Monday, 24 December 2007

“On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, twelve paddles dipping . . .”

I felt right at home at our hotel this morning. From the window in our room, I looked over a bundle of bougainvillea to see a lake in the distance. We got the kids up at 6, so we’d have plenty of time to open gifts before breakfast and our morning canoe ride. Nate was already up when I went next door, Alayna jumped right out of bed, and so did Benji, whose hair was sticking up just like always. I love that poof.

We scurried back to our room and the kids were so excited to see the tiny table and cubby under the TV all laid out with presents. They ripped off the paper just like back home, and were so excited about all their new things. I think we could have given them rubber bands and twist ties and they would have been elated, it’s just fun for them to have some different things to play with. Alayna got a ball of yarn from the boys, and her eyes gleamed with the anticipation of finger weaving again. We ate chocolate before breakfast, which just seems like the right thing to do after opening Christmas presents, and then headed to breakfast, where we were once again serenaded by Dolly and her Christmas songs.

After breakfast, we all got into some canoes and went for a spin on the lake which the hotel borders. It is a small lake, formed from a crater, but is surrounded by all sorts of trees that harbor interesting birds. We saw a monitor lizard sunning itself on a log, a lizard swimming through the water, and some papyrus growing just like it did back in Egypt. It was gratifying to see that Alayna recognized it after seeing it so many times in Egypt. Benji even found a chameleon on the path that led to the lake, and he’s convinced that’s what he wants for a pet when he gets home. I’m trying to convince him that they are endangered and wouldn’t make good pets. I have no idea if this is true, but it sounds good.

After the canoe ride, we hung out for a while in the sunshine, waiting for lunch. Walter came by with gifts for the kids, bracelets and wooden animals, a large piece of fabric for Alayna to wear as a skirt, and three very large, heavy, metal trucks that look just like the safari jeeps we’ll be riding in. We’ll definitely need to be making a shipment home when we get back to Nairobi! The kids were overjoyed at their luck, presents twice in one day!  We heard Dolly one more time while we ate our buffet lunch, then loaded up to drive to the crater. The boys played their new DS games on the way, while Alayna greedily began gobbling up her new book.

As we drove through Arusha to get out of town, we saw more women carrying heavy things on their heads. We passed men, sometimes three of them, pulling wooden carts uphill. These carts had two rubber tires on the back, and were loaded down with all sorts of things, from bags of flour to plastic chairs and bike tires. We passed long lines of people waiting in lines at ATMs, it’s the end of the month and Christmas is tomorrow. There are presents to be bought, Walter said mostly clothes for the kids. We took a road out of town that starts in Cape Town, in South Africa, and continues on all the way to Cairo in Egypt. A route 66 of Africa.

As we drove, we passed a Masai market. The Masai people have lived here a very long time, the Samburu people that we visited back in Kenya actually split off from this tribe. Both our guides have talked about tribes, people here still identify themselves with their tribe, they know that language (each tribe has its own), plus Swahili, plus English, and sometimes more. I am once again humbled. These Masai dress in bright colors, mostly purple and red. There were crowds everywhere, vegetables and clothes spread out on blankets as everyone milled about. Men stood with their arms around each other, these tough warriors showing great affection for each other. They wear sandals made from recycled tires, tough rubber for all the walking they do herding their cattle, tough enough to withstand the sharp acacia spikes.

A city “bus” pulled up full of people from the city. It was the size of a large minivan, and must have held more than twenty people, sitting on each other’s laps and hanging out the windows. When it stopped, people disembarked by climbing out the windows. It must have been very hot and sweaty in there, and I was thankful for our nice van with a seat for each person, even though it may qualify us as slightly wimpy tourists. Along the way I had noticed the word “Tigo” printed on many buildings, and asked Walter what this meant. It turned out it was an ad for a mobile phone company. We were passing through the tiniest of towns, and yet the mobile phone has become very important in this region, it is much more reliable than the land lines. Even the Masai men can be seen, as they travel with their cattle across barren savannahs in their traditional dress, communicating with each other by mobile phone.

Further on, a Masai giraffe crossed the road, its giant feet on the blacktop pavement looked strange. It began loping as it got to the other side. Giraffes are awkward creatures, they look like they are running in slow motion even though I know they are moving very quickly. We passed many termite mounds. To me, these look like giant sand castles in the middle of the savannah.

After a long drive, we finally arrived in the Ngorongoro Crater. Our first view took my breath away, it is a huge crater formed by a collapsed volcano. A caldera. Looking down into it, the trees were tiny dots and we could see clear to the other side. As we drove around the rim to our camp, it looked almost tropical with lush vegetation growing everywhere. Our camp was amazing. It was a mobile tented camp, so the tents were a bit more rustic than the ones we had been staying in, but still a giant leap from real roughing-it camping. We were greeted by a staff of ten, and our family plus Rachel’s were the only families present!

A Christmas tree blinked from the dining room, the men brought our luggage to our tents and explained that we needed to wait three minutes between flushing, and if we wanted a hot shower we needed to let him know so he could put the water into the bucket at the back of the tent. While I felt totally uncomfortable having so many people at our disposal, I rejoiced in the beautiful surroundings we would be blessed with for Christmas Eve.

Before dinner we surprised the kids with a teensy, tiny, less-than-twelve-inches-tall Christmas tree that we’ve been lugging around since Germany. We adorned it with teensy, tiny Christmas ornaments, Rachel and her parents helped us deck the tree, and then we all gathered around and sang songs like “Deck the Halls” and “O Christmas Tree” out of tune. We hung Clay’s REI socks with care, in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there, then headed to dinner.

What a feast! The staff was so sweet, they created a wonderful dinner to celebrate Christmas Eve. Corn on the cob, roast duck, sausage, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and vegetables, I felt like this more than made up for the pizza dinner we had for Thanksgiving. Clay plugged his computer in and we listened to Vince Guaraldi while the tree behind us twinkled, and soft candlelight lit the table. It was a beautiful night, Benji eventually fell asleep on my lap, and we took all the tired kids back to their tent for bed. He roused up so we could all recite the first 19 verses of Luke 2 together. We’ve been memorizing them for months, looking forward to saying them together on Christmas Eve.

We were reminded of that tiny baby, born on a starry night. Reminded of the angels visiting the shepherds. It was easy to imagine, in the middle of the African countryside, what a dark, starry night must have been like. We ended with the verse,  “But Mary treasured up all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” What an awesome thing, to ponder the birth of our Savior in our hearts. We dug out the tiny silver nativity set Alayna got back in England, and set it up next to our tiny tree. I fell asleep with a hot water bottle at my feet and the words to “Oh Holy Night” ringing in my head.


Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Santa came! He filled those REI socks up with little treats and goodies, and then he hung stockings on the outside of the tent as well, filled with all sorts of African things like an ivory elephant and statues of tall, skinny African men (the staff here thought of everything!). Throughout this entire safari trip we’ve been lavished with gifts, from the hats we got back in Kenya, to the colorful scarves on our beds in the tent, three large metal trucks that look just like our safari truck, and then some amazing little toys Walter made for the kids out of wire and cloth. They are either birds with wings that flap when you push them, or men whose legs pump on bicycles when you push them. He is really talented, and got a kick out of watching the kids pushing their toys all over the camp.

We had our breakfast, I passed off some laundry that Pascal assured me would be done by the men who had nothing to do while we were gone, and then we descended into the crater for our one and only game drive there. We saw a serval cat and stopped to watch it play with a mouse, just like a house cat would. Pascal pointed out some yellow fruits that are used to treat ringworm. You just squeeze the fruit on the ring for a few days and it goes away. I’m hoping we won’t need to make use of this little fruit. We noticed an interesting pink flower that grew at intervals, pink and droopy, called a pyjama lily. It looked just like flowing pajamas, but it seemed strange to see lilies in the same territory as elephants and lions.

We passed a group of baboons eating with their babies either clinging to their mother’s belly, or riding on her back like a cowboy. Not twenty feet away were hyenas, jackals and vultures, eating the carcass of a recent kill. This is so different than I thought it would be. I always imagined that when a kill happened, everyone scatters. If a lion appeared on the scene, there would be nothing in sight. Not so. Often a lazy lion lounges not far from a herd of antelope that seem undisturbed. Nature is all mixed up with each other, things are not cut and dry. There are all sorts of scenarios, animal soap operas, and we can only guess at what is going on.

An exciting moment towards the end of the morning drive happened when we encountered two female lions, two one-year-old cubs, and five much younger cubs. It got exciting when a male lion appeared on the scene. This male lion was not accepted by the females, he was not part of their pride, and so he posed a serious threat. Often, these males will come along, kill all the cubs, and then impregnate the female to have his own litter and establish his superiority. The female growled at the male, hissed, her ears laid back on her head. The male growled back. They faced off. The male lay down on the road behind our car, keeping a close eye on the females and their cubs. The cubs came dancing out of some high reeds, gamboled around their mother and siblings for awhile, and then ran back to the cover of the tall reeds. The females didn’t take their eyes off the male, and every once in a while one of them growled a deep, throaty growl, full of power and menace. We couldn’t stick around to watch the final outcome, the guides said it may last until nightfall, so we reluctantly left.

We found lunch waiting for us under a grove of trees. The camp staff had dragged a table, linens, chairs, an elegant picnic, all to meet us in the crater for Christmas lunch (were these the same guys who were washing our underwear back at camp?). It was beautiful, although again, I was a little sheepish as I looked over my shoulder and saw some other people eating their lunch from boxes perched on their knees. The kids finished up and kicked a soccer ball around with Walter, while big, fat rain drops began to plop down on us. We hurried up and finished, and made it into the cars right as it really began pouring.

We headed out of the crater and back to camp. The rain shower was brief and it was sunny when we returned. I asked one of the staff if we could have a few hot showers and we all got ourselves cleaned up. The water smelled like a campfire as it trickled out of the tiny spigot. I got in and the water was very cold at first, then a man’s voice, right on the other side of the thin canvas wall, said, “Excuse me? Hot water, just a moment,” and then as I dashed to get a towel to cover up I saw him climbing a ladder to dump the hot water into an elevated bucket. Apparently this shower worked by gravity! I saw him through a canvas window at the top portion of the shower. I felt just a little exposed, but it was worth it to get clean!

The rain had stopped by the time we were out and Nate dug out our deflated football and began teaching the staff how to play American football. Clay and the kids scuffled around while I hooked up in the dining room and wrote some journals. As I typed, an elephant began trumpeting. It sounded close. Then what sounded like a lion’s low grunt followed the trumpet. I forgot to mention another important difference with our camp. It’s not fenced. There is a Masai warrior with his spear, but that’s about it as far as protection goes, animals are free to wander in and out.

We all huddled up and watched two elephants duke it out on a hill across the way. They were mad and powerful. It turned out that lion sound was actually coming from the elephants as well, and I pondered what would happen if they headed our way. Our Masai warrior, with his spear and rubber boots, would be no match for a rogue elephant. The fight ended, and I went back to my computer. After a few minutes two Masai men caught my eye. They were both carrying spears, and they leapt at each other right outside the tent where I was sitting. Then I heard the low hum of singing, and knew we were in for some sort of performance.

I grabbed a seat by the campfire along with the others, and we all watched the men as they jumped high into the air, one man singing in a high-pitched voice and the girls singing along as well. The girls wore wide, white beaded necklaces around their necks and they bobbed their shoulders to make the necklaces wobble. Most of the girls were very young, maybe eight to fourteen years old, and a few were so shy. At one point they were each supposed to go into the middle of the circle on their own and wobble their necklace by shaking very fast, and one girl did it for just a second and then smiled and covered her face and moved back into line. It was so sweet to see this young girl’s personality, I can imagine Alayna would have been the same way in similar circumstances.

The men took turns jumping very high, and at one point the song changed, and at intervals different groups of guys would charge at us, stopping just short and yelling before going back to the circle. What should your reaction be when a Masai warrior advances and yells at you? Nate giggled every time, and I always shrunk back a little in my chair. These guys used to kill lions as a rite of passage into manhood.

The Masai people live mainly in the Ngorongoro area, and have permission to water their cattle in the crater, so we saw many of them along the road as we drove back to our tent earlier that afternoon. Most of them were very young boys in bright red and purple scarves, herding large cattle. All of these people are very thin, but strong. These dancers had walked from a nearby village, and as they finished we clapped and they danced their way back into the trees behind our tents. Alayna had grabbed some of the candy from our stocking earlier in the day, and she ran after them and gave the girls some candy. One of the girls gave Alayna a necklace and bracelet in return, and they all giggled as they hurried off.

We sat around the campfire after they had gone, savoring some roasted cashews and a glass of red wine, talking about kids and game drives and things back home. The kids got filthy playing football, no matter how hard we scrubbed we couldn’t get all the dirt off their hands before dinner. Once again, the cook outdid himself with a scrumptious Christmas dinner. I’m not sure when things go back to normal beanie weenies and white bread camping fare, we lucked out with our time here. He even made a cake, way out in the middle of nowhere. As Alayna stood in line for some barbecue, a giant dung beetle crawled across her foot. Alayna, who picks up lizards and bugs no problem, freaked out when she felt it crawling across her bare toes. It was really was huge. It was black and looked like it would really crunch if you stepped on it.

The guides told us some funny stories as we ate. About the time a wildebeest ran through Pascal’s tent, or the time a huge lizard ran up the sleeve on Walter’s shirt (Walter does not like lizards). Nate is always waiting for his chance to tell a story, they are usually long and involved. At one point Alayna, Benji, and Rachel fell asleep, so Nate pulled his chair up to the adult end of the table so he could be in on the action. Earlier, Walter had told him they had marshmallows they could toast, so after awhile Walter and Nate went to do some toasting while the rest of us summoned up the energy to get up and get to bed. When Alayna woke up, she wanted to toast some marshmallow, too. She even toasted one for groggy Benji.

I couldn’t have picked a better place to celebrate Christmas if it had to be anywhere but home. We missed home, we missed our family and our traditions, but to see the full moon rise up over the tents, to hear the elephants trumpeting across the hill, it is something we will never forget.