Friday, August 26, 2011

From a Sea Level Paradise to the Top of the World

I left Marsabit on a very windy day. I was so excited to go on a trip that I had barely slept the night before. I got up at seven am and finished packing and cleaned my house. By 8 am, I was sitting on my couch twiddling my thumbs. I called for a taxi to come get me at 9:30 knowing that, this being Kenya, the taxi driver would be almost half an hour late. I had been told that the plane would be leaving at 10:30am and I wanted to get to the airport at 10:00, just in case. This, you know, being Kenya, I got to the airport and sat there for two and a half hours until the plane came. I didn’t mind too much, I chatted with the aid workers from the US and Ireland who were up in the area setting up food distribution for the drought stricken citizens. When the plane got there I was very excited to see that it looked like an actual airplane. Not the two seater, NASCAR seat belted, wire controlled puddle jumper I am used to. This looked like an actual airplane. When we got on, the pilot for his safety debrief said “there are oxygen tanks under your seats, just like the ones on real airplanes. I know they are there because I just put them there this morning. I’ll tell you if we need to use them… probably by screaming something.” I was comforted by the fact that we were all protected just like those lucky people on ‘real’ airplanes. But we took off without incident and made it to Nairobi. I even managed to doze, just like when I travel on ‘real’ trips. I got to Nairobi and immediately took a taxi to the train station. I bought my ticket for second class to Mombasa. A step up from the cattle car, but still required to share a room and not provided with dinner. The train departed at six and we boarded about a half an hour before. As we walked through the train station, I felt like I was in an old Cary Grant movie. Or Harry Potter. After we crossed onto platform 9 and three quarters and boarded the train, we all hung out the windows as the train started to chug out of the station. I wished I had someone to wave enthusiastically to. We wandered the train’s hallways for a bit, enjoying the “I think I can, I think I can” rattle of the wheels on the track. The hallways were insanely narrow and the cars weaved crazily from side to side, tipping us painfully into walls. It was also very bouncy, like a trampoline. It was like walking through a fun house while drunk. The bathroom was fun too. The toilet had a sign above it requesting “please do not use toilet when train is stopped”. Which I thought was an odd request until you look down and see that the toilet is placed over a hole in the floor. All waste is excreted straight onto the tracks. Nice, eh? That night, we went to sleep four to a compartment. The top bunk had straps like an insane asylum to keep you from being tipped out of bed in the middle of the night. Early in the morning, the morning of the sixth, my birthday, just before dawn, a man came down the aisles ringing a bell. One of my friends was sure that it was the bell warning us about bandits. It turned out to be just the breakfast bell. We all got up and weaved drunkenly to the breakfast room where the waitress sloshed coffee all over the table every time she attempted to pour with the swaying car. We watched the sunrise as we ate our egg and toast and even saw a herd of elephants off in the distance. It felt very romantic. Because it was my birthday, we all went back to the compartments and took a shot of wine. My friends thought it would be a great way to turn 26, by starting drinking at seven am. Cheap red wine is not exactly a good breakfast drink, I’m more of a mimosa type girl, so after the one sip, we all just decided to hang out the train windows and watch Mombasa roll towards us. The view was beautiful and green and we chugged through tiny towns with names like “Maji wa Chumvi” which means “Water of Salt”. There were many kids on the tracks begging for money or sweets. We just yelled for them to give us sweets instead. We smelled the ocean before we saw it, the cool breeze was full of salt when we rounded that last bend and saw the gorgeous blue Indian Ocean. We got off the train in Mombasa and found a TukTuk to take us and all our luggage to our hotel. PC must have felt we deserved a nice vacation during the conference because the resort hotel they put us in was the nicest hotel I have ever been in in my life. We pulled up and our jaws went slack. As we were staring at the vaulted ceilings with dark wooden beams and the koi pond and the monkey filled- jungle trees outside and the cages of African grey parrots, a bell hop dressed in stark white came up to us and offered to carry our luggage. Being Peace Corps and used to lugging around an outrageous amount of crap, we allowed him to help, but also started to pick up the heaviest stuff and follow him to the registration desk. But he stopped us, refusing to let us touch the bags. He walked us to these comfy chairs in the lobby where someone brought us cool, moist hand towels to wash our faces and someone else brought us chilled, fresh squeezed pineapple juice. As we sat in the lobby waiting for the bell hop to check us in, we stared at the large open space where the restaurant was. On the right was the restaurant, on the left was a conference area and in between was a pool/river. The pool was a river running through the hotel lobby out into the sunshine where it turned into a big deep pool. When it rained a short, cool tropical shower, the water poured through the open ceiling into the river in the center. Beyond the big pool which was surrounded by grass and flowers and jungle trees, was the soft white beach full of beach boys, tourists, and camels you could ride on. We finished check in and were shown to our rooms which were on the “club” side of the resort. That side had a 10 ft deep pool connected to a shallow pool connected to another 10 ft pool through a series of waterfalls. It made for an amazing obstacle course. The rooms had giant fluffy beds with a mosquito net that was on a track so it made a mosquito room around the beds. It had a hot shower and a balcony overlooking the pools and AIR CONDITIONING that we immediately set to “Arctic” and complimentary water bottles that we immediately started hording. All food was free and amazing. Dinner had an actual dress code, and so we girls had an excuse to trade clothes, put on eye makeup, and look beautiful every night. Each night had a theme: Italian, German, American, and Indian. And breakfast always had a waffle bar. The day we arrived, Saturday, was my birthday and seeing all my friends really was the best gift ever. I did get some very creative presents though. One guy got down on one knee and proclaimed me the most beautiful woman in the world and said he was honored to spend the day with me. Then he sang me a song. I got a hand drawn comic of my friendship with Cindy from the day we met at the airport. She also got me a box of Cheezits (Ain’t she the best!?). From Riley and David, the class clowns of the group, I got fifteen minutes of uninterrupted eye contact. They literally did not take their eyes off of me for fifteen straight minutes. It was amusing, and very, very creepy. My favorite part of the night was at dinner. All the lights went off and it seemed like the perfect time for someone to start singing. So my friends all started singing “Happy Birthday”. The entire dining hall joined in, including all the tourists. It was very sweet but at the end we all realized that the lights had gone off because the wait staff was supposed to sing “Happy Birthday” to someone else. We completely stole their thunder and no one sang to the other person. Whoops. During the first two days of the conference, we got to have language training. I did one day of more advanced Kiswahili and learned the grammar that makes fun words like “sikukukumbuka” (yup, that’s three ku’s) which means “I did not remember you”. Then I learned Kenyan Sign Language which is a ridiculously fun language to learn. The conference was all about HIV/AIDS and was very interesting and controversial. Each volunteer had brought two Kenyans that they work with and so the discussions sometimes got a little heated. One man, a principal of a girls’ high school, said that he thought the education of girls was contributing to the breakdown of society. Another man said that, since he paid for her (dowry), his wife was his property and therefore should submit to his every need whether she wanted to or not. It was, needless to say, a very informative and eye opening experience. There were Kenyans on both sides of the spectrum and I like to think that everyone learned a lot. We also got the chance to visit a home for sexually abused children, and a drug rehab center. Every night after dinner, my PC friends and I went out looking for a good time. We would walk down the beach and find a resort that had club music pouring out onto the sand and we would dance carefree and ridiculous until we were exhausted. A few times, we took over their dance floor and made spectacles of ourselves. Once we were hot and sweaty, we would all run into the ocean, fully (or half) clothed, and continue the dance party out there in the waves. After a wonderful week in paradise, I left Mombasa to do something completely different. From sea level sunshine, I was going to climb 4985 meters to snow and ice and rocks. Before I climbed Mt. Kenya, it wasn’t really something I imagined myself doing in my lifetime. Me climbing a mountain? It seems a little absurd. When I signed up to do it I thought, for some strange reason, it must not be that difficult. I stupidly assumed it would be a cakewalk. I prepared in the absolute worst way possible: by spending that week lying by the pool of a beach front resort in Mombasa eating all the free food my stomach could stand. As far as the equipment I needed for the climb, I borrowed a lot of it, and the rest I bought cheaply from a market in Nairobi. I am sure none of it was meant to climb a mountain. For example, my gloves were too small and had a couple of large, badly stitched holes. It wasn’t exactly REI stuff. I found out a little before I left that Mt Kenya is the second tallest mountain in Africa. It wasn’t going to be the cakewalk I had been anticipating. But I was excited. I was going with a great group of friends. David, the funniest guy I’ve ever met; Mark, super fun and also a human jukebox; Carlyn, the chemical engineer slash hippy artist; Ali, with the best dry wit; and Alyssa, the sweetheart of the group. On day one of our climb we met our two guides. We also got a cook, an assistant cook, and six porters. There were ten people to help the six of us up this mountain. The first day was easy. Half a day walking through a forest in slight rain. We talked a lot, laughed, and sang every song in our repertoire from the instrumental parts of Lion King to Aretha Franklin to Bob Marley to N’sync to Lady Gaga. From there, things got a little harder, I had had a minor cold while in Mombasa, and when you take a minor cold into high altitude with lots of uphill exercise and singing, it turns into something very nasty. The views from the hike were absolutely amazing. It was the most beautiful place in the world. The whole climb I felt like my lungs were the size of ice cubes. I had a horrible, uncontrollable cough. And I could feel the fluid in my lungs. But it was still one of the best things I have ever done. Every turn was so gorgeous it seemed unreal. It was like every adventure movie you’ve ever seen. I saw marshes like Lord of the Rings, mountains like Homeward Bound, valleys like Lion King, grassy plains like Out of Africa, forests like Jurassic Park, and strange plants that were surely from Journey to the Center of the Earth. Every day we would get up at dawn, put on a few extra layers (have I mentioned yet that it was COLD) and ate breakfast. Our cook was awesome and we had sausage (Kenyan sausage which tastes a little like hotdogs) and pancakes or French toast and eggs and porridge. We also had a hot cup of chaicokahawa (Chai, cocoa, kahawa- coffee) which is a drink that Mark made up. Its got a tea bag, coffee, cocoa, sugar, milk, and hot water. It’s delish. After breakfast, we would start hiking. The hikes were not too difficult, but with my lung infection, I needed to take lots of breaks. My legs were fine, but not being able to breathe really made things difficult. We would usually hike until about 2pm and then stop for the day. We would eat lunch at camp, hot soup and sandwiches, and then sit out the sleety rain huddled in the tent playing “truth or truth”, a less adventurous but more informative version of “truth or dare”. Each day it got harder and harder for me to breathe and I, very generously, gave my cold to three of my friends. On summit day we got up at 2 am and packed up. I knew it was going to be a hard day so I didn’t eat much breakfast. We put on every layer of clothing we had and started walking. The summit ascent takes about 4 hours and I was having trouble breathing after about ten minutes. We had two guides and they decided to split the group leaving me with Michael and the rest continue on with Benson. I was pretty out of it for the rest of the climb. I was dizzy and coughing and I couldn’t stand up straight. At some point some stranger passed and gave me a walking stick which I used as a crutch. Michael practically dragged me up the mountain. He refused to let me lay down, which is all I wanted to do. I will admit to my weakness and tell you that I vomited four times on that mountain. I think it was my body’s reaction to hypoxia. I felt like death but when I came in view of the top, the feeling was euphoric. Michael dragged me past the glacier, up the ladder, and then I was there. It was so incredible to watch the sun coming up through the clouds. My friends and I took a shot of brandy there on the peak, took a couple pictures, and then couldn’t take the cold anymore and started back down. Descending was easier, but not easy. It was very steep, snowy and all scree. Scree is the tiny rocks that make you feel like you are just going to skid all the way down the mountain. With my fancy walking stick I was able to do pretty well. But the time we got down the other side of the mountain and to our camp, it was around 9 am. Our porters had beaten us to the camp and set up the tent already but we were so exhausted that we couldn’t even crawl to the tent. We just passed out on some rocks in front of it. Eventually we made it into the tent were we napped most of the day. From there the trek was easy, 15 km a day, speed-walking downhill through the most beautiful landscapes. One view had a narrow gorge with falcons soaring. There was a green lake at the bottom that I am sure is where Nessie has been hiding. There are no words to describe how amazing and awesome the vista was. The closest I can get in description would be to use the perfectly epic words of my friend, David “Dudu” Burns. He said it was “big”. After we finished, it felt almost unreal. I still can’t believe I did it. Now I can never complain about having to walk 3 km to school every day. Darn. After Mt. Kenya, I went back to Nairobi and hopped on a plane to Marsabit. And now here I am. Back home and slightly depressed. Having such an exciting vacation really makes coming home alone seem pretty lame. I am sure, in a few days, I will have more Marsabit adventures to keep me entertained. But for now I am going to be working my way through the entire Animorphs book series that a friend gave me. For now, that is as exciting as it gets.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Another Day, Another Dust Storm

Over the weekend I visited the Catholic orphanage which I thought would be a depressing place. But it was an amazing experience. There were 34 children there, all but one under the age of five. These kids were the happiest kids I have seen in Kenya. They were used to getting visitors and flocked to me and my companions as soon as they saw us in the door. They wanted what every kid wants: love. They wanted hugs and kisses, they wanted to be picked up and never put down. They wanted to be pushed on the swing, and a piggyback ride, and to play pattycake. I went with the volunteers from Spain and one of the Brothers and the 8 of us each went to a corner and played for an hour. Steve was in charge of the swing; pushing each child for ten giggle-filled passes. Alfonso, a guy with a big lap and a bigger heart, was bouncing four children at once on his knees. Vicky was listening to a small group proudly recite their ABCs. I spent most of the time having my hair pulled out by some enthusiastic future beauty stylists.  The first sad part was hearing that many of the children actually have parents out in the manyattas who are too poor to keep them. The second sad part was leaving. The kids wanted to be swung in one more circle, give one more sloppy kiss, or to hold hands for one more minute. 

On Sunday evening a dust storm started up. The wind blew hard like it does during a New England blizzard. Instead of snow swirling around getting in my eyes, it was red dust. I returned home in the evening and it was pitch dark. The dust had obscured the moon and stars that usually light up the way. I struggled against the wind to get my laundry off the line before it blew away. I succeeded, only losing one sock that I found the next day stuck in a bush. On the way to school that morning, I had to hunch over against the wind. With my eyes squinted nearly shut to discourage dust, I tripped more than usual. I got to school very thirsty. Of course I was thirsty, it was  a moisture-sucking dust storm. I always bring a nalgene full of water but today I noticed when I got to school that the water that I had left in there from a couple days before had turned mouldy. It was super gross, chunks of mold freely swirling around. I really didn’t want to drink that. Unfortunately, there was no other water to be had. My school provides a 20 L jerrycan of water for the staffroom to drink and use for washing hands. It tastes absolutely awful, like soot, but is better than nothing. Today, however, there wasn’t much water left and I knew it was important to be able to wash our hands. My school doesn’t have any spoons, so we have been eating rice and cabbage with our hands. I washed my hands, and tried to ignore my thirst. The lunch was slim as well, only a couple tablespoons of cabbage on top of the rice. By the time I finished eating and picking rocks out of my teeth with my fingers, I had a headache from the thirst. I went to class, still trying to ignore it. I walked to the lab with my students, we were planning on testing the effect of impurities on the boiling point of water, when a dust tornado formed in the clearing between the classrooms and the lab. It was big, at least 15 ft high, and fat. The two students, the lab guy, and I all ran to the door of the lab. It was like a scene from Twister. One girl was struggling with the keys to the lab as the rest of us pressed against the side of the building urging her to hurry. The dust got closer and closer, and Arbe panicked and tried to run away to escape it. The lab guy and I were urgently looking from the dust tornado to Halima with the keys slipping in the lock. She finally got the door open and we all piled inside. The tornado was on us as we yelled for Arbe. I grabbed her arm and yanked her inside and slammed the door. The windows and door rattled as the tornado hit. We all took a deep dusty breath and giggled at our close call. After class I returned to the staffroom and looked longingly at my water with the leisurely swirling clumps of mold.  I resigned myself to drinking it anyway. I have some iodine pills that are meant to kill bacteria. I used two of the small brown pills and shook the bottle to ensure all the moldy microbes were murdered. I emptied a couple of red Gatorade packets into the mix, thinking it would mask the strong iodine flavor and, maybe, hide the dead, but still large, clumps of mold. Then I let the concoction settle. I was pretending that all the mold clumps would settle on the bottom of the bottle. I told myself that it could not be any worse than the weevil-eating incident of a few weeks ago. I took a deep breath, lifted the bottle to my lips… and then a miracle occurred. I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the dust cloud that heralds an incoming car. I put the mold-iodine-juice down and breathed a sign of relief. A car meant I would be able to catch a ride home. A car meant I wouldn’t have to walk home through the dust cloud and I would be there in 10 minutes instead of forty. And most importantly, a car meant I would be able to drink plenty of mold-free water when I got there.  I lament the loss of two packets of Gatorade, but I’m sure it is a worthwhile sacrifice and probably much better for my health.