Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Walk on the Wild Side

Before I begin, there are a couple of generalizations I need to make. I usually abhor generalizations, so I have to admit these are based on my limited experiences thus far. The first one is that people here are Obamamaniacs in a positive sense. We have seen dozens of Obama stickers on cars as well as numerous people wearing Obama t-shirts. When we have spoken to people about it, they respond with toothy grins while letting us know this is his heritage. His paternal grandmother is alive, well, and looks well below her 72 years of age. Apparently, the US State Department is not aware of this in their travel warnings.

Next, all of the people we have encountered as staff members, be it in hotels, restaurants or other service industry providers, have not only been extremely solicitous, but highly professionally trained. Nothing seems to be too grandiose a request for them. They will do their best to fulfill it regardless of how many stars are attributed to their establishment.

We have not encountered one person, including security guards with big-ass machine guns, who has not been soft-spoken. They all seem to speak as if they are whispering a secret for your ears only. There is a real charm to this mannerism.

Besides being non-smoking, Nairobi is clean. More than once I had to take notice of how clean the streets are. There is not a single piece of litter anywhere. Of course, the smoking ban aids in not having cigarette butts all over, but there is not a single piece of paper on the streets either. The streets are not littered with trash cans to influence this cleanliness, so my only guess is that the people take pride in their environment. On that note, a number of hotels "harvest" rain water to recycle and have solar panels to cut down on their electric usage. As a green ecological country, Kenya could teach Hungary a few things. They could teach Hungary personnel a number of things about service.

Kenya is primarily Catholic. We passed literally dozens of monasteries, convents, Catholic schools and Catholic universities. The second most common religion is Islam. In addition to these, there are missionaries aplenty with little roadside churches all over the country.

As I had written in the past, we had transferred 2,000 Euros to the safari travel agency who was organizing our entire trip. The balance was to be paid on arrival. After we had settled into our hotel, Esther, the Kuja Safaris company manager had her assistant call to say that we would finalize the payment when they came to pick us up at the start of our safari. That was today. We did not know for sure when they were picking us up, so we were nervous. Two thousand Euros were gone from our account with nothing to show for it, but an e-mail. On a positive note, Ron had bombarded Esther with questions, queries, and suggestions. With each one, she answered promptly, professionally, and with complete grace.

Today, we were able to finally meet Esther from Ajah Safaris. She is young, beautiful, and just a wisp of a woman, but a real dynamo. No one else signed up for our trip, so it will be the two of us with Joseph, our driver/guide. It could have been up to six people. We were looking forward to the camaraderie of being with others, but this turned out to be perfect. We have plenty of room to spread out in the van. On the way to our first stop, Esther pointed out a sign and said this is a non-bribery zone in government; it includes the entire downtown area. I told her we had one of those in Washington, DC too, but it was only five square feet. We stopped at her company office, which could be an exaggeration. The office is about the size of our pantry without the shelving. Each business in their office building has just about the same space, including a barbershop. As we walked to her office, everyone came out of their little rooms to greet her and us. Esther and her assistant Winnie are charming, professional, and jubilant about being of service. She made the comment that the bank is going to call her to say "Esther, where did all of this money come from all of a sudden?" This begs the question, has business been really poor?

With final payments concluded, we rejoined Joseph to start our journey. He warned us that based on traffic; it could be from 5-7 hours drive. What we were not prepared for were the roads. Once we left Nairobi, where even there, the roads are not all surfaced, the rest of the roads are primarily dirt with ruts. If you can imagine those beds that some cheap motels used to have where you insert a coin and the bed vibrates, set that in your mind. Now, imagine that vibrating bed on a small ship in the middle of the ocean during a hurricane. That will give you sense of what the drive was like. There were not potholes, but gullies. Much of the road looked like corrugated dirt going across the road, not in the direction of driving. Every fifty miles, there could have been a sign that showed "Caution: Smooth surface for the next ten feet. Drive carefully, it will not last." For the first three hours, we were shaken, rattled, and rolled, before stopping for a break where Joseph shared that we were half-way there. For me, all of that vibration is relaxing and puts me to sleep. It was never verified, but I swear my mother was a quality insurance inspector for a Pogo stick company while pregnant with me. She became so proficient, it became her main means of transportation. Movement sends me to dreamland, which is why I have such difficulty sleeping in a stable bed; I need the motion to get me in the mood for meeting the Sandman. What makes this so difficult is that any drive over an hour, I get motion narcaleptic.  

When I asked where I could have a cigarette, he laughed and said anywhere you want. Nairobi is the only place where they take that law seriously, anywhere else in the country; you can smoke where you want. So much for laws.

When we finally reached the road that announced our lodge, I had this sinking feeling that our budget accommodations were going to be really budget. Driving down this long road, I prepared for the worst, but was greeted with something out of a magazine. We were staying at the Kibo Safari Campground at the entrance to the Ambeseli Game Reserve, best known for its herds of elephants. The reception is in a huge thatched building, made with all local woods. A gracious young woman greeted us with cold wet towels to wash our hands and face, while another greeted us with fruit juice. A young man appeared out of nowhere to take our suitcases to our tent. If you have ever heard the expression "My idea of camping is a hotel without room service", it closely described my ideas about camping. I was a Cub Scout, Weblo, and Boy Scout through Eagle. I had my fill of tents, sleeping bags, and backaches thank you very much. When we were told they would bring us to our tent, I had unkind thoughts. Glory to heaven, the tent has a permanent front veranda with sun screening on two sides. Inside, there are two twin beds, a full bathroom, including a shower. Each bed has a mosquito net over it and it is equipped with electric lights including a front porch light, but we were asked not to use the electric until after 6pm. This style of camping I can handle. Bring it on, baby!

Invited to please come to lunch once we were settled in our tent, the invitation was given with sincerety. All meals are served in a dining room, similarly fashioned to the reception area. They are all buffet style, but every table is assigned a waiter to get your drink order and to clear your dishes as soon as you finish with it. They do pamper in the best sense of the word. From what I have discovered after lunch and dinner is that both of those meals offer a soup, a choice of 8 different salad ingredients, 3 entrees, and 2-3 dessert selections. Lunch service ends at 3:30, dinner is served from 7:30 to 9:30 pm.

At 4:30, Joseph had us meeting up with him for a late afternoon safari drive in Amboseli National Game Reserve. We were going to drive around for about 2 hours. Just want we wanted after 6 hours on the road, more roads that will test whether or not a soul can be shaken loose from its host body. The drive was productive. We saw a number of elephants, particularly what this reserve is known for, but most animals were far enough from the road to get that WOW experience we have had in the past. Hippos, Crown cranes, hyenas, jackals, 2 lions, zebras, and others were spotted, but a telephoto lens or binoculars were needed for most of them. I have higher hopes for the rest of the safaris.

As I sit on our porch, patio, veranda, whatever it is, I am watching the monkeys play in the trees about one hundred yards away. In the background is Mount Kilamajaro. There is a swimming pool with an elevated deck, but we need to get up early for a full day game drive tomorrow, so we will forfeit a dip tonight. I can certainly live with this type of camping.

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