The Measure of Happiness

A letter arrived yesterday from the Social Security Administration. Making an exception to my usual mail-handling approach of letting letters wither, unopened, in a heap, I opened this government agency notice hastily. Instead of the bad news I expected (“Dear Mr. Egge, your Social Security Number has been revoked!” or, more probably, “Dear Mr. Egge, you owe us money!”), inside I found a notice of my paid social security taxes, and a promise that, someday, should I become disabled or retired, I will receive payments in kind. Nice!

I also found in this charming little missive a yearly summary of my entire taxed earning history. Apparently, yes, someone is tracking these things! Here the mail randomly brought me a document created by a government agency with fourteen years of information about my earnings. Being the data nerd that I am, I immediately entered this data into a spreadsheet and began creating charts.What correlations or insights might I find?!

But first: a brief digression into the ebb and flow of happiness through changing circumstance and the passage of time since becoming a sentient being (which I consider to have occurred for me at around the age 16). My last years of high school were golden. Breaking up with my high school girlfriend and starting college brought me bitterly low. Going abroad my sophomore year restored me. I returned with a new-found sense of self, and enjoyed three halcyon northern years rich with friendship, intellectual engagement, “college” shenanigans, and the occasional adventure.

The working world found me in 2009. My employer was generous but my situation was not: I worked hard at a stressful job and made good money, but struggled to find community. It wasn’t until I finally fled Phoenix that I recaptured happiness in life. Oh, Colorado–what a difference you made! Newly (financially) destitute from being the co-owner of a not-yet-profitable small business, I quickly found myself rich in community and adventure.

Something changed for me in 2014. All my life I’ve been a hack–smart, but listless and lazy. Maybe too smart for my own good–to the extent that I never really had to work hard for anything. I’ve skated by far more often than I’ve done things right. Without my deserving it, life and luck have nevertheless blessed me with opportunities, and I’ve been smart enough to never say “no.” But saying “yes” and succeeding on an above-average quantity of underutilized, directionless intelligence is a different thing from setting one’s course in life.

January 2014 found me running a small business by day, and slinging burgers and fries in the hot kitchen of a nearby bar at night. My hours between were spent daydreaming and sketching concepts, menus, and floorplans for restaurants. Bored of medical billing, I cast about for “what next,” and found myself flirting seriously with the idea of opening a restaurant in a mountain community, becoming a pizziaolo, and settling into the rest of my life as a committed ski bum.

A well-timed visit from a friend ripped me from my mountain-town torpor. Without intending to (or having any idea of the impact it would have), Bri reminded me of the world outside the snowy mountains. In a way, I appropriated her grad school and worldly aspirations, picking up studying for the GMAT about the time she left off. I studied for the GMAT through the summer while beginning, for the first time, to conceive of a path of my own in life.

Running the Rim Rock Marathon on November 1st, 2014 marked a change of epoch. My previous marathon attempts had been about as intentional as everything else in my life to that point–saying “yes” to opportunities, and then trying to skate by on natural ability. I didn’t finish my first marathon, and walked much of the last six miles of my second marathon.

The thing about marathons is that you can’t run a marathon on pure natural ability. One must train, be disciplined, intentional. And in the months leading up to the Rim Rock Marathon, perhaps for the first time in my life, I was. Disciplined. Intentional. The last six miles were (and remain) the toughest thing I’ve done–but I ran them in good time and finished because I’d trained and prepared for those last six miles. That day marked a manifestation of a change in myself long in the making, from my listless and lazy former self to someone who sets goals and works hard to achieve them. (It’s hard to be happy in life when you have a poor image of yourself. Call it the environment I was raised in, but I’ve always disdained lazy people. What a relief of burden, then, to finally cast off this self-loathing of my lazy self!)

My first year of grad school has brought its own attendant hardships (mostly the stress of working harder than I’ve ever worked before), but also the reward of learning, and the sense that–ha!–for once, I’m actually working hard for something I’m excited and care about. My happiness in grad school hasn’t necessarily been, say, equal to the three weeks spent rafting in the Grand Canyon last May–but my contentment with life these past eight months has been off the charts.

Well, that’s a long tangent. Back to my income data. Reflecting on the last fourteen years (reviewing the notable events on my timeline), I assigned a subjective “happiness” score to each year. I then plotted these points against my income data:

Well, there you have it. A completely subjective (but seemingly scientific by virtue of there being “data” and a graph!) affirmation of the idea that money doesn’t buy happiness.

Searching for other quantities of self, I dug up a few others. For example, I’ve tracked my number of ski days per season in recent years:

It was also easy to pop into my photo library and count how many photos I’ve taken each year over the past number of years. Photos are a proxy for adventures and other memorable events. The data from 2014 on is skewed, however, since I bought a “real” camera in 2014 and have taken considerably more photos ever since:

How does this all add up? Let’s take a look at the correlations:

Measure vs. Happiness Pearson Correlation Coefficient
Days Skied vs. Happiness 0.47
Income vs. Happiness -0.63
Photos Taken vs. Happiness 0.19

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, we see that the number of days spent skiing are strongly correlated with happiness. Income, as it happens, is strongly negatively correlated with happiness (in fact, the correlation is stronger than the skiing effect)!

My retrospective assessment of 1-10 scale happiness in years prior is interesting, but too subjective. There may be an art to happiness–if so, paying attention to it seems like a logical first step toward getting better. From this month, I’ve set up a Google-Form-based “Satisfaction With Life Scale” survey, which I’ll complete for myself monthly. So, the next time I get an unexpected letter with data about myself in the mail, I’ll have a slightly more objective basis from which to measure it.

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Top Albums of 2015

For the sake of procrastinating, I’ve compiled my annual list of my top 25 albums for the previous year. If you’re looking for some new tunes, dig in! I present, my top 25 albums of 2015:

  1. Grimes - Art Angels
  2. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
  3. Best Coast – California Nights
  4. Purity Ring – Another Eternity
  5. Mew – + -
  6. Dave Rawlings Machine – Nashville Obsolete
  7. Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues
  8. Brandi Carlile – The Firewatcher’s Daughter
  9. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
  10. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
  11. Ryan Adams – 1989
  12. Foals – What Went Down
  13. BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul
  14. Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
  15. Beirut – No No No
  16. The Chemical Brothers – Born in the Echoes
  17. CHVRCHES – Every Open Eye
  18. Ryan Bingham – Fear And Saturday Night
  19. Low – Ones and Sixes
  20. My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall
  21. Calexico – Edge of the Sun
  22. Wavves – V
  23. Neon Indian – VEGA INTL. Night School
  24. Lana Del Rey – Honeymoon
  25. Grace Mitchell – Raceday
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2015 Year In Review

2015 just had a nice ring to it–probably because I like numbers that end in five. Upon reflection, it happened to be pretty durn good year. Some highlights, in more-or-less sequential order:

2015 was book-ended by trips to Bozeman with our annual cabin to celebrate the New Year with friends from Quad E and Quad D. Games, snow, food, drink, and good friends.

Two ice-climbing trips to Ouray (both with great groups of people). I’m nowhere near a badass ice climber, but I’m getting closer to having the skillset for some long-term objectives (a ski-descent of Mount Rainier via Liberty Ridge, in particular). I’m now pretty comfy leading / soloing grade 3 ice, and can strongly recommend Orvis hot springs (a bit of a trek from Ouray, but the vast, hot, quiet outdoor pool is 100% worth the drive).

Raced the Grand Traverse with TJ. The Grand Traverse is a 40-mile backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen. At the crack of midnight we raced up Crested Butte resort into darkness among a crowd of 400 lyrca-clad, headlamp-wearing, skinny-skied athletes under a cold thin moon and abundant stars. By 6:30 am we climbed up Taylor Pass among the alpenglow-kissed peaks of the Elk Mountains, and by 11:00 am bombed down the thrilling 4000′ vertical descent down Aspen mountain slashing slush turns under the finish line.

Finagled a 50-day ski season, with a good dose of Colorado backcountry days with friends (a.k.a. “training”),  Arestua Hut cabin trips, beach days, hut days at Loveland, and early-morning skimo races.

Celebrated Gaper Day in fine style (e.g. with a monoski and a mohawk)

Drank way too much (and did a little skiing) for a weekend in Wolf Creek, CO

Played too much slappy cup (and did a little skiing) for a weekend in Crested Butte, CO

Rafted the Grand Canyon with a really great group of people. Incredible beyond words.

Said farewell to Golden and packed my bags for Africa

Saw the pyramids in Egypt

(My Cairo taxi driver said to me, “I take your picture! Go stand on rocks! Pretend to touch pyramid!”)

Went in safari in Kenya

Went snorkeling and searching for new Commandments in the Sinai peninsula

Drank a beer on top of Mount Kilimanjaro

A video posted by Mark Egge (@markegge) on Jul 19, 2015 at 3:41am PDT

Went diving in Zanzibar (and got my PADI Open Water Diver cert)

Hiked Table Mountain in Cape Town

Sold Atlas, moved to Pittsburgh, and started grad school for data science at Carnegie Mellon University. Made the acquaintance of a ton of dear friends. Won the Deloitte Case Competition and the DiscoverCMU Case Competition. It’s been really fun exploring Pittsburgh (especially the weekend when Sagar and Curtis came to visit)

Raced in my first cross-country mountain bike event

Taking advantage of Winter Break, I moved all of my skis into my car and took off on a 5500 mile road trip back to the Rocky Mountains and along the northern United States:

And, finished the year back in Colorado, in the mountains, with good friends and snow:

So, yeah. Lots of skiing, mountains, friendship, snow, and adventure. I also managed to squeeze in reading a bunch of books, a few good movies (and The Wire!), a lot of mountain bike miles, distilling, pizza and bread making, and photography. I once again failed to think even so much as a single interesting or original thought, but nevertheless succeeded in enjoying myself thoroughly. I’m grateful for the friends and family I got to enjoy 2015 with, and the new friends made along the way.

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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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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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