Wednesday, 26 December 2007

At 6:30 this morning we packed up, bid a fond farewell to all the men who had been so kind to us, gratefully retrieved our clean laundry (that smelled of smoke from a fire), and headed out of the crater. We had a long day of travel ahead of us, and hoped to arrive for a late lunch in the lodge in the Serengeti. We had several stops to make along the way, the first being a visit to a Masai village. We had already experienced the Samburu village, and wondered if this would be much different.

As we arrived, another safari truck was just pulling away, and I felt a little disappointment. Part of me wants to think that I am experiencing something unique and different. Getting a window into another culture that is alive and vibrant. Instead, I felt like I was entering another tourist trap. That these Masai people hang around all day waiting for tourists to come, pay a fee and watch their traditional dance, take a peek in their houses, and buy a few souvenirs. We were assigned a local guide, a teenage Masai boy that spoke English, and watched as they performed a “welcome dance”. There were more flies here than we encountered at the Samburu village, baby’s faces were covered with ten to twenty of them, climbing across their lips and eyes. Some of them waved them away, others let them crawl.

I wondered what it was like when we all left. If it felt like a big family. Did they hang around the campfire at night and talk about the crazy tourists they saw that day? Did they tell jokes and stories? Did they dance these dances any time other than when safari jeeps pulled up? Did they all head up the hill to hidden homes made of brick, with ovens and refrigerators and beds? Walter told us the reason the Masai people are so famous is because they have held on to their culture, they have insisted on living the way they have for centuries. Like being part of a special club, a chosen people, with a common history and culture. Like being a gang member, or being in a fraternity. Did they love the way they live?

There were many young children, some looked as if they were just learning how to walk, dangling from their mother’s hand when they lost their balance while their mother continued to sing away. Some of the young kids tried to mimic their moms, singing and dancing out of step, but others looked as if they were about to cry. As if they were tired of their mama’s singing and dancing and they wanted her to sit down and hold them awhile. My heart went out to these little babies, their faces covered in flies.

Pascal hurried us past the dance as another truck arrived and Japanese tourists tumbled out. We had to hurry to make it to lunch by 2. Again, I felt disappointment. This was all just a show. The village itself, the houses, were in better shape than the ones back in Samburu. They were laid out all in a circle around a giant pen that would hold the cattle at night. This pen was covered in layers of thick, fresh cow dung. Hence the flies. Our guide explained how they use the cow dung to make the walls of the houses, but unlike the plastic roofs we saw in the Samburu village, these were covered in a thick thatch that looked much sturdier.

We were invited into one of the homes, and crouched to enter the small doorway. Inside it was dark and smoky. We sat down on logs around a small cooking fire, where a big pot full of potatoes was simmering. A boy sitting inside explained this was a baby’s stew. Light streamed in like laser beams from tiny holes in the thatch roof, and a larger hole let some of the smoke from the fire escape. The kids lifted their fingers to the light, playing with the sun beams, marveling at them. Behind us were two tiny rooms, with blankets on the floor for sleeping. The entire house would have fit in one of our kids’ bedrooms. I tried to imagine what it would be like to sleep in this home. To hear everyone’s breathing so close to your own, and the sound of the cattle rustling around right outside the door.  It gets cold here, were they warm at night? I asked the boy about where they went to school, and he asked if we would like to see it.

Would I like to see it? You bet I would, this at least, would be real. We walked past baby goats and puppies, outside the wooden sticks that formed a fence around the small village, and into a simple structure. A baby goat followed us inside. There were rows of benches, and children ranging in age from four to six sat side by side. No teacher was in sight, but as if on cue, they began singing as we entered, clapping their little hands while the flies buzzed. We took a seat on one side and I just smiled and smiled at these little guys. They were adorable, in their too-big, hand-me-down shirts that hung to their knees.

When they were done singing, one little boy popped up, grabbed a pointer, and went to the blackboard at the front of the room. He pointed to each letter as each of the kids in unison pronounced it in English, with a thick Masai accent. “X” became “X-sie”, I loved it. Then they counted in unison, the boy tapping the blackboard with each number. As they counted, a young woman, maybe in her twenties, entered. On her back a baby was tied. Here was the teacher. When they had finished, the children sang another song, while the teacher smiled approvingly. She didn’t speak much English, but Walter translated to her that our kids were six, eight, and twelve. I was struck that these kids were learning some of the same things that Benji is learning this year.

There was a box on the wall with the words “School Donation” printed on it. We gladly made a small donation as we left. I don’t know what happens to that money. Does someone come and get it and buy a cow instead of using it for books or pencils? I don’t know. Am I becoming a cynic? No, I remain optimistic. If only there were a way to speak to these children, to tell them I was so proud of their hard work. We merely said, “Asante sana” (thank you very much) and smiled big smiles as we left the school building. Our guide told us the older children go to a school that is about three and a half miles away.

As we walked back towards the entrance to the village, several guys tried to get Clay to give them his watch. “No, I’ve got a lot of traveling still to do,” he replied, as we walked past rows of bracelets and necklaces and woman who looked after us with pleading eyes. It was not such a hard sell, like the Samburu village, where the woman clawed at us. It is getting easier to say “no”. I don’t know if that is good or bad, but we can’t take on any more souvenirs. With all the things we’ve received along the way, we will fill two boxes with a shipment home in Nairobi. When we started this trip, one of the things we wanted to learn was how to live with less. Accumulating so much along the way was unexpected, and sometimes unwanted, and yet here they have been gifts, and they will remind us of the people and places we have loved along the way.

After this first stop we picked up some hitchhikers. Our car was full of flies, and we kept busy shooing them out the open windows. The two biggest hazards, aside from the flies, were the dust and the dung beetles. The farther we drove, the more dry it became, and whenever a car passed going the other way we closed the windows until the dust had cleared. Giant dung beetles flew alongside the car, looking like little airplanes. One of them flew through an open window, prompting a long conversation and horrifying story about these little creatures.

We learned that while a dung beetle’s life is consumed with acquiring dung and rolling it into balls, they can’t actually eat it. They have no teeth. Fortunately, there are tiny insects that live on the necks of dung beetles, and these guys can eat the poop. So, they eat the dung, then poop it out in a liquid form that the dung beetle can then eat. If that didn’t make you lose your cookies, read this. Adam, our driver, told us that it is very dangerous to be hit in the eye with a dung beetle. That had happened to a man he knew, and the insects on the dung beetle climbed into the man’s eye, and onward into his brain, eventually killing him.

We all closed our windows whenever we saw a dung beetle after that. They really are pretty fascinating creatures. Walter said he once had a client who went on safari, but was only interested in dung beetles. Not the lions or cheetahs or anything else. They eventually found one, a particularly big specimen, and he said the man spent three hours taking pictures of it. Now that would have been a very interesting face in the street!

We drove and drove until we finally entered the Serengeti region. We pulled over at an entrance site, anyone wanting to travel from east to west must travel through this spot and register. As we were waiting we walked up a path to a lookout point.

Just as we reached the top of the hill, Clay noticed some elephants munching on leaves, just yards from us, and I realized there was nothing between us and these elephants but a few trees. I got really freaked out and was heading back down the hill with the kids while Clay tried to get some good pictures, when we met our guide Pascal, on his way up. He said in more than 30 years he had never seen elephants at that particular spot, and hurried up to see them. After watching them for a moment, he encouraged us to leave, “It really isn’t safe with the children,” he said as we hurried back down the path. Before leaving, we noticed some brilliant hot pink and purple lizards, about a foot long, called agama lizards. They were pretty amazing, their colors were so bright.

Once registered, we carried on into the Serengeti National Park, where we saw a big rock with lions hanging out on it. Some cubs were lounging on one of the rocks, it reminded me of Pride Rock in the Lion King. Under one overhang, I noticed a couple of owls, and was praised for my good eyes. Lest my ego get too big, I must confess that earlier that morning I identified several piles of poop in the road as turtles. Speaking of poop, have you ever seen an ostrich go to the bathroom? It is quite a sight to behold. We passed zebras hanging out in small groups, resting their heads on each other’s backs since they are heavy and hard to hold up on their own. We passed a topi, standing on the top of a termite mound. They like to hang out on these high places, king of the hill.

We arrived at our lodge, where we had a couple of hours to eat lunch and check out the rooms before a late afternoon game drive. This day seemed endless, and yet it’s hard to pass up a game drive. You never know what you might see. We piled into the car at 4:30, and were taken to see a large pond filled with dozens of hippos. It was a roiling mass of hippos, yawning and chuckling in deep voices, sending sprays of mist into the air from their nostrils. We enjoyed them for quite a while before we noticed a storm approaching. The sky was black and forbidding, we headed back to the hotel before it hit us. On the way, we were blessed with a rainbow, and enjoyed a Serengeti sunset on the side of the sky that was still clear.

It was a long day, we were all exhausted. Tomorrow is our last full day of game drives, before we make our journey back to Kenya and onward. The days have been long, and by the time we eat dinner and get everyone to bed, there is no time for stories. Just a quick prayer and kisses and hugs. I am looking forward to “normal” again, if there can be a normal on this trip. Looking forward to a sink I can wash clothes in, and staying in one place longer than two nights so things can dry on a laundry line. This has been an awesome safari, we could not have hoped for more. We’ve seen the “big five” and so much more. I can’t imagine what we’ll see tomorrow that will be different than what we’ve seen, but we are constantly surprised and excited by something new each time. La la salama (sleep well).


Thursday, 27 December 2007

On the morning game drive we encountered some lovebirds. Their bright green and yellow feathers made them look just like parrots, it was fun trying to spot them in trees. We also found a leopard up in a tree with its cub, and some lions, sleeping like lazy lions seem to do for most of their lives. Out in the open, perfectly aware that they are the kings of the jungle, with no real predators other than men. These lions have never known hunters, living in protected environments their whole lives. They pay us no mind, looking at us with indifferent eyes and then going back to whatever they were doing.

We had a nice, long break after the morning drive. The kids holed up in their room while Clay took a monster nap and I wrote up a ton of journal days. We didn’t check on them for two hours, and when we came to get them before the next drive, Benji said, “But we were just starting to play!” I’m glad they can entertain themselves so well, and seem to enjoy each other most of the time.

This afternoon we found more than eighteen elephants, moving together and grazing. I don’t get tired of looking at elephants, they are so huge and lumbering and friendly looking with their smiles hidden under their trunks. Impressive and a little scary when they point their tusks in our direction, their babies are adorable. Pascal explained that because elephants eat over 180 different species of plants, their dung is very useful for medicinal purposes. People will burn it and then put a towel over the fire and inhale the fumes. He swore it was a great cure for the flu or a bad headache. I don’t think I’ll be trying it anytime soon. It’s interesting, elephants do not digest their food very well, their dung is course and full of the things they have eaten. Giraffes on the other hand have four stomachs, and their dung comes out much more digested. This becomes important when selecting which dung to use for fire and which dung to use for building a house.

As we crossed a small stream, Benji spotted a crocodile while the rest of us were focused on a fish eagle in a tree eating a small fish. At first I thought the crocodile was a log, but upon closer inspection the log had eyes. Benji also had a great spot later that day. We were looking at some birds when Benji leaned out the window and saw a different bird on the ground. He got all excited, saying “Mom, I’ve seen that bird in the book, look at that bird!” I looked but didn’t see the bird. Benji insisted on looking through our guide book to see the picture he was remembering. He found it while we were still looking at our other birds, and pointed to a picture of a bird called a red-cheeked cordon bleu. “Wow, Benji,” I said, seriously doubting that he had really seen this little bird. All of a sudden Adam said, “Hey, look at that bush, that’s a red-cheeked cordon bleu!” We were all blown away, that Benji had spotted this bird, recognized it as one he had seen, and then was able to find it in the book.

Other than the red-cheeked cordon bleu, we saw nothing spectacular. No chases, no take-downs, and yet it was satisfying. We lingered over dinner, the kids played UNO with Walter, and then we headed back to the rooms to begin the process of packing up and moving on. The Davis family, nomads extraordinaire.