Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Masai Mara

I am finishing off my time in Kenya with a bang. I was fortunate enough to spend the end of last week in the Masai Mara. I joined a group of five random people (who quickly became friends) in a safari vehicle for three days straight. Altogether, we were a group of three Spaniards and three Americans. We slept at a small budget camp just outside the national park. At the camp, I shared a tent with a young British woman, another tour patron. I feel quite fortunate to have met such nice people along the way and to have found a way to see the Mara without breaking the bank!

We had nearly two full days of game drives in the Masai Mara reserves. We caught the front end of the rainy season, so had several adventures trying to get our two-wheel drive van through some muddy passes. These close escapes took quite the toll on our vehicle, which started making horrendous metal-grinding groans our final morning. A local mechanic identified the problem, but lacked the spare part to truly remedy the situation. He patched up some dangling parts with plastic bags for our long drive back to Nairobi... and we made it! I never cease to be amazed by people's ingenuity and creative problem solving.

On our drives, cheetahs and rhinos sadly remained elusive. But at least we had some incredible lion viewings!! All my favorite photos from the trip involve these giant cats.

All in all, a lovely way to finish of the holidays indeed.

Monday, October 20, 2014

How to become a top-25 triathlon finisher, in 12 easy steps

I completed a sprint triathlon in Watamu, Kenya last weekend and finished in the top 25 competitors! Complete these steps and you, too, can accomplish this feat:

1. Sign up for a race when you have hardly trained at all.  Ideally, you sign up when you are living out of a suitcase and lack regular access to a bicycle or pools.

2. Commence training the day you depart for your trip by simulating race day adrenaline: leave your purse with your wallet, passport, and house keys at home. Arrange an elaborate handoff of your valuables involving trusted drivers, guards, Nairobi rush hour traffic, and a massive downpour. Receive your ID and valuables just 2 minutes before check in closes. This is the ideal way to train your mind to remain calm under pressure.

3. Upon successfully clearing security, celebrate your close call with a beer. Strict race weekend diets only from this point out. Ensure you stay hydrated: coffee and Tuskers are the beverages of choice. Eat rounded meals from the hotel’s buffet three meals a day; make sure you get in your daily doses of fries and dessert. When in doubt, turn to pizza.

4. Prepare for the varied nature of the triathlon by using a range of transportation modes to get to the race location. One way transportation should include a ride in a private car, a plane flight on a classy airline like Fly540, a jam packed express mutatu ride, and a rickety tuk tuk finish. The mutatu and tuk tuk’s bumpy rides (with a 2.5 hour minimal duration) should help prepare your bum for the pothole filled roads you will soon bike on. This journey also require patience and perseverance, two valuable triathlon assets. 

5. In the two days prior to the race, do a variety of athletic warm ups. Swim in the ocean to assess the state of faulty goggles. Learn a new sport like windsurfing; flying off your board dozens of times is the best way to make you feel better about your proficiencies at other sports. Test your rental bike by riding it to gelato. Exercise your mind: float in the hotel pool with a book. This is best achieved with a drink in hand.

6. The day prior to the race, attend a two-hour participant briefing. Get more confused than ever about the course specifics. Sit next to someone who keeps saying how easy the race will be because it is only a fraction of an iron man. Realize nearly half the people in the room look like they could complete an iron man. Remind yourself that you are well prepared.

7. When race day arrives, revel in the “ideal” swimming conditions: extremely low tide where the rock reef is nearly entirely exposed. As the race begins, avoid the straight up walking posture that earlier competitors have assumed. Rather, crawl on all fours both in and out of the ocean. Your ankles are too valuable. Plus, you really look like a professional athlete as you scramble over barely covered rock reefs like a drunken crab.

8. Get to transition and remove your bike from a rickety wooden lounge chair that is seconding as a rack. Realize that the rear tire has gone completely flat. Ask for assistance. Discover that the people who brought all the rental bikes did not bring any air pumps that fit the tires. Wait patiently for about 10 minutes as strangers attempt to force air into your tire. Watch all remaining triathletes competitors leave the transition area. Eventually decide the tire pressure (that is abysmal) is perhaps the best you are going to get from pumps that don’t fit the tires. Begin the bike race, at least 10 minutes behind all other competitors.

9. Ride your bike for several km before realizing that the rear tire is most definitely punctured and not in the least bit repaired. Ask every marshal on the first half of the bike loop if they have a way to access a spare or a pump. Accept apologies and continue riding on a completely flat tire for approximately 10km before reaching the transition spot again. Stop and insist upon a new tire or new bike for the final 10km loop. Wait another 20 minutes for people who organized the bike rental to wander the hotel and scramble for solutions. Watch nearly all your competitors finish the bike portion of the race.    

10. With a new tire finally on the rear of your bike, set off again. Realize that the new tire does not really fit the frame, so every few rotations the bike switches gears on its own. Pedal forwards when possible and ignore the constant lurches of sudden gear shifts. Pedal backwards when the chain hops off the gears; it will usually pop back on again. Finish the second half of the bike course in this manner. Use about 17 times the energy normally required to bike. 

11. Return the god-forsaken bike to the transition area and set off on the run. Realize that the humidity and heat have both cranked up to high. Start trudging along the loose sand and 4-inch deep dried seaweed. Get the chills because your body is starting to overheat. With the competition well over half an hour ahead of you, feel free to slow and enjoy the rolling sea. After all, you’ve paid good money to enjoy this triathlon. Accept your completion medal at the end. Pat yourself on the back for surviving that ridiculous adventure.

12. And… the number one way to ensure that you finish in the top 25 competitors of a triathlon: sign up for a triathlon with less than 25 participants. I most definitely finished last on this one. But hey, I got a good story out of it at least!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Full time research

I’ve gotten a few questions as to why I haven’t been posting very often. In short, it’s my life as an international researcher. As I work on projects full time, 95% of my life can’t be publically shared. I’m out doing things (ex: I’ve participated in about a dozen service-learning projects), but ethically I can’t describe these experiences on a blog. I talk to people often, but almost always play the part of listener. Very little of my life fits into the category of “my own time,” hence the silence.

As someone who is used to being very social, this is a strange transition. That’s not to say that researching isn’t enjoyable. I have a deep interest in people’s stories and perceptions. I genuinely enjoy exploring the topics my research focuses on. It is just an odd shift from my usual life, where research is more of a part-time endeavor.  Where there are plenty of pieces within my daily activities that I can share freely.

I took a day last week to “play tourist” in Nairobi. I spent the morning in Nairobi National Park. While this national park is certainly more sparse than most of the game parks I’ve been in, I relished the ability to watch baby giraffes awkwardly “run” laps. To watch zebra graze. To spot ostriches standing tall, with the city skyline as a distant backdrop.

Next I visited the David Sheldrick elephant orphanage and the giraffe center. I had been to both places before, but who doesn’t love teeny tiny elephants and being kissed by a giraffe (it took 4 tries before this photo was actually timed right. I got a lot of giraffe action).

I spent the afternoon watching a cultural performance along with thousands of local school children (somehow I missed the memo that it was school field trip day). Dancers performed dances from the different Kenyan tribes and an acrobatic group wowed the audience. 

Finally, I popped into the famed Kiguri beads store, and splurged on a funky new necklace. All in all, a fabulous day (that I could actually photograph and share! Yay!).

I’m looking forward to next week’s midterm break and the ability to explore Kenya a bit!