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We drove to a place called Fisherman’s Camp on Lake Naivasha where Will knew there to be hippo boat tours. I immediately thought of a “fun-fact” about African wildlife I had heard somewhere: that more human deaths were caused yearly by hippopotamuses than by any other animal in Africa—that’s including lions. While I, personally, didn’t need to see hippos, I had to admit that a boat ride on Lake Naivasha (Maasai for “rippling waters”) sounded wonderful after a hot and dusty day.

We decided to do the boat ride first and then just have a big dinner at the restaurant afterwards. So while Will and Danny negotiated a price for a boat, Anna pulled out a bunch of tree tomatoes, or tamarillos, and yogurt. She cut each tomato in half and put a spoonful of creamy yogurt on each half. I bit into mine, slurping up all the yogurty and juicy goodness, and falling instantly in love. I felt a quiet pang as I thought regretfully that I’d never seen tamarillos in the produce section at any of the grocery stores back home. Almost reverently, I savored my second half of the sweet and slightly tart fruit, carefully licking up every line of yogurt running down my fingers.

Lake Naivasha, in the flickering light of dusk. A persistent and cooling breeze accompanying the gentle spray of waves splashing against the hull of our boat as it skimmed through the water. I nestled in to my boyfriend’s back and watched the flocks of pelicans gliding just above the surface of the lake. Hippos surfaced and sank silently in the distance, moving so slowly their giant, purple bodies barely made a ripple in the water. It was the perfect end to a day full of African splendor.

By the time we got back to the lodge it was dark, and I was starving. And when I’m starving, the first thing I look for is a good pizza with a lot of cheese, salami, and bacon on it—the one thing sure to fill me up. So up at the restaurant, I did a very Kenyan thing: I ordered comfort food. My decision to opt for comfort food, instead of trying a native dish like I usually do, was lucky too, and not just for the reason that it would be all I would eat except for a slice of grapefruit until lunch the next day, but because it turned out that the kitchen cooked the pizzas in a wood-fire, brick oven right on the deck of the lodge—which is, as everyone knows, the best way to cook a pizza. And indeed it was one of the most delicious pizzas I’d ever eaten. To drink I ordered a Redd’s cider. The first couple of sips tasted like a weak gin and tonic, but after that it was delicious and refreshing. I had more Redd’s the next evening and bypassed the original bad taste altogether. Apparently once you get past it the first time you’re good to go.

We had invited Boniface to eat with us, since he’d been patient and stayed on for the entire day. All he wanted was a tilapia filet. Will tried to get him to order more by telling him that we were all paying for him and not to worry about cost, but he just wanted his tilapia and sukuma wiki—a dish of chopped kale, tomato, and onion mixed with oil. Will said that that was very typical of Kenyans, who were not particularly adventurous or creative when it came to food. He told us a story about his Italian roommate who had once spent all day cooking up a delicious risotto, but when he offered some to their Kenyan housekeeper to have instead of her sukuma wiki, chapati, and ugali, she declined, preferring instead to stick with her usual lunch. Steve and Viktors of our group both ordered some sukuma wiki, which tasted something like creamed spinach, and chapatti, a flat, flakey, pita-like bread. I helped myself to some in order to make up to my arguably boring entrée of pizza. While it was by no means bad, let me just say that it was not the most interesting thing I’ve ever eaten. I actually ended up trying some ugali too, the next night at dinner. It’s a kind of stiff maize porridge that tastes and looks a little bit like really overcooked white rice. Its only purpose is to expand in your stomach and fill you up quickly. I could barely swallow my first bite. I tried a second bite, after soaking it in the sauce of my tikka masala, but I determined that it was, unfortunately, just as inedible. These are dishes that are popular because they are inexpensive and filling, not because they are tasty. I somewhat guiltily returned to the comfort of my own meaty and cheesy pizza.

*           *           *

As the darkness of evening crept in, and the sounds of the campgrounds began to die away, I couldn’t help thinking how good it would be to get back to the hotel and crash into bed. We made our way across the campgrounds to the matatu and piled in, most of us nestling down to sleep on the ride back to Nairobi. Boniface turned the key in the ignition and the bus started right up. We pulled away from the parking lot and headed towards the campgrounds entrance. We drove up the slight incline and past the welcome sign, and then the matatu decided that that was enough, and there it stopped and died.

At first I wasn’t too concerned. Cars stall sometimes; it’s not a big deal—you just have to start them up again. And when that didn’t seem to be happening, I figured it was probably just one of a dozen of any other small problems that one might have with a car, or van, or bus—especially one as old and beat up as this one—and surely one of the half dozen people from our group, including our driver and the campground guard that had come over to see what the trouble was, all now huddled around the engine, would soon figure it out.

Unfortunately that didn’t happen either, and about an hour and a half later we were still stuck at the top of the incline of the driveway leading into Fisherman’s Camp, still more than sixty miles outside of Nairobi and my nice, warm bed. For the fourth time Boniface shook his head, and pushed his palms towards the sky. “There’s nothing to be done,” he said. “We have to wait for someone who knows what to do.” I assumed he meant the mechanic that I think someone had called. He walked away from the bus to chat with the campground guard. Amidst a string of relaxed Swahili, I know I heard him say, “hakuna matata”. I groaned, and leaned my head against the window, wondering if I shouldn’t try to get some sleep in the bus while we waited for help to come.

I must have dozed because the next thing I remember was waking up in the darkness, next to three people and a flashlight hovering around the battery beneath the passenger-side seat. “We lost a transistor belt,” Scott said coming around the side of the door. “What does that mean?” I asked, hopeful, at least, because now we knew what was wrong. “It means we’re going to need to camp here tonight.” “But why!” I protested. “Now that we know what’s wrong, can’t we fix it and go?” Scott shook his head. “By the time it’s fixed, it’ll be too late to start heading back. Everyone is saying that it isn’t safe to drive back to Nairobi so late at night.” The memory of the desperate conditions of the villages through which we’d driven on our way out here silenced me, and I consigned myself to the thought of a tent and a thin blanket.

I grabbed my backpack and headed up towards the lodge where the rest of the group was gathered around the bar. We all agreed, however reluctantly, that our best option was to stay here overnight and arrange for a new matatu to come pick us up in the morning to take us back to Nairobi. Grumpily, I grabbed a cup of coffee, thinking that I was unlikely to get much sleep lying on the ground in a tent filled with ten other people—at least one of whom was likely to be an horrendous snorer (there’s always one…). Thankfully the campground owner, Sean, was a saint, and sent someone up to the upper camp grounds to set us up with not only a tent and ten mattresses and blankets but a bonfire as well. Since it was too dark to take the narrow path that was a direct line up to the site, we all had to pile in Sean’s first generation Mitsubishi Pajero—yes that’s right, all ten of us plus Sean, in a thirty-year-old Pajero—for the ride up the winding, rock-strewn dirt road to our site.

The sky at the top of the plateau was so dark, and the stars like so many bright pin-pricks, that I felt as though a great black sheet had been pulled over my head, and I was looking out through the gaps between tiny, woven threads. I immediately ducked into the tent and, groping in the impenetrable darkness, grabbed the first blanket I could find. Wrapped up in what was thankfully a thick and cozy blanket that felt somewhat like Scottish sheep wool, I squeezed on to one of the picnic table benches next to my boyfriend and stretched my toes out towards the warmth of the fire.

It was well past midnight by the time we were all settled and mostly everyone was ready to go straight to bed. Steve pulled his mattress outside with the idea of sleeping under the stars, but the wind and the threat of rain drove him back inside. After a while it was only Scott, me, and the upper campgrounds’ Maasai guard, Ropili, left around the bonfire. A few times Ropili got up and walked away with his flashlight, telling our neighbors to turn down their music or to stop yelling, or investigating missing firewood from the stockpiles around the site. But as it got even later, and the rest of the campers seemed to have gone to sleep, Ropili made himself more comfortable at the other picnic bench near our fire. At first it didn’t seem like Ropili was going to say much and Scott and I were considering just going to sleep, but then he began asking questions about where we were from, and whether or not we liked Kenya, and if we were married, directing all of his questions to Scott. His English was very limited, but he spoke slowly, and repeated words, pronouncing them differently each time in case his first pronunciation was the cause of our not being able to understand him. After a while he and Scott were able to communicate more easily and talked mostly about their families, friends, life in Kenya and how it was different from and similar to life in the US. Satisfied that Scott and his new friend would be up for a while still, I decided to turn in and headed towards the tent, where indeed there was one person snoring horrendously.

Just as I was dozing off at last, I heard something rustling in the bags of food on the other side of the tent wall nearest me. I thought groggily that it was probably one of the cats that I had seen running in and out of the shadows around the site—or a monkey of some sort. Oh well, I thought, closing my eyes again and drifting off to sleep at last… hakuna matata.

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[See more pictures from my Kenya adventures here!]

[Images by Kelly Overvold and Scott Zaban.]

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We arrived at Hell’s Gate National park closer to noon than we had planned. It took us another forty minutes or so to arrange buying everyone’s tickets and to find bikes for everyone in good enough condition to make the trip through the park—one of the draw backs of traveling with a large group. But we got it all figured out at last and were ready to set off. It was incredibly hot, and the road was covered, unevenly, in gravel and coarse dirt, pitted here and there with melon-sized rocks. For the first kilometer or so I started to think that maybe not just taking the matatu through the park wasn’t such a good idea.

Then we saw the zebras. Running in a small group, possibly a harem, of about ten to fifteen, they were galloping parallel to the road. Scott looked back at me to see if I’d noticed them, and I nodded, standing up on my pedals to let him know that we should try to catch up with them. We took off. My rickety bike bumped and skidded over rocks and divots, but I couldn’t be bothered to care as we started to gain ground on the zebras. Suddenly, the harem changed course and began to head towards the road. Scott and I slowed our pace as the group charged out across our path, separating us from the rest of our own group. We came to a stop and straddled our bikes as we watched the mass of black-and-white stripes in a cloud of fawn-colored dust cross into the next stretch of grassland to our left, the ground beneath our tires sending their vibrations up into our shoulders and chests.

Once the dust had settled, and we had helped ourselves to our respective liters of water we’d strapped to our bikes, we continued down the road. To either side a stretch of sheer cliff-faces rose towards the sky—remnants of now-extinct volcanic activity, exposed by millions of years of rift shifting.

Not far ahead we got our first giraffe-sighting. Scott and I dismounted and walked our bikes across the ditch by the road and propped them up at the edge of the field. Then we started to make our way out towards the giraffes. We walked steadily, high-stepping over the stiff, dry grass, keeping our eyes on the enormous yet graceful animals in front of us. I felt like Dr. Grant seeing the brontosaurs for the first time in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. How unusual these creatures were, how perfectly other-worldly: beautiful and solemn, moving as though they were compelled by a gentle breeze, every step made with the slow effort of cutting through water. We could have watched them forever.

By the time we made it to the ranger station and picnic area at the end of the road, we were getting more and more behind schedule, the hour for lunch having come and gone. I had already eaten half the granola bar I had in my backpack and thought that maybe now would be a good time to eat the other half of it. Danny and Patricia were waiting for us with the matatu, having passed up on taking bikes. I walked my bike over to where our group was gathering around the van and propped it up against a tree. “Want some sweet corn?” Anna asked me, unaware of the magic of her words. I took a huge bite of the cool, juicy, sweet kernels: the perfect, post-bike-safari snack.

Since no trip to Hell’s Gate National Park is complete without a trek through the Lion King-famous Ol Njorowa Gorge, we set off on what had been advertised as a short, leisurely stroll—a refreshing follow-up to our forty minute bike ride through sun and dust. It actually turned out to be almost two hours long and included a fair amount of rock climbing, scampering over and up fallen trees turned into bridges and ladders, and maneuvering down waterfalls—much more fun and much more “Kenya.”

The gorge itself used to be the tributary of a prehistoric lake, carved out by water. Our trek began by climbing down into the gorge through a crevice in the cliff, where we met with clear-as-glass waterfalls, about six meters high, and the beginning of trickling stream. We followed the gorge, so narrow in places I could reach out and touch both sides at the same time, around a dozen curves and bends until it widened out, and the spring flattened itself for about eight feet across, over tiny, smooth stones. The sky above was a pale, cerulean blue, and a multitude of giant trees and floral vines hung over the edge of the gorge walls.

At one point during the hike I noticed a brilliant, emerald green-colored moss growing around an area of the rock where water seemed to be seeping through. It looked almost the same color as malachite. I scrambled over the loose rock leading up to the fissure nearby for a better look. As I got closer I noticed a gentle layer of steam rising up from the rock. I gasped: hot springs!—one of the testaments to Kenya’s unique East African Rift System qualities and evidence of the dynamic geothermal activity taking place right below my feet. I reached out to touch the thin membrane of water shimmering over the moss before quickly pulling back. Definitely a hot springs source. As we continued further through the gorge we began to see little pool pockets of steaming, sometimes even bubbling, water, about a foot in diameter. One of the little, local boys who had attached himself to our group told me that if I had an egg, and were to drop it into the pool, it would be ready to eat in about ten minutes.

For the finale of our trek, we climbed up and up and up a sharp peak of a rock formation. I stepped in a pocket of thick, wet, red clay and impulsively grabbed a handful of it, feeling it slip between my fingers. There was more of that malachite moss and suddenly an outcropping of rock: the legendary inspiration for Disney’s Pride Rock. I stepped to the edge and looked out over the valley. I felt giddy with discovery. I looked and looked, drinking in the vista with all the reckless excitement of a marooned sailor who’s just come upon a fresh, clear spring. I wanted to look forever. I began to get anxious about being called by my group to continue the climb. The phrase “Cradle of Mankind” kept running over and over in my head. We could all call this place home! This place! The red clay on my hands was starting to dry and flake. I brushed at it until most of it had come off, leaving only the slightest blush of color on my skin.

*           *           *

By the time we finally got back to the ranger’s station, it was well past four o’clock. All I’d had to eat since breakfast was half a granola bar and half an ear of corn. We all agreed that we were too tired anyway to ride our bikes back to the entrance, so we all piled in to the matatu and drove back. The road was bumpy, dusty, and strewn with rocks. Had we known the kind of damage that could be done to a bus of such little mechanical integrity, I’m sure we would have taken the drive a lot more gingerly. But, oh well, hakuna matata.

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[See more pictures from my Kenya adventures here!]

[Images by Kelly Overvold and Scott Zaban.]

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The sun began rising over Lake Naivasha sometime before six thirty. As I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, I heard Scott saying goodbye to the Maasai guard, Ropili, outside—apparently they had stayed up talking all night. I rolled over on my mattress and lifted myself up to survey the rest of the tent. About half of our party of ten had already risen. I buckled on my Chacos and wrapped the blanket tightly around my shoulders before ducking out from beneath the canvas flaps—exhausted after a full night of slapping against the stiff walls of the tent. The sun filtered through the arms of the mature candelabra cacti around our campsite, making silvery lines that crisscrossed through the air like a giant spider web. As we all walked down the edge of the plateau back to the main lodge, I looked out across the lower campgrounds towards the lake and the far mountains. The sky was a sticky pink, like melted cotton-candy, slashed through with bright lemon and mango. The atmosphere gave the mountains the grainy look of old photographs, like they were in danger of dissolving into the shimmering lake. Marabou storks stood silhouetted atop the giant acacia trees at the water’s edge. A mellow, and somehow dusty, breeze pushed hesitantly at my back and slipped down through the brush.

We reached the open-air lodge by seven, at which time we had been told that the kitchen would be open, but this being Kenya, only one person had shown up by then, and he was busy sweeping and setting up chairs. I settled down on an upholstered chair by the outer porch railing and gratefully accepted a slice of grapefruit from Anna. Suddenly the call of a troop of Colobus monkeys rang out across the lawn, and I turned to see them swinging through the yellow-barked acacia trees, their fringed coats fluttering behind them like capes. I sat in my chair, with my legs still wrapped in the blanket, looking out towards the water, straining to see if I could hear the whinny of one of the giant hippos from yesterday. The rest of the group was scattered around, either collapsed in chairs or figuring out how much money to leave the owner of the camp, who had set us up so last minute the night before.

Believe it or not, the ten of us hadn’t planned on spending the night packed like sardines into an old canvas tent on a little hill in the Rift Valley. The plan for our second day in Kenya had been to go about an hour outside of Nairobi to Hell’s Gate National Park, where we would rent bicycles and take a nice leisurely tour through the park. Then we would go to a place on Lake Naivasha where we could get lunch and then take a hippo boat tour, after which we would all return to Nairobi in time for a little nap before dinner. Our day, however, had turned out quite differently…

*           *           *

For breakfast the morning before, I had eaten two slightly stale slices of white bread, a few thick-skinned hotdogs the hotel was trying to pass off as “sausages,” and a cup of gritty coffee. Had I known how the day would end, I probably would have tried to eat more. The matatu (a kind of mini bus used in Kenya as a sort of share taxi) that was supposed to pick us up at nine to take us to Hell’s Gate National Park arrived at about nine-forty-five. “Kenya time,” our friend, Will, said with a shrug as he climbed, barefoot, out of the bus. Will and Anna work for the CWS‘s Resettlement Support Center for refugees in Nairobi. Anna is an old friend of Scott’s, who recently finished up a stint with the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. When the low fare that took us to Kenya popped up, Scott immediately contacted them with questions about what there was to do and see around Nairboi. They immediately, and very generously, took over and planned out our entire trip for us—well, as much as anything can be planned in Kenya.

Joining us for the journey to Hell’s Gate were Danny—a co-worker of Will and Anna’s, Patricia—Danny’s girlfriend, and Stevie—a friend of Danny’s from Philadelphia. After we were all introduced, we piled in to the matatu. In order to accomplish this, one person had to sit on the floor between the two sets of middle seats, and another had to sit between the driver and the front passenger on an elevated seat which left said person’s head precariously close to the radio bolted to the ceiling. But we managed and were off on the hour and a half drive through the Rift Valley towards Lake Naivasha and Hell’s Gate National Park.

We left Nairobi taking Namanga Road (the A104) towards Naivasha but turned off onto the B3, which turned in to the Old Naivasha Road—the more scenic drive through the Rift Valley. The drive was sometimes chaotic, sometimes smooth. We drove sometimes through the middle of what I learned were actually villages and sometimes through flat, dusty grassland, spotted here and there with zebras, baboons, warthogs, and eland. I found myself paying close attention to the way the people were dressed, the expressions on their faces, the structures they lived in, their children, their shops, trying to decipher a little bit of this Africa. There was so much going on: everything was tightly packed, narrow, flat, and in the shadows. I couldn’t tell what all the carts were for, why the children were carrying buckets half full of, what?, across the street to the trash heaps pressing up against the road. Why were there so many furniture shops? And why so many beds? There were so many beds! And of all sizes and materials. Who is going to buy all of these beds?

At one point, our driver—Boniface—pulled over in one of these villages to buy a newspaper. A group of about a half a dozen men rushed over to the matatu immediately, cradling melons, cigarettes, and were those headphones? While Boniface yelled over their heads, trying to get the attention of someone who would go get him a newspaper, I noticed a beautiful little girl, maybe 8 or 10 years old, in a black and yellow t-shirt and white cotton skirt, whose facial bone structure reminded me of Julia Stiles, crossing the street in front of us. She was struggling mightily under the weight of a plaster bucket, sloshing full of, what?, bringing it across the road to her village’s dump. With an enormous sigh she dropped the bucket on the side of the ditch and began carefully trying to tip it over. The bucket, too heavy for her to control, fell with a giant thud, its contents spilling over and running down the slope. The girl leapt back to avoid getting whatever it was on her feet. When the bucket was empty she used her feet to right it again; then she found the handle and lifted it up over her shoulder and began to walk back towards the town. As she crossed the street she looked over at the bus, and I caught her eye. She grinned then, a flashing happy grin of perfect, straight white teeth, and gave me an energetic wave. I waved in return and smiled too, even though my eyes had gone hazy with tears.

*          *          *

Hakuna matata,” Will was explaining, as we continued our drive down A104, “is really more a term for tourists, you know, made popular by that Disney movie. The locals never actually say it.” Danny, the only one of us who spoke any Swahili, besides Patricia who was a native Kenyan, nodded his head in agreement. Halfway to Hell’s Gate, our driver pulled over at a stop-off at a Rift Valley overlook. We all piled out to get a better look at the expansive valley spreading out for miles and miles of dusty earth and scrubby brush.

After getting my fill of the valley, I turned around to head back towards the matatu. Across the street was an enormous wall of rock, hewn away to make room for the road now passing through. It was covered in various signatures, and phrases—more paint-brush style than spray-paint graffiti. As I browsed through them, I noticed that “Hakuna Matata” was painted on one of the rocks jutting out over the highway in bright, white-out white and below it, “Kenya.”

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[See more pictures from my Kenya adventures here!]

[Images by Kelly Overvold and Scott Zaban.]

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Kenya

April 2011

Pictures from my late April trip to Kenya are finally up!

Since April 28th, I have been traveling more than I have been home in DC—I’ve been traipsing around Nairobi, Istanbul, Beijing, Buenos Aires, Savannah (Home sweet home…), Sweden, and now Prague for the past two months, which is insane—even for me. So needless to say I am a little behind on editing and uploading pictures from these trips. But I’ve just finished Kenya and those are up now, so enjoy!

[See the complete album here!]

Kenya was an absolutely brilliant, if short (just three days!), trip and completely different than anything I’ve done before. It was the first time I got a look at “real” Africa. One of my favorite moments was walking out into the fields at Hell’s Gate to get closer to the giraffes. It reminded me of the scene from Jurassic Park when Dr. Grant sees the brontosaurs for the first time—such a surreal experience. We also visited a tea farm, Kiambethu, about forty-five minutes out of the city, and did some impromptu camping in the Rift Valley at Fisherman’s Camp on Lake Naivasha. Stay tuned for more about this in my article about my Kenya trip to be up later this month!

[Images by Kelly Overvold and Scott Zaban.]

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