on obama: people there obviously love him. whenever we said we were from the states we'd get an immediate, "OBAMA!" from people. we were actually known as "the obama people" to the natives wandering the beach in zanzibar peddling bad marijuana. en route from the mara to nairobi after our safari we hit a rest stop. we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere, a small pop-up tent with wares for sale and a few people loitering outside. a man who didn't yet know where i was from, but that it was not kenya, asked me whether it was scary to fly in a plane. whether, when you're in the plane and you looked down whether you could see the towns below or just clouds. and was mystified at how long the flights can take. i said, "well, from new york it was 7ish hours to amsterdam and then another 9ish to nairobi." "new york?! obama! he will take good care of you! he will take good care of us all!" our driver, apollo, was a luo tribesman, which was obama's fathers' tribe. "i'm obama's first cousin" he said with a cackle. colin's response, "you should come visit, i'm sure you could stay at the white house." another cackle.
on buying power: it wasn't just in the markets which were huge bazaars with lots of carved goods and dyed sheets and scarves. the minute we stepped off the plane we were hearing choruses of "we can negotiate, make me an offer." desperation runs large in poor towns. the markets were insane. most my friends found it intimidating and claustrophobic. colin, who was an expert having lived in nairobi before. if the price of something was being quoted at 4,000 shillings, his offer was 1,000. something i perceived as so low i was embarassed to even put it on the table. "do not pay a cent over 1k" he'd say with authority. and sure enough, that asshole would come all the way down to a price that i felt was close to stealing. i got a gorgeous huge ebony salad bowl, two sets of salad tongs, a carved dip bowl with bone insets and two tapestries with obama's head printed on them for less than $30 (which, incidentally, colin still thought was too much). considering it was half my christmas shopping, i thought it was a steal. 20 vanilla beans and huge packet of saffron for $3.50. i'd turn down an offer on one set of bowls and the 6 vendors eavesdropping would all run over at once to make me an offer better than the one before. they all surround you and yell at you but i'm willing to accept a certain amount of harassment/stress for a bargain.
on the mara serena lodge: i cannot recommend this place highly enough. it was serene and clean and the staff, incredible. food was good and drinks were cheap. it was built in a half arc, 5K feet above sea level, into the side of a hill/mountain. all the rooms overlooked a watering hole that was wide open and wehre animals roamed. thus, there were emergency buttons scattered to notify the staff if a wild animal was in your room if you somehow forgot to close your balcony doors. speaking of that...the boys forgot to close their balcony doors one day. we were all sitting by the pool and we saw this baboon jumping from terrace to terrace, trying to open all the doors. "um, you guys, we closed our terrace doors, right?" david responds, "no. you guys left them open this morning so i left them that way." ted is the one tasked with going back to the room to check things out and also the one who had to come back and tell us the boys' room had been ransacked. (thank GOD rebecca closed our adjoining door in the morning.) bags were emptied, edible things were consumed (tim tam cookies, protein bars and, possibly, some prilosec) and all that went missing, we think, was colin's comb. ted had chocolate fingerprints on one of his button-downs. it was hilarious. and totally awesome that it wasn't MY stuff, btw.
our schedule was relaxed, to say the least. quick tea before a morning drive at 6:30am, then breakfast (made-to-order omelets and a dozen fresh juices that ted and i went totally crazy combining/imbibing), then sunning/napping/reading by the pool, a 4pm drive, apres drive drinks (which, admittedly, were awful...though ordering manhattans or martinis were not our brightest idea) by a bonfire with a guy singing and playing guitar, dinner and then sleep (though one night we did all put on our bathrobes and play uno for a couple hours after dinner). at night, since our terraces opened into a watering hole, there were lots of loud animal noises. first night were water buffalo having sex which, for those uninitiated in such matters, sounds like a moaning/honking/foghorn type thing. another night i hear twigs breaking just outside our window, which, if you were in the suburbs, is scary beceause it means someone is WAY too close to your house for comfort. i get up, open the curtains and am eye to eye with an elephant. i gasp (thankfully, did not scream) and i hear colin rustle in the next room. "colin! get up! elephants!" and he runs to his terrace door and sees a baby just in front of his. earlier that evening as we came home from dinner rebecca and i went to stand on the balcony and saw 3 lionesses walking in the center of the arc. this is RIGHT OUTSIDE OUR ROOM, PEOPLE. insane.
on the drives: apollo was an expert driver. he had a good sense of humor and didn't seem offended by us (we like racist jokes now and then). and, like i said, enjoys a dick joke so we all got on swimmingly. he knew everything, pointed out every animal and tree. we asked what the most interesting thing he'd ever seen was and he's all, "oh, i dont know. not much." then a few minutes later he says, "well, there was that one time where i saw a python eat an impala and a leopard slice the python in half to steal the impala out of its stomach. that was interesting, i guess." OH. just THAT? i see that ALL the time, don't you? our third day in we were told we hadn't paid our park fees. he's right. we hadn't paid them because we didn't know they existed. so that evening's drive we drove for almost an hour before seeing a single animal. "hey, apollo, where are you hiding the animals? is this becuase we didn't pay the park fee?" he laughed, but not really because it's his job to find us animals and we were kind of pointing out that it wasn't happening. the one animal we hadn't seen was a rhino and we asked for it from the beginning. on day three, we were getting discouraged. we mentioned this to our waitress. "oh, the rhinos are by the olulolu gate, i saw them the day before yesterday." so we tell apollo, "hey, our waitress says this is where to find the rhinos." he says, in no uncertain terms, that we've been there several times and that the waitress should keep her day job. ouch! yet, the next day when we take our nature walk we ask dalmas about them, "oh, they're by the olulolu gate." at this point, we KNOW something is up. colin, who has a freakish sense of direction is all, "on the south side of the park we always take a left at this fork but i think we need to take a right to get to it." we all have plans, on our final drive, to make him go to this gate but sure enough, without us having to ask, he takes that right. which means he's been "saving" the rhinos till the end which is sort of sneaky, no? but we DID see a rhino and her baby but none of my pictures are good because rhinos live in the brush and the paths never wind very close to the brush. but anyway, mission accomplished, however delayed.
on bowel movements: we, as a group, did a fantastic job of doing our business subtly, and taking private time to head to the loo. traveling always screws up my digestive system. i have a few friends (i'm looking at YOU al and jess) that are extremely open about such things. if i "make a dood" as alex would say, twice in one day i might send al and jess an e-mail about it. i'd get an enthusiastic "mazel tov!" from jessie in reply. but we all were nice and classy and quiet about it. disappear back to the hotel room, etc. and it didn't have to be embarassing or a thing.
on the people: earnest. there is a simplicity to life in rural kenya that keeps people honest and un-jaded and sunny and grateful and kind. the exceptions are those with something to sell who are supremely agressive. everyone from cabdrivers to people selling wool hats in shanty-towns. but on the whole, everyone seems so innocent, isolated. case in point: our nature walk guide. he was unlike anyone i'd ever met. i'd never wanted to adopt a grown man until i'd met Dalmas (his real Maasai name: Polenparsitau). he had this thirst for knowledge (knew 4 or 5 languages at a basic level) and wanted to learn another 5 more. he had to take many tests and knew the latin name of every bird and plant he saw but he didn't seem 100% confident so he would name the plant, then stop to look it up in his plant guide and then proudly show us that he was correct. (it was also helpful to see the name spelled out because it was hard at times, through his swahili accent, to understand the latin.) however, he did quiz us once and none of us could recall the name of a certain plant with red flowers and BOY did he seem disappointed. he told us of graduating levels within the Maasai tribe which involved being in a group that killed a lion and adult circumcision (TMI). at one point on the trail he said, "this is where i was when i was given my teacher's cell phone to hold in my front pocket during class one day and it started ringing! during class! and i didn't know what to do! oh, i cried!" the man cried because he was embarassed because a cell phone went off in his pocket during class. he just broke my heart. everything about him. he'd point to a random tree. "you probably know this." "no..." we'd respond. "wow." he'd say, truly shocked that we didn't know what species of accacia tree this was. and then there was charles, the gap-toothed jolly man who was our cocktail waiter for the week and never judged us for extreme tusker consumption. and stella (known to Dalmas, and possibly others, as "the tall one"): our drop-dead gorgeous waitress at all our meals. we'd heard a series of crashes and a scream by the pool one day and came to lunch to find a harried stella. a baboon had broken into the restaurant one afternoon and chased her through the restaurant becase "baboons do not like women! he kept chasing me!"
dominance of men in nature: in the wild, men rule. lioness' do all the hunting for their men. seriously, male lions do nothing. they don't even feed themselves. oh! and what's better, if a lion meets a lioness he likes and she has babies with another lion, he kills those babies so that she'll have no one to be protective over and also so that HE can then impregnate her. it's terrible. and the impalas? the men all fight each other until one wins/survives and then he gets this huge harem of female impalas, around 40 at a time. one by one he picks his favorite, chases her around until exhaustion, and then screws her. meanwhile all the other male impalas are fighting each other to see which one is the toughest one, so that the toughest one can challenge the king and claim his harem. so basically all guys do is fight and terrorize women. it all felt so ruthless. it felt like dating in nyc.
on flying: i think anthony lane said it best in his review of "up in the air": Airports are the seedbed for all that is most alien, angering, and atomized in our twenty-first-century days. the worst parts of the trip were there airports/flying time. i'm grateful that the annoying people we saw weren't ALL americans. it's mortifying/depressing to be abroad and hear a bunch of people from the states being loud, stupid, and otherwise obnoxious. a spaniard tried to bring a spear on the plane. like, a pointy sharp thing at the end of a big stick. then when he was told to check it, he takes the pointy part off, wraps it in newspaper and tries to just check that. the security people were like, "NO, CHECK IT IN YOUR BAG, ASSHOLE." we saw the tannest people in the world. they were gross. the germans behind us on the AMS to JFK leg were loud and annoying. apparently her in-screen t.v. didn't tilt so when i put my seat back she had troubles seeing her screen. this meant that she 1.) told me i couldn't put my seat back. you know what my response was to that. it maybe entails a middle finger. i mean, not really, but in my head it did. in real life it was me shaking my head like i didn't understand her english and saying sorry but not moving my chair 2.) she proceeded to jab at the back of my seat, continuing to try to move her screen but more likely just to annoy me. as i enjoyed "the holiday" (i could watch that on repeat for days) and "julie and julia" (hated amy adams in it, LOVED meryl, of course) i had the satisfaction of knowing that she had to sit there being german.
on animals: oh my god, so many. i was so much closer to some giraffes and things but didn't even take out my camera because i was all, "girl, you've got 1000 giraffe pictures! no mas!" then i went back over them i was all..."hm, none of them are all that close. maybe should have take a few more pics." my point is that the animals were a little old hat by the time we left. our favorite, strangely, ended up being the warthog. right at the beginning we saw one with about 5 babies and thought they were the cutest. they don't have necks really so they kneel down with their front legs to eat. it's hilarious-looking. and the babies are the cutest and their little tails stick straight up when they run. dalmas said that they're sometimes called the "kenyan express" but that "if you really really like them, you call them double-cigarette smokers." which started colin on one of his bouts where he says the same phrase over and over, randomly, to the point of exhaustion. (the last one was, "sad songs say so much".) so we heard a lot of "DOUGH-bull SEEG-a-redt SMO-kahs" interspersed throughout the day. appollo said they're dumb because when they're being chased, they'll often forget why they're running and they come to a sudden, grinding halt and then get eaten. sadface.
did you know that zebras bark? they TOTALLY do. and that lizards do push-ups to attract females? we saw a bunch of baby lion cubs playing around with their mama, climbing and jumping on her. those might be my favorite of the whole trip. we were also, at one point, completely surrounded by lionesses. there were about 12 of them, of various age and sizes. sprawled across the path across which we were to drive. some just stood right next to the car. none of them seemed to mind. and for a minute you think, "oh! cute kitties!" and then something reminds you that THEY COULD KILL YOU INSTANTLY. the boys were hungry for some carnage but we got lots of cute babies instead, which was more my beat. we arrived just after a green season, when animals are programmed to give birth so that their babies will have plenty of food when they're born. the closest we got to carnage were some lions and water buffalo charging at each other, playing chicken and some cheetahs that looked to be staking out some little thomson who was all by himself. RULE OF THUMB IF YOU'RE EVER A WILD ANIMAL: stick with the clan; do not venture out alone. being alone is a pretty instant death sentence. also: DON'T BE FEMALE. IT SUCKS.
on corruption: bribery and extortion there are extremely half-hearted, to say the least. on our way to the Mara we were stopped at a checkpoint. they made apollo pull out all his license papers. after several minutes he got back into the car. "we all set?" i ask. "yes. we are fine. they wanted something small." "did you give them something small?" "no, i only have big things," he responded with a hearty chuckle. we didn't at the time even think he was capable of dick jokes but, in hindsight, after he made another 2 or 3 of them over the course of the week, we figured that's what he'd meant all along. prices from government officials seem arbitrary and tanzania was the WORST but you can't really argue with a customs officer. the ATM at the airport wasn't working and they wouldn't accept their own currency for us to buy our visas with. we had to leave the airport, find a barclays, and go back and convert the tanzanian shillings into US dollars. everything was listed in dollars. did they not get the memo that the $ isn't so primo these days? we stopped by a maasai village and were given a tour and danced with them. we had to go into their cow dung huts and we sat in them, in the near total darkness, listening to a short lecture about how they lived. afterwards, they tried to sell us stuff and took dollars! and when i bought some jewelry for $25 and needed $15 in change they brought me 500 shillings, which is about $7. then came back again with 2000 shillings. no go. i had to just get my $20 back and give them a $5. so i basically almost got hustled by primitive people who live in cow dung huts. awesome.
on children: i now understand why every time angelina leaves the country she comes home with a new baby. the kids are the sweetest, sunniest, most beautiful things ever. these are the children of sally struthers commercials, bugs in their eyes and all. but they see you and they smile with such pure joy and have the cutest little faces and they wave at everyone who passes by. we brought trinkets for them and you could see how incredibly excited they were to have, well, anything.