Thursday, October 15, 2009

Off to the races

By the way, lots more pictures are here

After a classic English breakfast with sausage, bacon and eggs, it was
off to the Rift Valley in cute little AWD Japanese mini vans. In true
safari style, we also ranked a chase bus with the cooks and tents.
Slightly less grand style, the room for baggage was severly limited,
even with only 6 people on a van. And of course there's always one or
two who didn't read the "bring only one bag" in the itinary. But after
some rearranging, muffled cursing, and a photo-off between the DSLR
owners we got going at 8.Still surprised how comparatively empty the parts of Nairobi we drove
through were compared to other 3rd world cities. OK we were in the
really nice parts like the embassy quarter, but it was a bit striking.
The first stop was to pick up water for the next few days at a swanky
mall that could have been in any US town--the only hint that it wasn't
was that the mall security was schlepping AK-47s, but it still could
have been Alabama. Once out of Nairobi, we really hit Hem's Green Hills
of Africa, a lot like central America or southern Italy 30 years ago.
(Damn, writing that makes me feel my advanced age). Only on the second
glance, it started to sink in that the maize crops looked less than
healthy and that a lot of people walking or biking along the road were
carrying water from wells to their homes. Signs of the drought that's
been haunting the area for the last few years.
The drop into the Rift Valley was so much less impressive than I thought
it would be. It really has nothing on dropping from the Sierra into the
Central Valley, or the Andes. Nice roadside stop at a view
point/souvenir stand. Even the Kenyian hawkers are very laid back and
not at all pushy--except the one Elain ran into who got really pissed
when she called him on changing the price from about $2 to more than 30.

Up to this point, the only animals we've seen were the chicken next to
the "interesting" bathroom, but now the first babboons and Zebras
started to show up to everyones great enjoyment. (only two days later,
we implemented an informal: "Nah, we don't stop for zebras anymore"
policy.) The contrast to any other place I've even been to was striking:
if you go to a national park you normally have to look for the wildlife,
here zebras just graze on a main road to Uganda.

At the campsite, a funny pattern emerged: the tourists--who paid about 5
times the average Kenyan annual income--settled into the tents, while
the Kenyan staff sleept in the small hotel rooms that also were part of
the site. The other pattern was that--safari-like--midday was spent
having lunch and taking a siesta. Both because the animals are usually
only out in the morning and late afternoon, and because Kenyan parks
only allow a morning and an afternoon drive. Hot lunch was terrific.
Even more so when it turned out that all courses--tea, soup, curry,
naan, vegetables, desert were done with a few pots, an iron grate, a
steel plate, 5 knives, and a wood fire.

And now the live audio from the drive: Are we going to see animals? A
Joking aside, it's really mindblowing. Animals everywhere. And doing
animal things. And more animals.

The only downside was that due to the low water in the lake, there was
no way to drive or even walk close to the flamingos. A pity, because there were so many of them that we had already seen them from the main
road 10 miles away. A big portion of the lake was simply pink. We tried
anyway by getting out of the van and walking--occasionally checking for
lions, and I tried to keep the oldest guy between me and the trees, but
it was still thwarted by the muck getting muckier. The absolute
highlight were the giraffes at the end of the drive (weirdly, the best
animal viewing is always in the last 45 minutes).

What is really striking about Lake Nururu is that it is on the outskirts
of the third largest town in Kenya, barely 3 miles from some pretty
large buildings. I never expected that many animals that close. The part
is about 90 square miles, so obviously not every part is close to
Nururu, but the lake is. Massai Mara, the Serengti and Ngorogoro are out
in the middle of nowhere.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Africa (and a bit of Dutch)

This might be a lot shorted than my usual travel blogs. Somehow "We got up, mounted the Landrover, drove around and saw amazing animals" doesn't make for a long narrative. Actually, if there's one thing I regret is that I wasn't quite aware how little we saw of the country
and the people.

Other than that, seeing these large animals in the wild was mind blowing, they are so much larger, better fed and active than in the zoo.

SFO to Nairobi

Yeah, very long flight. 10 hours to Amsterdam, 7 hour layover, and another 10 or so to Nairobi. Thank god for the iPhone, Kindle for iPhone, and an extended battery pack that worked all the way to the hotel in Nairobi. I got on the KLM plane is SFO, watched 4 episodes of The L Word, read Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre World and slept a bit. [Unrelated side note: How come that KLM can serve edible food on the plane while all US airlines claim that's impossible because tastebuds work different at altitude or some other BS?]

Schipol was as clean, efficient and antiseptic as usual, so I dropped my only bag in the coin locker after some wresting with the non-working credit card locker, walked to immigration in 30 seconds, and got on a bus to Amsterdam to the Rijksmuseum and its Rembrandts.
Nice pictures, but since 2/3rds of the museum is undergoing renovations, the 11 Euro visit was over in 45 minutes. And I really looked at every single piece they exhibited. Outside, Amsterdam is the boring city I remember from earlier visits. Everyone is nice, rich, rides bikes, and
the streets and cute and clean. But like all of the Netherlands, it just feels as if they said "OK, that's it." and stopped developing in the late 1970s. Even the dozens of head shops and coffee shops look dated.

I had some bad herring--since it's a local specialy, and very unusual for me was so disheartened by the other food choices and dejected looking breads and pastries downtown that I ended up having dinner at the Burger King back at the airport. A big plus in Schipol is that they have confy
chairs and places to stretch out and sleep on the 2nd level, so I got in a couple fo hours of sleep before getting on the Kenia Airlines flight [note: they can also serve decent food]. Some more iPhoning, but rather little sleep since the guy next to me flipped every switch on his seat and the entertainment system every minute. I get being nervous about flying, but I dearly wanted to give him some sleeping pills.

Kenia is--like India--very much a former English colony. In other words, the bureaucracy is mind boggling. To count:

1--fill out landing card on the plane
2--fill out 2 page health questionnaire at the airport
3--turn in health questionnaire after folding and ripping off the lower
two inches which instruct you to give it to a doctor in case you get
hospitalized with swine flu.
4--fill out 2 page visa application with the same info you put in the
landing card and line up to give both to the immigration officer
5--watch immigration officer 1 type it into computer
6--watch immigration officer 2 copy it off the computer into a paper
ledger by hand
7--pay $25
8--watch IO3 write a receipt while IO2 enters the $25 payment into a ledger
9--watch IO1 copy your information of the computer screen into the
visa sticker by hand
10--watch IO2 copy the visa number and expiration date into another ledger

Well, at least everyone is employed.

Now, with all the stories and warnings about Nairobi ("MOST VIOLENT TOWN IN AFRICA!!! IF YOU WALK ALONE, YOU WILL DIE!!!") I was a bit apprehensive, but 5 minutes into the taxi ride to the hotel the only thing that came to mind was "This is so much less of a clusterfuck
than Delhi". The traffic was obviously at a standstill, but nobody slept on the highway, only a few hawkers weaved between the cars, there were no cows, rikshaws, or ox carts on the road, and drivers rarely used their horns. On the other hand, it lacks the frenetic energy that's part of the fun of visiting India. Everyone I met in Kenya is very laid back. I'd liked to have seen more, but after checking into the hotel, I basically passed out in my room.

In the evening our group met, had a very decent dinner--including terrific Kofta Curry for me, and discovered to our delight that beer is less then $2 a pint. Both recurring themes for
the rest of the trip. Due to the large Indian community, many cooks turn out amazing Indian or Indian inspired foods.