Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Another Week, Another Work Trip: Kisumu and Amagoro

This is the blog post equivalent of a "#latergram", because I actually went on this trip months ago but only just now got around to documenting it. I was fortunate enough to join my colleague last-minute on a weekend trip to Kisumu (a short flight from Nairobi) and Amagoro (a 3-hour-ish drive from Kisumu). Just check out the amazing view from our hotel:

This is one of the best parts of my job. I first had the opportunity to meet with Muslim women leaders, who shared some of their triumphs and challenges. Talking to Kenyans has taught me so much about what's going on here. I'm glad I have so many opportunities to get out of the office and have these important conversations.

The Kenyan students I've met are also generally extraordinarily bright, driven, and kind. The kids we met on this trip are either part of our English language programs or peace clubs we helped fund. There was more demand for our support than we could possibly supply, but those we have supported in limited ways are making a big difference in their communities.

I'll have to try and come back sometime for a proper vacation, as I'd love to eat fresh fish by that beautiful lake in the first photo I only admired from a distance this time. I don't think I'll ever get tired of exploring Kenya!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Lion Kisses, Meerkats, & More

I already covered our trip to Johannesburg (Joburg), South Africa more broadly in an earlier post, but I wanted to devote a new entry to our last-minute trip to the famous Lion & Safari Park. We went with several colleagues, who had travelled to South Africa from Egypt, Turkey, the Philippines, and Kuwait.

After having been on a full, weekend-long safari in Kenya, I'll admit our expectations for Johannesburg's Lion & Safari Park weren't exactly sky-high. We signed up for an hour-long game drive through the park, a private session with a few lion cubs, and a self-guided stroll through some caged exhibits.

The game drive was much less authentic than what we experienced in Kenya, as the park was fenced in, the vehicle had grates instead of being open-air, and the animals were partially fed by the park management. (You can see the buildings and fences in the background of the photo above.) At the same time, we did have a few unique sightings, including white lions, wild dogs, and racing ostriches.

My favorite animal from the safari, though, was this friendly giraffe with no boundaries whatsoever:

Our driver was kind enough to give us special treatment and let us even get out of the safari truck to hang out with our giraffe friend. Isn't he/she (I didn't take note) beautiful?

Then, we were taken to a pen with two baby lion cubs that acted just like big house cats. The ranger explained that the two cubs had been abandoned by their inexperienced mother in the park, so they chose to remove them from the pride and now they are virtually domesticated. They loved having visitors pet them and shower them with attention. We even enjoyed a few lion kisses - definitely the highlight of the whole trip to the park! (All we had to do was breathe into their nostrils to get a kiss.)

After that, we had the chance to view a few of the rarer animals in caged exhibits, including one of my favorites: meerkats! We then wrapped up our visit with a walk through the park's many and varied gift shops. I found this amazing cinnamon-infused lion pillow that now fills our guest bedroom with its delicious scent. Overall, I'm glad we decided to join this excursion.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Week in Joburg

We recently returned from a week-long trip to South Africa! No, we didn't go to Cape Town. I was there for work, so we ended up sticking around Johannesburg (Joburg) the whole time. Although Joburg isn't exactly the hottest tourist destination in South Africa, we had an amazing trip. (How gorgeous are those purple jacaranda trees pictured above? They were in full bloom during our visit!)

There were quite a few things there that reminded us of home that we didn't even realize we had missed in Kenya. The streets all had signs! The malls looked like the ones back home! I had a pumpkin spice creme frappuccino, for crying out loud!

Our first full day in Johannesburg, I got to visit the LDS Temple there. The only LDS Temples in Africa right now are in South Africa and Ghana, but one is on the way in Nairobi. (Unfortunately, it won't be finished until we're long gone!) Needless to say, I didn't think I'd be lucky enough to visit a Temple so soon into my tour, but I was very grateful.

Then, we took a "free" walking tour of the city. We usually try to take free walking tours whenever we travel - though the reason why I put "free" in quotes is because visitors are expected to tip. All the tour operators' money is made through tips, which is great because you can pay what you thought the tour was worth and it makes the tour accessible to those who can't afford traditional tours. (Most places I've been, they also seem to make decent salaries only doing a few tours a day.)

Although we covered a lot of interesting ground on our walking tour (see statue honoring women freedom fighters above and Nelson Mandela art below), we're not sure we'd recommend it for others in Johannesburg specifically. I think we could've gotten as much out of it content-wise by doing a self-guided tour. Our guide also spent less time focusing on history and culture than I would've liked and talked a lot about buildings (and squatters). It might've been better for a real urban planning enthusiast instead.

It is worth mentioning, though, that much of downtown Johannesburg isn't that safe. In that context, it was good to be with a local guide who knew the area (and told us when to hide our phones and other valuables) and to be in a group. By the end of our trip, we had spent more time in Sandton (a city on the outskirts of Joburg) than downtown. At least we enjoyed the view of this amazing, huge statue of Nelson Mandela in Nelson Mandela Square every day (while playing Pokemon Go).

I do wish we had had more time to explore the museums and historical sites of Johannesburg. My favorite parts of our walking tour were the historical stops. For example, a shop had kept its old segregation signs displayed above it as a reminder of how things used to be.

I should also mention the two of us went a little crazy with the food. We were very stereotypical Americans and made sure to devour American foods we can't get in Nairobi, like this Krispy Kreme right next to a Cinnabon:

Just look at that gooey iced cinnamon bun...

...and the perfectly seasonal selection of donuts:

In our defense, we also got a little adventurous and tried ostrich (which tasted more like red meat than poultry):

We also had koeksisters, which is a South African dessert of twisted fried dough in syrup:

Delicious! (Or as they would say in Kiswahili, "Tamu!") Anyway, this post is long enough as is, so I'll save our trip to the famous Lion & Safari Park for a separate post. (There may have been lion cub kisses...)

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

How to Visit a Maasai Village

I already blogged about the rest of our safari trip to the Maasai Mara here, but I wanted to devote a separate post to our visit to a Maasai village. Most Maasai Mara safari camps will allow you to add on a visit to a nearby village for a small fee.

At first, we and our friends on the trip weren't sure if we should go. We didn't want the villagers to feel like they were being exploited or that we were treating our visit to their village like a trip to the zoo. In the end, we decided to take the plunge and see for ourselves how the visit worked. (We were also pushed over the edge by the knowledge that the fee we paid for the visit would go to support the artisans, entrepreneurs, and schoolchildren of that village.)

Once we visited the village of about 100 people, we asked many what they thought of the visits. They unanimously agreed the visits were good. They said it helped them keep their traditional practices alive and made them proud to share their culture with others. They also said the financial support from the visits and accompanying markets (more on that to come) were a major source of income for the villagers.

We were welcomed with traditional songs and dances. Then, the men showed off their jumping skills. Maasai men are legendary jumpers, which explains why you'll see t-shirts in Nairobi saying things such as, "JUMP HIGH LIKE A MAASAI."

We also learned that the traditional Maasai diet consists mainly of raw meat, milk, and blood. Yes, blood. I think our American digestive systems would just shut down and surrender if we tried Maasai food! They were also very traditional with gender roles. They laughed at the idea of a woman working outside of the home or a man cooking or cleaning. They thought that was ridiculous.

My favorite part of the visit was when the young men showed us the traditional method of starting a fire. They rubbed a piece of bamboo in a piece of wood really fast for a few minutes to generate a huge amount of heat. They stood in a circle so that when one guy's arms got tired, the guy next to him could take over. They used dried elephant dung, which is full of dry grass, almost like charcoal. It was amazing watching it start to smoke from the friction of the wood alone. When I think of starting fires, I usually think of tinder and kindling or at least some type of spark, so seeing it done this way was fascinating.

We were greeted by the children of the village, who were so happy to see us and touch our hands that it warmed our hearts. They kept asking us our names over and over again and telling us theirs. A note to the traveler (that several others have mentioned) is that it's totally normal for these children to have dirt, snot, and flies on their faces. The ones we saw didn't even blink with flies around their eyes. It was surprising to us, but ordinary for them.

We were also shown the inside of a village house, which used plastic on the roof to keep out the rain but was otherwise constructed with the traditional sticks and mud/dung. It was honestly a difficult part of the trip for us, because it had more cockroaches and ants than any of us had ever seen filling the small sleeping area. Considering this was our only visit, I'm not sure how representative that particular house was, but it certainly looked recently lived in and used.

Right after that, we were brought to a market area where the village artisans had spread out their wares on the ground. This is the part that many visitors complain about the most, because by Western standards the vendors are very pushy. It reminded me of being back at the Maasai Market in Nairobi. Even though all visitors pay an entrance fee, there's a lot of pressure to shell out more cash for jewelry, home goods, fabrics, and other products. They might even put necklaces or fabrics on you and then tell you to buy them (which happened to me with the necklace pictured below).

I felt okay about it because I went in with that expectation, brought extra cash, and wanted to support the community. At the same time, I had learned a few Kiswahili bargaining words (e.g., "ghali sana!" for "very expensive!" and "punguza" for "lower (the price)") and was determined to get a better deal this time. Although I paid more than I thought I should for the bowl and necklace I purchased (pictured below), the villagers insisted I shouldn't pay any lower because of "who I am." (I miss fixed prices, but when in Kenya...)

In the end, I was glad we did the Maasai village visit but probably would not do it a second time, personally. As far as supporting the community goes, there are thankfully countless opportunities across Kenya for us to do that.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Dear Fellow Americans: Please STEP Up

We're traveling this week, so we did something we do for every international trip we take: we registered in STEP. This post is a brief plea to U.S. citizens and nationals: please sign up for STEP when you travel (or even move) to a country outside the United States.

STEP stands for "Smart Traveller Enrollment Program". It's a free online registration that allows for a few things: it lets your nearest Embassy or Consulate know you're there. It helps them send you any security messages, warnings, alerts, or updates that you should know while you're there. Most importantly, it helps your representatives abroad (and your loved ones back home) contact you in case of an emergency.

Although I haven't done Consular work yet, I know from my personal experience that STEP makes a difference. I have received key security information through STEP in my travels through Oman, France, and even now in Kenya. If you don't sign up, you simply miss out on those helpful updates.

I've also heard the heartbreaking stories from my colleagues of many unnecessary hours or even days in a crisis situation desperately trying to contact someone who hadn't provided any information through STEP that would've helped connect them with the Embassy (and their frantic family) sooner.

This system exists to help, serve, and protect you. (The peace of mind alone is enough to make any trip more enjoyable!) I hope you (like us) find it's well worth the few minutes it takes to register, every time.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Real Safari Experience (and Most Photo-Heavy Post Yet)

We just got back from our first real safari - a long weekend at the famous Maasai Mara (the Mara)! On the recommendation of friends and colleagues, we stayed at Sentinel Mara Camp, which was fantastic. We were told Sentinel was different from other camps, but because this was our first safari we didn't really have a point of comparison.

A few of the things that supposedly make the Sentinel camp stand out included canvas tents for accommodation (see a communal lounge tent above and our sink inside our tent below), an intimate vibe with only seven tents in our camp, the stunning location on the Mara river in full view of hippos and other wildlife, amazing three-course dinners, and extraordinary eco-friendliness (e.g., solar powered rooms, conserved water, reusable bottles, etc). The way a staff member described it was that you could take a photo of the camp in black-and-white and it would look like it was from the 1950s. We definitely agreed.

To even get to the camp, we had to take a tiny local airplane (inside pictured below) from a tiny local airport in Nairobi to a dirt airstrip in the Mara. It was a noisy, sweaty, and bumpy ride, but we thankfully made it all in one piece.

The best part of our trip, of course, were the game drives. I want to preface this part of the post by confirming that neither of us even own a real camera. All of the pictures posted here were taken with an average smartphone. I'm sure I would have taken even more and better photos with a higher quality camera, but the fact that I have these pictures just highlights how close we were and how many opportunities we had.

We knew we were going to have plenty of luck when we saw several lions just on our way from the airstrip to the camp. We were shocked how close our car was able to get to the lions, and the lions didn't seem to care at all. First we saw this handsome fellow:

And then we saw this pair just taking a cuddly nap in the shade - first spooning, then facing each other:

We later learned that the animals in the park generally perceive the safari truck as one giant animal and choose not to bother it if it doesn't bother them. That's also why it is very important not to get out of the car during a safari, because then you're no longer seen as part of a massive whole but a tastier, tinier individual. That explained why we were even able to get a close-up to a lioness feasting on her fresh kill (as we watched a hyena run away with that kill's baby). Talk about the circle of life!

While talking about lions, I have to give a special shout-out to Blackie (who features in the first photo of this post). Blackie is a well-known lion who earned his nickname as a result of his distinctive, two-toned mane. He was spending some time with a lioness, and they decided to demonstrate the other part of the circle of life for us.

We also found the elusive rhino, thought it wasn't easy. The rockiest, most uncomfortable part of the game drive was spent stalking this majestic creature:

Needless to say, it was worth it. Our guide was a skilled spotter and driver, and we saw things in two days that other groups couldn't find after two weeks of searching. We learned that leopard sightings, in particular, are quite rare - so imagine our surprise when we saw three leopards on one drive!

We also spotted a crocodile hanging out among the many hippos in the river. This was very cool for me, as I was very afraid of crocodiles when I was young. This was definitely the first time I saw one that could actually hurt me out in the wild, but thankfully I was far away and high up on a cliff above the river. I will admit we didn't get too close to the edge, though.

Some sightings that felt really special involved the cutest baby animals, often sticking with their mothers. For example, we caught this monkey baby clinging tightly to its protective mom:

This teeny giraffe stood next to what I assumed was its mom, which was convenient as a reference point for how much growing this baby has left to do:

Plus, we saw a newborn baby elephant our guide estimated was only a day old. I just can't get over that little trunk! We also learned that this type of elephant has a gestation period of 22 months, which made us feel even luckier to have seen this baby.

Even all these photos were just a sampling of what we saw. We got to see waterbucks, wildebeest, many birds, all types of what a friend called "skippy jumpy brown things" like gazelles and topi, and more. We saw every animal we wanted this time - except the cheetah. It's probably for the best that we have something left to try and find the next time we visit... perhaps during the famous wildebeest migration.

This post is long enough as is, so I'll save our visit to a traditional Maasai village (which we booked as part of our Mara trip) for a separate entry. Isn't Kenya amazing?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Taste of Korea... in Kenya?

What better way to spend a weeknight than enjoying a free Korea Festival in Nairobi? The festival was organized by the Korean Embassy in Nairobi and the Korea Foundation and made for a really fun date night.

South Korea has a larger presence in Kenya than we would have expected. You can major in Korea Studies at the University of Nairobi, and the program is pretty popular if the number of Kenyan students at the festival was any guide. We even met a few students who had studied abroad in Korea or had trips planned. (The photo below is of us hanging out with some Canadian diplomats and Kenyan students of Korean.)

So how was the event? It was delightful! We started with drinks and Korean bites. Yes, I had authentic kimbap that tasted just like what I would eat back home!

Then, we enjoyed a fantastic performance by DASRUM, an all-female traditional Korean music ensemble. The crowd couldn't get enough of the song, dance, and instruments - proving that traditional music isn't dead. (You can listen to a sample of their sound here.) They also wore hanbok - beautiful traditional Korean dress.

They played a range of traditional instruments, including gayageum (string instrument), haegeum (two-stringed instrument), ajaeng (another string instrument), daegeum (large bamboo flute), piri (tiny reed flute), taepyeongso (trumpet-like), janggu (hourglass-shaped drum), and kkwaenggwari (looks like a little gong, sounds more like a cymbal).

They were also joined at certain points by a male Korean traditional dancer and by a Kenyan musician. The dancer (pictured above) was wearing a hat with a long ribbon attached to it, a performance called sangmo dolligi. The crowd went wild when the Kenyan and Korean musicians jammed together. It was quite the show, and I hope it's not our last in Nairobi!