Friday, July 16, 2010

Masa Mara Safari

Some people blog to be helpful to other travelers. They dutifully provide bus schedules, restaurant recommendations, referrals for guides and hotels for the rest of us. Alas, we have not been that kind of travel bloggers. We have been more concerned with trying to show the folks back home that we haven't gone soft in the head. But now, for the purposes of helping other travelers, I would like to share some of our experiences with the Masa Mara Safari in hopes that other travelers will could benefit from our experience.

We did a two night safari to the Masa Mara reserve in the middle of July. We went with Big Time Safari. And they were good. I'll tell you more about them, but first a few things to think about while planning your safari:

The Vehicle is probably fine.
Most Safari outfits use a pop-top matatu. It is a van with fewer, more comfortable seats and a roof that pops up to allow you to stand and look all around you while enjoying the shade and safety of the vehicle (think lions). For the purposes of a dry season (July) safari, this vehicle was fine. Maybe even ideal.

Number of Participants is important.
Ask how many people are going and how many they will take in a single vehicle. 2-4 would be ideal. Vans with more than 5 looked rather miserable. Not everyone fits in the pop top and the seating opportunities become more limited.

Quality of Co-Participants will impact your experience.
You will spend 3 days with these people. Make sure you do better than us in this department. We found ourselves confined with the most rude, vulgar and immature Spanish guys to ever grace this continent. I wish I could say it didn't affect our experience, but it did.

You will bother the animals.
About this we felt bad. And maybe you will too. Zebras sprinted from the road when we approached. Ostriches stopped their courtship dance when the van motored up to them. Even the sleeping lions woke up when we leered over them with many cameras. It didn't seem like a big deal until I understood just how many safari vehicles were in the park. Our car was one of 20 surrounding two leopards in a patch of bushes. The driving safari, in our experience, did disturb animals. This is something you should weigh out before you sign on.

Your Trip will be short, yet it will be long enough.
A "three day" safari really comes down to about 12 to 18 hours in the park. But consider that you will spend all your safari time driving around looking at animals. By the third morning, we had seen all we needed to see. In fact, a one day game drive would have sufficed. Keep in mind, that while you may spend 18 hours in the park, you will probably spend three full days in the car.

There are lots of safari companies.
We originally signed on to Safe Ride Safari. John picked us up in Narok at our hotel. When I asked how we would be returning to Nairobi (the other couple was continuing on) he asked if I had malaria and then told me not to worry about it and get back in the car. He was so rude, that within 10 minutes of being picked up, we agreed to take our backpacks out of the car and catch a bus back to Nairobi. We then realized that the guide/driver would greatly impact our experience. After that we insisted on talking to guides before signing on to a safari. All agencies were happy to call their drivers on their cell phones and let us talk to them. This gave us a gauge on niceness.

So in the end we visited Masa Mara with Big Time Safaris. George was our guide and driver. He was courteous and informative and gave the trip some good structure. He went out of his way to make sure we saw animals and got to observe different parts of the park. At times we were behind schedule which was a bit frustrating, but in the end it was fine. The camp was okay- a few more thoughtful details would have gone along way. The food was okay. We also spend sometime with another guide and driver named Abdi who would have been very good as well.


Mark and Juliah

Friday, July 2, 2010

First Impressions of Nairobi

Arrived in Nairobi early-early on June 30th, landing around 1:20am and clearing customs by 2:30. Julie and I are scared: Nairobi is rumored to be the most dangerous city in Africa. We'd talked about crashing at the airport til dawn, but now we're dead on our feet and will pay almost anything for a clean bed. We don't have a hotel reservation or taxi waiting, but by the luggage carousel we force a conversation with Dirk, a German high school student doing volunteer work outside the capital, and he agrees to share his cab to his hotel, where we hope they have an extra room for us. We're somewhat amazed that this ride has worked out, without any prior planning, and is cheaper and less scary than arranging our own transportation at 3am. We knock on the glass door of the Embassy Hotel, and a fuzzy shape moves in the darkness: the manager, rising from his sleep on the couch. He turns on a light, unlocks the door for us. He's unfazed by our arrival, and hands us a registration form. We copy our passport numbers, dates of issue and expiry, visa numbers and port of arrival. A young prostitute in a banana and khaki-colored dress comes inside and interrupts to ask if there is a room available. Does it have a bathroom? Is there tissue inside? She hands the manager 2000 Kenyan shillings, about $25, and takes a room key. Her john is waiting outside, and comes in when she gives him the A-OK sign.

At 3am, inside the cab, the city is deserted and sort of menacing-looking to first time visitors, but by noon, when we've woken, we notice that the streets are clean, people are extraordinarily well-dressed, relaxed, and polite. The downtown district abounds with coffeeshops and Indian restaurants. There is construction happening behind our hotel, and the workers wear helmets and climb metal scaffolding. These are the things we're noticing after our 8 weeks in the Middle East.

I've got feeling of whiplash from flying from Egypt to Kenya. In Luxor, the temperature was 120 degrees Fahrenheit, forcing these skinflint travelers to splurge for rooms with A/C. In Nairobi, it's shot down to about 70, cool and overcast through most of the day. Security guards give you directions without expecting to be tipped. People ask you where you're from as a simple conversation starter, not as a means of suckering you into their shop--but we still have our guards up.

Mark and Juliah

Third Quarterly Report

To think that it's now month 9. The first part of our trip seems like a vacation we took years ago. People have started asking us which country we've enjoyed the most. I'm tired of the question already! My answer is that having the time to move slowly and really observe things has been my favorite part of this trip. I have most enjoyed the places I knew the least about. This quarter has been all about surprising places. From a rowdy Buddhist New Year's on the south coast of Sri Lanka to the syrupy sting of the Dead Sea in Jordan, our mantra quickly became "Who knew?" And when it comes to surprises, the Middle East has been very rewarding. Hospitable, safe and welcoming, there is much to see here in terms of people, history and natural beauty. What a shame we met so few Americans seeing it for themselves.

Countries covered this quarter: Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, and Egypt
Days in the Middle East: 74 (April 16th- June 29th)
Miles traveled in the Middle East: 3,900 (Most of those logged on a train to southern Egypt)
Cousins Visited in the Middle East: 4 (Thank you for offering up your cousins, Loussi and Maya).
Accommodations used to date: 109
Pictures taken by Juliah: 4,920 (Mark had shipped home a memory card and was unable to provide an accurate count)
Maximum number of falafel meals consumed consecutively: 4. Cheap, ever present and delicious, a large portion of our body mass is now made of falafel.
Next on the Agenda: East Africa

A Few Highlights from the Middle East:
Diving the Blue Hole in the Sinai Peninsula. We suited up in 5 millimeters wet suits, put on our tanks and started walking down the dirt road. We passed a cliff with at least 20 memorial markers for the divers who had died at this site. Summer, our dive master, made a point of humming a happy song as we continued our walk. Then we got into the water and began our 30 meters decent down a stone shaft. It felt like a free fall. I had to pace myself to make sure didn't fall on top of Mark who was right below me. The fall ended when we emerged through a tunnel in an immense reef wall. To our right, reef pulsating with crazy corals and little orange fish. To the left the deep blue Red Sea, mysterious and seemingly bottomless.

Getting pulled off a bus by Israeli Defense Forces headed back from the West Bank. Apparently foreign tourists were not permitted to pass through this security check point. We suspected that the Sargent on duty was just miffed that we had visited Palestine. With the Turkish flotilla incident just weeks behind us, perhaps the Israelis were feeling even more on edge than usual. The Israeli soldier barely looked up from his cell phone when we tried to protest this "new policy." So we were forced to walk along the highway in growing darkness until we found a cab to take us to a different security checkpoint that would let us back to Israel.

Touring the tunnels below the Islamic Temple of The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Burrowing through the dark and muddy tunnels you eventually find the foundation and original door to the second temple, the most sacred site for Jews and an undeniably eerie place for the rest of us.

Climbing a hill in Amman to see the sunset. As we reach the top, two Palestinian women pull us into their home and demand we stay for coffee. We meet their children and heard all about how much they love American people. They hope we enjoy Jordan. We completely miss the sunset.

Petra at sunrise. I'm torn between the stately symmetry of the carved facades, statues and niches and the beauty of the stone itself. The cliff faces are marbled with white, red and orange hues that would make them stunning even had they not been carved by an artful ancient people. The stones reminds me of salmon and then I long to poach salmon and eat it with a nice salad. I found myself walking away from one building only to turn back for a second look.

Staying the night in a 10th century monastery tucked between rocky mountains above the desert in Syria. We ate homemade cheese with the monks and slept above the chapel which let the smell of frankincense wafted up from below.

Smoking shisha (tobacco water pipe) on the banks of the Euphrates river at sunset in eastern Syria. Eventually the guy at the next table started chatting with us, paid our bill and took us cruising around town as the desert air cooled and the locals finally emerged for the evening.

Sleeping on the roof in Damascus. It's cheaper to sleep on the roof rather than getting a room and besides they still give you breakfast. There are 25 cots set up on the roof, most just 6 inches from the next. Blankets quickly become a commodity between our 25 roof mates, most of us sleeping just inches from each other. The 4am morning call to prayer finds us wearing rain coats and wool hats and snuggling to keep warm.

Wading in the Mediterranean on the south coast of Lebanon and collecting a few choice pieces of sea glass for my desk at my next job. The southern coast of Lebanon has been inhabited for thousands of years. Its difficult to choose between the colorful bits that turn up among the pebbles in front of the light house turned hotel we have been sleeping in.

And How Would You Say Things Are Going?
It's amazing what seems normal after a while. After nine months on the road, I can't imagine doing anything else. It has been a very good use of a year. By moving slowly and not pushing ourselves to do the "must sees" we haven't burned out yet.Though, there are a few indicators that our stamina may be waning.

For one, everything we own is falling apart. My watch, which got a new band in Northern Thailand and a new battery in downtown Mumbai just got fixed for $1.25 on the streets of Nairobi. To my shock and dismay, the watch repair guy actually used his teeth.

What's next on the agenda?
Africa! East Africa. In 2006 Mark and I visited Ghana, Togo and Benin in West Africa. We looked forward to returning to Africa ever since.
The guide books that we bought in Cairo for Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya all have animals on the covers. Usually the cover of a guidebook excites me, but I couldn't be less excited about these book covers. Chimps? Elephants? really? What excites me instead about East Africa is meeting people, enjoying some lush beautiful country and seeing how people live. It will also be nice to eat with our hands, drink beer and have really good papaya again. But still, I will take 120 giraffe pictures when the opportunity arises.

When are you coming home?
This is a frequently asked question, to be sure. We will probably be home in later September or early October.


Mark and Juliah