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Travels around the world (with Beth and Chris)

Archive for the month “January, 2016”

Maasai Mara, you take my breath away!

We are going on safari in the Maasai Mara! I am filled with anticipation as we board our tiny 18 seater airplane where the copilot turns around to inform us to stay buckled up for the flight and we should help ourselves to water from the cooler at the back of the plane; he then gives us a plastic container of mints to pass around. I watch as the woman piloting grabs the handle with her silver bracelet and leather glove to build up speed and take off into the air above Nairobi – and then, 45 minutes later to land safely on the dirt runway at the tiny Mara airstrip.



We help ourselves to our luggage from the bin below the passenger cabin and are escorted to the land rover for the 5 minute drive to the wonderful Mara Explorer camp. As we are driving, we see three necky female giraffes and we stop to gawk.


We arrive at Explorer and are checking in on the open air reception area where there are bright yellow “black headed weaver” birds fluttering in the tree where they have built many many onion shaped nests; below is our first hippo sighting expelling air from just below the surface of the muddy brown Talek River. We follow a beautiful stone path to our luxurious #4 tent – the farthest tent out where our friend Harmon Hooterite Parker had, in years past, built the solid wood floor. There is a porcelain tub on the deck outside the tent, colorful African woven rugs on the floor and a long wooden vanity. There are hippos snorting and bellowing in the river right outside the tent. I text Teri :” Yeah. I’m not coming back.”








We have a quick lunch and then meet our extremely knowledgeable guide Samson to go on our first game drive. He is experienced, agreeable, and communicates well in English (teaching us more Swahili along the way too!); he is also a Maasai so we learn about the culture and traditions which is an added bonus. Samson tells us to stay inside the truck (unless he gives the green light to “mark our territory”) and to stay quiet – not to make any loud or sudden noises that will disturb the animals. We readily agree to the “rules”.


The three of us pull out of camp and see our friendly giraffes and then go deeper in the Mara to experience the Big Five (elephants, lions, buffalo, rhinos, leopards) all in our first trip out; we are told this is very rare especially since both the rhino and leopards are elusive and their numbers are few. We drive past a herd of buffalo to find the lurking hyena; he is lying in the tall grass and I literally gasp as we stop the truck immediately next to him – I am not expecting to get this close. I can see his face and mottled longish fur in close-up detail; he is not concerned with our presence other than maybe we have blown his cover to the buffalo; he lopes away, looking over his shoulder at us. We find lionesses with their cubs and, again, the beauty and close proximity take my breath away. It is truly an awesome sight.





Lion 5

In all, Chris and I go on four game drives (for one morning drive the kitchen packs a picnic breakfast – Samson sets the table on the hood of the land rover using one of the Maasai blankets from the truck as a tablecloth). Samson examines the horizon, listens to birds and other animals, observes footprints, watches the behavior of both predator and prey animals, and communicates with other guides; he uses all of these clues to help us find the impressive animals. He drives over muddy “roads” (it has rained much more than usual), through rivers and up the slippery banks, into the grassy savannah, around heavily spiked acacai trees – all with our trusty open-air land rover. He identifies birds, explains animal behavior, stops for photos (“Sure! Why not?”), and laughs with us; he truly loves his job and is also in awe of all the Mara has to offer “Wow! Look at that! It is so beautiful!!”.






There are so many birds to see and Samson is an expert.


We experience a patient mother cheetah and her playful cubs under a bush – all with their cheetah tear markings on their faces.

Cheetah 1

There are strutting ostriches, running wildebeest, striped zebras (one with a fairly fresh crocodile wound), herds of tail twitching impalas, topis with their “blue jeans and yellow socks”, graceful gazelles; we see retired general buffalo, forgetful warthogs with their “wifi” tails (running away then suddenly stopping :”wait. why am I running?”), hooting hippos, hungry ribby lionesses with “low bellies”.







We come across one such lone lioness suddenly. She is scanning the vicinity, sizing up her options – a topi behind us, and a pair or warthogs over the steam. We position ourselves to quietly watch her. I am certain she makes eye contact with me; I can feel myself react – not out of fear, but out of making a connection with this powerful animal. She elegantly strides away.


We see many elephants – enormous mothers protecting their calfs, there is a massive bull scratching against a thorny acacia tree; these are magnificent animals!



On the morning that we leave the Mara, we go on our last safari. We are on the lookout for male lions. We are in luck; Samson spots two heavily-maned aristocratic lions: Blackey and Lipstick, traversing the valley toward their resting spot for the day. Blackey is limping as a result of a three week old injury; his loyal friend Lipstick forges the way and patiently waits for Blackey to catch up. These regal and proud creatures disappear into the horizon.

Lion 2

Lion 4

This has truly been a highlight. I feel humbled by the stupendous wildlife we have experienced. Thank you again, Kenya.









Maasai Mara, you take my breath away!


Peace Bridge to a Better World

It is dark in the tent and I hear the zipper opening as Chris gets out to face the day before sunrise. I burrow into my sleeping bag on the comfortable mattress for a little more sleep. Eventually I hear the sound of flip flopping through the morning dew: “good morning Harmon!”. The roosters are cock-a-doodle-dooing, the crickets sing loudly then suddenly stop, there is a bird that sounds exactly like a baby crying, the air is damp and fragrant. Chris delivers my coffee. It is time to start the day at the Peace Bridge site on the Nzoia River in the northern Rift Valley of Kenya. We have arrived here after a short plane flight from Nairobi and a tortuous drive along roads that only a high clearance 4 wheel drive truck could manage.




We are here because Harmon and Teri Parker have opened up their lives and their home to us. We want to help. That is what Harmon Parker does: he helps, he inspires, he gives hope. Harmon is the founder of Bridging the Gap Africa. He helps communities build foot bridges. He is a genuine mix of serious and silly,  patience and exasperation,  frustration and tolerance. Harmon is full of intelligence, love, humor, whole-heartedness; he is humble. He barks out orders in one moment and in the next is laughing and teasing (he is a total Hootterite!).IMG_5211

There are three criteria that must be met for Harmon and BtGA to consider a bridge from the many requests: it must improve and facilitate the education, health care, and commerce situations of the joining communities.

At first sight, the river looks beautiful – meandering and placid, but one day, I watch as a teenager jumps in to cross –  he is swept swiftly down the river as he swims to the other side much farther downstream from where he started. The current is strong, even in low season.




The Peace Bridge is a 45 meter (147 ft.) suspension bridge (designed by Matthew Bowser and team; Matthew is a Canadian professional bridge engineer with the MMM Group) over a dangerous river where many have died trying to cross. It’s a complicated structure that has taken much time and cooperation among communities, engineers, carpenters, welders, laborers, masons, cooks, social workers, volunteers. They work through hot sun and torrential rain. They brainstorm, calculate, and the workers, at Harmon’s playful command must show “asses and elbows” – he does not accept anything substandard. Harmon surrounds himself with quality people. Sylvester is the jovial and capable foreman; he gets the job done and has so many stories to go along with his linguistic skills – he is Harmon’s very likeable right hand man. He is also known as Baba King Solomon – father of his son King Solomon.





Francis is an extremely skilled carpenter – he builds forms for the concrete, a ladder to go in and out of the pit for the footings, saw horses, and all of the wooden structures for the camp including the newly renovated outhouse with a real toilet dubbed “Beth’s Bush Bathroom” (I am thankful because even though to “flush”, we pour river water down the hole – there is a real porcelain toilet positioned for privacy and with a view of some beautiful gold flowers ).




Amos and Eric run their asses off for whatever needs to be done.



Old Sila the Prophet (who gratefully accepted the melted sneakers Chris bequeaths to him) with massively strong hands- does any hard labor asked of him without a blink of an eye.


Nasambu is the camp cook. She organizes the meals, cleans clothes, washes the dishes. She is in her young twenties and is studying to be a teacher, She takes us to her modest home one afternoon and we meet her family and neighbors. Luckily for Nasambu, she has moxie, as Harmon puts it, so she fits right in.



The rest of the crew work hard and watch us wazungu to see what we are made of. They pour cement, hoist the towers, dig and fill holes, and generally provide the necessary muscle. They watch me as a local decides to bathe in the river – Harmon points out the full black moon in my direction as I stand in the shade of the sugar cane (I try to act disinterested….). They huddle together in the shelter from the driving rain with a shivering Chris who toughs  out the storm with them after the cement pour.  They seem to be proud to be a part of the bridge.





Since I am not an engineer, and although I can calculate angles and do some math, my main interest is in the locals of this third world country. Most homes in these villages have no electricity or running water and are basically groupings of mud huts covered in cow dung. The smokey kitchen has a stone fire pit with a shelf above it for one pot (that is the extent of the appliances). There are grazing goats and pecking roosters, hens and chickens coming into the open doorways. The “business district” is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We are truly off the beaten path.






There are small (often barefoot) children who, independent of any adult supervision, come to stare at me, the mzungu – the white person with blonde hair. Often the sight of me makes the babies cry.







There is a young boy – maybe 8 – who one day helps me fill my bucket up with water from the river. His name is Manu – he does’t speak English. I know only a few Swahili words. He comes by the campsite every afternoon and looks over. I shout out to him: “Manu! Jambo!” – I walk over to him and he smiles. He seems interested in what is happening. His “toy” is an old tire that he wheels through the field beside our tents with a bent sugar cane stick.



I interact with as many people as I can – I offer my hand and receive a handshake – sometimes the respectful handshake where they put their left hand on their forearm near their elbow, or the more complicated handshake where we snap our thumbs together at the end. The locals are poor; they are proud and happy to have a bridge. They welcome me “karibu sana!”  to their village and country. They smile their incredibly white smiles. Women walk by with various things (from small luggage, to a sack of potatoes, to containers of water) balanced on top of their heads. We pass by a school where the young students gather at the windows to wave and shout “JAMBO!!” to us







Almost everyone I meet at the bridge site tells me how appreciative they are to have us there helping them with this bridge. I tell them I will pass their message along to the people responsible for their bridge and that I am honored to be there in their village. Suddenly, the dirt under my fingernails, the damp sleeping quarters, the pedicure gone to shit, the ants we shoo away from the table seem insignificant. We are here in Kenya with and because of Harmon Parker, the founder of Bridging the Gap Africa, helping our brothers and sisters.






Building bridges to a better world! Sawa Sawa!



We arrive at the Nairobi airport, make our way through customs, and find the tall and friendly Frances holding the “Chris and Beth” sign. We load his car and get our first glimpses of the capital of Kenya. As Frances weaves his way through traffic, he gives us a bit of a guided tour in his excellent English and teaches us our first Swahili word : “habari yako”; it means “how are you?”  (In the meantime, we have learned “Jambo!’’– it has the same meaning and is easy to say in a jaunty way! – it is my favorite Swahili word – everyone responds). Frances is 32 years old and has been in Nairobi for 15 years. He left his tribal village in Tanzania (and eight siblings) to find work. He has a wife and two children; he proudly shows us pictures of his kids and laughs his full and sincere laugh.


Frances delivers us to “Baba and Mama Joshua’s” beautiful home at the end of Wispers Avenue. The gate is tended by another smiling man and the two watch dogs Tsavo and Mila – we will meet the dogs later on the porch under social circumstances but for now they are doing their jobs :). Harmon and Teri come outside to greet us. I go toward Teri; as I approach her, I can feel her positive energy. We hug rather than shake hands. I immediately like her. We go into their solid home and see African art, a CNN hero poster, fresh flowers, dark and light wood parquet floors, and windows that give us views of the vibrantly green foliage of the Karura Forest. Their home is decorated in a way that feels welcoming and is comfortable. We have a fresh salad for lunch, talk about their history in Kenya (Harmon and Teri lovingly “fight” for the floor – they both have so much to tell us; Chris and I are all ears). Later we sit and have wine – “porch time” – and enjoy the sounds of the babbling river, hear more about the animals we will see from that very porch, what they have scheduled for us the next day, our respective kids, where we can buy souvenir earrings, and of course Bridging the Gap Africa. This is what has brought us here, after all… More about that in the next blog 🙂




After watching the Sykes monkey escapades in the nearby trees from their porch the next morning, Harmon calls Frances, Teri makes us a list of proposed places to visit and we are off! First stop: Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage. This organization rescues and cares for baby elephants that have lost their mothers. Some were found in wells, most were orphaned because of poaching. The babies come trotting up the path toward the roped off viewing area – they know their bottles of human baby formula are waiting for them.  There is a “mud bath” to burrow into, small branches to gnaw on, a florescent orange soccer ball, and several men who lovingly tend to the elephants. We see 11 elephants in the first group – the younger babies. We are allowed to touch them. I ask one of the men where they like to be touched: “rub behind the ears, like this! Do you want me to take your picture?” After this group files out, the older group of 13 elephants plod single file toward the expectant visitors with two ostriches that were brought in as baby chicks along with one of the elephants.. On the way out, Chris pays 200 shillings (about $2) to get a picture of me with the maasai dude dressed in typical colorful garb, stomping his feet and jumping in the air.









Next stop is the giraffe sanctuary. A cool place for – you guessed it – giraffes. Their necks are extremely long and muscular as you would expect, their fur is mottled shades of tan and brown as you would expect, and their tongues are long and kind of blue. I was told I could get a kiss if I hold a food pellet protruding a bit from my mouth. Do you think I did it??



After lunch, a coffee, and a  little souvenir shopping (got a wooden carved elephant and my first pair of souvenir earrings 🙂 ) we go back to the Parker’s abode for more porch time, dinner out and packing for the trip to Kitale and beyond. So far we love Kenya, feel safe, and have hopefully made lifelong friends with these welcoming, generous, thoughtful, and loving people – Teri and Harmon Parker .


Ciao for now!





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