May 26, 2006

2006 Vacation/Travel Supplement

African safari:
Wild game preserve protects animals in their natural habitat

By Joan M. Wyand
Special to The Criterion

NAIROBI, KENYA—My mind was filled with curiosity as the airplane landed at Jomo Kenyatta Airport.

The Kenyan air felt dry and warm compared to the wet and blistering cold conditions in Rhode Island when I left Providence on Jan. 13, a day and a half earlier.

I exchanged some traveler’s checks in the baggage-claim area of the airport at the rate of about one U.S. dollar to 70 Kenya shillings.

I had been hired by an American jewelry distributor to alter glazes on ceramic beads at the Kazuri studio factory in Karen, Kenya. The company had arranged for a driver to wait for my arrival outside the security gate, and I would suggest using a travel agent to plan these details when visiting Africa.

Two days later, I flew from Wilson Airport to the Masai Mara National Reserve to go on safari. The pilot of the 15-seat commuter airplane took me about 45 minutes outside Nairobi then landed the plane on a red dirt runway, where I was greeted by a tour guide and a local Maasai.

In an open-roofed Jeep, we drove past a large giraffe on our way up the dusty mountainside to the Mara Siria Luxury Bush Camp. Kores Olemusun, the camp director, welcomed me at the main tent with ice tea and friendly conversation.

Then I was led to my large tent, which came equipped with solar-powered lighting, a queen-sized bed, a desk, a full bathroom and a porch. The camp staff served three huge meals every day, and beverages were available upon request.

In the early mornings and in the afternoons, my tour guide, Stephen, drove me down the mountainside and into the Mara, a nature preserve.

The first day, I saw a lion hunting in a herd of gazelle, but he did not catch his prey. We stopped to observe a vulture and a stork eating some unidentifiable animal remains. Stephen told me this species of stork eats the bones left over by the vultures and processes the calcium to survive. I was amazed by nature’s seamless and efficient recycling process.

The next day, we entered the Mara with the sunrise around 6 a.m. We found a herd of 15 elephants moving slowly and methodically across the dry grass for a morning drink at the river.

In the afternoon, we came across two male lions playing with their next meal, the carcass of a wildebeest, a recent kill. On our way back to the camp, we stopped to watch three zebras grazing by the dirt road.

During the safari outings, I saw a spectrum of wild animals, including lions, cheetahs, elephants, wildebeests, water buffalo, giraffes, baboons, rhinoceroses, hippopotami and exotic birds.

I was so happy to see animals living truly free to go wherever they please. I snapped photo after photo, oohing and aahing at the animals in their most natural state.

Each day after I got back from the afternoon safari, I spent time with a Maasai named Kinantta (Kee-nand-ta). Truly beautiful, he dressed in the traditional style of beaded red wrap, handmade leather shoes and head décor made from small strands of wool sewn together in rows.

The Maasai are a semi-nomadic tribe that lives in small villages throughout the southwest region of Kenya.

One afternoon, we walked along a foot trail through the bush leading down to the village. A tangle of branches served as a fence to keep large animals away from six houses made by Maasai women from sticks, hay and mud.

When I passed through the fence, the women gathered and sang a song of welcome.

The front room of each house consisted of a dirt floor where sheep slept at night. A narrow hallway led to the other half of the house, which was used as a bedroom.

Outside, the women were sitting around blankets covered with handmade items made from glass seed beads, wood, leather and soapstone. I chose some items from their displays and took them over to one of the men to calculate the cost. Bargaining is customary in the purchasing process.

I was then shown the outside of the school building that was built by Christian missionaries. Inside were desks, pencils and paper, but I did not see the interior because the door was locked. I found great irony in the fact that the school was the only space in the Mara that had a lock.

The first night on safari, after eating a multi-course meal, I wandered back toward my tent in the darkness. It was pitch black. That evening was the first time I saw the abundant night sky with absolutely no light pollution. That moment is my favorite memory of Africa because I was surrounded by the purity of coexistence with nature.

During my two weeks working in Nairobi, I visited many interesting places in the city and surrounding area.

At a restaurant in Nairobi called Carnivore, which offers expensive entrees, I tasted ostrich sausage, camel, crocodile and wild boar.

I fed, pet and even kissed giraffes at the Giraffe Center in Karen, Kenya. The center works to educate the public about preserving wildlife. Admission is about $10, and visitors can donate to a program that allows children from the slums to participate in classes at the center.

The Elephant Center, also located in Karen, takes in baby elephants that have survived emotionally traumatic experiences, such as witnessing violent poachers kill their parents. Visitors learn about the elephants’ natural habitat while watching them play, drink from a large bottle, eat leaves and kick a soccer ball.

At Kazuri, the ceramics studio in Nairobi where I worked for several weeks, visitors can tour the facilities and meet the artisans while they create jewelry and other artwork.

There are various ways to travel to Africa. An amazing job opportunity in the ceramics field allowed me to visit Kenya from Jan. 15 until Feb. 5. There are travel grants and funds in almost every field of interest that can allow anyone access to distant territories.

On the plane ride from Kenya to Paris, I sat next to a group of students who had been on a mission trip in the slums of Nairobi. They had been teaching children and building improvements at a community center there.

The key to successfully navigating foreign cultures is keeping your heart, mind, eyes and ears completely open while allowing your instincts and natural curiosity to create a path.

(Joan Wyand is a 2001 graduate of Cathedral High School in Indianapolis and 2005 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. She is an artist and environmental activist.)


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