As soon as I land in Kenya I notice how strikingly tall, beautiful and friendly people are. My ATM card doesn’t work, presumably because there’s a fraud alert. The exchange places don’t take any of the currencies I'm still carrying around -- Israeli shekels, Ethiopian birr, or Egyptian pounds. The guy selling SIM cards kindly lets me use his hotspot to call my bank and remove the fraud alerts. This guy is incredibly sweet, and I thank him profusely for saving me. I rely upon the kindness of strangers! Now I can get money and buy a SIM card. The internet is fast.
I call an Uber. The driver is awesome. He speaks perfect English, and he’s cool enough to talk to about anything. After a while the subject of weed comes up — I didn’t find any in Ethiopia — and he says anyone can get me some and it’s not a big deal in Kenya. I tell him the women in Kenya seem to be empowered and he says yes, they are more successful than the men. He tells me about nightlife options in Nairobi. I get his number and may call him if I need a ride or want to hang out.
The city seems pleasant, full of trees, and not too crowded. The hostel is outside of downtown in a rich, leafy district called Karen. It’s spotless, with super friendly people. The garden is green and full of flowers, a welcome sight after being in the desert for over two months.
I'm the only guest in the hostel right now. I'm getting settled in and realizing my adapter to charge my devices doesn’t work in this country, when I realize the staff are all glued to the TV. Something has happened: gunmen have just opened fire on an upscale tourist hotel in Nairobi. A Somali Islamic fundamentalist group, al-Shabaab, has claimed responsibility. A number of people have been killed. So sad.
I’m thrilled to be in Kenya. The people are amazing — relaxed, friendly but self-respecting, highly intelligent, good-looking, and interesting. They may be my new favorite people in the world. I enjoy the best shower I've ever seen at any hostel anywhere in the world; it’s huge and has a glass door to keep the bathroom from getting wet, something I haven’t seen in a long time.
A Danish guy arrives and we join forces for a while. The next day we take a bus to the grocery store and I’m in heaven. Every kind of fresh fruit and vegetable in the world is available here, even kale and chard! A large, bright supermarket sells snacks and gourmet foods! I pig out on watermelon, coconuts, and lychees, and buy some groceries. I ask the cook at the hostel to make me a stir fry with okra and kale.The climate, too, is utterly perfect: mid-70s during the day and 60's at night.
The Danish guy and I go downtown and walk around.
The next day, we share an Uber to Hells Gate National Park, an hour outside of town. The Uber driver realizes that we can’t pay him in cash, as we were planning to pay through the app as usual, so he can’t afford to do the trip. He doesn't get paid through the app for a whole week, and it's far. He leaves us on the road outside of town and we call another Uber. This guy, Peter, is a really awesome guy. I negotiate a rate for him to wait at the park and take us back, since there are no taxis around. At the park we rent bicycles for a bike safari, as there are no predators at this part.
It’s a beautiful place, full of craggy mountains, big cloudy skies, zebras, and fat curious little beasts that look like groundhogs.
The Danish guy decides to sleep in the park to do some climbing. On the way back I make a great connection with Peter the driver. I can talk to him about anything. He's kind enough to stop and get some cheap weed for me. He knows how to spot the right guys who hang out in the parks offering it for sale!
Peter and I go to the giraffe center, where you can stand on a platform and feed giraffes by hand. It's amazing to see these beings so close up, their massive, long-lashed eyes, their purple, muscular tongues! The giraffes take food right out of your mouth!
The warthogs bend down on their elbows.
We take a nature walk behind the giraffe center. He's very knowledgable about plants and animals, and his love for them is evident. He points out a special water-gliding insect that spends all day circling around its partner in the creek; they swirl around each other in an endless dance. Then at the snake park, I get to hold a large python, to the horror of a little girl.
The national museum is a really good one. As I'm waiting in line, some friendly employees ask me why I'm so quiet. "Who should I talk to?" I ask. "Us!" they chorus. I tell them I'm sad because of my current government, and that Kenya should be a model for the world for the way the country is fighting corruption. "Yes!" they say. "Don't worry, it'll be okay!" I love Kenyans. So positive and friendly.
I learn a lot at the museum. There are beautiful musical instruments and handicrafts. I study the migration patterns of people to Kenya; there are three main language groups: Bantu (Swahili, the main language, is a Bantu language); Nilotic (such as Maasai); and Cushitic, the language family of the ancient Egyptians. Bantu and Nilotic peoples migrated here only a few thousand years ago. The museum has some interesting exhibits on burial customs. Many were buried with their heads resting on one hand. In the graves were offerings such as these bone beads, an ancient form of offering.
One room in the museum is dedicated to remembering the stories of Kenyan heroes and heroines, with artwork depicting them. Many seers, who were often female priestesses, foretold the coming of the Europeans and the destruction of African culture. See one example below, a priestess who mysteriously escaped through miles of wild jungle every time she was arrested by the British. Her brother was captured by Arab slave traders in front of her eyes.
The next day Peter drives me around to different places around Nairobi. It’s great to hang with him and share our favorite music and talk politics and philosophy. We see an African dance at a cultural center where the song and dance traditions of different ethnic groups around Kenya are performed. I start tearing up when it begins, I am so moved by the beauty, grace, and vigor of the dancers. When the dancers exit the stage and return in different costumes, I feel a bit devastated. I realize that it's a single dance troupe performing the dances of cultures that are not their own. As I wrestle with my disappointment I realize that it would be impossible to do it any other way; the large number of performers that would be needed from all over Kenya could not possibly be supported by the ticket prices.
The reason I feel so devastated by this is that it brings it home so powerfully that these are only performances for tourists, not living cultures. Most likely, there are no people still doing their traditional dances for themselves, their cultures destroyed by colonization — European, Islamic, Christian, and African — and now finished off by modernization. I want to cry when I see the non-Maasai men doing the high jumps from the Maasai tradition; they can't particularly high, except for one guy who looks Maasai. I hope at least that there is one dancer from every ethnic group represented here, who grew up with the tradition and coaches the others.
As I realize that this is the only way this could happen, I relax and enjoy the performances. The dancers and costumes are amazing. The different cultures are so diverse. There are a few numbers that come from the coast of the Indian Ocean, which has been influenced by India and Arabia for centuries; their music is so unique and mesmerizing, featuring Indian tabla and spike fiddle. Notice the harmonium in this video.
All of them are amazing though. There are some incredible drums I have never seen before.
I’m distracted by the group of school children in front of me. They have their faces painted and they are the cutest, sweetest group of children I have ever seen. I want to adopt them all. Their bodies start moving to the beat of the drums, their ancient souls stirring. I notice that their teacher feels free to put her arm around them and hug them, which American teachers are not allowed to do.
I end up spending 5 days in Nairobi, I love it so much. Even the downtown is a leafy and pleasant place to be. At the hostel I meet Sean, a San Franciscan of about my age who probably has mild Aspergers with a focus on wildlife; the perfect person to go on safari with. He's going to Maasai Mara for a 3 day safari with another person the following day, so I decide to join them.
It’s a long 6 hour drive to the park, past the Rift valley, and down a very bumpy dirt road through Maasai lands. The many miles of Maasai lands are a kind of buffer between the park with dangerous wild animals, and the rest of the human world.
The question of indigenous rights vs wildlife rights in Africa is a contentious one. Should Maasai people be barred from living in the park and hunting as they used to do? We pass villages, some which look quite traditional with mud houses, others concrete. Maasai people are beautiful, preternaturally tall, and have a distinctive style of wearing cloaks. I have read that Maasai men are popular with female Western tourists. Their reputation for strength, vigor, and agility is appealing to women seeking companionship.
Finally we arrive at the outskirts of the Maasai Mara national park. The Maasai village that has grown up on the edge of the park is a depressing place, concrete shacks and muddy children who seem to have neither their indigenous traditions nor the comforts of civilization. I feel sad. Our safari camp just beyond there is a lovely, simple place, with comfortable tents set up in lush nature. I wander past the last tent and find myself in a beautiful wild place, with a pristine creek frequented by baboons. I wonder what prevents predators from wandering over from the park.
It’s time for my first game drive. It’s Sean and me and 3 very young women from Denmark in one of those safari vans with popup roof. Maasai Mara is actually part of the Serengeti, the Kenya side; the border with Tanzania is in the middle of the wilderness there. The Kenya side is hillier and lusher, while the Tanzania side is larger, flatter, and therefore home to slightly more large animals, the site of the annual wildebeest migration. But I’m happy to be on the Kenya side, where there are more trees. At this time of year, after a rainy season, the grasses are green. It’s beautiful.
We see wildebeests, giraffes, zebras, buffalo, and elephants in the distance! It’s great that Sean has binoculars and is good at spotting birds. There are some beautiful and exotic birds I’ve never seen before, like the guinea fowl, secretary bird, and the crested crane, with its gorgeous colors and headdress. I spot some mongoose running in the distance — they are so cute and fast! Then some jackals, such perfect, gorgeous beings. I understand why they were sacred to the ancient Egyptians, with their intelligent gaze and noble ears.
Then we see her — our first lioness. She’s laying atop a small hill, her head proudly erect, relaxed. I start to tear up. It really is different to see such a magnificent animal in the wild, so much healthier and happier than in the zoo where they seem disheveled and distressed. I can’t stop looking at her, the wind rustling her beautiful soft fur, her intelligent eyes. I’ve never seen anything so gorgeous.
Then we spot a hyena family. Hyenas are very intelligent and affectionate. Females are in charge. This family has two little cubs who have obviously never seen people before. Here is the moment where I become terribly conflicted about the whole safari thing: the driver has the radio turned up so loud, like always, to hear from the other drivers where to find more animals; he drives us within a few feet of the hyena family and keeps the engine running. I beg him to turn down the radio; after all, we have found some animals and don’t need any information for the moment. I beg him not to get so close to them. The cubs are so curious, the adults so annoyed. I don’t know whether or not to make eye contact with them! The driver ignores my pleas. The radio and motor blare.
I understand that safari revenue is the only way to save wildlife from those who would kill them for profit. But I wish for more respect for the animals; for safari vehicles to keep their distance, keep their voices down, turn off their engines and turn down their radios when in such close proximity.
As the sun sets on the Serengeti, the evening light is luminous. The sunset pinkens, and then, the massive full moon rises on the other side! Then it starts raining. The driver gets out to close the pop up roof. Sean and I worry that the rain will turn the dirt paths into mud; we don’t have too much faith in our driver.
Then it stops raining and there’s a perfect, complete double rainbow, the most beautiful rainbow I have ever seen! We marvel at it as we realize that in fact we are stuck in the mud.
The driver revs the engine and makes huge ruts. Impossibly, we emerge from the ditch we’ve made, and spin out of control, spinning around and around.
“I hope he gets in trouble for this,” says Sean. “You can’t be doing doughnuts on the Serengeti.”
“Oh good I was hoping this isn’t normal,” I say, relieved.
But we get stuck again and now seemingly for good. The young Danish girls, bored, take selfies. Some rangers with rifles show up and help us push. We emerge from the mud and drive toward the faded sunset, away from the moonrise.
“Free night drive,” says Sean.
That night the dinner hall at the bush camp is full of people. I meet two interesting, cute Irish guys and drink Guinneas with them. Guinneas beer is available and popular in Kenya.
The next morning we get up at 5 for the game drive. I’m disappointed that the skies are cloudy, since there’s a lunar eclipse happening right now, at 5 AM, that is obscured by clouds. We see a pride of lions feasting on its kill, a buffalo. When the lions have eaten enough, they drag themselves a few feet away and lay on their backs with their full bellies up, smiling.
We go for a walk with a ranger to see hippos in the river. I’m extremely impressed by the ranger, who is kind and well-spoken, and clearly cares about the animals. Sean explains that rangers are risking their lives and their standing in the community, since many locals feel that the rangers should let them kill animals in order to feed their families.
We see some gorgeous cheetahs, and a leopard in a tree. He’s chilling on the tree branch, his paws hanging down, but after a while when a dozen of safari vehicles arrive and are constantly motoring around jockeying for a better view, he casts us a disgusted glance and then jumps down and slinks into the bush for privacy. I feel horrible about the whole safari thing once again.
We return to camp in the afternoon and by now it’s sunny and beautiful. I go for a walk in the bush. The temperature is perfect, the nature is gorgeous and easy to traverse, as there's no understory. There are no insects, snakes, or harmful plants. This land, the birthplace of humanity, our natural habitat, is absolute paradise, except for one big thing: predators. I become aware of a primal fear. Could there be predators here? It's so close to the park. Would lions, cheetahs, and leopards keep their distance from human settlements? What should I do if I encounter one? It's fascinating to notice this fear, something I’ve never really felt before, but something our human ancestors experienced all the time.
That night Sean and I drink beers and swap stories. The next morning we go on our final game drive. I’m starting to like getting up at dawn, and this is the first sunny dawn. The brilliant morning light illuminates the savannah. The air is cool and fresh. We don’t see much wildlife but the scenery is gorgeous.
At the exit to the national park, a group of Maasai women takes advantage of the delay in crossing the gate to sell crafts to tourists. When I see them sitting in a circle under a tree, my heart swells at their beauty; they're dressed in traditional clothing and seem to be holding a traditional space. Their crafts — beaded bracelets and long, intricate necklaces — are gorgeous and very fine work. I buy some from them. If it’s tourism that keeps the craft knowledge alive, I want to help.
We head back in the van to Nairobi, but since it rained, the dirt roads are horrible. A few spots are deep mud so the local Maasai have created side lanes to bypass them, which they charge extortionate amounts for. We get stuck three times on the way, even so. Sean, the driver, the Maasai men, and I push, getting splattered with mud, while the Danish girls and the Maasai women watch soberly. Finally we're out of the mud and on the road. It takes all day and I finally take an Uber to a hostel outside downtown Nairobi. It’s one of the most disgusting places I have ever stayed: a filthy bathroom, moldy couches, a flimsy bed in a cardboard shack.
One of the employees there, a petite, beautiful young woman named Esther, is the saving grace of the place. She kindly offers to help me book a train ticket for the next morning, since it has to be done with their digital money. I invite her to come sit in my tiny room, which is basically a twin bed and enough room on the edge to slide by sideways. She says, “You know, in Africa, people are so poor, they just share whatever they have. They just sit on each others’ beds.” I take that in.
I Uber over to a hipster bar and concert space, hoping to see some live music, and get a burrito-shaped food thing. There’s no music as it’s movie night and they're showing a documentary about land rights in Ethiopia. A Saudi company has bought land in the Gambela region of Western Ethiopia for industrial agriculture, so has bulldozed a pristine forest and evicted the indigenous people. I end up getting drunk, I’m so depressed. The people there have so little, then their government sells off their ancient lands and sends the military to kill them when they protest. I can't bear it.