Tuesday, 18 December 2007

“On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, six giant elephants . . .”

We woke up and packed our things for another drive, this time we drove to Samburu Game Park, where we will stay for two nights. Although Clay had read that this area of Kenya is not as pretty as others, more desolate and brown, and less-traveled, we found it green and flowering. The rains had come, and Cosmos told us it only takes a little to make everything really flower. While it was pretty, he warned us it may be harder to spot animals because they had more places to hide and didn’t have to travel all the way to central water sources since water was more abundant.

Going on game drives is addictive, it’s like playing the lottery or gambling. You never know when you might see something amazing. Nate’s been saying for ages that he really wants to see a “takedown”, which is an animal chasing down its prey and killing it. While I found this disgusting, as we bounce over the rutted roads and scan the horizon, I find the excitement mounting. I long to watch a cheetah dash after a gazelle or a pride of lions stalk an impala. A lion could be watching from just beyond that bush, you never know. And so we go back out with renewed enthusiasm, once in the early morning and once in the afternoon, to see what we can find.

I love the elephants, they are amazing with their big, flapping ears and their flexible trunks. We’ve come across several babies with their mothers, they are really cute for something so big. One of them played with our jeep, challenging us by stomping the ground and shaking his head. Giant Mama’s, their tusks poking menacingly from their lips, approach our car and then pass by. Cosmos told us they have a lot of blood circulating through their ears, and by flapping them they cool down that blood which then circulates through their body and keeps them cooler.

The giraffes are also amazing. They lumber along on their giant legs, looking all gawky, and when they bend down to drink they are downright comical. Their front legs splay out as they get their heads low enough to drink without going too far below their heart. Cosmos explained how if a giraffe ever falls over, it immediately dies because the brain explodes. Something about how the heart pumps the blood up the neck. 

There are animals here called gerenuks that looked like long-necked deer, they stand on their hind legs to reach the tall branches of bushes. The dik-diks look so fragile, no bigger than a dog and legs so spindly, it’s amazing they ever survive. They are jumpy little guys, they live their entire lives on the watch for predators. I would be jumpy, too. Their speed and their ability to run right through bushes and hide inside are the only things that save them. They mate for life so we either see two together or three if they have a child. The oryx and gazelle are beautiful, graceful and fast and dignified.

There are baboons that congregate near a river where the water is red from the clay it runs through. They eat and play and dig in the sand to make their own fresh water. Babies cling to their mama’s tummies when they are younger, then hop on their backs when they get a little older. Nate said their bottoms look like they are made out of plastic, and he’s right. They are shiny and hard and sometimes bright red. The mongoose run across the road like little squirrels. Termite mounds dot the landscape, they look like giant sand castles and often fool us. We scream “Stop!” to our driver and he stops to locate what we thought was a lion, only to discover it was another termite mound.

Clay delights in marking off the animals we’ve seen in our animal guide book, and our check marks are mounting. I won’t even begin to name all the birds we’ve seen, hawks and eagles, brilliant yellow-chested birds, birds with bright red marks when their wings are spread, and a “common” starling with wings the color of an iridescent blue beetle. We’ve seen a few crocodiles, and Cosmos told us a horrifying story of a man who  videoed a crocodile eating a baby hippo. The baby hippo was just standing there when a giant croc came out of the water and its jaws snapped on the poor hippo and chopped it in half. So maybe I don’t want to see a “takedown”.

Our tents are similar to the ones we had in Sweetwaters, but this time we have to be sure and zip and tie them any time we leave, because of the monkeys. They lurk just beyond the porch, waiting for a chance to get inside and wreak havoc. At mealtimes a man dressed in his traditional tribal clothes wields a sling shot for any monkey who dares to enter the open air dining area. He can also make a mean monkey sound, scaring them off. They are vervet monkeys, and they are very cute, but I don’t want to share my meal with one. Alayna does, but Cosmos told her “no way”, they are aggressive and real pests.

That evening, a small genet cat was curled in the rafters, quietly watching us eat, it’s yellow eyes gleaming. It wasn’t shy of the flash from our cameras, and I hope it found some scraps somewhere. It was smaller than a lot of house cats, and looked pretty harmless, but I didn’t get a look at its claws. Cosmos entertained us with stories of past clients, and the experiences he’s had as a guide. He says he’s seen fifteen “kills” in the fifteen years he’s been a guide, so we don’t know if a takedown is in the cards for Nate, but we can always hope. Like I said, it’s like the lottery, and we’re totally addicted.


Wednesday, 19 December 2007

“On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, seven jumping warriors . . .”

We were given the option of visiting a local Samburu village after our morning game drive this morning, and after talking to Cosmos about some of the things we might see so we could prepare the kids (teenage boys who get circumcised must show everyone they see that the deed has been accomplished, women go bare chested, and many of the kids would have flies on their faces, Cosmos said he could talk to the village elder about the bare chests and circumcisions before we walked through so we could be spared), we decided to go.

It was an experience I don’t think we’ll ever forget. I had grilled Cosmos on the reality of all this, I was skeptical that these people would be for real. Did they wear Nike t-shirts and just change real quick when tourists came along? He assured us this is the way they have lived all their lives, they choose to live this way. He said many of them are actually very rich, they may have a herd with a thousand cattle, and each cow is worth $300. They choose to live the way they have because it is their heritage. He said he’s been to the village very early with no tourists, and he finds them doing exactly what they do when tourists arrive. Living their lives in a way so different from what we know, it’s staggering.

We approached in our jeep to see a crowd of villagers in traditional dress gathered together to greet us. Behind them was the village, a series of little huts so humble I wondered if they could really be houses. It was a little intimidating to approach this group of brightly dressed Samburu people. We were introduced to the elder and a teenage boy that would be our guide through the village. The elder had already been paid as part of our tour, Cosmos said they generally get about $40 per person and that tourists are actually an important source of income.

An old woman approached me with a circle of beaded necklaces, fastened them on my neck and took my hand. She led me to a group of already dancing villagers, they were hopping from one foot to another, grunting, and thrusting their chests forward. Alayna had been nabbed, and Rachel and her mom, and even Nate. Poor Benji had been spared and he stayed close to his daddy. He did not know what to think about all this and was a little scared I think. Some of the men would jump straight up into the air without bending their knees, it was amazing how high they could get just using their feet and calves to propel them up. I found myself looking at the whole scene in a detached sort of way. I was in the middle of Kenya, holding a little old woman’s hand, and chest thrusting with strangers, a large beaded necklace around my neck. It was a very strange feeling.

Once the dance was done, the women smiled and gathered together to regard the newest tourists to their village. We tried to talk, pointing to each other’s kids and smiling, asking their ages and their names. Then they bid us goodbye and James began to lead us through the village. The necklaces remained around our necks, and we had been warned that at the end of our visit we would be shuttled through the women’s “market”, where we would return the necklaces and be given a hard sell to buy jewelry and other handicrafts they had made. It was nice knowing going into it that a hard sell would be a part of it all, we could steel ourselves and decide ahead of time exactly what we wanted to do. We had decided we’d give a donation to the village, to go towards their school, and wait and see at the market.

First James showed us how they make their houses, “they” being the women. When a woman is married it is her job to construct the house. The houses are circular, consisting of sticks tied together with strips of bark from the acacia tree. Then a plaster of cow manure is applied to the inside to make walls, and a roof of plastic and cardboard is added to the top to keep out the rain. As he talked, a woman (she looked like a young girl, actually) arrived and dumped a fresh pile of cow dung from a plastic container onto the ground. She ignored us, and I wondered if she was embarrassed or indifferent. She held her head high, as did most of the women in the village, her back erect. These are hard working women. Not only do they make the houses, they make the pens for the goats, prepare all the meals, take care of the children and still find time to create handicrafts to sell to tourists.

We encountered many children as we walked from little house to little house. They would run up and slap our hands, giving us a high five. Some of the younger ones held little bits of sweet potato, they all smiled and looked happy to see us. They wore bits and pieces of clothes, t-shirts and skirts, and some of the little boys just had little shirts and no pants. I saw one woman sitting under the shade of a tree, bathing her baby in a tiny plastic tub. Puppies slept alongside the goats, James told us they help protect them at night. He said if lions come near the camp at night, the dogs warn them, all the men wake up and light fires around the camp to scare the animals off.

Alayna gave one little boy the rubber band she had been wearing around her wrist to hold her hair up, and he was very pleased. Alayna is good at making friends, she met several girls her own age, and though they spoke little English they exchanged smiles and talked as well as they could. We went inside one of the completed huts, where a small pit was dug for a cooking fire, and a partition divided it into the kitchen and the sleeping quarters. These consisted of animal hides laid on the ground to sleep on top of. It had been cold the night before, and I wondered how they all kept warm at night. From the walls hung various containers, one of them held blood. James told us their main diet consists of milk, blood, and meat.

Cosmos had told us that their livelihood is livestock, cows and goats and sheep. Their entire lives center around these, from their diet to their dowry. We saw some baby goats, and a woman hacking away at thorny acacia branches to create an enclosure for them. The men were nearby, dancing and talking and hanging out. I definitely think the women get the raw end of the deal around here. The father decides who the daughter will marry, and men can have up to three wives. James said often the second wife who is brought in becomes a buddy for the first wife, I can imagine some lonely girl married to a man she doesn’t love may actually appreciate having someone she can confide in and live alongside. It is such a different, foreign way of thinking, and I was sad for the young women I saw, slopping cow dung onto the sides of their houses and holding their heads proud as they went about their many tasks.

Some of the boys did another dance for us, jumping with their straight legs, and then one of them came and showed us how to make fire with two sticks. They would crumble donkey or elephant dung (because unlike cows, they don’t digest their food completely) in a small pile, lay one of the sticks across the dried dung, then take the other stick and begin rubbing it between their palms with a pointed end boring down into the stick on the dung. After just a couple minutes there was smoke, then a tiny flame, they tended it carefully and the dung burst into a small fire. The kids all had a try, and discovered it was a lot harder than it looked.

Once our tour was done, we were taken to the “market”. Ahead of us were two long lines of women sitting on the ground, their wares spread out on blankets in front of them. Cosmos suggested we walk all the way to the end and back before buying anything, but I was taken in by the first woman in line, and ended up getting a couple bracelets from her. Alayna got a bracelet from one of the girls she met earlier, and as we hustled down the lines, smiling and saying “no thanks” with gritted teeth to all the wailing women we didn’t purchase from, I was followed by a several woman pushing things into my hands. I ended up with a little wooden statue of a family, we were out of money, and beat it to the car. These people are hard bargainers and persistent saleswomen, egads. The experience was cool, but we wished it didn’t have to end that way.

We got back to our lodge and played around, swam in the pool, and the kids did some bead crafts before the next game drive. Generally we do a game drive in the morning, somewhere between 6:30 and 8, and then another one at 4pm. This game drive was exciting because we finally saw some lions. Along the way we saw a Grevy’s zebra, standing all by himself in the middle of a dusty patch, posing for the jeeps that passed by. The Grevy zebra has more stripes than the regular zebra, and is more rare. We saw some more baboons in a big group playing, and a monitor lizard along the riverside, side by side with the baboons, its dark tongue flicking in and out.

But the lions, they were the star attraction. The jeeps all have little CB radios, and the drivers in the area keep in touch with each other, informing where the big cats and more elusive creatures are discovered. Not all drivers are on the same frequency, and we hadn’t gotten any news by radio. We went to a lookout point in the park, and while taking some pictures Clay noticed four or five cars all together on the road, a sure sign of something big. We headed down, and soon spotted three female lions by the side of the road. They were big and powerful, and a little disdainful as they regarded us with their yellow eyes. One of them actually walked right beside our car, we got some great pictures.

Soon, we were among seventeen other jeeps, as well as a big brown bus with college kids hanging out the windows. It was pretty comical, really, all of us trying to get a good look and a decent picture. The lions couldn’t have cared less about us. They crossed the road, walking along, not giving us any notice it seemed. Our driver was great, he cut out of the line and looped around so we could approach from the front. Just as we turned onto the road where the lions had been, we saw them. Three females, stately and dignified, walking side by side down the road towards us, followed by that overstuffed bus and the other sixteen cars. It was a lion parade, a circus, and still the lions seemed not to care.

We were required to be back at the lodge by 6:30, and our driver had to leave before anything more exciting happened. We were pretty disappointed, there was a small herd of gazelles nearby and one of the lions seemed to be stalking them. Our driver, who knows way more than we do, said the hunt may not happen for hours, as the lions slowly get closer and even then they probably wouldn’t be fast enough to catch a gazelle. They would have to be smart, and lucky, to eat that night. Nate had told me earlier that day that he prayed to God that he would see a takedown, “if it’s your will, I really, really want to see a takedown,” he explained. I had a little talk with God that afternoon, “please honor Nate’s child-like faith” I prayed, as we bounced down the rutted dirt roads.

But, no takedown this day. We saw some beautiful animals, and our desire to see more has not been quelled. After dinner the kids watched a movie at the lodge, a documentary, about a lion that adopted a baby oryx.  Samburu actually made international news when this happened, it was so against the laws of nature for a lion to do this. I’m always looking for new ideas for children’s books, but unfortunately this one didn’t have such a great ending. The first oryx she adopted was killed and eaten by a male lion, the second died of starvation because the lioness had taken it from its mother and the baby couldn’t eat. She adopted a couple more times, each time ending in tragedy.

Finally, the last adopted baby oryx was taken from her to a conservation area, since the rangers knew it wouldn’t survive among the other female lions. What an ending! Even Clay was slightly horrified when the woman filming the documentary caught the oryx being eaten by the other lions on film. “I can’t believe it ended this way,” the reporter said. Neither could we. What a bedtime story! Maybe that movie could count as Nate’s take-down. When we went to bed that night, Nate prayed, “God, even though I didn’t see that takedown, I thank you for the lions.” I love his heart.