Sunday, October 26, 2008

Uganda Adventure

Nile River in Jinja, Uganda at Sunset

I’m in Kampala, Uganda right now. I had planned on just coming for the weekend to meet Nancy and Naomi, two other Fellows and go rafting, but when I mentioned my weekend plans to my boss, she suggested I stay a few more days and work out of the PSI office here to get a feel for what a local office is like, as well as help the team complete some of their outstanding deliverables.

The weekend was great. Kampala is a much more social city than Nairobi because it is much safer. We were able to walk to a pub Friday night met a lot of other ex-pats. Saturday we got up very early to catch the rafting company’s van to Jinja, where we were going white water rafting. Nancy had organized some friends to join us, and it was a really fun group. It took about 1.5 hours to get to the base camp where we had breakfast and got fitted with our safety gear. Then, it was a short ride to the part of the Nile where we were putting in. We had the perfect number of people for our raft, so it was just us and our guide, Erik. Erik is a native Jinjan who looks like he is about twelve, but insisted he was 22. He gave us the basics on rafting as we had a mixed group in terms of experience. He then explained that there are 12 rapids through which we will be passing during the day, including a few Class 2 and 3, mostly some 4 and 5s and even a Class 6. The most difficult rapids are 6’s. The names of the rapids were very descriptive - Dead Dutchman, 50/50 (50% chance
of getting out alive) and Widow Maker, to name a few.

The first part of the ride was fairly easy with some Class 2 and 3 water - nothing too hard. We got our rhythm and were working well as a team. However, we lost that confidence when we hit Silverback, a Class 5 rapid that defeated us and we went over. I’m a strong swimmer and confident in the water, but this knocked me for a loop. I got sucked down and turned around so many times, it was hard to figure out which way is up. I finally surfaced, I saw Nancy next to me and a safety boat and a rope in front of me. The kayakers and safety boats that accompanied us were great - they were at everyone’s side within seconds to haul them out of the water, and then embarrass them mercilessly for not managing to stay in the boat. What we later learned is that the guides are quite expert at what they do and often purposely find the spots in the rapids that will make the boat tip over, in order to give the patrons a more memorable experience.

Needless to say, it was a memorable experience and once we plucked all our passengers from the other boats that had picked them up, we were back on our way down river. We had some calm areas for a while and stopped about mid-way through the day for a floating lunch of pineapple and biscuits delivered to each boat. It was a chance to relax, go for a swim and gear up for the last part of the trip where we were to battle a Class 6 appropriately named The Bad Place. After going over a 5-meter waterfall and through a few other rapids, we were nearing the end of our trip. To get to the last rapid, we had to portage a bit, as the water between where we were and where we wanted to be was too difficult to navigate. As we climbed to the top of a cliff, we saw where the boats were to put in again and Mitra, one of Nancy’s friends and I decided that we had had enough. This was the end of the trip, the trucks with our dry clothes were right there, and we saw no reason to take such a risk at the end of the day. As neither of us plan to be professional rafters, it was no dishonor to skip this one.

We stood at the top of the cliff and watched as the rafts navigated the roiling water and, as one-by-one they tipped over, we congratulated ourselves on being so smart to be standing on the sidelines. The rest of our party made a go at the final rapid, but the guide purposely grounded them before they went into the most difficult part. We think that he decided that it was too much for only 2 semi-experienced passengers and 3 novices, so they hauled in. Still, it was a terrific experience.

After a barbeque, we stayed at the rafting campsite Saturday night, just hanging out and talking to the other trekkers. We were exhausted, but managed to stay awake until we got to watch the videotape of our day. I’m sure that every boatful of rafters thinks that their guide was the best and they had a better time than the other boats, but were quite sure it was true in our case, and I bought the video to prove it! I'll eventually put it up on the website, but here are a few pictures. We weren't able to take cameras along the river as they would be lost/ruined, but here are some from the porch of the campsite.

Nile River in Jinja, Uganda at Dawn

Monday, October 20, 2008

Things I Love About Africa

  1. Jacaranda trees other vibrant plants and birds. Nothing is subtle here. Plants and animals are painted in bright colors not found in nature. But wait - it IS nature!
  2. Avocados and other tropical fruits are inexpensive and delicious. Too bad I don't like tropical fruits.
  3. A wonderful housekeeper who does my laundry and changes my sheets twice a week, and tries to get me to go to church with her.
  4. Katembas where you can buy lunch for 40 cents. I think the food is probably safe to eat, but the dishes and utensils are a bit suspect.
  5. NGO staffers are incredibly committed to their cause. They really do want to make a difference in the world and are not just here for the adventure.
  6. When it’s not raining, the weather is great - temperate, not humid and lots of sunshine.
  7. The people are very warm and friendly, and love to discuss US politics.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Things I Hate About Africa

  1. The metric system. I have no idea how much of anything I buy at the grocery store, let alone a unit price; how fast I go in a car; how far I go on the treadmill; how much a baby elephant weighs.
  2. Military time. What is with that? Not only does the power go off in the apartment fairly regularly so that I have to reset the clock on the microwave and add 12 to whatever time it REALLY is, but the TV Guide lists programs in military time, and they are either an hour ahead or an hour behind what is printed. I still haven’t figured out which it is.
  3. Driving on the wrong side of the road. I consistently look the wrong way when crossing a street and have very narrowly escaped getting hit by cars.
  4. Celsius. When the temperature is always somewhere between 20 and 23 degrees, it doesn’t seem like much of a difference, but the difference between 68 and 75 is significant.
  5. Speed bumps. They are everywhere here, making me think that a car is slowing down next to me for some nefarious reason, rather than to just calm traffic.
  6. Everything is SLOW. Nothing happens quickly here. Time does not equal money. There is no such thing as a quick run to the grocery store, as people are moving up and down the aisles with the speed of slugs. The only thing moving slower than the customers is the staff.
  7. Telephones. Countries have all different numbering conventions - some with 8 digits, some with 15. Calling cell-to-cell is different than cell-to-land line. Many of the African countries don’t have an infrastructure that even allows for any reliability and the Kenyan system is often overloaded. Good thing I don’t have anyone to call.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Into Africa - Part 2

Courting Giraffes
Sunday morning we were up early and ready to go. After being reprimanded by the hotel manager for taking coffee, bread and bananas to go (“That’s a full breakfast - you cannot return!”), we headed out in search of big cats. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any, but we had a lovely drive and came across some graceful giraffes performing a courtship dance. We didn’t stick around to see the results, but apparently many of the giraffes in the park are pregnant, so the dance is successful. We also spotted a jackal, and many other animals having breakfast.


Upon returning to the lodge for a rest (snoozing by the pool), we picked up our box lunches and left the park and headed for Lake Naivasha. The Rift Valley is an example of diverging tectonic plates, where molten lava pushed through the earth’s crust separating into two plates. A lake formed in the middle and you can see the dormant volcano above the lake, as well as others throughout the valley. We were told we could take a boat ride to an island, walk among the animals and then we would head back to Nairobi. Once again, it all sounded a bit nebulous, but Michael knew what he was doing.

We arrived at the camp, ate lunch and then hopped into a skiff with Captain John. He immediately took us to see a family of sleeping hippos, and pointed out many different species of birds along the shore. A little further down the coastline, there was a large group of people picnicking. The lake area is known for its greenhouses, and these were the employees enjoying a day off with their families, friends, donkeys and camels. Some of the men were net fishing and we pulled alongside and, again after much negotiation, bought some fish to be later thrown to the Fisher Eagles.Sleeping Hippos / Local Fisherman

The next stop was Crescent Island. No longer an actual island, this piece of land was where the movie Out of Africa was filmed in 1985. Prior to that, there was very little wildlife there, but thanks to Hollywood and a Noah’s ark-like maneuver, the island now has large herds of wildebeest, antelope, gazelle, dik dik, zebra and giraffes. Our guide Simon explained that we could walk around the island without fear of being trampled by animals as they were “very social”. We took him at his word and started off.

The island was beautiful with gently sloping hills, lush greenery and animals everywhere. Some of them had had a better year than others, as one of the first things we came across was a buffalo carcass. We were able to get very close to a giraffe, and learned that, according to Simon, wildebeest are the most stupid of all of God’s creatures as they follow the same migratory path year after year, knowing that it brings them directly into the path of crocodiles, lions and cheetahs.

Wildebeest / Bad Day for Buffalo

After an hour or so of wandering among the animals, we got back in the boat to feed the Fisher Eagles. Captain John would spot them in the trees, whistle to catch their attention and then throw a fish in the water. Within seconds, the eagle would swoop down and pluck it out of the lake. It was very impressive.

Although we had exerted very little actual effort throughout the day, we were happy to return to the van and head back to Nairobi. We took the same route back, but a short way outside of Naivasha, Michael suddenly pulled the van over to the side of the road were there were dozens of people milling around. A boy jumped into the front seat and Michael explained that it was his son who was heading to the city. It seemed a bit random to us, but we were too tired to try to understand it better.

Fisher Eagle with Fish (really)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Into Africa - Part 1

This weekend, I finally got out of the city and went on my first safari. Not only was the actual safari a great time with lots of animals, but the planning, as well as the ride there were also quite an experience. Earlier in the week, I had dinner with my Pfizer colleague, Fiona. She had just arrived from Ireland and was already for an adventure. As I was leaving her apartment, we were chatting with Alex the Taxi Driver and he said he could arrange a trip to the wildlife park at Lake Nakuru, along with a boat ride on Lake Navaisha with one of his drivers.

On the surface, this sounded like a great idea, but upon further examination, we started to doubt whether he could pull it off. The trip was to be with one of his drivers, and our first concern was that his Nairobi guy would know where to go in the park to see the wild beasts. Then, we worried that we would be trekking in a beat-up Toyota Camry, instead of a 4-wheel drive Jeep with an open roof. And finally, Alex said he could get us a room, but what kind? “Hotels” that I’ve seen along the side of the road aren’t what we would consider a room. They advertise that they have water and cost about $2.50 per night (or maybe hour?)

After much debate, we decided to give Alex a chance and see what happened. We negotiated a price, which eventually had a stipulation that if we met up with two other people at the lodge, we would get $100 US back. Even that sounded skeptical, but we decided to take a flyer.

At the very respectable hour of 10:00 am, we started on the road with Michael, the driver. He had a ramshackle van which looked pretty ordinary, but as it turned out, its roof popped up for better camera shots. We headed northwest out of the city, with the first stop being a high escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley. It was a spectacular view, with the obligatory stop at a souvenir stand.

The Great Rift Valley

Along the way, Michael gave a running commentary about the land, the people and the animals. He travels the road often as his family lives in Nakuru and although he must live in Nairobi to earn a living, he tries to go home every few months to see his wife and eight children. We saw many Masai herding their cattle and goats, and he explained that the Masai consider the land on the west side of the road theirs and rarely cross to the other side. This time of year, the ground was quite dry and the tribesmen have to move their herds frequently to keep them fed. The short rainy season should start soon, so there will be more green grass shortly. As we traveled north, we also saw a relatively small Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camp. These tents have been made available to people who have been forced out of their homes primarily due to the tribally motivated political unrest earlier in the year. It’s a sad thing to see, as even the poorest of the poor seem better off. We also saw men (some women, but mostly men), just laying on the side of the road. There would be nothing in any direction - no buildings, no cattle, just a guy dozing on the road side. It was as if they were waiting for Godot, and nothing would ever happen, but they would return the next day.

We finally arrived at the Lake Nakuru Wildlife Park around 1 and ate our picnic lunch before entering the reserve. We experienced our first taste of “safari” on the ride to the lodge and spent a few hours looking at antelope, gazelle, zebras, white rhinos and buffalo. In the distance, we could see the lake, rimmed with pink from the thousands of flamingos who stand at its edge.
Cheeky Baboon
Blase Buffalo

We were pleasantly surprised when we got to the hotel as it was gorgeous. Clearly, this was a holdover from colonial times and the Brits sure knew how to pick a good property site. Lake Nakuru Lodge is perched high up on a cliff, overlooking the valley and the lake, with unobstructed views. It has beautifully landscaped grounds, and even a Masai warrior employed to shoo away the baboons and any other wildlife that attempted to enter. The rooms were clean and serviceable and most importantly, a great shower with plenty of hot water.

Lake Nakuru Lodge at Dawn

We took a brief rest by the pool and were told to meet Michael at 4 for a late afternoon game drive. When we got to the van, lo and behold, there were the two other people Alex had mentioned and a crisp $100 bill. Chalk up another point for Alex! Tammy and James work for a British consultancy and had been at the lodge all week facilitating a meeting. They decided to stay on a few extra days to enjoy the park before heading back to London. They were fun and easy to travel with, and we spent the rest of the time with them. The afternoon game drive immediately produced two female lions, however they were quite distance. Michael had expert eyes and was able to spot things that I couldn’t see even when we were practically upon them. He insisted it was because I was white and that black people have better vision. I think it’s because it’s time for a revision to my Lasik surgery.
Lioness in the Distance (really)
Ostriches and Rhinos

We then drove down by the lake were we were able to get out of the van and walk to the edge of the water. There were flamingos as far as the eye could see, creating a noisy, fluttery pink rim around the perimeter. There were also groups of white pelicans and the odd cormorant and crane. I’m told that Kenya, and particularly the lake regions, are great places for birders. I don’t pay that much attention to those sharp clawed and spiky beaked creatures, but I did notice that many of the birds had extremely vibrant colors.
Flamingos on the Shore of Lake Nakuru
White Pelicans
More Flamingos

As we headed back to the lodge, we saw got very close to a dozing rhino and a very alert hyenna. The buffalo gave us wary looks and the baboons just continued being their naughty selves. We had a tasty dinner and headed to our rooms with a reminder from Michael to be ready at 6:30 am to go out to find the King of the Animals - the lion!

Dozing White Rhino

Part 2 tomorrow…

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Routine is Routine, Even Halfway Around the World

It’s been a fairly routine week, with a few new twists. As I mentioned before, we have finally moved into the new office. It’s great being able to walk to work, and I can finally come and go on my own schedule. Although the walk is only about ½ mile down the street where I live, it’s not without its challenges. The road is quite narrow, but accommodates two-lane traffic. There are no sidewalks, although the dirt on one side of the road is slightly more trampled than the other. I’m still not fully used to cars being on the “wrong” side of the road and find that I prefer to face the car that will hit me, rather than be surprised from behind. I’ve been nudged a few times by passing cars - nothing violent, just a friendly, “I’m in a car and have the right-of-way” message.

The office itself is quite nice, and although the building doesn’t have a restaurant, there are a few stalls across the street where the locals from the neighboring factories eat. I thought that lunch for about $4 was a good deal in the old office, but at the stalls, you can get a similar bowl of eggs, beans, ugali (a solid piece of cooked cornmeal) and sukama wiki (cooked collard greens) for about 40 cents. This is clearly where the locals eat and at lunchtime, there are dozens of men and women sitting on the side of the road with their bowls of food.
Deputy Director Kate
Erik the Intern

Carol, our Admin. My Desk

An exciting event this week was the appearance of two notices from the post office that something had arrived for me. I asked the apartment complex manager how I retrieve the mail, and she recommended sending someone from my office to pick it up. Alex the Cab Driver to the rescue! On Thursday, I gave him the notices, a copy of my passport and 500 shillings (about $7) and sent him on his way. I have yet to receive anything from him as he said he can’t figure out at which post office the mail is being held. In the meantime, my absentee ballot arrived in my apartment without difficulty. Go figure.

Last Wednesday was indeed a holiday and I was planning on visiting the newly renovated Nairobi National Museum. However, I was attempting to download some software and so decided to stay home and finish that task instead. We have another holiday at the end of this week, so perhaps I’ll head out then. I did go to the Village Market yesterday. This is yet another shopping area in a very nice section of Nairobi. As I was riding to it, I could see that it was clearly where the wealthy lived - beautiful homes, gardens and even prettier security gates with more frequent electric shock fences instead of the pedestrian barbed wire that’s in my neighborhood (for the record, my apartment has an electric fence atop the perimeter wall.) What I found most interesting was a giant sign at the end of a road saying, “Swedish Ambassador’s House.” I can’t imagine advertising such a thing, but apparently this area is where many of the diplomats live and one of their responsibilities is entertaining.

Village Market is a rabbit-warren of small specialty shops - everything from groceries to electronics to clothing to gifts. There are a few restaurants, as well as a food court in the center. Mini-golf, a water slide and a cinema complete the entertainment offerings. I spent a leisurely afternoon poking in the shops, picking up a few souvenirs and groceries, eating lunch and people watching. This complex caters to the ex-pat community and it had a very international flavor.

This week will be a busy one at work as the rainy season in a number of the survey countries is nearing the end and therefore our opportunity to conduct the survey during peak malaria time will be over. Erik the Intern left for Benin on Saturday for a week of helping the team there and I hope to get out to some of the other countries to assist with their training. Travel between African countries is relatively inexpensive, but it’s often an opportunity for extortion by customs officials. It seems that even having the proper visa in hand is no reason not to try to shake down mzungos, and is a lucrative practice. Flights are also limited. Even if you need to go somewhere for just a few days, chances are you will stay a week until the next flight. For now, I’m staying put. My Pfizer colleague arrives this week and I already feel like the old hand, ready to show her around.