I wasn’t supposed to be in Kenya for long. In fact, I wasn’t supposed to be here at all. I’d already visited back in 2006, with Lisa, in celebration of my 40th birthday. We saw The Big 5 while safariing around Masai Mara, Amboselli, and Lake Nakuru. We visited The DEPOT, which began as a memorial to a personal hero of mine, Dan Eldon. A book celebrating his life and art, The Journey Is The Destination, was a gift from Mom many years ago, sparking the flame which ultimately led us here then, and me here now.
We traveled to Mombasa then, too, where Lisa decided to have her hair braided – but they took her to the second floor of a sketchy, dilapidated building in which, after nearly two hours, I was sure she’d been whisked out the back, never to be seen again, which then led to the obviously awkward contemplation of “Should I continue the trip, or cut it short? I mean, I’m already here…” Luckily for me (and her too, I suppose) she returned, relatively unscathed, save for the excruciatingly painful tightness of the braiding she’d received. Being whisked away might have been a fate she’d have preferred, and I believe that was the first time I learned there are certain moments when it’s better to just shut your mouth, and simply make sure your partner’s wine glass is always topped off.
We’d come to Mombasa as a pass-through on our way to the coastal village of Kilifi where, because of Dan Eldon’s inspiration, we’d begun a sponsorship several years before of a boy there, Sande, through an organization whose headquarters just happen to be in Warwick, Rhode Island – Plan USA. For years the organization had touted their love of having sponsors visit the children in person, but to be honest I was always a bit skeptical. Plan USA and their parent organization, Plan International, had a proven track record of doing amazing work in remote communities worldwide, but a small part of me still imagined our penpal to be a twenty-something Kenyan driving around tarmacked streets in a mint convertible with Kenyan pop cranking on the stereo and sporting more than a little golden bling.
It was challenge enough to find Kilifi on a map, never mind entertain the thought of actually visiting one day, yet here we were, our visit suddenly having gone from casual joke to reality as we found ourselves walking the neatly swept dirt path to the front of Sande’s Kilifi village home. We brought a huge bag of rice from a local market, school supplies from home, and a new soccer ball that would be used in an impromptu game of volleyball, with Sande, his siblings, mom, uncle, friends and neighbors all joining in.
Sande’s mother would treat us to a home-cooked meal, an appetizer of ugali followed by beef and potatoes, an extravagance for a family of such simple means and meager income. Lisa was a vegan, so I ate her share of beef, while she ate my share of potatoes, the two of us using forks that had been delivered in a pan of shallow water, the gentle sloshing meant for cleaning, I suppose. We’d already all shared the ugali, a half dozen of us repeatedly taking handfuls, dipping and double-dipping into the broth that lie in the bottom of the centerpiece dish, licking fingers clean between bites until it was all gone, so I’d already accepted the fact that we’d be spending the remaining days of our vacation in some sort of clinic, the medical staff entertaining all in attendance by measuring the length of parasitic worms they’d be removing from our colons. What I’m trying to say is that the standing fork water didn’t much matter by then.
We somehow escaped any sort of medical misadventure, however. In fact, hair braiding aside, the entire trip had been so amazingly flawless that the idea of returning – of tempting fate – was itself a serious consideration. But I came nonetheless.
The first reason is that I saw a return to Nairobi as a chance to recalibrate, slow down, burn a few days without much of an agenda – I’d seen so much the first time (or so I’d thought) – and do some planning for the weeks ahead. Travel through Europe had been a comparative breeze to what I expect will come on the African continent, especially when budget is a consideration. Visas are now required upon most arrivals. There’s no Eurail. The landscapes are vast. It’s hot, and the sun can be scorching. And of course Covid and its required tests and documents and risks still looms large.
The second reason is, simply, that I really, really missed it. Nairobi was, for me, one of those rare places in life where, when you visit for the very first time, it feels like an inexplicable sort of homecoming. The energy, the buzz, sounds, language, colors, faces, sweat, dirt and grit – even the smell of the air itself, it all felt like I’d been here before, and it was a place to which I somehow seemed destined to return.
That return would begin inauspiciously. A twenty dollar cab ride that should have been twelve ended up being more than thirty, despite some help from a friendly policeman, who, in hindsight, probably got a ten-spot on the side. The ride to my $14 per night AirBnB on the edge of the Westlands began with bumper-to-bumper traffic, the highway worked by hawkers walking dangerously yet casually between its sunbaked lanes, selling everything from water to fruit to windshield wipers to steering wheel covers to toys for hot and cranky toddlers. The windshield wipers amused me most. Even with a guidebook for my year, make, and model, it still takes me twenty minutes at ADAP to ensure I’ve got the right blade for my car, so buying an unpackaged one from some guy on the highway that somehow fits seems like it should count as a miracle of service and technology. Later, we would rally through the madness of Nairobi’s city center and roundabouts so insane that Clark Griswold trying to escape Lambeth Bridge Roundabout seemed comparatively quaint, and not nearly as funny.
My cabby couldn’t find my rental – neither of us could, even with Google Maps – which ended up being located in what looked upon first blush to be a fairly sketchy part of Nairobi, farther from the hustle and bustle of downtown than I had planned. The roads had few traditional sidewalks, more often well-worn, sepia-toned dirt pathways and spotty patches of weeds attempting to pass for grass.
As if the reverse driving patterns don’t cause enough confusion for your average American, Kenyans also like to spend an inordinate amount of time driving on opposite side of an already wrong-sided road, whether passing slower cars or motorbikes with three and even four unhelmeted passengers, or to simply take advantage of a smoother patch of pavement or dusty dirt road – oncoming traffic be damned. It leaves one with the dizzying impression that there is no traffic pattern at all, simply a race to claim that singular open patch, while expecting (hoping?) others will respond accordingly. The only thing you can do as a passenger is exhale, relax, and simply accept that this is how you are going to die.
On many corners were ramshackle wooden kiosks, many of which would be torn down at home, but from which here one could buy everything from water and snacks and fruits to fully cooked hot plates. Where any water came from to cook or clean, I couldn’t tell, but the lunchtime clientele ranged from casually-dressed locals to button-downed corporate types on lunch break. Seats were whatever one could find to sit upon, tables oftentimes the ground itself.
My AirBnB was on a quaint and even pretty street, in a secured apartment compound, the front steel gate decorated with a painted Villa Florita sign. My host, Sumaya, could not have been more welcoming, her smile and kind disposition evident from the moment she opened the door to greet me in the neatly kempt, kid-friendly courtyard. Sumaya would have a brand new baby boy only a couple weeks after my stay. My private room at the rear, lower level of her home was intimate and clean, a comfortable four-poster bed with mosquito netting, an armoire, work desk, and kitchenette. The bathroom long but narrow, only wide enough for a toilet, the showerhead hanging almost directly above, like you might find on some fancy boats. Like many places throughout Europe and beyond, many bathrooms here are equipped with drains on the floors. Most lack shower curtains or formal doors. This one lacked a shower stall entirely, but once I figured out how to turn on the hot water – something I didn’t master until my second shower, unfortunately – it served its purpose just fine.
The view through my windows was that of a concrete wall, topped by a tall fence along a high road that ran behind and overhead. At its peak, the midday sun shown down enough to dry the laundry that hung on clotheslines running along the back alleyway. There are no dryers here, the Kenyan sun doing the job in no time.
I’d be lying if I said my first impression wasn’t one of slight disappointment. My view. My location. I at least wanted to be reasonable walking distance to a restaurant or bar – the famous Stanley Hotel, for example, an old haunt of Hemingway and Karen Blixen and so many others – or at least a mini-market at which to buy supplies. Sumaya had given me the name of a local one – The Pantry it was called, but I could find no such place on my map.
I quickly reminded myself of the lessons learned from Rwanda, recounted in my own blog entry, Silver Linings, in which I’d noted that every hiccup has so far led to wonderful new discoveries. I could über for anything I might need, I reasoned. My host was kind and wonderful and just a knock away. My room was clean and quiet and comfortable. And being in a location with fewer nearby distractions might be exactly what I needed for writing and planning and doing exactly what I came here to do. And then everything, with that simple change of perspective, suddenly fell into place.
I introduced myself to Francis, the friendly guard at the gate, as I left to explore my new neighborhood. The old woman at the nearest corner kiosk, sitting on a chair on the dirt pathway selling bananas next to the shack selling water and pop and news, stared warily at first, then responded in kind with a smile, a wave, and hello, a pattern we would repeat each day to come. I walked straight for a nearby gated entrance that had a sign advertising Ethiopian food. I couldn’t see any restaurant, but it was the guard I was after, who, after a few moments of mutual confusion, directed me to The Pantry, apparently just up the road. I walked past men sitting idly along the roadside, watching me approach just as warily as the old woman selling bananas had, before replying to my nodded greeting with kind smiles and hellos of their own. Heat, sun, dust, a lunch shack. And then, as if a mirage – in part because I swear it wasn’t there when I’d arrived just an hour before, my oasis over the days to come appeared before me – The Pantry Supplies & Provisions. But oh, it was so much more.
On the left of its compound was a mid-sized market, replete with everything from name-brand non-perishables and snacks and fruits and meats and cheeses to freshly baked breads and desserts. In a separate building on the right was a mini liquor store with cold local and imported craft beers, an array of wines, and top-shelf liquors. In between the two, a large, palm-treed, open-air haven in which I would eat delicious breakfasts, lunches and dinners when not eating at home – not to mention enjoy a cold one or two – while tapping away and watching the locals come and go.
I’d found my Mecca.
In the days ahead, between meals and writing and resting, I would walk different routes around my neighborhood and beyond, venturing two or three miles by foot into the heart of downtown Nairobi. I would walk dirt roads under new overpass construction, and along (and on) a dusty, busy highway to the Nairobi National Museum. I would enjoy espresso martinis that would make legendary mixologist Meganeddy give her nod of approval, in the equally legendary Stanley Hotel, in their now fancy bar that once served as an open-aired veranda.
Despite having been to the more internationally famous reserves, I decided one morning to über to Nairobi National Park, where I was overwhelmed by the abundance of wildlife a mere six miles from the city skyline – lions and rhino and giraffe and buffalo and eland and ostrich and impala and crocodile and birds galore and so much more.
But the highlight of my first week in Kenya would without a doubt be my solo tour of Kibera and the amazing Seed Foundation School, a literal and figurative beacon rising from the massive shantytown in which it lies, a sign of hope and a chance of escape for the kids who live within the immensely complicated squalor of what is said to be Africa’s largest urban slum. My visit to Kibera and The Seed School deserves its own entry: You can read it here.
This was why I’d returned to Nairobi, I’d realized. Not to play tourist and live in a protected little bubble of fine hotels and fancy safaris, but to get my shoes a little dirtier, slow down and experience the real Nairobi, walk its neighborhoods, see the good and the bad, the successes and struggles of daily life, and to meet the people who live and work here, some of whom are working against seemingly impossible odds to make a difference in the lives of others, and working for a better future for Kenya itself.
By all accounts, my return to Nairobi had already exceeded expectations. I’d come simply to smell the air again, to discover if what I’d felt the first time I’d visited so many years ago was real, or simply the excitement of realizing a dream I’d had since spending Sundays with Dad, Mom, Steven, Jon, and Shelley watching Marlin Perkins send poor Jim Fowler outside the safety of their Land River to subdue all sorts of wild animals on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Not only was it real, but my plan to recalibrate, rest, and write had turned into a series of unexpected adventures. Little did I know that my one week would turn into several, and the adventures I’d enjoyed to date would pale in comparison to what was yet to come.