the desert, but I figured what the hell- nothing in Africa is close and they think nothing of a day’s drive.

The drive was fairly mundane, all on gravel roads with an unchanging landscape (I am typing this on the truck since somewhat bored of looking at nothingness--- seriously, hours go by without seeing a house).

It certainly was a long drive, but wow was it worth it!!! We arrived at Sossusvlei in time for the sunset and woke early to catch the sunrise atop a sand dune. Namibia has the 2nd largest sand dunes in the world--- some as high as a 60 story high-rise.

The red sand contrasted with the blue sky was brilliant, with the dunes constantly changing based on the shadows and light from the sun.

Yes, pretty, but also maybe the most fun I’ve ever had! Instead of traveling by road, we hiked the 5K through the dunes to get to Dead Vlei, a pan that dried up over 900 years ago leaving dead camel thorn trees still standing. Sure, it was hard work climbing up the larger dunes, but it was quickly forgotten after running down them!

I am exhausted today specifically from Dune 45 (see picture w/o me and use trees for scale-- I am too small to see)-- we estimate it was equivalent to a 25 story commercial building, so the walk up was tough, but imagine how fun it is to run down a steep slope made of sand! It seemed to take forever to get to the bottom and was as close as I’ve come to feeling weightless (next up: the moon). I could not stop laughing--- what a great time!!!
After our sand dune fun we stopped at Sesriem, a nearby gorge, to observe the strange rock formations from the floor. Was cool, but how do you compete with big sand dunes?

And, you’ll be happy to know, my first attempt at camping wasn’t so bad either. The tent was totally fine and I was all toasty in my new sleeping bag (yes, it gets cold in the dessert!; plus the food our guides cooked was very impressive given we were in the middle of nowhere. The highlight, a hot shower with the stars shining above me--- trust me, it was well needed after all that sand!

I am leaving tomorrow for a 10 day camping trip thru Botswana into Zambia. Hopefully I’ll have more good stories then.

Na/ 'an ku se Part II

Since I spent two weeks at Na/ ‘an ku se, and have a ton of pictures, it seemed to warrant more than one blog post.

Here are some of my “awesome” memories (a tribute to Kelvin, an enthusiastic Aussie who saw the awesomeness in EVERYTHING)…

1. Baboon’s offered a ton of laughs, between showing you their butt to be scratched (a good sign showing they are submissive), pre bed acrobatics with the diapered babies jumping on and off everything (including you), chasing an escaped Lola and Clyde to get them back in their enclosure and the grooming I mentioned last time. There was one day I had two baboons sitting on me grooming everything- it was incredibly ticklish when they went for the underarms and tummy and seemed perhaps overly thorough when they got to my eyelashes--- at least I know I am tick and lice free!

2. Baby leopards Umbili and Shakira were cute, but at times you could see a glimmer of their future selves. Once they were fighting over a sweatshirt as we were about to take them for a walk. Everyone tried to help except for me and the two Aussie women who jumped in the back of another pickup truck, as if that was going to protect us--- leopards can jump after all. It was really silly since all we’d need to do is wet them since they hated water and would tip toe around it shaking their big paws- was super cute!

3. Trying to teach Donkey patience and failing, no surprise. Donkey got 4 bottles every few hours, but was very particular about the nipple she would drink out of, so you had to change it very quickly. Donkey and I had countless discussions about patience being a virtue, but not sure she got the message :-(

4. Riding on the back of pickup trucks a la migrant worker- good training for when I return jobless?

5. Lodge night- there is a luxury lodge on the farm where we went for dinner one evening--- it reminded me how much I really do like nice things. I guess you can take the girl out of NYC….

6. Sylvie , the beautiful steambok, nudging me while sitting on a bench reading.

7. Sila, a Namibian staff member, telling a story of “magic panties” (sounded like Spanx) complete with hand motions that had us crying laughing.

8. Samira, the tame cheetah, rubbing up against me and licking me like a house cat. Her tongue was much rougher than I expected and her purr so much louder than you can imagine.

9. On my first carnivore feed, I tossed in a slab of meat to the cheetahs and hit one in the head. Yep, second attempt I clocked another one. Oops! I got better at it.

10. Offroading on the donkey cart, by accident, of course because White and Brown (as I named them), didn’t feel like pulling us anymore. When you wanted them to stop they ran and vice versa. You physically had to stand in front of them to get them to stop--- after 6 hours I got to the point of singing “Stop, In the Name of Love” and scolding White like a child for being a pain in the ass (no pun intended).

11. Finally, the look on the cheetah’s face when we threw them zebra meat--- a total look of disgust that we expected them to eat that (to be fair, it did smell terrible).

Less “awesome”moments…

1. I forgot the rule “never say no to a baboon” and got myself two nice bites courtesy of Troy. No worries, almost everyone gets bit and they don t break the skin, but they do leave a nasty bruise.

2. Eating and drinking in Africa finally caught up to me--- my tummy was NOT happy for a couple days there.

3. Deaths of Whitetale (the cheetah cub), Scooner (dog), the elan that ran into the lion den (oops) and Pumba (warthog) polishing off the last of the baby chicks right in front of me—no respect!

Na/ ‘an ku se was quite a memorable experience!

Monday, May 3, 2010

God Was Watching Over Us

No, I haven't found religion in Namibia, I just spend the last 2 weeks at Na/ 'an ku se Wildlife Sanctuary, translated to mean "God is Watching Over Us."

It was an incredible few weeks, with great people (mostly UK, US, Aussie and Dutch) and interaction with a ton of animals (that is where the God watching over part comes in ;-)

It seemed every day I did something I NEVER thought I would do (or would never be allowed to do), including:

  • Feeding carnivores, including: lion, cheetah, african wild dogs and leopards

  • Walking animals, including: baby leopards (6 mos old, and not so tiny), caracals and baboons

  • Being groomed by baboons- they were very thorough (borderline molestation, really)

  • Having baboons stick their tongue in your mouth-- Ewh!

  • Playing mom to baby baboons, yes, meaning sleeping with them (sometimes on your head) and bottle feeding them

  • Cutting grass with a machete for sleeping beds for the leopards, donkey and rabbits (my future donation- a weed wacker!)

  • Playing tug of war with a baby leopard's (Umbili) tail as he dragged me into a thorn bush (did you know all those trees that seem to exemplify Africa are covered in thorns?)

  • Having a cheetah (Samira) lick and rub up against me like a house cat
  • Bonding with a baboon (Bloomie) who loved to jump on my bum shoulder- why she was against the left shoulder I'll never know?

  • Herding bunnies at night
  • Going on a midnight spotlight drive and seeing eyes peering back at me

  • Driving a donkey cart around the perimeter gate for 6 1/2 HOURS :-(

  • Ooohing and Ahhhing at the cute little meerkat, lamb and steambok

  • And probably a ton more I'm not remembering right now

The scenery was fantastic- between the stars and the never ending nothingness, sometimes it looked like a movie set.

I hope Miss Cora Porter is now pleased with the new animal photos she requested.

Tomorrow morning I am off to visit the 2nd largest sand dunes in the world at Sossusvlei, so expect an update in a few days before I head into Botswana.