Sunday, 31 August 2008

The exit strategy

When preparing to leave a country a sense of urgency kicks in. We always arrive in new places with grandious ideas about the wonderful places we will visit and the places we will explore. We always anticipate years in which to make these acquaintances and feel comforted by the time we can take to acquire 'local' knowledge.

Now, faced with ten weeks before departure, we embraced our inner tourists and simply started making bookings.

The trouble around the December election had largely calmed (if not completely resolved). And there remained parts of the country that we preferred to avoid... just in case. Fortunately we had snuck in a trip to Lake Nakuru in October and had our chance to marvel at, literally, millions of flamingoes. Post election, Nakuru became the centre of much of the political violence as IDPs (Internally Displaced People) moved into the area and became targets from rival tribes. I hasten to add that, by the time we left Kenya, Nakuru had calmed and anyone planning a holiday to Kenya now should definitely consider a trip up there on their itinerary.

But the place we had not explored, the big ticket, the must do before we leave, was the Masai Mara.  Politically, this area had remained largely untouched by the election fallout. As the name would suggest, it is home to the Masai people who had not been involved in the conflict. It had, however, been hugely effected by a sharp drop in tourism. This was undoubtedly being felt by the local operators and their staff. Their strategy to keep some sort of occupancy level going was to discount sharply for local tourists. As residents, this included us. So, much to our surprise, instead of camping, we were able to stay in beautiful luxury tented camps. Twice!

The first time we went, the good Granny was with us for a visit. We stayed at the Karen Blixen camp in one of the concessions just outside the park proper. The highlight of the trip was finding two female lions with six cubs and watching them, on our own for the best part of an hour, yanking tails, chasing each other, climbing all over their mums.  Too cute. Our guide mentioned to us that, had we visited a year earlier we would have probably been jostling for position with about twenty other vehicles. So, lucky in a way... although political conflict seems a rather high price to pay for a good game drive...

The second time we went we really stepped out and treated ourselves to a weekend at Little Governors (again at 'special' rates).  This camp is known for a few very special things. First, it has been maintained as a real bush camp - no electricity, fences or mod cons. Although very comfortable and serving some of the best food in Kenya, it goes to some lengths to ensure that you never forget where you are. The second thing it is known for is its balloon safaris. Which were also running deep discounts. 

Sadly, Bambi was considered too young, and I was considered too pregnant (discrimination I tell you!) to go on a flight but the Good Man took the gap. We followed behind in the chase vehicle and got to take part in the champagne breakfast (if not the champagne) at the end.  I have never felt such envy in my life. Watching that graceful orb floating over the treetops while we bounced over the ever pitted ruts of the Mara was quite torturous. But Bambi and I have promised each other that, when she's old enough, our turn will come...

Our final excursion was on our very last weekend in Kenya. The Good Man had for many years been talking about taking part in the Lewa Downs Half Marathon.  He had rallied a few friends, got himself into a team and our departure date was actually set so that he could take part before leaving. What makes this event pretty unique is that it is run through a fully fledged game park, well stocked with animals that can trample you, chase you and eat you for lunch. Or dinner.  Fortunately it is also extremely well organised, with the route being steadily patrolled by rangers and helicopters to ensure the safety of the runners.

The organisers set up a temporary village for the weekend to accommodate runners and their families, complete with campsites and long drop loos. At five and a half months pregnant I was not feeling even this adventurous so booked us into Ol Pejeta House in the Sweetwaters conservancy where we shared a self contained house with another family  whose dad was also running. The boys went to run their race while we visited a tame rhino and the chimp sanctuary, lit roaring log fires and generally absorbed the atmosphere and the stunning views of Mount Kenya. It was idyllic - good company, fantastic scenery and all too easy to forget what was looming ahead.

On the Sunday we drove back to Nairobi, picked up our luggage and left Africa... again.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Before we move on...

some photos...

First Zanzibar, which Bambi clearly enjoyed:

but then it is a beautiful spot...

with cool things to do like feeding little tortoises....

and some bigger ones...
You can also listen to conch shells in stereo...

climb huge trees (with your Dad)...

and swim in mangrove swamps off the side of a boat!

And then there was Easter. Which included a good haul. Observe the Masai in the top right corner who sportingly kept the monkeys from stealing the eggs before the hunt. (This was in Amboseli by the way).

It's important to carefully survey the terrain when game watching.

Oh look! Kilimanjaro!

More from the travelogue next time.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

So I lied (3)

So, where were we? Oh yes, big news in Nairobi...

The Good Man was shortlisted for not one but two fantastic jobs - both in a project he's been wanting to be involved with, both in organisations he admires and both , um, financially rewarding. The only hitch was that both would involve moving to Washington DC.

This is always the worst part of a transition - the possibility of change but not knowing for sure if a move is imminent or not. Also, never having been anywhere in the US, much less DC I was trying to overcome a few (mainly unfounded) fears. And did I mention the morning, noon and night sickness?

But then Easter rolled around, which happened to coincide with our tenth wedding anniversary. So we took a weekend off from the speculation and worrying (if not the constant nausea) and went to Amboseli. This game park has the advantage of being a pretty easy drive from Nairobi and stunningly located at the base of Kilimanjaro. And on this particular weekend it was overrun with Americans. Most from Washington DC. Ever had the feeling someone's trying to tell you something? Fantastic, warm, friendly people who sucked us into their celebrations and got Bambi completely wrapped up in what was undoubtedly the most over the top Easter egg hunt I have ever seen. Needless to say she loved it. 

Fortunately, they were mainly with the US State Department and based in Nairobi so we were able to maintain contact after the bunny left town!

Soon after we got back, it was confirmed. An offer was in and we were scheduled to leave at the end of June...

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

So I lied...(2)

I really must stop committing myself to time schedules for posts! But we digress...

By the end of February the uncertainty started to become a bit overwhelming. The Good Man was asked to participate in a conference in Zanzibar and we decided that a family break to a peaceful island sounded like a good plan. So off we went.

Zanzibar is a true tropical paradise. We spent our first week on the east coast which sports pristine beaches and some amazing snorkeling. It was all pretty rustic but comfortable and we loved it, spending long lazy days on the sand or by the pool. At some point during the week I looked up and considered the moon and stars. And then I contemplated lunar cycles. And then I considered my own lunar cycle. Which wasn't behaving very cyclically. One plastic stick later and it was confirmed... Bambi is to be a big sister. This actually explained a lot - my food aversions, my inability to deal with the heat and humidity (although, to be fair, it was roasting) and general grumpiness (which I had been attributing to stress).

Our second week was in Stone Town. What an amazing spot. If you have even the remotest interest in history, this city is a must. You won't find hundreds of clinical museums and memorials but you will be able to see the remains of early ocean trade, breathe in heavy waves of cinamon and nutmeg, watch dhows sailing along the coast as they have done for centuries and contemplate words like 'swashbuckling' and 'adventurer' without having to give yourself over to too much imagination.

The Good Man was working for much of this time but Bambi and I managed to keep ourselves busy. We went on a spice tour which basically involved a chap wandering around a small spice plantation with us in tow. That said, he carefully wove a grass reed hat for Bambi as he strolled and did manage to persuade some local youths to climb to some very precarious perches in an effort to show us all the fragrant treasures of his patch.

We also wiled away an afternoon at Mercury's - a very popular seaside bar named in honour of Zanzibar's most famous son - Freddie.

For our last day, with work commitments over, we decided to do the Blue Safari. The highlight of this trip (for me at any rate) was the snorkelling. The Good Man is not a strong swimmer and took off with the tide back to the sandbank powerless to fight the current. Lowering Bambi into middle of the ocean off the side of the dhow met with some resistance on her part (as I write this I do sense how foolish the idea was to start off with - but, hey, I'm pregnant). So my 'highlight' was nearly thwarted.

However, one of the guides, sensing my disappointment, said that if I was a strong enough swimmer to swim against the current from the sandbar he would take me out on my own. So we cruised back, deposited Bambi with her driftwood father and headed for the reef. What an incredible experience. Fish of every colour and shape, sea cucumbers, starfish, crabs and the big one - an octopus which, after some provocation it should be said, attached itself to the arm of my guide who rocketed to the surface and swung it around violently until, under its cloud of ink it retreated back to its rock. Suitably chastised, we retreated back to land and a sumptuous seafood barbeque. And Bambi proved an adept dolphin spotter as we sailed to the mainland.

Then it was time to head back to Nairobi where more big news awaited.

But more of that next time...

Friday, 1 August 2008

So I lied... (1)

Next week came and went, and still no ADSL. And then I discovered that ADSL in Nairobi stands for Absolutely Damned Slow Line - rather like dial up but more expensive. And then there came the election...

Having become somewhat bewitched by the beauty of Kenya and rather caught up in the joy of our expatriate lifestyle, the election and resulting fallout came as a surprise of the worst kind. It shouldn't have. Having grown up in Africa (albeit further south), I should know that closely contested elections on this continent have a long history of resulting in contentious results and, all to often, violence.

Fortunately, the Good Man had not been as blinded as I and subtly arranged for us to be in Cape Town for Christmas, where we stayed until the dust settled in early January. Actually,the dust hadn't and probably still hasn't settled completely. But we felt that we were safe to go back. 

However, Kenya had become a political hot potato and several aid donors, the Good Man's employers included, began speaking of revoking funding to Kenya in an attempt to pressure the government into a power sharing arrangement. After much negotiation, the influence of Kofi Annan and Condeleezza Rice, a power sharing agreement was reached.  But by then the Good Man had felt that it would be prudent to look at other options rather than leaving his career to the whims of others. (At one time there was talk of moving him to Sudan - not a family friendly posting...)

This was an incredibly stressful time for the whole of Kenya and I can't help, in retrospect, thinking that my worries were so minor in comparison to those of so many others. All of our staff moved onto our property - they had been evicted from their homes for belonging to the 'wrong' tribal affliation. And they were considered the lucky ones - they had jobs and somewhere to go.

I volunteered at an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp and met many families who had been driven out of towns they had lived in for all of their lives, under threat of violence. Now they were living in Nairobi, jobless and homeless. The children in these camps were finding it impossible to find places in schools and you could feel their dreams diminishing with each day of learning under the tuition of underqualified 'teacher' volunteers, from decade old books, in the shade of tents.

Although a political resolution was found and calm achieved, the underlying differences between Kenyan ethnic groupings were brought to the surface and it will, undoubtedly, take a very long time for trust to be established.

Enough for one day. Much has happened to us since then and chapters are required. Tune in tomorrow for the next instalment...