I met my mzungu friends from the Maasai Mara in the city center today. They are heading home on Wednesday, so they wanted to purchase some souvenirs before they leave. Upon meeting up with them, I took them to the Maasai Market that I had visited a week before. As soon as we approached the perimeter of the market, a swarm of vendors swarmed around us, each hoping to take us around the market. It is clear that the market motto is “divide and conquer,” because not even the two of them were allowed to stay together.
I picked out only a couple of things, which is incredibly tricky when every vendor you pass insists that you buy something or at the very least look at their handicrafts at length. The men who were walking me through the market were disappointed with the small number of items I selected, and they pointed out how much more successful my friends were, judging by their considerably fuller shopping bags. I pretended to spot something I liked near Jennifer so that our paths would intersect, and I commented that she should be careful how many things she selects because these vendors don’t want to let you go until you’ve purchased everything you touched.
Once I had made my way completely through the market, I began the arduous task of bargaining with the vendors. Buying souvenirs here can be an incredibly stressful ordeal because some people—including the vendors by whom I was unfortunate enough to be guided today—insist that their goods are unreasonably expensive to produce, that any price you have seen lower than theirs is a fluke, and that you are destroying the livelihoods of families by refusing to pay the ridiculously high prices they initially propose.
After about ten minutes(!), we finally agreed on a price, and I was guided out of the market, lest I threaten the livelihoods of additional families by helping Jennifer and Amish bargain. I was concerned that the two of them might not realize how highly negotiable the prices are, so I sent a quick message reminding them to bargain. When we left the market, we compared costs, though, and I think they got slightly better prices on the things they bought than I did. Jennifer decided it’s because they’re Asian, but whatever the reason, I’m just glad prices are almost all pre-established in America. Even though my bargaining experiences are usually not so negative, I will willingly pay a little more for items if it means I don’t have to argue about the prices.
We had a late lunch together in the city, and I was repaid the money I had loaned them to unexpectedly stay the night in Nairobi after we returned late from our safari. I’m sure some of the Grace Community staff members will be very surprised, considering the general mistrust of people here concerning money lending (though I think this mistrust is derived in the knowledge that many simply do not have the money to repay. I figured Amish and Jennifer were a safe bet.). Around 4, we found our respective buses and left the city center, as it takes the two of them a couple of hours to get back to their orphanage.
Although there are many advantages to being here on my own, I am glad to have had some contact with other foreigners with whom I could trade stories and impressions. From our conversations, it’s clear that we’re all going to be going home with a renewed appreciation for many facets of our own lifestyles and with a number of stories to tell.
After saying goodbye to my newest friends, this morning began with a trip to a Maasai village that has created a business of displaying its traditions to visitors. I did acquire some more knowledge about the Maasai culture, but I felt like the experience was a bit overrated, probably because I think I learned more last night in friendly conversation than in this environment which just felt like a tourist trap.
After our quick visit to the village, we started our journey back to Nairobi. I was very excited to see a good number of zebras as we drove through North Mara, because I had missed the zebra that the other volunteers had seen on the first day. As we continued down the road, our guide encountered some trouble with the vehicle; I first picked up on the trouble when I heard “matata” not preceded by “hakuna.” After the speed governor caused the van to short-circuit a few times, we met up with another driver who dropped us off for lunch where we waited for the vehicle to be repaired.
After lunch, we picked up some more passengers headed to Nairobi and then went on our way. Unfortunately, we hit some rain and some traffic which caused Amish and Jennifer to miss their transportation back to the orphanage. They only brought enough money to meet their needs exactly though, so I loaned them some money to spend the night in Nairobi and we made plans to meet up on Sunday.
Although I don’t think Nairobi is as dangerous as some people make it out to be, I never leave my host family’s compound alone after dark, so generally I have no reason not to get a full night’s sleep. Tonight, though, I am feeling the effects of the last couple of less-than-eight-hour nights, so I’ll be heading to bed early!
We spent about ten hours today in search of the various animal residents of the Maasai Mara. The safari vehicle had a raised roof, so we could stand up and look out over the landscape as we drove through the park. Every view looked like a postcard. Throughout the day, we spotted quite a number of animals, many at a surprisingly close distance. My closest encounter was during lunch, when a monkey ran into me, stole my sandwich, and ran off—without me ever catching a glimpse of him.
I think the full list of the animals we saw today is: giraffes, lions, gazelles, antelopes, wildebeests, birds, buffalo, cheetahs, hippos, lizards (including a big monitor lizard), monkeys, elephants, and crocodiles. Oh… and a wolf spider.
After we returned from the game drive, we had dinner and the other two volunteers and I returned to our tents to prepare for bed. When I walked into my bathroom, I found another wolf spider on the wall, patiently awaiting my return. He was smaller than last night’s spider, but still intimidating. I walked out of my tent to find a stick to kill the thing myself, but when the spider-killing guard from last night saw me, he came over to interrupt my mission. He grabbed a stick and went into the bathroom to kill the spider, but this time, he didn’t kill it on the first whack. The spider crawled up into the ceiling, leaving just a single leg perched on the wall. The guard decided that the solution was to spear the spider from below, and to my surprise (and relief), he was successful. As I escorted him and the spider corpse out of the tent, I tried not to think about the family of wolf spiders that undoubtedly inhabits the bathroom ceiling.
I initially continued to get ready for bed, but then I decided that there were more interesting things to do than get a full night’s rest. So I left the tent and headed over to the campfire where the three Maasai guards and two Israeli tourists and their guide were sitting. The guide was very knowledgeable about the park and the animals, and he explained some of the challenges that the Maasai Mara ecotourism business faces, especially given the lack of strict regulations imposed by the park and the tendency of guides to dismiss the rules that do exist in favor of pleasing their clients. Once the guide and the other visitors had left, I stayed by the fire to talk to the guards. I had some prior knowledge about Maasai culture, but I’ve learned on this trip that the best way to get an idea of another person’s lifestyle is to ask questions about personal opinions and experiences and to see what they are interested in knowing about how other people live.
None of the three guards had ever attended school, because when they were of age, they could not afford the school fees. Still, two of the boys (two brothers) spoke at least some English. The older brother was not fluent, but he knew a decent amount of English from his interactions with tourists. The English of the younger brother (who killed the spiders) was not quite as good, but he was very patient, so after describing things in a few different ways, we were able to understand each other. We talked about the different animals in the area, and the boys identified the animals that were lurking around the camp (donkeys, birds, wildebeest, hyenas…) by sound. I learned that indeed, the brothers had killed quite a few animals more menacing than a wolf spider.
After discussing our families, we compared ages, because I generally think most people in Kenya look younger than they are, and most people think I am older than I actually am. The brothers told me their ages—22 and 26—but when I asked if they know at what time of the year they was born, they said they only know the years themselves: 1992 and 1988 (I helped them with the math when I realized that the numbers didn’t make sense!). We also talked about marriages, which in Kenya (including in Maasai culture) often require a dowry, which is why none of the three are married yet. The boys were very surprised to hear that American fathers do not generally receive cows and sheep or even a sum of money in appreciation for their daughters, and they were intrigued by the idea of dating and marrying a “friend.” Additionally, they were excited to show me the basic cell phones which they had been given by their employer. I was surprised to see they had phones, especially ones that connected to the internet (which means that right now, these boys have more technology at their disposal than I do). The boys didn’t have too strong a grasp on the technology, though, and it was evident as they tried to show me the features on their phones that written English is a challenge.
Eventually I decided to head back to my tent, because although these boys routinely work at night and sleep during the day, I have a long day of travel ahead. I realized though that as much as I like learning about animals, I prefer learning about people. I think that for me, this is an ideal place for a safari, because if you’re willing to take advantage of the opportunities, you can take home a lot of knowledge about a very different culture in addition to a camera full of pictures.
Today is my first day in the Maasai Mara. I am here with two other volunteers, Jennifer and Amish, both of whom are recent UCLA graduates heading to medical school in the fall. They are volunteering at an orphanage in rural Kenya, so their experience has been very different than mine. We spent most of the ride getting to know each other and swapping notes about our experiences.
One commonality we discovered was, as Jennifer stated: “You can’t fight the ‘pole pole.’” “Pole pole” is the Swahili phrase for “slowly,” and it applies to just about everything that happens here. Back at Tech, I always strive to accomplish things as quickly as possible. I eat nearly all meals in transit to the next item on my agenda. In the lab, my mentor and I have often joked about our personal record times for crushing bees, spore counting, or setting up PCR plates. A freshman from my hall last year uses the phrase “walking with purpose” to describe the way in which I move from one activity to the next. Optimizing my time is truly how I get away with over-committing myself. Kenya lies in stark contrast to this tendency of mine, however, as there seems to be no urgency whatsoever. Admittedly, when volunteering, I sometimes feel that tasks could be completed more efficiently, such as by confirming appointments and meetings before travelling and arranging visits based on proximity. It seems that this feeling is common, though, because Jennifer explained that things can move slowly at the orphanage as well. She explained that a past volunteer created a schedule in an effort to increase efficiency, but now that the volunteer has left, the schedule is ignored by the orphanage staff. Since you can’t fight the pole pole, you must be patient with it, at least when you’re working with locals. Still, at times it can be a bit trying, and I do not find the pace satisfying.
We descended into the Rift Valley to reach the Maasai Mara. The views were expansive, and as we continued down the winding road, the scenes became increasingly exotic. The vegetation looked more and more like what you expect in Africa (e.g. cacti and acacia trees), and a greater variety of wildlife (e.g. baboons and antelopes) was present. After a couple of hours, we stopped for lunch in a small Maasai town called Narok. There we ate at a restaurant deemed “Indian,” probably because the Kenyan food served most resembles Indian food to an uninformed foreigner. After eating, we drove another 30 kilometers or so on the road before pavement yielded to dirt. The next 70 kilometers was described by the guide as an African massage. It took quite some time to complete this final, bumpy leg of the journey because we had to drive slowly around many obstacles (such as a bridge that had washed out in heavy rain and deep puddles). Luckily, the vehicle was well-equipped, and we had no trouble reaching the camp site.
We are staying in a campground that is located just outside the park. From the front, the tents look very similar to those at Camp Sacajawea (from my Girl Scout camp counseling days), but these tents have small concrete bathrooms in the back, a couple of beds, and running water and electricity… sort of.
Once we dropped off our bags, the three of us went with our guide on a quick game drive where we saw our first safari animals, including elephants, a lion, and two cheetahs. In addition to these animals, our safari involved several cows and sheep, as the Maasai people keep massive quantities of livestock just outside the gates of the park. In terms of scenery, the park is vast and absolutely incredible. It felt like at any moment we would crash into a painted backdrop.
We returned to the camp for dinner just after sunset, because the park closes at 6:30pm. At the camp, I ate probably to most Westernized dinner I had seen since arriving in Kenya—you could certainly tell that this place is for tourists.
After dinner, I had a long conversation about Kenyan politics with someone at the camp. It was very interesting to discuss politics with someone of different political leanings (and tribal affiliation) than those with whom I generally work. I prodded the man carefully until he revealed his true opinions, and then throughout the conversation I challenged him with my own observations and ideas and with opinions garnered from his opponents. I was trying to tactfully expose the extent of the man’s prejudices by asking questions such as whether there could be any person in the tribe he dislikes who could adopt the forward-thinking, business-savvy ways by which he characterized his own tribe. His answers depicted just how engrained assumptions and prejudices can be.
Perhaps the man began to recognize my astonishment at his intense conviction of the inferiority of some other tribes, because when I moved to the topic of advancing Kenya into a developed nation, he began championing the importance of a neutral leader. While it seemed he was trying to sound more politically correct, he could not hide his bias when I inquired about how such a person could emerge and gain broad support. Evidently such a “neutral” person could only come from his tribe or a tribe very similar to his own.
The man became very intense while expressing his opinion at times, but I affirmed my understanding of his position and ideas, and we ended with an agreement on the necessity of some lofty, generic sentiment for the advancement of Kenya. The conversation was really interesting, and I think the biases that the man presented surprised the other volunteers, because neither of them seemed comfortable interjecting. I realized afterwards that the two of them were not aware of the many controversies that exist just below the surface, so I explained a little more about the opinions within the different demographics with which I have interacted.
During our conversation, the camp’s generator had shut down, so when we had finished, the other volunteers and I moved over to the campfire that the camp’s three-man Maasai security team had built. We introduced ourselves briefly, but soon it began to rain, so we headed to our tents. The lights in the dark canvas tents were not working, so I used my small, dim flashlight to arrange my belongings and then check for insects in the main room. After a quick inspection, I sprayed the air with flying insect killer for a second time, and then I brought my toiletries into the bathroom. I instinctively began to check the room for insects, and as soon as I did, I found a huge wolf spider on the wall.
I returned to the main room to come up with a plan, which led to me calling Jeff to inquire about the phototaxic tendencies of spiders (you would be surprised at how great cell phone service is in the middle of nowhere, Kenya). When Jeff couldn’t find a definitive answer, I decided I would just leave the spider where he was, find another bathroom to use, and then wrap myself in the mosquito net and go to sleep hoping that the spider wouldn’t come after me. As I left the tent, though, one of the guards heard me coming out, so he came over to see what was wrong.
Now I of course felt really ridiculous explaining to this Maasai boy—who I was sure had killed a lion or two—that I was running away from a spider. Once I told him why I left my tent, though, he nonchalantly pulled a branch off a nearby tree, went into my tent with his lantern, and killed the giant, abominable arachnid. I think the boy assumed I was highly entomophobic, because he soon began to search the rest of the bathroom. I thanked him profusely for his spider-killing services, but in the simplest English I could conjure up, I explained that I could peaceably coexist with any remaining creatures, provided they are fewer than about three inches long.
I didn’t have any specific plans today, so I thought that I would take this opportunity to do a little independent exploration of the city center. Around 10:30, I boarded the bus for the city center… I thought. In reality, I boarded the bus whose driver decided to find a busy location to turn the route around and wait for more passengers. So at 11, I passed the exact place at which I had boarded the bus, finally actually heading towards the city center (thankfully the route is circular). If you think about it, I got a great deal, because I spent 45 minutes on a bus for only 50 shillings (60 cents)!
I disembarked at the Kenya National Archives, which houses a relatively small, mostly East African art collection originally owned by Kenyan vice president Joseph Murumbi. There was not a great deal to see, because the collection only occupies one large room over two stories, and the exhibit signs gave surprisingly little cultural information or historical context. Admission was only 200 shillings ($2.50), though, and I did see a cool giraffe painting and about 68454398 early African stamps.
I spoke to Victor who mentioned that the Maasai Market was open today, but seeing as I have not spent much time in the city center, I was not expecting to find it. Instead, I just wandered around to get a better sense of the city. A lot of the city reminds me of New York’s China Town, in that there are a lot of really shallow stores crammed into a small amount of sidewalk space. People also had blankets set up (…presumably these aren’t licensed vendors) with cell phone covers, candy, toys, and other items. The nicer areas of the city had wider sidewalks but were much less crowded. This is where the government buildings were mostly located.
Walking through the streets, it is apparent that Nairobi is not intended to be much of a tourist destination. You don’t see “I love Nairobi” shirts or other souvenirs in the shops, and there aren’t any double-decker tour buses and people walking around with cameras in hand. I hunted for post cards, and the only ones I found rested on a small stand in a grocery store and displayed generic safari scenes. I’m going to the Maasai Mara on Tuesday, though (change of plans!), so I figure I’ll at least wait to purchase the postcards until they are relevant to my trip.
I walked around for a few hours, not entirely certain of my whereabouts but certain that I could find someone who could point me to my starting point if I got completely turned around. Eventually I stumbled upon the Maasai Market, an open-air market that sells Maasai and Maasai-inspired crafts.
I was greeted on approach by one of the vendors, who finds visitors, brings them into the market, explains the purchasing process, and shows them around. In our conversation, the man asked about my knowledge of Swahili, which gave me a prime opportunity to say “hakuna matata” and other assorted phrases from the Lion King (score!) while joking about my limited vocabulary. The vendor led me through the market, introducing me to some of the vendors and describing how their wares (jewelry, carvings, paintings, clothing, bags, masks…) are made and how they are relevant to the Maasai culture.
There was so much to look at, but I really did like my guide’s artwork, so I bought a small painting from him. He began the bargaining process by suggesting that on a good day, he would get 9,000 shillings ($110) for the painting, which was obviously unreasonable. I explained that I didn’t bring much money with me, so I might have to go to the bank and then return… which of course he didn’t want, so he agreed to sell me the painting for the 1,700 shillings (about $20) that I did have in my wallet. I’m sure that price still includes a mzungu tax, but I felt pretty victorious, considering that 1) I like the painting, and 2) he didn’t make fun of my “hakuna matata” use, and 3) I had another 1,500 shillings stashed in my money belt.