Reminiscing of Kenya

It is true that this pandemic made us turn to ourselves more – after all, we had enough time to get to know that other one in the mirror, didn´t we? But it also made me wonder how others living far away, whom I didn´t keep in touch with are doing. We either lost contact due to distance, lack of technology or….eh, let´s call it a mixture of the latter and “language compatibility”.

Though I´m lucky to have met amazing beings during this cut-short traveler life, my mind drifted off to Kenya. Our realities were so different before…were they now closer because we are all, for now, trapped inside repeating moments since the world changed in 2020? What about the animals? Were they finally having the quiet and peace they so deserved? Or were they missing the motor noise of the safari cars they learned how to grow accustomed to (or always were familiar with since birth)? Were they feeling free or forgotten?

The news that started coming from conservation parks throughout last year were not the most cheerful. No tourists equals to no income for the locals who are completely dependable on this industry. No tourism equals small budgets to wildlife funds and, therefore, to anti-poaching units.

Luckily, travelers are being welcomed back to Kenya since August 2020 with a few requirements you can read here. The Ministry of Tourism is also pushing forward the initiative Magical Kenya, which promotes unique and authentic experiences around the country. All I can hope for is that these efforts are successful and benefit those equally magical beings below that I had the joy of meeting in 2019.

The personalities are the ones that make the destination, distinguishing it from being an experience to just a place you pass by.

ANTHONY

After years of knowing the expression, I only understood what “larger than life” really meant once I met Anthony. Anthony was our private guide throughout our 13-day safari trip. With a smile that somehow outgrew his face, he always seemed to be in a good mood – also when he was driving through difficult roads or for about 7 hours (sometimes both). He is an enthusiast for his own country and has the talent of turning bad news into good: “here in Tsavo you will barely see animals, the vegetation is too high….but that´s how you know the wildlife is safer here!”. I don´t know if that made him a great marketeer or a die-hard optimist, but I know it made us feel just as hopeful as his sentences sounded.

Once we told Anthony that he should get a rest, that he was clearly tired and we didn´t mind waking up later, stopping more on the road or slowing down the trip. Anthony answered with the astonishment of somebody who never had a break from life, let alone from a drive: “you are worried about me? Nobody ever cared like this….But I´m fine, it´s my job! Hakuna Matata”.

“Hakuna Matata”, or “no worries”, seems to be, indeed, the most common phrase you will hear in Kenya….mostly said by people that grew up having worries and responsibility beyond their age – something you could never detect behind those wide reassuring smiles.

You can find more about Anthony´s company here.

POCO

Poco confused me. But isn´t that what baffles us the most about chimpanzees? We just never know what to expect from them. That´s why I absolute adore them….and I´m also terrified of them. Throw me to a lion, but do not throw me to a chimpanzee. I seriously believe I have better chances with the cat.

The admiration comes from years of watching specific shows about the species on Animal Planet. My God, are they smart! The dread comes from Oprah. Yeah, Oprah, that Oprah. I never missed a show of hers, and once she did a special on chimpanzee attacks. I will spare you of the gruesome details, but let me tell ya, until today I have nightmares about it.

Since then, I learned these are creature we should love, and also have great respect for in terms of not patronizing the whole species. After years of being treated like our underdeveloped brothers on tv, films and in the circus, I´m glad Human Kind learned their lesson. Or, kinda….

The truth is that many are still separated from their families in West Africa and sold as pets or entertainment pawns. Poco, unfortunately, was one of those. Jane Goodall´s initiative in Kenya though, the Chimpanzee Sanctuary, found him in time to give him the “free” happy life he deserves.

But Poco is different from the others and we could see it right at our arrival. As we approached the fence, Poco stood up and simply walked as a little human alongside us. I was shocked. Chimpanzees can walk on two feet, but normally when they are reaching for or carrying something – other than that, they are knuckle-walkers, like gorillas.

Unfortunately, no, chimps are not made for walking. The caretaker told us that Poco´s previous living condition before arriving at the sanctuary was so deplorable that the cage he was kept in didn´t allow him to sit well….so he learned how to stand. Didn´t take long until he realized he was a hit with the visitors who loved to see him walk erect. So, he does it quite often, especially if there are women around! Smarty-pants!

PATRICK

When we met Patrick, he could barely look at us in the eye, he was shaky and knew nothing about the menu being served that day for lunch. Wouldn´t be a problem if he wasn´t one of the servers in our glamping hotel, lol.

Though the communication was very hard, we assured Patrick we were in no rush – who would, in the middle of the wild in Masai Mara, Kenya´s most famous National Park. He was very appreciative of our understanding and, little by little, he started to feel more confident while he read his white paper notes where he wrote about the daily dishes. Sometimes, though, we had to pretend we had understood the options and just go for “the first” or “the second one”, and pray for the best. Luckily, the food was delicious there, whatever we ordered!

Anthony told us that the hotel was reorganizing itself and that 97% of the staff hired was Masai – the biggest tribe in Kenya. It made me think how wonderful this initiative was, to build an ecologic hotel in the middle of a park and hire the locals who, before, only had crafts and stock to rely on for their survival. Can you imagine how hard it must be to transition from these activities to dealing with tourists in a different language every day?

Of course we could see there was a lack of training, for which the staff was not guilty of at all. This should come from above. But where training was lacking, will was abundant. Communicating was an effort for Patrick, and we decided to make it easier for him.

One day during dinner we asked about his tribe and his family. I´m not going to say words suddenly started to fluently pour from his mouth, but….we had finally found a way to each other and a common language. Patrick was so delighted to be asked about those he loved the most together with his culture, that we managed to get into a conversation and even got invited to meet his tribe, who lived right behind the hotel.

Patrick is a young Masai, extremely proud of his life and culture, who I wish gets a chance to grow in his profession without forgetting where he comes from. It can sound crazy coming from a person who, until this year, actually, knew no hardships in life: but I´m jealous of Patrick. He was raised in an innocence that we, who grow up in big cities, maybe never had, not even as kids. He is familiar to starred skies we only see far – very far – from home, normally when we are lucky enough to go on vacation. Exotic animals to us are his familiar neighbors since birth. He probably never saw a lion behind the bars of a zoo, doesn´t know what is an artificial lake and his lungs have no idea what pollution tastes like.

In the simplicity of his life, Patrick´s living standards are as high as nature can offer, and as low as we will never have the happiness to achieve.

BARAKA

When I think of Baraka, I think of my mom. No, I´m not comparing mom to a rhino, people, please. But I remember what she told me the minute I called her in awe telling her we were going on a safari: “Oh my God, this is how you die, you cannot hug the animals, you hear me?! You c-a-n-n-o-t hug the animals!”. Oh mom….if you could see Baraka and I….lol

When I was there face to face with a huge rhino, feeding him, mom came to my mind. “What would she say….”. In my defense, there was no hugging involved!

But, of course, Baraka wasn´t the typical rhino. Though he was born healthy, he injured both eyes in a fight, which was aggravated by cataract. Unable to survive blind in the wild, Baraka was taken into a wide enclosure next to Ol Pejeta´s park information center, where he can live – kinda – free and worriless.

In a way, it is kinda sad to see such a majestic and mighty animal in need of us, small weak-looking humans. But what he has in physical size that we lack, the keepers that take care of him have in heart. Baraka is definitely pampered, being fed and caressed all day – even though you kinda wonder if he can actually feel our soft touch in what looks like an impenetrable skin.

When the caretaker, also called Antony, introduced him to us, Baraka seemed to be in a quiet deep sleep on the floor, next to the fence. After telling us his story, he asked if we wanted to feed him. I thought of what my mom had said and….didn´t have to think twice, I said YES!

He called Baraka and I was quite impressed he would recognize his name. Silly me, right? Of course, he does. The heavy giant then stood up and suddenly I wasn´t so sure of my choice anymore. Everyone is pretty bold once the massive animal is dreaming on one´s feet. His size reminded me that one head movement could break all the bones in my body.

But not Baraka – he grew so used to being surrounded by people, even after living in the wild, that all you can experience is the gentlest soul. He is accustomed to human curiosity, letting you caress him and feed him by tapping the green branches on his mouth so he can feel there´s food being offered. Baraka showed me the weakness of a titan, and the strength of the fragile humans who fight for the survival of the species- including the last two northern white rhinos in an enclosure next to Baraka´s. Most of all, he shows us humans how adjustable we both are to reinventing ourselves – also in relation to each other´s kinds.

To know more about Baraka and the conservation project in Ol Pejeta, click here.

LUGGARD

Luggard was love at first click. When we decided to go visit the elephant orphanage in Nairobi, at the end of our trip, we thought it would be nice to turn it into an one-of-a-kind experience and adopt an elephant. As a foster parent, you get the chance to visit the orphanage at the end of the day for a much more personal and, thus, intense experience!

Once we went online and read about Luggard, we knew he was the one! As many of the baby elephants in the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, his family was a victim of poaching, leaving him orphaned and with a bullet on one of his knees. Having survived excrutiating pain, a traumatic experience and the adaptation to a completely new life at the orphanage, we thought he was a great candidate for us to visit not only that time, but for many years to come. He was a fighter! We dreamed one day we would go on a safari in Kenya again, many years from now, and spot Luggard roaming around in one of the national parks – his injury made him easy to recognize after all.

Our day at the Trust was, indeed, magical, and if you are interested in it, you can read more in detail here.

Luggard, unfortunately, went recently from having a promising future at Chyulu Hills National Park as a free elephant to a rising star in heaven. In the last months his condition due to the injury he suffered years ago had worsened, and he became an angel after a fun day at Kibwezi Forest.

It´s incredible heartbreaking when you symbolically deposit your hope for the work of conservation in one being. Luggard was our emblem of victory in the fight against those that make a life out of destroying habitats and the most beautiful creatures in this planet. His death was a blow in the hearts of those that worked so hard to save him and also in our dream of seeing him fully grown in the wild one day. But it also brought us closer to other foster parents, building a stronger sense of community out of grief and celebration of Luggard´s life. As Angela Sheldrick, the CEO of the Trust, said herself in her homage letter to Luggard:

“In a more just world, Luggard would have grown into a majestic bull himself. While he was robbed of that destiny, his years with us were very happy ones. We only wish his story could have ended another way. Luggard leaves a hole in the hearts of all who knew him: the Keepers and elephants who were with him every step of the way, along with the people around the world who were so invested in his survival.”

Today, we are foster parents of Enkesha, one of Luggard´s friends and who accompanied him in the move from the Nairobi orphanage to their reintegration journey at Kibwezi Forest. Though following her progress will hurt when we think Luggard could be having the same future, we are honored to be a part of this life-changing project – life-changing for the elephants, but for us too.

THE FIVE BROTHERS

You know the three musketeers? In Masai Mara they are five. I wasn´t aware of these 5 cheetahs, known as the 5 brothers, before I actually saw them. Our guide told us there were documentaries about them, which was later confirmed by some Instagram followers who wrote me saying they knew the quintet. Though cheetahs are normally lonely animals, these five are inseparable – a quintet alright, walking elegantly around the national park, singing songs of death.

Okay, okay, that might have sounded harsh. But, the truth is that, indeed, these five are lethal machines when put together. They are sexy and they know it. They have realized that, together, they can go for much bigger animals with a higher success rate. We have seen a cheetah and a leopard attack fail, the former in Amboseli Park, the latter in Samburu – and they easily had the advantage. If they were not alone, they would probably have gotten the prey.

Now, I can only guess how hard it can be to escape the five stars of Masai Mara. I mean, if, as an antelope, it´s already your unlucky day to bump into a cheetah, imagine 5, my friend, imagine 5. You gotta feel bad for the prey, as I did, when we witnessed they hunt. I will spare you of the bloody details of this one too. I cried as if I had lost my pet of 19 years.

Still, there´s something magical about witnessing these cheetahs in action. It´s clear there is one or two leaders, who determine when and who to attack, who move in complete unisom like a synchronized ballet. The others wait for the orders and follow. They are the last ones to take a bite as well. Moreover, to see this animal running is absolutely mind-blowing. You can barely think that fast.

Out of all the ones cited here, I would guess the 5 are the ones that miss the attention and the click of the cameras, lol. I have seen crowded safaris before, but I had never seen so many cars together as I had seen for these cheetahs. Though they were all respecting the distance and not blocking the hunting action, I think it´s good that they come down from stardom a bit, and remember again how it is to be ordinary wild cheetahs during this pandemic. They will always have that episode at National Geographic channel to tell their grandchildren about.

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