Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mt. Kenya (Part II)- The Summit and Descent


10,000 ft- 13,800 ft


            After another solid night sleep, we awoke to a breakfast of sausage, pancakes and tea. We quickly packed up our gear and threw on our daypacks and hit the hill at 7:30 am. It was a warm morning so we delayered quickly and were down to t-shirts and light jackets. We made our way quickly along muddy tracks, crossing the occasional washed out road and in an hour or so had made it to one of the few manmade landmarks: Africa’s third highest weather station. It was powerless for the time being but a very clear and regular line of tall wooden poles wove its way down the mountain and was presumably waiting to be strung with electric line to make the station fully operational. Kimau told us not to hold our breath on the weather station becoming operational; the project was already ten years in with no end in sight.
            After passing the weather station, the rain started. It was a persistent rain that varied in intensity throughout the day and did not stop until early the following morning.
            Mt. Kenya is a beast of a mountain. Our ascent was taking us from the base of the mountain to Point Lenana, the third highest peak on the mountain and the tallest point accessible with out technical climbing. Our over all elevation gain on foot was 11,847 ft. But overall, in 72 ½ hours, our elevation gain, from Mombasa to Point Lenana, was 16,335 ft. To counteract the effects of altitude, we were told to drink water, as much as possible, all the time. Those that know me, or have travelled on long car rides with me, know I drink a lot of water as it is. So when I was told it was necessary for me to drink lots of water, I guzzled it down. I probably went through 12 liters on that second day. Out of control. But I felt great the whole way up! If only that feeling had lasted…




            The farther up we climbed, the stranger the landscape became. We soon left behind the low lying shrubs, and entered a fantastical landscape of lotus-like plants and large tree like plants that almost defy explanation. They sprout leaves continuously in the middle of the plant while the older leaves wither and die and allowing the other leaves to flourish. The plant grows higher and higher on the dead leaves and forms an ominous, human-like (especially at dawn and dusk) pillars up to 15 ft. high. These plants cover the landscape like silent sentinels guarding the valley they inhabit.



            The wildlife up there was fascinating as well. I saw one bird, picture below, the likes of which I have never seen. It had a long black double tail with a radiant green chest and an elegantly curved beak. It perched on a tree for a while as if posing for us as we walked by. We also saw the rock hyrax. Besides having a great name, these critters look like giant guinea pigs with the face of a koala (That may be a stretch). They are related very closely (somehow) to elephants. Apparently it is all in the feet. The hyraxes were extremely comfortable with our presence and allowed us to get incredibly close.



Rock Hyrax

            Aside from the wild animals, we also ran into some people on their way down from the summit. They had reached the top but with limited visibility and they seemed disappointed with the conditions. We had received word the as well that the day before a British military group had attempted to summit and were turned back because of harsh conditions and heavy snowfall. Our path to the summit looked that much more daunting.


            In spite of the rain, our hike was a pleasant one but I could feel the altitude starting to affect me. I kept trucking along and crested the last ridge at full speed, I was afraid that stopping would only make me realize the symptoms of the altitude even more. I reached the camp first out of our group an achievement that would end up being the root of my downfall.
            The rest of the group trickled in and soon enough we were all gathered around the table, drinking tea and catching up on the day.
Night fell. I started to feel a headache coming on so I drank more water. Nausea set in. It came in waves. Every five minutes or so I would pause, start sweating, strongly consider running outside and vomiting, calm down and the feeling would pass. Our cook served up dinner: minestrone soup, veggies, spaghetti. I tried to eat but I every bite I took caused my stomach to heave so I ended up skipping dinner all together. I stopped all conversation and had, according to my fellow hikers, a dour look on my face and pale complexion (not that the pale is out of the norm). I was well and truly in the grips of mountain sickness. Gioko suggested that I had not rested enough on the way up and that my pace didn’t allow me to acclimatize appropriately. Reasonable enough. He also said a few hours earlier, my tongue had been blue, apparently a sign of oxygen deprivation. I felt terrible and in a conversation with Lindsey made very clear that if I was to continue on in this vein, there was no way I was going to attempt the summit.
The summit attempt was planned for a 2:30 am wake up and a 3 am start. I went to bed at 7:30 pm. I made note in my notebook in hastily scrawled chicken scratch, “undecided as to whether I will attempt summit. Altitude sickness.” I attempted sleep from 7:30 onwards but, thanks to my legendary amount of water consumption, I woke up to pee every single hour at least once. Every time I flicked on my headlamp, gingerly lowered myself down from the bunk, tiptoed my way around the other beds, and stood in the windy, cold latrine, my head throbbing from the headache. Each time I woke up, Lindsey or Amal would ask, “you coming?” To which I would grumble in reply, “I dunno yet.”
Two o’clock rolled around and I was still feeling miserable, although less so than before. I lie awake, staring at the four cold metal staples holding the plastic roof in place eight inches from my face on the top bunk, while I tried to fight the feeling of nausea and the ebb and flow of the pounding in my head.
I really wanted to climb this mountain, but I kept rationalizing in my head, “hey, you’ll be in Kenya for the next two years, you’ll have another chance, no big deal, just sleep in, by the time you wake up they will be back already as if it never happened, no sweat, just sleep, come back next year.”
Two-thirty struck. I heard Amal, Jacob and Lindsey shifting in their sleeping bags. I stared at the ceiling. Waited. Rolled out of bed.

13,800 ft.- 16,355 ft.

            Breakfast consisted of three biscuits and a cup of tea, hardly fortifying and the only food I was able to consume since 14 hours earlier. We hit the trail at 3:15 am, headlights blazing through the dark night. The sky was cloudless and moonless. Even a quick glance up at the stars was enough to instill a healthy sense of awe into each one of us. It is a rare occasion to be so far away from any sort of light pollution as we were that night, and we all recognized the beauty of the heavens as we lumbered up the steep scree slope.
            We were seven in number: Amal, Lindsey, Jacob, Gioko, Mkongola, Kimau and I. George, Nicole and Kristine had opted to stay behind. Their progress thus far had been admirable in itself. Kristine had powered up the mountain, her first, with out a single complaint and with a smile on her face even through the wettest and steepest situations. Nicole had just conquered malaria a few days before our trip so her ability to push through the pain and make it up to Shipton, our second camp, was remarkable. George, I think, could have made it up to the peak, but he seemed completely happy to be up amongst the clouds in the shadows of the snowy, craggy peaks.
            Guided only by our headlamps, we slogged through trails sodden from the rain the day before. Before long, we began to see patches of snow. The going from this point on was slow. The altitude was taking its toll on many in our group meaning we had to take frequent breaks to catch our breath and take our bearings. Amal, easily the most athletic of our crew, began to struggle around the 4 am mark and Lindsey soon began to feel the same. The hour between 4 and 5 stretched on and on. The group was silent. Mkongola had not slept well the night before and was not his usual bubbly, energetic self, but a few months back he had promised Linsdey that he would take her to the top of Mt. Kenya and he was not about to renege on his vow. Amal set a marker for himself, if he could make it past 5 am, he could make it to the top. I became fixated on my watch, checking every 30 seconds. The closer it got to 5, the longer it took the seconds to flick by.


Amal tore his pants as you can see clearly here.


            Soon enough, however, we conquered time. There was no turning back now. The sun began to light up the horizon and by 5:45 we could turn our headlamps off, our path illuminated by the shades of red emanating from beyond the sea of clouds. The break of day lifted all of our spirits and before long we were cruising towards the peak. Our movement was now slowed, not from fatigue, but from our constant stops to glance around and admire the alien and stunning landscape before us. In the early glow of morning, the sharp ridges of Mt. Kenya were softened and the tarns and snowfields sparkled. The red orb of the sun was perched in the soft wool of the clouds.





            We began the final stretch and had to carefully work our way over and through exposed rocks until the peak was in sight. We were all exhausted but with final bursts of adrenaline we scampered across narrow paths, clutching cables embedded in the rock, towards the rebar ladder build into the six feet of rock that constituted the summit.
            We popped our heads up over the rock wall and were buffeted by wind. We had made it. The wind was a welcome sign of our arrival to the top of the world (or so it felt). Lindsey ran over to tall pole that marked the actual summit and held on and gazed out over the endless landscape. She turned back with tears in her eyes and I looked on, confused, until I too looked out.


 I was overcome by emotion. I was so struck by the beautiful panorama before me: Bation peak across from us with its cloud halo, the rigid sharp spine of the mountain ridges, the blood red sun, the pink and white quilt of clouds and the snow glazed glaciers. I was moved to tears. Nature got me something good.




16,355 ft. – 10,000 ft.

            After our initial moments of awestruck admiration, we realized how cold it really was and started snapping photos so we could start heading down. I have what might be called a tradition at this point of bringing a Tennessee flag on my most exciting hiking trips to fly high above the mountain I have just climbed. So naturally, I hiked it up to the top of Mt. Kenya as well. The past few times I have been accompanied by Samir Sheth, one of my best friends from Bowdoin and a fellow Tennessean. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), he is helping out the Obama campaign in Denver right now and could not take time out of his busy schedule to take a light hike up Mt. Kenya. I’m also a proud recent graduate of Bowdoin College, as is Lindsey. This past weekend was Bowdoin Homecoming but we were thousands of miles away from Brunswick so to celebrate Homecoming we brought up a Bowdoin banner to the summit as well. Many epic pictures were taken.





The victorious crew, best group shot I have on the peak, we'll get it next time


We made it!

            After the photos, we quickly scurried down the ladder and back to the snow encrusted slopes. With adrenaline rushing through our veins, the descent started off quick and cheerful. The snow was slick enough that I was able to slide down a lot of it on my rear and conserve some energy and have some fun at the same time. Energy ebbed the closer we came to camp but in two hours we were sat at our breakfast table, celebrating with sausage and toast. Dark clouds were forming so we packed up quickly and hit the trail at a break neck pace. In our haste, we forgot to snag our pack lunches, while led to a grueling and less than cheerful descent. As we lost altitude, most headaches eased away, but hunger still remained. Conversation ceased early on in the hike as determination to get down took over. I made full use of my iPod and listened to podcast after podcast to block out the pangs of hunger and the cold rain. After the rain set in, we had a few injuries, and we had not had a substantial meal for ten hours by the time we reached our lower camp. We wolfed down our dinner and all fell into coma like sleeps lasting about 10 hours.

10,000 ft. – 7,000 ft.- 0 ft.

            The next day we had a leisurely walk out. I hadn’t mentioned it before, but the early part of the trail had us cross the equator! Exciting stuff. We ran into a large troop of Baboon along the trail who followed us on the final part of the trek down to the Sirimon Gate. We sprawled out on the dry grass and relished in our achievement.




One more night at the base of the Mountain and we were back off to Mombasa. As we drove away, I was struck by how colossal Mt. Kenya actually was. It dominated my field of vision, blocking out the horizon. We all felt a great sense of accomplishment as the mountain receded behind us. Our next challenge is to find something to top Mt. Kenya.
            A brief plug for the mountain itself and the climbing experience. The mountain everyone thinks of when they think of East Africa, or Africa in general, is Kilimanjaro. Kilimanjaro generally costs $300 per person per day with most trips lasting 5-6 days. That price is without transport, with out visas and without pre- and post-trip accommodation. It really adds up. All things told, our six day Mt. Kenya trip cost us ~ $350 per person for the whole trip including: Guides, Porters, park fees, food, transport to and from Mombasa, and accommodation. Our guides, who lead on Kili as well, said Mt. Kenya was a much more interesting climb. If you are thinking about visiting East Africa to experience the natural side of things, consider Mt. Kenya. It is a bargain and an excellent hike.

Thanks for reading,
-Mzungu still riding the feeling of conquering Mt. Kenya

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mt. Kenya (Part I)



It all started a few months back when the dorm duty schedule came out. The schedule laid out all the days for the whole year that each individual staff member would be require to be on campus and available for the students. It also includes all of the school breaks. The moment the calendar came out discussion began over what to do for our fantastically long October break. Ideas were tossed around about game parks (Masai Mara, Tsavo East, Tsavo West, Amboseli), cities and even other countries (Tanzania, Rwanda). But when an ascent of Mt. Kenya was proposed, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: to climb the tallest mountain in Kenya and the second tallest mountain in all of Africa.
Fast-forward a few months. Amal has taken charge of the entire trip and has planned it down to the finest detail: transport, accommodation, guides and porters, gear, food. You name it, Amal had it covered. Seven people made up our hearty team. I’ll run through a quick introduction for each in alphabetical order.

Amal: Hailing from the UK, he organized the whole trip, is a math teacher at the academy, is an avid and able rugby player, and an overall gregarious and energetic guy.



 
George: A good old Boston boy from Southie, has been on the international school circuit for many a year and has been lived everywhere from Basel to Cairo to Mombasa, our oldest member and arguably most steady member.



Jacob: Also hailing from the UK, Jacob graduated from St. Andrews in Scotland. He is a maestro on the violin and a remarkably thoughtful and insightful person. Even after a leg injury on the way down, Jacob trucked without complaint.


Kristine: Mt. Kenya was the first mountain she has ever climbed and she did it with remarkable poise and energy. Kristine is a year 2 teacher at AKA,M and is originally from the Philippines. It was great having her constant smile on the trip.



Lindsey (in the middle): Lindsey is a fellow Bowdoin grad, class of 2010, and arguably the most outgoing and friendly person there is. She is always ready with an uplifting comment or a cheerful song. We talk and reminisce about Bowdoin… a lot.



Nicole: An academy veteran who calls Canada home. I work with Nicole on Student Representative Council. In the two weeks before this trip, Nicole was battling Malaria and some bacterial sickness. She overcame both and ground her way up the mountain. Impressive stuff.



Chase: Well, you all know me, the charming young gentleman from Nashville, Tennessee… right?



0 ft to 7,000 ft

We left Mombasa at 5:30 am on the morning of Friday, October 12th. We all piled into a Safari Car driven by Salim, our reliable and experienced driver, and began the long journey to the base of Mt. Kenya. Immediately after leaving the city we were caught in a massive truck jam that left us swerving off the road and riding the rapidly eroding shoulder in order to make any progress past the log-jammed big rigs. It took almost two hours but we eventually hit the open tarmac and our speed picked up considerably.
The Mombasa highway that connects Nairobi to Mombasa is a beautiful road that makes its way though the beautiful and diverse landscape of Kenya. It is not uncommon to see wild animals from the road and on our journey there and back we saw giraffes, an elephant, dik-diks, zebras, baboons and a wide range of birds. The road serves also as the divide between Tsavo East and Tsavo West, two of the most frequently visited national parks in the country. On the way up I glimpsed a family of baboons hanging around an electrical pole, the young ones scampering up the wires and sliding down while the older ones supervised.
            The ride itself was nerve-wracking. The Mombasa highway is only two lanes wide yet serves as a major transport road for goods coming in and out of the country so traffic is heavy. With the large number of trucks on the road, the going is slow, but to speed progress up, Salim made frequent high speed passes. He would edge slowly towards the center of the road to peek around the large truck ahead, gauge the speed and distance of the oncoming vehicles and then gun the engine and roar around the truck, ducking quickly back into the left lane right as the oncoming traffic flashed their lights, honked and quickly whipped by. Although I had the utmost confidence in Salim and his abilities, I found it too terrifying to look out the front of the car during each increasingly bold pass and buried my head in the bulging folder of crosswords I had brought for the ride.
            Halfway though our journey we stopped at a Sikh Temple for lunch. The temple had been established decades ago when the British colonial powers demanded the construction of a railroad from Mombasa to Kampala. Because the Kenyan laborers knew the landscape well and had the support of the local population, they were able to easily flee from their servitude and return with relative ease to their homes. To complete the line, the British had to import labor from their other large colony, India. These new laborers had no support network were much more suitable to the purposes of the colonialists. Many thousands of Indians died during the construction of the rail. The temple was established to provide room and board for the laborers to ease their suffering somewhat. In the main dining room hangs a banner in memoriam to the many Indians who died in the construction of the “Lunatic Line.”
            The Sikh Temple sits in the middle of a non-descript roadside town that, besides the temple and a nearby mosque, is entirely unremarkable. We drove in, hopped out and wandered over to the dining hall. In order to enter the temple or the dining area, we needed to cover our heads so they had provided brightly colored head coverings for visitors. The food itself is free. And delicious. It is all vegetarian as the Sikh faith does not permit them to kill animals which means they make a fantastic veggie meal. We wolfed down the food, thanked the kitchen staff profusely, and dropped a hefty donation off at the front office to cover the cost of the meal, we hoped. It really was an amazing place; we made note to make a stop on our return journey.
            After about ten hours of driving we made it to Nairobi to pick up Mecongola, our guide. Aside from his fantastic name, Mecongola is a big, outdoors guide with a self-proclaimed ability to be able to befriend anyone. He helps out the Academy frequently with outdoor excursions for the kids and he offered us a great deal for this trip.

Mkongola: large and in charge

              After snagging him, we headed farther north to the foothills of Mt. Kenya. As we drove along, the sky flickered with flashes of heat lightning that erratically lit up the mountain that lay before us. The clouds hovered in the sky with billowing tops but undersides as flat and heavy and anvils. Aside from a brief breakdown on a hill and a little fumbling in the dark in our search for our lodging, we arrived without a hitch at Batian’s View, our home for the night. Batian is the highest peak on Mt. Kenya and we had a beautiful view of it in the morning so the camp’s name is well deserved. After a 14 hour journey in the car, we all retired to our respective cabins and passed out. I had the best sleep I have had in my time in Kenya with the crisp mountain air creating the ideal sleeping environment, something I had come accustomed to in Maine. I went to sleep knowing that tomorrow we take on Mt. Kenya.


7,000 ft to 10,000 ft

            In the morning we woke to a spectacular view of Mt. Kenya perched between the dark branches of our camp and floating on a sea of clouds. We all felt very well rested and ready to take on the day. Over a breakfast of sausage, pancakes and bananas, we met our other two guides, Gioko and Kimau. Gioko is a soft spoken man with a wealth of outdoors experience having been a guide for NOLS when they were still active in Kenya. Kimau was also actively involved with NOLS and radiates confidence and cool especially when on the mountain. He also guides on Kilimanjaro.



Mkongola, Kimau, Gioko

            We headed out of camp early to rent gear for the folks in our group who needed boots and layers. We drove along a bumpy dirt road until we hit a nondescript collection of buildings and a wooden roadside stall. Mecongola hopped out and we assumed he was just stopping to chat or grab some more food. He then beckoned us to come out of the van too. Confused, we piled out and suddenly the place came alive. We looked a little closer and realized the roadside stall actually had hiking gear arranged on it: bright yellow pants, ancient boots, ponchos, etc. What seems to happen is that many foreigners come to Kenya to climb the mountain and, to do so, they buy a lot of fancy gear and boots that they know they will never use again. After completing their trip, they leave their barely used equipment with their porters and guides and fly back home a few pounds lighter. The donations quickly become part of the local economy as the porters can then rent out the gear to anyone who needs it for a few dollars a day. The gear everyone rented was not in the best of shape, but it certainly did the job. After sorting out the gear we also picked up seven men who would be our porters. They hopped in a separate matatu and would meet us at the mountain.


Amal checking out the waterproof pant

            After a brief pit stop in town from more gear and some supplementary food (I made GORP!), we headed to the Sirimon Gate entrance to Mt. Kenya national park. The park has a varying set of fees for entrants. You get charged more for longer stays, as one might expect, vehicles, etc. They also have a different fee for East African Residents and non-residents (tourists). The fee for residents is 3,500 ksh for four days, about $40. For non-residents, the rate skyrockets to 20,000 ksh, about $220. My predicament was that I am currently still technically a tourist. I do not have my East Africa Resident Card yet. But I came prepared with letters from the Ministry of Education, the Academy and the Aga Khan Development Network. The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is notorious for being extremely stingy about allowing reduced priced entry for those who do not have the exact right documents, so my hopes of getting the reduced price were slim at best. But I had no desire (or funds for that matter) to pay for the non-resident entry. I presented my documents in a fancy looking folder to the KWS guard. Kristine is also waiting for her residency card so she stood steadfastly beside me and started talking up a storm. She pelted them with information and subtly but forcefully laid out our case for reduced price entry. One of the guards showed signs of caving in so we pressed the issue. Two minutes later we paid out 3,500 ksh and walked into Mt. Kenya national park as Residents of Kenya. Our biggest hurdle so far was cleared.



            Our hike started in the rain and we would soon realize that heavy rain would be a near constant companion on our trip. We climbed up a long dirt road that wended its way through thick forest and heavy undergrowth. We saw roving troops of baboon, small gerbil-like creatures, and bushbuck off in the distance. The mountain was teeming with wildlife. Elephants apparently often come out on the road at night, but we were not fortunate enough to see any. The farther up we climbed, the thinner the vegetation became. Tall, mighty trees gave way to scraggly, tough shrubs and bushes. By the time we reached Old Moses campsite, our stop for the night, we had gained about 2,500 ft of elevation over the course of three hours. Camp itself was swampy from all the rain we had just trudged through. But the clouds above us were frequently pierced by beautiful rays of sunlight that played on the fields below us at the foot of the mountain.



            When night fell, we all jammed into the camp dinning hall, about 6 ft wide and 50 ft long for dinner. We were joined by a two Danish girls, a group of about twelve high school students from Mombasa, a German man who had just climbed Kilimanjaro and a British student on his gap year. Each group had their own porters that cooked for them so we all enjoyed different meals. After a hearty meal of tomato soup, rice, beef, chapatti, and veggies, we retired to our bunk room (slept all seven of us) and crashed at about 8:30 pm. Our guides had told us we had at least and eight hour day ahead of us so we wanted to be prepared. Conversation was light and soon enough everyone dozed off.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Off to Mt. Kenya

Tomorrow morning at 4:45, a mere 6 hours from now, I will be on my way to Nairobi, and then up to Mt. Kenya national park. I'll be spending 5 days climbing the mountain and then back to Mombasa. We have a crew of seven AKA,M employees and it is shaping up to be a truly magnificent trip. We are expecting a lot of rain though!

It's been a while since I have been able to get out and climb a mountain and I am incredibly eager to get to it. My last ascent was Mt. Lafayette in the White Mountains in NH, my favorite hike of all time. I have little doubt that Mt. Kenya will do its damnedest to challenge and impress. I will have a full rundown, photos and all when I get back.

Til then,
-Mzungu, restless before the ascent of a lifetime up the second tallest mountain in Africa!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Beach Boys


Hey Folks,

Well, it has been a while, hasn’t it. I hope this post finds you well. It’s been a busy few weeks for me and I apologize for breaking my promise to post once a week. Well, here is a new post to slake any curiosity you may still have about my life in Kenya. Thanks, as always, for reading.

This post is all about beaches. As you may know, Mombasa is right smack on the coast of Kenya. Mombasa itself is actually an island. But to the north and south of the island lie a plethora of incredibly swanky beach resorts that cater to the desires of a heavily European clientele. The resorts are gargantuan and are comparable to the ones I have visited on various vacations to the Caribbean in terms of quality of service and quality of infrastructure.

            Work is tough here. Because we all live on campus and work on campus, the vast majority of our life here is spent within the confines of the Academy. Most of the Teaching Fellows jump at any chance they get to escape and see more of Mombasa and Kenya, even if that means just going out for dinner (which happens generally 3 times a week). As I have mentioned, I will post about food soon (I promise!). The food here is fantastic as long as you are outside of the Aga Khan campus. Most weekends that I haven’t been on duty, I have spent traveling.
           
            Anyways, two weekends back, right after my most recent post went up, my friends Lindsey, Safiya and Jacob, and I headed down to South Coast, an area called Diani. The only way off the island of Mombasa to the south is by ferry. The ferry is stationed right next to, literally abutting, AKA,M. On the weekends they generally have three to four of the large flat-bedded ships churning through the water. It is truly a sight to behold to see the ferries unload. The guard on the boat snaps back and releases the taut rope holding back the revving motorcycles and matatus. Once it hits the ground, the motorcycles speed up the ramp and into Mombasa followed closely by the matatus that have a much harder time dragging themselves up the inclined ramp. The lumbering trucks and buses are off last and by the time they creak and groan off the ferry the human flood has begun. What seemed at first like a reasonable amount of people somehow transforms into a veritable swarm. The entrance to the ramp, a few moments ago releasing the last cars becomes clogged with people. Those first off run up the ramp to catch a matatu or taxi while the rest of the people are in no rush at all. They pushcarts full of fruit, carry large sacks of charcoal or tug children along behind them, children oblivious to the crush of people around them. It takes almost ten minutes for the ferry to unload its human cargo before the guard waves the vehicles on for the next trip.

            After the brief and painless trip on the ferry, we hopped on a matatu and for about $1 made it all the way down, about 30-45 minutes, to where our cottage for the night was located. Our accommodations were sparse, but more than adequate. Four beds, one bathroom, one shower. Perfect. We even had access to a pool and the beach. Double check.

            The hotel also housed a number of Colobus Monkeys, apparently the Diani region is the only habitat for these monkeys in Kenya. Exciting stuff! I have very inadequate information on them, so I apologize. But there are these cool bridges that people have put up across the roads there so the monkeys run above traffic rather than through it. Conservation efforts are alive and well in Diani.

            There was still plenty of daylight left so we made our way down to the beach to grab some lunch and enjoy the sun. Upon reaching the beach we were immediately set upon by Beach Boys. These are not the Beach Boys most Americans or Europeans are used to, these guys have no immediately apparent musical aptitude for soothing beach tunes, rather these men seek to provide services to people on the beach. Some of these men, the younger ones generally, provide “services” to generally older European women. Sex tourism is a large sector of the Kenyan economy whether authorities that be in Kenya like it or not. It is not out of the ordinary to see an older white man or woman clasping hands on the beach or nuzzling up at the bar to a much younger, more robust Kenyan. It would be rash to assume these are all client/ prostitute relationships; however it certainly is reasonable to assume that most are. These people escape their lives in Europe or the US to come to Kenya, away from any prying eyes (that know who they are) to live out their fantasies in an idyllic beach setting.

            The other beach boys were the ones more interested in our hardy band of Teaching Fellows. These guys sell anything a touristy beachgoer could possibly desire: key chains, bracelets, coconuts!, shells, and marijuana. They are relentless. No matter how many times you wave them off, they come back for more. To quote the late, great Obi-Wan Kenobi: “The sand people are easily startled, but they’ll soon be back… and in greater numbers.” Truer words have not been said. We settled down on our towels and pulled out our books and were the picture of relaxation. But soon enough, “Hey, my brother from another mother! Are you relaxing?” Me: “Yes, as I am sure you can tell.” Relaxation over. Next follows an offer from him to sell us something, and then five minutes of us telling him we are not interested and if he could please leave us alone. Two minutes after he leaves, another man shows up with a similar approach, as if our minds had changed in that short span of time.
           
            I know I sound callous. Our interactions with these men defined our weekend. We came to relax but we were consistently frustrated when it came to be that our every interaction with any Kenyan had to involve some transaction. Whether we were walking to a restaurant and a man joins our group to chat, inevitably, a few minutes in, he asks for a small fee for showing us where to go, even though we were well aware of our direction and final goal. These men are forced to invent jobs for themselves where they force themselves on tourists and seek to squeeze out every bit of money they can.

            Much of the economy of Kenya is based on tourism: safaris, Mt. Kenya, the beaches, etc. With the recent political unrest with the riots as well as the actions of the Somali pirates, Kenya has been placed on a number of travel warning lists by countries like the US. What this warning means is that US insurance companies will not cover travel and health insurance for their customers while they visit Kenya as it is too risky. Therefore, many people cancel their trips or decide to go somewhere else. This leaves Kenya in somewhat of a rut. These beach boys, who survive off of the little odds and ends extracted from tourists, suddenly have a massive drop in potential customers. Therefore, their behavior towards us is somewhat explained. They need to double their aggressiveness and efforts in order to make even a fraction of what they were before.

            Our group had many debates on how to deal with our situation. We first felt that if the people were not selling a product that we wanted to buy, we were completely justified in refusing their advances. After a few hours, we wanted to refuse them on purely personal grounds, out of sheer frustration. We eventually caved and paid for a few hugely overpriced coconuts and some cheap key chains. These purchases led to another onslaught of beach salesmen all demanding we “promote” them and when they were rebuffed, we were greeted with looks of distain. It is an immensely frustrating situation. Obviously, I am living here and teaching Kenyan students, doing what I can in small ways to better the future of this nation. I want the country and its people to do well. But to pay out a couple hundred shillings to every man I run into on the beach is not only not sustainable with the paycheck I get every month, but it is also not sustainable for the men who seek the payment. If I pay out the money, it only encourages the continuation of what is obviously a profession of desperation, but also one that fails to develop the people or country in any way.

            So I am confused and obviously conflicted on this issue. It’s hard to see, but only so much can be done. And on the selfish side of things, its hard to escape from a truly crushingly hard week of work and be faced with moral dilemmas and having to constantly ward off people. I appreciate any thoughts or comments on this issue. Readers! I ask you to be my moral guide.

            Well, I have more to say, but it will have to go into another post as this one has rambled on for a while.


Not all the interactions we negative! These kids were fascinated by the cover screens on my Kindle.


Speaking of moral dilemmas, check this one out. Lindsey Thompson, a fellow Bowdoin grad, submitted this question to the New York Times ethicist after a conversation we had about the women we pay to clean our apartments. Article below:



Thanks for reading,

-Mzungu currently confused and cashless after a weekend at the beach