Writing this on June 25th, the week of June 17th seems like it happened months ago. The days have gone by so slow and its hard to believe that I still have three weeks left here -- I should have booked a ticket for two weeks instead of four. We've done alot of adjusting during the past week and time should hopefully go faster moving forward as we settle into a routine. So what happened in the past week:
We successfully moved into our new room and bought everything we needed from Tusky's, a very nice supermarket in the nearby city of Thika. We've set up mosquito nets over each of our nets as there are still plenty a mosquio buzzing around even though its 'winter' here in Kenya. The weather is always warm and sometimes it gets pretty hot, but people overreact to 65 or 70 degree days with winter parkas and hats. The nice weather is definitely a plus, as I brought a pretty thin blanket and had to give Rahim the free airplane blanket because he lacked one. We looked into working at Makuyu Health Clinic, where we spent a day to find that there was pretty much nothing for us to do. Waldo and Hans have found work putting pills into bottles and that sort of stuff there. Kenol Hospital, just a few steps from our apartment, wanted to meet our sponsor (Martha) on Tuesday when we visited a few days prior but that appointment ended up not happening. Michael found the remaining three of us jobs building a school in a mini-village just a few minutes drive from Kenol. The place is rural but dirty -- there are a bunch of shacks poorly constructed from sheets of aluminum spread across a field to serve as homes for the laborers and a few tiny stone buildings that appear to be abandoned. A little further up a hill, there are even worse huts made out of mud and concrete with straw tops. The school being constructed, however, was at the very entrance of the village and was located in the background of the local church.
When we arrived via Michael's truck that Monday, we were pleasantly welcomed by around six laborers of varying ages. Most were around 30 or 32, but there were also two guys aged 18 and 19. The school was currently in the beginning stages of its development; there was a square plot walled by stones and filled with dirt that was about ground level given that the bottom of the building was lower than ground level. Our task would be to create a layer of rocks and cover with dirt over the course of a couple of days; there was a gigantic pile of rocks next to the foundation and dirt was shoveled from below by a few of the laborers. The work was pretty menial; Rahim and I were weak so we simply transferred rocks from the pile to the site while James was pretty strong and helped the laborers shovel dirt / carry baskets of rocks. It was pretty annoying operating with just one hand, but the atmosphere was very relaxed and there was a lot of talking.
The laborers asked us about China, Korea, America, and everything in between. They were unsurprisingly unknowledgable and completely dumbfounded by many aspects of life in America -- the subway, how much money one made (an American laborer could be like a millionare in Kenya given the exchange rate of 1 dollar to 85 shillings) per hour, etc. They caught onto our names pretty quickly, which was surprising given nobody else could, while we didn't learn most of their names for a few days. Rahim and I bonded particularly well with the 19-year old, named Irungu, who was very nice and charismatic. The 18-year-old, Chaos, kept staring at me the entire time and made me pay for his lunch when we went to eat the first day. Also an interesting character was a 30 year old named Luka or Lukas, who was super funny and super black -- he bore a resemblance to Rasheed Wallace that the laborers agreed to when we brought them an image. He always worked with a toothpick (it was really a match) in his mouth and was able to talk loudly despite that -- Rahim and I tried it once and couldn't say more than a mumble. Lukas smiled often and widely, showing the extent of his gums and the three broken teeth from his secondary school days. There was also a man paid 700 shillings per day while the rest were paid 350 shillings named Pita (Peter) who was around maybe half the time barking orders. Supposedly he went to college (everyone else could not) and actually knew how the building was to be constructed -- he was somewhat strict, as he sometimes stopped the guys from talking too much, and didn't seem to contribute much in my opinion.
So we ended up coming here pretty much everyday. The laborers showed up at 8 and we showed up at 9 or 10, staying until 5pm. There was a lunch break from 1 to 2; the volunteers and some of the laborers walked up to a shack that sold chapati, chai, some very common stew thing, and avocados at double the normal price in the market. A chapati cost 15, chai cost 10, stew cost 40, and the only cheap thing was an avocado, which cost 5. We ate together on the first day, showing them the magic of hand sanitizers and paying for their meals out of peer pressure. Afterwards, we started bringing peanut butter sandwiches and generally abstained from buying anything. I bought an avocado to complement my sandwich once, which was fairly substantial and definitely worth it for 5 shillings. The other guys, including Lukas, Irungu, and Pita, went home to their shacks to eat. Work went by pretty slowly, though it felt faster than the past couple of days. We asked James for the time pretty frequently as we slacked off a considerable amount; me because of my hand and laziness and Rahim because he was lazy.
On Friday, I wrote the journal entry for the previous Saturday 6/15 in the morning while the other guys all went to Makuyu Health Clinic. They were able to talk with a very soft-spoken psychiatrist named John who we had met on our previous visit about America, school, etc. His soft voice was so soothing last time I wish I was with them... Then we left for Nairobi in Douglas' car where we were about to meet our safari guide and embark on a two-day safari lasting all day Saturday until 6:30pm and until 10am on Sunday. Nairobi from the way we entered was a gigantic ghetto with people and cars running around all over the place. There were a couple of skyscrapers in the distance in the nice part of town that we had passed by when we first got off the plane, but we were in the mayhem . The car broke down on the freeway right as we were about to enter Nairobi, and we all had to get out and push it down for a mile or so. A random guy walking on the freeway (people were walking up and down it like it was a sidewalk) helped us the whole way only to ask for something to help him "remember us". People in Kenya would randomly come out of nowhere and help us with a task, sometimes forcibly taking groceries from us to carry, so that they could guilt us into paying them in the end. In any case, Douglas took care of that guy and we met our safari guide Stanley at the gas station. Long story short, we had spent a couple of days asking random people from Martha to random guy on a matatu to Pita at the construction site for the best safari deal. Martha's buddy Stanley offered a price of $270 for basically a day and a half that was better than $500, $600, and other high prices we had been offered. We were expecting $150 as that was the price last year, but as Stanley would later tell us, park fees rose and so the cost of packages rose as well.
Stanley was a big, gregarious Kenyan who looked like he was in his late 30s. He welcomed us into his van, which looked exactly like a matatu from the outside but had 6 nicely cushioned seats inside. In addition, the ceiling lifted to allow for us to look outside and take pictures while driving -- it would be lifted the whole time. His company was called Kenya Safari Adventures and he had been in the business for 12 years. We picked up his "secretary", a woman in her 20s or 30s, nearby and traveled for about 2 hours away from Nairobi to a random motel closer to the safari park. The safari we had decided to go on was called Masai Mara, supposedly the best safari. It featured all sorts of animals and also hosted one of the most famous indigenous tribes, the Masai tribe. You know them because they are draped in large blankets and have gigantic earlobes.
In any case, the 2 hour drive to the motel felt pretty long and a bit scary when it became dark as we were scaling mountains. We drove through the great rift valley, which emerged when seismic plates collided or something and offered an absolutely amazing view that we were able to enjoy on the way back. The motel we stayed at was pretty dingy with crappy food, but it was good because we enjoyed hot showers (that didn't work in the morning) for the first time. We slept in two doubles (Waldo went last year on safari and didn't come); Rahim and I shared a room while James and Hans shared another. There were a couple of issues -- bathroom lights needed to be replaced, James found a random gecko in the room, and the second bed in each room was like a cradle with a towel as a blanket. I slept in that bed very poorly, maybe for like three hours. Stanley and his "secretary" shared a single room which was pretty shady but whatever. We slept at around 11am and woke up at 5:30am, intending to get to Masai Mara at about 9.
On our way to the park, we sleepily enjoyed about an hour of zebras and gazelles running around a pretty barren African plain. Stanley stopped the car whenever we saw animals to allow for picture taking throughout the whole trip so that was great. We dropped off our stuff at "Flamingo Camp", one of multiple campsites right outside the park that offered pretty good accomodations, and had a pretty good breakfast of some eggs, sausages, and toast. We were in double "tents" again, which was really a decently small hut + bathroom with canvas over it to look like a tent. The bathroom also had hot water and the beds this time were nice and large. There were some issues though -- James found another gecko, this time right under his pillow (I roomed with him this time) and both rooms' toilets did not flush... However the rooms were generally nicer than the motel's and the food was much better than anything we've had so far.
The safari itself went until 6:30pm and wasn't as lively as I thought it'd be. The park was a gigantic African plain that was pretty bare with tons of forever-alone trees that make for good phtos. We saw pretty large herds of wildebeasts, zebras, and buffalos near the entrance of the park that were really the highlight for me. They clustered there to prevent themselves from getting eaten by the "Big 5" animals (lion, elephant, I forget the rest but they're famous enough that Tusky's had "Big 5" cash registers) that resided in the center of the park. At the gate, there were a few Masai women selling handmade souvenirs. I bought a bowl with an image of a lion and two wooden figures that looked pretty cool for 5500 and 4500 shillings, respectively (not a bad price) . Further in the park, it got pretty boring. The plain was completely devoid of life and we drove for an hour or two at a time just to catch a look at a lion or something. Lions sleep 16 hours a day, so they weren't very exciting or active at all though we saw them multiple times throughout. The exception: A male lion (with the big red mane) woke up and there were more than ten safari vehicles just surrounding it at the end of the first day. We saw a giraffe once or twice by a forever-alone tree, which was pretty cool. We also got to see elephants once (the best, just so surreal when you're right in front of one) as well. Stanley was a really good driver who not only traveled along the well-worn truck paths but also went deep into the fields illegally to get like five inches away from lions and elephants. It was dangerous as hell but it made for some great pictures and entertainment. Picture taking was pretty good until my camera ran out of battery (and James as well) after a few hours and I forgot to bring a charger...
Back to Stanley: All throughout, Stanley listened to the radio intently where all the safari guides inexplicably shared animal sightings and drove like mad to get us the best shots. He talked alot about the animals and etc which was pretty cool -- apparently a hippo and buffalo could kill you in just one blow / chomp, its nuts (the comma was not initally not there haha). Seeing all of these exotic animals didn't impress me for some reason, whether it was because it was so surreal or because it just didn't sink in I don't know. He also brought a good box lunch for each of us that consisted of a banana, a sandwich, juice, etc. We stopped at the border of the park after illegally crossing into the Tanzanian portion of the plain (Serengeti National Park) during an insane rainstorm for a picture to have lunch. There were a few monkeys around who snatched Rahim and James' bananas while Rahim used it as bait right out of the car window and James was just sitting outside -- those guys were ridiculously quick and it was hilarious. Maybe the one bad part that I didn't mind too much but others did was that Stanley's car got stuck in a ditch or broke down a little over ten times throughout our time with him.
We returned to camp at around 7 and had a delicious dinner of spaghetti and a few other stuff (it was self-serve). There was a huge party of American girls/women that occupied the dining space along with us, so we left pretty quickly after dining and hit the sack after a while. James and I had a huge problem as I got down and dirty with our broken toilet that night following dinner and the stench slowly made its way to our beds by morning. I slept a bit better that night; after James found the gecko we pledged not to use the blankets but the huge rainstorm I mentioned earlier hit again and made it so cold that I went under the covers at around 4am. We woke up at around 6:30 and were on our way by 7:30 to finish our safari by 10am (the deadline). We got another male lion yawning and buffalos once again, but soon returned a little after 9 to eat breakfast and head out back home. Stanley, Hans, and I had some good conversation talking about America, the safari business, and Kenyan politics for about an hour before the van broke down again. Stanley's mechanic drove over and brought us back to the motel from Friday night to have lunch while Stanley was able to fix his car by the time we finished eating. Forgot to mention that room, board, food, and whatever was included in the $270 so it wasn't so bad.
So we were on our way back to Nairobi in what turned out to be a 7 hour trip from 9 to 4. We stopped at the Great Rift Valley for a bunch of photos since we now had daylight and also looked around their really nice souvenir shop that was ridiculously overpriced but could be bargained lower as there was no set price. The guys there were desperate to sell their stuff and followed us around the store constantly, pushing their stuff into our hands and offering 'discounts' on their absurd prices if we started showing any doubts. Stanley later explained that the souvenir shop basically took the best quality stuff from the Masai Market where souvenirs can generally be bought and sold them to tourists rushing back to the airport. Bargaining is a must in buying stuff in Kenya as there is usually no set price and tourists are generally charged 3x or more for a certain good. I wanted to buy something, but couldn't find anything good. What I did find, however, was the figures that I bought made with much better wood and paint finish that the guy tried to charge me 350 but lowered to 150 before I refused (didn't want two of the same thing, would have bought otherwise...). I guess my consolation is that I have stuff made by legit Masai people instead of just Kenyans preying on tourists. Rahim bought a cool drum made out of some animal's hide and postcards for 3000, a solid price but a purchase that made no sense given the logistics involved in bringing luggage back to America in my opinion.
We met Douglas in a gas station of a pretty wealthy area of Nairobi that we had seen a day or two earlier. It was like the Bel-Air of Nairobi, a whole avenue of walled off residences that were actually the embassies for multiple countries. Naturally, the oil states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait) and the U.S had the largest and nicest gates -- we couldn't really see what was inside the gates given how tall the walls were. In any case, Douglas' car broke again and we had to push the car again to get off the road and he managed to transfer petrol from one tube to another with his mouth to get the car going... Stanley also helped out but there wasn't much he could do. After maybe half an hour, we were well on our way back to Kenol. We stopped at Thika to buy lots of water at Tusky's for use back home. Upon arriving in our room, we expected two bunk beds to be in but only one had arrived with the other delayed to Monday (didn't happen either). Also, a whole bunch of kids showed up at our place five seconds after (as usual) because they wanted to watch a movie on my cnomputer (I did this a few times). I put on Ratatouille and Alice in Wonderland with strict orders translated by Douglas not to touch my netbook (they screwed it up alot the past two or three times by clicking around or trying to get on the internet) and the rest of us went to visit Douglas' family home a couple of kilometers away. The house was decently nice by Kenyan standards and his father seemed like a very respected figure. We had some chai, made small talk about America with the dad and his buddies (who were gathered as a committee to plan Douglas' brother's wedding), took a picture, and left. A sad story was that there was a boy aged about 10 staying with them since his parents had died within two months of each other when he was one and a half years old.
We then went to buy meat samosas at the Junction Restaurant in Kenol for dinner, a 24-hour restaurant that thinks its nicer than it was. The waitress messed up our orders twice (got fries first, then half fries half samosas, then finally samosas) and the meat samosa was 30 instead of 10 as I thought (normal potato ones are 5!) so the four that Rahim and I got each were pretty expensive. We also found a "supermarket" next to the restaurant that was really a deli serving all of our needs at a slightly higher price which was okay since it negated the cost of matatu to Thika and back. We returned to the room to find the kids left the room pretty spotless, locked the door and left the key, and closed my netbook in the middle of Alice in Wonderland. Not bad. We then went to Martha's as she had prepared dinner for us and we didn't realize it. We were planning on not eating any more meals there anyway -- we realized that eating at Martha's was ridiculously expensive given that she made like 15 shillings worth of food each meal and charged us 1000 a week for breakfast and dinner when rent was only 1500. Martha and Douglas, whom we both trusted instinctively, are really Kenyans at heart and overcharged us for everything even when we knew them well. Douglas charged us alot for taking us places and Martha charged crazy prices for everything -- another topic was laundry she did for me at 300 shillings total while Waldo got a price of 100 shillings the next day... That was pretty much the last week, with a lot of rambling especially starting with the safari days.