Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Weekends and Holidays in Kenya

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to all.  With the kids off from school and holidays providing some days off, we've been able to get around a bit and see some interesting stuff.

Last weekend we went to the Nairobi Safari Walk.  Finally Matthew was able to see his favorite animal - a cheetah.  It was a fun time, they have a boardwalk and path that takes you near various animals: rhinos, giraffes, ostriches, lions, etc.  It was similar to a zoo experience back in the US but with baboons being your host!  They were just walking around like they owned the place.

Afterwards we went back to the elephant orphanage we visited our first week in August.  I had been very hesitant to go back since we had horrible traffic back then.  But we were already halfway there, so we gave it a shot.  No issues this time :) , we were actually early.  For this visit we were going to adopt a baby elephant!  Before choosing which one, we got to see the little guys coming back from their day in the bush.  Then we picked which one we thought was the cutest to foster.  The unanimous choice was Barsilinga.
We also enjoyed seeing a warthog family dart around the complex.

Other recent days have been spent lounging around the pool, me going on bike rides, having some of the kids' friends come over for play dates, and last Friday we had a family over for shabbat dinner.  They are Israeli and it was interesting to get their perspective on the recent troubles there and their view of the American political system.

Yesterday for Christmas we decided to take a road trip to a large waterfall  - Fourteen Falls - about 2 hours north of Nairobi.  It was a real local's experience as we didn't see any other mzungu all day.  On the route we also traveled along Kenya's only western type super highway.  The remarkable thing is that as you are traveling along at 55mph there are speed bumps which force a sudden stop right in the middle of the highway to allow residents and donkeys to cross.  Very strange, but supposedly they are temporary until they finish pedestrian overpasses.

The falls were a nice experience - Rhonda says more from a cultural than a scenic one!  There was lots of garbage all over, and it smelled terrible.  It is undetermined if the smell was from the resident goats, garbage, the rotting vegetation, or some combination!  It was fun though to clamber over the rocks, take a boat ride and see and meet Kenyans enjoying a Christmas outing.

Upon our return to Nairobi we had dinner at a restaurant, Zen Garden.  It was relaxing since, as typical with many of the nicer places in town, there are large play areas and activities for kids to get their ya-yas out.

Matthew and Ruby accomplished their "mission" to get their faces painted and sword-shaped balloons all by themselves, while mom and dad enjoyed a cold Tusker.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mt Kenya

As Rhonda mentioned last week, I joined a group to trek Mt Kenya.  The back story is that I wanted to do something big, now.  Basically, I have been working about 15 to 20 hours per week, but my company may hire me in the next couple of weeks here in the Nairobi office to work full time.  Also, since Margaret started I did not have to be home everyday to watch the kids. So now was my chance to really get out there and see something.

At first I was not really thinking of Mt Kenya.  I did not want to deal with potential altitude sickness (16,355 ft), getting warm/winter clothes, and outdoor gear.  I really wanted to venture up to Lake Turkana and see the desert and get off the beaten path.  But one of the tour companies I contacted said, due to the security situation, they were not going up there anytime soon. Seems last month there were issues between two tribes involving cattle rustling and over 30 policemen were killed.  Hmmm, probably best to stay away for awhile.

So it was on to Plan B and luckily on the Nairobi expats facebook group there was a posting about a group heading to Mt Kenya.  I met up with some of them for lunch the Friday beforehand and got the low down.  We would be going up one side of the mountain and exiting from the other.  It would be a total of four days - leave Wed and be back in Nairobi Saturday.  Sounds good - I just needed to gather tons of cold weather and hiking gear.  Of course I had all that stuff back home in NY but when packing for Kenya earlier this year I thought, "why would I need that in equatorial Kenya!?!"  Shiku, who was one the main organizers, advised me of a second hand clothes market in Nairobi and I dragged Rhonda and kids there a couple days before departure.  I was able to pick up: 2 long sleeve non-cotton shirts, 1 parka, 3 hiking socks, 1 fleece, 1 rain suit, 1 wool hat, 1 pair thermals, 1 pair gloves, and a backpack. Another big help was the dad of one of Ruby's classmates was able lend me his hiking boots.  I also had to buy headlamps, some kind of pills to head off the worst of altitude sickness (Diamox), water purification tablets, and rent a sleeping bag - it was full time job just to get prepared!

We met up at 7:30am Wed morning in Nairobi and took a nice 4 hour drive through the Kenyan countryside up to the trail head at Sirimon gate.  There we met our porters and chef.  It was nice to know we would not be lugging our gear ourselves - we just had to be responsible for our daypack.

We then had a trail lunch and started off.  After a three hour hike we reached Old Moses camp - above the tree line.  We spent the night there and after breakfast we hiked all day to the next camp - Shipton's, which was beautifully situated right below the peaks.

The group I joined was a pleasant surprise, since I did not know any of them.  Some of the group knew each other but we gelled quickly.  There were nine of us from many different places but all now living in Nairobi - a US embassy worker from Atlanta, a NGO worker from Ireland, UN workers from South Africa, Spain, and Kenya, consultant from South Africa, student from Germany, and our key Kenya contact Shiku who did most of the organizing.  One of the guys was even Jewish and he brought along a menorah and we lit the candles for all the nights.

The accommodations in the camps were very spartan.  Just bunk beds with foam mattresses.
sleeping arrangements
'kitchen' at Shipton's camp
 I was pretty nervous about getting altitude sickness and/or stomach ailments since we were just taking water from streams and I could not vouch for how clean the cooking and food was.  But nothing happened and I actually liked all the food.  One night we had fish and another night was fried chicken.  A couple afternoons we had popcorn as an appetizer.

We also met other groups and hikers in the camps who were interesting to talk to.  One other group was about 15 to 20 ten-year olds from an international school in Nairobi.  They had already reached the top and were on the their way down - of course we felt if these kids could do it - so could we!  They had an American guide with them who sobered us up about how intense the hike would be.  Earlier in the day, after his group reached the top, one of the kids was going down too quickly and fell about 25 feet - seemed he got hurt pretty badly and they had to airlift him off the mountain - eesh.  I also met a UK guy who was traveling around after teaching English in Uganda.  He said his favorite experience in Africa so far was going on a mountain gorilla hike in Uganda -- have to add that to the list!

The route we took to the camps was very scenic, so most of the hiking was quite enjoyable. For the summit attempt we left Shipton's camp at 3am to get to the top by sunrise.  It was novel to be hiking at night with only the light from our flashlights leading the way.  After about 2 hours we saw our first snow and by 7am we reached the summit.  It was breathtaking to be on the top - high above the clouds with glaciers and mountain lakes all laid out below you  WOW! 
After lots of picture taking we started our LONG trek back down.  This was going to be our most intense day. It was 10am before we even got to our breakfast camp at Minto's Hut. We rested there for about 2 to 3 hours and then started a long walk to camp for the night at Meru Mt Kenya cottages.
Gorges Valley view on the way down
We were surprised to see that the route down we even more scenic than the route up.  This helped pass the 6 hours it took us to reach the camp.  What an epic day - started hiking at 3am and finished at 5:30pm.  In retrospect in might have been better to say overnight at the place where we had breakfast and have a more relaxing trip down.

Unfortunately one of the people in our party was really not feeling that well and took even longer to get down, their group did not get down to camp till after nightfall and they did not have a pleasant experience.  Some of them did not have their headlamps on them and the porters realized what was happening and collected the headlamps from those of us who were already down and ran back up with them.  After the second group got down at around 8:30p they told us how the porters were even more scared then they were - seems there are elephants and buffalos in the woods near the trails and it was dangerous to be out at night.  They said they could see the reflection of the animals eyes when they shined their headlamps into the woods.

The next morning some of us hiked an additional two hours down a jeep path and rest took a 4X4.  It was unreal to see how the Land Rovers could maneuver down this 'road'.  At certain points the vehicles were at 45 degree angles going through deeply rutted paths.  Finally at about 2pm we reached the town of Chogoria and caught our ride back to Nairobi. What an experience!

For those interested, there are more pictures/captions/info here.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Happy Ugali Hanukah!

With Michael away, hiking Mount Kenya, I guess I have to carry the torch on blogging.  I know it’s been a while since I weighed in here.  I’ve been working a lot – A LOT actually.  It’d be nice to have more time for the other things that make up a life, but there’s also no substitute for meaningful work.  Three months in, I can honestly say I must have the most interesting job in the world. 

The dynamic team of trainers that I work with travel throughout Sub-Saharan Africa to orient diverse groups of refugees to life in the United States.  Refugees who are preparing to depart for the U.S. learn how the resettlement process works, the ins and outs of travel (boarding a plane, what that weird looking set of food items is, etc.), what housing is like, the importance of learning English and working early on, and other essential kernels one might need to start over again in a completely different culture with a pro-active attitude and realistic expectations.  We share some perspective on cultural adjustment – the impact when family roles shift to manage the demands of a new culture or the u-curve of cultural adjustment, the natural process most people go through – a honeymoon phase, a low and ultimately integration of the old and new identities. 
How perfect that I get to experience all of that firsthand, just as I help guide our team to make the transition as easy as possible for others.  And, if my family has had some challenges (thank goodness, only minor ones) – imagine never having seen an airplane, not speaking English, not reading in your native language, and on and on. 

And so for us, family roles shifted a bit, too.  It’s strange for me that Michael’s the one who knows what day Ruby has to bring her bathing suit, which day Matthew has P.E., which birthday party is happening this weekend…  With Michael heading off for four days I got a little nervous that I’d know how to manage their schedules and someone would be there when the school bus arrives.  Luckily, our new, caring and responsible  “house help”, Margaret, has been solid, on top of it, and still poised and ready to have my coffee ready in the morning!
Still, the proud mama in me is alive as ever.  Yesterday I was in awe when Matthew showed me the book he wrote and illustrated all in one afternoon.  Apparently, he was glued to his paper, completely engrossed like he sometimes gets.  The thing is – this is his 4th book!  And, one of those was a second edition of “The Shark and the Fish”.  He brought them all to school today to show his beloved 1st grade teacher, and she apparently read two of them to the whole class during story time.  I am so glad we left most of their toys in New York.  What a lesson in how little kids really need.  I think Margaret was confused today when we asked her to wash out the Mango Juice box so Matthew can use it as a toy.
Over the weekend, my first weekend back after a conference in the U.S., we got to celebrate Hanukah at the Nairobi synagogue. It was quite the spectacle, complete with acrobats in the back garden and a hall full of menorahs.

Tonight we celebrated the 6th night of Hanukah over a meal of Ugali and Sukuma – our first home cooked Kenyan meal (thanks to Margaret).  And, Matthew and Ruby scooped it up with their fingers and ate it heartily like professionals.  I guess it was another homage to integrating the old and the new - Ugali under the Hanukah candles.   Perfect.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

First visitors!

Couple days ago we (or should I say I, since Rhonda is still in the states) had our first visitors.  A friend of mine from work from many years ago, Joe, was passing through Nairobi after a safari and beach holiday.  He came with his wife and another couple.  I think they might have been a bit horrified with the traffic in Nairobi (at least an hour from the airport to the city center and then almost two hours to get from downtown to the restaurant).  I met them downtown in an outdoor pub.  I got there about 30 minutes before them and this being Nairobi, me being alone, and drinking a Tusker, and of course a working lady asked if I wanted company ... AHHH!  Can't say that has ever happened before, but I was forewarned this would (not might) happen but still not so typical in the states!

Anyway I digress, they arrived, we shared some drinks, heard about their wonderful safari in the Serengeti and coast time in Zanzibar, and in the end it was a nice way to experience the city.  We then ventured to the City Market where they accost you with hard-core efforts to view their souvenirs, trinkets, etc.  It's very intense, seems like if the shop owners would just chill people would not have the tendency to flee, but after just 10 minutes of shopping you want to run out since it is so overwhelming.  We then jumped in a cab to go for Ethiopian food.  I had never had it before, so was looking forward.  I think our reservation was for 6:30 and with all the traffic we didn't arrive to just before 8pm.  Honestly I was expecting the bad traffic but even our driver said this was worse than normal -- seems the matatus had gone on strike and everything around the city was clogged.

Happy to report the food was great and also reasonably priced, if not downright cheap - the five of us ate a ton and had lots left over.  Including drinks it came to about $60.  I tried this drink called honey wine - it was wonderful, served in a little beaker type glass with aluminum foil over the top.  Turns out it is fermented right in the bottle, I guess it is really mead.

For anyone thinking of visiting, Joe said Africa was his best vacation ever.  He raved about the Serengeti and Zanzibar.  Just a little a plug to get some of ya'll over here!