But, I’m getting ahead of myself. 2011 ended in a pretty spectacular way, which I’ll recount.
After Thanksgiving, I was involved with training in Machakos again, planning and running “model school” (not a school for models, but rather a mock school environment where the trainees get to practice teaching) with six other volunteers. It was great to hang out with old friends, get to know the trainees even better, and see them practice their teaching skills – they’re at site by now, and I’m sure they’re doing great, considering what I saw that week. After model school, I went to Nairobi for my mid-service medical checkup. Nothing too out of the ordinary there, thank goodness. Then it was back to Machakos for training (those trainees were probably so sick of me by then) about Behavior Change Communication (BCC) projects, which includes making posters, videos and other visual materials for the Deaf community. Since so much essential health and safety information is disseminated through radio and television, a lot of Deaf people don’t have access to the information. These projects try to provide non-verbal access to information about everything from infectious diseases to decision-making skills. I can’t wait to see what we come up with this year!
Finally, it was back to Nairobi, to meet my FAMILY at the AIRPORT. I can’t explain the excitement of standing in the terminal with a mass of people on every side of me, craning my neck to see who is coming out of baggage claim. I was probably standing like that for about an hour and a half, but it was all worth it when I caught the first glance of my mom, dad and brother, and practically pounced on them once they’d cleared the exit. I immediately felt a sense of relief and comfort I hadn’t felt in 14 months. They know me better than anyone in the world, and being around them was exactly what I'd been missing.
A few people have asked about our itinerary so they can get some inspiration for when people visit them in Kenya, so that will take up most of the rest of this entry. If that’s not interesting to you, feel free to skip ahead to the last paragraph.
We stayed a few nights in town so my family could get over their jet lag and start to get used to being in Africa. The first thing we did in Nairobi was to go to the Giraffe Center, which has a herd of endangered Rothschild giraffes. There’s a viewing area at giraffe-head-level, which allows the giraffes to approach the visitors, who can then feed the giraffes little food pellets. A lot of my friends really love giraffes (I'm looking at you, K&K), and while they are incredible animals, they inspire in me NO sense of awe. They just make me laugh. Their tongues! Their little horns! Their run! I can't take them seriously. My brother narrates their run as "galumph... galumph..." which is pretty accurate. But it's fun to watch them galumph around the grasslands. Anyway, it doesn’t take long to see the center, but it was awesome to get so close to the animals. After about an hour there, we went to the nearby David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for orphan elephant feeding time. I have decided that there is not much in this world cuter than a baby elephant drinking milk out of a huge plastic baby bottle. The elephants are rescued from all around Kenya, and come to this sanctuary to receive the constant attention that they need to survive (that they would have gotten from their mothers). They even need sunscreen because if they were with their mother, her huge shadow would shield them from the sun, but otherwise their ears burn! Aww. Anyway, the place was great, and the elephants (especially the 2-month old) were adorable.
After the elephant babies, we proceeded to Nairobi National Park. It’s pretty incredible that a national capitol has a national park within it, and the nature walk did not disappoint. It was kind of like a huge zoo, full of African animals (a bit of a preview for our safari to come). While the park was great, the best part of the experience was meeting up with the family who I live with in Sipili. Baba had just come back from Japan, so the whole family came to pick him up from the airport and made a Nairobi trip out of it. It was heartwarming to see my Kenyan family meeting my American family. We went through the whole nature walk together, and then met up again in the afternoon at the Nairobi Museum, where Dad lost it when he saw some ancient hominid skulls. Obviously, the day was packed, but it was great to see things in Nairobi I’d never seen before. The next day in Nairobi mostly consisted of getting ready to head out on our safari, which started early the morning after.
We left the hotel at about 9 AM, drove into downtown Nairobi to pick up the train tickets we’d use the next week, and headed for Narok (the last town on the road before you get into the Masai Mara). We stayed there overnight, and bright and early the next morning, headed to our camp in the Mara (Kichwa Tembo which translates from Kiswahili to “elephant’s head”). The place was unbelievable. Even though I’d been away from no-frills village life for a while, this place was still a total shock. The tent I stayed in was bigger than my house, and had more amenities, including a hot shower and a flush toilet. Mind boggling! The food was incredible, and (much to my brother’s delight) there were monkeys everywhere. And warthogs. The game drives were spectacular – we saw the "Big Five" (buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion and black rhinoceros) within the first three hours we were out in the vehicle, along with all kinds of other gazelle, giraffes, crocodiles, etc. We stayed for three days, and really enjoyed ourselves.
After the safari, we headed to Naivasha for a few days. It wasn’t nearly as swanky as the camp in the Mara, but I think it was my favorite part of the whole trip. The place we stayed (Crayfish Camp) was frequented by a lot of Kenyan locals, which made me feel more at-ease than when I’d been in a camp full of wazungu. THAT’S not a good sign for my re-entry into the US. Anyway, during the few days we were there, we visited Hell’s Gate National Park, hiked to the top of Mount Longonot, and visited Lake Naivasha. On the first day, we (minus Aaron, who got a stomach bug – no surprise there, Kenya’s teeming with them) rented bikes at the entrance of Hell’s Gate, and biked 7 kilometers to a huge gorge. We took a 2-hour hike through the gorge, which was awesome – the thick rocks hid us from the sun, and the water that trickled through kept us cool (except for the steaming water that came from underground geysers). There was a place for a picnic back at the trailhead, and after lunch we biked back to the entrance. Unfortunately, the bike I rented was stuck in the highest gear. That was fine for the downhill ride into the park, but the uphill on the way back was a pain.
The next day, we headed to Mount Longonot, which I’d compare to Flat Top (for the Alaskans reading this). There’s a bit more elevation gain, but it takes about the same amount of time to summit. Longonot is a huge crater from an erupted volcano, and it’s a little scary walking around the rim if you’re afraid of heights (I won't name any names, Mom). But from the top you can see Lake Naivasha, and over to Hell’s Gate where we’d been the day before. Stretching our legs with all the biking and hiking was welcome after sitting in a vehicle during the safari.
On our last day in Naivasha, we went to Lake Naivasha for a boat ride to Crescent Island. There were a ton of hippo in the water, along with plenty of water birds (pelicans, egrets, herons, gulls, etc.) The island was neat, full of zebra, water bucks, and other animals. We were trying to find some giraffes, but they were elusive that day. After lunch, we headed to Nairobi to catch the train to MOMBASA! The train was bumpy (how is a train bumpy?) and hot, but charming nonetheless. The guy in the compartment next to us would probably disagree, though – his bags were stolen through the window while he was sleeping. We could tell we were at the coast when we started to sweat and see palm trees (always indicative of good things to come).
We spent Christmas in the same place I stayed during Cross-Sector: Traveller’s Beach Hotel in Bamburi. We spent the whole time relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. I was able to catch up with some fellow volunteers who live on the coast, Aaron did some quality monkey-watching, Mom acted like a solar panel, and Dad enjoyed the air conditioning. Christmas together was incredible. Not too many trappings, but we DID see African Santa Claus (or Father Christmas, rather) surrounded by bagpipes. That was pretty hilarious.
After doing a whole lot of nothing at the beach, we took a bus back toward Nairobi, but alighted at the Machakos junction instead of going all the way into town. We stayed there a day, and my family got to meet my host mama from training, and her kids. We spent the whole day together, just talking and eating. My mama had made an incredible and HUGE Kenyan meal, as usual. Again, it was amazing to see really important people in my life from SUCH different places meeting one another. A little surreal, but definitely amazing.
From Machakos we traveled to Nakuru, where we spent a day doing a game drive around the lake in Lake Nakuru National Park (flamingos!) and another day up at Menengai Crater. After the crater, Mom and Dad continued to Hyrax Hill, which is a prehistoric site very close to Nakuru town. My dad, ever the anthropologist, loved it. For New Years Eve, we all four shared a champagne toast in our hotel room and talked about the coming year. It was the perfect start to 2012, surrounded by those three. The next morning, after a shopping trip to Nakumatt (one just opened in Nakuru! Big news, indeed), we traveled on to Nyahururu. We saw Thomson Falls and did some souvenir shopping, and then it was on to Sipili! It was a little more rugged than my family expected, but I assured them it’s NORMAL for the hotel to have no running water sometimes. You just have to use a basin!
Everyone got the tour of the farm next to my house, ate a ton of pineapple, visited my school and had lunch with my Sipili family (that they’d met in Nairobi before). Saying goodbye was hard, but it was easier than when I left the first time. This time I know what to expect from the coming months, they understand my Kenyan home, and I’ll see them in less than a year.
Now I’m back at school. We have two less teachers this term than we did last year, which will mean I’m in the classroom all day every day, with no free lessons. At first that felt overwhelming, but then the kids started showing up. Just seeing them and talking with them about their holiday changed my mind. I am so excited to spend as much time with them as possible. Yesterday for the first time, it really hit me that I will be going home at the end of the year. I’ve always known it, of course, but I got choked up when I thought about leaving the kids. Part of me wishes I could stay forever, but that’s not realistic. And it’s not what I really want. So I’ll just have to make the most of this year. Oh! Remember that exam the class 8 students took last year? Well, they ROCKED it! Three of them are going immediately to secondary school (the school called our headmaster and requested them by name) and at least one or two more will be picked up by another school. I'm over the moon about it, and SO proud of them. I will definitely be visiting them at some point this year and make sure they’re not goofing around in high school! Also because I miss them a lot.
Here's to the second year!