Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bicycling at Hell's Gate

So they say on most African safaris, you spend the whole time hoping to see dangerous animals, while on a safari in Hell’s Gate National Park in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya, you spend the whole time hoping not to see dangerous animals. You see, safari in this park is different. There is no safari truck. There is no safari guide. Hell, you don’t even get a map. After paying your exorbitant entry fee and acknowledging that the Kenyan Wildlife Service is not liable if guests get eaten, you get a crappy bike and a pat on the back. And off you pedal.

Given all the bikes are poorly maintained, but the selection is particularly shite if you show up later in the day because you drove from Nairobi that morning. Mine had the Fred Flintsone brake package. Even better, the gears were also permanently rusted into the lowest setting. This would be perfect on the Alpine leg of the Tour de France, but here it just succeeded in making sure that I was expending maximum energy to be the slowest thing on the savanna. Now I know how the gimpy wildebeest feels.

Still it is hard to describe the feeling of just tooling around on a bike with no one to tell you that you can’t ride into the middle of the zebra herd. Or that you are getting too close to the giraffe. Or to explain just what one should do when barreling down a hill with no brakes dead at a warthog hog that thinks you are going to blink first in this bizarre-o game of chicken. (Should this ever come up for anyone reading this, I don’t know what the optimal solution is, but yelling like a lion seems to be sufficiently effective.) Let me sum it up as Really Bloody Cool.

At the end of the standard five mile trail ride is Hell’s Gate Gorge. It is a narrow chasm cut into the rock which eventually winds down to a slippery channel to a billowing sulfur pit and even narrower passage out of the gorge. How did I know it was slippery? Because, for just a bargain $8 more, you can hire a guide to lead you down the road to Hell. It starts out easy enough, but towards the end you get to hear such memorable phrases as “here you should be flexible” (referring to dexterity not disposition), “it is best to put a leg on each side of the rock,” and, my personal favorite while toting around my new Nikon, “oh yes, here you get the small shower.” He was right. It was only a little waterfall that one had to jump through. Plus, the wool sweater I am wearing because it is the dead middle of winter here in Kenya, that will probably dry quickly in the setting sun.

All and all, it was fun though, and none of our party even got maimed.

My group and I spent the night at the Crater Lake Campground, on the shores of Crater Lake. It apparently used to be one of the poshest tented camps in Lake Naivasha region of Kenya. Then the manager got murdered in 2005 and things sort of went downhill a bit. By the time we rolled up this weekend, the tents had mosquitoes, the food was questionable, and the place was empty. Fortunately, mismanagement could in no way screw up the location on the edge of the strange green lake filled with bright pink flamingos (and a couple ducks oddly enough). Flamingos swim around kind of like weird swans. And when they take off to fly, they flap their wings and run across the surface of the water until they have enough umpth to get airborne. One of the guys I was traveling with and I decided to get a closer look, so we rowed the leaky rowboat out to take pictures. All we succeeded in doing was very slowly chasing the pink flock around the lake. The pictures represent as close as we could get.

After a peaceful night in my tent, we set out on our morning walking safari and crater climb. The walking safari involved wandering into the next-door natural sanctuary and trying to sneak up on giraffes. And zebras. And warthogs. And Thompson’s gazelles. And Waterbock. Nothing was afraid of us at all because there were no natural predators in the sanctuary.

It was way more fun that it probably sounds.

I also now have a new favorite shrub, the whistling acacia. It has these weird bulby things on it when it is young, which provide the perfect home for biting red ants. When the giraffe comes to nibble the leaves around the bulbs, the red ants come out to defend their turf. They bite the giraffe’s tongue and the giraffe goes away. Brilliant!

After the walking safari, it was back to Nairobi, and back to work tomorrow. The schedule looks a little packed so I don’t know if I will get to any more adventures before I had head out, but I am going on vacation for most of July so it is tough to tell the boss that I need a day off to go back out on safari…

Monday, June 02, 2008

Go Go Ham Fighters!

I have been back almost a week and just haven’t gotten a chance to sit down and write this thing. Part of it is just a little paralysis of what to say. I spent two days in Tokyo doing the standard tourists things. I want to post something anyway because I want to share the pictures. So consider this post a conduit for my pictures from Tokyo, with a Bali sunset during my layover thrown in.

Thanks to Mom and her incredible generosity with her Marriott points, instead of the flea bag hostel that I was planning on staying in, I spent the weekend in the Ritz Carlton, on the 48th floor overlooking downtown Tokyo. (Thanks Mom.) That was nice. To say the least.

I came in on the overnight from Bali, armed with a Lonely Planet city guide and a fierce determination to see everything I wanted to see in a day and a half. I started with the walking tour of the Nippori area. This was a relatively chill section of the city that managed not to get bombed to powder in WWII. It has a very different feel than the rest of the city. While poking around the shrines, museums and cemeteries, eating street food along the way. I actually ended up proving a couple of my long-standing food hypotheses wrong.

Hypothesis 1: Everything wrapped in seaweed and rice tastes good. A couple times I couldn’t tell you if I was eating a plant, fish or animal, but I knew that I never wanted to do it again.

Hypothesis 2: I will eat anything. There was one place whose walls were plastered with pictures of goldfish, and then there were little tempura’ed things which you held and ate by the little fishtail sticking out of the batter. I was thinking about ordering one when the oft-ignored voice in the back of my head screamed “don’t eat that!” For once I listened. Maybe it was out of loyalty to my dearly departed fish Olive, but I just couldn’t do it.

That afternoon I poked around the gardens of the imperial palace (which were suitably imperial), and then headed up to Suidobashi for the highlight of my day. A Yomiuri Giants game! There are six baseball teams that play in Tokyo, the biggest and most popular is the Giants. (Really when one of your alternatives are the Yakult Swallows, is it that much of a choice?) They are known as the Yankees of Japan. Former team of the great Hideki Matsui. After two weeks of rugby on Australian satellite, I was stoked.

I arrived to the “Big Egg” to find out that there were only standing room seats left. Apparently the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters are a big draw when they are in town. (Japanese baseball teams are mostly named after the company that sponsors them. Nippon Ham sponsors the Fighters. I later discovered from Wiki that the Ham Fighters used to have a mascot called “Fighty” which was, and I quote, “a bright pink pterodactyl, whose head resembled a giant leg of ham, and who sometimes rode a bicycle around the pitch.” That made me happy.

The game itself was basically the same. You sort of spent part of the time thinking “cut-off man… cut-off man.” “play it on the hop... play it on the hop…” And the fans of the different teams sat in different sections, all color coordinated, with a brass section, choreographed cheers, and flags. But, in case you got homesick, the beers where still eight bucks and watery.

And I did come home to an incredible view of Tokyo at night out my hotel room window.

The next day I got up at 5 am to visit the famous Tsujiki Fish Market. It was an enormous warehouse the guide book tells me 15.5 million dollars worth of fish are sold *daily*. It certainly smelled like it, but I got some cool pictures. Then I waited on line for 1.5 hours with tourists from all over the Pacific Rim to eat raw fish for breakfast at Daiwa sushi. It was good sushi.

Then I did some warm-up stretching and went on a tourism sprint. I hit neighborhoods all over the city. For the sake of identifying the pictures, I will list them: Hama Rikyu Onshi-Teien (Detached Palace Garden in the middle of downtown Tokyo), water ferry to Asakusa, Senso-ji and the Five Story Pagoda, Chingodo-ji (which is dedicated to mischievous shape-shifting hedonistic raccoon-dogs who use their giant testicles to fly), Meiji-Jingu (peace Shinto shrine with very nice outdoor lamps), Omote-Sando (the Japanese teenage shopping district. They were selling beat up vintage Vans sneakers, identical to the ones on my feet, for $200. If I could communicate in anything more articulate that grunts and hand gestures, I would have sold those puppies and come home barefoot), and the red-light district of Hanazono-jinja (eh, nice, but nothing compared to Times Square).

And finally… Hypothesis 3: I can eat sushi breakfast, lunch and dinner. True that.