An audio and video podcast of my trip hitchhiking around the world by sea.
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Posts from — August 2008

Picking Up The Pieces

Sam Okello-Kisumu MayorIs violence ever justified? Is it ever proper to fight? How long can you talk things through when everything said falls on deaf ears? At what point do you lay down sickle for sword? And once arms have been taken, how far do you go? Do you give your life? Do you take a life? Can you ever turn back?

Returning to Kenya raised a lot of questions. At the turn of the year, distressing visions poured into our living rooms. Livid mobs marching, machetes raised in protest. The sparked anger turned to flames and houses, churches, cities turned to ash. Military filled pickup trucks with the fallen opposition. Dead or alive these people would be heard.

When your country is one of the most developed in Africa. When it is looked to as an example of democracy in a continent plagued with political corruption. Then when in election the front-runner by nearly a million votes mysteriously loses to the reigning president, there are bound to be problems. The populous had been asked to choose, then the chosen dismissed. When the process was compromised, and a compromised people saw their hopes dashed with justice, they took matters into their own hands.

Within days over 300 people lay dead, burned and beaten. Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, was in disarray. Another violent center was the western port city-Kisumu, home to the Luo tribe (one of the largest tribes in Kenya and that of the challenging candidate). When I arrived Kisumu the air was no longer tense, but the signs were everywhere. Charcoal skeletons of cars and buildings sat as shadows on the sides of streets. Things were getting better and behind it all was a newly elected mayor.

I met Mr. Sam Okello on the plane from Zurich to Nairobi. After a brief conversation about Barack Obama, whose father as you may know was also from the Luo tribe, Mr. Okello extended his hand, card and an invitation to visit when I passed through Kisumu. So I called the morning after I arrived and within a day I was sitting in a large office in the Kisumu city hall.

He walked into the room with a glowing smile. The line of people waiting to see him told me he was busy but his confident demeanor was relaxed. Before the meeting I had written a list of questions. I was anxious to learn: What happened? Was it justified? How do you move forward? Is there hope? But when we finally sat down to talk, we sat as friends. I told him who I was, my hopes, my plans. He told me a bit of the same. Then he invited me to join him later that night, when he and the trustees would discuss the direction for this troubled town. I was honored to accept.

“This is my friend, Derek.” Okello introduced, explaining to this group of leaders the value of an outside opinion. They were all welcoming and after a short opening prayer we sat.  As I watched these minds mingle, exploring the problems and solutions of their community, I was filled with a sense of hope. I had seen the effects of colonialism in Malawi, of tourism in Tanzania, and now the after effects of a people betrayed. I had also heard story after story of corruption.

Kenya was the supposed light of democracy, but in a moment that light began to flicker, dimming with the hopes of not just a country, a continent. Kisumu was a broken city, with a broken infrastructure and shattered spirit. Yet now in downtown Kisumu, in some hotel around a table of thought with those most affected, the light returned. I heard the concerns of each individual. I saw the long list of needs fundamental to exist. More importantly I saw the vision of a man and group to restore order.

I’m still not sure how or why I was at that table. One guy trying to see the world passing through town. But I’m glad I was. I sat in the back seat of Mr. Okello’s vehicle and reflected as the chauffer led me home. I know it was just a meeting, but I couldn’t help but feel I had seen the beginning or at least return of something special… Hope.

August 27, 2008   1 Comment

Fly 54O

It sounds like a tragic made for T.V. movie. I knew it, however, when given the option of safety or saving 9 times out of 10 I opt for the savings. My reasoning goes something like this:

“This one seems a LOT more reputable… ah, but this one is cheaper…”
“Yeah but, it’s only $40.” I tell myself.
To which I reply, “$40 can go a long way in Africa: 3 nights worth of hostelling. A bag full of exotic wood-carvings. 100 avocados the size of cantaloupe… 100 avocados?”
“But what good are avocados if you’re dead, Derek?”
Then I play the “chance” card. “Think about it Derek… how often does a plane crash? (A question I have no idea the answer to, but assume it can’t be high.) And what are the chances that you, one person, would be on that one plane, that one day in history… People take this flight everyday… Derek… EVERY-day!”

Well I can’t argue with that. Cheaper is better, despite the name of the airline alone, Fly 540 (yes that’s the name) has destiny written all over it. So I purchased the ticket: Nairobi to Kisumu, on “Kenya’s First Low Cost Airline”. There are two points I had forgotten about when debating safe or save. One being Mandi, my flight attendant friend who told me on numerous occasions the concerns of her captain counterparts for flying no-name African airlines (where apparently the safety regulations are not quite as high as in the States). Secondly, flying in Africa is always an adventure. Here are some examples:

Nairobi, Kenya to Blantyre, Malawi.
First day in Africa, Mandi and I arrive the Nairobi airport early to wait and purchase the tickets we were unable to online. With less than an hour to spare the ticket counter opens and informs us there there is no way to take a credit card for payment (in this the capital and main international airport of Kenya). So whilst, Mandi waits and makes sure no one forgets us, Derek runs all over Nairobi looking for an ATM, withdraws the maximum amount and spends most of the money on-hand for the ticket. We got on and while making one unexpected stop, we arrived safely.

Blantyre, Malawi to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
What should have been an hour ended up taking around five. While the tickets read direct, in fact we made two unexpected stops in two different countries to pick up and drop off customers. We arrived-tired but safely.

Dar Es Sallam to Zanzibar. Only a 30-minute plane ride but not uneventful. Everything seemed great as the packed plane took off. Cool, comfy, satisfactory. Then with in 5 minutes I see some thing fall from the luggage compartment on the person in front. Nothing big just something. I look closer and see a cockroach poking its germy disgusting face in and out of the luggage compartment ahead. I begin to look around and see them all over. One scurrying as the lady a few seats up, lowers her food tray. Then one peaks out of the magazine rack in front of Mandi (who as you know has sort of bug problem). She freezes. I swat, pretending I got it, then try not to freak as I feel it scatter to and fro across my foot and ankles. We arrive. Safe but disgusted.

Zanzibar to Dar. Return flight a few days later. Same airline as before but no bugs this time. That’s because it was much too hot for them. I think they decided it was more comfortable flying in a plane wherein the air con was not broken and all it’s passengers sweating profusely as they clinged to consciousness. We arrive. Safe but dehydrated.

Now, finally Fly 540 with service from Nairobi to Kisumu. I’ll admit it’s humbling walking by all these nice ticket counters looking for your “budget” airline. You stop and ask. “Who?” they say, then after a moments pause vaguely reply, “Oh… I think over there…(?)” I locate the counter, get ticketed, and spend the time waiting to board wondering just when the last time I told my mother I loved her was.

Walk across the tarmac. Climb the long lonely stairs into the “low-cost” airplane. I sit in my assigned seat and proceed to buckle my seatbelt. As I tug on the male end of the seatbelt, I notice something isn’t right. Specifically, it’s unattached. I walk might seatbelt up to the flight attendant, who follows me back, looks, and says, “You might want to find another seat.”  Yes… yes I might.

I do. In the back of the plane. Knees pressed firmly into the slightly dismantled magazine pocket on the seat in front. I give the seatbelt a few good tugs, but not too many so as not to undo anything intended to be done. We take off. I watch as we climb around thunderheads, dipping and dropping unexpectedly. Lightning flashes as fast as the memories of life. “Avocados…” I keep assuring myself, although eating was about the last thing I wanted to do at the moment.

Well as you know from the 1st person account, I arrived. Shaken and stirred, but safe. And an extra $40 bucks in my pocket. Now I had one thing to find: avocados… that and a phone to tell my mom I love her.

August 19, 2008   1 Comment

Self and Service

This is one place I can guarantee you’ll leave feeling better about yourself. Partially because you’ll have had one of the most comfortable nights of your life, melting into a pillowy mattress that’s been pre-warmed with a hot water bottle, after returning from a long day dodging rhinos. Partially because you’ll have eaten one of the best meals of your trip prepared and served flawlessly by local hands. Partially because when you unzip (yes… unzip) your front door in the morning and walk out onto your own personal deck, your rested eyes will think they’re still dreaming as you gaze peacefully over miles and miles of lush African land decorated with a collage of flowers and crops.

But when you finally check out of the Rhotia Valley Tented Lodge and Children’s Home, and trust me you will do so reluctantly, you’ll feel better about yourself because you’ve supported a great cause. You see all the profits from your nirvanic experience will fund a children’s home built nearby to educate and provide for the needs of Rhotia Valley’s less fortunate kids. So you don’t drive away feeling sinful for tasting the divine in the land of need. In fact the only guilt you’ll experience is from not paying more than you did. It’s beautiful! Like losing weight after spending the day in an all-you-can-eat hot fudge brownie bar.

When I first heard of Rhotia Valley Tented Lodge and Children’s Home I was in Zanzibar, and was reluctant. Our Dutch friends, who recommended our safari itinerary and Jackson for a driver, also raved about this magical “tented lodge” that we just HAD to do. So before I left Zanzibar, I called Marise Koch to reserve our spot.

Marise is the brains and heart behind this operation. She and her husband are also Dutch but are not strangers to the area. They’ve been serving Rhotia Valley as doctors for years, developing a bigger vision. I tried to negotiate the already low prices over the phone, something I had trained myself to do, but still feel guilty about. I agreed to the price and planned to meet when we arrived.

It had been a long day, filled with close encounters of the African kind. The air was crisp, cool and damp as we approached the property. Sun falling, the rich colors of red earth beneath a lush green spotted with colors from flowers both wild and cultivated. It was landscape neither painter nor picture could ever recapture. I soaked it in as I stood through the sunroof trying to get as close as possible to the source of serenity that swelled in my soul.

Everything exceeded expectation. The landscape. The “tents”, which were nicer than most hotels I’ve stayed in (and I’ve stayed in a LOT). The food. The service. The décor, which I later learned was entirely provided by local skill. Even Mrs. Koch, who joined us later in the evening after having hiked something like 10 miles from Ngorongoro Crater with 10-12 men helping her hack the way. She joined us but just for a moment. She was warm, beautiful, full of life, and after saying hello she returned to the African men who sat visibly exhausted but happy, laughing I presume over the days events.

It’s easy to forget everything, like some type of ancient meditation while sitting on a large deck with a light drink, or smoking a gentle pipe. But when you finally come back down from that cloud which seemed so far from reality, you remember something- the children. The same children who greeted you with glowing smiles and waving hands as you rode by. And you can’t help but smile to yourself at the wonderful work that one special couple has begun so that one special community will never be forgotten.

Do yourself a favor. If you ever plan on visiting Africa and doing a safari-which is one of the coolest things you will ever do-stay at the Rhotia Valley Tented Lodge and Children’s Home. This is one thing you should do for yourself, and by doing so you’ll be doing it for the children as well. Self and service have never worked so well together.

August 8, 2008   5 Comments

The King of the Jungle

When choosing a safari, you have options: Tanzania, Kenya, Maasai Mara, Serengeti. But there is one place that stands out. The gathering place. A crater created to gather life. With a land space of almost 100 square miles, Ngorongoro Crater is massive earthen bowl formed by a collapsed volcano. It is home to approximately 25,000 large animals that include pretty much everything you picture in Africa: elephants, hippopotami, zebra, wildebeests, rhinos, oh yeah and lions!

Now, I don’t mean to sound sexist, but when I think of lions I think of the males. Massive maned beasts, crowned with a flowing head of golden intimidation. He is the king, whose voice alone demands undeniable respect, paralyzing its foes before it proceeds to eat their face. It’s true the women do all the work and don’t get the respect, hunting wildebeests and looking after the young whilst the man of the house sleeps something like 20 hours a day. However, when it’s go time and a pack of ruthless hyenas initiate a cowardly but deadly attack, well then there’s no question who you want on your team. After an earth-altering roar, when laughing turns to weeping and trembling hyena scatter like shadows from the sun, that’s when the king claims his crown. That’s what I call a lion, and that’s exactly what I wanted.

So that’s exactly what I told our safari driver, Jackson, I wanted to see. Well I told him I wanted to see everything but especially lions. Jackson did not disappoint. In two days we had checked off nearly every form of African wildlife desirable. Dancing hippos in muddy pits. Awkward giraffes taking full advantage of their long awkward necks as they inconspicuously peeked around acacias trees. Elephants coating themselves with the dust of the earth as they walked feet from our stilled land cruiser. Antelope. Water buffalo. Zebra. Wildebeests. Then finally… the lions.

We had crossed path with another driver, who in native tongue told Jackson there had been lion spottings in a specific area of the crater. We started the car and moved across the floor of the massive crater like a comet tailed by a cloud of African dust. “Elephants…” Someone noticed and pointed out. Impressive, but not worthy of detour, for we were in hunt for something much more grand. We approached the promising area. I stood on the arms of the seat below, head through roof panning the plains for any variance in coloring.

A khaki lump was spotted in the like-colored grass. Lions. Well sort of… it was girl lions. I’d like to tell you a story about how incredible it was. About the herd of buffalos who approached and were attacked and the alligators who fought for rights. But nothing of the sort happened. One stood, crouched promisingly, and after the alert beests moved back, it laid right back down. I’m sure there’s something sinful about being disappointed at a lion spotting, but I was. Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there.

We had checked nearly every animal off the list, even the lion (woopadee doo!), but there was one we had yet to spot. The rhinoceros . Pronounced rhino-SAURUS because it’s pretty much the only “bad-ace mutha” of a species who somehow made it through the prehistoric holocaust that claimed his dinosaur brethren. The day was coming to a close, we would have to leave soon. Then alas! We spotted and with the help of a zoom lens confirmed a rhino. It was far off, but headed our direction. It was big. It was intimidating. It was with child. We stopped the car.

Slowly but surely, the prehistoric beast approached. Closer, and closer. Mother and child-grazing as they moved. The magnificent mammal crossed 50 feet in front of our vehicle. “Jackson…” I whispered. “ Let’s drive closer…” Faithful to his paying friends, Jackson started the car, cautiously creeping closer. We weren’t far off anyway but with in seconds we were uncomfortably close. The startled mother turned instantly. “Pffshhh! Pffshhh!” I watched as the angry air fired through its fuming, flexing nostrils.

Without a second lost, the rhino was moving full speed like a tank through the grass. We had waged war, but it had the stronger army. We were confident too. Jackson pinned the pedal to the floor, and explosion of dust rolled through the sky, wheels spinning, spitting as the infuriated rhino approached. Finally the wheels caught, pinballing us around the sunroof. We got away and after a few intense seconds the air was a still as before. The rhino returned to its alerted child who returned to grazing unaffected. We stopped, breathed, and watched.

Sun setting, sky red, we climbed the walls of this natural wonder. The ride was quiet. A new peace settled our souls as we looked back at this comely, yet savage kingdom. I left satisfied save one question… where the heck was the rhino when the “king” was chosen?

August 5, 2008   No Comments