Nairobi is unlike any city I have ever traveled to.
We hired a driver recommended by the sister of a friend, because a) you don't take just any taxi in Nairobi, and b) you definitely don't go walking around on your own. At least not many of the areas.
So after an early breakfast, we met Jimmy, and off we went. This morning's traffic was not too bad (it's a Saturday), and we enjoyed seeing the varied neighbourhoods and city streets. It was a mix of run down and modern – little makeshift shacks selling handfuls of bananas next to large piles of mud and debris right alongside brightly painted advertisements for modern consumer items. Old rundown shops with faded signs with a few Western establishments mixed in, like Subway or Pizza Hut.
Jimmy took us by the Canadian Embassy, and it made me smile to see the familiar Canadian flag waving amidst the tall trees in the African sky. Along the way we also passed other embassies – the US, Belgium, Czech Republic... and other beautiful, gated establishments. “This is the most expensive part of Nairobi,” Jimmy explained to us. No makeshift shacks here.
Our first stop was Karura forest. We paid the entrance fees and Jimmy told us he'd be back in two hours for us. The trails were quiet today – none of the birds or monkeys we had heard so much about. But oh, the butterflies! Every colour you could possibly imagine - “It's like we're in a butterfly conservatory,” remarked J, while I chased butterflies with my camera. My favourite was the most difficult to capture, as it rarely landed anywhere – bright, beautiful green, fluttering everywhere but in front of my lens.
It was hot, but not humid. The trees were tall and gave us enough shade so that it wasn't uncomfortable. We walked along the dusty paths, amused with ourselves for hiking in an African forest on our first day. But we wouldn't be us, otherwise.
|Even African forests have geocaches!|
We eventually made it to the promised waterfall, and enjoyed the coolness of the riverside as we kept walking along to the caves. Little bats hung from the ceiling, trying to sleep, while young African schoolchildren shone lights at them to try and get them to react. One yawned, ruffled it's wings a little, and went quickly back to sleep.
It was a rewarding way to spend two hours, and a unique way to experience a different side of Nairobi.
|Bats in the caves in Karura forest|
Jimmy was waiting faithfully for us in the parking lot when we got back out of the forest, and our next stop was Nairobi National Museum. We had to check our backpacks at the security desk when we arrived. After buying our tickets, we were assigned a guide who took us through some of the most interesting parts of the museum and gave us some wonderful explanations of everything we were seeing.
I had mostly gone for the ancient skeletons of early human ancestors. When I was in high school, I did an extensive end-of-year project on one of the most famous ones (“Lucy” - australopithecus afarensis, as well as the Laetoli footprints (ancient footprints of early human ancestors preserved in volcanic ash). Back then, the Kenya I was studying was an impossibly far away, almost mythical land, where such discoveries took place by passionate archeologists under the hot African sun – in other words, somewhere I would never go myself.
The bones of “Turkana Boy” were also there, as well as several other skulls from different periods of pre-human evolution.
|Lucy and the Laetoli footprints|
It was quite powerful, seeing those skeleton fragments in person. Even though they were replicas (the originals have been deeply stored away for safe keeping, due to certain religious sects demanding they be removed, and fear for the safety of the originals), it was still a fascinating look at our earliest ancestors, and a personal moment of coming full circle, for me. Back in those high school days where I was painstakingly drawing out each of Lucy's bones and colouring them in, I didn't dream of travel. I struggled with a lot of difficult things that made it hard to even see past the next day at times. I wish I could go back in time, and tell her things like, “Hey, those ancient footprints that fascinte you so much? You'll get to see them one day. In the country they come from. And so much more. Hang in there.”
Our guide took us to a few other parts of the museum as well and explained some of the history of Kenya, old customs, British colonialism, new politics. He was so excited to talk about everything he knew, and brimming over with knowledge. I highly recommend this museum. We rushed through it, so if you like museums and history, give yourself at least a good three hours, and let your guide take you on a rich tour of Kenya.
Jimmy was again waiting for us in the parking lot for our trip back to the hotel. By this time, traffic had picked up, so it was slower-going. It gave me a chance to really take in the sights and sounds of... well, being stuck in traffic in Nairobi. Unlike being stuck in traffic back home, there is never a dull moment. For starters, while there may tecnically be lines dividing the lanes, Kenyan drivers seem to take them as mere “suggestions” about where their vehicle should be, and we often found ourselves smack in between vehicles in both lanes, as he tried to get ahead of the traffic, one car at a time. Behaviour that would cause massive horn-honking back home was barely glanced at. Drivers are ruthless about not letting you cut in front, though, so you have to be ruthless back – which caused me to grip my bag tightly in fear on more than one occasion, as we were almost sardined in between two buses, narrowly missed driving into a motorcycle in the oncoming lane, bullied a bus onto the shoulder, and plenty of other near misses. (J, by the way, sat there cool as a cucumer, used to such driving madness from many other trips around the world).
|Boys riding their bikes in Karura forest|
And then, the street vendors! What a strange concept. As your car is stuck in traffic, people of all kinds weave in and among the cars (how they remain alive in the madness is anyone's guess), holding bunches of bananas at you, bottles of water, brightly coloured plastic table cloths, furniture... anything under the sun.
We obviously survived the drive, and I must say I was more than a little relieved to get out of that vehicle!
In the evening, we met up with our tour guide and group for the first time, and he gave us all the introductory details about our trip into the Serengeti. We then went out for dinner at the famous Carnivore restaurant - with a hired driver, of course. There is so much security in Nairobi – our hotel, the restaurant, the museum, all had gates which you could not enter until you were examined by security. This mostly included the driver simply signing in and/or showing some sort of ID; a peer into the car to see the passengers... and a mirror on a long pole checking under the car for hidden weapons. You know. The usual.
The Carnivore was interesting. It is essentially a prix-fixe meal of meat. They come around to your table and saw off pieces of meat that has been cooked on skewers. Chicken, ribs, beef, wings, pork, ox balls, crocodile... actually, the last two weren't that bad. The crocodile? - tasted like chicken. I'm serious! I always thought that was a joke. I'd eat it again. The ox ball was all right – reminded me vaguely of the chicken hearts, gizzards, and other little organs my mother used to feed us all the time as kids.
So that was Nairobi. We leave at 7am tomorrow on our tour of southern Kenya/Serengeti, and won't have wifi until we get back to Nairobi in about a week. I will, however, be writing my blogs every day while there, and posting them when I return.
Thanks for the taste, Nairobi. Maybe one day, we'll be back.
|By the waterfall|
|My best attempt at the green butterfly|
|Green butterfly finally agreed to pose, but only with wings closed|