Before Going to Egypt

For an incredibly foreign country, I can’t imagine any tourist or traveler arriving to Egypt without having done any prior research.  Upon my homework, I repeatedly came across the same information:

1. Since the revolution of 2011, tourism in Egypt has been decimated. Once the top tourist destination in the world, Egypt’s hotels, restaurants, and tourist districts now struggle under pathetic despair. Egypt’s notorious temples and iconic sites that once saw mass tourism and rapid deterioration can now be enjoyed without anyone else in sight. As an independent traveler, it’s easy to think, “This serenity is wonderful!” but second thoughts immediately become heartfelt pity to the local citizens who feel this impact. Looking around in a solemn Egypt of December 2016, I often said aloud, “This is high season Egypt.” Fortunately, 2016 saw an increase in tourism from 2015, and 2017 looks more promising as previously suspended airline routes from EU countries to Egypt are expected to resume.

2. More than once I’ve seen people dub Cairo as one of the most exhilarating cities in the world, but to be honest, I didn’t think it was any crazier than Marrakech in Morocco, or Nairobi in Kenya, or Dhaka in Bangladesh, or Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Of course, that is not to undermine the boisterous life of the city; we still enjoyed dodging cars and buses between juice cart vendors and hardware supply carts, held our breaths every time a bus spurted black fumes in our faces, stumbled into human traffic jams on trash-lined sidewalks, exhausted ourselves with the “art” of rip offs bargaining, and grimaced at the sound of broken speakers on full blast during the calls to prayer.

It is still difficult to encourage people to come to Egypt due to the list of tourist-targeted attacks and uncertainty with current politics and economy.  More recently, the Egyptian pound (LE) was devalued in November 2016. Sure, this meant that we practically got double the LE to the dollar and costs decreased by about 40%, but it could have led to increased instability and perhaps another uprising. The bomb on December 11, 2016 at a Coptic church in Cairo that killed 25 occurred on our arrival day to Egypt, and only 1 km from us too! We can’t blame people from currently avoiding Egypt.

Indulging in typically biased, mainstream media isn’t an activity I actively participate in, which means filling my limited free time searching for reasons not to go to Egypt was never a part of my itinerary. Out of curiosity Chris and I compared the statistics of deaths by gun violence (mass shootings) in the U.S. to deaths by terrorism in Egypt and saw that we were still statistically safer in Egypt! Naturally, our friends and family closed their ears to those facts and preferred us not to go to Egypt at all, but to each their own.

Despite all the disruptions, we have spent 3 weeks in Egypt during what typically would have been their high season.  We have no regrets. Not only were the world famous sites mostly vacant of obnoxious tourists, we felt that we were able to contribute to their slipping economy. What was once the world’s most advanced civilization with great pharaohs is now a heartbreaking state that begs for tourism to return.

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Maasai Mara

Any online search for 3-day/2-night Maasai Mara safaris in western Kenya will show luxury options upwards of $800-$1,000 per person. Searching for budget options still resulted in $450-$500 trips per person. Seriously? What the hell.

Fortunately while volunteering in Kenya my program manager told me that past volunteers had been able to tour the Maasai Mara National Reserve for $300 per person. Then I befriended a foreigner who knew of highly recommended locals that plan safaris to national parks all over Kenya. This agency is Safaribook Evolution. For $300 per person, Chris and I got picked up from our accommodation in Nairobi, were taken to the Maasai Mara where we took 2 game drives, received full board and accommodation for 2 nights at the lovely Mara Sidai Camp, and got dropped off at our accommodation upon our return to Nairobi. While tours accommodate up to 7 people, we were primarily a group of 4, which gave us plenty of space in the open-roof van. We also visited a nearby Maasai village near the camp for an extra $20 per person, which we paid the Maasai village directly. This was wonderful since every other tour agency quoted $30, which I assume the agency takes a $10 cut. I’ve always loved Kenyans for their kindness and hospitality, but the organizer and driver from Safaribook Evolution exceeded my expectations; it was Kenyan hospitality at its finest.

Okay, now for the details of the trip.

Upon the morning pick up, we made a quick stop at a viewpoint overlooking the Great Rift Valley. This valley apparently stretches from Lebanon all the way down to Mozambique!img_7294

After a long drive through smooth pavement and rough roads, we finally made it to Mara Sidai Camp in time for a late lunch. People who prefer a more luxurious hotel would probably squirm at the camp’s safari tents, but I loved them! Because of the word “camp” I had actually pictured a wilderness camping tent, sleeping bags, and shared bath. Nope. This was glamping. Each tent not only had a large, comfy bed, they also came with a private bathroom with a hot shower! This even might have been a step up from my own room while volunteering in Kenya…

At 4pm we set out for our first game drive—a sunset game drive. Beware of all the local Maasai women shoving handmade jewelry for sale through open windows.img_20161208_161505

As wild animals tend to be more active in the morning, we didn’t see much in the late afternoon. Fortunately, the animals we did find were big cats!img_20161208_173440

The full day of game driving the following day was unforgettable. We saw more animals than I expected to see, even herds of elephants and groups of giraffes. Thankfully our experienced driver of 6 years knew where to find the animals and even brought binoculars to enhance the experience. Toward the end of the day we even grew tired of seeing herds of elephants and lions. Seriously. A collection of my favorite photos are below.

Yes, we were THIS close to the wild animals.

Lunch time in the shade. Our driver kept guard from the van for large animals.img_7342

On our final day before returning to Nairobi, we made a quick trip to a nearby Maasai village. To my surprise, a number of them spoke English fluently. They knew the national languages of Swahili and English, and their tribal language of Maasai. Upon our arrival they performed a traditional welcome dance, followed by their jumping demonstrations. The higher they jump, the fewer the cows they need to offer as dowry for a bride.img_7358

We were given a quick tour of a traditional Maasai home, which is a hut made of mud and cow dung. Inside their homes were small bedrooms for members of the family and a small “kitchen” that consisted of a tiny open fire.

Naturally, the Maasai village tour ended with the souvenir “shop”, an outdoor display of jewelry and souvenirs sold by the Maasai women and children. Chris and I are never keen on purchasing souvenirs, especially when they involve killing a lion (plenty of lion fur and teeth for sale!), so it wasn’t difficult for us to turn down offers.img_7380

This Maasai eagerly took his photo with Pen Pen, Chris’ traveling penguin. After the photo, he suggested a trade for Pen Pen for his wooden club. Another Maasai pointed at my watch and offered a trade of a Maasai blanket for it as well. We regretted donating all our gifts to the Githurai community. My advice to anyone visiting the Maasai village is to bring supplies, toys, small stuffed animals, watches, anything you can think of. They’d be happy to trade!

I’ve heard of countless positive remarks regarding tours to the Maasai Mara. Now I understand why. Many tourists conduct 4 or even 5-day tours in the Maasai Mara, particularly during the wildebeest migration season, but our 3-day/2-night tour was incredible despite being short. We recommend anyone visiting Kenya to take a budget tour with Safaribook Evolution to the Maasai Mara. Pictures cannot convey the epic adventure.

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Coffee and Tea Plantations

According to, Vietnam is the world’s 2nd largest producer of coffee, and the world’s 7th largest producer of tea. Also in the list of top world producers is Kenya, the world’s 15th largest producer of coffee and 3rd largest producer of tea.  Looks like Kenya and Vietnam have something in common! =) (While both countries are the world’s top producers of coffee and tea, Kenyans primarily drink diluted milk tea while the Vietnamese passionately consume plain tea and black coffee.) Because Nairobi’s neighboring towns of Kiambu and Limuru are surrounded by coffee and tea farms, I knew I had to take a tour on each plantation.

With its rich, acidic soil sitting at roughly 6,000 ft. elevation along the equatorial zone, the British who arrived to Kenya in the early 20th century found the environment most favorable to farm tea and coffee and introduced the crops to the country. Today fields of lush green leaves can be found sprawling across the Kenyan landscape just outside the chaotic city center. I spent one morning touring a small coffee plantation near Kiambu at Fairview Coffee Estate and another day touring a small tea plantation near Limuru at Kiambethu Tea Farm.

In order to tour the coffee estate, I rode the matatu from Githurai to Muthaiga and transferred to another van to Kiambu. I hopped off at the Kist bus stop, and walked the 1.5 km to the coffee estate. Total cost for both rides was 70 shillings. The return trip is straight forward as well; plenty of buses run along Kiambu Road. img_7070

Tours with coffee tastings are conducted daily from 10am-12pm and 2pm-4pm for 3,000 shillings per non-resident.  Non-residents also receive a 500 gram bag of freshly roasted coffee upon leaving. (Tip: If you prefer whole beans instead of ground, make the request at the beginning of the tour!) Because I prefer my coffee buzz in the morning, I chose the morning tour.  The estate not only has a small coffee plantation, but also a vegetable garden, banana field, and dairy farm for local consumption, a manicured garden with wild flowers that can be reserved for wedding receptions, and nature trails.

The tour guide walked us through all their details of coffee production: farming, picking, skinning, fermentation, roasting, auctioning, exporting, and drinking.  Unlike many farms, Fairview Estate completely produces their own coffee from plant to roast. They employ farmers and factory workers for the machines. Although most of the coffee is produced for export, they do have a small staff of roasters and coffee brewers to make coffee for their limited number of visitors.

Close up of coffee leaves, flowers, and beans:img_7080

Fresh picked coffee beans, with skin:img_7086

Machines for coffee bean skin removal:img_7088

Bean drying:img_1103

Dried beans, with the final coffee bean (pre-roasted) out of its dried shell in my hand:

Three stages of coffee bean (from light to dark): separated from red skin, processed, and dried; separated from dried bean shell; and roasted and ready for grind.img_7100


Coffee aroma exploration over different grades of coffee:img_7101

Coffee time!img_7105

Because I had never toured a coffee plantation and production plant, I thoroughly enjoyed my tour of Fairview Estate. Despite not being an avid coffee drinker, I found the production and business of a Kenyan coffee company fascinating and educational.

However, in the following week I toured another plantation–a tea plantation at Kiambethu Tea Farm–and my adventurous journey there and the tour itself turned out to be more memorable than the coffee tour. I rode the matatu from Githurai to Muthaiga and transferred to another van to Kiambu, just like my trip to Fairview Estate for 70 shillings. This time I rode the van all the way to Kiambu, and transferred to another van at the Kiambu bus station for Limuru for 100 shillings. I was a little surprised that the van diverted from the main road and ended up driving along an unknown road, but the rolling hills of tea plantations made for a gorgeous ride.  Luckily my maps app allowed me to track my location, and by keeping an eye on the road, I was able to see a small group of motorbikes sitting on the very corner I hoped they would be.

I hopped off the van between rolling hills of tea leaves and approached the motorbike drivers. They knew where Kiambethu Farm was located (only about 3-4 km) and it cost me 150 shillings for a ride.  The bumpy dirt road down and over the hilly tea plantations is a ride I’ll never forget. img_7220

Local children smiled, waved, and chased after us.img_7221

Finally I arrived to the tea farm for my 11am tour.  Tours cost 3,200 shillings per person and include a marvelous buffet lunch using vegetables grown from their garden. Fiona, a British woman born and raised in Kenya whose grandfather was the first to grow, make, and sell tea commercially in Kenya in the early 20th century, currently runs the farm plantation and conducts daily tours.

The plantation house, where talks are hosted and tea and lunch is served from:img_7227

Fiona walked us through her small tea plantation and talked about the process of tea farming. img_7249img_7239

After the lecture in the tea fields, we returned to the house where we comfortably sat and listened to another lecture about tea production over freshly brewed tea and homemade cookies.img_7246img_7245

Because the tea farm is not a factory, they send their leaves over to a tea factory for drying and processing. I learned that production is FAST–the leaves can go from bush to cup within 24 hours! No wonder tea is so much cheaper than coffee. Luckily for me, I love tea.

Once the lecture concluded, we followed a local guide outside for a short nature walk for a brief introduction to local medicinal trees and plants.  And finally, we returned to the plantation house for an incredible buffet lunch.  Having been in Kenya for over a month, I thoroughly indulged myself in the Western dairy luxuries of butter, cheeses, and even ice cream for dessert! img_7251

Before leaving the plantation, I also marveled at the wild African flowers, plants, and birds.  I had never seen these before!img_7255img_7242

Just when I thought the day couldn’t get any better, I scored a ride back to Nairobi from a nice group of Britains. Saved me the time and hassle of waiting for and taking multiple buses! From Nairobi it was an easy peasy ride back to Githurai.

If time permits, a tour and tasting from some of the world’s largest producers of coffee and tea are definitely worthwhile from Nairobi. Not only is it educational, it is a beautiful and pleasant break from the chaotic city.

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Nairobi: Elephants & Giraffes, Oh My!

Full day tours of Nairobi cost about $100, with the highlights being the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and the Giraffe Center. However, visiting both places independently will cost less than $20 and requires only a half day. Traveling by bus in Kenya is incredibly cheap and easy!

The elephant orphanage is only open to the general public from 11am-12pm on a daily basis.  During this hour, visitors can spectate the endearing site of bottle-feeding and mud-bathing elephants and listen to a quick introduction to the orphanage’s family of elephants.  Many elephants are rescue elephants and are later reintroduced back into the wild–yay!

From the heart of Nairobi I walked toward the central train station in search for the buses and matatus.  Sure enough, at the roundabout of Haile Sellassie Avenue and Moi Avenue, I became overwhelmed with the plethora of unmarked buses, clouds of pollution, uncontrollable traffic, and noisy touts. Luckily Kenyans are extremely helpful and as soon as I told the first tout I wanted to go to the elephant orphanage on Magadi Road, he stopped ushering people into his van and walked me over to the right van. “Elephant orphanage? Magadi Road?” I asked the new tout. He nodded, I hopped into the packed van, and we immediately set off.  The cost? Only 30 shillings, or 30¢.

Twenty to thirty minutes later I hopped off at the entrance to the elephant orphanage along Magadi Road. It would have taken maybe 15 minutes to walk the 1 km or so to the orphanage, but within the first minute of hopping off the van, a sedan appeared and stopped in front of me.  Peering in, I saw a solo female traveler with a private driver.  She had hired an Uber from Nairobi. “Mind if I hop in?” I asked. She happily told me to come in. Saved me 10-15 minutes! I noticed that between 10:30am-10:45am, car after car headed for the elephant orphanage; I assume hitching a ride from the main road at this time wouldn’t be difficult. To my luck, she had also planned on visiting the giraffe center after the elephant orphanage, so we quickly became friends and continued our day together.

When we pulled up to the orphanage, we were literally surprised by a baby giraffe roaming the parking lot. Didn’t know the elephant orphanage had a giraffe. Or perhaps it was a wild giraffe.  The elephant orphanage was after all located at the edge of Nairobi National Park!img_6934

At exactly 11, the doors opened to the public. It cost 500 shillings for non-residents. For the next hour, visitors (mostly non-residents) oohed, aahed, awwed, and photographed the adorable elephants.  They eagerly trotted out for feeding time, slipped and slid in the mud, played with each other, and splashed in the giant pools of muddy water.

After 12 we set out for the giraffe center. We walked to Magadi Road, crossed the street, and waited for a bus or van. In less than a minute, a van pulled over to the side of the road and a tout beckoned us to enter. “Galleria?” I asked.  He nodded. We hopped in and each paid 50 shillings. The plan was to ride to Galleria Mall, hop off, and transfer to another bus to Hardy.  From Hardy we’d walk the 1.5 km or so to the giraffe center.  And we did just that.  Vans awaited us at Galleria, and we each paid 30 shillings for the ride to Hardy.

It took about 20 minutes to walk to the giraffe center, and we each paid the 1,000 shilling admission fee (~$10). Unlike the elephant orphanage, the giraffe center is open to the public everyday from 9am-5pm.  There is a small cafe, gift shop, and modest museum showcasing the variety of giraffes in Africa.  We quickly learned that the giraffes at this particular center are the Rothschild’s giraffe, the most endangered of giraffe species.  The center is actually a breeding center to increase the Rothschild population! Best of all? Visitor interaction with the giraffes! Visitors can simply observe the gorgeous creatures from up close or afar, feed them, and even kiss them!

Once our hearts were filled with content, we walked the giraffe center’s nature trail, but it was nothing to rave about. It took another 20 minutes to return to Hardy, and from there I asked a local woman how to return to Nairobi. She pointed at a parked bus and said, “City bus.” We made our way to the bus, paid 80 shillings (I think we were ripped off…but whatever), and arrived back into the heart of Nairobi within 30 minutes.

Number of buses/vans: 4
Total cost of transportation: 190 shillings, or $1.90
Total cost of admission fees: 1,500 shillings, or $15
Total cost for a half day adventure of elephants and giraffes: $16.90

Sure beats a $100 bus tour any day!

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Why I Won’t Visit Kibera, Africa’s Largest Urban Slum

The idea of touring a neighborhood simply for photographing and gawking over a community’s appalling living conditions has never appealed to me. I mean, how would you feel if the top 1% came to your neighborhood, your home, and took pictures of your children playing in local parks or of you preparing meals, knowing that they feel great pity for your lifestyle and plan on showing their photos to their 1% community? It’s…demeaning.

Sure, the high costs (roughly $25) of a tour supposedly go toward the local community to help pay for infrastructure, schools, and so on. The intent there is to make tourists feel philanthropic. And it works. The marketing and the pitch truly work.

But with all well-marketed products or places come with plenty of support—so much support that…well…it becomes of questionably authenticity. Kibera is Kenya’s notorious slum neighborhood within Nairobi as it is home to roughly 1-2 million citizens, making it the largest urban slum in Africa. Quite mind blowing if you think about it. With that fame, many people know of it, and with all those people curious about Kibera, several companies even offer “tours” to the neighborhood. Outside of Kenya, a surplus of NGOs and nonprofits all over the world pour supplies and aid to Kibera, which has led to a problem similar to what we have in America.

Moochers. Welfare exploiters. People who deliberately choose this lifestyle so that they don’t have to work.

As a volunteer in Kenya, I worked with an organization in Githurai, a small city of approximately half a million people composed of slums and low-income housing. My program manager was born and raised in Githurai and knows people who live in Kibera. After his fascinating insight into Kibera, I came to the conclusion that Kibera was sadly…fake.

My neighborhood in Githurai:img_7055

“They receive SO much help, SO much money,” he told me. “I visit my friends who live in Kibera, and they all have refrigerators!”

“WHAT?!” I exclaimed. In Githurai, where running water is a luxury for many, I hadn’t heard of anyone with a refrigerator.  I only drink water because all the juices and sodas for sale in the neighborhood are lukewarm.

“They have stoves…they have microwaves!” he went on. I should mention that a number of people in Githurai still cook over open fire because they can’t afford gas.

Our kitchen in Githurai:img_6344

“They have big TVs, big speakers. Bigger than mine. The people there have much better living conditions than here.”

“Why are you even friends with these people?” I had to ask.

“I met them when I went to school,” he explained. “At the university, and several community groups. They have my phone number and call me sometimes to hang out. I’ve been to Kibera many times.”

And that’s the thing. Kibera’s fame shines under the world’s spotlight. Kenyans have flocked to Kibera to grow the slum community in order to receive welfare. And the hundreds and thousands of “real” slum communities throughout Kenya are basically unknown due to the lack of marketing. They don’t receive the aid Kibera receives, but they need it more.

“There was a NGO that provided better housing for them,” he continued, “so that some of them didn’t have to live in their tin metal shacks. But you know what they did? They rented them out for money, because if they moved into the apartments, they wouldn’t receive anymore free money.”

That all sounded too familiar. Ever see the movie Million Dollar Baby?

“They are rich!” he exclaimed.

Well, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that. But I would definitely agree that Kibera was more of a fabricated slum for locals to exploit welfare.

“It’s a fake slum,” I concluded.

“Yes. It’s fake.”

And that is why I will never visit Kibera.

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Amboseli National Park

Amboseli National Park lies at the Kenya-Tanzania border with grand views of Mount Kilimanjaro looming in the distance.  Hoping to witness the iconic Kenyan landscape, I meticulously planned an independent, budget trip to Amboseli for my first ever game drive without considering the current time of year…the rainy season.  Naturally I was never able to lay eyes on the magnificent mountain as I discovered it was typically hidden beneath the thick layers of clouds year-round, but it didn’t matter.  The journey there itself along with a wonderful stay in a tent house and spectacular game drive equated to a wonderful weekend getaway.

Searching for visits to any national park within Kenya proved to be a painful task.  Average prices for 3-day/2-night excursions ranged between $380-$500 per person.  Seriously? Why so much? Gas is expensive (~90¢/liter, comparable to gas prices in Germany!), lodges for foreigners are expensive (~$100-$150/night for a 4-star hotel), daily car hires are expensive ($120-$220/day), and national park fees for foreigners are absurd ($60-$70 per DAY depending on the park)!

Thanks to my stumbling upon, I was able to plan the perfect Amboseli National Park tour for a backpacker/budget traveller. For 3-days/2-nights, it cost me only $210 to take public transportation from Githurai to Amboseli, a game drive, and all food and accommodation.  The lovely Dutch/Kenyan couple who runs we4kenya gave me all the information I needed to arrive to Amboseli without any hiccups. My schedule and itinerary are detailed below.

From the chaotic River Road in Central Nairobi, I found the small van for Loitokitok that cost 600 shillings. This road is jam-packed with buses, matatus and vans departing for locations all over Kenya, even Mombasa.  It’s almost impossible to find the exact bus, but with inquiry and help from locals, I eventually found the right van.  Per we4kenya’s instructions, I disembarked at the small, unmarked village of Isneti after an uncomfortable 3.5-hour ride.

I had organized a motorbike pickup through we4kenya for 400 shillings one-way, and sure enough, my ride awaited me in Isneti. img_6861

From Isneti the wonderful motorbike ride through the villages to the lodge took about 40 minutes.  It wasn’t far, but the roads were rough. Crops, typical huts, and excited village children filled the scenery. This was authentic Kenya.img_6589img_1058

Finally, the lodge. We4Kenya offers 3 types of accommodation: camping with your own gear for 1,500 shillings/night, tent house for 2,700 shillings a night with breakfast or 4,200 shillings a night for full board, and a standalone cottage for 3,700 shillings with breakfast or 5,200 shillings for full board.  (All prices are per person.) I opted for bed & breakfast for my first night and full board for my second night, totaling to 6,900 shillings for two nights.  I brought plenty of snacks and my own dinner for my first night.

The property even had a manatta, a traditional mud hut made of cow dung, which was used for the kitchen.  I was told that with all the materials collected, it takes about 2 weeks to build this hut and lasts for 10 years.  The staff included Maasai from the nearby villages, and they were still accustomed to cooking over fire for all their meals.

For a full day’s game drive, guests have two options: hire a local car for 120,000 shillings or an open-roof jeep for 220,000 shillings.  I was content with the cheaper option, and fortunately had another person to share the car with.  After tip, the total for the game drive was 130,000 shillings for two people, bringing it down to 65,000 shillings per person. The park fee was $60 per person.  A very basic sack lunch was provided for the day’s drive.

We saw wild animals, animals, and more animals throughout our game drive. Giraffes, thousands of zebras and wildebeests, herds of elephants, hyenas, buffalos, baboons, incredible birds, flamingos, hippos, ostriches, and even two sleeping lion cubs.

Animal crossings!

All in all, my first game drive was a fantastic experience.  The next morning after breakfast and checking out, I hopped on a motorbike and headed back to Isneti to transfer to a van for Nairobi.  Along the way we even saw zebras and giraffes in the villages! We must remember that animals know no park borders and roam wherever they please.  Members from villages near Amboseli even stay up all night to guard their crops from wild animals.img_6857

The journey back to Nairobi cost 600 shillings, took 3.5 hours, and was uneventful.  From Nairobi I rode the matatu back to Githurai which concluded my trip to Amboseli. My total expenditures below:

Transportation from Githurai to Nairobi: 80 shillings
Transportation from Nairobi to Isneti: 600 shillings
Motorbike ride from Isneti to we4kenya: 400 shillings
Tent house day 1: 2,700 shillings
Tent house day 2: 4,200 shillings
Shared game drive: 6,500 shillings
Park fee: $60
Motorbike ride from we4kenya to Isneti: 400 shillings
Transportation from Isneti to Nairobi: 600 shillings
Transportation from Nairobi to Githurai: 60 shillings
Grand total: 21,540 shillings or approximately $210

That breaks it down to $70 per day over 3-days/2-nights–what a deal for a Kenyan safari! Even my program manager and other foreigners I’ve met were impressed with how I was able to bring down the costs.  The biggest money savers were public transportation over taxi/private car hire, camping over luxurious lodge, and sharing the game drive with another person.  This is probably be the most affordable and adventurous way to experience Amboseli National Park.

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First Impressions of Hospitable Kenya

Little did I know that I would end up waiting for almost 4 hours for my pick up from the time I stepped out of Nairobi’s international airport…at 2:45am. Sitting on the sidewalk with my bags watching groups of tourists get swept away by representatives holding name cards made me look and feel pretty pathetic. Due to the ungodly hour, there were only a handful of touts attempting to sell safari tours between stifled yawns, and even they pitied me. Fortunately this foreign country has 2 national languages, one of which is English. Whew.

Naturally everything worked out in the end (as they always do) and it turned out that my program manager, Josephat, was simply confused with my arrival date. (Funny, because one tout suggested he mixed up Saturday and Sunday due to the wee early hour, and said that was common.) Sure, it sucked waiting for 4 hours in the middle of the night, jet lagged and slightly bewildered and without an agenda or plan B. But had it not been for that small misfortune I never would have sampled genuine Kenyan hospitality, all within my first hour from stepping foot in the country.

Four “touts” (are they still considered touts if they are polite, friendly, and not annoying?) approached me in hope to sell me a taxi ride or safari ride, but they were the most soft-spoken people I had ever met in my life. For someone hustling to sell something at 3am, they sure weren’t aggressive about it. One even apologized twice for interrupting a conversation I had with another airline passenger. Another helped me by making repeated phone calls to my program manager (I had his number on file). Fearing that the demand for a tip was in queue, I initially denied any help until I sensed he was genuinely trying to help me. And he was.

After an hour and a half I figured I’d get off the sidewalk and wait inside the airport. As I approached the terminal exit, the sole man standing at the doors told me I wouldn’t be able to go back in since it was the exit. Having seen me wait an extended period on the sidewalk, he inquired of my troubles. In the end, all I wanted was a decent place to wait. He informed me of a 24-hour café just down the street with free wifi, and he led the way. And it literally was just across the street.

I offered to buy him a coffee and he gladly accepted. He also tried to call Josephat, but without luck. We chatted for 30 minutes until the next plane landed so he could go back out and try to sell. He was the same age as me, with a wife and three children. He had traveled to numerous countries in Africa and the Middle East, and spoke English, Swahili, Hindi, and Arabic. He taught me how to say Thank You, You’re Welcome, and How are you? in Swahili. He gave me his business card and we shook hands when he left, but he returned within 15 minutes and handed me his phone. Josephat had returned his call!

We sorted everything out. I chose to wait at the café with my luggage, and my new friend returned to the international terminal, where he waited for Josephat to arrive so he could direct him over to the café. I gave him a big thank you hug and we snapped a photo together before he left.img_6329

From there everything went smoothly. Josephat met me at the café, hired a taxi, and we made our way through the congested Nairobi to the suburb of Githurai, where I would be staying and volunteering. The drive through Nairobi was fascinating; already at 7am, foot traffic competed with the motorcycles, tuk-tuks, wheeled carts, buses, and trucks. Then there were the unbelievable amounts of trash. Handfuls of small charcoal fires, either for warmth or for cooking. Pollution and dust hovering in the air. Massive, vulture-like birds preying from the city street’s tree tops. I remained inconspicuous behind the tinted window as I watched the early Saturday morning unravel before me.

Finally we turned off the paved road onto a rough, dirt road into the cinder block neighborhood of Githurai. I thought Nairobi was rough. Githurai was exponentially more painful.img_6377

And because African women love braids and hair extensions, almost all the trash included old and raggedy hair extensions.  Small tufts of fake hair literally dotted the streets.img_6361

Josephat, his wife, and two children had just moved into a 2-bedroom apartment in a still developing apartment complex. Unlike the previous studio apartment he shared with his family, this new home had a shower that worked half the time. That, electricity, and a regular toilet that usually flushed made me feel relieved and somewhat spoiled. Unlike in South America, I could even put toilet paper in the toilet! YAY!

The kitchen, however, was bare bones. At the very least I had expected a portable gas stove like I’ve seen in India, but it was far more primitive. They used portable propane tanks, larger versions of similar propane tanks I use for camping. Amazing that tasty family meals all come from the propane tanks. I already struggle with my tiny, 4-burner stove back in San Francisco.

I had my own room, equipped with a bed, table, and mosquito net. At 5,800 ft. elevation in an equatorial zone, Nairobi has perfect weather year-round, hardly with any mosquitos typically swarming in tropical, equatorial regions.img_6401

View from my bedroom window:img_6369

Me and Ceinwen, Josephat’s sweet and perky nine year old daughter:img_6358

Excited to present donations to the organization and gifts to the family, I pumped air into several of the soccer balls I brought with me. Josephat’s kids and their cousins eagerly ran outside to play with the shiny, brand new balls. Other curious neighborhood kids joined in on kicking the balls against the apartment wall. Despite playing in a small field filled with trash and remnants of ash from cooking charcoal, the children were thrilled. My heart swelled with joy.

Later in the day Josephat filled me in about the creation, mission, and struggles of his organization, Fountain Youth Initiative (FYI). I had already known that the rough neighborhood of Githurai is home to a number of Sudanese refugees and the organization’s mission is to provide aid and education to the disadvantaged youth. In addition to fundraising for, the education of, and the distribution of sanitary pads to girls between 10-18 years old, other projects include supplying disadvantaged children with school uniforms and supplies and equipping adults with vocational skills and small loans to start new businesses. Like any nonprofit, FYI struggles with sustainability. Researching and writing proposals for grants are an ongoing effort, but sustainable projects are key in growth.

I assisted with various tasks within the office, with the main task of redesigning the organization’s website and working with children in their art program. My own personal project was establishing an online shop in hope to earn a small profit to fund the kids’ schooling. You can check out the shop here. (All proceeds go toward Fountain Youth Initiative!)img_6567

FYI has explored, continues to, and is open to new ways to generate income. One method is teaching the community, mostly adults, basic computer skills for a small fee. Another is raising chickens for the purpose of collecting and selling eggs. Previous volunteers had created a large chicken coop and fundraised enough money to purchase a large amount of chickens, and now they have 500 chickens that produce approximately 300-400 eggs per day. FYI has hired one man to run most of the chicken operation, which involves egg collecting, feeding, cleaning, crating, and selling to shops. One crate of 30 eggs sells for 270 Kenyan Shillings (KES), or $2.70. At an average of 12 sold crates per day, that’s about $32/day. All proceeds from the egg operation funds sanitary pads—not bad considering 1 package of pads, which lasts 1 menstrual cycle, costs 50 KES (50¢) each. That’s potentially 64 girls a day who can get a menstrual cycle covered! Chickens for pads!img_6386

My first day in Nairobi immediately fascinated and engulfed me in Kenyan lifestyle and culture. I soon fell in love with street samosas and chapati, and quickly grew tired of ugali. I immediately became the famous neighborhood muzungu, greeting everyone with Jambo! and making sure to thank them with “Asante sana!” And as I slowly became accustomed with the tuk tuks and boisterous matatus, I accepted the gawks, stares, and bewilderment from all the locals. Unlike in other developing countries, Kenyans treated me like a human instead of a walking ATM. Although short, I knew my next several weeks in Githurai would fulfill my reasoning for coming to Kenya—to learn about a nonprofit in a community based organization, to see an authentic way of life, and more importantly, to make an impact in the community.

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King’s Canyon and Sequoia

California boasts the highest and lowest points in the U.S. at Mount Whitney and Badwater Basin.  In addition to that, California also has the 2nd oldest national park in America (after Yellowstone), which is home to the largest trees in the world!

This park is the joint Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.  During our three and a half days at the park, we traversed canyons and trudged up the slopes of alpine mountains. We strained our necks to catch the slightest glimpse of the tops of the world’s largest trees. We tread softly through the inside of a sequoia, we drove through a sequoia, and we peered out from the inside of a sequoia. Needless to say sequoias, which only grow at 5,000-7,000 feet elevation west of the Sierra Nevada, are humbling to humankind.

Upon entering Kings Canyon National Park, one is immediately rewarded with memorable attractions: the Big Stump trail and General Grant Grove.  The Big Stump Trail showcases remnants of sequoia trees from the pre-national park days when loggers were able to chop them down.  Of the stumps, most notable is the Mark Twain stump, the stump of the 1,350 year old Mark Twain Tree which was cut down in 1891 in order to have a section of it exhibited in the American Natural History Museum in New York and the British Museum of Natural History.img_6216img_6218

Inside a fallen sequoia at General Grant Grove:img_20161018_084056

Another giant at General Grant Grove:img_6158

Further along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway is Convict Flat, a free campground outside the national park but within the national forest.  This campground is conveniently located between the park entrance and Cedar Grove. Nutella s’mores, anyone?

Kings Canyon Scenic Byway ends at a Cedar Grove Trailhead, which is the launching point for hundreds of miles of backcountry hiking.  With limited time, we only hiked the 12-mile round trip out-and-back hike to Lower Paradise Valley. We even encountered a pack of four wild black bears!

From Kings Canyon we drove south into Sequoia National Park and spent one night at Lodgepole Campground. This popular campground primarily serves as a base for the Giant Forest Museum, popular hikes from the Wolverton trailhead, and the park’s main attractions: General Sherman Tree and the Congress Trail, Moro Rock, and Tunnel Log.

General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world (in volume):img_6171

Other giant sequoias along the gentle, paved Congress Trail:

Tunnel Log:

Peeking out from a sequoia in the Crescent Meadow Loop trail:img_6211

Moro Rock (way easier than Half Dome!):

And for some classic alpine hiking, I spent a good half day hiking the popular 12-mile Lakes Trail to Pear Lake. This trail included “The Watchtower,” a granite monolith cliff with a 2,000 foot drop.

Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks provide memorable experiences for anyone (especially families!) with their iconic trees.  I can’t imagine anyone walking up to the giants without feeling the trees’ magic.  In addition to this outdoor wonderland museum of sequoias, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts are also rewarded with the abundance of backcountry trails in the mountains, with Mount Whitney as the icing on the cake. Overshadowed by Yosemite, the parks remain somewhat pristine, making it an equally stellar alternative to Yosemite itself.  With just as many miles of trails as Glacier National Park, I know I’ll be returning again and again.

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Ghost Town Bodie

Ever since I stumbled upon Rhyolite, a ghost town of respectable size in Nevada, I learned more about the handfuls of poignant mining/gold rush ghost towns of California. Of the ghost towns, Bodie was the most notable but relatively distant from any major city, and the thought of visiting Bodie had remained in the back of my mind ever since. As a resident of California, I knew I’d eventually see it—it was only a matter of when, and once again I found myself east of Yosemite, not inconveniently far from Bodie. Time to go!

The state has turned the ghost town into a historic state park with an entry fee of $8/adult, which is used to preserve the town. Unlike many parks, Bodie literally is nothing more than a ghost town with well-spaced apart dilapidated buildings, dusty artifacts, and the remainders of once busy streets. Campgrounds, trails, and picnic areas can’t be found anywhere near Bodie.  Also, unlike other ghost towns that have revamped into kitschy tourist attractions, Bodie remains in “arrested decay,” or in the same historic condition it was left in.

As a result we left our trailer on national forest road at Mono Lake and drove the 45 minutes to Bodie Historic State Park.  Our free boon docking spot at Mono Lake:img_20161014_181025-01

Entrance into Bodie:img_6069

Bodie began as an ore mining camp, and later “boomed” when profitable amounts of gold were discovered in the mines.  A remaining mine as seen in the distance:img_6104

Like in many romantic, Wild West stories, thousands of hopefuls flocked to Bodie, making the once tiny mining town flourish to a population of 5,000-7,000 with 2,000 buildings at its peak. There was a church, school, fire houses, railroad, jail, red light district, and dozens of saloons.

Numerous buildings are left in their original state, with homes adorned with furniture and wallpaper and stores stocked with shelves and goods.  People are allowed to roam the deserted, dusty streets that were once bustling with people, life, and brawls.  Remnants of artifacts can still be found on the ground, such as bottles and pieces of furniture and chinaware, but taking them is prohibited. (And apparently there is a curse cast upon those who take artifacts!)  Ogling over the exteriors of the building is already awe-inspiring; peeking into the buildings is even more so.

Ghost towns are beautiful, fascinating, lackluster, and romantic.  I find myself easily drawn to them, and it’s hard to say exactly why.  Compared to other countries, we can’t say America is really old; Bodie itself isn’t over 150 years old.  Perhaps because this is the “real” America–rugged and wild, and always will be.

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Bristlecone Pines

I had just learned about the ancient bristlecone pine trees—the world’s oldest known trees—at Great Basin National Park, and my fascination with them plus further research led me to the discovery of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. During my side trip of summiting Mount Whitney, I learned that the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest was not far. In fact, it was right off our route north on Highway 395, nestled in the White Mountains in Inyo National Forest. We headed there the day after we summited Mount Whitney.

Within this ancient forest is the 4.5-mile loop trail that includes the bristlecone pine named Methuselah, known for many years as the world’s oldest tree and living organism at 4,750+ years old. However, in order to protect Methuselah from vandalism, this tree is not labeled. Curious, I google imaged “Methuselah bristlecone pine” before the hike and saw dozens of pictures of this tree. I snapped a screenshot and set off on the trail determined to find it.

Well, we studied the photos, searched and searched for this tree in the Methuselah Grove, and finished the 4.5-mile hike slightly disheartened that we could not find the damn tree! With dismay we admitted to a park ranger that we could not find Methuselah, and she told us that the tree was not as obvious as one would think.

“But the photos from the internet make it appear so distinct, so easy to find,” I said.

“There aren’t any photos of Methuselah on the internet,” she laughed.

“What?!” Had Chris and I been wastefully searching for this damn tree? “I thought it was all over the internet.”

“Nope, those pictures you see on the internet are not of Methuselah. It’s the wrong tree.”

I showed her my collection of images.

“Nope, none of those are of Methuselah,” she confirmed.

Well then!

But then she proceeded to give us a hint, for next time. “I believe the 1958 March issue of National Geographic has a picture of part of Methuselah.” Chris and I haven’t searched for this issue just yet, but next time we return to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, we’ll make sure to look it up!

Despite not being able to ogle over the mighty Methuselah, we still enjoyed every bit of the hike. Situated high in the mountains at 10,000 feet, we were able to see the surrounding California landscape sprawling below us.

The Sierra Nevada mountains to the west:img_6059

And even Death Valley to the east:img_6038

The ancient bristlecone pines must be seen to be believed. They are sculptures in a desert, or a piece of imagination, or an illustration of a child’s horror story, with their tangled roots and outstretched branches seemingly defying nature. They are unreal…but they are real.

Its longevity depends on location—the harsher the environment, the longer the lifespan. Its incredibly slow growth (about 1 inch per century) results in a very dense wood, making it sturdy enough to withstand environments its neighboring trees can’t endure. Unlike most trees, the bristlecone pine survives on nutrient-poor, rock-like “soil,” allowing them to live without competition. Parts of the root, branch, or trunk also “die back” when it is harmed by drought or diseases in order to protect the rest of the tree and keep it growing. In addition to living thousands of years, the bristlecone pine also remains on earth for thousands of years after death!

“We do know that the oldest trees survive in the most difficult situations. Perhaps there is a life lesson there for all of us.” ~from the Methuselah Walk brochure

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