Thursday, February 28, 2013

Enlightened Words

This afternoon, the 6th grader was giving me her usual blow-by-blow run down of the school day.  As always, she tells me way more than I want/need to know while the senior tells me practically nothing.  I had driven to the school to collect her because she had to stay a bit after the dismissal bell for a short interview.  She and a classmate in history were paired up to do a report with presentation and since they're studying world religions right now, they were assigned Buddhism.

As luck would have it, one of their 6th grade friends has a mom who practices Buddhism and so they interviewed her.  The 6th grader was lamenting the fact that we didn't have a computer during the February school break when we were in Kenya and thus her history partner ended up doing a lot of the work.

6th grader:  Blah, blah, blah, stuff I'm not really listening to but nodding my head in agreement as if I'm attending to every word.

...and then I hear an enlightening bit of info.

6th grader:  It's always good to be assigned to work with an overachiever because they want to do most of the work and make sure we get a good grade on it.

That's right, baby, the most important takeaway from that lesson.  Don't forget this important little kernel of truth.  The path to success isn't always what you know but rather who helps you look like you know what you're doing.

Kenya's Lake Nakuru

On our third day in Kenya, we traveled in our safari mobile, seen here, to Lake Nakuru... with the game pop-up top down, of course.  

About 6 hours later, we arrived at the Lake Nakuru Lodge.  It's not that this was a super long distance but rather that we were on two lane highways getting stuck behind slow moving commercial trucks, passing through towns that use a lot of speed bumps to slow down traffic and driving on dirt roads as we neared the game reserves. Dusty red dirt roads that resembled washboards.

Above is the view from the lodge's dining room where we had lunch on the veranda. Below is the 6th grader posing at the front entrance of the lodge.  This place definitely had more of a hotel feel to it since it was four walls instead of flaps, but it did have the requisite bed nets to keep the skeeters from biting us while we slept. And the staff couldn't have been friendlier, a theme of great service evident throughout our trip. I gladly handed out shillings right and left as tips for all of the helpful folks on our tour.

On our evening game drive, we saw several new critters and learned a couple new facts about the animals we saw.  Because we drove around the lake, it was much greener and there were more trees in comparison to the Maasai Mara's plains and gently rolling hills with tall grasses.

Below is a funny looking hyena we spotted crossing the road, a furrier version of the two types found in Kenya.

Here is a pair of lions lounging beneath a tree.

Above is an Egyptian goose while below is a waterbuck.  And beneath that is a pair of baboons, one grooming the other.  I swear I could pull up a chair and watch their antics for hours.

Two new critters we spotted were flamingos in the salty water of the lake, as well as an elusive black rhino.  And it was a twofer since she was accompanied by her baby.

We were shocked at the size of the momma rhino's horn because obviously they don't get that long and lethal looking on the ones we've seen in captivity.  She could do some serious damage with that thing.

David, our safari guide, explained to us that giraffes get darker as they age.  Here are two pics that help you see the difference in color. I took these pics of both of them on the evening game drive in different areas around the lake.  I would love to know the exact age of the dark one because even David was impressed with the deep color and said it was really old.

Another species we saw in abundance at Lake Nakuru that we hadn't seen at all on the Maasai Mara was zebras. I guess they seem kinda common to us since they're found on exotic ranches back in Texas, but they really are pretty against the backdrop of Kenya. If you look closely at the bottom pic, you can just make out a few giraffes in the distance.  

The Fine Print

Have I mentioned we're traveling for spring break, China with the whole family?  Anyhoo, it's another country which requires visas and so I've been ignoring my Kenya pics to get it all prepped.  The online form, per person, is seven pages long.  Plus I had to print out individual copies of our confirmed flights (2 pgs), plus a list of hotels from the tour company where we'll be staying (1 pg), the official itinerary (2 pgs), a copy of our US passport as well as the front and back of our UK resident visa (2 pgs). That made a grand total of 14 pages each for the three of us that I checked over about a zillion times.  And I swear every time I checked over it again I caught another error - danged middle aged eyes!

Lest you think I'm being hard hearted and making the husband do his own paperwork, I would like to point out that he is working in the US and will have to submit his own application to the nearest Chinese visa office in Houston.  I have a difficult time feeling sorry for him since he's enjoying friends, spending time with family, eating Tex Mex at will and no doubt guzzling bottomless glasses of sweet iced tea on a daily basis. And getting to shop at Target or go through the drive thru at Chick-Fil-A, not that he would on a daily basis but rather that he could do either at will.  I won't even get started on all of the fun parenting things he's missing, like homework assistance every danged night.

Yesterday morning, armed with my snap-close plastic folder full of visa applications as well as our US passports and UK residence cards, I rode the commuter train into London.  At Waterloo, I caught the tube over to Regent's Park and walked from the station to the embassy. I was told at the door by the nice uniformed guard that the visa extension office was down the road. I walked another 1.5 blocks down the same street to find it.  However, this is only for Chinese or folks of Chinese descent needing a visa or passport.  As a foreigner seeking merely a travel visa for China, I had to proceed to yet another location.

The appointment I made online was for 10:00 and it was already 9:50.  Thankfully the nice lady at the second location handed me a brochure with directions to the visa location where I was supposed to be and I all but climbed over the people in line behind me to make a break for the door and hustle it back to the tube station.  I searched the street for a taxi, but of course there wasn't one to be found when I really needed it.  I have this compulsion to be early and just about stand on my head at not merely being late but even the thought of arriving past the alloted time makes me a raving lunatic. It was like some sort of twisted treasure hunt, only not fun and I didn't get a prize at the end but rather had to pay money for the pleasure of it. 

Thankfully, rush hour was over and so it wasn't too terribly crowded on the tube  as I backtracked on the Bakerloo Line to Oxford Street where I changed to the Central Line and made my way to Bank Station. Speed walking down the street like a madwoman, I arrived at 10:12 all ready to explain to the receptionist my snafu with the location, inability to follow directions (even though they were written in this tiny little italicized print at the bottom of the page and I'm sure most folks assume the Chinese embassy is the place to be) and plead my case.  However, the distracted gal behind the desk just had me show her my appointment booking confirmation and handed me a number in the visa queue.  They were currently helping number 1063 and I was 1093.  

Despite my best effort at self-sabotage, I got everything submitted and was given a ticket to return Monday in order to retrieve our passports with the Chinese visas in them.  And pony up the payment of $120 per person.  Ouch - Kenya was only $50.  It makes me wonder if the US charges tourists to visit our country, and how much it costs if they do.  Because based on the crowd of folks at the foreign visa facility on a Wednesday in February, they're making quite a bit of cash off tourists before they even set foot in China.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Maasai Mara, part 2

We kicked off our second day in the African bush with a 6:30 game drive.  As the sun crept over the horizon, we were treated to the added bonus of hot air balloons ascending into the morning sky. Available at our resort as an extra excursion, we could have opted for an aerial view.  However, the daughter and I aren't big fans of heights, particularly when you aren't buckled in or have access to an escape route... other than plummeting to the hard packed earth below and landing with a thud.

We spotted more game, with the highlight being a lion and lioness.  Our safari guide told us it was a mating pair that would stay together for eight days to insure pregnancy.  And then like most animal (and some human) dads, he would disappear so that the female was left to carry, give birth to and rear the cubs all by her lonesome.

A bit later in the drive, we saw two lion cubs hiding in the tall grass.

As always, we spotted lots of hoofed creatures.

And birds - can't forget those.  The last bird pic of the vulture proves that this species is just as ugly in Africa as it is back home in Texas.  

Following the stream in search of game, we chanced upon a herd? huddle? 'hole lotta? hippos hanging out together. I wondered if it was the same group that kept interrupting my sleep in the wee morning hours with their grunting and grumbling and splashing right outside our tent.

My, what big feet you have.

On our afternoon game drive, we didn't see quite as many critters.  However, we did chance upon a lone hyena and jackal as well as a pair of cheetahs.

My favorite pic of the day was a pair of young elephants tussling with their trunks.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Maasai Mara, part 1 - Feb 2013

On Sunday, February 10, I rolled out at 3:00 am to get the senior to the school by 4:00 am.  She was leaving with the rest of the 20ish kids traveling to Romania to work with orphans and disabled teens for the week.  All juniors and seniors at her school are required to accrue a minimum of 20 volunteer hours during the school year and document it with an essay, so this was her opportunity to get it all in one fell swoop.

Later that morning, the 6th grader and I flew to Nairobi.  The husband was supposed to join us, but had work commitments and thus couldn't make it.  Since we had opted for an accompanied photo safari, I decided the younger daughter and I would be safe without a man in tow. We arrived in Nairobi on time, got through a long but rather sloppy border control line (didn't even check our yellow fever certificates) and were met by David, our guide for the week.  We got checked into our hotel around 11:30 that evening and conked out.  Why is sitting on an airplane, doing nothing for 8 hours, so very tiring?

The next morning, we had breakfast and embarked on our trip to the Maasai Mara, a mere 300 km drive in our Toyota safari mobile.  We stopped at a scenic lookout for a photo opp and some great views of the Rift Valley.

We stayed on pavement/asphalt for about the first half of our drive, but spent the last three hours on dirt roads that rattled and bounced us all over our seats.  Along the way, we passed local houses (I use that term loosely since most appeared to be one room huts) as well as the natives herding goats, sheep, cattle and even donkeys.  It seems donkeys are used to pull carts for folks without access to a car or motorbike.  

As we drove closer to our accommodations, we started seeing African wildlife.  

The hoofed topi, two separate ones seen above and below, were big head scratchers.  No different from their brethren in zoos, there were lots of flies and mosquitos on hand to plague them.

We reached the Mara Fig Tree around 2:00, which gave us just enough time to eat a quick lunch before the buffet ended.  We got settled in for our first glamping experience and had time to snap some pics before we headed out on our first game drive.

This was the view from the front porch of our fancy tent. By the time we departed a few days later, I would have gladly traded a non-water view to get away from the snorting and splashing of hippos at night. I swear it sounded as if they were right outside our zipped entrance flap, ready to shuffle on in and say hello.  That's just a bit too close to nature for me.

We saw lots of native animals on our game drive that afternoon from 4:00 to 6:00.  Our personal favorites were the warthogs. Our safari guide told us the Swahili word pumba means stupid. According to David, the warthogs have very short memories.  They're so ugly they're cute, right?  The 6th grader said she wanted to pet one, but I don't think they would take too kindly to that.

In the pic above, you can just make out an elusive mongoose standing on its hind legs.  Our guide spotted it down near the river as we were riding along on the lookout for hippos, my night time nemesis and sleep interrupter.  

And last, but not least, we spotted the king of the beasts taking a little afternoon siesta near the end of our drive.  It was humorous because at least eight safari vehicles quickly surrounded the lion with shutters busy snapping and he just ignored all of the attention.  Critter paparazzi.