Ngorongoro Crater and Beyond: A Visit to the Maasai

The next day brought us to a slightly more rustic visit, this time to a Maasai village. It was a fairly long drive in, this time on the flat plains but still very dry. The first word that came to mind when we stepped into the compound was “squalid”. This village was simply a group of little huts circling enclosed by a fence made of twigs, with a corral for the livestock right in the middle. There was plenty of space in between the huts – space for the animals to roam. Then the smell of livestock and poo struck. Squalid. No wonder.

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We went into one of the huts and were shocked at how dark it was inside. The sun was bright and pretty much overhead when we visited, yet when we entered the hut, everything was pitch black. It had no windows at all! The walls were made from dirt, ash and animal dung, with a roof of twigs. The twigs overhung the walls so that any rain would roll easily off and not wash away the walls. The inside contained a central area with with several alcoves. Two medium sized alcoves were for humans – one for the men and the other for the women and children. A big one was for the calves and a smaller one for the goat kids. Apparently lambs couldn’t be kept indoors and were put together with the sheep and other livestock in the large outdoor corral.

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We emerged from the dark hut and found that the village kids had discovered us. They ran up and charmingly tried out all their English words on us. It was clear that they had no clue what they were saying because they were shrieking “byebye, byebye!” gaily at us while trying to hold our hands and touch us. I’d normally be quite happy to pet the kids and play along, but I was horrified to find that flies were buzzing all over, concentrating on their eyes and seemingly feeding on their eye secretions. This is true village life all right, Maasai Wanderings had taken us to see a real village with its attendant problems like trachoma. It wasn’t a dressed up version like the one they attempted to show us at the Masai Mara for USD50 per person with a young man barely out of his teens claiming to be the village headman just because he had a hat made of a lion head.

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They taught DC how to use a stick to prop himself up the Maasai way – this helped to relax the body and allows a herdsman to stand for ages watching over his livestock. It’s so much of a habit that you can check out the young leader’s pose inside the hut. Look carefully and you can see him standing in a typically Maasai pose. And the man in the bright red plaid? He’s the village elder and it was beautifully endearing to see how much affection he had for his grandchildren.

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Soon, it was time for dancing. The village women gathered in a wide circle.

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They insisted that I join in too, and tried on several beaded collars on me till they were satisfied with the results.

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It was just sign language and smiles between us, and soon we were ready. Two ladies grabbed my hands and they started to chant.

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The ladies started dancing, a sort of hopping motion while jerking their ribcages so the beaded collars flipped up and down to the chanting. I shuffled along in a rather ungainly fashion and shrugged my shoulders up and down to simulate the flipping of the collar.

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Then it was time for the silly tourist to do her thing. My leading lady grabbed my hand even tighter and we crossed the circle, hopping away and went close to the other side, with a lady from the other side approaching too, and we almost crossed collars. “Hnee! Hnee!” chanted my leading lady in time with the beaded clashes.

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She then brought me over to DC and again “Hnee! Hnee!” as we hopped in front of him. Later DC told me it was some sort of presentation of a his woman dance and they were well pleased. Or somesuch. Pfft.

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Soon, the dancing was over and the ladies only let me admire the collar for a short while before asking if I wanted to keep it for USD25.

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This is where all the ladies took out their wares and the bargaining began. I ended up with a bracelet made from porcupine quills for USD5.

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I think the experience and the pictures are worth far more than that!

Singapore Youth Olympics Opening Ceremony

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It’s a week late in posting, but better late than never.

DC managed to get free tickets to a very special event taking place in Singapore this month –  the opening ceremony of the inaugural summer Youth Olympic Games. After seeing the fantastic opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, we knew it would be a tough act for Singapore to follow.  However, we knew that the ceremony would still feature plenty fireworks, dancing and hopefully a great party atmosphere.

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It was held at the floating platform at Marina Bay.  Knowing that there would be a huge crowd of spectators, we decided to go to there early and have dinner there first.  We were lucky enough to find a parking lot right next to the main entrance to the grandstands at Marina Square, and after having a quick dinner, we walked over to the entrance to find a large crowd already forming.  We queued up dutifully, but after a while we started to wonder why the queue was moving so slowly.  At first we thought it was because of the stringent security checks, but when we finally got to the ticketing entrance, we found to our dismay that the reason why we had queued for so long was because the ticket sensor wasn’t working properly!  For the event, the organisers had very proudly announced that the ticket would be a newfangled swipe card that also doubled as a Visa pre-paid card. It was all very good except that the ticket sensors were having trouble reading the swipes, so every ticket required several tries before they could finally be read.  This delay caused the logjam of people at the entry point.  It wasn’t a great start to the night, and we wondered what the international community would be thinking of Singapore’s much-vaunted efficiency.
Things got worse when we finally got to the grandstands.  The tickets are priced in accordance with the different zones in the grandstand, with Yellow being the closest to the action (short of Red, for the VIPs).  We had the Yellow tickets, but we soon realised that this didn’t mean anything as no one was checking to see if people really did hold Yellow tickets or tickets of some other colour.  As a result, I think a lot of people were sitting in the Yellow zone without actually holding Yellow tickets.  Moreover, we were unable to find a seat for some time as the ushers seemed to be confused about where the empty seats were.  But this wasn’t the worst thing – what really annoyed us was that some people were reserving empty seats and claiming that they were waiting for their friends, but as the night wore on it became apparent that no one was turning up and said “people” were simply hogging extra seats so that they could put their bags somewhere. One woman and her young son took up five seats! So much for the Olympic spirit.
We tried not to let these events dampen our spirit – after all, it was the YOG and it was held in Singapore.  The stage was certainly beautiful.  Because it was a floating platform, the backdrop was the Marina Bay reservoir fringed by the tall skyscrapers, including the infamous “surfboard” that was the new Marina Bay Sands resort.  What was particularly interesting was that a large portion of the platform was partially submerged in the water.  We realised as that this was to allow the performers to wade through and achieve some rather stunning visual effects, such as the opening act that featured performers making Olympic rings in the shallow water.  It was all rather clever.

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The next few performances, however, were a bit dubious.  One of the acts featured the origins of Singapore.  Coming hot on the heels of our National Day celebrations the week before, it was all a little dejavu.  DC felt that we were watching the National Day celebrations part deux.  Yet another performance was labelled “Monster”, and had a huge monstrous puppet that was operated by 20 people as the centrepiece of the stage.  I think the idea was to convey how the youngsters are able to face their fears and conquer them to achieve future success, but somehow the props seemed a bit too frightening for some of the audience.  The last performance that was a bit controversial featured a young girl who was told by her mother not to play with fire, but gleefully ignored her and proceeded to set the whole stage on fire.  While this made for an excellent visual spectacle, I wonder what sort of message the organisers were trying to send here.

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Fortunately, a few other performances managed to produce a decent effect.  One example was the glowing dragon that arrived by boat and waded through the shallow water.  The dragon’s body was actually comprised of a horde of performers.  It was very impressive.

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Yet another performance that was apparently very visually appealing was the arrival of the Olympic flame on the back of a glowing boat shaped like a phoenix.  Unfortunately my vantage point was a bit off, so I didn’t manage to get a good look at the phoenix boat or the dozen dragon boats that flanked it.
Finally, it was time for both the Singapore and Olympic flags to be raised. I found it rather impressive and was even more wowed when the wind picked up such that both flags actually flew during the raising ceremony!

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And the flame being lit was of course quite something.  I think the flame tornado idea is awesome.

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And finally the Olympic torch was light and here it will burn for the rest of the games.

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Overall, the opening ceremony left me with mixed feelings.  Personally, I think some things could have been done better, such as the organisation and seating arrangements.  These are things that are absolutely essential, and we were let down.  As far as the performances were concerned, I think they were very much a matter of personal taste and while I didn’t agree with some acts, I don’t think the performers can be faulted.
I am aggrieved at one thing in particular though.  And this was the release of hundreds of helium-filled plastic doves into the air when the Olympic flame was lit.  While it was indeed a very lovely sight that elicited gasps of appreciation from the crowd, the lack of long-term perspective galled me. We were close enough to see that the plastic being released into the air was the plastic-bag variety, which will have to come down at some point and end up in the sea, contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and posing a dangerous hazard to the sealife.  Great environmental message that the organisers are trying to send to the world’s youth, particularly at an event that celebrated youth and the potentious future ahead. It was simply appalling and I can’t condemn this enough.  To me, this event was ruined by one very stupid act.
Not a good start for the world’s first YOG.

April in The Philippines: The Bible Dedication

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I said bye to the diving group at Manila airport and hopped onto a connecting flight to Puerto Princesa. Just as I settled into my seat, there was an announcement asking for volunteers to be offloaded. They’d be given a nice hotel room and flown out to Puerto Princesa on the next flight out the next day. On top of that, they’d get a return ticket to anywhere in the Visayas (Cebu area) as compensation. I was very sorely tempted by that, but sadly kept my seat as I had to be in Puerto Princesa that very day for a bible dedication.

You see, my church had been supporting a missionary who was involved in some translation work for the villagers on Cagayancillo, a tiny remote island somewhere in the large expanse between Palawan and Luzon in the Sulu sea. They’d recently finished translating the New Testament and were holding a dedication ceremony to which lots of overseas supporters were invited. Now, how often do you get to witness something like this while on holiday? I stayed put in my seat.

As we walked across the tarmac to the Puerto Princesa arrival terminal, a military brass band complete with saxophonist serenaded us. Apparently the mayor of Puerto Princesa had arrived in town straight from an overseas junket just to grace the bible dedication! It was great to come in at the same time as the mayor and receive the mayoral welcome.

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Michael, our missionary-translator, was kind enough to meet me at the airport despite being one of the busy stars of the dedication. He whisked me straight to the hall where the event was held. Soon enough, the mayor himself appeared and gave a congratulatory speech.

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Then came some very touching homespun performances by the talented Kagayanens. Here’s the band playing some haunting Kagayanen melodies, complete with rain shakers and local guitars. I wish I had a proper recording of it instead of snatches of it on the video function on my crappy camera.

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After that, there was a bit of a pantomime/sketch that showed the journey of the Kagayanens and their everyday life, complete with cute props of traditional boats and cooking implements.

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I’m sure there was some sort of praying and dedication stuff happening, but I forget. The rest of the activities were lots more fun! The best part of the dedication ceremony was the end, when the band starting jamming and two by two the villagers got up to dance. It was really sweet how very soon a lot of the overseas visitors soon joined in, many pulled up to dance by an enthusiastic local.

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Later that evening, the mayor hosted the supporters (us) for a lovely dinner and cultural performance at the hotel. Now, a cultural performance put up by the mayor of the island can’t be beat. It was top notch, full of colour and talent. Again, I wished my camera didn’t let me down. This shot was the best I got because they actually stayed still to pose for pictures here. At least you can make out the colourful costumes. Moral of the story? You’ve got to be there yourself in person.

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The best part of the whole dinner party was the mayor giving out rain shakers and personally thanking each guest (including me!) for coming all this way for the bible dedication. It was a sincere gesture from someone who genuinely seemed to care about his constituents, even those in the remotest corner of his remote island.