Monday, August 4, 2008

Africa #14: Heading Home

We spent an hour in the morning at a local Maasai village that, unsurprisingly, was also the source of the dancers from the previous night. Not particularly my cup of tea but S was keen to go, and it was actually interesting to catch even a faint echo of how we all used to live, i.e. badly. This boma is still being finished off by a group of Maasai who have moved here explicitly to supplement their income with tourist dollars. Far enough, everyone has the right to self-improvement, and compared with other villages that were clearly constructed just for tourists, these Maasai are living there at least and not just showing up for tourist duty each day.

The women build their huts using no more than woven reeds, sticks and mud, each one taking only a week to construct, a fact that indicates just how basic these dwellings are (or “minimalist” in estate agent speak). Inside they keep a fire burning – it’s winter there now after all - but for reasons entirely unclear to me have never developed the concept of a chimney, resulting in an experience rather like sitting inside a large bonfire. Given that they manage to avoid dying of asphyxia, let alone first- and secondhand smoke inhalation, their diet alone would freak out your local MD. It comprises one principal thing: milk. No wonder they pay a lot of attention to meeting the needs of their cows, both as a measure of wealth and, of course, as a way of protecting their lunch. However, life’s not all plain milk with a side order of milk and some nice milk to follow for dessert, dear me no. Apparently, it’s milk occasionally mixed with cow blood, just to give it a bit more spice presumably, supplemented by the odd bit of meat and regularly interspersed with dollops of maize porridge. Fair makes my mouth water just to think about it.

And so now it’s finally time to head home. 36 straight hours of travelling, including a hairy transfer at Nairobi where some immigration official bent the rules a little to help us make the connection complete with luggage rather than without. The first problem we encountered was when checking-in at Arusha airport when we found out that the Precision Air flight was going to be delayed by an hour, cutting away all of the transfer margin we had cunningly engineered for ourselves at Nairobi. That would have just about been OK, except for the second problem: we couldn’t check our luggage through, despite PA claiming to have an interlining agreement with BA. That meant we now had to clear immigration and customs at Nairobi, collect our bags, go and find wherever it is that BA hangs out, most likely in a different terminal, and check-in again, all in a time slot that is now less than an hour ….

We hung around the departure area wishing fervently that we were instead on the KLM flight direct to Amsterdam which both left on time and avoided this additional transfer before reaching Europe, watching a huge cloud of bugs flying around the airport lighting gantry and trying to come up with a plan B, and failing. We would just have to leg it as fast as possible and hope the immigration line into Kenya was both short and the customs people understanding of our plight. We did have single entry transit visas for Kenya but those had been stamped to hell and back on our way in so unclear if they were still valid or not.

Fortunately, things went OK and we found ourselves with just over an hour to make the transfer. Let battle commence! Fortunately, the immigration line was short and S found a pleasant, official-looking chap who said “not to worry”, which was good, and “give me your passports, go get your bags and then you can come back and check-in at the transfer desk in the departure area” which sounded even better.

However, there you now are, waiting for the baggage to arrive and thinking a bit more clearly about the Faustian pact you just did with your passport. Hmm. He was wearing a suit but not a uniform. Didn’t have a badge but seemed to know what he was doing. Just who exactly have we given our passports to and how quickly do you think he’ll fence them to some Kenyan drug lord, leaving us with the lamest of story to keep retelling to anyone who will listen – which will be no one – in a Nairobi jail for the next 5 years?

Thankfully, it all worked out, despite being sent back and forth a couple of times to complete check-in, and we were soon allowed into the hallowed gate area. It just shows how mellow I was now feeling about life that I didn’t even complain when we and our hand luggage were screened and x-rayed twice with nothing between those two events except a walk of, and I kid you not, 10 feet. We could only assume that BA didn’t trust the Kenyan airports authority to do the job right and so just to rub their noses in it had their own screening right-slap-bang afterwards.

Only thing left now is a five-and-a-half hour layover in Heathrow before heading back to SFO. Definitely not looking forward to this last leg because it’s back to economy class and the plane is completely packed with holiday makers. And S is somewhat pissed-off because the security Nazis at T5 swiped her duty free bottle of stuff she bought in Nairobi because “the bag was insufficiently sealed, sir”, presumably because the Tig arc welder was out of commission in the airport duty free shop that day? Jeez.

It’s been a fantastic trip and very glad we decided to bite the bullet, spend the money and take the time to make it. I have to recommend Good Earth tours, the organizers of the whole thing and provider of our main guide, Paul, for doing an excellent job at a very fair price. S did a lot of comparisons in terms of itineraries and prices and these guys beat the competition hands down. All the luxury hotels we stayed at were very good, and even the more basic ones were clean and perfectly serviceable. We went with the goal of taking lots of photos, something which 40 Gb of resulting disk space consumption can attest to we succeeded in doing.

In closing, I’ll plan to do a post or two on thoughts around the 1D Mk III we rented and general tips on taking pictures whilst on safari. I’ll also, of course, start to post some more of the resulting images.

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