Friday, April 20, 2007

4 February: Africa, Here We Come!

The alarm woke us up painfully early and we were out of the house and on our way to the Stuttgart airport by 5:45 (on time, for once). We lugged our huge Micato bags from the long-term parking garage to the far end of the terminal, by which point we had determined that the rolling wheels on the duffels are nice but mostly for show, as the bags are incredibly awkward to pull. We checked in at British Airways, went through security and passport control (which we thought was rather odd since we were just going to England, which last I knew was part of the E.U.) and boarded our plane a short while later. There were only about twenty people on our 1 hour-20 minute Sunday morning flight to London. We watched a salmon pink sunrise (left) over cottony clouds, with the Alps forming a jagged line across the southern horizon. We had a strange sandwich for breakfast – a white bun, tasteless cheese, and a cream cheese spread with chives. Must be a British thing. We crossed the English Channel and started descending towards London, passing over mossy green fields framed by neat hedgerows. The fairytale image of Windsor Castle came into view for a few fleeting moments, glowing golden in the morning light. It was unbelievably huge! Maybe I will need to add that to our U.K. itinerary. DH was sitting in the aisle seat and couldn’t see it. He honestly didn’t believe that I had seen Windsor Castle. If only I’d had my camera handy, it would have been an incredible picture. It wasn’t until we were very close to landing that I noticed that all of the cars were driving on the "wrong" side of the road.

Making our connection in Heathrow was not that difficult (heck, the signs are all in English, after all), except that we had to go through security all over again and the line was very long. We had a 10-minute bus ride from Terminal 1 to Terminal 4 and then a short walk to Gate 8, and suddenly there was MIL. I had practically forgotten in the last-minute rush that we would be meeting them at Heathrow. It was quite foggy before we took off, so we were delayed, plus they had to de-ice the wings (it was 0° C in London). We ended up taking off about an hour late. We had a very funny male flight attendant who stocked us up with plenty of white wine. At lunchtime, I asked for the chicken casserole, but he frowned and whispered, “Have the beef Bolognese!” so we took his advice. It was fine, accompanied as usual by way more food than one needs when sitting sedentary for nine hours: smoked salmon and potato salad, a roll, and apple pie with vanilla custard. We were pleasantly surprised to find that we had six or seven movies to choose from. We both watched Marie Antoinette (a little disappointing after all the hype) and The Illusionist (excellent). Our afternoon snack was decent – a beef sandwich with horseradish sauce, fresh fruit, and carrot cake. The service was excellent but sadly they didn’t hand out hot towels like they do on Lufthansa.

We crossed the wide blue Mediterranean and then headed over the Sahara and Libyan deserts. It was an extremely desolate landscape, with dramatic, jagged mountains rising like islands from a copper sea. We experienced a bit of turbulence but nothing stomach-turning. I could see that there was a gorgeous sunset; alas, it was on the other side of the plane. After nightfall, I looked out the window and for long stretches at a time I could seen nothing but pitch black. When I did see lights, they were in small clusters of a strange yellow-orange color – the color of fire.

We arrived in Nairobi right around 10:00 pm, having made up some time en route. MIL and FIL got off before us because they were seated about twenty rows ahead in British Airway’s “premier” coach class (which means you pay about 50% more for a few inches of leg and elbow room). DH and I deplaned and were met by Salma from Micato, who escorted us to immigration. The lines were really long except for the one labeled “Kenya / Africa Residents”; Salma told us we could get in that line. We felt rather conspicuous and FIL and MIL laughed at us (they were waiting in the regular line), but then I noticed that a few other Americans were in line with us as well. Apparently those “in the know” realize that no one really cares which line you get in. MIL got held up for a few minutes because she was asked how long she was staying in Kenya and she mentioned that she was going to Tanzania. First rule of travel: never provide more information than absolutely necessary. Once we got through customs we grabbed our four matching Micato duffel bags and met up with C & R, two of our safari mates who were on our flight. They’re from California and also on their first trip to Africa.

We walked out to the parking lot (noticing how warm it was), where we met Tonnie (sounds like "Tony"), our safari director, and climbed into a white Micato minivan. Tonnie opened a cooler set between the front seats and handed out bottles of water. We couldn’t see much on the 20-minute drive to the hotel. We drove through an industrial area, past a bunch of car dealerships and hotels, and arrived at the Norfolk, the oldest hotel in Nairobi. We sat in wicker chairs in the beautiful reception area while Tonnie checked us in. It reminded me of those Ethan Allen “British classics” commercials and I realized that this is where “British colonial” style actually originated. FIL accidentally left his carry-on in the van but our driver brought it in for him – first gold star already awarded! The Norfolk is a sprawling complex consisting of multiple buildings of varying ages framing landscaped courtyards replete with palm trees, bougainvillea, and hibiscus. Our room was about as far away from the main building as we could get; it had dark cherry furniture, mint green walls, stained pink drapes, two tiny double beds, and a somewhat dilapidated wood-paneled bathroom with a tub and separate shower. We were not too impressed with the room, but we did appreciate the fruit basket, courtesy of the Pintos (the owners of Micato). We did a little laundry in the sink (now I know I’m really going to miss my rubber clothesline), then fell into bed.

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