Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Lion King

To Kenya

Last Thursday (July 1), we made the long journey to Kenya. The trip is technically about 4 hours long, but it ended up taking us most of the day because of waiting time and constant stopping in taxis. We boarded the shared taxi in Mbale at 11am and got out in Kisumu at 8pm. The rides were typical. Too many people were crammed in, I had a live rooster at my feet, the JAB (both Kenyan and Ugandan) was unbearable. I also got a marriage proposal in Kenya even though I told the guy I was taken. He assured me that if I brought my boyfriend to Kenya we could find him a Kenyan woman so that Stephen (my suitor) and I could be together. He even offered to buy me a banana--I think it was a dowry. I declined.

At one point along the way, near the border on the Ugandan side, we drove on a road that bisected two markets. The market on one side of the street was in Kenya, while the one opposite was in Uganda. Apparently they take both Ugandan and Kenyan shillings at both market.
At the border, this guy we had met in the taxi helped us navigate immigration. He helped us exchange money on the black market. There are literally men everywhere with calculators who exchange currencies, even right at the border. Very official... In the Ugandan office, we met two girls from Boston University School of Public Health who had been working in Kenya for six weeks and were now going to work in Uganda for another six weeks. One of them looked really familiar. On a whim, I asked if she went to Michigan undergrad. She did and was in one of my classes--I think pchem. I have no idea what her name is and I don't think we ever spoke, so she understandably had no idea who I was. I might I have freaked her out a bit by recognizing her. Oh well. Small world. In Kenya, we had to buy visas. The man demanded $25 from us and was not pleased when we told him we didn't have US dollars and had to pay in shillings, though I think we got a much better rate even though he said it was going to be worse. We paid KSh 1050, which is about $13. Also at the Kenyan immigration office was a condom dispenser (see photo on facebook). I wasn't able to check if it was full or not, but I sincerely hope it was. Though I highly doubt that anyone would actually take a condom that much in public. I could hardly believe when some guy took one from the box at the TASO library, though I'm glad he did. Across the border, I also used my first, but certainly not my last, squat toilet. It was disgusting, and I had to pay KSh10 for it. Nrupa kept telling me to practice at TASO, but I never did. Bad mistake. She was trying to coach me from outside the door, but I was too busy laughing and trying not to pee on myself to pay attention. The woman in the other stall also laughed and made some funny comment about my ineptitude, but I can't remember what it was.
In Kenya, on the ride from Busia to Kisumu, Nrupa and I were debating whether or not Kenya looks different from Uganda. We eventually decided that the landscapes are quite different. Uganda is more fields while Kenya has more trees. I also think that the stores and roadside stalls are a bit different. In Uganda they seem more sturdy, which is surprising given the western feel of Kisumu. Kisumu and Mbale are both the third largest cities in their respective countries, but they couldn't be more different. Kisumu is much more developed, with paved roads and western architecture. Mbale is what you think of when you think of an African town. It's relatively small, with storefronts of tiny shops painted as adverts. Kisumu was even much more developed than Kampala, which I found most surprising. Kisumu also has a much wider selection of food than Mbale. Here, we have four edible restaurants. Three of them are Indian.
Nrupa's friend Rachna, who organized the safari, met us when we got to Kisumu. She picked us up from the matatu park in a tuk tuk, an auto rickshaw, and took us to dinner. We went to two restaurants--Al Noor and Laughing Buddha. Al-Noor is Muslim owned and doesn't allow alcohol on its tables while Laughing Buddha is vegetarian and doesn't allow meat on its tables. However, they do allow you to combine tables and eat at both places, so long as you follow the alcohol/meat rules. We ordered food from Al Noor (really good but too spicy paneer kabobs) and wine and dessert from Laughing Buddha. Dessert was amazing. We all shared a brownie with a huge scoop of ice cream and warm chocolate sauce poured over it. It was the best think I'd eaten in the past 6 weeks. So nice to have real chocolate! Then we went back to Rachna's beautiful apartment for some much need rest before our 6am departure.

Masai Mara

Our safari was in Masai Mara, in the southwestern region of Kenya bordering Tanzania. At 6:30 we were picked up for our 6am departure. Right on time in Africa. Nine of us piled into a van with a pop up roof and set off. We all thought it was only a 3 hour drive, but apparently it was 6. Oh well. More time for bonding, by which I mean sleeping since none of us had really done that the night before. The last two hours of the drive were on bumpy, dusty road. I felt I was going to be sick the whole time.

We saw our first wild animals before we ever reached the park--baboon (I just realized I forgot to post those pictures on facebook. Oh well, something to look forward to upon my return). After two hours on this awful road, we pulled into paradise--Mara Leisure. As Nrups said, who knew the road to Heaven was so bumpy. It was beautiful! Definitely the nicest place I have ever stayed. One night at a place like this in the States would have cost more than my entire 3 day safari! We were greeted at the front gate by Masai men wearing the traditional outfit (I forget the name) who handed us warm towels to wipe our hands and faces. We then had some delicious fruit juice as we got an introduction to the hotel. All food, coffee, and tea is included. (Water is never included around here because it's all bottled. It's odd to be at dinner and not constantly have your water glass refilled). We stayed in a permanent tent that was set up on raised platform. The shower had really good pressure and solar-heated water.

We had a delicious lunch at the camp/lodge. No beans, rice, or matoke there. The girls on our trip didn't even know what matoke was. Lucky... Then we relaxed by the pool before our first game drive. We ended up hiring a second driver so that we could split into two vehicles and everyone could have room to stand up and better views. Nrupa and I went with Pilot, a Masai man who runs a transport company. He was great. He grew up in the Mara so he knew his way around really well. He even claimed to know the name of the leopard we say, but he could have been making that up.

The evening game drive was so much fun. We went out around 4 and drove around for a little over two hours. At first we just saw a bunch of zebra, wildebeest, and antelope (mostly gazelles and impalas), but then we saw some giraffe, an ostrich, hippos, and even a leopard. I felt bad for the leopard. There were about 8 cars all huddled around this one area where she was sitting. It was very difficult to see her through the bushes where she was lying down, and I only got a very distorted glimpse of her face, but it was still amazing. There was a tree in the patch where she was laying and up in the high branches we could see the remnants of the antelope she had killed. Unfortunately she was too shy to eat in front of us. The hippos were really need too. They're HUGE! And they smell terrible! They were all in this one part of the river and it smelled so bad! We kept joking that all of the water had been replaced by hippo excrement. This was the one place where we could get out of the car though, because the hippos were a good distance below us so they posed to threat.

The landscape was beautiful. I could get over how endless it looked. We also were able to see the sun set. The way the sun shone through the clouds as it went down was breathtaking. Also, in the distance we could see a heavy storm. At first I didn't know what it was--I thought it was just more sun rays coming through, but someone told me that it was rain.

That night we had another spectacular meal and watched some football before passing out in our amazingly comfortable and fresh-smelling beds.

Saturday morning we woke up early for a full-day game drive. We loaded our boxed lunches into the cars and set off. Again we saw a bunch of wildebeest and zebras early on, but eventually saw three elephants, a few crocodiles, including one that was feeding, a buffalo, and four lions. At one point, while we were looking for elephants, our driver, Lucas, set off at full speed, chasing after other cars. We bounced over rocky paths in hot pursuit of something, though we weren't sure what. It turns out that the wildebeests and zebras were lining up at the river as part of the annual migration. The few at the front kept walking forward a bit as if they were going to cross, then getting scared and turning around. We waited about 45 minutes, but nothing was happening so we decided to move on. I'm glad we did because we were able to see a crocodile feeding on an antelope. I have a pretty good video and some much better pictures. We heard from others that, after a few hours (the people we talked to had time to take a lunch break), the wildebeests and zebras finally traversed the river. Apparently two baby zebra were taken by crocs. I'm sad we didn't get to see it, but we saw something much better--MATING LIONS!!! Granted, it only lasted for about 10 seconds, but it's pretty cool nonetheless.

When we saw our first two lions, Pilot informed us that it was definitely mating season because the male and female we had come upon had separated themselves from the group. They were sitting about 10-15 feet apart from each other panting like crazy. We figured they had just done the deed. As we started to drive away, the male lion got up and started walking toward the other car in our group. It was hilarious from my perspective since I wasn't in that car (and since nothing actually happened). They all ducked down back into the van with looks of fear on their faces. He ended up just laying about 5 feet from the van. Good view for picture taking! Both of them were so big and muscular. Even from our distance and their prostrate positions you could see how powerful they were. What was most baffling was that a large group of topee (antelope) were grazing about 30-40 feet from the two lions. I wonder how they decided that they weren't a threat? We drove off in a random direction and ended up running in to two more lions that had separated from the group. Apparently they all do that for about 7 days before rejoining. These two were lying very close to one another, also panting heavily (though it was also super hot...). After a few minutes, the male got up, approached the female, stepped over her, and entered. It literally lasted about 5-10 seconds (I have a video). The whole time both lions were growling/purring and the male was nibbling the female's ear. When he was finished she rolled over in ecstasy, laid there for a few minutes, and then got up an walked away. The rest of the afternoon was full of inappropriate jokes involving lion copulation.

That night we all passed out really early, thoroughly pleased with our safari experience and ready to meet the Masai people the next morning.

On Sunday, we reluctantly packed our bags to leave paradise. It's ironic that you work so hard to get into heaven just to leave 2 days later... But, we were off to meet the Masai. I was super excited to see some of their customs and way of life because I don't understand how people can live in the middle of nowhere like that. Of course, when we get there it was a bit disappointing. First of all, we had to pay KSh1000 (about $12.50) before they would let us into the village. One of the girls in our group opted out. I knew that meant the whole process was going to be a bit commercialized, but oh well. Everyone has to make a living somehow. I paid my money and lined up to watch the Masai warriors dance for us. I joined in a bit, but was a too busy taking pictures. One of the dances is a jumping competition. Apparently the higher you jump, the more girlfriends you have. Any boy could these kids jump! It seemed like they had springs on their feet. One kid (my favorite) jumped at least 3 feet high. Get them to the NBA!

After the dancing, we entered the village. The women did a little dance for us, we saw how the Masai make fire using two pieces of wood, and then we went into one of their houses. We learned that the Masai diet consists mostly of beef, milk, and blood (yes, blood). They slit the jugulars of the cows, drain the blood, and mix it with milk. Thankfully we didn't witness this. It was neat to see their customs, but it was also very uncomfortable because they just kept trying to sell us stuff. The tried to sell us the wood they use to make fire, and the sticks they use for dancing, then there was a curios shop where everything was super overpriced (though I still got a bracelet). It's just a bit depressing that their entire community is so commercialized.

Back to Kisumu, then Mbale

After the Masai village, we headed back to Kisumu. We spent one more night with Rachna, explored a little bit of Kisumu, and then headed back to the Uganda, which was another adventure in and of itself. We decided to take a bus rather than a matatu because we figured it would be faster since the bus doesn't make constant stops like the matatu. We booked tickets on the 4pm bus so that we would have time to look around Kisumu and have lunch with our friends, but still be able to get to the border and catch a taxi to Mbale before dark. We got to the bus station around 3:30 to find that our bus had not yet arrived. We ended up waiting until 5:15(!!!) for it to get there. Though we were over an hour late, we still had time to get to the border just before dark, so we weren't too worried. The bus pulled away and we settled in...only to have it stop around the corner for an hour while someone welded the sideview mirror back on. We finally set off a bit after six, and I was sufficiently freaked out.

As we neared the border, Nrups and I strapped on our money belts, secured our backpacks to us, and set off hand in hand for the immigration office. We quickly filled our our forms and pushed to the front of the lines to have our passports stamped. At the Ugandan border, the immigrations officer tried to tell me that my visa was expired or incorrectly filled out or something, but I was having none of it. As I argued with him, gesticulating wildly, the officer at the next booth came over and corrected him. He begrudgingly stamped me through, and off we went in search of transport back to Mbale. We tried to find a taxi, but apparently by 8:30pm all of the ones going in our direction had already departed. We were in communication with two coworkers from TASO who were helping us decide whether we should just stay the night in Busia and get a taxi in the morning or travel back to Mbale that night via special hire. Busia is kind of a shady, nothing town so we decided to go back. Peter, our go-to guy at TASO, spoke with the special hire and took his name and license plate number. We also texted him (and a few other people) the make and model of the car and the driver's phone number, just in case. I was really nervous. I mean, this guy could literally drive us anywhere. Peter kept calling every 20-30 minutes our so to check on us and our progress. We made it back to Mbale safe and sound around 10:30 that night. In the end the driver was a nice guy, but I am certainly in no rush to ever travel at night again.

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