Friday, January 26, 2007

Masai Mara

I am back in France and heading back to the US tomorrow. Back to the really real world tomorrow – back to class and three job interviews next week alone, plus I need to finish that pesky master’s thesis thing. I didn’t do too much today but sleep off the flight and go to lunch in Versailles on Matt’s motorcycle. Blasting around the outskirts of Paris on the back of a motorcycle should be really badass, but in late January, it is mostly just cold.

To recap what you missed, the last day in Rwanda was taken up by a visit to the genocide museum and souvenir shopping. I think the former put somewhat of a damper on the latter. The genocide museum commemorates the horrors of the Hutu massacres of the Tutsis in 1994. It is graphic and unnerving. There are pictures of churches filled with hundreds of bodies, all killed with machetes or bludgeoned to death. The survivor pictures aren’t much better; children with huge gaping head wounds were their skulls had stopped the machete blow. It was a tough morning.

The next day we took the early morning flight from Kigali back to Nairobi. The ground staff at Jomo Kenyetta airport managed to lose my bag yet again – 0 for 2 now – but a few minutes of righteous squawking managed to get someone to get on the walkie-talkie to locate one well-worn red backpack. It had been loaded on the flight to Kilimanjaro.

We dropped off our big suitcase at the safari office downtown, picked up our vouchers and headed out to the Mpata Safari camp in the Masai Mara. Instead of the 6-8 hour bus journey, we decided to fly out. We took a tiny little plane with four other passengers. Similar to the system to the Belize islands and most city buses, you tell them where you want to stop and they drop you off. The weather turned as we flew and a massive thunderstorm turned the sky black. It was an incredible contrast to the big green grass and the red clay dirt landing strip. Gazelles, zebras, and giraffes were everywhere, munching on the grass at the sides of the runway and causing the pilot to hit the horn (I had no idea planes had horns) to clear the runway before landing. The terminal was a wall-less thatched hut in the middle of an empty field.

We were met by the guest liaison in a safari truck. We did a little tooling around to look at the nearby animals before heading to the lodge, but not much as the storm was bearing down. We were about 3 km into the 15 km drive when the sky opened up. After a few minutes, *%$@ four wheel drive, you needed an ark. The driver was really moving too. On the way to the lodge, there was an old 1930s concrete bridge that floods over in heavy rain. We needed to get across the bridge before the water got too high. We slid and fishtailed the whole way, but got there. There rushing water was only a foot or so deep and we made it across. Pause for a quick high five and up the escarpment to the lodge.

The Mpata safari lodge was built in the early 1990s by a Japanese architect. All the cabins are made of interlocking circles (like cross sections of snail shells) with odd shaped skylights. I believe that Beetlejuice was called in as a consultant on the furniture. And the view is unreal. We can see for miles and miles over the valley below. The suite we are staying in has a jacuzzi out back too, so you can soak in the hot water after a long day of safari and watch the sun go down over the vast expanse of green below before going to eat you five course French meal for dinner. My life is very hard, as you can see.

One of the most intriguing things about the camp is that it is almost completely Japanese. It is owned and operated by a Japanese company, and most of the other people here are on package tours from Tokyo. We can’t talk to anyone, but on the bright side it takes a little of the Colonel Mustard in the Drawing Room with the Lead Pipe edge of the isolated safari lodge life.

It poured all night.

Next morning we got up at 5:30 am to go on our morning game drive. We loaded up before dawn and headed down the mountain. When we arrived at the bridge we noticed something rather interesting. The concrete bridge was no longer there, replaced by a rushing torrent of water. Safari vans piled up and Japanese tourists took pictures. The drivers thought the fact that we were marooned on top of a Kenyan escarpment with now way to get out or for supplies to get in was quite possibly the funniest thing that had ever happened to anyone. Especially the whiteys that were pitching a fit about making it to the airstrip. No safari drive that morning. I have instead included a picture of our furniture.

By afternoon the waters had receded enough for us to take an alternate route to the park. The wildlife viewing was incredible. We saw six cheetahs, including three lazy cubs, and two males running at full speed trying to take down a baby topi. (Topis are like smaller, dumber versions of wildebeests, about on the same size and intelligence of a standard household washer-dryer.) Momma Topi was having none of it though and cut the cheetahs off. They can only run at top speed for a very short amount of time though, and the topis were able to get away. The two cheetahs then strutted around for a while like a couple of gang-bangers at prep school, then took a nap in the grass.

We saw some other neat stuff too. A bunch of lions just waking up from their morning snooze and some really hungry elephants. We then went back to the lodge to relax in the jacuzzi and eat steak au poivre.

Over the next three days, we saw a bunch of other animals. Highlights included below:

Lions, in bunches. We saw different groups every day. They mostly travel in large packs of females, sometimes with one or so males present, but not always. And they are not receptive the big-maned brothers rolling in on their territory. One group of six females we saw was much displeased by the prospect. Similar to my girlfriends and I in a crowded downtown Boston bar on a weekend, their growls can loosely be translated as “I KNOW you are not trying that tired ass line on my girl here…”

We actually had somewhat of a close call with a lion too. We were down by the Tanzanian border – going to take our pictures with the border marker. As we rolled to a stop, the guide spotted a long fury tail slip into the bush next to the concrete marker. Lion. Older lone male – which are distinguished by the fact that they can’t run well anymore and are known to take out easy targets – like people. There are numerous stories about these old guys attacking railroad camps during colonial times – munching on the help. The guide was a little unnerved and took us to another marker in the middle of a huge open field. No bushes there to conceal predators.

Hyenas – which I had never seen before – are quite possible the vilest creatures to walk the earth that do not hold an elected office. They just slink around looking like they just ate a baby something. The Lion King portrayal was spot on.

At risk of boring you, I will stop there.

At risk of boring you, I will furnish an incomplete list of other things that we saw: black rhino, cerval cat, giraffes, zebras, Thompson’s gazelles, topis, wildebeest, hartebeest, baboon, African buffalo, waterbok, vulture, golden crested crane (among another billion species of birds that went by too fast to identify), hippos, crocodiles, and I know I am forgetting a bunch of stuff. There are so many things on the Mara that you couldn’t always tell where to look.

Well, that will be all for a while now – back to school. I will see if I can arrange something interesting for spring break in March.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Gorilla Tracks

So my two weeks in Kampala, Uganda working on my master’s thesis went smoothly. I had a few amazing discoveries in research, such as the fact the “farm gate price for coffee” refers not to the price a farmer receives at the village level for a kilo of coffee, but rather the price of a packet of imported Nescafe instant crystals, but that’s fine. There were the brief minutes where I heard my thesis crash and burn, but like a phoenix I rise from the ashes to hypothesize another day. In addition, I knocked out a couple other papers for classes due during the break, both written in Africa, by me an America, one about Latin America and another, co-authored with two Europeans, about the Middle East. High five globalization.

So we left at 2 am on Wednesday morning I left Kampala for Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. The bus trip was uneventful. As usual I spent the time admiring the scenery and speculating as to exactly what type of methamphetamines the driver was on. We arrived at the border at 9 am, and did the usual song and dance with customs. As I was boarding the bus again, however, the customs guy asked me to open my suitcase. He was looking for plastic bags. They were illegal in Rwanda. My heart soared. Having traveled in over 20 African countries to this point, my mind wandered back to the piles of plastic bags that litter the roadsides and villages across the continent. Disgusting. Marring the scenery. Harming the environment. I swelled with pride as I thought of the new generation of Africans, fostering development while still holding tightly to Mother Nature’s hand. Radiating this inner glow, I fished out the thin black plastic bag that until moments before had held my laundry. I held it high. I asked the inspector, beaming with hope, into which receptacle I should throw the offending hydrocarbon derivative.

He told me to toss it on the ground.

I sighed, tossed the bag on the ground, and got back on the bus. Onward to Kigali and Ruhengeri. We were only in Kigali for about two hours. Long enough to pick up our gorilla permits and accidentally try to check in to the Hotel des Milles Collines (from the movie Hotel Rwanda and the real-life genocide).

Ruhengeri is the town used as the base camp for visiting the mountain gorillas. You hike about 1 1/2 hours up - into the mountains as it were - and then spend an hour hanging out with a family of gorillas, then head back down. This was the single most incredible experience of any of the travel things that I have ever done. You get SO close. The gorillas aren't afraid at all. And the troupe we visited had 3 little baby gorillas. I could bore you to tears with every single second of the experience, but you really owe it to yourself to go yourself someday. I will stick to the highlights and let you check out the pictures. (Incidentally, I literally have 100s more, so let me know if you want to wallpaper your new bathroom or something...)

(1) We were walking down a path from one part of the gorilla group to the other. Suddenly the guide tells us to stop, and stand to the side. I turn back to see what happened. The others in the group stepped to the side and a 300 pound mountain gorilla with a baby on her back went walking by. She brushed against the legs of the person next to me. I had been the first on the lines and a little way down a rocky path. I stepped back as much as I could, but not quite far enough. She stepped on my toes walking by. Just the tips and not enough to hurt, but how many people do you know have had their toes stepped on by a wild mountain gorilla?

(2) The troupe had 9 members, 1 adult male silverback, five "wives" and three babies. The adult male is HUGE. We got within five feet of him while he was eating. They are so much like us. While he was sitting there, lounging in a tree eating bamboo, we had the same posture and expression as a number of adult male humans I have known in my life have while watching football. (You know who you are.) When we are that close the gorilla, you can't make any sudden movements. While is all well and good until he figures out there is no more bamboo within arms reach and decides to pull down a tree. You ever try to move slowly out the way of a falling tree? Twice I was smacked with branches. Damned inconsiderate to the guests.

(3) There was one female who was HUGELY pregnant. She was irritable and ate all the time. And there are people that doubt evolution is real.

(4) There was another female with a baby. The kid was about the human equivalent of the terrible twos. He was all over the place. He wanted to run in the trees. Then climb on dad. Then climb the bamboo. Then see what the deal with these weird pink hairless things with the cameras. At one point he got a little too close to the guide. The female walked up and slapped the guide on the shoulder, encouraging him to perhaps move his troupe of weird pink hairless gorillas away from the baby. Then the baby wanted to get a better view of use so he climbed in the tree on top of us and started to jump up and down. He hadn't quite gotten the hang of the working of all his limbs yet, so he ended up hanging by one arm. Mom grabbed him down, said something in gorilla that mothers all over the world have been yelling at their kids for millennia, and made him sit with her under the tree. He sulked.

I could really go one forever. I have added more pictures than usual this time because they really offer much more of an accurate picture of the experience. Absolutely incredible.

After the gorillas, we caught a minibus to the resort town of Gisenyi on Lake Kivu. Gisenyi is a cute little town right on the border with the DRC city of Goma. Most of the cars and people here are Congolese. (Editor’s note: Goma used to be a provincial backwater in the middle of war-torn eastern Congo. Then in 2002, the nearby volcano erupted, and Goma became the provincial backwater in the middle of war-torn eastern Congo half covered in lava.) We stayed at Hotel Kivu Sun, which is the nicest hotel in town, even if it is the former headquarters of the genocide government. You can't really swim in Lake Kivu. The guidebook says "it is very dangerous to swim, as volcanic gases are released from the lake bed and, in the absence of wind, tend to collect on the surface of the lake. Quite a few people have been asphyxiated." I took a pass on the experience. We only spent a day there, before coming back here to Kigali. We will take a look around town tomorrow, then fly on to Kenya on Sunday.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Paris and the Luggage

So for New Year's I decided to do something a little different, a little change for me, nothing drastic, but just give it a little go and see where it takes me. I went on vacation to the developed world. Paris specifically.

The four days were nice. Matt and I walked around Paris, ate crepes, talked French, etc. We only went to one museum because the lines were around the block because of the holidays. We went to the new museum of developing world art, which is Chirac's answer to the British Museum. The verdict: British museum is much bigger and has a much better collection of stuff, which Chirac's has really neat architecture, and in both cases, the countries from which the artifacts were taken would probably like them back. And the kids all say that colonialism is dead.

The other thing of note we did was New Year's. We went to this restaurant whose name translates to "In the Dark?" It is a restaurant run by blind people so you can see what it is like for one meal. The dining room is completely black. Not a pinprick of light anywhere. You are led to your seats conga-line style - being dropped off by your blind waitress as you go. There are no menus, you get what you are served. You fill your wine glass by sticking your finger in it and pouring very very carefully. You locate your plate by touch, and figure out which section is duck and which is butternut squash by sticking your fingers in it. (In a weird way, it was like the ultimate foodie test - it's amazing how much we rely on our vision to identify what we are eating.) After dinner, we went back to our hotel to watch the Eiffel Tower to light up the new year. Instead of the little TV provided in our hotel room, we snuck out on to the fire escape, went up to the top, then climbed this rickety little metal ladder to the roof. We had a beautiful view of the tower. I took the above picture of the skyline in the other direction. It was weird and bizarre being the only ones up there and with the light refelcting off the clouds.

Then I took a two hour nap and headed off to the airport to go to Kenya. My eventual destination was Kampala again, but it was cheaper to fly to Nairobi and then grab an overnight bus from Nairobi to Kampala. After all, once you have been on a plane for 9 hours, what's 12 more in a bus?

The only little snaffoo was that though I arrived safe and sound , the Luggage did not. So I faced the choice of being in one of the most dangerous cities in East Africa, at midnight, alone with no hotel and no luggage, or to get on an overnight bus departing from one of the nasty sections of the city, alone, with only my laptop bag. I didn't even have any toothpaste because the rat bastards at Charles de Gaulle confiscated it because it was 4 oz and therefore MUST be plastic explosives in disguise. Well, off I go. KLM assured me that this happened all the time and that Luggage would be along to K ampala on the next flight. (This happens all the time? Management should have a quick review of what to tell and not to tell the paying public...) So off I went. The bus trip went as smoothly as any 12 bus trip through a developing world backwater. I arrived and checked into the hotel. No Luggage. Next day, no Luggage. KLM has no clue what continent the bag might be on and can I please come back tomorrow? So I decided that the only sensible thing to do would be to camp out at the office until they found my bag. It took 30 minutes before they were calling baggage claim offices around the world to get the crazy white lady OUT of there. They found the bag. They would have it at the hotel by end of business.

Around 3:30 they called. Good news, Luggage had arrived in Kampala. Bad new, it had promptly been confiscated by customs and I had to go down to the airport (which is in another city 30 miles away) and get it out of hock. The round trip took three hours and I managed not to pay any bribes. Most of the time at the airport was taken up with a Kalfka-eque process of obtaining a security badge, which I didn't even need. There was no one manning the security check. But - in true African style - people still formed a somewhat disorderly mob to put their belongings down and pass through the metal detectors, even though there was no one there to look at what was in the bags or stop us if we set it off. I did the same.

So Luggage and I are back together again in Kampala. I will hopefully get enough accomplished on my second year thesis in the next two weeks to do some interesting stuff before I leave East Africa.

Happy New Year.