Sunday, May 13, 2012

Becoming the Path

There is an old Buddhist saying, “you cannot travel the path before you have become the path”. I am not entirely sure what that means, but sitting here on an Egyptian beach reflecting on the past few months, I think I became the path somewhere in Kenya.

Up until that time I had been enjoying Africa, but I really was not getting the life-changing experience that so many people have commented on when talking about their time here. Perhaps, my acceptance of Africa, or her acceptance of me was simply because I had spent so much time here, or perhaps it was due to a series of events…

Once in Nairobi in early February, I pitched my tent in the oversized yard of Jungle Junction, a Mecca for overlanders. There, I met many other travelers either heading north or going south all on their own Cape Town to Cairo journey. It was a good place to exchange information on routes, places to stay and on different visa requirements. At the time, the main topic was how to get through or around Syria as the borders were starting to close down due to the escalating conflict there. With Syria closed it would be impossible to continuously drive from Africa into Europe. Jungle Junction was also where I would finally get the seals replaced in the bike’s final drive. 

Kenya is where you need to deal with visas before continuing north. It is as if there is big “Do Not Pass Go” sign over the northern border of the country - Ethiopia required that all tourist visas had to now originate from your home country. Therefore, I had to send my passport back to the States using a passport service, which took two-weeks and over $300 in DHL charges and embassy fees. Next was Sudan, and after several trips to the Sudanese embassy, I was denied a visa. While citizens from all other countries who filled out the application, paid their $50 and could produce a letter of introduction from their home country’s embassy (a letter guaranteeing that they were in fact a citizen of where their passport was issued) got their visa on the same day. But because the American embassy refuses to write such letter, I was denied. After more research I learned from another American traveler, that I could go through a travel agent inside Sudan and they would arrange the visa for a service fee of $80. I organized this over the internet with Ahmed at Raidan Travel. Eventually, I got word that my visa would be waiting for me at the embassy in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The cost for the visa for Americans was $200, not the standard $50. This discrepancy is widely regarded as the “George Clooney Tax”, as whenever he pulls one of his publicity stunts, the Sudan government turns the screw on American tourists. I tend to think that it has more to do with the American led international sanctions, but maybe it is George’s fault? With a lighter wallet, I was finally able to proceed north. 

During the time my passport was in transit, I had two-weeks to spend within the borders of Kenya. Earlier in my trip I was given the contact details of a couple from western Kenya and had been exchanging emails with them since Zambia. This was a good opportunity to go and visit. I spent a total of almost two-weeks with them and the trip has not only turned out to be integral part of my experience in Africa, but my life as a whole.

Alex is a bishop in the area and runs several churches. I am not much of a religious person, but during my time in the area I witnessed all the work his church was doing in this incredibly poor area. Most of my time was spent with their small school on the grounds of their main church. The preschoolers to second graders do not receive many white visitors, so it took awhile for them to warm up to me. Soon enough, I was chasing them about the yard outside and helping with some English lessons inside. There was no budget for the school, but Alex and Florence were doing the best they could. I helped a little by buying materials for two more blackboards and some spoons, cups and bowls when I saw that there was not enough to go around at lunchtime. I had fallen in love with each and every child there and wanted to do more to help. (During my time visiting the area three local children had died of malnutrition, so I realized how important it was for these children to have a place to go everyday – to be looked after.) I soon was talking to the other board members of Write Around the World to see if we could possibly help this school. I am proud to say we are now trying.

Here is a video introduction to the school and the children. Tragically, I just learned last week that two of the children in the video recently died of malaria.

I split my time up in western Kenya by taking a 10-hour ride up to the Lake Turkana region to visit the Turkana people that I had heard so much about. The road had once been paved, but that must have been when dinosaurs roamed. Seven of the ten hours were on corrugated roads that rattled me and made the already leaking rear shock sizzling hot. The road commanded constant attention, as I was always looking for a four-inch smooth path to ride on – and never finding it. The road had a steep crest to it and I was forever crossing over the top of it to find better road. On one pass, the rear wheel slid out from under me. Before I knew it, I was "here" and the bike was a few feet over “there”.  The right pannier was stripped from the bike and mangled up pretty badly. I would not be able to remount it to the bike until it was fixed - ARGH!

It was close to 120-degrees with no shade in sight. I was four hours away from Lodwar, the next town and my destination. Twenty minutes later a truck stopped. Luckily the truck needed to change a shredded tire. Out of the cab came three men and an armed askari carrying an AK-47. The men helped me get the bike to the side of the road. They too were going to Lodwar on their way to Sudan. They offered to haul the wounded pannier into town for me and drop it off at the local gas station. Meanwhile, a herd of camels passed through and the two herdsmen stopped to talk with the men from the truck. The younger herdsman also carried a Kalashnikov and compared ammo clips with the guard of the truck – I was beginning to feel a bit inadequate with just my Leatherman.

The truck’s tire was repaired and ready to go. I started to second guess my decision as I said goodbye to computer, hard drives containing almost every photo of the trip, all my important papers including my carnet, and my toothbrush as truck moved on down the road. “Oh God, what have I done?”

Lodwar was a dirt clod of a town and hot beyond belief. My hotel room had roaches, mosquitoes and a wobbly ceiling fan that squeaked. The slats of my bed collapsed more than once sending me to the floor during a deep sleep, but I sort of warmed-up to the place. The town had an aura of the Wild West and the absolute shit road required to get there kept it isolated from the tour buses (to the detriment of local businesses). I found a young Turkana man who could speak English and we toured some of the nearby villages together always taking peanut butter and bread to pass around sandwiches to the kids and parents. I loved it! This is the kind of traveling that I enjoy the most, so much more memorable than spending time in a popular tourist destination like Zanzibar, for example. In Lodwar, one may think it was rather miserable, but I enjoyed it while I was there, and even more so when reflecting upon it. I got to know many of the locals – being the only gringo in town, I sort of stood out, and stayed a couple of days longer than I expected to, but the children from Alex’s school never left my mind and I eventually made the return trip south to spend more time with them.

(Oh yeah, the pannier eventually made it to town a little after midnight, four hours after I did. I have yet to be disappointed by the generosity and honesty of strangers here (or anywhere else on the trip), but I must admit to a few tense hours waiting to see if the truck was going to show up. Later, for $3 the aluminum box was pounded back into a rectangle and the bike was ready to go again.) 

A week later I was back in Nairobi, now with passport in hand. I was ready to tackle the dreaded Marsabit to Moyale road, the greatest obstacle along the Cape Town to Cairo route.

But before that, a small group of us from Jungle Junction decided to take a tour of Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, and Africa’s second largest. Almost smack-dab in the middle of the capital city is collection of tin roofed shacks for as far as the eye can see. The story on the streets is that 1-2 million people live there, but according to the 2009 census, only 170,000 officially live there – nobody really knows.

The tour, like all of Africa, was all about the children. From out of dark shadows dirty little children would rush out practicing the only English they know, “OW-AR-YEW!”  repeated over and over again, while maintaining a constant giggle. For the older kids, you could answer, “I am fine, how are you?” “What is your name? My name is Mike.”

Many of the children run up to you and steal a quick touch of a hand or arm, where others grab onto a hand and refuse to let go. A few asked for food or money, but the vast majority of them just enjoyed that you were there and appreciated the attention.

Walking through the absolute filth you can’t help but wonder why these kids are seemingly so happy. It is though they take every possible opportunity they can to laugh. Perhaps they have realized early on that life is not going to give them much of a reason to smile, so it is up to them to create their own happiness(?)

To be continued….

1 comment:

  1. My mother did 2 tours of duty as a missionary over in Africa . Your comments about their smiles is echoed by her. Warm, friendly folks.