This is the first edition of what I am hoping will be many entries on my travels in Kenya. I am still getting the hang of things so will probably skip trying to include photographs today. I’ll be happy if I write something and then figure out how to publish the link on Facebook.
The last couple months have been a whirlwind of activity in preparation for this trip. I prepared a place to live in my back studio, moved in, and then worked on my house to get it ready to rent. Ben and Conor moved in on August 1st which is when I finished my last day at the University of Arizona Department of Ophthalmology and Vision Science. I visited my brother Dave and his wife Hazel, Ven and Anne (Hazel’s parents), and Ethan, Mia, and Andrew in Hawaii. I went to California give away my mother in marriage to Lanny, and see my sister Darla, nephew Sky, and niece Sarah Beth. I visited my step dad Maurice and his wife Anne in Salt Lake City.
Getting back to Tucson with almost a week before leaving for Kenya, there were many nights out with friends drinking beer and listening to live music. The most notable evening was last Saturday when Cassie and Don hosted a “Dan’s Moving to Africa: Kenya Believe It?” Party. We drank lots of beer and splashed around in the pool for a couple hours. It certainly was the most fun I have had in a long time. I felt like a kid, and very loved by all of my friends.
Monday morning, August 17th, Don dropped me off at the Tucson Airport with three bags; I had packed a backpack for a trek up Mt. Kenya, a lightly packed day pack, and a rolling carry-on suitcase. My biggest priority was to take all I needed but be able to handle it by myself without too much effort. This was a challenge because I needed supplies for a 6-day trek, clothing, and optometry instruments that will be necessary to do my job here, that is, teach optometry. That is the reason for the trip after all.
There was the three hour flight to Atlanta, Georgia. I don’t remember much about that now even though it was just two days ago. I walked a lot as I waited for the next flight, trying to tire out my legs so that I’d be happy to sit for the eight hour flight to Amsterdam. The most notable part of that trip was the very beginning. As we were taxiing to the runway to take off, the skies let loose with a torrential downpour with thunder and lightning. We had to sit for a half hour before we were approved for take off.
Amsterdam, well, the international terminal in Amsterdam, was as expected. It felt very European, clean, and organized. The skies were gray and it was lightly raining outside, which I assume is normal weather for Amsterdam. The only unexpected part was that there were several leaks in the terminal with buckets strategically placed to catch the water. Small sections of the waiting areas were roped off with water on the seats and floor. I still haven’t figured this out. Doesn’t it rain a lot in Amsterdam? Isn’t that why the grass is so green and tulips grow so well in the cool, moist climate? So, why all of the sudden is the roof opening up and leaking all over?
I think my favorite leg of the trip was Amsterdam to Nairobi. I was starting to feel like I was really going to Africa, with more than half of the people on the plane appearing to be African. I guess the assumption here was that most of the people in Africa that are African have darkly pigmented skin. The Dutch flight attendants were very friendly, professional, and attractive. The food was excellent, and I found out that there was no charge for red wine, so I had two glasses and a couple Ibuprofen PM’s that readily put me to sleep. I woke up about an hour and a half before landing in Nairobi.
I exited the plane on a metal stairway down to the tarmac and then headed into the inevitable chaos of the immigration can customs stations. There were the usual long lines and a bit of jostling for position but it went smoothly, in part, because I had already purchased my multi-transit VISA good for six months of entering and exiting the country. I had nothing to declare so customs went very fast. Exiting the airport there must have been two hundred people waiting, many with signs with a name or a group printed on them. Fortunately, as I had arranged, a gentleman from the Boma Inn had my name on a sign. I introduced myself and he said his name was Jeffrey. We walked a bit through the crowd and he asked me to wait at the curb while he got the car. This was the first chance I had to look around. The air was cool and moist with scattered low clouds.
We drove for about 15 minutes through the inevitable airport traffic and headed toward downtown Nairobi. The Boma Inn was recommended to me by Lucy Booth of Kenya Treks, and it was much nicer than expected for the $160 a night charge plus $25 pick up fee. Everything about it showed simple but fine taste from the darkly stained wood, modern design with highly vaulted ceilings, and stone floors. The room was probably the nicest I had ever been in with everything one would need including wifi, television, and bottled water. I headed to the bar for dinner and a Tusker beer, and was pleasantly surprised that the $5 beer was 750ml rather then the smaller export size I had once purchased in Tucson.
After a nice meal I went back to the room, and checked my e-mail and Facebook page. This is when I found out that Tucson musician Stefan George, my friend and guitar teacher from a decade ago, had collapsed and passed away Monday. Stefan was an incredible blues guitar player and songwriter. I had seen him last in the fall when he played a benefit for the Lion’s Club at Cushing Street Restaurant and Bar. His health was beginning to fail at that time and he had recently lost his wife Lavinia. I could tell he would be leaving us soon also.
I was able to fall asleep for about 4 hours from 12:30am to 4:00am, not bad for the first night with such a big time difference. I awoke and checked my e-mail and Facebook page again. I fell asleep for an hour or so, got up, showered, and walked out to enjoy a stunning breakfast served at 7:00 am, thankfully included in the price. I walked around the Boma Inn grounds and took in the sights and smells of Nairobi, albeit a walled and guarded version. There were low clouds, lush plants, and flowers. Everything was close to perfect. Not far from the Boma Inn is one of Nairobi’s largest slums, Kibera Slum. Crime in Nairobi is a huge issue and the city is often referred to as Nairobbery. This explains the armed guards at the gate and staff patrolling the grounds.
I checked out and waited for John Karumba, a guide who works for Kenya Treks. I had researched this idea, to have a bit of an adventure before starting my year long commitment to teach optometry in Kenya. John showed up with a reserved smile and introduced himself, a soft spoken and fit man in his 30s. He explained that the driver was below in the parking lot and we could begin our 4 hour drive to Nanyuki, a small mountain town at the base of Mt. Kenya.
John helped me place my bags into the back of a small black Toyota wagon, similar to a Toyota Matrix. I met Solomon our driver and sat in the back seat. In the first minutes of our trip I realized that I will probably never drive in Kenya. The driver sits on the right, and Kenya uses the British style of roadway where the traffic drives on the left hand side of the road. It is confusing and bewildering at first.
Almost instantly everything was chaos. Traffic seemed to come from all directions as we turned onto a complex roadway. There were cars, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians, motorcycles, and three wheeled vehicles that I think are called tuk tuks. The air was full of diesel fumes, and small fires burned along the road. A few miles down the into our drive I saw a shepherd herding maybe 20 head of cattle just off the road in a dirt, grassy strip. A few miles later there was herd of 50 cattle and 25 sheep. There were markets just off the road way with people carrying chickens and baskets of fruit trying to get on the road, off the road, to the other side of the road. Pedestrians waited to cross, and then did cross running then stopping, dodging cars and trucks, in what appeared to be a freeway to me, albeit a congested, slowly moving freeway.
The road over the next 10 miles or so narrowed to a two lane highway, with all of the above mentioned obstacles. It was difficult to make progress quickly as there were frequent settlements, markets, and groups of people. Lots of people just sat near the road, on embankment or hillside, crouching, watching. Solomon expertly negotiated several harrowing passing manuevers as we encountered trucks with wobbling wheels going 15 miles per hour, and more than one horse or donkey drawn cart filled with wood, debri, or vegetables.
Every 10 miles or so there was a police checkpoint where uniformed men with machine guns had placed metal strips with 4 inch long spikes across the road way. John explained that they were looking for trucks filled with migrants from Somalia, probably headed toward the slum called Little Mogadishu, which has been a fertile recruiting ground for Al Shabab.
It quickly became clear the me that road travel in Kenya would probably be my most dangerous activity. My suspicion was confirmed when we encountered the first of several road crashes, with police and a crowd of onlookers.
Slowly and over many tens of miles the road opened up just a bit, with lush tropical hills on each side. I could see banana groves, mango and papaya trees, and lots of gardens. People sat next to the road in small kiosks selling stacks of oranges and other fruits.
There was plenty of time for conversation. I asked John what he did for fun when not guiding people up the 17,000 foot Mt Kenya. He said he was a farmer in a new government program where he planted potatoes then trees among the potatoes. As the trees grew and began to shade the potatoes, he would harvest the potatoes and then let the trees grow, eventually to be harvested a decade later. That’s what you do for fun, I asked. Yes, he replied.
Solomon asked about me and where I was from. I explained that Tucson was in the Sonoran desert in Arizona and was hot and dry. Arizona? Yes, Solomon, I live in Arizona, I said. Can I ask a question? Yes, of course, Solomon. Why do you teach children to shoot guns in your schools? We don’t, I replied. He said, “I read a story of a teacher in Arizona showing a girl how to shoot a gun and she mistakenly shot him.” Oh, I know what your are referring to, Solomon, but I can assure you that we don’t teach children how to shoot guns in our elementary schools. I went on to explain the incident and that it was a shooting range and not a school. “But why are there so many guns and why let children handle them?” asked Solomon. I don’t know, I replied.
As we gained elevation it became hotter, dry, and dusty, not unlike parts of Tucson. We were about ten miles from our destination of Nanyuki.
I saw a crowd of people on the side of the road ahead and several parked vehicles near small community with a few homes with tin roofs. People had placed tree branches in the road to close one lane. Oh no, said Solomon, she is on the ground. As we passed I turned to see a girl or young woman face down on the side of the road, the bottoms of her bare feet facing up, sprawled out in the dirt next to the road. Her head and body were covered with several brightly colored cloths. She was gone.
We drove along, quietly now, until we reached Nanyuki. Hesitatingly we talked again. There was an electric adapter to be purchased, money to be changed, and a saroung to buy for me when at camp and not hiking. We drove to Kongoni Camp where I will be resting for several days in preparation for the trek up the mountain.