Monday, February 23, 2009

Transformation in Kenya

1981. I was almost 18.

My Dad's aunt and uncle were doing the Baptist missionary thing in Kenya. Dad never gave up the opportunity to take us on adventures. So off we went. Dad, his young new wife, my sister and me.

We had traveled all over Europe when I was nine, but traveling to Kenya was like going to the moon. The flight was 24 hours and when we landed in Nairobi, there were few who looked like me. I grew up in a small Midwestern farm town with no diversity. Mom and Dad did their best to incorporate people of all kinds into our lives, but nothing could match this.

We weren't part of an expensive safari tour. Uncle JZ (Texans, donchya know)and Aunt Francis directed us to some of the hot wildlife spots. Our first stop was Treetops Lodge in Aberdares. We traveled there on a bus, not a plush motorcoach, but an aging school bus. The bus dropped us off on the side of a road without a building in sight. Lodge porters took care of our luggage and instructed us to stay together. They warned that if wildlife approached us, we were to remain still. As we approached intermittent wall structures built in the middle of the forest, 'rangers' with guns scoured the area to make sure wildlife wasn't near, then would direct us to the next protective structure. Then Treetops came into view.

(There are better pictures on Google, but we took these and those that follow.)

Treetops became famous when visited in 1952 by then Princess Elizabeth. During her stay there, King George VI passed away, and she left Treetops as the new Queen of England.

Situated next to watering holes and salt licks, wildlife arrived mostly at night in full view of the hotel and guests.

The rooms were small with barred windows. We were instructed to not leave anything within a monkey arm's length to the window. Seriously. The monkeys particularly liked expensive camera equipment.

(Fuzzy monkey makes for fuzzy image)

The two places I remember most about the hotel were the roof and the floor level lookout. I don't remember sleeping. At night, the water holes were lit up and I stayed there and watched elephants, wildebeest and rhinos.

Baboons hung out on the roof as well, but we were instructed to leave them alone. They could get quite mean. (more on my interactions with baboons further in the story)

During the day when an elephant herd arrived, we went to the enclosed bunker on ground level. From there we could reach out and touch them. I remember being surprised at how much hair they had!

Next stop: Keekorok Lodge in the Masai Mara Reserve. (west of Nairobi) If it weren't for this picture, I would not remember where we stayed. Now I make a point to take pictures of the signs that say where I am. There's a phrase we use a lot in our family: "Is this the road we're on?" I feel like that much of the time.

I always encourage my own kids to keep travel journals now. There is so much that I've forgotten that I never thought I would. The pictures you see come from old brittle slides. I recently had them converted to digital. I should have done it sooner.

It was in Keekorok that we got to ride in those cool safari jeeps.


(stock photo. I was probably too chicken to get out of the Jeep to take a picture.)

The prize that everyone wants to see is the elusive lion. When one jeep finds them, they radio the others and we all descend. You can see how excited these were to see us.

I could have stayed there all day just to watch her sleeping in her element.

She'd make a good spooner, don't you think?

After a long day of wildlife viewing, we had dinner on the lodge patio. We noticed small monkeys in the trees nearby. Just moments after the waiters left rolls on our bread plates, a monkey descended and snatched my roll. Spooner=Sucker. This was my favorite picture from the entire trip.

Age has darkened the photo, so you can't see the roll in the monkey's hands. The sign that it's sitting on says "Please do not feed the monkeys." I love it when the wildlife mocks us.

We visited Masai villages where they were excited for the opportunity to sell their crafts. I still have a few of the things that I bought over twenty-five years ago.

The women were considered highly feminine if they shaved their heads. I was fascinated with their elaborate piercings to create large holes in their ears. This was before the ear gauges that you see now.

A little culture never hurt anyone. Masai Warrior Dances.

Air Jordan?

The houses were made of dung.

I guarantee there were many puns made about this hut being full of shit, etc.
Dad is all about the puns.

The Masai women were too busy to be bothered with deodorizing smelly homes. You would see them in the middle of seemingly nowhere carrying huge piles of goods on their back, often swaddling a baby....

...and shoeless.

Driving around the country, I was amazed that we would see eagles, giraffe, gazelles, wildebeest, elephants by the side of the road. These were not the cows and horses that we saw in Illinois.

And these, termite mounds. Yes, termites made this.

We were on our way to Mombasa and the older generation just had to stop and see the termite mounds. "Yawn" says the teenager. My sister and I decided to stay in the car and read. It was warm so we sat in the car with the doors and windows wide open, reading our books. Then we heard Dad yelling at us about something. We looked up and saw a family of baboons walking down the center of the abandoned highway right toward us. Our initial excitement gave way to fear and we quickly closed all the doors and windows of the car. There we sat inside laughing our asses off as the baboons ascended onto the hood of the car and watched us through the windshield. Then we remembered something someone had told us. Laughing is a threat to them because we're showing our teeth. So we tried very hard to stop. In the meantime, Dad shot some photos.

Eventually, the baboon family got bored with us and carried on to their destination. All of a sudden I knew how animals in the zoo must feel.

Onward to Mombasa, the Kenyan beachside resort on the Indian Ocean. The first day we snorkeled just past the reef and then came in to be told that there were many sharks in the area that day. *shudders* The rest of that time was spent at the pool.

Can you find Spooner?

Dad loved to befriend any of the natives no matter where we went. He quickly started up a conversation with one of the young Masai men who worked at the resort. They began comparing cultures and the subject of me and my sister came up. He asked Dad if either of us were betrothed. Dad chuckled and said that, indeed, Lisa was engaged to be married and pointed out her ring. The man asked Dad "Well, what do you get when she marries?" Dad answered, "I get a son." "Well, what about your younger daughter?" (That would be Young and Nubile Spooner) Dad answered, "She's not engaged or married." "Ah...", the Masai Warrior said. "I will give you nine cows for her hand in marriage."

Dad still jokes that he asked to see pictures of the cows and checked into the cost of shipping them to the states. I tell him he should have. With depreciation and age, I'm sure I'm only worth about a half a sheep at this point.

Traveling to Kenya was a huge turning point in my life. Before this trip, I thought that the world revolved around me, as most seventeen-year-olds do. Traveling halfway around the world to witness cultures completely different from mine, to be a minority but to be greeted warmly by people who I didn't understand, to be as far from home as I could possibly get, was an experience like no other. As global as our society has become, nothing awakens consciousness like solid feet on unfamiliar soil.

No matter my finances, I have always put a little something away in order to travel. My destinations of late haven't been near as exotic as Africa, but my list of desired locations is long and varied. This time I'll take a journal.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Love of the Unknown

A Map of the World

One of the ancient maps of the world
is heart-shaped, carefully drawn
and once washed with bright colors,
though the colors have faded
as you might expect feelings to fade
from a fragile old heart, the brown map
of a life. But feeling is indelible,
and longing infinite, a starburst compass
pointing in all the directions
two lovers might go, a fresh breeze
swelling their sails, the future uncharted,
still far from the edge
where the sea pours into the stars.

Ted Kooser