Saturday, April 21, 2007

5 February: A Whirlwind Tour of Nairobi

Warning: this will probably be the longest entry of the whole trip. We experienced a little bit of everything that East Africa has to offer in the space of 12 hours: urbanism and wildlife; wealth and poverty; colonialism and tribalism. It was an overwhelming day and one I will never forget.

We were up at 7 am and had breakfast with MIL and FIL in the Norkfolk’s lovely dining room. There was an extensive hot and cold buffet, with eggs made to order and delicious French-pressed coffee. We ate inside as there was no room on the lovely veranda. We met Tonnie at 8 am for our safari briefing. We sat down and started chatting informally with our fellow safari companions, then did the rounds of introductions (by the end of the day I think I had everyone's names down pat). Our group is twelve in total (six couples); in addition to R & C, we are joined by R2 & B from Illinois, N & D from Pennsylvania, and J & H from Florida. I was not terribly surprised to find that everyone else in the group is at or near our parents’ ages, but it seems like a great group of outgoing, active people and I could tell almost immediately that we were going to get along just fine. After the briefing R said he felt sorry for us being with all the “old fogies,” but I told him, frankly, we just feel very lucky to be here! (I think it is safe to say that R is the official “class clown” of our group.)

Tonnie gave us the lowdown on today’s itinerary as well as an overview of the entire trip, along with some basic “dos and don’ts” (e.g. Don’t drink the tap water. Ever. That means closing your mouth when you shower and brushing your teeth with bottled water, which will be available in every lodge.) He told us we were at an elevation of 5,500 feet in Nairobi but would be descending to 3,600 feet in Amboseli tomorrow, where there would be more bugs, so be sure to wear long sleeves and pants. We picked out our cool Micato safari hats (blatant advertising, yes, but also very comfortable and practical) and then heard from Rakita, a Maasai elder, who was dressed in traditional garb with a characteristic red plaid blanket and beautiful beaded jewelry. Rakita was very proud of the fact that the Maasai are one of the only African tribes to have held onto their culture despite Western influence. We were to observe this sense of pride over and over throughout the trip. The Maasai are just one of forty-two distinct tribes in Kenya. There are between 300-400,000 Maasai in Kenya and about 1 million in Kenya and Tanzania combined, representing about 1% of all tribal people in Africa. The Maasai migrated from Egypt and Sudan along the Nile to Kenya and Tanzania, settling there only in the last 150 years or so, making them relative newcomers. Traditionally the semi-nomadic Maasai survived on a diet of cow’s blood, milk, and meat (although most now supplement their diet with corn and vegetables). Their society is polygamous, with one famous chieftain having 200 wives and some 2,000 children. (Rakita called cow’s blood their Viagra.) Rakita has two wives and wants more (especially an American, naturally).

Maasai men are responsible for obtaining food and guarding the cows and goats; boys are ceremonially circumcised at age 14-15 as a demonstration of their strength and courage, after which they become warriors and grow their hair long (although this practice is disappearing as the boys are required to cut their hair short for school). Around age 25 they get married, shave their heads, and become elders. The traditional roles of women are cooking, taking care of the children, and finding water. (The Maasai also practice female circumcision, but we didn’t learn about that until later in the trip.) We had been warned that the Maasai do not like to have their photo taken without permission, but Rakita told us that we were welcome to take his picture. I started reading The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior by Tepilit Ole Saitoti on the plane; it provides fascinating insight into Maasai culture and the conflict between their traditional lifestyle and the “benefits” of modern society (education, health care, etc.).

After a brief photo session with Rakita (who joined us for the rest of the day's tour), we hopped on a comfortable air-conditioned bus for a tour of downtown Nairobi. On the surface, it looks like a typical bustling metropolis, but when you start looking closely you see some of the ragged edges. There are skyscrapers, but many have broken windows and look like they wouldn’t meet a whole host of modern safety standards. Often we saw phone and computer lines dangling haphazardly out the windows, strung like clotheslines from office to office. There were plenty of well-dressed businessmen (fewer women), but also many shabbily-dressed people just wandering around seemingly aimlessly or sitting on curbs. We passed a slew of government buildings and the former site of the U.S. Embassy, which was bombed in 1998 and is now a memorial park. We passed the city marketplace, a large mosque, the offices of The Nation (the country’s largest newspaper), a huge conference center built to resemble a Maasai hut, and several famous old hotels. The central business district was crammed bumper-to-bumper with cars, trucks, and buses, and of course people, mobs of people, walking everywhere (a trend that we would see all over East Africa). Bright green “City Hoppa” buses were plentiful. Whenever we were stopped in traffic, street sellers came along shoving their wares up to our windows - everything from cheap beaded jewelry and T-shirts to kites and thigh-masters (honestly!). It's a good idea to keep your windows closed and avoid making eye contact. Gorgeous red hibiscus trees bloomed everywhere and we saw lots of “City Council of Nairobi” signs promoting the city’s sponsorship of everything from garbage bins to beautification projects. The city and highways are papered with billboards; even though we knew the official language of Kenya is English, it was surprising to see all of the ads and signs in English with only a few bits of Swahili here and there.

Along the way Tonnie talked about the city's history, Kenyan politics and economics, and the national education system. Nairobi means “cool waters” in Swahili and was originally a swampland; it was planted with eucalyptus trees to absorb the water and now has a population of 3.5 million, making it the largest city in East Africa. Kenya has a British-style government with a house of parliament and an elected president. In 1992 they imposed a presidential term limit of two five-year terms (formerly it was possible to be “president for life”). There is a dearth of educated professionals such as doctors, nurses, and engineers in Kenya because many go to the U.K. or South Africa to find better-paying jobs. For instance, there is only one doctor for every 3,000 Kenyans. Unemployment has dropped from a high of 33% in 2002 but is still hovering around 20%. Children are provided free public education for eight years of grade school, then must pass a national exam to enter high school, for which they must pay tuition (approximately $600 per year). The government provides student loans for young people to attend university.

Our only stop in downtown Nairobi was a place called the Collector’s Den, an arts and crafts shop were we were instructed to “look but don’t buy.” The point was to get an idea for the quality of crafts available and the general prices of goods so we would know what to look for on our trip. Micato must have a special arrangement with this shop as they open only by appointment; the people were very nice in answering all of our questions. Obviously they anticipate that people will do some shopping there at the end of the trip. They have some especially beautiful animal carvings, paintings, and gemstones that were way out of our price range, but we had a nice time looking. We eyed some Maasai spears and batik-printed fabrics and put those on our wish-list. We were hassled a bit by street vendors as we got on and off the bus outside the shop, but we found that as long as you don’t look them in the eye they don’t bother you too much.

Back on the bus we headed out of the city, passing a sprawling slum of corrugated-metal shacks that houses over 500,000 people – one of the largest slums in Africa. Tonnie said that every morning the people come streaming out of the slums looking for work. Many find day jobs in construction. The lack of sanitation in the slums is a rampant problem – there is no sewer system and they have a term called “flying toilet,” which leaves little to the imagination. Some of Kenya’s top marathon runners are helping to fund the construction of toilet facilities in the slums to improve sanitation. (Many of the marathoners come from the Nandi tribe high in the Rift Valley; they are so good at running because as children they have to run many miles to school every day.)

We headed out of the city on paved but heavily pot-holed roads that we soon realized are the norm here. We stopped at the Giraffe Center, home to a group of endangered Rothschild giraffes (distinguished by their white “socks”) from the Rift Valley. Their population was reduced to just 150 individuals due to hunting by farmers because the giraffes were eating crops, but has been brought up to 800 thanks in part to captive breeding. (There are nine species of giraffe in Africa; three in East Africa. The most common is the Maasai giraffe, followed by the Reticulated giraffe.)

At the center we had the opportunity to feed several giraffes, both from the ground and from a special elevated platform. They eat pellets that look like giant rabbit food. Giraffes are vaguely horse-like when you get up close to them, except that they have extraordinarily long, black tongues – the better for reaching between the spines on acacia trees to get at the tender leaves. Their faces and ears are soft and velvety, while their "horns" are covered with fuzzy coarse hair (females' horns are tufted; the males' are not). The giraffes aren’t exactly friendly, and will butt you rather firmly with their heads if you are not feeding them fast enough, but they take the pellets from your hand gently enough. I volunteered for a giraffe kiss, which involves holding a pellet between your lips and letting the giraffe take it from you. It really was not gross at all, honest. But for some reason DH, FIL and MIL all declined the opportunity to be kissed by a giraffe.

The center also has a wonderful display of artwork by local schoolchildren. You can buy a piece of artwork and the money will go to support that child’s education. I purchased a wonderful painting of a zebra that caught my eye. (Unfortunately it accidentally went back to California with MIL and FIL at the end of the trip but as I recall it was painted by a fifth-grade boy.)

We boarded the bus again and drove through a neighborhood of lush, gated estates called “Karen” after Karen Blixen. I was awed by the giant poinsettias (the size of small trees), brilliant pink bougainvilleas, and morning glory vines. This area is what is left of Karen Blixen’s farm, which she tried to preserve for the local Kikuyu tribespeople that she employed. (The Kikuyu, originally farmers from the Mt. Kenya area, number about 6,000,000 now and are the largest tribe in Kenya.) Our next stop was Karen Blixen’s house, where she lived from 1914-1931, attempting unsuccessfully to grow coffee, although a few of her plants remain. We took a short guided tour of the house and learned that many of the details in the film Out of Africa are reasonably accurate, except for the fact that Denis (Robert Redford’s character) was British, not American. Blixen’s story ends sadly; Denis really did die in a plane crash and she returned to Denmark where she died in her 70s, suffering from lung cancer (she was a chain smoker), syphilis and anorexia. The house is full of Blixen’s original furniture and personal possessions or replicas thereof, along with a number of props from the movie. The home is dark and cool, comfortable but not spacious, with a separate kitchen building and peaceful grounds. Blixen was a talented artist as well as a writer and there are some incredible portraits that she made of her Kikuyu friends and servants.

We headed out into the countryside next, driving through a small town where we got our first shock of the harsh realities of life for the typical Kenyan. The town was no more than a string of ramshackle tin-roofed shacks; Tonnie explained that the economy is based around the local slaughterhouse. We saw women selling tired-looking produce from wooden stalls and men hawking small buckets filled with chunks of charcoal, which is used for heating and cooking. A sign on one shack advertised “four-day-old chicks, layers, and broilers.” Another sold cell phones - yes, we saw cell phones everywhere! Glum-looking men sat by the side of the road in small groups, waiting for work. The roads were lined with donkey carts and men pulling carts themselves. Everywhere we went, people stared at us as we drove past in our Micato bus, which could very well be the nicest bus in all of Kenya.

We turned onto the “biggest freeway in Kenya” – three lanes in each direction. If you drive ten hours west you’ll get to Uganda. Vans and trucks here have a speed limiter on them which prevents them from going faster than 50 mph, and for good reason - and not just because of the potholes. People were constantly running across the road in front of us, and cows and donkeys were grazing just feet from the highway. Sometimes we would bear down on someone riding a wobbly bicycle and they would veer out of the way at the last minute. People were cutting the tall grass (for feeding their cows) at the side of the road with machetes. A naked child squatted by the side of the road. I saw a group of women and children sitting together on the ground. One of the young women looked at us and waved; I waved back and she smiled. At one point there was a checkpoint where most cars were being stopped; our driver Ali waved at the officer and we drove right through. We saw churches of every faith imaginable – mostly rickety-looking structures, but some solidly built out of cement blocks. School children walking along the road in brightly-colored uniforms – blue, orange, purple, or yellow – waved and smiled at us as we whizzed by.

We drove through rolling hills of vivid green tea plants and stopped for lunch at a tea plantation that has been run by a British family for three generations. The main house is a simple white farmhouse surrounded by green lawns and gorgeous landscaped flower gardens. We ate lunch outside at a long table shaded by umbrellas; there were several other tour groups eating there as well. Lunch was a buffet of corn chowder, stewed beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, carrots, salad, and delicious creamed corn. For dessert there was homemade vanilla ice cream, lemon custard, and fresh fruit. A woman with another group was celebrating her birthday and shared her chocolate cake with us.

After lunch we sat in the living room and learned about tea-making from the current owner, whose wife’s grandfather came to Kenya in 1918 and planted Asam tea from India. The climate here is well-suited for tea, with more than 50 inches of rain per year and slightly acidic soil. This operation uses no chemicals but they do use fertilizer. Prunings are also left on the ground to fertilize the soil. The tea plants are harvested by hand, so the plants are kept short, although one of the original bushes has been allowed to grow over 20 feet tall. They employ one person for every two acres of tea; at one point the family owned 80 acres but have sold off some of the land. The plants are harvested after 2-3 years and only the very topmost leaves are picked. The tea is oxidized in the sun or with hot air (fueled by wood – they grow eucalyptus for this purpose), at which point it turns dark brown, then rollers crush, tear, and curl the leaves into small pieces while steam is blown through it. Four kilos of leaves produces about one kilo of ground tea. There are many different grades, determined by how finely the tea is ground. The finest grades go to Egypt. Britain purchases Kenyan grade “PF1” tea and blends it with other teas from India and Sri Lanka. The three main buyers of Kenyan tea are Egypt, Pakistan, and Britian, but more and more is being sold to the U.S.

On the way back to Nairobi we passed the new U.S. Embassy (out in the suburbs) and the U.N.’s African headquarters. Picture-taking is strictly forbidden here – the guards watch the cars like hawks and will chase down and confiscate your camera and/or film if they spot anyone taking photos. Back at the hotel we took showers and DH took a short cat-nap. At 5:00 we met out front and got on our bus again for the short drive to the Pintos' house in the hills above Nairobi – which I take it is the equivalent of Beverley Hills. All of the houses have high fences and gated drives, some with guards. The Pintos live in a sprawling, multi-level home filled with incredible African art; it is like walking into a museum. We were warmly greeted by Jane Pinto, who is from Goa, India, of Portuguese and Indian descent. Mrs. Pinto ran a taxi company with a fleet of VW bugs in Nairobi called “Mini Cabs and Tours" - the origin of the name “Micato,” which she started 40 years ago. There are still a couple of her VW Bugs driving around Nairobi.

Before dinner we were served wine in the vast living room and talked a little about our trip preparations. We all expressed concern about the oversized duffels; some people knew their bags were overweight. Tonnie said not to worry because his bag only weighed about 15 pounds. I said that the Micato packing list was somewhat repetitive and mentioned LyndaS's excellent packing list. Mrs. Pinto told everyone to leave behind anything nonessential and to be prepared for early mornings and long days; she warned that we would need a vacation from our safari by the end!

Dinner was an elaborate buffet with Portuguese, Indian, and Kenyan influences. We started with “peanut soup” (pumpkin soup), followed by curry chicken, curried tilapia, bean salad, curried cabbage, steamed spinach with onion and tomato, and rice. My favorite was the chicken curry, but it was all delicious! Our group was divided between two tables; DH and I were seated with MIL, FIL, R2 & B, and Mrs. Pinto. After a while Mrs. Pinto moved to the other table and Tonnie came over and joined us. DH and I talked to him about Kenyan politics, attitudes towards tourists (Tonnie said the locals recognize the trickle-down benefits of tourism dollars), and the pros and cons of being a game warden versus a tour guide. (Tonnie decided the latter would be more interesting, involving more travel and meeting more people.) At the end of the meal Tonnie and the staff paraded out singing a “Hakuna Matata” song (not the one from The Lion King) and carrying birthday cakes for R and MIL. We left promptly at 7 pm so we could get to bed early; we have to be on our way at 6:45 in the morning for our flight to Amboseli!

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