Posted by: nan | May 26, 2013

On the way to Maasai Mara…

 Early in the morning we gathered into two vans and drove from Nairobi towards Maasai Mara, one of Kenya’s national park reserves and perhaps the most well-known. The Mara is almost 600 square miles of game reserve in the South-Western part of Kenya and crossing over into Tanzania.

The Mara is now only a 6 hour drive from Nairobi,  with mostly paved roads.

After a few hours of driving, the paved road ends at a police checkpoint. The police stop our two vans and speaks to our driver in Swahili. Our compadre car stops ahead of us. Kenyan police are notorious for stopping cars and then extracting a bribe from the passengers. They conjure up violations like broken lights, old plates, the ubiquitous speeding, or just simply ask for some “tea.” Many people simply pay the bribe rather than face a few hours in a police station or the hassle of trying to sort things out officially. There are even tales of people costuming themselves as police and making a living taking bribes. I couldn’t understand the words from the checkpoint police, but I understood his intentions. Luckily, the checkpoint was particularly busy that day. Several cars had stopped already and the police went to continue talking with him. Seizing the opportunity, our driver sped off. As we passed our other van, the driver was outside on the road. Seeing that escape was afoot, the other driver booked it back into his car and also drove off. And we were on our way… also, we grabbed some beer on the way to Maasai Mara in the town of Narok. These guys know how to handle a beer..
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Posted by: nan | May 26, 2013

Flamingos in Lake Oloiden

Posted by: nan | May 18, 2013

Jazz and Nairobi Roads

Sitting in the garden of my apartment complex and listening to Dave Brubeck’s college tour concerts, I will occasionally hear through my earphones the rumbling and clanging of a truck driving across the the road outside our home. The clunking of wheels punctuates Paul Desmond’s velvet tones. To quote the musician himself, Paul Desmond’s sound “was like a dry martini.” The noise of metal and rubber against pothole sends that martini suddenly crashing to the floor.

 
The road is paved, but uneven and riddled with potholes.  Paved roads are a commodity, and while most of the main roads in Nairobi are paved, many remain dirt. And of the paved ones, potholes make it even more undriveable.
 
I woke up this morning in the early hours, around 6am to try and jog before the morning traffic. Roads in my neighborhood consist of a (mostly) paved road surrounded on either side by dirt paths for pedestrians. The dirt paths meander and meld with the surrounding scenery, the road itself and the building structures around it. At times you will walk on a path and suddenly it disappears into a gulch. At other times an overgrown bush will force you to step onto the road. There are no curbs or dividers between the walking path and the road. Sometimes a car will swerve to avoid a giant pothole and seem to head straight in your direction. The best option at this time is to jump into the ditch next to you (hopefully there’s a ditch next to you). Thankfully, I have not had to jump into a ditch yet.
 
All of this is exacerbated during the rainy season. While we slumber, rain pours down at night refreshing the plants but also turning our dirt paths into mud paths. I hear that the rains are ending or soon ending, we will go into the dry season again. 
Posted by: nan | May 18, 2013

Mombasa/Diani – Day 2

We awoke to a hot Mombasa Sunday morning, heat wafting through the shuttered windows. Unlike the previous day, Sunday morning was calm. The throngs of people crowding the street yesterday were replaced by a serenity befitting the Holy Day. Most of the people were in church or mosque or temple. We trotted across the street from our hotel and found a Hindu temple. The service was over, but we went inside and walked around. Saw a cow, petted it, and then made our way out. 
 
After the temple, we called our driver again to take us down to Diani Beach. From Mombasa, Diani beach is just about 30 or 40km south, but separated by an inlet from the Indian Ocean. To get to the land where the beach is, we had to cross the water and crossing was only possible by ferry. Three or four ferries worked tirelessly picking up cars, bicycles, trucks and people from one side of the water and dropping them off 5 minutes later onto the next side. The ferry ride is not long, but the wait in line to get onto the ferry took about 30 minutes itself. Our driver told us 30 minutes is actually quite fast, and sometimes the wait can be an hour or more. 
 
On the other bank, we arrived first in the town of Likoni. Likoni from the outside looked much like Changamwe (the area near the airport driving into Mombasa). Lots of little ramshackle shops, small buildings made of corrugated tin or painted wood. One store that caught my eye was a “Sports Book Store.” Amid all of the shops which were mostly for fairly utilitarian needs such as Mpesa (mobile banking), car repair, groceries, clothes or hardware, there was also a book shop. No matter where you are in life, there’s room for some leisure. That’s encouraging. 
 
On the Beach
Diani Beach is not so different from most beaches in resort towns. Crystal blue waters, soft sand, beach bums, and people peddling goods along the beach to foreigners. One man we talked to who said he was from the Digo tribe talked about the crummy education system and how hard it was to earn money. When asked who he is voting for in the elections, he says Raila, but (if I recall correctly) that he felt generally disillusioned with the whole government. We talked for just a few minutes and then the proprietor of the beach bar we were around came over and shooed the man away, saying something vaguely demeaning in swahili. 
Posted by: nan | March 7, 2013

Mombasa – Day 1

One week after we arrived in Nairobi, we immediately headed back to the airport… and after a 45-minute ride, we found ourselves in the coastal city of Mombasa. Mombasa sits on the Indian Ocean and (according to Wikipedia) was an important center for trade in spices, gold, and ivory. The trade linked up all the way to India and China, which explains the China we saw at the museum/fort.

Upon arriving at Moi International Airport (named for the second president of Kenya), we were picked up by our pre-arranged driver. Our hotel was near the historical portion of town (I think it was just called Old Town). Our car careened through the neighborhoods of Changamwe over a bridge and into the heart of Mombasa. Unlike Nairobi, Mombasa is hot hot hot.

Here’s a video of our drive in. The green Mpesa shop in the video is a place where you can add money to your mobile bank. Mpesa is the much lauded mobile banking system in Kenya, which has made banking available to anybody who has a cell phone.

Note: Drivers are your best friends here. For Mombasa, a friend of mine had been there the week before and gave us the number of the driver she used. He then picked us up from the airport and lugged us around Mombasa and the coast for the next three days.

After putting our stuff down at the hotel, we made our way to Fort Jesus! I feel like whenever any one says Fort Jesus there ought to be a small choir of sassy angels singing “Praise the Lawd!” So, we made our way to Fort Jesus (Praise the Lawd!). Fort Jesus is apparently a super old fort built by the Portuguese when they conquered and occupied Mombasa. Naturally, the first thing one does when you go to a new land is to subjugate its people and build a big military compound named after your foreign god. (Although, I think the actual history of the region is way more complicated with Shaffi muslims, bantu speaking inhabitants, the Portuguese periodically trying to take over and also Zimba cannibals. Yes. Cannibals. And everyone vying for claim over the land.) Anyway… we went to Fort Jesus (PtL!) and milled around there for a bit. We walked up the barracks, sauntered on the fort walls and peered through watch towers over the Indian Ocean.

After Fort Jesus (Hallelujah) we walked through the old portion of town. The city is a multi-ethnic, inter-religious bonanza. Mosques, churches, and hindu temples were dotted all over town. The next morning, we walked into the hindu temple and petted the cow. I’m not sure if that’s allowed, but I totally saw other people do it too. The old town was a criss-cross of meandering alleyways opening up into market intersections and then closing again. After about an hour of getting lost, we ended up on one of the main thoroughfares and trotted on home. We searched for the Spice Market, even smelled the spice market, but alas no spice market was to be had.

We had dinner at dusk, overlooking the Indian Ocean… and in the morning to Diani Beach. But for now, just dinner.

Posted by: nan | January 27, 2013

Arrived in Nairobi

The wife and I arrived in Nairobi two weeks ago. From Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, we were picked up by a driver arranged by my work. In the night, we drove to our new apartment and new home in the Kilimani neighborhood of Nairobi.

From the few days I’ve been here, it appears that Nairobi is a thriving metropolis stretching and struggling to keep up with the frenzy of its internal spinning. On one hand you have luxury apartments with swimming pools and full service, daily maids and a golf course, while literally steps away are slums filled with houses made out of corrugated sheet metal. The condition of the roads are indicative of Nairobi’s inability to keep up with its infrastructure projects. Roads are pockmarked with potholes while sidewalks are mostly just dirt paths. I bought a new pair of white converses before moving here. Rookie mistake. They are now brown converses. But intrepid people bounce along these streets daily, from the matatu bus drivers beckoning people to hop on from open doors to suited businessmen being driven about by personal drivers. From every person I’ve spoken with, nearly all I here is optimism about where the country is headed and desire to capture the benefits of one of Africa’s fastest growing economies.
We are excited to be joining the people, bouncing down the street towards opportunity.
Posted by: nan | April 8, 2012

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Posted by: nan | December 7, 2009

Not So Great Walls

It’s sad that in the two months I’ve been here, that I haven’t posted anything. Perhaps its a testament to being overwhelmed with classes or work. Perhaps its that there has been so much to do here, that not a single moment of reflection has passed. But mostly, I think its a testament to my laziness. However, after a week of skipping classes, I think I’m bouncing back and I’ll try to share something salient here.

Great Walls of Another Kind

Probably one of the first things I noticed here was the notable lack of facebook, blogs and news-sites on Chinese web. The Chinese, or those who are more tech-savvy, have even given this bit of online censorship its own moniker: 防火长城 “The Great Firewall of China”. In fact, this post is being uploaded through a proxy. Obama circuitously addressed the issue of internet censorship in his speech to Shanghai students (which, ironically, was censored), by praising free speech and its ability to shape democracy. What struck me was that he began his reply by acknowledging that there are days in which he really wished there were more censors in the US, that speech wasn’t as free. Because of this freedom, he is faced with his critiques on a daily basis, accosted by people telling him what he is doing wrong, why he is wrong and what he should be doing. No decision he makes ever meets with complete approval, and often the hardest decisions meet the most obstinate, caustic opposition. How easy would it be to rule, if no one dared to talk back. But from there, he pointed out that his personal discomfort at criticism is a small price to pay for the freedoms of democracy and, moreover, for the progress it brings. Channeling J.S. Mill, he lauded argument and debate, pointing out that only through open disagreement can society move forward.

But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” – J.S. Mill, On Liberty, Chap 2

But it would seem that most people get along fine within the confines of these walls. You hear every day about how China is developing so fast, that it is quickly emerging into the first world, and that especially the city-centers compete with London, New York and the like. If the quality of life is increasing in such drastic steps, what’s a little censorship here or there? Or as the documentary, “Tank Man”, puts it, the Chinese have made a “devil’s bargain” with the government since ’89, exchanging political freedom for economic progress. I think, it still waits to be seen whether this bargain was really worth it. To be sure, the bargain was only for a select few in society, and sealed on the backs of the majority. In asking taxi-drivers, alleyway restaurant owners and various other 老百姓, ordinary people, few have remarked about any real positive influence the growing economy has had on their lives. But many others say there is a “new middle-class” in China. Perhaps, at the bottom not much has changed, but in the upper-middle areas, things are stirring and China’s development has benefited them. But at what costs, what costs to the Chinese people and what costs to our conceptions of successful nation-states in general? What happens if the most powerful country in the world is not a democratic country, steeped in humanistic values and a tradition of liberty? It’s far from being top-dog, but what if China shows the world that a country can garner all the economic accoutrement of a world-leader, while remaining totalitarian, and authoritarian at home?

Posted by: nan | September 25, 2009

BeiDa

Half a year later, and I’m back in Beijing. This time a little longer. Until Mid-January. But it’s still not that long. Only a few months. Almost like a rest stop between school and work.

Murakami writes, “A rest area on a highway is just a place you pass through. To get from here to there… what does it matter what it’s called… You’ve got your restrooms and your food. Your flourescent lights and your plastic chairs. Crappy coffee. Strawberry-jam sandwiches. It’s all pointless – assuming you try to find a point to it. We’re coming from somewhere, heading somewhere else. that’s all you need to know, right?”

But I’m tired of rest stops. There are few rest stops in life, because there is no somewhere you came from and somewhere you are going. You are just “going” the entire time. So, I’d like to not think of this time in China as a break or a rest stop or as a temporary holding place until life starts again. Life is here and I am here to embrace it and learn from it. I am here to learn Chinese, to make acquaintances and to soak in something.

Posted by: nan | March 24, 2009

Things that happen in Beijing

I’m not one to make a laundry list of things I did while out and about, because I feel like the joy of the minutiae gets lost in the scramble to check things off a list or to see who’s list is longer. But then again, I know there have been many times when I’ve prattled off places I’ve been or things I’ve done, dropping them like pedigrees and names. In any case, it’s not about the ego and in an effort to avoid pure solipsism, granted in a medium pretty much devoted to self-aggrandization, here are snippits of some things that I’ve done in Beijing, hopefully with sufficient detail to break the “laundry-list” frame without being completely self-indulgent.

Streets

On my last trip to Beijing, I had walked down the 700 odd year old WangFuJing market street, but I didn’t have the chance to explore much. It’s pretty much like Michigan Ave, except instead of the Apple Store you have a generic electronics store, instead of Barnes and Noble you have the 100 year old bookstore, and instead of Starbucks on every corner there are craft chopstick shops. There are some parts of it that are really cool, like the archeological site found and preserved underneath the Oriental Plaza mall and other parts that are not so cool, like the huge McDonalds and Haagen Daz which replaced, I’m sure, some old part of the Beijing market street. Unfortunately, most of the stores didn’t interest me much. I didn’t want to get a new ipod, nor did I want to get a tie or even buy a 200 dollar set of chopsticks (how silly of me). But just as I was coming towards the north end of the street, thinking that it was all just a big ploy for capitalism over culture I hit snack street.

Snacks

Suddenly the red sea of megamall shops parted and before stood a long row of snack vendors grilling wonders as far as the eye can see. Of course, you have to factor in the Beijing daily smog, so really you can only see about two blocks, and I think the snack street is about 3 blocks long. There were a plenopoly of stands, but most of them sold the same things. It reminded me of the night market in Marrakech, in the old city. There must have been hundreds of stands, but only about 5 different variations of things. Anyway, I tried to pick out some things that I couldn’t find in the US and chow down. I had a kebab of silk worms, which tasted like peanuts, but the texture had me in a talespin. The worms are the big, plump grubby kind. The skin is grilled to a hard, almost cracklin texture, but when you bite into it, it sort of explodes in your mouth. That wasn’t so pleasant. I then ate some other things like scorpion and centipede, which weren’t all that yummy either. I think maybe these things just weren’t meant to be eaten, or at least you shouldn’t eat them just for fun… perhaps within the right culture and context, yes, but when everybody else who are supposed to be native is equally grossed out at the arthropod sticking out your mouth, perhaps that’s a sign that the food might not be that delicious. So, I finished the walk down snack street with some comparitively yummier fair; stinky tofu and baodu (some kind of tripe soup). Funny how those things become the norm here.

Hair Massage

This is a story, it is a sad story… about hair. I got my hair cut before going to China, because I knew my grandma would think me a hippy for having longer hair. Once I got here, she immediately remarked about how long my hair had grown and pouted her lip the way only a grandma who’s practiced making people feel guilty for nigh 70 years can do. I would have protested, but it’s hard to argue with old people. Senility kicks in and while I am trying to explain why I don’t need a haircut, she begins talking about barbers during the Cultural Revolution or how if you leave garlic out it starts to grow stems. It’s not worth the effort.  Anyway, I went to the hair cuttery armed with my bad chinese. Apparently, here whenever you go for a haircut, they massage you for about half an hour before. I firmly believe they should institute this in the States. Maybe then I would get my hair cut more often. Anyway, the person there gave me a massage  and loosened my wits, I think, because once they started asking me about my hair I was pretty out of it. As I recall, they said they would cut it and also do “something” to make it more manageable. The “something” was a garble of unknown mandarin words and massaged blurs. So, I readily agreed, thinking that these are professionals and they know what they are doing. Well… (and I don’t know much about hair), next thing you know my hair is in these individual closepin thingies and getting roasted under a lamp of some sort (my mom later explained to me that this is what is called a perm). So, voila! I sit here typing with a head full of big, poofy, fobby curly hair. I don’t know what to do with it. I am thinking if I wear a hat to bed, maybe it’ll calm down.

Giving in

Ok, so now I am tired of typing… so here’s a list of other things that happened, of which I may elaborate upon later: visited the YongHeGong temple, paid for an overpriced Tea Ceremony, stroked my would-be beard at the Confucious garden temple, ate hot pot on GuiJie (ghost red lantern street), hiked a small mountain only to find that the pagoda up top really kind of sucks… and bought some little red books at PanJiaYuan, a really cool outdoor antique wares plaza. I suppose with all the rhetoric of not making lists, I forgot that they do make life a lot easier for us lazy folk. 🙂

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