Hi, I’m Mark, and welcome to Mark's Travel Blog!

 

I created this site to share stories and photos with family and friends but found that other people were also interested in some of my posts.  If that's you, welcome!  I hope you enjoy the site.

 

Note that my more recent posts can be found on my New Mexico & Beyond website at www.nmbeyond.com

 

Happy travels!

Mark

 

 

 

Rohan the Irish Wolfhound - The Adventure Begins (Picking Up Our New Puppy)

December 14, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

 

It's hard to believe, but I'm now the owner of an Irish Wolfhound puppy.  The sale and adoption of dogs has spiked along with COVID, so I suppose that makes me a COVID puppy statistic.  In truth, my decision to get a dog pre-dates COVID.  After my last Irish Wolfhound (Séamus) passed away a few years ago, I told my son that I wouldn't consider getting another large dog until I had a job that enabled me to work full-time from home.  Now that I've been working full-time from home for nearly 18 months, and I'm not exactly doing much in the way of travel these days, I was out of excuses.  My son and I agreed that the timing was right to take the plunge.   

 

After reaching out to several breeders in early November, I purchased a dog from a breeder in Missouri.  I liked the look of the dog from the photos, liked what I heard from the breeder during our telephone conversation regarding the dog's health, temperament, and parents.  The breeder said the dog looks "moosy" and will likely be very large.  Fortunately, I have plenty of indoor and outdoor space and I'm comfortable with the idea of having an animal the size of a pony running around the house. 

 

Since I had family staying at my house for Thanksgiving, the breeder agreed that it would be ok for me to pick up the puppy when he was 15.5 weeks of age (his birthday is 8/18/20) as long as I paid in full in advance.  I agreed, wired the money to the breeder's account and it was a done deal.  I was to pick up the new member of the family on the morning of Saturday, December 5th, 2020.

 

Here is a photo of the dog that we were to pick up, when the puppy was 13 weeks old. 

Our puppy at 13 weeks of age - the earliest photo I have

 

 

The Road Trip to Missouri - Day 1 (December 3rd, 2020)

As soon as my son finished school on Thursday, December 3rd, we had a quick dinner, packed up the car, and hit the road from my home in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Our destination for the night was a hotel in Shamrock, Texas.  Why Shamrock?  My original plan was to spend our first night in Amarillo, TX, but I read that the COVID was spiking in Amarillo.  As a result, I thought it was worth the extra 90 minute drive to get to the Holiday Inn Express in the small town of Shamrock, which has a population just under 2,000 people.  We had a 5 hour drive ahead of us.  Whenever my son and I go on road trips, we behave badly when it comes to food, and this was no exception.  Our first rest stop was a Dairy Queen in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.  The drive went by relatively quickly, and we spent about two of the hours listening to an audiobook about Irish Wolfhounds to prepare us for what lies ahead.  We made it to our hotel a little past 11:00pm, checked into our room, and finally went to sleep around midnight.

 

 

The Road Trip to Missouri - Day 2 (December 3rd, 2020)

The next morning we got up around 8:30am, got cleaned up and by the time we made it downstairs, we had just missed the 9:30am window for the complementary breakfast.  We decided to hit the road and see what we can find.  A short time later, we crossed the border into Oklahoma.  My son noticed a sign for a BBQ restaurant in Elk City, Oklahoma (he is a big fan of ribs... me, not so much). But I agreed, why not.  So we soon found ourselves at Billy Sims BBQ in Elk City.  The first thing that we noticed in climbing out of our car is that masks seemed to be optional.  This was quite a change from the vibe in New Mexico, where masks are mandatory these days.  We wore our masks into the restaurant, just in case, but it turned out that we were the only people in the restaurant since it was still early for lunch.  The woman at the front counter was super friendly... which seemed to be a trend in Oklahoma.  Everyone we met in Oklahoma seemed very friendly based on our limited experiences.  My son was impressed and thought that it was a big difference from New Mexico.  For me, I think people in New Mexico are very friendly compared to a lot of other places, but I had to agree that our experiences in Oklahoma were impressive. 

 

We ate the food in our car.  My son ordered a full slab of ribs... a bit overambitious, but he managed to eat about 2/3 of it.  I had some brisket, sausage, and beans... a far cry from my normal breakfast of oatmeal with blueberries and a large vegetable smoothie.  The food turned out to be good, but not great.  Overall, we gave it a 6 out of 10.

 

An hour or two later, we decided to give Braum's Ice Cream a try... it appeared to be a very popular chain.  It was a hit.  My son really liked it - he said it is now his favorite ice cream, and the prices were very cheap.  It's safe to safe that this will not be our last Braum's stop on this trip.

 

Braum's ice Cream in Oklahoma was a hit
 

 

After a few more hours on the road, we arrived at our next destination - the Holiday Inn in Joplin, Missouri.  The Holiday Inn was quite a bit nicer than where we stayed the previous night, and we were very excited to learn that they had a fitness center... and it was actually open!  We checked into our room, and immediately went downstairs to workout... it was a nice facility and we were the only ones there.  The workout felt great after spending the day in the car.  

A much-needed workout at the hotel gym
 

 

After a good workout and a refreshing shower, we decided to get a takeout pizza from Old Chicago, which was right down the street.  I'm typically a healthy eater but, like I said earlier, it's anything goes during our road trips.  For some reason I thought Old Chicago was deep dish, which Erik had never tried before, but it ended up being like a "regular pizza".  Another 6 out of 10 meal in our book.

 

We watched the end of the movie Groundhog Day (a classic!) and then the Han Solo movie came up next.  Darn.  So much for an early bedtime.  We both enjoy Star Wars movies, so we stayed up until 11pm, despite an early wake up tomorrow, and realizing that this would likely be my last night of uninterrupted sleep for a very long time.  

 

The Big Day - December 5th, 2020

I told the breeder that we would arrive around 7:30am so we had an early morning.  I stumbled out of bed around 5:45am to get a shower.  We packed, went to the Waffle House down the street to get two waffles to go, and we were back on the road.  Our destination was the small town of Granby, Missouri (population is just over 2,000 people).  We found the breeder's farm relatively easily, thanks to Waze. 

 

This was the big moment.  It was time to meet our dog.

 

We were immediately greeted by four large Irish Wolfhounds.  One of the dogs was particularly huge.  That turned out to be the father of our dog.  The breeder called him "Fire" (he has bright orange eyes, but you can't tell from the photo) and the breeder said that he weighs about 220 - 230lbs.  I was surprised at the size - definitely that biggest Irish Wolfhound that I have ever met.  I thought my last Irish Wolfhound was large, and he weighed about 150lbs.  Here is a photo of the parents (below).  The picture doesn't do justice to the size of Fire.  The mother was smaller, but still substantial.  They were both a bit scruffy after playing outside in the mud.

Meeting the parents

 

 

We had fun talking with the breeder and meeting the adult dogs.  Then it was the moment of truth.  We saw our dog tied on a leash about 100 feet away, and we walked down to say hello.  He was a bit skittish, but that is understandable given the circumstances.  We said hello and hooked him up to our leash, but he had no interest in moving.  In the end, I had to pick him up and carry him to the car.  I put him down for a minute next to the car so that I could open the back, and he immediately took a big dump ... really big.  Needless to say, I was very grateful for that!  I picked him up again and put him in the large crate that I had set up in the back of my car.

 

Did you say 11-hour drive!?  First time in a car.

 

 

We signed some paperwork, shook hands, and we were off!  About 30 minutes down the road, we found a good spot to pull over to let our new dog out to give him a short walk and some water and to start to process of bonding.  He was definitely skittish and was not a fan of me picking him up to get him in and out of the car.  We ended up stopping frequently - every 1-2 hours (at least) to let the dog out.  And I'll confess that there were two more Braum's stops along the way home.  All in all, he was a great traveler, with no accidents in the car!  

 

 

The moments we cherished during our long drive home
 

 

Talking Rohan for a sunset walk somewhere in Texas
 


 

During our drive home, we settled on the name Rohan as it is a Celtic name meaning "little red one" (he has some red color in him) and "keeper of wolves."  Of course it is also a Lord of the Rings movie reference ("land of the horse lords") and Lord of the Rings happens to be one of my favorite movies.  So it was official.  Our dog's name is Rohan, but we pronounce it "Rowan" since it rolls off the tongue a bit easier that way. 

 

The first week at home was a busy one, but I'll save that for my next post.  Let's just say that Rohan has been my shadow ever since.  Here are three photos of Rohan on his first full day at his new home.

Screenshot

Exploring the upper deck for the first time
 

 

Rohan generally stayed about this close to me for the first few days

 

 


First night on his new bed
 

 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 


Thank you to Perceptive Travel Online Magazine!

December 02, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

I am writing this post as a thank you to Perceptive Travel online magazine for featuring my article "Adventures in Kenya: Visiting the Hot Zone of Kitum Cave" in this month's edition (December 2019) of "Perceptive Travel: The best travel stories from authors on the move".

 

Here is a link to the Perceptive Travel article: https://www.perceptivetravel.com/issues/1219/kenya.html and here is the article that was published:

 

Adventures in Kenya: Visiting the Hot Zone of Kitum Cave
Story and photos by Mark Aspelin


 

Near the Kenya-Uganda border lies the infamous Kitum Cave, home to bats, elephants, and perhaps a devastating virus.

 

Kenya travel story

"Gene felt a prickling sensation on his scalp. The paths of Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had crossed at only one place on earth, and that was inside Kitum Cave. What had they done in the cave? What had they found in there? What had they touched? What had they breathed? What lived in Kitum Cave?" - Excerpt from the book The Hot Zone; The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston

 

While I working as a conservation biologist in the western highlands of Kenya in the late '90s, one of the local members of the community suggested that I visit Kitum Cave, an interesting place where animals such as elephants "mine" salt from the walls of the cave by using their tusks to break off pieces of the cave and eat it. I'd never heard of the place, and it sounded pretty cool, so I said, "Sounds great—let's go!"

 

The next day, three of us drove towards the border of Uganda and entered Mount Elgon National Park, home of Kitum cave. One member of our group was a community leader responsible for managing a variety of crane and wetland conservation efforts in the community around Saiwa Swamp National Park.

 

Kenya park guards

The second was a local priest I had never met before. He had two PhDs, one in religion and one in ancient languages such as Sumerian and Aramaic. He also led efforts to bring clothes and other donated goods directly from Europe so that he could distribute them to people in need. This approach helped avoid the middleman, which often came in the form of corrupt government officials who required bribes or outright stole the donated items to sell. It was not uncommon to see donated good being sold on the streets for a profit rather than distributed to the intended communities in need.

 

The third member of the group was me, the clueless guy that didn't know what he was doing.

 

Upon entering Mount Elgon National Park, we were informed that we were not allowed to travel alone in the Park because of concerns about our safety due to wildlife. Instead, we were assigned not one, but two armed guards to pile into our small vehicle and escort us to the cave.

 

After a short, cramped drive, we parked at the Kitum Cave trailhead and were ready to begin our hike.

 

It was a relatively short walk with some nice scenery...and an occasional pile of elephant dung to add to the ambiance.

 

And as we rounded a corner, we finally spotted Kitum Cave.

 

 

First Tour Stop, a Deadly Virus Zone

Elgon National Park

Little did I know at the time that Kitum Cave was infamous for reasons that would have prevented me from ever considering this trip. I learned later that it was believed to be a possible source of the Marburg Virus, a virus similar to Ebola. I consider that to be an important little nugget of information to have prior to considering a day trip to explore a cave!

 

Apparently, two people had been killed by Marburg virus and the one thing that they both had in common was a visit to Kitum Cave. In 1980, a 56-year old Frenchman named Charles Monet explored the cave. Seven days later, the virus took its gruesome toll on him as the poor man bled out of all his orifices and died soon after entering a hospital in Nairobi.

 

Seven years later, a young Danish boy (named Peter Cardinal in Richard Preston's book, The Hot Zone) contracted Marburg after visiting Kitum Cave. He was eventually taken to Nairobi Hospital (the same hospital as Charles Monet) where the child died.

 

After the two deaths, a joint U.S. and Kenyan research investigation was formed in attempt to find Marburg Virus in Kitum Cave. The cave was closed to the public while researchers donned the highest level of protective gear as they scoured the cave walls, sampled bat and elephant poop, and captured a variety of bats, birds, and insects. According to locals that I later spoke with, they also kept cages with monkeys in the back of the cave to see if they would contract the virus. Despite these efforts, the team was not successful in locating the virus. So, a few years before my visit, the cave was opened back up to the public.

 

Instead of wearing a Biosafety Level 4 protective body suit and respirator, I entered the cave looking like this:

author w flashlight

 

Hey, at least I had a flashlight.

 

The cave is about 700 feet deep into the side of Mount Elgon, and we proceeded to go deep enough into the cave, deep enough to require the use of our flashlights.

 

After about 30 minutes of exploring the cave, we climbed back in the car and ascended the road to an overlook on Mount Elgon where we could enjoy a nice view of Uganda.

 

 

The Hot Zone Connection

After our enjoyable day trip, I was dropped back off at my tent at Sirikwa Safaris. That is where things got a bit more interesting. The owner of Sirikwa Safaris, Jane Barnley, asked how the trip was and told me about a relatively new book published two years prior that I might be interested in since it mentions Kitum Cave. "Sounds interesting, what book is that?"

Kenya Kitum Cave

That's when Jane pulled a copy of The Hot Zone from her bookshelf, handed it to me, and proceeded to give me a quick overview of the key points—featuring gruesome deaths and the belief that Kitum cave was a possible source of the Ebola or Marburg virus.

 

"What?!" I was stunned. She then went on to explain that Peter Cardinal (the boy from the book) had started feeling sick on the very couch that we were standing next to before he was evacuated by helicopter.

 

I was a bit surprised to hear this news, putting it mildly, and was thinking to myself, "Why didn't anyone tell me this before the trip?" I retired to my tent and used a headlamp to stay up most of the night while I devoured the pages of the book.

 

Then things started to get even more interesting.

 

 

The Illness Begins

A few days later, I started feeling ill. Something was off. I was experiencing weird symptoms that included muscle spasms in my chest, near my heart, so that it looked like my skin was bubbling, but it was not in synch with my heartbeat. I was getting concerned, and my recent reading of The Hot Zone didn't put my mind at ease.

 

I decided to visit a local doctor who was originally from India but trained in England. He ran the most efficient urgent care clinic I have ever been to in my life. The staff included one person at the front desk and him. That's it. I walked in and explained my symptoms to the woman at the front desk while she jotted down some notes on a small piece of paper. The doctor entered the room, she handed him the slip of paper, and we stepped back into another room. The doctor asked more questions, drew some of my blood, put it on a slide, and looked at it under a microscope that he had in the back of the room.

 

He spun his chair around and told me that everything looked okay from the perspective of the normal cast of characters such as malaria and cholera. It was probably just a virus that I picked up from the local food or water. I paid cash at the front desk and that was it. A process that would have taken months in the U.S. for the doctor visit, lab work, lab results, claims submission, claims adjudication, and final payment had all been completed in about thirty minutes and cost me about $20.

 

Kenya-Uganda border

Over the following week, my symptoms worsened though, and I ended up going to Nairobi National Hospital, the same place where Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had been taken (and died). After more tests, the doctor couldn't figure out the cause, but he gave me a prescription that would help clear my body of any parasites to see if that would help. It didn't.

 

I eventually caught a flight to see a tropical medicine specialist in Cape Town, South Africa. By that time, the window for Marburg destruction had passed, so thankfully I could at least cross that option off the list. The doctor narrowed it down to a family of viruses that can cause muscle spasms of the intercostal muscles, among other symptoms. He said it wasn't worth spending more time and money to attempt to figure out which type of virus I had because there was nothing that could be done about it regardless.

 

In the end, I decided to return to the U.S. and recuperate at my parents' house in Colorado Springs. After about six months of clean living, while I worked temp jobs to pay the bills, I finally felt back to normal again.

 

Thankfully, I'm happy to report that I only have one thing in common with Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal: each of us visited Kitum Cave.

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer, author of two books (Profitable Conservation and How to Fail at Life: Lessons for the Next Generation) and the blog New Mexico and Beyond. He has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States. Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

 

 

 

 


Adventures in Kenya (Part 6 of 6): Racism, Africa Style

June 10, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

unity, love, and anti-racismunity, love, and anti-racismmultiracial group with black african American Caucasian and Asian hands holding each other wrist in tolerance unity love and anti racism concept isolated on grunge background

“Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.”
-- Rosa Parks



One thing that continued to surprise me during my time in Africa was how these wonderful people could be so brutally racist towards each other.  There was certainly an element of racism from whites towards blacks, and blacks towards whites, but the most hostile displays of racism that I perceived were blacks towards blacks.  It was all about tribe.


Tribal racism can take a relatively benign but annoying form, such as the time I saw a man casually walk to the front of a long line at the bank because, I was later told, he was from a particular tribe and therefore felt entitled to do so.  Then we have the horrible extreme of racism in the form of tribal genocide, like the infamous slaughter in Rwanda that was due to a tribal conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis.


One of the first questions that I was frequently asked in rural Kenya was, “What tribe are you in?” Apparently, the answer to this question would determine how that person intended to respond and interact with me. I would answer, “I’m from America,” and that usually put an end to it, although some would persist.  Surely, I must be in one of the tribes. Which one?


In Africa, tribes cross artificial boundaries, which were established during the time of colonial rule.  Many of the country borders were drawn on the basis of a geographic feature, such as a river, rather than tribal boundaries.  Many of the people whom I met considered tribe to be more important than country.  This was particularly true of nomadic tribe members, who wander across large areas of land without much thought or concern about country borders.  They simply go where they need to go to trade goods and find food and water for themselves and their livestock.


In the big cities like Nairobi, people are much more likely to identify with their country in addition to their tribe.  City dwellers whom I met were simultaneously proud to be Kenyan, proud of their home town, and proud of their tribe.  But, in the boonies, national identity takes a backseat to tribe.  In my day-to-day interactions, people were much more interested in knowing if I were Kikuyu, Kisii, Massai, Turkana, Luo, Samburu, or one of the other 42 tribes in Kenya.  In my situation, the answer probably didn’t matter much.  But, for others, it could be a very big deal.


During times of conflict, if you’re in the wrong tribe at the wrong place and the wrong time, you may be brutally killed.  Elections in Africa can be a very dangerous time as they create an opportunity for simmering tribal conflicts to explode.  It’s assumed that the elected leader’s hometown will prosper from a disproportionate share of money and resources for schools, airports, hospitals, and so on. Throughout most of Africa, political corruption and tribal racism are alive and well.

 

Decrease prejudice by increasing discrimination


To make sense of our world, we may tend to place people and things into categories, and then assign a series of traits, behaviors, and expectations to everyone or everything in that category. When we hear words like “old,” “young,” “religious,” “cancer,” “Russian,” “Japanese,” “American,” “handicapped,” and “vegan,” we may consciously (or unconsciously) associate characteristics with those labels and hold them in our mind until proven otherwise.  While this may help simplify our world, this categorization can also limit or skew our thinking and cause us to make inaccurate assumptions.


One strategy to overcome this limited thinking is to adopt the perspective that categories create a false perception of separateness, and that perception of separateness is an illusion. I’ve heard it said that, when we transcend the mind, diversity fades into unity.  We are all connected.  But, for those of us who have not yet transcended our mind to bask in the ethereal glow of unity each day, there’s another, simpler approach to consider.


An interesting alternative is to strive for more discrimination in the world.  I first heard this concept from social psychologist and Harvard University professor, Ellen Langer.  Ellen’s research suggests that the labels we attach to specific categories can dramatically influence our perceptions and actions.


Ellen cites an experiment where an ordinary man, seated in an armchair, faced another man seated in an armchair, and they talked about work.  Ellen videotaped the discussion, and then showed the videotape to two groups of psychotherapists.  For half of the psychotherapists, the man being interviewed was called a “job applicant”; for the second group, the man was referred to as a “patient.”  Each group of psychotherapists considered the job applicant to be well adjusted; when he was labeled a patient, many of the psychotherapists considered the man to have some serious psychological problems.  Same man.  Same videotape.  Very different outcome.


We all carry preconceived notions that bias our perceptions of other people based on appearance, race, sex, and so forth.  It is helpful to be aware that the labels we use impact how we perceive the world.  

 

Despite the platitudes that we sometimes hear, none of us is truly “colorblind.”  If we are looking for a terrific soul food restaurant, our gut instinct is to ask someone of African American descent rather than someone who is from Japan; if we're looking for sushi, then the reverse will probably be true.  Now that’s not very colorblind, is it?  The world is a colorful, amazing place, so let’s not pretend to be blind to it all.  However, it is useful to shed many of the biases and stereotypes that we may carry.


One of the best ways to overcome our inherent biases is to increase our discrimination.  Ellen Langer uses the following exercise to illustrate the point.  Ellen takes a group of 20 kids and divides them based on different characteristics: Males stand on one side, females stand on the other side; dark hair stands over here, light hair stands over there.  Ellen continues to split up the group based on the color of clothing and other characteristics.  This continues until every child is standing alone.  Then the children suddenly understand the lesson that everyone is unique.  When we mindlessly categorize people, we may fail to look for and recognize the individual talents and behaviors that each possesses.


Another tactic Ellen suggests is to imagine that our thoughts are totally transparent.  This tends to cleanse our mind of the not-so-nice things that we sometimes think about other people, and it can help us become more compassionate and empathetic towards others.


When we move past the categories that we've created in our mind, we may tend to like people better, develop better relationships, and appreciate why people behave the way they do.  We may make a greater effort to understand other perspectives and become more open to different ways of thinking.  Each of us behaves a certain way, at a certain time, and for a certain reason that makes sense to us at the time.  When we look at people as individuals who are going through different life events that are specific to each of them—instead of seeing a larger, stereotypical group—we may feel more connected, compassionate, and empathetic towards others.

 

Perhaps the next time I go to Africa and am asked the question, “What tribe are you in?” I will answer, “Mark Aspelin,” and see what kind of reaction I get.



 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).
 

   

 


Adventures in Kenya (Part 5 of 6): Visiting the Hot Zone of Kitum Cave

June 03, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

"Gene felt a prickling sensation on his scalp. The paths of Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had crossed at only one place on earth, and that was inside Kitum Cave. What had they done in the cave? What had they found in there? What had they touched? What had they breathed? What lived in Kitum Cave?"

-- Excerpt from the book "The Hot Zone; The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus" by Richard Preston

 

While working in the western highlands of Kenya in 1996, one of the local members of the community suggested that I visit Kitum Cave, an interesting place where animals such as elephants "mine" salt from the walls of the cave by using their tusks to break off pieces of the cave and eat it.  I'd never heard of the place, and it sounded pretty cool, so I said, "Sounds great - let's go!".  

 

The next day, three of us drove towards the border of Uganda and entered Mount Elgon National Park, home of Kitum cave.  One member of our group was a community leader responsible for managing a variety of crane and wetland conservation efforts in the community around Saiwa Swamp National Park.  The second was a local priest who I had never met before then.  He had two PhDs, one in religion and one in ancient languages such as Sumerian and Aramaic.  He also led efforts to bring clothes and other donated goods directly from Europe so that he could distribute them to people in need.  This approach helped avoid the middleman, which often came in the form of corrupt government officials who required bribes or just outright stole the donated items to sell.  It was not uncommon to see donated good being sold on the streets for a profit rather than distributed to the intended communities in need. The third member of the group was me, the clueless guy that didn't know what he was doing.  

 

Upon entering Mount Elgon National Park, we were informed that we were not allowed to travel alone in the Park due to concerns about our safety due to wildlife.  Instead, we were assigned not one, but two armed guards to pile into our small vehicle and escort us to the cave.  

 

We made our way to the Kitum Cave trailhead to begin our hike.

 

It was a relatively short walk with some nice scenery ... and we occasionally came across large piles of elephant dung to add to the ambiance.

 

 

 

And as we rounded a corner, we finally spotted Kitum Cave. 

 

 

Little did I know that Kitum Cave was infamous for reasons that would have prevented me from ever considering this trip.  It was believed to be a possible source of the Marburg Virus, which is a virus similar to Ebola.  Now, I don't know about you, but I consider that to be an important little nugget of information to have prior to considering a day trip to explore a cave!

 

Apparently, two people had been killed by Marburg virus (similar to Ebola) in recent years and the one thing that they both had in common was a visit to Kitum Cave.  In 1980, a 56-year old Frenchman named Charles Monet explored the cave.  Seven days later, the virus took its gruesome toll on him as the poor man bled out of all of his orifices and died soon after entering a hospital in Nairobi.  Seven years later, a young Danish boy (named Peter Cardinal in Richard Preston's book, The Hot Zone) contracted Marburg after visiting Kitum Cave.  He was eventually taken to Nairobi Hospital (same hospital as Charles Monet) where the child died.  

 

After the two deaths, a joint U.S. and Kenyan research investigation was formed (in 1988) in attempt to find the Marburg Virus in Kitum Cave.  The cave was closed to the public while researchers donned the highest level of protective gear as they scoured the cave walls, sampled bat and elephant poop, and captured a variety of bats, birds, and insects.  They also kept cages with monkeys in the back of the cave to see if they would contract the virus (according to locals I later spoke with).  However, there was no sign of the virus.  So, a few years before my visit, the cave was opened back up to the public.

 

Instead of wearing a Biosafety Level 4 protective body suit and respirator, I entered the cave looking like this:

As you can see, at least I had a flashlight.

 

The cave is about 700 feet deep into the side of Mount Elgon, and rest assured that we went deep enough into the cave that we needed to use our flashlights.  Here are some photos of us exploring the cave:

 

After about 30 minutes of exploring the cave, we got in the car and climbed up a bit to get a nice view of Uganda from Mount Elgon:


 

We had an enjoyable day and I was dropped back off at my tent at Sirikwa Safaris.  That is where things got a bit more interesting.  The owner of Sirikwa Safaris, Jane Barnley, asked how the trip was and told me about a relatively new book (published in 1994) that I might be interested in since it mentions Kitum Cave.  "Sounds interesting, what book is that?".  That's when Jane pulled a copy of The Hot Zone off of her bookshelf, handed me the book, and gave me a quick overview of some of the key points.  "What!!!"  I was stunned.  She then went on to explain that Peter Cardinal (the boy from the book) had actually started feeling sick on the very couch that we were standing next to before he was evacuated by helicopter. 

 

I was a bit "surprised" to hear this news, putting it mildly.  I was thinking to myself, "Why didn't anyone tell me this before!"  I retired to me tent and used a headlamp to stay up most of the night while I devoured the pages of the book.  

 

But it gets worse.  

 

A few days later, I started feeling ill.  Something was off.  I had some weird symptoms where I would get muscle spasms in my chest near where my heart is, so that it looked like my skin was bubbling, but it didn't correspond to my heart beat.  I was getting concerned, and my recent reading of The Hot Zone didn't exactly put my mind at ease.    

 

I decided to visit a local doctor who was originally from India but trained in England.  He ran the most efficient urgent care clinic I have ever been to in my life.  The staff included one person at the front desk and him.  That's it.  I walked in and explained my symptoms to the woman at the front desk while she jotted down some notes on a small piece of paper.  The doctor came in, she handed him the slip of paper, and we stepped back into another room.  The doctor asked more questions, drew some of my blood, put it on a slide and he looked at it under a microscope that he had in the back of the room.  Everything looked ok from the perspective of the normal cast of characters such as malaria and cholera.  Probably just a virus that I picked up from the local food or water.  I paid cash at the front desk and that was it.  A process that would have taken months in the U.S. for the doctor visit, lab work, lab results, claims submission, claims adjudication, and final payment had all been completed in about thirty minutes and cost me about $20.

 

Over the following week, my symptoms worsened, and I ended up going to Nairobi National Hospital, the same place where Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had been taken (and died).  After more tests, the doctor couldn't figure out the cause, but he gave me a prescription that would help clear my body of any parasites to see if that would help.  It didn't.  I eventually caught a flight to see a tropical medicine specialist in Cape Town, South Africa.  By that time, the window for Marburg destruction had passed, so thankfully I could at least cross that option of the list.  The doctor narrowed it down to a family of viruses that can cause muscle spasms of the intercostal muscles as one of the symptoms.  He said it wasn't worth spending more time and money to try to figure out which type of virus I had because there was nothing that could be done about it regardless.

 

In the end, I decided to return to the U.S. and recuperate at my parents's house in Colorado Springs.  After about 6 months of clean living, while I worked temp jobs to pay the bills, I finally felt back to normal again. 

 

Thankfully, I only have one thing in common with Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal ... each of us visited Kitum Cave.   



 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 


Adventures in Kenya (Part 4 of 6): The Mzungu Has Arrived

May 27, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Mark standing next to a termite mound near Turkwel Gorge Dam, Kenya, March 3, 1996

 

 

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

When I first arrived in Kenya at the age of 27, three objectives were given to me by George Archibald of the International Crane Foundation: (1) Meet with two local conservation groups in the region around Saiwa Swamp National Park to see if their conservation work — and the location — were suitable for hosting a regional crane and wetland conservation workshop; (2) look for opportunities to promote and support crane and wetland conservation efforts in the local communities; and (3) deliver $1,000 cash to the leader of a local wetland conservation group who won a conservation grant from a U.S.-based organization.


Other than my directive from George, and 10 $100 bills folded up in a hidden pocket inside my belt, I had the names of two conservation group leaders, two pages of notes that I wrote during a phone conversation with a German scientist who had worked in the area, and a reservation to stay in a tent for a few months at Sirikwa Safaris, also known as Barnley’s Guest House. Where I was going, addresses were not helpful. My only hope was to make my way to the village, and then ask around until I found the people I hoped to meet. I packed field clothes, a water filter, a sleeping bag, hiking boots, mosquito netting, a guitar, the Lonely Planet Kenya (Travel Guide), and a copy of Blaine Harden’s Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent.


I also carried a lot of stereotypes and preconceived notions about Africa and Africans. Like so many Peace Corps volunteers and other aid workers before me, I arrived with the best intentions, but I was clueless. I had no idea what to expect or what the locals expected of me. During the long journey from Chicago–Miami–Johannesburg–Nairobi, I read most of Blaine’s book, which provided a glimmer of insight about what to expect in Africa. Thanks in part to Blaine, I didn’t arrive with the attitude of a great savior who had come to show the locals the errors of their ways. If anything, my thoughts upon touching down in Kenya were along the lines of, “How in the hell did I end up here?”


As I deplaned in Nairobi, I experienced the typical culture shock of any first-time visitor to Africa. After checking in at my basic hotel, I walked the streets in search of a bus terminal where I could purchase a ticket to Kitale for the next morning. The next day, I had my first taste of African roads. The 238-mile journey took over 12 hours to complete—and that was just to Kitale! Next, I had to track down the correct matatu in a chaotic sea of trucks, cars, and people. There were no signs or anything to put my mind at ease. As I climbed into the covered truck bed of an unmarked pickup truck, I had to rely on blind faith that the matatu directors understood where I was trying to go. My first matatu didn’t disappoint. It was a real eye-opener.


Finally, 14 hours after leaving the bus terminal in Nairobi, I was deposited with my luggage at the end of the long driveway that enters the little oasis of Sirikwa Safaris. It was a relief—not only because I had arrived at my destination but because I had not taken the opportunity to pee since I left Nairobi. (I was too afraid to separate from my luggage.) I was feeling ill by the time I climbed off the matatu. As soon as the truck pulled away, I found a bush and gave my bladder a chance to experience the feeling of heavenly bliss.


I gathered my belongings and lumbered down the road until I was greeted by the owner Jane Barnley, along with her three Jack Russell terriers—Pip, Wig, and Dick. After a few minutes of saying hello, I staggered to my tent and was out like a light.


There are many stories I could tell about my mishaps while trying to assess and implement conservation projects in rural Africa. One of the best examples of “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, can be found in Blaine Harden’s book.


Blaine describes a well-intentioned Norwegian project to construct a frozen-fish plant on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya to help the local Turkana people survive through the inevitable cycles of drought. The Turkana people primarily herd cattle, goats, sheep, and camels in an extremely hot and desolate semi-desert region. It’s a tough gig, particularly during periods of drought, which are common in the region.


The Norwegian plan was to take advantage of the natural resources within Lake Turkana and build a frozen-fish plant on its shore. The assumption was that a shift towards fishing would help the stressed soil and vegetation regenerate from excessive grazing, and the Turkana people would earn an income from the abundant perch and tilapia resources in the lake. This line of thinking was bolstered by a Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ study that concluded, “No solution of the Turkana problem is possible by which all the people can continue their traditional way of life.” In other words, fish were the solution to the Turkana problem.

 

Since Norway was experienced in commercial fishing, the Kenyan government asked Norway to help the Turkana become fisherman. Norway’s development agency agreed, and volunteers started to arrive in Kenya in the early 1970s.


The Norwegians brought 20 fishing boats and a team of consultants to determine the best way to maximize fish profits. The consultant team concluded that the best option was to spend $2.2 million to build a facility on Lake Turkana, which would produce frozen-fish fillets that the Turkana people could sell in Kenya and abroad. The Norwegians built the facility and helped construct a $20.8 million road that connected the frozen-fish plant with Kenya’s highway system.


The project failed spectacularly for several reasons. First, the cost to chill the fish in the furnace-like heat of the region was higher than the value of the fish fillets. Second, there wasn’t enough clean water in the area to support the operation. And then there’s the minor detail that the Turkana don’t like fishing. For the Turkana, livestock are everything. They have a deep-rooted belief that they are born to tend livestock. The Turkana live off the blood, milk, and meat of cows, goats, camels, and donkeys. They don’t have a taste for fish. From the perspective of the Turkana, to become a fisherman is to become an outcast from the tribe.


Whoops. This kind of thing happens when modern Western thinking clashes with different perceptions held in remote corners of the world. Well-intentioned people from developed nations often carry an assumption that the locals in these remote areas are uneducated and don’t know what’s best for them. From my travels to remote parts of the world, I have learned again and again that “uneducated” does not mean “stupid.”


For the Lake Turkana project, the assumption was that the Turkana people would unwittingly destroy the rangelands they depend upon since they didn’t know any better. In addition, there was the incorrect assumption that, once fishing became a viable option, the locals would be eager to abandon the lowly, nomadic life of shepherding cattle. This perspective was incorrect.


After the failed fish-plant project, experts have come to recognize that livestock shepherds like the Turkana use sophisticated techniques to conserve their land. The nomadic Turkana quickly move to areas with fresh, green grass. As a result, studies found that African herdsmen can extract four times as much protein and six times as much food energy per hectare from dry rangelands compared to modern commercial ranches in places like the arid regions of Australia.


Rangeland practices aside, the most obvious failure was that the well-intentioned aid groups didn’t take enough time to understand and empathize with the people they were trying to help. After the failed project, the aid workers finally asked the Turkana what they knew and what they wanted. It quickly became clear that livestock were the key to survival for the Turkana people. The aid groups accepted that reality, switched gears, and came up with a new strategy to hire a livestock adviser and an arid-land forestry expert, and invest in initiatives to prevent animal disease. This was a much better approach. The hardscrabble life of a nomadic cattle shepherd may sound unappealing to most of us, but that’s the life the Turkana people wanted to pursue.


Having read this case study before I stepped off the plane in Nairobi, this lesson was firmly etched in my mind. I was ready to observe, listen, and learn from the local population before offering any suggestions about the best path forward for crane and wetland conservation in the region.

 

In practice, I was far from perfect in adhering to this philosophy. My experiences with myths about cameras and bleeding didn’t inspire my confidence in the levels of scientific and technical knowledge of the local community. But, when it came to farming and knowledge of the local environment, the local people were the experts and I was the student.


During that time, I made a conscious decision to “lead from the back.” This phrase comes from a quote from Nelson Mandela: “Lead from the back—and let others believe they are in front.” There are times when it makes sense to lead from the front, and there are times when it makes sense to lead from the back. In this case, the others were already so far in front of me that leading from the back sounded like a darn good idea. I wasn’t completely worthless out there, but it sure felt like it at times.


I added value by creating formal project plans and proposals that caught the eye of Western donors, and I had a few helpful conservation ideas as well. But I always did my best to ensure that any proposed solution would come from the mouth of a local Kenyan and not my own. I also did my best to avoid implementing anything that would cut into the meager salary of the local population. Many of the people I met and worked with were subsistence farmers, scraping by on a salary of around $250 ... per year.


Towards the end of my stay in the boonies of Kenya, I had the unusual opportunity to visit a Turkana market that forms each month in the middle of nowhere on a desolate patch of ground in northwest Kenya. Jane Barnley wanted to show me the market since it was like going to a living museum. Pip, Wig, and Dick hopped in the back, and I hopped in the passenger seat for the three-hour journey (each way) to the site of the market, somewhere between Kitale and Lodwar.

Pip, Wig, and Dick are ready for a road trip to somewhere between Kitale and Lodwar.

Pip, Wig, and Dick are ready for a road trip to somewhere between Kitale and Lodwar
 

 

We drove through some of the most spectacularly desolate landscapes that I’ve ever seen. There were very few signs of life other than desert plants and massive termite mounds that towered over my head (see cover photo for this post).  Occasionally a person or two would seemingly pop out of nowhere, such as children tending to their goats (pictured below). Here are a few photos of the region.


Eventually we made our way to the area where Jane believed the market would form, but we started to doubt ourselves given the lack of any signs of life.  We continued down the road and all of a sudden we found ourselves in the middle of hundreds of people who looked as if they had just hopped off the pages of National Geographic magazine. This was the Turkana market. The Turkana people were dressed in traditional clothing and animal skins with lots of colorful beads, bracelets, and ear plugs. They carried spears, knives, bows and arrows, stools, woven baskets, and staves. I desperately wanted to take photos but felt uneasy about it. I wasn’t sure how the Turkana perceived photo-taking. To this day, it’s the #1 moment that I regret not capturing on film. But, given all of the visible weapons that were on display, I’m okay with my decision. Jane and I were the only mzungus in sight, and we received plenty of curious glances; there was no need to attract more attention.


The market formed in an area with no buildings or infrastructure other than the road. Jane explained that the market forms for a day or two, and then vanishes as the nomadic Turkana disappear back into the desert.


It was an amazing sight that I’ll never forget. As I scanned the area, I could see a lot of cattle and goats that the Turkana use for milk, blood, meat, and currency. There were no fishing poles or fish products in sight.

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   


 

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