Monday, February 26, 2024

TWO WEEKS IN KENYA: Nairobi Foods and Crafts, Guest Post by Jennifer E. Arnold

Roadside basket shop, Nairobi, Kenya.

Many thanks to my daughter Jennifer for her report on her family’s recent trip to Kenya. As Art and I followed their adventures, we were reminded of our trip to Africa in 1971, when Jennifer was a baby. Here is her report on the foods and crafts in Nairobi today.

We stepped out of the Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi on January 2, 2024, and were immediately hit by the warm humid air. The capital of Kenya, Nairobi sits just south of the equator, and has roughly equal days and nights year round. We were visiting our friends Lisa and Ashu, who assured us that January is supposed to be the dry season – and mostly it was, but with perhaps unsurprising climate chaos, January 2024 was unusually rainy. Lisa picked us up at the airport and drove us to their house on the new toll expressway. The toll booths had signs for different kinds of payment, including cash, Mpesa, and some other types I didn’t recognize.

Ingenious umbrella used by the boda (motorcycle) drivers.

One of the biggest adjustments was learning how to use the Kenyan mpesa system. Mpesa is an electronic payment system, similar to Venmo or PayPal, but much more widespread – everyone has it, and it’s the default method of payment. Ashu loaned us a Kenyan phone that was already set up to use Mpesa, and we used it for everything from grocery store purchases to buying crafts from a street vendor to paying tips to our waiters. Some larger stores also accepted credit cards. 

Grocery stores were more or less like what we see in the US, but we were excited to see the range of new foods. They had many fruits not widely available here (mango, papaya, passion fruit, custard apple – which is similar to the Chilean cherimoya), and there was a wide range of Indian foods. In the produce section there was an assistant who weighed and tagged the produce before you went up to the counter. Our friends introduced us to “Crackies”, a spiced sweet potato chip (delicious! And unfortunately not sold in the US).

Roadside metal sculpture shop.

One of the first things we noticed is that some commercial activity takes place in extensive roadside shops. I can’t call them “stands”, because they sometimes go on for blocks. 

Roadside plant shop.

We saw both crafts and also the sale of regular household goods like beds or building materials. We learned from our friends that almost anything can be purchased for delivery by boda (motorcycle). Nairobi also has a thriving Uber industry, which we used several times.

Street-side hand washing station outside a restaurant.

We saw consistent public messaging about hand washing, and one restaurant provided a station outside for you to use even before entering the building! We ate at numerous excellent restaurants, including Indian food, Swahili food, pizza, and salads, meats, and juices. My mom remembered that about 50 years ago in Nairobi [see
https://theintrepidtourist.blogspot.com/2021/04/the-africa-trip-50th-anniversary.html] it wasn’t considered safe for travelers to eat raw vegetables in restaurants, but nowadays it is perfectly fine.

Crafts sold at the Masai Market.

Kenya has a strong craft and art industry, a few examples of which are shown below. In addition we visited the Masai Market where people sell a wide variety of souvenirs and local goods, as well as a fabric shop where they sold traditional Kikoi, Kitenge, and Khanga fabrics.

One thing you won’t find in Kenyan stores is grocery bags. We were thrilled to learn that Kenya banned single-use plastic bags in 2017. This is one of the strictest bans worldwide, which means you can’t even enter the country with such bags. This forced us to examine our suitcases before leaving home to make sure we weren’t wrapping our shoes in old grocery bags. Instead you can bring your own shopping bags, or purchase a reusable shopping bag in grocery stores. In smaller stands they sometimes offer small paper-fabric shopping bags.

Kitengela Glass Shop


Kitengela glass shop.

The Kitengela factory is located about 50 minutes from the city of Nairobi, but you can visit their shop in the city at the Westgate shopping center.

Rugs and Weaving

Marathon Weaver rug shop. (https://www.facebook.com/MarathonWeavers)

We visited two rug shops on Ngong road in the neighborhood of Karen (named after Karen Blixen who wrote “Out of Africa”). These shops were in the same area as multiple furniture stores, which were displaying their goods on the side of the busy road. The street was busy with many workers and shoppers (plus goats wandering around), not put off by the fact that it was raining on the day we were there. 

Loom and rug in progress in the Jireh workshop. (https://www.facebook.com/Jirehhandwovencraft/)

At the Jireh business we got to see their workshop and the amazing process of creating a large rug, which involves climbing the loom like Spiderman. The entire business is run by a family - a mother and her grown children. Getting to the workshop was an adventure that was solved in what seems to be a uniquely Kenyan way. We couldn’t find the shop, so we called them. One worker came out to the main road to meet us, got in our car with us and directed us to the workshop!

 Kazuri beads

Beads in the making.

This business (
https://kazuri.com/) was founded in 1975 with the goal of employing single mothers in need of employment. We got a tour and saw how they make the beads, bake them in a kiln, glaze them, and again bake the glaze all on site.

 

Beads in the making.

Monday, February 19, 2024

ELEPHANT SANCTUARY AT KOH SAMUI ISLAND, THAILAND, Guest Post by Tom Scheaffer

Samui Elephant Kingdom, Thailand

My brother Tom Scheaffer loves to travel and has previously written about his trips for The Intrepid Tourist. In early February he went to Thailand. Here is his report.

Koh Samui Island, Thailand

I recently took a two week trip to Koh Samui Island in Thailand. After a long, transpacific flight, I was rewarded with a very peaceful and restful hotel right on the water. Swimming in the sea twice a day was a real highlight. The ocean is calm and the water is the perfect temperature. I was there with many friends from the Sri Chinmoy meditation center.

Sunset at the Celes Samui Resort and Spa

This is the view from where we ate in the hotel, the Celes Samui Resort and Spa. It was perfect weather--warm, but not too hot and no rain.

Elephant at Samui Elephant Kingdom

We visited the Samui Elephant Kingdom, which is a sanctuary for elephants that have been mistreated or needed a home. They come from all parts of Thailand. It was really fun and the elephants are so gentle and nice.
The founder, Chokchai Rueangsri, has developed a beautiful and very extensive natural area where elephants can roam freely and be treated in the most humane way possible.

Feeding the elephants.


The most exciting thing was feeding them! We made large cookies, the size of a tennis ball, using bananas and other protein powders, and then held them out, and they would gently take them with their trunks, and then place them in their mouths. The elephants were amazingly gentle and we had a chance to even approach them and pet them. 

For a complete report on Tom's group's visit to the Samui Elephant Kingdom, with dozens of wonderful photos, go to Live From the Road, on the Sri Chimnoy Peace Run site.

(Note that Koh Samui is sometimes spelled Ko Samui. It is the same place.)


Tom Scheaffer


Monday, February 12, 2024

BIRDS OF UMUSAMBI VILLAGE, KIGALI, RWANDA: Guest Post by Karen Minkowski

Pair of Grey Crowned Cranes, Rwanda

My friend Karen Minkowski, a frequent contributor to The Intrepid Tourist and definitely an intrepid traveler, has just returned from Africa, where she spend two and a half months photographing birds in Umusambi Village, in Rwanda. I thank her for sharing her spectacular photos and insights into the birds' behavior with The Intrepid Tourist.

On the eastern edge of Kigali, Rwanda's capital, lies Umusambi Village, a beautiful wetland park that is a sanctuary for Gray Crowned Cranes rescued from the illegal pet trade. The park's 21 hectares (52 acres), once-degraded wetlands that were restored by the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association, provide a safe environment for these birds whose wings and flight feathers had been clipped in captivity. Now they live much like wild cranes--except they cannot fly.

Path in Umusambi Village

I spent many happy hours walking Umusambi’s well-maintained pathways and boardwalks that give visitors access to marshes, grasslands, dense thickets and woodlands. The park attracts well over 100 native bird species (including wild Grey-crowned Cranes), as well as a few mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and other invertebrates. As I did with my account of Kigali’s other wetland park, Nyandungu, a few months ago on Intrepid Tourist, my photos are annotated with a few details about the birds’ behaviors that I found fascinating.

Grey crowned crane

Courtship and bonding rituals seem to be part of daily life for grey crowned cranes, who mate for life. At the top of this post, a wild pair perched atop a tree appear to be “kissing” with the tips of their bills. Above, a rescued crane jumps as part of a typical display for his/her partner.

Black-headed Gonolek

Black-headed Gonoleks occupy the narrow strips of woodland that border Umusambi’s wet grasslands. The Gonoleks are frequently heard duetting with their mate. The male’s clear-toned call is usually answered by a harsh, grating response from the female. Duetting may help in pair-bonding, maintaining contact in dense foliage and with territorial defense (two birds calling sound more formidable than one?)

Speckled Mousebird

When nutrient-dense fruits are in low supply, the Speckled Mousebird turns to leaves, a rare food item among birds, but generally abundant in most areas. The species’ GI tract has evolved the ability to digest and extract sustenance from leaves. While they don’t provide the same amount of energy that fruits do, eating leaves allows the Speckled Mousebirds to maintain smaller territories. They have also evolved ways to conserve energy in their daily lives. Rather than flapping their wings in flight, they often glide. Huddling together at night and even during the day helps preserve body temperature. And by perching vertically, as the Mousebird in the photo is doing, they expose their bellies to sunlight, which aids in digestion.

View of acacia wetlands.

A boardwalk and platform seen in the background allow access into the acacia wetlands.

Pied Kingfisher

Pied Kingfishers engage in cooperative breeding, a system in which non-breeders, often juveniles, assist a breeding pair in rearing their chicks. It is often undertaken where breeding sites and potential mates are in short supply. With Pied Kingfishers, the helpers are males, usually a juvenile helping its parents, but some helpers are not related to the breeding pair. Like most social systems, this one involves both cooperation and conflict, primarily between the breeding male and unrelated helpers. (The breeding female is much more tolerant - she will accept fish from any male who offers it). Helpers related to the breeding pair have a genetic stake in the chicks’ survival and can also be aggressive towards an unrelated helper.

Red-backed Shrike

The elegant Red-backed Shrike impales its captured prey on thorns, barbed wire or anything spiky. This behavior probably evolved to compensate for not having feet strong enough to hold captured lizards, frogs, and other birds in place while the shrike tries to tear off bite-sized pieces. Some Red-backed Shrikes store food items on spikes, creating “larders”, especially during the breeding season when there are more mouths to feed.

Army ants.

Birding involves a lot of looking up, but I also watched my feet to avoid tripping on the uneven ground or stepping on Army ants. These little creatures sneak up one’s pant legs undetected until they reach soft flesh and suddenly start biting. The intense pain and itching can last a couple of days.

Army ants live in huge colonies of up to 50 million individuals! They form highly disciplined military-like columns that devour just about anything they encounter – mostly other insects – and do a good job of cleaning up the forest floor.

Black Goshawk

The Black Goshawk (aka Great Sparrowhawk) is reportedly a skillful hunter of guinea fowl, hawks and owls. They also prey upon rodents and snakes. Females are significantly larger than males. These goshawks build their nests from large sticks and reuse the nests annually, repairing them as necessary.

 

Monday, February 5, 2024

MEETING A GIANT OF THE DINOSAUR AGE (Via Its Fossil Remains)

Giant Sea Reptiles of the Dinosaur Age. At the Royal Tyrell Museum, Drumheller, Alberta

In May 2023 I visited the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Canada, the most amazing display of dinosaur fossils I have ever seen. (See my blogpost, June 19, 2023, for more about the exhibits.) I was especially interested in the room containing the remains of Shonisaurus, the giant sea reptile that is the on the cover of my book Giant Sea Reptiles of the Dinosaur Age (Clarion Books, 2007.)

I love learning about dinosaurs and what the world was like when they were alive. My book, Giant Sea Reptiles of the Dinosaur Age, looks at the diversity of large reptiles that once inhabited the world’s oceans. Like the dinosaurs, they all became extinct 65 million years ago. We know about them today from their fossil remains.

Opening pages of Giant Sea Reptiles of the Dinosaur Age

On my recent trip to the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta, Canada I was thrilled to see up close the remains of Shonisaurus sikanniensis, the huge ichthyosaur that I wrote about in the opening pages of the book. It fills an entire room at the museum. Here's what I wrote:

Fossil skeleton of Shonisaurus sikanniensis.

Two hundred and twenty million years ago, in waters that covered what is now western Canada, a huge marine reptile cruised the shallow seas. Propelling itself with flat, flipper-like limbs, the 70-foot long animal hunted for shellfish and other small ocean animals, which it sucked into its long, toothless snout and swallowed. This fearsome creature was Shonisaurus sikanniensis, a species of ichthyosaur, one of several types of large sea reptiles that inhabited the world’s oceans in the Dinosaur Age.

The fossil remains of Shonisaurus sikanniensis were first discovered in 1991 when a hiker in northern British Columbia spotted some big fossil bones eroding out of the banks of the Sikanni Chief River. He reported his find to the Royal Tyrell Museum of Paleontology, in Drumheller, Alberta, where one of the curators, Dr. Elizabeth Nicholls, was an expert on prehistoric sea reptiles. She visited the site and was amazed by what she saw. The bones were bigger than those of any known marine reptile, and, incredibly, most of the skeleton was intact. The only missing parts were the hind limbs. Over the course of three summers, the fossil skeleton was dug out of the ground and transported to the museum, where it was studied and prepared for exhibit. Every part of the animal proved to be huge. The massive skull weighed more than one and a half tons, and the largest vertebrae, which measured nearly 11 inches across, were the size of dinner plates. In 2006, the giant skull of Shonisaurus sikanniensis went on display at the museum. Along with the rest of the skeleton, it will help answer questions about the appearance and lifestyle of this giant prehistoric predator and why it grew so big.

As Elizabeth Nicholls is quoted in the museum display: "The world we live in right now is just a blink in the history of life on our planet. 220 million years ago there was a tremendous diversity of life that we know so little about."

Giant Sea Reptiles of the Dinosaur Age is illustrated with beautiful detailed watercolor paintings by Laurie Caple. The book is no longer available in print, but you can look for it in your local library.  It will introduce you to some of the most amazing creatures that ever swam in the oceans the world.

At the Royal Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller, Alberta, Canada

 

 

Monday, January 29, 2024

RIVER WALK, HILLSBOROUGH, NC: Reliving History at Occaneechi Village

Historic replica of Occaneechi Village, Hillsborough, NC

In late November, on a cool but bright fall day, we took a walk along the Eno River in Hillsborough, North Carolina, with our family. The Riverwalk path follows the river bank through the town park and links with other hiking trails. Not far from where we joined the trail near the Weaver Street Market we came upon Occaneechi Village, a historic replica of a native American village as it would have been in 1701.

Thatched dwelling.

At that time the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation lived on the land, growing food and hunting in the surrounding forest. The village was an important trade location where the Occaneechi people traded with Europeans as well as nearby tribes such as the Tuscarora. Many descendants of the Occaneechi tribe continue to live in Hillsborough.

Village surrounded by stockade of wooden posts.

Inside a stockade of wooden stakes are several thatched dwellings, open air shelters, places to build fires and prepare food, and other work areas.

Sample of caulking along the lower part of the stockade.

Openings between the wooden stakes could be filled with a lattice of sticks caulked with mud.

River Park path.

After exploring Occaneechi Village we continued walking along the paved path through River Park. 

Map of the Oxbow archeological site.

Signs further along the trail explained the historic significance of this location. 
Toward the end of our two mile walk we learned that archeological research of the ten-acre site within the oxbow bend of the Eno River has revealed that it was home to Occaneechi villages going back to 1000 A.D.

Footbridge across Eno River at Oxbow.

At the bridge near the oxbow, the trail veers away from the river bank and heads into the forest. We turned around here and headed back to our car. (A large parking garage is located near the trail head.) On our way back we passed a deer busy browsing, who paid little attention to us or other walkers.

Deer.

Occaneechi Village is located along the Riverwalk, within River Park, behind the Farmer’s Market Pavilion in Hillsborough. It is open 8am to 7pm. Hillsborough is about a half-hour drive from Chapel Hill, where our daughter and her family live.


Monday, January 22, 2024

A SUCCULENT TREASURE TROVE: The Ruth Bancroft Garden and Nursery, Walnut Creek, CA

Ruth Bancroft Garden, Walnut Grove, CA

Tucked inside a residential neighborhood, not far from a busy shopping mall, is a wonderful garden specializing in succulents, cacti, and other drought adapted plants. From tiny cacti with mini flowers to a giant Chilean wine palm, there are a host of plants from all over the world. 

The unique shapes and colors of the plants make them living sculptures.

The Ruth Bancroft Garden and Nursery in Walnut Creek, California, was created as a private garden by Ruth Bancroft in the 1960s to house her large collection of potted plants. The 3.5 acre property, including a pond and structures for shade loving plants, had once been part of the much larger family walnut farm. The garden is now open to the public and a project of the Garden Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving exceptional American gardens. Mrs. Bancroft passed away in 2017 at the age of 109, leaving her garden as a testament to her vision.

This tree had its own living Christmas decorations, appropriate for the season.

A few weeks ago in Mid-December (actually, on the day of the winter solstice) I visited the garden with my husband and daughter. After paying the fee at the entrance kiosk, we followed the network of flat gravel paths through the plantings, marveling all along the way at the variety of plants, colors, sizes and shapes, and the skillful way the plants complemented one another. We had picked up a guide at the kiosk which included a map and a key to the names of the major types of specimens. We also had the monthly guide to "What's in bloom" to help us identify the flowers of the season.

This tiny specimen was tucked between two boulders and several larger plants.

It was a bright but overcast day perfect for photography-- no harsh shadows and soft light to bring out the variety of colors and textures. Here are some of my favorites.

Agave. Like many agaves the leaves have embedded impressions on their surface. This is a result of the leaves unfurling from a central cone, and leaving behind toothy indentations on the adjacent leaves.

Agaves are succulents, like the majority of plants in the garden. Succulents survive drought by storing water in their thickened leaves, stems, trunks, or roots.

Aloe. Note the bee gathering nectar.

We saw many species of aloe--sprouting large spiky flowers of yellow and orange. Examples of Aloes native to Mexico, South Africa, Kenya and elsewhere around the world are found in the garden.

Koi pond.

At the center of the garden is a small koi pond and a bench for resting in the shade.

A mix of succulents and cacti form a living wall.

Along a wall at the end of the garden a mosaic of succulents filled cells in a vertical planter box, creating a living wall.

Planting inside shade house.

Inside the shade structure a close-up view makes it seem that the plants are at the bottom of an aquarium. There were no fish, but we did catch sight of  a hummingbird sipping nectar from one of the flowers.
Hummingbird inside shade structure.

Cactus spikes are an adaptation that help deflect sunlight and reduce surface temperature in hot summer months. 

At the end of our visit to the garden, we exited through the nursery, filled with potted plants ready to purchase and take home for your own succulent garden. We bought a tiny cactus which will take its place on my patio at home.

Mosaic wall at garden entrance; nursery on the right.

Ruth Bancroft Garden and Nursery

1552 Bancroft Road

Walnut Creek, CA 94598

Phone: 925-944-9352

The garden is open most days of the year except for major holidays. On the day of our visit almost no one else was there.

For more information check the garden website: www.ruthbancroftgarden.org

Winter rains turn these barrel cactus into plump spiky balls.