Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Final Safari

For my final safari in Kenya, I visited Amboseli National Park.  Amboseli is known for having lots of elephants.  And it didn't disappoint.  On our very first game drive, we must have seen a gathering of over 100 elephants, no joke.  Here's a group of them that crossed the road just in front of our line of cars.

I also got a final look at my favorite animal, the Thomson's Gazelle.  I know, I know...how can my favorite animal be a small deer-like-creature, when there are hippos, elephants, lions, and cheetahs around?!  But the Thomson's Gazelle is so darn cute and I just love the strikingly dark stripe running along its side.

Amboseli has a hill called Observation Point, where you can get out of your vehicle and enjoy a 360 degree view of the park.  My friend Angela and I were glad to stretch our legs and snap some photos.  

Besides elephants, the other big selling point of Amboseli is views of Mount Kilimanjaro.  Mt. Kilimanjaro is located just across the border in Tanzania, and is the highest peak in Africa.  (See my earlier blog post about climbing Kilimanjaro.)  Unfortunately, Kilimanjaro was shrouded in clouds during most of my time in Amboseli, but it did peak out a couple times.

My final safari did not provide an opportunity for many great animal photos.  We saw plenty of elephants and gazelles of course, and a fair amount of hippos.  But the only lions we saw were too far away for good photos.  And we raced across the park to see a cheetah, only to discover he had left the scene by the time we arrived.  But Mother Nature did provide some fabulous cloud formations and a stunning sunset, a fitting tribute to my final days in Kenya.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Exploring Zanzibar

For our last beach vacation in Africa, we decided to leave Kenya and go to Zanzibar, an island of neighboring country Tanzania.  The word "Zanzibar" conjures images of exotic paradise, but the day before our trip, we actually wondered if we'd have to call it off.  We were hearing reports of unrest and riots in Zanzibar, related to long-standing tensions between Christians and Muslims, and the residents of Zanzibar and the government of Tanzania.  We kept an eye on the news, and when all seemed well the next morning, we continued with our trip as scheduled.  

And I'm so glad we did.  Our hotel had the nicest beach I've been to in all my visits to the Indian Ocean.  The sand was soft, the water was not too seaweedy, and the beach was free of beach boys - the usually ubiquitous entrepreneurs attempting to sell everything from souvenirs to boat rides to drugs.

After spending our first day lazing around the beach, we visited Stone Town on the second day.  Stone Town is the historic town center of Zanzibar, designated as a UNESCO world heritage site for its preservation of the architecture and culture of the Swahili coast.

First stop on our Stone Town tour was the Anglican Cathedral, built on the former site of the slave market of Zanzibar.  Perhaps unknown to most Americans, Zanzibar was a key trading post along Arab slave trade routes.

From the Anglican Cathedral, we continued to an open market, museum, and window shopping in the winding alleyways...although sometimes it was just the girls window shopping, while the guys took a break.

Finally, we stopped for lunch at Mercury's, named for Freddie Mercury of the band Queen.  Did you know he was born in Zanzibar??  I sure didn't.

Finished with our tour, we returned to our hotel and enjoyed another day on the beach before bidding the ocean farewell and returning to Nairobi.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Conquering Kilimanjaro

Day 1

We arrived at the Machame Trail gate pumped and ready to go.

But…we waited over an hour to register with the park authorities while our chief guide, Richard, selected porters and packed the supplies needed for our trek. Fully stocked, we finally started out, walking through lush forestland. I was immediately struck by the trail being clearly marked and maintained, and wondered if this would be the case the entire way up the mountain.

After 4 hours of hiking through this terrain, much of it groomed into steps in an attempt to ease the steepness (it didn’t help), we arrived at Machame camp, with a great view of Kili’s peak.

Day 2

Leaving camp the next morning, we quickly left the forest behind and the trail became rockier. In fact we hiked for an hour up a steep rock face. But the reward at the top was an inspiring view looking down on the low clouds we had walked beneath the previous day.

Continuing on the trail, we saw several groups that we would repeatedly encounter during our trek: two British guys named Trevor and Ben who occasionally hiked with us, a German group with a girl who enjoyed wearing a short skirt while hiking, a U.S. group from Atlanta, and a university group from England. We also had plenty of opportunities to enjoy the trail on our own.

After hiking 4.5 hours, we reached Shira Camp at lunchtime, and then had the afternoon to explore our surroundings, which included a cave and a helicopter pad for emergency evacuations (not a comforting sight). We also enjoyed a great sunset prior to having dinner and playing a few rounds of Uno before bed.

Day 3

Although we were pushing our bodies every day, we still made time for some fun along the way. This day’s trail was gravelly, with fields of rocks surrounding us. The guys practiced throwing pebbles at the boulder-size targets all around us, and we laughed at how bad their aim was. We also paused to take pictures displaying our amazing feats of agility and strength amidst the boulders.

After climbing up all morning and stopping for a lunch break, we descended through a rocky valley dotted with beautiful trees, streams, and even a small waterfall. We also received an intimidating preview of the next day’s challenge. Behind me in the picture below is Barranco Wall, and if you look closely, you can see the winding trail up the wall that awaited us.

After 6 hours on the trail, we reached Barranco Camp and were able to rest before tackling the imposing wall the next day. Barranco Camp offered another awesome view of the peak of Kili, plus we had crepes for dinner!

Day 4

We woke to find that some groups had already started up Barranco Wall at sunrise. Viewing the wall from camp, it seemed an insurmountable obstacle.

But as we got closer, we could see that there was a clear path up with Wall, with plenty of foot and hand holds. In fact I actually had a lot of fun on the Wall, scrambling up the rocks and sliding around outcroppings.

At the top, we paused for another excellent photo op of Kili’s peak. Of course, the guys had to take off their shirts and turn it into a real Kodak moment. I call this picture “Jeremy embracing Kili.”

We continued on the trail and hiked through another valley of pretty flora and streams. Our guide told us that these streams were the last fresh water on the way to the summit; the porters had to gather it from here and carry all the water we would need for the next 48 hours. In the final stretch to Karanga Camp, we encountered a steady flow of porters coming to the streams with empty jerry cans and returning with full ones on their heads.

Having hiked for 4 hours, we arrived at Karanga Camp around lunchtime and again had the afternoon to rest and relax.

Day 5

As Day 5 dawned, we were excited to get trekking and reach base camp.

The trail was not very interesting, so we passed the time with memory games like naming all the NFL teams and naming all of Brad Pitt’s movies…then Tom Hanks…then Julia Roberts.

After 4 hours, we reached base camp, Barafu Camp. We ate lunch and I immediately crawled into my sleeping bag and fell asleep. We ate an early dinner and retired to our tents, supposedly to sleep before getting up at the crack of midnight to hike to the summit. But sleep was hard to come by, knowing the summit was so close...

Day 6

We roused ourselves around 11pm, dressed, drank some tea, and set off into the night.

We hiked up and up and up for what seemed like forever until we finally took a short break. We started off again but I soon noticed my pace slackening. We continued to slog on, but other groups were moving faster and passing us. After 3 hours of hiking, I was exhausted and was focusing all my attention on keeping my eyes open. I was worried that I would literally fall asleep walking. I stopped and turned to my guide and asked him if I was gonna make it. I knew that we were only about a third of the way up and I was already struggling. Jeremy, who had been walking behind me, noted that my steps were weaving like a drunk’s, plus I was stumbling every 5th step. With that comment, my guide handed me off to different guide who was heading down with another hiker. Disappointed, but knowing I was making the right decision, I headed back down and was ecstatic to climb into my sleeping bag 2 hours later.

Jeremy continues to describe his climb to the summit:

As upset as I was that Erica had to turn back, I was determined to make it. We were 3 hours into what would be a 6.5-hour assent. The time seemed to go by quickly or at least I didn’t notice it go by. All I could think about was my next step, my next breath. Every step was a challenge and every breath was a struggle. I was walking at about 1 step every 2-3 seconds...really slow.

There were two points to the summit, Stella Point and the true summit, Uhuru Peak. When I made it to Stella, it was still dark but I could see the sun starting to come over the horizon. There was still a 45-minute hike ahead of me to reach the Uhuru Peak. I timed it just right to see the sunrise over the clouds as I reached the top.

By far, summiting Kilimanjaro was one of the most challenging things I have ever done. I was physically and emotionally drained (and still upset that Erica couldn’t make it with me). I would have loved to stay at the top, but as soon as you get to the peak, your body is telling you to get down ASAP. Your lungs are tired, your legs feel like jello, you are freezing cold, and your head is pounding. After 5 minutes and a few photos, I was on my way down.

The good thing is I started to feel better instantly once I started down. I had already spent 6 hours going up and still had a 3-hour hike to get back to camp. As happy as I was to be going down, it proved to be harder then going up. Three hours later (8am) I was back in camp and instantly crashed.

Unfortunately, we were only allowed a few hours of sleep before we had to get up, eat lunch, pack up, and hike ANOTHER 4 hours down to the next camp, Mweka camp.

Day 7

We woke up the next day excited about the pending completion of our adventure and especially about getting back to our hotel for our first shower in 7 days! But as Jeremy said, going down wasn’t easy. For the first time during our hike, my knees started to ache and my feet started to hurt. Plus I took a tumble on the steep trial, which was slick from an overnight rain shower.

After 3 hours, we finally reached the bottom, and hopped onto a bus for the ride to the hotel, where we toasted our success with our guides.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hello Madam Secretary

Hillary Clinton recently visited Nairobi as part of a multi-country trip to Africa.  After a whirlwind week of late nights and early mornings in preparation for her visit, we were rewarded with an opportunity to see her in person and shake her hand.

This is the best picture I was able to get while Hillary was shaking hands.  It's really hard to take a picture of a target moving steadily towards you, while also maneuvering around 20 other people trying to do the same thing!

This is the only picture from the event with me and Hillary in the same shot.  You can just see me to the right of my friend shaking her hand.  Quick, think of something clever to say as you shake the Secretary's hand!  Oops, the moment's over already!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Fields of Flowers

Did you know that one of Kenya's principal exports is cut flowers?  In fact, Kenya ships out flowers every day to be sold in Europe's flower markets.

And even though the best quality flowers are exported, you can't drive anywhere in Nairobi without passing flower vendors along the way.  I'm very lucky to have a friendly flower vendor named Paul just around the corner from me.  He delivers flowers to me once a week at the Embassy; I always get compliments on the fresh flowers on my desk.  Plus I buy bouquets from him to have at home.  By watching him assemble my bouquets, I've even picked up some flower arranging tips from him.

Recently, I visited a flower farm in nearby Naivasha, about a one hour drive from Nairobi.  I expected to be surrounded by buds of color throughout the tour.  But the flowers are picked so regularly that we mostly only saw brown dirt and green leaves.  This is the only photo of blooming flowers that I was able to get, featuring my friend Nashwa:

After touring the fields, we moved into the factory where the flowers are prepared for shipment.  This picture shows a factory worker measuring each rose stem on her marked board to ensure they are the correct length.

This worker is arranging roses with filler flowers into a bouquet before boxing it for shipment.

At the end of the tour, we each received a free bouquet to take home for ourselves!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Beads and Tea and Cream, Oh My!

Recently, I visited the Kazuri bead factory.  Kazuri jewelry is produced right here in Kenya - the clay comes from the Mt. Kenya region and is brought to the factory in the Karen neighborhood of Nairobi, where the beads are molded by hand and turned into beautiful necklaces, earrings, and bracelets.  The Kazuri brand has been so successful that they export to the US, UK, Middle East, and several other countries.

Upon arriving, we were met by a guide who gave us a tour of the Kazuri factory.  He showed us the machines that are used to prepare the clay, and the long tables of women molding and glazing the beads.  Below is a picture of one of the workers placing beads in the kiln for firing.

In one corner of the factory, I took this picture in front of rows and rows of jars of beads. Visitors to the factory can purchase individual beads, request to have certain beads strung together into a necklace, or even order their own custom-designed beads.

As we finished the tour, we took a picture in front of the clay-pressing machinery (From left: Lindy, Alex, Joan, Erica).  Then we headed to the gift shop, where we all purchased our fill of jewelry!  

After our exhausting shopping excursion, we retired to the Fairmont Norfolk Hotel, where we enjoyed afternoon tea with finger sandwiches and pastries with jam and clotted cream.  We felt very sophisticated, and pleased with our ladies' outing!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Farewell twin husband!

This week, we bid farewell to our friend Keith.  Until we moved to Kenya, we never knew that Jeremy had a long lost twin.  As soon as we arrived, Jeremy would be walking through the Embassy and have people saying "Hi Keith" as he walked by.  Soon enough, Jeremy met the mysterious Keith and they've been inseparable since.  Well, until Keith departed Nairobi last Thursday to his next assignment.  Good luck Keith...Nairobi won't be the same without you!

The Covers with their faithful dog Keith at the Irish Ball

Keith joined us for a camel camp weekend in Nanyuki, 
where he displayed his finesse as a camel jockey

Most of our activities with Keith involved alcohol of some sort

The trio (Billy, Jeremy, Keith) at Limuru Country Club during one of their regular golf matches

Having been mistaken for each other so many times, 
Jeremy and Keith dressed up as each other for Halloween.  
Even I had to look twice to be sure who was who!