Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Birthday Greetings

Today is my birthday so after breakfast, I checked e-mails and found a few Facebook "Happy Birthday" greetings and two electronic cards that I could not open. The Internet access is over at 4pm today and I will not renew it. It is too easy for me to get distracted with the computer.

I convinced Ron that we should return to the second tour office to book our forest excursion tomorrow. When we reached it, one of the employees was standing downstairs trying to prompt other tourists to check them out too. After twenty minutes of talking, we were all set. The car will come for us at 7am and return us at 3pm. We paid 7,500 shillings per person and we have to pay $20 per person at the gate to the national park.

When we left, Amos, the salesman who we initially ran into downstairs, was there again. He asked what we were planning for today. We told him we did Old Town and Fort Jesus partially, not impressed enough to return. However, our first goal was to find an ATM machine that would take MasterCard. Naturally, he knew which of the plethora of banks did accept the MC cards and offered to walk us there. All the while he was telling us about this "cultural center" run by a university where 8 tribes from Kenya are represented. He made it sound so interesting, but my 'shyster' radar was on high alert. I am not sure if it was because it was my birthday or just age in general, I thought we should give this well groomed, well-spoken young man  a chance. We decided this was something we should see. At that moment, we thought Amos was going to tell us how to get there, end of story. We did not know the story was just starting.

The first thing you need to know is that the public transportation went on strike as of yesterday. Before getting any gradiose ideas of the transportation system, let me clue you in. The entire system is based on matattas. What is a matatta, you ask? These are normal vans that act as buses. Each authorized van has a yellow stripe across the side showing their destination. They stop at matatta stops like a bus would, but there is no schedule or route listed at the stops. To know where to get a matatta going where you want to go or where to get off is in-bred knowledge transferred down through the local gene pool. For a foreigner it is a game of twenty questions or more trying to figure out the system. Each matatta is privately owned and operated, but they must belong to the Matatta Association in order to operate legally. They were striking due to the police stopping them unnecessarily along the routes and asking for bribes. Even with a strike, there were a few still driving. Amos took us to the stop. A car pulled up and he wanted to shove us in it. There were already 3 passengers and no room for Ron and I unless we sprawled over the other bodies. We said no way. A matatta ride runs 60 shillings.

With this strike, Amos said he negotiated with a taxi driver to take the three of us for 300 shillings. Suddenly, Amos was part of our group. Another man was already in the taxi going the same direction as we were. He was in the front passenger side. His long greasy wavy hair that he attempted to tuck into his little cap and down his collar combined with the beard, glasses, and crazed look on his face brought visions of Richard Reid the American shoe bomber. With a temperature in the 90s, his over-sized shirt that resembled long underwear and the vest he wore over it did make me uneasy.  

All during our forty-five minute ride, I had visions of being part of a suicide bombing scheme. Once we left the hustle of the city, I was able to relax a bit. It would be pointless for a suicide bomber to waste himself in the outskirts of the city. When we reached Movi University, I was relieved. All I had was a 5oo shilling note, but the driver could not make change. He promised to credit us for the ride home. Amos took his number to call when we were ready.

Entrance to the center was 850 shillings (8.50 euros) for each of us, but residents were free, so we did not have to pay for Amos. Our guide was Michael, a student at the university working on his diploma in Tourism and Culture. He was working at the center as part of his internship. We were the only visitors that day. In order to educate Kenyan children of the different cultures within the country, they opened this center that was once a quarry for limestone. Amongst the trees and plants that were introduced over 30 years ago, they have created 8 tribal areas. Each area contains housing built according to that particular tribe and looks like a small version of that tribe's village. There is one resident at each area, a tribal person that lives there all year to explaing their way of life and customs. Each tribal person speaks their own language, so Michael was the interpreter. The person, sometimes a man and other times a woman, would show us inside their hut, where parents and children slept, how they cooked, weapons if they used them, what their tribal customs are. Some are hunters, some are gatherers, others a combination of both. One tribe sustains itself on crocodiles and hippos exclusively. At each village, we would spend fifteen to twenty-five minutes. Michael was an excellent guide. I could not conceive of living alone all year away from your entire tribe. Michael said they do take a week or more sometimes to visit home, but someone else from the tribe has to come to replace them.

At the end, there is the gift shop, where women from the university are working doing their darnedest to get people to buy souvenirs, mostly same-same as everywhere else. They were tough salespeople making it difficult to refuse. Finally, we compromised on a bookmark and bottle of water to get her off my back. Then we had to watch the Masai tribe dance, though we said we already saw it in Masai Mara. These guys were hanging around waiting for some tourist to pop up so there was no way of getting out of it. After they were done, they wanted to sell us a CD of their music. Hardly an enticement. Then there was the 'request' for a donation for the performance, another 500 shillings (5 euros).

Amos was trying to get our driver, but he was out at the airport on the other side of the city. We sat and had a drink speaking with Michael and Amos about the state of affairs of Kenya. Both are educated and eloquent speakers. They repeatedly said it was up to young people like them to make changes, but the old guard kept the talented youth from making inroads into the professions. They claim the unemployment rate here is 60%. Young people are getting educated, but then cannot find jobs. Sounded like a familiar story worldwide. What was interesting was their take on tourism. They said that after clashes happen, it takes 3 years for the tourists to return. BBC and CNN give unfavorable reports on the tribal clashes causing undue worry, but those who would have come, put it off. In 2012, they will have the next presidential election. Michael said that after each election there are major problems with rioting and tribal conflicts. He predicts this will dissuade tourism once again.

We waited for over an hour for our driver who was no closer to picking us up than he was earlier. Amos called a fried with a tuk-tuk who appeared suddenly. He was willing to tranport us back for 1,000 shillings (10 euros). Fine, we kissed our 2 euro credit from the first driver good-bye, but we needed to get back. We agreed. We gave Michael a 500 shilling (5 euros) tip for the tour after he made it clear how expensive an education was when you could not work during an internship or while classes were being held.

The tuk-tuk ride was wild to say the least, but we took it in stride. Amos did not. He backseat drove the entire time, screaming at the driver for taking unnecessary chances with passing, barely missing pedestrians, and making turns. When we first started, the tuk-tuk kept losing gears. We had to stop a half dozen times for adjustments. When we finally reached town, he dropped us off about 1/4 mile from the hotel, why, I am uncertain. Amos continued to follow us like a puppy when we stopped at a supermarket to pick up a couple of beers and bag of peanuts. He asked if we could buy him a drink, so chose a yogurt one. Finally, I realized the only way to shake him was to tip him. Though we could probably have made our way without him, it would have been extremely complicated. He was excellent company and pure enjoyment to speak with, so I handed him 1,000 shillings (10 euros). After thanking me, he said "I don't want to impose and if you cannot it is fine, but I have to buy a book for my son's primary school. It costs 1,500 shillings, so if you could give me another 500 shillings (5 euros), I can go right to the store and buy it before going home." I handed him the money.

When we were back at the hotel, we realized we had spent most of what the local bank would allow us to take out in one offering. Just enough for dinner was left. We went to the Blue Room Restaurant. Signs everywhere said self-serve, but a young man told us to have a seat and took our order. Again, I thought maybe he really doesn't work here and just gets orders for the unsuspecting. As it turned out, he did indeed work there. It was a cheap meal, but tasty. Back at the hotel, we had a pot of tea and a piece of chocolate cake while Ron sang a rendition of Happy Birthday.  The Disney Corporation had the song copyrighted so anyone singing it on restaurants in the US, movies, commercials, etc. have to pay royalties to Disney. Fortunately, Mickey Mouse was no where in sight.
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