Monday, September 24, 2007


Wildebeest crossing in the Maasai Mara--those are hippos in the foreground. They seemed to enjoy the show--I swear they sounded like they were laughing.

Our Tsavo West leopard. I think he's aiming for a starring role on Animal Planet.

Yes, I've been completely delinquent about this.


Since I blogged about Kenya in-depth after my first trip last year, I thought I'd focus on new things I learned this time around.

1. Travelling with one 8-year-old girl is more expensive than travelling with both of her older brothers combined. And it involves looking at a whole lot more jewelery. And stuffed animals.

2. If you want good service while travelling, take a child. Not a baby or toddler (they strike fear into the heart of every other traveller in the vicinity) and not a teenager or near-teen (they mostly look monumentally bored), but an in-between, cute-as-a-bug chatty 3rd-grader. I've never seen so many smiling flight attendants and passport control officers and customs officers. It took us a while to get through immigration at JFK--not because of long lines--but because everyone wanted my daughter to tell them about Africa. (Little did they know that once started talking, she's almost impossible to stop.)

3. A closed window probably won't make a lot of difference against a leaping hippo. At Tsavo West (the oldest national park in Kenya), we drove very near a river and stopped to take photos of half a dozen hippos in the water. While engaged in this innocent pursuit, a hippo came seemingly out of nowhere and--I swear--leaped over an expanse of river to join his fellows. Startled does not begin to cover my feelings. Panicked is slightly nearer. We then drove to the other side of the river to get a different view and I rolled down the truck window to take a close-up of one hippo that was staring me down. It spooked me slightly. For all I knew, this was the same leaping hippo from fifteen minutes before. How did I know he wasn't calculating the distance between his position and mine? So I rolled up the window. Which is when I realized that if a 2-ton hippo decides to crash-land on my car, a window--closed or not--isn't going to make the slightest bit of difference.

4. Babies. Lots and lots of babies. Giraffes and zebras and wart hogs and various antelopes from impala to topi. Call me sentimental, but there's not much cuter than a baby giraffe peeking around a tree at you (and still, naturally, taller than the car we were in.)

5. Leopards. One of the Big 5 that I didn't see last year. I made up for it this year. In the Maasai Mara we tracked down a mother and her two cubs early one morning. We watched the cubs playing in a tree for ten minutes while mama patrolled the ground. The cubs were perfectly adorable (see Babies entry above), especially as they would swing down various branches and then scramble back up the main trunk.

6. And one more leopard. As we drove down the red-dirt road in Tsavo West one afternoon, we were looking for Marker 25 that would tell us how far to a particular spot. We found the marker all right. With a leopard lying on top of it. This is very rare. Leopards are nocturnal, you see, and generally prefer trees. But this leopard was just lying on the marker like some kind of exotic house cat. We stopped the truck not more than ten feet from him and he (or possibly she) posed for us. Really. We've got the leopard lying, sitting, looking at us, looking over its shoulder, stretching, playing with its tail. I've even got a photo of my daughter next to the window with the leopard just feet beyond. (A closed window--in this case, a big help.) When we finally started the truck and began driving slowly away, the leopard jumped down and walked next to us in the grass for five or ten minutes. A definite once-in-a-lifetime experience.

7. The wildebeest migration. Every year, between about September and November, more than a million wildebeest migrate in a big circle through the Serengeti plains. They cross from Tanzania in the south into the Maasai Mara, eat every blade of grass in their way, and then wander back home. (As a side note--apparently wildebeests can live between 15-20 years, so some of them having been doing this migration for a long time. You'd think they'd have it better organized by the fifteeneth or sixteenth time.)

You see, wildebeests are not incredibly smart. They're also not incredibly beautiful, but that's another topic. Wildebeests will congregate at one side of the river they plan to cross and then mill around. For hours. While more and more wildebeests arrive from behind until eventually I kept expecting that one would just shoved in. What usually happens is that a zebra goes first. I don't know why. But once the first set of hooves hits the water, it's like an electric shock to the rest. They just go crazy, streaming into and over the river as quicky as they can.

And quickly is a good idea. There are crocodiles in them there waters. It's a good bet that some of those wildebeests are going to get crocced (as I endearingly heard it called.) So what do the tourists do? We sit around in our cars for hours, watching the milling wildebeests, wishing we could get out of the safari vehicle and shove one into the river ourselves, and then we find ourselves cheering when a croc takes one down. There's something about sitting in the sun for two hours (especially when one requires a restroom) that makes one quite bloodthirsty.

Not that there was any blood to see. Mostly what we saw of the crocodiles were the enormous and sudden explosions of water that marked one snatching a wildebeest out of the line. We did see one dead wildebeest floating downstream (our driver said that crocs will kill a bunch and let them float away then track down their bodies to eat later--it's emergency preparedness is what it is.)

But the vast majority of wildebeests made it across. There were a couple small ones that got lost, coming up farther south on the shore than their comrades and not able to figure out a way to join the rest. And then there were a bunch who, once they reached the other side, jumped back into the river AND SWAM BACK THE WAY THEY CAME! Honestly, it's hard not to think of them as stupid when they do that. I mean, they just survived a dangerous crossing. Now they're tempting fate (and crocodiles) by doing it again?

It was an amazing sight. None more so than the moment when it just stopped. As suddenly as it had begun, the line broke and the remaining tens of thousands of wildebeests on our side of the river went back to milling around. Personally, I think they just forgot what they were doing. Who knows how long it took them to remember. For ourselves, we had seen our crossing.

And I really, really needed a restroom.

Friday, September 14, 2007


THE SPARROW/Mary Doria Russell: A re-read for book club. I've reviewed this here before, so will only say that, after re-reading, it's still one of my favorite books ever.

A WALK IN THE WOODS/Bill Bryson: More funny travel writing. In this book, Bryson decides to hike the Appalachian trail. From worrying about bears to the joys of finding a shower after days on the trail, this book almost--I stress, almost--made me want to hike the trail. But then I remembered that any exertion beyond yoga is not for me, not to mention camping anywhere except a luxury tent in the Masai Mara. So when the (temporary) urge hits me to experience the great outdoors, I'll just pick up this book again.

RUINS OF GORLAN/THE BURNING BRIDGE/THE ICE-BOUND LAND/John Flanagan: My oldest son got me into the Ranger's Apprentice series, of which these are the first three books. Will is a castle ward until he turns 15 and is apprenticed to a ranger named Holt. Rangers in this world remind me a lot of Rangers in Tolkien's world: just think of Aragorn's many skills when we first meet him as Strider. But the story is interesting in its own right, from the first book's evil warlord coming out of banishment to the second book's sacrificial stand that saves the kingdom at the expense of Will's freedom to the third book's search for Will and the king's daughter.

THE WATER'S LOVELY/Ruth Rendell: I love everything she writes, under this name or that of Barbara Vine. In this psychological suspense stand-alone, the Sealand family is at the heart of the twists and turns. Did Heather Sealand drown her stepfather, Guy, twenty years ago? Is it her sister's responsibility to let Heather's fiance know what might have happened? Beyond the main tension, there are wonderful subplots and secondary characters, full of their own wishes and plans and romantic entanglements. The surprises of this book continue to the very last page.

ECLIPSE/Stephenie Meyer: The third in the TWILIGHT series. Bella is finishing up her senior year, drawing closer to the deadline she's given herself for being changed into a vampire. Edward is still demanding she marry him before he'll change her. And Jacob Black, her werewolf friend, wants more than friendship. Throw in a psychotic vampire still on her trail and a supsicious father, and Bella's got all the trouble she can deal with. Lots of people didn't like this book. Me, I'm willing to overlook flaws for a writer/series that can pull me so thoroughly into another world and make me feel like I'm a teenager in love again.

THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING/Joan Didion: The title refers to the first year after the death of Didion's husband. She talks about grief and mourning (and the difference between the two), as well as the nature of marriage and the power of information and the limits of our control. I recommend this highly to anyone who's lost someone they love. Though Didion keeps her own experience veiled to a degree, she provides an opening for others to recognize the commonality of grief.

THE MEMORY-KEEPER'S DAUGHTER/Kim Edwards: This was a book that never quite got off the ground for me. The premise is intriguing (a doctor in the 1960s delivers his own twins on a stormy night and, when he realizes the girl has Down's Syndrome, sends her away and tells his wife she died.) The girl is raised by the nurse who took her and the story goes back and forth between the two families. I didn't really feel that anything happened, however, that it was just a very long character study that occurs over decades. Not my type of story.

GENTLEMEN AND PLAYERS/Joanne Harris: A wonderful British novel about St. Oswald's, a fictional boys' school, and the mysterious newcomer who wants to bring it down forever. Only Roy Straitley, a teacher of the old school and dedicated Classicist, can stop the destruction. This was my first novel by Harris, but it won't be my last. Told in alternating chapters by Straitley and the school's mysterious enemy, we learn as we go the motive behind the mischief. But is the enemy who you think it is? I'll admit that I was wrong--and happily so, since I love a writer who can surprise me.

THE YOUNG MASTER/Sheldon Novick: A biography of Henry James in his early years. Beginning with his family and ending with the publicaiton of PORTRAIT OF A LADY, this biography is easier to read than most of James's novels :) Not a book I'd have picked up for fun, but my birthmother did her doctoral thesis on THE GOLDEN BOWL and this book belonged to her.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

I'm not an extrovert. Ever.

But I'm even less of one when in a strange city.

Two weeks ago today, I was in New York City with my 8-year-old daughter. We were on our way to Kenya to visit my parents and had a 12-hour layover. She wanted to see the Museum of Natural History. So off we went in a taxi.

The museum was great (except for our heavy carry-on baggage we had with us--I didn't see the bag check on the ground floor of the museum until we were leaving.) We even stepped across the street so we could say we had been in Central Park. I even took pictures, something I generally leave to my husband. (As I've discovered, though, taking the pictures means I don't have to be in the pictures.)

Then we took a taxi back to JFK airport. By this time, the allergies I'd left home with were in full swing, my shoulders were aching from carrying my bag around, and we still had two 8-hours flights in front of us before we made it to Nairobi. Long story short, I fell asleep in the back of the taxi.

The good news is that I woke up on my own shortly before reaching JFK. I mean, I can't think of too many things more humiliating than drooling all over a cab driver who's trying to wake me up. So I woke up, pulled myself together, and that's when I discovered that my cab driver liked to talk. Poor man, he'd been stuck with me and a child for the last hour. I'm sure there were many things he would have liked to say, but he had to confine himself to the essentials as we drove into the airport.

"Do you kmow the worst part of driving a cab in New York?"

"What?" (I'm not only introverted, I'm not terribly original in conversation.)

"No public bathrooms."

So there you have it. If you're like me, you're now pondering just what might be under the drivers' seats in those yellow cabs.