April 30, 2010


We divided the luggage into mushable and non-mushable piles, jammed the mushables into the back of the van and headed north with Komande, me, Bill, Simon, Paul Watene, Chris, and Mulu mushed into our seats.

On the Way to Mpala

Komande drove us through some of the most amazing countryside, punctuated every few miles with small towns, some of which were nothing more than a collection of huts. And the huts were basically thatched roofs on sticks keeping the sun off whatever the people were selling.


Colorfully painted cement slabs slouched against each other at varying levels, lengths of trees propped up thatched roofs, and people milled around in all directions. It’s beautifully sloppy compared to what exists outside of the metropolitan suburbs where I come from. No EP Henry pre-fab stonework blasted with Round-up here. It’s all meant to give way to organic forces of entropy and all seems to be involved in deep conversation with the surrounding environment.

Bright-Orange-Building outside Nairobi

I wished I could video tape everything I was saw. Colorful cement houses, women with boldly printed shawls. Children splashing in a stream turned opaque reddish brown from the volcanic soil. We stopped for lunch in a market town called Karatina at a place called the Chicken Inn which was part of the Starbucks Hotel. Maybe they took the name for its cache, but I don’t think the Starbucks chain would ever have sawdust at the front door to absorb mud off peoples’ shoes, or stand-up toilets.

Rainbow Over the Mpala Research Center

There’s something about not having doors, windows or screens that makes the architecture seem more cut-out-of-the-earth. There’s no real definition between outside and in, so you don’t really have to commit to one or the other. And you feel much more connected to the next dwelling space.

We all ordered the chicken curry. I thought it was funny that Chicken Maryland was on the menu. Komande pointed to my Stoney ginger beer and said, “This is the last time you will see one of these for a while.” I thought he was just trying to be dramatic about heading into the bush, but I later found out he was serious.

We continued north to Nanyuki  and approached a sign that indicated the equator. Komande stopped so we could mark the moment with due ceremony. I was instantly targeted by one of the nearby shop keepers as a potential bleeding heart/materialist. He started demonstrating the coriolis effect by pouring water from a pitcher into a plastic bowl. He threw a couple of match sticks in to show them rotating clockwise. We walked a few meters south and sure enough, they turned counter clockwise as the water drained. With great fanfare, he led me to the equator sign and, even though he’d probably performed this science experiment a hundred times a day, his enthusiasm still beamed when the sticks stayed still as the water drained.

At the Equator

He asked for $8 US for a certificate proving that I’d taken his course in geographic magnetism and I felt bad taking change so I gave him $10. He even signed my diploma as the Director of E.C.D.  Mulu had fun trying to make up the fictitious institution represented by this prestigious acronym: Equatorial Community Diocese, Earth Center District…

Soon the asphalt road turned to dirt and the dirt turned to dirt and puddles. Komande expertly negotiated the truck-sized potholes with finesse. The sky dimmed and we passed a Somali camel herder. I rudely stuck my video camera out the window and he yelled something in Arabic. Everybody in the car laughed and I asked what he said. They laughed because they had no idea, but it was probably something nice because they said “his face was happy.”

A few kilometers later, we saw eye shine in the darkness. “Giraffes,” Komande said almost flippantly with the level of enthusiasm reserved for ordering dry toast.   I leapt to attention, deciding whether to look with my own eyes or distorted through the camera lens. It was too dark to see them outside of the headlights, but the late sunset backlit their iconic silhouettes and that was good enough for my first giraffe spotting. Next came a herd of zebras, dashing away into the bush.

A minute after mentioning dik diks, two of them appeared in the grass along the road in all thier delicate cartoonishness.

Impala and Thompson gazelles were everywhere. I couldn’t tell them apart until Bill said, “The Tommies have the black turbo stripes.”

We made it to the Mpala Research Center where Joseph, from the main office took us down a long, dark dirt path to our bandas, round cement huts with thatched roofs straight out of a nostalgic film about the colonial days. It’s very romantic except for the fact that I’m on my laptop surrounded by charging video equipment and beeping lights.

There are two animals, a baritone and soprano outside my banda alternately sighing and possibly letting out some exhaust fumes. I have no idea what they might be. The soprano has the intonation of a valley girl saying “Oh my go-od” repeatedly. The bathroom is a few meters outside my banda so I am opting for dehydration over becoming the screaming alto in their safari chorus.

Tomorrow we will visit a few sites to survey at 8:30am, but Bill said, “We’ll leave at 8:30 but we don’t know when 8:30 is going to be.” It often takes a while to collect everyone and everything. I find myself often standing around loaded down like a pack mule waiting for the word to “Twende” (let’s go!) only to shrug off my burden and then reload again.