Sunday, June 28, 2009

An Island - Half a World Away

A Manchester type rain pours down and I am sitting of one of maybe ten covered, cushion-filled patios of Jasmine House on Lamu Island, Kenya. I’m told that the end of June brings the end of the rains – timing is everything.

A mid morning flight out of Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi brought us, via Malindi, to a red dirt landing strip, Manda Airport. We disembarked in the rain to a warm, muggy enveloping humidity, sloshed through the mud to the palm covered ‘waiting room’. Perhaps it was tongue in cheek, a touch of tropical humor - an adjoining thatched area was marked “Duty Free” - I could see cans of Red Bull.

Bags came out of the hold, loaded onto handcarts and trundled down to the jetty. Reassuring to note that it was rebuilt and opened in March of this year. We clambered into an open wooden boat for the twenty-minute ride over to Lamu Island on Kenya’s coast. Rain and spray soaked us – memo to self flashed through my mind to forget the carefully cultivated straight bob of the past two years – my hair was going to revert back to curls big time!

Lamu Village on the island is a Unesco World Heritage Site – through the rain we could make out the distinctive architecture. The island, an important trading post for at least 600 years, retains the culture and structure of what was once a thriving Swahili trading community along the Indian Ocean. The Moslem faith dominates. I awoke this morning to the call to prayer from the mosque. There is a distinctive Moorish feel to the buildings, and mediaeval tangle of narrow alleys. Rain abating somewhat we motored on down the coast to Shela Village. If anything, Shela, has a more time capsule feel to it than Lamu. With its jumble of alleys; multi storied buildings some white plastered others raw grey and brown coral blocks, all crammed in at odd angles into narrow spaces it’s a step back in time and history. Houses are faceless from the outside but hiding wondrous courtyards within. Newly constructed houses for Europeans jostle for space with Swahili owned homes built close to 200 years ago. Ornate carved lintels over equally beautifully carved doors look as though they come from the pages of the latest design magazines.

Disembarking was testimony to several years of strength and agility training not so elegantly hopping from rocking boat to an unstable rowboat used as a gangway to step onto the beach. Thank you Gene at the JCC in Tucson for forcing me to do all those balance exercises with my eyes closed.

Winding our way through narrow alleys (and I’ll concede that I’m not about to go shoeless as the locals appear too, definitely in Africa in terms of garbage etc.) we come to Jasmine House, nothing on the outside to excite, just a white wall with an ornately carved door. Inside the door was a fantasy from Arabian Nights. We stepped into the first of two courtyards, this one focused on an elaborate “dipping” pool, cushioned patio and bar area. Another wooden door brought us to the main courtyard, at the entry a shelf for shoes and foot washing sink low to the ground. Barefoot is the rule within the compound. This inner courtyard houses covered dining and living rooms, ceilings supported by black Mangrove beams, the walls hand-plastered and polished, wide open to the elements on two sides. The house shows some wear and is not luxurious in the five star resort picture perfect sense but it is gorgeous and it is in Africa. All that is incredibly chic in the US – polished, foot-worn concrete floors, plastered walls, hand-smoothed concrete bathroom sinks and wide-open showers is here only nothing is contrived. The teak furniture, massive carved doors, rough yokes used as coat hangers and punched tin light fixtures, reminds me of the imports found in Colonial Frontiers in the Lost Barrio district of Tucson. Here they are in their natural setting and the effect is stunning.

My bedroom is across the courtyard and up perhaps twenty steps on the second floor. A large open patio with built-in cushioned bancos is at the top. Jasmine and red bougainvilleas cover the walls. I can lean out and pick a papaya, and defying gravity, lean even further and reach a coconut.

A low, carved dark wood door invites you to stoop into the bedroom. Romantic, net draped teak four-poster bed, small corner table, nothing elaborate but the simplicity, the view from the glassless windows over thatched roof tops to the Indian Ocean make me wonder what I’m doing here alone. This place is made for a tryst!

The master bedroom equivalent here takes up the entire third floor of one wing. It is totally open to the elements. White curtains can be pulled around the exterior walls; two swinging beds invite afternoon naps; a huge four-poster offers views of the night sky. There is some debate about who will have this space – tempting, as it is, caution suggests since this is a malaria area and my newly pregnant daughter-in-law cannot take prophylactics, it might not be a wise choice for them. They opt to trust in Deet and mosquito netting but by morning decide to move down to one of the more contained rooms rather than battle mosquitoes.

Breakfast this morning, Richard, the house cook, presented platters of papaya, mango, bananas and poached eggs on toast. Coffee and passion fruit juice rounded out a perfect beginning to the day. The system here is to give Richard money for shopping and to discuss meal preferences with him. We are told that he is the best cook on the island. Later this morning, friends of my son and daughter-in-law arrive with their two young children – perhaps a minimal shattering of peace is in the offing.

The contrast between here on the Indian Ocean and the Masai Mara that we left Thursday could not be more dramatic. I like Kenya! I like Lamu Island. I like the donkeys (even though they brayed throughout the night sounding at times like a demented woman – thoughts of Wuthering Heights came to mind) - there is a British funded sanctuary for the donkeys on the island, they are the transportation, and free vet care is provided. I like the well fed cats that hang around where the fishing boats land and the eclectic mix of people we have met so far. Cool Dude, a fourth generation native, speaks perfect English and works seasonally as a wind surf instructor and all round facilitator of “things to do and get things done”. Yesterday being Friday, he was wearing a long white collarless shirt indicating he told us “that I’ve been to the mosque”. Today he dropped in at breakfast time in shorts and T-shirt, very much a hip young thing leaving us with what I think was the Swahili equivalent of a casual, “Ciao baby” and a snap of his fingers. Betty, who will come to the house to give massages, manicures and pedicures. Monika, native-born Dutch who has lived on the island for 12 years now and has a guesthouse and yoga studio – all make me revive early dreams of opting out of the real world in search of my own paradise.

We booked Jasmine House through ~ $200 a day includes cook and housekeeping. Airkenya and 540 (billed as Africa’s Budget Airline) both fly into Manda Airstrip on the mainland. Lamu itself is only accessible by boat. There are no cars on the island.
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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Breakfast With The Hippos

Breakfast with Hippos

Masai Mara, June 15 2009

I fully intend including more posts from Rwanda including my whole gorillas in the mist experience but right now, sitting on a terrace above the Rift valley in the Masai Mara Preserve in Kenya, my mind is on nothing but what I’m experiencing now.

Arrived in Nairobi from Addis on Sunday morning. Met by a driver, David, from Nigel Archer Safaris and taken to our guesthouse in the Lancata/Karen (Karen Blixen, Out of Africa) suburbs. Immediate impressions of Nairobi were of infra structure in place, rows of shabby, English style council houses interspersed with tin roofed shantytowns and then the suburbs. Narrow, hedge lined, winding lanes. Massive walled estates, a very British order to everything. We passed the sanctuary for the endangered Reticulated Giraffes (will visit next week) and then through the gates to Maclusha – our guesthouse. Gorgeous, former private home built in the sprawling African style of a country house. Dark, polished wood floors, arched wooden ceilings, woven rugs, and the right amount of African artifacts – nothing overdone except for the service, which was extraordinary. Long lunch by the pool, followed by a trip to Nakomat, Africa’s answer to Target! Since there isn’t one in Addis, Ben was anxious to make a trip and stock up on essentials that included a pepper grinder – seemingly non existent in Ethiopia. A monsoon like rain and an early dinner completed a perfect day.

Tea in bed at 6:30 a.m.; full English breakfast and then to Wilson Airfield for our Air Kenya flight into the Masai Mara. Airfield reminded me of the R.A.F. stations of my youth. We boarded a Dash7 40 or so seater for our initial 40-minute flight. Took off over the Nairobi Game park and out over the Rift valley. Miles of nothing! A somewhat alarming touch down on a dirt strip and a hauling of bags from the aircraft hold and clamber onto a 15-seater “shuttle” flight. Masai in red plaid waved us off. 15 minutes later we touched (bumped) down onto the dirt Serena airfield – appeared to be staffed by water buffalo and a three elephants that wandered off as we landed. A very short open Land Rover drive brought us to our “bubble” (when we told the owner of Maclusha that we were staying at a Serena hotel rather than a tent camp – given a 21 month old child it was the only option- she had commented that Masai Mara Serena was a “bubble” - a hotel in the middle of the preserve. Maybe - but it is exceptionally well done and given the rigors of living in Addis, a luxurious “bubble” suites us just fine! Situated on a ridgeline in the trees it is totally invisible and blended into the surrounds. The only thing that stands out is one very tall artificial tree that hides the communication masts.

The hotel uses round Masai huts as inspiration and is tasteful, restrained and elegant. Simple rooms hug each side of the ridgeline with stone walkways between. Emergency buttons are located every 25 feet urging you to press if wild animals are present in the vicinity! Haven’t met anything on the paths but a baboon was insistent in trying to get into my room through the sliding doors. I look out over the valley onto the Masai Mara River – baboons, giraffe, impala, Masai ostrich and water buffalo all visible from my chair by the floor to ceiling window.
We are assigned a driver and Land Rover for our stay and at 4 p.m. yesterday took our first safari drive. This is Africa! Up close and personal doesn’t begin to describe the thrill of being within 5 foot of an enormous wild animal…make that animals. Within minutes we were surrounded by impala, water buffalo (the most dangerous animal in the preserve), topi, waterbucks, bushbucks, Coke’s Wildebeests. And then came the elephants, huge, majestic and so close. A young male trumpeted at us and Maxine (21 months) clapped her hands in delight. I did the same! We watched two cheetah’s contemplating supper and then the prize of the day – the sighting of a lion’s tail waving above the grass and a slow creep up onto three adult females and three cubs taking a pre-dinner nap! I cannot begin to describe the thrill of being so close to such magnificent creatures. Spotted hyenas, saddle backed storks and crested cranes rounded out the drive we headed back up the hill to our bubble as dusk was falling and night sounds began to break the silence.

Meals here are a tour de force … first class doesn’t begin to describe the variety and preparation. We sat in the open lobby with a fire blazing on the patio and were entertained by a young Kenyan in colorful outfit as he played the guitar and sang lullabies to Maxine, which he personalized with her name. She was entranced. Around us we could hear French, German and Japanese being spoken as the Kenyan staff, well trained in hospitality, anticipated every need.

Woken by sunrise we drank coffee before meeting up again with Julius, our driver, for an early morning safari drive. Our first “find” of the morning was a solitary giraffe quickly followed by two families of elephants, tiny chaco (fox like) and another cheetah. We spent some time in search of a leopard but it proved much too smart to allow itself to be seen. “Hippos?” asked Julius. And did we get hippos! We pulled into a clearing by the river where a solitary Masai was standing. “Follow the Masai” we were instructed. We wound through a narrow path between trees to be greeted by a Serena staff person holding a basket of hot scented towels – ah, more than hippos, we began to think. Round the next bush a glass of champagne was proffered and further through the trees to the river we came across a table set for breakfast. Bush breakfast with the hippos. So on the bank of the river whilst hippos snorted and crocs snoozed, we had freshly made omelets, crepes – you name it. Highlight for me as sighting a Fish Eagle catch a fish and realizing that the extra bulge next to a hippos head was an infant hippo – three weeks old I was told.
Think I’ll take a nap before lunch.

Tour arranged by Nigel Archer Safaris out of Nairobi. Two nights at the Maclusha Guesthouse (beginning and end of trip) 3 nights at the Masai Mara Serena Hotel, flights between Nairobi and the Masai Mara, driver, two safaris a day and all meals cost around $1,000.00 a person.

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Rwanda – Genocide. 15 years later.

June 11 2009
It’s not possible to write about Rwanda without bringing up the genocide of 1994. Neither is it a topic that I have any joy in dwelling on but it’s unavoidable. I’ll try to give an overall impression of the country but in this opening blog on Rwanda I cannot avoid graphic details of the nightmare of 15 years ago. Rwanda is moving on and I suggest a visit to

I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital and largest city via Ethiopia Air from Addis Ababa; the contrast between the craziness and chaos of Addis and Kigali was a delightful gift. Kigali is very small compared with Addis with a population of around 800K and a country population of about 8 million – it’s the highest density country in Africa. First impression was of color. The brilliant green of the hills; the even more brilliant batik dresses of the women; the riot of color in baskets of pineapples, mangoes, bananas balanced expertly on the heads of women. Second impression was of cleanliness –no garbage strewn in the streets, no rotting piles of rubbish, no huddles of beggars and no herds of goats. No stray dogs either, something I’ll write about later. Third impression was of a tropical languor in the pace of people, traffic and warm air.

The country slogan is “Land of a thousand hills” and I think 900 of them make up Kigali. Subsequent in country road trips lead me to amend the slogan to “thousands of hills and even more potholes”! It’s setting is spectacular and despite the heat induced sense of slowness, it’s a city hustling with building projects, animated people and a general sense of life - traffic signals are obeyed, walking is easy. I stayed at a small guesthouse “Banana Guest House” in a very quiet residential district. It’s an expensive country compared to Ethiopia and a room with breakfast set me back $160 but I was within easy walking distance of the first genocide site.

Certainly I was aware in 1994 of the genocide here in Rwanda and neighboring Burundi but my understanding of the motivation and history was unclear. In the past few days I’ve learned that tribal differences between Tutsi and Hutu were manufactured. Beginning with Belgian colonization and by 1932, the Belgians had effectively divided the country into two classes – you were a Tutsi if you owned 10 or more cattle and a Hutu if you owned less. Families and villages were divided and the minority Tutsi became the favored group; the division was further developed by the issuance of identification cards. Sporadically, between 1932 and 1994, violence between groups occurred. In the latter part of the last century, the Hutu majority took power and retribution against perceived injustices on the part of the Tutsi increased.

By 1990 a cult of government supported hate radio and sponsored violence toward individual Tutsi was condoned and encouraged. 1993, the then president signed a peace agreement implying an end to internal hostilities; the hate campaign intensified in response. March 1994, the president’s plane was shot down over Kigali. In conversation with Rwandans there is a quiet cynicism about this. The official line, although never proven, is that Tutsi rebels brought the plane down; the facts don’t support this hypothesis as the rockets were fired from a heavily fortified Government Hill and it is thought impossible that rebels would have access to that site. Both the UN commander at the time and other witnesses, suggest that the attack was from within the government inner circle and had one goal – that of inciting the genocide- to that end, the Hutu president was expendable.

The Hutu were ready for genocide. No genocide is spontaneous. Genocide is planned. Gangs of unemployed Hutu youth had been trained in massacre techniques; machetes and guns had been stashed in secret locations; lists of Tutsis were circulated along with instructions on the most effective methods of killing large groups. Hate radio and literature had done their jobs; for 100 days terror beyond my comprehension was let loose. Depravity, cruelty, violence, death reigned. Over two million Tutsi were killed in Rwanda in those 100 days and several hundred thousand in neighboring Burundi. Priests betrayed their congregations; neighbors their neighbors; colleagues their office mates. Children were singled out in a biblical attempt to “destroy the race”; women suffered unspeakable acts of violence. A photo journalist I spoke with recalled a photographer telling him of driving into a village at night, lights out to avoid detection and to their horror discovering that the road was not pot-holed as first thought - they were driving over piles of bodies.

The French UN commander begged for assistance. Kofi Anan, President of the UN and other world leaders including President Clinton, spoke after the event of not understanding the situation and wishing they had made different decisions. The world responded too late to yet another genocide.

My first evening in Kigali I walked the quiet hillside street to Hotel Milles Collones, the setting for the film, Hotel Rwanda. There was nothing there to commemorate that it had been the scene of such desperation. Privately a Rwandan told me that the Hutu manager was “not such a hero” as he had only sheltered those who could pay.

Monday morning my driver took me to the National Genocide Memorial within the city limits. It is a quiet, peaceful place. Interior exhibits lead you though a brief history of the Rwandan people, culture and era of colonization. There is no effort to shock here; it’s not needed. The gravity of events speaks for themselves. Even the display of skulls, many cracked by machetes have a dignity that defies horrific. Photos and heartbreakingly short biographies of children killed fill one room. Other displays eulogize the heroic Hutu men and women who sheltered friends and strangers alike. Two magnificent stained glass windows designed by a child of holocaust survivors bring light and hope into dark rooms. Another area is devoted to a history of genocide throughout time and asks that we learn from this and work to prevent another genocide.

Outside, above a simple pool, a flame burns. It is lit annually for the 100 days of the genocide. A series of gardens lead through a meditation on unity and hope. In one, at the edge of a pool of water, an almost comical clay representation of an elephant holding a cell phone is telling us that elephants never forget and that we should, as the memory keepers, alert the world.

Through a rose garden, under blossom-laden trellises you come to a three-tier area of mass graves. Over 250 thousand men, women and children, their bodies recovered from massacre sites, are buried here. It is a solemn, silent place. I left with a feeling of unease and sadness that clouded the rest of my time in the city.

Nothing prepared me for the final genocide site I visited on Wednesday. Initially I resisted visiting the church at Nyamata. I had read a description of what took place there.
About a thirty-minute drive east of Kigali we turned off into the township of Nyamata and parked outside the catholic church under the shade of a plane tree. The fence around the church was draped with pink and purple bunting and a banner over the door translated to “If you knew me you would not have killed me”. Ironic because neighbors murdered neighbors.

It’s a big, brick building, simple, no elaborate stained glass windows, nothing ornate. A few school children walked across the dusty plaza to a row of schoolrooms, they chattered and kicked a plastic bottle. My driver declined to come inside. “I’ve seen,” he said. The iron security door of the church is twisted; the walls and ceiling pockmarked with shrapnel holes from grenade explosions. On May 8th. 1994 more than 10,000 terrified Tutsis from the surrounding area filled very inch of this sanctuary. They crawled under the wood slab, backless benches, they wedged themselves under the altar, they huddled in the crypt, and they pressed themselves into wall niches. It is inconceivable to me that so many could fit into this space. The Hutu mob surrounded the church eventually using a grenade to blow gap in the steel bars of the gate and then began hurling in grenades. They stormed in and hacked, beat, shot to death in an orgy of rape then killing. One woman was singled out (and please forgive this graphic description but unless we hear of such horrors, I fear we will forget) for rape and then killed by a stake that was driven through her vagina to her skull.

It’s still inside the church now. There is a musty, unrecognizable smell. The rows of benches are piled several feet high with the bloodstained, torn clothing of the victims. Colors have faded to a dun brown uniformity but occasionally something stands out and catches the eye – for me it was a crocheted hat still showing some green wool – I imagine it once sitting jauntily of the owner’s head; I noted a pale pink toddler sized tee shirt. The cement floor is patterned with dark stains – blood. Five people survived the massacre.

All ten thousand are buried here and an additional forty-one thousand from massacre sites around the area. Under a large aluminum awning out back the mass graves have open windows and you can look down of satin draped coffins and neat rows of skulls and bones.

No photos could begin to evoke the atmosphere in this place and photographs would not serve to honor the dead. The only images I will be including here are of the memorial garden in Kigale and of the roadside signs seen throughout the country that speak of reconciliation and healing.
“We are Rwandans”, we are neither Tutsi nor Hutu” is the word from all you meet.


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Monday, June 8, 2009

Letting Go Is Hard To Do........

I can’t think of any career choice that is more consuming and rewarding than Motherhood. What could be more important than lovingly guiding a life to it’s own independence? I am blessed to experience motherhood three times, each different and the same.

As a mom I know unconditional love and with that comes the knowledge that if you have done everything right and life is kind the child grows up and moves out to find his or her own way. That is the typical cycle of life.

So if that is the case, why is it so hard to do? My first child, my son, went away to college right at the time I was going through my divorce. I was preoccupied to say the least and knew it was good, healthy actually, for him to get out of dodge. After college he moved even farther away to Chicago to begin his career. It has been nine years since he left for college and I miss him but am equally as proud at what he is accomplishing. I still cry after a visit from or to him but for the most part have adjusted.

Child number two, my daughter, graduated from college and moved back home for two years while her long time boyfriend went away to graduate school. She worked, paid rent and was able to save money for when she would venture out on her own. She did all the right things. Big mistake for me. I had let her go when she went to college and SHE CAME BACK! I work out of my home office so she and I had a lot of downtime together. She became my workout and cooking buddy. The time finally came for her to venture out. Two weeks ago I helped her drive across country to her new home destination. It was the most fun and hardest thing I have ever done, bar none. Scooting along in her little corolla, we saw the majestic mountains of Colorado, the sprawling farmlands of Nebraska and Iowa, and the rolling hills of Wisconsin where our journey ended. Since she was paying for half of the trip we worked together finding the best hotels for the buck and with that learned that you get what you pay for! It was a cherished, once in a life time experience for this parent. A treasured gift. Two weeks have gone by and I still have the deep gut wrenching hole called “missing.” It is like a part of me is gone. It would seem that if this were the normal cycle of life it would come naturally. I am here to say it does not.

I want to end with two thoughts.

First, letting go IS hard to do. As a parent we have to push the child out of the nest to experience all of life’s lessons, being there when he/she stumbles to help him/her stand again but allowing the stumble to occur. It is hard to cut the strings that bind them to you.

Secondly, heaven help child number three!

I welcome tips from anyone who has experienced this letting go process.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Hyenas and being a boulevardier in Addis

Another week in Addis. Monday we went to the National Museum in the grounds of the university. It’s housed in Haile Selassie’s former palace, state-banqueting rooms now libraries and reception rooms the offices of administrators. Second floor is given over to the museum and the emperor’s bathroom – very 1950 chic pale blue ensuite - and bedroom are intact.

The exhibit itself leads through the stages of life showing artifacts associated with birth, childhood and so on. One area is devoted to the influences of Islam and another to Coptic Christianity. Annotation is spotty and in some areas things are definitely lost in translation. All in all I’d recommend a visit. A very practical caution however – no toilets! And despite poking my head in several office doors and asking, the answer was a resounding “no”.

One 6th degree of separation moment on Tuesday – I was sitting in the outside area of the German Bakery and Café when a woman came over to say, “I think we’ve met before”. We had passed on the trail during a hike the preceding Saturday.

Have also navigated the twisting goat-skull littered lanes and alleys of the neighborhood and can now get to the favored Starbuck type coffee shop and find a comfy chair from which to observe the world. Never thought I’d be a boulevardier in Ethiopia. I watch the suicidal blue taxes cramming in far more passengers than you think possible; fruit and vegetable vendors; knock-off video vendors; beggars in rags and impeccably dressed Ethiopians – the Europeans tend to be far more casual. All this entertainment plus a warm croissants and two double espressos for under $3.

Thursday a friend offered me a ride out of Addis and north into the Entoto Mountains in search of Spotted Hyena. We raced through town passing the US Embassy that, in comparison to other embassies, is an absolute fortress. Apparently all US embassies worldwide are being rebuilt in this same style – model comes in gigantic, enormous and huge. Hard pressed to tell which is the Addis version. By comparison the British embassy compound is an oasis of green complete with clusters of thatched cottages and a thatched pub, The Addis Arms.

We climbed out of town passing a sad parade of women bent double under the weight of eucalyptus branches. I’ve been told that this pitiless job is reserved for impoverished widows. Along the road forests of a quick growing eucalyptus have been planted to provide a ready source of firewood. Tied bundles of the boughs lean against trees waiting their human donkey to transport them down into Addis. Tempting as it was, I did not take photos, it just seemed to me to be too crass.

We passed the octagonal shaped Coptic Church of Maryan, site of the coronation of Menelik, the Emperor famed for leading his troops into battle against the Italians in 1895 and defeating them – the only African army to route an invading European force. Ethiopia has never been colonized. I wanted to go in but the throngs of faithful outside made it impossible to get through and we passed.

Once out of the eucalyptus line we were in high pine tree and shrub country – leopard country too though we did not see any. Also reported to be troops of baboons in the area and those too kept them hidden. We did see Dik Dik, very small deer and Spotted Hyenas. The hyena spotting took some doing. Had to grope down a downward sloping hill to a cliff edge, nothing to hold onto and then lean foreword to see over and under the precipice. We could smell the hyenas and then one appeared and gazed up at us. Saw “bits” of two other. Perched on that cliff edge I had the sudden feeling that I was participating in a Far Side cartoon set up. One hyena engaging my attention and the rest of the troop moving silently up the cliff side to get us from behind! “Right boys, you smile for the camera and the rest of us will creep up on her”! Fortunately, they didn’t.

Heading out for Rwanda tomorrow.


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Monday, June 1, 2009

Breakfast with Hornbills - Rift Valley Adventure

June 21 2009

A weekend out of Addis! Bliss; unfortunately the stress that flows away once out of the city returns on the drive back. Heading out of Addis for the Rift Valley and, in our case, Lake Langano, means driving around 96 miles of the road from and to hell. It’s the main route in and out of Addis for the coastal ports in Somalia (Gulf of Aden) and Kenya (Indian Ocean). Enormous overloaded semis plus trailers careen wildly along, little attention is paid to lanes, signals or anything else on the road and the anything else means people, donkeys, goats, camels and cows along with the feared Blue Donkeys (ancient mini vans that serve as a form of mass transit) and hapless individuals in private vehicles. Hitchikers pile onto the tarp covered loads on trucks and appear to sleep through their journey – numb with fear perhaps! Because my son had additional houseguests, I opted to ride with friends also making the trip to the lake – the fact that Mike is a former British Army tank officer was a bonus for me.

Our destination was English Cottages on Lake Langano. Seems that many years ago the government gave lakefront property to various nationality groups, English Cottages, American Camp remain. The lake is one of several in a chain of volcanic formed lakes along the Rift Valley. It’s backdrop are the Blue Arsi Mountains, a stunning 12,000 or so feet high. Langano is one of very few Bilharzia free lakes in Ethiopia and so safe for swimming. It’s also the color of a cup of tea with milk due to the constant stirring of the dark brownish/black sand that rings it.

The drive in (when I dared to open my eyes) once out of Addis leads through agricultural areas and the further away from Addis, the more primitive and desolate the surrounds. Traditional mud walled round huts thatched with conical palm frond covered roofs formed small clusters within a crude fence of thorn bushes intended to keep domestic animals in and wild ones out. Children squatted in the dirt playing with sticks; very young boys (looked under 5 to me) alongside the road were in charge of herds of goats, cows or donkeys that scavenged amidst the dust for anything to eat. Men beat dry corn stalks to reduce them to a sort of powder – not sure if this was intended for cattle or human consumption. Also saw other green leaves being similarly pulverized by hand. Everywhere the daily chore of getting water was in your face evident. Donkeys straining to pull rough wooden carts were loaded with yellow containers (the sort of container we’d use as a spare gas tank); trailing behind the cart, women and children both carried additional buckets or bottles of water. In one village I saw women in the damp riverbed digging with sticks to reach a source of water. This daily and necessary ritual was so obviously a way of life that I was humbled by how much I take for granted.

Another daily ritual is the gathering of wood to make charcoal. Women, bent almost double with a load of wood on their back were a common site. Trees are scarce and stripped of branches to meet the need for fuel for cooking. Charcoal vendors sit alongside the road. Animal dung is collected, formed into patties and stored in round piles, covered with palm thatch (look a lot like mini houses) and harvested for fuel.

A few years ago, before our economy tanked, Ethiopia embarked on a new enterprise – that of flower growing for the markets of the western world. Chances are that bunch of out of season flowers bought as a hostess gift came from this Rift Valley area. Now, with demand down, many of these massive greenhouses stand in early stages of decay. It was difficult to see the source for the massive piles of tomatoes and watermelon piled under tarps along the side of the road; I assume the fields to be further back. I was puzzled as to who was the intended customer and was told that the giant lorries that hurtle this road stop, purchase by the crate load and re-sell to the street vendors in Addis.

Everywhere, the poverty is devastating. Ethiopia, at the last census was thought to be around 72 million, a conservative figure. USAID people I’ve talked to say it’s closer to 90 million, compare that to 7 million in Zimbabwe. Outside governments and aid agencies here creep at a snail pace to effect change; clean, running water, a key step in health issues is one problem being tackled. Hunger, delivery of health care and overpopulation too are high on the list of “we’re trying to make a difference”. As far as I can tell, agencies are attempting to involve local populations in leadership in problem solving and Kate who works for the British Government in implementing self-help programs spoke of small pockets of success but admitted that the task was overwhelming at times.

Once at the lake (and the final approach is around 7 miles of none road – four wheeling essential as we climbed in and out of mini craters) is a haven of peace and a birders paradise. Our British friends had reserved one of the two English Cottages. Built in 1978 the structures and interiors are a step below rustic but perfectly serviceable with a basic kitchen. We hauled in everything from water and TP to cooking gas. My son and daughter-in-law (Benjamin and Annie) had made much of the relaxation aspect of visiting the lake and they make the trip at least once a month. After only two weeks in Addis I fully understood their use of the word “relax” once unpacked, cold glass of wine in hand and toes in the lake. It is essential I think to these young people working here that they have a place like this to re-charge batteries and gain some sense of peace. Another couple working here told me that they have to leave Ethiopia every three months or so in order to continue working here.

As a birder I found Nirvana at the lake. From under the shade of an Acacia tree I sat with bird book and binoculars and in short order had seen more new birds that on any other foray anywhere. An adult pair of Red Hornbills were teaching a young one to fly; a Gigantic Pelican fished close to shore; half a dozen or more Pied Kingfishers worked the water; the Ethiopian Cliff Swallow (gorgeous bronze and emerald) darted between lake and cliffs; at least three varieties of Sunbirds worked the tree for insects; weaver birds busied themselves improving nests and on the hillside, enormous Guinea fowl strutted. I’ll get my notes together and write more of the birds as I identify them.

Sunday, the ride back was even more hazardous in that it was market day and herds of sheep, goats, cows, oxen and camel wandered along side the road and spilled into the lanes with little warning. At one point we passed a troop of baboons foraging. I noticed the occasional tomb alongside the road decorated with pictures of epic warriors and was told they belonged to the Oromo people, one of the indigenous tribes. At another slow down point in the road a group of women dressed in red and white robes clustered at the side of the road chanting and thrusting crosses and framed pictures of Christ at passing cars; they were a sect of Coptic Christians. In small villages, groups of men sat under the shade of the rare tree and conferred, smoking. Homosexuality is taboo here to the extent of real persecution under the law and yet men walk around hand in hand and arms draped around one another’s shoulder showing open affection.

Back now in Addis, I walked to work with Annie this morning and on the way back stopped at Kaldi café – a kind of deja vue experience. The logo is so obviously a play on Starbucks and the interior, if you shut out the chaos of Bole Road, as comfortable and familiar as my own corner Starbucks in Tucson – coffee was better though here.

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