It is possible that no one has ever landed in Kenya as completely ignorant as I. I had a reservation for one night in Nairobi, a vague idea of what a taxi should cost to get to the hotel, and a plane ticket to Mombasa the next day. I met my original Travel Companion (you may have read about TC here) for the Mombasa flight; once we landed, I threw myself at the mercy of a local. And I loved it.
Here are the right reasons to love Kenya:
The water – even from the faucet – is salty and reminds you of earth. The earth is red and rich and reminds you of life blood. The ocean is vital and as vibrant as the birds, which are colorful and loud.
Everyone greets you with, “jambo,” and though it feels touristy, you say it back. They greet one another with “mambo,” a handshake and words to catch up. Rules are made on the spot. Once, they were written, by someone, somewhere, who has no bearing on the situation you may be in, and so there is improvisation. You are patient. You move slowly. You work it out. You finish with ‘sawa, sawa,’ and then you move on. It is the interaction that is the rule, not the rule itself.
The air is hot and carries the smell of burning rubbish. But it is moist, and turns the plants green, keeps the clothes you wash by hand damp on the line. The chickens peck the yard; don’t forget to close the kitchen door when you go out to do the laundry, or you will find the counters covered in hens when you return.
In Tsavo, there has been rain: good for the land, bad for the animal spotting. The cheetah can slink through the golden grasses almost unseen. Dik dik, impala, buffalo move slowly against green brush, under trees. Superb starlings and lilac-breasted rollers flit above them, racing from power line to tree branch and back again. Giraffe necks rise above the horizon. Elephants cover themselves in red dirt to protect their skin from the sun and stand out in the open. Hippos slide low in the water, hiding all but their eyes. The zebra….the zebra have no hope of camouflage.
In the pickup truck, it is hot with the windows up and dusty with them down. But it is quiet, except for the toto, Evelyn, who entertains herself by playing angry birds and finding Waldo in the back seat. She has made Travel Companion her personal mascot, and goes nowhere without her. You are merely a divining rod for TC’s location in her eyes.
In the evening, looking out over the watering hole, there are cokes and conversation, maybe a beer. You are hoping for a lion. You do not need a shirt that announces you saw ‘the Big Five;’ you will take in everything available and cherish it. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t like to see them.
When night falls, when most have gone to sleep and you sit by the fire and talk to the night guard about the lion who comes into camp after the day is finished, the air pulling in moisture before a hot day rises again, you make him promise to wake you, no matter what time, if the beast comes back. And when he comes for you, you will be thrilled with terror, wrapped in a kikoi on the porch of your tent, listening to the chortle of the beast’s breath pacing the outskirts of the tent line. The king sounds like a stallion heaving off a heated race, but all he does is seek, and leave. You never see him, but you feel the sound of his breath imprinted in your memory.
After, south down the coast, the air still and heavy until the afternoon moves the water hurridly toward the shore, your mind swimming with the bodies and colors of Tsavo, the whydahs and kingfishers and weavers and bee-eaters and hornbills, your body goes swimming down with the fish.
Between dives, you float on the dhow or watch dolphins swim. These are the right reasons to love Kenya.
Here are the wrong ones:
- The twelve days I spent in and around Mombasa were the longest I’ve gone without getting on a plane since I left the states on October 16th. Instead, our fantastic hosts delivered us from one amazing experience to another, with the help of friends and family. For twelve days, I knew no strangers; only new friends. I was allowed to yield all logistical decision making to someone who knew what he was doing. My mind has not known such rest in quite some time.
- Kenya was a land for firsts. My first scuba dive – a momentous event as I have found the idea of trying to breathe underwater so disturbing I long ago negated the possibility of such activity ever occurring with me involved. But in Kenya, I looked up to see the sun break through the surface of salt water. Kenya was also the home of my first left-side-of-the-road, right-side-of-the-car (left-handed stick-shift) driving adventure.
Despite the trip involving a disturbing number of wrong-direction rotaries (excuse me – roundabouts), TC and I successfully survived to tell the tale (and post a video).
- We all know the Dutch just jumbled German, French, and English and called it something new. As its own language, it’s a jumbled mess, but a native Dutch speaker communicating in something other than Dutch makes a sount of equal and opposite beauty. An accented, calm, “sawa, sawa,” or little Evelyn’s sing-song as she calls your name to ask, ”where is TC’”– is something with which my ears fell instantly in love. (The jury is still out on the word “lekker,” which is along the lines of, “tasty,” but sounds like something bad is about to occur.)
- Swahili. I went to throw something out one day and found that the word for trash is “Taka taka”How can you not love that? Or “toto” for the little ones? So foreign to my ears, but such a smooth sound, even rapid fire, with consonants.
These are the wrong reasons to love a place, because these are reasons this place was easy. Kenya isn’t easy. It is full of struggle – for water, for livelihood, for a very small piece of the pie. It is a place of matatus with names like “Love Bomb,” “Delta Force,” and “Dreamz of Money,” driving between you, at you, around you while riders hop on and off. It is a place where Friday mornings are reserved for riots, and Europeans still fly straight in to four star resorts where first the shower doesn’t drain, then the door doesn’t lock, then the toilet doesn’t flush, for a week away from winter. And still, they never leave the compound. Kenya is a place where boys stand in traffic to sell you oranges, and if you are stuck too long, they may just steal your luggage from the trunk. It is a place of wonder, of amazement and awe, and of hard work, brutality and beauty. I loved Kenya for mostly the wrong reasons, but I will return for the right ones.
For more pictures of my trip to Kenya, click HERE