Monday, December 15, 2008

Criminally Inclined Monkeys, Lazy Pelicans, and Rhino Protocol

So I decided that after 12 consecutive days at the office, I needed a weekend off. And, as the only wildlife I had seen thus far in Kenya was a very non-descript mouse in my hotel room, it was time to go on safari.

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 Jumeirah Emeriates Towers. It is an uber posh (and uber tall) hotel famous on the Dubai skyline. (The picture of the hotel isn’t mine, I ripped it off from some stock photo website, but I think it serves the purpose.) You should have seen the look on the face of the receptionist when I rock up to a $350+ night hotel wearing busted jeans and carrying only my backpack (rest of the baggage had been checked through). The poor woman looked horrified, but I had a corporate reservation and my credit card cleared, so hey, who is she to judge?

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 Dubai. The concierge kept trying to talk me into going to the mall, why would I bother coming all the way to Dubai and going to a museum? He was somewhat right in the fact that the old city wasn’t much exciting, but I have Gucci back home. The museum was cheesy generally a waste of time and three dirham, with two exceptions. The first was the pictures of the city taken from the air every ten years. As late as the 1940s, the whole place was made of twigs. By the 1950s, it had progressed to look like Nouakchott (at least how I remember it when I lived there in 2004 – don’t know what that says for modern-day Mauritania). Then somewhere before the 1960s picture, the whole place exploded. Now it looks like Singapore surrounded by sand dunes.

Couple of fun facts about Dubai that I didn’t know: Oil isn’t a big thing there. Less than 6 percent of their GDP is petroleum and related projects. Conversely, almost a quarter of it is real estate and construction. Which makes sense because they are building everywhere. And according to the census of 2006, less than 20 percent of the population were Emirate nationals, everyone else was an expat. Most were from South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh), with about 3 percent being “Western.” And it is a great place to be a chick, more than 75 percent of the population is male.

The second thing that was not a waste of time was the pearl diving exhibit. People have been diving for pearls in Dubai since sometime before recorded time. They had a cute little re-enactment video. (Though I was a little horrified that they just threw away the oysters after pulling the pearls out. Don’t do that! Fry it up with a little garlic. Throw it on some couscous. Really. You eat camel intestines, trust me, this is better.) And of course the video ended with the greedy merchant pouring his sack of pearls out onto the carpet and laughing, um, greedily.

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 Kenya for a couple weeks leading up to Christmas. I am sorry nothing spectacular happened to me in Dubai, but again, the words are just a conduit for the pictures. (And the duck is weird, no?)