Sunrise, Sunset…Sunrise

8 07 2010

Coming full circle, I’m writing my last “Destination Mpala” post as I sit at home in the States. While flipping through the memories in my mind’s eye, the Kenyan coffee I’m sipping kindly reminds my senses of the country I have recently left. Every once in a while, a certain aroma, sound, texture or taste flashes through me, bringing me back – just for a second – to Kenya.

Yesterday, I went driving for the first time. After swerving over to the right side as I approached an oncoming car head on (don’t worry… I was still in my neighborhood only going about 15 mph) and frantically trying to find the clutch with my left foot to switch gears (until I remembered I was driving an automatic) the ride was pleasantly uneventful. My grandfather called and asked that I please let him know when I am on the road so that he can stay off – funny guy. I can’t say I enjoy driving on smooth macadam with an automatic SUV any more than driving over dirt roads with jagged ridges, potholes, and giant rocks with a stick shift Land Rover… they’re like two different amusement rides. I’ve found it’s unreasonable to make comparisons between living in Kenya and living in the States – like the age old adage comparison of apples to oranges.

The last few days I spent in Kenya are some of the most memorable. At the Research Centre, students, professors and independent researchers had arrived from across the globe to conduct field work during the summer break – the place was buzzing with activity. The conversations held during meals and tea time were incredibly eye-opening and perceptive. All different views and biological knowledge were put out on the table and debated. Alright, it sounds a bit nerdy but let’s be real… we’re at a research centre. Not only was there stimulating discussion but we looked forward to viewing World Cup games each night with our projector and makeshift bedsheet screen. Even the less anticipated games were fun. After a long day in the field or office, a Tusker beer, good company and a football match was the perfect combination to end a day.

My last weekend in Kenya was spent traveling to the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, camping and running a marathon. My friend and fellow long-term resident of Mpala Vicky and I drove the two hours from Mpala to Lewa on Friday afternoon in our Land Rover packed with camping gear, food and lots of water. We arrived early evening and set up camp amongst thousands of other runners and spectators. Over an enormous glade, the landscape was tranformed into a polychromatic city; colorful tents went up wherever there was space and people adorned in all sorts of clothing from Nike dri-fit t-shirts to DHL sponsored yellow team outfits to traditional Maasai red garbs and beaded jewelery roamed around. As the sun set, the night was met with the obnoxious echoes of Vivuzuelas. Having spread to the rest of the continent from South Africa,  the deep tone horns were heard across the Conservancy as tons of people prepared camp fires and met up with friends and new acquaintances. The cacophany of chatter, singing and music didn’t die down until late into the night. Though at first I was annoyed (I was taking the marathon pretty seriously and wanted some rest), the noise level wouldn’t have mattered: Vicky was up most of the night with a stomach bug and I was waking up almost every 20 minutes both nervous about the race and fearful that I had slept through the starting time. Around 5 am I sat up, having already been awake for about an hour, changed into my racing clothes and ate a PowerBar for some fuel. I think I spent the next hour or so stretching and warming up but to be honest, I don’t recall much from before the race – I suppose I was “in the zone.” However, I do remember a beautiful sunrise over the tops of the fever trees surrounding our camp as Vicky, who had kind of recovered, and I headed off amongst a thousand other runners to the starting line.

setting up camp

runners rising early at dawn

At 7:15 sharp the horn went off and the mob of 1,000 runners slowly shifted forward. Out of the 1,000 registered runners, 850 were participating in the half marathon and 150 were participating in the full marathon. It took about 5 km for the pack to spread out – I spent that time dodging elbows, darting through gaps and trying not to step on anyone’s feet. The 13.1 mile route wound through the rolling fields and up and down steep escarpments. The full marathoners had to circle around twice. On one hand it was the most stunning running path I have ever been on: wide open fields of long golden grass with zebras lazily grazing, clear blue mountain ranges were visible with a breathtaking view of Mt. Kenya and part of the path went along a bubbling creek and into a marsh filled with green cattails and an orchestra of frog calls. On the other hand… well, there’s a reason why it has been labeled as one of the top 10 most challenging marathons in the world. The entire path is made up of a sandy dirt hybrid which requires a bit more energy to push off on, the path ascends countless hills and almost vertical escarpments (on my second lap I feel like I would have been faster if I had been on my hands and knees climbing up) scattered with large rocks, the average altitude is 1800 m above sea level (less oxygen) and the temperature reaches well into the upper 90’s (Farenheit that is).

It was the perfect challenge and ending point to my year – the ideal combination of mental and physical tests while being immersed in the landscape and wildlife I had spent my life with for the past 12 months. I was the 17th female to cross the finish line and the 82nd out of all participants. Vicky finished the half marathon and was waiting for me at the finish line where she snapped a few photos of me on those last hundred meters – the most glorious hundred meters of my life – and crossing the white tape. We slowly walked back to the campsite, taking in all the ongoing festivities and cheer, relaxed for a bit, and then headed back to Mpala. I couldn’t have asked for a better first marathon experience.

the last 100 meters!

the finishers photo

post-race nap

That evening, all at Mpala gathered on one of the scenic gems of the ranch called Baculi Dam. Located on the top of an high escarpment, the spot looks out over the vast Laikipia landscape. We had a marathon celebration/farewell sundowners and dinner followed by a spectacular soccer ball cake baked and designed by my good friend Eunice. It was great to hang out with good friends, chat and eat hearty food over a camp fire while gazing at the setting sun. We then zoomed back to the Research Centre to watch the highly anticipated USA-Ghana match. The next day I spent packing, rearranging and repacking. However, around 4 pm, both proud of the US for their showing and excited for Ghana, the last remaining African team, we celebrated with a football match of our own. A number of researchers and Mpala staff played a competitive and incredibly fun game well over the official 90 minutes. The marathon soreness hadn’t kicked in yet so I was able to run and knock the ball around for the whole match; the whole evening definitely placed on my top ten favorite events at Mpala. Everyone was in high spirits from the players to the family members and friends lining the field. At the end of the game, I could feel the stiffness and soreness of my muscles setting in, but I couldn’t have cared less; I had a 17 hour flight ahead of me to relax!

Eunice and I with her masterpiece

The next morning was a whirlwind of goodbyes, cars breaking down, a nerve-racking ride into Nairobi and finally my flight check-in. It all happened so fast and before I knew it, I was at the arrivals terminal where my Dad was waiting to pick me up. My Mom, brother and grandfather were waiting outside the house when my Dad and I pulled up the drive.  It was wonderful to see my family again!

It wasn’t until a few days later, when I was alone, that I had time to reflect a bit. I have learned a good deal about myself and the world over the past year. Although I can’t pinpoint what has changed about me, I know much has. I can’t thank those enough who made the past year possible. You all know who you are, so asante sana.

And now, slowly adjusting back to life in the US, I have much work to do and plans to get rolling. However, when I’m caught up in the hustle and bustle of life, I’ll always have the lessons I learned in Kenya to regain balance.

I never said “goodbye” to Kenya…  I have a feeling I’ll be back.




One response

9 07 2010

It has been so wonderful watching you this year. I love your reckless enthusiasm and try anything attitude. I know the experience will be with you for the rest of your life. Enjoy that!

Princeton in Africa is very proud to have you as one of ours.


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