East Africa


Journal – August 2009

I sit in the airport on the floor, my back resting on the window with the suffocating Cancun humidity fighting back, unsuccessfully, against the thick plate glass. Hoards of obnoxious Americans with neon t-shirts announcing they had been in Mexico mill through the enormous duty free market. My hands shake as I attempt to open the packet of Pringles I picked up, not having eaten all day. Weak and exhausted, the maudlin tones of Heypenny’s Use These Spoons serve only to exacerbate the deep sense of regret that sits like a brick in my belly. Such a small and silly regret: just for not having followed that stranger on the beach in Tulum. And the sick sadness at the thought of returning to my life in Charlotte only weights me further. There is something alive in me that I am scared will die if I stay any longer in this materialistic, bullshit job pretending to be something I am not every day. Being in Mexico with Carlos opened my eyes and made me believe it really is possible to pick up and go. My student loans and credit card debt have been a prison from which I know I cannot escape in my twenties, or even my thirties. I don’t have that much time. None of us do. The weight of the life I am living is suffocating me like the humid August heat and I have got to get out from under it. I have made a decision. Instead of paying off as much debt as possible, I am going to save as much as possible. Once I have enough I am leaving. I don’t know where yet, but it will be somewhere beautiful, somewhere cheap, and somewhere new. Perhaps I will take my car and drive through Central and South America. Perhaps I will move to Playa del Carmen and find a job tending bar, learning the language as I go, become a part of something unfamiliar. Sitting in seat 17E I stare longingly at the azure sea as we leave the vast turquoise behind. Tears sit waiting behind my eyes as I try to reconcile the life I want with the one I have, growing ever harder the more I understand who I am. I am applying to school in November. If I can get into Adelaide or Vancouver I will find a way to get financing and my student loans will defer. If I don’t get in or I can’t afford to go, I will take as many cash advances on credit cards as possible, get in my car, and hit the road. Drive through the country, head out west, see what happens. Hopefully I can find odd jobs as I go, maybe settle somewhere for a few weeks at a time. I could follow the road across Tennessee, then out through the fly-over states, then up towards Vancouver and back down the coast to Mexico, down to the winding tip of Central America into South America. I would stop and stay in any place I wanted to explore and get a new tattoo from every place that feels like a home to me. Anything but this.

After six days on the Yucatan, I know I could live there for years and the Mayan sun inked on my ankle will remind me of that every day. The pilot has just announced that we are flying over the East Coast of Florida. At thirty thousand feet I am back in America. The thought that I may be able to follow the incessant pull in my belly to run away calms some of the sadness that Mexico is in my rearview mirror, and I will have to sink back into the hurried and soulless world of finance like jumping on a merry-go-round as it whips quickly past you. I don’t know what my plan is, I don’t know what will calm this ever-rising pressure from my soul, I only know that I have got to get out of this place, and I’ve gotta do it fast.

February 2008

He picks me up by my waist, roughly, recklessly, and sets me on top of the copier. My tweed pencil skirt tightens against my thighs as he hurriedly pushes it up my legs. The plastic of the copier creaks with my shifting weight. We laugh with abandon. I unbutton his shirt deftly, though one-handed and blindly as our mouths can’t find enough of one another. With his chest bare I run my hands over his broad shoulders, down the contours of his back. He is a runner. I momentarily stop only so he can lift my blouse over my head, thoughtlessly tossing it into the recycling bin next to the fax machine.
“Taylor, do you have that model finished for the investment committee meeting?” I am snapped faster than a falling dream from my almost painful reverie. Fuck.
“Yeah, it’s almost done.” I lie. “I’m still working on it, but I’ll email it out as soon as I’m finished.” I am nowhere near finished. I hate this job.
I glance over to the man about whom I had been dreaming, sitting engaged and focused at his desk. He looks up, as if able to feel my stare on him, and the familiar glimmer of our eyes meeting pulses a quick shiver through me. He is married. He has left his wife. No one knows. We are in love.

I struggle through the model to the last minute, frustrated with the same errors time and again. I have never been trained in the work I am doing and wonder on a daily basis why I was ever hired. What the fuck is a sociology major doing working in a major asset management firm anyway? I still don’t have the answer to that question. I hurriedly paste the model into the presentation and wait while the copier dutifully spits out my thirty copies. I like my idea for the copier much better than this. From my place across the office I can see the entire team is already sat at the long, formidable table. I am late for my own presentation, yet again.

I stumble through my investment recommendation with the sole hope of not sounding like an idiot at any point in time. I have worked for this firm for over a year now, and am only just beginning to understand what I am doing. I come out of the meeting to several comments from colleagues congratulating me. It is not that I have done such a great job, just that I didn’t fuck anything up, which I assume is expected from me at this point. I sit back down at my desk, a sigh of relief releasing itself from my chest. Back to trying to figure out what I am actually going to do with my life.

I am twenty-five years old. I have just shy of fifty-thousand dollars of student loans from my bachelor’s degree. In addition to that I have anywhere between twenty and thirty thousand dollars of credit card debt, depending on how good I have been. I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and other than a few close friends, and my sister, I hate this city. Hate it like getting lost down a dead-end. Like waking up in a stranger’s bed. The large majority of my good friends live in Washington, D.C. and despite my desire to join them I know I won’t be able to find a job to support myself and my debt in a more expensive city and Charlotte happens to be one of the cheapest in the country. I sigh the sigh of futility knowing that even here, I can barely afford to pay my bills, and my only comforts lie in the one room crack den that is my apartment, and the three bottles of wine I know I have waiting for me at home. Every day of my life is the same.

Despite the massive amount of work I know I have to be doing, I leave the office at six thirty, most people still toiling away at their desks. My twenty minute walk home through uptown is spent with headphones in my ears and lets the work day slip away slowly from my mind. It is the exact antithesis of driving home in rush hour traffic. Opening the door to my four-walled first-floor efficiency I kick off my shoes and immediately remove the shackles of my business casual attire. In my underwear I head straight to the kitchen and pour a large glass of cheap red wine and let the remainder of the day wash through me with the bitter crimson. Despite the books pouring from my bookcase and stacked in careless piles around my bed, I never have the energy to read for pleasure after spending ten hours reading credit documents and legal contracts. I turn on the TV and flop onto my bed/couch. I spend the remainder of the night in this position. My boyfriend is at home. With his wife.

Before I know it I am drunk. I am drunk every night. My sleep is sporadic and fitful, waking up each hour on the hour until I see the number starts with a seven and it is time to get up again. My Groundhog Day nightmare, my broken record existence, my lifeless life.

At eight thirty our morning investment committee meeting begins yet again, the same meeting, every morning, and I immediately begin sending dirty texts to my paramour on my blackberry. He is the only thing that makes coming to work worthwhile. We go on this way for ages. I feel a decade has passed. It has been another year. He gives his wife the house. He puts me up in a fancy apartment. I am his love. I look like his whore. Eventually we are found out and he is inexplicably fired for unrelated reasons. There is now nothing getting me up in the morning. But what choice do I have? Two hundred dollars to my Stafford, three hundred and twelve on the AMEX, a hundred and fifty to Capital One, two hundred to Citibank, three hundred to Sallie Mae, six hundred to rent, a hundred a fifty to Time Warner Cable, seventy-five to Sprint, and barely enough left to get drunk. My life is swallowed by the debt I am in. The debt I cannot control because as soon as I pay my bills, I have no money, and so I run up more debt. I am making sixty thousand dollars a year and I can barely afford to live. It will take me fifteen years in this job to pay off my debt at this rate. I do not sleep. I am a shadow of a woman. My only hope lies in the possibility of going to graduate school for my writing. My student loans will be deferred. I will come out with sixty thousand more dollars of debt and a masters in something that will make me no money. I toil over applications regardless, finding that even browsing the programs and dreaming of another life offers me quick breaths of relief from this career I never wanted. There has to be another way.

Journal – March 2009

It is the second day of our safari into the Serengeti and amazement is painted on the faces of everyone in our oversized crew. After four flat tires in one day, we are finally headed towards the Ngorongoro Crater. The sun is setting behind the crater rim, its golden rays piercing, unfalteringly true in every direction, a glimpse of something beyond the temporal. The plains stretch in infinite freedom beyond us. We are standing in the pop-top Jeep and suddenly I am overwhelmed. Tears fill my eyes and my breath is both shallow and great. At twenty-five years old I feel something I have never felt before. Everything inside me rises; my wide smile will bridge the hemispheres. I will swallow the world. I will absorb these lands, my skin is a billion cells, everything is possibility. So much beauty will suffocate me. The yellow of the sun brushes the crater rim’s horizon and I have no words, no voice, I am nothing in the vastness of this planet. I will devour it all. I am a human again. I am a human for the first time in my life. The purpose of life surges through me in one instant, electricity, a tangible change, the weight of a knowledge that levitates. I can never go back to the life I lived before. She no longer exists. I am born.

Back in Charlotte the change is imperceptible. Eight a.m., another meeting, another daydream. I have nothing left to give to them. The meeting is over and I head back to my desk to begin another day of doing as little work as possible. The man I loved moved to the other side of the country. We believe he was fired for fucking me. They never knew he loved me. I spend my days trying to get laid off. I have nothing left for the company that told me my apartment wasn’t nice enough. I have nothing left for the boss who told me my bonus would be bigger if I stopped wearing crazy jewelry with that grey tweed pencil skirt. I read the New York Times. I sit on Facebook. I plan trips to anywhere, to everywhere. This will not be my life for long.

August 2009

I am traveling for the first time on my own. I have no idea what I am doing. I have a cheap ticket to the Yucatan Peninsula, my backpack, and a few hundred dollars. I spend a week reveling in all the possibility there is in the world. In a strange twist I find an acquaintance who has quit his job and moved to Playa del Carmen, a city on the way to my destination. He invites me to come and stay with him and I know there is no such thing as coincidence. He lives here now on almost nothing, on money he had saved. He and his brother own only two forks. No one wears shirts in the streets. He smiles with the ease of a man who knows what he wants. I fuck him maybe hoping he will give me whatever it was that got him. I think he does.

Despite the ease of his place in Playa, I venture alone to the beaches of Tulum. I don’t know how to travel yet, but I am learning. Find the cheapest hostel. Be willing to accept kindnesses from absolute strangers. Be spontaneous. Be open-minded. Be careful. I spend these days walking the beaches in a solitude that somehow comforts me. I am alone, I am not lonely. I watch a couple raise their glasses over the candlelight, in front of the moonlight, with a soft clink. They laugh. I smile. I will never know them. The ocean has always held a strong influence over me, and with the days the quiet turquoise of this ancient place pulls me deeper into it. I need it. But I know this is not my life. Waiting at the bus stop back to Playa I meet a fellow traveler. An American boy, ripe with the dirt and grime of the sweaty country that we share, open to everything else we might. I will never know why, but when he asks me to return to the beach with him, I turn him down. I have just trekked the four miles with my pack. I can barely stand I am so dehydrated. I have just purchased my ticket back. A million reasons why not. Sitting on the air conditioned bus on the way back to Playa I think of only him. I want to tell the bus driver to stop. To run back to the beach through the stifling heat with my heavy pack on my weary shoulders just to have a beer with him. Just to learn his name. As soon as I make it back to Playa del Carmen, I turn back to go find him. I learn how to ask for the American traveler with a red pack and curly hair in Spanish. We are vanished. I never say no, but this time, I did. Whatever path that boy represented gasped its last breath as the unfamiliar words fell exhausted from my thirsty lips against his protesting invitations. I will never let caution, exhaustion, or apprehension overwhelm desire. I will only ever regret the things I don’t do.

Two months later, I quit.

We awakened the next morning, on the floor of an old military truck. Two mattresses had been laid down for five of us to sleep on after arriving back at our hostel in Nairobi only to discover it was full – of missionaries. Despite this, the warm and honest staff wanted so much to accommodate us that the cook insisted he would absolutely find another place to stay and we were welcome to stay in his home. Moments later, we discovered the old military truck, missing at least one wheel and propped on a few cinderblocks, was the home to which they were referring. Surprisingly enough, it was quite comfortable and after a long day biking uphill in the hot sun through the aptly named Hell’s Gate National Park, we were all too exhausted to care anyway. We took our turns showering the dusty day from our worn skin and devoured several more grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches, washing them down with ice cold Tusker. One of the regulars at Milimani invited us into his room and shared several joints among us and one by one we each turned in. Matsui, Fityfo, Faye, and I made our way to our military mattress bed and shut out the lights. In the darkness I found Matsui and holding his familiar body we opened our mouths close to one another, teasing but never touching lip to lip, trembling with wanting. I desired him as much as ever and knew I would never be able to keep myself from fucking him in the ten remaining days of our trip, but for tonight the easy feel of his body on mine was enough. We fell asleep wrapped tightly in one another knowing we were to awake again before the dawn to continue on our journey.

The Chef's Truck at Milimani

The alarms went off at five a.m. and we slowly dragged our bodies, heavy with ache, out into the humid darkness. Gathering our shit and brushing our teeth, Matsui rolled a joint and we puffed it sleepily behind the massive truck as we finished packing our bags for the long road ahead. The sun was rising as we walked towards the center of the city to the bus station to make our way to Tanzania and we got our tickets and onto the bus without a hitch. This was a rare exception on this trip.
As the packed bus heaved itself down the road to Arusha, my scent began to mix with the potent odor of the bus. I was barely able to read what I was writing as the bus violently shook, hurdling over the rocky and barely paved road. My legs were sticky with sweat and soda, which only reminded me of the ice cold Fanta we had at the Tanzanian border, and how far away that seemed. The scenery drew behind us in long stretches of trees and dust, interrupted only by the occasional town. These half mile stretches of road filled with Africans inexplicably wearing winter sweaters and long pants in the stifling heat almost invariably consisted of a few cinderblock buildings painted in wild magentas, each building constant and ubiquitous advertising for the mobile company Zain. Somehow, despite the seeming incongruity of these structures, they felt oddly at peace with the surrounding landscape, perhaps accenting the magenta flowers scattered between them. The vibrant greens of the acacia trees and the more subdued candelabra cactus trees were the only other colors speckling the otherwise dusty sienna landscape and muted plains.

Crazy Magenta Buildings

Candelabra, Acacia, Cacti


The stifled bus arrived in Arusha hot, crowded, and late. We were tired, covered in sticky sweat, and ready to begin the next leg of our journey. After several minutes of disoriented confusion trying to escape the prison of that bus (which I later learned resulted in the loss of my camera) we got off the bus only to be immediately swallowed by a group of flycatchers willing to take us anywhere we wanted to go, a question to which we did not yet have an answer. Just as Faye began to exercise her penchant (and talent) for bargaining, the clear skies clouded and within moments, our oily bus-ride skin was washed clean in our second welcomed African rain. The storm was brief, but its cool, powerful waters were plenty to turn the crowded, dirty streets to mud. Compared to the streets of Nairobi, concrete and filled with illuminated plastic signs and suits, Arusha could barely be considered a city. Despite this, Arusha pulses with life. Its wide dirt roads are lined with small shanties selling almost anything you could need. Hundreds of used shoes sit side by side from block to block along with used luggage and many other things you can only assume have been stolen from unwitting tourists.
After much debate in the muddy rain about which hostel to stay in we finally went to the closest one, Arusha Backpackers Hostel, and checked in our large, wet group overwhelming the tiny lobby with our mountains of gear. As we split up into two different rooms and began to unwind from the eight hour ride, I realized my camera was missing, and that it was most likely on the floor of that jostling bus. Faye agreed to walk with me back to the bus station to ask if it had been returned. I had just about zero hope for this to happen, but it was worth a shot I guess. The rest of the crew went out to explore the city and we agreed to meet up later. Faye and I took a walkie-talkie and headed into the messy streets. Not surprisingly, the bus company had no fucking idea what we were talking about and assured us that no camera had been found. The bus we were on had already left. Fuck me. As there wasn’t anything to be done, Faye and I tried to meet up with the rest of the crew to book a safari company for the following morning. We had researched a few previously and wandered around the meEEL of the streets of Arusha until we finally found Sunny Safaris. Hot, tired, frustrated, and unable to rendezvous with the rest of the group, Faye and I decided to take care of the safari ourselves and everyone else could meet us whenever. Wandering the stifling streets aimlessly for hours had us both exhausted and frustrated. I wanted a cocktail more than I had words for, and wanted to get this shit over with even more than that. As we ran through the standard questions about what is provided and how much, our crew finally arrived and we decided to book the seven-man Land Rover for three days. As we were leaving the following morning at six A.M. we needed to pay now. In cash. A three day safari at $130 per person per day was a lot of money and we all wandered into the streets to drain the nearest ATM. Like the smart and careful tourists we are, the seven of us white folk stood in line at the ATM rambling loudly about the daily maximum of 400,000 shillings and how our bank statements told us we were millionaires. We deserved to get robbed at that point. Luckily, we didn’t, and we made our way back to Sunny to seal the deal. Despite all of the negotiating we had been doing for everything from food to bus fare, somehow it escaped us to try to bargain for the most expensive part of the trip. Trying to backpedal at the last minute Faye got some sleeping bags thrown in for free and we called it a day.
With the safari settled we went to get some much needed food and booze and explore the city. As Arusha is far more rural than Nairobi, the streets are filled with the Masai people in their vibrant shukas in deep reds, purples, blues, and oranges. We stopped to buy a piece of corn on the street, fresh roasted over a wood fire for two hundred shillings (about twenty cents) and I wondered as I ate how many pieces of corn this Maasai woman sells a day, and how much that twenty cents means to her family and to her village. The Maasai people, stretching through the countryside from Kenya to Tanzania are a tribe of herders, known for the colorful fabric and elaborate jewelry they wear. The Maasai live in tiny mud and thatch huts that dot the landscape for hundreds of kilometers. After our roasted corn snack and a little shopping we stumbled across an empty restaurant and unloaded our tired bodies at the table, drinking and sharing the paintings and carvings we had just purchased. Despite needing to awaken before sunrise yet again, we headed back to the hostel and straight to the bar for a long night of wine, beers, shots and card games.

Maasai huts dotting the road to Arusha

Masai Woman in the Serengeti

As our raucous group imbibed copious amounts of alcohol, a young Maasai approached our table and asked to introduce himself. He looked like he could have been in high school, but was in fact twenty-four. Introducing himself as “Zack” and draped in full Maasai dress, herding staff and all, he sat down to talk. Zack, as we later learned whose true Maasai name was Lalaha, was told to choose a Western name when he began university. He told us that his father had wanted him not to go to school, and even gave him ten cows in an attempt to entice him to stay with the tribe and follow his father’s choices in the Maasai tradition. Lalaha, eager to see the world outside of his small village near Lake Manyara, sold two of those cows and started school, despite his father’s wishes. We spoke with Lalaha for close to an hour, learning about his life, his customs, and him ours. I got the feeling in talking to him that his people are looked down upon by the eagerly modernizing people continually drawn to the larger cities. That despite the ancient tradition of his people, Africa is trying to catch up to the rest of the world, and Lalaha was caught in the crossfire between his family, his culture, his identity, and his desire to learn and grow. We exchanged information with Lalaha (he has a gmail account) and made our way to bed with curious excitement for the day ahead sparking in each and every one of us.

Ready to head back to the Kenyan capital to begin the next leg of our trip, we arranged for a matatu to pick us up at Fisherman’s, swing by Crayfish to get our bags, and make the two hour drive back, stopping to pick up and drop off local passengers along the way. Once again excusing myself from the negotiation process, the girls settled on a price with the driver, and we squeezed our tired bodies into the makeshift bus, slumping into the seats utterly spent. Looking back, I can’t remember who, but someone pulled out the Kenya King (a cheap local liquor that tasted like some noxious combination of gin, vodka, and antiseptic) and began passing it around for shots. To chase the vile booze, EEL had picked up some unnaturally orange colored “juice” that may very well have made the mystery liquor even worse. As it turns out the day-glo juice was actually a juice concentrate and we were probably sipping enough of it to make an entire pitcher of Kenyan Kool-Aid with every shot. Needless to say, we tossed the overly potent mixer the first chance we got. Unfortunately, however, it wasn’t soon enough. As the matatu tossed and jostled us down the road at breakneck speed, Matsui’s face began to lose color. All too familiar with the combination of heat, booze, exhaustion, and matatu, I gave up my seat in the corner and let Matsui rest his head against the open window, fighting the urge to boot from the moving van.

Without paying the premium for a private ride, the matatu stopped often between the camp and town, letting people on and off, but also allowing those ubiquitous blow-pop and tiny sausage salesmen to peddle their goods. Stopped for even a moment and lacking a breeze, the heat of the fifteen bodies packed inside the van was stifling. Matsui lay curled up against the window pitifully attempting to shoo away the vendors as they approached. One after another, they came and just as the yogurt lady pushed her ninety-degree dairy product in our faces, Matsui lost it. If there is one thing we learned that day it is if you want to get a stopped matatu moving, puking neon orange out the window will surely get the job done.

Taking care of Matsui in Naivasha

Taking care of Matsui in Naivasha

After a much debated switch from one matatu to another, the details of which I will not bore you with, we piled into yet another crowded deathtrap. I sat next to Matsui for those two hours on the road back to Nairobi, offering my shoulder for his head and gently rubbing his back, returning the kindness he had offered me just a few days earlier. I knew that it was too close. I knew that holding him, even just in sickness, was too much, too familiar. I knew my feelings for him were too strong to hold him so near and not want for more. Slowly, subconsciously, I started rationalizing the proximity I wanted to have to him. Today I was simply returning a favor, and it’s not like I could ever stay that far away from him, we were on vacation together after all, and I wouldn’t want to ruin everyone else’s trip by creating tensions between us. I must say I have quite a talent for believing my own bullshit. I was still dead-set on keeping the promise I had made to myself, but the desire had already begun to build, and a part of me, a part I was desperately fighting, knew my resistance would be in vain.

We awakened on our third morning in Kenya and started packing the bikes we had barely gotten back to the camp the night before for our day trip out to Hell’s Gate National Park. EEL and BoBo had stored their bikes in my room for the night and as I rolled EEL’s out into the light it quickly became apparent that her front tire was flat. After Matsui’s numerous attempts at resuscitation, we came to the conclusion that EEL needed a new bike. The question of who would accompany EEL the miles back to Fisherman’s Camp in the wrong direction sat stiff in the air as everyone waited for someone else to volunteer. I decided it wasn’t that big a deal and agreed to go with her. We split up the walkie-talkies, the rest of the crew headed in the direction of Hell’s Gate, and we agreed to catch up with them once we exchanged the bikes. The ride out there was slow going as I rode next to EEL, steadily pushing her bike with each step. We chatted and offered a jambo to those passing while the sun burned ever hotter in the barren sky. The exchange at the camp was quick and in no time EEL and I were back on the road in the direction of the park. In even less time, EEL’s replacement bike started grinding like a screwdriver jammed in a pencil sharper. Trying to press on through it she forced the pedals through each revolution, hoping the gear would catch and we could keep going. When pieces of the gears starting popping off the bike onto the road, we decided it was time to go back for bike number three. Luckily we hadn’t gotten very far from the camp before we had to turn around yet again. Finally, we were on our way to Hell’s Gate.

The time we spent heading in the wrong direction had burned through precious hours of weaker sun and relief sank through us as we approached the sign indicating the turn-in for the park. We increased our pace, excited to have arrived. We made the turn through the rust-colored metal gate and came to an abrupt stop. Ahead, the straight, treeless dirt road stretched infinitely on, disappearing only in that watery haze of intense heat on the horizon. For lack of any other option we pushed our thirsty bodies on down the scorched and rocky path, alternating brief spurts of energy with ragged attempts to keep pace. When we finally arrived at the point where the road turned, the ride became easier, trees provided some shade, and in no time we made it to the entrance of the park. We immediately stopped and purchased two extra large bottles of icy cold water. EEL and I headed on into the park, curious as to how we would locate the rest of the crew. Almost immediately, we found them perched high in tiny caves spotting a volcanic plug, formed by semi-molten rock forced up through a fissure, cooling and solidifying as it is extruded from the earth.

Climbing the volcanic plug

Climbing the volcanic plug

We climbed to meet them, hot and tired, and rested for a few minutes before beginning the incredible trek to the gorge. As we all began to regroup I suddenly heard Fityfo yell, “GIRAAAAFFE!” Immediately we ripped ourselves from the rocks and ran out into the clearing to see her. Our very first giraffe. At first she was hidden a bit by the trees, the strength of her pattern peeking out only with with movement, but after a few moments, she began to walk, exposing her lackadaisical gait and the sharp and vibrant puzzle pieces of her coat.
Our first giraffe spotting

Our first giraffe spotting

Elsa

Elsa

We decided to name her Elsa, after the name of the entrance to the park. All alone, Elsa stood chewing leaves from the surrounding trees and then started slowly making her way out into the open and across the volcanic plain. The seven of us stood, mesmerized and following her movements as close as we could without distubring her. She walked across the road, moving on into distance until she finally disappeared from our sight. It was at that very moment the seven of us collectively realized just how amazing this trip was going to be. And this was only our third day. None of us had any idea what the next ten days would bring.
Elsa on the volcanic horizon

Elsa on the volcanic horizon

The riding was long to my unexercised body, and felt like longer still in the strong Kenyan sun, but the giraffe and scores of zebra, gazelle, and warthogs along the way were certainly worth it. The horizon was devastating; surrounding the savannah as far as the dusty dirt road could be seen.
Biking towards the gorge

Biking towards the gorge

As one of only two parks in Kenya that allow walking or biking we stopped frequently, excited yet cautious in our first close encounters with these strange and exotic animals. We saw herds of zebra drinking from a man-made watering hole, families of warthogs trouncing along, the babies following always in neat little lines, and graceful gazelles imposing their gentle yet demanding posture on the horizon.
Zebra at the watering hole

Zebra at the watering hole

The conversation was focused only on our surroundings. Everything else tended to disappear in the expansive nature. It was magnificent. After a few hours of riding, stopping, and more riding we reached the picnic site marking the entrance to Olduvai Gorge. As we approached, what I decided was a particularly judgmental Olive baboon, sat staring at us from the first picnic bench, clearly attempting to intimidate.

Judgemental Olive baboon that wanted to steal our lunch

Judgemental Olive baboon that wanted to steal our lunch

I am pretty sure I speak for the entire group when I say it worked. Despite the feeling that he was already plotting an attack on our picnic, we walked slowly past him, bought a few relatively cold cokes being sold by a man with a cooler posted outside of the small office, and settled down for a makeshift picnic lunch of mangos, peanuts, plain bread, and some cookies the girls purchased in town. Enjoying our fresh mangos and a little rest in the shade of the picnic area, we suddenly realized that our our newly acquired nemesis actually was plotting to steal our lunch. Apparently all of our instincts about his suspect character were correct. Upon the recommendation of one of the locals, Matsui jumped up on a nearby rock and proceeded to wave a large stick around in what was supposed to be an authoritative manner. We can only assume the ridiculous establishment of dominance worked as we finished the remainder of our lunch unscathed.

After washing our hands of the sticky sweet mango juice and taking what we needed from our bikes, we began the descent into the gorge. While our original (and idiotic) plan was to explore it on our own, luckily enough for us, one of the local men waiting in the picnic area perceived our utter lack of any kind of direction and followed us down the steep and rocky path, volunteering to guide us through the treacherous, winding gorge (for a price, of course).

Climbing along the twisted gorge

Climbing along the twisted gorge

The towering cleft through which we walked was created by ancient volcanic activity, and was once home to the powerful waters of Lake NaEvesha. During the rainy season flash floods overwhelm this narrow crevasse, sweeping with them everything in their path from rooted plants to seemingly immovable boulders. But on this early March afternoon, the gorge was quiet as we walked in awe along the floor of the great structure.

Peter, the obviously fabricated Western name of our guide, pointed out various curiosities along the way as we climbed and crawled and slid our way along and between the ridged walls through hot geothermal showers and steaming pools of water hot enough to boil an egg. Literally.

The Egg-boiler

The Egg-boiler

The dusty floor of the gorge was littered with chunks of obsidian, a black volcanic glass formed by the rapid cooling of molten lava and the curved walls were carved with graffiti from the many who had preceded us.
Me and Matsui on the gorge wall

Me and Matsui on the gorge wall

We walked along the floor of the gorge, straining our necks up at the narrow winding slit of sky above. The grooved walls are smooth (save for the graffiti, of course) and it is incredible to imagine the power of the water molecules as they pushed and surged, grinding ever deeper into the stone, wearing it away with time and pressure.

Our guide, Peter, in the gorge

Our guide, Peter, in the gorge

My sense of amazement certainly did not stop there. Peter took us through several showers pouring from the stone, some too hot to touch, and other refreshingly cool. In some places the ground is so hot you can literally feel it melting your shoes. Once we came to the end of maze-like walk along the floor, it was time to climb. Peter led the way up a dangerously steep incline, lacking any noticeable path. The warm mud slid beneath our feet, impossible to gain any traction, we slipped, grasped, and heaved our way to the top. When we reached it, out of breath and panting like a pack of horny dogs, we doubled over, resting our hands on our knees trying to reclaim the air we had managed to lose. And then we looked up.

View from the top of the Gorge

View from the top of the Gorge

We were on the top of the gorge. On top of Africa. In every direction the plateau of volcanic rock stretched, the wide crevasse of the gorge etched into it for eternity. It was truly one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen, making the taxing climb up the muddy rock all the more satisfying. Every day we spent in Africa I felt a calmness growing inside of me, a closeness to the earth that I now yearn every day to feel again.

We had but a few fleeting moments to absorb the awesome sight of the gorge as we had planned to catch a matatu back to Nairobi by three that afternoon. Hurriedly, we headed back to the picnic site. Dirty, exhausted, and mostly dehydrated, we chugged our bath-warm water as if it were icy cold, then took a look at the map. As I covered most of the planning we did state-side, I tended to leave myself out of any decision-making process that could lead to some kind of argument. I figured between six other opinions, mine was probably unnecessary. We had two options: either double back on Elsa trail the way we came in, or head down the other way out and explore something new. After a few minutes of discussion, we decided to explore new territory. There was no way we could have known just how terrible a decision this would end up being, especially considering the shoddy condition of the gears on most of our bikes. I was lucky and had at least three functioning gears, but I don’t even want to imagine trying to climb those painfully steep and rocky inclines, one after another, as your bike grinded and cracked itself with each revolution like a blender of rusty screws, never finding a lower gear. Needless to say, we walked our bikes most of the way up the road back to the camp. Up and down the volcanic formations following the road were miles of pipe, carrying steam energy from inside the earth, powering the geothermal plant. Noxious odors were emitted from the massive structure, and needless to say the giraffe, gazelle, and zebra we saw on the way in were replaced by dump trucks, and straggling workers, traveling in and out of the massive complex of the power plant. It is still unclear to all of us how this expansive structure ended up inside the boundaries of the National Park, but at the time we were all too focused on getting rid of those god-forsaken bikes to discuss it.

Making it back to Fisherman’s Camp we happily dropped off the bikes and settled in for the most refreshing beer of our lives. By the end of the trip, this would actually come to be the fourth most refreshing beer of our lives, but don’t let that belittle the imagery of deliciousness one bit. We sat on the same lawn onto which that hippo had wandered just the night before and attempted to shower the grime of the gorge from our skin with face wipes. It was time to head back to Nairobi.

As our group of seven walked along the road lining the lake recounting our first interaction with the African wildlife we were all so eager to see, the rest of the girls wandered ahead again while the boys and I discussed their consistent need to hurry in a place where everything else moves so slowly. The walkie-talkies Fityfo brought in tow were relatively useless when the Bijelic girls had them as they seldom answered them, other than sporadically, and often they didn’t even keep them turned on at all. It was a long walk which we spent mostly in silence absorbing the unfamiliar surroundings, breaking occasionally to return a friendly jambo to the many small children we passed. The single road from the lake to the town of NaEvesha is dusty and littered with what seems to be years worth of trash. Women in traditional kangas carrying baskets on their heads in that way they do, children in school uniforms, and barefooted teenagers in dirty clothes made their way along the skinny dirt path following the broken pavement. As there is clearly no city maintenance out here I wonder if people ever think about that fact when they see a cigarette pack they dropped on their walk to work three years earlier. Apparently not.

We finally arrived at Fisherman’s Camp where we intended to rent bikes for the ride through Hell’s Gate National Park for the following day. Once we got there and got the bikes in order we headed to their restaurant for dinner and drinks. The seven of us sat down on a large wooden porch wrapped around the main building of the camp, ready for a cold beer and anything that might dilute our memories of that debacle that Crayfish Camp called our lunch. Our table on the deck overlooked an expansive yard with old, tall trees that were home to wild Colobus monkeys (resembling some bastard combination of monkey, skunk, and crazy old man) and a dock jutting out into the lake. About fifty feet in from the lake, the restaurant was surrounded by an electrical fence and a sign apparently warning of us of cartoon polka-dot hippos.

Beware the feared pink polka-dot cow hippo

Beware the feared pink polka-dot cow hippo

We each ordered our dinner and a Tusker and struck up a casual conversation with the owner, a friendly American man seated next to us, joking about the electric fence keeping out the hippos. Apparently, based on the sudden (and very ominous) warning we received from him, joking about death-by-hippo is not, in fact, funny. He proceeded to inform us that it actually happens somewhat frequently. Though these massive and lethargic mammals can outrun humans, they tend to spend their days mostly under water enjoying immersion in the cool lake and minding their own. But at dusk, when they come up out of the water to graze, you best not get in their way or they will kill you. Literally. One of the local men who guards the camp at night took us down and let us walk out to the end of the dock before the fences were electrified at sundown. Hoping to catch a glimpse of the deceptively violent (yet completely adorable) beasts, we ended up enjoying our beers and the sunset from the edge of the lake. When we inquired of the guard as to when the last time someone got killed by a hippo he flatly replied, “last week.”

Hungera!

Hungera!

After a few minutes by the water scoping the hippo scene, we exchanged the Kiswahili toast “hungera” and headed back up to the deck for dinner. Though we weren’t all friends before this trip, there was a certain ease between the seven of us. It was as though we had traveled often before together and knew the delicate rhythm of each other’s moods, the gives and takes necessary to keep from creating incurable tensions and divides on trips like this. Our dinner was loud and delicious and full of booze and for the first time since we arrived in Africa the seven of us truly enjoyed each other, notably lacking the pressure of the next hostel or bus to catch. We stuffed ourselves with curries and meats and libations, peering out towards the lake every so often in hopes of finding a wandering hippo. And then, during that most enjoyable period of any meal when the plates have been cleaned, everyone is full with food, lightened with booze, and the conversation is flowing with more ease than the Kenya King we were drinking, we were approached by one of the guards. The sun had set on the restaurant and he came to inform us that a hippo had been spotted grazing just on the other side of the electric fence. Ecstatic, but silencing our excitement, we got up from the table and followed the lone illumination of the lanky guard’s flashlight down into the darkness. As we approached the fence we strained our eyes, our pupils adFityfog and finally the great animal came into focus. Not but ten feet from where we were standing, a fully-grown hippopotamus grazed calmly on the green lawn, completely oblivious to our presence. It was hard to reconcile this seemingly friendly creature with a horrific and bloody mauling, but if you try reeeeaal hard, you can do it. We stayed for a minute trying to capture the moment in pictures, but unfortunately the blurry mess you see below is the best we could do in the darkness.

He was RIGHT THERE!

He was RIGHT THERE!

Excited over our hippo experience, we headed back up to the deck and let our boisterous evening continue a while longer. A few hours and and a few more drinks later, as everyone finished their beers and began winding down, we were struck with a most unfortunate realization. It was 10PM. It was pitch black. We were several miles from our camp, and between the seven of us and our seven bicycles we had one headlamp. Fuck. Despite our initial concern over the stickiness of our situation, seeing as we didn’t have much of a choice, we heaved our drunk asses on to our bicycles and headed up the steep, rocky hill towards the thick, dark, nothing.

Despite that old adage about never forgetting how to ride a bike, I can assure you there is certainly a period of re-acclimation that is required. Both BoBo and I, somewhat awkward and clumsy to begin with, struggled to even get going, and much more so to keep up with the group. The road was narrow and shoddily paved and either side was lined by a drop-off ditch that was several feet deep in some places. Every few minutes someone would yell out “BUMP!” as a warning to those following behind, and even more often than that you would hear the yelp of nervous surprise coming from someone unprepared for what they just hit. The whole ride was a comedy act of sorts, each of us taking our turns falling, narrowly avoiding ditches, or not avoiding ditches at all. But if you could forget for just one second that there might be a five-foot deep ditch ahead of you and look up – a billion ancient stars looked back down, painting the sky in every direction. It was perfect.

Beautiful (though blurry) Night Sky

Beautiful (though blurry) Night Sky

The drive to Naivasha was beautiful, filled with both anticipation and awe at the surrounding landscapes. We drove on with our heads out the windows, smiling and dancing to the local hip-hop and reggae flavor our driver was was playing.

The road to Naivasha

The road to Naivasha


We arrived in Naivasha a little under two hours later, our matatu driver being the safest one we would encounter for the remainder of the trip, and hopped on to another matatu that would take us down the road from the town center to Crayfish Camp. I am pretty sure that every single person outside of the crowded van was trying to sell us something. Whether it be roasted corn, blow-pops, sausages, pens, hair clips, or warm yogurt, it can be peddled through the window of a stopped, or moving, matatu. Our new driver was much less cautious than our first and took off barreling down the bumpy dirt road at an obscene speed, passing cars in the opposite lane, narrowly missing oncoming traffic, warning everyone of their impending death with nothing but a hilariously brief and inadequate honk.

After a ten minute ride down the sole road from Naivasha town to the lake we hopped off the pleasant little death trap at the entrance for Crayfish Camp. Though Matsui’s gentle caring for me on the drive had helped to ease the intense nausea, I was already wary of that inevitable pull developing between us. Pushing it aside, we walked up a long paved driveway past a crop of rosebuds lined with irrigation canals and greenhouses, cattle and goats roaming along the fences. When we finally reached the camp we were immediately greeted at the desk by Joseph, a suspiciously friendly gentleman, willing to fulfill any need we might have, albeit at an exorbitant price. He took us around to see the rooms and for the first time I stopped and realized that we were in Africa. The camp was beautiful. Three horses roamed freely like pet dogs, grazing on the lush green grass, and the trees were filled with the bluish-purple iridescent superb starling.

Free-roaming horses at the camp

Free-roaming horses at the camp

Superb Starling - they were everywhere

Superb Starling - they were everywhere

Eve, Faye, and Fityfo in one of the many creative quarters at Crayfish - the bus bed

Eve, Faye, and Fityfo in one of the many creative quarters at Crayfish - the bus bed

As we tried to sort out who was sEELping with whom I could already tell what Matsui was thinking. Despite our tumultuous history, our physical chemistry was never something in question. Still holding white-knuckled on to my resolve to leave Africa as Matsui’s friend (and nothing more) I made very clear to him that we would not be sharing a room, much less a bed, at any point on this trip. When he inquired as to why with a sly smirk on his face, I stared at him incredulously for a moment and replied, “Because of your girlfriend. The one you have. That isn’t me.” Smiling, he let the jab roll off his shoulders, and we all headed to find some lunch.

As we sat down at a table at the camp’s oddly empty restaurant, we began to wonder where everybody was. We had yet to see any other travelers, save for at the hostel in Nairobi. Those thoughts were quickly dismissed by our hunger and we eagerly began perusing the menu. Options were limited and while I struggled to find something that would agree with the still strong remnants of my hangover, I ordered a beer to ease the pain, a hot dog despite my utter lack of an appetite, and hoped for the best. About twenty minutes later a few of our plates arrived. Though both Barbara and I had ordered the hot dog, when our food was set in front of us, french fries tumbled down a small potato mountain on her plate and I was left staring at three fries, a few small slices of tomato and a similarly disappointing number of onion slices that I believe was intended to resemble a salad. To top off our gourmet meal, the hot dogs, tiny shriveled pieces of meat, were lacking buns. It didn’t stop there. Both Fityfo and Matsui ordered ham and cheese sandwiches, and when Fityfo received a ham and cheese omelette in its place we humorously assumed that they must just be out of any kind of bread. However, just about the time everyone else had finished eating, Matsui inexplicably received his ham and cheese sandwich (bread and all) and we were left perplexed by the waitress and, for the most part, still hungry. On the bright side, the hilarity of that meal ended up providing an inordinate amount of entertainment for days to come as well as a wonderfully low standard to beat.

Unwittingly smiling unaware of the meal to come...

Unwittingly smiling just before the infamous meal ...

After lunch we decided to find our friendly con-artist Joseph to get ripped off on a boat ride out on the lake. We arranged a boat and a guide with the camp and walked the short walk to the lake to set out on freshwater in hopes of our first real taste of African wildlife. The sun was pounding on our pale wintered skin unaccustomed to the relentless heat. Rolling up our sleeves we all silently begged for a breeze until, across the lake, we saw a storm coming. As we continued towards it the wind picked up, cooling our overheated bodies, and finally the sun disappeared and the most refreshingly welcome rain began to run down our faces and arms. After about thirty minutes, when the winds grew and the water on our arms turned to goosebumps, the clouds began to break and the sun returned to the southern side of the lake.

Sunlight breaking through after the storm

Sunlight breaking through after the storm

Pink-backed Pelican

Pink-backed Pelican

Yaaaawwwnnnnnn

Yaaaawwwnnnnnn

The tango of clear skies and sunlight through the storm clouds projected a strangely beautiful backdrop for the birds as they swooped in and out around our boat, some diving for food, some just calmly floating by. The freshwater lake is home to not only more than four-hundred species of birds but also three separate families of hippopotamuses (that we saw anyway). The enormous beasts appear docile as they roll about lazily in the water, yawning and stretching against one another, but anything as big as a car that runs faster than a human is certainly something by which to be intimidated.
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After about an hour or so of bird-watching and hippo-gazing, our guide on the boat (whose name I can’t seem to recall) brought the vessel around back to the dock and we headed back to camp to find some dinner.

I woke up that morning like many (okay, most) other mornings, slightly hungover and thirsty for a breakfast cocktail. The only differences being that I awakened in Faye’s bed, and we were leaving for Africa that afternoon. In preparation of our trip we had a few errands to run after which we hurried back to Faye’s, already a little drunk and sped up having a mimosa brunch and popping some of her narcolepsy medication before we finished packing and headed to meet the boys at the airport. The four of us finished our beers just as the “final boarding call” announcement for our flight came out over the loudspeaker at Dulles. We filed on to the plane to disapproving glances into four adjacent seats: Matsui and I on the aisles, Faye and Fityfo in the center. My distance from Matsui was already tangible and before the plane had left the gate I already felt the painfully familiar clenching in my chest that accompanies being in the presence of someone you still love, but also pretty much hate. Fighting the urge to cry, and silently losing, I tried to think of a good analogy to properly illustrate the sorrow of the constant contradiction I had been feeling for the last six months between sense and passion, until I realized, there isn’t one. I can’t recall who came up with that whole “better to have loved and lost…” nonsense, but I assure you – not all loves are worth the loss. Luckily enough, Fityfo bought a bottle of duty-free vodka in the terminal, and suddenly the wonderfully warm and sharp feeling of liquor drowned, at least for the moment, any thoughts of Matsui and me. Ahhh, the sweet relief of alcoholism. Twenty hours, a bottle of vodka, and somewhere between twenty and thirty of those single-serving bottles of wine later, we arrived in Africa.

We landed in Nairobi relatively late our first night, and caught a cab to the Milimani Backpacker’s Hostel, where we were to meet up with the rest of our crew who had come in from Ethiopia earlier that day. Arriving at the hostel seeing Eve, BoBo, and Faye, a sense of both relief and excitement flowed through each of us. We had managed to find each other on this mysterious continent and tomorrow morning we would begin a trip which, at this point, none of us knew just how incredible it would be. We sat down at the hostel’s outdoor bar, enjoyed a few beers together amongst stories of our, until this point, separate journeys and headed back to the eight-bedded dorm room we were all sharing for some much needed rest.

A round of Tusker at the Milimani Backpacker's Hostel

A round of Tusker at the Milimani Backpacker's Hostel

Though everyone else managed to find sleep between the two eight hour flights, my insomnia teamed up with my alcoholism for twenty straight hours of consumption. Heading to the dorm at midnight I had only assumed the combination of travel, alcohol, and exhaustion would put me immediately to sleep. Unfortunately for me, some strange mix of excitement for the journey ahead and apprehension over the awkward purgatory in which Matsui and I were trapped kept me from finding any rest. Not to mention those four A.M. roosters. When early morning came and it was time to pack for our two day excursion to Lake Naivasha, it finally caught up with me. Feeling weak and nauseated, I attempted to indulge in one of the delicious ham, cheese, and tomato sandwiches prepared by the hostel’s cook. That was my first mistake. After throwing that up, there was no turning back. After about an hour, a bottle of water, three sips of a fresh mango smoothie, some Tums, and a different trip to puke for each of the things just listed, it was time to go. I gathered whatever strength I could find knowing that not even the most vile and intense of hangovers was going to steal a minute of my time in Africa. Besides, being hungover about sixty-percent of the rest of my life, it’s something to which I am relatively accustomed.

We started the twenty-five minute walk into the center of Nairobi around nine in the morning and the heat was already unbearable. Perhaps it only felt this way to me as I had to stop every few feet to dry heave into the river of trash along the side of the road, but who can say for sure? The girls quickly took a lead and Matsui and Fityfo, being the gentlemen that they are, stayed at my pace and offered water or the support of a shoulder as needed.

BoBo being silly on the road into center city Nairobi

BoBo being silly on the road into center city Nairobi

I could not have made that walk without them. The center of Nairobi was as westernized as any city we saw in Africa and I walked through the crowded sidewalks surprised at the colorfully busy English signage plastered across and in front of every store we passed, like some second-hand Times Square. After a long and thoroughly exhausting walk we finally arrived at the bus station, though I am using the term “bus station” quite loosely. The place of which I speak is simply a long street lined one after another with dozens of colorful matatus which can best be described as minEvens retrofitted with twelve cramped seats, and which are often stuffed with twice that many people. We made our way down the seemingly endless line of vans emblazoned with slutty rap video chicks and Obama tributes with offers for bargains flying from the mouths of the drivers faster than Italians cursing.

When we finally found the matatus headed to NaEvesha Faye and EEL immediately began the constantly arduous, but usually fruitful, negotiation process. Hard-edged and firm these two cuter-than–girls-in-pigtails women were relentless as the rest of us stood idly waiting like five open wallets. The odors, the heat, and the hangover (a combination of assaults I was at that point unaware I had only just begun to experience) overwhelmed me, and I began to lean on Matsui for support. Dizzy and wavering on the brink of consciousness, I struggled to drift back to the negotiation and find out why the fuck we weren’t already in a car, on the highway, with the window down. When I finally found my way back to the conversation, our little negotiators had gotten the driver down to three-hundred Kenyan shillings per person. As this is about three dollars and fifty cents for a ninety-minute drive in a private van, I assumed I was only moments away from the welcome relief of shade and a breeze on my sweating, pallid face. It was at this moment I learned just exactly how fierce of a negotiator Faye really is. Trying to work the driver down another fifty shillings (or about eighty cents) I struggle and fail to voice an objection or offer to cover the difference if we can just get in the fucking van already. Luckily, the driver folded to Faye’s hard negotiating and for seventeen-hundred shillings all-in I slid across the seat to the window and waited for the most rewarding ninety-degree breeze of my life.