Feeding Rothschild’s giraffes in Langata, Kenya

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There are only a few hundred Rothschild’s giraffe left around the world in the wild, and they are only found in East Africa, which today only includes Kenya and Uganda. In the outskirts of Nairobi in Langata, the Giraffe Center houses some of these endangered species who roam around in the large protected park. We visited the center a little after noon, which apparently was when the  giraffes we saw in the distance were already full. Of course, that was not going to stop us. The center is simple, and there is a raised platform made just for people to climb to be head-level with the giraffes and feed them.

Rothschild’s giraffe is named after Lionel Walter Rothschild, the Second Baron Rothschild, Baron de Rothschild. He was a famed zoologist, who was also a politician and a banker. He found them after an expedition to East Africa in the early 1900s. Rothschild’s giraffe look a bit different from the more common Masaai giraffes in Kenya, with a more creamy colored background to the shapely spots, and most importantly, just plain cream color below the knees.

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The keepers at the Giraffe Center tried to get the giraffes to come towards us by calling their name. Kelly, the oldest giraffe there at fourteen years of age was the first to approach us. As the keepers called out “Kelly! Kelly!” the giraffe finally came and we were able to feed her small palettes one at a time. Visitors are only given two handfuls (I managed to get three, ignoring the sign that light heartedly asked us to not to that for concern of their diet) and we feed them one at a time. The giraffe will come up to you and take it from your palm with their tongue and it is seriously, one of the coolest things I have ever done. This is why I selfishly went and got another handful, because watching them pick a palette at a time from my palm was fascinating. They are beautiful, with big eyes, long face, and a unique patterned skin from other, more common types of giraffes, and so gentle. Kelly, having been around for a while, was equal opportunity, going around the raised platform to eat out of every visitor. Visitors were going crazy (as I was), both with watching them lick palettes off their palms and taking photos, of course.

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Another giraffe came along, named Ibrahim, affectionately called Ibra. Ibra is much younger and way more friendly; he is the one that stuck his head close to us and would lick your face if you got really close (aka, the kiss). Needless to say, adorable.

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The Giraffe Centre was founded by a Kenyan grandson of a Scottish Earl, Jock Leslie-Melville. The center was founded as a way to preserve the endangered Rothschild’s giraffe, by breeding and raising them in Langata.

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A note on the flight alone to Nairobi + Volun-tourism

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My flight to Nairobi was something on its own to note because, well, it’s just surprising. People on your flight: American missionaries, American college kids doing research on AIDS/HIV or education (or the typical developing-world-issues, you pick one), nuns, families going on safaris, and ‘volun-tourists,’ or a type of tourism where you also ‘volunteer’ to make yourself feel better, and lots of Europeans who are going on similar purposes. The flight from Brussels included an American priest who decided it was his job to loudly recite prayers before takeoff and during landing. The general voice level is excitement, of ‘going to Africa’ and ‘saving the world.’ From my other posts on this blog it should be clear that I have an issue with this whole ‘saving the world’ mantra that travelers from the West has continued to feel obliged to do, especially those who can also afford to go to this very, very large continent.

The passengers on religious missions was a bit surprising because I did not know that still took place so actively. The volunteer tourism is a bit more problematic. While the purpose of it has been marketed to promote responsible visitors and allow people to engage in sustainable tourism, it is still tourism in which people, mostly affluent families from the US, are enforced the feeling of 1) false superiority, direct of indirect, 2) the assumption that the location of their volunteer tourism is in a dire state,  3) still expect to be treated as a superior and have all the amenities of a vacation, and especially nice things since it is a developing country. All of this might sound extreme but I feel that this new volun-tourism is just perpetuating socioeconomic divides, and more controversially, racial divides (I use the word controversial because people still feel queasy pointing to the elephant in the room, but yes, this is a racial issue).

Such volun-tourism is more about boosting the ego of the tourists who are landing at the airport and being escorted by nice cars to their nice hotels (all of which are not only expected from the tourists but also surprises them because they thought they were coming to a developing country and people are supposed to be poor, an obvious double standard). Also, not all locals want to be reminded that they need help, or asked for help, or even actually need help in the first place (living standards and what is deemed as ‘approprate’ and not are objective, after all).

Of course this is not to push down intentions or to say all volunteer tourists are ignorant, but an element of ignorance is there. Bangladesh has recently started to jump on this whole volunteer tourism thing, where marketing companies are hired by travel agency to make fancy websites and charge unbelievable amounts for packages to do things that locals usually laugh at, and locals are always better at. I remember talking to someone who worked at such travel agency and he told me how it’s usually something like letting the tourist teach a class at a school, clean fish freshly caught from pollutants, and other tasks that are not dangerous (because if something happens to the tourist, well, that would ruin the whole purpose, and this also assures that the demands of safety are met by these tourists), meager, and, just funny and costs next to nothing for the agency to arrange. What does help is that the amounts paid by these tourists to do what locals would deem as odd activities to actually help trigger employment in the area.

Lets not forget that these tourists are not going to be given some cultural background or education on the way people usually live in the area so again, they are coming in with the idea that their society and living standards is automatically better than the host country.

I am not sure that there is a solution other than asking people to go read some books. Tourism is a great cash cow and a way to boost a region’s economy, and even help local employment and small businesses to an extent. Exploitation of perception, and increased conviction of ‘developing world poverty’ after such visits are a social issue, which goes beyond reading books.

 

You must feed your guests.

The most frequent question that my aunt asks me is: did you eat? This is followed by: what did you eat? As if to check that I was not lying. Since I live by myself in Dhaka, my relatives’ concern is if I eat or not, before they will even ask me how I am, or how work is going. When I meet strangers and they learn that I live by myself, I am always amazed at how many people will serious questions regarding my meals. How do you eat? Who cooks for you? Aunties will ask me this question with a smile that hides real concern. In the West where I suppose living alone is more common, I have never been asked this question. In Bangladesh, a different story. People are really, genuinely concerned about what goes into my stomach and if it is done often enough.

Likewise in Bangladesh, if you go to someone’s home or office, you are most likely offered something to eat, and also insisted upon. There is no refusing, unless you want to offend. This is not a matter of class or wealth. Two weeks ago, I was at a village in Bogra, in Northern Bangladesh doing some field visits for BRAC, and the women we visited at their tin-roofed homes insisted on serving us tea. One woman even forced entire bag of puffed rice to one of the students with us. The puffed rice lasted for days among a dozen people. In another village where I was working as a translator to a group studying microfinance in rural Bangladesh, a woman fed us her homemade sugar-syrup dripped cakes that she sold for 3 taka each in the market (we refused at first but it was too late, her husband was off plating it before she even finished asking/demanding out attention). I was at an urban slum recently in Mirpur conducting house visits with the same group of students and yet again, women were insisting that we enter, sit in their one bedroom homes in the slum, and drink their tea.

All of these women are poor, on the brinks of poverty, if not below poverty, insisting on feeding us drinks and snacks that they save up to purchase. They have barely any money to pay their rent, let alone send all of their children to school.

The same can be said when visiting offices. I cannot think of many offices that I have had to go to in Bangladesh for meetings and interviews where I was not fed at least tea; usually, biscuits and fruits follow. When I visited ASA, a microfinance lender in another remote village, after our meeting, there were plates of apples, oranges, grapes, and bananas set forth by the maids. After visiting a milk chilling center in Bogra, we were directed to another room where plates of hot samosas and again, plates of fruits lined the table, along with tea made from the very milk they packaged for the cities in Bangladesh. At the Yunus Center in Mirpur, I was served Grameen’s Danon yogurt, tea, water, and vegetable crackers in their state-of-the-art conference room.

The hospitality of Bangladesh and the relationship that people have with food is fascinating. A country that faces increasing rises in food prices and with a large number of the population living in or below the poverty line, food is certainly an important commodity. Feeding guests crosses social boundaries. It is not about class, as I have said. It is about respect and showing gratitude for visits, no matter what they were about or how long or short. Furthermore, it is also about pride. And in a society where class and hierarchy defines just about everything, being able to feed (no matter what, black tea or meals) matters more than affordability itself.

Though we in the second generation often make fun of our parents who still hold onto this custom 3,000 miles away from their homeland (I am talking about those of us who are South Asian Americans), I am pretty sure I will be doing the same when I become an “aunty”. Already, when people visit my home in Dhaka, I start panicking, wondering what I have to offer for drinks and food (which is usually, nothing since I spend so much of my time at work or outside and thus, eating out). It is interesting how this thing we do with feeding strangers and friends alike has become ingrained in our culture beyond out great grandparents’ generation.

I have a certain fascination with airports and flights, and even more with stories about flying. Here is one I just read on the Huffngton Post that caught my eye, as it combines the funny simple happening of fashion, air hostesses, and security.

THE AESTHETICS OF AMERICAN AIRLINES AND WHY I ALMOST MISSED THANKSGIVING

By Debra Scherer

Ten years ago today, while flying down to Miami, my sense of style wound up almost costing Thanksgiving and leaving behind a permanent record with the FBI. Spending a lot of time traveling, its hard not to notice that although we are far from the golden years of chic air travel, there is still something quite right about the American Airlines classic dress uniform, a tip of the hat to the pilots uniforms and how, with its brilliantly fascist company logo, there is a slight military air to the whole thing which is admirable.

So, out came a small point and shoot Leica film camera and just as the flight attendant leaned un self consciously against the galley entrance to fix her hairpin, I asked if it was ok to take a quick picture. She said yes and in an instant the camera went back into my bag as quickly as it came out. One frame, on film, two hours of flying left and I didn’t give it another thought.

When we landed they made an unusual announcement that we would be going to a special gate and that everyone must remain seated with their seat belts fastened until given further instructions. As we pulled up, I noticed several police officers with guns out waiting on the landing and all of the sudden I felt something sticking into the back of my head. “Put your hands up!” It couldn’t be real, this huge movie scene could not be all about me!

So, yes, there are air marshals on flights. I was taken off the plane and “escorted” into a questioning room and eventually found out it was all due to my taking that picture. The crew somehow decided that I could have been trying to take a picture of the cockpit door and had radioed the authorities in flight. Funny enough, because it wasn’t digital, I had nothing to show them and eventually they understood it was an innocent and inconvenient mix up.

The best news was that when I finally developed the one lone roll of film that one crazy frame was there and the moment had been captured. Little Squares Style. I’ve always loved that image and will never take a picture on an airplane again.

Talking about cricket.

Bangladesh’s last game of the world cup ended in the team allowing South Africa to score just fifteen points shy of 300, and Bangladesh making up only 78 of it, all out. I was at the Shere Bangla National Stadium in Mirpur for the game yesterday and left right after Bangladesh’s fifth wicket, as did many others in the stadium. Many did not even sit in their seats anymore but stood in the space in front of the gates, ready to leave once they saw another terrible play. The guards could not even tell us to go back to our seats since there were so many who could as one said nearby, “beat them up” if they tried anything of that sort. Conversation of precious time and money wasted could be overheard repeatedly as fanatics started to take off red and green pieces that they had prepared for the game from their bodies in frustration. Thousands poured out of the gates looking disappointed more than shocked by the afternoon.

Disappointment is a look I see often in Bangladesh- the look of getting your hopes up really high, because just maybe the impossible is possible as it often can be in the country, and then to have it crushed suddenly and quickly. It is a quick shot, crisp and clean. There isn’t much space for sudden reaction. And then it sinks in and people start to get emotional and use their words to get violent. It’s not clean anymore. Car windows get shattered whether it is the cricket team losing or a sudden hartal. Words are used to spread thousands of messages across newspapers, blogs, and television and in the streets.

I had talked about the fascinating way in which sports are able to unite a country and bring forth nationalism about a month prior to the start of the tournament. I forgot to think about the aftermath of it all. People are united pretty obviously and perhaps more than ever but for the reason that they are disappointed in their team and need the venues to vent. But nationalism however you choose to define it has also been obviously dazed. It is going to take some time when the signs of the world cup are everywhere in Dhaka- the lights, posters welcoming you to “our land”, billboards of painted fans, and the several enlarged cricket bats on Airport Road with signatures of thousands wishing the national team luck. While I am not a maniac fan of cricket, driving through the city last night still resulted in a bang of defeat as we passed lit strands of lights and colorful decorations made just for the world cup, and most importantly, for the national team.

Even then, hosting the cricket world cup with India and Sri Lanka for the first time in the nation’s history brought in some (hopefully) un-doable developments. It created jobs for many in the city, expanded several commercial sectors and boomed businesses who took advantage of the cup to sell products. It cleaned up the roads a bit and created some conscious among the people to maintain it as they were now the hosts of something historical (instead of stealing parts of decorations in the middle of the night to sell in the black market, for example). It got children out of the house to play cricket in their neighborhood and with other children they were able to befriend with this common interest. It created a conversational topic for literally anyone despite social classes, gender, or age. This alone is worth noting in a society where all three aspects matter more than it ever should. It illustrated the candid potential that Bangladesh has- it can host international guests, it can start building a tourism industry, it does not need everything to be political, it can market itself, and it can allow people to get along for at least some time. Thus, despite everything, it must be admitted that these are some feats for a sport to be able to achieve even if temporarily.

 

Bangladesh vs. South Africa

Traveling Around Bangladesh: Srimongol, Sylhet

About five hours away from Dhaka we went early Friday morning to Srimongol, a small city in Sylhet, famous for their lush tea gardens, rainforest, tribal communities and in my opinion, a very unique dialect that I can’t seem to comprehend. More importantly, it was a chance to get out of the chaos that is Dhaka to a place far and wide, literally. We arrived in the afternoon after a slight detour and next thing I know I am inside a cute little cottage up a small hill, simply furnished with a netted patio that I loved the most but stayed away from because of mosquitoes. Similar cottages sprung up all over the small hills, part of the Bangladesh Tea Resort which also included a tea museum.

On our first day, we visited a tribal village where I got to experience a Bangladeshi tribe for the first time. The village was set upon another hilly area, within a forest where you saw the typical man made homes, goats, and “village people” with their children and equipment. There were also signs of BRAC, and various British NGOs and their banners hanging about various projects. It almost felt like a planned village where they were used to foreigners coming and looking around and making their observations. So then, is this really a representation of a true village? Are the handlooms and nicely placed huts all a show for what tourists want to see rather than how they live? Maybe these are unfair assumptions but I just felt as though I was in an environment that was not true to itself.

That night, we also randomly stopped at a Kali (or Shema) puja celebration on the main road. Upon a well lit venue sat musicians playing and children singing beside the Kali puja statues, as others passed by to pray upon it. When we stood at the entrance to watch, half the eyes in the crowd turned to us rather than the stage, as I guess we do kind of make a scene with our very foreign attitudes and looks. The music was lovely, especially how the very young children at past ten at night were singing well rehearsed pieces, all decked out in their child makeup and sparkly clothing. I enjoyed it a lot even though we were only there for a bit, because we stumbled upon an aspect of the city rather than having a planned visit.

Hiking in the Rainforest…Never doing it again.

So the one thing that I feared in the entire trip was leechis or Jog as they are called in Bangla. It was the one reason why I did not want to go hiking at 6 am at the Lalwarcha Rainforest. But of course I get tempted to go because I have this thing about not having regrets and trying everything even if only once. And I was urged to go sd the weather was more dry these days. So I went, waking up at 6 am and driving 15 minutes away to the rainforest where we were guided on a one hour trail.

The entire hike was not exactly enjoyable for me because I worried about leechis the entire time. Also, it was definitely not dry- I suppose I should have recalled my years of learning geography. After all, it is called a RAIN forest. It was wet, and narrow, and spider webs sprung their beautiful webs everywhere, though the spiders themselves were not that pretty. We were ducking and twisting to avoid the sudden webs and throne-filled tree branches, fallen trunks of trees, and wide, wet leaves. We went up and down and across steams in broken wooden bridges. I wish I had more courage to look around me and enjoy the scene but my fear prevented that. I made the person following me to see if anything got stuck on my body and luckily Matt who was in front of me had great reactions to spider webs (with his over six feet frame) so I selfishly used that to avoid them myself.

At the end of the trail I was congratulated as I made the most fuss about Jogs. And just when I wanted to celebrate I look down and there it is, on my right ankle something unfamiliar. I did not even look at it closely and just started screaming as Matt came closer to have a look and Laule’a reached and pulled the tiny Jog off my ankle. Even as I write this I can feel my body shivering because the fright of the Jog was too much. My screams turned into tears and there I am crying as my ankle is treated with savlon and band aids. Matt later told me that a truck full of laborers stopped on the road to watch me because I made such a fuss. Our guide, a tribal woman could not understand why I was reacting so violently. I could not believe that the one thing I wanted to avoid this entire weekend happened to me.

Thus I have concluded that I am not going to be hiking in a rainforest ever again. I love nature, and having grown up in Arizona, by no means am I a completely urban being. But that hour or two, I would have preferred to be in smog filled Dhaka traffic.

The Famous 7 Layer Tea

We stopped at the famous Nilakhando Cha Cabin to try the seven layer tea. It was a pretty site, though the taste is questionable. It was good, but not one I would want to drink obsessively, like for breakfast everyday. I think I enjoyed the site more than the taste. It was a lot like Thai Iced tea (which I do love and would have at any point), but the layers were distinct from one another so it was an experience of several moments combined. You have the layer that tastes like diluted tea, the layer that is strong, another that tastes like lime and then finally the honey and sugar. It takes some time to make and costs eighty taka which is pretty expensive for Bangladesh. I in fact liked the special cha better, with its milk and tea brewed together and topped with cinnamon.

We did go back to this place the next day, on our way back to Dhaka to have the tea one more time. I think something like this would be very popular abroad (Starbucks?) but I like that it can only be found here, and the recipe has never been given away. Makes the whole experience a bit more authentic…