Thursday, May 21, 2009

Nairobi blog closed, Washington blog launched

This blog about our life in Nairobi/Kenya/Africa is now officially closed. Because we have moved away from that area, we can no longer write about our adventures there, so we need a new blog for our new home.

Our new blog about our new lives in Our Nation's Capital is called Capital Letter. It's like a newsletter but in blog form from the capital city of our country.

Visit our new blog. We hope you enjoy it, visit it regularly and even visit us in person in the capital!

Sarah, Stephen and Lexi

Friday, May 15, 2009

Out of Africa

Dear Gentle Reader,

Last week the last of us Padres left our home in Nairobi, Kenya. Sarah and Lexi had stayed behind after Stephen left in early March so Sarah could finish her contract with The Lutheran World Federation's Kenya program. After 18 months, it was time for the Padres to leave East Africa and return to the United States.

After living as expatriates for five and a half years, we have returned to the United States. We are now in our new home in Washington, D.C. We are beginning new lives here and fulfilling a dream of moving to the East Coast that started in Chicago or even earlier.

Therefore, since we are now out of Africa, it is time to shut down this blog. We say asante sana - thank you very much - for going on this journey to Africa with us, for following our lives near the equator, for visiting The Middle Bulge. We were in East Africa for only a short time, but we had many adventures there, including some we hadn't bargained for.

Fortunately, we have moved to a very exciting city. We have gone from one country's capital city to our own country's capital city. We have followed the Obamas from our old home of Chicago, through the place where Barack has his family roots, and now live in the same city as he does. Because our lives will continue to be exciting in this place, we will not abandon you, gentle and faithful reader, but we will be starting a new blog soon. Watch this space for a notice about its launch and a link to it.

We will no longer be adding posts to this blog. But again, watch for the final post here about our new blog about our new lives in Our Nation's Capital.

Sarah, Stephen & Lexi

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The man-eating lions of Tsavo - a great story

I have to post another great story from Africa here on the blog before we shut it down. I posted this same text and photos on my Facebook profile at the prompting of my friend Liz in Chicago (Liz Hunter at The Lutheran for those of you who know her).

It's a great story I read about in Nairobi on a visit to the Nairobi Railway Museum, although it's a well-known legend in Kenya's colonial history. Here's the setup, courtesy of the website of the Field Museum in Chicago:

"In March 1898 the British started building a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in East Africa [as part of a project to connect by rail the Indian Ocean from the port of Mombasa to Lake Victoria in Uganda]. Over the next nine months, two large male lions killed and ate nearly 140 railway workers [in an area of wilderness that is now a popular game park]. Crews tried to scare off the lions and built campfires and thorn fences for protection, but to no avail. Hundreds of workers fled Tsavo, halting construction on the bridge.

"Before work could resume, chief engineer Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson (1865-1947) had to eliminate the lions and their threat. After many near misses, he finally shot the first lion on December 9, 1898, and three weeks later brought down the second. The first lion killed measured nine feet, eight inches (3 m) from nose to tip of tail. It took eight men to carry the carcass back to camp. The construction crew returned and completed the bridge in February 1899."

But it wasn't long until the lions were a threat to the building of the railroad again. So one man thought he was tough enough to go out and kill them. Now read the story in the photo below (you can click on it to make it bigger). This was on a plaque on the side of a railway car I saw at the railway museum.

A movie was made from this story - "The Ghost and the Darkness" (1996), based on Patterson's adventures in Tsavo.

Where are these lions now? Stuffed and on display at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Here's me demonstrating how this man fell asleep (happy before he became the lion's dinner).

This is the non-lion-proof carriage.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Consider the lowly dung beetle

This is one topic that's Africa-related and definitely something worth pointing to before we shut this blog down.

Today, NPR aired an interview with Douglas Emlen, a professor of biology at the University of Montana, who studies dung beetles.

To all our visitors who came to Kenya and visited a game park or family I have traveled with in other parts of Africa in game parks, I have always said, "Consider the lowly dung beetle."

Everyone who goes to Africa wants to see the well-known "Big Five" game animals - lions, giraffes and elephants and all. There's more to African wildlife than these big creatures and what everybody pursues on safari. I learned while in Kenya that there's also a list of the "Little Five" animals in game parks that includes the dung beetle.

What a wonderful world we live in that there are animals at all levels of the ecosystem and with a purpose for hauling away other animals' waste, as undesirable as we think it is.

I'm thrilled that someone really has considered the lowly dung beetle and that NPR has taken note of this creature as well (and only NPR can make these sort of things interesting - yay! - that'll prompt my pledge to my local station).

Photos, videos and the audio interview with the dung beetle scientist

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The ants go marching...

Before we shut down this blog (which will probably be soon, since this coming week we will all be out of Africa), I wanted to share an interesting video I shot at Lake Naivasha when I saw a line of ants.

Back to Africa (and Asia and the Caribbean)

Today I took a trip around the world, all without leaving my city. If you consider that an embassy in a country is actually the territory of the other country, then I stepped on the foreign territories of Thailand, Indonesia, Botswana, Zambia and Haiti. Today was the annual open house at many of the embassies along Embassy Row, which goes up Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues from Dupont Circle. It’s a chance for residents to see inside some of these buildings, some of which are historical houses, and for the countries to show themselves off, encourage awareness of their culture and tourists to visit, etc. I ended up visiting only embassies of countries that I had visited before, mostly to see how they promote places I’ve seen, but I was just as interested in the buildings and their interiors as I was about the countries themselves. It’s just interesting to see the spaces where diplomatic business is carried out. Unless you have an important reason to visit an embassy, one is unlikely to get inside one (and most of the time to get a visa to enter a country, it’s a different entrance or building all together).

I first visited Thailand’s embassy down in Georgetown because I just happened to have other business just a couple of blocks away in the morning. They had set up tables in several places that were selling all manner of things from Thai clothing and cloth (silk) to prepackaged food and leather handbags. In the back kitchen were several caterers selling food for lunch. It’s a new building that’s quite large.

Then I headed up to the area where most embassies are. The one I wanted to see the most because the building is an old, historical house was Indonesia’s. The line was long and stretched the entire width of the front of the building. It was because they were searching people’s bags, but it moved quite quickly. The embassy’s website gives a history about the house. An excerpt:
The building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places…

Thomas F. Walsh, the mansion's first owner, was born in County Tipperary, Ireland and immigrated to the United States at the age of nineteen. He made a fortune in Colorado's gold mining industry as the sole owner and developer of the Camp Bird mine at Ouray, Colorado…

Although Mrs. Walsh occupied the house until her death in 1932, the property's title had been earlier handed to her daughter Evalyn. As the daughter of a wealthy socialite couple and the wife of influential newspaper owner Edward B. McLean, Evalyn Walsh McLean was well-known in Washington . Evalyn inherited the house, but left it vacant for a time while she lived at "Friendship," the McLean family's estate in Washington , D.C.

Evalyn Walsh McLean is also distinguished as the last private owner of the fabulous 44 ½ carat Hope Diamond - the sale of which was negotiated at the Walsh Mansion by Pierre Cartier, the famous jeweler.
What an amazing house! Right inside the front door is an enormous staircase, and three stories above that is a stained-glass dome.

Off this central room is what was probably the dining room, which is huge. On one wall is a built-in Baroque pipe organ!

The house is in the French Beaux-arts style, but it’s a bit jarring and odd to see the structure and d├ęcor punctuated by very different Indonesian symbols – a coat of arms or statues of lions. As I was leaving, in the room adjacent to the dining room, there was a group of musicians playing traditional instruments. Some of these instruments are metallic xylophone-like plates that one has to hit hard with something that actually looks like your standard hammer. Yes, it makes a very loud and metallic sound, and the whole thing, with various drums, was just deafening and chaotic. Well, I’m sure to any Indonesian ears, it was normal, but I really would have rather heard the organ, thank you. It was enough to drive me outside, which one got to by going through a newer addition to the house, which is probably the main entrance and main business area of the embassy.

Then, as a side note, I walked around Dupont Circle to find a place to eat lunch. I found another restaurant in the Five Guys hamburger chain, which bills itself as the best hamburger in D.C. There was one in my former neighborhood, Columbia Heights, but I was waiting for a time when it was more necessary to eat out and when I could choose to try this chain. I saw Michelle Obama admit on TV the other day that she has snuck out of the White House several times and has gone to eat at some restaurants in town, and this is one of them (not this particular location, however). The hamburgers are good, but still not as good as my all-time favorite place – Dick’s in Seattle (a drive-in place from the 50s). The fries are good too – nice and salty.

Then I went to Haiti’s embassy. The line there was very long too – probably more than 100 feet out the door. But I think it was just the herd mentality – if there are a lot of people waiting outside, then there must be something good inside, and it just feeds on itself. But I can’t imagine why so many Americans are so interested in Haiti. After going inside, however, there almost was nothing to visit. I spent probably a half hour waiting in the line, which continued inside through the lobby and up the stairs to the second floor, around through one room and really only to get a third of a Styrofoam cup full of punch. Sure, it had Haitian rum in it, but it was so little, and they were being so inefficient about handing it out (a non-Haitian woman asking each person if they wanted alcohol in their punch or not). The only thing to look at were colorful Haitian paintings in each room, which I saw many of at the paintings markets in Port au Prince myself many years ago. There was a man, a painter, giving a lecture in French (translated) in one room, but only a few people were interested. The rest of us were just standing in the line that snaked through the room to get our free punch. Regarding the building itself, there was nothing noteworthy or impressive about it.

Up the road a few doors was the Zambian embassy. A much shorter line, but again, very little to look at – well, absolutely nothing new to me. At least they had made the effort to set up several tables in one room and were displaying handicrafts. People were so impressed by them and were taking pictures of the large carvings. To me, it was stuff I had seen a million times before all over Africa.

On to another street to visit the Botswana embassy. Their focus was more on tourism, and so they had booklets about all the wildlife parks you could visit. As with the carvings at the Zambian embassy, I had been there, done that. Both the Zambia and Botswana embassies were in buildings that had nothing noteworthy.

I had planned to go to a different area farther north in the city to see another cluster of embassies, but by this time it was 3:00, and the whole event was going to be over in an hour, and given the wait time in lines at each place, I decided not to visit any more. And besides, it would have taken me farther from home, which meant I would have had a longer bike ride home, and my legs were already tired of standing in the Haitian embassy line. So I called it quits. I’ll do the others next year. I heard somebody saying the Bangladesh embassy was the best (another country I’ve been to). But it was all worth it because I got inside Indonesia’s embassy!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Leaving Kenya

In less than a week, Lexi and I (and my mom who has been here for a week) will all leave together to the U.S. It has been a crazy couple of weeks. I have been working frantically trying to get things wrapped up at work so that I don’t leave much hanging for my colleagues. My replacement will not come until August so there will be a gap that they will try and fill as best they can.

In anticipation of us leaving, I wrote Jane a letter just to indicate when her actual last day of work would be as her contract with us goes until the end of May. I told her that I would pay her the full May salary anyway but that I could not guarantee her a job. I think this made her mad as two days later, she gave me a letter from the Ministry of Labour. I didn’t open it right then but did when I got to work. In this letter, I was accused of everything from not paying a fair wage, to calling her the wrong title in the reference letter I had given her, to cheating my employer (she thought my employer paid for my house help). I felt horrible and was sobbing at my desk when the person who brings the tea and coffee things came in to my office. I think he was quiet upset that I was so upset. After consultations with colleagues, we decided that we should get the lawyer involved. The letter indicated that it had been CCd to various officials like immigration and the port – in other words, to indicate that my leaving the country would be a problem.

After review, the lawyer advised that we terminate Jane that day. I felt uncomfortable with her continuing and didn’t have the guts to terminate her either. So the lawyer and one of my office colleagues went to my house to do it; Jane refused to sign the letter accepting the final payment and said we had to meet at the labour office as scheduled in the letter I had received. I did have to come home and tell her verbally that she was fired and she left after that. Mom and Lexi were there the whole time – Mom reported afterwards that it was pretty tense and there was some shouting and lots of negative body language. Lexi obviously knew that something bad was happening as she went to stand by my mom and was very quiet.

That was Thursday. Mom and Lexi managed together without extra help. I felt pretty awful the whole weekend and didn’t sleep well Monday morning. Monday afternoon, the LWF office administrator, the lawyer and I left in plenty of time to get to the meeting which was in an office building downtown that looked like it had been built in the 70s. Out of 7 elevators, only 2 worked and there were lines of people waiting to get on one. So we walked – up 16 flights of stairs. I was pretty out of breath by the time we got to the 16th floor. And we found the meeting room right at the scheduled time. There was a line of people waiting outside this door as well which made us think we should wait. But soon the door opened and the labour officer looked out looking for us. So in we went. Jane was already there.

The meeting lasted 2 and a half hours – much longer than it needed to, I thought. The labour officer felt she had to defend herself – so we heard a lot of stories about similar situations and she kept bringing up rules in the employment act that I had broken. In the end, we ended up agreeing to pay Jane about USD 65 more than I had originally calculated if the labour office would write a letter saying that the issues in the original letter were resolved. I do think Jane did understand that I was hurt – the couple of items I spoke in the meeting, I struggled to keep from crying. But I am not sure if she was really happy in the end or not – even though she was asked and agreed to it. So to finish the transaction, we had to go back on Wednesday to hand over the money and sign the agreements. (Jane had to give her left thumb print as well as sign.) Up and down another 16 flights of stairs for only 15 minutes this time. I am not sure if it was completely wise to get the lawyer involved as I think it made it a bit more complicated than maybe it needed to be. And not that I have paid many lawyers, but it cost about USD 250 for 6 billable hours which sounds cheap to me – though I wish I hadn’t needed a lawyer at all!

So besides those disasterous few days, the stuff we are shipping to the US went this week. Because of cost, it is going by sea and will take around 2 months. Lexi didn’t seem to mind too much that the majority of her toys were being packed up. She enjoyed watching the packers do their thing including building the crate for the items in the car port. We have sold almost everything on our ‘for sale’ list which is nice.