The Latest in 3-D TV
That is what the billboard read as we rode the van in from the Nairobi airport to the Intercontinental Hotel after having been enroute for 23 hours. The illustration was of a flatscreen with something jumping out of the image area beyond the borders of the box.
On the drive from the airport, I had the feeling that something was burning. It reminded me of Los Angeles in the summertime before they banned incinerators. Once we were away from the airport, I realized the air was not going to get any better. It was like having an exhaust pipe going directly into the van.
In the morning, we piled into the van again. I had wanted to get a glimpse of Nairobi, but from the entrance of the hotel, all I could see were the tops of distant buildings through a haze of smoke. We drove for over an hour to the countryside where we viewed a giraffe sanctuary. They gave us handfuls of giraffe food, and from a tower, we wrapped our arms around their long necks while they munched the food out of our hands. But even here, the air was almost as bad as in downtown Nairobi, the smell of exhaust penetrating our clothes and hair.
You have to marvel at a world where they can mass-produce 3-D televisions but still not have breathable air.
Finally—Out to the Countryside
One of the biggest challenges for a trip like this is in assuming that you get value for your money. After all, it is Africa that you are visiting — the “dark continent”, deepest/darkest, etc. But when you are traveling around in your bubble and staying at luxury hotels, you could be almost anywhere. It takes a monkey crossing your path on the way to the swimming pool or a giraffe wandering into view as you sip your pre-dinner glass ofValpolicella to remind you that you actually made it all the way to the other side of the globe. With connecting flights, you’ve flown 15,000 miles to the other side of the earth to arrive in an exotic land that stands as an archetype in so many people’s minds, and now you are going to be waking up here every day for the next 3 weeks. But we find ourselves asking, “What’s a giraffe doing here in Hawaii? Must be part of the hotel entertainment.” Why is this?
Well, for one, everything is in English, this being the business language of Kenya. And although there are trucks made by Scania, most of the passenger vehicles are Japanese. And then there is our little pod — all Americans constantly jabbering about the cost of repairing their BMWs and who is going to win the NBA championship. This more than anything will probably wipe out all the visuals of garbage strewn streets mobbed with millions of lost souls wandering aimlessly and wondering how they are going to get food into their stomachs by the end of the day. Then there is our own food: something for every taste and nothing to offend anyone. It's like never having left the restaurant at the Sheraton. Again, I keep drifting back to Hawaii in my brain. When the mid-day sun is at its hottest and you get a dry breeze blowing dark clouds around you, you could just as well be there.
Maybe sensing our slide into a blasé indifference, our guide told us to meet in the lobby at 6:30 a.m. with no explanation. Once we were assembled, he proceeded to explain about corruption, the lack of major industry, and the rampant poverty. When he noted that the average Kenyan lives on about $2 per day, it brought up an objection from one of our group who harumphed, “I don’t see how anyone can live on $2 a day. That sounds like a lot of bullshit to me.” Our guide explained that you buy $2 worth of rice, cook it up, and don’t waste a single grain. The man didn’t seem convinced, but after the hour-long sermon, he went up to the guide to let him know that he was interested in learning more, hopefully in good faith.
We head south tomorrow on a long drive to another game park. I wonder — 2 weeks from now will all the wildlife preserves begin to meld in to one, or will I have become a sophisticated and knowledgeable traveller by then?
What’s That Smell?
It seems to be everywhere — stronger here, less so there. At first I thought it was open sewage ditches (and maybe that is something else that I’m smelling). But then at the Maasai village, we were invited in to one of their homes, a small clay and straw structure about 30’ x 40’. I moved to the back of the dark living room, my eyes still adjusting from the bright sunlight as I nearly missed stepping on a small fire. The smoke drifted out a small hole in the wall, but much of it backed up into the house. The young man giving us the tour pointed out that whereas we had been swarmed by flies outside, inside the house we were bug free. “To keep the flies out, we burn elephant dung. Malaria is one of our biggest health threats, and the mosquitoes hate elephant dung smoke.” It’s also a good repellent for tourists. I started eyeing my way for the nearest exit, but I had made my own trap as I was blocked by the remainder of my party.
Earlier we had walked out to the Maasai school, behind us the vista of Mt. Kilimanjaro, snow-capped and clouded on top just like the cover of a collection of short stories by Hemingway. It gets hot hot hot in the afternoon, but the mornings are cool and comfortable. The students (about 150 in all) ranged in ages from teens down to kindergarten age. Most of them adhered to the school uniform, which included a green knit sweater. Some of them seemed almost new, but most of them had one strategically-placed hole about 1/2” in diameter. The class we visited was teaching about 30 7-year-olds their multiplication tables, and like kids anywhere, they all had their own way of dealing with this daunting task: some by memorization, some by counting on their fingers, some by using carefully concealed cheat sheets, and some by asking the visiting tourists for the answers (and then money).
The women teaching the classes were dressed like women anywhere — in tailored suits of rich herringbone patterns, their hair neatly styled and in place. The Maasai dancers too were all dressed up for the occasion, but in traditional outfits, bright reds and purples against soft greens and beiges of the land. All the Maasai,so it seemed, were tall and thin, the chief, our host, being one of the tallest and thinest. Probably still in his 30s, what impresses us is his erect posture, fluent sociability, and his overall composure, which is controlled but with a kind of casual flexibility. Like the other Maasai men, he walks with a stick that seems to serve no particular purpose, wears the red windowpane cloth of the Maasai, and sandals made from tires. We pose for photo ops until we are hustled back on the bus and on to our clean and dung-free lodgings.
Crossing Into Tanzania
To get to the border going into Tanzania from Kenya, we climb up into a mountainous area. The landscape changes from arid bush country to green meadows and forested hillsides. It was rare in Kenya to see many permanent structures, but as we headed toward the border, we saw more and more houses with clay walls and, at the very least, places for windows, though they were often filled in with brick until the owners could afford the actual windows. In Kenya construction consisted of taking small Akasha tree trunks of 2-3” diameter, sticking them in the ground, then attaching corrugated sheets of metal to them and calling it “home” (or “store” or “office” or “yoga center”). The actual border town was more of your developing nation squalor, but here is the difference — whereas in Kenya the garbage was just thrown everywhere in the streets, here it was thrown in the streets and then raked into piles. This may not seem like a big difference, but I think it shows a different level of giving up. I think about American expressions such as “what ya gonna do” or “whatever” said with a shake of the head and a rolling of the eyes. If I were making souvenir t-shirts for Kenya, I think the motto should be, “Kenya, Land of Whatever.” In one town, they apparently had the wherewithal to direct the sewage to a ditch but not enough money to build a sewer pipe and system. So at a certain point, you run out of money but people still are shitting so you give a shrug and say, “Whatayagonnado.” These are words that help grease the slippery slope from the developed to the developing countries.
Although Kenya is a much wealthier nation than Tanzania, on feels like it is the other way around. Of course I guess it depends on what you consider to be wealth. You don’t see industry or factories or business offices, and they probably don’t sell a lot of 3-D televisions. But instead you see a lot of agriculture, cleaner towns, purer air, and happier people.
Of course the whole reason that we presumably are here is to see the wildlife, though the longer I continue on this journey, the less that I am convinced that this is the case. We have so far hugged giraffes, had two of them walk up to our balcony in our hotel, gone nighttime exploring by flashlight to view a hippo munching down grass, gotten within spitting distance of elephants, buffalo, zebra, wildebeests, warthogs, and waterbucks. We have seen flocks of deer-like creatures with vaguely different characteristics and watched hypnotically the motions of monkeys and baboons for clues of what our own behavior means or doesn’t as the case may be.
The 4x4s to which we have transferred have a roof that can be cranked up allowing the passengers to stand up and get a better view of the surrounding territory and of whatever creatures happen to be within view. Today Ellen and I had the front-row seats so that, if you grab hold of one of the railings and brace yourself, you can stand looking forward as the vehicle drives along. This is first cool in that the air blowing on you is a relief in the hot afternoons, and also cool in that you have a 360-degree view of the African countryside all around you and gives you the earliest opportunity to yell out when you think you see some wildlife, even though it usually turns out to be a tree stump.
Playing “find the picture-worthy animal” is a source of some competition among the group, and everyone gets very excited when we finally find something to photograph that we can e-mail back home to show that, yes, we really are in Africa and not the San Diego zoo. The other day we passed by a herd of goats, their wise faces bobbing up and down, their coats all different colors. No one said anything. After all, they were just goats. The same thing for a herd of cows — some of them rather boney and two of them seeming to be in an argument over something. Like the goats, they were apparently determined to be just meat. Somebody rose out of his seat when he thought he spotted something. As it turned out, it was just a domesticated dog. But the dog, at some point in its ancestry, had once been wild, as had the goats and the cows. In the 4x4s, when determining what is worthy of space on your camera’s memory card, it sometimes gets confusing distinguishing between what is safari wildlife versus what are pets and what is just food.
And Now, The Animals
On our bucket list for this trip was the sighting of big game cats: lions, leopards, cheetahs — we’d even settle for a tiger if we had to. We just wanted to see some large members of the feline family. Well, today was the day. A pregnant cheetah was on the move, so we followed her in our 4x4 circling one step ahead of her and parking directly in her path. If she were human, she would no doubt have been pissed off at our irritating persistence, but she seemed to shrug it off, moving around the vehicle until we maneuvered into her way again. She was apparently so comfortable with us (maybe this sort of thing happens to her a lot), she even stopped in front of us to rest and roll over, kitten-like, as if waiting for a giant ball of yarn.
The lions, four or five of them, were sacked out in the early morning sun. A cool breeze was blowing and the sun’s warmth surely felt as good on their backs as it did on our heads. They were apparently full, not thirsty, and perfectly happy lolling about, all of their needs having been met.
We are staying in tents now. You get to them by driving 3-1/2 hours out into the countryside from the Ngorongoro crater, then turning off that road and driving another 2-1/2 hours on dirt roads that are so bad, the driver frequently chooses to drive off-road. To say that it is in the middle of nowhere is to make nowhere look like Las Vegas.
Those in the hospitality business have gone a long way beyond the basic amenities when you think of the concept of tenting. The tents have separate bedrooms and bathrooms, with flush toilets, a bathtub, an outdoor shower, and a porch on which to sip cocktails. Food is buffet-style for the tourists, and they have a large enough selection for most people to be able to say that they found something that was “pretty good” with the unspoken understanding that it was pretty good for camp food.
At the last tent site, we were disappointed that the coffee tasted like instant, despite being in the middle of coffee-growing territory. At home we have our favorite brand that brews up an excellent cup of coffee, but then I’m hardly in the middle of the bush. I live in a big metropolitan area, one that used to be as primitive as this, but over the years, the supply chain got better and better to the point where if I had enough money, I could buy a building and a bed and not have to sleep on the ground among the elements. I could buy a vast variety of foods and even afford more frivolous things like artwork for the walls and music and books and computers all of which would get me more information about the world than I could ever possibly absorb. But there is a limit to how much food and wine and electronic gadgets I can utilize. At a certain point, everyone needs to just roll over in the sun and say, “Enough. I’m full and right now there is nothing better in the world than to lie on my back and doze off to sleep (unless someone should happen to toss me a ball of yarn)."
Driving out of Nairobi we pass many “towns.” These are not the kind of towns you would debateas to whether or not there was a “there” there. Like the suburbs of Los Angeles, they grew out of practicality — cheaper housing less crime, and a place where you could raise chickens. Later on in our trip we had the opportunity to see one of these towns in the process of springing up. This town’s story was that a new road had been built and now, where it intersected with another major road, created a perfect location for trucks to stop and for their drivers to freshen up or catch a few hours sleep. Everything was like the other towns we had seen with the hastily built 30’ x 40’ structures built with corrugated metal, the main difference being that the garbage had not yet had a chance to pile up to that certain level of funk that the more established towns had achieved.
This particular town was already well established with chickens, goats, and cows milling about with their human counterparts. Actually, the animals do a whole lot more milling, as many of the humans simply do not have any reason to mill. If you are not one of the literally hundreds of thousands who make the journey into the capital every day by bus or foot, then you just sort of stay put. In any of these towns, you see plenty of people sitting around, waiting, thinking, not thinking, maybe sharing the latest celebrity gossip that they have gleaned from satellite broadcasts of the E channel — it’s hard to say, but they clearly have little incentive to move. The vibe is generally one of utter chaos, the kind that comes from a place where the rules change by the nanosecond depending on what any individual wants and what they are willing to pay for it. The result is clutter, dirt, mud, disease, stench, and dust.
Although most of the structures are simple frame cubes, there is the occasional building and the even more occasional 2-story building. One such building housed a loft that was open to the street so that those of us on the bus could look directly into the living quarters of its inhabitants. Inside were neatly assembled pieces of furniture: a wardrobe, a couch, chairs and coffee table, a dining room set, and rugs; all strategically arranged for maximum feng shui. Someone had made an island of order in this traffic jam of humanity: a tiny island where reason and logic took precedence over immediate gratification; where the inhabitants could escape to a sanctuary over which they had control and in which they could live according to their own timetable. Whether it is in the outskirts of Nairobi or the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, many of us are just trying to make an environment in which we can brew our coffee to the way we like it.
Onward to the Serengeti
There is supposedly not a whole lot happing on the Serengeti this time of year. The wildebeests have moved on, as have their ever faithful and symbiotic companions the zebra. We saw them moving on, or actually flooding across “the endless plain” at times like a string of ants, at other times like one massive herd. Sometimes they would hold off before crossing the road, allowing the cars to pass, while at other times, they would be more daredevil, springing in front of cars with a prancing leap before charging off to mill about like a herd of cows. You have to wonder what all the urgency is about.
Nights are oppressively hot a muggy. It was clear all day, but now there is lightning all around our tent site. By bed time, the humidity has drained every ounce of energy from our bodies, and if we try to sit down to read, we find dreams flashing before our eyes before we have managed to finish a single sentence. But in the morning, we have forgotten about all that. It is actually cool with a slight breeze and now the warmth of the sun feels good. Everyone is energized and ready to go — especially the animals. Although they are scarce, they are lively. Two Topis are sparing with each other — butting heads, rearing up, then chasing one another around. Two giraffes were “necking,” which is to say they were intertwining their necks and rubbing up against one another causing everyone to exclaim how cute they were until our driver informed us that they were both males and were practicing fighting techniques.
I have always believed that if anything is going to happen, that it is going to happen early in the morning. That is when everything is clear and it is obvious what needs to be done, before the heat and moisture and the hundreds of challenges of the day begin to clutter the mind. Most of the animals of the Serengeti would seem to confirm this. Except for maybe the baboons. They were walking along the paths to the pool at our lodge as we slogged through the heat, hoping a dip in the cold water would revive us. The baboons, however, continued along, propelled by an infinite curiosity. The day before, one of them had broken into one of our group’s tent. When she went inside, a baboon was sitting on her dresser, going through her things as if to say: “Ooo — what’s this? This looks neat! I wonder what these are for. Maybe this would look nice on me.” Maybe we humans have the propensity to be both morning and night people. The morning is our common animal nature for getting things done while the evening is our monkey curiosity that keeps us moving.
After tromping around in the arid regions of Kenya, we moved south to another region that was drastically different. Flat was replaced by steep hills and dry was replaced by a rain forest. It was like suddenly being placed on the north shore of Kauai, except with poor people instead of investment bankers and high-techies inhabiting the huts along the way. There is always a danger of romanticizing the lives of the locals who make their livings in such places, but it is hard not to do this, since the jungle is so beautiful and it seems so aesthetically perfect when you see a farmer carrying a tethered bundle of something that looks like weeds but is hopefully a lot more valuable over his shoulder.
As we drive along the little kids come out to stand by the roadside and yell at us. “Byeeee!” or maybe they are saying, “Hiiii.” It is hard to tell since we drive along and their tiny voices fade behind us with a Doppler effect slurring their cries by a 1/4 tone. I am suspicious by nature of their cloying sweetness. Did that one just give me the finger? Did I hear one of them call us assholes? But no — they seem to be sincerely greeting us for the hell of it. After a while, I get in to waving back at them, preferring the queen’s stiff-wrested wave and tense smile. After all, how often in the U.S. can one pull off being treated like royalty. If I tried that with my fellow commuters at rush hour in Los Angeles, they would probably just step on the gas and cut me off to so as to show me who was really king (or queen).
You always wonder what these locals think of us. Granted, we are probably one of the high points in their universe of entertainment where the options are no doubt meager, so we cannot give ourselves too much credit. But to some degree, they must perceive of us as some sort of aliens from another planet with different colored skin and different clothes from a country where it is some whole other ball game. To get us to wave back, to acknowledge their existence — maybe all they want is to know that we are real and that there really are a whole lot of things outside their own villages to explore.
One of our favorite animals on safari is the humble warthog. These sturdy little fellows prance around the Serengeti like Scottish Terriers, their tails held proudly high up signaling their offspring to follow as they lead the way. Their smooth coats glisten in the sun, stretch out over their hard muscular bodies as if they were sausages packed into their skins. Actually, when you look at all the mammals on safari through binoculars, you notice the same thing: skin tautly wrapped over muscle, muscle, and more muscle — all if it just ready for action. The monkeys look cute from a distance, but up close, you realize that though they look slight, they have the power to leap 50 feet and support their body weight hour after hour of climbing and leaping through the forest. When one of them came down and swiped an apple from a picnicker, I was amazed at the speed and accuracy with which the theft occurred. She never knew what was happening until she saw the monkey in a tree devouring the fruit. Had she been conscious enough and foolish enough to resist, things could have turned ugly.
And then I look around at our tour bus. We are a species that has survived by our wits, outsourcing the need for strength and agility to machinery and collective effort through social organization. If there is an easy way out, we humans will take it. Just as every great civilization has fallen because it has reached the point of reasoning that they would like to sit back and be the financiers while they let the colonies (or the poorer countries) do the grubby work, we have so far managed to get away with not having to use our bodies to assure our survival. The consequence is a busload of floppy flabbies with all sorts of aches and complaints, hee-hawing through the plains of Africa and gorging themselves at night with enough meat to turn almost anyone into a vegetarian were they forced to slaughter and butcher their own food. Meanwhile, the lions look back at us as we watch them through our binoculars. They seemed totally unimpressed that we have 16 megapixel cameras.
My Name is Bond
James Bond. That was probably furthest from my mind when I shook hands with our pilot for the flight from the Serengeti to Arusha. But not long after I had boarded and fastened my seatbelt, my craving for a dry martini, shaken, not stirred, immediately set in, even though it was still morning when all things good happen.
Our pilot, a South African, was very proud of the craft as it was fresh off the assembly line from Kansas. A young athletic fellow with close-cropped, fair-colored hair, he had an air of military professionalism, not just as regards his responsibility as the commander of our craft, but as someone who had the rules of how to deal with clients comfortably under his control. Outwardly friendly, he carried on polite conversation while his mind was obviously focused on things that had nothing to do with the two of us.
Our group was split into two planes — one which apparently held 10 of us and the other, two, although there were another two seats in back of us that could have accommodated others. But we were the only passengers on this flight, and as we stepped inside and settled into our seats that smelled of newly installed leather, looking over the instrument panel with its endless high-tech switchboard and screen with interactive maps and green and red coded lights, I began to feel like 007, flying over the African continent from exotic destinations in the bush to another exotic destination in an African city.
From the sky, we could see how the roads we had been driving along were just a small part of the vast geography of the Serengeti. Roads with deep ruts and small gulches running across them that had sent the fillings in our teeth flying as we drove over them, looked like smooth ribbons meandering in and out of brush and rivers and trees. We flew by Ngorongoro Crater, which we had previously explored by truck. From the air, it all seemed so much more obvious what the journey had been about rather than the experience on the ground, where we went up and down hills, through forests, past resorts and villages, eventually to come to a vista of a huge valley floor — a paradise for the game that resided there, providing everything they needed without having to make huge migrations in order to survive.
Our pilot pointed the crater out to us and added something else that I could not quite make out. (Did James Bond have the same kind of problem I have with hearing? I’d like to think so.) I suspect he was pointing out Specter’s security systems with pertinent details for anyone hoping to elude them. But that was not important for me. This James Bond was on holiday and his only agenda involved buying a couple of African trinkets, not saving the free world from potential doom.