Hi, I’m Mark, and welcome to "Mark's Travel Blog" at markstravelblog.com.  As you can imagine, it took me a long time to come up with that name. 

I use this site to share travel stories and photos with family and friends, but anyone bored enough to view my posts is welcome.


Happy travels!




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 (so far) and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. 



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 (so far) and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. 



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 (so far) and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. 



Adventures in Kenya (Part 3 of 6): "Photos Take Away Your Soul"

May 20, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Photo Day in Kipsaina, Kenya

The bleeding myth that I shared in my previous post was one of many misconceptions that the local population had about white people, Western culture, and technology.  Another myth held in some of the more remote villages (which I only encountered a few times in very small communities such as the photo below) was the idea that, if someone takes a photo of you, it takes away your soul or some variant of that belief.



For this Mythbusters episode, a community leader asked me to come to the church in the village of Kipsaina the following Sunday and take photos of anyone who was interested.  I assumed that 10 or 20 people might show up.  I was wrong.  Well over 100 people showed up, dressed in their Sunday best.  Entire classes of schoolchildren lined up, according to their grade or age, to take class photos.

Group photo in Kipsaina, Kenya


Families and friends assembled for small group photos.

Small group photo in the church of Kipsaina, Kenya


Someone had even set up a motorcycle as a prop for people to sit on and look cool as I took their picture.

Motorcycle for photos


Fortunately, I brought many rolls of film.  I had an old-school camera at the time (1996), so I had to send in the rolls of film to get them developed.  To be safe, I shipped all of the rolls to my parents back in the United States.  About a month later, I received a box full of photos.


As I distributed the pictures, it was clear that many of the people had never seen themselves in a photo ... which was really the main reason why the community leader had organized a photo day in the first place.  There was a lot of laughter, pointing, and smiles.  It was a blast and well worth the effort.



Another stereotype that pervades Africa is the previously mentioned idea that, if you’re white, you’re rich.  I once asked someone why they believed that to be true.  The answer caught me by surprise: He had seen the TV show Beverly Hills, 90210.  What more evidence do you need?  Case closed.

My heart sank when I heard that people had actually seen Beverly Hills, 90210 in rural Africa.  Why did that show have to be the baseline for U.S. wealth?  So I asked the next logical question: “How in the heck did you manage to see that?”  Well, one of the local outdoor “cinemas” showed it on occasion.  By cinema, you should not be envisioning red velvet curtains, large buckets of popcorn, and comfy chairs with cup holders for your giant fountain drink.  Instead, think of a small TV, propped up on crates and attached to what looks like a car battery, with a bunch of old patio chairs scattered in front of it.  The cinema owner or renter charges admission to anyone who wants to gather around to watch whatever show or soccer game finds its way to the TV after manipulating
the rabbit ears.  Apparently, the stars aligned so that Beverly Hills, 90210 found its way to rural Kenya.  I also learned that The Dukes of Hazzard had been seen by quite a few people.  You can decide if that’s good or bad.

Of course, the long list of misconceptions and stereotypes worked both ways.  When I arrived in Kenya, I was armed with an extensive arsenal of preconceived notions and stereotypes about the local population that I believed to be true, based on Beverly Hills, 90210-like evidence.  Once I actually met people and gained firsthand experience of the local culture, many of my misconceptions were obliterated.  More on that topic in next week's post.



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 (so far) and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. 




Adventures in Kenya (Part 2 of 6): Wear Thick Socks

May 13, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

Wear Thick SocksWear Thick SocksProtecting Against Ticks by Tucking Pants into Socks

In my last post I shared with you the surreal experience of having a long line of schoolchildren waiting to shake my hand as I would be the first white person that many of them had ever touched.  It was a great experience that I'll never forget.  But I should confess that there's a backstory to that experience that you probably won't find all that impressive.  


Many people find it helpful to go through life with a daily mantra to guide them and keep them on track.  Mantras like "Om," "Thy will be done," and "Be the change you wish to see in the world" are common examples.  My mantra in rural Africa was often an inspiring "Don't touch your face."  This was the lofty thought that often crossed my mind while shaking the hands of children who had never touched a white person.  I know ... I'm truly an inspiration.


Why did that thought cross my mind?  Because I'd seen the local toilets - think ramshackle outhouse with a hole in the ground, two well-worn spots for your feet, and a questionable bucket of water to clean your butt afterwards ... with your hand.



Before I entered one of those outhouses, I always did a quick scan of the floor, walls, and ceiling to look for snakes, spiders, and other unmentionables before committing to the journey to enter. Once my feet were in place, my goal was to not look too closely at anything at all and get out of there as quickly as possible.


Toilet paper did not exist in these remote outhouses. For that matter, neither did sinks, running water, or electricity. Your choice was to either use the perilous water bucket or skip the cleaning part altogether. The latter seemed to be a popular choice among many of the young children. Heck, many of the kids didn’t even bother using the outhouse! On plenty of occasions, I had the joy of witnessing young children on the path in front of me suddenly stop, squat down to do their business, pull up their pants, and merrily carry on as if nothing had happened, leaving little landmines to dodge.


Faced with this stark reality, I always carried a stash of toilet paper in my pocket. (Well, almost always.) I remember two notable instances where I forgot this prized possession. One instance forced me to use the dreaded bucket. The second instance warrants a story.


I woke up one morning with some “intestinal distress,” which didn’t surprise me given the risky food and water that I was exposed to on a regular basis. But, on this particular day, I had plans to meet with two community leaders to get a tour of some local conservation projects. Since there were no phones (this was 1996), and the people I intended to meet were several miles away on foot, I had no easy way to reschedule.


I reluctantly put on my hiking boots, made the trek to the neighboring village, and met my colleagues as planned. As we made our way to one of the conservation project sites, I really had to go the bathroom. There were no public facilities in the area and no easy place to squat down in private, so they took me to a nearby farm and asked the owner if I could use their outhouse.

Relieved to receive the green light, I told my colleagues, “Go ahead, and I’ll catch up with you.”  Their response was a distressing, “No, no. We will wait for you here.”


I felt like I was about to burst, so I accepted my impending humiliation and stepped inside. What followed was a classic bout of explosive diarrhea, and the community leaders enjoyed front-row seats for the fireworks. Still, I felt relieved … until I realized that I didn’t have any toilet paper with me. My eyes darted to the water bucket in the corner, and my heart sank when I realized that it was empty. Not good. In desperation, I took off my underwear and used it to wipe.

Unfortunately, there was no garbage can or easy place to hide or bury the evidence. I felt that it would be rude to throw it in the toilet for someone else to fish out later, while also realizing that it’s generally considered uncool to emerge from an outhouse with a pair of filthy underwear in your hand. I decided that the only way to escape with a tiny shred of dignity was to hike up one of my pant legs and stuff it in my hiking sock.

I emerged with my best poker face and said, “Okay, thanks for waiting. Let’s go.”


So, what's the moral of this life-changing story?  Whenever you're traveling in remote parts of the world, always care spare toilet paper or, at the very least, wear thick socks!



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 (so far) and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. 



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