Tourists, Finally

Giraffes, gazelles and lions — oh my! It’s been a busy few days for us, as we finally had time to tour around a little bit.

(Photo note: Leo left his DSLR at home on purpose. Instead we brought our small point-and-shoot. But we forgot to bring the cord to transfer those photos to our computers so you’ll have to wait to see them. The photos you see here are those I found online to help illustrate. )

Urban Views — Friday
For me, the fun started Friday, when I quit work a bit after noon to go meet a friend of mine from college. Daudi (aka Dave) and I worked together on the college newspaper and he now lives in Tanzania, the country just south of Kenya. He travels a lot for his work, a nonprofit company based in the U.S. that helps feed children in Africa and teaches women about business. He was coming to Nairobi for the day, so I met him at Java, a local coffeehouse chain.

Java is like Starbucks: it’s packed, comfortable and approachable. Two main differences: you have a server and there is no row of hipsters with Macs and iPads. I arrived early, and was asked several times if I could share my booth because seats were hard to find. Dave and I caught up on our life stories over some sandwiches, coffee and tea. We then wandered around the city center quite a bit, stopping first at a market, where the sellers aggressively encouraged me to examine their flip flops, jewelry, cards, fruit, wood carvings and art. We then wandered some more so he could track down some grass seed for the yard around his office.

We wandered through parts of the city I had not yet visited, and it was nice to follow someone knowledgeable about the city, especially someone who speaks Swahili. To wander the streets here is to feel sensory overload: colorful signs in all shapes, sizes and materials hang overhead, throngs of people fill the sidewalk, the streets are choked with cars and buses, the smell of exhaust is everywhere and city noise blends in with the music blasting from stores. Walking alone is easier; you focus and weave your way through crowds. Walking with someone was more difficult.

Our hunt for grass seed took us into a few grocery stores, an honest slice of life in any country. They sell many of the same products, along with a mix of other junk you’d find at hardware stores or Target, but you walk through metal detectors to enter. I also found it interesting that in the second one we swam through a sea of exhaust from the row of buses idling outside. Few places have air conditioning here (no real need) and the front row of “windows” was really just a metal fence. I coughed and wondered why people put up with inhaling toxic fumes while trying to pick up toilet paper and crackers.

We took a break after 3 and returned to my hotel so Dave could take a work phone call meeting and I could check on work. We then headed back out, south from the hotel toward government buildings. The streets were packed with people, many selling things on sheets: candy, used books, shower caps, toys, whatever. When it began to rain the shower caps made a lot more sense. Black women cannot get their hair wet, and out came umbrellas and head wraps in all types of materials. We found siege in a tiny eatery, akin to fast food, with rows of stools lined up around skinny counters. The staff worked inside large metal cages, selling roasted chicken and chips (fries) wrapped up in paper. Some are open 24 hours, so the cages are a robbery prevention measure. He and I ordered ginger ale (warm or cold, they ask) and sat on a stool to chat and wait out the rain.

But soon it was growing dark, so we had to walk back to the hotel with some sprinkles. Leo returned from work and off we went in search of Ethiopian food for dinner. The rain began coming down in buckets as we left, and traffic is atrocious even during good weather, so it took awhile to get out to the restaurant. Plus, the driver looked for it, but had heard it was closed and we never did find it. Instead, we continued a little father to another place, one which he claimed had “the best Ethiopian food in Nairobi.”

Photo by brownpau.
Photo by brownpau

The food was indeed delicious, but neither Leo or I had ever tried Ethiopian so I can’t say it was the best. 🙂 The place was a converted house, with strange seating. We shared small room with another couple and we all ate on a couch or lounge chairs around a coffee table. Ethiopian is served on a large, round silver platter. The dish is covered with spongy bread, upon which sits small piles of meat, vegetables and hummus. More of the spongy bread is rolled and placed in a basket. You grab a roll, unfurl it, rip off a piece and use that to scoop up a pile of something. It all tasted great and cost roughly $22 for three people with beer and wine.

Giraffe Day — Saturday
“Out of Africa” book/movie fans may recognize the name Karen Blixen, though she wrote her most famous work under a pseudonym. Saturday Leo and I headed out to the Karen Blixen museum, her former home in the Ngong Hills.

The taxi company our hotel contracts with offers drivers who stay with you while you tour, so that you have a way to return. Essentially, you end up hiring a driver for the day. Or, they will come pick you up again after dinner if it’s nearby. Our driver, Peter, suggested we visit the baby elephant orphanage first, but we opted to save that for another day.

Instead, we drove out of the city and into the suburbs, Langata and Karen, the latter named for its former famous author. Suburbs here appear more like a rural setting, with large, fenced properties. The word “compounds” comes to mind. Most of the areas ex-pats live out there in these large houses, a far cry from one of Africa’s largest slums, visible on the Nairobi hillside as you return to town.

Peter deftly maneuvered the car around the many potholes, a jangling, jolting, jarring ride. Still, better to than riding in a matatu (ma-TA-too), a small van-like bus with four rows of people sitting with their knees around their faces and luggage in their laps.

The Karen Blixen property was once 4,500 acres. Today the house and grounds are much smaller. Through the haze, we could see the Ngong Hills, small mountains also known as “the knuckles” due to their appearance.

Karen Blixen Museum.
Photo by Christopher.Michel.

The setting was lovely, and in fact, a wedding was taking place while we toured. I was thrilled to glimpse the bride, who wore a long white, strapless wedding dress and a simple veil with beadwork. The Chivari chairs, flowers and reception tables under tents were easily recognizable to any American bride.

Our entry fee included a guided tour, during which we learned about Blixen, a Denmark native. Photos inside the house are forbidden due to movie copyright, so we settled for a few outside of the gardens. We picked up a carved hippo in the gift shop and watched a bit of the wedding before heading up the road to the Karen Blixen coffee house. The coffee house is a hotel, spa and upscale restaurant, and it includes a nice outdoor cafe, with tables set up on smooth grass with small tents and trees here and there for shade. We sat under blue skies and fluffy white clouds, sipping wine and beer and munching on Kachos (Kenyan nachos), lamb meatballs and French onion soup.

We climbed back into our taxi and headed to the Giraffe Center, where non-residents overpay to stand in a treehouse in which you stand to pet and/or feed giraffes. They are incredibly tall; Leo could nearly walk under them. We learned that there are different types of giraffes, identifiable by the different patterns of spots. And it turns out that it wasn’t just my imagination: they are sort of like cows. They have four stomachs and chew the same way.

Photo by Conservation Concepts.

Many of the giraffes stood and sat a few meters from the treehouse, calmly chewing. One seemed more cooperative, coming up to the treehouse so we could all feed it and touch its head. (Watch out for head butting!) We also got some great video of that one, as it stuck out and curled its long tongue to eat.

When we returned to the hotel that afternoon, we learned on the news there had been a shooting at the mall in Westlands, a nearby suburb. The U.S. embassy had sent us emails (I had signed up with them to log our travel plans) and encouraged us to remain away from the area and in secure places. We were feeling tired anyway, so we stayed in until dinner. We remained in the city center, cabbing a few blocks away to the Thorn Tree Cafe in the famous Stanley Hotel. Apparently, Queen Elizabeth and Earnest Hemingway are two of the famous people to have visited this hotel. The food was international; Leo had stir fry and I had tilapia.

To the Lions! — Sunday
Today we were up at 6 a.m. to grab our hotel’s buffet breakfast before catching our tour to the National Park. Leo’s colleague Martin, from Germany, met us here. The park is not far away, and a much easier destination on a Sunday due to light traffic. In fact, you can see the tall buildings of the city center from some parts of the park, which means you can get a cool photo of wildlife against that backdrop if you’re lucky. (We were not.)

The weather was cool and the skies were gray. The van has a pop-up top so that you can stand and look out all around you; a brilliant idea when it’s not chilly and you’ve forgotten your jacket. 🙂 Still, the park was amazing. Leo made jokes about Jurassic Park as we entered, and it’s actually not dissimilar. (Except the lack of dinosaurs.) It’s 117 square kilometers, mostly wide open grasslands with short bushes.

tour van
Tour van. Photo by khym54.

We eagerly watched around us, eyes scanning the distance for wildlife. Soon, we had our first catch: impalas. And soon after, we spotted more, mostly in the distance. But as our driver jostled along the muddy track, we caught sight of more animals and closer: zebras, bushbucks, kudus, elands, a buffalo, a jackal, ostriches, gazelles and some sort of large bird the size of a really big wild turkey.

Later, as we kept driving, it seemed the cool weather had chased the animals away. “Maybe the animals have hangovers,” Martin joked.

We then came upon a giraffe, taking a leisurely stroll on the road. It stared at us, then slowly wandered right past; we could have reached out and touched it. We later had the same experience again.

The landscape changed and became more rocky and hilly. At one point, we stopped at a picnic area and got out to wander for a moment. There, we found a bunch of baboons hanging out, perhaps hoping for a handout. We also spied some hyrax lounging on a rock just below us.

The track was more fitting for a Land Rover than our mini-van. At times we laughed, bouncing along so much I thought we were going to lose a few parts. As we passed approaching vehicles, both drivers would stop, to catch the park gossip, we guessed. We had been bouncing along for more than an hour and a half and starting to get tired when one of these stops proved fruitful: lions! Just ahead!

The driver stomped on the gas pedal and zoomed forward, clearly exceeding the 20 kph speed limit and sending us springing into the air from our seats. We careened along the track like this for a few minutes until, at last, up ahead, we spied a group of vans like ours.

He slowed and we arrived in time to see seven or eight female lions sitting just in front of us in the middle of the road. They seemed bored with our presence, aware of us, yet ignoring us the way cool people do. After a few minutes, they slowly began moving away, one moving a few feet and then sitting again. Another would do the same. Then another. They slowly leapfrogged this way until they were hidden in the tall grasses and out of our sight.

Almost as fascinating as the lions were the huddle of people around. The vans and cars contained Asians, some wearing those germ face masks, groups Europeans/Americans, and a car full of men wearing white turbans.

zebras. Photo by Jorge Lascar.

After the lions, the tour continued for another hour. But that was the high point. Alas, we never saw a cheetah or leopard. Instead, we only saw more of the same animals, and they became fewer as we continued climbing throughout the park. At that point we had begun to get very chilly, sore from the jangling and squirming with full bladders. (Or maybe that was just me.) It was a relief to return to the main gate, close the pop-up top and return to the hotel.

From there, Leo and I grabbed lunch and and thawed out with hot drinks at Java House and then wandered about the city for a bit. Now, we’re relaxing in the hotel, keeping an eye on the Westgate mall situation, writing postcards (and this novel!). We’ll make plans for dinner soon.

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