Helmet Hunting

Mom, Dad, grandparents: You don’t need to read this one.

Before coming to Africa I vowed I wouldn’t get on a motorcycle. There were enough other ways in which I would probably die and I felt no need to add a new one.

And if, for some strange reason, I would ride one, it would be with a helmet. Duh, I don’t ride a bicycle without one.

Well, plans change. One day in the first week of the trip, our tour guide informed us we’d be going to a lake. He then introduced us to our mode of transportation. A young, unhelmeted boy sitting on a wannabe motorcycle. “We go?”

Since then, I don’t want to tell you how many of those little things I’ve ridden.

Three people on one boda has become the norm, but I’ve been on ones with more.

At some point, I could no longer tell myself I wouldn’t ride bodas. When my mother said she’d pay for it, I decided a helmet really was pretty important.

So off I went. I stopped in Katwe, just south of Kampala, where I was told all the motocyclers buy spare parts and helmets (the few who have). I entered the store and as handed a very light, plastic-y thing. “Hmmm… do you have anything better?”

“You want a good one?” she asked, somewhat surprised.

“Um… yeah.”

“We don’t have. You go into town.”

I was directed to the street in which helmets were sold, near the taxi park. The taxi park is one of the least relaxing places to walk in, and I am constantly dodging curious men and comments like “ohhh, mzungu”, “I love you,” “Come here baby”. This time though, I was hot , sweaty and on a mission, so when one held on to my arm and said in a deep voice, “Mama… hello” and held my arm, I lost it completely.

I swung my arm away from his grip, and with a disgusted face yelled, “fuck off!” As I was walking away, I remembered I was in a bad area of a crowded African capital. And I had just told a big black man to fuck off.

When I reached the area where helmets were sold, I learned that they were charging around 20,000 shillings, meaning 10,000 post-bargaining, meaning four dollars.

I’m cheap and everything, but I am willing to pay more than four dollars for a motorcycle helmet. I WANT to pay more than that.

I picked up one helmet. “Which company makes this?” I inquired. He lifted the helmet and looked at the sticker on the back. “Ah, this one is made by XL.”

Tact is not my forte; I laughed in his face, thanked him and walked out.

In the next shop, I changed my question. “Which country makes this?” The man shook his head. “It is from no country. It is from China.”

I snooped around and was led to Verma, the best store in Kampala. There was a big price difference (presumably to cover the cost of having 50 useless empoyees – the one helping you, the one helping the one helping you, the one giving the form, the one stamping the form, the one putting the helmet on your head and the one throwing out the box) but it felt good to think my life was worth more than four dollars.

So if you’re still reading this, Mom, I have a helemt and that is why it’s okay to go on motorcycle safaris.


Checkers with Maasai Kids

I’ve dealt with a lot of kids in my life – but I have never met a crowd that was as easy to please as the kids in Naro Osura. It’s a village in the heart of the Maasai land – Loita Hills – on the outskirts of the famous Maasai Mara. When I say village, I mean dirt paths, chickens and goats running around, ramshackle shops with handpainted signs and a lot of people sitting. All day.

I walked into a store that had the word “Internet” printed in large bright letters on the front wall. I inquired about the computer services, somewhat skeptical when I noticed  the bags of flour and candies behind the counter. “Oh, no,” the woman explained. “That’s just the name of the store.”

An indefinite but long period of time after lunch, when our guide was on one of his classic “disappearances” (Meeting the local ladies? Dealing drugs? Running away from us?) I was getting bored, and I couldn’t look through the pictures on my friend’s camera any more or stare into space any longer.

I looked around for something to do, but we were outside some dirty, sketchy pub and all I could find were some colorful beer caps scattered around the muddy entrance. I started collecting them, hoping we’d find a good use for them. One of the guide’s brothers, who also served as an assistant guide and porter, found a used cardboard box, and together we drew a checkers board.

Even before I knew what we were going to do with it, people who were sitting nearby came up and helped me collect caps. I tried to explain that I wanted only “Tusker” or something else of uniform color, but eventually I just took whatever people handed me. Everyone seemed thrilled to have something to do.

And so we played checkers on a cardboard box with beer caps.  And we had about ten spectators from the moment we set up the board. We got a little tournament going, and when I realized how thirsty the kids were for something to do, I began to pull out some more tricks from my dusty youth-movement-and-babysitting sleeve. I taught them how to play thumb-war and “Dag Maluach” (Red light green light one two three) and even a silly dancing game where you run around a circle and then shake your booty. They taught us the Swahili equivalent. No matter what we suggested, they were all in.

One of the boys, who was wearing a blue sweater that resembled a school uniform, was holding a plastic bag with a few books inside. I asked to see, and suddenly I realized it was storytime in Swahili, and somehow, I was the reader (Swahili uses Latin letters).

When our guide finally came back and we continued our trek, three of the boys joined us. They didn’t want money, or our walking poles (which they looked at and held very curiously) – they just wanted something to do.

Filthy hands, open scabs and tattered clothes – but just the same as kids in any other place – hungry for fun and games, wanting to beat each other up and be hugged at the same time, craving attention and more than anything, in need of something to do.

Stripping on the Top of Mount Kenya

I still think he was lying. Our guide told us that all the Israelis who climb Mount Kenya take a nude photo at the top. Of course, being the gullible but full-of-ourselves fools we are, we took that as a dare. I still think he just wanted to see us naked.  

Either way, it was an issue that occupied my thoughts for a good part of the way up. I, who am so worried about the cold, about turning into an glacier and having a part of the mountain be named after me, take off even one article of clothing 4985 meters? At dawn? Yeah right.

But after the Uramox (height pills) started kicking in – not very well, and I started visiting the bathroom a lot more than I’d wanted to, and after the lack of oxygen started making things like standing seem like a daunting task, I started directing my thoughts more toward getting myself off the mountain, than on how I’d get my clothes off of me. Those two idiots could do whatever they wished.

In the beginning I thought it was all psychological. I’m just a worry-wart; I have to get into the African head. Hakuna matata (no worries) and pole pole (slowly slowly). But when I woke up in Old Moses camp on Day 2 on the mountain, I was not feeling very Hakuna matata at all. I was feeling Hakuna my appetite and I constantly wanted to barf. The Pepto-Bismol (which we called special magic fairy barbie potion, because it was a bright pink liquid in a purple bottle) helped only to a certain degree. I kept threatening that if in the next few hours I didn’t feel good, I would go down.

But that’s the funny thing about being a muzungu (tourist) on this mountain. You’re really a small part of the plan. Because the guide, the cook, the porters, the friends and the family are going on a hike. And you simply join them.

For example, when my friend had tried to lower the price of the hike, she suggested we sleep in tents instead of cabins. Our guide informed us that it wouldn’t cost us more; he’d be sleeping in the cabin but if we wanted to camp out in tents we were welcome to. Same with the food. We suggested we cook for ourselves. “I’m bringing a cook,” he said. “If you don’t want to eat his food, that’s okay.”

So saying I couldn’t make it up the mountain would really be letting a whole happy family down. They were ready to hike. So I kept slurping pink stuff and telling myself pathetic things like “you are strong and you can do this. Go, Danya!”  Step after oxygen-free step, I made it up to the next stop: Shipton’s Camp at 4200 meters.

We had met some Israelis the night before, who had rushed in and arrived at dark, only to pitch their own tents and make their own (kosher) food. They didn’t know about the height pills and they didn’t have walking sticks. And they didn’t know English (“So ‘Oslo’ means and?” – I think she meant ‘also’). They made me feel a little better about myself.

Looking at the porters also put things into perspective a bit. True, I was heaving and breathing my brains out, but they were doing the same exact thing with a lot more weight and really tattered shoes. But then again, they were getting paid.

“Pole pole”, though, I started getting used to life without oxygen or an appetite. I ate when there was food and I breathed when there was air. I wasn’t the only one who felt like a fat eighty year old with a heart disease: we were all walking very slowly and sighing a lot more than normal. We looked like a geriatric ward on a field day.

Day 3 was an acclimitization day. I liked that idea. That by doing nothing except for staying at a certain height, I could tell myself I was “acclimitizing.” I really felt like I was being productive.

But the zen-mode didn’t last for too long; that night was summit night. At 1:50 a.m. we awoke to the annoying woman on my friend’s phone yelling, “It’s time to get up! The time is one fifty.” Fuck her.

But I listened to her, wriggled out of my very toasty sleeping bag, and put on got up and put on every possible article of clothing I could get my hands on: Bottom – long underwear, tights, light hiking pants, heavy hiking pants and rain pants. Top: two t-shirts, one light thermal shirt, one heavy thermal shirt, one fleece, one coat and a raincoat. And then a neckwarmer, two wool hats, the hoods of both coats, two pairs of gloves and the thickest pair of socks I had. Okay! Who said party? I am ready!

Ten minutes into the hike I was making history. It was two in the morning and going up to the summit, my main concern was  turning into a puddle of sweat. And dripping down the mountain and turning into ice, because somewhere beyond all of those layers, it really was very cold.

So after I tried walking like a scarecrow (i.e. hands outstreched, poles landing wherever they wished, and in general looking quite hideous) I started taking off layers. Hey – maybe I’d be able to take my clothes off at the top after all. My friend had it all planned out. Bras and boxers, but leave the shoes on so we could pull it all back on very quickly. I didn’t make any promises.

After I got rid of the unneccesary layers and reached a reasonable temperature, though, I started (or stopped) feeling my fingers, toes and nose. They all threatened to fall off and go back to the cabin. The very warm, cozy cabin with my sleeping bag and sleeping bag liner… Enough.

Reality came back in the form of an enormous spike in the black sky, many stars and a headlamp to show the way. Not that we would have gotten lost; all we did was UP.

It was a steep, strenuous and very slow walk up, but after counting to very high numbers and opening and closing my fingers many times to make sure they were still there, slipping down the crumbling ground and thinking of names for my award-winning book, I climbed one last step up a small ladder and saw a little flag that read: Pt. Lenana 4985 m. God exists, I reminded myself. 

We climbed up as the sun did. She dazzled majestically above the orange and pink tinted clouds. We were above them, too. Mountains streched on all sides and we could even see our next destination, which was many thoughts and modes of transportation and a country away: Kilimanjaro. Everything dazzled and although we couldn’t feel our hands we could feel so much else. Sheer happiness, pride and hope.

And then we did it. “Okay, go! You take the camera! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! Shit this is cold! Whose idea was this? You just made up some stupid lie, didn’t you! I bet no one ever did this! Oh my God!” And then because I was wearing triple the number of layers they were, and because I had zipped everything up to my nose, and because I tried to cheat and do it with my gloves still on, I got stuck.

There I was, on the top of Mount Kenya: A wriggling coat hanger, shaking and cursing in whichever language came first, and yelling at my two hopeless friends to help me out. They were just jumping around like big babies, pleading at me to go faster. When they finally started pulling off the fleece, they just yanked and yanked, nearly pulling off my poor nose, which hadn’t really wanted to come in the first place.

Most important thing is, we have a photo of all three of us in very minimal clothing at the top of Mount Kenya.

Rabies, Baby!

injection time

On my second day in Africa, after having arrived, met my friends, and having nearly all of my equipment (my sleeping mat and a pack of gum were stolen) I was brimming with excitement and ready for my absolutely wonderful African adventure. Everyone had been warning me about all of the possible horrible ways I could die, and I was going to prove them all wrong.

We arrived at Lake Nakuru National Park. It’s a great blue lake in Kenya, where people do safari drives to see flamingoes, rhinos, buffalo and… monkeys. At the parking lot, our guides got out to pay the entrance fee. There was no need to get out of the car.

But having been in the stuffy van for too long, and in general being way too young and hyper and stupid to sit still, my friends and I tumbled out of the car. We streched our limbs, yelled about how cool we were to be traveling in Africa, and started snapping photos of the adorable monkeys that were scattered around.

They were either Velvet Monkeys or Vervet Monkeys, depending on whom you ask (like many other facts in this country). They had long grey fur that looked soft and smooth, cute little faces and they carried their kids on them. “They’re very mischevious,” our guide had said. We saw them go into one of the cars with open windows and snatch a bag of chips. Really naughty, but very photogenic.

As I walked over to my friend, I noticed three of them were huddled together, glaring at me. I know I’m white and everything, but I’m not that funny looking. Anyways, they were only monkeys, so I didn’t take it to heart, but rather as a sort of challenge. I happen to be quite the master of The Blinking Game.

But these guys were playing dirty. A few moments of locked looks passed, and the monkey with the most severe eyes ran up, jumped on my leg and sunk his vicious teeth into my left calf.

“What the hell?” I asked my friend in disbelief. I felt betrayed. “Danya, run!” she told me.

“But he’ll catch me,” I rationalized, and looked at the little creature. Asshole. I got out of his way and then my other friend came by smiling at the whole situation until he saw my leg. I spun my head back and saw bright streaks of blood running down my leg and splattered all over my shoe. (Finally, my equpiment would look well worn and used)

Since Romy is a medic, Iwe both sat down and started laughing and cleaning out the bite. Everything was going well until a blonde woman came along and looked at my leg in horror.

“Oh my God! Did the monkeys do that? Oh yeah, they are really awful. Did he scratch you or bite you? Oh, he bit you?! Well you have to get that taken care of, right away. You need to get to a hospital, you don’t know what these monkeys have been eating, what sort of diseases they carry. They could have Rabies! I don’t want to scare you but you have to get that checked out immediately!”

Okay. Time to get nervous. I only really panicked when I imagined how my mom would react and then I started thinking I’d probably die in the next few hours.

The hospital bathroom

So I looked around and tried to figure out how to get to a hospital. Since our guide constantly looked high, the cook didn’t speak English or have many teeth, and my friends, who are great, were just as white and foreign and shell-shocked as I was, I turned to the driver. He reached my shoulders and was bald with a huge smile, and was my only hope.

“Yes, we will take you to hospital. Okay.” This was my first encounter with a concept I’ve come to know well: “African time.” Things don’t happen when you want them to. They happen when… well, when they happen. And every little thing, is gonna be all right. So after some minutes of useless consultations and negotiations among the guides and park rangers, we were all back in the van.

After a bumpy, dusty ride, we arrived at some section of a building that had some variation of the root “medic” painted on it, and proved to be a very very untouristy place. The man in the white robe behind the desk took a quick glance at the wound and said it wasn’t very deep. The driver with the enormous smile stood in between us and translated parts of sentences. I asked what about rabies. Oh no, rabies is only found in carnivorous animals. Mmhmm. He wrote something in his big book and prescribed me something called megamox.

Enough with all this save-the-world-let’s-be-one-big-happy-equal-African-family crap. I wanted to get to the richest most Western hospital there was. Now.

So we were back in the car, most people around me liking me a good deal less than they had a few hours earlier. We arrived at a decent place (by driving on wrong sides of the road a few times) and the doctor, who was still far from having a name I could pronounce, seemed to know his stuff. He told me there was a pretty big chance that those monkeys had rabies.

“So how do I know if I have rabies?” I inquired.

“There’s no test. But if you die, then you know you have it.” Oh. Uplifted, I entered the nurse’s room to get my first of five rabies injections.

She took my different measurements, and I noticed that not eating breakfast or lunch was one way to lose weight. On her desk were two books: The Holy Bible and The Old Testament. Oh God help me. And then she asked for my hand. Was she going to start reading my palm now?! “Where are you from?”


the questionnaire at the missionary hospital

“Israel! Oh wow! Do you know that the lord loves Israel? He watches over the People of Israel and protects them.” Well, I sure hoped he did, because I was in the middle of nowhere, Kenya, with a fatal disease and a woman reading my palm.

But she’d only wanted my pulse. So she jabbed my arm and treated the wound and that was the end of that.

(Tomorrow I get my fourth shot. I’ll write about the other experiences in the African healthcare system later, but for now I’ll reassure you that I haven’t shown any signs of being about to die! No really, I’m fine.)