Back in Portland

Don’t ask me how it’s easier to blog from Africa than America. I’ve been back in the states for two weeks but have already jetted of to San Diego and Seattle so I guess stateside travel may have gotten the best of me. But now I’m back in Portland and am really excited to be here. The weather is getting nice–I’ve been on three long bike rides this week–and I’m ready to truly set down some roots. Portland has been my home for 6 months, but I’ve only been here for half of that. I don’t have any trips planned for a couple of months so now it’s time to really cultivate friendships and get into a routine.

Part of that has been getting back to work. I’ve been pitching a lot of stories and have had a few I wrote before my trip come out. I had a celebrity workout piece in the March issue of Shape as well as this article on choosing your yoga style for WeightWatchers.com. (I couldn’t find the Shape article online, but I did find this one, on quick stress-busters, which cites me as an expert.)

I was also profiled in an Australian magazine, Body + Soul. They have down that I live in LA–um, no–but everything else is spot on.

Happy Friday everyone! It’s good to be back!

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The Beaches of Paje

I gave up on sunbathing several years ago, but I’m still all for a beach vacation. In Paje, a sleepy grouping of mini-resorts on the east side of Zanzibar, we’ve been having fun in the sun, thirties-style. And by that I mean, rather than soaking up the rays like we did in our twenties, Andy and I now hide under umbrellas, hats, and strong SPF. I’ve read a stack of New Yorkers, have strolled up and down the beach, and saw colorful fish and coral while snorkeling today.

Sadly, it’s our last day in paradise. Tomorrow we’re ferrying back to Dar Es Salaam for a final site visit then boarding planes back to the States. It’s been an amazing trip but I personally am excited to get back to Portland, to life, and to work.

Lest you think I’m too homesick, here are some pics from this island paradise:

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Stone Town, Zanzibar, and a Spice Tour

It’s been another dramatic change of pace and scenery. A few days ago I flew from Nairobi to Zanzibar–a gorgeous island off the coast of Tanzania. What an interesting place. Here are some piccs from around town:

Although Swahili is still the common language, the population is a mix of African, Arab, and Indian. The population is predominantly Muslim so most women you see are wearing burkas–from loose robes and headscarves all the way to garments covering all but the eyes. The men have no such dress code–they all seem to be wearing T-shirts and jeans. Whereas in Nairobi people on the street seemed to look right through you–sort of like in New York–in Stone Town you can’t walk past one of these T-shirt clad guys without them trying to sell you a CD, a scarf, a taxi ride…

The reason I bring up this dress is because of the heat. The temps are in the low 30sC (or, 90sF) but the humidity is about 100%. Add long sleeves to that and it’s pretty unbearable. I was excited when a restaurant owner and I were lamenting the heat and she blamed it on global warming–maybe we’re not so different after all!

One of the hallmarks of Stone Town is the intricate design of the doors around town. Hotels, churches, shops, and homes all have gorgeous entrances. Here are a few of my faves:

After one day of touring the markets and buying some souvenirs I felt like I’d exhausted some of the local diversions so I decided to sign up for a day-long tour of a spice farm. Below are a handful of photos of the incredible plants we saw as well as a couple of shots from the stunning beach.

Nutmeg

Cinnamon Bark

Cocoa--the chocolate seeds are housed in this sweet, fluffy white fruit

Drinking fresh coconut water

A dhow, or local sailboat

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Masai Mara Safari

Oh wow. Where to even begin with this. What an amazing 4 days of my life. I guess I should start by saying that I really enjoyed the trip I booked, and if you are planning a visit to Kenya and the Mara you should look up Carolynn at Depth of Africa. She referred me to my driver and guide Edward, who was great. (If you’d like contact info for them, just email me.)

From Nairobi the drive to the Mara is about 4 hours–2 on paved road and 2 on dirt roads. Edward joked that the bumpy unpaved portion was a “free African massage,” but the rough roads were worth it.

What really amazed me was how similar the landscape of this part of Kenya was to Wyoming (at least in the summer). I sort of felt like I was home, only there were elephants on the horizon, not elk.

Over the coming days we saw so many amazing animals. I think the photos speak for themselves and I don’t want to overwhelm anyone by including too many images or stories, so I’ll place the photos in order of “wow” factor.

First up, we saw a leopard on day 3. This is a pretty rare sighting in the park. Leopards are solitary animals so they’re often hard to spot. This one was gorgeous.  By some fluke I got an amazing shot of it starting to jump across a small stream!

The next most awesome viewing was of a group of lions I spotted. (Yep, I felt pretty cool.) What was neat about this trio was that they were slowly edging in on a group of buffalo. But the only way they’d attack is if one strayed off. We always think of lions as unbeatable, but a gang of large buffalo can easily overpower a couple of lions. In this shot the buffalo have noticed the lions, one of which was watching from under the tree. As the buffalo charged the lion jumped up into the tree. When I took this the buffalo were snorting and the lion was growling right back. After several moments the buffalo lost interest and walked away and the lion lept from the tree and ran the other direction.

As all of this was happening one of the young male lions in the pride was just sitting back and watching. It’s up to the female lions to do the hunting for the group while the males sit back and… pose for photos?

Another favorite moment was “the giraffe conference.” Now, giraffes are one of the animals I’m most fond of, but I’d of course never seen one in the wild before. What’s great about giraffes is that they’re so tall you can often spot them–their heads literally stick out above the trees. On day 2 we saw a couple of giraffes walking toward a certain clearing and then noticed that more and more were slowly walking in from different areas of the park. After about 10 minutes there were nearly a dozen! It was seriously amazing to watch them come together without any sort of discernible cue. I joked that it was like the scene in The Lord of The Rings when the big tree men gather for a meeting–a giraffe conference. My guide Edward got the reference but suggested that perhaps one of the females was in heat. Hmmm. I guess we’ll never know who was right. 🙂

Here are a few more pics of animals.

(Apologies for the dumb effect on this one. I was showing off the iPhoto options and forgot to revert.)

Finally, here are a few pics from when our car got stuck in the mud. Luckily there were some Masai boys tending their cattle right there and after a couple of hours of digging and pushing (on their part–I nominated myself to watch for lions, which weren’t really a problem) we got unstuck.

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Wrapping up Nairobi

Since arriving back in Nairobi we’ve been going non-stop. I’ve accompanied Andy on several site visits and have also headed off on my own a few times too. Here are some highlights:

Africa Yoga Project: I was able to attend a class at Mama Fatuma Orphanage in EastLeigh, a neighborhood that’s a step up from a slum (as in, it has running water and people pay rent). The instructors Anthony and Bernard had been trained by Baron Baptiste thanks to a bit of arranging by Paige of Africa Yoga Project. The program started to heal those affected by the violence after the 2007 elections in Kenya but has evolved to help train instructors who are able to make a living teaching yoga. After the class, which was attended by about a dozen kids and included a half hour of acrobatics at the end, we went to Anthony’s studio apartment. Having grown up in the slums, he was very proud to show off his home which was small but tidy. We chatted for about an hour and when I showed them pictures of snow back home, and even a snowman, they were amazed.

HELGA: The next day, Andy and I traveled about an hour and a half to Kajiado, a small city occupied by Masai people, one of the 40+ tribes in Kenya and the one most devoted to maintaining tradition. Some of these are lovely, like bright red scarves dress and beautiful bead-work. However, some of the traditions are pretty archaic, like Female Genital Mutilation and forced marriage. And that’s where a Masai woman named Priscilla steps in. In her organization, HELGA, Priscilla gets the help of the local authorities to enforce the age requirements for marriage, which are 18 rather than the often accepted 12 or 13. She’ll house the girls and educate them, returning them home if their fathers agree to not marry them and keeping them for the duration if not. All in all she’s helped more than 700 girls escape this fate. Most had been promised to friends of the fathers–sometimes even before birth–which means they would often be a third or fourth wife to a middle-aged man.

Children at one of the schools Priscilla maintains for area children

Here are some of the girls currently receiving her assistance:

Not surprisingly, they all loved Andy. (Even more so after he started speaking Swahili with them.)

World Bicycle Relief: Next I jetted off to Kisumu, a city on the shores of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya. There I met the small staff that runs the Kenya branch of World Bicycle Relief. The project is large and multi-faceted. In Zambia and South Africa bicycles are donated to school children (mostly girls) to help them make the trek to school. Many children live 4+ km from school which can be a long walk there and back. To help fund these efforts, for-profit WBR projects like the one I visited in Kenya are growing. The name for this segment is simply Buffalo Bikes–the bikes, which are sold to NGOs, private companies, and individuals, are designed by American bike pros with specifications specific for the rugged conditions in Africa. All are upright bikes (no leaning forward to reach the handle bars), made of durable steel, and outfitted with cushy seats, a strong carrier in the back (for water, people, and more), and mountain bike tires that roll over the many potholes and rocks in the road. An assembly line of 5 men work on the bikes, building up to 24 each day.

Here’s Dominic, one of the test riders for Buffalo, putting the bike through all sorts of tasks:

And the assembly line:

 

Finally, today we went to Kawangware to check out a venture called iSmart, which is basically a door-to-door sales program that helps teach marketing and sales skills to street kids and other underprivileged people. It was really interesting to hear the stories of the employees–some had grown up in slums with no job prospects and now they’re able to earn a living, albeit a humble one. It was also amazing to hear how necessary this service is–many workers and slum residents had never shopped in stores (opting for the many open-air markets instead) and therefore didn’t realize that many basic products, such as solar-powered lanterns, were available to them. We traveled through the neighborhood and I took some photos. This is a pretty typical scene here in Nairobi, where high-walled homes protected by razor wire abut slums like these.

These large hand-trucks move everything, from lumber to food.

A market:

All of that talk of health-harming cooking fires made sense after seeing this “coal” which was actually just burned wood.

The site to buy clean (drinkable) water. (While many homes in Nairobi have tap water, none have drinkable water.)

Tomorrow I head off for a 4-day animal safari. I just found out I’m the only one on the safari–there will be other people at the camp and meals but I’ll be alone on the game drives. For about 5 seconds I felt a little dismayed–what if I get lonely? But then I realized that the worst thing about group tours is the group so… Awesome!

 

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Kenya: Days 1 and 2

 

It’s been an action-packed few days here in Kenya. But before I get into it, here’s a little geography reminder, which I should have put in the last post. (Kenya is the purple country.)

After arriving in Nairobi on Thursday night we left Friday morning for Lake Elementaita, in the Rift Valley. The drive was beautiful–we went from lush, bustling Nairobi to a more rural area of the country that felt more like a desert. The place we were staying was on the lake, but the lake was sulphurous so there was no life in it and not that much around it. Still, there were tons of birds. Not sure what these are called, but they’re pretty big!

I was accompanying Andy there for a meeting organized by Planned Parenthood–representatives from several NGOs were there to learn more about peer counseling techniques to spread the word about reproductive health. I met people from not only Kenya but also Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Many people in these countries don’t use birth control although the reasons vary from religious beliefs (almost everyone in this part of the world is either a devout Christian or Muslim) to cultural stigma (in some places people think only prostitutes use birth control, or that it is unhealthy) to lack of awareness that such options exist. The information sessions were designed to help facilitate conversations between young adults and peer counselors–the attendees will pass along the information they learned (both health knowledge and counseling skills) to volunteer counselors at their organizations. It was really interesting work to watch.

Here’s a photo of the group:

And one of me and two of my new friends, Dorca and Carol:

On our last night we walked out of the conference space to find that a fire was raging in the field next door. (Apparently a farmer was trying to burn off the weeds and add carbon to the soil but the wind made the flames spread.) Smoke was billowing everywhere and workers from the hotel ran over with water and fire extinguishers. Some of the folks from our group pitched in too. The fire retreated and eventually burned out. It was pretty dramatic, but the photos make it look scarier than it was.

 

The next morning, on our ride back to Nairobi, we traveled with Mimi and Jacques, a couple from an island off the DRC. We saw zebras off at the side of the road and stopped to take pictures.

We also stopped at an orphanage and school run by Kenyan women and Americans. The rural home housed 20 children. During the tour I was led by had by two children–after the visit I learned that the two who had showed me around were born with HIV. They were now 10 and 11 years old and not showing any symptoms of the disease. Thanks to antiretroviral therapy they may be able to live normal lives for many years to come, but it’s still a harsh fate to have been dealt.

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Change of Scenery: Kenya and Tanzania

I’m in Nairobi, Kenya, waiting for the sun to rise. Apologies for the lack of advance notice on this change in scenery. I booked the ticket about a month ago and kept intending to write, but never actually got around to it. So here I am, at the start of a three-week trip through Kenya and Tanzania, listening to the symphony of birds chirping, watching the sky turn from dark blue to light purple to almost white, and finally updating my blog.

So why Africa, why now? This is a trip I’ve been dreaming about for years in various forms—a climb up Kilimanjaro, a safari with that future husband of mind—but finally an opportunity came I just couldn’t turn down. A childhood friend of mine—actually my next-door neighbor from Junior High—was working at an orphanage and school in Tanzania when we got back in touch 6 or 7 years ago. Since then Andy has returned to the states, gotten his master’s in public health, and taken a job on the other side of NGOs—with a foundation that awards grants to projects they would like to help. He travels to various parts of Africa several times a year checking on these projects and others they are considering supporting. For this trip we’ll be visiting a handful of these organizations, meeting people who are trying to improve their communities in a variety of ways. I’ll also be sneaking away for a few days of safari and possibly beach time, too.

As I type the sky is getting lighter and the birds are getting louder. This is always my favorite part of waking up in a new place. The time change is often so great—in this case there’s an 11 hour difference (meaning it’s 7PM back in Portland and 6AM here in Nairobi)—that you often arrive someplace new under the cover of darkness and the true nature of where you are is only revealed to you in the morning.

According to Andy, who just returned for a sunrise run, the place we’re staying is an anomaly in Kenya. Called Wildebeest Camp, the setup is a small walled property with a few rooms and camping tents as well as the deluxe wood-floored pavilion tents you might find on safari. Whereas Andy joked that he inhaled two packs of cigarettes on his run—the pollution is that bad in Nairobi—this hotel borders a golf course on one side which makes it a bit of an oasis in the city. To the other side of the golf course is Kibera, one of the biggest slums in the world.

 

In preparation for the trip I received 6 immunizations including shots to protect me against hepatitis A, typhoid, polio, yellow fever, and a few other standard illnesses. (Yes, my arms were quite sore.) I’m taking anti-malaria pills during this trip—my doctor warned me that they may inspire wacky dreams. Visas for both countries are available to Americans at the airports so that was one less stress. No telling how much I’ll be able to update while I’m here, although I suspect access to internet will be quite good with the exception of during safari. But at any rate, here’s an update on where I am. I hope this post finds you all well!

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