The End of the Road (For Now)

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Wow.

183 days later and I’m finally going home. If you’re only following me through my blog which is entirely possible, you’ll know that I’ve definitely fallen behind on the posting for many reasons, the least of which was the non existant wifi in Ethiopia and now that I’m in the developed world I’m getting lazy. I will definitely fill in all of those posts and pictures in due time, but now, it’s time for an ending.

In about 4 hours, I’ll be leaving for my final trip to the airport and I’ll be home in time for dinner. There are so many little things that I’m impossibly excited about. I can’t wait to sleep in my own bed. I’ll only need one currency and I’ll never have to mental math converting currencies. I’ll get to stop unpacking and repacking every 2 or 3 nights. I’ll get to wear more than 4 or 5 different shirts. I don’t take malaria pills every night anymore and I’m sick and tired of cold showers, strange showers, dirty showers, or usually all three. I’ll finally sleep in my own bed.

But to say that I’m excited to come home isn’t all true. I’ve had an absolutely fantastic time for the last 6 months. I’ve been to 15 countries (since I’ve last posted about Ethiopia, I’ve been to the U.A.E., Turkey, Italy, France, and the U.K.) and I’ve had an incredible time in every single one. I’ve gone to some of the most remote places on the planet and I’ve seen some of the most incredible landscapes and scenery you can’t even imagine. I’ve practically taken a tour of world religions, going to mosques, temples, and synagogues all over the world. I’ve visited ancient ruins and the tallest buildings. I’ve never had an experience like this before and I never will again.

The one thing that I will take away from this more than anything though (brace yourselves… it’s about to get cheesy) is my connection with all of the people. I’ve met literally thousands of people all over the world. I have a theory that bus conductors are the nicest people around the world, always making sure I know when it’s my stop, even if I don’t speak the language. People will let me use their phones, go out of their way to give me directions or even walk me to where I’m going, and usually people are always just curious about my life and I learn something about theirs. In all 15 countries I’ve met fantastic interesting people, locals and travelers alike.

When I started the trip, I thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to meet all of the people that I’ve met on the trip in my last post,” but honestly that list has grown so large that I’m bound to forget someone and most likely I’ll forget about 20 people. Special shout outs do go to my sister Tori, for putting up with me all throughout Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam; my great friend Mia for virtually planning our entire 2 weeks in China; the incredible Yoshika who herself has only just got back to the U.S. after briefly hosting me in Bangladesh; my a cappella mate Kunal and his entire family for letting me crash for a whole week in Delhi far outstaying my welcome and bringing me along to a wedding; all of my relatives in Italy for stuffing me full with lasagna on a regular basis; and last but not least my friends Charlie and Paul for the couch and movie screeners that I’ve been abusing for the last 4 days. Well, and I can’t forget my fantastic mom for helping out on the back-end, always helping with the logistics, plane flights, and all of the boring stuff that keeps me going.

But the people I really want to thank are the people who will never read this blog. My first real day on my own I went to Hong Kong Disneyland and because I’m a 7 year old at heart, as soon as the gates opened I raced to the newest roller coaster. I obviously was first in line so I sat in the front seat. The small fat 12 year old kid who sat next to me instantly struck up a conversation and we ended up spending the whole day together. It’s people like him, or the woman who ran down the street to tell me that she gave us the wrong directions and walked us to the right place or the vast number of men in Kenya who successfully got my passport through 500 km of bandit territory. These are the people that I want to thank. I have found such unrelenting kindness and I’ve been truly inspired by it. Inspired to do what? Well… I don’t really know. But certainly inspired.

Well, it’s time for me to get my final hours of shut eye before taking off. Before I forget, ’tis the season and I encourage anyone and everyone to donate to any of the charities I talk about here. So finally after 24 plane flights, 10 long distance trains, and a guesstimated 500 bus, truck, taxi, and tuk tuk rides to get every where in between, I’ll finally be done. Good night and wish me luck. Thanks for reading the blog and I hope to see all of you soon.

Tribal Time

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Whereas the last post covered a long strenuous 5 days of stress, traveling, and visa drama, this post is the reward. I made it back with the group in time to visit the indigenous tribes of the Omo Valley. These are some of the coolest, most remote, and most individualistic tribes in Africa and we were going to get a hands on experience. The tiny town of Turmi where we spent the night was only a few kilometers away from the Hamer tribe. When we arrived in the morning, all of the women instantly surrounded us. They wore lavish necklaces made out of goat hide and beads but little else. To be blunt, I saw a lot of boobs. A lot. The men of the tribe sat back, indifferent to our presence, but the women flocked around us. Each of them wanted us to choose them to be in a picture for which they would charge 4 or 5 birr (25 cents). Paying for every picture gets cumbersome quickly, so I really chose not to pay for any pictures and instead I’ll steal some from everyone else.

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The women led us through the village to a large hut in the back. We first had to duck through a hole in the thorny fence around it and then crawl through the tiny doorway in. Once we were all seated around the fire, we began a traditional coffee ceremony. They showed us the fresh coffee beans and they basically just roasted the beans and added some water. Boom! Instant coffee. We drank the coffee out of giant wooden gourd-shaped bowls. The coffee was so light and fresh I ended up having three bowls, if also only to be polite. Inside the tent, we were having fun joking with the women. We quickly learned to communicate without language – pointing, faces, charades, whatever. We usually just made fun of each other and the women laughed along.

Fresh coffee.

Fresh coffee.

After the coffee ceremony we got a tour of their village. It was much more spread out than the Samburu village in Kenya, but it was just as rustic. The girls all wanted money for photos and they even tried to get us to donate the shirts off our backs! I suggested making a trade my shirt for their shirts, but they managed to convey that my shirt was shitty cotton and theirs were tough goat hide and would never break. No deal.

 

That afternoon, we drove some 50km further to visit another branch of the Hamer tribe who were having a very special and very rare bull jumping ceremony. Apparently, one of the final steps before getting married is completing the bull jump. This big ritual invites tribes from all over to celebrate and give him blessings.

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We parked pretty close, but we still had to trek for about 45 minutes through dried up riverbeds and thorny acacia trees just to make it to the ceremony. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. When we got there, the ceremony was well underway, but I couldn’t have told you what was going on. People were dressed mostly in what we saw them wearing at the tribe earlier, nothing special. Women had bells strapped around their legs and would occasionally and seemingly randomly join together, and start jumping in a circle. The men were also just milling about, some of who carried large automatic machine guns. Amidst the chaos, there was one element we did understand. We stood silently by as young men would whip the women with branches, leaving deep red cuts in their backs. Many of the other women who weren’t getting whipped wore huge scars across their backs. According to the tradition, the women are all relatives of the man completing the bull jump. They receive the lashes to prove their love for the man – the deeper the cut, the deeper the love. Every now and then you would just hear the crack of a branch on skin and know that someone was getting whipped. It was very upsetting, but all of the women took their beatings nobly and proudly.

Some Hamer women dancing to bless the bull jumper.

Some Hamer women dancing to bless the bull jumper.

After about an hour of milling around and talking to the tribal women, the bulls in the middle started getting sorted. Somehow, the best bulls were chosen. The man of the hour appeared in the middle of the herd of the bulls and we he emerged on our side we realized besides some hair decorations, he was stark naked. He and some of the other males selected the biggest, sturdiest bulls and lined them up so they were shoulder to shoulder.

Do you see him in the middle surrounded by bulls? He's making peace with them... naked.

Do you see him in the middle surrounded by bulls? He’s making peace with them… naked.

The man took his place and with one giant step pushed himself onto the first bull and ran along the backs of the other 6 or 7 bulls to our side. The women were cheering as the men held the bulls in place. He immediately turned back around and jumped on again, running across. He never tripped or stumbled and made bull jumping look very easy. He did this just a couple more times and the whole thing was done in 2 minutes. We applauded his valor and then just like that the tribe vanished.

Line dancing away from us.

Line dancing away from us.

We began our lonely walk back to the truck when we got caught in a downpour. Previously I had been such a good traveler that I was never without an umbrella, a raincoat, or both. But today I had none and we all got soaked. The 45-minute walk seemed to take forever, but once we just accepted getting wet, it became a lot less miserable. That night, we went to a nearby hotel for a delicious dinner and spent the whole night drinking and celebrating our great couple of days in the Omo Valley.

A lot of the men in the tribe carried guns. Why do they need guns?!?!?

A lot of the men in the tribe carried guns. Why do they need guns?!?!?

Debatably my single favorite picture of the trip. This girl wanted to try on my glasses.

Debatably my single favorite picture of the trip. This girl wanted to try on my glasses.

The Loneliest Road in the World – or How Not to Get an Ethiopian Visa, Pt. 2

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Buckle in and get ready for a rant. This stretch of 5 days was some of the most dangerous and risky time I’ve had on my travels. A thousand things could have gone wrong, and a few did, but since I’m here writing this you know I’m still alive. The drive from Samburu, Kenya to the Ethiopian border is famous for a lot of things, the least of which is high quality roads with pleasant scenery. In fact, the roads are poorly maintained dirt tracts, there are very few villages and those to speak of can’t even be larger than 1,000 people, and the scenery is an unchanging flat barren volcanic rock-scape with literally no variation for 500 km. Thus our journey begins.

This is a picture of the whole gang... and the two stoned security guards with us.

This is a picture of the whole gang… and the two stoned security guards with us.

The first day we sat in the back of the spacious truck and… did nothing. We warned of frequent bandit attacks along the road and we had two security guards with huge rifles on hand, but fortunately, we never needed them. All I did was read (I’m deep in the A Song of Ice and Fire books better known as the Game of Thrones books – I’m almost up to date with the series and so far the third book is my favorite) and occasionally played cards. That’s it. The drive from Samburu to Marsabit, our stop for the first night was 100km of smooth tarmac and then 150km of slow dirt road. We made good time and the whole drive only took us 8 or 9 hours! Hooray! At Marsabit, we spent the night in dodgy hotel and watched a little bit of local Kenyan television. They have horrible but great low-budget soap operas in Swahili, a group hip-hop dance competition, and there’s a very popular candid camera kind of thing.

 

The next day, there was just more driving. Another 250km, all horrible roads, with police escorts, no scenery. That just means I did more reading and played more cards. The drive to the border town of Moyale took us about 12 full hours, but we made it without shredding any tires or getting attacked by bandits so we considered it a victory. At Moyale, we camped out at the police station and went to a local bar for a traditional Swahili dinner of chicken stew, sukumawiki (spinach), ugali (stiff porridge), and chips (French fries). Unfortunately, this is where I had a kink in the plans.

 

If you remember, in Nairobi I had a few problems getting my Ethiopian visa. As a brief reminder, I was originally planning on flying into Ethiopia where you can get a visa on arrival. When you go overland through the town of Moyale, they won’t issue one there. The Ethiopian embassy in Nairobi won’t issue visas to foreigners so I had to ship my passport back to the U.S., have the Ethiopian Embassy there rush process it, then get it shipped back to Kenya.

 

Now, by this point I was in the border town of Moyale and it is so difficult to reach, that they don’t have a regular working post office. So I had to research a hotel in Moyale, the very lovely Al Yusra hotel, to accept it. The owner told me the best way to get a package to Moyale was through the Moyale Raha bus company, which I later found out was conveniently owned by the owner. So I had my parcel which would hopefully contain a shiny new Ethiopian visa delivered to the bus company’s office in Nairobi.

 

Through a long series of phone calls, I found out that when I got to Moyale, the parcel had arrived in Nairobi, but FedEx was unable to deliver and had it waiting to be picked up at the office, which office no one could seem to tell me, but surely at one of the offices. I then had to convince, over the phone and in a foreign language, one of the employees of the bus company to go to the office, pick the parcel up for me and put it on the bus that left that evening. I must have made 50 phone calls that day. Every 5 minutes there was new information. First it was we have the package and it is on the bus. Then it was we don’t have the package and we don’t know where it is. Finally by 4PM, I got confirmation from all parties involved that my parcel had made it on to the bus as a personal package for the owner and not through the regular package shipment which usually contains sacks of rice and it would arrive at the border the next afternoon. I spent a restful night at a very clean and safe hotel doing laundry, taking hot showers, and watching movies. So maybe this snafu wasn’t a bad thing after all.

 

I was told that the bus would arrive sometime in the late afternoon, too late to cross the border on the next day so I just spent the whole next day being lazy, reading my new book (The Constant Gardener by John LeCarré, about a murder that happened outside of Marsabit… great.) and just being lazy. However, the local buses make great time and the package was there by 1PM. I flew into crazy packing mode and sprinted to the bus station to find they were on lunch/prayer break. Fine. At 2pm, I got the parcel and lo and behold I had an Ethiopian visa and I was only a day and a half behind my tour group.

 

I ran to the border and crossed in a mere 15 minutes, most of which was spent physically walking between the border. When I got to the other side, all I had was an itinerary of where my group would be and a lot of Kenyan schillings. I had to barter with the locals to get an good exchange rate and then figure out how to get to Konso, which I had no idea how far away or what direction it was in. It turns out, that you can’t get straight to Konso, but you first have to stop in the equally small, equally middle of nowhere town of Yabelo. But I didn’t know this yet. The locals just heard Konso and threw me on to the nearest bus, crammed into the back for a mere 3 dollars. Eventually, I got someone to draw me a “map” of the route I needed to take. A 4 hour drive to Yabelo through ever greener landscape and a beautiful sunset made me feel adventurous. I was in the middle of fucking nowhere, setting out on an adventure with no skills or language or guidebook, just my own intuition and an ample but kind of small amount of Ethiopian money. Bring it on.

 

Most of the hotels in Ethiopia double as brothels. Fine. This meant that when I arrived to the one intersection town of Yabelo in the dark most of the hotels were booked up by the hour and I had to try three hotels, the third being a sketchy bar with a few rooms in the back. This affair currently holds the award for my cheapest accomodations of only 3 dollars and that’s about how much it was worth. It was surprisingly roach free so I slept fine. That night I went out for a traditional Ethiopian meal of njera (sour spongy bread) and eggs and asked all of the locals about the first bus to Konso. Some said 8AM, some said 10AM, others said 5AM. With that being no help, I decided I would go to the bus station at 4:45 AM just in case.

 

I woke up super early and walked through the darkness with a couple of locals to the bus station. No buses left until 6 and the bus to Konso left at 8AM. So I dutifully waited at the bus station until 6 then they let me on to the bus and I tried to sleep there for a couple of hours unsuccessfully. 8AM rolled around, there were about 10 people on the bus and I asked when the bus was leaving. The driver replied 9AM. At 9AM there were maybe about 15 people on the bus and I asked when the bus would be leaving. They told me 10AM. I grumbled and went back to my seat. 9:30 rolled around and I asked when the bus would be leaving and they told me 11AM. I finally communicated my frustration and asked why the time kept changing. They explained that the bus only left once it was full. For the second time in as many weeks, I lost my shit.

 

I started screaming and shouting. I knew that they didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand them, but that didn’t stop me. I just kept pointing and shouting numbers. I had crazy eyes and a deep pool of rage and frustration. I had places to be! I was hoping to meet up with my group that night and I needed to get a move on! I tried to tell them, “This other woman has been sitting here with me since 7AM! We could have been to Konso and back by now! It’s not even good economics to wait until the bus is full! WHY THE FUCKING HELL WON’T YOU LEAVE?!?!?!” I think I scared the bus driver so badly that he immediately turned on the bus and off we went. I took it as a personal victory.

 

We left the town slowly, the conductor hanging out the door shouting “KONSO! BUS TO KONSO!” As soon as we started to leave Yabelo though, we realized there was an unclaimed bag in the back and we left a passenger behind at the bus station. Oops! We doubled back for him and he was visibly shaken and relieved that we came back for him. By the time we ended up leaving Yabelo, the bus was mostly full and everyone got their money’s worth and I got to leave hours earlier than I would have otherwise. Everyone wins. The bus ride from Yabelo to Konso was about 3 and a half hours of rolling hills and a beautiful river running along side of us. My sense of adventure was high.

 

As soon as I got to Konso, I found a series of mini buses all leaving to go to the destinations where I was supposed to meet up with my group. Well, all except the one town I needed to go to, Turmi. I ended up communicating that I needed to go there and I would join a van that went half way there, all of the passengers would get off and then I would pay a shit load for the driver to take me the rest of the way. Almost as soon as we started going, we stopped for lunch. Then we started our drive deep into the Omo Valley. The roads were all incredibly well maintained and I forgot what it was like not to ride in a giant hulking vehicle. The little van whipped through the mountains and hills at 100km an hour and we made it to the tiny halfway point in just a couple of hours. The ride was so beautiful as we twisted through the hills. The Omo Valley looks like the south of Spain by way of Africa. There are rows of terraced crops carved into the hills dotted with tiny African straw huts. The greens were incredibly green boldly contrasting the rich brown soil and the sapphire sky. I just stared out the window for the whole drive.

This was the only picture I took during the drive because I was also too busy holding on because our driver was a crazy person.

This was the only picture I took during the drive because I was also too busy holding on because our driver was a crazy person.

The rest of the bus ride to Turmi was just as beautiful. I had been in contact with my tour leader and she had a local guide who communicated to my drivers where I would meet them. After a couple more hours, we made it to the tiny town of Turmi. I would be shocked if 200 people lived there. There was one intersection and I could see the entire town if I stood in the middle. There, my drivers just dropped me off and sped away. I was again in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, I lucked into finding the campsite where my group was possibly staying. I went into town with a local for dinner and ate another great traditional meal. That night, I was having a beer at a bar and I found out that one of the guys there was the local contact for my group and he told me that my group would be arriving soon and eating dinner at another local restaurant. We got to the restaurant just as they were pulling up! Success! I had met up with my group in what is debatably the most remote part of the entire world. I could not have been more proud of myself.

 

And it turns out I didn’t miss too much. They had two days of uneventful driving and the third day they had a really cool but really awful experience with the Mursi tribe, commonly known as the lip plate people. It was a crushing blow to miss out on the lip plate people, but I had made it in time for another full day of tribal visits, only missing one 45-minute visit to a very aggressive and unpleasant tribe. Plus, being on a tour you lose the essence of traveling on your own. I gained such a sense of Ethiopian people and culture from being shoved next to them on a series of buses. I talked with locals, I ate their food in their restaurants, and I negotiated with them at every step of the way. My adventure was worth a hundred times more than any tribal visit. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t super excited for the tribal visit I had earned for the next day!

Waka Waka Hey Hey

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The drive from Naro Moru at the base of Mt. Kenya to Samburu National Park was really short. Nothing more than a puddle jump. We stocked up on supplies and drove our way deep into the park – not for a game drive mind you, just to spend the night in a local village.

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When I say in a local village, I mean in. We drove through the vast landscape of light brown dirt, the delicate brush, and the dangerous acacia trees and pulled the truck right up through the thicket surrounding the couple dozen huts and shacks this village called home and set up our tents right next to their own homes. The Samburu village we were staying in had about 150 people and about half of them seemed to be children. The children ran around constantly playing games and trying to talk to us. The adults welcomed us into their homes and with the little (but surprisingly large) English they knew told us how they lived their daily lives – sleeping, eating, staying warm, and harvesting food.

High Five!

High Five!

We took a brief walk to the nearby red river. Our guide Sammy pointed out the local crocodiles in the rushing river and that ended any delusions we had about swimming. We learned a lot about the local customs. Education isn’t compulsory. Parents choose if they need their children at home to watch the goats or sheep or they can go to school. They can’t do both. Sammy was originally a goat watcher, but after he fell asleep and lost a couple of goats to lions, his father punished him by sending him to school. Some punishment!

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When we got back to the village, the children were anxious to play with us. We quickly learned the international language in Africa is not English or Swahili, but is instead singing Shakira’s World Cup anthem Waka Waka. Every kid in the village knew the whole song by heart and would constantly sing it. We found it on someone’s iPod and blasted the music through the truck and had a giant dance party. The kids just can’t get enough of touching you and they would fight over who got to hold your hand or something. Needless to say, it was a lot of fun and I used a bucket of hand sanitizer.

They make fire like they do on Survivor!

They make fire like they do on Survivor!

That night, the tribe prepared us dinner, although it was hardly local fare. They used our pots and pans and made us something resembling stew. It was still tasty and that night, for the special occasion of having foreign guests, the dancing began. The only light was from the small bonfire, but the dancing seemed to spread throughout the whole village.  We were encouraged to join in the ritual and I eagerly grabbed a Samburu woman’s hand and started doing my best to copy their rhythmic jumping. I honestly have no idea of it lasted five minutes or an hour, but I got lost in their chanting, stomping, and the clanging of bells and had a great time.

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The next morning we left the village and took off for the game park. Samburu National Park has the weird quality of looking exactly like what you think Africa looks like. It’s just filled with acacia trees and the light brush. We spent the whole day driving in the truck through the park. This mean that we were sitting in the roof seats, about 15 feet above the ground. This way, we could see animals that would otherwise be hidden behind bushes and trees.  We had lots of dik-dik sightings, the deer that are about 2 feet tall, and also saw tons of exotic birds that I can’t remember the names of, but I’m starting to see the appeal of bird watching! Secretary birds are huge and have the weirdest walks and the colors of the Buffalo something and the Yellow-Breasted something else always impressed me. We caught some distant glimpses of lions and in the afternoon we chanced upon a big herd of reticulated giraffes, much rarer than the regular Masaai giraffe. It was a great day for a game drive as it wasn’t too hot after a quick rain cooled everything down. Our giant truck only got stuck in the dirt twice, each time taking 20 to 30 minutes to get us unstuck, but there was a certain element of danger getting stuck in the middle of the wild where lions or leopards could attack at any moment!

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That night, it was my team’s turn to cook. Unfortunately, it was an absolutely miserable experience. We had a simple meal planned, but the flying ants were relentlessly attacking us. There were swarms of them dive bombing our food, and covering all of our ingredients. We did our best to keep our food insect free, but there may have been a little more protein than any of us were bargaining for. After two great days, everything was about to go downhill.

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One of these is not like the other...

One of these is not like the other…

Somehow this kid in the middle of nowhere Africa was wearing a Cal shirt so we took a moment to bridge the rivalry. I don't think the tribes people understood.

Somehow this kid in the middle of nowhere Africa was wearing a Cal shirt so we took a moment to bridge the rivalry. I don’t think the tribes people understood.

Walk the Line

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This ones a shortie, but that’s just how the timing works out!

We hopped on to the truck (note: original draft said “bus” – please don’t kill me.) leaving Nakuru and drove on to the bustling city of Naro Moru. Any drive that would take a public bus an hour to do takes our big hulking truck about 2 hours. So this otherwise short drive took the whole morning and the better part of the afternoon. But this part of Kenya proved to be absolutely beautiful. We were in Kenya just after their rainy season (and we were certainly getting enough of that! My wet tent would tell you in the middle of the rainy season!) so everything was green and lush. We wound our way through rolling hills of farmland.

I am at the equator wearing a fleece. I had just taken off my blanket and my wool hat. Seriously. Africa is cold.

It was cold in the morning, but our day seemed to turn around as soon as we passed the equator! That’s right, we drove right over the equator. Actually about 5 times. Our road was west to east and snaked its way across the equator a number of times. We also made a quick stop at the local giant waterfall, Thompson Falls. While certainly impressive, there’s not much there besides locals dressed as tribal people trying to get you to pay to take pictures of them and their chameleons.

We eventually made it to our campsite in Naro Moru and while the rest of the gang took a leisurely afternoon off, my Dutch friend Marloes (Mar-loosh) decided to go on a nature walk. As soon as we started we passed a pack of black and white colobus monkeys, a very rare and extremely cool looking primate. They are very shy and will sprint away from the smallest of sounds, their white capes and tails soaring in the wind. We walked along a number of game trails and saw many elephant footprints and markings, but never got to see one in the wild there. Our guide Toby was extremely smart and pointed out all sorts of local plants and noted their medical properties. For example, sage makes excellent toilet paper. The more you know.

That night, I didn’t have to cook so I just sat around waiting for dinner and camped out, listening to the baboons and bush babies scream us lullabies to sleep.

The extremely underwhelming Thompson Falls.

On my lovely nature walk.

Behind these clouds is the stunning view of Mt. Kenya. I never saw it.

The thorny acacia bush. These spikes are all over East Africa. Watch out.

What exactly is overlanding, anyway?

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The term seems easy to grasp, right? Traveling over land. There’s a little more too it. I’ll be honest that I didn’t really do my research when I booked a trip with Dragoman, but they had an itinerary I liked and I booked it. It turns out that it’s a pretty… hands on adventure.

You spend most of your time on the truck. Yes – “It’s not a bus, it’s a truck.” And it really is a truck (even though I called it a bus every 5 minutes and was constantly scolded for it). It sounds and looks like a truck. It has wheels like a truck. It drives like a truck, and this is all because it’s a truck. This truck carries all of our tents, luggage, food, and camping supplies for up to 24 people. Wow. I’m with a small group, so the inside is really spacious and just made for us to lounge around. We basically travel from place to place and when we get there, buy our own food at the local markets, then cook that food ourselves at the campsite. I’m obviously comfortable doing all of this (I just climbed a mountain people!) but to say this not what my usual trip looks like is an understatement.

It’s a lot of fun, but a lot of work. Cooking for 10 takes a long time when it’s your turn, especially because I don’t really cook. Fortunately, my cook team partner is a great chef (Thanks Krishna!) and we are consistently making the most delicious meals of the group.

A hippo walked into our camp at Lake Naivasha! A HIPPO! I single-handedly ran up to take a picture and scared him away. Oops.

Our first night overlanding took us to Lake Naivasha. Everyone else went on an uneventful boat ride through the park, but I was still sorting out my Ethiopian visa. I met up with them at the Elsamere Conservation Center just in time for tea and cakes! Woohoo! We learned a lot about George and Joy Adamson, two expats who raised a lioness named Elsa and successfully released her into the wild. Elsa is a local legend and her named and likeness is everywhere.

After another cold night in a tent, my new idea of a standard night of sleep, we woke up the next morning and made our way to Nakuru. Nakuru is the fourth largest city in Kenya, which is to say it’s kind of small. We quickly did our local shopping and drove on to the campsite. That afternoon we visited a local women’s knitting project that really seemed to impact the community and I bought a warm hat to combat the cold. It was our night to cook and Krishna and I cooked Indian. Since I had just taken a cooking class in India and she was, well, Indian, it was quite tasty.

The next day we went to the local Nakuru National Park that surrounds Lake Nakuru.  We did another game drive and were incredibly successful! This park is famous for its flamingos, but it had been raining too much for them. However, we did see lots of animals that I hadn’t seen yet: tree-climbing lions, white rhinos, Rothschild giraffes and tons of buffalo, zebras, water birds, and baboons who almost attacked me for my sandwich. We spent the afternoon lazing at the local lodge before returning to the campsite and getting ready for the next day’s adventure.

We spent about twenty minutes looking for the tree-climbing lions. They were too far in the distance for my dinky little zoom, but we also spent those same twenty minutes looking at a lizard that turned out to be a tree branch. I felt… observant.

The elusive white rhino.

In a month and a half I’ve forgotten the name of this bird. Paul?

We went to a “picnic site” called Baboon Cliff and when I brought out my lunch, BECAUSE IT WAS A DESIGNATED PICNIC SPOT, I was ruthlessly ATTACKED BY A BABOON! BECAUSE IT IS CALLED BABOON CLIFF! Fucking bastards.

Distant Rothschild Giraffe.

At Lake Naivasha we briefly visited a workshop where local women would be given supplies and paid to knit stuffed animals and clothes for sale. This octopus is possibly the cutest thing to ever be knit. Why is an octopus wearing a scarf?!?

How Not to Get an Ethiopian Visa (Part 1)

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I guess I didn’t take a single picture in Nairobi so here is a picture from the internet of jacaranda trees, my new favorite tree, in Nairobi.

As I was traveling and sharing my itinerary with friends I would meet along the way, I would mention that I was going to Africa and specifically Kenya. Every single person I had met had either been mugged themselves or had never been and only had friends who were mugged while in Kenya. I had a panic attack about safety and decided to book a proper overlanding tour (more on that later) through Kenya and Ethiopia to ensure safety. As of writing this, I made it out of Nairobi without getting mugged and I consider it a personal victory.

But I arrived in Nairobi the evening before my tour group met and I was talking to someone about my trip. When I mentioned Ethiopia they asked about applying for their visa. I responded that I would just get it at the border, because in my notes it said “Ethiopia – Visa on Arrival.” She informed me that Ethiopia only issues visas on arrival at the airport and now I was going overland and could not get the visa on arrival. Interesting. Panic set in.

The next morning was a Sunday, but it was my only day in Nairobi, a big city with resources, to get shit done. I knew I only had two options: 1) Beg the Ethiopian Embassy in Kenya to give me a visa or 2) Ship my passport back to the U.S. and then get it sent to the border town in rural Kenya. Both seemed titanically impossible so I set about the first.

The Ethiopian Embassy was closed on Sunday, but when I talked to someone from the tour company, they said to try the American Embassy to see if they could help at all. I went to the new American Embassy (if you remember in 1998 the U.S. Embassy in Kenya did not fare so well) and arrived at the gates. A Kenyan security guard greeted me there and asked if I had a badge. I told her no, but I have my passport. She told me I was not allowed in without a badge.

I may or may not have made a scene.

WHAT!?!?! I AM AN AMERICAN CITIZEN IN CRISIS! MY EMBASSY SHOULD ALWAYS BE OPEN TO ME! I REFUSE TO LEAVE WITHOUT TALKING TO AN AMERICAN!!!!!

I’m sorry, sir, but that is not possible. No one is in the office today.

At the moment, two Americans sauntered out of the embassy wearing badges. They obviously worked there.

CLEARLY THERE ARE PEOPLE AT THE OFFICE! I DEMAND TO SPEAK TO SOMEONE!!!

After about 15 minutes more of this, I won, and was let in… through the first gate. At the second gate, I was greeted by more Kenyan security guards. They asked me why I was there. I explained my need of an Ethiopian visa and they said that no one at the embassy could help me. Instead of repeating my explosion, I took the calm route, because clearly they could already tell that this crazy white man was not taking no for an answer. I explained that if they were traveling in the U.S. and had a problem and went to the Kenyan Embassy and were told it was closed for two days, that they would be upset too. Traveling crises don’t happen on a Monday-Friday 9-5 schedule. They agreed and after about 30 minutes of negotiating, I was able to talk to the on-duty Marine posted at gate 3 who then connected me TO THE ON-CALL EMERGENCY PERSON WHO I KNEW EXISTED THE WHOLE TIME!!! I understand the guards were just doing their jobs, but it was very frustrating. Ultimately, the on-call person told me that they couldn’t really help me, but would write down that there may be an American citizen stranded at the border. Thanks.

I spent the whole night trying to find contact information in Moyale, the tiny border town between Kenya and Ethiopia. On my third attempt, I ended up connecting a couple of dots and locating the main expat hotel in this small town and I found a phone number for it. When I asked them how to ship something to them, they responded that you actually had it shipped to a private bus company in Nairobi (which I later found out was actually owned by the hotel) and then your package rides the bus up to the border.

The next morning, my tour left without me and I told them I would meet up with them in the afternoon. I then went to the Ethiopian Embassy. I waited an hour for them to open and almost as soon as I started filling out my first form I was briskly turned away. They also did not seem to catch my hints about a bribe. Plan #1 was not going to work.

I then set off for the mysterious bus company. Most of my time in Nairobi was spent in the fancy ex-pat districts with posh shopping malls and embassies lining the streets. This bus company was on the East side, which is to say, my taxi driver parked and I climbed over a pile of trash taller than myself to cross to the bus company. When I talked to them about shipping something to them, they acted like it happened every day and of course they could send up to Moyale. I then raced back to other side of town, went to FedEx, paid a surprisingly small amount of money to ship my passport from Kenya to the States and then a surprisingly large amount of money (4x as much!) to pay for the return postage. A couple hours later, my taxi met up with the group and the waiting game began.

As I write this, I am without my passport and without internet, only hoping that it makes it to the border. God speed.

UPDATE: I made it to Ethiopia, but Part II is even better – and by better I mean I threw another tantrum.

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