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The Trials of a Carnivore

April 2nd, 2011 was a very long day.

It began the night before, actually, at the guest house in Lokori, Kenya, when our hard-working, ever-accommodating staff moved my bed (with mosquito net, of course) outside in hopes that I could catch a cool, yet non-existent breeze.

Yes, I spent 2+ years sleeping outdoors in Africa, but that was nearly 10 years ago. The noises and heat and dust and fear of sleeping through my alarm made me restless. I almost welcomed the 4:30am wake-up call, until I remembered that this is the bathroom I’d be freshening up in before our 4-hour trip up north to Lodwar to catch a plane to Nairobi.

Allow me a brief moment to explain the challenges of using such a bathroom. . . First, you have to find a place to put your toiletries, so that they aren’t on the floor (for obvious reasons), but also so that no huge bugs crawl on them. Having a small bag of toiletries with a handle to hang it from a bathroom door handle is a must. Then, due to the absence of a toilet seat, and a general lack of sanitation, you must hover above the toilet to do your business. While using the facilities, try not to look around too much or you’re sure to notice cockroaches, spiders, and sometimes even frogs closed inside the room with you. Best just to ignore the fact they might be there. When you’re finished, heed the warning scrawled above the toilet — “Pliz no enough water for flush use a basin.” Now there is a good purpose for the drippy shower right next to you, as it has supplied a bucket full of water for you to pour into the toilet bowl and avoid any embarrassment about what you’ve left behind.

Back to our journey. The team convened at the land cruiser, in the dark, at 4:45am. It was then that we realized our flight was actually leaving two hours later than we thought. Maybe one of us should have checked the tickets last night. Oh well, we decided, at least we’d be traveling in the cool of the day. This was the first time that I was able to sleep in the vehicle, since Kenya has some of the bumpiest gravel roads I’d ever bounced over.

A couple of hours into our journey we stopped at a transit town (basically, one road with some shacks and people scattered about) for a breakfast of bland fried cakes and warm coke. I passed, and opted for my granola bar instead.

We’d given ourselves a generous window of time to catch the flight, plus the extra two hours of miscalculation, so we had a lot of time to kill in Lodwar. Unfortunately, there was nothing at all to do. So we sat at a hotel bar, where no other people were present, and it was about an hour before a lone waiter offered us some warm juice. Mine became fly-infested so I tossed it and ate some trail mix instead.

Eventually it was time to go to the airport. All airport designers please take note: The following is not a confidence-boosting sight to see on the runway when you are an arriving passenger.

We were the first ones there, so we took seats on half-plank wooden benches underneath a small shade hangar. That was the airport, so to speak. Three workers hand-inspected our luggage and issued us our very official-looking boarding passes.

And then we waited some more. The plane was delayed, of course. Something had happened during a stop in Kainuk. I had some more trail mix. An hour past our scheduled departure time, we finally heard the sound of the plane’s engine. By then there were all sorts of official cars parked along the runway, waiting for the Japanese ambassador. Once his entourage had left, we were able to board. And once our plane took off, I was happy to order a coke — the first truly cold beverage I’d had in nearly a week.

It was striking to look down at the landscape below us — the earth appeared cracked, which it was, but these cracks were actually dried up riverbeds. The drought in the Horn of Africa is real.

I felt guilty for having my cold coke and wishing I could have a real meal. So many on the ground were going without. Such is the emotional dilemma of an American aid worker.

We were more than ready to return to Nairobi for an afternoon of being clean and relaxed. We dreamed of the hotel pool. But the flight attendant disrupted our dreams to announce that we were beginning our descent to Kitale. Wait, what? My hand-written ticket says nothing about a stop. Ugh. Well, what can I do? As they say in Niger, sai hankuri — have patience.

We waited on the plane for the new passengers to arrive, but then were asked to descend. The plane had a flat tire that needed to be repaired. I suppose that’s no surprise given that the runway is gravel and in the middle of the African bush. But, wow — really, a flat tire?

Back on board I drank another coke and continued my dreams about Nairobi. We’d be there soon, and I’d finally have a meal. After all, I’d already been awake 12 hours and had only eaten trail mix and a granola bar. More guilt.

“We are now beginning our descent to Eldoret.” What?!?!? Where the heck is that? It’s not Nairobi! Ugh! We had to leave the plane again, since this time we were refueling. (Was there really not enough to make it to Nairobi? Really really?) I left my bags on board and waited in the relatively nice terminal this time, instead of standing in the dirt along the landing strip.

When we were invited back on board, suddenly a security officer was there to check our tickets, even though there were no other planes or passengers. Here comes the part I love about Africa — being able to talk your way through anything. I stood in line and when it was my turn to show my ticket I explained that I’d left it on board the plane. I smiled, looked apologetic and was very respectful. He let me by without a question.

Finally, Nairobi. The team agreed that we would take 30 minutes to check in to our rooms and shower. Then we were headed to the most touristy of all Kenyan restaurants: Carnivore.

I will say that returning from nearly a week of working 16-hour days in hot and rustic rural Kenya, and having endured a day that began at 4:30am without any real meals is perhaps the perfect scenario for an introduction to Carnivore. If nothing else, after all we’d seen in the past week, we knew we wouldn’t take it for granted.

The restaurant is an all-you-can-eat meat barbecue. I hear they used to have exotic animals like zebra and warthog on the menu, but environmentalists have rightly limited the variety these days. Still, there are a few things you can’t get back home.

How it works is that servers come around to your table with huge sword/skewers stuck through a huge slab of meat. They tell you what it is, and carve a chunk right on to your plate. Some of the options were tame — chicken, turkey, pork, beef, lamb. Others were unique — ostrich, crocodile. And, even though I’m not picky, there were two that I just couldn’t stomach — camel and ox balls. Camel just seems too much like horse. And ox balls, well… it’s kind of self-explanatory.

Abby was the bravest of us all, and had the biggest Carnivore adventure. First, while a server was slicing a piece of turkey onto her plate, the skewer slipped and the entire turkey carcass fell in Abby’s lap. All hot and greasy. Pretty sure that would have earned her a free meal in the States.

When the ox ball server came around, Abby was the only one of us who opted in. So of course we had to tease her — her being the young, single girl eating balls, after all. But we had a question — the menu shows ostrich meatballs, so were we sure that these were really ox balls or were they maybe the less gross ox meatballs? We had to find out.

Another waiter came by and instead of requesting a piece of meat, Abby requested clarification. “Um, can you tell me what kind of meat this is?” she asked, pointing to the half-eaten ox balls on her plate.

“Those are ox balls,” he replied. And then he leaned in closer to Abby, cupped his hand at his chest and bounced it as he further explained, “You know, the male part.”

And that was the highlight of our very long day.

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We’re not in Kenya anymore, Toto.

Walking from the Land Cruiser tonight there were two things running through my mind:

1. If only my family could see me now.

2. This job is exactly what I want to be doing.

We are in Turkana now, and it was explained to us upon arrival that many who live here do not consider it to be Kenya. They are so far isolated, with so few resources, that when people cross the river to go south only then are they “going to Kenya.”

This morning we began the voyage north. Early in the journey we passed a fuel truck that had overturned from the incline just beyond a bridge and was now damming the river. We continued on. The potholes overtook the tarmac and we bounced and jostled over the crevices and rocks.

Emerging from our vehicle after the four-hour journey, we immediately noticed the intensified heat. Later in the evening I would notice my red-burned skin. Our first stop was to an irrigation/farming project. A few hours later we visited a goat project. I’ll write more about those later.

As we returned back to the office at sundown, I was sadly reflecting in my mind on the unimpressive list of animal’s I’d seen so far: dogs, cats, goats, a fox, a squirrel. And it was at that precise moment that Abby yelled, “Stop! There’s an elephant!!!” The massive creature was about 50 feet from our car just off of the road. We stopped and watched him watch us, then cross the gravel we’d just passed. I snapped so many photos that you could turn it into a video. Not two minutes further down the road we came upon another elephant — equally as close and equally as massive. This one passed in front of us, and as we slowly drove by he flared his ears and our driver hit the gas. We returned to the town happy as schoolkids.

After a strict 45 minute internet session, we continued another hour to the place we would spend the night — a research facility equipped with hut-shaped bungalows. We drove through a deeply gullied path into the bush to arrive at the site, and were instructed to park quite a distance from where we could see the lights. We crossed a weak footbridge and trekked towards the light in total blackness. My luggage was carried by a man who carried a spear in his other hand. We were shown to our individual huts. At first site they seemed clean enough, but I knew better than to trust the grass ceilings and inch-wide gaps under the door. First I noticed a frog in the shower. Then the very same 2D spider I wrote about recently on this blog. This is where I would be sleeping. All alone. “Okay,” I thought, “I was in the Peace Corps, I can do this!”

But I didn’t really want to. We had dinner as a group and I tried to keep myself from surveying the walls and windows for creatures. To no avail. By the time I returned to my room I was sufficiently paranoid.

And this is where I had to humble myself. May, our Kenyan guide, had generously offered to let me come stay in her hut, which had three beds. But was she just being polite? Would she be annoyed if I took her up on it?

As I considered my options a mouse crawled under the door and scurried across to the bathroom, joining the spider and the frog. There was no way I could get decent sleep in this place. And I really needed some decent sleep.

So I packed up my things, banished my pride, and walked the short path over to May’s hut. “Are you serious that I can sleep here?” “YES!” In fact, she had been debating whether to sleep with the light on or not because, we both agreed, it’s better to know what’s there than to wonder what might be.

The mouse followed me. A frog was already there. And when I entered May’s bathroom a tennis ball sized spider crawled out from the door. That’s when I felt confident I’d made the right decision to have a slumber party with May. I’d paid my dues in the Peace Corps, and she — a native Kenyan — was just as freaked out as I was by the creatures. We knew enough to face our fears together instead of alone.

May went to fetch a worker from the kitchen next door and he killed the spider and chased out the animals. Then May blocked the gap under the door with a blanket. I avoided further surveillance as I enjoyed the cold shower. I crawled into my trusty mosquito net, hovering mere inches above me. It was pitch black in the hut, but I slept well.

In the morning, the frog was back.

Where There Is No Safari

On Monday I will book a flight to the safari mecca of the world — Kenya. But, I won’t be going on safari. I’ll be going there for work, and only staying as long as it takes to get that work done so I can get back to my baby.

But, I do hope to come across some wild animals when I’m there. I had such luck in Niger on two occasions, where the types and numbers of safari-like animals were far fewer.

The numbers of West African Giraffes have declined significantly over the years, and the largest remaining herd lives just south of Niamey in Niger. Some of my friends told childhood stories of seeing the “bush camels” approach our village, but now their grazing is limited to a much smaller area.

On the paved road that leaves the capital heading south, about an hour and a half into the journey (assuming the potholes haven’t created major detours), there is a big sign with a crudely painted giraffe, indicating that travelers can stop there for a tour guide to locate the herd. I can only imagine how long and exhausting of a process it would have been if I’d ever gone that route. Luckily, I never had to.

I took it as a sign of wonderful things to come that I happened upon the giraffes as I was on my way to move into Tokoye-Bungou Sud. With only one road in Niger, you’d think the giraffes would have learned how to avoid it, but there they were, walking across the pavement with their graceful, long strides.

Prior to moving to Africa, I’d imagined it would be like the movies made it look — full of wildlife ready to pounce behind every bush. But Niger isn’t stereotypical Africa — although it captured my heart, there is little life in that desert. So when we saw the giraffes we, of course, stopped the car and got out to follow them on foot. They were curious, staring back at us as we approached them grazing at the stubby trees. They were silent and strong and beautiful. Already my favorite animal, this sealed their stature in my mind forever.

Although they moved slowly, their long legs covered a great distance and they were out of sight far too quickly. But I’ll never forget walking beside them for a moment.

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