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...)