Sunday, March 27, 2005

SAS Email 7 - Kenya

I know a lot of people like to start off emails, speeches, etc with profound quotes, so please allow me to stifle all originality and creativity in favor of class…

“If I had all the money in the world, I’d be in Africa son! With the babies!”
-Lorenza Hill, 2004

My esteemed colleague could not have spoken truer words when he exclaimed them from the passenger seat of a musty SUV on a foggy Providence Wednesday night last year… His breath may have reeked of the feminine martini he’d consumed earlier at Rira, but his words had an endearing quality as they triumphed over the radio sounds of throbbing base and cries of “Blah! Blah! Como Regetone!” Luke Tedaldi had been laughing hysterically behind the wheel along with myself in the back seat, but the primal cry of “Danzaaaa” we then heard pierce the night air furthered my desire to be amongst the animals freely roaming the plains of the Kenyan Masai Mara… Well people, last week that dream became reality.

We were sailing within 200 yards of Kenyan land around 5pm on March 17th, and as we meandered along the coastline tons of locals stood on the shoreline waving to our ship. It was a great welcome, which was further enhanced by the fact that Toto’s 1983 hit song “Africa” was blasting into my ears… A child of 1983, I was in Africa listening to Africa from 1983… sometimes I think the cosmos just align. Around 8pm I was told that the parents on the SAS-run “Parent Trip” would be boarding the boat at 9pm, so I was basically hit with the info that after 65 days away from my parents I’d be seeing them in an hour… I tried to brainstorm of ways I could screw with them (wear crazy clothes, glasses, fake piercing… anything to throw them off), but nothing came to mind in my limited timeframe so I figured I’d just let them off easy this time… Apparently not so… When my parents finally boarded the boat in promptly late fashion at 9:30pm, I saw them walking up the empty hall to the dining room where I was waiting. My mom was leading my dad (yes he’s just a puppet government installed by her to externally seem like the family leader) so I walked toward her smiling. For some reason she wasn’t making eye contact with me, just looking all around nervously and excited. I walked closer and she continued to look behind and around me, but not at my face. About 5 feet from her I stopped and yelled “Mom?!” She looked at me startled, her eyes widened, and the first words my mother said to me after 2 months apart was “Oh my g-d, you look like Ghandi!” Hahahah… I was neither completely bald, wearing a white robe, emaciated, nor peering through glasses… but somehow she got Ghandi… musta been the linen pants.

So I showed my parents around the ship and introduced them to a bunch of friends, gave them a few of the presents I’d bought them (Yes Erv just had to wear his double-sided Chinese silk robe all around the boat). That night I watched two movies with a bunch of friends to prepare me for the sites of Africa… Lion King and Baraka of course (PS- Rafiki is in both) The next day we toured the city of Mombasa with my four closest friends on the ship (My buddy Dennis has fair skin and long blond hair that he had in cornrows. That combined with his light-blue Indian corta shirt led to every local yelling at him “Beckham! Beckham!). The first thing I noticed in Mombasa was the heat, which was immediately followed by the overpowering smells. India had some unbelievably strong smells, the worst of which I can only describe at old cow poo mixed with stale garbage… but the smells in Kenya were just as potent. Some might even say “oooh, they burned the nostrils” (Scooter shoutout) The best description I can give of this one smell was like heated goat urine… it was just crazy. But the city of Mombasa itself was really nice, so we checked out Fort Jesus and then went to my parents’ hotel to hangout for the day. The highlights there were when my Dad and I went kiteboarding in the Indian Ocean and caught a few good rides, as well as my playing soccer on the beach with a bunch of locals. I got ridiculously lucky and scored my first soccer goal since the 5th grade when I played for Team Paraguay, and of course acted like a fool by doing the airplane and a few cartwheels in the sand. The locals laughed at me and joked in Swahili to themselves, I think the loose translation was “We should ship his ass to Mozambique.”… The next morning we flew to the Masai Mara, where we began our 4 day safari. I’ll just preface the safari details by saying that the Bronx Zoo will never possess the same majesty it once had…

The Masai Mara itself is a set of massive plains inhabited by every animal you’d expect in Africa. The “Big 5” that are most desirable to see are lions, rhinos, buffalo, leopards and geese... Over those 4 days we went on 9 game drives (6 of us in a landcruiser with our awesome driver Sammy (everytime we’d come to a crazy set of bumps or whatever he’d turn around and say “Okay, one more hold on!”) on a drive for 2-3 hours). Over those 9 drives we saw so many animals I can’t count, but the highlights were the giraffes, zebra, buffalo, warthogs, a leopard, several cheetah, a grouping of over 100 baboons running around us, a pride of 24 lions with a bunch of cute baby cubs playing all over each other, a dead elephant with it’s head already completely gone and body still being eaten by hyenas and vultures, a zebra carcass with it’s ribs picked perfectly clean but face still intact (minus the eyes, the vultures ate those), getting out of the car and walking next to three gigantic rhinos, and my personal favorite, the hyenas… They just remind me of a middle child; they do most of the dirty work but never getting the credit or fame of the mighty lion (older brothers) and never receiving the oogles of cuteness like the monkeys (younger sisters). So I’m deeming hyenas as future kings of the animal kingdom. They just look like animals ready to kill, which is the only thing I unfortunately didn’t get to see (an actual kill). My roommate on the ship told me they saw two lions mating (upon completion the male lion literally fell over, haha), and on his trip the Masai let them drink goat’s blood straight out of the neck, so I was a little jealous of that too... I’ll just have to wait to get home to ask Sam and Cornelio what it tastes like…

My personal favorite part of the trip was entering a Masai Village, which was mind-blowing to say the least. During the game drives we’d see a single Masai warrior walking alone along the plains with nothing but a spear, miles from any village. The village itself was probably half an acre, with about 15 circular huts made of cow manure mixed with thick mud. They had no artificial lighting, were the size of a dorm single, and the small window inside the hut brought in little to no light at all… It was definitely the least affected culture by modern society that I’ve ever seen. The people all wore beautifully colored outfits with ornate jewelry (most of which were necklaces, bracelets, and beads on their super-elongated ear lobes). They performed some songs and dances, and the men have a tradition of standing in a singing line while taking turns walking in front and jumping as high as possible while exerting the least effort. The man who jumps the highest in the village is usually rewarded with some of the most beautiful woman in the village, so my AAU days finally started to make sense to me… Also, when you see the videos on TV with Sally Struthers talking about sending food to children in Africa so she can personally eat it, and the children have flies all over their faces, that is not a misrepresentation whatsoever. I’ve never seen so many flies on the faces of so many people, especially the babies; it was absolutely nuts. As our group was supposed to leave I noticed a small cluster of five young kids (probably 8 years old) standing next to a hut, staring at me. I smiled, and they smiled back. I knew they didn’t speak any English (although some of the others who were in their teens had learned English pretty well through schooling) but I really wanted to connect with them in some way. I walked over, pulled out my iPod, placed my earbuds in the ears of two of the kids, and began playing some music… Their faces lit up. Eyes widened and teeth exposed, one of them began bouncing up and down to the music. Pretty soon I had a group of about 20 kids crowding around as I took turns placing the earbuds into their ears. I put on some older funk jams with hard baselines like Lakeside’s “Fantastic Voyage” and some George Clinton, and pretty soon we were all bouncing up and down to the music. I swear I’ve never had that many flies on my body in my life, but it was well worth the aggravation. I don’t know how well I’ll remember the animals I saw in the years to come, but the memory of those kids listening to my music should stay with me for a while.

The tents/lodges that we stayed in were really nice, and basically on the bank of the Mara River. It sounds so peaceful, but in the Mara River just 20 feet below my tent were hippos and crocodiles, along with baboons on the other side of the bank so that our “Safari Club” had two resident baboon hunters… What would you think if you met some guy at a bar, asked him what he did and he said “Well, I’m a baboon hunter”? I know I’d buy him a beer… It was especially crazy that around 5am the hippos would get all restless and start getting incredibly loud, so your 5am wakeup call came from the hippos every morning. My suitemate Phil once told me for some reason, “You shan’t be needing an alarm clock” and something about 7am, but that was nothing compared to the hippos.

Another highlight of the trip was on the 2nd night of the safari when we caught a mesmerizing sunset on the plains where you could actually see a confined rainstorm on the horizon. Right as the sun dropped and darkness fell, the storm moved toward us and it began to pour. We rode the rest of the way back to our safari club in the darkness, knowing full well that we were surrounded by wild animals and received the occasional flicker from flashing bolts of lightening. I really felt like I was in a movie, but the aspect that really enhanced it all was the music I was playing in my headphones… it was almost like a soundtrack. I’ve learned on this trip that music can completely change an experience, so when traveling I’d highly recommend getting the music of the local cultures to really get a full grasp of the places you visit. Plus, when you return home all you have to do is put on that specific song or album and you’ll be immediately transported back to those surroundings and memories.

In terms of my usual over-analysis of a personal anecdote, it’s difficult because there is one main event that sticks out but it’s a little to personal to share via email. What I will say is that it was pretty amazing to realize the harmony and balance of nature itself. For all that we try to force and impose on ourselves and the world to create some form of balance, it is nothing compared to the simple balance achieved by the natural animal kingdom. The way the animals work together AND in opposition to fulfill their distinctive roles was something I’d never truly appreciated until I was there to witness it in it’s purest form, and I think a lot can be learned from that. I wrote this short verse which I believe sums it all up:
From the day we arrived on the planet, and slowly stepped into the sun, there’s more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done. There’s far too much to take in here, more to find than can ever be found, but the sun rolling high in the sapphire sky, keeps rising small on the endless round, it’s the CIRCLE OF LIFE, and it moves us all.

I blessed the rains down in Africa.
Be safe and stay classy,

PS: The last of the Big 5 obviously isn’t geese… but I guarantee Josh Cohen now thinks it is…
PPS: One night a girl on my trip apparently made a toast thanking her parents in front of everyone. Like all good parents, my parents informed me of this over dinner the next night. I never really got a chance to do that, but I guess I can still toast my parents via email right? So thank you for helping to send me on this trip, for caring enough about me to meet me in Africa, and for being the loving parents that you’ve always been. One day hopefully my kids will be as successful as your oldest child, as impressive as your youngest child, as tall and kind as your adopted children, and as appreciative as your middle one. You’ve given me so much, and if there’s anything you ever need from me you know I’ll be there.
PPPS: I can’t make the family vacation this summer.

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