On the Martini

I’m here to tell you something important, and something that you might not know if you don’t spent your evening reading books about spirits and foodie blogs. I’m bringing you some advice that you’re not going to get elsewhere. They’re not teaching this in school. This is information that your bartenders know, your foodie friends know, but you may not. And it’s this: a martini is a GIN drink.

Yes—a martini is a cocktail made of gin and vermouth, served chilled in the V-shaped stemmed glass that has come to share its name. The martini is a timeless and a sophisticated cocktail, favored by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Winston Churchill, Earnest Hemmingway, and many among others.

Now, let me ask you: Would you make a martini with rum? – NO. Would you make a martini with bourbon? – of course not. Would you make a martini with vodka? Ah–some of you perhaps are saying yes. But no—that vodka-based cocktail you’re thinking of is called a kangaroo, or maybe even vodka-tini, but certainly not a martini. (And if I say martini and apples or chocolate come to mind, that’s right out!)

Let’s consider the facts. First, the history of the drink. Origin stories for the martini vary, but what is certain is that it was invented in more than 100 years ago as the combination of gin and vermouth, and sometimes bitters. The martini survived World War I, prohibition, the great depression, and World War II before the first bonehead mixologist had the audacity to publish a cocktail guide combining vodka and vermouth and calling it a vodka-tini.

Second, consider the gustatory fact of the beautiful harmony between vermouth and gin. Vermouth (as you may or may not know) is wine fortified with brandy and infused with botanicals and aromatics. It is slightly sweet and very floral. Gin’s primary ingredient is the juniper berry, which gives gin its pine-tree smell and slightly astringent taste. But gin is more than just juniper berry–it’s a whole bouquet of botanicals that gives gin its subtlety and intrigue.

The miracle of the martini is the interplay between the gin and the vermouth. The sweetness of the vermouth neutralizes the astringency of the juniper, resulting in a drink that combines more than a dozen botanicals into a drink that’s mysterious, intriguing, and subtle–a drink where curiosity and pleasure draw you from one sip to the next.

Vodka, on the other hand, is a tasteless, odorless, and flavorless spirit. When you combine vodka and vermouth, what you get is diluted vermouth–hardly the sort of drink to send poets into ecstasies.

H.L. Mencken once described the martini as “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.” But, just as a sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines, a martini is only a martini if it follows a specific format. So please, next time you’re in the cocktail bar, spare yourself the embarrassment and your taste buds the unpleasantness of vodka-diluted vermouth and instead order a true martini. What you’ll get is a drink as beautiful and sophisticated as you!

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The Return

I’m still settling into my return to America. I’m slowly readjusting to the idea of readily available high-quality coffee, to the superabundance of cheap, high quality food (there’s a paradox: the daily staples of an East African diet can be had for $1 – $2 a meal, but the cheap staples of a humble American meal–a good loaf of bread, say, and some hard cheese–cannot be had at any price). The produce in East Africa is fresher than much of the produce here in the United States–but, paradoxically, not of higher quality. We grow better varieties of apples, citrus here.

The biggest change has been becoming reaquainted with the safety and security of America. I still find myself going tense when someone walks into a bathroom behind, when a car drives up behind me in the street. I still feel nervous when using my (replacement) iPhone in the street, worry that someone might use the cord between my earphones and my phone to attempt to snatch it from me. I’ve found myself thinking, for the first and only time in my life, that it might be useful to take some self-defense classes, to take boxing lessons, to learn how to dodge and throw punches.

Self-defense, like iron-smelting, is a delightfully useless skill in America. (In fact, the statistics bear out that preparing in self defense in America makes your more likely to be involved in violence.) The use of force here has been surrendured to an astonishing degree to the police and civil authorities. It’s conceivable to be involved in a fight in America (typically over some perceived slight).

I imagine that East Africa today (or, at least, its big population centers–Nairobi, Dar es Salaam) is much like the 19th century American West, where each individual is responsible for maintaining his own personal security, but a credible threat of violence. Frankly, I’ll say its far more pleasant to live without being under a constant threat of violence.

East Africa was a bruising and eye-opening experience. I don’t know if there’s another society other than America where individuals have so much liberty and also so much security. There’s generally a trade-off between liberty and security, but someone America has managed to push the production frontier of that relationship far further from the origin than any other society. How did we get here? To what do owe our tremendous richness of both liberty and security?

The truth is, though I certainly did not admit this to myself while travelling there, I didn’t much enjoy East Africa. East Africa is poor in many of the ways that make traveling rich.

I found East Africa to be culturally uninteresting. It’s difficult to say if this is because East Africa is westernized, if it’s because African culture has a strong presence in American culture (and so is familiar), or if East Africa is still caught in the grips of its pre-colonial tribalism, recent colonial heritage,. National identity is weak. Since the nations are (relatievly) newly minted by colonial powers, its not realistic to expect any sort of national art forms. There’s barely national unity (perhaps art could help with this). The music, mostly hip-hop and reggae, was nothing I hadn’t heard before (the bands were different, but the style was substantially the same). The modes of dress were generally very western (except, perhaps, for the Masai–but the Masai have been so over romaticized and have become reflexively aware of the commercial promise of their romantic allure of their traditional ways). The architecture was either mud huts or colonial. There was very little in the way of public art. The art galleries that existed all produced art in a very similar and hackneyed vein, which seemed more reflective on what a tourist might think typical of Africa and be inclined to purchase than any sort of true artistic expression. That is, I walked into a half dozen galleries across four countries and everywhere the art was the exact same (paintings of baobao trees, women with exaggerated curves carrying clay pots upon their  heads, paintings of the outline of the continent of Africa, of elephants and giraffes).

The food, suffice to say, was shit. One of the first words of Swahili I learned was the word for salt (“chumvi”). Bland and very repetitive. The meat was consistently gristle-bound, tough, and flavorless. And many of the staples of East African food were obvious imports. Wheat does not grow in East Africa, yet chapati (or “chapat”), (someone resembling the Indian flatbread of its namesake), was ubiquitous, and made from imported flour.

Aside from those going on safari or a mountain trek, travelers were few and far between. Only the largest (or decidedly “tourist” oriented) cities had hostels or any sort of accommodations oriented toward international travelers. As such, few of us such as we were, there was little opportunity to meet other travelers.

And, frankly, I didn’t much care for the people. My suspicion is that a century of colonialism followed by a half-century of neo-colonialism under the guise of aid work has conditioned Africans to view all white western travelers as Santa Claus. Perhaps rightfully so–aside from major tourist destinations, aid workers outnumbered travelers. Even the friendships I struck up while traveling in Uganda seem now, in retrospect, to have been less interested in me as an individual than me as a potential source of free drinks or other largess.

Plain speaking and honest dealing are not African values or virtues. I think deference is made to pleasantness, harmony.

And dear god, what an unpleasant place to travel (at least by means of public transportation). Self-driving would be fine (though the safety and security of your vehicle would be a constant concern). But nowhere, in all my travels in the developing world, were the means of public transport so uncomfortable or so unsafe. Between major destinations there were usually large buses. Though usually stifling hot (and never air conditioned) a bus guaranteed that you would get a whole seat to yourself.

As with previous travels, I suspect my greatest “gain” from my months in Africa this summer is a keener appreciation for this place I call home.

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Pittsburgh (Initial Impressions)

Pittsburgh is going well. Already, I’ve found so many things that I’m happy about–many of which I never found in Phoenix and/or Denver:

  • A great radio station that I love (WYEP)
  • An awesome coffee roaster who roasts a great selection of quality, fair trade, organic coffees from around the world (Zeke’s)
  • A great network of running and mountainbiking trails (I’m minutes from both Frick and Schenley Parks)
  • a really solid local brewery (Yards)
  • an arts movie theater
  • A nice chinchilla park where I can take Kanye for exercise and to meet other chinchillas*

What’s more, there’s a ton here that I’m eager to see and explore. There’s a dozen museums which are all high quality to be explored, and hundreds of restaurants and cafes

Things I’m still looking for:

  • a good grocery store (Giant Eagle is awful)
  • climbing / adventure buddies
  • A go-to coffee shop
  • A (really good) bagel bakery

I’m stoked on my living situation, and excited for my program. (I’ll be mostly taking un-exciting core courses this fall, but that’ll leave a lot of flexibility for the spring.)

* – okay, not really. Still working on figuring out how to keep Kanye active and fit

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Apache Relay

Just saw Meru. The movie is rad. Pittsburgh’s arts theater is conveniently located a five minute walk from my doorway, and has discounted student tickets and $2.50 PBRs. Win.

I cried an unusual amount during Meru. I’m given to cry in movies, in general. Any movie about climbing necessarily has heartbreak around its fringes. But what, unexpectedly, caught my breath away and sent tears streaming were the images of Bozeman in the wintertime. Oh, Bozeman. I was moved by the images of the Flatirons and Boulder, as well, but it’s not the same intense pang straight through the heart.

I’ve realized in the last two months how incredibly important place is to me. Place has absolute primacy in my aspirations in life. At present, my life trajectory is to move to New York City (which, I hear, is a place)–and then eventually to return to the Rocky Mountain West (Montana, Idaho, or Utah). My career goals are merely means of accomplishing my location and place goals.

I obsess over place and landscape. Place is far more important to me than career, romance, status, etc. I just need to be in the place I want to be, and on trajectory to where I want to be next.

When I ask new acquaintances where they’re from, it’s not idle “getting to know you” chitchat. It’s important to me. I feel place is one of the most important and defining aspects of identity–in myself and those who I meet.

Went to a free concert in Schenley Plaza (a lovely park just down the street from CMU) last night and saw The Apache Relay perform. Really, really enjoyed their performance. First truly good band I’ve seen perform in a very long time.

Survived the first week of orientation. The least productive week I’ve had in many, many months.

I had these grand visions for myself, for the person I would be at Carnegie Mellon. I really saw myself as becoming this extrovert, some sort of social butterfly, striking up new friendships and acquaintances at every turn. Well, fanciful as that image of myself seems… okay, yup, mostly fantasy. In fact, I find that I’m very much my usual self. I’ve met many wonderful people during orientation, but not nearly as many as I had anticipated for myself. In typical extrovert fashion, I found myself quickly fatigued of making new acquaintances, and needing time to recharge between bouts of social interaction.

I guess I’ll never be Bill Clinton.

I feel like I’m losing my enthusiasm for becoming Pittsburgh Mark. I feel the weight and inertia of Rocky-Mountain-Mark with me. I feel myself running out of give-a-shit for things like trying to learn and adopt the style of dress out here (it’s not hard–just take your credit card to The Gap, and get yourself some stupid boat shoes). Carhartts and Chacos are starting to sound pretty good to me right now. There’s a Carhartt outlet right next to The Gap.

I’m also really quickly running out of steam for online dating. I’m just frankly not that eager to be in a relationship. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d put finding a relationship at about a 3 in terms of importance. Is it just fear driving some sort of impotence? Or, is it sincere disinterest? I’m thinking the latter. Mostly, I’m realizing that dating is godawful lot of work.

Also, what’s the reasonable amount of time to spend on setting up a comfortable living environment? If you’re going to live someplace for one year, how much time do you spend acquiring furniture, painting, installing shelves, etc? I’m not sure what the ratio is… but I do think I’ve spent ENTIRELY too much time hauling furniture all over Pittsburgh. Ug!

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Adaptation

In the Phoenix summers we adapted to the heat (like other desert creatures). Every adventure was a pre-dawn start. On the route by sunhit, we’d be hiking out by the time of the first shimmers of heat rising from the valley.

We’d zip home over wide, smooth pavement, amid scant and sleepy traffic–home to the cool, air-conditioned house, stocked for a boozy breakfast.

Breakfast is the marginalized meal–too often routine and too often rushed. Stressful and boring. So there’s luxury in a long, lingered-over breakfast. And a boozy breakfast, doubly so. A boozy breakfast subordinates the rest of the day to the demands of indulgence. The day’s adventure over, there’s nothing better.

With full bellies and buzzing heads, we’d retire to bed to nap away the day’s heat. We’d wake once the sun’s blasting rays were oblique, attenuated. Rousing ourselves, we’d prepare for the evening–the second inhabitable part of the Sonoran summer day.

Sunset signaled for music, open backyard windows and doors, and for friends to gather. Cold beer and grilled burgers were the order of the evening. 95F darkness is the perfect swimming pool weather–a joy to enter the pool, and not the least bit unpleasant to get out. We kept cool with ice-mounted cocktails and roof-launched cannonballs. We’d become nocturnal and amphibious, like other desert creatures.

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Reading Out of Africa

Ask an American of colonial East Africa, and doubtless images from Out of Africa will come to mind. And, appropriately so. Set aside unhelpful-if-not-unfair “liberal” objections to the “romanticization” of colonialism, and you can gain some appreciation for an enterprise that was, in fact, quite picturesque, adventurous, and romantic in many regards.

I read Out of Africa while travelling through Kenya (and, in fact, visited the house where Karen Blixen lived and where many of the scenes of the movie were actually shot) and found I quite enjoyed it. Blixen (under the pen name of Isak Dinesen) writes beautifully and evocatively. What her novel lacks in coherent narrative and structure it makes up for with its poetic lyricism and prescient insights.

here are a few of my favorite excerpts from the book:

Describing the view from the Ngong Hills:

Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequaled nobility.

On being out in the wilds:

The civilized people have lost the aptitude of stillness, and must take lessons in silence form the wild before they are accepted by it.

On belonging:

I know a song of Africa,–I thought,–of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Would the air over the plain quiver with a color that I had on, or the children invent a game in which my name was, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the driver that was like me, or would the eagles of Ngong look out for me?

On the Masai:

One, on the farm, I had three young bulls transmuted into peaceful bullocks for my ploughs and wagons, and afterwards shut up in the factory yard. There in the night the Hyenas smelled the blood and came up and killed them. This, I thought, was the fate of the Masai.

A Masai warrior is a fine sight. … Their style is not an assumed manner, nor an imitation of a foreign perfection; it has grown from the inside, and is an expression of the race and its history, and their weapons and finery are as much part of their being as are a stag’s antlers.

On visitors, when living in a lonely place:

In Pioneer countries hospitality is a necessity. … A visitor is a friend, he brings news, good or bad, which is bread to the hungry minds in lonely places.

On belief in ourselves:

Pride is faith in the idea that God had, when he made us. A proud man is conscious of the idea, and aspires to realize it.

On death rites:

The Kikuyus, when left to themselves, do not bury their dead, but leave them above ground for the Hyenas and vultures to deal with. … It would be a pleasant thing to be laid out to the sun and the stars, and to be so promptly, neatly, and openly picked and cleansed; to be made one with nature and become a common component of the landscape.

I quite enjoyed Out of Africa. It was evocative of Kenya–both of a time past, and very much of modern Kenya as well. Blixen herself is fascination–kind, curious, knowing when and how to fight, and when to surrender to her fate. She had an incredible and rich adventure of eighteen years–and did so with pluck, charm, and humanity.

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Empty Hotels, Empty Restaurants

Speaking of tourists … where are the tourists? Everywhere I’ve been so far has seemed a ghost town. Egypt, understandably so, in light of its recent revolution. (Still, it was quite surprising to visit the pyramids at Giza and not find crowds.) I also get the sense that Egypt may have overbuilt its tourist capacity, even for the best of times (visitation was growing at ~10% per year leading up to their revolution in 2011). So, I get that.

But in Kenya, too, the guest houses are empty. It used to be that safaris needed to be booked months in advanced. When I arrived, operators were beating the streets to find people to join their tours. And, while on safari, we were always the only group in facilities that could easily have accommodated a dozen.

In Uganda, it’s much the same, at least where I’ve been in Jinja and its nearby village of Bujagali. Here, much of the adventure tourism, which was thriving up until 2007, has disappeared under the backwaters of the Bujagali Hydroelectric Power Station. Completed in 2007 (constructed with money on loan from the World Bank), the dam completely drowned over half of the incredible rapids and waterfalls that made Jinja a world-class kayaking and rafting destination. (The White Nile below the dam is still quite incredible, but the White Nile is half of what it once was, in terms of international kayaking and rafting appeal.) Adding insult to the matter, the dam’s electricity doesn’t even illuminate Ugandan homes, being primarily sold overland to neighboring Kenya.

I wish I could have captured the image of walking along the dirt road in Bujagali at night, past a group of small shops (seemingly made of scrap lumber), each burning a candle for illumination, having no electricity, and looking quite small under the massive high voltage power transmission tower behind them.

As an aside: there’s another image I’ll never forget, and wish I could have captured with a camera to share. After our day of kayaking on the White Nile, we took out below Itanda Falls. Me, my guide, and our two kayaks and gear were to be ferried back to Bujagali base camp by the two 100cc motorbikes who brought us to the put in. Byron (my guide) and I are riding three-to-a-bike on the first one with its driver. The kayaks, bulky and brightly colored plastic things that they are, are stacked on the back of the second motorbike, perpendicular to it and a little lop-sided–looking very much unwieldy. We’re taking a muddy and rutted dirt road through a rural village. We come upon a herd of cattle being driven in the street, filling it and spilling out onto the very porches of the small huts on either side of the road. There’s no getting around, so we must go through. Imagine the scene of the motorbike with the bright, bulky, plastic kayaks strapped to it, and its driver, in flip-flops, a big red trucker’s hat and a shit-eating grin, weaving through the cows, sliding and slopping in the mud, dodging cows, calves, horns, and barely keeping upright!

My impression is that tourism is down throughout East Africa at the moment due to some of the isolated violence and unrest in the greater region. I believe that Americans (and I’ve been guilty of this myself) tend to see Africa as a monolithic whole (like Australia), rather than the vast continent made up of fifty-five distinct nations (like Europe) that it is. This, when we read of violence in South Sudan or Al Shabaab terrorist violence, we think that the whole of East Africa is dangerous, violent, spoiled by unrest. Being here, I can tell you that it’s not the case. Nevertheless, I think that violence in any part of Africa (or greater East Africa) likely harms tourism throughout the entire region.

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Pleasantness of Being a Tourist Index

Uganda is a traveller’s paradise, unspoilt by travellers. Four days in, I’m quite charmed with the place. When it comes to travelling in the developed world, there seems to be a certain virtue to getting off the beaten track.

In my experience, a large tourism industry turns tourists into a commodity. No one likes to be a commodity. As travellers, we want to feel special, unique, as emissaries, brave explorers who have gone beyond the borders of our own comfortable homelands. (Are we these things? At best, perhaps. More often, we’re carousing voyeurs, in search of “otherness,” poverty, the fantastic and exotic.)

Based on my anecdotal experience, less touristed places (in the developing world) tend to be more pleasant places to travel, in terms of opportunities to make genuine connections and freedom from hassle. Curious if the data on tourist visitation bears this out, I put together a simple chart, and calculated the number of annual tourist visits per thousand residents:

Country Name 2013 Visits 2010 Population Annual Visits Per Thousand   Residents 2013 Visits as % of Peak Visitation
Argentina 5,571,000 40,412,000 138 98%
Bhutan 116,000 726,000 160 100%
Cambodia 4,210,000 14,139,000 298 100%
Chile 3,576,000 17,113,688 209 100%
China 55,686,000 1,338,300,000 42 96%
Costa Rica 2,428,000 4,659,000 521 100%
Egypt 9,174,000 81,121,000 113 65%
India 6,968,000 1,224,615,000 6 100%
Kenya 1,434,000 40,513,000 35 82%
Mexico 24,151,000 113,423,000 213 100%
Mozambique 1,886,000 23,390,000 81 89%
Namibia 1,176,000 2,283,000 515 100%
Nepal 798,000 29,959,000 27 99%
Peru 3,164,000 29,076,000 109 100%
South Africa 9,537,000 49,991,000 191 99%
Tanzania 1,063,000 44,841,000 24 100%
Thailand 26,547,000 69,122,000 384 100%
Uganda 1,206,000 33,424,000 36 100%
Vietnam 7,572,000 86,928,000 87 100%
Zimbabwe 1,833,000 12,571,000 146 73%

I report 2013 visitation statistics, but have also included a column (2013 Visits as % of Peak Visitation) to indicate if the country’s tourist industry is experiencing a contraction. Egypt, for example, saw 14m visitors in 2010, but only 9m visitors in 2013.

India, with six visits per thousand people per year, happens to be my very favourite of countries I’ve visited, in terms of being a tourist. The Indians I met were as fascinated with me as I was with them. Hassle was non-existent, and every Indian I met was another opportunity for a genuine connection, person-to-person, and cultural.

Egypt’s score of 113 seems reasonable, until you consider that a few years ago Egypt received 14m visitors, and lately is receiving 5m fewer annual visitors than at its peak (one Egyptian operator I spoke with blamed President Obama and the Israel-loving western media for this turn of events, but I suspect it may be more related to Egypt’s recent revolution which, from the appearance of things in Cairgo, is not yet ancient history). In other words, competition in Egypt is fierce, the sector having been reduced by 33%, meaning that only the fierce of its tourist touts have survived the downturn.

Thailand, with its 26m visitors to its country of 69m residents (a score of almost 400), ranks high in my memory in terms of hassle, especially on the typical backpacker circuit.

With a mere 36 visits (per thousand residents, per year), Uganda ranks quite nicely on my simplistic ranking. Being here on the ground, the effect is obvious: Ugandans, from my experience here, take an interest in their visitors.

My tourist density proxy for pleasantness / hassle of being a tourist is obviously overly simplistic. Mexico ranks poorly (213 visitors per thousand residents per year), but I’d wager that 95% of those visits are limited to its resort towns and beaches. The interior of Mexico, I’d wager, is probably closer to 10 visits–a number much closer to my delightful experience of travelling through interior Mexico.

In Egypt, the first and most useful word of Arabic I learned was no (la). From the moment I hit the ground to the moment I departed, I was hounded by hungry touts, operators, guides, and beggars. Without fail, every time I was greeted by an Egyptian, it was a prelude to a hard sell, invariably on something I had no interest in). I learned quickly (though, perhaps, not quickly enough) to smile, say no thank you, and walk resolutely away any time when approached. I managed a few good conversations with Egyptians, but only those who I approached myself.

In Uganda, while en route to the South African-run compound where I was intending to sign up for a few days of kayaking on the Nile, I was greeted by several locals. Though initially quite leery, I hazarded a “yes” to their invitation to talk. As a result, to my complete delight, I had an opportunity to get to spend a couple days hanging out with really lovely and fascinating Ugandans, saved a bundle on my kayaking adventure, and got to spend my money with locals, instead of expats.

I am by nature, trusting, gullible, naïve. In Egypt, this made me an easy target. The gullible and naïve tourist in Egypt learns quick to be cynical, or gets eaten alive. I always mentally budget in some extra money the first few days I’m in a new country as I readjust to what things actually cost. Some of its a function of a culture of bargaining (without knowing the market value of a good or service, I find it hard to bargain effectively), and some of it is special msungu pricing (unlike in Sweden, no one here in East Africa mistakes me for anything other than a tourist from a rich, Western country).

In any case–I’m quite charmed with Uganda, and glad to be here.

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The Masai Mara

Kenya’s most famous people are its Masai tribe–an ancient tribe of warriors. Traditional tribal life all throughout the world is disappearing. Encountering the Masai en route to and around Kenya’s Masai Mara wildlife refuge (named for the Masai people of the region, and the Mara River), I expected to encounter degraded tribal existence, a la America’s Indian Reservations.

I was surprised and delighted to find something better than expectations. The Masai still ply their existence by herding goats and cattle upon the savannah, walking on foot from place to place. They wear their colorful traditional dress, and the women still shave their heads. Schools have proliferated, but Christianity has failed to gain converts (the Masai have no religion whatsoever). They live simply, but are not impoverished. Some households may own and herd upwards of 200 cattle, worth some 30,000 Kenyan Shillings (~$300 USD) each at the nearby market. Yet, despite this apparent wealth, the Masai still live much as they ever did. I took an early morning run through the area outside the wildlife preserver, and observed the Masai in the area to be living in mud houses with sod roofs, with few material possessions. Their villages were remarkably clean, without the usual proliferation of trash and litter that one expects of poor rural villages. They were friendly, and the children a bit curious at the strange white man running along their roads.  Which isn’t to say that all Masai have rejected everything modern. Some live in cinder-block houses with (limited) electricity, and a few have motorbikes, or Western style jackets. Nevertheless, the overwhelming impression is that the Masai see no need of any culture other than their own, which is alive and well.

That said, one facet of Masai culture is changing: their communal grazing lands having been grazed down to nothing, the Masai are building fences.

Judgement is swift and punishment severe in Kenya. Once nick-named Nairobery, Nairobi is becoming a safer city. Wanjau, our safari guide, remarks that “now, we are able to count our money, use our mobiles in in the street.” How has this transformation been accomplished? President Uhuru Kenyetta (who has been tried in the Hague court for murders after the disputed 2007 election) has ordered Kenya’s police to shoot armed robbers on sight. (Shoot first, ask questions later.)

Kenya takes the protection of its wildlife quite seriously. We observed this lesson first hand when denied entry to the Masai Mara for our sunrise game drive. Poachers had come over the border from Tanzania overnight, and the Kenyan Wildlife Service was conducting a military operation to capture the poachers. As the morning progressed, our guide received news over his local frequency CB radio (used by safari guides to help coordinate when certain wildlife–lions, say, are discovered) that two of the poachers had been shot dead, and seven more were in custody. The goal seems to be to send a strong message, and it appears this tactic is succeeding.

The savannah is a striking and wonderful landscape. For me, it was love at first sight. The Masai Mara extends seemingly to the ends of the eawrth in its gently rolling grasslands. It consists of great plains of tall savannah grasses. At the end of the rainy season, before the arrival of the wildebeest, the gently waving grasses stand as tall as a man. These rolling hills are punctuated here and there by trees–the iconic acacia and boabab trees–each tree with an acre of land by itself.

I love the desert for the fact that each thing in it has space, allowing for the appreciation of its individual constituents. On the savannah, the space between things is so great that the eye is immediately drawn to each individual, exulted thing in it. These are often acacia, boabab, or cadamia trees. But perhaps almost as often, the object that draws the eye is a family of elephants, grazing upon the plain, or a pair of giraffes, silhouetted against the skyline. These immense creatures fit perfectly in the savannah, and neither would make sense without the other.

Seeing the savannah makes me long to have seen North America’s great plains when grazed by herds of millions of migrating buffalo (North America’s version of the wildebeest).

If you go on safari and have a good driver cum guide, you’ll have a good safari. If you do not have a good driver, its unlikely you’ll have a good safari. I was lucky to have an excellent driver (Wanjau). (If you yourself go on safari, I have Wanjau’s contact information, and would highly recommend any safari he drives.)

I was also lucky to have wonderful companions. Together for the game drives, and sharing our meals together, having great companions allowed for having a better experience by virtue of it being shared, experienced together, rehashed and experienced from others perspectives over our evening meals. Jessica and Sunshine, from southern California, are wonderful, interesting people. It was also a treat to get to share the safari experience with other Americans, who share a common experience of America’s national parks, of our American mountains and wildernesses. Sarang and Avinash are Indian soldiers, on leave from their UN post in South Sudan. The cross-cultural dialog was insightful and fun. It was sobering to hear their stories of their peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, of the thousands of Sudanese murdered along ethnic lines (and of the peacekeeping force’s failure to act, constrained by bureaucracy as an atrocity unfolded). (We were also joined for part of the safari by a Greek man and his Kenyan escort from Nairobi. Although she was lively and very pleasant, the situation was a bit odd and unsettling for me.)

I must comment in closing on the remarkable extend and effectiveness of conservation efforts in Kenya.  The Masai Mara is well conserved, and much of the western corner of the country is held by private conservancies. The animal populations seems very healthy and abundant, the Mara was unspoilt with development. It makes me very glad that such places still exist in the world, and will continue to exist.

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Some Thoughts on the Grand Canyon

95% of a Grand Canyon raft trip is flat water

Rafting the Grand Canyon is an expedition, more than a “trip.” One crosses most of northern Arizona, east to west, through the rugged and remote wilderness of the Grand Canyon, taking weeks to do so. Even with our group of only seven (on average), the meal planning alone accounted for 57 meals, or 399 portions. It’s worth overpacking a bit, since weight is less of a consideration than the possibility of needing something you don’t have.

River life has its own pace and rhythm, both day to day and hour to hour. You haven’t truly arrived in the Grand Canyon until you’ve settled into the rhythm of rafting life. You wake early, pack your things, then gather around the morning’s first pot of coffee while a hearty breakfast is cooked (most trip participants, myself included, reported eating better on this trip than at home–good food being one of raft life’s many pleasures). With breakfast dishes done, camp is packed, boats are rigged, breakfast beers are cracked, and we push our boats into the current. We raft the day away, stopping for delightful and often expected hikes, rapid scouts, and lunch along the way. On a good day, we reach camp by 2:00 or 3:00 pm (before the afternoon’s strongest upcanyon winds), set camp, open books, and enjoying the evening meal and conversation around the fire under darkening canyon walls. With fair weather, you sleep under the stars, wake under blue skies, then gather around the morning’s first pot of coffee.

Time on the river itself, typically three to five hours per day, passes at a highly irregular but predictable tempo. Mostly, time passes languorously, the hours floating by in quiet contemplation of the canyon walls, chit chat, beers, music. These long idle hours are punctuated by interminable periods of intense anticipation, in which time passes in slow motion. The big rapids can sometimes be heard from a mile away, building anticipation fifteen or twenty minutes before they can be seen. The pulse quickens and languorous senses are quickened, brought to attention. The ten minutes between when a rapid is distinctly audible and that moment in which the raft passes into the rapid can last longer than the two hours of flatwater prior. This sensation of time slowing down is augmented by the physical reality that water often pools and the current appreciably slows above big rapids.

A dory enters Crystal Rapid

The largest rapids are often scouted from the river bank prior to being run, increasing anticipation further. The heart pounds in the chest. Then, at the culmination of the anticipation, when the rapids roar their loudest and the entire horizon is filled with the heaving tumult and crashing spray of the rapids, at that very moment when the raft passes beyond the point of no return, the tempo changes again. The raft perceptibly picks up speed and momentum. Things happen faster now. The anticipation evaporates in an instant, and one becomes fully and immediately present in the moment. These moments of river running–the most chaotic of any–produce in me a Zen-like state. The roar of the rapids recede. The water’s heave and tumult is taken in stride. All that exists for those few precious moments in the reading of the water, the anticipation of its push and pull on boat and oars, and the strokes necessary to keep one’s line.

And then, sometimes, “oh, SHIT!” bursts the Zen balloon. The river snatches oars and passengers away as swiftly and deftly as a cat bats a mouse. SUV-sized boulders appear from no-where, collision is eminent, waves crash over and fill the boat, it’s two-thousand pound mass tossed about as a teacup in a tempest.

Geoff rows an "oh shit" moment in Gneiss Rapid

While scouting Lava (the largest, and perhaps most fearsome rapid on the canyon), we watched the party ahead roll the dice and ply the oars. One, two, three boats–clean, successful runs. Then, boat four enters with its passenger at the bow and captain at the oars. Halfway through, a rogue lateral wave plucks the oarsmen from his boat–one instant rowing his boat, and then in the next instant gone from sight entirely. The boat and its passenger continue on, oblivious, oars bouncing wildly in the waves. The river is merciful, and the raft passed head-on through the towering haystack waves at the bottom of the rapid. Only then, when the worst is over, when time-lapse once again becomes real-time, does the passenger look behind to discover his safe passage has been delivered by a phantom oarsman!

It’s impossible to say if time quickens or slows when one enters the tongue of the rapid. Perhaps it does both. The fifteen seconds its takes to pass through a rapid is over in an instant, yet lasts an eternity. Then, one fights through the eddy at the bottom of the rapid, and life resumes its former tempo of languorously soaking in sun and trying to fathom the size and height of the surrounding walls.

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