Maasai Mara – Meeting the Local

Phu Quoc, 11 September 2018

(Last Part)


We chose to forgo the early morning game drive on our last day in Maasai Mara in trade for a late morning start. The eyes were tired, the skins were burnt, the bodies full of bruises were aching. We felt like some warriors after a long march.

Steven was rather skeptical about visiting a Maasai Village. The ones we saw on photos looked too perfectly set up – all the Maasai dressed up in their finest clothes and jewelry, their sharp spears by their sides. Despite that, I wanted to go. It took me by surprise as we walked to the village right outside the resort. A sight of run down rural life –  a few houses circling a big square centered by a Mara tree, cow dung smell everywhere, children playing in the dirty land and a bunch of Maasai men outside their gates waiting for the guests. The women had then made themselves busy with all the tasks they needed to do – water carrying, house building, cooking, washing, souvenir making, farming, etc. Most men and the old kids had taken the cows out for the day.

Peter, the sun of the village chief welcomed us to his village. The Maasai village may consist of one or more family, each shall have their own gate. The women built the houses from cow dung, dust and some fences. Every 7-9 years they would put their houses to rest and move. The house is extremely dark with only a little window of the size of my palm and it’d be cover at night to prevent mosquitos. There is a bed for the parents, a bed for the children and a guest room. The house would be warm and lifted at night by the fire. We sat in the dark for a while chatting with Peter and one of his cousins. He told us this was his mother house. When his father slept here, he would need to go to another house to sleep.  It’s the tradition.

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Each Maasai man can have many wives, the first of whom was chosen for him by his parents. Peter’s father has 6 wives. For each wife, the dowry is around 10 cows (equivalent to some 3000 US$). I laughed as Steven explained that in Vietnam we’d respect the lady’s choice and her family’s acceptance instead of just putting them in a stranger’s house. The Maasai men need to kill a lion to become men. Peter told us around 20 of them would go to the wood and kill a lion, take its teeth and left the rest to the nature. Sometimes, lions come down to the village at night and take a cow, they would let the King do so.

We attended somewhat a rather “touristy” ceremony – the old man making fire and the young ones started to made some low vibrating sounds and dance. Steven and Jude (boys) were invited for the dance while Christabelle and I cheered for them. Then they started the jumping contest. In the real ceremony, the one that jump the highest would win and get some discount for the dowry.

Well, at the end, it wasn’t that touristy I thought.

Time to head back to the capital city for my hair do!

Maasai Mara – Into the Wild (part 2)

On Air, 7th September 2018

(Part 2)


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At breaking dawn, the air was still chilled but much lifted. Birds were chirping. Dogs were barking. Masai men and boys started taking their cows out for the day. Dozen of 4WD cars from different turns poured in to the one road leading to Oloolaimutia Gate. The park is open at 6.30am. Every safari group was trying to beat each other on the race to be the earliest with high hope of exciting sighting for the day. The sun was rising insanely quick from a far bathing the entire park with its radiant rays. Everything was a hue of bright pinkish orange, dotted with the black shades of trees, huts and hills.

After Steven told me about all the noises he heard last night that kept him almost sleepless, I kind of got higher on the prospect of what we would see during the day.

The cape buffaloes

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The park was lively! Gazelles jumping around, more birds flying and singing, rabbits hopping, zebras now showing. This was the opposite of the moon set scenario the night before. far up the hill, a flock of cars were gathering to watch a family of giraffes having their vegan breakfast. I was so jealous! But we needed to turn around quickly to rescue a fellow car that had gone slightly too far into a ditch. Evan seemed to know everyone. Right after we drove a long one of the main road where we saw an injured cap buffalo trying to catch up with its herd. The poor thing has a broken back leg and needed to take rest as he followed. The herd didn’t seem to be in a hurry and patiently wait for him.

The King

By now, the sun has risen pretty high and the first layer of clothing was off. We received some tips from the radio. All cars here communicated through radio if anything exciting happened. They have this funny antenna at the back of the car and a few tennis balls was centered and used as bumpers. It amazed me how Evan navigated through this park. Did he remember a tree or a stone? Back in old-time where there were no road, no car, no train, Kenyan walked everywhere and navigation skill was one that would certify the brightest man within their tight knitted community. As we drove back and down an off-road, we saw him – a male lion gazing off his kingdom. By the time we arrived at the spot (which was pretty much 10m away from the King, there were over 10 cars side by side catching the mightiest of the sight. The Kind didn’t seem so bothered with our presence – our funny shape, our chirping voices, our camera and its sounds. Then after a while, he slowly walked off and crossed the road right in front of our car. He headed up the hill, most likely to continue his morning nap. Nearby, his lioness and children were enjoying a nap under the shades.

– “They do not seem to be very big”, surprised Steven noted.

– Steven, a male lion is about 2 – 2.5m long and 1.2m high.

– He didn’t roar.

– they are so chilled, just like big cats chilling out.

– ect…

They are just big cats. Some very graceful and dangerous if needed big cats. All cats are graceful. Pakistani Lin enthusiast’s dream was fulfilled by now.

We spent some time there watching the lionesses before heading out the rolling hills a far, where I spotted a massive herd of wildebeests and zebras. There two seem to be good friends. We saw them moving together quite often in the park. Before we reached the spot, another tip came from the radio. We heard there was a leopard up the hill. The road was so badly bumpy and muddy that we all had to quickly sit down. Steven and I had got quite a few bumps in our heads and shoulders by then. The evening before we saw a car being escorted out because of off-road driving but we just did that. It’s the same for every safari trips. As the people presence grows, the wildlife tend to keep their timid selves under covered and places no car would go in. Its harder and harder for us to spot certain species in the park. as we stopped, the group arrived earlier said the leopard was on the top a rock. I couldn’t see a thing in honesty and thoughts it was a scam.

The “fashionista”

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Finally we reached the zebra meadow. Thousand of them idling around, eating glasses and gazing at human beings. Such beautiful creatures! I got to know that zebra is closer to donkeys then horses, which indeed reminded me of the Cairo zoo who had painted donkeys in their premise! They ran, they played and they crossed the road.

The dead eater

Steven checked on the map and told me we are very near the border of Tanzania and the story when the British and German rulers sat over tea, took out a pencil  and ruler and drew a straight line that halved the east Africa land. When it reached mount Kilimanjaro, sympathy for the flat landscape of Germany, the British drew a curve line. Nodaways, all of mount Kilimanjaro is within Tanzania sovereignty. “ I think we are actually on it Kate!”. The best road of the Masai Mara, the border road. We saw illegal zebras and wildebeests crossing the border without proper paper works. We saw a group of ugly vultures finishing off a dead buffaloes. A wild boars family was nearly watching, probably hoping they would left something. A massive Marabou stork (ubiquitous along the tree lines near the Government building in Nairobi) flew down, disgusted at the dead carcass lunch feast.

When I was little, my most favorite TV show was called “Animal World” on VTV1. Now that I have travelled to some parts of the world, read mostly English book and watched more English television than Vietnamese television, i think it’s some sort of “Discovery Channel” but it’s amazing how such knowledge had remained for so long. Yes through the small screen, I had seen the breathtaking landscape of Africa, the draught and withered color of the land I once thought so dead, the naive gazelles who strolled through the savannah, the great sound of wildebeests and buffalos who raved the land crossing the water, the lion fight, the cheetah who eyed, chased and took that sharp bite right at its prey’s neck, the hyena who stole the victory hunt and the vultures who finished off whatever left. At that moment, I admired those wonderful brave people who had given us those surreal footing of the wild. 20 years later, here I was, in Africa, driving along all these creatures that awed me with their grace, their beauty and their every moves.

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Wefie in the Mara

Maasai Mara- The Road to the Wild (p1)

England, 6 September 2018


I had always wanted to go to Africa and Steven’s recent move to Nairobi presented me a good reason to go. Though August was rather a rainy month, Steven assured it the best time to see the migration. 

My preparation for the last minute trip were a google image search result on “what to wear on a safari” and Steven’s stern instruction “Bring warm clothes and do not bring plastic bags into Kenya”.

Maasai Mara (the Mara) is some 1,500 km2 natural reserve lying southwestern Kenya, right on the Kenya-Tanzania border. That’s just 60 km2 less than the size of London, twice that of Singapore or about 25 times that of Manhattan. It is the tiny tip of the great Serengeti.

In Maasai language, Mara means ‘spotted land’, a literal depiction of the Mara – trees, shrubs and cloud shadows mark its endless savannah and rolling hills. My favourite is the bonsai Mara trees.

Most souls that had been or everwanted to come here are in the hunt for 2 things – “Big Five” and the great migration. Among hundred inhabitants, all members of the “Big Five” are found here – lions, cheetahs, elephants, cape buffaloes and rhinoceros. Wildebeests, the dominant inhabitants, migrate from Serengeti every July and return south in October. As I heard, some 1.7 millions wildebeests, 300,000 zebras, 400,000 gazelles and the minor rest  made up the total of 2.5 millions immigrants!

I was in the Mara in the last weekend of August, in other word, at its most crowded time. My only goal was to see a flock of giraffes snacking off a tall bush. Low expectation, no expectation.

On Saturday morning, we set off from Nairobi for the 6 hours roller coaster ride, slightly late after having gone to the wrong Java House cafe opposite the wrong gas station in Westlands. These 2 things are ubiquitous. Luckily, Evan our tour leader waited patiently for us, just as any good Kenyan does. We were greeted by our fellow travellers- an a-kiss-for-an-animal-sighted Spanish couple, a lion-enthusiast Pakistani and a calm quite Kenyan & Indian duo.  We passed the Rift Valley (where the landscape resembled Lion King the most), baboons with their red naked butts, wildly decorated buses, “grandeur” shops and many running children asking for sweets.

At lunch, we met a Masai man who told us some truly interesting fact – ALL Masai don’t have the 2 bottom central incisors. They were taken out at young age and buried under the cow gate of their villages, for good luck. He, making merely 60 US$ a month, had more knowledge and concerns on his nation than some lucrative earners on Wall Street. Kenya is another case of today’s Chinese loan epidemic. Once a thriving nation post independence who extended its assistance to the young state of Singapore in early 1970s, the country now received heavy investment from China – the world economic power house & the world biggest creditor. The typical approach was applied here – hundred thousands of Chinese men were shipped to Kenya together with the government money, building everything from national roads to schools, among which was the 3.5B US$ new railway from Nairobi to Mombasa. The locals were pushed out of their lands, peacefully and violently, with little jobs in exchange. Chinese tourists also flooded Kenya with their renowned styles. Kenyan’s dislike of the Chinese people is an open secret. 

King of the Road

After what seemed like forever, we entered the wilderness putting our absolute trust on Evan and his navigation skill. The roads were more like dirt paths that were badly gritted, filled with humps and potholes. Yet somehow the old 4WD =conquered them all and safely arrived at Mara Chui Resort just as the rain started. The lodge is in fact decent – bright, spacious, good water pressure and delicious food. In comparison to the real Hilton in Nairobi,  it exceeded our expectation of a “4 star luxury” resort.

After a quick refreshment, Evan picked us up for our “appetizer” game drive. After some 10’ shaking drive which we were by then accustomed to, we arrived at the park entrance. Steven paid 24$ as a resident and to my utter shock, I forked out 160$. It is not the first time I experienced double standard of ticket pricing in Kenya, however, at the hefty 7 time difference, I felt like I was ambushed. Well when in Italy… As soon as we passed the gate, the roof was pushed up and all of us stood up swaying in the shaky drive taking in a lot of rain and eyeing the vast land around. Jude would howl “bad road” once in a while to warn us of potential head injury. Far away over the hill I saw them – thousand black dots of wildebeests, the first sight of the great migration. Beautiful gazelles, vultures, wild cats, a big family of elephants were right in front of us, very close and surprisingly indifferent about our presence. This was like living an Discovery Chanel wildlife episode. One of the car got escorted out of the park due to off-road driving. Now that I have done this safari trip, I’d not judge them.

– Last week a Chinese guy was kicked out of the park. Kicked out!- Evan yelled back

– Why? – I asked

– You know he climbed out of the car to take photos with a lion.

– That’s quite daringly idiotic!

After a short hour or so, fully impressed, we returned to the resort. The air was heavy and chilled. The rain was still falling. We took an early night in view of a long drive the next day. I fell asleep instantly and poor Steven was up all night dealing with all the wildlife noises that surrounded us.

* Despite lying right on the equator, Kenya enjoys a pleasant climate due to it’s high altitude. Nairobi is about 1600m and Maasai Mara is about 600m above the sea level. So pack some warm clothes.

 

On African time

England, 2 September 2018


“African apprehend time differently. (…) Time appears as a result of our actions and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it. It is something that springs to life under our influence, but falls into a state of hibernation, even non-existence if we do not direct our energy toward it. It is subservient, passive essence and most importantly, one dependent on men.”

– Ryszard Kapuscinski, 2001 – 

Often we failed to understand the different ways of life in a foreign land. In his book On China, Henry Kissinger  depicted how the separate world the Chinese believed they were living in shaped the whole nation ideology and hence, modern behaviors of our neighbour that we might observe and often judge. Kapuscinski put the African’s ideas of time in perspectives – it’s not that they don’t have any sense of time, theirs are simple different from ours.

I still remembered my sister’s encounter in Burma on the way to Golden Rock. 2 buses both heading to Golden Rock stationed side by side in Yangon, waiting patiently to fill their seats. “The bus will leave when it’s full”. Africans practice this, too. A three-hour wait would make no sense to anyone that is under the spell of European definition of time – one that we have no control over. However in this incredibly diverse continent, instead of be crushed under the definite measurement of time, men create time, manifest time and in their own way stay in harmony with time.

In an earlier post, I mentioned Kenyan did not seem to apprehend “anger”, either. Whether it is stuck in traffic for 2 hours, very late for a meeting or waiting indefinitely for a train to come, they maintain this serenely calm and harmonic manner, with smiles even. We, influenced by European ideology, connect time and the universe, a force we are frustrated to have such little understanding of and influence over. Meanwhile, in Africa, one seems to be so as one with his surrounding that waiting becomes a norm, probably the most activities in one’s life. There is no such thing like “rush hours” or “being late” or “deadline” – why would you do that to yourself when you can make time?

In places where everyone runs against the clock, say New York City (my recent habitat) for instance, we lose it the moment we feel the threat of being defeated by time. We are in constant worry, under pressure to finish some longest to-do list and the world is collapsing if the subway is 5′ late (which happens every single day). Any event that may hinder the physical speed of human being is a serious threat and source of utmost annoyance. In Singapore, it’s small enough of a country to make pretty much everything punctual and assure the minimum waiting time. In Japan, the national railway sent an official apology as one of its train was a 20 second late. Trust me I love and praise punctuality, however, I feel like we are rather in an abusive relationship with time. We are constantly beaten up and at the same time feel so sorry for ourselves.

I really want to learn the secret of the African on their relationship with time!

Here is the thing though – after only a week in Kenya, i feel slightly transformed. If someone tell me 2 years ago that I’d patiently wait 3 hours at the airport for my ticket to get sorted and then happily wait another 24 hours for my flight, I’d had told him a fool. But I did. I was shocked at myself. I’m sure this is partially a result of the last 3 idling resting months that I have got. Maybe African is permanently in resting mode?

“The only ones that try to honk their cars through Nairobi traffic are most likely German diplomats.”

-D.S-

In this part of the world, you see all possible contradictions – where a road makes a nation but no-one can read map; where there was one of the first humans on earth but now a collection of some of the youngest nations; where once lived thousands of tribes scattering around in peace but were forced through  “Scramble of Africa” by the European imperial powers, followed by the independence movement into the now 54 states; where there was told to be so behind the rest of the world but have the most number of countries that totally or partially ban plastic bags, where we see desert and savannah and dryness but one of the biggest flower export in the world, where pizzas are luxury treat but organic kale is an inexpensive stable of every meal. Through evolution and development, Africa is slowly changing.

But one thing I doubt if it would change anytime soon – their ingrained interpretation of time.