Monday, June 29, 2009

The somber side of things: Bagamoyo and Rwandan genocide

While most of my stay in Tanzania was refreshing and exciting, there were some somber moments as well.

Lay down your hearts: While a command like this is almost poetic, the reason behind its existence is much more sinister.  This is the translation of the Swahili town Bagamoyo, the point of no return for the slave trade.  Slaves, brought from the interior, were told to lay down their hearts, in effect, to give up because there would be no sparing them from their new life, or lack thereof.  When I visited the Atlantic counterpoint to Bagaboyo, the Ile de Goree off the coast of Senegal, I was overwhelmed by the history.  I started incontrollably crying when I looked out the point of no return, a tiny opening in the stone fort where millions of African slaves were shoved through on their way to the Americas.  Overpowering was the memory of my ancestors, some of whom undoubtedly had passed this very hell, to their new lives as less than human. I had spent part of my teenage years attempting to recreate my family tree, to learn where I came from, but was always tripped up by missing records, reminded that slaves were property and thus recorded as such.  Consequently, I could only trace my lineage back to my great great grandmother, born a slave in Virginia.  Only an expensive DNA test can shed light on where in Africa my family is from.  However, it didn't matter, that day in 2003.  I was African.  I knew it by the pangs of dispair and the verge of hyperventilation I suffered when my head crossed the threshhold and I imagined the squalor of months chained on a slave ship.  The slave market in Bagamoyo was reminiscent of Ile de Goree.  Perhaps not as suffocating because I had experienced it before, perhaps because most of the slaves who passed through Bagamoyo were headed to the Middle East while undoubtedly my ancestors passed thru Goree. Wherever I come from, moments like these force me to carry the burden of all my ancestors who were once deemed less than human until I can transport myself back to the present and wake up from the nightmare of my past's past.
It was good for me to experience this town though because most of my travels in Africa have been void of historical sites, thus far.  Bagamoyo was also special for another reason, the continuing sense of family and belonging that has enveloped me during my time in Tanzania.  I went there with Florence, Monica's cousin.  This is the girl whose nursing graduation I had gone to the other weekend.  There, her father and 3 siblings live in an extremely modest house.  They picked us up from the bus station, took us home for some refreshments, and then took us to various historical sites like an Arab town dating from the 12th century, the oldest church in E Africa, and the site where the body of Dr Livingston, renowned slave trade abolitionist, laid until it could be shipped back to the UK.  Did you know that slavery wasn't outlawed in Tanganika until 1922!  Florence's father thanked me for giving his children such a memorable day out.  He only sees Florence occasionally and very seldom do they do something as a whole family.  I was immediately adopted by them and left Bagamoyo almost in tears at how generous and kind they were to me.  I keep marveling at the people I meet and giving thanks for the opportunity to be surrounded by those that have made my travels what they are.
The other sobering moment was at Aline’s party when I learned more about Pricilla and her family. When I had found out she was from Rwanda, the thought crossed my mind that she might’ve been victim to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, where Hutus killed hundreds of thousands Tutsis and moderate Hutus (to learn more, Hotel Rwanda is a good start), but I didn’t really want to ask. Her story came up in the strangest of environments, as talking about mass killings over wine and croque monsieurs is not the normal topic for these types of events. She didn’t go into detail but her whole family save one of her brothers and herself, escaped the genocide. Could you imagine losing your whole family? She most have been only 8 or so when all of this happened. A few years ago, she got a job with the Aline’s firm, which also works in Rwanda. When her boss moved to Tanzania, she asked to be transferred with him because there was nothing left for her in Rwanda, and it was difficult to stay in the country that had allowed her whole family to perish. Looking at this beautiful girl with the most stunning smile and divine yet imposing head of hair I’ve ever seen, you would’ve never imagined she went through the type of horrors we’re only privy to through Hollywood movies, documentaries, novels, and the news. Her smile was captivating but her eyes could not completely conceal the pain that scarred her. I’ve not met deeper eyes in all my traveling. Her childhood disrupted, her education fragmented, opportunities are limited. Working as a maid is probably her only option, for now, forever.

Udzungwa and Zanzibar

Sandwiched between my stays in Dar, I had an incredible day in the Udzungwa Mountains Natl Park. It was great to hike for 5 hrs as my exercise regimen of late had been sparse. The park is known for its biodiversity and the lush greenery was a stark contrast to other parts of my journey. The waterfall was so invigorating, and I couldn’t help but relish in the fact that I was on the unbeaten path. Hardly anyone knows about the park as the Serengeti and Ngorogoro get all the attention. However it's only $20 to enter, the staff was laid back and fun, and the guide was knowledgeable and nice to boot. The best part was his sheer glee because we saw species that hardly ever show themselves. We saw mangabeys and red colobus, which are not found anywhere else in the world, as well as blue colobus and black/white colubus. And of course baboons. There are always baboons. The guide kept talking about how he couldn’t believe how lucky we were, and I just laughed. Obviously he didn’t know me :-)

It was also amusing to be in the neighboring town, Mangula, as many of them had probably never seen a Muzungo before. Our second day there we spent an hour trying to book a bus ticket with no common language. We had to get pass the Swahili time roadbump as well. However, the people here were so patient with us and we all had big laughs over our misunderstandings. I had a rush of elation when trying to communicate because it was such a beautiful dance of words and gestures.

I spent the last evening sitting in the dark. The hotel lady brought me a candle as the power had gone, a weekly event. I kept hoping that the work the men were doing on the generator would be in vain because it was quite soothing to be caressed by candlelight.

Mangula was so different from my stay in Zanzibar. Zanzibar's stone town, with it's old buildings and winding roads was quite charming. Meanwhile, the north of the island held its own charm. Everyday, I would sit at the lip of the ocean, marveling at the clouds streaking the sky, mere wisps in stark contrast to the billowy masses that had jostled for position before the rain. A Maasai with his requisite staff, would pace the water's edge, a dab of red on a pale blue backdrop. A mix of reggae and African music would periodically skip, yet no one ever seemed to mind because the upbeat kept people's spirits lifted. I was modestly covered as most of the locals were Muslim but my legs would peak out from under my sarong, toes tapping in rhythm. Fishing boats, sustained by the calm seas, would bob ever so slightly in the distance. Meanwhile, the fishermen were insignificant specks in relation to the stoic wooden structures. No one would talk around me, everyone in their own world, basking in the human silence, something underrated and thus not so common. This was Kendwe Zanzibar. Perhaps this is one version of paradise.


I’ve been officially couchsurfing for three years now, although it wasn’t a change of pace from my normal mode of travel, as I usually found myself staying with locals anyway. just makes it easier to find and connect people. The idea is simple: promote cultural exchange. Trying to explain to family and friends, however, that you find random strangers by perusing online profiles and references, request to stay on their couch for a determined amount of time, and then head to a country on the other side of the world to find these people, escaping the sterility of cyberspace in the process, is a little more complicated. No rational person who values her personal safety and security would ever gamble venturing so deep into the unknown. And I will agree that you have to have a healthy dose of trust in your fellow man, an arduous task when the media portrays the world, and in particular, Africa, as a dangerous place. However, what you miss from not having this sort of interaction with the locals is too big a price to pay for me. If you are always staying in hotels, you are separated from the world revolving around you. You might test the waters during the day, but you always have a place to escape to if the new dimension you’ve broached proves too overwhelming. Backpackers hostels are good for meeting fellow travelers and insures that you don’t become a recluse—keeping to yourself when solo traveling—but you are most likely going to come across people who look and act like yourself. Couchsurfing forces you to put yourself in others’ shoes, seeing how they live, eat, conceptualize family, express emotions, complete daily chores, pray, you name it. To date, I’ve stayed in strangers’ homes on four continents and have not once had a bad experience. Africa was no exception.

Tanzania. I arrived to Dar es Salaam after a 10 hr bus ride as dusk was approaching. My host, Monica, who also has a fulltime job, was in the middle of MBA exams. I knew she had one the night I was arriving but through a misunderstanding, I thought she would be done when I got there. As instructed, I called her upon arriving, but no answer. Dar has probably one of the doggiest bus stations in the world. You show up with your bag, you better accept your lot as shark meat. When night takes the reins from dusk, the fear factor intensifies ten-fold. After fending off touts for about an hour, I sought refuge in the change bureau where a very sympathetic money changer let me sit with my bags while I sorted myself out. Giving him the only money I had on me, a forgotten 5 euro note that had been stuffed in some hidden crevasse for just these types of situations (I usually carry emergency dollars but was bled dry at the border as Bush’s foreign policy made US citizens the only people who have to pay $100 for their visa), I prayed that the resulting shillings would be enough for me to get a taxi into town or at least to get a room at the bus station hotel. 5 euros don’t really go very far these days, and there were no ATMS in sight. The very concerned money changer let me use his cell phone to call a few hotels and offered to get me a trusted taxi driver to take me to an ATM and then into town, but I finally received a call from Monica. She had been unable to answer my 7 frantic calls as she was taking an exam. We both got the times mixed up.

As a side note, telling time in Tanzania is tricky business as most people use Swahili time, which is shifted by 6 hrs. The day starts at 7am which is 1 am for them. Noon is 6 am. Midnight, 6 pm. Quite practical if you ask me, but a headache when you are trying to catch a bus or keep an appointment. You never knew if someone had successfully converted the time for your benefit so you had to make yourself clear.

We both apologized for the mix up, me for calling her so many times as she was obviously doing something important, her for making me wait around for 3 hrs. From there she explained the situation: her grandmother had just arrived unexpectedly and would be staying with the family. This meant that the bed I was going to stay in would be occupied. She asked if I wanted to stay in a hotel. Assuring her that I wanted to do whatever was easiest for the family but that I did not mind squeezing into a bed, sleeping on the floor, or finding a corner on the couch, she perked up and brought me home to her family.

From the moment I stepped through the threshold, I knew I had found a wonderful counterpart to my American family. I had just acquired three brothers. The oldest, Jonathan, who shares my own brother’s name, was always helping me with different tasks like getting me my bus ticket. The next in line was Isaac, back home from boarding school, who I was encouraged to send out when I needed more phone credit, and Stephen, about 12 years old, and the most polite person I’ve ever met. He would shake my hand each time I got home and asked how I was with a big smile. He kept an endless supply of fresh juice coming my way. When Monica would go to sleep early as she was working and studying full time, I would watch the Confederations Cup or Jean Claude Van Damme movies with my bros. Even the mother welcomed me into the home, not once questioning why I was living in her home (for 7 days when I had only planned on staying for 2!). We spent an hour talking about various topics from education (she’s a primary school teacher) to linguistic differences between Kenya and Tanzania. I felt an incredible sense of belonging. This woman, a collateral bonus to couchsurfing here, had taken me in and made me feel comfortable. Then there’s the grandma who spoke English but insisted on speaking to me in Swahili as I expressed interest in learning. She tried to keep me on my toes though, mixing her mother tongue in there as well. And Monica. Where do I begin? I took to her like a sister from the beginning. She was all smiles and laughs, brightening every moment. She took me out dancing, out for dinners, got her friends together for drinks at Malaika, a beautiful bar/restaurant on the beach, found escorts for me when she couldn’t take me around the city, and went out of her way to make my stay as relaxing and stimulating as possible. We had in depth conversations about a range of topics, most notably about relationships and family planning in Tanzania. My new family was not just the immediate family. The hospitality continued to the extended family. Monica’s cousin took me to her college graduation and introduced me to all her friends as well as set up a day trip to nearby Bagamoyo where I spent the day visiting historical sites with her family. [more on that trip in the next post]. These little things remind me that when surrounded by the right people, home is inevitable.

From Dar, I left with an American couchsurfer that was in Dar the same time I was and her British friend that was visiting. She had contacted a couchsurfer in Morogoro, a small town about 3 hrs away with a well-known agricultural university. Our host, Rogers, a student at the university, was the epitome of the couchsurfing ideal. The day we arrived was the eve of his last university exam ever. And yet, he hosted 3 people that night, giving up his room and valuable study time. Each time I have a couchsurfing exchange I become more and more impressed with human nature. I don’t think I would’ve agreed to host one person the night before an exam, let alone 3! He gave us a tour around the pristine campus, introduced us to friends and made us feel right at home. Too bad our time was limited because it would've been nice to hike in the surrounding mountains and to spend more time on campus. It's so rare to get to see a college campus in another country.

The third CS experience in Tanzania was in Mbeya, quite a different experience because I was staying with a French girl instead of a Tanzanian. However, the cultural value was the same. I arrived to Mbeya after a 14 hr bus ride and was picked up at the station by Aline, my host, and her roommate Bertrand. They ushered me to a dinner with her team (she is working on a water maintenance project with a French firm), where I got to stuff my face with beef fondue and cider while remembering how to speak French. From there, I went to their amazing apartment where I was given my own room, a key, and told to make myself at home as they both would be working the next day. I had planned to go hiking but had a better treat in store: I met another amazing Tanzanian family. Aline had met Fatima at the pool the other day and the latter invited her over for lunch, in which by extension I was invited. They prepared a meal for us and then we sat around and watched music videos until Aline had to go back to work. I stayed with the family to continue watching videos and then went for a walk in the surrounding hills and along the stream. Later, over drinks Aline met up with us, bringing a Rwandan girl from her job along and the 5 of us went back to the family’s house. The mother was so excited to see us again and had gone out and bought us Tanzanian cloth as a present. She kept saying how happy she was to have us in her home and insisted that we ate dinner as well. I spent about 8 hrs with that family today and now have yet another place to stay the next time I’m in the country.

I ended up staying with Aline one more day than planned as I couldn’t miss the party we were scheming. The next day I woke up early to go on a beautiful hike up the mountain to the white cross that studded the landscape. It was like a pilgrimage as stone markers highlighted the path to the promised land. I passed an old woman along the way, trudging along, had a conversation in Swahili and continued along until I met the next person, a woman cutting firewood who wanted to know what I was doing in Mbeya (not many tourists pass through). I was amazed at how much I was getting out of these conversations as my Swahili was not as advanced as I would’ve liked. As I reached the top of the mountain that overlooked the town, I was confused. What do you do when you reach a giant white cross at the top of a mountain. I crossed myself as if I were catholic, as it seemed like the right thing to do, touched the cross, gave thanks for the marvelous time I was having overlanding in Africa, sat down in front, took in the glorious view, took out my harmonica, and played “Oh Danny Boy” on the harmonica. That is the only song I’ve taught myself so far. I then made up some diddies, before commencing my descent.

I returned to my home, which is amusing in its own right. Aline and Bertrand were renting it from the police chief. This explained the men in the orange jumpers that were working in the garden that morning when I woke up. I thought to myself, hmm, these look like the jumpers that American prisoners wear. Must be another random article of clothing that finds it way to Africa (you should see some of the things people wear that have undoubtedly come from clothing drives). But everyone was wearing matching jumpers. I later found out that the police chief got free labor from the prison, and those were indeed prisoners. I have no idea what they were in for but they seemed nice enough. Each morning we would all go through the standard greetings as greetings are probably the most important thing you can master in African countries.

Aline was off for the afternoon so we went shopping for goodies for the party. That night we had a multicultural shindig that consisted of the three Australian girls I met in Zanzibar who had just arrived and would be accompanying me to Malawi; Fatima and Rukia, the Tanzanian girls who I had spent the day prior with; Pricilla, the Rwandan girl with the greatest smile and hair ever; a slew of Frenchies; a South African, whose marked snobbery was a bone of contention for the other Africans there; a Senegalese guy, one of Aline’s coworkers, whose brain I got to pick as my doctoral research project forever looms in my mind; a Tanzanian guy of Indian descent; a German girl, a neighbor of Aline; and a French-Cameroonian girl with her French boyfriend. Brilliant. After an evening of wine, beer, whisky, croque monsieurs, pizza, chocolate mousse, and crepes (this was a French party, mind you, and food is of the utmost important), we went to the only club in town for a night of dancing. Aline was intent on having a nuit blanche, that’s French for staying up all night, as she didn’t want to have to wake up at 5:30 to take me to the bus station. To keep ourselves a wake during the gap between the club closing at 4am and the departure to the bus station, we listened to loud music, ate nutella crepes, played the harmonica, jumped on Bertrand’s bed to make sure he would get no sleep either, and talked about a variety of topics. I was sad to say goodbye to Aline, because saying adieu to this wonderful person also meant saying adieu to Tanzania as well, and all the amazing experiences I had there.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


My solo traveling through Africa was supposed to begin with Mombasa. But now I had been adopted and had a new set of parents who worry more than my own parents as my own have realized over the years that worrying gets them nowhere. Originally, I was supposed to go to the coast with Thomas’s niece, but she backed out. Thomas did not want me traveling alone (even tho this is by far the easiest of my destinations for the next 2 months) so he found someone in the neighborhood who he thought would want to accompany me to Mombasa. In return for her services as 24/7 tour guide, he promised her she wouldn’t have to pay a thing. While this is a great arrangement, it meant that I had to pay for everything, which would’ve been fine if I had known ahead of time, but I didn’t and since I was only in Kenya for a couple more days and didn’t want to take out money again, it made an already frugal me even more frugal, but for two. However, in the end this arrangement worked quite well because she got me better rates on things, knew where all to go that were of interest, was a ball of laughter so we spent our days cracking up, introduced me to her cousin and her cousin’s crazy friends who took a liking to me and showed me a night on the town, and was just an all around awesome person. We even got to the point where it didn’t really feel like a business arrangement but more like a friendship. I ended up liking my new friends in Mombasa that they had to practically drag me to the bus station for my departure to Dar es Salaam. Hopefully, there will be a reunion soon.

Mombasa was quite a change of pace from my life in Nairobi. I was alone in a hotel room so I got more time to reflect and to write. I didn’t have to watch awful, dubbed Mexican soap operas or deal with rowdy children getting mad at me or throwing “Obama” at me. I no longer had to take 10 cups of tea per day to appease Thomas. However, I do miss my host family. The Mombasa way of life on a whole is also quite different. Obviously it would be more laid back as a coastal town. The cultural make-up contrasted to that of Nairobi as well. Nairobi has representation of every Kenyan ethnic group. On top of that, there is a sizeable Muzungo (white) population, vestiges of colonialism. There are also some Indians. Mombasa, perhaps by virtue of its coastal trading, has many more Indians and Arabs than whites and they are better integrated, almost all speaking Kiswahili (it is a Swahili town). Islam has a heavy presence with mosques dotting the skyline. I’ve been serenaded by the call to prayer in the mornings and evenings, something I haven’t really experienced since I lived in Senegal. It is one of my favorite things to listen to and really lends to meditation. Many women, both Arab and black, wear a full chador or burka. Many of the men meanwhile wear the skullcap. While Senegal was a Muslim country, people didn’t really dress the part and Islam was more a religion than a way of life. It was new for me to see women with dark skin and features dressed as if they were in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, my identity continues to fluctuate. In Nairobi, I was simply a Muzungo. In Mombasa, I was called South African, Ethiopian, and Jamaican as everyone on the beach tried to guess my origins. Someone at a restaurant started talking to me in what I assume was Amharic. He apologized when I looked at him blankly and he said he thought I spoke an Ethiopian language. I’ve also been told several times I look like the Kenyan musician Nazizi (google image her. I actually do sort of look like her). Normally though, people just called me Rasta. Rastas have a precarious position in society. Before they were only associated with bad, violent people who were known for killing. However, that group no longer runs amuck and people are starting to realize that you can have rastas and not be a cold-blooded killer. Lucky for me. However, hardly no women have dreadlocks and the men who do are looked down upon. But I’m assured that since I don’t look Kenyan, mine are OK.

Part of the Family

Time away from the Mugera family in Nairobi highlighted just how much they viewed me as part of the family. Each time I would return from being away a couple days, everyone seemed genuinely excited to see me, making me feel as part of the family. Even the maids were glad to see me and gave me huge hugs. It was quite touching. It was also quite chaotic being back at home with three children under the age of 10. Angel (the 4 yr old) named her doll Obama in my absence. Manu (the 9 yr old) kept threatening the cat who would in turn cling to my skirt, sensing its impending doom in Manu’s shadows. When he bored of cat-traumatising, he would resort to throwing Angel’s doll (Obama) across the room, making her scream (mainly Angel but also the doll who could also laugh, cry, and wet itself). When things would die down, everyone would spend time teaching me the dances of different Kenyan tribes by imitating the music videos. I surprised them when they learned I could actually dance. While I might be black, I’m still referred to as a Mizungo (white person) and I’m labeled with all the stereotypes of white people. The maids also taught me how to make chapathi, which I ate daily in India, and they were patient with me as I finally got the dough to behave right.

Thomas insisted that I was his daughter and refused to let me pay for anything during my time there, even when Nakuru national park charged me a whopping $65 as a foreigner while residents are only charged $12. There was no arguing with him, leaving me both touched by what it meant as a member of the family but also upset that he would spend such a large sum of money on me. But this is African hospitality at its finest, and the generosity I received in Nairobi would be extended to Mombasa, and all over Tanzania as well.

Kitengela Glass

I spent the week after Masai Mara quenching my artistic appetite, by enrolling as a short term apprentice as Kitengela Glass Foundation and Trust ( I had met the eccentric owner, Nani, a few weeks prior and was thoroughly impressed with the operation. She has trained dozens of Kenyans in stained glass, glass painting, bead work, glass blowing, and metal work, building up a whole compound on a large plot of land bordering Nairobi National Park. My biggest feat was attempting to make glass. The guys who make the flat glass, spinning molten glass in the 1700 C furnace and then wielding the stick until arriving at the roller, let me try. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The stick ways a ton and your face is staring into the bowels of hell. It was comical but I was so happy to be given the chance to try. For the most part, I decided to stick to less painful endeavors. Most days, I was tutored by Mary, who although extremely busy took the time to show me various stained glass techniques from design, cutting, adding the lead supports, etc. I also dabbled in glass painting and mosaic work, and learned how to make lead cames. However, learning the latter came at a price as my trainer developed a crush on me, of which, as usual, I was unaware until he made it blatantly obvious by proposing marriage. It started innocently enough, buying me chapati and chai every morning for breakfast. However, he looked quite distraught when I left, slipping me his number on a tiny piece of paper, while his coworker sat back and laughed. While this is all fine and good, the subsequent 50 something odd calls bordered on stalkerish, culminating in the final display. For a moment of hilarity and albeit disturbia:"I love you maya, you tourched my heart when you came to kitengela. Am sick in love sweetheart. I would like to be engaged to you to ease my soul. Do not let me down please. If you have accepted let me know." The frightening thing is that my Kenyan and Tanzanian girlfriends did not seem too shocked by this overture. Interesting.

The rest of the time I amused myself with my surroundings. Daily pool visits were a must, and always eventful. During my first trip, the baboons were casing the pool when I got there, happy to see me with my bag of goodies that consisted of my towel, my phone, my camera, and some soap for my outside shower. No food. They shouldn’t have been interested. That’s when I realized that they are kleptos, the whole lot of them, and they were just excited to have something to steal. So as soon as I got in the water to start my laps, the biggest one started inching over to my bag. Seeing him scheming, I swam back to chase him off. But these guys are relentless. The next time I came up for air, I saw that there were now five baboons and a baby. Each with one eye on me, one on my stuff. So I chased them away and moved my stuff to a spot where they couldn’t reach. I then spent the next 10 minutes mimicking the one baboon that wasn’t skidish. He would scratch his head. I would scratch my head. He would bite his toe, I would approximate biting my toe (not flexible enough). I was amused for a while and then went back to swimming butterfly.

Evening ritual consisted of bathing in nature in a beautiful outside shower before embarking on the daily animal feeding frenzy. The variety of animals Nani has is astounding. They have the biggest hog I’ve ever seen. I wish I knew its weight. It’s about the size of a calf, but fatter. There are also 3 camels, 4 ostriches, 4 donkeys, 5 horses, 10 dogs who sit on your lap when you eat, a million geese who could smell my disdain for them, and various parrots that all said “Hello.”

Late evening was reserved for my musical ambitions. Nathan, one of the sons, was back home and an avid guitar player so I would accompany him on harmonica each night. Having become addicted, I have sense bought a harmonica and play during my travels. I love playing music but unfortunately chose to learn upright base and piano, not exactly traveling instruments. So I never get to play, just sing along when needed. Why did I not think of getting a harmonica before?!

All in all, my time in Kitengela was a valuable foray into the world of glass art and something I hope to add to in my artistic journey that resurfaces from time to time.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Masai Mara

For all my luck with animal encounters, you probably wouldn’t have imagined my journey to Masai Mara being as difficult as it turned out to be. I was supposed to go on the 3 days safari trip in January of 2008 but had to cancel my trip because of the post election violence that left over 1000 dead. My family friends, who I’ve been living with the past month, were particularly in harm’s way, as they are Luhya in a predominantly Kikuyo area. PM Raila Odinga, who now has his position as part of a power sharing agreement after many felt he had the election stolen from him, is also Luhya. The hostilities kept my friends up all night for two weeks as they fended off mobs, many instigated by politicians. Under the circumstances, staying with them at that moment probably wouldn’t have been the wisest choice and it marked the first time I ever canceled a trip (fortunately for me I had paid in airline miles and was able to switch my flight to Lima, Peru instead with no penalty). So a year and a half later (people are still talking about that election on a fairly regular basis as the consequences are seen in the dubious power sharing agreement) I am finally in Kenya and able to go to the Masai Mara. My reservation was still good. The morning of, I arrive to the travel agency’s office, only to be told that the four other people who were supposed to be in my group (complete strangers) had just called to tell them they had succumbed to food poisoning. As the lone survivor of this group, I was not cost effective enough to continue with the plans, and it looked like my Mara trip would be thwarted again.

The woman felt awful, especially since she was the one I had booked my trip with the year and a half ago. I gave her the most pitiful face I could muster, all the while, assuring her that I understood the situation and waited for her to call around to other companies to see if there were any spots. However, those that had availability were also at least twice the cost of mine and I was unable to pay the difference. Finally, as she was reimbursing my deposit, one of the companies called back and said I could go at the price I had paid with my company. This meant I got a serious upgrade for nothing. Instead of a camping tent, I got a massive permanent tent with its own bathroom and hot shower. I don’t remember the last time I took a hot shower as I’ve been taking bucket baths since arriving here. The food was incredible. I practically got on my knees and kissed the chef’s feet because the food was so delicious. The guide knew the park like the back of his hand and was able to get anywhere when an animal was spotted (they had two way radios to call in various sightings). My fellow travelers were awesome. Mainly American, which was shocking as I’ve met few Americans in my travels. Two of them were volunteering in Uganda and were on a quick break. Another one was visiting them from the US. Another girl was volunteering at a theatre camp for street children in Nairobi. The only non-American was this retired Italian engineer who now spends his life traveling the world. He has no family and can go anywhere he wants whenever he wants. I brushed up on my Italian.

As for the animals, my o my. The first day we saw cheetahs, leopards, gazelles, antelope, zebras. We saw all of those again on the second day plus warthogs, giraffes, ostriches, hippos, crocodiles, lionesses. All we had left on our list the third day was a male lion, rhino, and elephants. The rhino was the only one that failed us. Meanwhile, the lion was insane. It was so majestic and clearly in his own world. He ignored all the vans and just walked slowly and deliberately as if this was his morning ritual that no one was going to disturb. It was awe-inspiring. We kept playing the Lion King soundtrack, convinced it was what was summoning the animals. Pretty much, every time we played the Circle of Life, a lionness showed up! Classic. The elephants eluded us the most but just as we were giving up and heading back to base camp, a whole herd, about 7 elephants emerge. It’s amazing how much more impressive animals are in their natural habitat. My animal-lover self was in heaven.

Sitting around the campfire and lying underneath the stars with my new pals was nice, as well. We got to trade stories with the Masai guards who were watching over our campsite for wild stray animals. We also had a chance to visit a Masai village. They clearly cater to tourists whose interests are much different than the anthropologically minded people of my group so we were left wanting. All their answers to our questions seemed canned, as if they were geared towards inspiring gasps of disbelief from their visitors. They loved telling us how all their huts were made of cow dung and the beds made of straw and sticks. Meanwhile, we spotted plush mattresses hiding in the corner and plenty of simple, cement houses tucked away. This seemed to be the general trend, impressing on us how their original culture had been preserved while traces of modernity peeked through the traditional veneer. This is not to say that nothing in Masai culture harkens back to the way things used to be done. There are plenty of remote villages that have succeeded in preserving practically all their customs, but the ones on the edge of one of Kenya’s greatest tourist attraction would not be those. Meanwhile our guide loved making jokes about the Masai, most of them centered around the idea that the women do all the work, building the homes, tending to the daily chores, walking kilometers with pales of water, while the men sat around all day watching the cattle. He said that was pretty much how the lions worked, the females doing all the hunting while the males would wait for their dishes to be served to them. Who knows how accurate a description of the Masai this is, but the guide loved reiterating the point.

All and all, my trip to Masai Mara was quite exhilarating. Very different from the random animal encounters I usually have, but just as satisfying, all the same.