God sometimes gives us unexpected gifts. Our gift has been a grandson who enlivens our lives and makes retirement very different than the one we anticipated. He is a special joy. And that's "Casey." In 2006 we fulfilled our dream of living in Italy for a year. It was every bit as wonderful as anticipated. This blog begins in 2005 as we prepared for that experience. Since then we have explored many places together. That's the "Travel." And finally, I am a person of opinions--spiritually, politically, on just about anything and that's the "Other Stuff." Welcome to my blog.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Masai Mara

Wild, alive, beautiful, windswept, pure, dangerous, mournful, captivating—the adjectives are numberless in describing the Masai Mara. It is a land that has not changed much with time. Animals roam free sharing the land with the Masai tribal people and their cattle. Sometimes these two come in conflict. Such is the case when a lion attacks a cow or when the Masai retaliate. Cows are the livelihood and wealth of the Masai. 

Masai Cattle Sharing Savanna with Zebras

In Masai tribal belief, God entrusted them with the cattle and gave them dominion over the cows. Thus the lion becomes the enemy. To stop the killing of the lions or other wildlife, while recognizing the autonomy of the tribes, the Kenyan government now replaces or pays for a killed cow or, if the cow is attacked and hurt but still alive, the government buys the cow for the meat.

The Masai are a proud, independent people and, in some ways, held in awe by the other peoples of Kenya. Our Masai guide, Nixon, who is well-educated, fluent in English, knowledgeable of the world, continues to live in his village when not working as a guide for the camp, in what most of us consider primitive conditions. When he visits Mombasa or Nairobi, he wears his tribal clothes with all his jewelry and adornments proclaiming his identity. There is great pride in proclaiming the Masai heritage.

Nixon is also a man with ambition and an understanding that the world is greater than his world. He is part of the generation that is bridging the two worlds. He had wanted to come to the United States to study wildlife management but could not obtain a visa so he has built new dreams. As he works as a guide for the Karen Blixen Camp where we stayed, he keeps his personal distance and yet demonstrates ease with us and our ways. It is clear that he is a man comfortable in his own identity and that he is making choices as to how he will blend his worlds. 

Nixon Relaxing at Sundowner
Nixon knows the land of the Mara. It is his land. As we went out on our game drives, it would seem as if the vast terrain we were traversing was empty--where or why were we headed where ever. What or where was the goal? And then..........in front of us would be a pride of lions stretched out in the grass, occasionally rallying themselves for a quick mating ritual before laying back down. How did Nixon know where they were? He just knew.

And There They Were

He took us to cheetahs, zebras milling at the river--deciding whether to cross and concluding that tomorrow would be better, giraffes, elephant herds with dueling teenagers, elands, topis, wildebeasts, hyneas, vultures (in waiting for the zebras to cross.) It is all on the Mara!

Cheetah on the Prowl
One of My Favorites
Lilac Breasted Roller. See the locust?
And...if you want more, you can take some time with this slide show--just a few of the 600+ pictures we took of the Masai Mara.

Next: Karen Blixen Camp and Caseys' Time on the Mara.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sweetwaters--Ol Pejeta Conservancy

From Samburu we headed onto Sweetwaters Tented Camp. Picture pup-tents? Stakes? Treks to the latrine? Wrong! We roughed it in a tent with a large king bed and a single bed for Casey (not a cot or hotel variety fold-up—a real bed.) Then there were the ensuite facilities—shower, loo, basins, storage area. And this was the least luxurious tenting we enjoyed. Sitting on our porch, we watched over the watering hole as the warthogs, gazelles, impalas and more wandered in to catch a drink.

We arrived tired, hot and ready to be pampered—which we were. After following the porters to our tent and washing up, we went to the dining area for an excellent lunch, including unexpected entertainment. Maribou storks are quite ugly birds but do invite close attention as they stand around on one leg with sad begging eyes much like irresistible puppy dogs. We had one such charmer staring in the window at us through the whole meal. Luckily it was not an open area as at Samburu or the slingshot warriors would be needed again.

After lunch came one of the more isolated experiences of our time. Although one doesn't often think of camels in East Africa countries, they are in the Samburan portion of eastern Kenya. They are used as pack animals. A year ago, Casey had his heart set on a camel ride in Morocco and then we didn't go. So, when the opportunity came up at Sweetwaters, there was no way we could let the moment pass. Right after lunch, he got his wish and off he went on Peter, the camel.

After this adventure, we went for a short game drive with two specific destinations in mind—a Jane Goodall chimpanzee sanctuary and a Black rhino sanctuary. The black rhino has been in danger of extinction which has prompted prodigious efforts to save them. Thankfully, success is at hand. There is one very special rhino there—Baracka—who was blinded, probably in a fight with another male. It is sad to see him wander aimlessly, his horn has been cut off for his own protection and his sides bloodied from rubbing against trees and other obstacles. He is well-taken care of and supervised.

We continued our game drive as we wended our way back to camp, seeing many animals—elephants, giraffes, impalas, gazelles, etc. At one point we saw many vultures circling around which is a good indication that there might be something worth seeing. And , indeed there was; although rather gruesome. The smell preceded the view--vultures gorging themselves on a dead giraffe. It was not nice but definitely part of the circle of life on the savanna.

 That night the pace finally caught up with Casey who almost fell asleep at the dinner table--before the food arrived. I had to take him back to the tent and put him to bed where he fell fast asleep in a blink. I followed soon after.

The next morning he awoke as a 12 year old, immediately becoming mature, grown up, no more childishness.... It was quite miraculous! Scherzo!

We were on the road early as we needed to get to the airstrip in time for our plane to the Masai Mara. We saved the birthday celebration for that night.

On the way, we stopped at the equator line where we stopped for a demonstration of water flow. I think Casey is going to blog about that. He now has been at the equator line in both Africa (Kenya) and South America (Ecuador.) What a life!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Samburu National Reserve

Finally, after six hours of less than luxurious travel, we arrive at the Samburu Game Lodge—tucked away down dry dusty rutted roads in the midst of the reserve. This is not the lodge where we were supposed to stay but a horrific flash flood in March wiped out several camps and research facilities as well as overpowering many animals and, more tragically, some people. This lodge had suffered some damage but was able to reopen rather quickly.

As we drove into the lodge area, our safari began. There before us, welcoming us or so it seemed, stood a herd of elephants—mothers, babies, teenagers—refreshing themselves in the river. We knew the adventure was beginning.
One of the Families
When we arrived, we had not eaten since our early breakfast in Nairobi so were quite hungry. Although, it was late in the day for lunch, the lodge was prepared and had some nice menu choices waiting for us. At this point, I should explain that food on safari is outstandingly good. We found that to be the case in Tanzania and it was just as true in Kenya. If it weren't for all the bouncing around on the non-roads, I am certain that gaining weight would be a problem.

The dining area at the lodge is completely open and thus invites vervet monkeys to scavenge for crumbs and any morsels unthinking guests might want to throw them. To deal with this, the lodge employs Samburu tribesmen with slingshots meant to discourage the invaders. The show is quite comical at times as the monkeys are very adept at eluding and reappearing. It seems as if the men are having as much fun as the monkeys.
Casey with the Samburu Slingshot Artist
You might think that the Samburan's dress is for atmosphere and show as it might be in a venue in the Europe or the US. But such a thought would be inaccurate. Tribal people often dress like this in everyday life--walking through the bush, in their villages, etc. Necklaces, earrings, chest decorations, head bands, bracelets and color are a part of their pride. 

With that said, it is true that western clothes are also worn. Many of the young people have two identities. The one that is their cultural which is clung to and provides self and the other which is learned in school which begins the bridge between tribal life and the larger world. Heritage and tribe are fundamental to the people in the bush and so, even with a western style education, the return to the village calls.  

Facing the Lion: Growing up Maasai on the African Savanna, a book I bought for Casey but which we all read, gives an understanding of this. It is the story of a Maasai man who moves between the world of his heritage and the world he lives in now as an educator in the United States. The longing for the village, the tribe, his home never leaves and so he travels back sometimes to live the life of the Maasai warrior and cattle rancher.

After lunch we took our first game drive which was just OK. Animals seemed to have taken off to other parts of the reserve and left just a few teasers behind. 

And yet, as with every day, there was a highlight which made the scarcity worthwhile. As we turned down one rutted path, there to the side of us, was this gorgeous creature who obligingly sat and posed for several minutes before ambling off. We simply did not exist for him.

This was one of our "moments."

We spent another day and a half here before we headed on to Sweetwaters Camp which was a stop over on our way to the Mara. During this time we saw an amazing number of species of animals. We just didn't see them in large numbers--except for the small, adorable dik-diks which were innumberable.

As with each area we visited, there were some species that are only found in Samburu--such as the reticulated giraffe and giraffe gazelles.
 The Reticulated Giraffe has very pronounced and distinct markings.

One of the highlights of our time in Samburu was a visit to a Samburu village where we were warmly welcomed by Peter and Ben who are well-educated and have dreams. They so typify the conflict between desiring college and exercising their intelligence and the almost unbreakable bonds with their tribe and way of life.

At the village the pre-schoolers sang for us, the men tried to teach Casey how to start a fire with sticks, Ben took us into his home and explained it to us and we bargained with the village chief for a slingshot for Casey. It was a very eye-opening experience for Casey.

This little slideshow gives a glimpse into our time in Samburu.

From Samburu we left for Sweetwaters Camp--coming next. Look for Casey's camel ride.

Link to Flickr Kenya Collection: Kenya Photo Albums

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Still On the Way to Samburu

Samburu National Reserve---6 hours of long, hard, bumpy, dusty drive from Nairobi. Much of it is interesting as we pass through what to our eyes are squalid villages with lean-to shacks housing businesses and homes. People mingle, mill and walk--intent on their purposes and destinations. Women line the roadways selling bags of charcoal freshly produced nearby from burning tree limbs. I wonder how many they sell a day--not many as each only has 3 or 4 bags. Surely the income cannot buy much.

Other women walk long distances to get water which they collect in small gasoline can size plastic bottles; then they face the long walk back. In some places there are water bores provided by the government. Here women congregate and talk while children play. We see most of these out in the bush where the Maasai live much as they have for decades. Other women balance baskets of bananas on their heads as they gracefully walk the road. Children in ill-fitting clothes play as all children dolaughing and having fun together, not realizing that theirs is a life of hardship. There isn't much stimulation or variety in what surrounds them.

However, Kenya now requires that all children go to school. Government and private schools dot the landscape. On school days we see uniformed, barefooted children walking many kilometers to reach their schools. A friend of mine here in the United States who is from Kenya has told me the educational system there is very good. Clearly, the educated younger generation is going to want more from life than their parents did. Will that be good?

 As we pass the shanty villages, it becomes clear that people are living in the modern 21st century world in spite of appearances of poverty and backwardness in time. A hand painted sign atop a topsy-turvy door proclaims computer repair services. Down the street stands another building where air blows through spaces between wall planks and dust swirls in the doorway. This business offers "clean copies and fax services as you wait." 

Entrepreneurs manning small lean-to sheds selling specialized wares--here it may be candy and small goodies; there it may soft drinks--dot the landscape. Beauty parlors, butcheries, furniture sellers, shoe storesall that is part of a sustaining communityare open for business. Like many countries, men congregate and discuss the day's business, world affairs, women, whatever. And as in almost every place in the world today, mobile phones seem to be de rigueur.

We pass many "hotels" that are puzzling at first because they are so small with flailing cloth blowing out the window and doorway. Andrew explains that they are really restaurants or more accurately little places to get something to eat or drink. More often than not men crowd around the building, spilling out the door, finishing a quaff of somethingmaybe the famous Kenyan coffee. 

There is an established rhythm to life in these villages as well defined and meaningful as anywhere on earth. Love, happiness, weddings, children, disappointments, death, success and failurethey are all there. There is also hunger and illness and despair. Perhaps the abundance of small churches and larger tent meetings address these things and bring hope and acceptance.

 If you wonder about the lack of pictures to accompany the narrative, I don't have any. Often I would want to snap the camera as we passed by or stopped but I was governed by a sense that this would infringe on the dignity of the people. As I would pick up the camera and flip off the lens cover, it just didn't seem right. So, I have my visual memories which I've tried to paint in words.

I was going to write about Samburu but still haven't gotten us there yet.next time! And, there will be pictures.

Monday, July 19, 2010

On The Way To Safari

Sometimes we're lucky and this trip was one of those times as all went according to plan in the getting there--in fact, even better than anticipated. Our flights connected perfectly, with most landing early. The luggage checked with United in San Diego arrived via KLM in Kenya. We had a 3 hour layover in Amsterdam which was tiring after the long flight from San Diego but with the adrenalin flowing, it wasn't that bad.

We traveled United business class from the US but had economy seats on KLM for the 8 hour flight to Nairobi, paying extra for economy comfort which provides a little extra leg room; however, once we settled in, it was pretty apparent that the extra legroom wasn't all that generous. It certainly was a far cry from business. Then the most amazing thing happened. 

As we settled in with our luggage stowed overhead and seat belts fastened, an attendant came to us and asked: "Are you the Parker party?" We confirmed that we were. She then handed us new tickets, saying "you may move to the next cabin." So, we found ourselves in the totally lush setting of KLM World Business class which is a blend of what would be business and first on a United 747. We still have no idea why we were so lucky. We have no history with KLM, no miles, no nothing. We were having one of those serendipity events that sometimes happen just when they are needed. Lay flat seats let us get some needed sleep--after enjoying a pretty sumptuous meal.
With this great windfall, we arrived to the sultry African air feeling much more refreshed than we might have. Our luck failed a little at this point as our luggage was about the last off the plane--a 747. We had a long wait for it and were just beginning to worry when our two lonely duffels came into view. Loading them on the dolly along with our carry-ons, we pushed through customs and found our driver/guide Andrew waiting for us.

From there was a 45 minute drive through Nairobi to the lodge where we were staying that night before beginning our safari adventure. This was our first introduction to Kenyan roads which can be pretty harrowing. If you have driven in Naples or have been to China, you can then have some appreciation of how they work. 

The Safari Park Hotel was lush and beautiful; although, since we arrived there at 10:30 at night and  had our wake up call at 6:30, we really didn't have a chance to enjoy it. After a good, huge breakfast, we climbed in the vehicle that became our home for the next 13 days and began our relationship with the man from Mombasa who became our guru and keeper and friend.
 Next: The road to Samburu National Reserve and what we found there. 
And...a sneak preview

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

From The Mara....

Quick note only: Sorry no blogging while in Kenya. Too busy, too much fun, Internet connection in the bush too slow.

I'll write all about it when we get back. Having spectacular time.

Wish you were here :-)