Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Woman Alone - Part 2

 Last week I wrote about travelling alone. I wanted to continue that thought, with some conclusions.  I had five days on the coast near Mombassa before leaving Kenya.  During those five days, I was loathe to leave the comfort of my resort unless I had an excursion planned with my trusted taxi driver, Dennis, at the helm.
I didn’t want to stroll the beach, because the beach had men trying to sell souveniers or trying to get me to take an excursion with them (snorkeling, camel ride, jet skiing, etc.). And my resort wasn’t without pestering by staff, either.  I had one waiter who informed me the third day (I had asked him the first day about what the dinner buffet entailed) that he had the evening off and maybe I’d like to do something with him.  He asked a couple of times and I turned him down.

Another night, one of the chefs serving asked where I was from and when I said Canada he asked if I could help him get to Canada.  These two guys seemed more aggressive than the fellows I chatted to while on safari.  But the most persistent was the guide I had at Bombolulu Village.  He went through the usual questions… where did I live, am I married, how many children, how many brothers and sisters, what kind of job do I do… and then strongly hinted that maybe I could invite him to Canada.  When I ignored that, he repeated it again and also asked for my email address.  I said no, he wasn’t getting my email address.  Then, when he showed me the various huts, he talked about in one hut people got naked before they had medical treatment.  When he showed me the Swahili master bedroom he demonstrated how the camel bed swayed to enhance having sex.  He definitely had sex on the brain.  I was relieved when I got back to the taxi and had Dennis drive me back to the resort. 

I had plenty of time to ponder why the personal questions.  I was getting hit on multiple times a day, and this is NOT NORMAL for me!  I had developed a theory, but needed it verified. Dennis, my taxi driver, was just the guy to do it. Why Dennis?  Well, beside the fact that he was friendly and hadn’t actually hit on me, I felt I could trust him. 
At some point early in my stay, we talked about Christianity and he told me he was a Christian.  When I said I was too, it made him very happy.  Then he told me about his church and how his life had changed since becoming a Christian.  The remaining excursions I had with him, he played Christian music videos in his car, instead of the African folk.  Also, when I asked if he could take me to the airport on Sunday he said it depended on what time, because he would be busy all morning at church.  When I said it was late afternoon, he said he could manage that.  He suggested that I could pray in my room on Sunday since I wasn’t going to church.

Anyway, my point being that I thought I could get an honest answer from him.   En route to the airport I mentioned how the kitchen staff and men on the beach asked all these questions and asked him why they did that.  He verified my theory – which was that the men are basically out to seduce western women.  Their plan was to get the woman to take them back to their home country so they can have a new life.  It didn’t matter whether they were married in Kenya, they’d still take off.  There were lots of these types of men, who were dishonest and according to Dennis, more often than not got into trouble in their new country.
He asked if I had noticed the number of white women on the beach with a black male partner.  I had.  He said this is what the men were doing.  What I don’t get is why women would go along with it.  You’re in Africa, for crying out loud, where AIDS is still prevalent.  Why start a beach romance with some guy who might have a new partner every week.  Doesn’t sound very smart to me!

In keeping with this topic, here’s a billboard I took a photo of.  Seemed to fit into this blog post.

I am glad to be home, where I can walk the sea shore in peace and don’t have all the unwanted advances.  And even better, I don’t have to barter for my purchases in the stores!  I’m back in my cultural comfort zone.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Feeding the Giraffes at Haller Park - September 28, 2013

I had a fun excursion Saturday afternoon at Haller Park.  It used to be a quarry but in 1971 they began the process to turn it into a private reserve – demonstrating environmental management.  Upon arriving at the gates, I saw four Rothchild giraffes grazing on the trees.  There was also a giant tortoise mowing the grass.  He’s just a teenager – only about 100 years old.

As with most other attractions, once I paid my admission there were guides to provide information.  My guide, Angus, took us around to the reptile gardens, the fishery, and then to the various feedings.  For 50 schillings (about 70 cents) I got a bag of food pellets to feed the giraffes.  You can see the monkeys stealing the pellets that dropped.

Giraffes have very long, narrow, tough-skinned tongues.  They are designed so that the giraffes can reach as high as possible and grab the leaves without getting too many thorns in their tongues.  The acacia trees have thorns that are about 3 inches long.  Very sharp.

This seems like a good time to mention a little giraffe trivia…

Giraffes avoid certain ‘whistling’ trees.  The trees whistle because a colony of tiny ants have built a nest in the tree and get their food from chewing into the bark – which makes it whistle.  There is a somewhat symbiotic relationship in that the tree provides food for the ants and the ants provide protection against giraffes eating the leaves.  The ants do this in two ways – if a giraffe starts eating the leaves, the ants come out in the hundreds to bite him.  But they also let off toxic fumes, which turn the giraffes off their dinner. Apparently, you can smell it from the ground.  Ultimately though, the tree dies from the ants’ endless feeding on it.

A giraffe’s heart weighs approximately 24 pounds and beats around 150 beats per minute.  It must pump blood at twice the human blood pressure to ensure it reaches all the way to the head.  They also have elastic skin around the legs which prevents blood from pooling in them.

When a male lion wants to kill a giraffe he lies in wait at the watering hole.  When the giraffe is drinking his front legs are spread wide and his neck is downwards.  The male lion will pounce on its neck, and if my safari guide is to be believed, the blood pressure can make the head explode.

The legs of a giraffe are about 6.6 feet tall.  They can gallop at 60 km/hour for short periods of time.

Having fed the giraffes, we moved on to the hippo feeding.  No group participation here, just watching as two hippos emerge from the swamp to eat the food pellets laid down by an employee.  And the monkeys were around to steal the food here, as well.  Wow, are hippos huge beasts.  Despite their short feet, they can run up to 32 km/hr. They are responsible for the most deaths by a wild animal in Kenya.  They are grazers – they don’t eat you – they just trample all over you if you’re in the way or if you spook them.

Hippos, by the way, spend a lot of their day in the water because they don’t have sweat glands.  They use the water or mud to keep them cool.  At night, they come out of the water to graze.

The last stop was to watch a crocodile feeding. They bring a few small pieces of meat for the crocs to eat, but the main feeding is once a month.  Crocodiles can go up to 5 years without eating.  They can live for 80-100 years.

While waiting for feeding time, I was able to photograph a weaver by his nest.  I had seen these nests dangling from trees like Christmas ornaments throughout my trip, but didn’t get a close up photo of the bird itself.  The male bird makes the nest and the female bird will inspect all the nests and decide which one it likes best.  Whoever is the best nest builder, he becomes her partner.  The pair will come back year after year, do some home renovations and then lay eggs and raise their young.

I was also able to get a photo of an African Baobab tree, otherwise known as the upside-down tree (especially if there are no leaves on it).  It has a massive trunk – this one is about 30 years old.

Two other creatures I was able to photograph was this red dragon fly and the agamas lizard.  He's a vivid red and blue.
And here are a few more cute animal pictures.  The first is a baby waterbuck, the second is a vervet monkey family, and with the third, I really like this little one's pose.   He looks so innocent, but he's a rascal!

This was a great little excursion to end my stay in Kenya. 

Mombassa highlights

I had a successful trip to Mombassa on Friday.  Dennis, my taxi driver, took me to Mombassa.  He told me to keep all my belongings in the back until we got to our destination as the suburb we were going through was known for thieves reaching into the window and snatching anything on your lap.  Oh goodie...

We parked in the secure grounds of the Castle Royal Hotel - which I think is from the early 1900s.  It looks very colonial in nature.

From the hotel, we met Atwar, my official guide for the city.  He was very friendly and informative.  He was telling me about natural remedies - like taking the leaves from the Nim tree and making a tea with it to cure malaria.  The Nim tree has quinine in it.

Dennis had told him I wanted to get some spices and some souveniers as well as see the old town.  So off Atwar and I went to explore.  I was shown through a Hindu temple.  And then we went to the fish market.  There were only two fish left, but the market had a great view of the bay which we didn't have to pay for.  Next door, we would have had to pay.

We went through the streets leading to the markets.  Individuals would set up shop on the sides of the alley but there were also proper shops and the market buildings.  Atwar took me to a proper spice shop.  The owner there showed me all his spices, and let me take a sniff of each one, explaining the different types of curries, peppers, etc.  It was very interesting and no-pressure.  I bought lots of spices to take home.
This is what pilau looks like ground and unground.

The vegetable markets were next - and there were lots of sellers, selling various fruit.  There were Kenyan bananas but also red bananas from Zanzibar (more expensive of course).  I also learned there were three types of passion fruit.  I've had the fruit a few times since I've been here and have also had passion fruit juice for breakfast most mornings.

Beyond the vegetable markets was the meat market.  Lots of sellers here, too.  Atwar showed me the camel stalls.  Very tasty, he said.

The last market we went to was the textile market.  Atwar took me to a shop where he said I could find good cloth.  I forget the name of the cloth that people wrap around their legs as skirts of that the Masaii people use for clothing.  It's either thin cotton or wool.  We could use it as a shawls, skirt, tablecloth or wall hanging.  I skipped the traditional African stripes and asked to see any of the animal ones.  He came back with about ten and I chose a few as gifts.

We made our way to Old Town then, to get a view of the giant elephant tusks on Moi Avenue - the main street in Mombassa, named after the second prime minister.  The tusks aren't real tusks, but still look impressive.

We stopped at a quality souvenier shop so that I could buy some wooden animal carvings as well as one in malachite.  A gorgeous green marbled stone.  I had seen a couple of them on my travels and thought they were quite beautiful and would go well with my elephant figurine collection.  One place we stopped at while on safari, the guy tried to sell it to me for $200.  I declined - told him I only wanted to pay about $20.  He wouldn't take less than $100 for it.  So I was prepared to pay around $50 for one in Mombassa - we settled for $55.

We walked to Fort Jesus, built by the Portuguese in 1593.  "Very big on outside, very small on inside," Atwar said.  "Free to see outside, pay to see inside."  So we saw one wall and went back to the hotel.  Worked for me.

Back at the Castle Hotel, I had a chance to rest with a cold bottled water before meeting with Dennis again and getting back into the hot vehicle.

Dennis made sure we left the city centre before 2pm when the muslims finished their prayers.  He said one of the terrorists was killed in Mombassa yesterday (not true, we found out the next day) and he expected protests in the streets after the prayers were finished.  He said the muslims protest about many things. 

I had wanted to visit a cultural village where I could see the traditional huts of various tribes.  Dennis told me not to go to the one that was closest to my hotel (it had just the huts) but to go to Bombolulu
Workshops and Cultural Centre instead.  It was along the way, but in addition to the huts, they also had various workshops which employed people with disabilities.

I saw various huts.  This one is one of three huts that served as the tribal equivalent of a hospital.  One small hut held the medicines (herbs, etc), this one was the treatment centre, and the third was a consultation hut.

The last dwelling I saw was for the Swahilis.  They had fewer and larger, cement houses as opposed to small but many twig or sod huts of the other tribes.  Here's the entrance...

But what I found more interesting were the workshops.  They had workshops for horticulture, leather work, jewelry, textiles, woodworks, and my favourite - for mobility aids.  At the mobility aids workshop they build wheelchairs and hand cycles.  They cost $195 each.  Several of the workers had their own cycles, and the back seat cushion would say who donated them.  Apparently Oxfam purchases many of the wheelchairs and hand cycles to give to people with mobility issues in other third world and developing world countries.  It is a good business for the centre.

The tour was finished by watching four native dances (I was the sole audience) and a visit to the gift shop.

Dennis took me back to my hotel where I relaxed for the evening.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Woman Alone - Part 1

Two days ago...
When I first let people know that I was going on a solo trip to Kenya to go on a safari one of the comments I frequently heard was that I was ‘so brave’.  The first day of my safari the married woman in my van asked how I liked travelling alone.  I told her it was my first real big trip alone so I wasn’t sure.

I tried to mitigate the dangers as much as possible.  I decided against finding my own accommodation in Nairobi and tootling around on my own for a few days and instead had my tour company pick me up from the airport and bring me to their preferred hotel.  It was a lot more expensive, but more safe and less stressful.

While on safari, the only thought I had to being brave and safe was making sure I stored my money, passport and cameras in the safe while I was sleeping at night.  During the day, my camera bag with my cash and documents was with me at all times.  Who’s going to take it while sitting in a jeep in the middle of a game reserve?  Well, the babboons might, but they won’t commit credit card fraud.

The hotels were in the middle of nowhere and the staff were highly educated people (a job requirement, apparently).  There were porters and security all over the place.  At night, we would get escorted to our rooms because it was dark and you never knew if a hyena was lingering on the grounds.  (As an aside, I went to two hyena feedings and none showed up.  The only hyenas I saw were in the middle of the day, basking in the sunshine sleeping the day away.)

But in Bamburi (North Mombassa), I often question what is being brave?  Is it being out in a dangerous place?  Is it interacting with the locals?  Is it accepting and overcoming cultural differences?

Kenyans love to barter.  I hate it – mostly because I am very bad at it.  I feel guilty offering half of what they are asking.  The guide books say that they will give a price based on what they think they can get out of you.  Our safari driver/guide said if the ask for 1500 shillings, offer them 750 and then go from there.  I’m still not very good at it, but have now done it a few times. 
When I walk along the beach and the hawkers call out to me, I pretend I don’t hear them and keep walking.  Or if they come right up to me I say ‘no, thank you’.  And occasionally I actually have a conversation with them. 

They start by asking where I am from.  Is this my first time to Kenya?  Did I go on safari?  Would I like to go on safari?  And I become more wary when they ask if I am married, how many children I have, how many siblings. 

This happened while on safari, too.  I’d be sitting outside my hut working on my laptop before supper and one of the employees came by to turn on the lights in front of each hut as sunset was nearing.  He stopped and visited for about 10 minutes asking similar questions.  One of the ladies I shared my van with later said I was being hit on.  Perhaps.  But what motivation did he have in asking these questions?  What could he get from me?  Nothing.  He seemed genuinely interested and we had a good discussion about marriage and families.  In Kenya, he told me, men only get married to have children.  What happens if you don’t have children, I ask.  Then we both go to doctor to fix it so we can have children.

I find asking them personal questions back certainly helps curb some of their questions.  One of the fellows on the boat today asked if I was married.  I said no.  I asked him if he was.  No, he said, Kenyan wives are very expensive.  Dowry, he adds.  So, in Masai Mara the man must give 10 cows for a dowry, I say.  If you live in the city and don’t have cows, what do you give for a dowry?  Money, he replies.  Lots of money.

I reason that if you’ve already paid for something, the questions tend to be harmless.  They are just interested.  However, if you haven’t bought anything, they are looking for a hook in which to draw you in.  Whether it be for an excursion, souveniers, or sex.  I was warned that in Mombassa, it is not safe for tourists to be out at night.  And if going from a restaurant to the hotel to get a cab.  I had also been warned that with all the tourists, it is a place where black men solicit white women for sex.  And black women do the same for men.  I haven’t been asked outright, but one of the waiters in my hotel’s restaurant informed me this morning (I spoke with him briefly yesterday about the dinner menu) that he had the evening off and perhaps we could go out and do something.  I declined.

It is taking a toll, and making me reluctant to explore much.  Having said that, I think I’ve found a way to get around it all.  The taxi driver who picked me up at the airport was very friendly and non-aggressive.  He and I had talked about different places to see here.  I said I had wanted to see a forest, and he offered to take me on two different excursions – about 80km away and costing over $100 each.  I told him I wanted something close and that someone recommended Haller Park which was very close to where I was staying.  I’d go there instead.  But we did agree for him to take me to Mombassa for the day tomorrow.  I’m paying $40 for a day’s taxi service and he will accompany me to all the sites I go to.  He isn’t allowed to be a tour guide for the city and I’d have to go without a guide or hire one. 

I’ve learned that once a Kenyan is beside me, the others don’t bother me.  So, $40 is a fair price to pay for not only the taxi but for the chance of not being bothered much.  I like that he can take me to where I want to go (like the post office, spice market and local museum) and not have to figure things out for myself.

Another bonus is when the men pester me on the beach to go on excursions, I can tell them that I am all booked up.  Every day is booked so I have no time for more.  Not quite true, but close enough.

So, where was I going with this?  Oh yes, how do I like travelling alone?  I think being alone makes me a bigger target in this environment, so in that way, I don’t like it.  But I don’t think it would be a problem in North America or Europe.

There was a guy in my safari van who was travelling alone.  He’s been to 70 countries and prefers travelling alone.  He doesn’t have to worry about other peoples’ likes and dislikes, and can go where he wants when he wants.  I should have asked him if the Kenyan women ask if he’s married and how many children he has.  He could afford 10 cows, I’m sure!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

I found Nemo!

I went snorkeling this afternoon, and yes, I found Nemo and a few of his friends.
Here’s the glass-bottomed boat I went on.  Let me tell you how that happened…

Snorkelling was the one thing I wanted to do while here in Bamburi/Mombassa.  I arrived late yesterday afternoon and checked with the front desk about how one can arrange a snorkeling excursion.  They told me they could arrange a full day package for $140 which included snorkeling, all the crab I wanted to eat, drinks and a club at the end of the day.  When I explained I only wanted a trip for a couple of hours and didn’t eat crab or go clubbing he said there was no other package he could offer.  He then said I could have it for $110.  It still wasn’t something I wanted to do.
I decided to go for a walk on the beach and after passing about a dozen hawkers trying to sell their wares, I went to one of the resorts along the beach for refuge and something to eat.  I chatted to the waiter and told him that I wanted to go snorkeling, but my hotel could only arrange full day excursions.  He said he would call his friend who does excursions and his friend would talk to me about where he could take me and then we could arrange a price.

Turns out that each hotel deals with certain outfits and my hotel just dealt with the outfit that did full day jaunts.  A couple minutes later a guy walks up the steps and the waiter introduces him as his friend.  Kassim showed me his boat users licence with his photo ID, pointed out his glass-bottomed boat and then told me where we would go in the Wildlife Service’s Marine Park.  I had in mind a price I wanted to pay and with very little bartering we agreed on 3200 shillings (about $40).  Seemed a fair price to me.  I paid a deposit and we agreed to meet the next day at 2pm.

When I arrived for my tour today, Kassim and I settled up and he took me to the boat.  We waited a bit for another tourist who never showed up and then my trip began.  It was just me and two Kenyans who were his employees.
One of the two stayed on the boat and the second came into the water with me for a while to show me the corals and point out different types of fish.  The one on the boat would throw food into the water so there would be lots of fish near the boat.

The water was comfortably warm – like bathwater when it has cooled off and it’s time to think about getting out.  I was telling the guys that where I live one wears a wet suit like a diver because the water is so cold.  This also led to comparing various sea life.  They have red starfish and blue starfish.  Here’s a red one.

I think we have a much larger selection of starfish back home.  But we have similar types of anemones and sea urchins.  And their fish are more colourful.  One that really intrigued me was this one – with it’s yellow fin and pink/blue side fins.  Its body shimmered like a rainbow.  Anyone know what it is?

I think I probably saw a dozen different types of fish including the trumpet fish which are long and skinny like the body of a trumpet, and some electric blue ones that were about 3 inches long.  There were a few schools of fish that hung around beneath the boat.

When I was taking pictures of the fish near the surface and they fed the fish, the guy must have put some right in front of me because all of a sudden I could feel the fish jostling around me to get to the food.  It was a bit startling, but very cool to see.

In case you were wondering, the sharks stay on the other side of the reef – the deep side.  I was in the area between the reef and the shore.  And such a nice shore it is.

I am really impressed with my Olympus Tough camera which is what I used to take my pictures under water.  It took clear pictures, the zoom worked well and the best part – it didn’t spring a leak.  Which means I can use it again!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Masai Mara Game Reserve - Day 1

It’s been a long day – with lots of goods and bads in it.

Bad:  Woke up with a sore throat.
Good:  Hasn’t gotten worse and don’t have any other real flu/cold symptoms.   The lodge I am at tonight have Strepsils to soothe my throat.

Bad:  Saw a farmer’s cow run on to the highway in front of us and it was hit by a truck.
Good:  It wasn’t us who hit it.  As an aside, the government is trying to discourage the cattle herders from letting the animals roam near the highways.  If an animals runs into a vehicle, the driver of the vehicle is legally required to stop and get the herder’s information.  He is then required to take him to court to get the vehicle repair costs back from the herder.

Bad:  Took about five hours to drive to our lodge near the Masai Mara Game Reserve.
Good:  Only the last 2 hours were the worst washboard I had ever experienced.  They’ve had lots of rain recently so parts were washed out, ruts could be over 1 foot deep.

Bad:  It started raining as we reached the game reserve, which meant we had to keep the roof on most of the time. Several of the windows wouldn’t open properly so the vehicle got foggy inside.  It made it more difficult to get pictures.
Good:  More rain means less dust which makes it easier for seeing things and also maintaining the camera.
Bad:  The rain made the animals want to stay dry and under cover so we didn’t see as many as on a sunny day.  Wildebeests, zebras and a few other animals just stand still with their butts facing the direction of the rain and wait it out.  These wildebeests were looking pretty wet.

Good:  We saw two of the ‘big five’ – the cape buffalo and lions.  Another vehicle had spotted the first two male lions, but I was the first one in the convoy to spot the lioness out in the distance.  Our driver went off the main path to get closer so we had the best views before the other vehicles followed.  There were probably about 20 vans - it was quite the traffic jam.

Apparently the only time safari vehicles are allowed to go off-roading is if a lion is sighted.  After all, they want to give the tourists what they came for.  The lion is usually highest on most people’s list.  If a vehicle is caught off-roading in all other circumstances, they are fined 10,000 Kenyan Shillings – about $130 US.

I was very glad we were able to get close to the lions.  Here's one of the males...

And here's the lioness.
Also saw lots of wildebeest (several hundred anyway, several Plains zebras, Thompson gazelles, Grant’s gazelles, dik-diks, impalas and vultures.
Bad:  Got a little wet on the ride, but enjoyed the lightening in the distance. 
Good:  Were able to come back to our comfortable lodge for a fabulous dinner.  The buffet meals are amazing – so much to eat.  Had some amazingly good grilled beef today – the marinade was awesome.

Time to get to sleep.  I drew the mosquito netting around my bed before I went for the 4-6:30pm game drive in case we didn’t get back before sunset.  Got one mosquito bite yesterday in Nairobi – none today.  One of my fellow passengers was saying that Kenya is trying to persuade the CDC to change their ruling and list Kenya as a malaria free zone.  Supposedly none of the mosquitos in the country carry malaria.  Good to know.  Still taking the anti-malarial tablets, though!