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.

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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.

The Mombasa Maze

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I decided I had spent too long just spinning my wheels in Zanzibar and I knew I needed to make my way up through Kenya anyway and now was as good of a time as any. So I had a choice: I could either take the 40 dollar ferry to Dar Es Salaam (or the 75 dollar plane flight) and then a 12 hour bus to Mombasa. Or I could take the 80 dollar plane flight straight to Mombasa. Hmmmm. I ran some errands in Zanzibar, went to the post office where a Zanzibar local informed me in broken English that Mitt Romney did very well in the debates just 5 hours before, and then 45 minutes later I was in Mombasa.

It turns out, Mombasa is just kind of like Zanzibar but with a bigger city. There’s not too much do except go to the beach. Ummmmm okay. So I spent the first day just hanging out with some other backpackers and the beach and enjoying the absolutely non difference between Mombasa and Zanzibar. There was still an inexplicable Rastafari beach culture, still people selling the same shit – there were a couple more prostitutes on the Mombasa beaches but they were friendly and spoke excellent English.

 

It’s a beach!

The next day, I was determined to go downtown and “see the sights.” In Mombasa, this consists of a 30 minute tour of Fort Jesus (pronounced Jee-zuss, not Hay-Soos as the Portuguese surely would have called it) and then just spending as much time as you can occupy wandering around the minute old town. The whole island of Mombasa is only 14 square kilometers and about 1 square kilometer is the infamous old town, famous for it’s extremely narrow labyrinthine streets. And they really do live up the hype. All over the town are giant maps posted of where you are and they suggest a couple walking routes so that you won’t get lost. Getting lost is actually pretty difficult since again, it’s not that big. While you don’t get lost, you never really know exactly where you are. I pride myself on my sense of direction, but more than once did I emerge from some narrow alleyway strewn with stray cats and laundry to find myself making circles.

A large group of school children all in uniform take a tour of the fort right behind me.

 

A different school trip.

But really it’s so small I had made a complete loop of the city twice in about an hour and a half. And that’s about everything there is to do in Mombasa. It’s a nice city. I actually really enjoyed the maze like streets, but that’s not where tourists stay – they stay in the nice expat part of town to the north. I ran some errands, got the next book in the Game of Thrones series I’ve been reading and sat on the beach again. Fortunately, Nairobi was coming up and from what I’ve heard, Nairobi could not be more different.