Wednesday, February 16, 2011

In Search of the Big Five

As much as my life here in Kenya is about studying development issues, it's also, let's admit, about being just the teeniest bit touristy. And what's Kenya without a safari? My parents have been in town for about a week, and we spent the past weekend in a truly gorgeous spot in the Masai Mara, Kenya's largest game reserve, taking in the sights and enjoying a much slower pace of life than Nairobi.

Friday afternoon we took a teeny tiny plane (as most of you can probably imagine, my dad was not very happy with this!) into the Mara - it was about an hour flight. When we got in to the very swanky Governor's Camp (one of the few camps actually in the Mara), we were greeted with hot towels and iced passion juice. What a great welcome! We had a bit of time to relax and get settled into our tent, then we went out on our first game drive of the weekend. Being novice safari-ers, we were totally excited to see all the elephants, hyenas, and zebras, and the highlight of the drive was getting to see a few members of the Marsh Pride on our way back in. Gideon, our driver, was great the entire weekend - he was so good at spotting animals way off in the distance and took great pleasure in explaining to us all of what we were seeing. For most of the weekend we were paired with a really sweet British couple, Shirley and Ian. Ian owns a factory just outside Nairobi which prints shillings and passports. This wasn't their first safari, so they were also really helpful in explaining to us about all of the animals we were seeing.

We got back and had about an hour before dinner, which we spent chilling at the bar. Dinner was fancy and very good, and we were all in bed soon - it had been a long day. The next morning, we were woken up at six by our tent steward, bearing a much-needed tray of hot tea and coffee. Our first game drive of the day was at 6:30 (since it's cooler, the animals are more active), and we got to see Marsh Pride coming back from a night of hunting! It was awesome - Romeo, the dominant male of the pride, even "marked" our Jeep! After some riding around, we headed back for a full English breakfast before our 10:30 game drive. For our second tour we took it a bit slower, lazing by the Mara River and watching the hippos and crocs. As we drove through the forest, we were greeted by a very cute giraffe and one not very happy elephant who tried to charge our Jeep - scary!

After lunch, we took a much-needed nap, then headed out for our final game drive of the day. Gideon had heard rumors about some cheetahs about a half-hour drive away, so we went off in search of them. It took a lot of driving and a good deal of frustration, but we finally found three cheetahs (a mom and two sons) just as the sky opened up and it started to pour. The cheetahs obviously weren't enjoying the rain, but it made the weather a bit cooler, so it was really fun to watch them frolic.

Sunday Shirley and Ian suggested we combine our two morning game drives and take our breakfast out by the river, which we thought was a great idea. We stopped at a really pretty spot and got to eat as we watched hippos laze in the river - definitely a cool experience. We had hoped to try to find a leopard that day, but no luck. Instead, we spent most of the drive taking in some truly amazing vistas of the Mara (surprisingly, it isn't all flat, but rather has a few scattered hills, and the land kind of undulates). We saw a lone wildabeast (not very pretty animals!) and a lot of things we had come to think of as "standard" - a giraffe, lots of elephants, hyenas, tons of zebras and different kinds of antelope and gazelles.

All in all, it was a fantastic trip. Governor's Camp was truly luxurious, and it was really nice being in the Mara rather than having to drive in from an off-site location every day. Plus, the camp isn't fenced it, so at night we fell asleep to (or were waken up by!) the sounds of elephants and hippos wandering through the camp. Our first night there, a few elephants literally walked right past our tent! Though the camp was definitely touristy (and rich!) it was a great experience, and it was very cool to see such a different side of Kenya than the crazy, smoky, chaotic scene that is Nairobi.

Below are some pictures (out of the like 300 that I took over the course of the weekend!)

PS - I almost forgot! For those who are wondering, the "big five" are lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and buffalos. We saw three of the five - not bad for a weekend!

These elephants literally walked right past our camp!

This guy peed on our Jeep on the way back from his nightly hunting excursion.

Our tent was surprisingly luxurious - and big!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Hell's Gate, Kitengala, and Updates

Hey all! Sorry I've been so bad with updates in the past two weeks, but I'll try to make up for it here.

I've been pretty busy working on a page research paper we have due in about two and a half weeks. For my topic (models of water provision in Kibera and which are most effective/sustainable/able to be implemented on a large scale), I've been going around doing lots of interviews with Kibera residents, NGOs working to provide water in Kibera, and more official sources - I even had an interview with UN-Habitat today! It was intimidating but a cool experience to be inside Nairobi's UN Compound. I even got a very fancy-looking day pass : )

Last weekend, some friends and I took out a day trip out to Naivasha (the lakeside town where we spent a few days for orientation) to Hell's Gate National Park, known for its crazy rock formations and animals. Most tourists just ride their cars through, but my friends and I decided to tough it out and walk - and it was A LOT of walking! The park is about 15 km long, with a picnic area situated in the middle of the park (it's sort of shaped like a long rectangle). Our plan was to walk to the picnic area, have lunch, and head back so we could catch a matatu into town before it got dark. The walk there was pretty leisurely (albeit dusty!), and we had a great time watching the animals. There was even one giraffe who followed us for a good kilometer or two; he would stop whenever we stopped, turning his head to stare at us, then keep walking when we started up again. It was great. Overall it was a fun day, although lots of walking (about 10 miles total). We were exhausted and dirty but happy when we got home.

This weekend we had a group field trip to Kitengala, a small town about 45 minutes outside of Nairobi known for its recycled glass factory. We drove to Masai Lodge and embarked on a nature walk with a tour guide. 'Walk' is a bit of a euphemism - it was more like a trek over slippery, lichen-coated rocks and rough scrub, but we had a great time. We even crossed an Indiana Jones-esque suspension bridge (see below - it was terrifying!) to get to the factory. Once we were there, they gave us a demonstration of how they blow and shape the glass, then we spent some time shopping and just hanging out. The shop and its little courtyard had a very cute, quiet atmosphere that we all enjoyed after the hike. We headed back to Masai Lodge for lunch and some swimming in their pool. The pool deck was like a resort, and we all had a great day.

So now you're all caught up on my weekends. In other news, as some of you may have seen I was recently placed in my internship, which officially starts the first week of March. I'll be working with the Initiative for Sports and Social Arts (ISSA) a really grassroots-level Kibera community-based organization (CBO - you all are learning so much development-speak!) that focuses on youth mobilization and civic engagement. Luckily for me, 'youth' in Kenya is defined as people between the ages of 18 and 35, so no dealing with screaming school kids for me. I've been to visit ISSA's office a couple times now, and I'm super excited to start doing some hands-on work for them. The organization is pretty small but filled with really energetic, passionate, and dynamic guys with great ideas who are sometimes in need of a little push to get organized - this should work perfectly for me! I'm not entirely sure what kinds of projects I'll be working on yet, but I'm really excited to start, and I'm psyched I get to work right in Kibera rather than in a more formal office setting. The time I've spent with the ISSA guys so far has been great, so it should be a fantastic two months.

Finally, Nairobi is amazing. Now that the initial "oh my gosh I'm in Africa!" shock has worn off, I'm really learning to love the city. I haven't really found the right words to describe it yet, but the city really is an entity unto itself. It has this amazing energy and vibrancy (some might call it chaos) that is quickly becoming addicting. The traffic is a nightmare, people walk everywhere without thought for oncoming cars, and the drivers are the craziest I have ever seen, but there's just something so ... alive about this place that you can't help but fall for. I can already tell that going back to the "tame" streets of DC is going to be a major adjustment - you mean I can't just cross the street whenever I feel like it or drive into oncoming traffic to avoid a traffic jam? No sarcasm intended, it's great. I'm starting to come to terms with things like my two-hour (one way!) commute to USIU every Monday and Wednesday, and now that I've started to sit back and enjoy what's in front of me, I'm really loving the city. Every day I find something new that makes me laugh or smile or gasp in outright astonishment, and I couldn't be happier to be here.

Below are some pictures from my last two weekend trips - enjoy! : )

One of the cool rock formations Hell's Gate is known for.

This is the giraffe who kept following us as we walked - so cute!

Oh, hey, zebras. : )

Starting out on our "nature walk" (read: hike). We had to literally cling to this tree to cross the water.

The terrifying suspension bridge we crossed!

The glass factory's very pretty, quaint courtyard.

Masai Lodge, aka paradise!