Sunday, October 14, 2007

Nothing Much

Just a quick update:

I'm down to less than two months! I've been away from 'the states' for over two years and I'm starting to get a little nervous as to how that place will seem to me after all this time. How have people changed since I left or how have my perceptions changed during these months away? But now is not the time for a lengthy reflective exposition on my experience. That will come after all is said and done. But I will make a suggestion to everyone:

Transition/Readjustment Tip #1:

Please, please, PLEASE do not ask me "How was Kenya?" or "How's Africa?" How do you answer a question like that? How would you answer the question "How is America?" Ummm...fine...ok...good. Please ask me a more specific question, one that is not so broad.

I'm halfway through my last term and things are crazy busy. I'm going in early to teach at 6:30 and I try to be there every Saturday to assist those who come. Exams are just around the corner and our Form 4's are going slightly crazy with exam fever. I'm looking around my house and trying to decide what exactly I need and what I want to keep and what I can give away. Also, I still don't know if I'll be replaced by another volunteer at my site. I'll know by the end of the month. The last month and a half will be busy busy, but it will be worth it. See everyone soon!

My favorite Kikamba translation of late (literal translation of Kikamba to English):

"You think you're very sharp putting me a stomach? Well, my father says if you don't drive me, you'll pay him cows without mathematics."

Which means:

"You think you're something, getting me knocked up? Well, my dad says if you don't marry me, you'll pay us cows up the wazoo."

As a reminder, don't forget to check out the picture gallery if you haven't lately!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

When Water Turns White

Hello again. As an update, my 3rd degree chafing that I received from my camel marathon has healed. Yeah, it was difficult but I'm pretty tough. For my pain I was rewarded with a quote in one of the major Kenyan newspapers. It turns out that a woman who was traveling with us is a travel writer in the weekend edition of the newspaper. She got a quote from me and two other volunteers. Not bad.

After the derby I went back to my site and taught for a week. The Form 3's and 4's were required to come for two weeks for extra lessons and revision to prepare them for the exams. It's also a time for teachers to cover more ground in the extensive and expansive syllabus that the exams glean questions from. Following that week of teaching I decided to visit my friend Eric and see his neck of the woods. He stays up around Eldoret, which is a part of the rift valley and a highland area. It was quite a bit cooler and wetter than my place. We relaxed around his place, made burritos, watched movies, played pinball on his laptop, tossed the frisbee, learned to stand on our heads, and Eric tried to prepare me for rafting.

You see, in just a few short days we would be rafting the River Nile. This is a pretty common activity for most volunteers in this area of Africa. Usually each training group plans a trip and raft together. My group had planned one last year, but I was attending a training at the same time. It always sounded like fun. I had never rafted before, and it seemed like the Nile would be amazing as a first rafting experience. Its THE NILE. The longest river in the world. I somehow was able to forget that I'm uncomfortable in water. But as the rafting day drew nigh I thought about it more and I kept having images of this activity being the last living thing I would ever do. It would be something like my swan song here on earth. I was encouraged by the scientifical fact that the human brain can survive for 5 minutes without oxygen. You could say that I was 'scared out of my gourd'.

But I had one more stop on my funeral march. After leaving Eric's site we joined up with a few others and spent a couple days in the Kakamega rain forest. We hiked around, explored a bat cave, and whiled away the hours in tranquil luxury.

The following day we set out for Uganda, crossed the border without much difficulty and spent the night in Jinja at Nile River Explorers campsite which overlooks the Nile. I awoke with some anxiety the next morning. Some explanation on rafting: A raft is just an inflatable boat powered and steered by oars. Our raft carried 6 people and 1 guide. Everyone is equipped with a life jacket and a helmet. Along the sides of the raft is rope that you can hold onto in case the raft flips. The raft is steered down the river over a series of rapids. The rapids are classified according to their degree of danger or difficulty. According to Wikipedia:

Class 1: Very small rough areas, requires no maneuvering. (Skill Level: None)
Class 2: Some rough water, maybe some rocks, might require maneuvering.(Skill Level: Basic Paddling Skill)
Class 3: Whitewater, small waves, maybe a small drop, but no considerable danger. May require significant maneuvering.(Skill Level: Experienced paddling skills)
Class 4: Whitewater, medium waves, maybe rocks, maybe a considerable drop, sharp maneuvers may be needed. (Skill Level: Whitewater Experience)
Class 5: Whitewater, large waves, maybe large rocks and hazards, maybe a large drop, precise maneuvering (Skill Level: Advanced Whitewater Experience)
Class 6: Class 6 rapids are considered to be so dangerous as to be effectively unnavigable on a reliably safe basis. Rafters can expect to encounter substantial whitewater, huge waves, huge rocks and hazards, and/or substantial drops that will impart severe impacts beyond the structural capacities and impact ratings of most all rafting equipment. Traversing a Class 6 rapid has a dramatically increased likelihood of ending in serious injury or death compared to lesser classes. (Skill Level: Successful completion of a Class 6 rapid without serious injury or death is widely considered to be a matter of luck)

So needless to say, rafting companies never take people along a Class 6 rapid.

Here's what I was facing, including the name of the rapid and its classification:

Rib Cage - 4
Bujagali Falls - 5
50/50 - 3
Total Gunga - 5
Surf City - 3
Silverback - 5
Jaws - 3
Pyramid - 2
Overtime - 5
Retrospect - 4
Bubogo - 4
Itanda Falls - 6
The Bad Place - 5

So that is five Class 5's, and three Class 4's. You notice that one is a Class 6. We actually had to get out of the river and carry the raft over land to pass that rapid. Then we got back in the river and finished with a Class 5. Our raft flipped by far the most times. We flipped on five of the rapids, often on purpose. Before we began the told everyone to get into a group of the same mentality and find a guide of similar mentality. So in my group we were like 'Lets go crazy!' 'We want the wildest experience money can buy!' So we found a guide who was determined to do that. On the very first one we didn't flip out, but we got rocked pretty hard and I fell in and wasn't able to hold on to the rope. We were still passing through the rapid so I was hit left and right by huge amounts of water and was getting tossed like a rag doll. The sound of the water is deafening, you don't know which way is up, and I just reminded myself the current would eventually carry me out of the rapid. In the meantime my swimming trunks have been almost ripped from my body. Luckily an experienced rafter warned us this may happen so I had tied the front to my life preserver. So I'm disoriented, got my bare behind exposed, gasping for air, I've swallowed a bunch of water, and I'm generally "freakin' out". There are rescue kayaks that continually circle the rafts so I cling on to one of those and he carries me back to my raft. That was my first rapid, so I was assuming that all rapids were going to be like that. That ended up being the scariest and craziest one, so at least I got it out the way early, although it made me pretty paranoid of what the other rapids had in store for me.

All in all, nobody died, nobody was really injured, and there was sweet relief and sense of accomplishment after it was all said and done. The rafting company sent a raft full of their trainees over the Class 6 rapid. That was crazy to watch, but they made it. One guy lost his trunks in the process. We were exhausted and they drove us back to the campsite for a BBQ buffet and in the evening we watched a DVD of our adventure they had shot that day. I bought a copy so I could prove to people I really did it. I'm not really sure if I would do it again or not. I think I need some time to forget how it felt to be staring at a large wall of water, the ominous thundering of approaching waves, and the ferocity at which the waves crashed.

I wanted to go bungee jumping the next day overlooking the Nile, but they were closed that day, so I'll have to try that another time.

Now its back to school next week as I finish my last term in Kenya. 3 months to go! See ya soon.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Camel Whisperer

Family, friends, acquaintances, and accidental visitors:

It's August (as if you didn't already know that). The second term finished in a flurry of activity. With one of our teachers on maternity leave the responsibility of Exams/Curriculum Department fell to me. I was in charge of making sure that exams were set in enough time to be typed and duplicated, that records of work were updated, that a suitable exam time table was created, and that Science practicals (experiments) were organized and successfully conducted. Things actually went pretty smoothly and the practicals took place at our school for the first time in school history (we used to travel to the nearest school - 8 kilometres away, over a river). I wish I could say the results of the exam were encouraging. Sometimes I think that the people reading this and supporting me assume that the work we do here as volunteers is like a movie (Dangerous Minds comes to mind). You know, where the teacher makes the amazing breakthrough were no one was able to before, student's lives are transformed, and they become the future doctors, lawyers, and presidents of the world. There also is some swelling music as their transformation is complete and they thank their teacher for saving them from a life of drugs, poverty, and complacency. In reality 28% of the students at my school got a mean grade of an E for the term. An E means they averaged less than 35% in their classes. Not so great. I wish I could say that after almost 2 years here I've discovered the secret, but alas. Well I have one more term to get it right! That's right I'm down to my last term. Time is drawing nigh.

2007 Maralal International Camel Derby

After school closed I headed West to seek fortune and fame in the above mentioned Camel Derby. But before setting out on my journey I had time for a romantic morning with Eric and the boys at Thomson Falls just outside of Nyahururu.

After seeing the falls we returned to Nyahururu and attempted to find transportation to Maralal, a town in the upper rift valley. No vehicles were willing to leave for Maralal because there had been rains and the road was said to be 'bad'. After some hours of waiting and calling a vehicle showed up that surprisingly carried some other Peace Corps Volunteers and some friendly Brits, a Canadian, and some hip Kenyans. We squeezed in and took off. And then we got stuck in the mud. So we got out and pushed and became unstuck and then got stuck again. And that process continued for a few hours. We were pushing, we were pulling (pulled the bumper off), we were rocking and almost rolling. At times we were in our bare feet up to our knees in mud. It was lovely. It got later and later, but finally after losing the spare tire, changing a flat, and getting almost charged by an elephant we arrived safely, albeit dirty.

The Camel Derby was the next day. This is an annual event that has been happening for the last 15 years or so. It consists of an Amateur race, Semi-Professional race, Professional race, and the Camel-athalon (running, biking, and camel riding). Due to the road situation the field was not as large as past years (I won't tell you the number of participants so you'll be more impressed at my performance). Below you'll see some pictures from the race. You'll notice I was going for a turbaned look, sort of 'Lawrence of Arabia-esque'. Also you'll see my friend Adam falling off his camel spectacularly. Also some of the participants at the starting line (I had the pole position due to my qualifying time), and Eric and I celebrating our successful completion of the race.

Funny thing about camels, they don't really like to be raced. They are more the slow and steady type. You have to plead and beg and encourage and cajole and bribe and threaten them to move faster than a walk. The moment the race started half of the camels started turning the other way. There I am sitting 7 or 8 feet in the air sitting on a blanket and clutching a piece of wood as my camel takes off at a most ungraceful trot. Every time a camel in front of mine slowed down my camel took that as a cue that he could also slow down. As we passed through the town the local people lined the street and encouraged us. It was also at this point that my camel got fed up and decided to abruptly sit down. But he got back up and we finished. The Amateur race was 10 kilometers and I completed it in about one hour, good enough for 6th place. Camel racing is not without its scandals. There was no doping this year but a Semi-Professional racer had entered and won the Amateur race, so I got bumped up to 5th place. Top 5! Still not a podium finish, but alas.

One of the Brits we were with took first and another Peace Corps Volunteer took third. As for the Camel-athalon, our fellow PCV successfully defended his title and is the two time reigning champion. Some of you may wonder how it feels to race a camel. I can say that I received third degree chafing from that ride and had a serious open wound on my behind that smarted every time I sat down. No pain, no gain.

Maralal is also home to the Samburu people who are quite similar to the famous Maasai. Here are some snaps:

Well that's what I've been doing. At the end of the month I'm rafting the Nile and I'd rather not die. Everyone who does it says there's at least one moment when it seems that way. Wish me luck.

By the by, I've noticed that my brother has updated the photo gallery so click on the link to the right to see more! Thanks Brother Dearest.

Happy August!