It was an old dream; a dream I’d given up on a long time ago.
Africa. The dream I’d had longer than any other; one that began long before I met the love of my life and remained long after he left my life; longer than I’ve known my children, who are all past their 3rd decade of life; longer than any of the friends in my life.
I guess you could say it started with John Wayne and Hatari. I was intrigued by the camaraderie depicted in the movie, but enthralled by the Kenya vistas... I was 15 years old and fell in love with an idea; with a place I’d never really seen, except on the movie screen. Over the years, the more I knew of Africa, the more the dream grew.
And yet, I gave it up. Why? Initially it was because it seemed completely elusive financially; I never imagined ever having the wherewithal to afford a trip to a place so distant. As time passed, the volatile nature of the world, especially the countries of the third world, the problems of developing countries and yes, the ravages of AIDS and other unimaginable diseases, seemed to be strong reasons to doubt the wisdom of a journey to Africa. Then there was the fear of flying in my earlier years. Somehow, when my marriage ended, I got over that fear. Go figure!
Somewhere along the way, I decided to substitute Alaska for Africa. At the time, it was the trip of a lifetime, 15 days on a small cruise ship by myself, a dream trip! It will always be a very special time in my life.
Several years later and in the midst of planning a second Alaska trip, a renewed hope for Africa came out of nowhere. My friend, Pam, who also had a yearning to see Africa, met a friend for lunch and our odyssey began.
Pam’s friend had recently returned from a trip to Kenya and was full of tales of wondrous sights, great hotels, exciting animal encounters and a constant sense of safety and comfort. Best of all, for our prospects, at least, the cost was amazingly affordable; far less than any of us would have expected.
With our dreams re-energized and after very little discussion, we were in planning mode! Once we started, we never looked back; never considered not going; never wavered in our pursuit of the dream. Even as we went off to Alaska, thoughts of Africa swirled in our minds.
During the 15 months we planned the trip, our group grew and then decreased. Some decided not to go out of concerns for safety; some for logistical reasons, but for a few of us, nothing was going to get in the way.
Anticipation was very much a part of the journey. Planning something for 15 months gives you lots of time to think, plan and build it up in your mind. Sometimes it seemed like those months would go on forever and it would never get here, but it was a special time to savor and look forward. That made it more golden when the time had passed and the trip was upon us. In the end, it was so much more than anything I could have imagined and will forever be the fulfilled realization of a dream!
FROM MY JOURNAL:
After a year and a half, it’s finally here! For so many years, I never believed it would happen; I’d never see Africa. Then, a year and a half ago, it seemed like it would be forever before we would leave and now we are on our way. It kind of snuck up on me, really. It is not without a little apprehension and there is a lot of disappointment. Since we started planning this adventure, we’ve had some opt out and some decide to come along, but from the beginning it was always Bill, Pam, and I. And now, as we leave, Bill is not with us. Because of business concerns, he had to make a difficult, last minute decision to remain at home. This was sad for all of us, but especially for Pam, it was a huge disappointment. As we got close to our departure date another problem arose; one we were anticipating and hoping would resolve itself before we left. Due to a terrorist attack in London that involved airport security, there was also some doubt as to whether we would be able to carry our camera gear on the plane, due to severe airline restrictions. They were slightly relaxed before we left, which was a great relief, but we spent some time exploring our options for getting our gear there safely.
After a non-stop, 10 hour flight from Los Angeles, we arrived safely in London, a little worse for wear. Contrary to what I had expected, our Virgin Atlantic plane was not particularly comfortable, with terrible legroom. Interestingly enough, the person sitting next to me was a young man from Kenya, named Robert Massama. Now living in the United States, he was en route to Namibia to be a cameraman on a Wesley Snipes movie, a “spaghetti” western, being made there. He seemed a nice guy, but a bit quiet and shy. He had a wonderful, deep voice and I would like to have talked more to him about Kenya, but didn’t want to be intrusive. I’m not sure how much sleep I got; my legs were giving me a really bad time.
It was fascinating flying in over London. The Thames and Tower Bridge were easily recognizable, but not much else. Heathrow is huge! It takes forever to walk where you need to be. I can’t believe I’m in London; I never thought I would make it across “the pond.” I’m not sure I really have a true sense of it, though since we never left the airport. That will come when we get back, I expect.
After another long, 8 hour flight, we arrive at Jomo Kenyatta Airport about 6:30 a.m. The airport is not the ultra modern, hi tech place we are used to, a bit ragged, but very easy to process through. Everyone is so friendly. The drive to Somak (our travel agency) headquarters is very interesting. It is mind boggling how many people, perhaps hundreds, are walking along the highway. I see lots of industrial buildings, so I guess everyone walks to work. This is when I first know I have to let go of what I think of as normal and see this world on its own terms.
Nairobi is a constant study in contrast. A city of high rise buildings and street vendors; what would seem to be a high tech world beside abject poverty. There is the frenetic energy of a high-tech culture alongside appalling conditions of poverty and the remains of old cultures. Of course, those two things exist in our large cities as well, but not side by side in the same block and within the same peripheral vision. There is traffic congestion, as bad as L.A., but masses of people on the streets walking. One wonders, with so many walking, where does the snarling gridlock come from? As it happens, many are walking to nowhere in particular. It’s as if the population of the city has exploded onto the streets. Unemployment is incredibly high, so many are on the streets because they have nowhere else to go and perhaps some are there in the hope that they will come upon that elusive bit of employment that may stave off the hunger and hopelessness for a bit. Amazingly, all are dressed as though they are on their way to work; an effort perhaps to be ready and maybe to maintain a kind of dignity. We see tall, modern buildings and dirt stretches in the same block.
As we travel through Nairobi, I know that that we are not seeing the worst; the unimaginable conditions of places like Kibera. That is not on the tour, although when I finally work up the nerve to ask about Kibera, I am told we passed right by it on our way to dinner at the Carnivore. The driver, Yussef, calls it a “shantytown” and yet I have to believe that the conditions are more severe, by far, than the shantytowns of our world. Of the many thousands that we see on the streets, I know that there are vastly greater numbers in places like Kibera, which by itself, apparently is home to a million people. Again, I remind myself that I cannot hold on to my idea of what “normal” is. What is normal here is so far from our reality that it strains the imagination. Poverty here is beyond comprehension. Knowing that any aid that might be available to this country, to its people, will never be available to Kibera and other places like it is heartbreaking. You see, Kibera doesn’t exist, not officially and therefore not in the reality of this world. It began as a place for displaced warriors and has over many years become a “squatter’s camp.” In all of our worlds, squatter has always been known to have negative connotations, so here too, it is a blight no one acknowledges. And yet, real people live there; children come out of Kibera to go to school; Nairobi businesses function with the help of those who leave their “shanties” by day to work in the city and then struggle to survive the incredibly dangerous nights of Kibera. Because education is of such high importance to these people, they come from the countryside and put up with these horrific conditions to have access to schools for their children. The belief is that education is the answer to improving their lives and their country’s future. But now, on our “vacation,” such things are not on the itinerary and we don’t see the likes of Kibera. Not yet.
What surprises and perhaps shocks me is that in a city of this size and in this day and age, is the realization that on the streets of Nairobi, among the unbelievable numbers of people, there are no white faces! None, not one. It’s a bit unnerving; not because of any fear, but because that sort of thing has always surprised me. I suppose it should not, but in a city of this size, to which you come by way of an international airport, how is it possible that on the surface it seems the only whites here are the tourists?
Driving in the city has the chaotic quality I can only compare to being in a Tijuana taxi. In addition to the disconcerting vision of seeing everyone driving on the reverse side, a vision that actually makes you feel someone is headed right at you sometimes, there is the absolute lack of hesitation on the part of all drivers. It’s kind of “survival of the fittest” rules. No one misses a chance to sneak in and no one gives an inch. Apparently the only right of way that pedestrians have is the right to get out of the way as quickly as possible. No one slows down for them and it appears that no one is going to stop regardless of where a pedestrian might be. The pedestrians seem to know their place in this pecking order and move pretty fast. I‘m surprised we haven’t seen someone get hit; I imagine if one of us tried to “walk” we’d fail miserably at the game of “dodge ball” that is walking in Nairobi.
It is clear that those who are fortunate enough to have work place a great value on it and take pride in doing their jobs well. Being tourists, we, of course, have contact primarily with those in the service sector, but they are not sublimated by it, but present themselves with dignity and grace. They are well spoken and friendly. I hope all of those who frequent the kinds of places we visited show the respect they are due. Unfortunately, I fear that is not the case.
NORFOLK HOTEL, Nairobi
We finally arrive at our first hotel. The Norfolk is a beautiful, gracious place that has retained its colonial charm, while being modernized to meet the demands of today’s travelers. The grounds are lovely and the rooms are a combination of old world elegance and modern convenience. I took immense pleasure in a hot soak in the huge tub in the beautiful bathroom. The grounds were irresistible to the photographer in me, while being incredibly serene. We are given some time to relax upon our arrival and although, I know we need to rest, I’m anxious to get going, to see Africa.
On our first day in Africa, we have an outing to the Giraffe Center, adjacent to Giraffe manor. Although we requested the manor, apparently you can only go there if you are a guest. At the center, we have some really up close and personal interaction with Rothschild Giraffe. I found out only recently that there are different species of giraffe and each has spots that are configured differently. In any case, they are fascinating and beautiful creatures and terribly sweet. The center has a platform which allows you to be at face level with the taller giraffes and they eat out of your hand. While I was standing there watching and taking pictures, I suddenly looked up and there was the manor across the clearing. What a great place! It looks like a very large, old, ivy covered English cottage. Some of the windows in the manor apparently open so that the giraffes can stick their heads in. These are the same giraffes that we saw, as the grounds are shared.
KAREN BLIXEN HOUSE
While on our outing to the Giraffe Center, we went by the farm house actually lived in by Karen Blixen, who wrote Out of Africa. I was not a huge fan of the story, but the visuals in the movie were extraordinary, so seeing the house was interesting. The exterior was actually used in the movie, but the interiors were too small. It’s not much of a house, not real big, but nice enough. The property no longer includes the extensive land it once did, but you can see the vista of the Ngong Hills which she wrote about in the opening lines of Out of Africa. At one time, the property extended to the foot of the hills. Standing there and seeing how far away they are, gives you a sense of how large the property once was. I try to imagine what it must have been like to live here when Karen did, but civilization and progress have encroached on what must once have been a place far from the city and neighbors were miles away instead of just across the road. It’s difficult to get a sense of this being a place far removed from the city and the hub of colonial life.
We had our first African dinner at the Carnivore in Nairobi. It was a nice enough place, but I can’t say that the food was all that impressive. Their forte is barbequed “whatever” game meat is available. I guess it varies, but the variety the night we were there wasn’t all that interesting and most was pretty tough. There was not as much in the way of exotic meats as we expected. The camel was not good, the crocodile okay, a bit like the texture of calamari. Probably the most interesting aspect, and one I didn’t know at the time, is that we were very close to Kibera when we were there. How ironic that we were eating a really overpriced dinner right down the street from where a million people live in horrific squalor and struggle to feed their children. It eludes me how the world can allow this!
As we drive north, on our second day, the buildings of the cities fall away, but we still see people constantly walking. The crowds become less, but it is clear that walking and bicycles are the most common modes of transportation. Everywhere you go there are public services of some kind. It seems there is a desire to provide a better life for these people, but it has got to be a major battle to cover all of the needs. Another common sight is schools; schools of every kind, everywhere you look is clear that Kenya and its people place a high value on education. I’m sure the parents feel that is the hope of the future, something I think we’ve lost sight of in our own country. It’s obvious that a family will sacrifice everything for the education of a child. All students from kindergarten to college graduation have to wear uniforms and they have to buy their own. Otherwise, public schooling is free, so coming up with the money for the uniform is a must. Boarding schools are common, also, however. And there are “institutes” of everything! It was really something to see crowds of children walking to and from school all in the same outfits, with the colors different for every group we saw. And these are real uniforms: hats, blazers, the works! In their own way, everyone here dresses more formally than we do. Perhaps it’s their way of maintaining the dignity that poverty tries to steal from them. Nowhere was anyone dressed down, ever. The British influence is clearly everywhere.
There are still signs that show how great the differences are in our ways if life. Street side shops are everywhere and they are no more than huts. Some of these are selling cell phones and iPods; again the old and new worlds collide. We see dozens of people along the road carrying enormous bundles on their backs; some on bicycles. Our driver tells us that these are modes of delivering all manner of products: milk, wood, fruits, whatever the need. We see women carrying buckets and are told they still have to haul water from the nearby river. Running water has not found its way here and, frequently, that is true of electricity too. For those of us who are so spoiled by our ordinary conveniences that we clearly take for granted, it’s hard to imagine this life. I find myself wondering if these people know of movies and DVD’s. I can’t help but think that people who have wireless phones have a bit of a window to the world. I’m not sure that I can go home, though, and feel the same about my own world. How have we come so far and left so many behind?
Of the many people we see along the way, there seems to be lethargy in the adults; perhaps it is apathy. They watch, but they don’t smile or respond to smiles or wave as the children do. The children are open and friendly, perhaps because they haven’t yet realized the darkness of their poverty. Although this is their normal world, the only one they know, they don’t recognize that which the adults do: the contrast between their lives and what would appear to be well healed foreign tourists.
I have such a sense of guilt and wish so much I could do something more than I do, but I am also put off by the “pressure” sales of the “Equator Shops” and the other small vendors. We stop as we cross the equator and not surprisingly, it is a tourist trap, with vendors following us around, each attaching themselves to an individual and not letting up. I know they are desperately poor and need the money, but for someone who doesn’t like to shop at Nordstrom’s, because I like to be left alone, it is very disconcerting. I did not like Mexico for this reason and this was the only time I was reminded of the Mexico experience.
Impressions from my journal:
Poor, crowded, open street markets, old, amazing architecture, furniture sold on the streets,
People everywhere, busloads, vanloads, fearless about traffic,
As we go farther north, the city drops away, the crowds and traffic lessen
Lots of public services
Lots of education
British influence is everywhere
Not what you expect
Lethargy, apathy, people sitting around doing nothing
If there are crowds like this that we see, how many must there be in places like Kibera?More to come in Continuing the Dream