Stranded In The Serengeti

About an hour after entering Tanzania’s Serengeti Park, our driver Rufus abruptly pulled the Land Rover over to the side of the road. He mumbled something about a “red light” and “overheating” and stepped outside the car to check the engine. The sun was starting to set and we all expected that this would be another routine stop, like the four tire punctures we’d had already on our 10-day Kenya-Tanzania safari. After flagging down and consulting with another driver, Rufus told us that “we cannot drive the car; it is leaking oil.” Rufus sent Nuru, our cook, with the other driver to return with help and we all sat back and began our wait. From our car we heard a chorus of grunting hippos from the nearby river and I spotted a lioness with a white-tipped tail prowling about 50 feet from our car.

After we lost track of the lioness in the tall grass, we watched noisy weaver birds expertly renovating their hanging nests, a pair of iridescent-blue-headed guinea fowl looking for food and a tree full of marabou storks. Judging from the nearby location of the lodge he’d gone to, we’d optimistically expected Nuru back within 30 minutes, but it had been over an hour. By now the sun had set and it was dark and the malarial mosquitoes and tsetse flies were circling our Land Rover. Like Will Smith shuttering his house from the predatory zombies at nightfall in the movie “I Am Legend,” we worked quickly to close the windows and to pull down and secure the Land Rover’s pop-up, game-viewing roof.

After another hour went by, we began to prepare for the idea that we might be spending the night in the car. We took our malaria tablets, dressed warmly and we started to think about the logistics of six people sleeping in a land rover. I told Rufus that he could sleep on the roof, but he pointed out that leopards could easily get him there. From the car we could see the lights of the lodge where Nuru had gone. Using my miner’s flashlight, I intermittently sent Morse code signals – dot, dot, dot…dash, dash, dash…dot, dot, dot – towards the lodge from the back seat of the Land Rover. After waiting for two and a half hours, we were wondering what could have happened to Nuru. I leaned back against my backpack and started to go to sleep.

A little over three hours after Nuru had left, a pair of headlights appeared in the distance and we waited while they slowly made their way to us. A truck stopped and out jumped Nuru returned with two mechanics. They shined their lights on our car and started to work on the engine. All they needed to do was to tighten the oil plug and pour in some new motor oil, but it was pitch dark and there were hippos and lions nearby. When I heard one of the men say “hyena,” all of them took a look over their shoulders, something they did intermittently while working on the engine. On one side of the car, our kids performed what they called the “simba scan,” a search for lions aided by my miner’s flashlight. On the other side, Dot, our English safari companion, calmly did the same. Within 25 minutes, they had finished and we drove to a camp site near the lodge. After setting up our tents and eating a quick meal, we snuggled into our sleeping bags, happy that we weren’t spending our first night in the Serengeti sleeping in a Land Rover.


Marooned In The Masai Mara

We pulled up to the exit gate of the Masai Mara game reserve as bejeweled Masai women swarmed our Land Rover bearing blankets, Masai sticks, jewelry and other hand-made trinkets. The ladies brazenly opened the car’s sliding windows and dangled necklaces, earrings and blankets inside the car, imploring us in their broken English to buy; to “promote” them, to “support” them. They had dark skin, bald heads, slender arms and bodies and all had drooping earlobes, some of which were wrapped over the tops of their ears. Many had yellowed teeth and flies buzzed around them constantly. They were at every window of our car with their hands inside. The scene was reminiscent of the group of hungry vultures we’d seen just that morning picking over a carcass on the savannah.

My wife and daughter had been eyeing the intricately-beaded bracelets worn by the importuning women, but were disappointed with the quality of those being offered for sale. When my wife asked if their personal bracelets were for sale, a woman offered hers but it didn’t fit. Another woman offered hers but that was too small, as well. Without a Masai beaded bracelet, we rolled through the exit gate and out of the park.

Five minutes after leaving the park our Land Rover suffered a tire puncture. Ordinarily this is not a big problem, but near a park known for its lions, some caution needs to be exercised. We piled out of the car while our driver and cook started replacing the tire, which had completely shredded into strips of thick, black rubber. Up the road was what appeared to be a Masai village and near us a few Masai boys were tending goats. After a couple minutes, a couple Masai men wearing red, tartan-like blankets and carrying swords and large sticks came by to inspect us, keeping about 20 feet away and saying nothing. For the past couple days, we’d seen a few women selling trinkets, but our interaction with the men had been limited to watching them tend to their livestock while we drove by in our safari vehicle.

My son got out his Nintendo DSi game, sat down on the ground and starting playing, not sure how long we’d be stuck there. After a few minutes, a young Masai man approached him to watch what he was doing. A few more came over and now my son had a crowd around him. His handheld game, which occasionally serves to isolate him from where he’s traveling, now became the thing that brought him and us closer to the local culture. He handed over the game to one of the young men and demonstrated how to use it. By now there were about a dozen Masai men milling around us and I could smell their powerful body odor. The tire was taking a long time to fix and I was getting worried that we might be stranded there for a while.

The young man playing Nintendo handed it back to my son and came over and asked me in English where I was from. “America. Obama-land,” I said. Most Kenyans are extremely proud that one of their people has fathered the leader of the free world. I heard many reports of raucous celebrating on the night of the 2008 U.S. elections. Many large-screen televisions were set up to watch the election results all over Nairobi. One cab driver told me that many people watched on the big screen because they did not trust their television sets at home, as though somehow results could be altered on a small TV set but not on a big one in front of so many people.

Nintendo Man asked me, “Do you know Salt Lake City?” I drew a map in the sand to show him where the town would be on a U.S. map. We told each other our ages and then he said, “I have been to Memphis.” I sang a few lines from “Hound Dog” but he did not recognize the song, a statement either about his familiarity with Elvis Presley or my singing ability. I asked him at what age he would marry and he said twenty-five. I asked him at what age a girl might marry and he said 14 or 15. At this point I looked over my shoulder to check on my almost-13 year old daughter, who was with my wife talking to a group of Masai men.

With the tire taking longer than expected to fix, my wife and daughter had settled in to a negotiation of some kind. I walked over and watched them admiring the beautiful, beaded bracelet of one of the men. The bracelet, made by the wife of the man’s friend, was indeed exquisite: tightly-woven, multicolored beads on both inside and out with an attractive geometric design. By now they were almost done with the negotiations and after a few more minutes they had arrived at a mutually-acceptable price. My wife had skillfully chopped the price by two-thirds from the original asking price. Only 30 minutes after being rebuffed at the park exit gate, they had their beaded bracelet.

Travel mishaps sometimes turn into rewarding experiences and often they turn out to be quite memorable. Instead of being marooned in the Masai Mara, isolated in our Land Rover with a flat tire, we made the most of a great opportunity to interact with the people we had been driving by for the past couple days. My wife and daughter’s authentic Masai bracelet was a bonus as well.


Beware Of The Jom

“You must leave early in the afternoon, before dark…maybe by 3:30 or 4:00 pm, because of the jom,” said Martin, our guest house proprietor. We’d read a lot about the dangers of Kenya’s capital city, beginning with its “Nairobbery” nickname down to the obvious folly of walking out in the African bush…but what was the jom? A carnivorous predator lurking behind the thorn trees? A gang of unemployed thugs waiting to rob unsuspecting tourists? Whatever it was, it was clear that we should avoid nightfall in Nairobi. Martin mentioned it again the next morning and I was starting to understand. “You need to start out a little later today, due to the jom.” Of course. He was talking about a traffic jom.

We’d decided to stay in Langata, a Nairobi suburb, because of its relative safety and its proximity to several interesting tourist sites. Nairobi’s recent commuter congestion problem is a direct result of relaxing automotive import requirements. Previously, Kenyans could only buy new cars from government-authorized dealerships, but in the last few years were able to buy refurbished vehicles from whoever they wanted for a much lower cost. This has created the local monster known as the jom.

I learned this from Bernard, our taxi driver, who gave us an early morning ride – before the jom – to the departure point for our 10 day Kenya-Tanzania safari. Bernard told us that “we must give ourselves at least 90 minutes, on account of the jom.” Bernard was an experienced driver who knew how to avoid falling prey to the jom. About halfway into town, he started taking side streets, pausing at each corner to gauge how quickly things were moving. Bernard’s driving expertise came hand-in-hand with his interest in racing. He was a “spanner boy” in the pit crew for a local racing team, until it was disbanded. After that he drove for a Shell oil executive until the company laid him off. “I have an offer for a job in Qatar…driving an oil truck across the desert. The plice they are offering is too low…but we are still negotiating,” said Bernard, his r’s sounding like l’s because the absence of that sound in his native Kiswahili dialect. Bernard had been driving a taxi for a number of months to support his family. He’s been considering a job in Qatar because a three-year truck-driving stint there would give him a large chunk of capital with which to start a business. “It is a sacrifice because I can only visit my wife and children during holidays,” he said. Bernard was well-dressed, educated, spoke English well and, like most of the Kenyans we’d met, underemployed.

About 80 minutes after leaving Langata, we arrived at our safari company headquarters. Without Bernard’s knowledge of the back streets, the 20 kilometer trip might have taken two hours. We paid Bernard and were ready to start out on our safari and head out into the dangers of the African bush. At least we knew that we would not have to deal with the jom.


Doomsday In East Africa

I creep along, slowly and silently inching my way towards my prey, my finger poised and ready to fire. We’re in Kenya, home of big game hunters and spectacular savannah, but my mind is focused solely on my target. I continue to follow, keeping my distance, then my prey settles into a stationary position and I take a single, quiet step to be within firing range. I carefully aim and fire and my target drops to the ground. I move over to where it falls and give it one more shot, just to be sure. The mosquito that had been harassing us all night has finally paid the ultimate price for his sins. I nailed him with a shot of Doom, Kenya’s best-selling brand of Mosquito spray.

Although we had yet to start our 10-day Kenya & Tanzania safari, the theme of predator versus prey greeted our arrival in Nairobi. Arriving at 10 pm after almost 30 hours of jet travel, we were ready to settle into a long slumber. Just after falling asleep, we were all awoken by the annoying, buzzing-whining sound of what seemed like dozens of mosquitoes circling our heads. For whatever reason, our hostel didn’t think it necessary to put mosquito nets in our rooms. The kids tried to catch a few with their hands and we all tried to sleep with our heads under the covers but that proved to be too hot, not to mention difficult to breathe. The first night we alternated between getting munched by the pests and sweating under the covers.

Fortunately, mosquitoes in Nairobi do not carry Malaria, unlike in most of the country, so our problem was merely an annoyance, not a life-threatening scenario. The second night the hostel manager “fumigated” the room about 20 minutes prior to us going to bed, but we had similar problems that night as well. The only reason we fared better that night is because we put mosquito repellent on prior to bed. The third day we decided to take matters into our own hands: we went out a bought a can of Doom. With my new 180ml can of toxic flying insect spray, I was instantly transformed from just another backpacking Dad into a Great White Hunter. I spotted one on the wall and Whoosh! It was dead. Another was trying to hide between the window and the curtains…Whoosh! Gone. After being tormented by the winged pests for the previous two nights, it was great to be able to turn the tables: we had gone from prey to predator.

Despite this mosquito annoyance, we felt like we have been put into the proper frame of mind as start our East African journey.


Packing your Backpack: Survival Of The Fittest

We made a brief stop in Los Angeles over the holidays to see family and pick up some things that we couldn’t find in South America. As we secured visas, acquired needed immunizations and H1N1 shots, we also had an opportunity to re-evaluate what we were carrying in our backpacks. It was interesting to note which items stayed in the backpack and which items didn’t survive. Having recently been in the Galapagos, I immediately thought of Charles Darwin and his idea of Natural Selection. Darwin defines Natural Selection as the "principle by which each slight variation [of a trait], if useful, is preserved." This idea is simple and powerful: as with individuals, items in our backpacks that are best adapted to their environment are more likely to survive.

While Darwin coined "Natural Selection," it was Herbert Spencer that came up with the term "Survival of the Fittest," a term that Darwin liked and often used himself when writing about evolution. An examination of some of our things deemed ‘not fit for survival" revealed my wife’s curling iron (never used), my son’s gold medals from a Peruvian swim meet (stashed in a corner of his pack and never taken out), my daughter’s giant hair brush (useful, but too big) and my beach towel (used only twice). These things were not constant problems, but certainly were top of mind every time we trudged through a bus station or hoisted our backpacks in to a taxi trunk.

When it comes to the items within the finite area of a backpack, we are talking about the intersection of space and utility. If it takes up space, it had better be useful. The items that took up space that didn’t survive were either a) not useful or b) less useful than a competitor. In the first category, the tag line is "use it or lose it." My wife suggested she and I carry silk pillowcases to with us to cover the rough hotel pillows we often encountered. Presumably, these pillowcases helped delay the onset of facial wrinkles that accompany middle age. Neither of us ever used them so we "lost" them. In the second category, my Quicksilver board shorts lost out to a competitor: I found some khaki walking shorts with a swim liner that allowed them to double as a swim suit. Both the silk pillowcases and the board shorts went the way of the Dodo. In some cases, changing geography dictates obsolescence. The alpaca woven chullos that were essential in the Andes, were dead weight once we got to the coastal areas. The same was true for our hiking boots. As we head to the Mediterranean, these will not be in our backpacks.

On the topic of backpacks, a special note of nostalgia is in order. My daughter is carrying the same black REI combo pack that I carried when I backpacked around the world over 20 years ago. The pack goes by the moniker "The Black Hole" because of its ability to absorb and hold anything that I’ve wanted to put inside it. Like the zero gravity black holes, it seems to suck in everything around it. From one generation to the next, my daughter is now lugging around The Black Hole while I am using a new Eagle Creek Switchback 25 roller pack.

Whatever pack one is using, the same Darwinian principle applies. Items in our backpacks that are best adapted to their environment are more likely to survive.


A New Beginning

The New Year is here and our family is at the midway point of our travels.

Our initial focus on South America was to have our kids learn Spanish, allow us a significant amount of time to volunteer and to gain a sense of community in a foreign locale…reasons detailed in this blog’s very first entry. The remainder of our travels will be in the Mediterranean, tracing the origins of Western Civilization, learning about Egyptian, Greek and Roman culture and crossing items off our collective “bucket list.” The two mismatched halves of this year-long family adventure could be summed up through our kids’ educational experience: a six month Spanish language course and a six month Western Civilization seminar.

In May of 2008 we made the decision to embark on this journey. We held a family meeting to reach a consensus on what, when, where and how we would spend our time. Three years earlier, from March 2005 through August 2005, we did a similar trip, traveling for six months through most of Central America and Spain. On that trip we just gave the kids their marching orders and went, learning a lot along the way about what we liked and disliked about long-term travel.

During our family consensus meeting, each person wrote down their top five answers for the following three categories: 1) destinations they’d most like to visit, 2) the biggest dislikes from our 2005 trip and 3) the things they wanted most out of the upcoming trip. In the first category there was a fair amount of consensus regarding top destinations: Italy got 4 votes, Peru and Greece got 3 votes and Egypt and Israel got 2 votes apiece. In the second category, there was unanimous agreement that our 2005 trip involved too much packing and unpacking and moving too quickly from place to place. This led perfectly into the third category, where we all wanted to volunteer and enjoy a sense of community and feel like we really got to know a place instead of moving frantically around the country. While it's true that both kids stated this preference, number one on both of their “want to do” lists was seeing lots of exotic animals: dolphins, caimans, tortoises, camels, condors, and sea lions, to name a few. It should be mentioned that in planning this trip, everything was “on the table” except for one thing: learning Spanish. My wife was adamant that for at least half the time, the kids would be immersed in the Spanish language. For her, this was a deal breaker.

While consensus was achieved, the kids had some interesting answers worth mentioning. My daughter’s number one destination was the Galapagos, effectively guaranteeing that we visit those islands. Both my son and daughter expressed a desire to avoid “dirty and disgusting” places and both listed the very same Nicaraguan town as an example. In 2005 we arrived in San Carlos after an all-night, bug-infested ferry passage on Lake Nicaragua. San Carlos is located where the lake feeds the San Juan River on its way to the Caribbean. The combination of the river, the lake and a proposed canal to the Pacific coast port town of San Juan Del Sur very nearly replaced the future Panama Canal as the sole trans-isthmus waterway between North and South America. Because the US Congress preferred Panama over Nicaragua, San Carlos has remained a filthy, unattractive town that has left a collective scar on our memory.

We’ve also used these preferences from our meeting as a guide along the way. We altered our Bolivia trip to include a last-minute visit to the Amazonian pampas because of the kids’ preference for seeing lots of animals. Looking forward, we’ve thrown in 10 day Kenya/Tanzania safari (“en route” to the Mediterranean) so that we can experience some East African wildlife, as well.

That’s the plan, how it came about and now we’re halfway through it: Half a year volunteering in South America and the next six months touring the Mediterranean. Stay tuned.


The Art of Persuasion: Simón Bolívar and Jose de San Martín

As our kids are being homeschooled, we need to continually find subjects for them to write research papers on. A few months ago, we asked them to write dual biographies on the twin liberators of South America, Simón Bolívar and Jose de San Martín. One of the benefits of being parents of homeschoolers is that we learn a lot of from their projects, and sometimes we learn things that really capture our imagination. For example, during the course of the kids’ research they learned of a famous meeting between Bolívar and San Martín in the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil in 1822. The interesting aspect of this meeting between these two obviously strong personalities is that immediately afterwards, San Martín relinquished his power, returned to his native Argentina and then promptly retired in France. Bolivar continued the fight in Peru and later played a large role in the fledgling governments of several of the new South American republics. What went on in this meeting? What did Bolivar say than convinced San Martín to turn his back on a cause so important to him?

My personal memories of Guayaquil were such that I groaned when my wife told me that we’d have to spend the night there prior to our early morning flight to the Galapagos. I remembered a dreary, industrial port city 23 years ago with not much of interest and a somewhat dangerous reputation. Things have changed quite a bit with the construction of the Malecón 2000, a beautiful 2.5 kilometer boardwalk along the Guayas River, with shops, statues, fountains, gardens, restaurants as well as the first IMAX theater in South America. Along that river, we passed La Rotunda, a statue memorializing the meeting between Bolivar and San Martin (see picture).

Bolivar was instrumental in leading the fight for the independence of the present-day countries of Venezuela, Columbia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia and he is revered as a national hero in all of them. San Martín was an Argentine general who led and fought for the successful independence of Argentina, Chile and (partly, with Bolivar) Peru. Both spent time in Europe – Bolívar in Napoleonic France and San Martín in Spain battling Napoleon’s forces – and both understood, first hand, that Spain had her attention elsewhere and was ripe for an insurrection from her South American colonies.

The meeting between the two great leaders, called the Guayaquil Conference, took place on July 26th, 1822 and was an inevitable palaver between Bolívar, fresh from victories in the north and San Martín, victoriously fighting his way up from the south. Beyond the subject matter of the meeting – the future of Peru and of South America – not much is known. What is known is that after the conference, San Martín abdicated his powers in Peru and returned to Argentina. Soon afterward, he left South America entirely and retired in France.

One interesting aspect of the meeting and perhaps an indication of the two men’s personalities occurred at a banquet immediately following their meeting. At the banquet, Bolívar toasted “the two greatest men in South America: the general San Martín and myself,” whereas San Martín drank to “the prompt conclusion of the war, the organization of the different Republics of the continent and the health of the Liberator of Colombia,” referring to Bolívar. Despite Bolivar's apparent lack of humility, he clearly had heightened powers of persuasion.