Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lullaby from a Mouse Playing a Guitar

I am in a village in Kiaoni at my fellow volunteer’s house. Jen Hagen is one of my favorite peace corps people with her dry sense of humor, ability to turn life into a kick ass musical, and her plethora of stories about her many brothers and sisters that are extraordinarily entertaining. I have never heard anyone, besides myself, who talks about their siblings with such unconditional fondness. I have been here for two days. As usual, my vacation away from mars makes it difficult to sit down and write about anything. I am too regularly caught up in the Haraka Haraka life of down Kenya. But after the events of last night, and update is necessary.

I left mars on the tenth of April and headed down to Nairobi on a plane. The plane first stopped in Korr, a tiny ring of manyattas in the middle of a white sand expanse. It was interesting to see a place that was even more empty and remote than my village and I wish I had an opportunity to explore. When I finally arrived in Nairobi, I was met by my friend, Alyssa, who is from western Kenya. We laughed, used more swear words than usual, and ate at Java House, the modern American style coffee shop. The next day was spent in Nairobi, in the Peace Corps office, officially to catch up on reports and paperwork, and unofficially to collect hugs from Peace Corps staff that haven’t seen or heard from me in three months. It is always like a small homecoming.

The following day was an event that I have been looking forward to not only since I joined Peace Corps, but since I was a little kid watching the Discovery Channel. I went to the Maasai Mara. For those who are unfamiliar (and therefore less dorky), the Mara is a large animal reserve. It is huge, and most of the land is in Tanzania where it is called the Serengeti. It is the site of the famous Wildebeest Migration. So I crossed off another Life Goal. We had a three day safari and it was amazing. The Mara is stunningly beautiful. Endless vistas with miles of long waving grasses the color of a lion’s fur meeting the crystal sky. We drove through huge herds, hundreds strong, of cranky Cape buffalo with their flocks of orange and yellow ox-peckers. We parked next to prides of lazy lions, looking huge and fierce, but acting like fluffy housecats as they looked at us with no concern in their eyes despite being close enough for us to scratch their bellies. We sped through the plains when our driver heard of a black rhino sighting, an extremely rare event. And we took a million pictures of the pack of hyenas that feasted on a buffalo kill and fought off the goofy yet severe looking vultures. There was a pack of black-backed jackals that played chicken with three warthogs who only cared about rubbing their backsides on a fallen log. We had a few encounters with elephants; big and small, indifferent and grouchy. And of course, the crowds of grazing wildebeest, antelope, gazelle, giraffes, and zebra, which were so numerous that we, eventually, just told our driver to drive on by without pausing to look. The first day and a half, we safaried in the rain with mist clinging to the plains. The rest of the time it was hot and sunny as only an African scene can be. My favorite part of the trip was a trip to Hippo Lake, a popular wildebeest crossing during the Migrations, but in the off season was a nap zone for hundreds of giant grunting purple hippos and sleeping crocodiles. Hippos were never in my top favorite list of African animals, but they have shot to the top of the list now. They are so much bigger than my imagination and have a beautiful purple- grey and pink skin and a permanent smile. They are surprisingly graceful when walking around on land, and swim fast and grunt loud. I just adored them. The Maasai Mara was everything I wanted it to be and so beautiful that it will forever be one of my favorite places in the world.

After the Mara, I was off to a have a different experience. I took a typically horrendous bus ride to Makindu where I met Jen for an evening at the Sikh Temple. This is a peaceful retreat that has lots of grass, peacocks, bench swings, and absolute quiet. No one bothers you for any reason. It was a little slice of an American park. I went and, before Jen arrived, sat on a bench in the grass reading a book and watching an impromptu group of youths play cards. They didn’t even glance at me. I took a nap on the bench in the sun, and was not harassed or woken up for an hour. The Sikh temple, in addition to being beautiful, is completely free. Jen and I got a room with fluffy sheets and a ceiling fan (a FAN!!) for no charge and no trouble. We went to the dining hall and had delicious vegetarian meals for free. All the temple asks is that you do not bring alcohol, eat all the food you take in the dining hall, and wear a head covering when in the buildings. I was sick with a cold, from all the traveling, the safari in the rain, the lack of sleep, and overabundance of excitement but managed to recover a bit from simply being in a quiet, peaceful environment.
 Now I am here, in Kaioni. It has been a crazy two days. Jen and I spent the first day in her village market buying fabric to give to her fundi (seamstress) to make dresses and sitting at a table with a cup of hot chai designing simple and adorable America-style dresses to shock aforementioned fundi. Some of the features that took serious coaxing for the fundi included: v-neck that showed a tiny hint of cleavage; strapless, one strap, and halter; above the knee length, zippers that were longer than the four inches standard on a Kenyan dress; and mixing two bright patterned fabrics. But, we did convince the fundi, and the woman will have four dresses in new designs finished in five days. Impressive and exciting! On Monday night, Jen and I watched a lightning storm on the plateau behind her house. She lives near a river that, rumor says, contains hippos and crocodiles. The ground of her school compound where she stays is carpeted by chains of morning glories with simple white petals. As we stood there in the dark, watching the lightning flash all around us, Jen pointed to the huge baobab trees standing sentinel in the darkness. The pair in the field are called “The Twins” and have arms that reach out to each other; the other, larger, tree is called the “Snake Dancer” one, because of the branches akimbo seeming frozen in some strange motion, and two, because of the numerous snakes that circle the trunk. We stood watching the lightening illuminate The Twins and Snake Dancer for a while as the wind whipped around us and the air started to smell like rain and I realized how incredibly amazing it is to be here, in Kenya, and to get to see things like this. I have never stared at a scene in America and been struck with an almost spiritual fervor. I am a lucky girl.

Yesterday, Tuesday, was extra special. Jen and I did nothing but watch movies that we could sing along to, eat food, and chat. As the evening progressed, the clouds came in and the rain started to fall. Soon, it was too loud on the tin roof to do anything but yell at each other about the various leaks in the ceiling. The windows were open and started pouring rain onto the floor where the couch cushions absorbed it. The stima went out and Jen and I stumbled in the dark trying to light candles, put pots under drips, and hide books and electronics under fabric for protection. The rain just poured in the open window so I ran to it to attempt to close it, but discovered it can only be closed from the outside. I looked at Jen who looked at me with a “yeah, I know,” expression on her face before she ran out into the storm to close the window. After that was accomplished, we swept the puddles of water out the front door and stuffed a towel under the door to prevent scorpions from coming in (an act performed way too late). After, there was nothing to do but sit on the bed in the dark. Fortunately, this being Kenya, we are both very used to entertaining ourselves with no light and no electronics. We sat and talked and told stories of life before Peace Corps and our lives to come after. As we talked, the rain slacked off a bit. We were sitting there laughing about something when she abruptly sat up and said that she had felt something on her leg. She did this approximately fifty times a night; Jen has a bit of an obsession with scorpions being everywhere in her house. In the two days I have been here, we killed five, so it is a pretty valid concern. So Jen sat up to flick on her headlamp and direct it on her leg. There, in the beam of the lamp was her worst nightmare. “I just got stung by a scorpion,” she said with surprising steadiness for someone who has spent the last year and a half dreading this moment. She said later that the first words in her head were, “this is not a drill!” She sat and killed the scorpion (only death is a worthy punishment for that crime) and I got up, re-lit the candles, and found her Venom Extractor kit. Her leg was burning a bit but we couldn’t find the actual sting site so we just suctioned at a few places where she felt pain. Her leg was cleaned with lidocaine, leading to a very brief period where she thought the poison was making her leg go numb before I told her it was the drug. As I crouched in front of her, trying to decide if we should perform an emergency amputation via candlelight, I looked down to discover another scorpion between my feet, tail poised for attack. I dispatched him immediately, and, upon discussion with Jen, we decided that we must go on high alert. The next twenty minutes was spent on a thorough hunt for more scorpions, then a dressing down of the bed where all superfluous sheets were removed and the bed was scanned before we got in and tucked the mosquito net in tightly around us. It was too hot for sleep, and Jen was concerned that death was still imminent (by morning she was downright pleased that she had survived and that being stung by a scorpion was not as irritating as a mosquito bite). So we chatted some more, lying side by side in the dark, laughing hysterically as only a near death experience can make you. After an hour or so, it was now about 1:30am, we heard a noise. Jen said it was her guitar in the corner so I of course think “Oh god, a ghost is playing her guitar!” but the reality was a lot more hilarious, and to Jen, a lot more frustrating. It was the mouse that lives in her house; it had climbed into the guitar and was tripping along the strings. And so, the rain-soaked night filled with an army of scorpions came to an end with us being lulled to sleep by a mouse playing a guitar. This morning, we kidnapped a cat and her kitten (for obvious reasons).