Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Let me begin with an apology for not having come back to this sooner. Something within this country seems to breed a profound laziness, so that when I find myself with an unoccupied hour or two, I tend to spend that time unoccupied for an hour or two. I’d read this before coming, that at first the Kenyan way of life seems quite slow. You begin impatiently, until eventually, unconsciously, you find yourself sitting perfectly content for hours at a time. Where back home I’d unquestionably grow restless - probably ending up on a walk, or at least reading a book, or most often the case, on a walk reading a book - here, I simply sit, think and look. In the past few days I’ve poured over every issue of The Economist back to last November. Content to ignore the States for the better part of my stay here, it seems my appetite for news, knowledge, anything non-Kenyan has suddenly come back with fervor. So now, with motivation finally coming, I suppose I should update you on my lives, which, updates being so few and far between since then, will probably read more as a summary than full description.

Following Tanzania, everyone on the program spent three weeks, either in pairs or alone, with an “urban family” in Nairobi. These were mostly upper class businessmen and women, with nice houses, electrified fences and a multitude of guard dogs. I hated nearly every second of it. I’ve never felt so uncomfortable in a house before, the type built in a rush, and in looking to adorn it with displays of wealth, ends up looking like a museum, a reserve of uncomfortable antique chairs gathering dust and china adoring the walls. Nothing to me has ever seemed so out of place – a living room with thousands of dollars worth of paintings, furniture and sculpture, tastelessly thrown together, standing right next to the TV room where we ate every single meal. I suppose the most accurate way I could describe the family is the African equivalent of the Beverly Hillbillies, where though educated to a degree, have instead embraced material wealth over intellectual property. They have absorbed the physical tenants of Western life – Mercedes, big screens, swimming pools – and completely discarded everything from their rural past. A McDonald’s of the elite content to zone out to American Idol each night rather than digest the realities of their own country, or to educate themselves further than necessary. Furthermore, I’ve never stayed with a family so unwelcoming – so much that my breakfasts were rationed and the only question they asked me was my name and what state I lived in. My family, I think, may have been more an outlier than the norm; at least I hope so from all I’ve heard. Suffice to say, I am glad to be gone.

The next ten days were spent enjoying the most touristy part of our trip. We traveled south to the Northern side of Kilimanjaro, staying in the Maasai Centre for Field Studies, going on game views in Amboseli National Park and staying with a Maasai family for two days. The National Park was unsurprisingly gorgeous. Zebra, Giraffe and Wildebeest exist there more plentifully than squirrels in a park. Animals gather around watering holes in the thousands. We spent the better part of three days hanging on the top of land rovers and driving for hours on end just looking. Lagging behind, my car was lucky enough to see a Cheetah in the first five minutes of a drive. Such excitement upon seeing the animal I idolized as a kid, particularly given that they are so rare to see. We also saw two lions, which were surprisingly unimpressive. The real winner goes to the giraffe, which even after seeing a hundred is still so magestically and illogically beautiful. A full day was even spent at a tourist lodge, complete with a swimming pool and a bar looking out to the snows of Kilimanjaro (and it did snow while we were there – imagine waking up, walking out of your tent, and adjusting your eyes to a glistening blanket on top of a behemoth of purple rock). The trip was educational too. Our main purpose was studying the local Maasai culture. To give a brief summary, these are the stereotypical warriors of Kenya idolized by British colonialists, subsisting mainly off of their cows milk and blood. To obtain a more informed summary, you can wikipedia it. Things have, of course changed within their culture. Once a staple, blood has been all but phased out, and maize and vegetables have entered into the diet to stand along side milk as their main source of nutrition. Even modernization has arrived, though in limited form, in the way of motorcycles and blue jeans. Most Maasai however still obtain their livelihood from cattle.

The home stay may one of the most fun parts of the trip so far – and I’ve done amazing things. Imagine walking over dusty hills, past zebra herds and acacia trees, with nothing but a stick in your hand and twenty cattle in front of you. The realities of the environment in the region (semi-arid rangeland) mean that many people walk tens of kilometers each day to feed and water their cows, often undertaking journeys of up to 100km over the course of several days in search of greenery. Something felt fully authentic about the experience (the Maasai Centre is entirely Maasai owned and operated, we were the only white people many in the local villages had seen, and as far as I know, this is the only place that offers a home stay with Maasai families), which is perhaps when I enjoyed it so much. Which isn’t to say it’s a comfortable experience at all. Beds of sticks and cowhide, smoky rooms, and the stench of a farm is the reality, but it becomes them and I loved every bit of it, the bad and good.

On the second day, my guide and two of my friends climbed to the highest point in the area to look out on where we had walked. To our left stood the base of Kilimanjaro, as wide as a highway and taller than the clouds, to our right, the Chuylu hills, rising like a green spine in the middle of what is otherwise a desert, and below us, small bomas, even smaller patches of gardens irrigated by a stream, and plentiful goats and cows. I left feeling like I’d truly seen something off the beaten path.

Following that was our spring break, which I spent climbing Mt. Kenya (about 17,000ft) with several people from the group. Forest fires have been ravaging the mountain for several weeks, and I’d estimate that half of the scenery we saw was completely charred. At night you could see the fires raging in the distance, giving off an orange glow like a city over what otherwise would be completely black. I’ve never seen something so simultaneously beautiful and terrifying – a realistic fireworks display if I’ve ever seen one. Stopping on the second day in a valley we watched as the fire swept down the mountainside, engulfing everything in its path. Even from 400 yards away you could here trees popping and grass crackling.

We started our summit attempt at 3:00AM, and having made good time, had a full half hour at the top before sunrise. To see the sunrise from so high up is truly to have God’s view, as if you can see invisible hands actually hoisting the sun out of the ground. You are not looking up to it, but looking down, and to look down on the sun is to violate some law of nature, so that you eerily feel yourself in a place you are perhaps not supposed to be. The peak itself is as beautiful as a mountain I’ve ever seen. It looks down on so many sides into a multitude of valleys; some filled with grass, others with glaciers, and still others with lakes (which our guide told us, though I can’t see how, are abundantly filled with trout). Altitude sickness had gotten me the night before summiting, so lingering on the peak was neither in my best interest nor in my immediate list of desires, though I wish I could have spent a day just watching.

Since then, we’ve had our final two weeks of classes. I’ve grown weary of Nairobi, which is a city one cannot help but simultaneously love and hate, love more for the people and the culture, hate for its stench, its garbage, its ill conceived roads and horrible pollution. I’ve learned much here, but have lingered perhaps too long, and I am itchy to move again. I’ll be spending the last month of the program on the coast, in a small town called Watamu, working for a forest conservation group, The Friends of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. You can google it. It’s the only home to a rare shrew, which is one of the closet living relatives to the elephant (of those larger beasts, there is a family of 40 living in the forest itself.) And if I may brag just a bit more, my accommodations are just 50 meters from the warm vivid blue water of the Indian Ocean.

Perhaps most interesting during this time has been finally watching Out of Africa. Seeing the movie after reading the book really emphasizes how much has changed since Karen Blixen’s time here. Vestiges of colonialism of course still exist, but that world, of dinner parties and black servants, the one idolized and imagined by so many tourists (as evidenced in the multitude of operators offering the “Out of Africa” experience) is all but gone, undeniably for the better. And though I never agreed with much of British policy here before independence, it does strike a chord – savage wilderness, elegant British homes, and the pioneering of a new frontier in the name of the Queen. Even stranger is to read the book before being here, but see the movie after living here, and to know that, as I watch Meryl Streep as Blixen turn to look over the trees to the Ngong Hills, I have but to do the same to see the very same thing.