In Honor of Phidippedes… and just to say I did it

19 04 2010

490 B.C.

The Persian Empire was at its most powerful. From the Indus River in Asia to Greece to what is now Libya and Egypt in North Africa the Persians were the most dominant force on the planet. With their thirsty eyes set upon Europe, the immense Persian armada, made up of 600 ships containing 20,000 infantry and cavalry, landed on the fertile soil of Greece. Just north of Athens the Persian army prepared for battle: war elephants brought down from Northern Africa and India screamed in fury as they were jabbed with blades, spears were sharpened on rocks, shields were shined and archers tightened their bows and created deadly jagged arrows. However, it was not the weapons that gave the Persians their power – it was their sheer number. The incessent flow of the army simply smothered their enemies.

The Persian Army from the movie 300

The Athenians, though prepared to fight, were vastly outnumbered. With no other choice but to defend their land and families, they marched to the fields of Marathon. With a surprise and calculated offensive drive, the Athenians flattened into a straight line, the length of the Persian army, surged forward and then engulfed them. At the end of the battle around 6,400 Persians lay dead, while the Athenian death toll only reached 192.

The rest of the Persians escaped back to sea to regroup with the intention to attack the Athens when they recovered. Knowing a strike on the city-state loomed in the near future, the Athenian generals sent Phidippedes, a professional runner, to alert Athens of the Persian threat. Phidippedes ran twenty-six miles from Marathon to Athens to carry the news of victory at the Battle of Marathon and to warn the city. Having already run a total of 280 miles to Sparta and just hours before fought on the battlefield laden with heavy armor, Phidippedes collapsed of exhaustion and died after delivering his message.

Sparta, along with the Athenians and several other Greek city-states, joined forces and fought brilliantly against the invading Persians driving them back to Asia. The Greek victory at Athens was a turning point in history and prevented the dominant Persian power from conquering and expanding into what is now Europe.

Centuries later, the modern Olympic games introduced a “marathon” race and by 1924 at the Paris Olympics, the 26.2 mile distance was established as the official marathon distance.

So… Phidippedes died? They don’t tell you that when you sign up for marathons. I guess it’s not the best publicity. If I had known before signing up for my first marathon… eh, who am I kidding? I would have done it anyway. Really I shouldn’t worry since I won’t be fighting in an ancient battle dressed in heavy armor several hours before I run. At least, as far as I know.

Back in February I registered for the Safaricom Marathon held at Mpala’s neighbor, Lewa Conservancy, on June 26th. The course is a 21 km loop through the conservancy over a dirt path that follows the slopes of mountainous Central Kenya – average elevation: 5,500 ft. The full marathon is run over two loops of the course. Excellent. The race begins around 7 a.m. thus a large portion of the run will be done under the sweltering equatorial sun. Along with the environmental factors, the course is in a conservancy so there is a good chance of passing by a number of wildlife species. Here’s to hoping that a cheetah doesn’t feel like competing that day!

What I don't want to run into - elephants caught in action by camera traps

Instead of rushing to my blog and reporting my marathon committment when I first signed up, I decided to wait a few weeks and test the waters… I didn’t want to write an enthusiastic entry to only then realize that running a marathon in Kenya was completely insane and back out. That being said, I am happy to report that I am entering my tenth week of training. As my running distances slowly creep up I have found that, instead of disappearing, my motivation seems to increase with each day. Crazy? Perhaps… or really it’s because I don’t want to finish dead last!

The training is tough – not just the physical aspect but the logistics. The research centre is not fenced in; wildlife is free to roam wherever they please which often means right around the bandas and offices. There is one dirt path, the Ring Road, that defines the perimeter of the centre where I am able to run… but first I have to call into the centre’s security to make sure that no elephants, large cats or buffalo are in the area. If I get the green light I take off for two or more hours going around and around and around the 0.8 mile long Ring Road. With very few options, my mind has forced itself to adapt to the close quarters. Initially I was bored to tears just running the short distance over and over, but now I’ve created challenges (mostly timed sprints) for different sections of the route and it takes a lot of focus to make it up the large hill that lies on one side of the centre. And it doesn’t hurt when groups of impala, a handful of giraffe or a trio of dik dik decide to join in from the bush!

However, if I get the red light i.e. elephants around, then all running plans are shot for the day. Even a day off from my running schedule is a bit of setback. So, I’ve had to plan around the potential run-blocks. With the abundant rain, the elephants have been coming around a little less… visits to the centre’s water cisterns every day have decreased to two or three times a week. The elephants also seem to appear at the centre during the evening hours starting at 4 p.m. In order for me to guarantee a run every day I have had to run during the hottest hours: between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Most of the animals aren’t around as they are (smartly) seeking cool refuge in large patches of shade or at water sources. As I run around the Ring Road, sweat pouring off my entire body, I am usually free of any wildlife dangers. It’s no day in the park, though. Most of the harmless animals I pass by are keeping cool by sitting under acacia trees in the shade. I can’t help but fill in their thoughts as they lazily watch me run by: “That human – what an idiot! Doesn’t she know she should be conserving her energy in this awful heat?”

Actually, I’ll be running the marathon two days before I fly home to the States… part of the reason I’ve decided to train for the race instead of just jumping in and doing it is to prevent incapacitating soreness afterwards. Hopefully getting in and out of my plane seat won’t be an impossible feat with sore and stiff muscles.

I’m very much looking forward to the race due to the fact that I’ll be running with some of the best in the world. The Safaricom Marathon draws many Kenyan runners looking to practice for large competitions. You know those Kenyan runners… the ones that completely dominate the Olympics and most popular marathons around the world. I will be running with them, or at least I will be running and watching them pass me. Kind of like going to batting practice with A-Rod or practicing penalty shots with Wayne Rooney. No big deal.

Allison with the big leaguers

Updates will be provided although it doesn’t get too exciting… “Ran 15 miles today. Tired now. Saw some zebras.” You get the idea.

Countdown: 68 days until the starting line

*A quick thanks to Stephanie who has provided me with PowerBars and multivitamins and the Rodgers who brought me Gu Energy gels when they visited Mpala!


The Amazing Race: Episode 1 (Nairobi)

1 04 2010

The Amazing Race

Air Date: March 29th, 2010

Location: Nairobi, Kenya

Primary Goal: In one day, obtain 1 year residence visa and return to Nanyuki town

Toughest Opponents: Time and Nairobi chaos

In City Centre, the traffic already roaring outside, the sun rays penetrated the cracks of the Terminal Hotel room curtains. It was 7:35 and Team Mpala blinked the sleep from their eyes. The instructions before them were stated simply enough: Go to Nyayo House, the Kenyan immigration centre, and acquire essential documents for a one year residence visa.

The team of Mpala friends Stephanie and Allison made a crucial decision to stop at the popular coffee joint Java House located across the street from their hotel for a caffeine charge. They would not have made it through the day without their cup of kahawa. Over coffee they strategized how to go about accomplishing the first step of the challenge. Before going to Immigration, the duo needed to collect a signed letter of approval for their visa from the National Museum located on the other side of town. It was the key to the Immigration Office. On a Monday morning at 9 a.m. traffic was at its worst – bumper to bumper covering every inch of pavement, stagnant exhaust fumes drenching the air was exacerbated by the already sweltering heat. Making another critical decision, they decided the most time-efficient method would be on foot.

They had been instructed to meet a Museum employee who worked with Mpala. He would have the signed letter and instructions for the next step in their journey. The trek to the Museum was no walk in the park. Pedestrian masses threatened to hinder their traveling speed and blurs of matatus and city buses whooshed by on the main roads making road crossing hazardous. On the way, Allison repeatedly tried to get in touch with their Museum contact. “I can’t reach him. It just keeps ringing with no answer,” Allison worriedly reported to Stephanie.

Having reached the Museum and still no word from their contact, the duo decided to locate his office, hoping he would be there. However, locating his office would be a challenge: the bowels of the Museum were made up of hundreds of offices and labs, hallways, entrances and exits twisting and turning on multiple levels – searching for the office was a potential time black hole. “Excuse me, we’re looking for the Mammology department. Can you  help us find it?” Stephanie hurriedly asked one of the Museum guards when no museum maps were found. Giving the team a blank stare, the guard went looking for somebody who did know. Luckily for them, the guard returned several minutes later with a museum rep who led Team Mpala to the Mammology department. Knocking and then slowly opening their contact’s office door they were greeted with silence – the room was empty. Time check: 11:30.

After numerous frantic phone calls, Team Mpala finally reached their contact. He had been in a meeting and would be arriving at the Museum in twenty minutes. Twenty minutes came and went. Stephanie and Allison paced the office like caged lions constantly checking their watches. If they did not have the signed letter in their hands by the lunch hour, the race against time would most likely be lost. There was only a slim chance of getting through Immigration in an afternoon. However, as their hopes (and patience) almost ran out, their contact briskly walked through the door. With the signed paper now in their possession, they were instructed to proceed to the 5th floor, room 20 of Immigration where they would receive their next set of instructions. However, the team would have to make one more stop before heading to Nyayo House – not having enough cash on them, they needed to locate an atm in City Centre and withdraw enough to cover the visa fee.

Without looking back, Team Mpala raced through the maze of hallways and emerged into the blinding and sweltering afternoon sun. On foot again (even at noon the traffic was at a standstill), they maneuvered back to the chaos of City Centre and looked for an ATM. Seeing one a block ahead, they sprinted to the bank and each withdrew the required payment. At this point, the hands on the clock reached one… the nationwide lunch hour had arrived. All around them, people were filing into restaurants and bars for their midday reprieve. The team was stuck for an hour while all government buildings shut down. Making a smart decision to energize, Stephanie and Allison made their way to a large Nakumatt market chain store and ate lunch in the food court. At around quarter to two, they were refreshed and eager to get going – they abruptly got up and hit the pavement. “If we get there early, maybe we can get in the building and wait right outside the office door,” strategized Stephanie. “Good idea – beat the crowds,” answered Allison.

If only it was that easy…

Making their way to the mango-orange colored highrise building, Team Mpala turned a corner only to smack into a large crowd assembled in front of the Immigration office entrance. They weren’t the only ones with the “early bird gets the worm” idea. Ten minutes slowly crawled by and suddenly a shift in the crowd signaled the doors had been open. As a part of the mass, Stephanie and Allison made their way into the building. They scanned the large lobby for an elevator or stairs to the fifth floor. Not seeing anything but rows of barred windows where people were lining up to get passports stamped and papers signed, they asked an employee who informed them they were in the wrong part of the building. They needed to enter on the other side for access to the fifth floor – awesome. Time wasted: 20 minutes.

Sweat marks were now apparent on the backs of their shirts as they sprinted around the building to the main entrance. Rushing into the lobby with their eyes strained straight ahead searching for an elevator they suddenly heard, “Hey, you! Stop!” They had been waved down by the entrance security. Exasperated, Allison asked, “What’s the problem?!” The guards pointed to the team’s backpacks. Leaving their bags behind at the security desk, the team with passports and the letter in hand, tore away from the counter and punched the nearest elevator’s button. Their eyes swept across the numbered buttons on the inside wall: floor G, floor 11, floor 9, floor 6… floor 5 was not there. They threw their arms out before the doors shut and squeezed their way out of the crowded metal box. They checked three other elevators, furiously pushing their way through the crowds, only to find that none of the elevators went to the 5th floor. The team was losing valuable time. Why the elevators only went to the sixth floor and up was a mystery to the team and remains to be discussed. Perhaps a funny Immigration prank.

Deciding not to ask for an elevator that went to the fifth floor, they turned their focus to the stairs. They dashed up five flights and finally reached the Immigration Office. They dodged two more massive waiting crowds and located room 20. Breathing sighs of relief, they handed over the signed letter. They let their minds and bodies relax… big mistake. No more than a minute later they were instructed to return to the other side of the building to get a receipt and then return to floor 5, room 20. With adrenaline suddenly pumping through their systems, Stephanie and Allison checked their watches, glanced at each other and took off. There was no time to think about the ridiculousness of the whole situation – there was only time to continue moving ahead.

Would they make it?! Time seemed to be going by twice as fast and the offices shut down at 4:30…

Momentum on their side as they jumped every other step downstairs, they quickly sprinted around the sidewalks outside and reached the cashier counter. They caught their breath while their documents were looked over, stamped and signed. With the golden receipts in hand, they turned once again and headed back. Flashes of “suicides” crossed Allison’s mind, incredibly similar to conditioning days from past soccer training sessions. Just barely missing a head-on collision with someone on the stairs (probably trying to complete the same visa process) Stephanie and Allison arrived back at room 20. The Immigration officer looked over their paperwork and told them to take a seat outside in the waiting room for a few minutes (italics added by show producer) while she wrote up the visas. Smiling and exhausted, the team crumpled into the chairs, thinking they were almost at the finish line.

Two hours went by without any sign of movement from room 20. Yep. Two Hours. Frustrations and tempers were in overdrive. Stephanie and Allison would be lucky to make it to the matatu stage by 5 to catch a ride back to Nanyuki. Otherwise… they would have to remain in Nairobi for another night. Last place in the Amazing Race, if you will. Miraculously at 4:30 the woman emerged from room 20 and told the team to follow her. More stamping and signing of papers ensued and they were instructed to, once again, return to the other side of the building where they would get the final stamp of approval in their passports. Apparently that special stamp is only located in one window on the other side of the building – classic. Advantageously with the later hour, the crowds had significantly diminished and Stephanie and Allison had no problem making their way to the other entrance. Someone was there to meet them at the door (it was after business hours and the government employees had taken pity on them – bonus points). Closely following their host, they made their way to yet another large barred window and in a matter of seconds their passports were stamped. Legal residence for one year was obtained. However, this was no time to rejoice; they needed to make their way across town and leave in a matatu by 5:30 to ensure their journey would end in Nanyuki that evening. It was 5:10 – as long as nothing extreme got in their way… they would make it.

Making good use of their time, they weaved their way down side streets, even stopping for a cup of coffee to go, and reached the matatu stage in ten minutes. They pulled away from the stage 5 minutes later and suddenly, as if there was an earthquake in the sky, lightning cracks split the stormy clouds, thunder erupted and vibrated all around them and a torrent of rain descended upon the infamous Nairobi traffic. Seated in the back of the matatu, Stephanie and Allison peered through the rain streaked windows trying to make out their progress. With the rain pounding and horns blaring all around, they realized, as if punched in the gut, that they weren’t moving. By the looks of it, they wouldn’t be moving for some time. They had completely underestimated the rush hour traffic jam out of the city but, it was out of their control at this point – Team Mpala could only sit back and hope that they make it out of Nairobi before dark… darkness, rain and city driving were not a safe combination.

Both team members were rocked back and forth by the stop-and-go rhythm of the jam. Nausea overtook Stephanie and she did her best to keep the day’s lunch down. One and a half hours later, the worst of the storm had passed along with the traffic. By 7, they were cruising smoothly along the damp pavement. However, neither Stephanie or Allison was ready to relax yet. As if trying to calm their nerves, night arrived and the full moon rose majestically in the dark sky casting a gentle opaque light across the fields of maize and scattered acacia trees. A cool breeze constantly played across the passengers’ faces and they drifted off to sleep. They were jolted awake by the harsh braking of the matatu. Thinking the worst, they snapped up and looked around. It was 9 p.m. and they had arrived in Nanyuki. Drowsily climbing out of the matatu, they walked to a nearby hotel, booked a room for the night and passed out. They had done it – with a ride set up for the next morning back to Mpala they were home free.

No large cash prize or destination trip awarded to the winners was necessary… the Race was over and they had succeeded. Team Mpala can remain in Kenya to see another sunrise.

Next post… did someone say marathon?

Ahhh… the Coast

10 02 2010

Ciao bella! Come stai? Italian drifted in and out of my hearing, lazily flowing with the warm wind as I lay sunbathing on the sand. Far from the Almafi beaches or cities of Rome and Florence is a quiet place called Malindi… a little Italy on the Kenyan coast. Although my Lonely Planet guidebook had forewarned me about the heavy Italian influence in the town, I was still incredibly shocked to see just how Italian the town actually was. I should have realized though, for the first billboard I saw when heading into town from the airport boldly shouted in bright red, cursive: Benvenuto!

Every single Kenyan in Malindi spoke Italian, greeting me with Ciao! whenever we crossed paths – a sharp contrast to the greetings received in Nanyuki (Hi! How are you?). Then there was the food… pizza and pasta around every corner! Every variation of pizza was available from the Verdure (tomato, mozzarella and grilled vegetables) to the Margherita (tomato, mozzarella, basil and olive oil) to the Exotica (tomato, mozzarella, pineapple and mango). The restaurants were plentiful with cheesy names like ‘I Love Pizza’ to the elegant sounding ‘Tangeri’ to the misleading ‘Bar Bar’ which was not a bar, but yet another pizza joint. All the menus were English on one side and Italian on the other. Did I mention the gelato? 40 flavors of delicious gelato were available at the ‘Oasis Gelateria’… mint, vanilla & chocolate, pistachio, orange cream, cheesecake, etc. the list went on and on. For only 80 Ksh (~$1) a cone, it was hard not to try all 40 flavors!

I think it is safe to say that 99% of the tourists were Italian. Passing by older Italian men with their Hawaiian shirts unbuttoned and flapping in the wind, their rotund bellies reflecting the sunlight and then the older Italian women strolling the ocean front in their thong bikinis were just a few more sights that shocked the system. I haven’t seen so much skin since a past trip to Miami. Ah, but enough about the Italians…

Malindi and the nearby, smaller, quieter town of Watamu were paradises. The engulfing humidity alone was a welcome change from the dry heat of Laikipia. Having grown up with sticky and hot summers I wasn’t fazed by the nonstop sweating. In fact, I kind of enjoyed it. My favorite, palm trees, lined every sandy road; yet another contrast from the thick Acacia tree bush. Colorful tuk-tuks, small 3-wheeled motor cars, raced up and down the narrow streets, charging 50 Ksh for rides about town. Numerous shop fronts displayed polychromatic t-shirts, jewelry, dresses, cloth and kikoys. With the renowned dress-making in Malindi, I had to have some dresses made… simply by picking my dress style, cloth design and having a few measurements made, I had two new dresses ready in 24 hours!

Sunset view of Malindi from the balcony of my hotel

On the first full day, I visited the Gedi Ruins near Watamu. Several matatus ran the short 20 km from Malindi to Watamu so I hopped on one of them, paid the 50 Ksh, and enjoyed a scenic drive along the ocean. Right outside Watamu lay the Gedi Ruins… a mysterious and creepy stone town in the midst of the dense tropical forest. Besides the occasional bird chirp, the ruins lay in heavy silence under the shadows of large baobab trees and thick vines. There are no written records on the town’s history or inhabitants, but excavations have revealed goods from all over the world indicating that it was once a trading hub of mixed Arabic and Swahili origin. A mosque, palace, deep water wells, pillars and stone houses were still in good enough shape to identify and walk through. I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider movie as I hiked around the stone ruins with my t-shirt drenched in sweat completely surrounded by the quiet and spooky atmosphere. I half expected to find a golden monkey statuette sitting on a stone table in the palace ruins… and then have a giant rock ball descend from a secret passageway and roll after me in Indy fashion.

The adventure continued the following day when the next destination, the Indian Ocean, invitingly sparkled at the edge of the tropical forest. After renting some snorkeling gear and trekking over the hot white sand, I dove into the topaz-colored water. The warm waves gently lapped over me as I swam out – about 300 m – to the coral reef. Yes, the coral reef in the Indian Ocean… I couldn’t believe I was there. Instantly, after crossing over an expanse of deep green seaweed, the coral reef appeared. All types of fish, large and small, with every color and design imaginable wove in and out of the finger-like coral and small caves. Schools made up of thousands of iridescent blue fish swarmed around me, as if putting on a show and clouds of pink jellyfish (don’t worry – they were completely harmless!) floated in masses with the current. Giant conch shells peaked out from under the white sand and flowing seaweed – I think I stared in awe at one for 10 minutes it was so large. I had the urge to flip it over to see if anything was inside… but I was too chicken to do it. 2 hours passed in a blink and as I headed back to shore, still snorkeling, I saw a giant grey stingray gliding over the ocean floor. It was breathtaking. Even with a glaringly red and painful strip of sunburn on my back, the afternoon snorkeling was my favorite part of the trip.

For the rest of the time, lots of sunbathing on the white sand, swimming in the shallow waters of the ocean, shopping in the quaint boutiques, and trying as much Italian cuisine as possible took up my time. Kenya ceases to amaze me with its vast amount of landscape, climate and cultural diversity. Within a day I had gone from the dry, bushy, mountainous region of Mt. Kenya to the humid, tropical forest and beaches of the Indian Ocean. And now… it’s back to work! Ciao!

snorkeling was done 300 m from shore!

What’s Next? Skydiving…?

1 02 2010

I thought my “extreme-experiences-in-Kenya” list would be a short one… actually, I thought the list would consist of only one bullet point: riding a helicopter with a net-gunning team from New Zealand over the rolling landscape and wildlife-rich terrain of Kenya. I mean, just saying it sounds cool. However, life in Kenya once again surprised me when on a random Saturday afternoon…

I rode an elephant.

Two bullet points. Check!

Over the weekend, Mpala School’s Conservation Club members took a day trip to Mpala’s neighbor Ol Jogi. Ol Jogi Ranch has a game reserve called Pyramid which is home to quite an assortment of roaming wildlife, and it even has a mini-zoo. As soon as the kids piled off the school bus the first exhibit we were shown was a black leopard. The black leopard is melanistic or all black. It receives it’s midnight-colored coat from a recessive allele which causes it to have an excess of black pigmentation. I couldn’t look away from its pearly white eyes.

Other exhibits included a Russian brown bear (I’m pretty sure the only brown bear in Africa), lions, wild dogs, cheetahs, wild cats, and an incredibly beautiful aviary which you could walk through. Owls, cockatoos, and Kori bustards were just a few of the inhabitants. The aviary was home to more than birds, however for as we walked along the pebbled path, we saw a gazelle, impala, tortoises, monkeys from Java, and a duiker. The kids absolutely loved being that close to the wildlife – although there is a plethora of wildlife where we live, it is rare for anyone to be so close. Outside of the exhibits were tremendously docile elands, a camel, and a nosy ostrich that were grazing right alongside of us as we walked through the reserve. The whole time a guide narrated the tour – he knew everything about the animals and answered all the kids’ questions.

relishing the aviary paradise

It was in the afternoon that we had our first encounter with the two trained elephants. After a morning of grazing, the two leviathons heavily approached us, looking pretty intimidating. However, within a few seconds, it was easy to see that they wouldn’t be causing any trouble. While chomping down on carrot bits, the elephants played a harmonica, beat the drums, stood on three legs and hopped, sprayed the crowd of kids with water… and gave me a ride. I won’t lie, when the elephant first got up and started walking around with me on its back… I was petrified of falling off. There wasn’t a seat, just bare back and I was hanging on for dear life! When my ride was over and I slid off, my hands were shaking. I guess I didn’t realize I was such a wimp. However, I would do it again.

Overall, it was a fun Saturday. A shout-out and thanks to Ol Jogi for their hospitality. I know the kids learned a book’s worth of new facts and they were able to experience the wildlife up close. Even for kids whose homes are in the bush, seeing the wildlife in Pyramid’s environment was new and exciting and gave them a different perspective.

Conservation Club members with one of Ol Jogi's elephants

The Holiday, Part III. Welcome to Egypt

20 01 2010

Ding! Ding! “Attention, passengers. We have begun our descent and will be landing in the next ten minutes. Please put your trays up and return your seats to their upright position.” Slowly, I blinked my eyes, letting in a small crack of light. With a lurch, the plane dropped then straightened out; unfortunately, the correction in orientation didn’t prevent a wave of nausea from sweeping over me. I closed my eyes again and dozed off. What seemed like seconds later, I was jostled awake by the plane landing on the tarmac… local time: 3:45 a.m. Drowsily, I rose out of my seat and rummaged through the intertwined, searching arms of other passengers and tightly packed luggage in the overhead bins searching for my backpack. Having finally located it, I swung it around onto my back and followed the line of exiting passengers through the narrow aisle.

From this point on, my memory of the week in Egypt seems like a blur of vivd sunset oranges, tropical greens, deep sea blues, and sandy yellows. Instead of giving you a play-by-play of my trip (which would undoubtedly make you yawn and be painful for me to write) I would like to present top and bottom ten lists… Wahoo!

“The Sun God Ra’s Pride & Joy” Egypt Top 10

10. Felluca ride on the Nile – In Luxor also known as Thebes, south of Cairo, the Nile runs straight through the heart of the city. Lining the river are hundreds of Fellucas or small sailboats. They have no engines, just trained sailors. It is a livelihood and most have grown up learning the trade from their fathers, who learned it from their fathers, and so on. I went out on a Felluca around 4:30 pm as the sun was beginning to set… it was the most peaceful part of my trip: the repetitive sound of the water lapping up against the sides of the boat, the warm setting sun’s rays on my face, the peaceful view of farmers on their camels’ backs heading home from the sugar cane fields on the shores, and being served a cup of sweet “welcoming tea” by the captain’s 6-year-old son.

Fellucas on the Nile

9. Muslim mosques & prayers – At the first glimpse of dawn, the speakers would crackle alive and then a recorded deep, mournful voice would reverberate throughout the city. The Adhan, or Muslim call to prayer, was my wakeup call every morning and heard four other times throughout the day. Although some mornings I was roused from a deep slumber (and I certainly wouldn’t be awarded the world’s most cheerful person in the morning award), just hearing the call was exhilarating. It felt as though I was secretly being granted access to experience this ancient and most honored custom… goosebumps raised up on my forearms every time. Meanwhile, lining the streets of Cairo and Luxor were the most ornately decorated and polychromatic mosques. Each mosque had a handful of giant gold-plated, beige, or brightly colored domes and a number of minarets or slim towers rising up to the skies. Every mosque was different, yet uniquely beautiful, and pervaded the chaotic city atmosphere with a sense of tranquility.

8. Egyptian food – pastries, kofta, koshary & guava juice… enough said. The food prices were low and the quality was high. Kofta is a spiced ground beef kabob, often served with rice and a tomato sauce or curry. Koshary seemed like a hodgepodge of ingredients – something a college student might make when cleaning out the pantry. However, don’t turn your nose up at the mixed dish of pasta, rice, lentils, chick peas, onions, garlic and chili sauce…it was delicious!

7. Temple of Queen Hatshepsut – Approaching the Temple is a treat in itself… it’s about a half mile walk to the elevated entrance made up of two giant terraces. You reach the bottom of a wide staircase where you  walk up a couple hundred steps to the second terrace’s facade which is alternately decorated with huge pillars and statues of pharoahs. Built entirely of limestone into the side of a cliff, huge rocks menacingly tower over you. Inside the Temple is a funerary obelisk and the tomb entrance… not to mention Queen Hatshepsut kicked ass: as the first female pharoah, she used propoganda and political skills to win over the people of Lower and Upper Egypt. She essentially became “king” by dressing in the traditional garb of male rulers including the headdress and false beard. She also constructed her Temple in the Valley of the Kings which, until her reign, had only held tombs of male pharoahs… to this day she is the only female with a tomb there. Perhaps Queen Elizabeth I took some notes on Hatshepsut’s style…

In front of the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut

6. Sugar cane fields lining the Nile – In Luxor, along the banks of the Nile, were miles and miles of sugar cane fields. Incredibly green rows of sweet stalks. In each field a handful of people could be seen working, the occasional child sitting amongst the vast farm land chewing on a freshly snapped off stem, and donkeys mulling about or pulling a load to the farm house. Simply one of the coolest sights.

5. Shopping in the Bazaar & spice market – an attack on every one of your senses: picture every color imaginable penetrating your sight, scents of every origin on earth being inhaled with each breath, continuous shouting from vendors ringing in your ears, the feel of countless silk scarfs and rough beads running through your fingers, and the savory taste of spices, peanuts, and teas being offered to you at every store front. Pretty overwhelming at first, but with time I absorbed it all and ended up having a fun time bargaining for goods. I even accepted a cigarette from a funny little spice vendor-man who kept talking about his cousin in America. It was disgusting (warning, Allison’s strong opinion about to be stated: smoking is bad for you – stop it) but accepting it from him really made his day, so I couldn’t rain on his parade and turn it down.

spice shop in Luxor

4. Valley of the Kings & hieroglyphics – There’s something to be said for entering sacred tombs of Ancient Egypt. Slowly descending from the reflected hot and bright sunlight into the dark coolness of the narrow tunnels leading to the burial rooms of Ancient Pharoahs is unreal. Along the walls were millions of hand-carved hieroglyphics, some still retaining the blues, reds, yellows, and browns that were painted hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Reaching the end of the tomb, were the final burial chambers containing enormous sarcophagi. Ascending once again, you emerge from the tunnel into the blinding light only to be surrounded by the monstrous cliffs and hills of sandstone into which the tombs were carved.

3. Egyptian Museum of Antiquities – You walk into this monstrous building and as far as the eye can see there are artifacts. Both incredibly massive like the full body statues of Ramses II to the minute scarab beetle beads. The museum has so many pieces that some are just haphazardly tossed on the sides of hallways and behind pieces of large construction paper. There is a special room for all of King Tut’s tomb artifacts… the room is kept at a freezing temperature and everything (except the two gold and gem-studded sarcophagi) are behind glass containers. His funerary mask was completely covered in gold, sapphire, rubies, and other precious stones and metals. It felt like you had entered a sacred chamber – everyone walking around and viewing the specimens was speaking in a whisper.

2. Karnak Temple & Luxor Temple – Built during the dynasty of Ramses II, there are hibiscus-shaped pillars as tall as three-story buildings, giant pearly-white obelisks, adorning every possible surface are thousands of carved hieroglyphics telling numerous stories of life, death, and the gods, and huge scarab beetle monuments… all under the open sky. I was lucky enough to visit both sights during the day and at night – each was equally breathtaking. During the day, the sun cast shadows making the sandstone appear alive, and at night the strategically placed lights created an enchanted and ancient mysticism. One trip was not enough…

Luxor Temple at night

1. Giza Pyramids & the Sphinx – Perhaps it was the setting sun behind the Sphinx’s head, or maybe it was reaching such a peaceful place after a chaotic day in the city… whatever the reason, my trip to the Giza Pyramids and the Sphinx was the most memorable. The monuments suddenly rise up from the city’s edge unexpectedly. Within 30 seconds you are transported back in time from the cosmopolitan, busy city center to the days of Ancient Egypt and the powerful worshipping of their many gods. You can actually touch the pyramids… I took a pebble from the ground… shhh! don’t tell. Even for any egocentrist, standing in the Giza Pyramid’s shadow will make you realize just how small you really are.

the Sphinx, the Pyramid, & Allison

honorable mention: Welcoming Tea – often given to you when you entered a store. It is made from dried hibiscus petals and sugar; Egyptian music – really funky and different than most stuff I listen to… I regret not getting a CD.

“What Makes King Tut Roll Over in His Grave” Egypt Bottom Ten

10. Titanic song “My Heart Will Go On” – for some reason, everyone had this song as their cell ringtone. Not only that, but it was playing in every taxi, elevator, and store I stepped into. BRUTAL. Thank you Celine Dion.

9. Nescafe – Coffee grounds… what’s that? On every menu under the “beverages” category I would scroll down and desperately hope to see ‘coffee.’ Instead, every time I was met with disappointment as my eyes fell upon ‘Nescafe’ right after the tea selections. Instant coffee is the drink of choice in Egypt and as an avid coffee drinker, Nescafe did not get the job done.

8. Sad-looking donkeys – there were so many donkeys on the streets of Luxor and the suburbs of Cairo… and they all looked SO sad pulling their carts packed high with sugar cane. I kept thinking about the bad boys in Pinocchio who travel to the island and get turned into donkeys… it made me sad.

7. Pollution – forget about a decent sunrise or sunset in Cairo. The air is so thick with smog that all you can see is a yellowish-orange haze. I also felt like I had a thick layer of grime on me and needed to shower after every venture onto the streets.

6. Number of other tourists – I guess it’s a good thing for Egypt, but MAN! Sometimes it really took away from the atmosphere that the ancient sights offered. Most of my pictures also have some lumbering idiot wearing a Hawaiian shirt and binoculars squinting up at a statue… harsh? Probably, but it got pretty frustrating at some moments.


5. Cigarette smoking – Perhaps Egypt has not heard that smoking kills you because everyone, everyone, smokes. It especially got to me when for a five-minute drive, my taxi driver couldn’t fight the urge to light up. Even in restaurants, chances were that the couple sitting next to me would start smoking as soon as their wine was served.

4. Hassle by store & sight vendors – In every store you passed by, the vendor would shout at you and on most occasions, run up to you shoving whatever their item was in your face. With so much competiton I guess they need to do it, but their aggressiveness was usually so overwhelming that I didn’t even want to look at whatever they were selling. Even at the sights, like the Temples, there were vendors INSIDE bothering you and trying to sell crappy carved scarab beetles and bootlegged dvds. It really urked me when I was trying to enjoy the feel of the place.

3. Ripped off by taxi drivers – Not knowing Arabic was an obvious sign that I was a foreigner and the taxi drivers abused that like no other. For short distances they started off by charging insane amounts. After a few outrageously priced taxi rides, I became tougher and bargained harder but I was still ripped off.

2. Overnight train to Luxor and back to Cairo – One word: freezing. For some reason, the heat didn’t work on the trains and the temperature of the cabins must have dropped to below freezing temperatures. We could actually see our breath and the windows frosted over. Needless to say, the shivering and constant movement to keep my blood flowing prevented any sleep from occuring.

1. Catcalling – By far the most annoying part of the trip was the attention that every single Egyptian male pays to foreign females. It was insane. From marriage proposals to “Wow, your eyes are so beautiful” to hissing across entire boulevards, the calls were incessant. By the end of my trip, I think I appreciated the quiet the most.

Seeing as I finished on a sour note with the bottom ten, I’d like to say that the overall trip was incredible. I’d like to go back after I visit a few other places. Yet, as I landed back in Nairobi and arrived at Mpala several hours later, I felt so content and comfortable curled up in my bed. It felt good to be home.

The Holiday, Part II

9 01 2010

“Wait! Please, wait! I’m on that flight!” I yelled, running straight at the desk clerk in full on Home Alone style. I’m lucky I didn’t smack right into him. In a flurry of hand motions and sputtering I managed to convey that I was on the departing flight and that it was crucial I make it.

Crucial, you ask? Really? Unfortunately, yes… my student permit paperwork hadn’t been completed/processed in time and within two days my name would be removed from the Kenyan ‘legal alien’ category and tossed into the ‘illegal alien’ one. Not exactly a place one wants to be. I would have to leave the area that is the East African Community (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda & Burundi) and then return to be reissued a new visa. Cool. At first I was, to put it lightly, panicky. It’s not cheap to fly across Africa due to the lack of airports in a majority of the countries, and money trees don’t grow here. I faced the problem of planning a trip to a foreign country I knew nothing about and doing it on a budget. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable the planning process turned out to be. The first big decision was where to go… and that actually took no thought; I’ve been harboring a strong desire to visit Egypt since I was about seven, both intrigued and slightly obsessed with the Ancient Egyptians, so the first site I visited was to check airline ticket prices to Cairo. After playing around for a while with different sites at different times of the day I finally clicked “purchase” around 11 p.m. I now had a round-trip flight to Cairo. Eeek.

“Madam, you’re too late,” came the reply. There was no way I was giving up. After pleading and telling him that I had no luggage (just a backpack, thank you very much!) he decided he could let me through. I almost hugged him…almost. But I held myself back since I’m pretty sure he thought I was weird enough. At this point, all stress and panic slowly hissed out of my body like a deflated balloon. Decompression, stage 1 began. It was only about 5:30 at this point – I had a whole hour until my flight left. And then, as I was walking towards my gate I heard a voice from the heavens boom, “Flight E787 is delayed. New departure time 7:20 p.m.” I actually laughed outloud at the irony. So, what to do with about an hour and a half? Coffee shop. I headed to the airport’s Java House, ordered a large coffee and settled down on a plush sofa chair with a book (White Tiger by Aravind Adiga – really terrific). Finally, boarding time rolled around. Within 15 minutes I was seated in the plane and eager to depart. Once we were airborne and the initial turbulence had subsided, I reached into my backpack and pulled out my itinerary. Tomorrow I would be spending the entire day at the Museum of Egyptian Artifacts in Cairo where King Tut’s sarcophagi, jewelry, ornaments, and the renowned funerary mask are on display… along with literally millions of other unearthed treasures. I was pumped.

Pole! It looks like I’m going to have to insert another “to be continued…” Next up: The Holiday, part III: the entire trip to Egypt. EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEWS AND PHOTOS! ONLY HERE!

On another, rather somber note:

I’d like to take a moment to talk/react to the recent tragedy that occurred near Mt. Kenya. An American mother and her 1-year-old daughter were trampled to death by an elephant:

My deepest sympathies go out to the family and friends. A few friends from the States have asked me why an elephant would react this way. I would have asked the same question before arriving at Mpala. In places unpopulated by elephants, people think of them in a storybook-like mystique: wise, peaceful and gentle giants (elephants never forget, right?). I’m in no way an elephant expert, but after having lived in the bush for six months, my view of elephants has entirely changed. From behind the metal doors of a Land Rover (engine on) or behind a cement wall in my banda looking out from a window, elephants are beautiful and incredible creatures; however, they are tremendously dangerous… garnering an altogether different kind of respect. Although not completely erratic, an elephant can be set off by just about anything… especially a lone elephant (as in the deaths above) or a mother guarding her young calf. In Laikipia, the locals have lived amongst elephants for generations and have also suffered occasional deaths due to elephant attacks. With more people living in Laikipia, more land being used for crop farming and ranching, and tourism as its most profitable industry, more and more human-elephant confrontations are bound to occur. Luckily, there are many people working on these issues… researchers, community leaders, government wildlife specialists, etc. It’s a delicate balance, and certainly a pressing area of study that is calling for a solution. However, one solution may not work for all… and essentially, it is important to remember that simply killing an elephant responsible for a human death will not provide a solution – only more unnecessary bloodshed.

mother & calf

The Holiday, Part I

4 01 2010

Inshallah. God willing. My heart was pounding in my ears as I rushed to the check-in counter at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. It was 5:15 p.m. – my flight was scheduled to leave at 6:30. Everything that could have gone wrong on the way did go wrong… Murphy’s Law at its finest.

The day had started off pleasantly enough, actually festively, as I was in Nairobi to visit with a friend Halima who had just given birth to her first child. Her husband George, George’s friend, and I crawled through Nairobi traffic on the “City Hoppa” bus to the opposite side of the city where the hospital was located. Emerging from the top of a hill, the white facade of the hospital was like a breath of fresh air from the smoggy city center. The three of us squeezed off the bus and made our way to the entrance bearing small care-package gifts for the new mom. The emergency room was buzzing: every seat was occupied and numerous stretchers bearing blanketed sickened or injured bodies lined the hallways. On the way to the maternity ward, my curious and wandering eyes took in everything, including the surgical wing where doctors in bloody scrubs emerged and disappeard through a single entrance like bees, the oncology ward where one could hear echoing children’s voices singing in unison, to the darkened hallway with several stretchers pushed to the side containing corpses encased in giant metal covers on their way to the morgue – I saw a toe.

Our winding and long journey through the hospital finally came to an end when after turning yet another corner, the calling card of any maternity ward materialized  – the earsplitting scream of a hungry newborn. Openly connected to the reception desk was a large room holding eight beds, each home to a new mom and baby. Halima was situated on the third bed in holding a sleeping Jamal Ryan.

Quick digression: Jamal’s middle name Ryan originated from the renowned Manchester United midfielder Ryan Giggs. George, another Mpala friend David, and I are huge fans of Giggs and have spent hours on end discussing his playing style, stats, and reenacting goals he has scored. When I found out Halima was pregnant with a boy, I nicknamed him “Giggs” which caught on quickly and soon everyone at Mpala referred to the unborn Jamal as such. When deciding on his name, Halima and George agreed that “Ryan” would thus be a suitable middle name. I still call him Giggs.

Baby Giggs. England's youngest fan

Halima was overjoyed to have company and quickly handed me Jamal. I couldn’t believe how tiny he was – a healthy baby boy but only 2.4 kg! His fingernails were just little dots of white, clenched into fists each the size of a small peach pit. While holding Jamal, I walked around the rest of the maternity room and talked to him about his future in football (haha). Simultaneously, I had been keeping a close eye on the time, not wanting to leave for the airport later than 2 p.m. for my 6:30 flight. That’s when the first speed bump of the day occurred. Some of the paperwork that George needed to have in order to discharge Halima had been left at his home. At this point, it was about 1 p.m. – the worrying had yet to begin. George called his other cousin and asked him to bring the paperwork to the hospital. The plan was to have Halima discharged then we would all take a taxi back to George’s house, where my luggage was, and then I would take another taxi to the airport. Meanwhile, visiting hours had ended so we went to wait outside. Slowly but surely the time began to creep by. At 2 George’s cousin still hadn’t arrived… however, I was assured by George that traffic wouldn’t be bad at this time, especially from the hospital. 3 o’clock arrived. No cousin. I began to worry. Not only did I have to get to the airport but I had to pick up my bags… I began wondering whether it would be better for me to take my own taxi to George’s, pick up my bags, and head to the airport than wait for everyone- it would be more expensive but at least I wouldn’t be late. As soon as I thought this, George’s cousin arrived with the paperwork. Feeling better, I decided I could wait. George went back to the maternity ward to gather Halima and Giggs while I waited outside. The time continued to tick by and after half an hour of waiting, I admit, panic set in. It was almost 4 and I was still at the hospital. I walked, actually ran, to the maternity ward to see what the holdup was. It turned out a required signature wasn’t on the paperwork and George was waiting for the hospital manager to arrive and sign. At that point, I decided if I didn’t leave by then, I would miss my flight. I asked George for his house keys and told him I had to leave. After realizing what time it was, he apologized profusely and had his cousin call me a taxi. The taxi arrived and George’s cousin and I got in, urging the driver to drive as fast as “safely” possible. Time check: 4:15. My stomach was rolling in nauseous circles. Of course, there was traffic – lots of it. An excruciating 30 minutes later we pulled up to George’s home. I sprinted out, grabbed my bags and directed the driver onto the airport. More traffic. 4:50. Suddenly, George’s cousin, who had stayed in the taxi with me (probably to make sure I didn’t have a panic attack) looked out his window at the tire and shouted at the driver. We had a flat… 2 miles from the airport. Determined not to cry I got out and tried waving down any car headed towards the airport. No one was stopping. Meanwhile the driver was attempting to fix the tire, but then the spare he pulled out of the trunk was, you guessed it, also flat. With the temperatures climbing into the upper 90’s and sweat pouring from our faces, George’s cousin and I each grabbed a bag and started running to the airport on the side of the road. With over a mile left (it was 5:00) we didn’t have a chance of making it in time. In a final attempt at a miracle I turned around and tried to see if any vehicle might pull over again. An empty, white matatu suddenly turned the bend and headed towards us. Saying a quick prayer, I dropped my bag and waved both hands over my head, George’s cousin did the same. The matatu driver glanced over at us… and kept driving. Utterly depleted, I dropped my head, coming to terms with the fact that I had missed my flight. I looked back up to figure out what my next move should be when I realized the white matatu had in fact pulled over about 200 meters in front of us. With a newfound burst of adrenaline, we sprinted to it, and threw ourselves in. “Please, can you drive us to the terminal for Ethiopian Airways?!” I desperately asked the driver. “No problem, friend!” came the reply. Within two minutes I was at the entrance to the airport. Throwing both bags over my shoulders I turned and handed the driver a large tip. “God bless you!” he shouted, “and good luck!” It was 5:10.

And there I was, heart thudding and the blood loudly pumping in my ears, running towards the ticket counter at the Ethiopian Airways section. A man approached the boarding sign from behind the counter and picked it up, turning and walking away. “Wait!” I shouted and the man paused and looked over his shoulder. Time check: 5:17 p.m.

to be continued…