Monday, August 19, 2013

Kenya Photos - The First Batch (and Introducing Another "Other" Photographer)

While I published "preliminary" photos of the FOGs/FOAs Kenya safari a couple of weeks ago, and promised more later, I'm still not ready with mine, which I hope to offer along with my own blog posts and stories.

But that doesn't mean I can't share the good work of others who traveled with me on the safari. I have already mentioned that Jerry Jourdan - one of our group - is not only a serious photographer. He is also a birder and his blog posts are beautiful. Take a look at I think you'll be impressed.

And while other members of the safari group are pretty serious photographers as well, I want to give special recognition to Andrew Berner's stunning pictures. Andrew and Jerry and Charles (our driver) turned out to be the bird specialists on the safari, so we all benefitted from their bird-spotting (and bird-naming) skills. Like Jerry, Andrew has permitted me to reference his superior selections as yet another introduction to the record of our trip, so I'm happy to direct readers to my SmugMug site. At the site, Andrew's photographs are identified in each of his gallery titles with his initials (AB).

But don't let me leave you with the impression that Andrew's photographic talents are limited to bird pictures. At the site, you'll see amazing wildlife photos (including this, my favorite elephant photo which will have an entire post devoted to it at some point). Andrew's photographs capture - in amazing detail - the awesome experiences we all shared during the safari (and why not? - the "A" of the safari's title, which our friends and we took to calling "the FOGs and FOAs Kenya Safari" is for "Andrew").

So until I can post my own impressions about the safari, please enjoy Andrew's images, taken during our visits to such spectacular Kenyan destinations as the Amboseli National Park, Tsavo East and West, the Nairobi National Park (complete with the Nairobi skyline providing the backdrop for much of the wildlife), the Nakuru National Park and the Menengai Crater, and of course Masai Mara (where we were able to view the first days of the Great Migration). And, not surprisingly, there are very pleasing photographs of our visit to our Africa "family" in Nyanguru Village in Kisii. We had a lovely time with Charles and his beautiful family, enjoying ourselves with his wife and mother and his handsome children, including my namesake "Angel" Claire. We shared such a good visit with the family and with all the neighbors who, with the entire Masese family, made us feel very welcome. And thanks to Charles's good driving and his perfect navigation skills, we traveled to Kisii via the great tea plantations, stopping for lunch at the famous Tea Hotel in Kericho, all beautifully captured in Andrew's photographs.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

More Kenya Thoughts

Before I get into describing my impressions of Kenya and what we experienced there during July, I'm finding it of interest that we're seeing recent news and stories from that beautiful place. Having just returned from our great safari in Kenya, my traveling friends and I are surprised to find so much to read about Kenya. Especially in August (when the overall news cycle is pretty slim), it seems unusual to have so many stories - other than our own, of course! - to attract our attention.

First of all, we were sadly disappointed for all the travelers in and out of Kenya, here at the high season of the Great Migration, when we learned of the awful fire at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport last Wednesday. While most of us traveling in and out of Kenya don't spend much time at the airport (except for bureaucratic reasons, and even those situations seem to be getting better with each visit), the airport is an essential passenger and cargo hub for East Africa. I'm happy to learn that operations are getting somewhat back to normal, thanks to quick action on the part of airport officials and the Kenyan government. And specially happy to learn that the fire is generally understood to have been an accident, particularly as it came on the 15th anniversary of the bombings of the American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people. That's a major relief for those of us who love Kenya and have friends there.

More directly connected with our safari is Michael Benanav's Through the Eyes of the Maasai, a long description of Benanav's stay with the famous Maasai community (published in The New York Time Travel Section on August 9). I explored the historical riches of the Maasai when I lived in Kenya, and we were lucky on our recent safari to meet up again with Thomas, our Maasai friend who had been our guide and companion on two prior journeys. Thanks to the good detective work of our driver and good friend Charles Masese, we were able to connect with Thomas when we were in the Masai Mara National Reserve (also spelled Maasai Mara, as Benanav notes). Here, in one of the photos from the trip, is Andrew Berner, Thomas, Charles, and Guy.

Thomas took some of our group into his own manyatta. The term manyatta seems to have several meanings, depending on who is involved in the conversation. For some reason I earlier had the impression that the term referred to a village in which there were several houses and a large central area where the cattle are brought in every night (for security, especially from lions, the entire village is round in shape and surrounded by thorny bushes, with a single opening that is enclosed with more bushes at night). It's true that there can be several houses in the village, but the term seems to be a little more family connected, you might say, in that the entire collection of houses are related to one family, so in that sense manyatta can mean something like one's "home" or "where one lives."

This trip I did not visit Thomas's manyatta, but two of our traveling companions, Sandra Kitt and Deborah Tibensky went with Charles and Thomas and returned with glowing tales of their adventures visiting with the people they met in the Maasai community. Don't have a photo of Deb with from the visit, but here's Sandi with Thomas.

My own experiences with Thomas and the Maasai community were captured in several posts here in 2010. See the Blog Archive to the left to find the following under May, 2010:
  • (4) Sopa Lodge
  • (5) Maasai Manyatta
  • (6) Maasai Fire w/ Sticks
  • (7) Maasai Dances (Men)
  • (8) Maasai Dances (Women)
As for Benanav's good article, I enjoyed spending time with it. Several of the friends with whom I was on safari and I have discussed some of Benanav's descriptions and stories. His focus is on a particular person (as have been ours, with Thomas) and it's clear that he and Salaton Ole Ntutu, a Maasai chief, share a very special bond (as did we, with Thomas). Salaton is an informative companion and provides much background and commentary about life in the Maasai community, and Benanav makes a good case for visitors to come to the Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp. At the camp, part of the village of Maji Moto, Benanav notes that - as he puts it - "visitors stay in his tribal community, learning about the ways of the Maasai and getting a feel for the landscape they live within."

It's a far deeper experience that what we did, and I'm sure visitors who embark on a stay at the camp come away with a strong sense of what life is like among the Maasai. Indeed, in a way I wish I had done something like this, just to "drill down" a little deeper into the Maasai community structure and life.

Benanav's article also describes his visit to the Masai Mara National Reserve (about 35 miles away from Maji Moto) and his delight - with Salaton as his guide - in the Great Migration. Actually, while I don't know the dates when Benanav was there, it's possible we might have been viewing the migration at the same time. I just hope some of his experiences were as much fun as ours (and perhaps - for some of ours - a little less exciting).

It's a good story, and another valuable resource for anyone considering a safari in Kenya. Lots to see and write about.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Preliminary Thoughts about Mr. Guy's Elephant "Infatuation" (and Some Preliminary Photos)

Despite the first post (yesterday) referencing the FOGs/FOAs safari, I realize now that I didn't give any "preview" for what the later posts might include.

I wrote that one of the purposes of the safari was not only to experience the Great Migration with my friends, but to also share with them Mr. Guy's great infatuation for the African elephant. So it seems appropriate to send along a link to some of the photos, a "preview" you might say, to what I hope to share on this blog. If you would like to see the photographs, go to 2013 Preliminary Safari Photos here.

And my friends seem to agree that infatuation is probably the best word to describe my enthusiasm for these magnificent creatures. Indeed, at the birthday luncheon, this excerpt from Karen Blixen's Out of Africa was shared, and I came away with a new nickname.

In this section of the book (1937), Blixen writes about the value of the opinions of white visitors/expatriates, the value that is found, as she put it, by the Natives "in their mythological or theological mentality":

.... The Europeans have lost the faculty for building up myths or dogma, and for what we want of these we are dependent upon the supplies of our past. But the mind of the African moves naturally and easily upon such deep and shadowy paths. This gift of theirs comes out strongly in their relations with white people.
You find it already in the names which they deal out to the Europeans with whom they come in contact, after a very short acquaintance. You have got to know these names if you are to send a runner with letters to a friend, or find the way in a car to his house, for the Native world knows him by no other names.
And there is magic in words: a person who has for many years been known by the name of an animal in the end comes to feel familiar with and related to the animal, he recognizes himself in it. When he is back in Europe [back in America?] it is strange to him to feel that no one ever connects him with it.
Once, in the London Zoo, I saw again an old retired Government Official, whom in Africa I had known as Bwâna Tembu - Mr. Elephant. He was standing, all by  himself, before the Elephant-House, sunk in deep contemplation of the Elephants. Perhaps he would go there often. His Native servants would have thought it in the order of things that he should be there, but probably no one in all London, except I who was there only for a few days, would have quite understood him.

So perhaps I am beginning to think of myself as Bwâna Tembu, as my friends seem to be doing. However, as one Kenyan friend pointed out, Blixen's spelling appears to be incorrect, since tembu is the Ki-Swahili word for "beer." The word for elephant is tembo (confirmed in the online English/Swahili dictionary). Even though I would like to have my new nickname spelled as Karen Blixen spelt it, Blixen seems to have been mistaken. Or - more likely - perhaps that's how the word was spelled in 1937 by expatriates living in Nairobi.

Please join me in enjoying the 2013 Preliminary Safari Photos.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Dateline Nairobi: Returning Home, and Birthday Thanks to Many Kind People

The Great FOGs/FOAs Safari has come to an end. Designed to share the Great Migration and Mr. Guy's Elephant Infatuation with a group of friends (both American and Kenyan), it was a splendid time for all of us.

Wonderful trip, wonderful interactions with friends (including many Kenyan friends from when I worked in Nairobi), and - very specially - wonderful memories to keep forever.

Recording safari memories begins with the birthday. While I've reached that point in my life where birthdays are best left unmentioned, I was amazed - once Stateside again - to see the number of greetings sent in my direction. Loved all the cards and "catch-up" letters from all around the world, and I can't get over the number of email messages and greetings awaiting me once I opened the trusty iMac.

Wow! So gratifying (and so humbling). In the future, I will assuredly try to be a little more charitable with my sometimes loose comments about the place of personal social media in our lives (like most people of my generation, I can sometimes be a little spiky about how too much focus on social media is not necessarily a good thing). This has been a very sweet experience, and I just might get over my usual "birthday-avoidance" syndrome!

So let me pause for just a moment to say a big Thank You to all the people who took the time to wish me a Happy Birthday. I'm very grateful, and I very much appreciate it.

In Nairobi, with no idea what was being sent to me via the Internet or the USPS, we celebrated with much enthusiasm. While some of our safari group of the last few weeks had returned to America, those of us remaining managed to share two good meals and an afternoon visit together. And despite the fact that there were just a few of us (Andrew, Sandi, Nerisa, Charles, myself and - joining us in the evening - Nerisa's niece Angie, whom we had come to know well during our time in Kenya), we managed to make Mr. Guy's birthday yet another Kenyan day to remember.

And perhaps mention should be made here about one of the cultural differences I learned about when I lived in Kenya: birthdays are not a big thing amongst most Kenyans. While there are occasional birthday observances (probably going back to the European expatriates in the 1920s and 1930s), you won't find many Kenya people paying much attention to birthdays. I don't know why. Perhaps it's economic, since there isn't a lot of discretionary cash floating around for most families. And there is a little more of it nowadays, with some sections of some shops - larger shops - selling greeting cards, including birthday cards. But I don't really know. I just know from my own observations and the comments of many of my Kenya friends, birthday celebrations are pretty rare.

Did that stop the St. Clair Gang? Not at all. While - as noted above - I might have preferred a little less fuss, we had to have lunch, we wanted to have a visit with Charles, and we would have to have dinner, so it all seemed to fall into place. Again, as with the other well-wishers, I'm very thankful to my little group for this day of fun. 

The first of the birthday meals was at a lovely upscale Nairobi restaurant specializing in Kenya food. The restaurant takes its name from amaika, a Luhya word that refers to the traditional Luhya cooking area or kitchen. Although the spelling is sightly different in the restaurant's name, Amaica is a very pleasant place for Sunday lunch (and it apparently becomes very crowded a little later on Sunday afternoon - when we arrived we were the first customers). This photo gives an idea of the space and the splendid decor, with Sandi and Nerisa waiting for me to take yet another photo.

Amaica started out as a restaurant focusing on food from Western Kenya, the part of the country which, in the words of the restaurant's owners, "boasts the widest variety of delicacies." Now the restaurant's cuisine has expanded to include specialties from all parts of Kenya, and the overall mealtime experience is delightfully Kenyan. The restaurant's flagship meal, a delicious dish of smoked beef, is joined together with other pleasurable indigenous foods such as wild traditional mushrooms, bambara nuts, groundnuts, and white ants (which our group did not try). Much of the food is cooked in African clay pots, using techniques and methods learned from traditional food experts throughout Kenya.

One of the joys of the restaurant is the great mass of trees behind the building. The dining area overlooks a large, deep ravine just full of tangled growth, and of course some of Kenya's famous birds - including this trio - come to visit. Very nice.

The afternoon was spent with Charles at his home near Nairobi. Readers of these posts know Charles well, as he was my driver and became my Kenya Brother when I lived in Nairobi (and it was Charles who led me off on my many safaris during my time in Kenya in 2009-2010, with many of these experiences described here - see the 2009 to early 2011 posts in the Archive to the left). Back in October, 2010, I had written The Children of Gachie and Charles' son Justine Ombongi and his cousin Steve Onpinta provided the photographs.

The birthday visit took us to Charles' new home, and we had a very nice time, enjoying the Masese hospitality and sharing much good conversation (and meeting up again with cousins who came by to say hello).

The birthday dinner took us to Mr. Guy's favorite Nairobi restaurant, Osteria Gigiri in the Village Market enclave. The name of the shopping center is a bit of a Kenya joke, since the rather grand establishment is nothing like a traditional village market and in many respects the location is one of the most "Western" spots in Nairobi (it's in the area where many of the embassies, including the United States Embassy, the United Nations, and some of the city's finest homes are located).

Nevertheless, Osteria Gigiri is anything but pretentious or grand. There is a terrific wine bar, and the restaurant is both intimate and expansive, with a large outdoor dining area under a large canopy. Very pleasant, and the staff and management go out of their way to make all customers feel welcome, including bringing along a complementary bruschetta once the diners at the table are seated. It was my "home away from home" when I lived in Nairobi, the perfect place to close out the birthday celebrations.

So. A few notes to begin the story of the latest Kenya experience (a few more photos are here). There'll be more. Watch this space.