A layer problem

My winter habits are a running joke amongst my friends. Despite me being 50% Latvian and it being logical that I should have some sort of resistance to the cold weather, I have… none. Some girls buy makeup, bags, shoes.. I buy sweaters. In all colours, shape and forms. My soul was born in the Caribbean so any endurance to the cold weather was forever lost upon this choice.

To counter what the weather throws my way I have resolved to wear as many layers as I can. It’s an art I have been perfecting through years of freezing out in Africa. Yes, in Africa. The biggest media lie in the world is that Africa is always hot (and that male lions don’t hunt).

Thanks to JMS for capturing this pic of my “getting warm” routine at 6am

While working in the Khwai area in Botswana I was particularly cold.. all day, everyday. This was due to the fact that the icy winter winds found no barriers in getting to me, I slept in a tent with no front flaps, and worked in an open game drive vehicle. Layering up became part of my survival (along with a hot water bottle for the morning safari).

One particularly cold morning we set out of camp in search of leopards. Our guest was desperate to see one and so when we came across tracks, we had hopes that we would finally get lucky. All of a sudden I felt a sting. The sting was similar to a beed sting, and having seen many bees floating around half empty coke glasses, I assumed that somehow one of them had gotten caught in between my layers. Because I went through a phase where I was always being stung by bees (and develop quite a bad reaction to them), I knew that had this been a bee it had already paid its price and it was likely dead so I didn’t worry too much… until I felt a piercing second sting on my back.

“Stop, no, I didn’t see a leopard. There is something in my clothes I need to find it cause it’s stinging me”.

Confused and searching for a potential mean spider I started stripping off all my layers. One, by, one. When I was down to my last T-shirt and not being able to find anything, the horrified scream from Alex came right through:

“It’s THERE, on your leg!”

To my surprise when I looked down my leg I didn’t find a spider but a tiny, mean scorpion.

“Crap”.

“Throw it away, kill it”.

“No, wait!.” I flicked the little bastard off me (he hurt me first) and proceeded then to take a pic for ID purposes. With so many dangerous and venomous things out there in the bush, rather know for sure than guess as to what it was.

The culprit: Uroplectes vittatus (potentially) or Jack

I had an idea of what scorpion it could be (they have never been my strongpoint) but needed confirmation before letting the panic in the car subdue, and while I waited for Tristan to confirm what it was, the hot water bottle did its trick in easing the pain.

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah I’m fine, it only burns”.

Barbara and Alex were clearly worried because they thought I was about to die, which never ever helps. Alex went into full panic attack mode, as he was sure he would witness me die and so in turn we had to stop a few times as his worry made him physically sick, twice.

“Maybe we should call the Okavango air rescue”

“I’m fine, let me confirm what it is and then we can worry”.

Eventually Tristan confirmed: “some uroplectes” – immediate relief as I was not going to die and would just have a sore sting.

When I told my family about it my dad’s wisdom had me giggling.

“I’m sure it was a male scorpion though”

“Huh? Why?”
(I was waiting for some lesson as my dad normally has some random animal information that ends up being really useful to know)

“Because of where it stung you”

– Insert my non impressed face here –

My dad was probably right, after all the little bastard did get me on the love handle, twice.

Chai

Heading out to Kenya for a coffee lover like me was too exciting, as the chances of finding good quality and properly made coffee was much higher than in any other African country I had yet visited. Kenyan coffee has a reputation around the globe for its “aroma” and “full bodied flavour” – If you know coffee and treasure these statements, let me tell you Kenyan coffee will not disappoint. Even basic store-bought ground coffee might just elevate you to a higher state of happiness.

While for the world Kenyan coffee is a prized possession, it turns out that in Kenya itself, coffee is more a way of making cash, and it’s really in tea leaves where Kenyan hearts truly lie. Tea, and not coffee means home and it’s the baseline for hospitality and good manners.

Kenya’s dual outlook on life and hospitality

“I’m a tea snob” – Faith announced to me during one of our many Tell-me-all-about-Kenya conversations over breakfast.
“What? That much?”
“Yes, you don’t give guests a tea bag, it has to be brewed. A tea bad is just bad hospitality. You wouldn’t dare give a guest tea in a teabag, that’s just wrong”

I felt my universe expand by a million light years. I had been living in ignorance all my life; I had never bothered to look beyond Kenya’s the coffee fame assuming this was it. How wrong I was. As I started researching a bit more, I understood why we had so many different types of tea in the cupboard, why the Kericho valley tea was the first one to be finished, and why Ali sent us tea as a present. Turns out Kenya’s black tea has the best quality in the world and often and all other tea-producing countries, mix their tea leaves with Kenya’s for a higher quality product.

To this I will testify that Ketepo Valley’s Earl Gray tea is the best I have ever tried in my life. Before my conversation with Faith, I just thought there was something in the water that made tea taste better in the Maasai Mara, when I realised it was the tea itself, my taste buds exploded to a new level; I have truly never tasted such a tea.

In Chai – I found- is where all of Kenya’s Maasai Mara idiosyncrasies combine. Remnants of a colonial time, chai is the local (exquisite) black tea mixed with milk. This particular tea, which is at the base of Kenyan hospitality and everyday life, should never run out in any establishment and to avoid this, massive kettles of chai are made freshly every morning and are meant to last through the day. True to the legends, pasteurised, long life milk was frowned upon by the locals and every morning a local Maasai (man or child) would bring fresh cow’s milk to the camp – much to the delight of every lactose tolerant person in camp.

Everyday Simon or his brother would bring fresh milk from their cows to the camp

As part of the local traditions and way of life, a kettle full with fresh Chai was made by boiling the milk and then adding black tea and sugar, loads and loads of sugar (and If you’re like Jen, hot chocolate to make a Mocha Chai). Once the chai was made, everyone sat down to enjoy a piece of warm bread and a cup of chai around the table before the day started.

Anthony starting to make a new pot of Chai with the fresh milk

This tradition was my favourite part of every morning and I made sure I timed my coffee making with everyone’s Chai drinking, just so that I could experience an deeply Kenyan moment everyday, after all, life is about savouring the local moments of the path you walk.

The day behind the frame

Life is made out of a collection of moments that for some unapparent reason our brains choose to retain as a very vivid highlight.

One morning I was scheduled to travel by myself, with a company camera to try and film the activity at the hyena den. I had received a crash course about how to use this fancy equipment and armed with a flask and packet of chocolate digestive cookies (which are perhaps the most sought after item in the kitchen after food delivery day) I set out on the long escarpment road that about 40min later would take me to my tyre-chewing friends.

That morning I was the only one of our camp out and about, the boys had come home in the early hours of the morning after following other spots through the night in their hunting quest.

As most mornings I was admiring and enjoying seeing the hot air balloons set off and glide through the morning skies. The whole scene was made so intensively beautiful, sometimes I had to pinch myself to remember to take it all in, to take the raw beauty of everything around me and memorize it so that as the sight became a memory, I wouldn’t forget one single detail.

This particular morning the blue hues of the Mara were made more intense by the mist that still lingered after the previous’ night storm. Everything around us was in different shades of blue and purple that are so unique to Kenya and that I came to truly appreciate.

Mara morning glory

As I drove, coffee cup in hand (it’s a skill I’ve been perfecting through the years), I saw the car in front of me swerve to the left, confirming my suspicions: there were lions walking down the road. For an unknown reason, the truck in front of me decided to bypass the lions and drove away leaving me all alone with the intensity of the colours, the Masai Mara and 3 girls firmly walking towards me. I parked off the road and allowed them to get ahead of me, the scene that unfolded was pretty special

When they stopped, I scrambled inside the car to try and immortalize a moment that we shared.

It’s almost as they could also appreciate the uniqueness of the morning sky and the floating colours of the balloons.

All of us sharing the stunning view

Truth is they were probably looking at the herd of buffalo in the distance, which was sitting just below the balloons.

After this, slowly but surely cars started accumulating and drivers were asking me what I could see (that yellow square sticker does get people to try and figure out what you’re looking at).

“Lions. Walking there”

After they went onto the long grass, Titus came driving and stopped next to me.

“Mambo”
“Hello”
“What is there?”
“See down there, close to that mound to the right? The lions are there, stalking the topi I think. They were looking at the buffalo earlier”
“Oh, there. Did you see there is a cow giving birth in the herd?”
“Oh really?! No, I missed it. I’ll go check it out”

We sat in silence for a few more minutes, the lionesses kept approaching the topi and we could only see a black tip of the tail every so often.

“There’s a lonely bull there”
“Oh I see. Seems like they’re after the him now”

With baited breath we waited for some action to unfold, patiently waiting for the lions to approach their prey, hidden by the long grass. It wasn’t long before we saw the bull dash off in a full speed run. Horns held high, impossibly quick pace, the bull left the pride of lions as he found them: hungry, thus returning alive to the safety of the herd.

I decided to leave and head off to the hyenas who that day were hiding in the safety of the den. When returning upon where I had left the lions I got stopped by one of the guides:

“Why did you leave? The lions hunted”
“Oh no, did they go for the herd?”
“They got a newborn”
“Oh, where did they go?”
“They’re by that tree that they like to climb”

I eventually managed to find the adults that lead me to the tree they liked to climb, and at the base of that tree I could see the flicking tails of anger and growls that accompany a lion meal.

I didn’t get any more photos or worthy pictures of the lions that morning, even though I smashed the small screen of my camera swapping between my DSLR and the video camera in the attempt. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise (… maybe not as now I have to pay to get it fixed), but the one photo I managed to take before everything happened is a great way of triggering a succession of events in my head, the epitome of how a short moment that is captured and remembered so vividly, is only really a small part of a bigger picture in this unique way of life.

These little things that makes us remember this, these are the ones that make it all worth it.

The most bizarre conversation

In Kenya there is a clever system used to make payments that makes life out in the bush a lot easier. This system, known as MPESA, allows you to make quick cash transactions using your cellphone. Considering banks are hard to find but everyone’s got access to an SMS, it’s an ideal system to be able to purchase goods and pay for services in remote areas using just a cellphone.

Knowing how to drive big cars has been a skill that I never thought would bring so much happiness and mental sanity to my life, this has been mostly due to the freedom that roadtrips can provide. On a Sunday afternoon I got called to bring rangers, food and water to the boys that had decided to extend their time out in the bush due to a cheetah, her cubs, and their hunting attempts. A 3 hour roundtrip through the Masai Mara is never a bad excuse to feel happy with life, especially when shared with good views and good company.

After we had delivered goods and people, we meandered back to the camp enjoying the setting sun and sharing conversations about life, cultures and people’s habits when all of a sudden I received a phone call from a local number.

“Hi, it’s Colin. I sent you money by mistake on MPESA”

“Sorry, what?”

“I deposited KSH8500 into your account by mistake I need you to pay it back to me”

As the conversation was taking too long, and after having been scammed over cellphone companies in South Africa the previous year, I panicked and put the phone down. I don’t know how phone scams works exactly but I figured the longer I spent on the phone, the more risk I was in of losing money.

When I put the phone down and explained to Faith what had happened, she got angry.

“It’s a scam. See? It looks like a proper message but it’s coming from the wrong number. This is how they get you. I will call him, can I use your phone?”

“I don’t have airtime, only data”

“That is fine, I will phone him from mine, give him a piece of my mind”

And so she did, she phone and while my Swahili isn’t there (at all), I could tell from the tone of her voice she started telling him off… until she didn’t and it sounded like she was talking to an old friend.

“Maybe she actually knows the guy and they are friends, it sounds quite pacific” – I thought to myself, almost feeling guilty for hanging up as suddenly as I did.

As she put the phone down, she laughed and said to me:

“Well that was the most bizarre conversation I’ve ever had”

“Oh? What happened? It sounded like it was friendly enough though”

As she giggled, she then explained: “I started giving him a piece of my mind and I asked him: “Why are you robbing people?” What you are doing is illegal, why don’t you get a real job and stop robbing people?”

“And then what happened? What did he say?” – I asked barely containing my curiosity.

“Well, he replied: – Honestly, I’m in jail that is why. ”

WHAT?! He’s in JAIL?! – I couldn’t help but interrupting. I did not see this one coming.

Patiently Faith explained: “Yup, it’s a well known fact that it’s the guys that are in prison that do this but I never expected to speak to one of them”

I started laughing uncontrollably. “So then what did you say to him when he said that?”

Faith: “Oh.. ok, well thanks for being honest with me and telling me the truth. Why are you in prison for?”

Colin: “For robbing people”

(insert here incredulous face reaction)

Faith: “No man, I believe you can change. If you are this crafty to scam people you can surely get a real, honest job.”

Colin: “You really think so?”

Faith: “Yes man, I believe in you. I know you can change if you put your mind into it”

Colin: “Thank you, no one has ever said that to me before”

I didn’t hear the rest of what Faith had to say, by this point I had to remember to close my mouth at the most bizarre conversation I had ever witness in a Land Rover. I wanted to say something thoughtful, I wanted to stop laughing and the most unusual conversation of them all at sunset, on a roadtrip in the middle of the Masai Mara, but my survivor instincts kicked in first and all I could utter was:

“You know he’s got your phone number now don’t you?”

“Oh crap”

Random roadtrips have lead to some of the most real moments in my life. I hope her words on our random journey got to him and felt real too, I hope this bizarre conversation had a real impact and gave him a push to turn his life around.

To this day, he hasn’t used her contact number to scam her, so for now, we keep hoping.

Fashio (not) ista

One of the perks of living and working in the bush for me have always been uniforms. Strange thing to say I know, but for a girl that is incompletely uninterested and un-savvy about clothes, fashion and makeup, uniforms have been –ironically- entirely liberating for me. When I was 19 I went through my own uniform phase of jeans and white T-shirts because everything else required too much effort and a specific personality skill I do not possess. This personality trait has always been in complete contrast to my Italian relatives and the Venezuelan society of straight hair, pearl earrings and skinny jeans I grew up in.

The Italian girls in my family have got fashion down to the T, they wear high heels, always look spot on and just have this flare that my hippy soul will never possess. When I was 16 Fede and I were coming back from a wonderful Coffee Wednesday when insightfully she said to me that “if I ever get a daughter that dresses like you I will commit suicide”. Since Fede does love me and I know she wasn’t coming from a bad place, I suddenly realized that when reality hits you in the face you can do two things: either take it, or change it… I clearly just took it considering my fashion sense hasn’t changed since then.

Moving to Kenya for a few months brought some of these thoughts back to my mind. If I was to leave in a camp and out of one suitcase, khaki bush clothes where in order and a few sweaters just in case. I packed for a purpose and I thought I had been highly efficient until our bags got lost in Rwanda and ended up in Nairobi and subsequently in the Masai Mara, with no clothes other than the ones we were wearing: closed shoes for exercise, tank tops and a comfy jersey.

The morning after our arrival in Nairobi we were finally setting out for another grand adventure, the lack of clothes wasn’t going to stop us. I felt like Dora the Explorer, I had Spanish, a backpack and the sheer excitement of seeing a new place for the same time.

I felt unbeatable.
That is..

IMG_8809

Until… I realized that reality often doesn’t meet our expectations.

“Punfi, I don’t know what happened but I look like a crazy person. I could be an explorer to the outside world. Look.”
“No, you look like a crazy car lady that went to the shops”.

“So basically none of it works for you?”

“No, You should have worn your vellies with those jeans, and perhaps another jersey. That would have been better. But it’s ok, it’s you”

In a fit of laughter I realized that even my boyfriend’s sense of fashion is better than mine. I felt like Dora on the inside but to the outside world I looked like Elvira. Lucky for the both of us he knew what he was getting into from the very beginning, because what this photo doesn’t show is that to this day I still wear different colored socks underneath it all. I got power in my hidden madness.

Ps: Fede, if she is a girl, I will buy her her first pair of All Star Converse shoes.