Saturday, January 14, 2012

Home Again, Home Again. Jiggity Jig.

It is amazing to see what a difference 6 weeks can make. When I left Mars, it had been raining for a few weeks. Everything was muddy and new greenery was just starting to peek out of the ground everywhere. Now, I have returned to a completely different world; it is beautiful. The grass everywhere towers over my head, the shambas (farms) are filled with maize 8ft tall, every tree is filled with weaver birds and flocks of swallows, and even a few flowers are gracing the fields. I spent my first day back slashing the dense grass with a panga (machete) in order to forge a path to my choo. While slashing, I made sure to leave a patch of sunset-colored snapdragons alone. I am glad to be back home; six weeks living out of a backpack is rough even on the dustiest Peace Corps volunteer. I started my journey the day before Thanksgiving. My plans took me to Loitokitok, where I trained for service last year. I was going to meet the new education volunteers and help them through their first attempts at teaching in front of a Kenyan classroom. This group is about half the size of my group, and they were awesome. One thing I have noticed about PCV’s, is that it is rare to find someone you don’t immediately get along with. You may not be immediate best friends, but there is an instant “yeah, I get it” level of understanding. I think it is because of the fact that most PCV’s have a heavy dose of crazy/weird/not normal in their personalities. Anyway, Model School was a fun week of meeting new people and pretending I knew what I was doing when it comes to teaching. During Model School week, I also took the opportunity to visit my first Kenyan national park, Amboseli. It is a relatively small park but had tons of animals. The visit nudged me a lot closer to a life goal of mine: see the entire “cast” of the Lion King. I saw warthogs, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, ostrich, guinea hen, marabou stork, dung beetles, secretary birds, and tons of elephants. The herds of elephant stretched across the horizon, hundreds of members strong. After an hour, it was a little repetitive. My friends and I thoroughly annoyed the taxi driver by singing, on repeat, the elephant march song from The Jungle Book. The one that goes, “Oh, we march from here to there, with our trunks up in the air….” After Loitokitok, I went to Nairobi for a mid-service medical exam. That was fun. We were greeted at the hotel reception desk with a gift from Medical, a brown paper bag into which we were to “deposit our fecal specimen.” After dropping off our deposits, before which we had a great time coming up with horrible ways to tease the medical staff. My favorite idea was to melt a chocolate bar and going into the office eating out of the sample tube using the convenient spoon provided. The rest of the three days in Nairobi was spent eating delicious food and waiting for our TB tests to be read. Two people in our group tested positive for tuberculosis and have to spend the next nine months having liver function tests and taking intense antibiotics. Once I left Nairobi, which was way too expensive for my tastes, I headed out to a town called Sega near the border of Uganda to spend a week with my friend, Cindy. We spent the week doing absolutely nothing of importance; it was great. We made donuts and watched movies. One day we had a “one-armed movie marathon” which, although only consisting of two movies, was enough to remind you of the underrated importance of arms. We also repeatedly sang 525600 minutes from the Rent soundtrack using kitchen utensils as microphones until the point where we could hit the high notes without making glass shatter. I left Cindy’s house and traveled to Malaba, another Uganda border town, to stay with a friend named Ali. Ali and I also watched a lot of movies, but we tempered it by also occasionally going outside. One day, we went on a long hike up to a point where there are cave paintings. It was strange to walk around the village, seeing the thatch huts and outdoor cooking ovens made of grass and think about the villagers and their ancestors that have probably lived in that same area the same way for thousands of years. Up on a hill, there was one large stone wall decorated in symbols and paintings. There were horse- type drawings, and human faces, and, my favorite, an elephant. Most of the paintings were drawn with red ochre, a bright dye that is very common in the rocks around the area. Above the cave paintings, there was a high overlook that had amazing vistas all the way into Uganda. From up there, we could clearly see Mt. Elgon, some kilometers to the north. Mt Elgon is another place on my list to visit; my only reason for wanting to go there is because the Ebola virus was discovered there. Ebola is an extremely volatile and deadly disease, and I find it incredibly fascinating. Ironically, the next day a newspaper reported that a person in Nairobi had died of Ebola. (After investigating the situation, they determined that she did not have Ebola, but some other hemorrhagic fever that caused her to bleed out in a taxi before she even made it to a hospital.) After Ali’s house, I traveled to Hell’s Gate National Park in Naivasha where I was to meet Cindy and her mother for some good old-fashioned bicycling. When I heard that you could bicycle through Hell’s Gate, which happens to be the place of inspiration for Pride Rock in the Lion King, I knew I had to invite myself along. Yes, I am that dorky. We saw no lions, but we did get to startle a group of baby giraffes into running across the road to where their babysitters watched and bicycle to within touching distance of some zebra who refused to move out of the way. Hell’s Gate also has a beautiful gorge that requires you to leave your bike behind, hire a guide, and then do some ridiculous rock climbing. There are hot springs and volcanic rocks shaped into beautiful layered swirls and rooms given entertaining names like “Devil’s master bedroom” and “Devil’s shower”. The entire day was filled with beauty but at the end of it, I was exhausted. Seriously, who thought it would be a good idea to bicycle 13 kilometers in one day? I left Naivasha the day before Christmas Eve using the WORST public transportation. I know I have said this before, but I swear I will never, ever complain about travel when I get back to the real world. There can be nothing worse than travel in Kenya. I bought a bus ticket, and was told the bus would leave in one hour. After three hours of waiting, those in charge had all the passengers pick up their things and walk for 40 minutes to the outskirts of town where the highway was. Apparently, there was no bus and so we all stood at the side of the road as the men waved down passing vehicles trying to get them to pick us up. When they tried to sell me to a regular vehicle with four men in it, I was incredulous and told them I paid to get on a BUS not hitchhike with strangers. Another hour or so, and I finally got on a hideous purple bus with way too many people. I was supposed to go to Kisumu and it should have take 4 hours, after 8 hours and breaking down twice, I was fed up. I called the friend I was meeting in Kisumu, Ana, from the side of the road and I told her to come get me in a taxi. She said she could be at the next town in an hour and I could meet her there. I asked our driver to drop me in that town and he said it would take 20 minutes. An hour and a half later, we still are not to this town. Every time I ask someone how far it is, they say “it is just here, not far, just here”. Clearly, no one knew where we were. The fat, deodorant-free guy next to me (there are very few overweight people in Kenya, so it is ironic that I get to share a seat with one every time I get on a bus. And when I say ‘share a seat’ I mean, I lean against the window while his thigh is slightly on top of mine and his arm will hit me in the stomach and face every time he gestures emphatically) kept telling me creepy things like “If I was Al-Shabaab, I would kidnap you!” Anyway, we finally got to the town, I met my friend and we headed to her house in Sondu. Ana is the queen of hospitality. She refuses to let anyone in her kitchen to help. As a guest, your job is to sit there and look pretty. It was nice, and she is a great cook. She made some very delicious Indian curries. On Christmas Eve, she and I, and another friend, Brennan, went out and collected green branches to make our version of a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. We took a stick and put it upright in a wine bottle. Then we tied on green branches using purple yarn. For decorations, we made origami cranes, origami irises and paper snowflakes. It was very spindly and adorable. Ana and I spent last Christmas Eve together and it was a disaster. This year, we were determined to make it good. With Brennan there, who was our host for last year’s Christmas day celebration, and two other volunteers that I had never met, we managed to make an amazing meal for both Christmas Eve and Christmas day. Our best creation of the day: we discovered how to make granola. It made a delicious fruit cobbler. When we weren’t cooking, we were relaxing, chatting, singing Christmas songs and watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I had a great time, it was probably the simplest Christmas I’ve ever had. The day after Christmas, I headed to Kisumu to meet up with Cindy and her mother again. I have been to Kisumu a few times before but I have never done the touristy things so we went and planned on visiting the Impala Park and going hippo watching. The impala park is basically a fenced in area with a bunch of zebra and impalas inside. There are also cages with other animals. It is a Kenyan zoo. I didn’t really enjoy seeing the animals in such small areas, but the literature said that they animals were all rescued from the wild (I tried to believe that). The animals did look active and healthy, not like the lethargic animals in American zoos. I watched the lions roaring at each other, and then chase each other around the cage. I watched the leopard stalk a child who was on the other side of the fence and not paying attention. At the monkey cage, the residents came up and held my hand, and tried to steal my sunglasses. One of them poked his hand through to the cage next door where there was a tortoise he could pet gently on the head. The highlight of the park came when talked to the keeper outside the cheetah cage who allowed us to go inside and pet the two cheetahs. It was a little scary; when mine stood up abruptly I nearly fell over in my anxiousness to back up. After the Impala Park, we went out to the beach where you can hire a boat to take you out onto Lake Victoria and go search for hippos. There were three guys on our boat. One to run the engine, one to paddle when the engine wouldn’t start, and one to constantly bail the water out of the boat. As we tut-tutted along to the marsh were the hippos live, I asked the obvious question: hippos are really dangerous, why are we bring this dinky boat into chomping distance? The men on the boat said that there were two populations of hippos in the lake, the ‘nice’ hippos and the ‘not nice’ hippos. The not nice hippos would definitely kill you if you looked at them. The nice hippos would allow you to get really close without trying to eat you. I, being really too excited to care, believed the men knew what they were talking about. We spent a good hour circling the boat around a group of about 7 baby hippos, “babies” the size of Volkswagens. But we didn’t get eaten, so that was good. From Kisumu, we were headed to Uganda to meet a bunch of other volunteers and go rafting the Nile River. As soon as we crossed into Uganda, you could tell you were in a different country. The Matatus were clean and not overstuffed. The roads were smooth and pothole free. When the matatu stopped, no one tried to harass you or grab you. As we drove along, everyone looked relaxed. It was the hottest part of the day, so everyone was sitting under a tree, or sleeping on a shaded porch. I wondered what it must be like to be a Peace Corps Uganda volunteer, calm and relaxed all the time? I can’t imagine what that would be like. My favorite thing about Uganda: they have ridiculous money. It is like they got the design from a board game. It was small and brightly colored. They had bright green, ocean blue, pink, and purple. They also had cute pictures. The blue one had a fish on it. In addition, the exchange rate was so outrageous that I couldn’t even bargain in the markets. The smallest bill was a one thousand shilling bill. We went out to lunch with eight people and the cost ended up being twenty THOUSAND shillings. It was such an insane amount of money, but ended up being about $8. I went to the bank and converting a bunch of Kenyan shillings to the Ugandan ones and was given so many bills that I nearly asked for a suitcase to carry them in. It was so much money, I didn’t have enough space in my wallet. We arrived at the camp, a place called Adrift Rafting, that had nice dorm style rooms and a gorgeous deck overlooking the Nile. We met a bunch of other volunteers, mostly business volunteers, and went on a boat trip to watch the sunset over the river. Adrift has their own bungee tower where crazy tourists can voluntarily leap off a 44 m high platform. That evening as I watched some people take the jump, one of the business volunteers came up and mentioned that those people must be insane. I agreed and said that no one in their right mind would do something so stupidly risky. The guy nodded and nudged me, “hey, you and I will watch from a safe distance as the people from our group do it.” I turned to him and said “Oh, I’m doing it!” I’m pretty sure he thinks I have multiple personalities. Either way, the next morning, Cindy, me and two others from our group climbed the endless staircase to the top of the bungee tower. I was really, really nervous. I kept asking the guys in charge genuinely concerned questions like “have you ever had anyone vomit on the platform?” I watched the first guy leap off and nearly peed myself. I went second, thinking I could not watch someone else do it or I would lose my nerve. There are two guys who strap you in and get you all ready. They first ask you if you want to touch the Nile. I said I did. They use your weight to adjust the length of the rope. I was told that the goal is to jump as far off the platform as possible. If I jumped far enough, I would dip just the tips of my hands into the river, if I just fell straight off the platform, I would get wet up to chest level. I was sitting in a chair while the guy wrapped a towel around my ankles, followed by a thick rope. I noticed that he was not actually tying any knots; he was just wrapping the rope around the towel and clipping it to another rope. I was trying not to panic and started asking questions to get my mind off of what I was doing. “How long have you been doing this?” I asked. His response was, “today is my second day.” I assumed he was kidding. Next question, “How many times have you jumped?” Answer: “Oh, I would never jump… way too scary.” “Are there crocodiles down there?” “Not today.” I stopped asking questions then. I stood up, ankles bound, hopped to the edge of the platform and told the guy I was too scared. He told me not to look down, to look at my friends way over on the observation deck. He told me to “smile! This is going on facebook!” My stomach dropped and I started panting. I thought I was having a panic attack. He asked “are you ready?” I said “I can’t do this!” He said “Yes you can!” then they started counting down. As loud as they could, they yelled “ONE, TWO, THREE, BUNGEE!!!” I didn’t even hesitate (if I had, I wouldn’t have ever been able to do it); I launched myself off the platform. I was too terrified to even scream. I only had time to remember to suck in a quick breath and keep my head tucked in (so I wouldn’t break the water with my face) before I plunged all the way into the Nile up to my ankles. The guy at the top of the tower apparently had an “oops” moment because I was NOT supposed to go in that deep. He said that the rope was stretched out and I would be the last person to use it. I bounced up and down a few times, and having found my breath, I was screaming how freaking terrifying that was. I was lowered into a waiting boat and rowed to shore where I had trouble standing because my legs were shaking so bad. I don’t know if it was the cold (I was, of course, dripping wet), the adrenaline, or the lack of circulation to my feet from the rope being wrapped so tight. I watched the last two people jump with a sense of elation at having done something I always thought I would be too scared to do. From there, our group immediately got on a bus to the part of the Nile with all the rapids. The rapids we were to raft went up to class 5, out of a high of class 6. There were some rapids that were off the charts and too dangerous for even the experts to pass. On those, we were going to walk around and get back in the river on the other side. Our boat was filled with women and was christened “Team Uterus!” to the chagrin of our male guide. One of the other boats had a volunteer who decided to dress up like Santa Claus. I can’t wait to have kids so I can tell them I went white water rafting with Santa Claus. Throughout the day, our boat flipped twice. Each time, it was scary because we could see it coming. It was like a cross between sledding in snow and body boarding in the ocean. First you are paddling and you see this deep hole, you paddle harder and start plunging down into the hole (it feels like sledding), on the other side of this hole is a huge wave. The top edge of the wave is constantly breaking. If you’ve ever been in the ocean and approached by a breaking wave, you know that you want to dive in before the wave breaks in your face because if you hit it, you will get knocked over. So we are paddling down into this hole, trying to get enough speed to blast up the other side, but as we head up the face of the wave, we know that it is too steep; we are going to curl over and end up with the raft on your head. Our guide yells “HOLD ON” and we all grab onto the edge of the boat. It is futile, we flip. I end up under the boat. It was loud and dark; I take a breath and push myself out from under. Our guide quickly flips the boat back over and hauls one girl in who turns around and pulls the rest of us in. There are only four, out of eight, left and we paddle hard to escape the rapids. There is a fleet of kayakers who swarm in after each raft and pick up anyone who falls out. We collect our missing companions and have a few minutes to catch our breath before the next rapid. Sometimes we don’t flip, but just toss out a couple of our team. In the end, we flipped a total of three times, and I got tossed out only once. That time, my pants got sucked to my ankles and I floundered in the rapid for a few minutes with my bare rear end floating on the surface until a kayaker came and rescued me. And once we got stuck in a hole for a few minutes of exhilarating churning. It was like being in a washing machine, our boat was completely full of water and we all thought we would be stuck there until someone pulled us out. We got out eventually, and got through the rest of the rapids with no one drowning, but everyone spending a lot of time in the water. It was a great time. The next day I was extremely sore. It definitely felt like I had been tossed around on some rocks all day. I left Uganda on New Year’s Eve. I was glad to get out of the place with the crazy monopoly money and back to my normal looking cash. I had planned on doing something fun for New Years Eve, or at least being awake for it, but I was so exhausted I ended up falling asleep by 9pm. Pretty pathetic, but after the craziness of the previous weeks, I didn’t really care. By January 2nd, I was in Nairobi stocking up on packaged food and spices for the next few months, and on the 3rd, I was back home in Marsabit. I had a few moments of panic when I remembered what it was like to have crappy cell phone service, no internet, and no market to get food from. But in general, life was not so bad. It was very nice to have a few days to just relax in my house before going back to school. And now, school has started. I am off to a good start, I am much more confident than previous terms, and I have a lot more plans for secondary projects. I am hopeful that this term will be great and I am ready to start getting things done and counting down the remaining months. For now, I am in town and the stima (electricity) is out (of course) so I am going to do some shopping and hope that it comes back in time for me to post this.

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