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My palatial suite. What a way to travel.

I woke up yesterday morning on a westbound train from Bucharest to Budapest. My computer was shuffling music in the background, and although I’m not an early riser under normal circumstances, I spent a long time lying awake, watching the brilliant golden dawn creep over the landscape and reveal the beauty of Europe. (This is, in part, why train travel is in so many ways superior to flight.)

Endless open farmland – wheat, corn … and sunflowers?

The first full song to come up on shuffle after I awoke was one of my favorites, by the Gabe Dixon band. I’m not much one for omens, but …

And minor misadventures aside, it certainly has been so far. For this I am infinitely grateful. I’m beginning to feel ready to land on my feet in the US. It won’t have the same wall-to-wall thrill impact as backpacking across Africa or midnight trains through Bulgaria, but it’s going to be grand. As Helen Keller once said, “Life is a daring adventure, or nothing.”

A quiet breakfast in Budapest. I thought about getting a croissant as well, but I wasn’t all that hungary.

Journey To The Center of the Earth Lake

Well, it took a lot of doing. A lot of doing, a lot of hustling, a lot of pleading, a lot of arguing with drivers and touts and conductors. A fair bit of swearing under our breath in several East African languages. But we finally – FINALLY – at long last made it to our intended holiday destination: Lake Turkana. By late morning, we’d hired a boat from a local fisherman and set off towards Central Island.

Satellite photograph courtesy of Rutgers

While I have your attention, here are a few fun things to know: Lake Turkana is a UNESCO world heritage site of intense ecological importance. Covering over 6,400 square kilometers, it is the world’s largest desert lake and third-largest salt lake. At its deepest point, it’s over 350 feet to the bottom. Its hot, rocky shores are a haven to a spectacular abundance of carpet vipers and various scorpion species, while the lake itself is thought to house the world’s largest Nile crocodile population. The plains immediately surrounding the lake possess an anthropological value virtually beyond measure: several of the oldest hominid fossils on the planet, including Turkana Boy and ”The Flat-Faced Man of Kenya” were found there.

However, while Lake Turkana was also the site of death for both Justin and Tess Quayle, they were killed on the East side, not the West (where we were), so any laying of wreaths or other means of memorialization would have to wait for another trip.

Not pictured: the enormous, obsidian, repulsively beautiful Nile crocodile that slid into the water as I was fumbling ineptly with my camera.

The ride was supposed to take “40 or 45 minutes,” but in the typical fashion, it was more like an hour and fifteen minutes there, an hour and forty minutes back. The waves were higher than you’d expect on a lake, but we chatted merrily amongst ourselves as we slowly made our way ‘round an enormous sandbank and caught our first view of Central Island.

Not pictured: smoke monsters. (WE HAVE TO GO BACK, KATE.)

Lake Turkana has several islands, with Central Island being perhaps the grandest. It was once a volcano – still is, I suppose, as it “emits vapors” on occasion – and therefor has *three* lakes on it, representing its valleys and flows. One lake has its own island at the center, which, when you think about it (on an island! In a lake! On another island! In another lake!) is so delightfully mind-blowing that you’re less likely to drown or be eaten by a crocodile than to have your head explode like an overripe watermelon at the sheer meta-ness of your situation.

We didn’t make it to the central island on Central Island, but were more than thrilled with the other two lakes.

Our rugged band of intrepid wayfarers standing next to the stunningly beautiful Tilapia Lake.

The second of the two we visited was formed from the actual cone of the volcano – but what had once been filled with roiling magma was now an idyllic emerald paradise, full of snowy-white flamingos.

Seen here as slender swirls of white on the surface of the water. Those are separate segments of one enormous flock.

I forgot to pack an extra pair of sunglasses (and my original pair got smashed in my bag during the Bus Ride of Doom), but I DID have my WAMC-NPR pledge drive hat. Winning.

Given our transportation difficulties, we had to cut short our “island time” in order to make it to town safely before nightfall. Too soon we were back in the boat, numbed to silence by well-earned exhaustion and the overwhelming beauty of what we’d just seen.

**Bandits not included, call for special availability

To the countless cartographers, surveyors, travel writers, and bloggers who refer to the road north from Kitale to Lodwar as “paved,” I have only this to say: liar, liar. Pants on fire. It appears that way on virtually all maps and in virtually all guidebooks, but like a self-portrait from an online dating profile, the resemblance to reality is only passing. As well-tarmacked roads are a bit of a rarity for many Peace Corps volunteers, I believe I can speak for our entire wayfaring band when I say that it was something we were anticipating with some enthusiasm.

According to sources I spoke with in town, it was paved in the early 1980s by the Norwegian government, supposedly in an attempt to open the north for … something. Tourism, commerce, economic development – all of which would probably be welcome, as Turkana County is the poorest in Kenya, with nearly 95% of its residents living on less than 100 shillings a day (about $1.20 USD.) But, to quote one of my traveling companions: “Like most things from the eighties, time has done little to improve it.”


So as we approached our tenth hour of our fillings rattling in our teeth, and tried in vain to stare down Kenyan mamas who view the human lap as community property for the placement of children, maize sacks, or milk crates overstuffed with live chickens, it took time for the intensity of our surroundings to sink in. Oh, you, Kenya whispered as every bone-jiggling mile bought us a little more distance from the verdant Marich Pass, where our journey began. I may not have charmed you yet. But I will. I always do.

Turkana is desert, strictly speaking. Rainfall comes in the form of brief, violent thunderstorms during the rainy seasons, while the rest of the year, temperatures can creep north of 50 degrees Celsius (that’s 122 degrees Fahrenheit, for the Americans in the audience.) But here’s the thing: when people think “desert,” they think “empty” and “desolate.” There are certainly places where this is accurate – but Kenya’s northern deserts, in sun-drenched glory, are not among them. Generally. As overexposed daylight shifted into that magical late afternoon period filmmakers call “the golden hour,” then further on towards a lingering dusk, our grumblings amongst ourselves quieted into silence. Sure, this was partially exhaustion, dehydration, and the restiveness of wondering if you’ll make your destination by full nightfall (we did.) But much moreso, we found ourselves increasingly entranced by the view from the bus windows: flat, dry wadis (or luggas, by the local name) that host violent flash floods in the brief wet season, herds of camels resting beneath thorn-covered acacias, rocks and mountains looking as though they were shaped by someone who hadn’t read the manual all the way through, and tantalizing hints of the region’s volcanic past.

The northern Rift Valley offers a landscape as rich and varied as any jungle, in its own stark, Venusian sort of way. It literally steals your breath – and not just from the heat. It’s completely, utterly stunning.

(And per usual, my pictures could never do it full justice.)

Some people compare this segment of the journey to “a trip through the Sierra-Nevadas,” but personally, I was more reminded of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Beautiful either way.

The closer you get to Lake Turkana, the closer you also get to Central Island, the lake’s active-ish volcano. As a result, the landscape turns to glittering obsidian. Some have described it as looking like “landing on another planet,” but some traveling companions and I prefer to think of it as more like what the land of Mordor must have looked like.

I write this from my usual spot on my bedroom floor – the cement is cooler than sitting on a cushion, you see – as I load about 200 photos from my memory card onto my hard drive. You will see them; at least, you will see a few. Lakini bado. Not yet. My vacation was thrilling to the point where I fully expect ballads to be written about it after my death, but something about spending 87.3% of my time during the last two weeks on an endlessly-changing combination of trains, planes, and automobiles has left me even less coherent than usual. Also, laundry calls.

But fear not, loyal readers! (All six of you!) I’ll be blogging about my experiences in the northern Rift Valley soon. In the meantime, however, there are a few things I need to attend to first: making lesson plans for the term, getting back to work prepping supplies for Transition to Womanhood workshops, scrubbing the last of Lodwar’s talcum-powder-like dust out of my hair, and of course, the most important decision of the new year – which wall calendar shall I hang for 2012?

Should I go with the World’s Worst Dictators compilation

or the International Criminal Court Commemorative Edition?

Decisions, decisions. (Click each picture to see them larger, in all their tasteless magnificence. Play your own error-finding games! I’ll start you off: Gaddafi is listed as the dictator of Turkey, which has been hastily covered in white-out fluid.)

ETA: I have been informed that the “dictator” listed for Romania is in fact a famous/talented Eastern European pop star. This of course only adds to the absurd hilarity of the calendar, in my view. However, I would imagine his fans disagree, if the sheer volume of capslock-y rage-filled hatemail about what an “idyot” I am is anything to judge by. Alas. (Polite comments appreciated; yes, I see your point now.) Still, I can check “I’m kind of a big deal in Romania right now” off my bucket list.

Christmas in Kenya is a dramatically different experience than it is in the United States. Here, it remains largely a religious holiday, much as it was for the rest of the Christian world did before Charles Dickens convinced us to do otherwise. You’ll find tinsel and Santa Claus in some of the larger cities, but for most of us, the fanfare to which we’re so accustomed is conspicuously absent. In my village, the “beach boys” sometimes start going around wearing Santa hats, and the ambiance-building keyboard players at beachside bars start plinking out holiday tunes, but that’s about it. More’s the pity, too: the holiday itself does not mean much to me, given my beliefs (or total dearth thereof), but I always loved the pageantry. In America, I’d start blasting Christmas music right around Thanksgiving and before gleefully hanging an unrepentantly gaudy glitter wreath on my apartment door. Last year, right before I left my village for the holidays, I decorated my windows with fresh bouquets of bougainvillea. All of my neighbors laughed. “It’s too early!” my landlord cried between guffaws. “Maybe decorate just before your family comes, but now, Christmas is still far away!”

“IT’S DECEMBER 21st!” I countered indignantly, wrapping yarn around another bunch and dangling them above my kitchen area like mistletoe.

Of course, once they finished cackling over my quirky enthusiasm, all of my neighbors invited me to join their families for Christmas morning church services, followed by a hearty meal of ugali and freshly-slaughtered chicken. For them, it’s about the message, not the merriment. I was honored by their invitations, but had already made plans: I spent Christmas on a flawless white sand beach (“White Christmas” anybody?) with a crew of marvelous friends. Nothing says holiday cheer like sunburns and sand castles, right?


This year, I started celebrating on schedule: shortly after World AIDS Day, I pulled the box containing my official Charlie Brown Christmas Tree out from beneath the couch. It had been stashed there for some months, disturbed only by scores of roaches, spiders, and centipedes who had made it their cozy home. A few inquisitive neighborhood children hovered by my door, watching, and for once I invited them in to help me. Together, we assembled the tree and put it in a place of honor in my kitchen. Or rather … most of them just stared, while my little nine-year-old friend Talia actually assisted me. One of us carefully unpacked the box’s contents, while the other leapt about shrieking like a little girl at every creepy-crawly that was forced out of hiding. I’ll leave it to you to surmise which participant I was.

Njoo, njoo Emmanuel …

This year for Christmas/New Year’s, I’m taking a grand journey. No, really. Inshallah, it’s going to be epic (hopefully only in good ways.) I’m actually leaving in a few short days, so I not be able to blog again until after New Year’s. I’ll try, but no promises. Hopefully I’ll be too busy, right? You know, adventuring. I will tell you all about it when I return.

In the meantime, I leave you with the classic vocal stylings of John Lennon. Happy holidays, everyone.

Kenyan Flag

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Yours truly