Gearing up for this summer trip to Ecuador went remarkably smoother than last summer. Maybe it's because I didn't have to stop for Visa photos *on the way* to the airport. Or maybe it's because I started packing sooner than *the day before* my departure. Regardless of my feelings of preparedness, I'm amazed at how much stuff I crammed into my backpack at the last minute. I mean, do I really need a raincoat AND an umbrella during the dry season in Ecuador?
At any rate, I'm quite excited to return to my passion of global volunteer work, a passion I discovered only last summer. This trip represents a commitment to a new life trajectory set into motion just last year. Fortunately I have a loving wife that whole-heartedly supports these endeavors. And for that, I am truly grateful.
After pondering my goals for this journey, I'm able to sum them up in two goals: (1) to engage, and (2) to be engaged. The first refers to a deliberate outward approach in helping impoverished children see the light in themselves. My work this year takes me to the streets of Quito in the Street Children Program, organizing activities for kids who would otherwise be working as street vendors with their parents. The second goal is more an attempt at vulnerability, allowing myself to be changed by the culture I experience and the people I encounter. While I recognize that there's no way to objectively measure my achievement of these goals, I try to convince myself that enduring changes in this world are much sooner felt than quantified.
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.
This past weekend was a roller coaster of experiences, ranging from awe-inspiring nature-scapes to foreign dogpile-style transportation. Our Outreach Weekend started with an unremarkable BBQ that included loud, Irish frat boys and quadruple-shot drinks. You do the math. The next morning we departed for a KCC Project, which is a school setup by volunteers to educate a sorely under-served area in Kenya. And with yet another game of (real) football, we departed for our next adventure, Hell's Gate.
This excursion began with a leisurely bike ride along gravel and dirt roads, riding through a massive valley filled with amazing wildlife. Though there wasn't much wildlife on the ride there, we did pass by Pride Rock, the famous rock modeled in the Lion King. It was there that we wept for Mufasa.
The wind quickly dried our tears as we pedaled the rest of the way to Hell's Gate. There we grabbed our water and cameras and set off on foot on the single track trails. The rock formations were absolutely gorgeous! With the canyon walls dropping deeply and narrowly into the ground, it isn't hard to imagine how quickly and dangerously flash floods occur. After maybe an hour of meandering, we approached a 15-20 foot wall we were to scale. The nostalgia of my climbing days quickly overcame me, and upon reaching the top I realized why I miss climbing so much - because I freakin' love it!
The ride back from Hell's Gate was the prize of the day. Because we were nearing sundown, temperatures had cooled, and wildlife was emerging...like really emerging. As in, we had to stop our bikes to wait for crossing zebras, warthogs & impalas. We also saw giraffes and watched baboons climb the face of an enormous cliff. What an amazing experience it was to be within 30 feet of these animals, in their native habitats! The feeling was indescribable.
After a celebratory meal (and finishing the meals of those around me), we hit the hay in the Naivasha Hotel. On Saturday morning we awoke to a full breakfast of bread (which they call toast), sausages, and (of course) chai. It seems that here in Kenya, chai comes after oxygen in the list of basic human needs. But I digress...
From our full bellies came a sense of irony as we packed food to distribute to starving families. Our next destination would be an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) Camp. After the 2007 elections in Kenya, violence erupted due to the opposition of the two main tribes of Kenya. Six hundred thousand families were displaced, tearing families apart and leaving them homeless. The U.N. responded by providing tents, and the Red Cross helped channel food and other resources across the country. However, their support has dwindled. Therefore, the organization Marafiki recruits volunteers from our organization to purchase and distribute food.
This experience was both heart wrenching and uplifting. The former is obvious - starving families of 12 living in a single tent. Nuff said. The latter, though, came through in the children's attitudes despite their harsh living conditions. They exhibited a form of resilience that I've never seen before. It was enough for me to forget about the fact that my stomach was grumbling for a late lunch. Some of these kids haven't eaten since yesterday.
We were ealso able to help paint a new school in the IDP camp and sand the desks that would seat those very children, so eager and appreciative. I don't think I truly understood the word "perspective" until Saturday.
Now we're back in school and things are looking up there as well. Instead of reviewing a recent mid-term exam, I've been able to teach new material and it's going very well. There are still the issues of about 90-95 kids per classroom and 35-minute class periods, but I'm trying to roll with the punches.
Our next excursion will be to the Indian Ocean in Mombasa where we hope to relax and check out some chill night life. Until then, kwaheri!
After an inadvertent tour of Nairobi medical facilities, I'm back in the classroom getting my teach on. As you may have heard, my stomach went to battle with little Kenyan critters, and sadly lost. What started as a nauseous feeling at the end of the school day on Friday quickly turned to a need to vomit while napping by myself at home. My bathroom pursuit quickly turned downward, literally, as I got light headed, fell, and smacked the back of my head on the concrete floor. Blacked out for a second (or a few minutes...who knows), I finally came to, seemingly lost in the house. My thought to find my phone on the bed to call my housemates took me on another ride to the floor, this time smacking the front of my head on the floor. That's where I threw in the towel, laid on the floor to wait for my housemates to return, and began to sweat like, well...like something that sweats a helluva lot.
My roommates returned from the supermarket and rushed quickly to me as I lay there a soaking mess. A cab was called, I was hauled into the car, and we drove to Shalom Hospital near Kitengela. We were greeted by hospital staff with blank stares that seemed to silently say, "We don't see sick people here." Though unimpressed, I desperately needed help, so they pricked my finger and that was about it. At least until some members of Fadhili Community (our organization) called and told us to go to the Nairobi Hospital.
Once again, I was whisked into the cab, laid down in the back seat and tried to subdue my growing urge to vomit. The "fresh" air of car exhaust and burning rubbish outside sure didn't do me any favors. Upon arrival at the Nairobi Hospital, I fought the cab driver's suggestions that I stay in the car and crawled out onto the parking lot. When my British roommate, Stevie, placed a bag under my face, it seemed to serve as a cue to vomit...so I did, filling the entire bag.
The rest of the story I will abbreviate - we arrived at 8pm and I wasn't admitted until 4am. I had an IV put in that fed me fluids and a pretty nice cocktail of other house specials. All in all, I was in the hospital for just under two days with a bacterial infection. The saving grace of the colossal waiting time in the observation room was the private suite I was admitted to. The one they tried to charge me for twice. Bastards. I showed them.
It was great to come back home on Sunday and sleep on my malformed sponge mattress whilst tangled in the spider web of a mosquito net. Even better was going back to school today, to teach the kids math and have them give us a "propuh" lesson in Kiswahili.