Monday, December 15, 2008
I went to Nakuru National Park, about a hundred miles northeast of Nairobi towards Uganda. Nakuru used to be famous for the hundreds of thousands of flamingos that congregated there, but global warming has lowered water levels and the growth of the nearby Nakuru city into the third largest in the country, with accompanying pollution, has raised the toxicity of the lake to where flamingos were dropping dead in bunches. Perhaps clued in by this, most of the other flamingos took the hint and found other salt water lakes to hang out in.
But there were still some flamingos, and the suddenly available real estate encouraged the in-migration of large numbers of giant pelicans – which I actually liked more than the prissy little pink flamingos. But before we get to that, let me provide more anecdotal evidence as to why monkeys are the spawn of satan. I was in charge of watching the car while the guide paid our park fees and the other tourists hit the loo. As I stood in front of the open safari van door, a monkey jumped through the open driver’s window and started to pick through the luggage. “Bad Monkey! Get out of the car! Leave the nice Chilean lady’s bag alone!” Monkey just hissed at me. “Monkey, get out of the van now.” (I used the tone of voice usually reserved only for exceptionally stupid airline representatives.) Monkey hopped back and forth of the seats and hissed more. So I decided to stop playing nice. I took out my camera (and after a few snaps) swiped at him with the strap. “OUT MONKEY OUT!” The monkey, with all the attitude of an unjustly accused teenage girl, sauntered out of the van, stopped, hissed, and put a three fingered monkey scratch across the top of my ankle. Have I just been assaulted by a monkey?
As the guide came back, Monkey hopped off to work on the weather stripping of the van next to us. “Sorry sorry. Very naughty monkeys in Nakuru. They don’t respect women at all…” I very maturely flipped off the monkey as we drove out of the parking lot. Little simian bastard.
The rest of the safari continued basically uneventfully. We saw rhinos (blank and white), hippos, lion, hyena, jackal, baboons, buffalo, all things hoofed, and, of course, the birds. The aforementioned flamingos were nice, but I really felt more affinity towards the pelicans. They split time between the salty lake and the fresh water tributaries, eating the fish in the salty part, and bathing and chilling in the fresh water part. Can’t stay in one place, I like that in a bird.
But they were big and heavy. (They weigh more than 20 pounds, a significant accomplishment when you have hollow bones.) And they aren’t really great at flying. They are so awkward that they can only take off with a gust of wind for extra lift. And even then it is a bit of a challenge. Sometimes they struggle to get a few feet into the air before settling back down saying, “aw f*%# it, I wasn’t hungry anyway.” How could you not love these guys?
The only other really notable moment of the safari was the rhino battle. We found a group of white rhinos where three were happily munching grass in the middle distance, while one big one was right next to the road, sharpening his horn on a dead tree. We (and the other five vans full of tourists), happily photographed away as all the rhinos wandered over to only a few feet from our van. They put their heads together in a cute little rhino pow-wow, which the guide explained was their way of greeting each other and giving props to the alpha male. (Rhino protocol as it were.) Then two rhinos wandered away and cross the road, despite the traffic jam of safari vans. After we finished taking pictures of that, we realized that the big rhino hadn’t been sharpening his horn for shits and giggles. There was rhino arm wrestling going on. It was battle for supremacy between the generations! Unfortunately, I don’t know who won. About the same milli-second we realized what was going on, the drivers all slammed the cars into gear and we took off. Apparently the losing rhino usually takes out his frustration on the nearest smaller opponent. With his two buddies safely halfway across the savanna at this point, the next best thing is a comparatively light-weight safari van. (The guide apologized by saying that the company this year had fired a driver who had lost his van to a rhino charge.)
So I am back now in Nairobi, and after disinfecting my monkey wound, am drinking beer by the pool and watching the sun set. (Heard the weather was miserable in the Northeast. Must be awful. My shoulders are a little sunburned if it makes you feel better. See, I am suffering too.) Anyway, my Tusker is empty so I am going to sign off. Headed back to the States on Friday for awhile (seven weeks on the road, time to wash socks and underwear…) so Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, and Wicked Solstice to one and all.
Thursday, December 04, 2008
Continuing on the the second leg of my Barack Obama victory lap tour, I flew from Indonesia to Kenya, overnighting in Dubai on the way. Dubai was one of those places, like Tokyo, that I had spent an ungodly amount of time in the airport, without ever actually getting out and seeing the city. This time I had a buddy from grad school to visit, so why not?
The Bank was nice enough to put me up in the
My room was on the 31st floor with big floor to ceiling windows. All the comforts you would expect at a 5 star hotel, plus this really weird and sinister looking overweight rubber ducky in the bathroom. It was a little strange to shower with that thing watching me with its weird sun-glassed eyes. Maybe I am just getting paranoid in my old age.
Anyway, the next day I had a few hours to kill before meeting my buddy for lunch, so I went down to old
Couple of fun facts about
The second thing that was not a waste of time was the pearl diving exhibit. People have been diving for pearls in
So after the museum, I took the little local ferry boat across the creek to the souk section of town. I went to the perfume souk, and the spice souk, and the gold souk. The gold souk was a little nuts. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold and gems lining the windows of a narrow pedestrian street, with no security in sight. Nothing. I actually priced one of the less ostentatious pearl necklaces in the window. A steal at 15,000 USD. And that was comparatively so cheap looking that I actually stopped to ask what it cost. (My mother had previously asked me to buy her an 8mm black pearl for a ring that she was re-setting. This seemed like a good place to do this. I will spare you the details of me haggling with the gold marketeers, but the story ends with me in the back office of some second-floor shop, waiting for my credit card to run while the greedy merchant behind me is pouring ziplock gallon bags full of pearls onto sorting bins and laughing, um, greedily. Mom has her pearl now though.)
So now I am in
Friday, November 28, 2008
In general, spending holidays in foreign countries sucks. This is especially true of Thanksgiving, which no one really understands beyond the fact that it involves turkey. This year, I spent it one of the restaurants at my posh digs in
No, my quarrel is mainly with the manager of the joint (British, who has a people should never be allowed to cook anything). He somehow imparted to the kitchen staff that crab rangoons were an integral part of the American holiday menu (though they were doused with mayonnaise, which is unarguably American), and that turkey should be served heavy on the spine and liver. I almost took a picture of the gravy soaked chain of vertebrae. (I was stopped by the fact that I was already eating alone with a novel and making Calvin and Hobbes style faces at the food, so anything else might be considered rude.) And, least authentically of all in my opinion, I only got one little thimble full of crappy Australian wine to wash down the culinary train wreck.
Needless to say I came back to my room a little depressed about the whole ordeal. And I was still in a mood when I woke up today. Luckily, I thought, only one more day until I can blow this crap town. Then one of the local consultants called and asked if I would like to have a late lunch, traditional
Now when I first got to Indonesia, I though goreng meant "food," because every dish on the menu always ended in the word goreng. It actually means fried. Nasi goreng is fried rice, mie goreng is fried noodles, ayam goreng is fried chicken... And bebak goreng is fried duck.
As it is good politics to agree to these sorts of outings, plus I didn’t have other lunch plans, off we went. Upon arrival, the restaurant looked promising – a giant fryer full of duck out front, only one main course on the menu, and not a fork in sight.
And thusly I found my redemption here in
Thursday, November 20, 2008
I spent three days this week in the remote province of Oecussi, Timor Leste. Non-contiguous from the rest of the country, Oecussi is stuck out in the middle of Indonesian Timor. It is accessible only by overnight ferry or UN helicopter. The difference in death risk between ancient leaky ferry and ancient Russian helicopter is probably negligible, but at least the helicopter is faster and has a crew of attractive suntanned Ukrainian gentlemen.
After days of navigating the Byzantine UN bureaucracy to get myself a seat, I arrive at the airport. Things are somewhat different checking into a military rather than commercial flight. Instead of national passport and ticket, it was organizational badge and “orders.” They look at the ID, stamp the “orders,” hand you a set of earplugs and point the way to the open air waiting area. At some point, someone comes up, herds you into a group, tells you to turn off your cell phones and asks if anyone has any dangerous materials. The UN police and soldiers reach around their Batman belts containing baton, pepper stray and loaded handgun, to check their pockets for any accidentally forgotten cigarette lighters.Then shake their heads without a trace of irony and we all get on board. (One guy did transfer his extra ammunition clip to the zip pocket of his uniform, so safety was being completely ignored here.)
The helicopter is a Russian built Mi-8MTV-1. (I googled it, and found an order form! http://www.redstar.gr/Foto_red/Book/Mil_17_1V.pdf Note in the first sentence that this “multipurpose helicopter is intended primarily for airlifting assault troops and engaging hostile light armor material and manpower.” No wonder I had to sign a release saying I won’t sue if we are hit by any sort of shoulder mounted projectile…)
The name of the helicopter was part of the safety briefing. (This meant nothing to most of the civilians on the flight and none of them really spoke English anyway, but regardless, you get a nasty look if you put your earplugs in before they finish talking.) Also included was pointing out that the helicopter had four windows (clearly there were five), two door (okay got that one right) and two fire extinguishers (one is here to the left and one is… um… right then…) But don’t worry, the crew is well trained in case of an emergency. The really useful information that they don't mention is that you need to be careful with the windows (they are completely open to the outside). I under-estimated the suction and leaned out a little too far with the camera while we were flying. The Nikon almost got a quick lesson in gravity.
Oecussi was just like a three-day version of Peace Corps. It was brutally hot, no one spoke English, no electricity or running water, mosquitoes traveled in opaque squalls… I stayed in the best hotel in town for $10 a night. It had a bucket shower, squat toilet and no fan. It proved to be a long night.
After I had finished working with my teams for the day, I decided to explore despite the withering mid-afternoon sun. I walked up and down on the beautiful beach. The water was so nice and inviting. Unfortunately, the conditions violated one of my fundamental rules of traveling. I don’t swim on beaches where the locals don’t swim, and not a soul in the water. In a country with riptides, sharks and “endemic sandcroc” problems, you want to be careful about these things. So I meandered off to explore the rest of the town.
The main town, Costa, is the site of the first arrival of the Portuguese on the island in the 16th century, which explains why it is a fiercely patriotic bit of Timor Leste stuck out in the middle of Indonesia. The Portuguese were nice enough to lay it out in traditional old world Europe style, broad tree lined boulevards in nice straight lines. Which vastly simplifies a grid search of a restaurant with that telltale generator hum. Where there are soldiers, there must be cold beer… (I eventually found one attached to a hotel. I immediately switched hotels.)
The next day involved a long drive trying to meet up with one of my survey teams. Outside of the main town, there is no cell phone service in the district. So we drove from village to village, sometimes almost an hour apart, up and down mountains, asking if anyone had seen a car full of outsiders. We eventually passed them on the road by chance. (Which would be more amazing if Oecussi had more than 10 cars in it.)
After a roadside software patch and progress check, I had the rest of the day and all of the next to kill before the helicopter came to get me. It was a long hot 24 hours, particularly after I finished my book. Fortunately the helicopter ride back was uneventful. I never thought I would be so grateful to see Dili.
Monday, November 10, 2008
So I am going to need to improvise. On Sunday a big group of expats hired a large sailboat to take us out of the
All that I am lacking is a compelling narrative. I am going to borrow a story.
The captain of the boat was your typical Aussie – stone crazy. He build is boat piece by piece, and sails it around
But, as inevitably happens with people of this persuasion, we ended up playing “the weirdest thing I have ever eaten”. I am pretty good at this game. As longtime readers know, I am completely kamikaze about what I will put in my mouth.
He opened a story about spending a season castrating camels in
It started innocuously enough with kangaroo tripe – which is cooked without washing the “semi-digested crap” out of it and doesn’t smell good. On the plus side though, it can be whipped up in only a few minutes while it takes two hours to cook a full kangaroo. Okay. Then he started talking about how they actually cook said kangaroo. The tail is cut off for later, and the stomach you had already taken out through a small incision because, see previous story, you were starving. Then the right of the kangaroo hunter begins. The hunter has earned the right to drink the blood of the kangaroo. The carcass isn’t drained of blood before it is put on the coals, so the blood gets hot and pressurized as it cooks. When it is done, the hunter puts a slit just below the ribs and drinks the stream of steaming kangaroo blood, which, in the true spirit of too much information, congeals immediately into “a really fresh like blood pudding.”
I picked up my ball and went home. The jaws of everyone onboard just dropped to the deck. The vegetarian weaved unsteadily. This guy was King.
Thursday, October 09, 2008
The rest of my time was spent on a road trip with three Timorese dudes in a rickety pick-up. I will list a couple of the highlights here.
(1) My crazy driver. The driver is a terribly nice guy who speaks not a lick of English. Sometimes he would talk to me in Portuguese because I am white, and I would nod, but we never really got anywhere. In addition to being a total kamikaze on the winding mountainous dirt roads, he liked to lecture the other two guys about how much he knew about Americans. Did you know we hate smoking? In fact, not even allowed to smoke in restaurants in
(2) Accommodation. Rural East Timor is seriously lacking in availability of Motel 8's. I for to stay in some lovely "hotels", which though lacking in electricity and running water, nevertheless came complete with all god's multi-legged and winged creatures, and plumbing that would have disgusted my Peace Corps age self.
(3) Meeting the people. This was actually kind of fun. Some got really excited to have someone that came all the way from *
Other exciting things from the trip included a fallen tree in the roadway that we needed to find an ancient old man with a machete to chop up for us. Fortunately, the tree produced a pulpy seed pod that could be munched while waiting. Unfortunately, judging by the reaction of my intestinal tract, they actually weren’t edible to humans. There was also the musical selection. I spent three days listening to an Indonesian man sing a falsetto versions of such American classics as “Happy Birthday” and “Happy Days”, while being poorly accompanied by an electric piano. On repeat. It had somewhat of a Jack from the Shining effect on me…
It wasn’t all bad though. I got to go diving, always a highlight. And I am spending the day in
Sunday, July 27, 2008
After getting off the train, my traveling companion and I hid out for the night in the Soviet-era medical school dormitory when one of her college buddies was living. That lasted a day before the babuski found us and packed us off to the dumpy bus station hotel downtown. It was the kind of place a former B-list Russian celebrity OD’s, but had reasonably priced laundry service, so all-in-all not a bad deal.
After a day of logistics, we decided we needed to get our Siberian vacation off to a rocking start - so we went to the
The next day we headed off to summer camp. In 1983, Nikita Bencharov was an all-Russia table tennis champion. In 1988, he visited a friend (who still hangs around the dining hall) on
(2) White Caviar. On the jeep trip to the north cape of the island, we stopped for an omul soup picnic. I arrived to lunch late because I had wandered off looking for seals, so I thought I got the dregs of the soup. But there in my bowl I had something that looked like a little round white tic-tac. Inquiring from the group of Russian tourists at the table, I discovered that I had lucked into white caviar, or boiled inquiring from the group of Russian tourists at the table, I discovered that I had lucked into white caviar, or boiled omul eye. (Name came about during Soviet times when real caviar was scarce in central
(3) Yak Vodka. We went to a performance of traditional Buryat (local Mongolian-ish ethnic minority) folk music. The performance had the general feeling of a poorly staged middle school talent show, but there were highlights, including the late 90-something year old (somewhat senile) matriarch of the family telling us all to pass her pipe and go the hell away. And then there was the local vodka. It tasted like a cross between vodka and Tibetan yak butter tea. I don’t particularly like either one, but the combination made my teeth shudder.
(4) Swimming. So the legend of
Then it was time to drift back home. The only other bit of excitement was the S7 Airlines flight. They used to be Siberian Airlines but had three crashes in less than a year. Putin made them sell all the broken ones and pick a new name. But other than being 2 hours late, the trip was uneventful.