Kenya

Reviewing Dean Cycon's Javatrekker

As much as I like to believe I'm aware of the world's atrocities and doing my part to make things better, I know I'm very much a negative factor in many world struggles that I'm both conscious of and oblivious to. I suppose my hourly efforts go out to world education, but being interested in travel and the world's communities seems to impress the importance of caring about everything.

coffee-bean

coffee-bean

Where does my clothing come from? Am I supporting local farmers? Did my beer get to me via cargo ship? Man...this coffee tastes delicious.

In terms of these worries, coffee is certainly a big kahuna. It's a safe assumption that young children today associate the Starbucks counter with the origin of coffee. And sadly, I think many adults and consumers think that far into the commerce chain when purchasing their daily jolt. I know I envision lush fields and no faces when I see names like Highland Grog and Java Sumatra, while trying to buy the cheapest concoction possible.

Where does the profit from our caffeine flow? Who benefits from my flavored latte? What is it like to grow coffee for a ravenous global market?

Deans Beans

Deans Beans

Dean is this dude. He is the founding dude of Deans Beans. He also calls himself a Javatrekker. He's all about organic beans and fair traded coffee, not "fairly" traded, loophole-filled commerce that leaves the farmers out cold and hungry. His book reads like a compilation of travel essays from someone who's had unique, and at times treacherous, experiences in the jungles, arid flatlands, and mountain ranges of the coffee lands.

Though I'm normally attracted to straight narratives, I found the mental globe trotting on the same theme a great overall adventure with an informative pulse, which will resonate with any consumer of any good. Let's check out Javatrekker: Dispatches From the World of Fair Trade Coffee.

The Storyline

Dig your little toesies into the arid soil of Ethiopia, the birthplace of the coffee bean - or at least the location of caffeine's discovery. Dean will walk you through the experience of getting clean, potable water to a region with a serious water paucity. Feel happy and inspired. Now head south to Kenya and get ready to rip the bureaucratic heads off those swindling the coffee farmers out of their money. And so this storyline oscillates from empowering and inspiring accomplishment to unfortunate setback and struggle.

Dean Cycon's Javatrekker

Dean Cycon's Javatrekker

Javatrekker: Dispatches From the World of Fair Trade Coffee

Take a big flying leap over to South America where Dean witnesses incredible feats of guerilla engineering, connects with ailing nature's call, and swallows crippling fear and pain to help a region whose political struggle beheld the demise of his friends. His essays indicate the world's vast array of problems all affect the already difficult task of growing beans: global warming, natural disaster, political uproar, world market prices, foreign aid, and more. It all reminded me of the butterfly effect.

Green Coffee

Green Coffee

Dean's trips aren't just about agriculture. Officially observing democratic elections and visiting victims of amputation via train wheels are his errands. Tying his product directly to the effects his industry can exacerbate not only reveals a pivotal awareness of the realities related to coffee but those of all products with middlemen and foggy ground between their origin and destiny.

Island-nations of Asia and the South Pacific host Dean's experiences, in locales seldom seen by the likes of any foreign eyes. Regions ripped to shreds by civil war and political corruption work with him to help their caffeinated cash crop industry. Bringing simple machines to villages that lost out on money for lack of regulation and timely output, Dean appears like a savior to these co-ops in need. However, he's always first to mention his own miscalculations and wrongdoings alongside those of his fellow man.

While Dean does focus on the difficulties of coffee growers, he fills the pages with descriptive prose on the rituals of coffee consumption, the cultural nuances of each community meeting, the similar human spirit that unites the world's population, as well as the distinctive differences that remind us the vast spread of the social platter. One doesn't need to be a lover of coffee to appreciate this compilation; travelers and the business-minded alike have great lessons to gain from reading this bad boy.

The Bottom Line

Javatrekker

Javatrekker

How are we supposed to work eight hours, exercise for one, get seven hours of sleep, chew 25 times per bite, find time for friends and family, visit the doctor, drink eight glasses of water, clean the litter box, and floss three times a day? Our lives are already packed with must-dos and obligations that seemingly cannot go undone. So then, how can we layer on top of our daily checklist complete and utter social responsibility that would accompany hours of research and product comparison?

In other words, how are we supposed to know which thing we eat, drink, or wear is best for the world?

Don't worry; you'll live a long time, long enough to take it all in stride and read books like this to cover each issue at a time. And now, coffee is covered! Deans Beans is standing alongside the farmer, helping him or her pay for their cost of operation, their family's well-being, and enabling their vertical climb in commerce and life. That sounds responsible to me.

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from a friend, and there are affiliate links in this post. I believe this is a book worth purchasing as well as one worth sharing with your friends.

Video of the Week: African Favorite Things

Revamping a classic musical number with a twist on Africa. These lyrics were written while bumping across Zambia on my Dragoman overlanding experience on the Big Journey in 2008. I know this is ridiculous, but I couldn't help myself...

Lyrics:

Cockfights and beach nights and living in classrooms, Drago employees and bush camping cook groups, Elephant charges and subsequent screams, These are a few of my favorite things

Peering out tent flaps at African hippos, Learning sign language and swimming with locals, Feeling at home up in Bujagali, These are a few of my favorite things

When I throw up over Maggie, Cov'ring KJ's lap, I simply remember I'm Zanzibar bound, And then I don't feel so bad

Jambo and mambo, Cheesy camondeezi, Sailing in dhows and learning Kiswahili, Red Bulls and Cholos and beach break dancing, These are a few of my favorite things

Jinja hitch-hiking, couch-surfing Kampala, Canoeing Zambezi and perfect Uganda, The instant traveler camaraderie, These are a few of my favorite things

When my new friends have to leave me, A rolling stone so sad, I simply remember I'm living a dream, And then I don't feel so bad.

The East African Safari Experience: Day 36-42

Crap the Whip...er, the Trunk

You've just flown thousands of miles across massive oceans and expanses of land. You've had too many airport transfers to bother remembering. Those weren't cheap tickets or easy transit days. But you came to relive those deeply rooted Lion King fantasies from your childhood and by golly you'll do anything to make those happen!One thing you will realize upon getting to Africa is that the wild animals aren't really as close to civilization as some North American wildlife can be. We may imagine lions wandering into people's flower gardens and elephants backing into generators, cutting of the city's power supply. But unless you hit up a National Park in a city like Nairobi or Nakuru, you have a long way to drive to get to those classic landscapes teeming with long-necked, 2 ton, man-eating herds.

Therefore, most travelers who want to see East Africa and live out their safari dreams either book a full service transport/guide/camping/catering service from Arusha or Nairobi or they overland on massive multi-functional vehicles. Regardless of your travel mode, quality is key and can dictate whether you enjoy yourself or not. Research the companies and their average age of passenger or style of travel and make sure it fits with you. Ask about the experience of their drivers or guides. When it comes to the driver or tracker on safari, he or she needs to have loads of experience in order to find what you are hoping to see. Those who have been around for a while are downright psychic when it comes to predicting animal appearances or future behavior. Also, inquire about the vehicles for the drives into and around the game parks. Land Rovers clearly trump Land Cruisers, and vehicles with frequent maintenance will make, not break, your experience. No one likes getting stranded in those steamy, remote landscapes.

And if you're looking for a straight forward recommendation, I actually really dug our tour company because they met every standard of quality I found important. Bottom line is to decide what you find important (comfort, experience, fellow passengers, travel style, etc.) and do the research. No one wants to spend wads of dough and realize they missed the mark on their travel dreams.

Nairobi at Night

I tried one more time. Nairobi at night. This time with the help of two GAP guides, one being my future leader across Tanzania and the game reserves. They escorted me back to Ranalo Foods to educated this rusty mind on eating with your hands in East Africa. Grabbing ugali (corn flour and water boiled down to a squishy solid) by the fingertips, they molded a wad to fit the width of their hands, ending in a spoon-like shape near the thumb. Then, they went for the meat or greens, pinching the food together to the ugali and taking it all in with a large, meaty bite. It took me a few attempts to look as thought I eat like this all the time. Of course, I still got some stares and was probably looking quite silly, but having those guys accompany me gave me the confidence I, for some reason, lacked the night before.

And then we went out for drinks. People were pumped to get on the dance floor, but most of the time, it was a floor full of gyrating men.  The guys explained most men are pretty afraid of girls because the majority of the women surrounding us were quite obviously "ladies of the night." They danced with an eye behind them, seeing who was watching and hoping to entice someone.

The bathroom was for refueling, to smoke and primp among the puddles. Standing in my simple, modest attire, the ladies and I had a moment of pausing to observe the other. All faucets were covered with bags, so a massive tank of water took up the majority of the open space, and a small bucket bobbled in hopes someone would want to be clean. A woman in front of me couldn’t stop moving to the music outside and gyrated by the toilet stalls. I loved it. I wanted to join her. The other woman next to me, one of the few ladies that wasn’t working that night, handed me some toilet paper. I was much obliged.

The curtains by the dance floor parted on a band led by a great Congolese singer, and immediately the place exploded with energy. The music pulsed to a heartbeat or a quick breath, to the natural bounce of the joints, all about the hips, shoulders, and head, which usually looked down to see how the rest of the bod’ was doing.

At one point, a man collapsed "dead" on floor in a game to get money. He rose after the efforts of a few very dedicated and drunken men (giving money and pleading to the gods) and came alive…alive enough to strip down to basically a full spandex onesie and about twelve pairs of colorful or slinky underwear. Once he got down to nothing but a G string over his black shiny get-up, he proceeded to do a headstand fit with impressive hip gyrations.  A couple audience members were quite enthusiastic to have me contribute to his medical school fees or whatever he was dancing for, but my boys had my back and gave me a backbone in the vulnerable situation.

The dancing king of the night, a.k.a. the Masai Matisyahu of sorts, told me to get up and dance. I mimicked the popular moves and fit in nicely. Then he asked me to be at home (that's nice) and feel free (oh ok...) to make another Obama if I felt like it (since I’m an American woman…in Kenya...wait, WHAT?). It was the second time someone said this to me in two days. At first it struck me as hilarious. Then I realized with the inauguration of our new president, the entire country of Kenya had a fresh new joke for the tourists that they all found as comical as they did the first time.

Bottom line: Get a local perspective on Nairobi nightlife, and you'll walk away pleased...and possibly swervin'.

Take my Taxes and Bribes but not my Smiles: Day 35

I made a friend while lounging at the hotel pool, Samuel, who comes from Kenya and beams with helpful information for the interested tourist. Since I feel like I’m cheating or lazy to only hang out at my hotel when abroad, I used his knowledge to develop a safe plan to see the city. Good man…though he fell in line with so many passing East African men I’ve met and asked me about my marriage status, but he stood as representation of a city I feared but without the malicious intent. While reading at the pool early on the second day, he cheerfully began another conversation with me that casually went into detailing his evening in jail. Since I had seen Samuel the afternoon before, he had been picked up by the Kenyan police and held in a cell, jammed in like a tin fish, and released on a bribe in the wee hours of the morning. He spoke with a smile and a near giggle throughout this story of corruption and dishonesty. This was his second time being detained, and his offence…not having his I.D. on him while waiting for a matatu (taxi bus) on his way home.

I took narrative exaggeration into account when he said 2,000 other suffered the same fate, but that would still leave a helluva lot of citizens at the mercy of the hired officials who supposedly “keep them safe”.  Samuel informed me Kenyan police are the most corrupt on Earth, and considering Obama refused to come to Kenya recently due to its seedy government, its easy to take his story in and develop a healthy fear of Kenya’s system.

Tours start here based on airport convenience, and besides a quick shopping trip to Karen, a few animal activities, and spit grilled meals, there’s little else here that justifies time spent among the corruption bookends of government and criminality. I know the people who live here are lovely…it’s the search for them throughout the city that will do you in.

But the wonderful thing is, as soon as you leave the town limits, its nothing but love, gyrating hips, and carnivorous animals in Kenya.

Move. Just Do It: Day 34

I hit up a local joint in Nairobi on my first night: Ranalo Foods. The night involved my failed attempts at eating without utensils and a staring problem aimed at all the moving bodies on the dance floor. This is what I observed. “The body is constantly swerving into different 'S' curve forms, snaking and rolling and making dance a public display of their private spirits. Moving like they're underwater, yet unable to abandon the rhythm. The smaller the moves, the better; slow, deliberate gyrations all with the smooth coat of style. It's 'own world dancing'...no one is self-conscious. And it's all in the joints with hips gliding, shoulders throbbing, and all eyes looking down to the work being done by themselves and the handsome one nearby.”

I rarely am intimidated by the dance floor, and even if I'm in a new country, I usually take the stance that if I make a fool of myself, I'll see none of these people again in the future. But, I didn't dance this time. I wanted to so badly, to test my skills at mimicking this underwater, snaking, gyrating dance of East Africa. I thought I could break the barrier between myself and the rest of the crowd on that Saturday night. Oh, but I was alone, and I didn't want to be a spectacle.

I added this first night at Ranalo Foods to the list of moments I regret. I could have given a nearby soul my camera to record whatever failed or successful attempts I made to assimilate into the dance culture. I could have smiled and gotten so far, making new friends who would dictate the way I should move.

And why am I writing about that one time when I didn't dance at a restaurant in Kenya? Because it could have enriched my Nairobi experience to unknown heights, and I'd rather you not make the mistakes in your journeys that lead you thinking later..."That would have been really cool if I had been ballsy enough to do that." I didn't show those boys in the bar in Cambodia the Soulja Boy dance, and I didn't swerve to the music of East Africa. I still remember the things I missed. They're small, but they could make all the difference.

The Game: Day 128

Chapter Two: The Road to Zanzibar Once the Golden Girls cast was infiltrated by new blood, a funny thing happened to me among the group who thought they knew me. I started acting like the "tart" I'm known to be now. I joked. I smirked. I giggled. I danced around in a semi-conscious state. I dove into conversations as if I would always have some valuable comment to make. Patrick was amazed at my transformation, and so began our friendship.

I'm glad the shell cracked, because the next stop was a return to Nakuru for a wee (thought spectacular) safari and the most exciting local interaction to date. Walking from the Kembu camp site, down the dirt road to Patrick's family compound, we felt the Earth rumble and the air split by hand claps, cackles, and the harmonious singing of a massive gathering. They performed but wouldn't let any of us just be spectators to their tribal anthems. We had to not just participate but throw ourselves into the celebration like it was our own, usual crew during a regular jam session. A multi-course meal followed and left our fingers sticky, bellies full, and cheeks sore from smiles. We learned more intimate details about Patrick from his family members than most of us were comfortable knowing, but these juicy tidbits gave ample material for more jokes between those of us on Patrick's friendly side.

The next night, we invited the whole fan damily to dinner as a thank you and to showcase our sad skills in celebration. Yes, celebration. Kool and the Gang style. Then we moved onto Chumbawumba...and almost broke the floor because we got knocked down...and then got up again. I played DJ with Jase and blared the crowd pleasing favorites like Tupac and Marley. I heard my name chanted from behind my disc jockey stance and turned to see Patrick's entire tribe forming a circle and summoning a "break-down" from yours truly. I cut that rug. At first by myself, then against Patrick himself. I'm embarrassed to note he out-shook me to the point that simply coming in accidental contact with his vibrating backside gave me an instant fabric burn. African hips are hazardous. Cross-stitch that into your next throw pillow.

I shook myself silly and soon became the young, giggle-box, whom danced around while eating her jammed toast in the early morning dew, hair askew and sporting the sock/sandal combo for humor's sake. The following few days, I opted out of group activities, like walking safaris and group meals, to become more familiar with those three people I was growing to befriend: the Drago crew. We chopped veggies, avoided hippos, navigated urban Nairobi, and threw back libations while chatting about overlanding, "intense travel," breaking social norms, finding ways to be happy, and getting paid to do what you love. They were some of the most intriguing opinions I've witnessed and found them to satiate the deep questions of my wandering soul.

And then the sun rose slowly, glowing...blazing all tints of the color wheel's warm side...I sat waiting, listening for the Kiswahili chorus and the raising of Simba into the living skies. Yes, you guessed it, we thundered across the appalling dirt roads via unlucky jeeps to the world famous stretching savannahs of the Serenjeti. Good guess; that was a tough one. Rising up the walls of the Ngorongoro Crater and skimming the rim, we experienced some unfortunate coincidences involving all three jeeps that hauled our poised cameras and anxious eyes. The first had a massive diesel leak, making its passengers physically sick and "fuming" mad. The second, my loyal carrier, vibrated down the corrugated roads and lost a connection that kept a tire in alignment. We took the opportunity to frolic around the barren 360• of savannah surrounding the site of "wreckage." Some tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to squat behind some thin and mobile tumble weed while those knowledgeable with mechanics squatted to stare at the damage. I ran around like a headless chicken, looking for a rotting carcass to "munch" on and get closer to the oh-so-musical circle of life. The landscape was perfect for a TIA photo moment, modified for Tanzania as we formed our bodies into the lovable exclamation "T.I.T." The third jeep, which doubled back to aid our car struggles, solved the issue, sent us off on our way, and then crawled behind at a fragmented pace from three flat tires. Seven years of using this company, and we experienced the first three problems Drago has ever had with them. Some said "What freakin' luck." I said, "ALLLLLLRIGHT!"

Those whose company I enjoyed dealt with our mercurial road trip to the National Park with light-hearted optimism. However, the high expectations summoned by the word "Serenjeti" made others bitter and suspicious of anything that wasn't straight out of the Lion King. As if safaris are controllable, predictable or follow a schedule of perfect skies, eye-to-eye encounters, and Kodak/Nat'l Geographic moments. I dropped all expectations and grew to love those times that weren't about the game...hydroplaning for sport on the newly-wet bush roads, listening to "Hakuna Matata" from guide Henry's cell phone, flipping pork chops by torch light on a bush bbq, and screaming in terror when I thought I was staring into the reflecting eyes of a night-scavenging lion by my tent. It was just a buffalo; don't fret. Patrick's baboon-bandit experience left us short of potatoes and bread and left me in stitches. Maria's dust COVERED visage brought a tear to my eye when she took refuge from the wind above the open top jeep. When I hear Serenjeti, I'll probably forget the cheetah that crossed our path, the leopard gnawing at a carcass suspended in a tree, or the hot air balloons floating majestically over the terrain at sunrise. I'll remember the moments that broke the mold...it's the stuff of life.

The Ngorongoro Crater, conceived by a brilliant geological mishap, is the only safari experience a person needs...a wildlife utopia with views to make a shutter finger seize in exhaustion. Bloody faced cheetahs chomping on a corpse, face-to-face elephant stare downs, and wildebeest migrations made my memory card steam, but nothing made me laugh harder than a massive alpha lion doing his business in front of 15 jeeps. I took four snaps a second, making sure I got the perfect illustration to add to the helpful book Everybody Poops...I could make it a flip book.

Though my Crater experience was memorable to say the leastest, I found the best thrills the night before, camping along the rim. There was no protection or fortifications between our wee tent circle and stampeding zebras or a giant elephant knocking down tree limbs. I watched the sunset slowly silhouette the mammoth's body as he balanced on two legs like a circus act, then I took to the "kitchen" (or spot where we put the gas stove range) to comfort our heart-broken cook and tour guides, all four still writhing from the previous day's verbal massacres by unhappy group members. In exchange, they bought me some local spirits and watched my back for stalking animals...which eventually materialized in the form of a massive bush pig. Think evil pig with a skull thrice as tall as it should be. I called it an early night and walked to the abolution block, only to find myself in a face-off with a buffalo...who stopped munching to turn his head and stare my shivering frame down. Patrick came running to my calls for help and accompanied me the rest of the way in the animal kingdom. I sorta miss the possibility of death on the way to the toilet. Gives life a zing. The night was semi-sleepless as I felt the stomping of game inches from my face. That's also zing-worthy.

Exhausted and caked in sweat and dust, I collapsed on the pile of bush camping equipment and smiled as Maggie approached our group in Karatu...it felt like a homecoming. Jase and Helen had spent the previous four days taking her apart and back together...enjoying the lively ambiance of Snake Park, a camp site that borders a hefty collection of massive reptiles, full-grown crocs inclu ded. And it was there that I purged myself of all anxieties cause my the tour group atmosphere. I lounged around while others toured museums. I, again, associated more with the guides than the fellow pax, staying up late and trying my hardest to avoid imbibing the deadly Ma's Revenge at the watering hole. It seemed I was becoming intoxicated by the overland life, where acquaintances become beloved comrades, camp site bars quake with the lively recounting of travel tales, and land traversed gives you a quantitative measure of success each and every day. Once again, age pulls me back from diving towards those apps, and so I'll dilly-dally for two more years, to contemplate those dreams until Drago will put me in the pool.

I awake at sunrise. Something is uncomfortably wrong. The night before involved a decent amount of bar time but not enough to warrant a wake-up call of extreme stomach irritation and a burning throat. I crawled to my tent flap and hovered inches outside to wretch in the most painful manner. Masai watchmen walked by and pretended not to stare as I wept and purged on all fours. This is one of the things I love about Africans...they will avert eyes to help you save face and dignity...even in times like this where a woman is crying, tossing cookies, and stuck leaning out a tent that was turned in the night so the fly and tent flap were no longer aligned. Thank you, Jase, for thoroughly pegging me into my own tent at an inconvenient moment in time. A fire trapped in my throat that I couldn't extinguish with water or biscuits. Potatoes and ketchup for breakfast went down like chunky needles, and I barely moved from my seat on the truck even with the multiple pit stops. And then I exploded. All over Maggie...myself...and others nearby. One of the most embarrassing events I've experienced. Covered in my own regurgitated food, I made a sad speech to my group from the front of the truck, announcing my shame, apologies, and the priceless chance for photographs if anyone wanted to seize the moment. Jase pointed out the vomit that had wrapped around my body, making light of my impressive skills, and I waded in that exposing feeling that eventually makes you laugh in disbelief. Might as well. The shame subsided slowly when I put two and two together...I had the 24 hour stomach flu. Swell.

I was a weak, wobbly, sleepy, hungry mass for the next 24 hours. That is...until I got a glimpse of it, the ocean. All life and color returned to my face, and I couldn't stop singing "Buffalo Soldier" as I threw on my suit and bounced around, erecting my tent in the smooth, white sand. After a month of experiencing the tropics, the altitudes, and the dusty plains of Africa, I saw her sweet coast, and it filled me with all-consuming, all-curing glee. I think I was meant to be a beach baby...or, maybe more accurately, a Zanzi-baby.

Re-living moments on the island of Zanzibar cause an actual physical reaction...my body smiles, some organ crawls up to hug my heart, and something else shakes the sleeve of my mind like an impatient child, begging for a quick return. Luxury came to mind when I saw our fantastic abodes for the week in Nungwi...en suite, tiled floor, queen beds for all, the list rolls on. The beach disappears beneath a creeping tide of beautiful teal, and when it emerges, it sports an eclectic collection of Western visitors, local Bob Marley-idolizing beach boys, faux-Masai warriors, volleyball and soccer aficionados, dhow boats run aground, and miniature sand crabs scurrying from hungry felines. The sunset that met us upon arrival was a vicious display of the world's ability to astound with beauty and hide it away all too quickly. I hope my eyes will always be able to recall that image, even if I burn my retinas from such continual sun worship.

I am so sorry, because I feel bad...for both of us: you, the reader, and I, the writer. I'm sorry for not divulging into an incredible account of this paradise and my week of bliss. You won't get to know those joys that I could very easily describe but choose not to. I know what you're missing, so I'm sorry for your unknown loss. And I'm sorry I know have the knowledge of what that location can do to me, what possibilities it holds, and the satisfaction I reap from being a part of its existence. I choose to leave it to wordless memories, the silence instead representing that inexplicable smile you see on a person across the room, listening to music or eyes closed and breathing deeply. You can know I floated in a gorgeous ocean, scalded my skin in the hot sun, and covered myself with sweat and sand, trying to out-dance the local lords of the dance floor. Magic connections and visual masterpieces, the lifestyle of my soul's dreams; basically, I had a good time. I will touch that sand again. And you should, too.

Goodbye, Jase and Helen, Patrick and Maggie, my Bristolian crack pots. Enter Lucy and Mark, Vesh and Claudia, and some new blood from Ireland, Deutschland, and Aussieland.

Continue reading about this African adventure by reading the next and final chapter: The Pity of an Expiration Date.

DragoWorld...Allow Me to Explain: Near Day 112 also

BounceLike your butt has the hiccups Like you were riding in an overland truck Matatus and jeeps Maggie and Claudia We've managed to find (and feel) every weathered divet in the path between Jinja and Livingstone.

Allow me to explain.

I was scheduled to fly back to Nairobi from Entebbe, Uganda, in order to catch my Dragotrip across the dark continent. But regardless of the fact that Africa is a massive place with billions of people, a former Drago passenger (Shvonne) arrived at my volunteer site, offered me invaluable advice, and managed to not only introduce me to my future trip mates but get me a spot on the truck to Kenya...for the low, low price of beer money for our leader, Jason.

And so began my many weeks of overland adventures. These good times naturally fall into three chapters for their routes and the different ensembles aboard. And so I shall recount my Drago trip with due accentuation on the highlights: the sights, the comforts, the characters, especially the crew.

Chapter One: Hitch-hiking to Nairobi

I came to Adrift camp site in Jinja for a big Drago dinner between Shvonne's old and my future trucks and met the self-proclaimed alcoholics and nut cases that made up my group. I hadn't turned on my wit factor for weeks and was blind sided by the six over 40-year olds who came at me with big smiles, beers in hand. Helen approached us at the bar afterwards and welcomed me to the group...so slow was I to realize this young, blonde woman was one of my leaders. She looked so clean. Get it, girl! And finally, we traced down the leader, Jason, the big kahuna whose decision it was for me to join. He only had a few questions for me upon arrival, this man of whom I've heard numerous party tales about already, and they were: will you buy me some beers? Do you like to party? And how often do you go skinny-dipping? Exciting start, huh? This former party rep lived up to his reputation with the first impression; I immediately admired his spunk. A self-proclaimed "professional bum". I began to take notes right then and there.

Hittin' the road the next day, the roads from Uganda to Kenya thankfully improved, ever so slowly. The landscape stretched exotically out my window and always held a scattering of babies on backs, shops selling phone chargers, matatus packed above capacity, staring men squatting by the road, and police checkpoints for seemingly no reason. The drivers dealt with each officer with nauseating charm, answering their sometimes oddball questions (do you have a fire extinguisher and tire pump on board?) like they were chatting over cocktails. I sat near the front, as quiet as ever, staring out over the dashboard between pages of my Michelangelo biography. Those first few days, I was painfully shy and acted more like a fly on the wall than a passenger, unsure how involved I could be on this trip I hitched onto. I instead retreated into Renaissance Florence and battled to pound out the bio that weighted my bag down to a saggy, formless low. Once I reached success, I loaned it to my first character, Julia, who finished the 750 pages in a staggering few days.

Julia has a not-so-salient, at first, defining feature that, once unearthed, tramples you with laughter: a dry and spot-on, effortless, sense of humor. A business manager from Bristol, England, she and I had little in common on paper besides an obvious wanderlust, but I grew to be magnetized to Julia in hopes osmosis would transfer some wit my way. She could make everyone laugh at the most inappropriate, paper-thin moment. In an attempt to give frame of reference, I'll explain one instance of sporadic humor that sustained giggles for weeks. On our first or second drive day after Jinja, we slowed behind traffic because there was a recently killed body lying in the road. Most of us kept our eyes aimed at the books in hand (worried that shady business had gone down), Helen turned to avert her attention from the scene, and Jase drove on, mumbling a prayer under his breath. Later, Julia recalled the moment in conversation and noted a good headline for the unfortunate incident might read "Man Killed in Yoga Accident." So morbid and inappropriate. Perfect timing and so original. A Julia joke.

Much of the time, Julia's material was fed by her fellow Bristolian partner'n'crime, a frizzy haired, smily nurse named Maria. I began seeing Maria's spark when we reached Nairobi and were about to welcome the new passengers. The approach of eight new people into our Golden Girl group was a bit threatening, also quite exciting. We all began cracking jokes and blending like the unit we weren't prior (meaning I cracked my shell and joined in). The prospect of a 22 year old male stud-muffin for me on the trip was enough to send her dirty mind spinning with hilarious anecdotes to make me unwind and be myself. That was just the beginning of our many male objectifying gab sessions. The bond was sealed when I captured the exact moment a giraffe pulled away from its kiss with her lips, leaving a double strand of antiseptic saliva, stretching like clotheslines from woman to world's tallest animal. It was what we youngsters know as a "Cruel Intentions" kiss. A classic.

I'm not sure why I wasn't myself at the beginning of this chapter. Patrick, the Kenyan cook on board, thought I was a shy little girl, as did Jase, whose presence always made my mind freeze. It may have been caused by my cyclical mood changes, which always occur after each individual phase of this journey. I had just left the home-grown, natural community that stirred up in Bujagali Falls as fast as a cup of instant coffee. And a tour was still something I was ambivalent towards for its cattle drive tendencies. And it also could have been my expectations that the Golden Girls and I would have little over which to bond. There's no doubt though I was somewhat "star struck" by the living legend I had heard tales of before I met his face. When you ask someone in the area (meaning Africa) if they are acquainted with him and they respond "ooooh yes, I know Jason," it makes one a bit timid to immediately whip out the goofball antics, for fear of clashing with another dominant personality.

I'll take this opportunity to explain the character of Jason, or Jase, as best I know how. He's a force of nature, sometimes a freak of nature (meant in the most endearing of tones, of course), for the things he does and continues to get away with at the youthful age of 37 years young. Bored of school and academic life, he graduated high school at 15 and began his own life that included the military, the police force, a move to the USA, Camp America, and working as an au pair. Considering the fact that he has charisma oozing out his dimples (and never, freakishly, gets hangovers) he became a party representative and moved from exotic beach locales to luxurious ski resorts, making holiday goers smile and amusing himself as a bar keep/manager/Jackass stuntman/etc. Looking for a new scene, he adorned his new scarf and wings and took to the skies, moving up at an incredible rate among the Virgin Air flight attendant hierarchy. There, at 30,000 feet above the Atlantic ocean, he shook up drinks and partied with Robbie Williams, attempted to charm the likes of Kylie Minogue, and dodged the verbal blows of our girl, Whitney Houston. And once he had traversed the heavens and gotten his fill, he moved on to become a DragoMan, to traverse the African plains via cement trucked turned passenger vehicle. He owns only the clothes in his bag and a snowboard somewhere in New Zealand. His home is everywhere and nowhere. A true nomad. To me that meant he was a man with answers. I listened to his words with bated breath; however, still knowing I could never be as displaced as he for decades on end. Jase still asks himself, "What on Earth am I doing with my life? What do I want to be when I grow up?" Just one more person I've met on the way who affirms that the straight shot into careerland is not always the way to go.

He will slide into his grave, rugged and saggy as a leather bag (thanks to his refusal to use and lack of need for sunscreen), thinking with no regrets, "what a ride!" While I don't necessarily think being a mechanic/police officer/Jackass stuntwoman who points vaguely to the nearest exit (which may be behind you!) is the path for me, Jase got me thinking about my youth, my attitude on life, and the art of travel. Under his Ngepi shorts' waistband, he's got 37 years, 77 countries, and 22 years of experience making his life exactly what he wants it to be. His only words of caution for this world was to be weary of the opposite sex, as love will be the only thing that can make you forfeit the path you choose. A bucket full of smarts, that one.

I think I've established to some extent the magnitude of Jase's legend, but that's not to say his current leading lady is a snore. No, Helen, his co-driver and trainee across Africa, is a character herself, the former movie biz powerhouse. Helen began from the ground up in a production house, from receptionist to production manager, and had encounter after envious encounter with everyone from the "star-studded" cast of Stardust to the famous feet of Beckham and Ronaldo. Do we envy? Yes, we do. But even after the loads of cash, the glamorous life, and meeting the potential scientist of her dreams, she needed to satiate the wanderlust and change her day-to-day scene. Enter DragoWoman.

And with Helen, in chapter one, came her mother, Jane, who wanted to see her youngest in action across Africa, getting under trucks, covered in oil, her formerly posh and privileged daughter. Jane, to me, was the British colonial version of Jen Winters, for all who can follow such a reference. She was the fulcrum of her community, had a voice that reeled in your ear, and a sharp humor to cause some gut-paining giggles. And she was a pistol with a drink in her hand, the pace car for nightly consumption. You never feel embarrassed drinking with this woman; if you come to a dry table holding a double, you'll find her already set up with a triple...and a beer for later.

We bumped, from Jinja to Nairobi, up and down, sometimes body dives to the side, and the occasional hidden speed bump sail forward with a bag to the head. We relaxed in Eldoret, sought dry shelter in Nakuru, stalked lion kills and bounded across the Mara, and came to Nairobi ready for paved roads, a glimpse of civilization, and a new flush of passengers to joke about. I'd like to thank the wild roads of Kenya for shaking me loose and making me open and happy for the road ahead. A wild road.

Continue reading about this African adventure with the next chapter: The Game.