Monday, September 23, 2013

Thoughts on the Westgate Attack

It is strange to be outside of the United States when something like this happens. Not in the sense that I fear for my life and wish I was back in the states, but in the sense that this sort of attack has an air of familiarity about it. It feels like a distinctly Western sort of act of terrorism. In the past two years alone in the States we have seen the shootings at Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon Bombings, the Aurora Colorado shooting, the shooting at the Sikh temple in the Midwest, the recent Washington Navy Yard shooting, among what I am sure are many others. But things like that just don’t happen in Kenya, or at least not nearly as frequently. The last large scale terror attack in Kenya was in 1998 when the US Embassy in Nairobi was bombed by minions of the late Osama Bin Laden. Not to say that Kenya hasn’t had its own violent troubles since then with the Post-Election violence in 2007-2008, violent struggles over land and resources and other smaller scale acts of terror like recent grenade attacks. They are mostly self-contained, inward facing events.
            This most recent incident stands out. The attack itself was focused on a symbol of Nairobi’s, and Kenya’s, increasing westernization and its growth as the largest economy in East Africa. Westgate Mall would not be out of place in any large American, Canadian or European city. It has food courts, jewelry stores, a kids play place, rooftop parking, escalators and fancy cafes. It draws an international crowd and a wealthy crowd. It was targeted by an international group of terrorists that some speculate have connections to the group that was behing the 7/7 attacks in London. This incident, although contained in Kenya, has largely international players, motives and implications.
I was at Westgate a few months ago myself, with students on a Model United Nations trip. We ate pizza and frozen yogurt, bought snacks at the Nakumatt shopping center, perused books and movies and checked out a bizarre Chinese outdoor apparel shop. When I look at the pictures plastered all over the internet, I see a family fleeing in terror in front of the bullet splintered window of the ice cream place we are ate; Armed men from the Kenya Defense Force in front of the iconic Nakumatt Elephant where we shopped; and the colorful play place I noted looked surprisingly like the fast food play places back home that is now reportedly being used as a make shift prison of the few remaining hostages.
            This attack reflects Kenya’s stature as an important political entity in the region too. The main logic behind this horrifying act, if indeed one can seek logic in such senseless violence as this, is as retaliation for Kenyan involvement in Somalia. Just last year, Kenya, most likely with strong urging from the US, moved significant amounts of troops into Southern Somalia and took control of one of the biggest cities under the control of Al-Shabaab, Kismayo. Kismayo serves as a significant port for the export of charcoal to other areas in the Indian Ocean. The siege and seizure of this town was a significant blow to Al-Shabaab and, in a way, this attack is a sign that the Kenyan military has done serious harm to the organization, enough, at least, to merit a serious and violent reprisal.
Some Kenyan members of staff at school were remarking at how Kenya seemed very unprepared for an event like this one. Where in the US police are trained extensively on these situations due to their unfortunate frequency, the Kenyan police are more focused on crowd control situations and more casual, less intensive acts of terror. Where the US media immediately swarms to cover the horror and play up the story lines, the Kenyan media was quick to the scene but slow to sensationalize. Where US hospitals are built to handle large-scale trauma situations, the Kenyan hospitals quickly ran out of beds. Its almost a good sign that Kenya isn’t used to responding to these situations, it goes to show that they just don’t happen that often here. But an incident like this might also mark a watershed moment for Kenya, it might indicate their increasingly bigger role in the region and might mean they have to buckle down and train for more events like this in the future.
            It’s rare that I get to focus on my own emotions much here at school. Serving as a dorm parent, mentor, advisor, counselor and friend means that I deal with a lot of other people’s emotions and struggles every day, week in and week out, but have very little time to self-reflect and take bearings for myself. But I have found myself reflecting more in the past few days, mostly in regards to how our kids have handled the situation. Once the call went out for blood donations on Sunday, our kids jumped at the chance to contribute. A large number of our older students felt obligated to help out in any way they could. Their determination to help and their sense of empathy and citizenship at their age was truly admirable. In morning assembly today, the standard speeches and announcements were cancelled and a new program substituted in to reflect and take note of the events in Nairobi. The choir stepped up to sing the national anthem, and I wasn’t even remotely prepared for the emotional intensity of their song. The Kenyan national anthem is a beautiful song in and of itself, but when sung with the wavering timbre of deep and painful sorrow, as it was this morning, the haunting mournful overtures of the song were palpable. Next followed a poem written by one of our older students that seemed to be making the rounds on various news websites already after he had posted it the day before. It served as a solemn reminder of mortality and an encouraging call for unity and resilience.

Thanks all for your notes, calls and messages of concern. None of our students or staff were affected directly by the violence but it sounds like some friends of friends might have been caught up in the mayhem. We can only hope for a quick resolution and then quick steps to recovery.

It's been quite a hiatus from my blogging but I am hoping this marks a return. I hope all is well where ever you are in the world.

-Mzungu with one eye on the news and one eye on the courageous acts of our kids

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Parent Safari: Masai Mara

Hi All,

I have my own world, my own routine and my own mindset here in Kenya and, most of the time, I am incredibly removed from the life, the family and the friends I have nurtured over the past twenty-three years of my life. My communication with my previous existence occurs solely through the bright plasma confines of my computer; my friends and family condensed into postage stamp sized streaming images along side my folders, files and photos. They have a hard time fathoming my life, and I theirs. But, for a stretch of two weeks in March and April, my worlds collided. Two of those smiling faces that generally appear at prearranged times on my screen apparated to a hotel in Nairobi and came into my Kenyan reality around 10 pm on the evening on March 22nd.

My parents had been planning a trip over to East Africa the second I set foot in Mombasa and my generous two-week Spring Break proved to be the perfect time for a visit. Our adventure would not be a light one, no, this trip would cover the breadth of Kenya and jewel of Tanzania. This post here will run through our visit to Masai Mara, another will cover the remainder of our grand seven-day Safari, and a later post will take on our time in Mombasa and Zanzibar. Hold on to your safari hats.

I met my parents at their swank Nairobi hotel after I had hitched a ride with our wizened safari guide, Salim, from Mombasa. They had arrived a day earlier and had been sleeping off the jet lag that hits rather hard after jumping from Nashville to Nairobi. The day had done them some good as they looked rather chipper when I met their embrace in front of the chic metal ostrich guarding the door to the hotel. It was a surreal experience to see my folks just then. It felt entirely, well, unnatural that I could have driven a mere eight hours and encountered them there in Nairobi. It was a feeling I never really shook the entire trip; I continued to be hit by waves of disorientation, big moments of juxtaposition between a life crafted separately from all that is familiar with the two most familiar people in my life.

We crashed early so we could make an early start for our trip out to our first day of Safari. We arose in time for a 6:30 am departure to beat the notorious Nairobi traffic, and beat it we did, cruising through the city almost unhindered.

Now is as good as any a time to introduce our driver and guide, Salim Senty. Salim has been leading safaris for forty, four-zero, years. He is everyone at the Academy’s go-to safari man for his encyclopedic knowledge, his unmatchable eye for spotting game and his wealth of anecdotes about each and every park in Kenya. He is a tall man, spindly with a head intermittently capped with an intricately embroidered white Swahili hat. His face is worn like the aged surface of a Tsavo baobab from years out in the parks; his skin pulled taut over his sharp chin and high cheekbones. He was accompanied by Mark, his opposite in almost every way: short, shapeless, inexperienced, and anecdote-less. Mark was along to learn more about the parks in West and Central Kenya to expand his domain to outside Mombasa. It was nice to have two drivers, for a lot of driving was to take place over those seven days, so, along with plenty of spare tires, a spare driver was key.

Soon after leaving Nairobi we took a sharp left and climbed steadily upwards into a cloudbank. We soon crested this particular ridge and were met with a steady line of curio shops and signs proclaiming “Hakuna Matata,” we had entered tourist land. These shops hung on the edge of a steep drop down into dense forest overlooked, from what we could gather through the thick gloss of clouds, a vast golden expanse commonly known as The Great Rift Valley. Our view obscured, we chose to carry on down the steep road, packed with heavily overloaded trucks and Asians and Europeans wedged into safari cars.

The change in landscape was dramatic after only a short amount of driving. The thick, green vegetation adorning the rocky outcrops of the Kenyan highlands segued into the vastness of the Valley, a golden river of grass and wheat flowing between the high mountain banks. The road was lined with concrete and corrugated metal houses and businesses; people zipped along on bicycles laden with goods while brightly dressed Masai herding sheep, goat and cattle stood out like glowing embers against the ashen wheat.

The highway, seemingly suffering an identity crisis due to its constant change of landscape and condition, eroded into a dusty, rock-strewn road for our final push to our first destination, Maasai Mara. Before long, our back right tire had enough of the strain and gave out, necessitating a tire change. Within moments, four young boys came charging out of their briar-fenced homes to sit and watch our predicament unfold. Our tire changed, they melted into the cloud of dust the van left behind.

The road degraded even further and Salim turned off road for the last leg to our lodge. We dodged thick bushed and dipped into dusty riverbeds and right as my parents patience for the constant juddering was flagging, we reached the brush lined entrance to Mara Leisure Camp. We were greeted upon our arrival with cool towels to wipe away the travel grime and some fresh juice. After sorting logistics, we were whisked away to our rooms.

Tented camps, along with your standard hotel, are the most frequent from of accommodation on safari. They are an interesting combination of rusticity and luxury. The rooms themselves have wooden floors and a tiled bathroom in the rear, complete with shower, bath, sinks, toilet, however, there are no walls or ceiling but a heavy-duty tent instead. The tent itself is probably 15 tall at the peak, 25 feet across and 40 feet long. It provided all the comfort of a hotel room with the added benefit of being able to have the night breeze flow through the room and being able to hear all the animal activity going on outside at night. The tents were spaced out over a large area, all on raised platforms, and surrounded by tall hedges and trees for privacy. The rest of the area housed the main building which had the reception, bar and restaurant.

After doing a quick round of the facilities, Salim met us in the lobby for an afternoon game drive for us to get our first glimpse of the Mara. We cruised along a dirt road, past colorfully clad school children, herds of animals spurred along by young boys, and eventually a small town that lay just on the edge of the park. After crossing a narrow bridge we reached the entrance gate, showed our identification and cruised in.

Immediately we were treated to the sight of Thomson’s gazelles grazing along side the Topi that stood watch while atop mounds of earth. The Thomson’s gazelles are small hoofed animals, built for speed, with a distinct black racing stripe running along their bodies. You can see their muscles rippling and tensing even as they just sit and eat; any small disturbance sends them bounding every which way like a dispersed pack of flies. The Topi are bigger creatures, but similarly hoofed. Their skin has as similar coloration to and shimmers like oil reflecting the sun in a roadside puddle.

Thomson's Gazelle



We drove a few kilometers deeper into the park and encountered a family of no less than sixteen giraffe, noshing on highly placed leaves in a slight valley. My mom is a giraffe fanatic, they have been her favorite animals for as long as she can remember, and so she was understandably in a state of pure joy. We encountered many giraffe through out the course of the week and it was rare to catch her without a smile on her face when in their presence. I think she used up most of her iPhone memory taking videos and photos of the stately animals.

A few minutes later Salim spotted a sizable band of elephants tromping across the plains. There must have been twenty-five to thirty of them with a few babies that Salim aged at little more than a week to three weeks old. They were cruising at a considerable pace away from an advancing wall of smoke; their large herd backed by the flaxen fields, leafy trees and thick cloud of smoke made for quite the dramatic image.

Just from a quick look around, I could see small pillars of smoke all around us that were fusing into one large billowing cloud that blocked out the blue sky and the evening sun. Apparently, the Rangers at the park were responsible for the burn. The bugs had become so unbearable for the animals that they were fleeing the Kenyan side of the park over to Serengeti Park in Tanzania. The rangers found it best smoke the bugs out to keep the animals around. The clouds were ever-present during our safari and the flames tore through the grassland. We frequently encountered large swaths of completely blackened hillsides and plains with flame bleached skulls amidst the ashes. As the encroaching inferno pushed along the insects, birds gathered in biblical numbers along the burn line to feast on the fleeing pests. I can only imagine with the dry plains and intense sun that burns like this are not unheard of as natural occurrences.

After admiring the elephants for a while, Salim received a call over the radio concerning a lion sighting; it seemed our brief afternoon foray into the park was proving to be a rather fruitful one. We arrived alongside about six other vans, one of the major downsides to safari in a popular park. The engine noise of masses of gathered cars really dampens the joy of nature. The lion was about as uninterested in us as could possibly be. He lay on his side in tall grass, largely hidden from our prying eyes. I’ve seen more activity from a lion skin rug. The other cars soon grew bored and moved on while we sat a while longer. Nothing much came of it but a raised head, perhaps at the newfound silence, and the arrival of two massive trucks we thought were troop carriers but turned out to be packed to the brim with safari-goers. We moved on.

The sun was on its final trajectory towards the horizon and it was just about time to head out of the park when Salim got one final call on his radio. Cheetah. He pondered for a moment, and decided it was worth it race against the sun to see the big cat. We came across a large blackened area with a few vans in the midst of it. Our tired crackled along the cinders and kicked up a rather potent cloud of black dust. In the middle of the patch lay a beautiful cheetah reclining on the ground, still warm from the blaze. Its white coat made it stand out starkly from its chosen area of repose. The black markings around its eyes, like ashen tearstains, and its speckled hide were truly something wonderful to behold.

Pressed by daylight, and park regulations, Salim threw the car into gear and we raced off out of the park. The bar had been set high for the rest of our stay in the Mara.

We were the only people staying in our lodge. Apparently many vacationers had cancelled reservations over fears of post-election violence following the elections in March. Their fears proved to be unfounded but the lack of clientele made for a strange atmosphere. Sitting alone in the sizeable dinning room provided us with a great opportunity to just sit and talk and enjoy each others company for as long as we wanted with out disturbing any other guests. It also allowed out waiter to inform us every night that our dinner was prepared especially for us, which made us feel bad for the chef who had to get the whole kitchen going for just the three of us. Regardless, we spent every night in each other’s company and had wonderful conversations about home, life, my brother, Brooks, who couldn’t make the trek over, and family. It cannot put into words how enjoyable it was. I’m remarkably fortunate to have two very adventuresome, admirable parents; I’ve got a lot to live up to.

Legs for days

We got up at sunrise the next day to meet Salim for our first full day safari. We grabbed a pack lunch supplied by the hotel and off we went. It quickly became apparent that the luck of our previous day was just that… luck. We spent two hours cruising along and we saw barely a gazelle. Even so, the vastness of the Mara landscape is something we all agreed we could drive through for hours. The panorama provided an ideal conductor for peaceful musings, zoning out, and deep thought. It was with a faint tinge of disappointment over a broken vigil that Salim received another call and zipped off to find us out first big game of the day.

Leopard. We arrived amidst a swarm of other cars but Salim maneuvered us in a prime position. We could see the dark splotches on the leopard’s coat flickering through the tall shoots of grass. Surprisingly, it moved from its protected position right towards our van, around the front and on to the other side of the road where it wandered for a bit and then came right back to our van, around and back into the tall grass. At one point, there was nothing more separating us from the sinewy killing machine than a few millimeters of metal and glass. Awesome.

Right as the leopard went back to cruising the grass, the same family of elephant we had seen the day before crested a hill behind us and moved right down the road and past the cars. Nature, man.

I’ll take the time now to discuss the Big Five. The Big Five are what most people come to Kenya with the goal of seeing. It is a category of animals that I believe was established around the time of our hunting happy President Teddy Roosevelt. These five animals were apparently the five hardest beasts to hunt on foot in Africa due to their ferocity and tenacity. In the day of the photo safari, they still hold a somewhat sacred spot on every safari goers must see list. These animals are: Cape Buffalo, Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Rhinoceros. The Mara is particularly popular because if you spend a few days kicking around, you have a pretty good chance of seeing most, if not all, of these animals.

After our Leopard/ Elephant experience, we went for another two hours with out seeing much of anything beyond a circling carrion bird or distant herds of Cape Buffalo. Lunchtime drew near so Salim aimed towards a scenic viewpoint. We trundled along the rutted roads until Salim hit the brakes, pointed towards a cluster of shrubs and pulled out his binoculars. The uninitiated in the back just squinted and shook our heads, what was he looking at? He whipped the car in reverse and made a beeline towards the bushes. And, just like that three lions rose regally into sight, a male and two females lounging in the shade, taking shelter from the blazing sun overhead. Just like the lion we had seen the day before, they paid us no heed and carried on relaxing and pawing at the leaves overhead. We watched for a while, enjoying the solitude and lack of other engines, and then carried on our way.

We settled down for lunch under a shady acacia tree that doubled as a weaverbird boarding house it seemed. The branches were laden with the intricately woven nests of the crafty birds. Our lunch spot offered not only shade, but also a terrific view of the park all the way to the border with Tanzania.


We had similar luck game wise the rest of the day as we did earlier on, long stretches of nothing but savannah dotted with hippos, crocodiles, a hyena and two more lions. By the end of the day we had seen 4 of the big five: Leopard, Elephants, Lions and Buffalo. Only the Rhinos remained unseen.

Our third day, and final full day, proved to be almost identical to the previous day except for on this day the long stretch of solitude was abruptly ended by the discovery of a cheetah eating its freshly killed prey. We found the cheetah with its jaws clenched on the hind leg of the gazelle, thrashing it around at sickening angles. It got up occasionally to drag the body to one spot or another to expose different areas for consumption and eventually it used its claws to eviscerate (I never thought I would ever type that word using its literal sense) the carcass and begin feasting afresh.

It’s truly fascinating to watch one animal devour another, and something I found myself surprisingly enthralled by. It seems perfectly human to shy away from such gore but everyone around us was equally engaged with the sight. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this is a really basic reason why people go on safari, to satisfy that latent desire to see nature at its basest. The beauty of it and the natural instinct behind the sight transcends the visible, visceral carnage. I personally think I would have been disappointed not to see one of the predators take down its prey or at least the aftermath; the Discovery Channel videos of my youth would have me expect no less.

The rest of the day was rather muted in comparison. We saw plenty of hoofed mammals that became more or less as exciting to see as squirrels. They just exist in such large numbers that they became an essential part of the landscape; it was unnerving when there weren’t any around. We settled for lunch on a beautiful ridge and watched a passing lightning storm lash by and I couldn’t help but think, as much as I hate to admit, of Toto’s “Africa.” ( Mzungu problems. We finished the day in search of the elusive Rhino, even venturing through a valley know as none other than Rhino Valley, which only served to raise false hope. We were able to cover a large portion of the park, however, and saw the plains turn into hills and valleys and back into plains, which proved to be well worth the excursion.

We returned to the hotel exhausted and ready for dinner. As the only guests, they pulled out all the stops and treated us to a candlelit dinner that probably would have been quite romantic had I not been there. The food was made “just for you” as always. As we finished up dinner, we saw the flicker of a match and the low rumblings of a song. I grasped my chair in horror. We were about to be treated to the Kenyan tourist song. Kenyan Airlines plays it when you land in Nairobi and any sort of musical or dance act at resorts will know this song by heart. Here it is for your listening pleasure. It’s got a catchy tune and lyrics too. I’m warning you. ( After the song, they brought a rather sizable cake and informed us we were now a part of their family. I would rather hope it takes more than a few night stay in a hotel to become family, but the message was appreciated. It was an enjoyable end to an excellent stay in the Masai Mara.

We packed out early the next morning; disappointed we weren’t able to see a rhino. We left through the park in the hopes of catching sight of some more game before our long drive down to our next stop, Lake Naivasha. We were slowly making our way along when Salim kicked it into overdrive without saying a word. We were jolted in our seats, looked around wide-eyed in the morning light and started scanning the horizon. He would only be doing this for one reason: Rhino. The call brought others and us to the middle of nowhere, with no animals in sight. The driver who had called in the sighting could not be raised and Salim shook his fist in frustration. He pulled out his binoculars, scanned the landscape and… boom. He pointed. There they are.

On our final morning in the Mara we were treated to not one, not two, but three Rhinoceros. A whole family that mirrored my own at the time (sorry Brooks): a mom and dad and a little kid. They remained a health distance from the rumbling vans but their majesty was apparent even from far away. They floated along like dark icebergs in the golden sea of grass, an image that had the appearance of a photographic negative taken in an ocean far away. And just like that our Mara Big 5 was complete.

Thanks for reading along, folks. I’ll post in a week or so about the rest of the safari and then about Zanzibar. I hope all continues to be well wherever you are!

-Mzungu still basking in the joy of a parental visit

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Intrepid Travelers take on the Emirates and the Sultanate

Hey Folks,

I hope everything is well wherever you may be!

I have known Andrew since I was five. We became fast friends in England where we overlapped for a little over a year before my family moved back to Nashville and we have been able to see each other, as a conservative estimate, once every two years. He is easily my oldest friend. It is one of those natural friendships that requires little upkeep and one that we are both able to ease right back into even after years of being apart.

As some of you may know, Kenya just went through a rather important election, the first since the widespread Post-Election violence in 2007. Because many local schools were closing for the week to be voting stations and because of concerns about safety, the Academy moved our mid-February week off to the first week of March to coincide with the elections. Partly because it sounded like most shops and restaurants would be closed and that the Academy might have to go into lock down if anything bad did happen, which it thankfully did not have to do, and partly because of that looming threat of unrest, I decided to take the week to travel.

Fortunately for me, Andrew currently lives in Duabi in the United Arab Emirates, a mere 5-hour direct flight away. Funny thing about direct flights, though, is that they tend to be more expensive than those circuitous ones. So, naturally, I headed down to Ethiopian Airlines to book a nice cheap indirect flight through Addis Ababa for a very reasonable, and some might say outrageously low flight. I made sure to check their safety record online before departure and everything checked out.

It turns out that you do indeed get what you pay for, however, and instead of arriving in Dubai at 3 in the morning as planned, I did not arrive until 8:30. I was stuck in Addis for about five hours over the course of which it seemed Ethiopian was playing mind games with the passengers: the plane computer broke, the bused us back to the terminal, fed us cake and water for dinner, passed us through immigration to get a hotel and, before we could leave the airport, grabbed us at the last minute to board a new flight. So pleasant.

My first interaction with the local Emiratis occurred at immigration. Only men were employed at immigration and they all had a certain swagger to them, something I couldn’t quite place my finger on but something that felt very strongly like aloofness. They all wore impeccably white robes from their ankles up to their heads and were crowned with thick black rolls of fabric that held their ensemble in place. Their beards were equally flawless and looked as if they had been shorn by precision lasers instead of human hands. Their feet reflected a certain, shall we say, metro-sexuality; they were obviously very well taken care of and had been on the receiving end of many a pedicure. It was very apparent that these men spent a lot of time, and money, on their appearance. I later learned from Andrew that the Emiratis, especially the men, have it made and that even for a low level government position, like an immigration passport stamper, they make about 80,000 USD a year. It’s no surprise the Arab Spring did not sweep through the UAE like it did in other parts of the Arab world. My passage through immigration was painless, probably because of the cheerful, well-paid immigration officers, and I was through to the Duty-Free where I was able to purchase some small tokens of appreciation for my hosts.

As I had absolutely no access to Internet over the course of my delays, so Andrew, too, was caught in an elaborate dance of misinformation from the Ethiopian Airlines desk in Dubai. But, regardless, he was there patiently waiting at Arrivals. A quick picture to assure my mother I had arrived safe and sound and we were off.

Hey Ma

I can only assume I was poor company at the beginning of my stay in Dubai as I was almost twenty-six hours with out sleep. Andrew kindly showed me up the apartment and to the room of his apartment mate’s that I would be requisitioning for my time there (thanks Lewis!) and I promptly passed out for five hours while Andrew made an appearance at work. After I was roused by his return, we went out on his balcony to reminisce about our past trips. It was here that I got my first real, non-drowsy view of Dubai.

Andrew’s apartment is on the 27th floor which means it has fantastic views. It is so high up that my ears popped, not once, but twice on the elevator ride. The apartment looks out over, first, the parking garage and pool for the apartment, followed by a bustling road, a beautiful mosque, and a sprawl of two-story villas. Eventually the land runs out and the Gulf begins. We were out there at the perfect time, right as the sun was setting over the water, illuminating the distant waves and highlighting the skeletal scaffolding of the port.

Soon enough, Beth, Andrew’s other roommate, came home. Andrew knows Beth from home in the UK; I had just missed her after I left for the States. Two years ago, after I was returning from my study abroad, we had Christmas dinner at their house along with the Speers, Andrew’s family. So although, Beth and I don’t go way back, we still go back and it was fantastic to see her. After some great conversation, we headed over to Alex’s, Andrew’s friend from work, apartment for Ping Pong and Pizza. Alex is French, studied in Quebec, and now works in Dubai; he is an overall great guy and an international man of mystery if I have ever met one. It’s nice to see that Andrew is a good judge of character.

It was a great relaxing evening but soon enough we were heading home, across the bustling highway. Now is as good a time as any to talk about Dubai itself, as I was stuck by the combined absurdity, immensity, wealth and unnatural nature of Dubai at precisely this time as we were walking slowly back home. Massive skyscrapers claw towards the sky, lit haphazardly by office lights and residences; sleek high-class luxury automobiles zip along a perfectly crafted highway, eight lanes wife; a Space Age metro system soars above the road, its stations appearing like interstellar spaceports dotted rhythmically along the track. My immediate thought, I am not ashamed to admit, was that it looks exactly like Coruscant. For the uninitiated, Coruscant is planet from the Star Wars universe that is covered entirely by skyscrapers and industrial structure and is home to the Jedi Council among other administrative headquarters. It is a big ball of lights, sounds, and activity. The bizarre thing about Dubai is that it has not been around that long and the view you get from the main drag is all there really is. The huge buildings line the road obscuring all else, but once you go behind them, the illusion is broken for nothing lies beyond them, just low lying houses and desert. It seems illogical, but it makes you appreciate the power of money and the ludicrous things it allows you to accomplish.

The next day, Andrew and I drove down to Abu Dhabi, an Emirate just down the coast from Dubai that is apparently the more conservative, economically at least, version of Dubai and that is headed by Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE. He also lends his name to the Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world located in Dubai. During the economic downturn in 2009, they had to abandon construction on the then Burj Dubai. Sheikh Khalifa knew a good self-marketing chance when he saw one and offered to pay for the completion of the tower under one circumstance, they chance the name from Burj Dubai to Burj Khalifa and, voilĂ , there you go. Here is what it looked like as Andrew and I drove by it:

Burj Khalifa

Our mission was to see the Grand Mosque, inside and out. Andrew had been once before, but it was dark and he was wearing shorts so he was not allowed inside. Poor planning. He must have been busy before hand. Knowing full well about the regulations now, and because we had a nice dinner with Beth’s parents that night, we came well prepared and looking dapper in our khakis and button downs.

The Mosque was stunning. It is made of pure white stone, I am assuming marble, and has four pristine minarets that shoot up at each corner of the building. A dazzling colonnade, replete with inlaid flowers of mother of pearl, surrounds the courtyard of the mosque. The entry way had some beautifully crafted tiles and intricate designs and Arabic calligraphy in the stonework. Inside the mosque itself, they had obviously spared no expense. The carpet inside is apparently the largest in the world and took two years to make. Enormous chandeliers hang from the ceiling. These, to me at least, seemed a little over the top. They are all sorts of gaudy colors and really do a disservice to the breathtaking pure white domes they dangle from. The Qibla wall is engraved with all 99 names of Allah from floor to ceiling. The mihrab is coated in gold leaf and has a serpentine movement that makes the viewer imagine it as some sort of eternal flame, ever radiant. The effect was increased by the beautiful muqarnas towards the top that scatter light and increase the incendiary feel even more. See photos with captions to help explain that Islamic architectural jargon!

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

A little much, don't you think?


Maquarnas, see what I mean! 

After exploring the main prayer hall, Andrew and I set our sights on climbing up to the top of one of the minarets. After asking numerous security guards who all looked at us like we were nuts, we found a janitor who looked intrigued by the idea. He didn’t say no, and that was a good sign. He said ask a security guard, so we wandered away, and wandered back, and he looked at us with eager eyes. You could tell that he kind of wanted to show us up there, but in the end we unfortunately failed in our mission.

We left the mosque and grabbed a quick coffee with two girls that went to Vanderbilt and are teaching English in Dubai, small world, eh? It was pleasant enough, but we had dinner to catch so we sped off into the sunset.

Dinner was at Seafire. Seafire is at the Atlantis hotel. The Atlantis hotel is at the top of that utterly implausible and downright amazing feat of engineering that is the Palm Jumeirah. Yeah, I went there, and yeah, it is as cool as it looks.

Dinner was with the Kristies, Beth’s parents, and it was a truly enjoyable affair. The Kristies know how to enjoy life to the fullest and every conversation is full of laughter. I won’t even try to explain how delicious the food was, but I can safely say that I consumed the most tender, delectable steak I have ever eaten before. No description could do it any justice so I will just stop there. We headed our separate ways after dinner and Andrew and I began to prepare for the journey ahead.


Since Andrew and I hit adulthood, we have made a tacit pledge to explore as much as we can when we finally meet up. We travel extremely well together, and, at this point, have travelled to eight countries. So, naturally, we decided to go on a quick road trip this time around right down the other coast to Muscat, Oman.

Once we left Dubai, we were legitimately driving through the desert evidenced by the fact that Camels dotted the landscape every kilometer or so. All along the way little camps popped up, all fenced in and with ATV’s at the ready, all waving the UAE flag. It was strangely beautiful, if monotonous. It only took about an hour to reach the beautiful, if a bit unorganized, border with Oman. The border crossing coincides with a series of jagged mountains that rise from the desert like the fangs of some long dead dragon of old. Our American passports were tools of great expediency as we were quickly waved through when we showed them, while other nationalities were frequently stopped and searched.

Once in Oman, the drive was actually pretty dull. It reminded me of driving in Florida, lots of palm trees and small shops of a similar architectural style. The ever-present minarets looked not dissimilar to the church steeples that dot the Floridian landscape, especially if when you squint. What stuck me most was the amount of construction going on. Every ten kilometers a new roundabout or overpass was being fashioned. Each existing roundabout was adorned with an elaborate faux mosque or some other equally elegant structure with strong overtones of Islamic design. And, strangely, from the border all the way to Muscat, four and a half hours driving, the road was lined with streetlights. The entire way. It didn’t strike me until about a quarter of the way into our drive but once I realized it, and much to Andrew’s chagrin, I wouldn’t stop commenting on it. It was bizarre and indicative, along with the construction, of a major recent influx of money into Oman.

We arrived in Muscat in the early afternoon. I could not have imagined a city more distinctly different from Dubai. The city sprawls for well over ten miles along the coast, not because of a large population, but because of its location sandwiched between the Gulf of Oman and sharp mountains similar to those I described at the border. It is made up almost exclusively of square white buildings. The square, white or off-white buildings have all the potential to be clunky and sovietesque but are just stunning set against the jagged dark hills and mountains that stand in such stark contrast to them, while the buildings’ elegant pointed windows break the plain nature of their form.

To add to the architectural beauty of the city, there are small, rotund, cylindrical forts that are perched high up on almost every sharp ridge, ostensibly as look outs over the ocean. The Omani empire came into conflict with the Portuguese when the Iberians made their way to this part of the world. Just as the Portuguese had a presence in Mombasa, the Omani empire once held sway here. The Omanis militarized well and their remaining forts are truly a sight to behold.

Andrew had been down to Muscat for business before so we made a quick stop at the hotel he had stayed at for a quick drink and advice on where to go from the concierge. We decided to head in the general direction of the old town and soon found ourselves zipping around an old town that had obviously not been designed with cars in mind, which made it all the more enjoyable. We parked and decided to explore on foot. It was around 3 o’clock and the place was dead. Hardly a soul around. We quickly realized we were at the palace compound and had narrowly beaten a few busloads of German tourists to the spot. We noticed a small fort on a hill, as you do in Muscat, and decided to have a go at it. We hopped a fence and climbed up a poorly maintained staircase. We got a great view of the Royal Palace, there was no flag flying so I am assuming Sultan Qaboos was out and about. From our vantage point, we soon realized we could access the inner palace structure, so, not wanting to catch the attention of any guards, we scurried back down the stairs and over the fence, blending quickly into the crowd of Germans.
Cheesin in front of the Palace

            We followed a tour group along and tried to gain access to one of the larger forts but it was closed for repairs, I’m telling you, every thing in Oman is under construction. From our position outside the fort we could see the palace as it faced the sea. There are four rather imposing guns that point out towards the narrow inlet and speak to a time when assault from sea was a real threat to the Omanis. These guns were very modern though, so it appears the threat has not passed.

We wandered the old city for a bit more, and then hopped in the car and headed to the Souk, or market. The market began right by the ocean and, via a series of narrow passageways, wove its way up the mountainside. It was teeming with German tourists, just hordes and hordes of them. Whenever Andrew and I encountered two paths that diverged in an Omani souk, we took the one fewer Germans did, and that made all the difference.

The souk was packed with goods that were mostly unappealing to young twenty something American males. I had no pressing need for a burqa, no real desire to blow the bank on elegant gold jewelry, and certainly no craving for intense Arabic incense. So we ducked and wove through different alleys, until we emerged in a rather quiet lane farther back in the market.  This section of the souk was covered, giving it a more intimate atmosphere. There was a very small looking store with three sturdy, thick, ancient wooden doors resting against the storefront and an elderly Omani man sitting at a cluttered dusty desk through the entry way. This place had potential and we both knew it.

We eased inside, careful not to disturb any of the precariously perched curios. We noticed a rather cramped opening into what appeared to be a back room and the seated man gestured back as if to say, “go ahead, check it out.” We shuffled through and found ourselves in a veritable gold mine of Omani history. The back room was a good ten times larger than the entry way and packed floor to ceiling with all sorts of historical accouterment. Rapiers hung from the walls as did rifles and curved daggers. We were later to find out that the owner had obtained the weaponry from the local Bedouin. Cool. There were more ancient doors back there along with paintings, archaic locks, lamps (the proprietor held one up and said “Aladdin,” with the atmosphere in there, I half believed him), and other intricately wrought metal items. 

Hardly does it justice

 The air was heavy, dusty and dank; tomblike in the most exciting way possible. We poked around for a good thirty minutes before realizing we were unfortunately cashless and vowed to return the next day before we headed back. We grabbed a business card and made a mental map of our circuitous route back to this treasure trove.

We tried to make our way back to the road but got very turned around in the labyrinth of the souk and our reliance on our self-proclaimed great senses of direction turned out to be misplaced. We soon found ourselves high above the market in a residential area. Embracing our new adventure, we chose to climb higher up the steep inclines and increasingly ragged paths. Eventually, the paths and the houses ended and rock and scree began. In our boat shoes and khakis, we looked an odd pair, but we strove on undeterred, but not unnoticed. We finally crested a ridge and we treated to a continuing view of the white sprawl of Muscat. As the afternoon sun waned, the local kids emerged into the shadows of the local mosque onto the dirt soccer pitch to start their afternoon game.

About fifty meters away down the ridge, a circular fort topped the hill. New target for exploration. We scampered across the hillside, past clotheslines and houses and a particularly fresh dog carcass to the stronghold…. And found it bolted shut. Buzzkill. However, from our new vantage point, we were treated to a great view of the port and settled for a few pictures before our descent.

The Intrepid Travelers surveying the land

We were planning on camping for the evening but the area was very well developed, or rather extensively developed, so we settled on a relatively cheap hotel, certainly not Muscat’s finest. We hit up the local mall for some fine cuisine for dinner (we settled on the Roadhouse Diner, an instant favorite).

The following day we visited the souk again and I bought a really cool old lock (cooler than it sounds, I promise) from the cool shop at the souk. After a quick trip back to the forts to try to get access, which failed, we hit the road for the trip back to Dubai.


One of the best parts about Dubai is its role as an international crossroads. I mention this because by chance my time in Dubai coincided with a visit by a Professor of mine from Bowdoin, Professor Shelley Deane. Professor Dean currently works at a company called International Alert where she basically jets between the Middle East and home base in London helping governments and other interest groups to negotiate peace settlements or avoid violent conflict. She was visiting her Mother who lives in Dubai so I joined them for Tea. Just goes to show, again, how small this world really is. A young boy from Tennessee who lives in Kenya drinking English tea with an Irish professor whom he met in Maine but who works in London but is visiting her mother in Dubai. Globalization embodied in an encounter. It was great to reminisce about Bowdoin, talk about what the future may hold for us both and discuss good old government stuff, which I haven’t really been able to do in a while. I had to head out in the late afternoon to get back to the apartment but was sad to go. I can only hope our paths cross again in the near future!

Andrew hosted a little get together at his apartment for a bunch of work friends and I finally got to meet Lewis, recently returned from Kabul, Afghanistan, who reclaimed his bed and forced me out on to my inflatable camping mattress in the living room. A big night out was in the works, which coincided nicely with my last night in Dubai. And a big night out it was, from an aptly named bar named “Rock Bottom” to other equally dubious places, we had a rousingly good time.

We woke up early, too early really, the following morning to meet Beth’s parents out at the Atlantis, but this time for the waterpark, Aquaventure. It was a great way to wash away the feeling from the night before and enjoy the Dubai climate before another arduous plane journey. My new favorite discovery, and word, from the experience is “burquini.” Burquini: origin- English/ Arabic, A burqa designed to be worn while swimming and participating in other aquatic ventures, covers all necessary skin with a thin polypropylene layer suitable for swimming. Antonym: Bikini. I felt rude taking photos.

After the fun in the sun, some stomach churning water slides and a few goodbyes, I soon found myself bidding farewell to Andrew and Beth at the airport. It was another hugely successful Speer/ Taylor adventure and the only thing to do now is to begin planning for a trip to Kenya.

The next few weeks look quite exciting on this end. Instead of the traditional “Spring Break, No Parents!” cry, I will be welcoming my folks to Kenya for a two week adventure. They just boarded the plane this afternoon! We have an extensive safari planned, a few days in Mombasa and a few in Zanzibar. Certainly worth writing about. Can’t wait.

Thanks for reading!

-Mzungu about to be reunited with the Folks in sunny Kenya