Kenya 6/25/06 - Amboseli Game Drives, Maasai Village Visit, Farewell Dinner

Craig got up at 5:30 for the game drive while I continued to sleep. This morning it was going to be just Craig and Patrick on the game drive. They met at 6:15 for coffee, and went to the Land Cruiser at 6:30. They saw two cheetahs just to the left when outside the gate. The light was very bad as the sun wasn't up yet, but Craig managed to get a few good photos on night mode. While they watched, a Thomson's gazelle walked ignorantly by the two male cheetahs, and for a moment, Craig and Patrick thought that they were going to witness a kill. But, as Patrick said, "They weren't hungry, and they don't have a freezer" so they let him go. Patrick told Craig that you never see two males together unless they are brothers. Unlike other cats, cheetahs have semi-retractable claws and are also equipped with a flexible backbone. When they run you can see how their back legs almost catch up to the front legs. They can sprint (for a short distance) as fast as 70 mph or 110 kph.

There was a very quick light rain shower, the last rain we would experience while in Africa. As they proceeded along, they saw a couple of waterbucks also near the gate. As they found their way toward one of the other lodges hidden amongst the trees, they saw some baboons playing along the road and a stone wall. We had seen baboons before, but had never really gotten a good photograph, so Craig was happy to be able to get some close-up shots here. They also saw a pair of silver-back jackals. As a large herd of elephants crossed the road, many typical white safari vans were clustered together watching them. Patrick pointed these out as the "Common African White Savannah Vantelope," which was absolutely hysterical. Many times on this trip we were glad that our vehicle was a little more unique. There were just so many white vans around! During the course of the drive, there wasn't too much else to see today so Patrick and Craig had a nice chance to talk about all sorts of different things. They discussed many different topics including politics, history, and nature. It wasn't the most action-packed safari day but the conversation with Patrick was very stimulating.

When Craig returned to the room he found me all showered and feeling much better than I had the night before. We headed over to meet Patrick and James for breakfast. When James saw me, he immediately asked how I was doing. Patrick was thrilled to see me and said, "You bounced back! I knew you would bounce back!!" As we entered the restaurant, Paul clapped his hands. I thanked him very much for last night's care package of bread and crackers. He offered me some toast which I gladly accepted. I also had corn flakes and strawberry yoghurt but was feeling good. Craig had an omelette and a few of the local "mahamri" donuts. I wanted to try some but thought I'd better take it easy. I didn't want to jeapordize how I was feeling today.

We made a quick stop back at the room to grab our things and met Patrick in the lobby at 10. James soon joined us, and he was dressed in his Maasai clothes (along with black socks and safari shoes). He looked great. We were happy that he had decided to get dressed up for this occasion. The village was nearby, and they usually walk to it, but we decided to drive because I was still a little weak from being sick. As we exited the lodge gate, we picked up a Maasai who was also heading to the village, and gave him a ride down the 1 km dirt road. It turned out that the village was just beyond where we ended yesterday's walking safari. The excitement was palpable and I was feeling a little nervous, but in a good way. We really didn't know what to expect and were quite excited. As we drew closer to the village, we could see children watching our approach.

We pulled up and parked, and were met by a man whose name also happened to be Saitoti. There were some cute little goats playing and jumping off of a rock platform. Saitoti and James showed us the 12-foot water well that MERC helped to provide. It was a manual pump that brought fresh water up through a pipe and out through a spout. An elephant had damaged the spout and actually tore it right off the main pipe while trying to get at the water. The pump was still fully functional and they demonstrated it for us. We could only imagine how much easier this well has made things for the village. With two or three strokes of the handle, water came flowing freely out. At this point the villagers were gathering in the entrance to the village, and they soon filed out to greet us. 150 people lived in the village, not counting children.

We were kind of expecting all of the Maasai to be dressed in red shukas. We were surprised to see quite a variety in the color and patterns of their clothing. While a lot of the men had the traditional red/blue/purple plaid designs, some of them had more elaborate floral patterns. The women had patterned clothing in shades of pink, green, orange, red, purple, blue, yellow, and even white. Everyone had very closely-cropped or shaved heads, including the women. Their jewelry adornments were spectacular. Women wore multi-layered necklaces, some wide and some narrow, with eleborate beadwork patterns. Some of these necklaces were adorned with found items such as buttons or small keys, or small thin shapes made out of small pieces of tin. Some of the women wore beaded headbands with decorative beads dangling down onto their foreheads. Most Maasai in the village had the extremely large holes in their earlobes, and some had small holes in the upper cartilage of their ears as well. They hung delicate beaded earring from wires in their upper ears, and very wide, heavy, leather and bead or metal earrings from their distended lobes. The men wore slightly simpler beaded necklaces, as well as beaded armbands and legbands. Women wore beaded armbands and anklets. Everyone was either barefoot or wearing the ubiquitous sandals made out of motorcycle tires.

The villagers stood in a line, with the men on the left and the women on the right. The men jumped very high and sang deep bass notes. The women jumped in a more controlled fashion and sang higher notes. Craig danced with the men, and then I joined the women. One woman took me by the hand and we danced together. When the dancing was finished, they all lined up and walked over to us and shook our hands, one by one. We knew that the greeting for male Maasai was "Sopa", and the response was "Epa." Here we learned that the greeting for women was "Takwenya", and the proper response is "Ecu." The women who greeted us ranged in age from pre-teen girls to old ladies. The men had a wide age range as well, but there were far more women than men. As the dancing and singing came to an end, we were invited into the village. We all passed through the small opening in the acacia fence and into the area where their homes were constructed. We followed the group and approached very slowly. Everything seems to be done slowly and deliberately in a Maasai village.

When we entered the manyatta (village) the villagers circled around us. We introduced ourselves and James translated for us. A representative of the men (Lomana, in a flowered shuka) and the women (unfortunately we didn't get her name), welcomed us and said that we and our friends were always welcome, and that they hoped that we would come back some day. This was the typical sentiment of most East Africans we had met. When they finished the welcome speech, the other Maasai clapped. Then they started to sing and dance once again. The men swayed from side to side and the women strutted with their shoulders back. They bobbed their necks and their necklaces bounced up and down. It was sort of a chicken-like movement. One pretty young woman came over and took my right hand to dance. As we danced, a lady with a baby on her hip kept giving me the thumbs-up and smiling. Another young woman came over and grabbed my left hand, and the three of us danced, holding hands, until klutzy American Steph stepped on the initial girl's foot. She dropped my hand immediately and started laughing. When I apologized she shyly turned away laughing.

After the dance, Saitoti invited us into his house. We ducked our heads and entered the mud and dung hut. It was completely dark when we first entered the little hallway, and we couldn't see a thing. We rounded a corner into the main room and there was a small fire, and our eyes slowly adjusted. The room had bed platforms on each end and a small firepit in the middle. The "thumbs-up" lady was sitting with her baby on her lap on one of the bed platforms. She patted the seat next to her for me to sit down. I was doubtful that my hips would actually fit in that small space, but I managed it. James explained that this was the women's side of the house. I sat and smiled at her and the baby. There was a tiny orange kitten at our feet. They like to keep domestic cats to protect the house from snakes and rodents. Craig sat on the men's side and was joined by Saitoti. The Maasai women are responsible for building the houses. They are made using a framework of sturdy wooden poles inside. It was surprising to see just how solidly built these little houses really were.

The first wife builds the first house on one side of the main entrance, the second wife builds her house on the other side, and they keep alternating as more wives are married. Husbands won't sleep in houses where there are young daughters present, out of respect. I asked the mother and baby's names. The mother didn't tell us her own name, but she said that the baby was called "Nomali", which means "wealthy one." She was named this in hopes the name would describe her one day. As the kitten walked around at our feet, I pulled out my photo album and showed the mother a picture of our 13-lb cat Brownie, as her size is such a contrast to that of their tiny kitten. The mother laughed and said "big". She showed the picture to Nomali and then pointed at their own kitten. She was very loving with Nomali, kissing her and cuddling her. As I took a few photos, the mother wanted to see them on the digital camera. She was a real sweetheart and just as curious to learn from us. The kitten was trying to climb one of the poles to get up to the bed. It was quite warm and pretty smokey in the house, and I had left my water in the truck. They immediately sent Lomana to fetch it for me. A few minutes later he returned and I took a nice deep drink. As we got up to leave the house, the mother gave me Nomali's hand for a handshake. I shook the mother's hand as well. She was so sweet and so loving. We wanted this moment to last forever. A few minutes later, she emerged from the house, and I saw little Nomali toddling around in the doorway behind her.

Next we were taken to a small area in the center of the village where the women set up their wares. It was sort of like a small village fair. Each woman had a blanket laid out covered with different items for sale. Everything was beaded, except for a couple of masks. Immediately they caught our eye as they seemed so different. We hadn't heard of Maasai making carved masks. Before we could even ask about them, they disappeared. It turned out that the masks were not made by them, and James had them put them away. He explained to them that it wasn't appropriate to have them selling items which did not come from the village. We spent quite a lot of time looking at things and bought quite a few items: earrings, bracelets, and one of the large beautiful necklaces that most of the Maasai women wear. As we browsed around, we regretted wearing our sandals to visit the village. The people that live in this village wear sandals so we felt it was appropriate to wear them as well. The ground was covered in a layer of dung. This in itself was not a problem. The reality is, everything is so dried out that it hardly mattered what the dirt was made up of. Neither of us really cared that our feet were getting quite dirty and would need a washing later. The problem was that some small insects got trapped under our sandal straps and bit our feet. The bites actualy produced a little blood so it was rather significant. I had noticed it happening to me when Craig told me he also got a few nasty bites right under the straps of his sandals. Whatever insect was causing them must be fighting for its life, otherwise we would have had bites elsewhere. Neither of us appeared to receive any bites other than the strap-induced ones. We made a mental note that we should wear our hiking boots next time.

We paid Saitoti for our items (they were actually quite expensive, but beautifully hand-made, and we were happy to give money to help the village). He and James did some math and determined what amount of money each villager would receive from the sale. They like to do things communally here, which seemed very nice to us. We didn't need to feel guilty about buying things from one person and not another; they would all benefit from any sale. We were trying to buy different items from different groups but there was so much to choose from. It was difficult to decide exactly what we wanted to get. In the meanwhile, all of the mothers were patiently waiting and watching hoping that we would find lots of things we wanted. It was strange to feel the self-inflicted pressure. Trying to strike a balance between what we wanted, what we needed, and exactly what we wanted to buy from all of them. It is quite difficult to not feel guilty and just buy everything they offer us. In the end we bought quite a bit of their things and left them with a nice bit of cash to buy the things they needed. While we had been shopping, the children had hung back near the houses. They were watching us curiously, but from a distance. They wouldn't take their eyes off us. If I tried to get a candid photo they would always smile and pose. There was one little girl not much bigger than Nomali who was dragging around one of the men's ebony clubs, and it was almost as big as she was. It was really cute.

We had brought a Frisbee as a gift for the village (we had given one to a Mayan family in Belize, and it had gone over very well). Craig and I demonstrated its use, and some of the men were brave and wanted to try. Craig and I played with Saitoti and then Lomana. They caught on quickly, and played with intense concentration. After several tries, Lomana was able to catch it. Once we were done playing a little frisbee, the whole village escorted us out, singing. They told us once again that we and our friends are welcome to visit them any time. As we thanked them, it was so nice to see everyone smiling back at us. Craig and I were both overwhelmed at the experiences of the day and were starting to feel sad that we were leaving. Suddenly Lomana put the Frisbee on his head, which made for a lot of laughter and a good photo op. We got into the Land Cruiser, and a young man took the Frisbee from Lomana and practiced his stance. The Maasai receded back into the village as we drove away. We had been there a total of two hours, and it had gone by so quickly. We were completely awestruck by the experience and didn't even know what to say on the short ride back.

We went back to the hotel and dropped our things in our room. While we were there we washed all the dirt and dung from our feet and sandals. We carefully cleaned up the bugbites on our feet, then we went to lunch. For soup, Craig had the spicy veggie soup and I opted for the clear veggie broth. I was actually hungry for once, and got pasta cooked to order at the pasta station. The cook saw my new earrings (small blue beads with small metal circles) and said it was a dead giveaway that we had gone "to the village" today. Craig had pasta, red snapper, and roast lamb. Paul asked him if he needeed another bottlecap. It always amazes us how much they remember about their clients. Even though they must see hundreds of different people every day, they really try hard to make connections with each and every one. I was ravenous and lunch was delicious. Today it really hit the spot. Maybe I was finally starting to get better. I sure felt better but my appetite hadn't been this strong for days. After lunch we went back to the room to fill out some postcards. We had run out so Craig went down to the gift shop to get a few more. We filled them out and headed to the lobby to mail them before meeting up with Patrick and James for our afternoon game drive. The days just keep on slipping by. Although the hotel was beautiful and had a lovely pool, we were always on the go. There is always the battle of making the most of our vacations. Even though we would have loved to enjoy the pool and grounds, there was always so much else to do. Things we just couldn't do at home, and needed to take priority.

We ran into Saitoti (from the hotel, not the village) and he asked how our day was. We told him about our trip to the village, and he said that I looked "smart" in my new earrings. He showed Craig his handsome ebony club (the nub of which contained some of the blonde wood as well) and asked if Craig had gotten one in the village. Craig said he hadn't, and Saitoti urged him to hold it. "You like? You like?" We knew Saitoti well enough now to know what he was getting at. Did we want to buy his club? We asked if he made it and he told us that he got it from someone who had carved it themselves, and if we wanted it, we could buy it for $30 and that he would buy another one. Craig asked if it had been sanded using the sandpaper leaves and Saitoti, with a big smile, said yes. It really was beautiful, and $30 was quite reasonable. Because it was ebony, Craig told me to feel how heavy it was. As soon as I picked it up, Saitoti was quick to say "Is good for men. Necklace is good for women." We laughed. He tucked the club into Craig's belt loop and covered it with Craig's shirt. We got the distinct feeling that he wasn't really supposed to be selling stuff to the guests. He was looking around nervously. But during the transaction we noticed that he was wearing the watch we had given him yesterday. We brought the clandestine club back to the room and then met up with Patrick and James, only a couple of minutes late.

We headed over to the parking area for the now familiar ritual of the game drive. Hopping into the truck quickly we were on our way. Feeling somewhat more connected to them today, we waved enthusiastically to some villagers that always gather right outside the gate. We cruised rather quickly past some elephants, zebra, wildebeest and a herd of buffalo. Patrick seemed to be on a mission this afternoon and we wondered what it was. It soon became clear though. I had missed the cheetahs this morning, and if Patrick had anything to say about it, he was going to track them down for me. I wasn't going to complain, I felt it was the only thing I really missed because of being sick. After a short ride, we came across a herd of vantelopes and lo and behold, there was a cheetah's head, seemingly disembodied, sticking out of the grass. It was unreal just watching it sitting there in the sunlight. Patrick said excitedly, "That's what I wanted!" He is such a sweetheart. He didn't want me to miss out on anything. The cheetah was sitting down in a small depression so only his head was really visible peeking out from the grass. Seeing how well hidden it was made us even more aware of how many other animals are probably all around us but just hidden well enough to avoid us even knowing it.

Next on the game drive, we headed toward the wetland area. We saw the largest heron (the goliath heron), which had an orange head and red neck. We managed to take a photo of a black headed heron. We saw a hyena lying in the grass, and white pelicans hanging out in the swamp. A baby and mother elephant were crossing the swamp together. We also saw hippos and the crested crane near the shoreline. We also watched two elephants sparring on the far side of the swamp. Everywhere we looked it was like a scene from some National Geographic television show or something. Being in a place like this just can't compare to your expectations. Before arrival, you think you understand what you are in for. Once here, you are constantly amazed at what you see and feel strangely detached from reality. It's as if you have been sucked into one of those television specials. Simply spectacular scenery abounds all around us.

We left the swampy area and moved on to see what else we could find on this excursion. On one part of the road we could see something somewhat large near the edge of the dirt road. Patrick, playing along, proceeded slowly at first. Then Craig and I realized what it was. There, hiding in the grass by the roadside, we saw what we dubbed the "elusive dominant African steamroller" and had a really good laugh over it. Given the state of the roads in Kenya, it definitely seemed like an elusive species!

Next we saw some Egyptian geese, and a hippo family out of the water (though they were too far away to photograph well). An elephant and several babies passed in front of our view of Kilimanjaro. We saw some warthogs, and Patrick shared some interesting facts about them. He said that when they run, their tail points up like an antenna. They have to kneel to eat because their necks are too short and that they enter their dens butt-first. We also saw a stinky elephant male who was clearly in estrus. They are in heat 3 months out of the year, but there is no one particular season when they all go into heat. As we were working our way back toward the hotal grounds, we saw a gorgeous sunset. Patrick stopped the car so that we could watch the sun sink below the horizon with an elephant and an acacia in the foreground. After watching the complete sunset, we continued back to the lodge. As we drove through the gate and pulled into the parking lot, Saitoti waved to us. As always, the staff were waiting for us with a nice basket of warm towels and we happily used them to wash up. As we headed down the tree-lined pathway to our room, Saitoti pulled us aside and gave us his address in case we wanted to send him something. After talking with him a little longer, we went back to the room. We would only have a short time before we would meet Patrick and James for dinner at 7:30.

We went over to the main building a little early and browsed around in the gift shop. James and Patrick arrived, and we sat at our usual table. We all had salads. I had cream of potato and leek soup and Craig had French onion. We both got grilled rump steak with black peppercorn sauce. Everything was fantastic. I was starting to realize just how good all the food was that I had been missing. At first, the mood seemed rather subdued. It was our last night together and we all seemed a little contemplative. But soon the talk turned to all of us reminiscing about the trip so far, and suddenly we were all laughing and joking again. A cake with four candles was brought out from the kitchen. As we had come to expect, this was followed by the kitchen staff and waitstaff parading through the dining room delivering the cake. They sang a song that started out "Jambo, jambo bwana, Amboseli..." and there was a guy playing the acoustic guitar. The rest of the kitchen staff were using anything and everything for percussion: lids from cooking pots, plates, silverware, etc. It was very festive. James sang along with them. I got James and Patrick to write down their contact information and we did the same for them. We had already seen what the border was like. We knew that once we got to the border tomorrow, things would take on a life of their own and we wouldn't have time to tie up all of these loose ends. Realizing our time with Patrick and James was quickly coming to an end, we felt a little sad once again. No amount of denial would prevent the inevitable from happening. We wanted to just live for the moment, and to not think about tomorrow.

A little while later, another cake made its way out of the kitchen. We joked that we would miss the "parade" when we left. It was becoming very familiar to us and we always enjoyed watching it and hearing the laughter as they descended on some guests. The "Jambo bwana, Amboseli" song started up again, with guitar and kitchen utensil percussion. The procession snaked its way through the main dining room and was working toward our little annex. Our area only contained a handful of tables and getting there was definitely NOT the path of least resistance. We looked around, wondering who the recipient was this time. They encircled our table and they placed the cake down in front of me before I had even realized what was happening. I just started cracking up laughing. Everyone around us was smiling and laughing and taking photos. It was such a surprise. Patrick had set the whole thing up as a combination birthday and farewell celebration. James hadn't even known about it ahead of time. Apparently, as the procession started, Patrick leaned over to James and said "It's coming here!" The cake had two candles and said "Kwaheri, Craig" (Kwaheri is goodbye in Swahili). Patrick was a little disppointed that they hadn't put my name on there too, as he had asked, but it was all good. They probably were having a hard time trying to fit "Stephanie" across the cake, but it just didn't matter. Craig and I were touched by the gesture. The cake was white with jam between the layers and had butter cream icing. I cut the cake and passed out the pieces. Having plenty left, I asked it was ok to give one to a young boy sitting at the adjacent table. The boy had been singing happy birthday to me in French and it was the least I could do. His mother said he would love a piece so I cut a nice big piece for him. He was very sweet and thanked me in English. We all had a lot of fun and we laughed as we ended up eating 3/4 of the cake. We just couldn't eat anymore cake. We tried giving away the remaining pieces but couldn't find anyone else to accept some.

When we had browsed around at the gift shop earlier, we noticed that they had an active Kodak photo machine. You could download and print pictures on the spot. We wanted to print out a few group photos to give to Patrick and James as a surprise farewell gift. We knew that the gift shop closed at 9, so we took the opportunity during a pause in the after dinner conversation, and made up an excuse about being tired. We made sure to get a group photo with James and Patrick before they went back to their rooms. After they left, we sneakily went back into the gift shop. The photo machine was off, but that was just because the girl working there was tired of hearing it speak all the time and they were preparing to close. When she realized what we wanted, she apologized for turning it off. We told her that we understood how she must have felt. Earlier in the day we had remarked about how long it would take to drive any employee crazy and agreed it was some amount of time shorter than a single shift. She booted it back up for us and I made a few prints. We also bought some other items we liked. As we walked back to the room a little after 10:00, I stopped to get some night photos of the grounds. A security guard saw us and said he was surprised that we could get pictures in the dark. I demonstrated the night mode of my camera and he was impressed. He offered to escort us back to our room and we accepted. His name was Kagony, and he was very friendly. When we arrived at the room, we packed up, wrote in the journal, and prepared our gifts for James and Patrick. We finally went to bed at around midnight. I tried not to think about the fact that today seemed to be a turning point in being sick. I had an appetite all day and nothing I ate came back to haunt me. Maybe that aspect of the trip was also over for me.

Baboon, Amboseli

Patrick and James

Maasai women greeting us outside of their village

Watch the Maasai greet us with song and dance outside the villageWatch the Maasai greet us with song and dance outside the village
(20 second clip)

Maasai men dancing and jumping to greet us outside of their village

Maasai women dancing with Steph outside of their village

Maasai child and house

James joining the Maasai men in a dance

Watch the Maasai greet us with song and dance inside the villageWatch the Maasai greet us with song and dance inside the village
(20 second clip)

Watch the Maasai greet us with song and dance inside the villageWatch the Maasai greet us with song and dance inside the village
(20 second clip)

Young Maasai women

Young Maasai women

Baby Nomali and her mother

Steph showing photos to Nomali and her mother inside their house

Maasai woman and baby selling crafts

Young Maasai women

Watch Craig teach Lomana to play FrisbeeWatch Craig teach Lomana to play Frisbee (20 second clip)

Watch the Maasai bid us farewellWatch the Maasai bid us farewell (20 second clip)

Buffalo, Amboseli

Cheetah head

The farewell cake

The farewell cake procession

Craig, Patrick, Steph, and James

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