Category Archives: Africa

Ngorongoro Crater: sharing a bathroom with zebras

Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

After a nice uneventful stay in Dar Es Salaam, Tamara and I decided we should torture ourselves and take an 11 hour bus ride across the country to Arusha for our safari to Ngorongoro Crater.  Although the bus ride was not as bad as the one from Lamu to Mombasa in Kenya, I did end up with only 1 flip flop at the end of it and a bruised spine from being jostled around in the back of the bus.  But all uncomfortable-ness aside, the views along the way were worth it! The landscape in the interior of Tanzania is so different from the coast – there were huge mountain ranges with red soil peaking out through the palm, coconut and bobao trees.  There were also trees with huge trunks that reminded me of the Avatar mother tree (continuing on with the movie references, I think there’s been one in every blog post so far!).  There were farms all along the roads surrounded by tiny mud huts and there were even farms high up on the mountain faces! What an ordeal for farmers to hike up and down everyday to tend to their crops.  Other than looking out the window, we passed the time by watching the religious soap operas, religious movies and religious music videos on the bus TV.  It was horrible acting but the drama was awesome (love triangles intermingled with possessed ex-boyfriends who used black magic and summoned the devil to put hexes on rival suitors).  We stopped at a rest stop half way through and everyone jumped out to line up for, of course, fried chicken and fries.  Tamara was seriously tempted to try it until we saw the chickens in the BBQ.  First of all, she said they looked like human torsos and secondly, there’s no bathroom on the bus.  The second rest stop, to our amusement, was just the side of the road and half of the bus got off together, walked into the bush together and peed together.

We finally arrived in Arusha – the safari capital of Tanzania – and was greeted by our safari guide who then dropped us off at a nice budget hotel called Flamingo Hotel.  It’s in a dodgier part of town but the staff were so helpful and even walked us to the Indian restaurant 5 minutes away that we wanted to try.  On the way back, we asked the restaurant to have someone walk us back for a small fee (hotel staff said it wasn’t safe walking alone at night) and they found us this old man with a giant stick.  He looked like the sort of person we would need protection from, not our chaperone for the walk home.  But he ended up being super friendly and even made sure we got in the front door OK.

The next morning, our safari guide, Becka, drove us out to Arusha National Park to go for a walking safari.  Becka is super nice and friendly and was not annoyed by our many questions ranging from “how did you meet your girlfriend?” to “how many babies does a giraffe have?”.  At Arusha National Park, we first drove around and immediately saw herds of giraffes, zebras, buffaloes and warthogs.  Apparently, warthogs and buffaloes are usually found together because they have a symbiotic relationship.  Buffaloes can’t hear that well so they depend on warthogs to listen for predators and in return, when warthogs hear a predator approaching, they run into the middle of a buffalo herd and the buffaloes use their size to protect the warthogs.  Isn’t that cool? Also, there’s only 1 alpha male in a herd of buffaloes and younger males constantly challenge the alpha since only the alpha breeds with the females in the pack.  Player!

We drove along the park and the landscape was so different to anything we saw in Masai Mara National Park in Kenya.  There was actually a jungle! There were huge trees and so much undergrowth that we couldn’t see the ground.  Since it was early in the morning, mist covered the canopy of the jungle and the green tip of nearby Mount Meru. We finally met our walking safari park ranger, Mbotu and he had on the most awesome park ranger outfit! He wore a forest green park ranger shirt and trousers, a forest green beret tipped on the side of his head, rubber boots, had a thick mustache and to top it all off, had a wooden rifle slung over his shoulder.  Immediately I asked him if he had ever shot anything with his rifle and he said a couple of buffalo and an elephant! Apparently buffaloes become unstable if they’re alone because they aren’t as confident as they would be in a herd so they may charge at you.  Also, if you are faced with an angry elephant, you should either find a large tree to climb up (one that is strong enough that the elephant can’t push it over) or run in a zig-zag because elephants smell with their trunks so they may lose your scent.  We walked for about 50 meters across a small stream and was immediately face to face with a herd of giraffes! They were so friendly that we could walk within 10m of them and they wouldn’t move.  Interesting facts about giraffes (that Mbotu told us in his commanding manner), giraffes are pregnant for 16 months and baby giraffes are born weighing up to 1.5 tons! Also, they can suckle from any mother – how liberal of them! We walked a bit more and then Mbotu showed us the Sodom Apple plant.  Maasai use the leaves to numb toothaches and wean babies off breast milk.  It tastes so bad that mothers rub it on their nipples and the babies hate it so much they never go back.  Mbotu then asked us how we wean babies in Canada and to us, it seemed simple – make them take the bottle – but to them, they couldn’t comprehend how we could just do that.  Maasai also use the plant to ward off maggots from their cowhide beds because if they don’t, the larvae can burrow into their babies’ soft skin – sick!

While we were walking, we saw piles of dung scattered all along the ground – some small pebbles, some huge mounds (again being immature, Tamara and I giggled at every single one of them).  Mbotu explained to us that the small pebble dung was from an animal called a dik-dik (again giggles from us).  He asked us “do you know what a dik-dik is? did you see any in Kenya?” and at this point, I couldn’t keep it in anymore and just burst out laughing.  All immature-ness aside, dik-diks are small deer-like animals the size of rabbits and they are very territorial.  They poop along their territory to mark it and when they have a offspring and it’s time for them to mate, they smell other dik-dik families’ poop in the area to see if that family has a boy or girl.  If it matches, they place their respective offspring at the boundary of their territory and let them mate.  Kinda like arranged marriage for animals! We then walked to a waterfall on the side of Mount Meru and Mbotu explained to us the fever tree.  It’s called a fever tree because when the mzungus (whites) first arrived in Africa, they set up camp near the rivers under these trees (since the trees mostly grow by water supplies) and they contracted malaria from the mostquitoes but blamed the trees, hence fever trees.  Mbotu made a corny joke and said that they should actually be called clever trees because when they are small, they have thorns on their branches to prevent animals from eating them and when they grow larger, their trunks are rough and bumpy so animals can’t tear off it’s bark for water.  Another interesting tree (who would’ve thought trees would be interesting!) is the fig tree.  It’s a parasite tree that wraps it’s roots around a host tree until it dies and then takes it’s place.

We said good-bye to Mbotu, took some pictures (I asked if I could hold his rifle!) and then drove to the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area.  Along the way, we passed by small towns and for some reason, there were towns with 20 male hair salons! At the gate to the Conservation Area, there were a bunch of baboons trying to open car windows to get food.  One tried to get into our jeep and Tamara valiantly tried to scare it off (as we’d seen other people do with success) but this time, the baboon ran after her! She screamed while I started laughing (still laughing writing this) and a ranger came and chased the baboon away.  After that terrifying attack (I really don’t like animals with fingers!), we drove to the rim of the crater 2400m above sea level.  The view was breathtaking – the crater is massive and the clouds reflecting on the small lakes below was so peaceful.  We drove to our lodge and around a turn, we saw a pride of lions drinking water from a puddle on the side of the road! It was amazing and so surprising to see! After the nice welcome from the lions, we arrived at our lodge and watched the sun set behind the crater rim.  It was beautiful – streaks of orange, pink and purple in the sky – and when the sun finally set, we could see a crazy lightning storm beyond the rim.

In the morning, we woke up super early for our game drive.  On the 60m descent down into the crater floor, it was so misty and foggy outside that we couldn’t see more than 10ft ahead.  There was dew on everything and so cloudy – very eerie! All I could see were silouettes of fever trees in the mist shrouded by fog.  We stopped at a checkpoint and out of nowhere, Maasai boys showed up selling their wares.  It was like a zombie movie! Once we got down to the crater floor, the view was even more beautiful than from the rim.  All around us was the crater rim and there was fog slipping over the rim like beer foam over a pint glass.  And since we were below the clouds, the air was so crisp and refreshing! The landscape was different as well – no more jungles – and instead, there were plains, small lakes and hills.  The cloud hanging over allowed the sunlight to peak out and cast rays of light on the crater floor.  There were herds of zebras and wildebeest (I’m talking hundreds of them).  Wildebeest are kinda ugly with long brown beards, hunchbacks and weird strides.  We also saw a bunch of male African elephants with huge, long tusks (at least 3 ft long) and they looked so sharp! They oddly rubbed themselves all over with mud – maybe some sort of weird facial or exfoliating regiment? At the small lakes, there were thousands of pink flamingos intermingled with animals drinking water.  We also saw a pride of lions (2 males, 2 females) by the side of the road – they were bigger than the ones we saw in Kenya but just as lazy and were just sleeping and yawning.  Not far away were hyenas looking for bones to hide in the water (apparently this way, they can eat the bones at a later time).

So as Mike (and Tamara now) know, I have a small bladder and need frequent bathroom breaks.  Well this morning’s tea mixed with the cold, bumpy ride standing in the jeep did not help so by hour 3 of the game drive, I had to pee.  Badly.  There were no toilets for miles in either direction so Becka stopped at the side of the road and I used the Crater as my own personal bathroom.  There was just something so serene about being in the open, at the bottom of an ancient crater, in Africa, with the sun shining down on me, in a field dotted with yellow flowers, being surrounded by wild animals.  Tamara was laughing at me the entire time and I’m pretty sure Becka was mortified.  I’m confident that I mooned a bunch of zebras but in the end, who else can say that they’ve left their mark on Ngorongoro Crater? Thank god we stopped where we did because not even 50m down the road, we saw a cheetah in the grass! She was just chilling there, not hidden or anything, mewing for her babies.  The markings on her face and body were so vivid and contrasting – I especially like the tear drop markings on her face.

After the game drive, we drove back up and over the rim and started our journey back to Arusha.  Along the way, we saw a car filled with bananas! They were everywhere – in the backseat, sticking out of the trunk, piled high on the roof! I just hope those cheeky baboons don’t get near that car! Along the drive back to Arusha, we saw people all along the road appear out of nowhere.  There was no trace of civilization for miles so they must have walked far! There were Maasai tending to their herds and barefoot school children walking to and from school.  We also had some excitement in the car when a huge bee hit me on the face and an even bigger wasp jumped into Tamara’s lap (that’s twice in 24 hours that’s she’s been attacked by animals – only in Africa!).  Back in Arusha, we said goodbye to Becka and boarded the bus from hell back to Dar Es Salaam.  The upside to the terrible ride was that we saw Mount Kilimanjaro! Its peaks are covered in snow and the ridge is so long, you have to turn your head all around just to take it all in! It really is majestic and massive – I can’t even imagine how all those people climb it! A peculiar observation we saw was the variety of wares that men would sell at the side of the road when buses/cars stopped.  We saw: sunglasses men, watch men, boiled eggs men, cashew nut men, cookies/candies/chips men, produce/fruit men, poster men, pants men, tie men, religious painting men, towel men, car accessories men, ice cream men, newspaper men, bootleg DVDs from China men, sandals men, plastic buckets men and my personal favourite, small grandfather clocks men.

Back in Dar, we treated ourselves to some luxury and stayed in a hotel! Our bodies may be broken, face wind-burnt and hair looking like a rat’s nest but in the end, it was all worth it!

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Zanzibar: community gardens Africa-style

Jamibiani Beach, Zanzibar, Tanzania

So the bumming around continued into a new country – Tanzania! Tamara and I flew into Zanzibar and immediately drove to the east coast of this tiny island off the coast of the mainland of Tanzania.  During the drive, we passed through spice plantations, which is what Zanzibar is known for, and so much lushy greenery along the very well paved road.  After an hour long drive, we passed through the tiny village of Jambiani and finally to our hotel on the beach.

Jambiani Beach is gorgeous and so quiet – there’s about 5 other guests staying here – so there’s hardly anyone on the beach except for the occasional tout like the scarf man who displayed his wares like Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune.  The tide is quite amazing here because during low tide, the water recedes about 500m out so the sea bed is exposed until the reef wall.  The receded tide undercovers this huge comunity garden of seaweed.  Local women from the village farm seaweed to sell to Asian countries (I’m talking about the seaweed wrapped around your sushi).  They each have these small plots demarked by wooden stumps in the sand bed and every morning, they pick bags of seaweed from rows of neatly planted crops.  Then they walk it back to shore on their heads.  It’s so shallow that you can walk at least 200m out, all while dodging the spiky sea urchins that line the crevasses of sand in the shallow pools of water.  With the low tide, the boats that were previously anchored in the water teeter with their bottoms stuck in the sand.  It’s incredible to see, like uncovering the underwater sea life without having to done a snorkeling/scuba diving mask.  The local men’s livelihood also depends heavily on the water.  Every morning, the men go fishing together in a small wooden boat.  By noon, they come back with huge kingfish – some at least 50cm long! For dinner, we ate that kingfish and it was so fresh and tasty!

We also took a little tour of Jamibiani Village.  It was amazing to see local women playing with their children in rain puddles and school children reciting verses in the multiple schools we passed by.  We decided to walk along the shore back to our hotel which probably wasn’t a good idea because along the way, the tide came in so we were stuck climbing over rocks while the waves splashed against us.  We’ve also made new friends, no not with other tourists, but with 2 local dogs who followed us around the entire time we were in Jamibani.  They were so loyal that even when we were in our room, they would sit outside waiting!

The next morning, we met up with Captain Zappy who owns an old wooden sail boat to go snorkeling.  We had to walk out to the boat, which is the one of the only times I didn’t mind walking, since it was so cool to essentially be walking on the sea floor through the paths carved in sand by nature.  Capt. Zappy’s boat is big enough to just fit 4 people but kept afloat, even as we ran over rocks on the way out to deeper waters.  Along the way, we saw patches of coral and rocks below the crystal clear aquamarine waters.  There were also fishermen who were spearfishing with just a snorkeling mask, flippers and a long spear.  We also saw sand banks at a distance and people walking along the reef wall.  Once we were in deeper waters, we grabbed our gear and jumped right in! I had forgotten how amazing underwater life is since my last snorkeling trip was in the Maldives over 2 months ago.  We saw lots of bright tropical fish as well as coral, sea anemones, sea urchins, sea fire (which apparently hurts when you touch it), red and white starfish and eels.  We swam around for around 2 hours and was exhausted by the time we got back into the wooden boat.  Back on land, our unfit selves immediately feel asleep on the beach under a hut.  The only thing that woke us up was the tropical storm raging around us (I guess that beats an alarm clock anyday).  It was cool to see the pouring rain, palm trees swaying and boats violently bobbing in the water (I’m surprised none of them capsized!).  After the storm passes, a local woman painted henna on my ankle using a palm tree leaf broken into a thin sliver and paint made from local Zanzibari spices.  It’s very detailed and beautiful – I can’t stop looking at my foot and vowed (to Tamara’s disgust) not to wash my foot. 😛

After a few days of bumming around on the beach, we decided that we needed to get some exercise (walking up a flight of stairs for breakfast had now become our daily exercise) so we moved onto Stone Town which is on the west side of Zanzibar Island.  Stone Town reminded me a lot like Lamu, only bigger, and with more tourists.  We decided to do something educational since our minds were turning into mush from doing nothing for days so we visited the Palace Museum to learn about the Omani Sultanate in Zanzibar.  We also visited the old slave markets and pens where they held slaves to be sold.  It was so sad to see the 2 underground pens where I could barely stand up let alone a grown man.  There were 3 sliver openings to the outside but because of this, the pens often flooded and many died down there.  Once slavery was abolished, they built a memorial above it and a Catholic church nearby.  We caught the end of the church service and it was amazing to hear gospel music sung in Swahili by women all dolled up in their Sunday best.  We walked along Stone Town and saw all the old architecture and Swahili houses.  We took a nice break from the heat in Forodhani Gardens and listened to Top 40 music blaring from a guy’s cell phone.  I’ve been traveling for so long that I have no idea what those youngsters call “hip” and “cool” anymore :P.  It started pouring so Tamara and I did what we do best, went shopping! We ducked into small shops that sold beautiful kangas (cloth that women wrap around themselves), delicate jewelery and leather sandals galore! For dinner, we decided to treat ourselves to all-you-can-eat thali! It was definitely a mistake as we waddled back home in the dark, barely able to breathe from being so full.  The next day, we walked around some more and for dinner, we visited the Forodhani Gardens again to pick up street food.  Every night, they set up stalls upon stalls of food.  The chefs all wear chef hats and there’s stalls for everything: BBQ seafood (lobster, calamari, oysters, fish, octopus), chicken and beef kebabs, fried cassava, samosas, sugar cane juice and something they called Zanzibari pizza.  I finally decided on tandoori calamari with tamarind sauce and roti.  It was so good that I totally forgot that it had been prepared on small wooden BBQ in the middle of a park.

The next day, we took a ferry ride from Zanzibar to the mainland – Dar Es Salaam.  Along the way, we saw small and big islands, small fishermen in wooden canoes trying to brave the huge waves and large sailboats.  We arrived in Dar (that’s what the locals call it) only to realize that everything was closed for Easter.  So we ended watching hours of cheesy English-dubbed Spanish and Filipino soap operas.  They were actually very good and definitely better than the obscure German music videos or low budget Tanzanian religious shows that were on the other channels.  The next day, we wandered the city trying to find something that was open and little to my surprise, the only stores that were open were on India Street (which is like a Little India).  We ate great BBQ chicken and fries at a local place called Chef’s Pride (to Tamara’s enjoyment, chicken and fries are like Tanzanian’s national food and can be found everywhere).  We also found a great safari company and planned our next safari in the Ngorongoro Crater!


Kenyan Coast: donkeys, dhows and doing nothing

Tiwi Beach, Mombasa, Kenya

It’s been awhile since I last posted anything – I blame the small towns and lack of internet and not my general laziness in getting my butt off the bed/hammock/sun chair/beach.  After Nairobi, Tamara and I boarded a tiny propeller plane for the 1 hour flight to Lamu which is a small island town off the north east coast of Kenya.  When we arrived in Lamu, we couldn’t believe our eyes.  First of all, the airstrip, and note that I didn’t say airport because it was literally a small dirt path in the grass where our plane landed, is on an island with no other buildings except for a sign that said “Duty Free” pointing to an abandoned hut.  The concept of airport security or screening is non-existent since anyone can walk onto the airstrip from all directions – no stress of body scanners! We then took a dhow (wooden boat) to Lamu Island where the town is situated.

Lamu Town is such a small town covered with Swahili houses and mosques.  There’s only 4 cars on the island (one of which is thankfully an ambulance) and everyone gets around by foot or by donkey.  We met Ali who works for our guest house, Jambo House, and he guided us through the narrow streets of Lamu.  Along the way, we discovered the friendliness of the people of Lamu since everyone we passed by said “Jambo!” (hello!) or “Habari” (how are you?) or “Karibu!” (welcome!).  They have an open sewage system but surprisingly it doesn’t smell – all you can smell is the occasional whiff of Swahili cooking or donkey poo (former better than the latter).  Jambo House is an old Swahili house run by Arnold, a German expat, who was super nice and spent the next 20 minutes explaining everything in Lamu including where to eat, what to see and do.  We then set off in the night to wander the streets of Lamu (it’s that safe!) with the aid of my headlamp – for those who made fun of my headlamp, I told you it would come in handy one day! We found a thatch-roofed restaurant by the seafront and ordered barracuda fillet with coconut rice and mango juice.  The fish was simply prepared (salt, pepper and lime) but so delicious because it was freshly caught that day by local fishermen! At night on the rooftop of Jambo House, we saw so many stars – such a surreal moment to be lying on a rooftop of a Swahili House in a small town on the coast of Kenya gazing at the stars.

The next morning, Arnold prepared us an amazing breakfast on the rooftop which helped fuel us for the scorching day of wandering around Lamu.  The town is situated 2 degrees south of the equator by the Indian Ocean so the heat plus the humidity made it feel like we were in a sauna.  That coupled by walking around the town, and I was sweating off all the food I had consumed in India.  Even with the scorching heat, most women are covered up from head to toe in a black bui bui since it’s a very devoutly Muslim town.  We walked along the main street which is as wide as an alley in North America, all the while people were super friendly and pointing us in the right direction whenever we got lost (which happened a lot since the streets are all so narrow and windy, imagine the chase scene at the beginning of Inception when Leo had to squeeze through narrow streets).  We also walked along the seafront and saw all the dhows, sail boats, fishing boats and speed boats.  Since there were not that many tourists here, by the end of the second day, everyone knew us and would ask us how our day went doing whatever activity we had planned.  That night, I treated myself to a much needed massage.  After months of sleeping on uncomfortable and saggy mattresses, my back had developed a permanent kink.  Charity, the massage therapist, was very nice and was able to pull off an intense massage even in 35+ degree weather.  While I got my massage, Tamara was beautifully decorated with henna paintings on her arms and legs by a local Swahili woman.  Her niece came along who sand us Arabic songs about the Prophet Mohammed and his mother Amina.

The next morning, feeling refreshed, we went on a cooking class with a local Swahili woman named Dida and she showed up with her adorable 3 year old daughter, Nana.  We first walked to the local market near the town square to buy the ingredients for our feast.  We went to the fish market and saw the local fishermen selling their just-caught fish.  It was so interesting to see that even the sight of hundreds of flies buzzing around didn’t turn me off.  Next was the vegetable market where we bought tomatoes, onions, garlic, chilli peppers, okra, carrots and potatoes for under $3! We also picked up some fresh coconuts, rice  and curry powder from a nearby store.  Then we walked back to Dida’s house – Nana leading the way – which is on the first floor of a old Swahili house near Jambo House.  Her grandmother, who is this sweet old lady (reminded me of the Aboriginal woman from the Simpsons movie) welcomed us and Dida gave us a tour of her house.  Her kitchen is a small room with only one window, a tap and a drain.  All of the cooking was done on the floor over a clay stove the size of a mop pail.  Dida loaded up the stove with charcoal and started a fire with kerosene.  Then we went outside to pick fresh bilimbi from a nearby tree – well, actually Nana did it since she was the only one we could hoist over the fence.  Bilimbi is a local vegetable which is a mix of cucumber and lime.  It was so good just eating it raw off the tree.  Back in the kitchen, Dida showed us how to grate a coconut using this wooden stool contraption specifically designed to grate coconuts.  Basically, it’s a small bench with a serrated knife on one end.  We gave it a try but since neither Tamara or I have much experience cooking or have any arm muscle, Dida put us to shame with her skills.  She then peeled and cut up all the vegetables using one knife (no cutting board!).  Another contraption she used was a woven sock-like tube made out of coconut leaves to get the milk out of the coconut grating.  Throughout the rest of the morning, while she was cooking, children and other women would come in and out of her house – some to say hi and others to get water from her tap.  A boy came in wearing a traditional wedding kurta so Dida started making fun of him saying today was the day he was to get married.  Nana popped in a bunch of times with her friends and always with a new candy that someone bought her since she’s just that cute.  Dida told us more about her life in Lamu and before we knew it, the food was all prepared and it was time to eat! We all sat down on her living/sitting room floor and dug into the tasty dishes she prepared.  First, we had grilled tuna with coconut rice and a tomato/carrot-based curry.  Then, stir-fried okra, bilimbi with onion and chili oil and to wash it all down, fresh tamarind juice.  It was the best meal we’ve had so far on this Africa trip and definitely did not taste like it was made on the floor of an old Swahili kitchen.  After eating and digesting over photos that Nana brought out to show off, we sadly said good-bye and promised to keep in touch.

With our swollen bellies, we took a speed boat to nearby Shella Beach.  Then spent the rest of the afternoon itis-napping on the beach and trying to digest our massive lunch by splashing around in the crystal blue water.  One of the local beach boys tried to get our attention by doing handstands and back flips on the beach which we thought was hilarious.  The hospitality of Lamu continued in Shella and when the beach boy got the hint that we weren’t going to fall in love with his gymnastic/acrobatic skills, he left us alone.

The next morning, we woke up early to take a bus from Lamu to Mombasa.  First, we had to take the public dhow to the main land and that was a feat in itself.  The dhow broke down in the middle of the 20 minute voyage and for a second, I just imagined how I would be able to swim with my 16kg pack to continue the journey.  After some tinkering of the engine by one of the boatmen, it started up again and we were on our way (or so I thought).  On the mainland, we boarded our bus and immediately realized it was a sauna on wheels.  The windows were a welcome break from the heat but with that also brought in all the dust from the dirt road we were bouncing around on.  After 10 minutes, we were covered in a film of sweat and dirt – how attractive!  Thirty minutes into our ride, the bus got a flat tire in the middle of nowhere and everyone got out to help/observe/take a bathroom break in the bush.  Surprisingly, the bus driver and some men from the bus got the tire changed in record time and we were finally on our way again.  Throughout all my travels, I’ve never been on a more interesting bus ride than this one.  Along the way, we saw small towns of just mud huts, small children suddenly appearing from the bush onto the side of the road, women balancing huge buckets on their head and we were just transported to a place that I couldn’t have ever imagined.  The coolest thing was seeing the rain (yes, surprisingly I welcome the rain, you would too in 35+ degree weather) and in Kenya’s rainy season, it doesn’t rain for long.  Only individual clouds would produce rain so if we drove by it or the cloud blew by, the rain would stop.  Another unbelievable sight was seeing local children and women scoop up rain water in buckets from puddles by the dirt road after it had recently rained.  With the water shortage in Kenya, this is normal.  Even with such lack of basic neccessities, the friendliness and helpfulness of Kenyans was amazing.  We picked up this little girl along the way and since she didn’t have a ticket, some of the people on the bus helped fashion a makeshift seat in the aisle using luggage and whatever else they could find so she could sit comfortably for the 8 hour trip.  As I was dozing off in the hot bus, all of a sudden, I heard a clucking sound and turned around to see a chicken! A man was traveling with his family and had a chicken in his hand while his wife was holding a baby the same size of the chicken.  I must have had a look of shock in my eyes because the locals around me starting laughing and were yelling, “yes, chicken chicken!” I would have never in my life ever thought that I would be sharing a bus ride with a chicken (that wasn’t in a KFC bucket).

We finally reached Mombasa which is on the south-east coast of Kenya and caught a Likoni ferry to cross on our way to Tiwi Beach.  There were so many people waiting for the ferry that I felt like we were in that ferry scene in War of the Worlds (clearly from all the movie references in this post, I watch a lot of movies).  I saw old ladies, who moments ago were hobbling around, outrun young men for a spot on the ferry – and carrying large bags too! We finally crossed and jumped into a taxi to take us to the remote Tiwi Beach south of Mombasa.  When we got to Coral Cove Cottages, it was already dark but a security guard showed us to our cottage.  It was massive! There were 2 rooms, a full kitchen, dining room table/chairs, a L-shaped couch and coffee table and a huge veranda with a perfect view of the beach.  We spent the next 4 days cooking food (tried to emulate Dida’s cooking with some success), lying on the beach, lazing around on the veranda, talking to local beach boys (and counseling them on their love lives – many have long distance relationships with tourists from/in Europe and they don’t understand what they want) and trying to keep the monkeys out of the cottage (there are menacing monkeys that hang out in the trees by the cottage and they are quick!).  For food, we bought fresh fruits, vegetables and sea food from locals that would come by every morning on their bicycles.  It was such a relaxing couple of days and so peaceful since there was no one else on the beach.  It rained a few times but definitely a welcome break from the stifling heat.  The beach was very nice and perfect for sun bathing in the late afternoons because it was so quiet.  Even after visiting so many beaches around the world, there’s something different about beaches in Africa.  Maybe it’s the relaxing atmosphere devoid of any distractions, technology or stress but I could spend hours on the beach just doing nothing at all.  I better get used to it because next we’ll be traveling to Zanzibar Island in Tanzania for another string of beach bumming!

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Kenyan safari: I’m in The Lion King!!

Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Where to begin? I’m finally in Africa and I haven’t stopped smiling since! I landed in Nairobi, Kenya on Monday and met Tamara at the airport – ever since then, we’ve been talking non-stop about all the unbelievable sights we’ve experienced.

We woke up early Tuesday morning to start our 4 day safari excursion.  Our guide, Joel, drove us out of Nairobi all while passing lush, green, hilly landscapes and colourful buildings.  He even taught us some Swahili (jambo = hello, asante = thank you).  We drove through the Great Rift Valley which was massive! There were mountains surrounding it and the view from the top of the valley was so pretty.  The air was so clean and all along the valley, the clouds casted shadows on the fields below like leopard spots.  In the valley, there was a small town, some Maasai villages and a satellite station for communications.  All along the road that passed through the valley, there were Maasai tribesmen – mostly herding flocks of cows, goats and sheep.  They were all dressed up in colourful blankets/shawls and walking with tall sticks.  They were very tall and regal looking when the wind billowed through their shawls.  We stopped off in Narok to get gas and the touts automatically flocked to our van.  However, they were extremely nice and not pushy at all.  They were very talkative and light-hearted – offering to go on the safari with us and teaching us the Swahili word “mzungu” which means white person or foreigners.  At the end, they gave us their email addresses and made us promise to keep in touch even though we had no interest in buying any of their trinkets – just another example of Kenya hospitality!

We finally reached the camp outside of the Masai Mara National Reserve (Otomlé Camp) and we couldn’t believe it.  Our “room” was a large permanent tent fully furnished with canopy beds draped with mosquito nets, matching wooden night tables, coffee tables, chairs and even a large chest.  We had to wait till the porters left (by the way, every porter thinks my backpack will be light until they pick it up and realize it’s a rock – the look of surprise and struggle on their face is pretty funny) and then burst out in giddy laughter.  We ate some home cooked lunch – beef stir fry and veggies and then set off for our first game drive.

Our safari van’s roof popped open so we could stand and stick out heads out to view the beautiful scenery and exotic animals.  We drove up to the park gates and immediately inside of it, I knew we were in animal paradise! We first spotted zebras grazing – I couldn’t believe my eyes! They were so calm and quietly eating grass intermixed between other grazing animals like gazelles, antelopes and impalas (only in North America do we associate impalas with cop cars).  Their stripes were so contrasting and their heads were so big like a donkey.  We drove a bit more through rolling green hills, lots of vegetation and lone trees (picture your typically safari photo with a tree).  All of a sudden, we saw a group of giraffes eating from trees! There were about 5 of them and just minding their business while all of us tourists were eagerly snapping away with our cameras.  Apparently, they don’t often go into clearings because they prefer to hang out by heavily forested areas on the hills where they have an abundance of food.  We drove a bit further on the dirt road – while being tossed around like a rag doll in the van, I still have bruises but it’s so worth it – and saw a group of elephants! They were all female elephants with their babies because male elephants only come around during mating season – typical guy behaviour.  Female elephants only have 1 baby but males can have more than one mate.  As we were driving along the fields, the van caused packs of gazelles and antelopes to gallop along the fields just like in those National Geographic documentaries.  We saw a lot of water buffaloes, bush bucks and even warthogs (Pumba!).  All along the drive, we were trying to look for lions and thought that every rock, dirt pile and dead tree trunk was a lion.  It was finally Joel who spotted a pride (that’s a group of lions) in the distance and as we got close, I couldn’t believe it but they didn’t move at all.  We saw that being the lazy animals they are, they were all sleeping and lounging around.  There was 1 male lion surrounded by a pack of lionesses lying in the grass.  The male had a huge black and golden mane (hence Black Maned Lion) which dwarfed the rest of his body.  He was so lazy that he slept on his back with all four legs sticking in the air.  He finally woke up and couldn’t stop yawning so you could see his sharp teeth.  The lionesses were just lying around too, keeping a close eye on their cubs.  Apparently, lionesses can have up to 12 cubs but there’s usually only 1 male lion in the pride unless it’s mating season.  Also, lions usually hunt only 3 times per week if they snag a water buffalo but more often if it’s a smaller animal and they usually only hunt at night.  They’re also territorial so you’ll usually find them in the same spots, just lying around.

We finally left the park as the sun was setting and drove back to the camp for dinner.  In the night, Tamara and I recapped our day and couldn’t believe it! We just keep on singing songs from Lion King and giggling with giddiness.  At night, we went outside to look at the stars and there were so many! The entire night sky was twinkling so brightly and we would’ve stayed outside longer but a bat came swooping around our heads so we conceded defeat and retreated to our tent.

The next morning, we woke up super early at 5:30am to go on a morning game drive in Masai Mara and saw most of the animals from the day before.  The sun rising in the distance against the vast plateaus and hills was so beautiful and also very peaceful.  We saw another pride of lions sleeping but even closer this time.  We also saw a group of elephants – I started taking a video when one of them started peeing and pooing at the same time! We just burst out in laughter (for those who know Tamara and I well, this is a regular source of entertainment).  All along the 2 hour drive, we saw zebras and other grazing animals.  We then left the park to go visit a Maasai village which was something I often joked about before leaving on my trip but actually became a reality! The chief’s son came to greet us and showed us around.  He showed us the village and the huts which are built in a circle with a fence made out of twigs surrounding it.  They keep all their herds in the middle of the circle to protect them from dangerous animals like the lions we had just seen.  There are entrances around the fence where they let the herd in/out and the gate is actually just a bunch of twigs.  There was also a smaller pen inside the village with a fence made out of thorny branches were they keep the smaller animals like sheep and goats.  The huts are all made out of dried cow dung and branches – surprisingly they didn’t smell at all! We went inside one of the huts and it was so awesome to see! The cow dung really insulates the hut and there’s a small fire with a ventilation window to cook food over.  The beds are made from cow hides and there’s one bed for the couple and one for their children.  The Maasai warriors then performed a dance for us and even got us to join in on their dancing, jumping, chanting and grunting! They were all adorned with red shawls (apparently, lions don’t like the colour red), head dresses, necklaces, belts with a hanging spear and walking sticks.  The chief’s son told us that warriors are normally males aged 18-30 and stop being a warrior after they get married.  Warriors are the ones who stand at guard at night at the gates along the fence to make sure no dangerous animals come by.  They’re all so tall and lanky and they can jump very high as well.  It was such an amazing experience, I can’t even properly describe it.  They were also very nice and started conversations with us (Where are you from? Are you married? etc).  Next, some of the warriors showed us how they start a fire just by rubbing a stick through another piece of flatted wood and also some of their tattoos made from pressing the fire stick against their skin.  The women showed us their bead making and we picked up some elephant tail bracelets.  The chief’s son told us more about his village and how he’s next in line to be the chief after his 96 year old father passes away although I doubt it will be anytime soon since we saw him walking around lively and full of life.  One chief can have up to 20 wives so this village only housed one family and in this family, there were 36 children.  They also move every 8 years once the houses start crumbling and they only eat meat because they don’t farm anything.  They chose their village location by the proximity to the bush and water since they bathe/go to the bathroom in the nearby river.  We finally said bye to everyone and I still couldn’t believe what we had experienced – everyone was so laid back and just happy go lucky.

Next, we drove to Lake Naivasha and went on a boat safari.  We saw lots of hippos which were massive (they weigh up to 2 tonnes!) and just chilling near the surface of the shallow water. Apparently, they don’t like boats because the waves cause water to go up their noses.  Hippos are always in groups and can only have 1 baby.  We also saw many storks, eagles, water bucks and other birdlife.  We then docked by a nearby island and went on a walking safari to see bush bucks, zebras and impalas.  I couldn’t believe how close we got.  Tamara even befriended a baby impala which was probably born the day before because it couldn’t stand, walk or see too well.  It kept on falling so Tamara would have to pick it up and it would start following us around again – it was so cute! We finally said goodbye to our new friend (who we named Tambi after Tamara and Bambi) so it could find its mother in the herd nearby.  Our resort in Lake Naivasha, Sopa Lodge, was really nice with a sunk in bath tub and couches which faced a patio which then faced a large grazing field where you can spot giraffes, hippos, monkeys and bush bucks.  For dinner, we gorged ourselves on the buffet which included a BBQ and lots of typical Kenya dishes like stewed vegetables and curries which are less spicy than Indian ones.

The next morning, we drove to Lake Nakuru and checked into our game lodge (Sarova Lion Hill Game Lodge) inside the park.  The resort was beautifully situated on the side of a hill and integrated so nicely into the surrounding landscape.  We then went on a game drive around Lake Nakuru which is a large body of salt water.  It’s unique because a fresh water river feeds into it but the lake bed is naturally salty so it makes the entire lake salt water.  We drove to the shore and saw thousands of pelicans! I was so scared they would poop on me (remember I’ve been pooped on 7 times now) but I was willing to take the risk to watch these large birds (probably half my size) take off and land.  They flapped their wings to clean the bugs off of themselves and would follow a leader around in large groups.  At one point, there were hundreds of pelicans flying over us making lots of noise.  We also saw lots of flamingos in the lake just chilling.  We drove a bit more along the shore and saw white rhinos! They are also very big and slow movers but apparently they can charge at cars so we kept our distance.  They weigh about 300 lbs and are very picky about the grass they eat.  We also saw a black rhino cross the road just ahead of our van which was very surprising.  Along the drive, we saw the typical zebras, gazelles, water buffalos and water bucks.  It’s funny to say “typical” since 4 days ago, I would’ve never thought that seeing zebras was typical but in Kenya, they’re everywhere (even along the highways, like seeing deer or cows in rural parts of Canada)! We then drove up to Baboon Cliff and the views of the lake below were breath taking. The sun shining through the clouds created rays of light on the lake’s surface (imagine the opening credits of The Simpsons).  We saw a slew of water buffalos make their way across the plains to a watering hole.  On the cliff, there were a pack of baboons which surprisingly weren’t that menacing.  They were just sitting there picking bugs off of each other.  They looked very different from the monkeys we had seen earlier in Lake Naivasha and the monkeys I had seen in India or Indonesia.  They have long black faces, grey fur and hard butts which made us giggle (yes, we’re immature).  Odd fact: the butts of the female baboons turn red when they’re in heat

The next morning, we started the long drive back to Nairobi, all while listening to Joel’s gospel music which made the journey seem like a movie montage.  We stopped by the Giraffe Centre which is such a great initiative.  They started the sanctuary because the Rothschild subspecies of giraffes were endangered with only 150 in all of Kenya. Through education and conservation efforts, they were able to double the number to 300! We got to feed the giraffes pellets of food and they would eat the pellets out of our hands! Their tongues are very rough and slimy but they are very friendly animals and let us pet them.  I even put a pellet between my lips and the giraffe ate it (I essentially kissed a giraffe!).  The guide told us that their saliva is an antiseptic – I don’t know if I believe this or if he just said that so naive foreigners would let a giraffe kiss them.

We then drove to our campsite in Nairobi and said good bye to Joel.  He was such an accommodating guide, patiently answering the millions of questions we asked him and enduring the cackling laughter in the back seat during the long drives.  I must say that this is definitely the high point of my trip so far (sorry Taj Mahal).  I still can’t believe everything that we’ve experienced so far and it’s only day 5 into a 3 month stay in Africa!

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