Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Hippo Hate

My roommate Julie laughed at me as I packed my bags in Nairobi. I was laughing at me too.

"See this nice camera lens?" I held out my 70-300 Canon lens, the repaired one I'd once cracked against the wall on a Cape Town-bound freighter before famously spending a month trying to get it fixed in South Africa and Namibia. I'd given up and bought a new one in Windhoek. I'd foolishly given the replacement lens to Herr Marlboro right after he had been really mean to me in Uganda. Which is a shame because it was just the right size for throwing at his head, which would have been a more suitable response to his outrageous behavior.

"I'm packing it in my checked baggage. Along with my SLR and my digital point-and-shoot."

I wrapped each piece carefully in articles of clothing.

"Why?" Julie always asked sensible questions.

"Because I need my carry-on room for this cheap wooden hippo." I waved the forearm-sized blond wooden hippo bound for a bookcase in Los Angeles. I'd gone to a lot of trouble over several years to get this hippopotamus, and since hippos hate me, I didn't want to risk letting it out of my sight.

"Are you sure about this?" Julie looked skeptical.

"Yes," I said. "I have bad luck with hippos but my bags have always made it."

I'm pleased to report that the hippo made it to New York with me. The camera lens, camera, point-and-shoot, and a lot of really smelly clothing did not.

I filed a report at the JFK Virgin Atlantic counter.

"At least we won't have to carry our bags home," I said cheerfully to the other passenger whose bag had not shown up.

I supposed it would be a day, two at the most, and then the bag would show up—reeking of Marie-safari-sweat—on my doorstep.

But I didn't reckon with the Curse of the Hippo. I thought I'd kicked it, but it's obviously still with me. My insistence on carrying the hippo in my carry-on meant that my bag was not located for four days. And then it arrived on the fifth day.

Nothing was broken, except for the combination lock. They'd gone through everything, listing the contents because the labels had come off in transit.

"I think I found your bag," the Virgin rep had announced when he called me. "Let me read you the contents: Lonely Planet East Africa, toiletries, clothing, shoes, Canon lens…"

"That's it! How soon can you get it here?"

What seemed funny on Day Two had become inconvenient on Day Three, when I'd realized my sandals were in the bag. On Day Four, I had really started to panic and was cursing back at hippos in general. I wanted the lens. I wanted the exposed film of lion porn. I wanted my dirty old clothes to be in the washing machine in my basement instead of sitting in the lost luggage room at Heathrow.

Finally, my bag showed up on a sunny Friday morning in Jersey City. Once again, I was done with Africa. Done with the book, done with the press trip, done with dik-diks, and done with hippos.

I just hope they are done with me.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Curse of the Hippo Continued

If you've read this blog for a while, you know that I have a minor hippo issue.

Hippos don't like me. I don't know what I did to offend them, and admittedly our yard-hippo never messed with me at night in Uganda, when I lived in Murchison Falls National Park. The last night I was there, the yard-hippo woke me up one last time as he shuffled past, tearing at the grass as he snuffled and followed his usual hippo trail up from the Nile to the front yard.

I'm sure the hippo that had chased me the day before, along the banks of the Nile, was a different hippo. That one didn't like me at all, and he put a curse on me that made all kinds of bad things happen to me for months.

Then, in 2001, I was on a hippo-quest to carry a wooden hippo home from Africa to the creator of Hip Flask: Private Hippopotamus." I acquired said-hippo after a countrywide search throughout Kenya, and then howled with frustration when I couldn't get it out of Ethiopia—even though it wasn't Ethiopian—without a permit from the Department of Antiquities. And then when I finally resigned myself to sending it home via DHL to avoid postal permits, I opened it and it disintegrated, having been smashed in my luggage by other luggage on the back of a truck.

"I would have taken the broken one and glued it back together," said the intended recipient.


So it was with great determination that I left Nairobi's Norfolk Hotel on Saturday. I was hippo-hunting. Failure was not an option.

I walked a block past Parkside, the old Marie-standby hotel. Past Steers and Debonair's, the South African fast food chains. Past a place where I could get a GSM mobile phone for $20. And into a souvenir shop I knew from 2001.

The shop didn't have any hippos. I think I knew that already. The proprietor directed me around the corner where there were some very nice hippos in the $70 range.

"These are lovely hippos," I explained. "But I don't have this much money. Do you know where I can buy a cheap hippo?"

The shopkeeper walked outside with me and pointed across the street.

"Just the other side of that building.

A group of young touts sat outside the cheap souvenir shop. They greeted me. I laughed and greeted them.

"Jambo." I knew one of them would escort me and make money from my purchase. I followed "Frank" into the shop.

Eventually, an acceptable blond wooden hippo the size of my forearm was located. The the drama began.

"That's all right, but not very nice. How much is it?"

"Oh, for you, 3500 shillings."


I laughed again and said I wanted to spend five dollars.

"A lot of work went into this hippo. Look at the carving on the face."

There were a few crude slashes indicating a face. I stared, skeptical.

"I cannot take less than 3500 shillings. You must realize that it is handmade."

"Do you know how much a hippo like this would cost me in the US?"

By now a crowd of men had gathered to watch the negotiations. They murmured amongst themselves when I said "Twenty dollars."

"If it would cost me twenty dollars at home, why would I pay $48 here and then have to carry it?"

Frank did not want to go down in price in front of the others. He tugged at my elbow and steered me away from the crowd.

"Give me 2400," he said. $33.

"No way. That's too much. And I thought you said it was worth more."

"I cannot eat this hippo," he said. "I can eat with your shillings."

He had me. I agreed to pay 1000 shillings and $10—about $23 and far more than I'd meant to pay. Then he talked me out of my coins so he could buy a Coke.

Finally, I asked how much an elephant soapdish was.


"I have only 510 and I want to buy lunch."

"You may have the soapdish for 360 shillings."

"I also want a bottle of water."



A plump woman wrapped my purchases in old newspaper, and Frank sent me on my way. But still, I eyed the hippo warily. What havoc would my old enemy wreak in my luggage this time?

Friday, May 26, 2006

Cyber Semantics

When I travel on my own dime (or shilling, in Kenya's case), I stay at the Parkside Hotel for about twenty dollars a night.

Just a block away is where I stayed this time, at the Norfolk Hotel, Nairobi's old colonial hotel from 1904. If I had to pay the bill, it would be more than ten times what I pay for the Parkside. Yow!

Hotel Wi-Fi was similarly priced. 600 shillings ($8.24) for an hour, or 1500 ($20) for 24 hours.

Cybercafes all over Kenya? One shilling a minute, or ten times less per hour than the Norfolk. So of course I traipsed over to the third floor cybercafe across from Parkside to run out my coins.

On the wall in front of me was a sign:


I wonder if that includes lion porn.

Monday, May 22, 2006

New Diet to Sweep Nation

"Tippa, darling, how do you stay so thin?"

"Why, Marie, I drink milk, eat beef, and I like to jump. I also spear lions."

Okay, this conversation didn't really happen. But only because my Swahili is limited to about six words.

Tippa was the resident Maasai in the Land Cruiser I went around Masai Mara in. He was our game spotter, the one who declared his favorite animals to be goats and sheep.

"May I take a photo of this lady?" asked one of the other tourists later, when he saw a svelte young Maasai later (from the back).

"Do you mean this Maasai warrior?" was the shocked reply.

Maasai are so very skinny. But how do they get this way? What lessons can our overly hefty nation learn from the Maasai culture?

First, one must eat lots of beef. The Atkins craze has taken care of this.

Second, one should consume lots of milk and some corn meal.

Third, you have to walk a lot. I mean a LOT. Chase animals if possible. If you live in Ohio, walk to Indiana.

Fourth, you must leap straight into the air several times a day. Another Maasai (not Tippa) told me privately that the jumping is to impress girls. But then he admitted that some people do it for fun.

I think it also helps to dress in a red blanket and wear shoes made of recycled tires.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

One-Hit Wonder

Wow, my blog sure has gotten popular since I mentioned lion porn. I've had hundreds of hits over the last few days, and not all from

Just imagine if I'd put up the photos!

That's the closest you'll get to an R-rated entry on this site, folks. Apologies if it was too racy for you.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Simba Love

"You missed lion sex," announced a passenger in the Gamewatchers Land Rover as our Land Cruiser pulled up alongside in Masai Mara.

I was disappointed. I'd been on a lot of safaris in Africa, and even been to Kenya's Masai Mara once before, but I hadn't ever seen lion sex.

"Wait fifteen minutes," whispered a different passenger in my vehicle.

We did. A large maned male and a white-bellied lioness slept side-by-side on the dirt road. They were both breathing rapidly and shallowly.

The male kept opening his eyes and glancing at the female, leading to several "he's checking to see if she's ready" jokes.

But Gordon Ormondi, the safari guide behind the wheel of our Land Cruiser said: "No, he's keeping an eye on her to make sure no other males try to cut in. They mate several times a day for seven days, and other males can smell her and wait to see if they can take over."

Sure enough, a few minutes later someone announced, "Look, another lion."

Another male prowled nearby. He'd lie in the grass, eyeballing the female, then he'd pace a few feet closer before lying down. He'd roll over on his back and pretend to be asleep.

"He must be from the same pride," said Gordon. "Or he wouldn't even be allowed to come this close."

The female lion raised her head. The male's head shot up. She stood up. He stood up too, and went straight to her side. He was bigger and easily placed himself above her back legs. He did his lion thing for just a few seconds before she growled ferociously. He snarled back, surely trying to tell her who was boss, but she then growled louder. He gave up and staggered away. She started to stalk off, so he walked directly aside her, always between her and the other male, until she collapsed in an exhausted heap. The male lay down too.

We waited.

The lion porn was repeated several times over the course of the day, and the lions were always there when we'd check after driving around and looking at other animals, like zebra, elephants, giraffes, hippos, and of course, dik-diks. Towards the end of the day, we saw dozens of the common Nissans as the afternoon safari drives began.

Then, Tippa—our Masaai wildlife spotter who'd earlier declared his favorite animals to be goats and sheep—pointed. "There."

Four lionesses and one young male were prowling through the tall yellow-green savannah. The jealous male that we'd seen before was right in their path.

"If they are of the same pride," said Gordon. "They will greet each other by grooming each other. If not, we may see one hell of a fight."

They were not friends. The jealous male first chased the young male away. Then he returned to claim the four females.

He marched up to the largest female. She was right next to our open-sided Land Cruiser. There was about ten feet between the vehicle and the lioness.

"ROAAAAR!" The female growled a tremendous roar and swatted at the male, advancing on his position. He roared back and jumped forward, then backed up.

We all jumped.

"I really don't want to be here," said a woman in the backseat.

Gordon quickly turned on the Land Cruiser and backed us away.

"Sometimes the lions can move around when they fight, and then could hit the car," he explained.

The male, meanwhile, appeared to think better of his conquest. He backed off slowly, while the female stood her ground. The male then chased a smaller female across the plains, towards the gazelles and ostriches in the distance.

"It's time to go back to camp," said Gordon. We pulled away, visiting the mating pair once again. They were still at it.

P.S. Photos to come.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Kidnapped by Giraffes!

Not actually kidnapped by giraffes, just no internet until Friday. Look for a pornographic lion story then.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Inauspicious Beginning

Hm, so far my big trip has gone like this.

-Two nights "sleeping" on airplanes.
-No one at airport holding a sign with my name on it, so I caught the hotel shuttle.
-At hotel, my name wasn't at the front desk so the receptionist worked out that I wasn't going to finish my freelance today and go to a reception tonight, that was last night that the group stayed at the hotel (who knows why they booked me to arrive the day after) and I was due to get in a van and go on safari in an hour. And then said it was $25 for the hotel shuttle and $18 for breakfast. I talked my way out of the $25 charge and decided to go hungry.
-The shower by the swimming pool opens at the same time my van leaves.
-My bosses are all going to kill me for not getting my work done today and then being out of touch for a week. I wouldn't be surprised is at least one of them fired my ass.
-I'm pretty sure I stink. I wouldn't mind brushing my teeth and changing my clothes. I'll go do that in the ladies room as soon as I finish uploading some files. Wonder if the wifi works in the ladies room. I bet it does! I always enjoy taking a sink shower and changing my clothes in the public ladies room in a fancy hotel. Now is my big chance.

Other than that, Nairobi looks much the same as it did in November.

AWA. Africa Wins Again.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Jambo, This Time You're Our Guest

The first time I went to Nairobi, I was surprised at how many innovative scams I encountered. This time, the city has done an about-face. I am Kenya's guest.

I'm en route to Nairobi for a FAM—a 7-day press trip. Yes, I admit I'm pretty "FAM" already with Kenya—but I've never been to private games reserves and that's where the tourism board is taking me (I get to write a few stories about this for

I received plenty of pre-departure information, which I ignored, but now I'm on the plane and reviewing it. I realized, to my great horror, that I did not bring several of the items on the "PACKING" list.

For example, I left home without these essential items:

-zipper pant/short khakis
-khaki/green/white clothing
-a "Patagonia"

I hope they let me in the country anyway.

A Day at the Morris Canal

Last weekend, the eSwede visited me in Jersey City. The first time he'd visited a few weeks before, he'd had to push my car down Eighth Street in the first twenty minutes of arriving, and then Roberta and I made him take pictures of her electrical tape art. Then I made him meet my mother and 20 of my friends, poor man. So I wanted to make his second visit a little better.

I first offered to take him to IKEA—and when he rejected that, I dragged him around to look at open houses and then to the campground at Liberty State Park and the Morris Canal. The Morris Canal, along with the D&R Canal, was a major supply line between Pennsylvania (coal-mining country) and New York City. The D&R Canal is somewhat preserved as a bike path, but not a lot is left of the Morris Canal.

Here's some of the photos he took at the Morris Canal basin.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Going on Safari

Guess where I get to go tomorrow?

Hint: Check out the blog's title.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Monsters on 26th Street

Today was a big taking-care-of-business day. I did the yearly ob/gyn thing (always a humbling experience) and then headed to the hair colorist. Both of these things require a trip across the river to Manhattan as well as a walk between the two locales.

I was heading south on Sixth Avenue, around 26th Street. I stopped at a DON'T WALK sign--no, not because it told me to, but because there were taxis barreling through the intersection--and noticed that about seven people around me were looking up.

One of them was a fat guy in a suit, another was scruffy and down-trodden like a bike messenger who'd lost his bike, two were fairly respectable women in nice office clothing, one was a student-age guy. I've forgotten what the others looked like.

I followed their glances. They were all staring at a massive crane that had lifted a huge dumpster off of a construction site and was carrying it through the sky.

It was really big, so I looked at it too. Then I thought how funny it was that we were all standing on a corner staring at a giant machine. I couldn't help it; presumably neither could they. Monster machines are just really cool, and to everyone, not just a certain type of person.

Monday, May 08, 2006

4. Write Book

I just had the pleasure of archiving and deleting 300 MB off my laptop. That might not sound like much, but it was an important 300 MB.

One folder was called "" and the other was simply named "Book."

The first folder contained all the Marie-mails, graphics, and duplicated files off of The other had the original Slow Boat to Everywhere book proposal that I used when looking for an agent, the revised one after an agent expressed interest in it as a graphic novel, and then the re-revised one after she decided that wasn't going to fly and asked for one similar to what I'd sent her originally (grr).

The agent never sold anything for me and finally gave up.

Then I sold it myself, though it became just about Africa and not about the world (the buyer's request) and I renamed it Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik.

So the folder called "Book" had multiple revised Table of Contents, 17 or 18 chapters, a bunch of revisions, and lots of notes off my blog and comments from friends and strangers. I had received helpful feedback from a lot of sources, including my editor Karen Bleske, a writer I haven't seen in 21 years named Ed Ward, cartoonist Shannon Wheeler, and writer Edward Readicker-Henderson. My most invaluable feedback was from an email correspondent in Sweden, who tirelessly and relentlessly encouraged me even when I thought I couldn't hack it as a writer and that I basically sucked.

After years of working on Damn Book, it's gone. Out of my life and in the hands of my editor and a small publisher in the Bay Area.

"Now what?" I ask myself.

It's been about Damn Book for over four years. Now I can get back to my life, get on with things.

What exactly was I doing before this? What am I getting back to?

I'm not sure. There's no shortage of things to do. Edit for Kuwaiti comics, color for Gemstone, possibly work on the Amtrak online newsletter, possibly write the copy for a children's atlas, unpack and move back into my apartment, and the like. There does seem to be a lack of clear goals, though.

It's an exhilarating, funny feeling, having Damn Book gone. I wonder if I'll have a sort-of crash in a few days.

Friday, May 05, 2006

A Picture Is Worth 149 Words

I'm finally finishing the revisions on my book, Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik. Today I'm revising the last chapter in the list of things to revise. There will probably be another round of cleaning things up, but this damn book is finally almost out of my life. (It's normal for me to hate the book at this point. I despised the camping guidebooks with every fiber of my being when I was almost done with them; now I look at them fondly because following a structure is easy compared to writing a book of your own design.)

I'm still sad that the publisher didn't want anything the least bit comic book-y in it.

Here's some text, and the same thing told in illustrated form (by Don Hudson).


I left 680 and walked for a coffee. The same man who had called me a "son of a bitch" earlier in the week addressed me.

I wasn't ready to leave Nairobi yet. I was just getting comfortable with it. I was just getting used to the smell of the city where it was easy to buy deodorant, but harder to find anti-perspirant. People were just starting to recognize and greet me. But the Dragoman truck was heading north to Ethiopia, and if I missed it, I'd have to hitch a ride on a desert cargo truck. In spite of my wariness of group activities, I knew I had to go with Dragoman. I headed towards the hotel to pack my bag. A familiar man walked up beside me.

"Still walking, huh?"

"You already tried this once," I responded, smiling.

"Son of a bitch," he said and strode away.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


It seems like whenever I go to the gym, the next person to come in jumps on the machine right behind me in the circuit.

There can be ten empty machines and no one else in the place, but for whatever reason, the newcomer feels compelled to chase my tail.

It's really annoying.

That's all. I won't mention it again.