Thursday, March 3, 2011

A touristy-seeming day

This morning, Skeist (the other friend visiting Tracy) and I had a great surprise: unbeknownst to us, Tracy had scored us 3 seats on a sunrise hot air balloon tour over the Mara! She knows a few of the balloon pilots, and had been calling every night to see if they had any free seats we could take; however, she didn't tell us until this morning that it had worked out. These trips normally cost about $400 a person, so this was pretty sweet.

We gathered at the take-off spot, chatted with some of the other passengers, and watched the huge balloons (there were 2) being inflated. While the pilot was giving instructions, a French family was having trouble understanding; I stepped forward and translated for them. Over the course of the balloon ride and the breakfast afterward, Tracy and I chatted with them some in French (I was quite surprised to discover that they didn't really speak much English, despite having 2 teenage children). I was encouraged about my prospects of communicating effectively (if at first crudely) when I go to France later this month.

The ride itself was beautiful; it was great to see the Mara from a different perspective; Tracy pointed out the boundaries of the various clans of hyenas that we had been observing. Saw some wildlife, but for me it was more about the landscape views; the wildlife I can get a much clearer view of on the ground. Afterward, there was a Champagne breakfast in the Mara; we chatted mostly with the French family, but also a good deal with the pilot (middle-aged, cool guy from Alaska who moved here six years ago).

During the afternoon, Tracy took us over the Talek river to Maasai land to meet up with Steven, one of the night-time guards at the camp, so that we could see his home. The Maasai typically have a wooden fenced area for their cows, sheep, and goats (essentially used as currency) and a short, rectangular house made in a particular way from mud, grass, and wood. Inside it is very dark, but a lot cooler than it was outside; clearly the materials do an effective job of keeping the small space cool, despite the direct sunlight.

As Steven took the three of us around his house and property, we saw that several women (and a few men) were starting to set up blankets in a semi-circle on the ground, spreading out the beaded jewelry that is quite common in Maasai areas. Was this all for the three of us? Quickly, it became clear that the answer was yes. 25 or 30 people, all with their handmade jewelry spread out so that we could possibly buy something. As we were not expecting this, none of us had brought any money; however, we talked to Steven and told him that if we bought something we would give him the money for it that evening. We weren't necessarily needing to buy anything, but Tracy asked each of us to buy at least one thing, which we felt was right to do. It was also unclear how much bargaining was reasonable; on the one hand, the prices we were quoted were quite a bit higher than what we had paid for similar items at the market, but on the other hand, many of these people were family members of Steven. We eventually each bought something (Skeist bought several somethings) for perhaps 100 shillings more (400 instead of 300) than we would have paid at the market; however, 100 shillings is $1.30, so really it's not that big a deal. I feel like, when I am in a foreign country whose residents are a) somewhat poor and b) significantly dependent on tourist money as a source of income, I shouldn't lose track of those facts while trying to get the best possible deal. But nor do I want to look like a "sucker"- though that is certainly much less important.

Evening obs were somewhat exciting; we found the den of the West clan! Tracy and Brian had been searching for this for quite some time. There's a chance, if we're lucky, that we'll get to see some hyena cubs (which are apparently adorable) before we head out!

I also saw a bush baby in a tree after we got back- cute, cat-sized, fluffy black fur and a very bushy tail, and big eyes. There's also a genet (ocelot-like, weasel-shaped creature that's technically not a feline) that hangs around camp, and will come eat the scraps that the researchers leave out for it. There are also 2 bats that fly around inside the lab/ dinner tent, eating the bugs that are attracted to the lights. (They're cute too, of course). Basically, at no point are wildlife viewing opportunities over. And even in my tent, I tend to listen to the calls all around me for several minutes before putting in my earplugs to go to sleep.

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