Hello from Nairobi where it is cool and not a grain of airborne sand... all the sand and small stones are in the bread, beans, and rice I've been eating here. You really do need to chew very carefully. Apparently Africans are not too careful as one sees lots of smiles sporting missing teeth.
I arrived here at 07:00 in the morning 9 May (the day before my 67th birthday!) after an all night flight from Cairo via a brief stop at Khartoum Sudan (So! I got to the Sudan after all!). Naturally taxi touts were anxiously awaiting my arrival. When I insisted that I wanted the public bus into town they competed with one another for the most sincere protestation that buses were not safe at this time of day and that a taxi would only cost about $5 and in any case the public buses didn't like people with bags and were hard to find.
I found the bus anyway, paid my 27 cents fare and immediately fell into an interesting conversation with a trio of other passengers who also had just arrived at the airport themselves, each with several bags that made mine look like a small handbag. Soon, the bus nearly burst with packed riders and to make things even more interesting, the driver spent most of the time rolling over an unbroken series of bathtub holes (You know, extra large potholes). Thankfully, the ride took only about ten minutes and I had no trouble at all finding the center of town from the downtown bus station this time.
With little sleep for the past 36 hours, but high on adrenalin I started my door-to-door search for an excellent value hotel. The five star establishments offered me their accommodations for room rates in the $150 to $300 range... which I graciously declined. But as expected, the receptionists in the first class hotels I checked politely pointed me to places free of sticker shock. With multiple recommendations I climbed the hill outside of town to the 3 star Hotel Panafric at $62/night and hunkered down for some serious unwinding. After the big nap, out I went looking for a better hotel deal and soon found the Hotel 680 (they have 680 beds in the house). I managed to finesse a $42 per night rate. It is an excellent hotel right in the middle of town (two blocks from the Hilton which I used on my last trip here in 1978).
Next, I searched for and found several cyber cafes then dashed back up the hill to the Panafric Hotel just as the sun disappeared and I began to turn back into a pumpkin. Nairobi is house arrest time again. There is a street-smart curfew from about 18:00 to 05:00. EVERYONE warns me not to venture out after dusk. The danger mostly comes; I am told, in the form of small gangs of street kids who prey on unwary pedestrians. I've seen many such kids; according to news reports as many as 20,000 of them live on the streets here. From my current downtown hotel balcony I can watch them congregating for the night in the parking strips running down the streets on either side of the hotel.
Up close I distinguish at least three categories of urchins: scroungers, beggars and predators. The scroungers seem to quietly disappear into the back streets; the beggars are often aggressive and in-your-face with a "won't take no for an answer" attitude. I get the feeling this is just a training interval for the next step, which is angry opportunism.
I've passed on the streets small clutches of 6 to 12 youths aged 10 to 15, scruffy, dirty, resentful, conspiring as they display predatory body language. One on one they would pose little threat to me, but in bunches they can and do overwhelm even the most burley Goliath.
I've seen two boys glue sniffing, one with glassy eyes nose in a Coke can, another rolling his head to appreciate the disorienting effect of the glue solvent. They all make me feel strangely wary and I have made a point of avoiding their congregations.
Two nights ago the police made a sweep of the city and arrested 180 "gangsters," which I assume include some of the tougher kids. Last night and this morning I see the city is nearly free of the most obnoxious and threatening bands. Aside from the sweep, the police appear to be rather ineffectual. A couple days ago I witnessed a policeman, swagger stick in hand up-braiding the driver of a matatu. After a few seconds the driver made a quick rubber-burning U-turn and zipped off leaving a fuming policeman jumping up and down, hollering at the retreating van and finally running after it in an obviously futile attempt to catch it. Amused bystanders cheered for the driver. The whole thing looked right out of an old Three Stooges movie.
In addition to the rag-a-muffin boys, there are the pathetic mothers with their tiny babies and other small children, pitiful and persistent. The beggars here make me feel creepy, ashamed, angry. I wonder why someone in the government doesn't consider the effect they have on foreign tourists? After all, we bring millions in foreign currency into the country. Surely programs could be created to make provisions for these homeless throngs so they don't feel the desperation, which leads them to pester, harass, and even attack anyone with white skin.
From the balcony of my hotel I often watch dramas evolve. White skin walks out onto the sidewalk and for a block around; scatterings of beggars make a beeline toward them. After they have been rebuffed by Whitey and slink off, the serious hustlers who have been hanging back navigate a course, which leads to an "accidental" intercept further down the street. From repeated personal experiences I know the casual conversation that ensues: "Jambo. Your first time in Nairobi?" or "Interested in a safari?" or "Hello. Remember me? I work at your hotel. Don't you remember?" or "Want a watch? Very cheap." or ... Near all the first class hotels these people are as thick as the mosquitoes around my ankles as I write this.
The hustling is not confined to the streets. As I sat in a Wimpy's munching my French fries, three guys wandered around from table to table trying to interest diners in their watches. Later, as I retrieved my room key that evening around 19:30 a mid-thirties woman talking to the male receptionist at the counter turns to me and asks: "Would you like to invite me to come up to your room?" Uncertain what she had said in her quiet, conspiratorial voice I said I had not understood her question. This time the message came across loud and clear. I gave her one of my most contrived surprised looks, then frowned, turned and rushed away toward the elevators mumbling something about being a Buddhist monk.
Speaking of mosquitoes, there are plenty of them here. I have killed several myself, and without much trouble. Kenyan mosquitoes are lethargic compared to the quick, aggressive beasts of Aswan Egypt. There, they were like soldiers waging guerrilla warfare: quick dives to the meat and an even quicker retreat once discovered and threatened. Here, I haven't even been bitten that I know of. At least I've found none of the characteristic itchy welts that spread out around the point of dining.
Considering insect bites: I have distinguished three kinds of reactions by my skin: the spreading itchy plateau of a mosquito, a pimple-like eruption and the hard little bump like some alien creature has just planted a seed under my skin. So far, all the souvenirs left by visiting insects have eventually resolved themselves, sometimes leaving behind little red marks which persist for weeks as reminders of my nutritional hospitality.
With the threat of Malaria not far away, my days always begin with a dose of doxycycline. I keep it with my contact lens preparations, each capsule numbered with the date it is to be taken. This particular Malaria prophylactic has the added benefits of protecting me from other medical threats like Lime disease, vaginal yeast infections, GI and urinary tract infections, and traveler's diarrhea among other things. If I miss my dose any day and one of those pesky buzzers with a proboscis coated in malarial goop decides to sample my blood on that day, I could be in for a lifetime of aggravation or worse.
So, I'm paying close attention to the daily pill. I now better appreciate what women go through when using a daily contraceptive pill. All guys could benefit from a trip to Africa just to better appreciate the burden we have placed on our ladies. The pharmacists around here mostly dispense Larium (mefloquine), but that one occasionally has some neurological side effects in some people and might be antagonistic to my delicate constitution, burdened as it is with peripheral neuropathy.
Malaria is one threat, but then there is the reality that somewhere between 2 and 6 out of every 10 Kenyans on the street carry HIV. That is a sobering statistic! My habitual behavior does not put me at great risk under ordinary circumstances, but who knows when a barber or a fellow passenger in a matatu during a minor collision might inadvertently donate a drop of their blood to my personal supply. I don't walk around avoiding every potential threat, but the danger is not far from my awareness. Today I had my beard trimmed and watched my barber's every move! Nice guy who got very interested in my tiny PenCam, so I took his picture - as much to practice the photographic techniques needed to get good pictures of black faces as to record a reminder of the event. After dusk black faces loose a lot of their distinctive features, sometimes morphing into nothing more than two white dots and a smile.
Railroad connections out of Nairobi are pathetic: three overnight trains per week to Mombassa at a fare of about $40. The tracks at the station seem to go both West and East, but the stationmaster insists no trains go west. Buses are another matter. There are lots of them... even one they call the Royal Coach to Kampala Uganda, complete with air conditioning at a fare of $25. It leaves at the un-godly time of 07:00, but arrives at a decent time (17:00) at the other end.
The music I hear on the street and in restaurants is American style angry rap. The TV programs are mostly American, featuring black actors like Bill Cosby and include many with which I have been familiar. The English spoken in this former British colony is strange and difficult to understand, partly due to my declining hearing no doubt, but also because it is clipped and carries a heavy accent to my ears.
For the past four months I have been secretly gloating over my cleverness in hiding four one hundred dollar bills under the inner soles of my shoes. Recently, it occurred to me that carrying a lot of cash might not be a good idea, so I spent my other supply and finally pulled out the shoe bills and discovered all that walking friction had just about worn them out!
I first tried to use them to pay for my Kenyan visa when I arrived in Nairobi. "No way!" says the immigration guy. Later, I tried to pass them off on a currency exchange teller. Same response. Some years ago I read how the Secret Service maintained personnel in the Embassies to deal with counterfeit currency. I recall the article saying these Treasury guys also helped citizens with problems like mine.
So, I jumped in a matatu, paid my 20 Shillings (27 cents) and road the 10 miles out of town to where the embassy is temporarily housed since the original one became the target of a bomb attack a couple years ago. I happened to make the trip on a Saturday and the facility was closed, but the guard responded to my question about getting damaged U.S. currency replaced with a long explanation: "No. We get people in here every day with that problem, and I am certain there is nothing we can do to help you. You'll have to send them back to the states for replacement. Just the other day two kids came in with some nearly unidentifiable bills they had been keeping in their boots. Ha, ha." I tried to appear as amused as possible, thanked him and high tailed it out of there before he caught a whiff of my embarrassment.
Women use some gawd awful fragrances around here. Coupled with a unique body odor it is sometimes overwhelming in close quarters like a packed matatu. Of course, I must stink to high heaven considering what is surely an alien smell to them... despite the fact I shower everyday, frequently more than once on hot days. I've taken some pictures while here. A lot of them are of the colorfully painted mini-buses.
I'm off West toward the Great Lakes region and Uganda in a day or two. Hope I'll be able to find Internet support as I move further and further from civilization. Should be interesting. I'll write more when I can.
But, I get ahead of myself:
by not describing the first bus I rode out of Nairobi. After checking out the common over crowding characteristics of all transportation here, I booked TWO adjacent seats; one for me and one for my bag. Though I did have enough room to wiggle and breath freely, the journey still tested my stamina.
During the three hour wait for every seat to be sold, a continuous stream of hawkers squeezed by one another up and down the isle of our increasingly crowded bus selling everything imaginable: water, soft drinks, fresh loaves of bread, bananas, radios, clothing, shoes, sundries of all kinds, newspapers, etc. Even with my two seats, I had hawkers and their wares in my lap half the time as they maneuvered themselves and their cargoes past one another and over growing piles of baggage in the isles. Eventually, we did finally get started some two hours "late" and the conveyance itself became an adventure.
Imagine if you will exotic odors, a white water raft ride, a bucking bronco, and a truck full of partially filled buckets of loose bolts, the screaming chatter of too many people, the cackling of two live chickens and the wrenching drone of an always struggling engine and you will start to get an idea of a three hours butt bouncing adventure on typical African roads.
They do try to keep the roads in good repair, but potholes, bathtub holes, even horse trough holes that have eluded the ongoing maintenance efforts are scattered along the way to test bus passenger's spines. Our road took us through many small towns and settlements. Every major intersection of the highway offered a swap-meet of business activity with every imaginable kind of commerce. In between points of major habitation I noticed there were long stretches with no signs of human activity at all, not even power or phone lines. I imagine nothing has changed since the beginning of time in those areas.
At every stop hawkers thrust boxes and display racks up at the bus windows, their tempting odors arriving before the bus had come to a complete stop. On fish spear-like poles were skewered roasted corn on the cob or chicken parts. Boxes of nuts, baked bread and fry-bread appeared amid a sea of racks offering toothpaste, mirrors, toys, clothes, etc.
Nakuru is famous for the millions of Flamingos which live on the lake and create a remarkably colorful fringe around the edges of the lake. The area around the lake has been designated a national park and fenced in to protect the animals from the people (and the other way around I must assume). My $13 Waterbuck Hotel in Nakuru offered more than the room rate would suggest and put me only about 10km from the lake, an easy walk for a blister buster like me.
As I left the game park a family of baboons slowly crossed the road momentarily blocking my exit and creating a brief period of mild anxiety. A small herd of gazelles grazed near enough to the fence to be entertaining. Human "watchers" sat along the fence in shade every 100 meters or so... I suppose to witness the occasional tourist eaten by one of the lions roaming the area as they didn't seem to have weapons or phones.
The walk to and from the park entrance took me through the real authentic Africa where I learned that the entire country of Kenya is one big day labor pool. The enormous unemployment rate leaves throngs of young men hanging around waiting for some job opportunity. Every mzungu (white person) is assumed to be rich and likely to offer some sort of job. So, white skin attracts job seekers of every sort... in addition to those looking for a handout or selling something. Almost no one fails to notice my passing, most usually staring with an intensity that exceeds curiosity.
The area also is a haven for Christian missionary activity. Nearly every block contained some church sponsored school, hospital, business enterprise or the like. In the area I saw a teenage boy wearing a T-shirt sporting the slogan "There is a brand new man inside," a reference to his recent conversion, I presume. People still practice witchcraft here. Even well educated people are reluctant to totally ignore the occult. Two missionaries with whom I spoke confessed that dealing with witchcraft to be one of their most challenging tasks. I later came across a couple of provocative articles ( 1 ) on the subject of the evolutionary origins of religious faith. Read them yourself, if you would like to stretch your mind.
I had taken the short ride to Nakuru and a one-night stop over to make it possible to catch the "Royal Coach" for Kampala (that leaves Nairobi daily at 07:00) at a more decent 09:00 in Nakuru. And it is a truly deluxe operation: only three deeply cushioned seats across and a vehicle with shock absorbers that actually work. Still, this leg has its own surprises. The highway speed limits are set by the skill of the drivers and the power of the vehicles. In our case, this mighty bus has a race car driver at the wheel and he slows for nothing. Other cars, vans, trucks and buses scatter at the sound of our driver's constantly blasting trumpet and dare devil tactics. Despite the hazardous driving I actually felt pretty safe in our tank like monster that surely would have creamed anything silly enough to tangle with it. The border crossing gave police a chance to search the bus top to bottom and hassle a couple of the passengers for a while. Still, the whole customs-emigration process is completed in about a half hour and we are in Uganda. (cont.)
Until my next cyber-cafe encounter.
PS: A few months later I again passed through Kenya and postcards sent at that time are here.
Nakuru Kenya: A lone leafless tree on the way to the Nakuru Lake Park in Kenya a couple hours northwest of Nairobi.