BUDGET, SHORT, NOVICE BUT WONDERFUL TRIP TO ETHIOPIA AND KENYA
I TOOK A LONG TIME TO DO THIS, AND NOW IT'S JUST TOO LONG.... Please, be patient or just skip around.... I put it off so long because I knew I would tell too much.
I have to say my daughter, Dallas, and I were only on safari from Monday AM to Wednesday AM in the Mara and then on to Lake Nakuru for Wednesday night. Our afternoon safari in Nakuru was very rainy, but we did see the flamingos before the rain, and it was bright and sunny the next morning. We saw some rhinos and water buffaloes in the rain, and I stuck my head out the window and took blurry pictures of them in case I would never see another rhino. I know our driver, George, thought I was really crazy, but it worked for me. When you know you may never be able to return, you do what you have to do. I actually sort of like the blurry pictures just as part of the chronicle of our time, although I would most definitely have been major disappointed if the whole safari time had rain. The African people have such extremes of drought and rain, it was good for us to be reminded of their reality. George told us that some people come in the off season to save money, and it rains the whole week, and they all spend the whole time stuck or trying to push the vehicle out of the mud. The next morning, there the rhinos were, all dried off but plenty muddy--part of their charm.
I would like to be encouragement for all the people out there who dream of safari but are afraid they can't afford it. We didn't see as much or get as great pictures as many of you, but I think we covered a lot of ground considering. Those luxury lodges look fabulous, and, of course, there is a part of me that covets that (coveting has always been my worst personality defect), but I suspect there are others like us who need to know the budget route is definitely do-able and definitely enjoyable, perhaps even more authentic. Middle America, don't give up on Africa. I am so grateful to all of you on Fodor's who took the time to help us figure this trip out. Our entire trip cost us each about $4000: transportation from the USA, 5 days in Rome, Italy, 8 days in Ethiopia, 7 days in Kenya, and even items we purchased. We visited three World Vision children which was an amazing experience and also took things and visited three orphanages for kids with AIDS.
One of the surprising things to me about the jungle was that it felt so incredibly serene. Lions and hippos basked in the sun while zebras and impala looked unperturbed. In the business world, people say, “It's a jungle out there,” but it is an unfair and inappropriate analogy. The animals in the jungle are never cut throat, although some do die; there is no malice or ego or corner office or pursuit of wealth involved, although some animals are stronger and survive longer. It is only the cycle of life, and each animal plays the role assigned to him. Perhaps this testimony of the natural order of the jungle's universe is part of what nurtures us and draws us away from the artificialities of modern life.
I bought a Canon S2 not long before my trip, and I wish I had had more time to practice before the trip, but my grandchild had just recently dropped my other camera in powdery dirt. I must be really challenged because everyone said how easy it was, but I mostly just had to put it on “Auto” and hope for the best. Make sure you get in the habit of holding the shutter half way down before you click. That gives it time to make light adjustments. I had some very sad experiences when I forgot because I did not need to do that with my previous camera. I really liked having both the LCD and the eye viewer because I don't do well using the LCD in sunlight. I also like the tilting LCD because it helped me get angles this old body has forgotten how to reach. The LCD screen was hard for me to read, since I don't have the best eyes in the world, another reason for “Auto.” I wish I had had a fancier camera, but it wouldn't have done me much good without the skills to go with it. I was afraid to use the video feature because it ate up a memory card in a hurry, but we were able to download to a CD much more often than I expected in Africa, and I wish I had taken more videos, short or not. The few videos I have are the best at making me really remember when I was there, although usually the card ran out before I wanted. I hope some of you will enjoy the videos. I have several videos of the baby elephants at the orphanage because we were only a few hours from going home, but, even so, I ran out before the ellies got really relaxed and cavorted in the mud like the happiest creatures on earth. The Canon takes four AA batteries, and I am used to using two, but it didn't bother me because the batteries did seem to last a decent time. I also liked the Image Stabilizing feature of the Canon, although I take some prescription that makes my hands shake some, and the feature could not always keep up for me. “Mom, you know you have to keep your hands still.” Ah-h, youth.
My daughter had wanted to go to Ethiopia to see her sponsored children for over ten years. She had begun to sponsor the two boys when she was a freshman in college and had continued through many hardships of her own. One night when she was a senior in college she called me and said, “Mom, sit down because I have something to tell you that you won't like.... Don't get me anything for Christmas. I am selling everything I have and dropping out of school and going to find my two boys in Ethiopia.” I caught my maternal breath sharply. Now, just because I was proud of her good intentions does not mean I was enthusiastic- uh, at all. This was my daughter on a full scholarship and with a practically perfect GPA. So, I went into a fervent 'get your degree first and then think about it' speech. She wasn't buying anything I said. I asked how on earth will you find these boys and where will you stay and what about the fact you have a complicated medical history and how will you support yourself and, most of all, who would protect you. Soon she began to sleep on the floor to get used to not having a bed. I think she wanted me to know how serious she was. Not right away, but with the help of undergraduate budgets, eventually she reluctantly postponed her trip. I felt a little guilty but mostly finally exhaled that same maternal sigh of relief.
So ten years later, she had graduated with over a 3.9, gone to Cameroon once for a 6 week volunteer program, married, given birth to a premature baby who only lived 47 days, had a miscarriage and her husband had left her. She had supported these two boys in Ethiopia for thirteen years and later had also begun to sponsor a girl in Kenya, and these were children she had loved and needed more than ever to see. She was a teacher, so she was determined to go the next summer, 2006. She teaches two Ethiopian children at her private school, so she asked their mother just for advice on which airline to use, etc.
The father gets back to her and tells her he owns a hotel in Addis and she can stay there for free and that he would also provide a car and driver for her. That is when I began to think it was my chance to travel also, and it was now or never. It was about then that I said to my daughter, “Uh, Dallas, do you think I could come?” I never would have picked Ethiopia as my one international visit, but I knew I would appreciate any place in its own way. I did talk my daughter, Dallas, into having a 5 day layover in Rome, Italy, but she really agreed to that begrudgingly because she was so focused on those boys. I don't think she was thrilled to have her mom tag along, but I still had an illusion I could protect her, and she knew none of her friends could afford to allocate the money to go with her to a third world country. Besides, I had been through some hard times of my own, and we both needed a change of scenery that was also healing and meaningful.
It turned out the husband of the mother she asked was the richest man in ET, a sheik that was a household name over there. Our driver in Addis told us all about him. As we investigate, it turns out his hotel is the Luxury Sheraton right across from the palace in Addis. We looked it up on the Internet and marveled at the lavish hotel, a fancier hotel than we had ever stayed in –ever—any place. That offer was one of the things that put us over the edge of our decision; how could we not go now? As it turned out, we lost communication with the family when they left for ET for the summer sooner than we expected. We hoped for the best, contacted the Sheraton who knew nothing about us, actually made our reservations but had to cancel them before we went. I actually was uncomfortable with our staying at a luxury hotel in the midst of such abject poverty, but as someone who has never traveled, I was comforted by the idea of having a secure place to go so many miles from home.
My daughter saw this parent after we returned to the States, and she casually said, “Oh , you should have stayed there. It was fine.” There was no way we could risk being presented with a bill for $250 per night. The mother continued, “Well, you can just stay there next time you go.” I wish. Sometimes I do not think the rich understand the middle class any more than the middle class understands the very poor.
When I would mention to my friends or multiple siblings that I was actually thinking about going to Africa, I was usually met with dead silence, followed by a sort of half-hearted “Good for you,” or more likely, reminders of my age ( I mean, I STILL think I have to be middle aged because old age is too darn close to-uh-well, you know what I mean). I have one older sister whom my mother always called Cassandra, the prophet of doom in some mythology. Cassandra and my sister were always the first to report or predict impending doom. She especially kept reminding me that I wasn't as young as I used to be, or that if I have never traveled, why on earth did I plan to travel in Third World countries? Did I really think I could handle that? People kept asking me, “What about the Avian flu? This is a really deadly variation. What about HIV/AIDS? What about bandits and terrorists and rebel uprisings and animosity towards Americans? Who knows where the next Idi Amin lives now. You know, America is hated in a lot of countries; you can't be naïve about that. Some tourists disappear and are never heard from again. We don't want to lose you over there. What about virulent snakes and spiders and bugs? (The old Tarzan movies flash in my memory of some such creature hanging over the unsuspecting person's head.) Did you know polio is a growing concern in African countries? What about typhus and typhoid and hepatitis? Even immunizations are not foolproof, you know. What about droughts and floods? What about all those nasty, nasty parasites that can ruin your health for life. I know someone who contracted a parasite over there at age 23 and she never was the same.... Don't you know Africa has all these exotic diseases we Americans have absolutely no immunity to? Don't you dare drink any water, or eat anything, for that matter. Malaria can hit you really hard and fast and then you are just gone. Dead and gone.”
Then my supporters would say, “Well, OK, who is arranging your tour?” I would answer, “We mostly will just wing it in Rome and Ethiopia but are not sure about Kenya.” “My God, are you crazy? I thought you had more brains than that. You can't just get off an airplane in a Third World country and not have specific plans for where to go and how to get there. And on top of that you are flying Ethiopian Airlines? What do you know about their safety records? Don't try to save money just to lose your life. You are just inviting disaster. You are too-uh-old and too-uh-I mean, do you even exercise at all-to be gallivanting all over the world like a college kid. What are you thinking? You have to think about being there in the future for your kids and grandkids. You could get really sick. The medical care isn't that great over there, you know. How would you even find a doctor? Your insurance won't cover you even if you do find a doctor. Couldn't you just start off by going to Canada or maybe London, if you are really set on a trip? No one who has never traveled just jumps in with a complicated, unsupervised trip like this one.”
One friend I asked and listened to more because I knew she had made annual trips to Malawi for many years after her time in the Peace Corps 40 years ago. I asked her straight out if she thought I could handle it physically. She hedged a little in a more informed way, so I listened carefully, but she told me she thought I would probably be OK. When I returned, she came up to me and said, “I have to admit I had my doubts, but you really did pull it off. Good for you.”
I actually was surprised by all the pessimism, and it made me just a little nervous, but it was about time I do something a little more exciting, whether I die or not. What a bunch of wimps. I thought, yeah, I might die, but I was embracing something I had heard somewhere: stop complaining about your wishes not coming true and replace your wishbone with your backbone. Before I believed it could happen myself, not from fear, more from my being boring so long that I just plain couldn't believe it, we had bought our tickets. However, I still could not believe my daughter and I could actually pull this off financially or logistically. Thank goodness, my daughter has a good sense of direction for finding our way around because mine is non-existent. Even after we had bought our airplane tickets, I would tell my friends, “I might go to Africa this summer.” I don't think I believed it until long after I began packing for the trip. Now that I have gone there and returned, I still have trouble believing it.
Honestly and truly, I did think I might very well die on this trip because I knew it would be a stretch for me. Somehow I could not quite imagine going so far away and without an arranged tour of some kind to shepherd us, and also coming home. I told my daughter that if I did die, I did not want her to have to fool with a dead body in a foreign country. I told her to have me cremated, and if the ashes were still a legal problem to transport, it was OK to scatter me to the winds wherever we were. Dallas cheerfully said to me, “Mom, if that's what you want, I think I will need that in writing.” I mean can you bring ashes in your carry on? I wouldn't want the authorities to think she was a terrorist trying to bring gunpowder on the plane. That could be an explosive situation, and not a good last memory of her loving mother as she is seized as contraband. I didn't mind my ashes being scattered somewhere in Africa, but I didn't relish being on a shelf in a security office in some foreign airport waiting for the bomb team to be called in. I doubted a safe return, but I was sick of being so boring and predictable, so I would risk the dreaded shelf.
WV was great once we got to Africa, but we couldn't get any straight answers from their people in the USA. Apparently it is pretty rare for a sponsor to go see their child. The one director of a large, very active district in ET told us we were only the third sponsors who had ever visited her district. As the time got closer for our trip, the neurotic one of the two of us (guess which one) was getting really nervous about not being reassured by WV USA how, when or where we could pull this off. I was beginning to worry about who was going to protect ME in the wilds of Africa if we were left totally to our own devices. My daughter kept saying how we would just play it by ear, and I kept feeling that as I age, I am a little hard of hearing, after all. Eh? What's that you say?
My daughter's baby had died, and I held her in my arms for the one and only time after her death because she was very fragile and in an isolette the whole 47 days. Her death was devastating. I never planned this, but at first I could barely stand to see a healthy baby, and then time went on, and I never had the opportunity to hold a baby. She died in January of 2004 and it was 2006, and I still had not held a baby. So much time went by that I began to feel like the baby I next held should complete a circle of some kind in this grandmother's mind and heart. So before we went to Africa, I decided I would hold a baby in Africa; that would somehow be an act of love that would honor babies everywhere, including ones forgotten and so challenged to grow and live and be who they were meant to be. There is no logic to grief and love and you do what you can to find healing. For me, it felt like a full circle.
When we were in Kenya visiting Dallas' World Vision child Jeritech, she had a baby sister, and she is the first baby I held since my tiny grandchild had died. No one would guess the special meaning it had for me, not even my daughter. All babies deserve to grow up.
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TRIP REPORTART I: BUDGET, NOVICE TRIP TO ETHIOPIA AND KENYA