Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dry as a Bone

An elephant bone, that is.

Just a few days after my rafting trip, while the terror was fresh in my mind, I had an email from my pfellow Pfizer Pfellow, Fiona (not Pfiona). She suggested a relaxing trip to Amboseli, another wildlife refuge in Kenya’s national park system. She said that it would be different from Nakuru as it is known for having lots of elephants and lions - two animals we hadn’t seen on our previous trek. And by the way, she said, bring a scarf - it might be a little bit dusty.

We set off early Saturday morning with Michael, the same driver who took us to Nakuru. Although he had only been to this park once before, he felt confident that he could provide a good experience, and given his success last time, we took him at his word. Similar to our previous trip, he said we’d drive for a few hours, stop for a picnic lunch then proceed on to the park. He said that the road leading to the park was “very terrible”, but since all the roads in Kenya are “very terrible” by Western standards, we really didn’t know what to expect.

What we found was that the road before the “very terrible” road was pretty terrible, too. Amboseli is about 125 miles from Nairobi on the Tanzania border, but the last 50 are unpaved. About half of that is on bumpy, but soft, sand so in order not to get stuck, the vehicle has to go fast. Michael wanted to weigh the back of the van down with bags of charcoal bought from the Masai on the side of the road, but didn’t like the prices at which they were offered, so we bounced and were thrown from side to side for nearly two hours.

When we finally arrived at Amboseli, we were “greeted” by a group of Masai women outside the gate selling jewelry and crafts. They were very aggressive in their sales pitches, constantly pushing things through the open window and attempting to get us to hold them, and therefore buy them. It’s not that their stuff isn’t good, but their prices were high and we were quite sure that some of it was made in China. They just don’t take “no” for an answer and it was a relief when we finally had our admission ticket and were able to pass through the entrance.

Amboseli is indeed a dry, arid place. In fact, the name originates from the Masai word for dust. To traverse the park, one must first drive across Lake Amboseli. Yes, drive. The lake is a dust bowl, that occasionally has water in it. One of the first things we saw was a fresh zebra carcass. Michael explained that it had died of starvation, not a predator, as the Amboseli environment is very harsh and survival of the fittest is proven every day.

As we were driving across the lake, we kept looking for Mt. Kilimanjaro, expecting to see something huge and majestic. We saw some mountains, but nothing that matched the picture we had in our mind. You know the one - the great peak rising above the clouds with a snow cap on top. Finally, we saw something that could be Kilimanjaro, but we still weren’t sure. The entire top half was obscured by cloud cover, making the range look like every other one we had seen. We continued on, spotting herds of zebra, wildebeest, gazelles, vultures and finally elephants along the way.

The park lived up to its reputation for having elephants - the place is lousy with them. Family herds were everywhere, even at one point blocking the road while they slowly grazed. It was amazing how close we could get to them, but they clearly know that they have the upper hand. Michael told us that you should not look at an elephant straight on and smile as they do not like to see teeth, but I’m not sure that’s anything more than local folklore.

It was starting to get late, but Michael stopped the car and suggested we visit a Masai village, one of seven situated in the park. Not knowing what we were getting into, we said yes and within seconds, a young Masai girl jumped into the van. She chattered excitedly with Michael, and then suddenly, three Masai boys came out of nowhere, all smiles and laughing. They teased the girl, made her get out and they all crammed into car instead. Clearly, she was someone’s little sister and didn’t stand a chance of staying with the muzungos.

The boys directed Michael down a narrow road only slightly less covered with lava rocks than the area to either side. We finally arrived at a clearing where the boys jumped out. One of them introduced himself as Patrick, son of the village chief. He was very personable, spoke great English and explained that the village was very excited to have visitors. The villagers would sing a welcome song, offer a prayer to us and then we would be shown a typical Masai house and traditional medicines. We knew there would be a price to pay for this, but as of yet, no fee was mentioned.

The Masai had clearly taken an advanced marketing course as they really had a scheme planned for tourists. We knew that we were getting into something, but also knew that it was part of the experience and would probably not have an opportunity to see how the Masai live, even if was orchestrated at a Disney-esque level. While Patrick was telling us about Masai marriage traditions (polygamy is the norm; 10 cows = one new wife), the villagers lined up for the song and dance portion of the program. The invited us to dance with them, as Patrick took photos. Next up was the prayer, where we were told to kneel on the cow-dung covered ground and repeat a refrain.

Patrick then took us into a mud hut to show us a typical home. The ceiling was low, the entryway narrow and the living/bed chamber dark and smoky as there was a fire lit in the center for heat and light. There were two narrow beds on each side of the room, which couldn’t have been more than 6 x 6. This is where an entire family lives, we were told.

We were glad to exit, and were met by Patrick’s buddies who were going to show us some traditional medicines. According to them, the Masai only use western medicine for broken bones and surgeries. All other medical needs are met by local botanicals. The boys then explained that the Masai don’t have matches and demonstrated starting a fire by quickly rolling a stick in one’s hands on a small pile of dung. We were dutifully impressed, but also worried that it was starting to get dark and the road to the lodge would be treacherous.

As we made an attempt to leave, the matter of money finally came up. Patrick told us that “although we don’t get many visitors”, the going rate is 5000 shillings (about $65) per bus. We argued that we weren’t an entire busload, but rather just two of us, and the price should be reduced. After a protracted negotiation, we thought we had settled at 1000 shillings ($13) each, and the condition we take a look at some of the wares the villagers had to sell.

Patrick led us back to the center of the village where the entire village had now formed a circle, each with a blanket covered with jewelry, carvings and trinkets. Neither Fiona nor I wanted anything more than just getting out of there, but felt obligated to buy something. Once again, each person was aggressive in his sales pitch (this time, the women just sat silently) and explained that they personally made the earrings, wooden utensils, knife sheaf, etc. We weren’t buying it - literally or figuratively - and just wanted to get of there quickly and cheaply. Fiona, a better negotiator than I, settled on a pair of over-priced salad tongs. I finally got out of there with some bracelets that cost far too much for what they were, but we got a good story out of it.

Our hasty exit was still hampered by continued negotiation of the visitation fee, which although we thought had been confirmed, the Masai were still trying to up the price. It would have given them plenty of money to buy matches. We’re not sure how it finally ended up, but for some reason, Michael ended up returning 500 shillings to me the following day. I have no idea how that happened, but it was an honest gesture.

We finally got back in the van and headed for the lodge and more importantly, a hot shower to scrub off all the dust and dinner.

More tomorrow…

1 comment:

Greg said...

Man you are lucky you got out of there. These guys must have been good, I thought you were the queen of barter