countin' the days

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Pole Pole, it's Africa

I couldn't have been more ready to leave Kenya. Bright and early the Monday
following our climb, we hopped on a bus headed all the way from Nairobi, Kenya to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. It also happened to be February 5, my 25th birthday. I spent the whole damn thing on a neverending 16-hour ride, the last few hours of which were in rather frightening darkness; but hey, at least I can always say it was the only birthday I spent in TWO countries on the same day. Not bad.

Still desperate for some serious chill time, the next morning we kept on going, and hightailed it to the Dar airport to catch an early afternoon flight to the island of Zanzibar. (For those of you who've asked: yes, Zanzibar does in fact exist, and at times is equally as exotic as its name.) We decided to head straight for the east coast beaches, but alas endured a tad more stress before finally making it anywhere near a beach... we hopped on a dalla-dalla, at first extremely amused by the stops around town to deliver bundles of sticks which were piled about 6 feet high on the roof to various neighborhoods. Next thing we knew, we were racing another dalla-dalla (competition, I guess), and our driver purposely crashed into the other vehicle, knocking off its mirror and hitting a biker on the side of the road. Suddenly it was a full-on street fight, with people coming out of nowhere to yell, push, bang on the vehicles, and generally get all riled up (about ... what?). Anyway, we narrowly got outta that mess and hopped on another bus, crammed in with all our bags and about 20 too many people. I can't tell you how nice the super fine sand, bright sunshine, hot breezes, and warm turquoise water felt to our weary souls... until Joe got brutally stung by a jellyfish 30 seconds after wading into the water. And there went our east coast Indian Ocean swimming. It is, after all, Africa; nothing's easy.

After a few days of taking it very, very easy, we headed back to Stone Town for the remainder of our Zanzibari adventure. Our luck changed for the extreme better when we found an affordable hostel that came with a nice breezy balcony, our own bathroom, and AIR CONDITIONING! I'm not one for the luxuries, but good God I needed this one. And Stone Town is a really fantastic place. We also had the extreme good fortune of timing our visit perfectly with a completely free Swahili music festival right in town! For 4 days, we enjoyed a huge sampling of African music, from the most traditional to the most modern fusions, from taarab to hip hop, reggae to Rwandan, from the sublime to the ridiculous. It was fabulous.

When not dancing to great free music for the last few days, we could also be found eating lots of Italian gelato, sleeping peacefully among our air conditioning, coming up with creative ways to cover up my body just enough to both not insult the Muslims and survive the intense tropical humidity, and enjoying the delicious and shockingly cheap seafood feast laid out by the fishermen each evening in a local park. And also, getting ready & excited for tomorrow's journey to a new part of this crazy continent: South Africa!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Can't Stop the Hustle

My new favorite quote for Africa. We saw it scrawled across a bright orange matatu in Kenya (old school Nissan multi-passenger vans that whip around the potholed roads and are the main form of public transport), and nothing could be more accurate. You really can't stop the hustle. Hustlers and touts come out of the woodwork here, seeking any and every possible way to take mzungu (that's us white folk travelers) money. My first serious encounter which the sketchiness, aside from the daily flood of dudes trying endlessly to sell crap you don't need (cashews, anyone?), was our Mt Kenya climb.

We were excited about scaling Mt Kenya for months leading up to this whole trip, and Joe spoke with a lot of people before finally settling on our tour organizer. We found two other cool people equally stoked on the climb, an American (living in Japan) and a Canadian, and got it together. After an 8-hour drive in circles around Kenya, we finally arrived at the mountain to find that our group would now include 6 more Czechs and their 10 porters, making our group size come out to a staggering... 25! Something we had never been told, nor would have ever agreed to.

Unfortunately this was only the beginning. The next few days of our trip involved endless amendments to our itinerary, and arguments with our guide who claimed to both have no money, and have no idea what was going on. We sadly began to realize that our trip consisted of more negotiating than hiking.

BUT...! The hiking was fantastic. We went too fast, all the way up and down in about 48 hours, but we did it. Our summit ascent began at 2am on our second full day after no sleep and hardly any food. I made it up to 15,700 feet, 200 meters short of the summit of Point Lenana, but altitude sickness took hold of my belly & my mind, and I couldn't keep pushing upward. It's still the highest I've ever been, and I'm proud of being able to make it that far... and the best part was, by skipping the socked-in summit, we caught the most spectacular sunrise I've ever seen! A glowing flourescent red ascending over the mountains, valleys, and clouds....incredible.

In the end, our trip got cut a day short and we all felt screwed from all sides by everyone. But we did it. Our tour operator came through with apologies, transportation off the mountain, and a speedy refund for our missed day. But we got hustled. Can't stop it.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Gone Safari'in

It's been a busy, crazy, hectic, lovely, fascinating, and fast-paced last 2 weeks here in Kenya. Africa is full of the extremes, and runs along the polar opposites: beautiful/disgusting, exciting/frightening, electrifying/disappointing, fun/aggravating.... too many to name. There are so many stereotypes that go along with this entire continent, and so many of them have proved to be wrong. I will say that it has been a trying experience so far, but overall worth the effort.

My time in Kenya started with a 10-day safari all over the country with my family, and 8 other folks from Southern California. We went from Nairobi up north to the base of Mt Kenya and Samburu National Park, down to Sweetwaters National Preserve, over to Lake Nakuru (full of flamingos... and tourists) and Lake Naivasha (boat ride among the frighteningly large hippos), and finished off with a few days in the Masai Mara. It was a very luxurious, very full, and very fantastic time. Hard to pick favorite moments since every day was so full of awesomeness, but some highlights were: the sunrise hot air balloon safari in the Mara, yummy vegetarian buffets every day, a family of cheetahs lounging in the shade of our 4WD vehicle, being woken up to
coffee on the front porch & a view of giraffes strolling by, amazing views of snow-capped Mt Kenya, watching chimpanzees roll around & do headstands at Jane Goodall's Chimp Sanctuary, and dancing with the Masai. And so so so much more. I have to admit I was skeptical of the whole group travel thing, but thanks to a fantastic guide, a really chilled out & fun group of people, a killer itinerary, and the abundance of enthusiasm all around, it was a great time.