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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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New Orleans Double Vision: Part 1

When we told people that we were taking a vacation to New Orleans, the reaction was always the same — “Oh, you’ll love it, the food is incredible!” Now, I like a tasty meal as much as the next person, but I realized something definitively on this trip: I am not a gourmand. Or at least, I prefer to spend my money elsewhere.

We did have some yummy jambalaya, delicious fish, and exceptional crawfish étoufée. I learned what a muffaletta is. It’s this ———–>, and it was okay.

And I must admit, I really enjoyed the beignets at Café du Monde. Although, I didn’t like the coffee with chicory as much as I’d hoped I would.

For Reuben and me, what we enjoyed most about New Orleans was the music.

When we lived in Seattle, one of our favorite things was to find venues with free (or cheap) live music, and we saw some great and diverse acts. In Portland, it’s a little more difficult, both because of the size of the city and relative size of the music scene, but also because now we have a child.

On vacation alone, in the birthplace of jazz, where nearly every venue has live music spilling out into the streets, we were giddy.

Our very first exposure to the New Orleans music scene happened at Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub. To be perfectly honest, there were only two reasons why we picked this place first:

1) It was the first non-dance club we passed on Bourbon Street after leaving our Bed-and-Breakfast.

2) There was a sign outside advertising $4 Hurricanes.

We hadn’t learned yet that you have to order the cheap to-go drinks from the window, so instead we went inside. Immediately, I was adorned with a string of beads, and we were escorted to the back of the dimly-lit pub, to a bench just one row back from the band. I was enthralled. There were antique decorations draped along almost every surface of the ancient brick walls. The rhythm of the music just a few feet away made it impossible for me to sit still, so I soaked it all in as I slapped my leg to the beat. In my other hand was a Hurricane, this one of the $11 variety. We hadn’t realized the drink would be so much more expensive inside the bar until after we ordered it, but this was one time when I felt that the experience was worth every penny.

Our stop at Fritzel’s began a theme of the vacation, for me anyway. I found that whenever I was really intrigued by a musician, that I would up seeing him again elsewhere, and completely unexpectedly.

First it was the trumpet player who was right in front of me as I drank my Hurricane. Maybe it was because he was among the first musicians I heard play in New Orleans. Maybe it was because he was so close that I couldn’t avoid watching him. Maybe it was because he was bald. Either way, I enjoyed listening to his trumpet blast throughout the small room.

Two days later at a Rotary dinner at Pat O’Brien’s (where, as an aside, a friendly waiter brought me the most amazing drink of fresh-squeezed lemonade, orange vodka, and triple sec) I saw him among the quintet serenading our event. It was almost uncomfortably crowded in the open courtyard, but I spotted him immediately.

The music that night wasn’t exactly my taste. At least, it didn’t make me want to dance in the same way I’d wanted to at Fritzel’s.  Still, I found it intriguing that in a city with as many talented musicians as New Orleans claims, that I would happen to see a repeat performance from one of them (as a tourist, no less) in a matter of days.

But that was just the beginning of my double vision experiences in NOLA.

Cannon Beach: A Review

Having been raised in Portland, just 90 minutes away from the ocean, I’d been to Cannon Beach before. It’s hard not to love the beauty of the Oregon Coast, so after our quick weekend getaway, I decided I want to return much more frequently. To facilitate future trips, I’ve decided to write a quick review of the places we visited. Welcome to my own personal trip advisor.

We always stay on the cheap side when we travel, figuring that most of our time isn’t spent in the hotel room anyway. This weekend, we found a deal for Tolovana Inn. The room was fine — nothing fancy, but nothing to complain about. We were actually glad we didn’t pay extra for an ocean view room, as many of those rooms are actually “look at the parking lot, then the ocean” view rooms. That being said, it was very nice being so close to the beach. The pool room was the highlight of our stay. It’s fairly new construction, with a nice pool, hot tub, and sauna. Eliana loved swim time, and when the heated pool still made her lips turn blue we brought her into the hot tub to warm up. It wasn’t technically allowed, but other families were doing it. And, no, if they jumped off a bridge, I wouldn’t too.

Our first night in Cannon Beach, we ate at Bill’s Tavern and Brewhouse. We expected a typical pub, but it far exceeded our expectations. The dining room was simple, with two rows of booths and small tables in between, but we quickly noticed that a lot of care had been made to the decor. There was a woodstove on one side, windows to the brewery on the other, and elaborately painted scenes on the walls. Our waitress was delightful — very kind, attentive, and worthy of a good tip. We ordered a very tasty clam chowder, and a generous portion of halibut fish and chips. Oh, and the beer was strong and delicious!

The weather was much clearer than expected, and on Saturday afternoon we took a drive to enjoy the views of the coast while Eliana napped in the backseat. We grabbed some snacks for lunch in Manzanita, and then returned to Cannon Beach to walk along the sand and explore the pools among the rocks.

For dinner that evening we chose Local Grill & Scoop. My first thought was “I’ve been here before.” That’s actually when I decided to write this blog post, because I couldn’t remember anything about that first visit to the restaurant. When was it? Who was I with? The food was fine. They have a salad bar, which isn’t so en vogue these days, but I risked it. Then we split a burger and fries. Eliana ate lots of ketchup and not many fries, as she is apt to do. There was nothing decent to drink, and we were too full to partake of the ice cream options, so we just went back to our hotel afterwards.

The next morning we hit Pig ‘N Pancake. We’re classy like that. Despite the fact that it’s a greasy chain breakfast joint, it was pretty yummy. I mean, how can you not like a bacon-loaded omelette (Reuben), and strawberry crepes (me).

Speaking of crepes, I want to try the dedicated crepe restaurant on my next visit. And renting a house with a view of haystack rock might be a nice way to splurge too. No matter what, Cannon Beach gets high marks in my book!

When Camels Die

Even before I arrived I knew that a harsh drought was hitting Kenya. In fact, one of our main goals of the trip was to document how the drought is impacting the lives of children in the areas where we work.

To be honest, though, I worried that we’d have a hard time finding stories that really illustrated the drought’s severity. I feared that, because the rainy season had already begun, the landscape would be too green and lush to provide the dry, desolate, desperate backdrop that makes a fundraiser’s job relatively easier.

I thought I’d never see a place poorer than Niger. I had no idea what I was about to experience.

We passed this camel carcass on our first day in the Lokori region. “That’s it!” we, the marketers, thought. “That’s the image we need to show the world that there’s a drought happening!” I mean, camels are supposed to be able to go for days without any water, right? So, finding a dead camel in the middle of a dry riverbed is a pretty powerful story.

But it’s only the beginning of the story.

We didn’t pass any more carcasses, but the further we ventured into Turkana, the more confused I became as to how the people there are able to survive. We drove through countless sandy riverbeds. Flying over the terrain a few days later, the dried up rivers looked like veins across the landscape — withering trees along their banks defining the dead rivers from the rest of the sandy earth.

Once every couple of hours we would pass someone walking along the path. They’d look at us, and we’d stop to offer a bottle of water. I am sure that if the Land Cruiser had dropped me off at any point during the journey, I would have died before finding water.

We finally arrived at a site where our staff distribute emergency food rations to the most vulnerable families. When we got out of the car, all I could think about was finding shade. The sun was pushing down on me and it hurt. I glanced all around and there was nothing but sand and shrubs. No trees were tall or full enough to provide more than an inch of cool relief. The few shelters that had been constructed to protect from the sun were packed full of people. In fact, if I’d been deaf and pointed at 90% of the visible space, I would have thought myself completely alone in the desert. In actuality, there were several hundred people crammed in the tiniest of shaded space.

I felt desperate. I couldn’t even concentrate on the introduction being given about our programs. I became angry when a teammate asked a question, keeping us in the sun for seconds longer. Finally, I walked away from the group, and occupied a one-foot wide sliver of darkness I’d spotted beside our newly-emptied food storage facility.

And then we heard people’s stories. A nomadic culture, the community began congregating together a few years ago as a defense mechanism. As the available resources — water, grazing land, food — became depleted, tensions rose and tribal conflict developed. Raids on goats and cattle increased. Herders were killed. Widows and children settled in self-made camps in hopes of finding strength in numbers.

They found strength and protection, but it brought new problems. Livestock that hadn’t been stolen in raids were now dying from drought. There isn’t enough land for the animals to graze when families are so concentrated in one area. And because areas near the water sources are the most dangerous, the communities established themselves remotely. This means that women are forced to leave their hungry, thirsty, sun-suffering children at home while they trek for a full day to fetch water. When they return, the children are so dehydrated, that they vomit up anything their mother gives them to eat or drink.

I’m at a loss for how to give this blog post a happy ending. I thought I’d seen poverty in Niger, and I did. But there are people even worse off than what I knew there. People who have no possessions whatsoever. People who don’t know if they’ll have a meal from one day to the next. People who have to cross the desert in search of water for their children to drink.

I guess I’ll just make a plug for charity. When I talk about having lived in Africa, so many people tell me, “I could never do that.” And I always think, “we’re so lucky that we have a choice where to live.” And, really, humans are tough. If we’d been born deep in the Kenyan desert, we would have fought to survive too. Instead, we were amazingly blessed to be born in America. But that doesn’t mean we should live in a bubble. People — children — would literally die without food and water brought in by charities. So give to help them out. And give generously. Give because you have food and water and money to spare.

Tagine in Casablanca

On our trip to Niger in 2006, Reuben and I traveled on a Moroccan airline that required a 12-hour layover in Casablanca before continuing to Niamey. Before 9/11 when I was in the Peace Corps, the layover was upwards of 36 hours, complete with a free hotel stay, transportation meals! So, since I’d explored Casablanca a bit on previous trips, and I speak French, we decided to venture into the city during our daytime layover.

We did some touristy things that I’ll blog about another time. Then we got hungry. Some Americans who we met on the plane and who joined us on our adventure opted to eat at a fancy cafe. We were looking for something more authentically Moroccan, so we wandered deep into old town.

There, we spotted this (not the white guy — that’s my husband!):

Real Moroccan tagine — a slow-simmered stew of lamb, potatoes, and vegetables. And we knew it had to be good because the shop was full of locals. I love street food–both for the quality and the price–so I was ecstatic. We entered and I ordered, and soon we had our own steaming bowls of Casablancan goodness. It was HOT. I mean, way too hot for our soft American fingers. I went back to the counter to order up a couple of forks, and the cook didn’t seem too surprised.

We saw some breathtaking architecture and some memorable sites in Morocco that day. But my favorite memory was eating tagine with the locals.

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