Life on the Mekong and Other Rivers

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog, including strong statements in support of weinerdog-riding monkeys, are our own, and not those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.

Monday, December 31, 2007

More Cats

Our first Cheetah was a lone female just hanging out. Our guide said she had a cub but it was either hidden away somewhere or no longer with her.

Although a single cheetah would likely have no chance with an adult zebra, these guys weren't taking any chances and warily kept all eyes on her.

Later we caught up with three brothers as they were finishing up a tasty wildebeest. The vultures were patiently waiting in the tree for their turn for the most part, but one pesky vulture had to be chased away by the boys. Notice how they completely disemboweled their meal. It seems that cheetahs don't like tripe. Yet another thing I have in common with cheetahs.


We spent lots of time with lions.

The previously amorous male.

The object of his affection.

A young male with the start of a mane.

A group of adolescent males relaxing in the shade after a meal.

Resting in the shade as wildebeest graze in the distance. One of their cousins wasn't so lucky and was the lions' meal.

A female on the move.

In other Kenya news

This has the potential to get bad. We left on the eve of the election.

Got an e-mail from Bonnie and Kevin. All is calm at their house, but they can hear people expressing their displeasure through the technology of gunpowder in the distant slums.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Next up...

...the next chapter in our adventure, in which Katherine, Phil, Jack, Kevin and Harper jet (okay turbo-prop) off to the Masai Mara.

And stay at the famed Governor's Camp.

Where we were met upon entrance to the camp by this guy who greeted us with gusto.


Nairobi cont' elephants and Rothschild giraffes

After our rousing football game, we piled into the car (sans Kevin, who was, sadly, working) and headed to the outskirts of Nairobi for the official Bender guest day out in Nairobi tour. First to a baby elephant orphanage run by the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. We got there in time to catch the end of bath and play time. A few of the dozen or so elephants currently in residence were still wallowing in the mud and kicking around a soccer ball.

We were close to the elephants, but there were high tech safety measures in place to ensure nothing bad would happen to Jack and Harper....

Each of the orphans is assigned a team of keepers who spend 24 hours a day with them. Orphaned elephants can basically die of a broken heart, so the Trust works to create a 'family' environment to replace the families they lose. The keepers also do everything else an orphan's family would have done: They hold umbrellas over the elephants to protect their sensitive skin from the sun; they put raincoats on them to protect them from the rain; and, they strap blankets to them at night to keep them warm.

But perhaps the greatest sacrifice the keepers make for the baby elephants is to sleep in the stalls with them. Originally one keeper was assigned to each elephant. Now, there are three (I think) which allows the keepers to have, you know, a life outside of 24 hour a day elephant care.

You can adopt an elephant by donating to the orphanage. If you do so, you also gain the right to visit the center during non-public hours when the keepers are putting the elephants to bed. Luckily, the Benders have such a right. And now, so do we.

And if you are really good, they let you in the stalls.

When the elephants are old enough, they are brought to Tsavo National Park in Southeastern Kenya and reintroduced to the wild. I'm told that the now matriarch of a herd there is a former boarder at the orphanage, and still remembers Daphne Sheldrick, who runs the place.

Next on our stop of up close and personal animals in Nairobi was the Langata Giraffe Center, home to a herd of endangered Rothschild Giraffes.

Jack was, once again, enamored by the animals, and showed little fear of the huge Giraffes (with their huge tongues).

While it looks like this dude (chick?) was angling in for the photo, in actuality it was head-butting me because I had stopped feeding pellets to it in order to get a photo with my boy.

The Giraffe Center shares the giraffes with Giraffe Manor, a hotel where the guests share their space with the giraffes. Lots of sharing there.


...with 14 hours in London along the way. We arrived about an hour late into Heathrow, further limiting our time there, and made our way by cab to Ford's place in Notting Hill.

A cab, you say? But the Heathrow express takes 15 minutes and gets you right into Paddington station. What idiot would take a cab into London on a Sunday evening with the rest of London returning from weekends away?

And you would be right to say so. But Ford ordered a car for us and it was about the same cost, and it only took about 50 minutes, about the same time it would take the other way too.

So on to the Mall Tavern with Ford and her beau Spencer (who is, by the way, way too good for her), where we met up with Cob and Gita, Rick, and Amanda and Blair for a few pints and a $700 plate of Shepherd's Pie. Man, that city is expensive, made more so by our government's very effective 'strong dollar policy'.

Later, we headed back to Ford's child un-friendly apartment to put Jack to bed and have a few more beers.

Seriously, candles and framed photos on the floor? It's like she wanted our child to be injured.

In the morning we headed back to Heathrow and boarded our 9.5 hour flight, all during the day. Not a lot of naps for Jack. Almost none, in fact. But we were in Business class, and the flight was half empty. Our two seats for 2.5 people turned into four. And a friendly seven-year old boy from Majorca named Daniel helped us to entertain Jack.

The next day we spent hanging out at Kevin and Bonnie and Harper (2) and Pippa's (2.5 months) house and tooling around the suburbs of Nairobi. The Benders live in an area called Lavington, in a big old house with a big yard. Reminded us a bit of our place in Vientiane. As it was a school holiday in Kenya, Kevin and Bonnie's nanny and gardner had all their kids hanging around. It was camp Bender.

I joined the kids for some football, along with the guard in goal (fitting, I guess).

And Jack had a blast running around the yard with the kids.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Tanga the saint/dog

The video tells the story. What a nice doggie. She came over to our cabin for most of each day we were at Malu for Christmas, so she obviously didn't mind Jack too much.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The problem with a trip to Kenya...

Lots of pictures.

And tired from the trip home.

So, a bit of a taste of things to come, safari-wise, anyway.

Kevin and Harper came with us to the Masai Mara. We spent alot of time in the truck bouncing over ruts and holes, through the muck, etc. Harper and Jack were troopers.

Our truck. This photo taken by me after I hopped out, scanned the horizon for predators (I'm certain I am quite tasty and sought after by all of Africa's predators), and, like the animals, relieved myself in the plains of the Masai Mara.

Quite a multitude of wildlife. About the only thing we didn't see was a leopard. Here is a random shot of the plains (click on the photo to enlarge to get a better view). As far as the eye can see...

A solitary giraffe has a snack near dusk.

A small herd of elephants sheltering from the short, but heavy, rainfall one late morning.

Two cheetahs tried their luck at stalking, then running after, some large, male waterbuck. They were having none of it, and chased the cheetahs off.

We followed the cheetahs for about another half hour and watched one finally get breakfast. I know it goes without saying, but cheetahs are, like, really fast.

Here he is applying the coup de grace to the hapless reedbuck.

Much more to come from our time in the Mara, plus there was a wedding, a whirlwind 14 hours in London, time in Nairobi and a few days near Lake Naivasha with the Benders where Jack found a new best friend; Tanga, the most patient dog in the world (you will agree with me after seeing the video).

Back from Kenya


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Kenya bound

So we're soon escaping our winter wonderland for a warmer holiday celebration in Kenya.

We're going upscale, starting with our business class flight. We're using miles, and the miles difference between coach and fully reclinable business class plus access to business class lounge made it a no brainer.

A night at the Sarah Ford Youth Hostel and Bordello in London will find us at the Mall Tavern near Notting Hill Gate breaking bread with various and sundry lowlifes and deadbeats that we know in London.

A short 9 hour flight the next day and we'll be in Kenya.

Nairobi means Chez Bender for 2 nights, then off to the granddaddy of Masai Mara camps, located on the spot where the former British colonial governors (hence the name) and purportedly Teddy Roosevelt chose to set up camp way back when, and the area where Big Cat Diary is filmed.

Then to John and Katrina's wedding in Gilgil, between Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha, staying at Malewa Ranch.

Two days later, we meet back up with the Benders just down the road at Malu Lodge (careful, there's music) for Christmas before heading back home.

Lots of moves. But then, lots to see and do as well.

So it's upscale, but that's only because I have an ulterior motive in convincing Katherine (although she's already convinced) that we should consider a tour somewhere in Africa.

And, because we have insiders working on our behalf, we aren't paying near the costs listed on the websites. It's not what you know, it's who you know, ya know?

And so, come year end, we'll have photos of elephants and lions and whatnot...and maybe a monkey or two.


We miss you and wish we were celebrating with you in Minnesota!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Stay tuned for important updates...

...wherein our intrepid heros of the blog trudge through the waist-high snow, uphill, with no shoes, while being shot at, and stabbed a couple times, to see KB Kyiv play Benneton Treviso at the Sports Palace.

Plus, there was beer. And the KB Kyiv Dancing Girls. And a guy in a wolf costume.

Update: I got to thinking that there isn't really much more to add. And we didn't actually get shot at...or stabbed. Not even once.

But we did see 'Pooh' Jeeter* play. So I guess that is something.

*I don't really know who he is either, but he's named after a cuddly bear with a honey fixation, so that's cool.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Dancing machine

He's constantly adding moves to his repertoire

Sunday, December 09, 2007

So, about that bread

It's called Karavai, and it is a part of celebrations, or whatever, and sometimes given to special guests, as it was to me. I'm special.

On Tuesday night I hopped a train after work to Mikolayev Oblast. I had three tasks the next day; represent the embassy at the opening of a USG-funded internet center at a small, regional library in Voznesensk (2 hours north of Mikolayev city), a press conference to discuss consular issues with local press, and an event at an 'Window on America' center at the Mikolayev library to discuss student exchange programs.

What is likely a 6 hour drive is an 11 hour train ride. Local train, makes all the stops. On the way there, I sat in my compartment (2nd class sleeper, the so-called koo-pay, well known to my friends from my semester in St. Pete so long ago; 4 beds, but the embassy buys out the compartment so I don't have to travel with the hoi polloi) and went over what I was going to say at the Vosnesensk event, the only one I would do in Russian.

Uvazhaemaya gospozha director Lyudmila Stepanovna....and so on...

The starts and stops and announcements at each podunk station conspired to give me about 3 hours of fitful sleep. Bleary-eyed, I stepped off the train at 6:00 am and was met by a driver, who whisked me away.

His stream of dialogue as he drove through the still-dark streets was entertaining, if unwelcome at that hour. I don't know if he was especially proud of everything about the city, or if there just wasn't that much to brag about.

'We have wonderful streets in Mikolayev. Just look at these wide boulevards.'

'On the right is our huge market. And they're building a new one because the huge one isn't big enough anymore.' At that he exhibited a wry grin and shook his head, as if overcome by the town's embarrasment of riches.

'Here's the zoo. Best zoo in Ukraine. Even people from Kherson, and even Odessa, say it's the best.'

'Mikolayev is the best ship-building city in Ukraine. We built entire fleets.'

Oh, really, I say, that's interesting. How many shipworks are still operating?

'Oh, none. Well, one, but it is owned by the Dutch.'

'There is our wonderful bowling alley. We've so much for our youth to do here.'

And so on.

So we went to Voznesenk, two hours to the North. The opening, wherein I receive the aforementioned Karavai, and delivered the best damn 5 minute remarks ever given in me.

I even got to cut the ribbon with the leather-clad Mayor of Voznesenk. A lovely guy named Yuriy.

After numerous speeches by various local officials (and me, of course), we toasted the opening (at 10:15 am) with champagne.

We then proceeded to the VIP area of the library, also known as a room off to the side, for a spread of fantastic delicacies from Voznesenk, including local Cognac (wonderful at any time, but especially at 10:30 am) and local wine ('s 'delicious' cherry wine!)

The crew, heading out after the festivities.

The mayor and library director insisted that before I leave their beautiful city of 40,000, I visit the local museum and the local high school. So we went.

Back in Mikolayev later, I held a press conference with local press to talk about various consular issues, mostly related to fraud prevention and student exchange programs.

About 12 print reporters and 3 camera crews showed up. Who knew that Mikolayev, population 700,000, had so much press.

They were all captivated.

On the way to catch my 7:20 pm train, the driver paused in his running commentary about his town and rummaged through a few cassettes. He came up with one, gave me a satisfied look, and put the tape in. He looked back to me and smiled as a pan flute and synthesizer rendition of Yesterday, by the Beatles, started up on the stereo.

It's unclear what type of vibe I was giving off to make him think that this was the music needed at the moment, but I actually think it fit quite well.

I was thinking that the only thing that could make the picture complete was...

and he interrupted my thought with ' really should come back in the spring and visit the zoo. It's the best in Ukraine.'

Ah, perfection.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Would you like some fancy bread?

Why yes, I would.

Now that photos are working, I'm too tired to elaborate.

Friday, December 07, 2007

All apologies

I know you've been waiting with bated breath for photos from my triumphant trip to Mikolayev and Vosnesensk to officially open a USG-supported computer center, hold a press conference and meet with students interested in studying in the US, but for some reason, doesn't want me to share them with you.

My pledge to you, the loyal readers of this award-winning* blog, is that once whatever problem we're having is fixed, I will sate your thirst for stories of proud drivers, local cognac, and new youth centers.

I owe you nothing less than a full accounting of my 23 hours on trains for my 12 hours in Mikolayev Oblast.

And so you shall have it, once I can, once again, put pictures up.

*It's possible I just haven't been informed of all the awards this blog has won.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Rainy in Vieques

In honor of our wonderful wedding in Vieques, Mother Nature has decided that on December 6 it should always rain. It is raining in Vieques today and it is raining in Kyiv.

Luckily, I love the rain!

Happy Anniversary PHIL!


Saturday, December 01, 2007

Continuing the fan club

The Raffi Katchadourian fan club, that is.

Another great article in the New Yorker about Paul Watson and Sea Shephard Conservation Society

Raffi talks about the Sea Shepherds here with some video added in.