As a final hurrah on this month-long saga, I took full advantage of the opportunity to see African wildlife on a 4-day safari. Boy did we go out with a bang! On thursday we boarded the cozy and sweat-ridden matatu for Nairobi to be ready for the next morning's pickup. Our homestay was as overstuffed as the matatu, and the smell even trumped that of Kenyan sweat. The smell of the sleeping bag I slept in can be most accurately labeled "dirty goat smell". Yum-oh.
The following morning we were whisked away to the Great Rift Valley for some quick picks and a souvenir shopping spree. I caved and filled my bag, though had fun bargaining. From there we made way to Massai Mara, where we were welcomed into semi-permanent tents in a safari camp. I'm not sure what's so "semi" about tents with electricity and flooring. No complaints, though - they were excellent!
Soon after dropping our bags in our tents, we headed out for a 2.5-hour evening game drive. The animals welcomed us with open...um, legs. Weird. There were zebras, gazelles, impala, giraffes, and elephants. On our way out, we even spotted a solo lioness chillin' on a rock. The blurry photo I snapped of that would become laughable after much closer encounters with those royal cats.
Our evening game drive was topped with a tasty dinner at the campsite, dessert being a warm Guinness that tasted more like a secondhand cigar. And with electricity hours ending at 10pm, we all turned in early to prepare for the next day's all-day game drive.
Saturday brought us more gifts in the form of cheetahs, much closer elephants, and the wildebeest migration across a river. This was spectacular! To see hundreds of these animals stampeding across the water, dodging hippos and narrowly escaping a lurking croc was surreal! Our day close with hopes of a pride of lions hunting some wildebeest. We sat for about 45 minutes while the lions patiently but confidently advanced on their prey. Unfortunately, the park closed before we could witness the kill. But, we left sufficiently satisfied by the anticipation of such a primitive form of survival. Craving our own form of survival, we once again hit the campsite "dinning" hall for some grub. Guinness, no thanks.
We had to rise early the next morning for a sunrise game drive that turned out to be the best of all the game drives. After admiring the sunrise, we soon stumbled upon lion cubs that truly resembled a litter of kittens, except that their mother could devour a planet. We sat mesmerized while the mother watched over her cubs, and while the father sat at a respectful distance. To see the mother was quite a sight, but there is something about seeing the father walk, toting his dark mane that is truly stunning!
The next destination would be a Massai manyatta (village), where the locals gave us a peek at their way of life. Though the Massai typically fear cameras as thieves of the soul, they have grown accustomed to curious outsiders like myself and have allowed photos. Of course, a little money provides some extra motivation for tolerance. In the manyatta we were treated to traditional dances by both men and women. The men's dance included a jumping contest, whereby a man's importance is proportional to his vertical jump. Let's just say that I'm not very important.
We were then exposed to the Massai ritual of drawing cow's blood by bow and arrow, and immediately drinking it. Unsatisfied as a mere spectator, I jumped at the opportunity to partake. I was surprised at its lack of taste, but my blood-stained teeth gave me a somewhat savage look that is either badass or extremely disturbing.
Our time with the Massai concluded with a beadwork market where we could purchase the signature attire for these people - beaded everything, you name it. We then vanned-up for quite some time while we drove to Nakuru, stopping only for the occasional pit stop and an overheating van. Upon arrival, we had to high step it to the hotel restaurant so that we could watch the world cup final. Viva Espana!
The rest of the evening was such a blast - a bunch of us went clubbing - cheesy, Kenyan style. The Tusker beer flowed and the Kenyan people weren't shy about approaching us, and some armed with marriage proposals. It was enough entertainment to keep us out till 4am, which was long enough to afford us 2 hours of sleep before driving to Lake Nakuru.
At Lake Nakuru, the two main attractions were flamingos and rhinos, both of which were exquisite! The flamingos were so numerous that the lake appeared pink from afar. And the rhinos were so large and dinosaur-like that their power seemed to scream even in their idle state.
Upon reflecting on the weekend, I realized that I had been subconsciously educated that these animals exist only in zoos. To see them in their natural habitat is breathtaking in a way that can't be even partly conveyed in visiting animals behind caged enclosures. I can't help but laugh at the turned tables on a safari - we as humans cage ourselves in vans as we parade like a mobile zoo through the African savanna. Funny how that works.
This weekend provided some much needed relaxation on beautiful beaches and in the company of laid back residents. Our trek began Friday evening as we made way for Nairobi. Being an hour's drive from Kitengela, we budgeted two hours to ride in the matatu (think primitive van seating 14 but actually seating 24). So, when we got on the matatu at 5pm, we were fairly confident we would arrive with time to spare to catch our 7pm night train. Worry quickly replaced that confidence as we petered through traffic at 6:30. Thirty more minutes at a Nairobi intersection was simply beating a dead horse. It was official, we missed our train. Crap.
Upon arrival at the train station, an officer not-so-kindly informed us that we missed the train and the station is closed. However, a much more helpful gentleman helped us get the world's most highly trained stunt driver to take us, as the crow flies, from the Mombasa train station to the Athiriva station. Never before had any of us felt a sense of relief that a train had derailed. It was the train in front of ours that derailed, which delayed ours enough to allow us to catch the train. (sigh)
The train ride was kinda fun. We dined on unremarkable beef, rice & veggies that somehow tasted a bit of alright on the train. The night's sleep was broken only by the rocking of the train that made it clear why its friend had derailed. At 6am, I anxiously awaited the bell ringing for the first seating of breakfast. And at 6:15, my stomach's prayers were answered. This time, food was served with an amazing sunrise and some trainside elephants to boot. Hells yeah!
Thirteen hours after boarding our missed train, we pulled into Mombasa feeling extra greasy but ready to hit the beach. The ferry ride over to Mombasa island gave us our first substantial glance at the glorious waters of the Indian Ocean. Our taxi driver took us all the way to Diani Beach, where we would stay at Diani Beachalets in a cottage right on the beach. If I learned one thing on the drive to the beach, it is that "monkey bars" are named for actual monkey bars. About every 100 yards there was a ladder strung across the trees, traversing the street. The first roadside baboon sighting was quite exciting. Their mannerisms have a remarkable resemblance to humans!
After taking care of bid-ness with the Irish cottage owner, we immediately hit the beach. I had to constantly remind myself that I was swimming in the *Indian Ocean*! Crazy! Also, as a gift to our house mom Lucy, we paid for her to come with us to Mombasa for the weekend so she could see the ocean for the first time in her life! Upon seeing her awe-struck face at the sight (and feel) of the ocean, I was reminded of the first time I saw it in Siesta Key with Grandma and Grandpa. It was awesome just to see her experience the ocean for the first time.
And while we were soaking up the equatorial rays on the white sand beaches, the local cook was whipping up some tasty goodness in our kitchen. So, for dinner we were treated to red snapper and barracuda with chips, veggies and a salad. Yum-oh.
We had planned on hitting some local hotspots for the evening, so while Stevie & Lucy got ready for the evening, Jessica and I hopped a matatu to the local supermarket for some essentials. Fast forward to post-shopping. We were standing outside in the dark street, waiting unsuccessfully for a return matatu when a motorcycle taxi pulled up. Jess and I looked at each other, and as the devil on her shoulder I suggested that we take it. And take it we did! However, about 15 seconds after pulling onto the road, we were pulled over by the police for failure to signal (and for cutting off the cops). About 4 officers jumped out, big-ass guns drawn and Jess puts her hands up while I just sat and held the groceries. Luckily, they let him off without arresting him and without demanding a payment, which is a common practice of corruption in Kenya.
Chalking it up to weekend excitement, we continued on our evening ride and successfully made it back to the cottage. The evening turned out to be a bit of a let down, as the restaurant suggested was merely a tourist trap stuffed full of under-dressed chicks and over-drunk dudes. No thanks. On a tip that a walk back to our cottage would take only 15 minutes, we marched off into the darkness, with nothing but the sound of the ocean and the light of a cell phone to guide us. Sixty minutes later, we got home. "Kenya time" they call it.
That's where our night ended, and the next morning we made some chai to enjoy during the sunrise. And it was exquisite! The sunrise, that is. The chai was, too, but the sunrise trumps all. And unfortunately, our time on the beach came to a close as we made way to old town Mombasa to check out the city. Bad idea. It was hot, sweaty, and everything was closed because it was a Sunday. Thankfully, we rode the high of our time on the beach long enough to get us back on the train.
Overall it was an excellent weekend, with a bit of relaxing and some eye candy delivered by white sand and the marvelous Indian Ocean. I would love to have spent more time there, but our unfinished business at the school called us home like the street lights of childhood. Goodbye Mombasa, I will see you again.