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Africa: Days Sixty-Four through Seventy-Seven

Part One: One and One Half

(Monday April 7th, 2000)

I am so hopelessly behind, I’m not sure if I’ll ever catch up.  By my count I have five full trips and three half trips to write about. To make matters worse, we’re leaving for another trip this Friday.  We’re going to Uganda for Easter holidays to visit Kim’s old stomping grounds and friends.  After that, I’m heading to Ethiopia for ten days.  I called Kim while I was in Tanzania and she said there was a great deal on tickets to Addis, did I want to go?  I certainly wasn’t going to turn down an offer to travel even though I knew nothing more about Ethiopia than what little I learned from Live AID in the 80’s.  Came home to discover that she had already ordered a book about Ethiopia to educate me and that her secret motivation was shopping by proxy.  Not that that will stop me from going or anything…

So…how to begin?

Kakamega (half trip)

The first trip was one of the half trips. I am pretty sure that it was on the second weekend of February.  Kim and I decided to get away for the weekend.  The closest scenic destination to Kisumu (besides Lake Victoria, of course) is the Kakamega (you’ve got to love the name!)  forest reserve.  It’s a tropical rainforest about 50 kilometers north of Kisumu.  A couple of pictures from this trip are already up, so you may have seen a little of what it’s like. 

We left in the morning from Kisumu by Peugeot.  Peugeots (pronounced “Poo jut” around these parts), in case you don’t know, are cheap little French cars.  In Kenya they are the express matatus.  They are little station wagons with an extra row of seating rigged into that part in the back of the car that makes it a station wagon.  There are three really good reasons I choose to travel by peugot: they only carry eight passengers, they go directly to their destination without stopping, and they leave when they are full.  “Only” and “eight” don’t seem to go together, but compared to the common minibus matatus, the Peugeots are like traveling in the lap of luxary instead of someone else’s lap.  Traveling by matatu as I’ve described elsewhere is particularly frustrating because everyone wants to be dropped off at exactly the right spot.  So the matatu can literally travel in 50 meter increments because the passengers couldn’t be bothered to walk the extra couple of meters.  Matatus also stop frequently to pick up passengers with the fifty meter rules still in effect.  These are annoying enough procedures in town, but even more annoying when you want to travel any significant distance in a reasonable amount of time.

So we went down to the taxi park in Kisumu to get a Peugot to Kakamega.  Actually the taxi park is being rebuilt right now, so the busses, matatus and peugots line up along the side of the road or in the parking lot of a gas station.  In order to find the one you want (hardly any of them are labeled) you just wander down the road asking the touts and the drivers.  You don’t really have to ask.  As soon as you get near them they go into a feeding frenzy trying to get you into their cars.  Once you tell them where you’re going they‘ll point out which of the vehicles is going where you want to go.  You bounce down the line until you find the area with vehicles going to your destination.  But I have actually had touts try to convince me that I wanted to go with them to another city.  Imagine that happening anywhere else.  Imagine going in to Metro Airport without a ticket, a carrier or a flight time and being accosted by men trying to convince you that you’d rather go to Minneapolis rather than Phoenix as you’re trying to find your unlabeled gate for an uncertain departure in an ancient and unreliable looking airplane. 

So to get back to it…We talked to Julius, who, you’ll remember, is the CDC guesthouse caretaker.  He’s from Kakamega (the town, not the forest) and he was coincidentally going back the night before so we planned on meeting up when we arrived.  He not only takes care of the CDC guesthouse and it’s guests, but he tries to take care of CDC employees also.  He is the most active Kenyan I have yet to meet.  He has little tiny businesses all over the place.  When we arrived in Kakamega and tracked him down we discovered that he owns several boda bodas in town.  Boda bodas are basically bicycle taxis; you ride on a little padded seat on the back of the bike.  He also owns a farm with maize and beans, deals lumber, and has a slew of “scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours” arrangements with fundis around town.  If that wasn’t enough he’s also in the process of building his own house.  So he took some time out from his busy schedule to make sure that we arrived safely and to arrange for transportation to the forest itself.

We were an interesting mixture of overly prepared and completely unprepared.  We had read a little about Kakamega in the Lonely Planet Guidebook for East Africa (my traveling bible!), so we knew enough to bring food and a means to cook it, because they said that there was no where near by to get food.  And we didn’t bring a tent or any real camping gear because our guidebook said that it would only be 250/= to stay in a banda (which is a little thatched hut) and the same amount to camp at Udo’s Bandas & Campsite.  So, it seemed to make sense just to use the banda than to lug the tent and gear on to the Peugeot.  You can see one of the bandas in the background of this picture.  When we arrived it turned out that the prices were six times higher than the book printed for the bandas, but the same for camping.  We also got charged non-resident rates because we couldn’t prove that we were living in Kenya.  Actually we still can’t prove that we’re living here.  Even though Kim is working she still only has a tourist visa that has to be renewed every three months.

After unpacking a little bit and arranging for a walking tour later in the afternoon, we settled down for some serious relaxing.  Here’s Kim reading some more and here I am looking at a tree full of monkeys.  This is one of the reasons I think of this as a half trip; mostly we read, napped, and lazed about.  Not much else.

Well, we did eventually go on a guided walking tour of the forest.  It was even a pretty long walk.  I do have to admit I did find it a little disappointing.  I guess I had a very different idea of what a tropical rainforest would look like; one based, I’m sure, on dozens of movies and books.  I expected, well, rain for one thing.  Of course, rain in the middle of the dry season was expecting too much.  But I suppose I expected a lot more vegetation and animals.  In short I expected jungle.  What I got was a forest, not so very different from ones that I’ve been to before, except for the monkeys and birds. 

We walked through the forest up to a hill overlooking the whole forest.  On the way we were stopped by a group of government VIPs on a tour of the forest and a camera crew.  We gave an impromptu interview about why we chose Kakamega as a tourist destination and how we were found the quality of the wildlife services and so forth.  Apparently, they had come all the way from Nairobi in their suits and expensive off-road vehicles to check out the state of tourism in Kakamega.  At that point I think we were the only tourists in the North end of the park.  They were pretty lucky to run it to us; it’s not a small park.

We made it to the top of the hill and had a great view of the south of the park and the rest of the North.  We climbed to the top of an observation tower and our guide told us a lot of interesting stuff about local history and ecology which I have since forgotten.  Then we climbed down the hill and in to the forest.  We walked for some time down trails and through fields towards a waterfall on the eastern side of the park.  After over an hour of walking we reached it.  I didn’t take a picture because there was really nothing to see, just a little meter drop in a small brown rocky river.  A bit anticlimactic.  It’s a bit of a socially awkward problem when you are taken some distance by a guide to see something that is not really worth the effort.  When you make it there they seem to present it to you, as in “here it is!”  And you have to nod and smile and make appreciative noises to avoid being rude.  More likely than not he thought that tourists just wanted to see it and he was as puzzled as we were as to why anyone would.

The walk back was hot and sticky.  We walked back through several small farming and cattle raising villages on the edge of the park.  Along the way we stopped at a little store and bought some sugar cane.  East Africans chew on sugar cane raw.  They take it in foot long sections, bite through the husk and chew on the pulp until the flavor is gone.  Then they spit it out.  Our teeth were not nearly strong enough to manage it, so they used a machete and cut it in to little sections that our mzungu mouths could manage.  It’s pretty good, but kind of like really cheap gum: the flavor just lasts for a moment and then all you have is something unpleasant to chew on.

We made it back to Udo’s and took a nap or two.  Like I said, it was mostly a trip for relaxing.  We made dinner on our camp stove (spaghetti!) and took a walk in the moonlight.  On returning to go to bed we discovered that the beds didn’t really have any covers, just a sheet.  We also discovered that it gets really cold in Kakamega at night.  Even with all of our warmest clothes on, that is jeans and long sleeve shirts, we had to squeeze in to a tiny twin bed and huddle for warmth. 

Neither of us slept very well.  When the sun came up and burned off the dew, we went outside and slept on benches for most of the day.

Sleeping, reading, freezing and napping.  Not much of a trip really, but then I had to explain away the pictures, didn’t I?


Kisii/Homa Bay (Full Trip)

My first trip by myself was a little bit of a secret.  After talking about wanting to travel by myself for a long time, it was time to actually get down and do it.  To hide the fact that I had absolutely no idea where I wanted to go from Kim, I simply refused to tell her where I was going.  All I knew was that I wanted to go on a little trip, two or three days and one or two nights.  I didn’t really want to go very far.  In fact in that amount of time it’s not really possible to go anywhere very far unless you’re flying and I didn’t want to do that.  I read and re-read the Lonely Planet Guidebook for some ideas about places to go.  The only things that were set in stone was that I was planning on being back in Kisumu on Friday, February 25th in order to go with a friend to Uganda for the weekend and that I was leaving on Tuesday the 2nd.

It wasn’t until maybe an hour before I left that I decided that I wanted to go to Kisii.  The guidebook describes it as ‘a remote place’.  It is known in the area for making soapstone sculptures that are sold in Kisumu.  It is part of the Western Highlands and lies a hundred kilometers by road south of Kisumu.  I’ll quote the guidebook again, “While you’re here, it’s worth making the four-hour round trip to the top of nearby Manga Ridge, from which the views, especially over Lake Victoria are magnificent.  You can also see Kisumu in the distance and the tea plantations of Kericho behind you.”  It looked to be only three or four hours away and no problem to get to, so I went downtown to Kisumu to get a Peugeot. 

On the way I decided to stop and pick up a package that my mom had sent me through regular mail.  Because it went through regular international mail it also had to go through customs, so I had to pick it up from the post office instead of having it delivered.  I went to the post office only to discover that they didn’t handle customs at that branch but rather at the old post office across the street.  I walked across the street and arrived at five after one.  Five after one is the worst time to try and get anything done in Kisumu.  It’s lunchtime and in Kisumu, we take our lunchtime very seriously.  Nothing is open except restaurants and, strangely, banks.  I think banks are only open at lunch because many of them open at nine and close at 2:30pm.  As I walked in the door the man working the parcel section locked the steel cage and told me to come back after lunch. 

So I went to my favorite café, Mon Ami, and had lunch, probably while watching tennis or cricket on their satellite television.  I read and re-read the short page long description and convinced myself that this trip was a good idea.  I conceived the Lake Victoria theme while finishing off my steak and mushrooms.  I would go to Kisii, get a good look at the lake from a distance and then I would go to the Lakeshore and get a really close look.  Why would I need to look at the lake if I live on the lake already?  Well, as I mentioned in a previous entry, there is no place to look at the lake from Kisumu.  If you look at the map you can see that Kisumu is the most inland point of the lake in a section called Winam Gulf.  It’s kind of like being in Traverse City and trying to look at Lake Michigan; you can see water, sure, but not the vastness of the lake.

By the time two o’clock rolled around I had a real plan.  There are only four good-sized Kenyan towns south of Kisumu that are on Lake Victoria: Kendu Bay, Homa Bay, Karungu, and Muhoro.  Of those Karangu and Muhoro are pretty remote and not covered in the guidebook I have, so I didn’t know anything about them.  So, I would go to Kisii, climb Manga Ridge, see the Lake from afar, climb down, go to Homa Bay or Karangu (if I was feeling brave), see out in to the whole Lake from near, go on a quick safari in nearby Ruma national park if there was time and then get back to Kisumu in order to leave for Uganda.

Bucked up by my new sense of purpose I went back to the old post office.  I would love to skip this bit and go on to something more interesting, but I can’t help but write about the old post office.  The old post office is called the old post office, because there is a new one across the street.  I know it’s not uncommon to keep an old office after you build a new one, but I do believe that it’s uncommon to keep using the old office after it has been on fire.  Not just a little fire, but a huge burned-day-and-night fire.  The fire had happened two years ago.  Kisumu, despite being the third largest city in Kenya, does not have a working fire department.  They have firemen, and cute little uniforms, they even have a vehicle or two, but have very little in the way of fire fighting equipment.  They had to call Eldoret, which is three or four hours away, for help in fighting the fire.  Eldoret, despite being only a medium sized town, has an international airport, a university, and several factories in addition to its fully functional fire department.  Why?  The President of Kenya, Moi, is from the Eldoret area!  By the time they arrived, the fire had mostly burned itself out.

So I walked in the back door, into the steel cage that contained the parcels and was sent with my package through some offices and into the old, now ceiling-less, lobby where the customs office was located.  I walked in to the office and there were three four desks; two were empty, a women doing her knitting was at the third one, and a man had his head down asleep on the fourth.  He looked up as I walked in, glanced at my package and pointed at one of the empty desks and a chair for me to wait in.  We stayed like that for a good half hour, him sleeping, her knitting and me sitting reading the outside of my package and the old calendars and notices.  Eventually another woman came in and sat at the other desk.  She and the knitting woman talked for awhile, a couple of times referring to me, but never actually addressing me.  Another ten minutes passed before she decided that she could take a look at my package.  When she saw that in the package was a videotape (a Christmas present from my mom) she tried to charge me some exorbitant “fee”.  She was trying to convince me that she had to charge me, because I could be smuggling movies into the country.  Africa is a horrible place for copyright infringement.  You can buy illegally copied movies, tapes, magazines, and any number of other media on the street for a fraction of the cost of the real thing, sometimes even before the real thing is available internationally.  Directly in front of the post office there was a hawker selling well over two hundred obviously pirated videotapes, and this woman was trying to rip me off for one tape of family videos!  I think this is the closest I’ve ever come to blowing my top in Africa.  After arguing for ten minutes about it, she suddenly relented and I was free to go with my Visa bills, junk mail and family video un”taxed”.

I walked down the street to the same place Kim and I had gotten the Peugeot to Kakamega, hoping to finally get underway.  I followed the daisy chain of matatus and Peugeots down the street.  They all said that Kisii was farther down the street.  I finally came to the end of the row of matatus and then they said it was on another street.  On the drivers had me get in and they drove me down the block a ways.  The had me get out at a corner and passed me along to a boda boda that took me the rest of the way to another, previously undiscovered huge taxi park.  Apparently while the old taxi park is being rebuilt, they have shifted operations in pieces all over town.

I got in the Peugeot and maybe twenty minutes later, I