Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Of Course, More Animals...You Should Come to Expect This

Monday after my trip to the second Sunrise of Africa School, in Kitengela, I had the opportunity to visit baby elephants and rhinos through the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. The school in Waithaka has adopted a 7 mo old elephant named Ndii, who was found at the bottom of a pipeline breather tank. After my experiences with the grown elephants in Siem Reap, it was amazing to see how small she was. This project is exceptional in its scope, having reared over 85 elephant orphans between 1987-2009 and successfully reintroducing them into the wild after years of trial and error to find suitable milk formula, as elephants need milk for at least the first 3 years of their lives. Some have even given birth to babies in the wild. You can find more information at www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org, as they have done a wonderful job of explaining their mission and what their work entails.

The following weekend I got an up close and personal meeting with ostriches. I went to the ostrich farm. and realized just how ginormous those crazy birds are. I learned all too well that they like shiny things as they all went for my bangles. I mean, they peeped their huge, small-brained heads over the fence and snapped at my wrist, relentlessly. One of them got a hold of my watch and I had to wrestle it away from the little thief. I found them quite amusing. I then feasted on ostrich meat, quite tasty. I guess I should’ve felt bad about eating something I had just had a showdown with but when in Rome...Speaking of food, I’ve been trying to get my family to kill the evil goose that keeps chasing me around the yard, hissing and wagging its tongue. I’m putting geese on my hit list, right up there with turkeys (don’t make me relive my Turkey incidents but you can see them both at www.mayainbrazil.com and www.mayainmexuco.com). The geese keep me up at night and Sunday morning they went after my baby sister who was playing with a bucket of water. I guess they were thirsty. It was quite comical, even with the 3 yr old’s blood-curdling yells. I’ve asked for a deep fried goose waiting for me when I get to Houston for Christmas. I also live with a rescued kitty. She was given to my family, frail and suffering from what we think was pneumonia. She was also missing fur from some tussles with various animals. She has almost been nursed back to health, however. I feed her chicken, trying to get her on my good side so she’ll catch the renegade mouse that is hiding somewhere in my room and woke me up with its incessant scratching last night.

Yesterday I went to Giraffe center to hang out with the tallest animals on the planet. The purpose of the center (www.giraffecenter.org) is “to educate Kenyan school children about their country’s wildlife and environment.” At the moment, 9 giraffes live at the center on 60 acres of land. The center is made possible by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, started in 1979 by Jock Leslie-Melville. His wife, Betty, had “discovered the sad plight of the Rothschild giraffe- there were only 120 left...There are now over 300 giraffes-all safe and breeding well in different parts of Kenya.” I must say, I never imagined just how tall they are and feeding them is a memorable, if not slobbery, experience. Just like the elephants, they have marked personalities with some being grumpy and others being playful. They all are adorable and amusing. I even had a giraffe kiss me and I admit that I liked it. However, I feel that she was using me as I was tangling a piece of her food out my mouth.

These various experiences are a nice precursor to the Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru National Park. Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Kenya: Schools, Churches, and a mix of both

I didn’t know what to expect during my taxi ride from Jomo Kenyatta Airport to my new home in Waithaka, a suburb of Nairobi. I had just spent about 18 hrs traveling from Singapore via Doha. Doha provided the catalyst needed to switch my mind from SE Asia mode to Africa mode because it was so unlike anything I had seen the past three months and, I presume, just as unlike anything I will see in these next three months. Arriving to Doha at 5 am after a 7 hour flight, I assumed the eeriness was due to sleep deprivation. But there was something more. I somehow felt I was no longer on earth. It could’ve been that I’d never landed in a desert before. It was immense, sparse, disorienting. Everything was the same gray color. I thought for a moment I had gone colorblind and was destined to a life of monocromasity. The roads, the ground, the buildings, the same. I either felt that I’d been transported to another planet or that I’d gotten trapped in a story book. The skyline was ethereal, sandcastles jutting from the plains. And then, there was sunrise, to further transport me into otherworldly bliss. At 5am, the sun was a ginormous orb hovering over the horizon. The sandy backdrop mixed with the golden glow beseeched me to take a moment of pause. This was truly the perfect transition from the beaten path of SE Asia to the road less traveled in Eastern Africa.

What was awaiting me in Nairobi was unexpected. Two institutions marked my arrival to Kenya: churches and schools. I was met with an array of churches from both well-known congregations to denominations I had never heard before. In Senegal, I was confronted with mosques. I was unfortunately the victim of a very tone-death Call to Prayer every morning, insuring my acknowledgement that Islam was all around. Arabic was abundant on the radio, as different religious programs read from the Koran and talked about societal issues. However, I was not architecturally assaulted by Islam in Senegal as I would be by Christianity in Kenya. Every few buildings seemed to be a church. And when there wasn’t a church, there was a school, often affiliated with a church. One reason I was headed to Nairobi was to work at a Christian Science primary school for two weeks. Much value is placed on education in this country as many see it as the only way for social and economic mobility both at home and in the world arena. However, lack of resources and overcrowding make it impossible for the public sector to handle the demand. In some places, one teacher will have 150 students. It is impossible to give quality education when you have that many students. I thought the overcrowding in the US was bad, but imagine: 150 students to one teacher! This has caused the private sector to step in and alleviate some of the burden, often in the form of religious schooling. Meanwhile, companies have been quietly looking to Kenya for the future of outsourcing, thus Kenya is following in the footsteps of India in more ways than just in its abundance of Masala Chai that I am forced to drink about 10 times a day, and its chapatis, one of my favorite dishes and what my host family patiently taught me to make even though I was useless at making the dough form a perfect circle.

As mentioned earlier, I was partially in Nairobi to see what inroads education was making, particularly at the Sunrise of Africa Schools (www.sunrise-of-africa.com- there is a campus in Waithaka where I am currently staying and a newer one in Kitengela). My mom, the headmaster of a Christian Science School in Houston and an adviser to the Board of Directors for these schools in Kenya, wanted to know about the type of education these children were receiving, having heard brilliant things about their curriculum evidenced by their students high scores. I have been sitting in on classes from pre-school through 5th grade, as well as guest teaching art to the older students and what I’ve witnessed as been quite impressive. I was humbled by the teachers’ preoccupation with what I would think of their classrooms, which are insanely small and barely accommodate the students who are literally on top of each other. (The school has seen rapid growth, now having more than 150 students and adding a grade level each year. It is quite a feat to keep up with the demand). They share all the materials and use them until they are in tatters. But what I’ve witnessed firsthand is that physical environment is worth so little in the grand scheme of things. What is important is the quality of education, and the teaching here is clearly top notch. The students work extremely hard, attending class year around and many opting to come on Saturdays for extra tutoring.

The Sunrise of Africa’s vision is to provide “academically outstanding co-educational schools, based on Christian principles,” namely (and I paraphrase)...to love and respect themselves and others; develop self confidence; be optimistic; express God-given qualities such as love, enthusiasm, freedom, self-control, joy, vivacity; recognize and support others in the diversity of religious beliefs, be encouraged to achieve excellence, and learn practical problem solving. I’ve seen these qualities manifested in all grade-levels. As a non-profit making school, they aim to provide education equal to the expensive, Nairobi private schools. Emphasizing the development of the whole child, they use a combination of the well known Montessori Method and the National Early Childhood curriculum. The Sunrise schools are making good on this promise. They have students that come from broken homes, whose parents are dealing with a range of issues. They even have orphans as well as refugees from neighboring countries. Regardless of their background, they are given the opportunity to receive a stellar education.

Classes for the primary school students are conducted in English, the official language of Kenya, although explanations will occasionally be given in Kiswahili, especially for the younger children as a means to emphasize a point. A period is devoted each day for Kiswahili, the national language, where students learn to read and write, as all of them are already fluent in spoken Kiswahili. Meanwhile, the youngest preschoolers have class in Kiswahili but are gradually exposed to more and more English, reaching a stage of balanced bilingualism by the lower primary grades. While English is obviously favored as it is the most prominent international language at the moment, much respect is shown to Kiswahili and all students are expected to be fluent in both, with no detriment to the development of reading, writing, and speaking skills of either language.

As part of the religious aspect of the school, the kids are requested to attend Sunday school, and all students attend Monday school, which is a shortened version of Sunday School comprising of the Golden Text and Responsive Reading of the weekly Christian Science lesson sermon as well as various hymns relating to the weekly topic. Religion plays a lesser role during the rest of the week, but the principles of Christian Science (www.spirituality.com) are the foundation of the school.

As I travel around the various neighborhoods, what I notice most are the school uniforms donned by every student. There are no shortage of schools, and no shortage of students. While I cannot speak for the other schools as I have not visited them, Sunrise of Africa Schools are making a positive contribution to the education and rearing of Kenyan students. While perhaps lacking in material wealth, they use what they have to the fullest. I wish this sort of ‘using what little you have to the max’ could be imported in the poorer neighborhoods in the US as poverty should not be an excuse for insufficient education. It should be taken into account but only to then be combatted as minds can grow if there is a belief that they can. If the public schools are overtaxed, the private sector should be able to offer quality education but without the price tag of most of the private institutions that only wealthy children can access. Those children with no material wealth have a wealth of a different kind: the ability to learn and grow. They hold inner qualities that outshine outward wealth. I worry that my idealism will become battered and one day wither away but hopefully I can do much by way of my own projects before that day arrives. I will definitely use these schools to remind me that anything is possible, regardless of the odds.

Introduction to yet another chapter in my relationship with Africa

I didn’t have many ideas of what Kenya would be like before I arrived. I’ve learned in my travels that there is no point to cloud your mind with pre-conceived notions because they will be destroyed if you are open-minded enough not to cling to them. Having already lived in Senegal for half a year, my conceptualization of Africa was probably more developed than most people’s. I did not reduce all of Africa to a monolithic culture. I did not imagine it a destitute place filled only with sorrow, pain, disease, famine, corruption. From my experiences in Senegal (www.mayainsenegal.blogspot.com), I learned of the depth and intensity that Africa holds, of its beauty as well as its squalor, of its resolve as well as its problems, of its hope as well as its despair. Experiencing Senegal, its people, its cultures, its land, I learned to respect Africa in a way that’s often lacking in other people’s repertoire. I also knew that while some of these same dichotomies would assail my senses in Kenya, there would be a whole new range of emotion and experiences. The people are different, the history particular, the languages diverse, the music varied. I’m reaching Kenya six years after my introduction to Sub-Saharan Africa, therefore, my ever-changing frame of reference internalizes my experiences here differently than when I was a college student. All I can give my readers are the impressions that I take away and show how they become ingrained in my psyche at this very moment in time. I hope that what I say will inspire others to travel to this incredible continent and to see Africa more than what the media portrays and the imagination concocts.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Monkeys, Tigers and Bears, Oh my, and oh yah, Elephants

Southeast Asia has four main animals that are held above all others. They are often the protagonists in fables and the subjects of artwork and I managed to have up close and personal encounters with all of them. Each interaction seemed to outdo the last and while most things don’t phrase me, I am well aware of the singular and impressive few weeks I’ve had. While I tend to steer clear of chronological order in my blogs, it was as if each experience was preparing me for the one to follow and so I will tell the animal section (as I very seldom have travels without some sort of traumatic or impressionable episode with an animal i.e. buffalo in India, turkeys in Brazil) from beginning to end.

My journey with the big four began in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The info bequeathed to me by the stoner at my guesthouse paid dividends. Basically, the owner’s friend, Smiley, couldn’t have been more on point with every suggestion he gave. Perhaps, he’s a wise man, concealing his powers behind the stoner facade. Whatever his true nature, his first direction to us was to find his friend who cares for the elephants at Angkor Wat. While riding an elephant around Angkor Wat is not on my list of things to do before I die and was fortunately not on the menu as nothing screams tourist more than that, getting to spend an afternoon with them, watching them eat and bathe, was quite a memorable experience. Elephants are incredibly expressive, each with marked personalities. The one who captured my heart and who literally captured my hand as her nose reached out for me was, in fact, quite shy and took time to get to know us. Every time we tried to take a photo of her, she would hide behind the pillar. When we put the camera down, she would sneak from behind her haven and cautiously approach. If we moved toward the camera, she would go into hiding again. Meanwhile, the others showed various personality traits as they went for their afternoon baths. Rival elephants had to bathe at different times or there would be trouble. Some would taunt others if they got to go first. It was like dealing with a kindergarten classroom, except your students weighed several tons more than you. You could sense their joy during bath time when they would snort as much water as possible and shower their backs with what seemed like fire hose strength. Even though each step could shake the ground, they were quite graceful. Proud and majestic they stood, yet humble in a way I can’t describe.

Smiley then led us to the Tiger Temple in Kanachanaburi, western Thailand. The sanctuary was started when a Buddhist monk was given a tiger to care for. The center has since grown to house many tigers with volunteers from all over the world. If you get there in the afternoon, you get to pet the tigers and have your picture taken (yes, I know, touristy, but still thrilling) as well as watch the babies get fed bottled milk. I’ve never been so close to a tiger. And even though they are subdued from the afternoon heat and are surrounded by trained professionals who watch their every move, your instincts are to freeze up. I didn’t realize my hesitancy until I saw my first couple pictures. I don’t think I’ve ever been caught so wide-eyed and cautious.

The next part of my journey landed me in northern Laos. The Brit, who returns only briefly in my adventure as part of the framing narrative, practically commanded me to do the Gibbon Experience in the Bokeo National Reserve. While having the utmost respect for the Brit and his ability to provide animal adventure (he was there for both the buffalo incident and the camel safari), the offputting price of the three day escapade at a whopping $220 was convincing me otherwise. I swallowed my starving artist/career student attitude enough to hand over my credit card (actually my friend’s credit card since mine still hasn’t been replaced from the identity theft). There is something almost otherworldly about living in a tree house for 3 days, zip-lining and hiking around a gigantic forest, tracking gibbons at 5 am. Even though I spent a week’s budget in those three days, I was happy with the decision I made. I wasn’t aware of what repercussions that decision actually held.

The second day, I briefly met a Scottish couple who had worked for the Experience before and who spend a lot of time rescuing animals. They passed through my tree house and stopped in for coffee. When we were hiking out on the third day, I met them again at the village bordering the Reserve. I also noticed a small monkey in a makeshift cage behind the door but didn’t put two and two together. Leaving most of my group to hang out with the guides for a while, I saw the Scottish girl walk towards me with a somewhat sheepish look on her face. What was she up to? She sat down next to me, made some pleasantries, and asked if I was heading to Luang Prabang. I told her I was leaving the following day by bus. The sheepish look transformed into badly concealed pure delight. She then asked if I were willing to do her a favor. A favor? She must need something transported. As long as it wasn’t contraband, I would be happy to. Her smile grew even bigger. That’s when she proceeded to explain to me how she needed a monkey, a long-tail macaque, to be exact, transported to her friends. The monkey had been confiscated by a forest ranger who was now trying to find a way to provide long-term care for it. As is often the case, these animals are confiscated from illegal trades after their mothers have been killed in order that the poachers can take the young. Since she was headed to Thailand, she was unable to provide refuge. The monkey’s only hope was a bus ride to Luang Prabang where, lucky thing, she had been promised the final place in an informal sanctuary.

I don’t know if I should’ve been more hesitant, or actually thought about my answer before speaking, but I responded with an unequivocal yes. I mean, seriously, how often do you get asked to transport a monkey 12 hrs on a bus? The next morning we met at the bus station around 7 so she could hand over the goods and make sure the bus driver was ok having a monkey on board. Since it was supposedly a VIP bus, I thought maybe a monkey would not be welcomed. I was wrong on both accounts. The VIP bus was actually a local bus with my being the only farang on there. The driver didn’t even bat an eye as animals are common fares on local buses. He was impressed with the towel I put down under her cage, but when reading his eyes, they seemed to say there was no point, and I soon learned why.

I have a very strong stomach and am not prone to motion sickness. If I could handle the winding mountains of Mexico, I could handle Laos. However, Laos was a very formidable opponent and I was one of the few left standing. The mountains are treacherous, the drivers, insane. The endless supply of plastic bags was inadequate because as we went barreling around the mountains, the floor started to look like a Rorschach test. Hardly anyone kept their lunch down. I was somewhat protected as I was sitting behind the back wheel with Renee’s cage wedged between the seat and the wheel. Yes, the monkey was temporarily named Renee as the Scottish girl could not remember my name and kept calling me Renee. Neither the monkey nor I look like a Renee but I needed to call her something other than Monkey and adopted that. But I digress. My fortress consisted of a back wheel and a huge plasma screen TV, whose box was shoved up against the side of my seat. Where did a plasma screen come from in the middle of the Laotian mountains, beats me, but I’ve never been so happy to have one because the box shielded me from everyone’s mess. I think Renee and I were probably in the cleanest area on the bus. 12 hrs on a bus is long in any situation, but couple that with a scared monkey, a bus full of sick passengers, and death-defying mountain driving and you have an ulcer in the works. However, I took the experience in stride and enjoyed my monkey bonding time. I was also constantly amused. I had a sitcom playing before me in the rearview mirror. The first time I looked up the bus driver was nonchalantly attacking the mountains with a cigarette hanging out his mouth. This went on a couple hours. However, the programming changed because when I looked up later, I noticed the driver didn’t look too hot. Someone should’ve given him a plastic bag. When I woke up from a nap, I realized that the bus driver was no longer driving. He had relinquished his seat to what appeared to be a 10 yr old boy. Everyone looks younger than they actually are in SE Asia but he couldn’t have been over 14. I guess he was the backup driver. I was wondering where the driver was as I had arranged to use his cell phone when I got to Luang Prabang so that I could successful make the drop off. Then I noticed the driver clutching a plastic bag in the front row. Just great, the driver also has motion sickness. I decided to go back to sleep because I realized that sleep is the best defense mechanism you can possibly have. When fear takes over and there’s nothing you can do in the present situation, go to sleep. I also found that reassuring Renee would reassure me. She would make this sort of tsk tsk sound and I would respond with an approximate noise to let her know I was close by. I would also slip pieces of banana and tamarind through the cage, along with drops of water. Caring for her got my mind off the fact that someone who could barely see over the steering wheel was driving my bus.

Monkey and me made it to Luang Prabang in one piece. The bus driver was still alive as well and called the Scots’ friends to have them come pick up Renee. For the hard work, they helped me find accommodation and then offered me the best payment anyone like me could’ve imagined. They had contacts at the bear sanctuary and said I could come around the following day for a special tour. I arrived and was ushered to the bear house where I laid eyes on the cutest thing I’d ever seen, a three month old Asiatic Black Bear named Fun (pronounced Foon). As is normally the case with these animals in sanctuaries, his mother had been killed. Since he was too young to be in the large enclosures with the older bears and there were no bears of a similar size he was not able to have physical contact with any other bears. This meant that the rescue center staff had to play surrogate mother and be his play mates. Ordinarily the rescue center does not encourage interaction with the bears and contact is limited to a very small number of people only when absolutely necessary. My thank you for helping with the monkey gave me a chance to become a part of this cub's adopted family and help to provide the stimulation and interaction that he should have been getting from his mother.

I spent the next hour wrestling with Fun, who I renamed “Bitey” for his propensity to bite every chance he got. He never broke the skin but enjoyed using me as a chew toy. He wobbled when he walked which made him even more endearing if that was possible. He climbed on top of me. I had to make it known straight away that I was not able to nurse him as that was the first place he gravitated towards. He also enjoyed my dreads and tried several times to climb up my body and chomp down on them. He was a messing eating, stepping all into his mixture of banana and milk, and smeared honey all over the floor. I’ve had incredible experiences on this trip and through all my travels, but nothing comes close to the hour I had with him.

As for my animals, we’ll see what insanity awaits in Eastern Africa, my next destination.