Thursday, August 25, 2016

Not so Dry Tortugas National Park

Have you heard about Dry Tortugas National Park? Four weeks ago I had not. When I stumbled upon it on google maps it immediately went to the top of my bucket list. In commemoration for the centennial birthday of the U.S. National Park Service I will be telling you about my experience camping at Dry Tortugas National Park. 

Dry Tortugas National Park is located 67 miles from Key West Florida. It's a small remote cluster of islands that is home to Fort Jefferson, built in 1846, to protect the U.S. From the gulf. Most of the fort walls still stand today giving the island an interesting lure for tourists. This hexagon shaped brick fort with two story high walls takes up the majority of Garden Island, the most popular of the Dry Tortuga Islands. 

As you approach the islands, it's red brick walls and it's perfect polygonal shape, contrast from the other islands passed on the two hour journey from key west. There are many ways to get to Dry Tortugas National Park. You can sail your own boat, you can hire a seat on the pontoon, or you can use the cheapest option the daily ferry. You can choose between a single day trip or a multi-day trip. Single day trips leave at 8am and return around 5:30pm. 

Of course when I heard there was camping on the island, I could not imagine a better way to learn and explore Dry Tortugas National Park. When the 175 people board the ferry at 3pm, the island is left to the handful of campers, the private boaters and the park rangers. This gives campers the feeling that they are on a deserted island. 

Immediately when I disembarked the boat I made my way the the most prime real estate to pitch my tent. I erected my tent ten strides from the beach behind a gnarly tree furthest from the other camping sites. Almost second after I threw my bags into the tent it began to pour. As there was not much esle to do I undressed and ran out into the water. I floated near the beach watching bolts of lightning strike the sea.

As the rain began to calm I decided to try snorkeling. I headed to the north beach and swam out into hundreds of thousands of small fish. Large tarpon swam by eating the small fish. After I walked over to south beach and swam through the pilings of an old ruined dock. Here the posts had been covered by coral and many colorful fish swam in and out of the posts. Swimmers are warned to stay far from the coral, as most of the pilings were covered with fire coral, which stings if you touch it. 

As I swam back to shore I saw a large dark fish swimming towards me on the sea bottom which was only 3 meters down. The large dark grey fish turned out to be a shark. I tried to stay calm as I watched the 6 foot long shark swim only meters from me. Quickly I swam back, checking once to make sure I was nor being followed.

When I reached shore I realized everyone had left. The the island was quiet now. Storm clouds loomed in every direction. I began exploring the fort, walking through the parade grounds, climbing the walls, and inspecting the cannons. I was intersected by a ranger who asked if I wanted to catch some dinner. Ther than veggie dogs, I didn't have much to eat so I agreeded and followed him and the other four campers tithe dock. 

The park ranger showed us how to cast a circle net to collect bait fish. I practiced a couple time but wasn't very good and the fish were too fast for me. After a couple tries I decided to try my hand at fishing with the bait fish that had already been caught. I threaded the circle hook through the small bate fish cast out the line of the hand fishing reel. The ranger sad it was like fishing in an aquarium because there were so many fish. I didn't have much luck. The smart snappers were just stealing my fish right off the hook. 

I was getting hungry. I cashed out the line one more time. When I felt the tug, I released my line a bit. The line still felt heavy so I began to reel it back in. Something tugged at my line as I pulled. I watched in astonishment when I hauled in a foot long snapper. This was the second fish I have ever caught, the first was the parang in the Amazon. The ranger taught us how to clean, gut, and fillet the fish. I wrapped my fish in foil and took it back to my campsite to cook.

That night I feasted on snapper and veggie dogs. I hauled my dessert up to the fort ramparts facing west to watch the sunset just as it began to pour. I gave up on my hope to watch the sunset as aLl could see was the rain in my eyes and the dark clouds blocking the sun. I decided instead to walk around the most wall the lined the fort. At night, alone, it's a bit scary. Waves turned up by the storm hit the most wall and sprayed water over the surface. I walked hoping the crocodile that lived in the island would not pop out and scary me. 

As the storm passed the clouds began to clear. Thousands of stars began to shine over Dry Tortugas National Park. They say on a clear day you can see the arm of the Milky Way, I could begin to see it as I headed to bed. 

The night was windy, humid, and hot. I am never that comfortable sleeping in a small camp mat, adding all the other elements made it very difficult to fall asleep. Once I did, I didn't want to wake up. That morning I packed my bag and I set it out to be picked up from that day's ferry. It was the 100th birthday of the U.S. National Park Services so they had a special treat for visitors. After a flag raising ceremony and cutting of a huge cake, they had reinactments of what it was like living on Dry Tortugas so long ago. 

I then headed out with the other campers to snorkle. The visibility on both sides of the island was poor and there were more jellyfish so we gave up and decided to tour the fort. As I walked around the fort again I bumped into a friend I had made at Key West. We decided to try snorkeling one more time. We went back to the piling and it had cleared up a bunch. There were still jelly fish, but they were not the dangerous ones. We got out of the water just in time to board the boat back to Key West. I slept half of the boat ride back, the rocking of the boat was soothing and I was very tired.

Overall Dry Tortugas was a great experience. It's definitely one of those places you got to do at least once. I have always supported the National Park Service, so it was great to spends its 100th birthday on Dry Tortuga. Maybe one day I will be back, hopefully with my own boat. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What is Body Safety Education?

I arrived in Kenya eleven months ago. I am only a month away from my return to the USA. I am a bit sad that I will be leaving but I am hoping to leave a positive change here in Kenya since Kenya has made such a positive change on me. Kenya has taught me so much. I have learned about new cultural practices and traditions. I am nervous I will return to the USA and greet everyone in a room with handshakes and cheek kisses. I have learned a good amount of Kiswahili to the point that words like "sawa" (ok), "pole" (sorry), "asante" (thanks) and "sasa" (whats up) are integrated into my vocabulary. USA get ready to hear a mzungu speaking random words of kiswahili.

In addition Kenya has taught me so much about medicine. I have been working with AMPATH Clinic on a project helping children living with HIV. I have learned the resilience of these children and the dedication of the people supporting them. Kenya is such a beautiful country with so many kind and generous people. I have made life-long friends here and I hope come back and visit soon.

Kenya also taught me how to manage a research project and work with a team to meet our goals. Six months ago one of our research assistants brought to my attention a handful of cases of sexual abuse of children at his clinic. He was asking for help and guidance and we saw an opportunity to fill a gap.

One in three girls and one in five boys experience sexual abuse before the age of 18 based on a survey in 2010 in Kenya (1). Unfortunately sexuality is a taboo subject in Kenya and there is a large amount of stigma that surrounds children who have been sexually abused and their families. Rarely children in Kenya receive education about how to keep their private parts safe and prevent inappropriate touches. For many educators and healthcare providers its hard or embarrassing to talk about these topics of sexuality.

Thanks Maria Schlatter (Mom) for the book illustrations
In the hopes to fill in this educational gap my team developed a culturally friendly book that would educate children about private parts, good and bad touches and what to do if they experience inappropriate touches. At the same time the book help healthcare providers and educators feel more comfortable about this topic. In addition it helps raise awareness in the community about the importance of educating and supporting our children.

Thanks Maria Schlatter (Mom) for the book illustrations
After a four month study we have finally ready to bring this book to the community. Surveys of study participants have created a list of where we can send these books. This includes orphanages, schools, churches, mosques, village elders, community outreach events and more. In the hopes to get these books out we hope to print a thousand books, but we need all the help we can get. 

Please visit: to donate!  Thanks so much for all your help.

(1) UNICEF, CDC, Together for the Girls, Kenya Vision 2030, (2010) Violence Against Children in Kenya Findings from a 2010 National Survey. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

So Many Monkeys!

I arrived In Kakamega forest Easter Sunday. Kakamega rainforest resides in Western Kenya, less than two hours from either Kisumu or Eldoret. It's abundant wildlife and activities makes it a great weekend getaway.

Kakamega has many places to stay for any budget. If you are interested in saving money you can stay in the Isecheno Keep bandas between $6-9 depending on your residence status in Kenya. The Isecheno Blue Shoulder Lodge which is approximately $5 for a dorm-style lodging. If you are interested in higher end accommodations Rondo, a Christian retreat offers room and board for $60 a night.

On a smaller budget my friend Kris and I decided to stay in the bandas for 700KSH ($7) a night for residents. We also packed food and snacks to minimize costs. When we arrived to kakamega forest ranger station we paid park entrance ($4 for residents) and were given a small tour of the area. Next we were shown where we were going to be sleeping.

Our banda was a large thatched roofed house with cement walls. It has a small covered porch for sitting. Inside were two bedrooms, each with two beds and a mosquito net. Inside the thatched roof was lined with spider webs and probably many other bugs. The bed was a small twin sized mattress with a small slope in the middle from overuse. The pillows were thin and the chicken wire over the windows to keep out the monkeys was mended with rope. Despite the place not being very appealing it was a roof over our head, something soft to sleep on and only $7.

The banda was in a compound with five other similar bandas, an office, outdoor toilets and a large covered sitting area. The compound was surrounded by large trees  and a green lawn. The thatched roof bandas fit perfectly with the surrounding forest. On the compound resided a group of seven German volunteers and a lone German traveler. Once Kris started speaking in German it felt like I was in Germany rather than Kenya. Everyone was very nice from the other group and helped us navigate around the area.

A five minute walk down the road, by the green house, across the main road was a small wooden shack called the canteen. This run-down building was where you could order lunch and dinner. Its small menu boasted local favorites such as ugali, matoke, and sukuma wiki. The prices are a bit more than what you find in the cities but still reasonable.

Kris and I decided on dinner, matoke, cabbage and beans, and placed our order. Since there are only two cooks and food perpetration take many hours, they recommend you place your orders hours in advance. Our bill ended up being only 200 KSH ($2) for both of us.

After ordering dinner around 2pm we set off on our first hike. Limited on money we decided on the short hike for 500KSH ($5) and the sunrise hike for 1200KSH ($12). This is the priciest part of the whole trip, but they are worth it. Ask fro Abraham as a guide, he is fantastic and very knowledgeable. He is a avid birder, so if you like learning about the different bird species he is the one to hire.

We walked out into the forest stopping every 5-10 minutes for a story. He explained to us about the medicinal properties of the plants and the history of the forest. His eyes were excellent, he was able to spot birds and animals and name them in seconds. He had a pair of binoculars which he was lent us to see birds and monkeys that were far off.

As we walked monkeys jumped through the branches over our heads. Cricket and bird calls filled the forest with sounds. Soon we arrived to a clearing. He explained to us that these islands of grasslands within the forest were shrinking as the rain forest swallowed them up. We climbed to the top of a watch tower which was missing quite a few steps. A the top we met another group consisting of two American's from Oregon. We sat at the top talking and looking out at the monkeys jumping through the trees.

We headed back down and back to our banda. We sat on our porch talking and listening to the sounds of the rainforest. At eight we headed over to  the shack for dinner. Despite order only matoke (stewed green bananas) beans, and cabbage we still had food left. We said goodnight to the other group of volunteers and headed to bed early.

The next morning we awoke at 5am to head out to the sunrise hike. The sunrise hike is a 4km walk down the road and up a large hill. This hill, due to its volcanic rock composition, was clear of trees. It was the highest hill in the forest and therefore offered an amazing view of the sunrise. We hiked in the dark with our torches and finally reached the top.

The two American's from Oregon were sitting at the top. We handed out the five PB&J sandwiches we had made and we ate as we enjoyed the sunrise over the rainforest. After sunrise we headed down the mountain and stopped at a cave. The cave was 50 meters long and was filled with bats and crickets. If you are afraid of bats or creepy crawlies this cave is not good for you.

After the cave we hiked home. At home we enjoyed another peanut-butter and jelly sandwich under the covered sitting area and took tea with the Germans as we talked. After lunch we went exploring. We found a small trail leading into the forest and began walking. We made markers at each fork to lead us back. The trail began getting narrower and narrower, until we reached a point when we were ducking under trees and jumping over logs.

 Finally we turned around and headed back to camp. On the way we were surrounded by monkeys. Close enough that you could reach out and touch them. We watched them as they played in the trees, running over the thatched roofs, running around our feet. Small babies clinging to their mother's bellies as the monkeys swung from branch to branch. After several minutes of watching we meet with our ride back to Eldoret.

Over all Kakamega was very relaxing. The forest was beautiful and green. The hikes were leisurely and not very strenuous. The forest was warm and humid, but not too hot. The nights were chilly, perfect for a sweater. Overall I would go back and visit. Its a great weekend trip that won't break the bank.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Hold On - Rafting the Nile, Uganda

On Friday I headed to Jinja with my roommates. We left at 2pm in the hopes that we would arrive our our campsite in Jinja before dark. Unfortunately things did not go as we planned.

Crossing the boarder is simple and take only 30 minutes usually if you have all the documentation you need. Unfortunately our taxi driver forgot his log book .Of course you can't cross the boarder without the logbook. Already three hours from our home there was no turning back. So to get across we bribed the guard to let us go, but that was almost two ours after we had pulled into the boarder control office.

Finally arriving at our campsite Jinja, Uganda

Finally we crossed onto the Uganda side. Now its the easy part.... wrong. Of course after filling out proper paperwork we were hassled by a man who was adamant we paid him for services that he had not provided. After a few curse words he left angry that we did not pay, but not without sabotaging our entrance to Uganda. The guard who had witnessed our quarrel told us we needed to purchase $60 insurance for year insurance (but we were only staying two days). We handed him $2 to let us pass through the gate into Uganda. Of course he wanted more. We bumped it up to $5 and he let us pass through the gate.

Already dark we drove carefully to Jinja in the hope not to be pulled over. We arrived in Jinja at close to midnight. We were exhausted and hungry. Of course the kitchen at the campsite was closed. We ordered rolexes (chapati stuffed with egg and veggies) from a local shop. We headed to bed only to wake up six ours later for rafting.

We went with Nalubale rafting company. They are one of the highest rated rafting companies in Uganda. They offered us a sweat deal for a full day rafting trip which included a guide, lunch and pictures of the whole experience.

I have been rafting a handful of times so I was excited for this class V rapid down the Nile. We started of the trip practicing some safety skills. What to do if the raft flips, what to do if you fall in. It was important that we practiced because the first rapid was a class V waterfall.

As we perched on the top of the rapid watching the safety boat and then a kayak flip over we were all a bit nervous.

We inched closer. Paddling swiftly to get to the perfect path down the waterfall. Of course as we edged closer to the edge we got stuck on a massive rock. We all paddled hard trying to dislodge ourselves. We felt the pull of gravity as the front of the raft tilted down. I was sitting right in the front. Everyone on the raft was screaming and yelling.

All of a sudden the boat tilted forward and became vertical as it slid down into the churning water below. We all held on for dear life as the raft slammed into the water below. The impact was so hard our raft penetrated the water and we all flew every which way.

When we surfaced again everyone was still on the raft. We had survived.

This was just the first in a series of class III, IV and V rapids. The eight hour day of rafting was full of adventure. We would jump out and lounge in the river enjoying the cool crocodile infested water as we floated down the Nile, the longest river in the world. Flips off the boat. Enjoying spraying each other with out paddles. Holding onto the safety kayakers as they dragged us around the river.

We had lunch on the edge of the river. It was a satisfying salami wrap, pasta, carrot cake and fresh fruit. After lunch we ran the last four rapids before washing up on the shore of the island campsite we stayed at that night.

It was a perfect day with all my friends.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Where can you find hairy lemons? - Camping on the Nile

After a long day of white water rafting down waterfalls we washed up on shore of Hairy Lemon Island Lodge. Hairy Lemon is situated on a forested island in the middle of the Nile River in Uganda. This small island hosts an eco-friendly camping, cabins, glamping and hostels. With a fully stocked bar, board games, and volleyball court in the middle of the river, its a perfect place to relax and have fun with friends.

The island is very quiet and quite small but has lots of hidden treasures. If you love being active, play a round of Nile River volleyball or go for a kayak outing. If you want to sit back and relax, have a drink at the bar or recline in the hidden natural Jacuzzi. Its the best of both worlds.

Within the cost of lodging you receive three meals and chai (tea). For dinner we had soup with home-cooked warm bread, tender beef stew over rice, cooked cabbage, mixed veggies and baked butternut squash. For lunch we were packed veggie pizza, cookies and mango juice, breakfast was eggs, warm bread, bacon, fresh fruit and muffins. Fresh cookies and chai are served at 4pm each day.

We arrived to the island straight from white water rafting and received a quick tour of the island. We got settled into the dorm room and then headed to the volley ball court in the middle of a small river going through the resort. We played a competitive game of volleyball.

After dinner inhabitants of the island gathered around a bonfire and roasted marshmallows on long skewers. I have not had a marshmallow for over a year. They are so hard to find in Kenya, but sure enough Hairy Lemon had them. We were given complimentary Hairy Lemon signature shots to get the mood started. We joined in deep conversations and played board games on the large family tables.

The next morning I woke for the sunrise. As I sat on the beach watching the sun rise over the green forested sides of the Nile I heard monkeys swinging from the trees over my head. Red tailed monkeys play through the trees day and night at the resort. That's why its important to clean up all your food remnants before you go to bed.

After breakfast we put on our bathing suits and headed to the natural Jacuzzi for a swim. To get there you must either ask the owner for directions or have someone show you. To find it you must hike from the beach around the far side of the island, under a mangrove tunnel, along a shallow stream up to a shaded area with a small waterfall. Here you can sit in the pool as the waterfall creates a vortex in the pool. Its a bit dangerous. If you get swept by the current it can carry you down the small waterfall and over some dangerous looking rocks.

At the end of our stay we took a short boat ride back to shore to meet up with our driver to head back to Kenya. Overall Hairy Lemon was wonderful. It seemed like a hidden piece of paradise. The island has poor cell reception, no internet, compost toilets and natural cold showers. Its vegetarian and vegan friendly and great for any age. With many things to do around the island you can spend days here escaping the hustle and bustle of Kenya's and Uganda's big cities.

PS: There are no hairy lemons on the island its names after where the couple who owns the resort met. 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Rift Valley Exploring

Today I visited Samich Resort on the rift valley. Samich is a high end restaurant and hotel located on the edge of the rift valley in Western Kenya. It’s a day trip from Eldoret. The resort is hidden behind a huge gate on a 4km dirt road off of the main road. 

When we arrived we started off on the “Nature Trail” which descends into the rift valley. The trail is well maintained but very steep. Almost every part of the trail is a perfect photo opportunity of the rift valley. After about 30 minutes you arrive to a small banda/hut with an amazing view. This is a great place for a snack or lunch. 

There are more trails that descend further. We continued a bit more then turned around. The hike down is not too hard, but going up is steeper and much more exhausting. Once you reach the top you can enjoy a cold drink and lunch at the restaurant. The view from the restaurant is also beautiful. There are many shaded tables to choose from. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

Road Trip to Wote

Wote is a small rural town in Makueni County in Eastern Kenya. Its a two hour drive east of Nairobi and a seven hour drive from Edoret the town I live. Its also home to one of my close friends here in Eldoret, Dr Musa. My friend was very excited for me to meet her mother and brother so I joined them on an exciting and unforgettable roadtrip to Wote. 

The first part of the trip is the standard Eldoret to Nairobi highway. We stopped at Kikopey a famous roadside dining experience. Kikopey is known for its wide selection of nyama choma. They thrown almost anything on the grill. Chicken, cow, goat, intestine, kidneys, liver you name it. There are many stalls to choose from. Each of them offer samples. Hanging in the window are carcass of cows and goats. Its a bit overwhelming for a recovering vegetarian. 

After a satisfying meal we smashed back into the small car and headed to Wote. On the way to Wote we stopped in Machakos to pick up a card for Dr Musa's brother. It was just before the national exams for primary school children. Its ceremonial to give them an over-sized card and school supplies before exams. Dr Musa also decided to pick up a pair of shoes.

We headed off to Wote, or at least in the direction we thought Wote was in. We drove about two hours through the arid terrain, passing many small rural towns. Finally our driver, Vinny, realized we were not anywhere near Wote. We stopped in one of the small towns and asked a gentleman which direction Wote was. He shook his head, its about three hours the opposite direction. We had to head back to Machakos and then take a different road. 

The Shortcut
We were already late and three more hours on the road seemed long. There has to be a short cut. I opened google maps and found Wote. Sure enough there was a road that took a more direct path to Wote from where we were. Determined we set off for this shortcut. 

The shortcut happened to be a dirt road (rough road) that took us through the hilly dry terrain. All of a sudden we heard a pop and the car began to lean to one side. We all hopped out of the car to find one of our wheels had blown out. The view was beautiful so I decided to take a small hike up while we decided what to do. 

Where our tire popped
A piki-piki drove by and told us there was a town only around the corner. We drove with the flat tire a couple minutes to a small town that had to be a population of 50. We stopped near a shop under the shade of a small tree and let Vinny change the spare tire. At the same time Musa and I went off in search for a cold drinks for the three of us.

Of course it was dangerous to drive without a spare so we asked around for someone who could mend the tire. There was nothing in this town so we headed on our way hoping the next town would have more services. 

In the next town we found a tire repair place. Dr Musa and I decided to take a tour of the town while the tire was being fixed. We wandered through the dry town. It was very hot and there was barely any shade. Donkeys walked around carrying buckets of water and milk from place to place. Ladies sold clothing and vegetables from small wooden stalls. A woman sat with her baby under the shade of a building. Drawn to babies, I walked over and started playing with the baby boy. The mom got up from the seat, handed me her baby and walked off without a word. 

I sat down on the chair with the baby on my lap. I was hoping she did not just leave me with her baby forever. At one point a man from a nearby shop came out and took my picture with the baby. He ran back into his shop. Minutes later he came back out with a printed picture with a "pintrest" style boarder. 

The man fixing the tire finally gave up. He said the puncture was too big to fix. I sat for couple more minutes, I was getting worried the mother would not comeback. Soon I saw her in a shop across the way. I carried the baby over to her. I thanked her for letting me play with her son and gave her the picture of me and him to the mom as a keepsake. 

We headed off again towards Wote, still without a spare tire. As we drove we heard another bang and I looked back to see the trunk of the car bouncing up and down. We stopped again hoping that nothing had fallen out of the trunk. Turns out the piece that hold the trunk shut had fallen off with all the shaking. Vinny had a rope which he tied around the trunk to keep it from opening. We then continued. 

Finally about 3 hours later we finally found Wote. We met at a small restaurant, entirely too late for dinner. Despite all the bad luck we made it and Dr Musa's family was very excited to see us.