2010 Kenya/ Netherlands
2 nights in the Netherlands followed by a week on a group tour of Kenya, with a layover in Amsterdam on the way home.
Many people say that they have always dreamed of going to Africa. I am not one of those people. I think that's partly because travel to Africa was always way beyond my imagination. Like many young people, I dreamed of seeing all the famous European sites I'd always heard about. My interest in the world expanded as I studied Japanese in college, and my eventual travels to Japan planted the seeds for my other trips through Asia. I have to admit that when I've heard about people traveling to Africa, part of my mind wondered why they'd want to go there. Perhaps some of you reading this may be wondering the same thing about me and my travel plans.

If I absolutely had to point my finger at a single catalyst, it might be the amazing trip I had to Disney World with my nieces in summer 2009. We stayed at Animal Kingdom Lodge, a hotel that is designed with an African theme. Perhaps that reminded me of all the places in the world that I still haven't seen; Perhaps I enjoyed the hotel so much that I wanted to learn more about the continent that it represented.

In fall 2009, I was web surfing and trying to find some inspiration for future travels as I often do. I came across a company that designed trips for single travelers- they only do a few trips a yr, so each one is highly personalized. Although I am the queen of solo travel, there are some places that I feel I might be more comfortable as part of a group and this group seemed to suit me, at least as much as any group travel might. I was struck by their Unseen Kenya trip, and it continued to itch at me until I realized I had to book it. Not only did it include the standard safari experiences, but it also included a number of joy visits to Kenyan orphanages. I'd been thinking for awhile of doing a volunteer trip- and although this trip only included a few short visits and was not a true volunteer experience, I felt it would still be a great way to reach out to the local culture beyond the scope of a typical vacation.

In preparation for my trip, I've read a lot about Kenya- both fiction and non-fiction, both by native Kenyan authors and others. It's easy to say that I've learned quite a bit about the country, considering I knew virtually nothing about it before. I've definitely found it fascinating.

I almost canceled the trip several times because of all the out-of-budget expenses I've been hit with ever since my BelleKitty got sick last December. I'm anxious about having to board her since she's started to have some more health issues lately. But I can't put my life completely on hold, so I'll just hope for the best.

While planning this trip, I knew that I didn't want to take the group air since the group was flying out of JFK airport which I try to avoid- too far to drive, too close to fly, and too much of a pain for my tastes. But I still wanted to fly on the same flight for the 2nd leg of the trip so that I'd arrive in Nairobi at the same time as the group, so that would mean flying out of a more prefered airport and then transfering in Amsterdam. Well, why on earth would I want to fly out on a Sunday and spend a couple hours at Amsterdam airport when I could fly out a couple days early and spend the weekend in the Netherlands? (the answer is "I wouldn't")

I figured I'd check on what musicals were playing in and around Amsterdam; if there was something interesting, I could see a show as part of my trip. Anyone who's read my 2008 Berlin trip report should know that I think that Dutch actress Pia Douwes is a musical theatre goddess, so I was also checking on where she might be performing a the time of my trip. How exciting was it when I read that Pia would be in the musical of "We Will Rock You" in the Dutch city of Utrecht (not far from Amsterdam)?! (The answer is "VERY exciting!") I look back to meeting her in Berlin and feel that marked a bit of a turning point in my life; it was truly a dream come true, and things began to go better for me since that point. If I had the time and money, I'd travel to see her in every show she does. But since I don't... it's very sweet to be able to fit in one of her shows with my existing plans! Hopefully she will not miss the performance I am attending. Either way... a weekend in the Netherlands is a good thing.

I'm not sure what exactly to expect in Kenya- particularly since I'm going on a group tour and therefore I didn't do nearly as much research and planning as usual- but I think that is part of the excitement. I've met a number of my fellow travelers on Facebook over the past couple months and I can't wait to meet them in person. Lots of interesting, well traveled, intelligent and friendly people! This should be one heck of an adventure... as well as a milestone on my recent goal of traveling to all 7 continents.

P.s. Through it all, I'll be checking on Phillies postseason scores as best I can! I packed lots of Phillies T-shirts to wear on game days... because being halfway around the world is no excuse for not cheering on my favorite team in their 4th consecutive postseason. ;)
After planning this trip for about a year, the day finally arrived for it to start. After boarding my cat and then heading into work for a bit to tie up some loose ends, it was finally time for the vacation to officially begin. I couldn't have timed it better as "We Will Rock You/ We Are The Champions" started on the CD player when I stepped into my car.

My awesome friend B drove me to Newark airport; during the ride, I called the office to help them with a problem and crossed my fingers that they'd be ok without me for a bit. I got to the airport early, and was able to totally zip through check in and security. Since I had time to kill, I treated myself to a sit down meal of a barbecued chicken sandwich at Champp's. My thoughts on Newark airport are basically that I prefer Phila. airport. ;) But, on the plus side, being at the airport made everything sink in as being REAL.

After seemingly an enternity of listening to the boring chatter of travelers around me, my plane finally arrived and was ready to board. I was only able to follow the first inning of the Phillies game before they said to turn off mobile phones. Boo! They really need to get internet on long plane rides- I would have paid quite a bit to be able to follow the entire game live.

Took off to the cool site of sunset/darkness above a million city lights, had some mediocre pasta, slept... and then all of a sudden it was time to get ready for landing in Amsterdam Schiphol at around sunrise. Whoa, where did the time go? I remember when a 7-8 hr flight seemed so long. I guess my only issue during the flight was that they took so long to pick up the dinner trays that I wondered if they'd ever do so. (I hate feeling boxed in by the tray table in the down position)

Breezed through passport control at AMS which is way quicker than many places, and onwards to the baggage claim. I tried to buy a train ticket from the machines there but it asked for a PIN for my credit card and I don't have one. So I stood by bag claim #15 and waited. And waited. At one point it said that all the luggage from my flight had been unloaded... and then it removed my flight from the monitor which sort of freaked me out. But there were tons of other people from my flight at the carousel. One of them asked someone and came back and said it was still coming. Which was a relief. Although I really didn't want to spend well over an hr of my precious vacation time waiting at the damn bag claim. :P

I was overjoyed to be reuinited with my suitcase, and managed to find a place to buy train tickets from a human. Luckily, I still had some Euros from my last trip so I could pay with cash, and I didn't need to search out an ATM (which surely would have had long lines). Hopped onto a double decker train to Utrecht just as it was about to leave, and then spent the short ride looking out onto a countryside filled with cliched Dutch sites including windmills and canals.

My hotel had awesome walking directions to get from Utrecht Centraal to their location; good thing I printed them out. They had a cozy room ready for me- yay- so I was able to shower and freshen up. But not until I checked the Phillies score, of course. Woo hoo, we won! 1 more win to advance... 9 more wins for a parade. My clothes somehow smelled like bug repellant... even though the bug repellant was enclosed in 2 zip locks... and even though the shirt I smelled it on had been enclosed in a zip lock. Well, it wasn't a really strong scent.

After freshening up, I wanted to walk around Utrecht a bit since it was a really nice day. While crossing a street near the hotel, some random Angry!Dutch!Dude bopped me on the head; when I gave him a confused look after he passed me, he gave me the finger. Okaaaaaay then. It looked like he knocked some other woman's sunglasses off and broke them, and some man got it in with him. I decided to steer clear of Angry!Dutch!Dude even though it meant going a tad out of my way.

Before waking around the scenic area of the city, I couldn't resist the urge to scope out the Beatrix Theater in advance of tonight's performance of "We Will Rock You" I squeed at posters of Pia Douwes in front of the theatre and scoped out the stage door.

Then I spent some time walking around the main area of Utrecht. Since this is Europe, that means there was a gothic church to see. (another photo inside the church) I strolled along a quaint canal. and looked in various shops. (one eyeglass shop had an interesting window display) There are lots of bicycles in the Netherlands; some are decorated quite nicely. Finally I stopped in a cafe for a Ham and Cheese Pankoeken (pancake). Yumm!

I decided to take a nap since I wanted to be awake for the show; that was probably my best idea of the day, lol. So after letting myself rest for 3 hrs, I got dressed and headed back to the theater. There was some confusion with my ticket, but I got it all straightened out. Checked the monitors for the day's cast and Pia was in the show; not that I ever really doubted that she would be, but you never know. (I knew someone with awful luck at traveling overseas just to see performers and having them be out of the show) Yay! And the theatre sold her "Sunset Blvd" CD that I'd been wanting, so yay again!

"We Will Rock You" was a lot of fun, despite the fact that the dialogue was in Dutch. (songs were a mixture of English and Dutch) I'd read a synopsis online so I could follow the general idea, and music is a universal language. When I saw that Pia Douwes would be in "We Will Rock You", I looked at the song list and realized that, wow, I really like a lot of songs by Queen. Anyway, Pia's character is the "Killer Queen" who is the evil dictator of a place in the future where Rock is dead. But then a couple of people- who are dressed way cooler than the odd costumes that are worn by everyone who fits in- get in trouble, flee, and figure out how to get a random electric guitar to appear. And then everyone discovers rock music and even the bad characters are smiling and dancing. Well, at least that's my quick summary of the plot. ;) (and here's a view of the stage from my seat, taken at intermission)

The songs Pia sang included "Killer Queen", "Play The Game", "A Kind of Magic" (wonderful), "Fat Bottomed Girls" (sung with a chorus of thin women which made me go 'huh'?), "Don't Stop Me Now" (only an excerpt b/c the character gets interrupted, but excellent), and "Another One Bites the Dust". It was a lot of fun seeing her do something totally different than the 2 roles I've seen her perform and I thought she did a great job. Of course, I'd probably enjoy sitting and listening to her read the phone book in Dutch, so I am clearly biased.

After the show, I waited for her- not nearly as many people waiting for anyone as after her shows in Berlin. In my ideal world, she'd see me and immediately remember me from Berlin but of course that would never happen. Right? Wrong! She totally remembered me. I was shocked. Pia Douwes totally rocks. And I had another photo taken with her. Did I mention that she's a musical theatre goddess? ;)

After a few minuted of being a blabbering mess, I went back to my hotel. Which proved to be more of a challenge than I'd bargained for since the exit I had been using from the train station (which is between the hotel and the theater) was closed after 10:30 pm and the show ended around 11pm. I thought of maybe getting a taxi, especially since it was late, but I didn't see any. I have an excellent sense of direction and found my way.

I was starved when I got back, so I ordered spaghetti from room service. (yay for 24 hr room service!) But then they called back and said they didn't have it, so I ordered a pizza. They asked if I wanted the vegetarian pizza or one with ham, and I asked for the latter. Nothing mentioned mushrooms being on the pizza. Oh well.
Sunrise after landing at Schiphol airport Utrecht Centraal Station Utrecht Dom Canal Beatrix Theater Cast performing the show I saw Obligatory stagedoor photo with Pia Douwes
I set my alarm for 10am, figuring I'd wake up earlier but just wanting to be safe that I'd be able to check out by noon. When the alarm went off, I decided to linger in bed for a few minutes. Next thing I knew it was 12:37 pm. Yikes! Fortunately, I was staying in a nice hotel and they were totally cool with letting me check out late.

I didn't get a chance to write much about my hotel yesterday, but it was a really lovely place with lots of character. My room had a tiny balcony which looked out onto a canal, and there was a courtyard between my building and the main building. And the guy who checked me in was a real cutie (although in a bit of a baby way; he seemed way younger than me)

After walking to Utrecht Centraal train station, I bought a ticket to Schiphol. Fortunately someone on my skating forum had warned me that they were testing alternate train schedules, so I knew to ask which train I should take. (they were not running any direct trains so I needed to know the name of the transfer station) I also grabbed a chocolate croissant and an Aquarius sports drink. After 2 short train rides, I was back at the airport plaza and I followed the signs to my hotel for tonight; I figured I might as well spend the night at the airport so I wouldn't have to worry about making a train tomorrow morning.

The hotel I'm staying at is definitely as cool as it looked online. The lobby has some funky decor, and the room is small but quite cozy with a huge king sized bed. I chose to stay on the side facing the airport, which is kinda neat- and fortunately not at all noisy. The most amusing thing about my hotel room is that the toilet and shower are each enclosed in cylinders seemingly in the middle of the room. You can also control the color of the light on the top of these areas; naturally I chose purple. Each room also comes with a stuffed mascot. I'd definitely stay at this hotel chain in other cities when and if they expand.

After spending a few minutes exploring my room, I went back to the airport plaza to take a train into Amsterdam. By the time I was able to get into Amsterdam Centraal station, it was about 4pm. Fortunately, I didn't really have any plans; if I had, it would have been rather late to get anything done. So I just wandered around for a couple hours; I've been to Amsterdam several times before but not within the past 10 years so my sense of direction wasn't as strong as it once was. The stores in Amsterdam seemed to be more generic and not as interesting as the ones in Utrecht; however, I was pleased to find a Lush even though I didn't actually buy anything. Mostly, I enjoyed the nice sunny weather, the canals, and whatever statues and squares I passed. I particularly enjoyed a cute little kitty that was outside of one of the stores- kitty liked to play with the straps from camera bags. ;) Lots of people seemed to be outside enjoying the lovely day.

To make up for the fact that my hotel was out of spaghetti bolognese the previous night, I chose to eat at an Italian restaurant where I could order it tonight. I was a little annoyed when they said I didn't spend enough to use my Visa card, and I grudgingly paid cash. I may need to get some more Euros on my way back through Amsterdam next week.

I was still rather tired/exhausted so I headed back to my hotel relatively early. I walked around the airport shopping plaza for a bit and picked up some Dutch chocolate which is totally swoon worthy. In the hotel lobby, I picked up a Coke Zero and a Gouda Cheese sandwhich (which I'll either eat later tonight or tomorrow morning) All in all, it was a nice leisurely day in between my Utrecht Pia Douwes voids and my upcoming adventure in Kenya.

I'm wearing my Cole Hamels T-shirt right now, and hoping to wake up to some good Phillies news from game 3 of the NLDS.
Hotel Room Damrack Damrack, heading back to the train station Centraal Station Kitten spotted at Damrack market My hotel by Amsterdam Schiphol Airport
I ended up waking up at 1:30 am; after several aborted attempts at sleep, I just gave in and followed the Philles game online. Woo hoo, way to sweep the NLDS!

At around sunrise, I checked out and strolled over to the airport. Of course I wasn't able to check in at the self serve kiosks; my airline reservation has been cursed from the start. But eventually it got all straightened out. Thank goodness I'd brought a print out of my confirmation.

At the gate, I saw a group of people that I thought may be with my tour. I was a little shy to say anything- and, in retrospect, I think that one reason I couldn't fall asleep was because I was probably nervous about meeting everyone. But eventually someone talked to me... and then I started chatting with everyone as introductions flowed freely. I'm horrible with names but fortunately I'd met some people online on Facebook so that helps.

I ended up sitting next to someone from the group on the plane to Nairobi. The comic entertainment commenced when there was a gentleman who didn't speak English in someone else's seat. The crew kept asking for his boarding pass or passport... and finally decided to just try for his name... but he was having none of that. Eventually someone from the back of the plane walked up and claimed him.

Once we arrived in Nairobi airport, I was slightly thrown off by having to offer my hands for electronic finger prints. Then after the luggage came out, it was a long wait to get going. But fortunately we all were able to mingle and get to know each other some more. Meanwhile, I kept thinking to myself, with a mixture of awe and disbelief, that I was really in Africa!

None of us could believe it when we saw that they were loading our luggage on the roof of the small minibuses to the hotel; each time we went over a bump, I hoped nothing would fall off lol. It seemed like everyone was open to the experience, which was good- rather than being put off by it.

At the hotel, we had a short orientation session and then set off to find our rooms, which were very nice and even had a small balcony. Not a very exciting day- travel can't always be glamorous. Things promise to be much more interesting over the course of the next week. So far, I'm really enjoying getting to know some people from the tour and looking forward to sharing some special times together.
Nairobi Airport Nairobi hotel lobby Nairobi hotel room
It took me a very long time to fall asleep at night and morning came much too early. After walking through the scenic grounds of our hotel, we made it to the breakfast buffet. I think that something I ate bothered my stomach- or perhaps it was just lack of rest- because I really didn't feel well as we started our trek to our first stop. Nairobi roads are something else, but more on that topic later.

Our first stop was the Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Sanctuary, where we saw baby elephants getting fed and playing. Even "baby" elephants are quite big, and not warm and snuggly like other baby animals. And, umm, some baby elephants are... shall we say... a bit frisky; One of the women on my tour joked that she had an elephant porn video, lol. There was a group of small school children standing in front of us and it was fun to see their reactions; one tugged at me a couple times and then pointed and said "elephant" At one point, a couple warthogs just randomly ran out in front of us. This was the first time that I really felt like I was in Africa.

We stopped for boxed lunches and then had a tour of a Kazuri bead factory, where we saw women working on various stages of their craft. Lots of people bought things at the shop. Some had capuccinos, which really looked amazing. This was rather an extended stop, as we never had a clear idea when we had to be back for the bus.

Finally we headed to the slum area of Kibera, home to approximately 3 million people within a 1 mile radius. A couple people decided to stay on the bus- at least one was uncomfortable with the idea of playing tourist in a slum area. As soon as we got off the bus, a couple people from the group started handing candy out to some of the children. It was a bit of an odd juxtaposition seeing the smiling faces of the people against the environment where they lived. Perhaps they just didn't know anything different.

We were led to a very small church- when we walked in, a bunch of smiling kids were singing to us. That was quite an awe inspiring moment. After we went back outside, people from our group started plying the children with gifts. Eventually the adults starting singing and banging the drum, and danced alongside people from our group. I danced with one of the ladies since I was toward the front trying to take photos. When we were done, I hugged her and she said "I love you". If nothing else, that experience was probably worth the journey here- being able to share a joyful moment with someone from a totally different background was really special to me.

There was also a speech from a pastor, and an AIDS awareness skit that some of the young adults had prepared. They kept thanking us for coming and saying how they'd been waiting for us since they first heard 3 months ago that we'd be coming.

At various points later, I was engaged in conversations about our experience. People from the group wondered what the Kenyans we passed must think of us- whether they were glad we were there, whether they were at all resentful/jealous of our fortune, etc. I decided for myself to believe in the joy and love that was expressed to us. I don't think the people we saw had the cynicism common to Americans.

I'll let some of the photos of the children speak for themselves...

The ride home to the hotel was an epic journey. The roads of Nairobi are harrowing as it is. But during rush hour? Well, at one point, there were cars halted all around us as our bus was trying to make a right hand turn (in Kenya, they drive on the British side of the road). At other points, we were on backroads that were so rustic that we wondered if they were even roads at all. Even though it wasn't actually that far, we were bumping around for 1.5 hrs or so. There were some on the bus who were dying to go to the bathroom, but fortunately everyone had an awesome sense of humor. Our guide kept saying "30 more minutes"... so many times that it became meaningless.

Dinner was at our restaurant hotel at a place where the servers came by with various types of meat (think 'Ohana at Disney's Polynesian). These meats included things such as crocodile, camel, and goat. Out of everything, most people I talked to like the Ostrich the best. After the meal, there was a dancing show- the highlight of which were some men who did amazing gymnastic/ balancing tricks as well as playing with fire.

There was a lot of dust and dirt in Kenya, particularly around the slums, so taking a shower felt amazingly good.

The downside of the day was that we seemed to always be waiting for the group to get together. I'm used to traveling by myself, on my own schedule. But on the positive, there were some really amazing people to meet- and our bus seemed to have a particularly sarcastic sense of humor. Plus, we were in Africa which in and of itself was pretty damn amazing.
Hotel grounds Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Sanctuary Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Sanctuary Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Sanctuary Kazuri Bead Factory Kibera slum Kibera slum Kids singing inside Kibera church Kibera slum
The day started with another relatively long wait to get moving. People were starting to get a little impatient with all the delays, and felt that we did not have as strong a leadership as we might like. People who had been on other tours with this company commented that it isn't usually like that.

After checking out of our Nairobi hotel and reloading the luggage on top of the bus, our first stop was to an overlook of the Great Rift Valley which was quite breathtaking. There was also an opportunity to shop, but I was really turned off by how pushy the vendors were; it wasn't like that in previous places.

Our second stop was "Beat the Drum", home to about 15 HIV positive children. Once again, people from our group gave out candy, toys, etc to adorable and grateful children. We saw the rooms where they lived, which was really not that bad- and it certainly had a great view outside. They are trying to expand to be able to help more children. One little girl was tiny- about 3 years old- and a woman from our group became quite attached to her.

Boxed lunches were distributed; but since it was so dusty and there wasn't anywhere to sit, I donated mine to "Beat the Drum". Lots of other people donated some of all of their lunches as well. I'm sure the kids there appreciated the food more than I would have.

We checked into another fabulous hotel- one where monkeys literally crossed our paths and looked into our rooms. The hotel consisted of a series of bungalows which each housed 4 rooms. The hotel rooms were amazing, with floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the animals in the back. There was a mixup somewhere and there weren't rooms available for 4 people. Which obviously made for 4 unhappy campers. ;) Fortunately, the situation was resolved later such that no one had to stay at another hotel.

After a slight mixup on timing, we departed for a boat ride on Lake Naivasha, one that I expected would last maybe 15-20 minutes. At first, the ride was quite pleasant as everyone admired the breathtaking scenery and enjoyed the cool, refreshing breezes. But then the waters began splashing us more and more as the winds surrounded us with a chill. (The lake may have been extra choppy because it had rained.) The end result was that we were all shivering. No one warned me I would want gloves in Africa! Luckily, everyone in my boat had a great sense of humor, as some huddled together for warmth. But man, the cruise seemed endless. I joked that Naivasha must mean "never ending" in some language. After over an hour and a half, we finally hit land. Hallelujah!

The boats took us to Crescent Island, where we were able to walk among a myriad of animals including zebras, giraffe, buffalo, etc. There was even a rainbow in the sky. It was truly amazing to be able to stroll where animals roamed freely; I wish we'd had a little more time there but the sun was already starting to set when we were leaving. The restrooms left a bit to be desired... but I was still better off than those who had to pee during the boat ride. ;) We'd been told that we'd have to take another boat ride back to the bus- which obviously wasn't a popular idea- so it seemed like a miracle when we saw our buses arrive to pick us up. (we learned that Crescent Island was actually a peninsula)

When we got back to the hotel it was still early, so a bunch of us had the staff pull some couches together so we could sit and talk. I've been trying to hang out with different people so I sat among some people I hadn't really met, and others whom I'd barely met. We did our own informal "meet and greet" during which we introduced each other and shared the random facts we'd written down earlier on the bus. Everyone loved my random fact (that I'd designed software that was used by porn sites). ;) Toward the end, our tour guide joined us and we had a constructive discussion about the things that were bothering us- most notably the inability to adhere to a schedule. She said she was just as frustrated with the company they are dealing with; it helped to at least communicate that with us.

Dinner was a terrific buffet at the hotel restaurant. Outdoors, there was barbecue; indoors were various other foods and desserts. At dinner, some of the people who'd been around for the "random fact" discussion shared the highlights with others. Well, when my fact was shared, I swear that this couple at the next table were glaring at me with shock! I was falling over laughing and hiding under my napkin; the couple were much more charmed when a teacher shared the songs she wrote for her students to remember directions and the continents.

Because there were hippo on the grounds, one could not walk back to the room unescorted, so we had to have security walk us back to the rooms. Unfortunately, I was not able to take advantage of the free wifi from my room. I'm thinking that's because our lodge was truly the last one on the path. It seemed to take forever each time we'd have to walk there or back... so much so that I'd groan when I looked at the numbers and realized that I was only barely halfway there. But it was still a fabulous hotel and I'd have loved to have stayed there longer than just 1 night.
Great Rift Valley Beat The Drum, home to 15 HIV+ children Beat The Drum Beat The Drum Lake Naivasha boat ride Crescent Island Giraffe Crescent Island: Rainbow
After getting up and getting ready, I walked around the hotel grounds a bit on the way for our 7am breakfast. I think the lack of sleep was catching up to me as I was feeling really quite tired and a bit crabby. After breakfast, we had to split into groups of 5-6 because we were going to be transported by jeeps for the remainder of the trip; this was rather chaotic and I was really not in the mood to deal with it. I finally found a group to ride with, and then sat down for the journey.

Our first quick stop was an ATM. Yay! I hadn't brought much cash and had therefore been really conservative with how much I spent.

We then traveled to another childrens' home named Tumaini- 87 children live there and 100 or so more come there for schooling. So there were a lot of kids! They sang for us, and then we were able to mingle with them. (here are a couple more photos of some of the kids)

I was hanging back a bit because I still felt tired when a young woman came over and introduced herself as Naomi. She inspired me to break out the necklaces and silly bandz I'd brought, at which point I was totally mobbed with hands, lol! After I ran out of stuff to give, Naomi showed me her room, her school room, and even the rabbit in the back! (I'm not sure if anyone else from my group got to see the rabbit)

We had time to talk one on one away from the group; when she asked me if I wanted to hear her life story, I was definitely interested. Naomi is 15 and she has been living at Tumaini for 4 years. One of 10 children, she was originally living with her grandmother in Nakuru; at the time, she didn't go to school and she didn't have much. Her older brothers were trying to force the girls to get married but they didn't want to. She's very happy now to be living somewhere where she is taken care of and where she can go to school. When asked, she said that her favorite subjects were mathematics and science.

I inquired as to what she wanted to do in the future, and she said that she wants to go to a good secondary school and college. And then she wants to make some money so that she can open a home to take care of other children. What a beautiful thought! Naomi was rather soft spoken, and frequently let out a light giggle. I gave her a big hug when we had to leave at around 11am; we may have only spent a very short time together but I think she will always be in my heart.

Each day has featued an epic journey and today was no exception. After we boarded our jeeps, we were bound for our new hotel. We made a bathroom stop (a squat and pee type joint), a stop at the Equator, and a quick random stop (I'm not sure wtf that one was about; looked like some other jeeps decided to stop). Our hotel was in the mountains, and the last portion of the drive was through winding roads which made me feel a little car sick. At this point it was about 3pm. You may have noticed that I didn't mention lunch... that's because lunch was to be at the hotel and we did not even have a chance to stop for snacks on the way. (although later I learned that the jeep with our tour leader stoppped for chicken and chips). I guess we were lucky, though, because no one from our jeep had to run into the woods to pee. At any rate, by this point I was tired, hungry, and a tad car sick. Whee.

After getting my room key, I headed up to lunch. Where I promptly knocked over someone's wine glass with my backpack. And that triggered a bit of a meltdown; if one is going to have a meltdown, I suppose that it might as well be an epic meltdown.

I settled down fairly quickly, had some cheese and crackers that were out on the buffet, and then ordered some tilapia which was delicious. I felt much better. We had the option to go on a 2 hr nature hike after lunch, but most of us passed because they didn't say we'd see a lot of animals and it was $30 extra. Plus, I think that they had raincoats and boots for us to wear... and I doubt they were tiffin. ;)

When I went to my hotel room, I noticed some cute monkeys scurrying across the windowsill. I kept wanting them to come back so I could take a photo. When we heard that they took someone's gum, I closed the slats. Meanwhile, I bought an hr's worth of internet time. So I was merrily checking my email when I saw a monkey push open the slats. Ummm... not good. Then it came through them, climbed over the chair and onto my bed, and absconded with a baggie that contained a camera charger and memory card. I screamed like a girl- and yet, inside, I was laughing at it all. After going to the front desk, someone searched outside my window and found the baggie and the charger. But not the memory card. Thank goodness I have my laptop to upload photos! (apparently the windows lock but I didn't know that when I shut them; the guy from the hotel locked them)

Every time afterwards that I saw a monkey outside the window, I think I had a bit of post traumatic stress disorder. But it makes for a good story, and I wasn't truly out of anything too valuable.

I chilled in my room for a bit and saw an elephant walk by, and then went upstairs and chilled in the gift shop and at a picture window. At that point it was time for dinner. I'd been craving pasta so I was thrilled to see it on the menu. The trout was supposed to be fabulous, but I just needed some comfort food. Once again, I ate with a different group of people. I like not having a clique and doing my own thing; there are just so many interesting people here to meet. So far, I think meeting people has been the best part of going on a group tour.

After dinner, I chilled out a bit in my room while my roommate was out getting a massage. When I got into bed, I was ROFL to find a hot water bottle in the bed; it wasn't that cold out!
Tumaini Children's Home Naomi's room, Tumaini Children's Home Classroom at Tumaini Children's Home Tumaini Children's Home My jeep poses by the Equator side Monkey sticks its hands in the window slats
While I was eating breakfast, someone came in and announced that a herd of buffalo were grazing in the viewing area outside the hotel... this resulted in a herd of people trampling out of the dining room to take a look. ;)

I was quite glad to check out of the hotel with the kleptomaniac monkeys and drive away in our jeep. I wish I'd ridden in the jeep with the 2 women from our group who are therapists as I seem to have developed a grudge against the entire primate species, as well as a bit of a phobia of monkeys; I am sure I could have benefited from some therapy during the long jeep drives.

Our first stop of the day was Kieni children's home, which is a small orphanage that is home to about 37 children. The group with whom I am traveling has chosen to specifically support Kieni, because it is one of the neediest. A few months ago I received an email from the group with a link where one could choose to sponsor children at Kieni. I was quite excited to meet the child whom I have been sponsoring.

As usual for the orphanages we visited, the children greeted us in song. When they were done, the Bishop who coordinated the trip started introducing the children. When he said that only the youngest 2 children have been sponsored, a chorus erupted to contradict him. A number of people in our group have sponsored children, and I am sure that some others who are on the newsletter for this travel company but not on this particular trip who are also sponsors. This was more than a bit unsettling, particularly to those of us who have been sponsors for 2+ months. I can understand if maybe they hadn't gotten the actual money yet (although that would still not be thrilling), but a quick check on the sponsorship site indicates that many children have been sponsored. I will have to follow up on this when I get back.

The Bishop asked for those of us who sponsored children to take turns calling out the names of our children- I wondered if that made the others feel left out. By the time we left, many others from the group found children they decided to sponsor so hopefully all the children will soon be sponsored. Everyone wanted photos taken with the children they met. You would need to have a heart of stone not to be touched by the children.

My little girl is 12 years old, and wants to be a pilot. She seemed very shy, and mostly answered "yes" to my questions. She said she liked going to school and that her favorite subject was mathematics. When I met her I gave her a little heart necklace that I'd bought for about $6 as a simple token; as I was placing it around her neck, someone scolded me that we weren't supposed to bring anything special for our sponsored kids so as to avoid jealousy. Well, what the hell else was I supposed to do with the necklace that I'd already bought? I don't really care what anyone says, I don't even care if it ends up getting stolen. I just hope that for one moment in time that my little girl felt special and loved.

It was a bit chaotic distributing presents to all the children; among the items I gave out, the finger puppet monsters were a big hit. This was our last orphanage, and I've already mentioned that it is one that is sponsored by our group. So we all left a lot of stuff to be given out there, even though there were not a lot of children. We had to give plastic bags to the kids for them to hold all of their goodies!

We noticed that they were building new beds, and some of the kids also introduced us to their rabbits, which some of us held. I saw the inside of the dorms as well; I've heard that 2 children share each bed but I can't confirm that.

Before we left, some people from our group decided to sing to the kids for a change. There is one woman in our group who is a teacher- I can tell by her passion that her kids are lucky to have her. She'd shown us all a song she created to remember the words "horizontal", "vertical", and "diagonal" (to the tune of "Frere Jaques")- and now everyone from her jeep decided to sing it with the kids. This was followed by us all joining in with "The wheels on the bus go round and round" and ultimately with "If you're happy and you know it". I smiled and did all the arm movements with the girl I sponsored; I am so glad that group started singing because it was a true moment of joy; music is a universal language that can easily cross cultures.

Finally, we were treated to a speech by a young woman who had lived in Kieni but who is now studying at a university. She spoke very well and I hope her message inspired the children of Kieni as much as it touched those in our group.

Some more images of Kieni... After our visit to Kieni, it was time for yet another really long jeep ride. Let's just say that my comment on the first rest stop we encountered was "a bush would be a better option"; fortunately we stopped at somewhere more acceptable not too long thereafter. I'm not that picky... so just trust me, it was really bad.

On the road, I spotted a small white building with blue trim that had a sign saying "synagogue". I wasn't quick enough to get a photo, but I did manage to take one of a few buildings slightly down the road that also had Jewish stars on them. Who knew that there was a Jewish community somewhere between the Aberderes and Nakuru, Kenya?

My jeep mates kept talking about wanting Cheetos, which led me to crave them as well. At one point, one of the other jeeps had a flat tire and we had to stop til they were ok. Ah, the joys of travel. We also stopped once again at the scenic Great Rift Valley.

On the way into the hotel, our jeep spotted a male lion! Awesome! Not all jeeps saw him; one man came up to me later and asked to see my lion photo and I jokingly asked him if that was the new pickup line. ;) We were all very excited to spot a lion so quickly- totally amazing to just see one in its natural habitat. We also saw a lot of monkeys on the way into the hotel... but y'all know my feelings on that. ;) I was amused at the sign at the entrance to the park that admonished us not to hoot.

When we finally got to the hotel, we ate our buffet lunch (I had pasta) in record time so that we could get back into our jeeps for our first game drive around Lake Nakuru. Nakuru is known for its flamingos. However, this is the season when they go somewhere else to mate- so instead of millions, there were thousands. We also saw lots of other animals including birds, zebras crossing the road, rhino, water buffalo, impala, lion (another view), vultures, and ostrich. We stayed out until the sun began to set.

In reading my travel itinerary, I wasn't sure how I'd feel about game drives, but they were a lot of fun! Observing animals in the wild was dramatically different from seeing them in zoos or even in Disney's Animal Kingdom... it was really incredible. Even beyond seeing animals and being able to study their behavior, it was amazing to soak in the atmosphere and scenery; there was a sense of pure freedom. As an added bonus, it was also cool to practice my photography. Another woman in my jeep also had a serious camera with a long zoom lens so we were trading views on how our photos came out. The other women had instant cameras so they weren't able to get as good shots when animals were further away, but they also loved the drives. (a couple of them had binoculars)

After the game drive, I browsed the hotel gift shop. I saw a really cute kitty there, but I don't think it was for sale; it just enjoyed climbing on some of the merchandise and getting comfortable. I also walked around the hotel grounds for a little bit. Dinner was another buffet at the hotel restaurant. Our hotel room was rather basic, but I think I only spent about 5 waking minutes there so it's all good.
Buffalo, seen from window across from breakfast Kieni West Children Home Me and little Faith Kids show off the monster finger puppets I gave out Kieni West Children Home Great Rift Valley Great Rift Valley Monkey near entrance to Lake Nakuru National Park Full face shot of the lion Lion Flamingos Sunset
We got up extra early to begin our long trek to the Masai Mara; I was excited that we'd be staying at our next hotel for 2 nights because it was getting old to keep packing up each morning with only a brief time to appreciate the view before having to leave. As we drove down the path to exit Lake Nakuru National Park, some primates led the way.

I'm lucky that I am able to catch some rest on the jeep rides... despite the bumpy roads. When I was having trouble sleeping the first couple nights, I joked that someone needed to shake my hotel rooms since I'm so good at sleeping on planes, buses, and jeeps.

At our first rest stop, I jammed my thumb while opening the restroom door. I didn't think anything of it until I eventually saw that my thumb was slightly covered in blood. Thank goodness I'd gotten a tetanus shot before my trip! ;) Someone had a bandaid so it was all ok.

All through Kenya, little kids would wave at us- even when our jeep was just driving by. If we were stopped somewhere, the kids would come up to us and say "How are you?" in a very distinct intonation that they must have learned in English classes. It was really sweet. At one of the rest stops, we saw a bunch of kids across the street smiling and waving, so one of my friends gave them some mints.

At another stop, I was very excited to find some Doritos! (they were packaged in South Africa) I'm not sure the other jeeps found the small supermarket that we spotted. Since it was to be a long drive, I was glad to have some snacks.

The roads by the Masai Mara were bumpy even by Kenyan standards. Our driver joked that we were getting free massages.

Located on a hill above the vast expanses of the Mara, our hotel was fabulous; cute rooms with amazing views. Someone let me into the room to drop off my stuff then we went off on a game drive. We thought that the Nakuru game drive was magnificent the previous day... but the Mara was even beyond that! Just incredible! Among the various animals we saw were antelope, elephants, hippo, ostrich, hyena, giraffe, zebra, topi, cheetah, and a pride of lions who were sleeping and playing after being sated with a meal. It is hard to convey how totally breathtaking it was to be out on the Mara; you really need to be there to understand. The game drive was so amazing that it made an otherwise uneventful day seem completely worthwhile.

Dinner was a Kenya themed buffet at the hotel, which was followed by some Masai dancers. A bunch of us got into the Masai dancing, which was fun. Even though we didn't have to check out the next morning, the day promised to be jam packed so it was a fairly early night.
Morning view from hotel Monkeys lead the way out of Lake Nakuru National Park Mara landscape Topi Elephants
Let's just get this out of my way: this was one of the all-around best travel days ever in my life so far!

The day almost started out in disaster. When I'd accidentally dropped my alarm clock the previous evening at bed time, it had reset both the time and the alarm to 12:00am. When I manually reset it, I accidentally set the time to be 11am instead of 11pm... meaning that my 5am alarm wouldn't have actually sounded until 12 hours too late. Somehow fate was on my side as I awoke at 4 something am... and after drifting a bit, I suddenly realized at 4:58 am that my clock was 12 hours off and I got myself up. Close call! (don't ever expect me to repeat this little trick at home; I am well known for not being a morning person)

While gathering in the hotel lobby before sunrise, there was one thought going through my head... what was the Phillies score from game 1 of the NLCS that had started in the middle of the night Kenya time? After harrassing anyone I saw with a cell phone, someone kindly looked it up and told me the Phillies were down 4-3 at the top of the 9th. Darn. But at least I knew.

The reason I was up so early was that I'd signed up for a hot air balloon safari over the Mara. I'd signed up with some trepidation- it was a pricey option and it was risky for me to spend so much money when I am acrophobic and might not be able to fully enjoy the ride. But when would I ever get a chance like this again? It seemed too good an opportunity to pass up; and after how much I'd loved the Mara the previous night, I was glad I'd chosen to go for the balloon ride... even though I was still somewhat nervous as I watched them inflate the balloons in preparation for flight. (there were 2 balloons flying from our location)

As soon as we gently lifted into the air, any lingering fears flew far, far away and I was all smiles. It was simply amazing! The sunrise and scenery were as breathtaking as I'd imagined, and it was cool to have a different perspective on the animals in the region. By far, the best animal sighting was when we crossed over Wildebeest that were lined up as part of the great migration from Kenya to Tanzania; it was quite awesome to see them from above!

I could have floated in the sky for days, but after about an hour we were told to sit down as we landed with a bump and tipped to the side. After climbing out of the balloon, we chilled out for a bit and then we were driven a short distance so that we could have a champagne breakfast in the middle of the Mara. This was not a rough breakfast by any means; they'd imported chairs, tables, and a chef as we dined on crepes, cereals, eggs, etc. The best part of breakfast was that it was so relaxed and leisurely; we didn't have to rush to get anywhere.

After stopping back at the hotel and telling everyone I ran into how awesome the ride was, it was time for the 2nd activity of the day which was a trip to a Masai village. Getting to the village involved driving through the Mara to the exit gate... and it turned into a mini "unofficial" game drive as we stopped whenever we encountered something interesting. Among highlights were elephants, majestic looking crowned crane, and various antelope. I was really starting to fall in love with the zebra, who often were standing in the middle of the road; I loved the way their tails gently swooshed back and forth.

One thing to know about game drives: if you spot a jeep that is parked, you want to go join them because surely there is something interesting in the area. If you spot a ton of jeeps parked? There must be something truly special going on. When we inched up to an area by the Mara river that was crowded with jeeps, our driver informed us that everyone was waiting for a herd of Wildebeest across the bank to cross the river as part of the great migration. So we also parked and waited. Our driver said it sometimes can take hours for them to decide to cross. Imagine my excitement when we saw a line of Wildebeest follow their leader who was cautiously approaching water's edge...! And then imagine our collective sighs when they decided to turn around and move away from the water- perhaps because they spotted a crocodile- or perhaps because they wanted to frustrate the tourists. After waiting for awhile with no positive activity, it was time to move on our journey.

So it was onto the Masai village! Many of our group decided to skip this excursion, but I'd read 2 autobiographies of Masai warriors so I was definitely interested in what might be my only chance to step into a Masai village. Young Masai men become warriors from about age 15- 15 after their circumsicion; once they return, they are considered Junior Elders. Some of these Junior Elders greeted us by showing us how they can make a fire without matches, followed by chanting and jumping. Some of us took turns jumping with the Masai in their colorful red robes (which incidentally matched my Phillies T-shirt); it was a really cool and unique experience, even if I totally suck at jumping compared to them!

Once we entered the actual village, it was time for the Masai women to greet us in song- and once again, we were included with them as they decorated us with beads. We walked around the village a little and saw the inside of a typical Masai hut. Such a completely different lifestyle from anything I'd seen! We also went to their little craft market where I bought a present for a friend. As with all the places we'd visited, the children in the Masai village were smiling and adorable and of course our group fell in love with them. We were given boxed lunches as we were ready to depart, but I gave most of mine to the children in the area. (partly because there were so many flies around; partly because so many arms reached into the jeep once someone gave something away) I should also note- since I've failed to mention it before- that a lot of the kids got a big kick out of seeing their photos in the view finders of our cameras.

Now it was time for the "official" mid afternoon game drive. One of our highlights were a couple of delightful giraffes who were rubbing necks; we stopped for awhile to watch them. We decided giraffes were especially good at striking a pose- we could almost imagine them saying "This is my full face... Now let me show you my best side" ;) We were close enough to one to admire their eyelashes. We also saw a family of wart hogs, much to the joy of some of my friends who had not yet been able to photograph any. And I was finally able to snap a halfway decent photo of a hippo with its mouth open- something I'd frustratingly been unable to capture the previous day! Animals, animals everywhere!

One of the men in our jeep was itching to go back to the Mara river to see if the Wildebeest we'd spotted earlier had crossed yet. When we arrived, it seemed like they were still as they had been when we'd last looked in on them; standing around perhaps asking each other "Do you want to cross today?" and then answering "I dunno, do you want to cross today?" A number of jeeps were stopped to watch the non-activity. We joined them. Some jeeps pulled away; we decided to stay awhile.

When a Wildebeest walked to the edge of the river, I wondered if he was going to tease us all again. I think I let out a light shriek when I saw him edge into the water. He was going for it! Oh my freaking lord, we were going to see some Wildebeest cross the river for their great migration- how cool was that?!?! The majestic beasts lined up, walked or swam through the water, emerged on our side of the river as if in defiance of the watching vultures, and then ultimately ran off into the wide open fields. It was a wonder to see, and I doubt any words or pictures can truly do it justice. After a bunch had crossed, others turned back... but then another group crossed even closer to us. It appeared that all the ones we observed managed to cross successfully- yay! (one seemed like it might have been hurt, but it made it across; it is common for lives to be lost in the crossing) Eventually, some of the Wildebeest turned back and decided not to follow the others across; they were clearly slackers. ;) But we saw 2 groups crossing- can't complain at all! It was an awe inspiring sight. Spectacular.

So the excitement was over for the day, right? Wrong! Although nothing could top the Wildebeest crossing, it was pretty darn cool when we were able to park for the closest view we'd had so far of a pride of lions. Most were resting, but a couple cubs were playing and wrestling with each other. Fun to watch! It never gets old watching lions in their natural habitat, and we sat there enjoying the gorgeous big cats for a fair amount of time.

The sun was starting to set so our game ride would soon be over. As we enjoyed the scenery, it was as if someone shouted "Cue the Wildebeest!" as we encountered a bunch of them on the Mara with the setting sun in the background. Seeing a line of Wildebeest march off through the sunset was a perfect little finale for the drive through the Mara.

A few of us had signed up for an evening game drive that was offered directly from the hotel. It was our last night in Africa- hell yes, I want to do another game drive rather than hanging out at the hotel! I thought of it as a kind of a sequel to the Night Safari I'd embarked on earlier in the year at the Singapore zoo. This game drive was very different from others in that there were really no other vehicles driving around, and our guide would shine a bright light into the fields to try and spot animals. We'd hoped to see the elusive leopard, the only one of the "Big Five" (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, leopard) we'd yet to see; but alas our luck wasn't quite so perfect. I think leopards are slacking and should be replaced in the "Big Five" with a more grateful species. ;)

We saw a hyena feasting on dinner, and also saw impala, foxes, baby jackals, and even a rabbit. (hey, rabbits are cool when spotted in the African savannah!) And of course we also saw the usual quota of giraffe (although it was unique to see one sitting down) and zebras. But the night ride to me was more about the feeling of being one with nature in the dark, rather than any specific sightings. It was the perfect activity to end the day; afterwards we made a quick stop for pasta at the hotel restaurant for dinner and then I was totally ready to pass out. It was a day of 1106 photos... and special memories that completely eradicated thoughts of any previous hassles and frustrations during the trip. A bunch of us agreed that we could probably have spent a week just at the Masai Mara without ever getting bored.
Inflating a balloon for sunrise safari Sunrise Balloon over the Mara Inflight photo taken from camera attached to our balloon Wildebeest migration Zebra Crowned Crane Giraffe Creating a fire I can't jump quite as high as they do Masai women and children Wildebeest Lions Wildebeest
Almost every morning of my trip involved packing and moving, but today was different; now I had to pack my bags with air travel in mind. So I had to shuffle things around from the arrangement with which I'd become accustomed; I'd need heavier clothes for the way home... plus I'd need to leave out a Phillies T-shirt for game day. ;)

And speaking about the Phillies... after eating breakfast, I still had some time to kill so I went online on one of the hotel's computers and checked the score for NLCS game 2. We won!

Eventually, I got into our jeep for one final epic journey back to Nairobi and then onwards to the airport. There was one fewer person in the jeep since one of the women decided to join a small group taking a charter plane back to Nairobi instead of driving. I was tempted, but figured it would be more convenient (as well as cheaper) to stay with the group.

Leaving our hotel meant one final chance to stop and admire the animals to whom we'd become accustomed. It was a treat to see a bunch of cheetahs lazing together. We also saw a hyena, and a 5 giraffes who kept arranging themselves into interesting positions. (again, I must assert that giraffes are experts at striking a pose) We had a great view of one of the cell towers that had been camouflaged to blend in with the environment. One of the jeeps had a problem with its doors; I assume that the string they used to fasten the doors worked ok since no one was left behind in Kenya. After one final group photo with everyone in my jeep, it was time to say goodbye to the Mara... and hello to a long drive.

I had a mission for the day: I always buy earrings when I travel, but I had yet to find any that really caught my eye in Kenya. It would be a true tragedy not to accomplish this goal- although I figured I could at least grab something when we got to the airport. There were souvenirs sold at the rest stops we'd made, but very few earrings- plus, the workers there seemed pushy and I really don't love bargaining. On a more positive note, the places we stopped had the absolute best restrooms we'd seen on the road- truly "Kenya A++"

When we finally got into Nairobi, our guide decided to pull into a mall. That's right- a real live mall. Very good choice to please 4 ladies- one of my friends finally got the yarn she'd wanted, and another found the fabric she'd been looking for. As for me? After wandering around the mall for 20 minutes, I found the BEST store ever- with earrings aplenty made by Kenyan craftspeople. I bought 2 pairs. Then on the way out, another pair caught my eyes through the display window. So of course I went back for it. 3 pairs of earrings. I could return home in triumph.

We paused for a brief moment to admire downtown Nairobi, but we didn't go into town because our guide said the traffic would be horrid. Knowing what I know about Kenya traffic, I was all for avoiding anything horrid by Kenyan standards.

When we pulled into the hotel where our group had secured day rooms, we discovered that we were the first to arrive except for those who had flown in. We had a leisurely hour and a half, during which time I took a shower, changed, and worked on my trip reports. Nice. (especially since my hair always felt so dusty and dirty after driving through the dirt roads of Kenya)

It turns out that we were somehow the only jeep that had the luxury of resting up. Most arrived later and went directly to the airport (though 1 stopped to drop off someone who wanted to shower). There was a lot of drama as the members of the group who had flown in were still waiting for a jeep to drive them to the airport... but it all worked itself out.

The hotel wasn't located far from the airport, though we had a bit of a hellish time going through a roundabout. But from then on, it was pretty clear sailing and pretty soon I found myself checking in for my flight. As usual, someone had to look up my KLM reservation number, but the lady checking me in was extremely friendly and it was nice to chat with her.

I almost was left in Kenya, because I apparently failed Fingerprinting 101; it took more tries than it should have for that to work for me. And then it was time to do some more shopping- I found the cutest T-shirt but it was only in XXL. I bought a necklace... and a 4th pair of earrings. And to think, just a few short hours earlier, I'd been worried about leaving Kenya without buying a single pair!
A tree in the Mara Cheetah My jeep mates Giraffe the Mara Downtown Nairobi
I must have slept through most of the 8 hour overnight flight from Nairobi to Amsterdam, because I couldn't believe the flight attendant was already asking me if I wanted the "sweet" or the "savory" breakfast. After asking for clarification, neither option really appealed to me so I passed.

As we landed, I could see that it was raining out. Blah. I had a 9 hour layover so I'd planned to head into Amsterdam for a bit, since the airport is only a quick 15 minute train ride to the center of town. We landed around 5:15am so it was still really early and nothing would be open, anyway. Since I hadn't eaten breakfast on the plane, I was hungry, so I had a mission: Dutch pancakes! I walked around for a bit with a couple friends from the trip and couldn't find any. I didn't want to weigh them down with my little obsession so I struck off on my own. I eventually found a place to eat, and my pancake was delicious. A number of others from my group found the same area and so I didn't have to sit alone. (anyone on group air had a 4 hr layover)

I decided to go online for a bit and work on my travel blogs; ran into someone else from the group sitting nearby. After a bit, I checked outside again, and I saw that it seemed to have cleared up. So I headed into the city for a couple hours- my only plan being to wander wherever my feet took me... and, of course, to take lots of photos; 2 of my favorite activities anywhere in the world. It rained for only a short time when I was walking, which was fine because I had a rain jacket in my backpack. However, at one point I got drenched! I looked up and apparently a shop was following out their canopy right above me... and the rain that had fallen into its crevices was now on me. I was still wearing my rain jacket, but the hood was down so my hair probably looked like a drowned rat. You just have to laugh when these things happen.

On my way back to Centraal Station, I walked into a small grocery store and was thrilled to find that they had Cheetos! (we'd been a tad obsessed with Cheetos in my jeep) Turned out that they were not the crunchy kind, but they were still good. Back at the airport, I changed into a Phillies t-shirt and bought some chocolates and cheese- both for me and for friends. As I was checking out, I saw the cutest chocolate Halloween ghosts and totally had to buy them for my nieces. (who later found them to be just as tasty as they were adorable)

The flight to Newark was rather uneventful, though it seemed to drag a bit since I was anxious to get home. Landing was pretty cool since I was on the side of the plane that had a view of NYC and of the Statue of Liberty. (although I am still partial to the view of the Phillies' stadium when landing at PHL) The second we landed, I turned on my cell phone to check the score of the Phillies game which had started ~20 minutes earlier. I completely breezed through security, waited a bit for my luggage, and was soon in the land of Diet Cherry Dr. Pepper traveling on the highway back to reality... trying to adjust to the fact that there were not going to be any zebras blocking the highway, which was oddly smooth and devoid of potholes. ;)
A tram whizzes by Flower Market Canal Statue of Anne Frank beside Westerkerk Nieuwe Kerk at Dam Square Damrack- headed back to the train station
Any trip that includes seeing Pia Douwes in a show is sure to be special, and this one was no exception. My experience talking to her after the show wasn't as trancendent as it had been in Berlin 2008, but it still made me smile. Even if it hadn't been for "We will Rock You", I think it was an excellent idea to make a quick stopover in the Netherlands en route, and I think I chose 2 fabulous hotels.

I saw so many amazing things in Kenya that practically defy description. I am particularly glad that the trip gave us several opportunities to connect with the people of Kenya- all of whom were among the friendliest I could ever encounter. The kids we met do not have the things that kids I know consider to be essentials, such as TV, cell phones, Webkinz etc. Yet, there was a joy in most of their eyes, particularly when they sang. I am not a religious person, but I really respect the work the churches have done in Kenya to inspire the people with love.

The safari aspect of the trip was more wonderful than I could ever have expected. The balloon ride was a highlight, but it was always thrilling to go on a game drive because you never knew what you might encounter so each excursion was unique. Seeing animals in their native fields is so, so much more satisfying than seeing them in a zoo- and even more special if one is lucky enough to see something as awe inspiring as the Wildebeest migration across the Mara river. I also have to say that it's priceless to be able to say that a monkey stole my memory card. ;)

Traveling with a group had its ups and downs, much like I'd expected. On the positive side, our group consisted of 41 truly interesting and friendly people and my only regret is that I didn't get to talk with most of them as much as I might have liked. It was great that a bunch of us got to know each other on Facebook before the trip, and I hope at least some people will want to stay in touch.

Also, I never would have been able to go to as many places on my own, given that Africa does not have the same infrastructure of Europe or Asia which have been relatively easy for me to do solo. I can't complain at all about our hotels, most of which were fabulous.

On the the down side, I didn't feel like I had much freedom. There was very little free time built into the trip- and when there was, we were often somewhere remote without many options. Also, there seemed to be a lot of time spent waiting for everyone- although that dissipated a little after people started complaining that they wanted a more strict schedule. With this particular itinerary, I felt that we spent too much of most days going from town A to town B; I think I would have preferred cutting out a stop and/or extending the trip an extra day or 2. I tend to pack a lot into my travels, but this got to be a bit too much even for me.

One thing I wasn't really prepared for was how dusty it was throughout Kenya. I guess I'm a little vain about my hair- and although I am far from a clean freak, particularly when I travel, I found I had to wash my hair every night because I couldn't stand how it felt by the end of the day. This is something I'd definitely need to keep in mind when I return to Africa someday.

One great idea I had was how to pack, given that I'd be changing hotels almost daily. I am a huge advocate for using zip lock bags when packing- for this trip, I took 12 bags and into each I placed a T-shirt, a coordinated sports bra, underwear and socks. So every morning, I just needed to take out a baggie, choose jeans or shorts- and I was set. I'd never done that before, and it worked nicely.

All in all, it was quite the adventure- definitely something that was very different than anything I've done before and a journey that will stay in my heart forever.

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This travel blog is dedicated in loving memory to my cat, Belle... who fought through 12 days at a kennel so she'd be there for me for some final snuggles when I returned from Africa.