Friday, December 29, 2017

At the Top of the Ngong Hills

For anyone who has seen the classic film "Out of Africa," it's hard to forget Meryl Streep's recurring line as Karen Blixen: "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills." Well, we finally hiked the Ngong Hills - all seven of them (though it seemed like many more than seven)! You can tell the photo above was taken at the beginning of the hike, because neither of us is limping or drenched in sweat or sunburnt.

We paid a small entrance fee and then booked a security guard, which is recommended because of the potential threat of both wild animals and thieves. Fortunately, we came across neither, but it was nice to have the peace of mind that came with a guard.

The hills were fairly windy, so it made sense that they had windmills. These are the first I've seen in Kenya. The landscape was generally amazing, especially because it had been raining enough in the preceding weeks for the hills to be beautifully verdant.

Seriously, the views made the whole three-hour hike worth it. Even though we went on a Saturday, it wasn't crowded at all, either. We even had plenty of options to choose from for our hilltop picnic.

It's easy to see why churchgoers come to the Ngong Hills to worship. We even saw a group of worshippers beating a large drum, singing praises, reciting scriptures, and dancing their way across the hills together while we were there. What was most impressive was that even older members of the party and those without proper shoes or even some barefoot participants happily joined the hike! I was blown away by their strength and faith.

Hiking Ngong Hills was definitely a special experience that I would recommend to anyone in Nairobi who loves nature and a good workout! Thanks to our dear friend R, who made this day out his last request before leaving Kenya.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Christmas in Ethiopia

Okay, the title of this post is a bit misleading, as I learned that Ethiopia celebrates Christmas in January! (They also have 13 months in a year, and their calendar is about seven years behind ours! Isn't that cool?)

Anyway, we spent a long Christmas weekend in Ethiopia. It seemed everyone I know who has been to Ethiopia told me that one weekend is nowhere near enough, and that you need to fly to Axum or Lalibela. Although it's true that we missed many of Ethiopia's wonders this time around, we still had a chance to experience enough amazing things that I would argue the trip was entirely worth it.

We spent a day in Addis itself and visited the Red Terror Martyrs Museum, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, and the National Museum. (We didn't visit Africa's largest open-air market, called Mercado, because M gets very tense in crowded environments like that.)

The Red Terror Martyrs Museum was a true gem, and it was free. I wish there had been more of an explanation of the historical context, as it seems the exhibits assumed some knowledge of Ethiopian history. Nevertheless, I found the art depicting the pain and suffering of the Red Terror very moving. For instance, the photo above is of a painting depicting the agony of a mother whose four children were slaughtered in one day.

After that, we were off to the Holy Trinity Cathedral, which was a lovely church that looked like it could have dropped out of Europe (above). The contrast was made even more stark by the fact it was right next to another beautiful Ethiopian church in a completely different style (below).

Then, we made our final stop for the day at the National Museum. It was smaller than I expected, but I was delighted to have the chance to view the main attraction: a cast replica of the bones of none other than Lucy the Australopithecus herself! (The real bones are also stored in the museum but aren't on public display.)

When traveling in a modernized East Africa, it's easy to forget it's the location of humankind's birth. (That is, if you support the "replacement theory", also known as "African Eve", which states that humans came out of Africa and overtook near-hominids in other parts of the world. A competing theory suggests that humans evolved in multiple regions simultaneously. You can read more about the two theories here.)

We were reminded of that the next day, when we visited the ancient sites Melka Kunture, Adadi Mariam, and Tiya. Melka Kunture is an archaeological site with an attached museum sharing some of what we know about human evolution. We visited an excavated area (pictured above) that contained remnants of civilization 800,000 years ago!

Similarly, Tiya - a UNESCO World Heritage Site - contained ancient grave sites and standing tombstones that tell us a lot about our ancestors. For example, they carved swords on the tombstones to represent the number of enemies the person buried there killed. Also, Christians were buried horizontally west to east (in preparation for resurrection upon the Second Coming of Christ), while Animists were buried upright.

I was especially grateful we were able to see Adadi Mariam, the only one of the famous, Lalibela-style rock-hewn underground churches easily accessible from Addis. From far away, the church itself looked like a grassy hill. Up close, though, it was clear the rock inside the hill had been cut to form the church and stairs leading down into it.

Inside Adadi Mariam, there was a preacher delivering a sermon in Amharic that sounded beautifully musical and many worshippers were gathered there, as we went on a Sunday. We concluded that these sites are a must for history, religion, and science nerds.

We spent our last full day in Ethiopia taking a day trip to Wenchi Crater Lake, formed in a dormant volcanic crater, which was breathtaking (as you can tell from the first photo of this post)! We hiked, rode horses, and took a boat across the lake to an island monastery.

We saw all kinds of cool things, including a waterfall, actively bubbling hot springs, a traditional water mill (above), and plenty of wild horses.

Of course, we also made time for authentic Ethiopian food (and we ate properly with our hands), with a bonus of traditional music and dance performances at Yod Abyssinia. All of the performances were amazing, and it was a full house the entire time we were there. The hours flew by as tourists and locals alike drank, ate, and were merry together.

Although it was tough to spend Christmas away from family for the first time, having such a wonderful trip made it at least a little bit better.

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Beautiful Kenyan Wedding

We went to a Kenyan wedding for the first time! A big thanks to M and G for letting us be a part of their special day - just look at what a beautiful and happy couple they are!

The wedding ceremony took place in our LDS Church chapel, followed by a reception on the church grounds. The decorations were simply stunning - check out this arch and heart of rose petals at the base of the aisle:

Isn't the color scheme they chose amazing? One thing I realized probably features largely in Kenyan weddings are these fabulous, large flower arrangements. It makes sense, as many of the flowers enjoyed in the West are grown in Kenya and exported, anyway. Even the cars were decorated:

The ceremony itself was like a church meeting in some ways, with prepared talks and hymns. At the same time, the couple made it very special with their own written vows exchanged during a ring ceremony and other personal touches.

Following the ceremony, there was a fun reception outside with music, dancing, good food, and even better company. It was also, of course, beautiful. Just take a look at the cakes:

One of the coolest parts about the wedding was the mixture of modern and traditional practices. There were many elements that could be found at an American wedding: the white bridal dress, the flower girl, the cake, etc. Yet the couple (and the wedding committee of community members who led wedding planning) incorporated many cultural customs, including traditional dances and music as well as a gift-giving segment where families laid many glitzy leis around the bride's and groom's necks (as pictured in the first photo of this post).

The wedding was definitely one of the best days we've spent in Kenya so far. We're so grateful to call this couple our friends and to have been included in the celebration!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

What's a Control Officer?

Regular readers may have noticed that I haven't written an entry in a few weeks. I'm also behind on a few more posts from our Mombasa trip (but I'll just throw in the above view of the Indian Ocean from Fort Jesus here for now). That's all because I was serving as a co-Control Officer for an official visit to Kenya.

Every time a U.S. government representative travels on official business abroad, there is someone managing and coordinating the details of the visit. A Control Officer does everything from arranging airport pickup to making hotel reservations to securing important meetings to conducting the orchestra of players involved in making sure the trip is a success - finance offices, multiple modes of transportation, security, notetakers, and more. This experience has completely changed the way I look at how visits by U.S. officials overseas are covered in the news - for every mistake or gaffe, I now know there is at least one cringing, suffering Control Officer!

As an entry-level Public Diplomacy Officer (and not a Political Officer), my day-to-day work doesn't include a lot of the activities that most people associate with diplomats: government meetings, reports for Washington, negotiations, etc. The opportunity to be a Control Officer was my first taste of the work that a Political Officer would typically do.

Preparation started weeks in advance, with many conference calls with our visitors in DC to make sure we understood their schedules and what they wanted out of their visit. Meanwhile, my co-Control Officer and I worked hard in Nairobi to fill the itineraries with events that addressed their priorities and were logistically feasible.

In the end, as a more experienced officer told me, "Every schedule's a draft and everything can be adjusted." Once the trip was under way, I learned that a good Control Officer must be flexible and calm in the face of chaos, as many changes needed to be made on the fly and sometimes at literally a moment's notice.

I was very lucky in that the officials whose visit I managed were very kind and low-maintenance. I've heard quite a few horror stories from other diplomats who served as Control Officers for visitors who weren't so enjoyable to support. I was also able to accompany the visitors on many of their engagements, including meetings I never would've attended as part of my regular job here.

I can honestly say - despite the long hours and the stress - it was my pleasure to have this opportunity. I look forward to doing it again.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Mombasa: Part Kenya, Part Oman, All Swahili

We spent a long weekend in Mombasa, which I've been looking forward to since we arrived in Kenya. Others, after finding out I used to live in Oman, told me I'd be surprised at how similar it was. When the opportunity came up to head to Mombasa for a work trip, I jumped on it right away and decided to extend my stay through the weekend (M was there the whole time, and a friend joined for the weekend).

In some ways, it did share a lot of similarities with Oman: many (but not all) dressed in abayas and dishdashas, there were plenty of halwa (which seems like it's more commonly spelled halua here) and good dates, and we enjoyed what I would describe as the Arabian tea house experience:

At the same time, there were uniquely Kenyan features. We stayed at a relatively new hotel, which had some cool quirks like tabletops with designs from kanga, a traditional garment with a Swahili saying. I took photos of the sayings on the tables where we sat at some point during the trip (with my rough translations of their meanings):

"Love is a gift"

"A mother's love is the best"

"Preserve our culture"

"Kind words are better/worth more than wealth"

Oh, and there were camels right on the beach outside the hotel. It was amazing.

I had also heard there were many beautiful Hindu temples in Mombasa, so we tried to visit some of them. Unfortunately, we tried to visit in the middle of the afternoon. We tried three different temples, and they were all closed.

(Traveler tip: if you're trying to visit a Hindu temple in Mombasa, make sure you go in the morning or evening, when they'e actually open. Also, make sure the particular temple you're trying to enter is open to visitors outside of the faith, as not all are.)

At the very least, I snapped some exterior and entrance hall photos of a few temples. Even our brief visits made me realize how little I know about various Hindu sects, of which many seem to have institutions in Mombasa (and Nairobi).

This post is long enough as is, even though I haven't even begun to talk about two of Mombasa's biggest tourist attractions: Fort Jesus and Haller Park! I'll have to save those for separate posts.

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...)