Saturday, June 26, 2010

Kenya - nchi ya kitu kidogo, nchi ya watu wadogo, kama kawaida *sigh*

I've spent most of this week doing preparations for the upcoming field season: making sure cars get repaired, supplies get bought, organizing fossils in the museum, etc. Today I had a bit of a "down" day, in a good way - just some time to myself. I went to a great morning yoga class at the gym at the Sarit Center (the nearby western-style mall), later I had lunch with some I've never met, a friend (Juliet) of a friend of my husband's (Susan). Susan introduced us over email since we were both going to be in Nairobi; it's always nice for me to meet people outside of prehistory research! The lunch was great; she does aid work in Somalia, including some education work, and we had a lot to talk about. The only negative part of the day was hearing a story of an American friend who'd recently had this encounter in Nairobi:

Driver in old 4WD vehicle was stopped at a roundabout on the main highway through town. Policeman who was directing traffic approached driver, looked at the car, made sure it had current insurance (which is stuck to the windscreen; it did), asked for driver's license, which was produced -- and held on to by the policeman.
Policeman: "You know, your tires are very worn out."
Driver: (smiling, hoping this is a short encounter) "Yes, that's true. I plan to buy new tires soon."
Policeman: "It is illegal in Kenya to drive with worn-out tires. I will have to call another policeman to take you to the police station, where you will pay a fine."
Driver:  (not wanting to make too much of a fuss, but also a bit skeptical) "Really? It's illegal to drive with worn-out tires in Kenya?"
Policeman: "Yes. Please drive around the roundabout and pull over there." (pointing)
Driver: "Please give me my license back. I don't want to drive without it"
Policeman: "But then you will just run away. No."
(Driver does as told, slightly disappointed the 'please give me my license back' thing didn't work. Driver's been around the block - so to speak - in Kenya, and didn't really relish the idea of spending the afternoon at a Kenyan police station, so tried another tactic.)
Driver: "I have an important appointment to go to. Is there any chance I can pay you the fine right here, instead of spending so much time at the police station?"
Policeman: "Well, not exactly. It will not be an official fine, because I cannot issue you a proper receipt. But it can be... something else."
Driver: (thinking - yeah, I get it, buddy!)"That's fine. How much?"
Policeman: "How much do you want to pay?"
Driver: (thinking - well, let me offer an amount not too low to be insulting, but not too high to get ripped off.) "How much would the fine be at the police station?"
Policeman: "Well, I think it is a 5,000 shilling fee [about 62 US dollars], plus 1,500 shillings per worn out tire."
Driver: "OK... how about if I give you 2,000 shillings?"
Policeman: "That's fine. But please make sure no one sees you giving me money."
Driver thinks... that should be interesting, we're in the middle of a major roundabout with dozens of cars speeding by! But manages to roll down the window and pass the shillings to the policeman without anyone seeing.
The policeman thanked the driver, and then proceeded to ask about the driver's profession, what the driver was doing in Kenya... which seemed odd to the driver, his sudden chattiness. But better to leave the exchange on a friendly note with the policeman, even if the whole thing left a bad taste in the driver's mouth...

So what does the title of this blog post mean? There's a catchy song that was very popular here starting in 2001 by world-acclaimed Kenya singer Eric Wainaina called "Nchi Ya Kitu Kidogo". The title  literally translates to "Country of Something Small", but in common Swahili lingo 'kitu kidogo' refers to a bribe, so the title of the song really translates to "Country of Bribes". The next line in the song is "nchi ya watu wadogo", meaning 'country of small people' - and I'm pretty sure this is Wainaina's commentary on corruption in Kenya, rather than an assessment of average Kenyan stature (since many Kenyans are tall!). :D 'Kama kawaida' means 'as usual' in Swahili - that was my own little addition.

Monday, June 21, 2010

the end of a vehicular era

As you may have gathered from my previous posts, my Land Cruiser has been a big part of my adventures in East Africa over the past (~8) years.



It's saved my life from charging Cape buffalos and elephants. (I was a *little* too busy putting the pedal to the metal to snap and photos of those close encounters of the large mammal kind!)

It's saved my life from bad Nairobi drivers - someone once hit the side of my car in a roundabout; it was slightly scratched, and her front bumper fell off. I've crossed country borders in it probably a dozen times.

I've slept in it, eaten in it, observed countless wildlife, sunrises, sunsets, and starry nights in it. (Have I mentioned is has three roof hatches? Three!) 




I've driven through some dusty places in it. (Yeah, I know the car is brown, but it was absolutely covered in dust in this picture.)



We've gotten each other out of being stuck in aardvark holes. Well, OK, maybe I did more of the rescuing in those instances.


I've even collected dead zebras in it. (Par of my PhD research.) Dead zebras are HEAVY, by the way.



I've driven my mom in it, and my husband. I've had so many other memorable professional and personal moments in it....

But alas, I've come to realize that it's time to part with my beloved vehicle. (Where will I put all my bumper stickers, you ask, if not on the back of it?) I'm not spending months and months at a time in Kenya any more, and the research project I'm mostly working with here these days has 5 vehicles of its own. I don't have grant money to use to fix it up with it breaks down. My boss tells me that he's noticed that women, especially, in East Africa tend to become emotionally attached to their field vehicles. While I hate to fall into a stereotype, in my case this is quite true. So, with much sadness - but knowing this is a good decision (I keep telling myself) - I have decided to sell it.

Kwa heri, KYT 312! I will miss you!!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

how many PhDs toes it take to change a flat tire... or, the five Sunday sighs

So this is my first Kenya post, but also my last Tanzania post, since it spans the day Brian, Kevin, Vince, Adam and I drove from Arusha to Nairobi after the Natron field season.

We were all ready to get on to our next projects, I think - so ready that we forgot to pack any lunch for ourselves for the 7(ish) hour trip. Oops! Brian and Kevin were heading to Nairobi for a few days before going north to the Turkana region for more research; Vince and Adam were spending just a few days in Nairobi visiting a friend of Vince's before going back to Tanzania and flying back to the US.

The trip went pretty smoothly; well, most of it. We crossed the Tanzania-Kenya border without much incident; if you bring a Kenyan vehicle to Tanzania you have to leave your original log book (= car title) on the border, which always makes me a bit queasy, but I've done it several times now and they always find it and return it to me without any issues. So: vehicle log book? check. exit stamps from Tanzania? check. visas and entrance stamps for Kenya? check. We were on our way!

We stopped in a town called Kajiado, maybe halfway between Namanga (the border town) and Nairobi. I had been noticing that the steering was feeling a little difficult to control, but I thought I was just tired or something... well, I think I'd had a slow leak in one of my tires, and we stopped in a gas station to get some snacks (drinking yoghurt, peanuts, cookies, water, soda - ah, road food!) and I realized my tire was FLAT. But I thought, no problem - we're in a gas station, after all, I can just either get it patched, or inflate it, or change it. Well, it was Sunday. And the gas station had no electricity. So the air pressure thingy wasn't working. *sigh #1*

No worries, right? We can just change the tire! I think Vince and Adam were enjoying the adventurousness of the tire-changing, though it began to wear off when we realized that the high-lift jack and spare tire were underneath the back seat, so not only did we have to open the back door (which wasn't closing properly so we had strategically wedged a water bottle inside to keep it closed - best explained in person or with a diagram), but we had to take everything out that was so carefully packed. *sigh #2*

So, jack retrieved. Flat tire removed. Spare tire put on. Ready, set, go! Well, we drove about 10 feet and the locals (who had gathered to watch the white-people-changing-a-tire Sunday afternoon show) started yelling and pointing. Huh? The tire was wiggling pretty seriously as we drove away. *sigh #3* Crap. Now we have to unpack the car again, get the high-lift jack again, and try to put the tire on properly. Well, it turns out my spare tire rim was bent. So we decided to drive very slowly with the wobbly tire. We were over 100 km from Nairobi, and it was probably 4:30 pm at this point. And did I mention that my electrical system was a bit f*cked so my headlights weren't working? That meant driving into the city, well past dark, wtih no headlights *sigh #4*

About 100 meters down the road, we passed a little strip of shops. Outside one of the shops wqas a Land Cruiser, a similar model to mine. With not once, but two spare tires attached to the back. I had a crazy thought: what if I offered to buy one of the owner's spare tires? So we pulled off the road and asked in the shop/bar/restaurant if anyone knew who the owner was. A few minutes later, the answer came back: "He's around, but not quite here right now." *sigh #5* We drove off, ready to do headlight-less battle with Nairobi roads.

But about 10 minutes later, that Land Cruiser came speeding past us and pulled over. Whoa! So I pulled over. Turns out the owner had been found, and wanted to see if he could help us. Things were looking up! Long story short, I negotiated for an only very slightly unreasonable price for the tire and rim, which I had to pay for partly in Kenya shillings (glad I'd kept some from my few days in Kenya in early June!) and partly in US dollars. The owner of the car even said he was a mechanic and gave me his phone number in case I ever needed help in the future.

And in sum, our VISA moments:
Late afternoon snacks from the Kajiado petrol station: About $7.88.
Spare tire plus rim bought right off another car: About $218.
Getting to Nairobi just before dark, weary but safe: Priceless!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

brakes. so overrated.

Up at 7:00 am, packed and ready to drive to another country!

I had a little Kenya research project business to do at the museum before picking up Will, who thoughtfully grabbed us lunch provisions from the swanky breakfast buffet at his hotel - I was laughing at the image of him wrapping bacon sandwiches and apple-stuffed pastries in napkins and sneaking them under his jacket. We stopped by the ATM, fueled up my car, and off we went!

Off-course, that is. The road from Nairobi (Kenya) to Arusha (Tanzania) is currently being repaired, and the turn off to that road from the road to Mombasa (Kenya) wasn't marked. So we went 22 km past where we needed to turn. Oops.

Then, things got a little... harder. I was finding it harder to stop, because... my brakes went out. Yikes!! I stopped at a gas station and checked the brake fluid... which was gone. Well, at least that's a fairly easy thing to fix, right? Just add more brake fluid. Which I did. Ah, brakes again! But, unfortunately, there must have been a leak in the brake line, because soon enough, I lost the brakes again. *sigh* I'm actually pretty good at driving without brakes (more on that later), but it made it challenging to cross the Kenya-Tanzania border, because we had to make several stops. Not only did we have to stop at Kenyan immigration to exit, and Tanzania immigration to enter, but I had to make three extra stops: 1) temporarily exporting my car from Kenya (just filling out a little paperwork); 2) temporarily importing my car to Tanzania (which involves $20, more paperwork, leaving my original log book (=car title) on the border, which always makes me a little queasy); and 3) paying for Tanzanian car insurance for the time we would be there. The second part involved having to photocopy my passport and the temporary importation form, too. The whole thing took over an hour, and several creative ways of slowing down and parking. Did I mention my parking brake wasn't working either?

So we finally left the border town of Namanga, and were on our way! Will resumed map duty, and was trying to figure out what mountains we were looking at: Meru? Longido? Kilimanjaro? The scenery was great, but we saw very few wild animals. The road was great in some sections - a Chinese company is repairing it, and the new parts are heavenly! The parts they are still working on, though - those are dusty and bumpy.

We made it to Arusha *just* before dark - phew! Phew because I found out the hard way that my headlights aren't working either. Ah, my car. Anyway, Will continued to demonstrate his map-reading skills into the wee hours of dusk, and we made it to the hotel and met up with some of the key players in the Tanzanian story: Cindy, Brian, Seth, and Sarah. Cindy is a geologist, and just so happens to be my closest friend. Cindy and I met doing fieldwork in Tanzania 11 years ago, when we were in our early days in graduate school, and have seen each other through all kinds of life's ups and downs. Then there's Brian, who is also a geologist at the same university where Cindy works. [More details omitted for the sake of google searches.] Seth is Cindy's undergraduate student, and Sarah is a geology graduate student at the university where Cindy and I both got our PhDs. Will and I dropped our bags in our rooms, jumped in the shower, and we all headed out for great Indian food with my old friend Lupo.

Lupo... is a real character. We met about 9 years ago when I was doing some of my PhD research in Tanzania. Lupo was born in Tanzania but is of Italian descent; he and his dad Emilio used to run an Italian restaurant in Arusha called Mambo that my PhD advisor Rob's student John used to rent an office in. (Did you follow all that?) Anyway, since Rob and John used to hang out in Mambo all the time, Lupo and I got to be friends, and I started to stay with him and Emilio every time I came through Arusha. Anyway, fast-forward 9 years, and Lupo and I are still good friends, the kind of friends who can not talk for months and then pick up right where we left off, diving deep into the corners of each other's lives and sharing great stories. (And he and his dad still cook some killer Italian food!) Now Lupo is a "PH": a professional hunter. He loves being in the bush; he loves tracking animals -- but not the killing them part. It's a job that lets him be in the place he loves to be.

Anyway, I digress. It's time to get going. After a late breakfast to start off a fairly relaxing Sunday, during which Lupo's mechanic worked on my brakes and reinforcing my left rear axle (a car part that will play a much larger role in my next blog post), a shower, a nap, and a discussion of the logistics and plans for tomorrow and our first few days in the field, my rare "rest" day was ending. We were all getting excited about getting out to the field tomorrow. Lake Natron, here we come!!

Friday, June 4, 2010

doing my best headless chicken impression

I had one day in Nairobi to get ready to go to the field in Tanzania. Thankfully, I had 8 1/2 hours of sleep behind me, so I was feeling full of energy. The day went something like this:

[By the way, I never use last names in my blog posts, to protect the innocent -- and the guilty.]

- Have breakfast at the hotel.
- Go to the museum - see lots of old friends and colleagues (Emma, Purity, Mary, Chris, Musyoka, Tima, the taxi drivers, the guy who brings newspapers...).
- Get into the storeroom where all of my belongings are kept in locked trunks, and I rifle through them, putting aside a variety of things I'll need: field clothes, maps of East Africa, binoculars and animal guides, etc. It's a little bit like re-finding buried treasure - my favorite field pants! A nearly full bottle of sunscreen!
- Get some things organized for our Kenya field season, which will begin in late June.
- I head to the Sarit Center (a mall in the Nairobi suburbs of Westlands) to get some cash, grab lunch, and send a few quick emails to let my loved ones know I arrived safely.
- At this point, I hear that the repairs on my car are proceeding, and that it should be ready by 2pm. Of course, that means it was actually ready by 5:30pm. But hey, at least it was ready that day. It looked a little rough around the edges, but OK. Little did I know the car adventures in the field that lay before me...

As I drove the car back to the hotel, with one of our project mechanics (he wanted to make sure everything seemed kosher with it), the adventure of the day began. The traffic is absolutely horrendous (soul-sucking is a good way to describe it). At some point, as I'm negotiating my way between matatus (public buses) whose drivers manage to defy the laws of physics by actually creating space to inch up into where there is none, I hear a bang. It didn't sound like a gunshot, but it also didn't sound like backfire. We were near a big bus stop. People started running away, and covering their mouths. I turned to Muthengi and asked him what was going on. He calmly said "Oh, it's just the police firing tear gas. The hawkers (people selling things) want to operate near the bus stop, and they are battling with the police who don't want them there." He said this had been happening frequently lately. It was at that point that I started to notice that the air we were breathing was beginning to taste strange. It still took 15 minutes or so for us to extract ourselves from the roundabout and head towards the hotel; thankfully my eyes weren't affected by the tear gas. I must admit was pretty relieved to close the car door, walk into my hotel room, and lie on the bed for a few minutes. Thanks for the warm welcome back, Nairobi!

I ate an uninspired dinner at the hotel, not having the energy to drive anywhere after my afternoon adventure. Later that evening, Will called - he'd arrived in Nairobi and was on his way to a nearby hotel. I walked down to meet him (no, thanks, I don't want a taxi - I'm just walking 100 feet!); we had a few drinks and planned our early morning departure for Tanzania the next day.

And then the Tanzanian adventure began...

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

She's baaaack!

I have so much to write about...! It's been a fun-filled few weeks since I arrived in East Africa, and I finally have a chance to start writing some blogs posts again now. I'll start with my first few days in Kenya, and then over the next several days I'll write some posts about the Tanzania fieldwork....

So I'll tell you now that I'm blog-cheating - I'm posting this on June 25th, even though it's about what I did on June 2nd. I just figured out how to change the date of my posts. Heh heh heh (she says, wringing her hands together in a sinister way.)

So... it's June 2nd. (Er, well, it was when I jotted down the raw material for this post.) My wonderfully organized husband arrived early at the museum to pick me up for my flight, as he was very anxious to make sure I got there on time - and it's a good thing, too, since the tram I was on in Dulles broke down! We all had to get off and walk to the next terminal, but only after a few agonizing minutes of not knowing what the heck was going on. Anyway, this transatlantic trip was a bit different than my usual, since I was routed through London instead of Amsterdam (I'm not sure why, but it might have to do with my 2 1/2 week detour to France on my way home this time). The guy I sat next to on the flight from DC to London kept his light on the whole time (grrrr!) so I didn't sleep much... I watched Invictus (love Morgan Freeman) and a bunch of TV shows. I walked around Heathrow in a limnal, jet-lag-tinged state for a few hours, and grabbed some food and a few books - 1 science writing, 1 bestselling fiction, 1 cheesy fiction, 1 “serious”, and 1 Africa-based; It reminded me of when I was traveling through Europe after studying in London during my junior year of college and there was some issue with the train from Germany to... somewhere... and we ended up on an overnight bus through Luxembourg with a bunch of other tired souls, including this terribly loud and obnoxious family from Texas who made me reluctant to admit I was American. But that was a decade and a half ago, and I digress.

I enjoyed hearing the familiar cadence of African-style English mixed with Swahili as I waited at the gate in London. The flight from London to Nairobi was much more pleasant; a nice Tanzanian girl and I shared three seats, and somehow forged an unspoken agreement to trade off sleeping with our legs up on the middle seat (first her, then me, then her...). I looked at the map of East Africa as we got closer to our destination; the names of places in which some of my most indelible memories have been inked: Tsavo, Arusha, Mombasa, Nairobi, Lamu. Where I was almost trampled by an elephant; where I ended the longest relationship I ever had; where I vacationed with my mom; where I've spent years of my life; where I got engaged.

We landed, and I made a beeline for passport control. A lawyer named Travis was kind enough to let me go in front of him when he realized he hadn't filled out his immigration card; in turn, I waited with one of his bags while he went to fill out the lost baggage form for another one. He's here to work on human rights issues related to the post-election violence a few years ago. I wished him good luck in Samburu when he finally found the person who'd been sent to the airport to pick him up, found a taxi, and I was off.

As I always do, I chatted with the taxi driver about the weather and politics. (The weather was a natural subject that evening since it was POURING rain, which is a little unusual for early June. Nothing like having to walk across the tarmac under buckets of rain after a long flight to make you think... AWA. Africa Wins Again.) It turns out there's a referendum on the constitution on August 4th; good to know.

Another unusual thing about this trip is that since I was only in Nairobi for 2 nights before going to Tanzania, I was staying in a hotel instead of in the furnished apartment we usually rent for the summer. As I unpacked and started to get a little organized, and found that one of my ziploc bags full of toiletries was now a big mess - my shampoo, travel bath soap, and 3 months worth of vitamins had all exploded and combined into a greenish-tinged paste. Ick! I started to rinse off the other toiletries in that bag, and dripped some of the gooey concoction onto my only long-sleeved shirt. Crap. At that point I was really tired, so instead of taking a shower, I decided to just wash my feet in the bidet (go ahead and laugh, but they were pretty dirty since I'd been wearing sandals on the whole journey) and shower in the morning. I turned on my blackberry to see if it was working over here (nope, even though it's supposed to be... argh), and I still needed to reactivate my Kenyan cell phone, so I couldn't let my parents, Peter, or Cindy know I made it here safely. So I took a melatonin to help me sleep through the night, read a little bit of the bestselling fiction (Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri - I've already finished it, and it was fantastic!), put in my earplugs since my hotel room was on the side near the main highway, and slept for 8 1/2 hours!

Tomorrow, I'll write about June 3rd (running around Nairobi getting ready for my Tanzania trip), and then I get to tell you about my Tanzanian adventures... those posts will be accompanied by lots of pictures, since it was such a beautiful place!