On a rock wall. Afraid of heights.

Two weeks ago, I had my first opportunity to climb outdoors. My friends were going to Hell’s Gate – the national park two hours outside Nairobi that inspired much of the Lion King film.

I have been afraid of heights my whole life. That fear is one of the main reasons I’ve never gone rock climbing outdoors. In a rock climbing gym, the controlled environment feels like a pretty safe space to dangle from a rope two to three stories up. But when I get near the edge of a cliff, I feel like I suddenly have to fight the urge to leap into the void.

This really freaked me out when I was younger, even though the fear was tinged with a sense of exhilaration, too.

Aside: Recently (read: five minutes ago), I learned this urge is called the “high place phenomenon.” In one study on the feeling, researchers found the desire to jump wasn’t correlated with suicidal thoughts and was instead correlated with “anxiety sensitivity.” Anxiety sensitivity is essentially how anxious being anxious makes you – specifically how reactive you are to the physical sensations of your body telling you it’s in danger (like the quaking in your knees as you look over a cliff).

It was one of the most beautiful days I have ever experienced. It had been rainy all week (we’re just wrapping up the rainy season in Kenya), but the day we were climbing was all sunshine and scudding clouds.

We hired a climbing guide to set up two top ropes so that we could belay ourselves after that. We had one easier climb and one harder one. Later, another climber showed up and set up another climb and we moved the easier rope to another wall. I was able to try all four and got to the top of three. The fourth had an overhang and was the last one I attempted. I got my arms onto the overhang but couldn’t haul myself over the top that late in the day.

Nervous? Who, me?
My friend Maddy documented my first climb of the day
I learned some actual climbing technique on the many cracks in the wall. Improving over the day felt like the biggest win.

I was pretty freaked out by the view and the drop off at the top of this one, but after the first descent I got comfy sitting on the rope and hanging out at the top of the other climbs.
Also got to learn how to belay with a gri-gri.
It was Maddy’s first time climbing outside, too.

After we “cleaned” the routes (removed the equipment we had used for top-roping), we drove through the rest of the park to reach some sulphur hot springs on the opposite side. The whole landscape was wide open and gorgeous.

At one point a giraffe just started running alongside our car. It was magical.

10/10 experience and made me really want to climb more!

Elephant Hill

Two weekends ago, I went on one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever been on – Elephant Hills in the Aberdares.

The optimistic first minutes

Unfortunately, the hike was 3 hours longer than advertised, we ran out of water, we had to hike in the dark (with hyenas??), and I got altitude sickness and threw up. Otherwise, best hike ever.

The second fall and we weren’t even in the woods yet

“The Aberdares? In the rainy season? Are you crazy?!” – My boss when she heard about our trip at work the next day

Lots of recovering from falls

Mikala found a group hiking Elephant Hills – a hike we’d all heard was crazy beautiful – and invited Brooke and me. I added Nick and Alice from work to the hiking crew. Women Who Hike Kenya organized the buses, park fees, park rangers, and “personal photographer” (which is why I have so many pics from the hike – I didn’t get my phone out to take any pics until we reached the peak).

Unfortunately, the personal photographer took pictures of everything, including my return from peeing in the bushes

The best section going up and down was the bamboo forest we passed through. On the way up, we thought this was the middle third of the hike up – it was more like one of the middle tenths of the climb.

We started out by criss-crossing a muddy road, then followed the road through potato farms, through a pine forest, through an electric fence to keep the game out, through more trees, and along another open grassy section before reaching the bamboo part. On the way down, these pre-bamboo sections all merged into one quick burst in our minds… instead, it kept going and going and going. The bamboo section was just a vertical shoot up a mud slide between gorgeous bamboo shoots – lots more falling.

This pic captures the beauty, but not the steepness

After the long bamboo section, we took a quick break on a grassy knoll. A bunch of us thought it was the elephant’s head, so we ate all our lunch. But then on we went.

Me finding out this isn’t the top as the peak in the background emerged from the clouds

The next section was just a muddy stream of squelching mud sprinkled with safari ants (vicious biters, but I thankfully wasn’t bit). We also thought this was the last section…

Valiantly attempting to keep up the pep as the altitude starts hitting us

…until we arrived at another grassy section leading us up into the clouds.

“Really?”

After that, I started feeling really sick and decided I had to just power through to the peak. The clouds faked us out at least 5 or 6 times before I finally made it. As soon as I reached the top, the clouds parted and we were treated to incredible 360 views. I was too busy dying of altitude sickness to notice at first. I recovered a bit and ate some of my leftover “I’m not going to Liberia for two months!”chocolate cake from Java.

I was desperate to get down from altitude (about 12,500 ft at the peak, up nearly 3000 ft from the trailhead), so I tried to keep up with Alice and Nick. They hadn’t been feeling the altitude sickness like Brooke, Mikala, and me. Pretty quickly, though, I had to stop and almost started crying my head hurt so much. I let the rest of the summiters pass me by until Brooke and Mikala reached me and rallied my spirits.

Still, Mikala and I were hit pretty hard and it was slow going. Meanwhile, Brooke was calculating how long it would take to get down, comparing that timeline to when it would get dark, and debating whether it was better to push us to go faster when we were feeling so crappy or to be in a national park with wild animals after dark. Actually, at that point, we were more worried about being in that dense, slippery bamboo in the dark.

My head was pounding, I felt hopeless but knew I had to keep going, and my legs were quaking. I’ve never seen my legs shake as hard as they did each time I paused to take a sip of water or breath more deeply. I’d been sitting on the idea that I needed to throw up for about 15 minutes when I finally sped up a bit, turned off the trail and puked. After that, I felt AWESOME. My legs were still shaking, but now my head wasn’t pounding.

We made it to the first grassy knoll where we’d eaten lunch. Happily, another group of friends on the hike had over-prepared with extra gatorades and lent us some. We refueled and then plunged back into the bamboo forest.

Just leave me here to die

We had some great jungle-woman moments slipping and sliding down the increasingly dimly lit bamboo section. The bamboo  on the edge of the path were key; we swung between them rather than trust our weight on the muddy slope.

By the time we made it to the end of the bamboo, we were euphoric and wanted to power through the final spurt. But by the time we hit the pine tree forest again, it was already dark. At that point, one of the more experienced hikers who had done Elephant Hills seven or eight times before started getting antsy. He kept hiking super fast but also yelling at the few stragglers to stay with the group and warning everyone about hyenas.

At that point, though, I was actually in a great mood. I had a stick to wave menacingly at the dark edges of the path, I wasn’t at a crazy altitude anymore, and I knew where we were and how to get back.

In all, we hiked 12 miles, straight up and straight down through deep mud. No switchbacks in the Aberdares, apparently! I was out on the trail from 9 am to 7 pm.

10/10 would do again… but maybe only through the bamboo section. And probably not in the rainy season!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What you can get for $50 [repost]

So I was phoneless in Kenya…

After my iPhone took a dive onto the floor of my shower room (showers have their own rooms in Nairobi), it finally powered off for good.

The shower incident was this particular phone’s second aquatic misadventure, and despite a full recovery that lasted nearly a month, it stopped charging properly and I judged it good and dead this time.

So I was phoneless in Kenya, where people buy SIM cards and phones separately, and don’t buy longterm contracts like we do in the States. This meant that a new iPhone would cost out-of-pocket nearly $1000.

I had to get some kind of phone, though, because Uber or Taxify apps are really the only way to get around without a car, especially at night, unless you have a “guy,” a word which here means someone you trust to drive you around at all hours and who can usually take your calls.

People have a different “guy” (see also: “fundi”) for every need. There’s the chair fundi, the boda guy (boda = motorcycle), and even the guy guy, who can find you the right guy for whatever needs getting done.

At the Safaricom shop, I perused a wall of smartphones. I left ten minutes later with a fully functioning smartphone, just $50 lighter. I was euphoric — a smartphone for $50!? And I can download Medium, Facebook, a podcast app, Audible, even Spotify? Maybe I won’t get a new iPhone when I’m home for Christmas. What on earth are we shelling out a thousand dollars to Apple for?

Mmm…. quite a lot it turns out. While technically the phone does everything an iPhone would do, it does it all worse and at one tenth the speed.

Still, it’s incredible that Tecno has made something so functional — if not smooth — for $50. Really, I got exactly what I was looking for: a cheap phone that works for calls and texts, and close enough for Uber.

So what else can you get in Nairobi for $50?

5 months worth of plenty of data.

25 days worth of “Traditional Veg Mix + Chapati (x2)” delivered lunches.

5/6 of an amazing Festive Cheetah “explorer pillow” from artist Kanagrui. (Okay, seriously, how great are these cheetahs?)

2500 trips to work from the closest matatu stop (if I take the cheaper matatu).

5x$10 knock-off iPhone charging cords that are not broken and which you can buy to find out that your iPhone chargers were all broken (including the brand new one you bought 3 weeks ago, somehow), and that your iPhone is actually fine.

The Mzungu Who Thought She Knew About Public Transportation [repost]

I have been meaning to write a comprehensive update of what has happened since I suffered a 36-hour airport-hopping journey to move across the world, from my childhood home in Chapel Hill, NC, USA to Nairobi, Kenya. Of course, every day I put off writing a full update, I add another day to describe and make it even less likely I ever send anything. So. New tactic: sporadic updates with whatever scenes I’m motivated to share. Otherwise it’s just not gonna happen.


At lunchtime on Oct. 30, we found out that the Kenyan election board (IEBC) would soon be releasing results from the re-run election that took place on Thursday, Oct. 26.

For those who aren’t following the Kenyan election drama, incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta won the initial election in August. But second-place opposition leader Raila Odinga of NASA (not the U.S. space organization — Kenya’s main opposition party!) challenged the results in court, claiming that there were constitutional violations in the handling of voting data, etc.

Shockingly, the Supreme Court actually ruled in his favor (giving the NYTimes a bit of whiplash as they went from calling him a sore loser to praising this step for democracy) and set up re-run elections between the two leaders (Odinga and President Kenyatta) scheduled first for mid-October, then for October 26. Ahead of the run-off, however, NASA decided to boycott the new election, saying that the election board had failed to make meaningful changes. Reports at the time said turn-out was very low on Oct. 26 (in the end, it was about 39%, compared to over 80% in the original elections), and some areas, especially where Odinga has a lot of support, did not even vote (due to a combination of the boycotts and physical blockades set up by protesters to prevent people from reaching the polling stations).

My colleagues and I were instructed to stock up on food and water and stay at home in the days around the election, just to be safe. Some staff heard gun shots and I saw smoke from my balcony in the direction of Kawangware, where there were fires and gangs taking advantage of the chaos to perpetrate tribally motivated violence. We were all safe, though. 

Twitter was the best source for live up-dates during the election.

The next Monday, we went back to work, thinking we’d be working from home later in the week whenever they planned to announce the results of the run-off. We were surprised to hear they would be that afternoon and so were all sent home early so we would not have to travel right after results were released, in case of really bad traffic or violence.

At 2:30 pm, I walked to the bus stop just down the street from my office to take a matatu home. The announcement was scheduled for 3:30 p.m. and my ride home should take about 15 minutes, 30 if the traffic is bad.

Matatus, for those who have not yet had the pleasure, are what buses are called in much of Eastern Africa. The term can apply to the more official coach bus-style public transport that has been mapped (very cool!) or to the classic, old-timey, VW-style vans with about 15 seats (but which can be seen carrying up to 18 or 20 people). The bus to work, if I take a coach-style matatu, costs about 40 cents. A smaller matatu costs 20 cents.

So I’m waiting for a matatu, listening to the Spirits podcast (highly recommend), and one of the small matatus pulls up. Not as comfy, but I’m just ready to go home, so I ask if the matatu goes to Valley Arcade, a mall near my house. The small matatus are not marked very clearly (at least not in any system that I’ve figured out!) so I always have to ask. The man nods, I repeat myself, he nods again and ushers me aboard. I slide along the bench to sit by the window with my phone tightly in hand and backpack on my lap (requisite security measures for any rider unless you want your belongings nabbed by an opportunistic passenger or passerby).

We drive on and turn off the route I’m expecting. I know there’s an alternative route I’ve taken in Ubers occasionally, so I’m not too concerned… until we fly past that turn-off, too. I tap the driver’s assistant (fare collector and passenger recruiter) on the shoulder and ask again, Do you go to Valley Aracade? No, no.

Well. Great.

I am ushered off at the next stop and pointed toward another cluster of matatus and assured those will take me to Valley Arcade. A bit peeved that I’d been swindled by a matatu, I walked up to the new matatu and repeated my question three times: Do you go to Valley Arcade? Yes, yes, valley arcade. In I go. I think you have already guessed this matatu does not go to Valley Arcade either.

We’re going in the right direction, past Junction Mall, which is a 15-minute walk from home, but then we don’t turn and instead start heading off in the opposite direction. I ask the driver’s assistant, Do you go around to Valley Arcade? Maybe they loop around, I think, attempting to hold onto a shred of optimism… No. He gives me a curious look, wondering why I would think that.

It’s 3:10 and I’m starting to get a bit anxious about getting home by 3:30.

The man sitting next to me, dressed in formal business attire, very helpfully says I can get off at the next stop where he is also getting out and he can show me how to get to the 46, the bus I probably should have just waited for in the first place. Great. We hop out and he makes to walk into Kawangware: To cross over to where the 46 is, he says when I stop walking. Nope, nope, nope. Not right before election results are announced.

Instead, I catch yet another matatu heading back in the other direction, get off at Junction Mall, and walk home. I get in right at 3:30 pm, just in time for the announcement.

Except the election results weren’t announced until around 8 pm that night, and by that time I was rock climbing with a friend all the way across town. We were warned there might be celebrations or protests blocking our way back home, but there wasn’t even extra traffic when we finally headed back.

Twice swindled by matatus in one day. But, in the end, the little adventure only cost me my pride at being a mzungu who understands public transportation and an extra 40 cents.

Originally posted Nov. 4, 2017 on my Unofficial Economist Medium publication.