Bushwhacking P.S.

Just a quick update to my previous post to answer some questions. Yes, we had a fantastic camera (that some dodgy family members gave us for our wedding) on this trip and we (by we, I really mean Ryan) took some great photos of the animals. Ryan even captured a film clip of a dung beetle doing his, well, crappy job. (So next time you’re complaining about going to work, just be glad you don’t roll poop into big balls all day.) We did not capture photos of any of the crevasses or ravines we crossed, mainly because at the time we were truly focussed on surviving and not on saving moments for posterity. Also, those shots would invariably fail to convey fully the magnitude of the driving challenges we faced. Night shots would also not have been so great as the pitch darkness would require more than a standard flash to be sufficiently illuminated.

Lastly, much as I wanted to take pictures of the three heavily armed rescuers, it seemed folly at the time. Not aggravating people who’ve risked life and limb to save your bum seems like a good motto.

At some point when I can figure out how to post pictures to this blog, I will. Seeing animals in their habitat is really gratifying, and I definitely plan to share those images.

Oh, and thanks to people who think we were brave. I have to be honest though — at no point did I feel I was being brave. I was just getting on with things. No choice, really. And truly, we had a fun time.

But if you think I tempted fate with my post-Rhino Sanctuary comment that it would’ve made for a funnier story had we actually gotten stuck in the park, Ryan really waved the red flag in front of the bull that is the Cosmic Sense of Humor this morning when he said that this story would’ve really been far funnier had we not gotten out till morning. Can’t wait for our next game park adventure!

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I am sorry for the long post.  It’s a long story.  Also, sorry for not posting in ages — I’ve been waiting for something worth telling.  I hope you think this story was worth the wait.

This past weekend, Ryan and I went with our friends Lesley and Andy to Tsavo West, a game reserve four hours from Nairobi, going toward the coast at Mombasa.  Tsavo West’s claim to fame is that it is the site of the “maneaters”, two lions that wreaked havoc with the building of a bridge for the train the British were building in the late 1800s.  These lions ate an estimated 100 men, causing the building to grind to a halt.

Anyway, we were all set to have a relaxed time going on game drives, checking out the scenery and seeing amazing animals in their natural habitat, which really does beat the hell out of seeing them in the zoo.

Now, it’s the rainy season here in Kenya and it actually has been raining quite prolifically.  So the terrain we saw was lush and verdant rather than dry and brittle like it usually is.

The upside is that the mountainous landscape of Tsavo West is really breathtakingly beautiful.  One downside, however, is that scarcity of water is what drives animals to waterholes that are few and far between, so when there’s abundant water, you work a bit harder (drive a bit farther) to see them.

On Friday afternoon, after checking in to our lodge (we stayed in a tented camp — nice tents replete with big beds, mosquito nets, and plumbing), we hit the park to go to the Rhino Sanctuary.  The dirt track in the park has taken quite a beating from all the rains, so it was a challenge to negotiate the myriad crevasses we came across.

We got to the Rhino Sanctuary at roughly 4:00 — the park closes at 6:00, so we had limited time to scope out the rhinos and then get back to the gate of the park.  We drove around at a leisurely pace suitable to game viewing and saw impala and kudu (types of antelope), elephant, buffalo, birds and squirrels, but nary a rhino.  Disappointed, we set about to leave the gated sanctuary so we could head back to the park gate and exit on time.

Well, the map of the rhino sanctuary was a bit of a work of fiction and we got lost.  We finally hit the fenced perimeter of the sanctuary and drove alongside it at a fast clip unsuitable for game viewing until we found the gate.  By this time it was 6:30, but thankfully, the warden was still at the sanctuary gate and let us out.  We zoomed to the park gate to find it deserted.  Andy knocked on the warden’s door and the warden came out, wrapped in a towel, to scold us and let us out.

We got back to our lodge and hit the bar to toast to our great and good luck at having survived the harrowing adventure of almost being stuck in the park overnight.  At some point, I decided to throw caution to the wind and quip that as glad as I might be that we didn’t wind up spending the night in the park, I was a wee bit disappointed as it would have made for an excellent story.  We had a hearty laugh at that, ate dinner and turned in for the night.

The next morning we set out early to hit the dirt track and meander our way to Mzima Spring, where we would have lunch sitting outside amidst the monkeys.  It was a beautiful drive and we saw some really terrific animals and just generally had a relaxed good time.

We refueled at the Serena Lodge in the park after lunch and decided to meander south of the Tsavo River, which was swollen and rushing with abundant rain waters, to view the Serengeti Plains.  We got to a bridge that was partially submerged, so Lesley (brave Lesley) got out of the car and walked across it gingerly to determine if the car could cross.  It could, so we did.  As predicted, we saw different terrain and animals, including an elephant who was none too impressed with our presence and flared his ears at us, which is a preliminary warning to go far away.

At around 2:30 in the afternoon we decided that we had looped around the plains enough and we should make our way back to the gate since we really couldn’t stand to be late this time.  We consulted the map and agreed on the best path and set out.

The track we took was really eroded and the drive was difficult and lengthy, but eventually we made it to the river crossing.  The gate was within reach!

Except for the fact that the bridge had mostly fallen down and the river at that point was rapids, so there was no way for us to cross.

Time was running out — it was about 5:00 — so we had to make a quick decision.  We decided to trespass on a water pipeline road that the park staff ostensibly maintain.  According to the map it would take us to another crossing, we would cross the river and beat a hasty retreat to the gate just before nightfall.  And we’d just have to become the park laughingstock as we arrived late at the exit gate yet again.

The track was as treacherous here as it was everywhere else in the park, making it seem as though the staff don’t exactly maintain it the way you’d hope.  We drove for about an hour and finally came across a trail marker indicating a few disappointing things.  Firstly, the map was rubbish.  Secondly, we had not crossed the river at all, despite having crossed several bodies of water that looked so promisingly river-ish.  We had instead crossed tributaries.  So we were still south of the river.  So south that at this point we were closer to Tanzania than to the gate we needed to exit out of.  It was now 6:00, so the vision of making it to the gate on time vanished, and was instead replaced by the hope that we’d make it to a different gate (one on the map) and explain our way out of the park, get to a main road and go back to our lodge.

Time and weather were not on our side.  We had approximately 30 minutes of sunlight remaining and a vicious-looking storm was quickly approaching.  We turned down another pipeline maintenance road and booked it.

Well, we booked it as best as we could given the fact that this track had all but disappeared.  It was bookended by deep gullies that could swallow the car and its occupants and in some spots, had the car’s wheelbase been an inch wider, we would have tipped the car and rolled down a steep ravine.

We were 48 kilometers from this new gate target and we made it all of 9 before we had to give up because it was not only pitch dark, but also pissing down with rain so hard that we could barely see out of the windshield, and what we did see was depressing:  an image of the dirt track morphing into a fast-flowing river.

We decided to park the car and sit tight.  We couldn’t go back over the horrible terrain we had already crossed and we couldn’t go forward under those conditions, especially not knowing how much worse the track was in front of us.

The downside was no one had mobile phone service.

Until, suddenly, I did.  A text came in from a friend in London, and never have I been more relieved to hear my phone beep to life.  We hastily dug up some emergency numbers and I got to dialling.  The first number was disconnected.  The second one just didn’t work at all.  So I phoned directory assistance and was given two more phone numbers that didn’t work.  Stymied, I phoned the Serena Lodge and the guy at the reception desk was enormously helpful.  He both gave us new phone numbers and called on our behalf.  We phoned the sister lodge to where we were staying (as that was the only phone number we had) and they phoned our lodge and the manager there, a miracle maker named Joseph, took charge of the situation and phoned emergency services as well.

No one was interested in helping us.

At this point, we were making peace with spending the night in the car.  I will admit to a very brief moment of panic and unhappiness when my eyes welled with tears.  But Lesley checked that in a heartbeat.  She fixed me with a very strong, unwavering gaze and reminded me in a very maternal tone of voice that we were fine, we were safe in the car, we had food, water and each other and we would just sit tight until first light, when we would continue our journey out of the park.  At that moment, I decided to cowboy up and make the best of things.

We actually had a very fun time being stuck in the car.  Ryan, who had taken one antihistamine too many, dozed while Andy and Lesley and I played a quiz game (name ten Julia Roberts films, name ten Westerns, etc.).  Andy devised a brilliant method of passing the time.  We had four “treats” that we could have every quarter hour.  So on the hour, we would roll up the windows and shut the sunroof and have five minutes of air conditioning.  At a quarter past, Andy would get out and walk around the car — Lesley and I were not interested in this particular treat, so instead, we shone the flashlight around the car to look for eyes glinting back at us (no one wanted to become an animal’s “treat”).  At half past, we would each have a piece of hard candy to suck on.  At quarter to, we would each have a swig of water.  It’s amazing how with a good attitude, good friends and some creativity, you can pass the time very quickly.

Working furiously in the background, Joseph was very resourceful.  After finding a lackluster response to his request within Tsavo West itself, he phoned the head office of the Kenya Wildlife Service in Nairobi.  That was enough motivation to get a few guys in Tsavo West to hop in a proper bush-bashing vehicle and try to find us.

Every person to whom we spoke about arranging a rescue heard the same thing.  We were 9 kilometers southeast of reference point 66 on the (useless) map.  We were on the water pipeline road.  And we were just past the water monitor tank with the serial number RV AV 1-33 inscribed on it.  I think till the end of my days I will always be able to hear Andy’s patient voice explaining that we were just past “Romeo Victor.  Alpha Victor.  1 hyphen 33.”

I’m not sure that marker did any good as it presumed that someone had a map of the pipeline.  But it made us feel that we gave the would-be rescuers as much information as possible.

That didn’t mean that words didn’t get lost in transmission.  At one point, we got a phone call saying the rescuers were looking for us in a portion of the park we were nowhere near.  That was frustrating, but truly heartening as it meant people really were looking for us.

Finally, at around 11:00, we saw headlights in the distance.  A truck pulled up and out bounded three men armed with fully automatic weapons.  That’s a little unnerving, but hey ho, you take your rescuer as you find him.

After a brief confab, they decided to lead us out, so we scooched over and they sneaked in front of us and away we went.  There were many very precarious balancing act moments when Ryan directed Andy over very thin holey pieces of track, and there was the moment when the rescuers got lost and eventually found the correct turn off to the road that led directly to the gate at the pumping station, where we would leave the park.  (I feel compelled to note that this road was not on the map at all.)

We finally made it to the gate at the pumping station.  Freedom was near and it felt great.  One of the rescuers hopped over the fence to go wake the guard to let us out and 20 minutes later we were through the fence and on the highway back to the camp.

We got back to the camp at 2:00 a.m. and were greeted by the friendly Maasai tribesman who works there and escorts you to your tent at night so that you don’t get eaten by a lion (we were staying at a camp called Maneaters, after all).  Joseph was there as well, offering us dinner (we declined out of exhaustion).  The camp had turned on the generator for us (it usually is off at 10:30 at night until 6:00 in the morning) and thus we could shower and get ready for bed in the luxury of light.  Everyone was amazingly nice and even congratulated us on our collective bravery.

I hugged our rescuers and we gave them generous tips, but nothing can really express the gratitude we felt toward them.  It was a delicious and at that point unexpected treat to sleep horizontally on a real bed.

The best part is, I’d do it all again.  It had its tense moments (peeing outside in the bush when there are predators potentially lurking is a bit unsettling), but all in all, it was a blast.  Maybe next time we won’t go to a game reserve in the rainy season, though.

At this point, all I have left to say is a big huge thank you to everyone who helped us!

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Fantastic Family Weekend

This post has nothing to do with Kenya, being an expat or really anything else that I usually talk about here.

Rather, it’s just to catch up with everyone, let you know why there was radio silence (again) and to say with unabashed glee how rockstar cool my family can be.

This past weekend, my family, together with family friends, gathered to celebrate my uncle’s 75th birthday.  We celebrated in beautiful Paso Robles, California, which is in wine country.  So needless to say, the wine was flowing freely, the scenery was amazing, the food was deeply satisfying, delicious and just slightly overly abundant and everyone was in great spirits.  It was an incredibly fun time and I’m so honored to be my uncle’s favorite niece (that I am also the only one is irrelevant).

Tonight, I start my eastward journey that will eventually lead me back to my adventures in Nairobi.  I’ll be in London for another few days so I can continue to marvel at the wonder of electricity on demand and tap water that is actually potable before I head back home.

I hope everyone had an equally fantastic weekend.  Catch you on the flip side.

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Welcome Home

About a year and a half ago, I flew from London to Chicago for a friend’s wedding.  The passport control officer had an enormous chip on his shoulder.  He hassled me to the point I started to irrationally fear he wouldn’t admit me into the country.  Not that I had a good idea of what he could possibly do to me — I mean, where would he deport me to?  Gitmo?

He was exceptionally peevish over the fact that I had the audacity to live outside the U.S.  He also had power well exceeding his pay grade.  So I listened in silence as he railed against the evils of living outside the U.S.  I piped up only when he asked me what I was doing in Chicago, as if I had no right to be there.  I meekly responded that I was going to a friend’s wedding.  He wanted to know how long I had known this “friend” of mine.  I told him I had known her for nearly 9 years at that point and that, further, I did used to live there.  I meant Chicago, specifically; he took it as the U.S. and shook my passport in my face as he bared his yellow teeth and said that he sure hoped so since I had “one of these.”

Now, I’m happy I have a U.S. passport.  I don’t require a visa to go to the bathroom (only to really douchebaggy countries).  It offers flexibility and one assumes, probably erroneously, a modicum of protection should the passport holder find herself in a situation gone pear-shaped in a foreign country.  But it never occurred to me that my passport was an unbreakable umbilical cord tethering me to my home country.  It really never occurred to me that where I choose to make my home is remotely the business of the guy whose job is to stamp my passport, say “Welcome Home” and let me enter.

Well, as unlovely as that interaction was, once the passport officer ascertained to his satisfaction that I was not actually an enemy of the state, he grudgingly welcomed me home and let me in.

Every single time I’ve entered the US from a foreign country, the passport control officer has said “Welcome Home.”

I know it’s utterly meaningless on their part and truly ridiculous on mine that I like it, but it lends a sweetness to what is otherwise just another nameless faceless encounter with the government.  I suppose even a hardened cynic like I am can find a sweet gesture appealing.

I landed in San Francisco from London on Monday.  The passport control officer expressed surprise that I live in Kenya (one must declare the country of domicile on the landing card), but other than that, he had nothing to say to me.  He just verified the information on my landing card — that I live in Kenya and had visited the UK on my way to the US — and waved me through.

I was greatly relieved not to be hassled, but still missed the kind words of welcome.  Maybe with all the government budget cuts, passport control officers are bound by an economy of speech that limits their friendliness.

Oh well, I’m happy to be visiting the U.S.  The magic of electricity and running water without cholera in it just does not get old!

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California Dreamin’

I’m posting to avoid Kayla’s wrath (and whip), but not because I have anything particularly interesting to say.  I still have some Kenya stories up my sleeve, but no time to write them right now as I must pack for my trip tomorrow to California for a family function.  I’m sorry that I won’t be stopping off in any other cities in the US because I’d love to see loads of people, but it’s just not in the cards this trip.

At any rate, I will post some more interesting stuff soon.  Just wanted to say a quick hello.

Chat to you next from California!

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Lip Reading

Okay, so here’s another post that has nothing to do with either my honeymoon or life as an expat in Kenya.  It’s really about the fact that I’ve jumped the shark, age-wise.  I’ve become my grandmother.  I’m grumpy and judgmental about, of all things, clothes, which is a laugh because I can admit that I am singularly unqualified to comment on fashion.

Walking around London is always a feast for the eyes (and unfortunately, sometimes the nose; people, these are the unwashed masses, at least on the night bus from Islington).  There are the very elegantly dressed, the very chav-y dressed, the very posh, the very not.  What has me all befuddled though is a trend that would give style maven Tim Gunn a migraine and make him bleak that anyone could ever make it work.

What has caught my eye here is women wearing leggings as actual trousers (or pants, for my non-English audience — ‘pants’ means something very different to Brits).  I have a dress that I wear with a pair of leggings and ballet flats, and when I do that, I am aware of Tim Gunn’s hatred of leggings, but I like the look better than with tights, so I wear it happily.  But it’s a real dress.  It covers my ass and my bits.

With women here right now, though, it’s an entirely different story.  They are wearing leggings with garments that are most appropriately classified as shirts.  These tops cover neither bum nor bits.  Some of the bottom coverings actually make the effort to look texturally like jeans or trousers, hence the words jeggings and treggings have entered the vernacular.

To my horror, this style trend horrifies me.  Unlike when I was younger, now I don’t long to jump right into the trend fray; I stare slack-jawed until I must force myself to look away.  I have become judgmental of the couture of the Younger Woman; hence, I have become a grandma, stylistically speaking.  Or perhaps this style is just crap and best avoided.

Ultimately, though, I don’t know what horrifies me more — my potential entree into the world of the old crone, or the fact that as these women talk, I wonder if I’m meant to read their lips.

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Stepmother Quack

This post has nothing to do with either my recent honeymoon or my adventures in Nairobi.  It’s just a bit of regular life in London, where I’m hanging out with friends before going to California for a family function.

But first, a little background.

Kayla, a friend of mine from university and also the friend whose house I’m crashing at currently (the house with the ominous whip), went to graduate school with a particularly high-on-herself woman who, it turned out, was half-Mexican.  The high-on-herself and her half-Mexicanness were unrelated — I just felt the need to point out that she was obnoxious.

Um, sure, what’s my point, right?

Well, she wasn’t actually half-Mexican, despite her myriad smug assertions that she was.  (And despite the fact that, I believe, she received financial aid because of her minority status.)

It turns out that her stepmother was Mexican.  So this woman determined through some completely opaque logic that she was, therefore, half-Mexican.

Well, yesterday, Tammy, Kayla and I went to lunch at a Chinese restaurant near their office to partake of the culinary wonder that is crispy duck.  The three of us were hungry, so we ordered a half duck to share.

What showed up was the most anemic-looking and pathetic half-duck ever.  But not a one of us commented.  We just ate what little of it there was and ended up still hungry after we had finished lunch, which is, according to dietitians, a good thing.  What we ate was tasty, but it was not half a duck.

The only logical conclusion was that whatever the wee little bird was, it’s stepmother must have been a duck.

Then the bill showed up.  They had served us a lousy little quarter duck.  So I guess that means it’s stepmother’s mother was duck.

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