Kenya, in a (very long-winded) nutshell

Posted: October 3, 2007 in Blog

Having been here for nearly three months, I thought I was long past the naiveté of the newbie who expects things to actually, you know, work the way they’re supposed to.

But I guess I have some learning to do. Because when the bus company told me I’d be heading on a 12-hour trip to Nairobi I, well, believed them. Which is silly because, really, how could a 650-ish km trip possibly take as few as 12 hours?

Fifteen-plus hours spent on a bus provides more thinking time than any one person can possibly manage. There were several times when, staring out the window at the passing villages, my mind more or less wiped its hands together and said “Well, I guess that about covers it” and I was left with nothing to pass the time except counting cattle and bracing myself for the when-does-one-end-and-the-other-begin parade of potholes.

On top of that, I will soon be drafting a letter to the folks at Webster’s English Dictionary to suggest they change their definition of “Bliss” from;

“Pronunciation: ‘blis
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English blisse, from Old English bliss; akin to Old English blithe
1 : complete happiness


“Pronunciation: ‘blis
Function: fantastically relieved noun
Etymology: Until recently, it evolved from Middle English blisse, from Old English bliss; akin to Old English blithe. More modern usages trace roots to a North American fella in Uganda.
1 : The feeling one gets while running off the bus when it stops for its first bathroom break 8.5 hours into a bus trip.
2 : PARADISE, HEAVEN (see above)”

Beyond being excited to see my friend from Carleton in Nairobi, I was also looking forward to seeing a city I had heard much about here in Uganda. Many people here talk about Nairobi as a larger, busier, more developed city but criticize it heavily as insecure, dangerous and unpleasant to live in. I wanted to judge this for myself.

So with that in mind, what was my welcome to Nairobi? Just within the city limits, our bus stopped at a mall (about 9:30 p.m. by this point) to let a few passengers out. As we sat there I noticed a commotion nearby and looked to see two young men in one heck of a street fight. People flocked to them, not so much to stop the fight, as to stand and watch. This wasn’t helping my efforts to fight through the stereotypes.

A little while later, we reached our final destination in downtown Nairobi. My friend had kindly arranged a car and driver to meet me so I was soon at her apartment, and subsequently sitting down with a drink and friends, happy to have arrived after a long trip.

Obviously, no trip to Nairobi is complete without a karaoke bar. More specifically, no trip to Nairobi is complete without a karaoke bar where we, the only westerners in the bar, get up as a group to sing “Africa” by Toto (I was, of course, too focused on staying in key to really notice, but I’m pretty sure most of the bar was singing along with us).

Some of us then went out to a dance/pool bar for the rest of the night and had a great time. After dropping one person off at his hotel, the remaining five of us began the drive home—three Kenyan guys, my friend and I. One of our Kenyan friends, sitting beside me in the backseat, was particularly excited and chose to express this by shouting and gesturing out the window. Hey, no problem, right? It’s 3 a.m. on a Friday night and there are lots of people out making noise.

Well, um, maybe not such a good idea. In the course of this, he pointed at a white van with Kenyan government license plates. It wasn’t until a few minutes later when someone noticed the van was following us, down a quasi-gravel dead-end road. The guy who was driving stopped in the hopes that the van would drive past. But instead, it pulled up beside us and three men in suits came out and began shouting and gesturing through the driver’s window at the guy sitting beside me. All of this yelling culminated in one of the three men shouting “You think you can point at us?? How would you like it if I point this at you??” At which point he pulled a handgun from his suit and pointed it at the guy sitting beside me.

That little voice in my head cycled through nearly every swear word I’ve ever heard, as the guy sitting beside me and the guy driving our car both tried to defuse the situation. Our friend who was driving eventually got out of the car to speak with them (That’s either going to make things much better or much, much worse, I thought). Eventually he convinced them to get back in the van and drive away.

I looked over at Tia with a look that said Did that just happen?

She looked at me with a look that said Welcome to Nairobi. (Though in fairness to the city, she told me how in two years of living in Nairobi, nothing like that has ever happened to her)

So that’s that. Not bad for a first night in Nairobi.

We were up at a suitably late hour Saturday to head downtown for breakfast. I was quite excited by this, as here in Kampala I have yet to find a true breakfast restaurant. The only time I’ve gone out for breakfast I ended up being served a “chop” (source of meat unknown) and a single boiled egg. So you can understand my excitement when we were given menus. French toast! Pancakes! I didn’t know what to order first (final decision: a heaping pile of banana nut pancakes with a side order of hash browns).

This fed into the general sense of culture shock I experienced. It was nothing extreme, but instead a series of everyday things in Nairobi that seemed more at home in North America than the East Africa I have come to know in Kampala.

On our way to breakfast, we took a bus downtown. It was a true city bus, with a route number and fixed fare. We walked to a bus stop to get it. Contrast that with Kampala, where matatus (taxi vans) are the only mode of public transportation, besides boda-boda motorcycles (which were also nowhere to be found in Nairobi). In Kampala, you shout out where you need to go as they pass, and if they’re headed in that direction they stop, or sometimes just slow down, so you can hop on. You then pay a fluid price that can change from one trip to the next.

Likewise, Friday night I asked the group whether they ever have problems with power outages or water supplies in her apartment. “Never,” they said. Interesting, given that a week or two ago much of Kampala went several days without water. Out at a bar one night in Kampala, the group of us went around the table describing how it felt to have that first proper shower once the water returned. Many people in Kampala have figured out the pattern of power outages in their neighbourhood so that you know to have your cell phone and laptop charged by, say, 7:30 every third night because the power will go out for a few hours as part of a load-shedding system meant to close the gap between the demand for power and the country’s ability to produce it.

I could go on and on about the mini-shock I experienced in Nairobi. Bagels in the coffee shops, familiar bread in the grocery store (and not the salted or sweet breads you find in Kampala), cigars for sale, pothole-free roads, and sweeping boulevards. This is by no means a criticism of Kampala—it was great to get back here. But the trip served as a reminder of how much Uganda has had to overcome in terms of political unrest and civil wars that delayed the construction of infrastructure by several decades.

We spent much of Saturday walking around Nairobi, stopping in shops and visiting a market. Later in the evening, we went out to an Ethiopian restaurant for a fantastic dinner (though one I was able to enjoy on only a limited basis, as the after-effects of that lovely parasite I had mean I can usually only have one full meal a day).

Instead of being housed in one central building, the restaurant is more a compound of huts connected by paths. We situated ourselves in one hut, and ordered up a few dishes that would be shared between us.

What soon arrived was unbelievably good. Small piles of food were scattered about a huge platter. Using our hands, we would tear pieces off bread-ish rolls (sort of the consistency of the top of an untoasted crumpet) and grab various combinations of the tasty foods. A half-hour or so later, we all reclined in our seats, completely and utterly defeated by the food.

The three of us decided to take a trip out of Nairobi Sunday, so we were early to bed.

Sunday morning we were up at an unacceptably early hour and off to hop a matatu (again, the mini van taxis) about an hour west of Nairobi, to Lake Naivasha. We arrived in town, having been told we’d then have to take another matatu about 20 kms to the lake. Getting out of the taxi, we were immediately herded over to a desk where we were told we’d have to “book” a ticket to the lake. The three of us were suspicious, but what the heck, we “booked” the tickets, 100 Kenyan shillings each (about $1.25) and were then led down the road to the matatu we were to take to the lake. We immediately saw that everyone else getting into the van was paying 50 shillings. Chalk us up under the tourists-getting-mildly-ripped-off category. What can ya do… Anyway, we were off in a packed matatu (at one point I counted 21 people stuffed into the van—which, again, is no different in size than a minivan you see on the street in any other country).

A short time later we were at the lake, and at the campsite where we were to stay the night. It had a great setting on the shores of the lake (with electric wires that are turned on each night to separate the tents from the water because there are so many hippos).

After a lazy hour or so lying in the grass eating the cheese and crackers and “holy” dates (fresh from Israel), we set off for the nearby national park where we planned to walk the 16 kms to and from the park’s well-known gorge.

It was hot. Real hot. But luckily a strong breeze was blowing through the valley as the three of us set off down the dusty road, cutting through a narrow savannah between the cliffs. On the walk, we spotted giraffes, zebras, ostriches, warthogs, gazelles, buffalo, baboons and all kinds of other birds and critters. It was fun to do the trip on foot, but not so much fun to have to do it while safari jeeps blew by us, leaving behind cough-inducing dust clouds.

We eventually reached the gorge, and holy cow was it ever cool. The water was running low so we were able to walk right through its narrow crevices, so narrow in places that you could easily touch both sides at the same time. The rock was curved and sanded by centuries of water, and made for a fantastic end to the walk. We soon climbed back up to the top and began the walk back, hoping to snag a ride out of the park since we were exhausted. Not to mention that by this point there was no way we could do the three-ish hour walk back in time to get out before the park closed.

Eventually a pick-up truck came down the road and we hopped in the back, relieved to know we’d be back to the camp that much earlier for a cold beer and a good meal.

And what a cold beer and good meal it was. We stayed up for a few beers (time may fade away, but the empty bottles on the table do not), before traipsing off to our tent.

“Are you guys feeling a bit cold?” one of us asked.

“Yeah, it’s a little chilly,” we remarked.

I have never been so mad at the equator in all my life.

I woke up several times during the night absolutely freezing. The temperature was below zero, and all I had to fight against the cold was a thin blanket, a t-shirt, my pants and no socks (having left my socks outside, there was no way I was going out there in the cold to get them).

Waking up for a final time at dawn, I lay there cursing the equator as I watched my breath form clouds so thick they could have easily been mistaken for speech bubbles. How could it possibly be this cold on the equator??? I would have gone over and kicked it if a) I knew exactly where it lay and b) it was actually a tangible object that could be kicked by a human foot.

Instead, Tia left about 6:30 to get a matatu back to Nairobi while Simon and I had breakfast at the camp before heading into town ourselves for a matatu further west to Nakuru where we hoped to go on a safari in Lake Nakuru National Park.

We got into town easily enough—though again on an overstuffed matatu that featured, at one point, a man jumping head-long into the van such that he was across Simon’s lap— and took a matatu for the 70-ish km trip to Nakuru.

Arriving in town, we were immediately set on by tour guides hawking safaris. (“Westerns getting out of a matatu looking grubby and carrying backpacks? They must be looking for a safari!” Well, as a matter of fact, we were).

The first guy to set on us got us into his company’s office where the negotiations over the safari began in earnest. The initial price was 2,000 Kenyan shillings each (about $30) for a jeep and a guide to take the two of us into the park for a six-hour safari.

Though the price was lower than the ones we’d been quoted over the phone, we were suspicious that others offered better prices given they were so reluctant to let us leave the office to think about it. Upon telling them that we’d rather think about it a while, the manager said “Wait, wait, wait” and pulled out a calculator to crunch some numbers.

“Okay, okay, we can give you the trip for 1,750 shillings and we’ll drive you out to the bus station so you can both sort out your tickets for tomorrow.”

Not a bad deal, but we eventually told them that for 1,750 shillings we’d go into town, run some errands and decide whether to take the safari. If they could take us for 1,500 shillings we’d commit to it on the spot.

Deal. And off we went with our guide into the park.

It was a great drive, first to the famous lake in the park that is awash with thousands (if not tens of thousands) of flamingos. And then through the lowlands of the park where we saw more zebra, rhinos, buffalo and other animals. Then up to a lookout where we could see a sweeping view of the whole park.

This was an interesting comparison to the experience up in Kidepo Valley National Park in Karamoja a few weeks ago, where we essentially had the whole park to ourselves. Instead, here there were some 20 safari vehicles all prowling the park. At the sighting of a particular animal, word would spread like wildfire and vehicles would come from all directions. At one point we came upon two rhinos grazing near the lake that were nearly completely surrounded by safari vehicles and looking quite uncomfortable as a result.
Eventually, our trip came to an end, and the guide began taking us towards the hostel in the park where we were to stay the night. But on the way we spotted two leopards lazing about on a fallen tree (apparently a rare sighting in the park) and stopped to watch them for a while.

Again, the safari vehicles materialized and in a matter of minutes some 15 vehicles were packed onto a narrow path in the bush to watch the leopards. It was all a bit much.

“You guys be careful tonight,” our guide said as we left the site.

“Why?” we asked.

“Because you’re sleeping right over there,” he answered, smiling as he pointed to our hostel a short distance away from the leopards.

We soon settled into the comfortable bandas at the hostel (where signs on the doors remind visitors to keep doors closed to protect against the “baboon menace”) and used the kitchen there to make a tasty spaghetti dinner.

Exhausted, and without much to do, we were in bed by 9:30 for a full night’s sleep, and fingers crossed that we would find a ride into town early in the morning so we could both find our way out of Nakuru.

We found our ride, alright. Luckily, the only other guests at the hostel were a busload of students from an all-girls school, who offered us a ride into town.

“I want to sit with the mzungu! No I want to sit with the mzungu!” we heard being shouted from inside the bus as we approached it.

Driving up to the park gate where we had to show our pass and receipts, the guard looked into the bus and did a fantastic double-take when he saw a busload of girls, and the two of us sitting side-by-side in the front. Looking back at the “Girls Academy” emblazoned in huge letters on the side of the bus, and then back into the bus at us, the park ranger raised an eyebrow.

But he laughed when the head teacher explained they were giving us a ride and we presented our passes. And we were on our way.

We got similar looks when the two of us piled out of the bus in downtown Nakuru. We went our separate ways—he back to Nairobi, and me to the bus station for the bus to Kampala.

The trip back went as expected—over-schedule due in large part to a blown tire that had to be changed— and I arrived back in Kampala about 10 last night with lots of ideas of the things I needed to do before bed. But those ideas stayed right where they were, in my head, and I was soon off to sleep, tired from a great adventure.


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