Thursday, February 23, 2012

Nina's Africa Diary, Part I

Africa Diary, Part I
Khaki Fever

by Nina Griscom

On Jan 12th,  2012, I returned to Africa for the second time in the past 18 months, to visit Kenya and Tanzania, with a group of 13 ladies led by Krista Krieger, the Chair of the Africa Foundation Board.

Our fearless leader, Krista Krieger.
In 2010, some of this same intrepid group (including me) visited Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zambia; combining a luxurious safari experience with community service.

The Africa Foundation’s mission is directed towards building school rooms, medical clinics, water supplies, and kitchens in Southern and East Africa. Our recent visit to East Africa illuminated the difference in the cost of building infrastructure there, versus South Africa, where construction is less expensive, and the maintenance of systems is more evolved.

Traveling to Africa on safari is not for the faint of heart; it is a rugged trip, characterized by a somewhat nomadic lifestyle; moving every 3 days to different camps over rocky, sun-baked dirt roads (a chiropractor’s nightmare), flying in single engine planes over vast uninhabited territory, and enduring all manner of physical discomfort in the name of seeing the most amazing wildlife in its natural habitat; and visiting far-flung local communities.

Krista Krieger could have been/should have been a three-star general in another life. Several months before our date of departure, she emailed all of us going on the trip a suggested reading list, a packing manifest, and also organized the booking of flights. This is not her job ... but due to her passion for Africa, and her work in the communities, she does her utmost to see that we all have the best and most seamless experience possible. She deserves all the kudos in the world for creating a safari which is nonpareil.

Jan 12th. Our group of 13 ladies left New York for Nairobi on Swiss Air, with a stop in Zurich. All was perfect, and on time. Very Swiss. God Bless them. I definitely would recommend Swiss Air to anyone. Sadly, US carriers are not what they used to be.

New York to Nairobi on Swiss Air.
I used up all my miles for Business Class seats, and happily hunkered down in my comfortable flat bed when wheels were up; a sound sleep for 7 hours! It did occur to me that we would be in the air on Friday the 13th, but I did my best to suppress this superstition. Excellent service throughout.

You may have heard that Nairobi is akin to the OK Corral. That IS the case, and then some. Somali pirates, rogue gangs, and all manner of thieves seem to have a degree of free rein in this town.

As such, Krista booked our group at the elegant and well known Ngong House, in Karen (a suburb named after Karen Blixen), located a safe 40 minutes from the center of town.

We were met at the Nairobi International Airport by Mike Karantonis, the über-South African Ranger who would accompany us throughout our trip.

Mike, who has been on Safari with Krista in the past, would turn out to be our greatest asset; a virtual university of bush knowledge, and one of the kindest people I have ever met.
Jeeps from camp waiting to greet us on the landing strip.
We were transferred by several Jeeps to Ngong House. As we drove through the center of Nairobi, I rolled down the window and inhaled the air; equal parts of burning rubber tires, fresh manure, and rotting garbage. Not quite as good as Delhi, but nevertheless ripe. I am happiest when I first inhale the identifying smell of a place; the more exotic the aroma, the happier I am! This point of view was not  necessarily shared by all the members of our group ...

When we approached the road which intersected with the route to Ngong House, we were informed that this was the very spot where Lord Erroll (White Mischief; the Murder of Lord Erroll, A True Story of Aristocracy, Alcohol and Adultery by James Fox) was murdered in 1941. I was fascinated, as this case – that went unsolved for 66 years (solved in 2007) has captivated me ever since seeing the film, White Mischief in the 1980s, directed by a family friend, Alan Pakula.

Ngong House (swallow the N when in Nairobi) is comfortable luxury. Not over the top, but full of charm and amenities. The fact that the in-house Labrador Retriever is named Diamond says something.
A tree house at Ngong House outside of Nairobi.
All of the guest accommodations are ‘Tree Houses.' This is not quite as literal as it sounds from the written word. The guest structures are accessed by virtue of walkways, and are nestled into trees in varying degrees of height. Not exactly your average backyard tree house as we know them, but definitely fabulous and fun.

Imagine my dismay when I overheard Krista telling the management team that I should have the “lowest tree house” ... a kind consideration which implied my lack of physical stamina. I may have been a senior member of the group, but this consideration was really galling!! A sign on my door clearly stated that dogs were NOT allowed to spend the night with guests. No alternatives were mentioned.

Once we had settled in (only the uninitiated unpacked) for the one night stay, we all congregated in a small rustic adjoining structure; a dream for an Architectural Digest shoot. A delicious dinner at a long table set for 14 with crisp linens, gleaming flatware, fresh flowers, and candlelight welcomed us to our first resting place in Africa.
Our guide Mike Karantonis and me.
Our first diner in Africa at Ngong House. After dinner, I retreated to the bath tub (a dug-out canoe!) in my tree house.
Breakfast in the garden at Ngong House.
I was lucky to be seated next to Mike and Krista at dinner, and got the gist of what was to come the next day. After a delectable dinner of  squash soup, fresh perch, vegetables and crepes for dessert, we headed off to bed early. I had a soothing hot bath (in the dugout canoe which served as my bathtub, brought from the coast by the owners of the establishment), and went to sleep to the sound of dogs baying, hoping not to see any Somali pirates!

Up at 8am and had a brilliant breakfast in the garden. Mike, our ranger lives for the bush, and couldn’t wait to get going into the wild. However, there was one looming impediment: the GIFT SHOP at the hotel, which housed chic, upscale horn jewelry, created by Penny Winter and her partner Ashley Pittman. Knowing that it was all locally produced made it even more appealing.

The girls sell all of this gorgeous stuff at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, and of course I had already bought some pieces there. When ladies are given the option of going to a museum or shopping for horn jewelry at a discount, I don’t think I need to tell you the outcome.
Procuring at Penny Winter's shop at Ngong House.
Once the shopping frenzy had concluded at Penny's shop, we were privileged to meet one of Kenya’s leading artists: Peterson Kamwathi. His gallerist had spent the morning installing many of his paintings and woodblocks in the drawing room of the hotel for us to see and possibly buy. Peterson is one of the leading emerging artists from Kenya, and has recently sold his work to the British Museum in London.

Kamwathi’s work is engaged with political themes and the new constitution in Kenya; government and local corruption, scandals involving deforestation, and laws against abortion. Artists are invaluable to the moral future of Africa due to their systems of values and their concern for humanity. During the past four years, the contemporary art scene has exploded in Nairobi.

After an art-filled morning, we lunched in the garden, and then set off for Wilson Airport to catch our charter to the Masai Mara. Finally into the bush and great adventures!  After a 45-minute flight, piloted by a pretty young Kenyan, we landed at a bush strip, 20 minutes by jeep from our destination, the Bateleur Camp, run by &Beyond. Our drivers were on the strip to meet us, as was a 3-day-old wreck of a plane that had crashed on take-off; quite a sobering sight.
Plane wreck on the runway in the Masai Mara.
Bateleur, named after a local hawk-like bird, is a permanent camp, and as such is relatively luxurious — meaning: running water and electricity — and is decorated in the classic safari motif. We were greeted by the large, friendly staff, and assigned tents (mine was # 17), located down a long series of walkways from the main living and dining area.

We signed the usual waivers (indemnifying the camp from death by snake bites, wild beasts and anything else), and retreated to unpack for our three-night stay.
The main tent at Bateleur Camp.
My tent #17 at Bateleur Camp.
Mike was dying to go on a game drive, so at 5:30pm, we loaded up into two uncovered vehicles and set out in the afternoon’s golden light. The Masai Mara Plains is a seemingly unending vista that stretches as far as the eye can see, and is loaded with tons of wildlife.

Game viewing is best done in the early morning and late afternoon.
The middle of the day is too hot for animals to hunt, so they retreat into shaded areas and rest until the evening hours when they go out in pursuit of food.
The Masai Mara Plains as far as the eye can see.
On our first drive, we saw giraffe loping along, hyenas making a final return to their den, where several of their tribe were dining on a freshly killed Topi (we could hear the loud crunching of bones), wort hogs running along at a fast clip, ostrich strutting about, Thompson’s gazelle gracefully jumping through the grass, jackals furtively scouting for prey, and water buffalo solemnly walking the Plains.

At this time of year, the sun sets around 6:45, which is when we headed back to camp on the dusty, bumpy “road," a generous term at best. The range of temperature here is quite wide. Mornings and evenings are as cool as a New England Fall, while the middle of the day brings the thermometer to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Giraffes loping along.
A stealthful hyena returning to his den.
One of the many beautiful birds: a Secretary Bird.
We were all exhausted from our travels, so after a delicious dinner, we trundled off to bed — knowing we would be woken at 5 AM for the first drive of the day. When I crawled into my bed, my feet hit a foreign object which turned out to be a hot water bottle; manna from heaven! I fell into a deep sleep with the sound of animal chatter outside my tent.

It is easy to lose track of the hours and even days in the bush
. Every 24 hours is packed with exciting activities and new experiences. Time as we measure it in New York becomes amorphous. So I was totally disoriented when Little Joseph (distinct from Big Joseph, his taller friend) knocked on my tent at 5 AM, carrying a tray of freshly brewed black tea and a plate of homemade sugar biscuits, signaling time to get up!
Our dining table at Bateleur Camp.
Back into the “vehicles” at 5:45 AM and on to the dreaded corroded road from camp to the National Park. Unlike the concessions leased by the camps in Botswana and South Africa, where we were allowed to go off track in search and pursuit of animals, now we were relegated to the park roads, which allows for great viewing, but in a more controlled fashion.

This morning, we came across herds of ellies, giraffe, water buffalo and gazelle. The light is so beautiful at this time of day, and all one has to do is listen to the sounds of the animals, and observe them going about their daily lives. The Masai Mara is a subtle palette of golden, brown and pale green grasses and bush; the perfect camouflage for most of its inhabitants.
Beautiful elephants in the Masai Mara.
Water buffalo chilaxing.
Our entertainment on this particular drive was an introduction to dung spitting. This is a somewhat perverse contest between rangers, involving something akin to spitting watermelon seeds as far as one can, only with gazelle dung, which comes in the form of hard, dried pellets the size of a grape. I will leave it to you dear reader to imagine if I partook in this contest. What happens in the bush, stays in the bush!

Back to camp for breakfast and then a blissful massage given by a therapist named Charity ... gotta love that name. Lunch brought a visit from Jackson (Jackson is his Christian name. His Masai name is Lekishon, meaning eternal life), a 24-year-old local Masai warrior who arrived dressed in traditional robes (called shukas which are large rectangular wool or cotton woven blankets, in tribal colors of reds and purples) and multi-colored beaded necklaces, belts and head gear, completed by a spear and sheathed knife at his side.

Jackson
I sat down with him and learned a great deal about contemporary life in his village. There are approximately 800,000 Masai living in Kenya and Tanzania, constituting one of the largest tribes in Africa. The Masai’s primary form of income is still derived from raising and herding cattle. Though cattle are no longer used as barter, a man’s wealth is measured by the head of cattle he owns. It was amazing for me to learn that many of the same traditions have carried forward for hundreds if not thousands of years.

According to Jackson, cattle raiding from outside tribes still occurs, and one of the primary functions of a warrior is reclaiming stolen cattle and often meting out punishment in the form of death by poisoned arrow. “The end” supposedly occurs within five minutes. Only the elders in the village are permitted to make the poison for the arrow tips.

Perhaps I had a touch of heat stroke while listening to this saga from Jackson, but he solemnly told me that he has killed in the name of rescuing stolen cattle. Not sure if my leg was being pulled across the room. Certainly prompted me to think about corporate raiders in the US.

Life in Masai villages is slowly beginning to change. 60 percent of the youth have no desire to dress or live within the traditional form, nor do they wish to base their identity solely as Masai. Many young people are moving to urban locations and taking on the life of professionals. Despite the 60% number, Jackson maintains that tradition still rules in the villages.

Arranged marriage is being challenged and in some cases replaced, by romantic ideals. Education is currently being supported in communities, and outside modern healthcare is slowly but steadily lowering mortality rates resulting from child birth, malaria, typhoid, and trichinosis. Unclean food and water still takes many lives.

Jackson said that HIV does exist in the villages, but is not rampant. The government distributes condoms, however very few people use them due to cultural differences. I read between the lines and sensed that an impediment to sexual promiscuity resides in the established penalty for having sex with a woman before marriage: 10 cows must be paid to the girl’s family if the guilty parties are found out. Masai HATE to lose cattle!

If a young warrior impregnates a woman before marriage, he cannot count upon his father to pay a “sin tax” from the family herd, thus the young man is compelled to steal cows from another tribe to pay the girl’s family, risking death or serious consequences. In my view, a very sobering notion when contemplating sex outside of marriage!

I asked Jackson what the role of a warrior was, and he explained the progression of a male Masai’s life: Young boys spend much of their time herding cattle, but when they arrive at the age of 15 to 18 years old, they pass on to the next level of being a warrior, by virtue of the Circumcision Ceremony.  In order to pass this test, a young man must endure the procedure without any evidence of pain, and in fact must look straight ahead without even blinking an eye. Failure to pass this test results in rejection from the warrior class; a huge humiliation which will follow him through life. Many years are spent preparing physically and psychologically for this day.

Once accepted as a warrior — a 10-year period of time — his responsibilities lay in the realm of protector of his village and mentor to younger boys. When the warrior stage is over, he matriculates to junior elder, which entails more of a role within the community. The final stage, dictated by age, is that of an elder.

I was fascinated by all this information, and wanted to discuss the life of  Masai women, specifically the subject of female circumcision. Jackson did say that the practice continues to exist, but is becoming less prevalent.

Jackson was a guest for lunch, not an accredited authority on these matters, and I felt that delving into a highly attenuated subject could be offensive coming from a Westerner. So I backed off, and hoped that I would learn more at another time on our journey. He was a delightful young man, and was kind enough to share many insights with me about life today in Masai villages.
The wicked hippos.
The afternoon game drive led us to a river teeming with snorting hippos. They are great fun to observe as they are so unabashedly wicked! Despite their huge size and weight they are very fast of foot when on land, and are not to be messed with! When in the water as a Raft, they play rough and are like naughty school children, bullying and attacking any of their group. They reminded me of my kindergarten years, when I was often sent to the corner for obstreperous behavior.

After leaving the hippos, we drove along and were thrilled to discover a Black Rhino, rarely seen, due a diminished population. This was a thrill for all of us, and we turned off the motor and sat back to observe him. A Mack truck with a dangerous temperament!
The rare spectacle of a Black Rhino in the Masai Mara.
A cheeky Lilac-breasted Roller.
We returned to camp after seeing some beautiful birds on the drive home: Lilac-breasted Rollers, named for their gorgeous plumage and their habit of flying high and then descending in a rolling motion. Ahhh, to be a Lilac-breasted Roller; far better than a peacock or parrot in terms of exquisite beauty.

Cocktails in the living room, followed by another lovely dinner and early to bed. Another hot water bottle was nestled under the sheets by my feet. Note to self: buy cashmere covered water bottles for Leo and me and Lily ... the ultimate comfort factor.

Tonight, it rained cats and dogs, a torrent if you wish. I was cozy in my little tent, and loved hearing the storm outside, seeing the jagged bolts of lightning, knowing that I was safely double-zipped inside a dry tent.

Part II, coming tomorrow (2/24)
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