Wednesday, November 9, 2011

There is Always Room for More

Nairobi mornings are the caw-caw of the pied crow, distinctly different from the call of the Indian house crow. This soundbyte, my earliest impression of a city and a country, kept me aware – without any doubt - of my new bearings, even if other things reminded me so much of home! I would see the crow on a tall post of the Norfolk pine, big bird with a white collar patch, unlike the smaller grey-black Indian one. This bird of the high altitudes and elevation did not deign to come down often and I saw it only in flight, rarely on  ground or on a low perch. Hence, after three years of my Kenya sojourn, I do not have a trophy photograph of the pied crow, but I am at it. 

A pastiche imprinted on mind, but one that eluded my constant companion camera again, is that of the Jacaranda blooms. Towering Jacaranda mimosifolia trees make an imposing arch, resembling a chapel doorway, in our residential complex. The spring, post long rains, sees the foliage transform into mauve florets overnight. Summer showers gently shake the tree tipping its bounty to the floor laying a bewitching tapestry underneath for us to tread on. The driveway, too, gets paved in molten mauve. On our evening walks, I would promise myself to go back the next morning to capture the violaceous carpet through the lens, but three seasons have come and gone and the desire has remained a yearning. 

The entire garden city of Nairobi wears a lovely lavender look come September. Many Kenya-based authors and poets – contemporary and classical - have written florid prose or odes in praise of  its blossoms. But for all that the jacaranda is an exotic tree transplanted from the shores of South America, smuggled in by intrepid explorers and enterprising colonists. It is the Spathodea campanulata, also called the Nandi flame (Nandi is a county in Western Kenya) that is truly a native beauty. I had seen this “African tulip” in Mumbai’s Naval area, a legacy of the Brits again, no doubt. The upturned orange-red bells earn the tree its other fetching name of 'Flame of the forest', immortalized by Elspeth Huxley in her book, “The Flame Trees of Thika”. Our embassy complex, like all colonial copycats, ironically, sports only the foreign jacaranda and pines, but not a single tulip tree.

I vowed to plant one in my garden, but haven’t got down to it  yet, not because of any lack of time or inclination. This idea just fell through; just one of those things. And interestingly, now that my African journey is coming to a close, I come across a Spathodea with mango-coloured blooms in Parklands-neighbourhood for the first time in my life. I have been searching for seedlings or saplings ever since with little success. I still have time, but I’m afraid it is a tad late in the day.

I have gone on safaris in almost all important game parks in Kenya, from Maasai Mara to our friendly neighbourhood Nairobi National Park (NNP). I have seen the Big Five and Small Five (well, almost), and all the mammals and critters in between. I wouldn’t get taken in much by the shibboleths, though; they are just fancy gimmick. The small five (corresponding to the Big Five) are elephant shrew, ant lion, leopard tortoise, buffalo weaver and the rhino beetle. I haven’t seen the rhino beetle yet, but I have seen the rest in the wild at Arabuko Sokoke  – a remnant of prehistoric forest -  near Mombasa. Surprisingly, of the Big Five, the rare and endangered black rhino proved difficult. Black rhinos are excruciatingly shy and sightings are rare;  I did see one in repose in an extra long-shot at the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, but hardly any in Kenya. Just two days back at NNP, I almost saw one but it did slink before I could blink!  

Something similar, but a reverse happenstance is the case of Kili – Mount Kilimanjaro, the symbol of African romanticism, the mountain Ernest Hemingway deified in the award-winning, “Snows of Kilimanjaro”. Kili’s famed snow-capped mantle opened up for a magnificent view on a clear morning when we were in Amboseli game park on the Kenya-Tanzania border. The rivulets of cream dripping down the table-top only whetted my appetite for more and I got another opportunity on a holiday in Tanzania. Four road trips to and fro parallel to the lone-standing tallest mountain in Africa – from Arusha to Moshi (the foothills of Kili) and back, and Arusha to Serengeti and back – failed to hype our chances of Kili-spotting. The mountain remained shrouded in clouds refusing to reveal itself! And I am only talking of ‘seeing’ the mountain, leave alone climbing it. We did not even consider doing Kili’s Coca-cola route, a 7-day basic level climb; we simply had no space for it in our itinerary.

In the final analysis, I did not do the (hot air) balloon safari over the savannas – an experience of a lifetime, but went on a night safari and also got to witness the eighth wonder of the world, the wildebeest migration. I will not get to see the African tulip flower in my garden, but was able to nurture African violets and African lilies. I did not get to fulfill my desire to do photo essays on the Baobab and Kenyan women in khangas, nevertheless through my Canon SX 100 I visited  trees, birds, mammals, landscapes, and people differently, deeply. I may not have engaged with the isolated and unadulterated Maasai or Samburu tribes, but had a sustained and intimate interaction with the locals of various other tribes that are in the mainstream. I did not learn Kiswahili, not even the kitchen variety (my biggest regret), but learnt the language of universality. I did not get to meet my idol, Prof. Wangari Maathai, but got to see her work and her “karmabhoomi”. I did not take to running as a fitness regimen (as I planned to) in the country of runners, but got to witness the glory of Marathon champions on their home turf. I did not lose weight, but gained wisdom. There is so much to do, and then there is only so much you can do. 

There will always be travel regrets, but who’s complaining!

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