Thursday, September 20, 2012

Haller Park

             After our rowing escapades (See Previous Post), Jacob and I headed up to Nyali to meet Safiya, University Counseling Guru and fellow teaching fellow. Safiya hails from Atlanta, Georgia and has also been here for a year already. I work very closely with her on University Counseling stuff and we have become a force to be reckoned with when it come to proofreading personal statements and, more recently, schmoozing with University representatives. We met in a cafĂ© called Cafesserie, which I will be writing about in more detail later.
            From there we headed to Haller Park. In the 1950’s, the area the park now encompasses was an in hospitable hole in the ground. It was a quarry for the Bamburi Cement Company which mined the area to its full potential; upon seeing what they had left behind they decided to rehabilitate the area and hired a man named Rene Haller, hence the name of the park. In the 1970’s Haller planted a number of trees in the area that were able to adapt to the harsh environment and were able to pave the way for other organisms to adapt to the area. Today, the park is 1480 acres of lush vegetation that acts as a park and somewhat of a zoo. As the Bamburi mining company’s activity expands, so does the footprint of the park.
            We made our way into the park, paid the entry fee, and set down a light blanket to relax on for a few hours before the animal feeding times began. Jacob had baked and brought a fantastic looking ginger cake to the gathering that we were all looking forward to enjoying.
            Our nestling place just happened to be in a clearing that was also home to a cohort of monkeys: the males had robin’s egg blue testicles and the females had inch long nipples that stuck straight out of their chests. Nature is fascinating. They were used to humans being in close contact with them as the park is a highly visited place so they had no problem with us being there and frolicked within feet of our blanket. We were enjoying the shade and a good read when I looked to my left and saw a strange creature about the size of a weasel with brown striped fur making a bee-line towards us. Safiya jumped up and shouted “That’s the mongoose! Watch out!” Apparently last year, while visiting the park, the same mongoose had bitten a volunteer at the Academy, requiring him to rush to the hospital to get a rabies shot. Yikes.
            We cleared out and let the beast snoop around a little bit but soon enough he had discovered Jacob’s bag, and with it, the cake. With a ferocious snarl and a quick snap of the head, the mongoose tore through the tin foil and began ravaging the succulent cake beneath. An employee of the park ran up and delivered a few sharp kicks to the overzealous creature, but it maintained its assault on the cake. A few more blows later and the mongoose scurried off towards the trees. But soon enough it was back for more. I waved my foot at it in a semi-threatening gesture and it bared its sharp, ivory white fangs at me and bit my rubber sole. Being the cowards we apperently are, we gathered up our things and relocated far away from the pugnacious rodent.
            We resettled near a large sculpture of a whale made entirely out of recycled flip-flops and to our pleasant surprise discovered a giant tortoise! It was a rather large reptile and was probably twice my size if I had curled up into a ball. We were told it was still “young” in that it was only about 100 years old, a tortoise teenager. Jacob took a special liking to the lumbering animal and, as it was a much less obtrusive guest than the mongoose, we stuck around. About twelve of the giant tortoises roam the park freely and guests are allowed to touch and feed them.
            We quickly discovered a strange characteristic of this fascinating being: when stroking its neck, where one might imagine its chin to be, the tortoise would slowly lift itself from its resting position on the ground as if doing a painfully slow pushup. It seemed completely unfazed by the motion and it would keep chewing away at the grass it had in its mouth and looking around slowly from its new vantage point. Once the scratching stopped, it would lower itself back down with a squeaking sound like a screen door creaking closed. It would perform this strange feat whenever prompted. I guess to get the age of 100 you have to be in pretty good shape anyways, so I don’t know why I was surprised by its pushup ability
            After spending some good, quality time with the tortoise, we headed off to the giraffe habitat during their feeding time. As we strode up, we saw a crowd gathered around the fence of the enclosure with their hands splayed out in front of them. The giraffes were striding quickly towards the peoples’ outstretched hands. Turns out, there is a man who sells pellets for feeding the animals for 50 KSH, about 60 cents. Guests are allowed to feel these elegant creatures by hand!
            Naturally, I bought two bags. Safiya and Jacob had already visited the park and fed the giraffes, so they were less enthused than I, but the didn’t turn down the free pellets and had a go as well. Safiya claimed to have kissed a giraffe the last time around, so I, of course, had to attempt to recreate the feat.
            Giraffes have insanely long tongues that are surprisingly dexterous, as I soon found out. I went through one bag of feed testing the abilities of the animals. The larger ones often overpowered the smaller ones in order to get closer to the food. They could stick their tongues out about a foot and hold it there and twist the end around to grab, actually grab, things from your hand. It was amazing.
            So I put a pellet in my mouth, a long one so it jutted out and caught the attention of the giraffe. I slowly moved the food in my hand closer and closer to my face until the feed in my hand ran out. It reached out its long, purple tongue and licked the entire right side of my face, from forehead to chin, before nabbing the pellet right out of my mouth. I wiped the giraffe slobber off of my face and cheered. Mission accomplished. Gross for sure, but a story for the grandkids.
            There were two other feeding sessions (one for the hippos and water buffalo and one for the Crocodiles!) but both were less exciting and visitor inclusive as the giraffe one (obviously for the best as I wouldn’t want a crocodile grabbing food out of my mouth). I have pictures and videos that are pretty fantastic, so I will post those below.
            Also, on a randomish side note, my junior year at Bowdoin, one of my best friends, Tina Curtin, recommened I read Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. I enjoyed the novel but never really figured out what an Oryx was, or a Crake for that matter. Well, Haller Park has its own Oryx population. I now know what they are, and what they look like; they are beautiful deer-like animals that have great noble antlers and faces that look as if they have been painted for war. Lots of pictures below!

The Entrance

Walking Tree

The large Whale made of flip-flops

Side angle!

Our Primate companions


Safiya and Jacob and Friends

Don't disturb the animals

Look at that tail, it's about three times the length of his body!

Is that not the ugliest bird you have ever seen?

A wild mongoose appears!

Chase used zipped backed pack... it's not very effective

I call this one "Mongoose Aftermath"

The Tortoise

Foot close up

Jacob and his new friend


I think it likes me

Safyia, that giraffe is really going for it


Best shot of the tongue I was able to get

What a strange looking beast

Jacob and Safiya

Water Buffalo

Ok, humor me for a second. In Return of the Jedi, the guards at Jabba the Hutt's Palace on Tatooine look kind of like this hippo, right? I think I am going through Star Wars withdrawl.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, anyone?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Rowing Adventure

            Jacob, a fellow teaching fellow at AKAM, has become a good friend of mine here in Mombasa. He hails from the south coast of the UK, attended St. Andrews in Scotland, and has been in Mombasa for a little over a year. He is a medieval history buff, which meshes nicely with my affinity for medieval art and architecture, and a very talented musician. There aren’t many male staff members my age here and I’m lucky to have Jacob to go off on adventures with and spend time with.
            This Sunday, Jacob and I headed to the north of Mombasa Island to Tudor, a posh part of town, to Tudor Water Sports to try our hand at rowing. Jacob had mentioned this place a number of times before and had expressed interest in giving the rowing a go and I was more than happy to join in. We met up with Kevin, a twenty-two year old Kenyan who had been training for the Kenyan National Rowing team, who worked at Tudor Water Sports as an instructor.
            We made our way down to the water, checked out the boats and set them in the water. Jacob had mentioned that he once rowed a boat on a lake once, and Kevin immediately bestowed him with expert status. Jacob looked nervous and muttered a few words to explain his truly novice status, but they fell on deaf ears. Kevin put us in a double boat, gave us a thirty second tutorial, emphasized “balance,” and sent us on our way. After ten minutes of us floundering a few yards off shore, our instructor intervened. He placed me in the double boat with him and let Jacob take the single. After a few minutes of guidance and encouragement, Kevin and I were flying across the water, leaving Tudor far behind. We made our way back to find Jacob in a similar place to where he started, but a little more damp seeing as he had lost his balance and taken a plunge.
            We switched boats and my confidence was high after my ride with Kevin; I felt like I got it out there with him. This newfound confidence was soon shaken and shattered. While Kevin and Jacob zipped down the creek, I wobbled, attempted stabilization, aand wobbled some more. It seemed the boat was doing everything in its power to send me tumbling deep into the murky waters of Tudor Creek. After three minutes, it succeeded and dumped me into the lukewarm water.
            I righted the vessel and attempted a few half-hearted pulls on the oars. I slowly gained confidence and was soon jerking steadily across the water. I caught up to a resting Jacob and Kevin. Kevin then informed me that the tide was taking me out and that I needed to adjust my course to get back to shore. This request proved far more difficult than I imagined and I spent the next fifteen minutes trying to turn my tippy vessel while fighting the current dragging me out to the Indian Ocean. This moment was my low point for the day, good to get it out of the way so early, and I was very close to giving up until I realized there was no system in place to rescue me or to pull me back to shore. After yelling at me to “balance!,” Kevin decided I was a lost cause and he and Jacob zipped away to cover some more distance, leaving me to fend for myself. This was it. Me vs. the Tide. Me vs. The Boat. My pale skin vs. the Kenyan sun.
            It took me thirty minutes but I was able to limp my way back to shore. Scattered throughout my floundering efforts I was able to get some good solid pulls in there and I didn’t tip over again. I’ll consider it a success. I think with a bit of practice this rowing thing could come to be something I might actually enjoy.

I'll post about the rest of my highly eventful Sunday in the next day or so with plenty of pictures to back up my sometimes seemingly absurd tales.

-Mzungu currently enjoying all the coast has to offer

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Some Photos

I went to watch a rugby Sevens tournament today. The team I am playing with, The Mombasa Sports Club, fielded two sides and the A-Side moved on the the knockout rounds! I was merely an observer today. Here are a few pictures from the matches.

Amal and Lindsey enjoying the fine saturday. Saturday is a Rugby day!

A glimpse of the pitch and the beautiful Mombasa sky

The team, Amal there on the left

Good offload

There were a few monkeys around the Club, enjoying games of their own

I made a stop at Ft. Joseph on my way back. Not bad, eh?

-Mzungu enjoying a nice relaxing Mombasa weekend

Friday, September 14, 2012



            As you may or may not know, I played for the Bowdoin Men’s Rugby Football Club all four years of my time at Bowdoin. The team was really my only steadfast activity in my time at Bowdoin. I participated in a multitude of other interesting and stimulating activities, but the BRFC was the only group that kept its hold on me all four years. A lot of that had to do with the guys on the team and the coaching staff. I cannot imagine a more supportive, enthusiastic and fun group of guys. Coach Scala and Coach Dave were important figures in my time in Brunswick and will forever be remembered as BRFC legends. From day one of practice freshman year all the way until the last inter-squad scrimmage my senior year, I was, and still am, proud to call my self a member of the BRFC.
             I consider myself to be a relatively quick player, but strength was never my strong point. My speed helped me flourish on the B-side, scoring prolifically in my Freshman year, but, due to high school disillusionment, I never spent much time in the gym and therefore never really got stronger. My skill level definitely improved over time but my role on A-side remained relatively unchanged throughout my four years with the club, largely my own doing. I also went abroad during the fall season my Junior year and missed a great opportunity to work my way into the squad, but getting experience in Africa seemed a more pressing calling. Also, with Connor Gallagher, the Rhino-like Center, David Bruce, the effeminate fly-half with boyish good looks, and Bobby Shaw, our relentless but injury-prone captain, all having lockdowns on the positions I was angling for, I became a super-sub, and loved it. It meant I got to play with the Killer-B’s and have a damn good time every time while also sometimes getting to play with the A-side, not a bad deal.
            Upon graduating, I assumed my rugby career had reached its end. I didn’t know if rugby was a big deal in Kenya, but I brought my cleats and shorts anyway, just in case. Two weeks ago, I was talking with Amal, a math teacher at school. Amal is a fascinating character, a true man’s man. He plays rugby. We got to talking and he mentioned he had been playing with a local team at the Mombasa Sports club, a mere five minutes from AKAM campus. He asked if I’d like to come along, and, of course, I said yes.
            The club itself is a fascinating place, racially and socio-economically that is. The club is located in south central Mombasa. It is a private club that charges very high membership fees, especially for Kenya, somewhere around $400 a month; that’s most of my monthly paycheck. The club is enclosed in its entirety by a ten foot tall concrete wall topped by barbed wire. It’s not a welcoming place from the outside. The British colonial roots are never far from the surface around here and it doesn’t take much imagination to envision Khaki-clad Englishmen tromping around the grounds of the club discussing the state of the Empire whilst sipping scotch and enjoying a nice cricket match. Today, the members of the club are predominantly men of Indian descent who make up part of the wealthy upper crust of Mombasa.
            The rugby team however is a different story. The rugby team is composed entirely of black Swahili Kenyans. None of them could ever afford a membership to the club… so why are they here? Why are they allowed in?
            The answer lies, unsurprisingly, with money. None of the aged Indian men want to play rugby, yet they have beautiful facilities. A bunch of these Kenyan men want to play rugby, but they have no pitch to play on. And so a partnership is formed. The club grants the team access to its facilities and bestows upon them its name, and when the team has a match, the club reaps the benefits as people pay admission to watch quality rugby and then imbibe at the bar further adding money to the clubs coffers. Win win?
            The team used to be professional, meaning, obviously, that the players were paid to play. Unfortunately, most of the other teams are in Nairobi, an eight-hour bus ride away. The Nairobi teams grew tired of the expenses and travel time they had to devote to playing the team from Mombasa and, from what I understand, in a somewhat nefarious way, the league conspired to dump the Mombasa team.
            But the team still lives on. The current season is Sevens season. For the uninitiated, standard rugby is played with fifteen men a side, it’s a very physical game with lots of rucks and scrums and contact. Sometimes the ball moves down the field very slowly. Sevens is a whole other beast. On the same size pitch as standard rugby, you now only have seven men a side which opens up the field. Basically what it boils down to is that Sevens requires a lot more running. And where am I? Oh right, Kenya. What do they do well? Oh, right, run!
            On my first outing I performed admirably well (I think). I generally held my own, but after the first half of our scrimmage I was sucking wind, struggling to catch a breath. I hate to add credence to stereotypes, but Swahili men, at least these guys, are FAST.
Most of the guys are between twenty and thirty years old and I have to admit I don’t know what their professions are. I am going to keep going back for sure and I hope to get to know some of the guys well. They were all incredibly welcoming and happy to have some new players on the team. Most of the have a hard time with English, but anytime any one started talking in Swahili, they would shout him down and demand he speak in English because Amal and I couldn’t understand. Nice of them, but I think in this situation it is I that should learn Swahili, and not them who have to work on their English.
It made for an entertaining scene to see a bunch of paunchy Indian men, clad in their country club whites, power walking around the compound while they either ignored or cast nervous glances towards the Kenyan men darting around the pitch.

Below I have included some pictures of a recent visit to Ft. Joseph, a costal park area that has stunning ocean views and some gorgeous rock formations. A great place to go with a book and simultaneously appreciate nature and a good read. I’m currently reading “Out of Africa,” a jarringly western memoir from a Danish woman who lived in Kenya during the colonial era. Interesting to read but it sometimes brings me to a standstill with comparisons of Africans to animals and as people that need civilizing and guidance. An interesting read nonetheless to get a sense of how the country used to be.

Descent into a really cool cave that gets completely inundated by the tide

Down the rabbit hole

-Mzungu currently rekindling his passion for Rugby in scenic Mombasa