Saturday, July 28, 2007

17 February: Mount Kenya to Nairobi to Stuttgart

This is it: the final chapter in what will certainly go down as one of the most memorable experiences of my life. We got to sleep in for once (at least, after two weeks on safari, 7:30 sounds like sleeping in) for our leisurely 9:30 a.m. departure from the Mount Kenya Safari Club. After breakfast DH and I browsed the hotel shops, bought a couple of Tusker beer T-shirts for my dad and brother, and went to the business office to try to get on the British Airways website to pre-reserve our seats. Unfortunately the dial-up internet connection was too slow and the website wouldn’t load, but the nice woman in the office did not charge us for our time. Before loading up, we all posed for one final group photo in front of the Mount Kenya Safari Club sign (in retrospect I wish we had taken one out in the bush, like we did in Tanzania with Renny).

On our way to the Nanyuki airport we stopped by the side of the road, where a rusty hand-painted sign marks the equator, for a photo op and a little “black magic” – a man demonstrating that water drains in a clockwise direction north of the equator and counterclockwise to the south. Of course FIL, who holds a PhD in physics, was eager to explain afterwards that this was all a bunch of hooey. (Don’t bother arguing with him – apparently some folks at MIT have proven that it is indeed a bunch of hooey.) We all took turns snapping the requisite pictures of each other in front of the equator sign. A string of ramshackle market stalls was set up nearby and the vendors kept coming up and hassling us to check out their wares. None of us wanted to do any shopping for once, so we told the men that we had a plane to catch and looked around desperately for Tonnie, who normally would rescue us from such circumstances. He was having a drink in the shade with our drivers so I went over and said, “Uh, Tonnie, I think we want to go!” He got the message immediately and hustled us out of there.

We had to wait for a while at the airport for our big 4-engine prop plane to arrive. I really didn’t like this plane – I was staring out the window at those huge spinning propellers the whole flight. We landed at Nairobi Wilson airport around 11:30, walking past the familiar waiting room where our adventure had begun just two weeks ago. At this point we split into two groups: Tonnie, DH and I, MIL & FIL, and R2&B climbed into two vans to visit the Mukuru slum, while the rest of the group headed off to do some shopping downtown.

I was completely unprepared, psychologically at least, for the long drive over horribly rutted roads into the Mukuru slum. Over the previous two weeks, I had gotten used to the stares that our comparatively luxurious vans and buses garnered as we drove through the villages and towns of East Africa, but this was different. Here we weren’t just passing through on the highway, we were driving into the very heart of the slum, and I had to wonder whether some of the faces staring back at us were more than just curious – were they jealous, annoyed, even angry? Warranted or not, this was the only time I felt uncomfortable about our safety on the entire trip. We were among the only vehicles on the road, and I kept asking myself, “What happens if we get stuck?” It occurred to me that we might be taking two vehicles – when we could have easily fit into one – for precisely this reason.

We drove through endless muddy streets lined with corrugated tin shacks, colorful hand-painted signs hawking all manner of odd goods and services: Cefra Dispensing Chemist, selling drugs and cosmetics…Starehe Beach Hotel, advertising chai and several kinds of “chapoo”…Ebenezer medical clinic, providing emergency delivery, circumcision, family planning, and HIV/AIDS services…a rather shady-looking establishment called the Shades Butchery…Uncle’s CafĂ©, “for delicious food”…a blue-and-white clapboard shack offering “Hair Kuts”...The contrast between abject poverty and First World luxuries was staggering – we passed a field where people and goats were picking through a vast pile of garbage, only to turn the corner to find a video house advertising the day’s soccer games on satellite TV (Chelsea vs. Norwich at 5:30; Manchester United vs. Reading at 8:00). Women in ragged clothes squatted in filth by the side of the road hawking bananas and limes on low wooden tables, while just down the street, a hardware store sold electronics and cell phones. Everywhere we saw people walking with huge buckets on their shoulders – heading to the communal water taps, Tonnie explained, to buy their daily ration of water. Perhaps most striking was the garbage – there are no city services here, and the streets were littered with every manner of paper and plastic waste, rotting food, and probably far worse. A couple of times a year the government comes through and shovels out the trash, but that has little impact when you consider the waste that must be generated every day by the hundreds of thousands of people living here.

Even in this appalling setting, a little light shines through. Everywhere we went, we were chased by children smiling and waving and shouting, “How are you? How are you?” over and over again. We waved back at them, feeling helpless, yet delighted that we could bring a little cheer to their day. Tonnie said that they probably see people “like us” two or three times a month. I wonder if they recognize the Micato vans, and know that Micato is doing something to help.

Micato operates a non-profit organization called America Share which, with the support of their clients, provides food, clothing, school and medical supplies for nearly a thousand orphans across Kenya and Tanzania. They are also in the process of constructing a hostel in Mukuru to provide a safe living environment for orphaned children when they are not in school. We stopped at the building site, on the grounds of an orphanage, where a wonderful man named Benedict showed us around, pointing out the new well and water tank that Micato helped build and the progress on the hostel, a complex of three cement-block structures that will open later this year. We also met several members of a women’s group that raises money by making and selling handcrafts (beaded jewelry and woven handbags) to provide meals and health services to AIDS-affected families. At the end of our visit, Benedict gathered the children together – ranging in age from about three to fifteen, outfitted in a bright hodgepodge of ill-fitting hand-me-down clothing – and they sang us a song, then three of the smallest children stepped forward and shyly recited a poem. I had brought three miniature World Cup soccer balls from Germany, toting them around in my duffel bag for the past two weeks, waiting for the right opportunity to give them away, and I knew that this was the time. I explained to Benedict that I only had three balls and wanted the kids to share them, so first he called up two of the girls (since there are more girls than boys at the orphanage) and I handed them two of the balls. Then Benedict called up two little boys and I presented them with the third ball. As we drove away from the orphanage, we saw an older boy playing with one of the balls. We watched as he handed it back to one of the little boys, who ever-so-carefully brushed the dust off the ball. It was a small, silly gesture, giving these kids who have nothing but the clothes on their backs a couple of balls, but sometimes it’s the little things that count.

It was quite a shock to drive from the Mukuru slum to the shady, gated parking lot of the Italian restaurant where we met Jane Pinto and her daughter Anna for lunch. The rest of the group was already there; we joined them at a long table in a beautiful courtyard for delicious pizzas and pasta. Those of us who had gone to the slum then went back to the Collector’s Den for our final shopping opportunity. DH and I bought a tall Maasai spear (they break down into three pieces for easy transport), a long piece of batik-printed fabric depicting a string of zebras, two T-shirts, and a beaded belt, which all came to $109. Our next stop was our “day room” at the Norfolk, which was really a “two-hour room,” as we barely had time to shower and repack our bags before it was time to leave for dinner. Our room was virtually identical to the first room we had stayed in at the Norfolk, except that this time there was a rather ominous smell coming from the bathroom plumbing. Needless to say, we were happy to get out of there.

Our final stop was the much-anticipated Carnivore, a dimly-lit, smoke-filled restaurant where the main event, is, naturally, meat! The centerpiece of the restaurant is an enormous circular grill; a constant stream of servers meander between the tables bearing long steaming skewers, forking out hearty portions of pork ribs, roast beef, chicken wings, turkey drumsticks, alligator chunks, and ostrich meatballs. In the center of each table a tiered platter holds a dozen different sauces and condiments, topped by a little flag which we were supposed to “lower” to signal when we were finished. I was not impressed with the alligator – it tasted like a cross between fish and chicken and was really bony – but the spare ribs were delicious! Many of us sampled the dawa – a delicious concoction of vodka, lime juice, honey, and crushed ice, all mashed together with a wooden stick (similar to a caipirinha, or Brazilian margarita).

Our goodbyes were emotional but rushed…J&H were going back to the hotel for the night, as they would be leaving for Johannesburg in the morning, and R2&B were flying to Egypt on Monday to start, amazingly, another two-week tour. Saying farewell to H was especially tough, as she had become my “adopted mother” over the course of this trip. We all promised to stay in touch and then the rest of us who were flying out this evening piled into the bus and headed for the airport. N&D were dropped off first, then we headed to the British Airways terminal, as R&C, MIL & FIL, and DH & I were all on the same flight to London. We said goodbye to Tonnie as we got in line for the first of many security checks. I got stopped for a random search, but fortunately they didn’t completely unpack my bag, which was by now fairly well stuffed!

We arrived at the gate with about two hours to spare and were stuck in a huge waiting room with no access to bathrooms or refreshments. It was really stuffy in there and by the time we got onto the plane we were all feeling tired and cranky. A man standing in line with us pointed out a famous British TV personality who also looked a bit miffed, probably because no one recognized him. We waited on the plane at the gate for another 90 minutes, during which time I started to feel a bit claustrophobic from breathing the canned air. Our state of mind was not improved by the fact that one of the ovens in the kitchen galley started smoking, although the flight attendant assured us that it was just steam! We watched “Man of the Year,” refused dinner (since all we had done today was sit and eat) and actually slept for two or three hours. We had a high-carb breakfast box in the morning. Fortunately we made up time in the air and arrived in London only 45 minutes late. DH and I said goodbye to FIL & MIL and R&C before we got off the plane, since we had to make a run to the other terminal to catch our flight to Stuttgart. We felt pretty foolish because we rushed past all of these people, only to get on the bus and wait while they all caught up with us again. We ended up getting to our gate 30 minutes early and were the first to arrive – of a total of 13 passengers! We had the entire rear compartment of the plane to ourselves; it was rather funny when the flight attendant gave her safety spiel as if she was addressing a full compartment. We landed in Stuttgart around 9:30 a.m., walked to our car, paid 122 Euro for the parking (it was worth not having to take a taxi), drove home and literally collapsed for the rest of the day.

Finally, regretfully, my tale must come to a close. As I write these words, five months after our safari, I am flooded with fleeting images of Africa…the chaotic streets of downtown Nairobi…the kiss of a greedy giraffe…a blazing orange sun rising over Amboseli…an elephant train making its slow way across the acacia-studded plains… the mesmerizing eyes of a lioness in Ngorongoro Crater, and that startling primeval urge to flee…the history of humankind painted in the striated cliffs of Olduvai Gorge…a thunderhead forming above the endless plain of the Serengeti…the animated faces of the Maasai villagers who opened their homes to us in the Mara…the lively stories of our marvelous Micato guides and drivers…and of course, the people who enriched the whole experience with their laughter, their camaraderie, and their shared wonder for all that Africa has to offer – my amazing safari mates!

I sincerely hope that through these words and images, I have been able to convey some sense of the endlessly diverse beauty and culture of Kenya and Tanzania. If you have not been there…GO. If you have gone, then you know what I am trying to say. Kwaheri!

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