Sunday, June 26, 2011

Forest Fun

Just got back from yet another great weekend getaway!  We departed early Saturday morning for Kakamega, home to Kenya's Rainforest region.  Arriving at our destination early afternoon we dropped our gear off at our lodge and headed out for a few hour hike.  We hired a guide ... which wasn't necessary ... but nice, given that there were various trails to choose from and he was able to point out the various birds, monkeys and plants that inhabit the area. 

 While our trail was cleared quite well and make-shift bridges allowed us to traverse the streams and hills with ease, it was quite apparent that it would be near impossible to trek through the forest given the density of the ground cover, plants and trees.  While we only saw a few species of monkeys and birds along the way, the scenery and experience of hiking under the canopy of the rainforest was cool enough to make the jaunt worthwhile.  Thankfully, we arrived back at our cabin just in time to avoid the daily downpour.  For a solid few hours we sipped tea (which eventually turned to Tuskers) under our overhang as we watched sheets of rain and hail fall.  Once the rain cleared we had a great dinner and came back to the cabin for a few drinks and a couple of games of euchre (card game).  Having decided that we would be getting up at 5:30am for a sunrise hike, we called it an early night.

As always the morning arrived earlier than desired, but we laced up our shoes and headed out to meet a local guide for our sunrise hike.  Fitted with our headlamps and hiking gear we set off into the darkness with our guide.  We had witnessed how dark the rainforest can be during the day ... but let me tell you ... you do not know darkness until you trek through the rainforest during the night.  On top of it all, the rainforest was just beginning to wake up at 5:30am and we were surrounded by sounds of insects, frogs, birds and monkeys.  As we made our way up hill, we passed through the canopy before reaching a cave.  The cave was only about 50 meters deep but we had the chance to see a good number of bats, which after a few camera flashes were more than happy to go kamikaze on us. 

Finally, we reached our final destination ... a hilltop above the trees that provided a beautiful view of the entire Kakamega forest that played host to a magnificent sunrise.  After the sun came up and the fog began to lift off the forest canopy we began our hike back through the rainforest to the lodge for breakfast before heading home.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Storms and Stories

Sitting down to dinner last night we were met with many new faces in the dining room.  It's become routine to have groups of students from across the US & Canada drop in for a few days or weeks here and there.  Ironically, my classmate and I are the longest standing (non-6month+) residents in the house.  As we finished our dinners and began our nightly conversations (and the occasional "healthy debate") of politics, medicine, business and attempts to figure out how to solve the World's problems we were abruptly interrupted by the clanking of silverware against a glass in the center of the room.  One of the group leaders announced that she had arranged for a guest speaker that evening in the library.  We finished our dinners and huddled into the library to listen to our guest, Javan Odinga.  As our speaker entered the room we were met with flashes of lightning, claps of thunder and torrential rain ... perhaps a foreshadowing metaphor for the story which were about to hear.

Javan has had a long standing relationship with the IU House and has spent time as a guard, driver, courier and assistant in the hospital.  A stocky, well built man (we were recently informed that Javan is a bodybuilder and was runner-up as Mr. Kenya), Javan could not be a kinder and gentler human being.  Tonight's topic was the 2008 election in Kenya.  The election of 2008 was the launching pad for tribal conflict that led to the most violent month in Kenyan history, and Eldoret was the epicenter of these clashes.  Our guest explained to us that 2008 was the first year in which young people in Kenya came to the polls to express their interest in being a part of driving political change in the country.  The two primary candidates running for office were from opposing tribes … the current president, Mwai Kibaki (Kikuyu tribe) and the challenger Ralia Odinga (Kalenjin tribe).  Record numbers of Kenyans showed up at the polls to support Odinga in an effort to oust Kibaki from office. 

I won’t attempt to provide an in-depth play-by-play of the election itself (but would highly recommend reading articles …although many are skewed), but through a series of corrupt activities, Kibaki maintained his position.  Outraged at the election results, rioting erupted across the entire country … but no place became as intense as Eldoret.  Eldoret happens to be the city with the highest contingencies of both Kalenjin and Kikuyu in Kenya and there has been tension between the tribes dating back for a hundred years over land disputes and wealth … the election itself was not the cause of the clash but likely the straw that broke the camel’s back. 
Over the next few days and weeks thousands of Kenyans died.  What were once neighborhoods that housed people of both tribes became fighting grounds and many a Kenyan died at the hands of his neighbor and in many instances people that he/she once called a friend.  The feuding was fueled by mob mentality and financial support from radical leaders to employ locals to join their rampage.  Police and troops were barely able to contain the fighting.  It was not until elders from both tribes came to negotiations and truce that the violence ended …over a month later.
While there are very few people in this world that I can truly label a hero … I have no hesitation in stating that Javan is one of the most heroic individuals that I have ever had the chance to meet.  Javan single handedly was responsible for saving a dozen American lives and hundreds of Kenyan lives as he rescued individuals from certain death, transported groups through mob lines, escorted people to the airport and the list goes on.  What is most amazing is that Javan is a Kalenjin by birth and the vast majority of lives he saved were Kikuyu.  Putting himself at risk countless times and surviving seemingly impossible odds, I am happy to have had the chance to meet a true hero in person. 
While the “official” death count was only around a thousand … most witnesses believe that the actual number was closer to 10,000.  Now, Kikuyu and Kalenjin again live in similar neighborhoods and from an outside perspective there is little to no tension today.   It’s incomprehensible to me that a place such as Eldoret could have been the site of so much violence only 3 years ago.  While I know that this blog can in no way do justice to the story which I have heard this evening, and it saddens me to think that such violence is possible in such a seemingly peaceful place … I am happy to know that there are people like Javan willing to share their experience and advocate peace in Kenya.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Goals, Gorges and Giraffes

This weekend we decided to take a break from our pattern of escaping the greater Rift Valley area for the weekend.  A few of us woke up early and grabbed a quick breakfast before heading out to a weekly outreach program across town.  Every week, a few of the local social workers have organized time for the streetboys to congregate in a safe area and just play … as kids should be able to.  Many of these boys are orphaned children (their parents victims of HIV/AIDS  or the election violence of 2008) that live in the local slums, beg in the streets and are addicted to the drug of choice in Eldoret … huffing glue.  There is a fantastic local organization, Tumaini,  that has been set up in the last couple of years that is seeking to help the thousands of boys get off the Eldoret streets a  couple of days a week to receive medical care, get some education and provide a support network where they can be safe … under the rule that no glue or drugs be allowed in the camp.   We arrived at an open field after a 45 minute walk across town and were met by about 75 boys that were ready to show the “Wazungu” how to play futbol (soccer).   After about 15 minutes of play, I was ready to drop … even though I’ve been trying to run often and walking a couple of miles a day … it was nearly impossible to keep up!  We finished the game and shared a few high-fives, fist bumps (which we taught them) and hugs and headed back to IU House for a day trip out of town. 
We’ve developed a great relationship with a local guide service, Mangrove Tours, which was waiting to take 6 of us to a few local sites for the day.  Given that we provide the service so much business the owner, Cha-Cha, gave us a free day with a guide and mutatu (9 passenger 4x4 van).  The first stop on our tour was Umbrella Falls.  Not far off of the main road leaving town there is a magnificent waterfall which you can hike in, around and behind.  As is usually the case, the closer you get to your destination in Kenya … the worse the roads get (I cringe thinking about my car on the local roads here).  Arriving on the edge of a farmer’s property and providing a “tip” for allowing us to hike on his property we descended into the gorge for a better view of the falls.  I snapped a few cool photos (see below) and after a couple hours of hiking we jumped back into the van for the second stop of the trip.

Another local tourist destination is Kruger Farms.  It’s kind of an interesting place … it’s a farm/reservation/estate/mountain.  The Kruger family, which is either a British or South African family … we’re still trying to figure it out, owns an enormous plot of land on the edge of town.  After talking to one of the Krugers, we learned that they have over 3,000 hectares of land … which I believe is something like 6,000 acres of land that they farm.  It’s clear that the family has been in Kenya for a long time and after viewing the equipment that they keep it was also clear that they are years ahead of the competition technologically as well (still below the average American standard).  On the property they also have a small mountain and game preserve around it which is home to a dozen or so wild giraffes, dik-diks, impalas, gazelles, anteaters and various other wildlife.  We were joined by one of the Kruger’s guards and went for a couple of hours hike around the property to snap photos of the giraffes and beautiful views from the mountain top.  We were able to get very close to the giraffes and at one point it became conceivable that my friend Nick might be able to achieve his life-long dream of riding a giraffe in the wild.  Tired from a long day we returned to IU House for a cold Tusker or two and dinner before retiring for the night. 

With target in sight ... Nick ran toward his dream :P
A few of us are planning to try and redeem ourselves today by joining a local pickup game of soccer.  I’ve fallen a bit under the weather (in Kenya it’s not if you’ll get sick but when you’ll get sick … for many visitors it’s a routine you just get used to) but am still hoping to show the locals that I not only look like Wayne Rooney but can also score a few goals like him as well!

This One Time in Uganda ...

Last weekend was a wild adventure … in Jinja, Uganda. 
I’m not sure that I can do justice to our trip on this blog …
Here’s a high-level overview:
Camping … rafting class 5 white water rapids on the Nile … torrential rains … vehicles sliding in ditches … pushing vehicles out of ditches … wenching vehicles out of ditches … walking 5km barefoot through Ugandan villages covered in mud … catching a ride with a few Scotsmen in a Sudanese landcruiser … drinking a few beers at the Scotsmen’s house … getting a lift back into Jinja … hiring a piki-piki (motorcycle … not advised but required given the circumstances) to get a lift back to camp … lots of beers and laughing in an attempt to rationalize what ensued that day … best chapatti breakfast ever … bungee jumping over the Nile … arrival back in Eldoret. 
You’ll have to ask me in person after a cocktail or two if you want the full story!  I have a feeling the story will always start …”This one time in Uganda” …
The full tour ... dry ... momentarily

Hold on tight!

One of many times we flipped during the day ...

Hitting a wave head on!
Last rapid of the day ... first to fall!

Paddling hard for the first set of rapids

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Weekend Update: Lake Baringo

After a busy first week of the internship it was great to have a planned trip out of town for the weekend.   Earlier in the week we were invited by a group of the medical students to join them on a trip to Lake Baringo and Bagorio for the weekend.  We packed our 4x4 Mutatu (Kenyan for large passenger van that is typically overstuffed … the going joke in Kenya is “how many people can you fit in a mutatu?” with the answer always being “one more”), and started out on our 4 hour trip to the lakes.  As we approached the edge of the Rift Valley it became clear why my lungs were bursting on my morning runs. 
The plateau/mountains dropped thousands of feet as we made our way down the winding roads to the bottom of the valley.  The beautiful views and winding roads left me wishing I was in the audi with the windows down for a bit of spirited driving. 
 As we winded through a number of villages along the way we were met with kids waving and chasing the car shouting “mzungus?!?!” (Swahili for white people) … it was clear that many of the people outside of the cities very rarely see white people … needless to say a whole van full of us!  As we reached the road to Baringo, it was evident that we were in a far different region than Eldoret … it was much hotter and dryer at the lower altitude.  In fact we crossed a number of riverbeds that were arid.  It was clear, however, that when the region does get rain that it is intense given that almost every bridge was washed out.  Arriving at water edges, we were met with a boat that took us to our campsite for the weekend.
After a 15 minute boat ride we arrived at an island in the middle of the lake.  What they call camping, I will call a resort!  I will use the term campsite loosely from this point on, as what we did was not “camping”.  We were “princess camping” as my friend Beth put it best.  The island has about 25 sites that have a concrete slab and nice bathroom with big tents that house 3 beds and a wardrobe all of which is covered by a thatched roof hut.  Best of all, each site has a porch that overlooked the water.  
Arriving just in time for dinner, we made our way to dining hut and had a great dinner.  After a few Tuskers at the bar hut (as you can clearly tell this is not roughing it) we retired for the night.
At 6am we were greeted by a woman that served us fresh coffee and digestives (a cookie of sorts) and joined our friends at their tent to watch the sunrise over the mountains.  I don’t think we could have slept any longer if we wanted to as the 250+ species of birds on the island made it clear that it was time to get up.  We all set up our chairs and kicked back to watch what is likely the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen.  Shortly thereafter we split up for our morning activities … a number of people went on a morning boat ride around the island, a few went back to bed and my friend Beth and I went on a guided hike and birdwatch. 
The island was absolutely beautiful and I was introduced to animals and plants that I have never seen before.  After a couple of hours we headed back to the dining hut where we met our friends for a feast of a breakfast.  The rest of the day was spent reading, relaxing by the pool, sunbathing (obviously I was not a part of that crowd) and swimming. 
At 5:30pm we hopped on a boat and headed to another island for a sunset cruise.  On the way we saw a few hippos bathing in the shallows and threw fish to eagles that would swoop from their nests for a chance to snap the perfect photo.  As we arrived on the island we ascended to the cliffs above where we were met by staff that greeted us with cocktails (Pims+Sprite+Lemon+Cucumber … delicious) and watched the sun set over the opposing mountains. 
Words do not do justice to how awesome the sunset was.  After dinner we headed back to the island for a traditional nyamachoma (sp?), which is a large BBQ that included fresh tilapia, mutton, beef, chicken and veggies, and had a few Tuskers as we watched the stars shine brightly over the lake.   
The next morning those of us that skipped the prior morning’s boat ride jumped on a boat at 7:30am and toured the island where we saw 1000’s of birds, a few crocodiles and hippos.  After arriving back at the island and filling up on breakfast we packed our gear and set off for Lake Bagorio.  Lake Bagorio was a pretty unique place.  The lake is fed by natural hot springs and geysers that make the lake warm to the touch and is likely the reason that the lake is home to nearly a million flamingos. 

Literally the shallows of the entire lake were packed with flamingos as far as the eye could see.  While at Bagorio we also saw zebras, baboons, impalas, warthogs, gazelles and a few other native animals.  Tired from the sun and pack lunch, we jumped back into the mutatu for our trip home … I wish I could say that it was eventful but I slept most of the way!  Arriving back in Eldoret, I was already excited to get back to work and looking forward to what we will plan for the next weekend!