As we hovered over Nairobi waiting for a clear signal to land our Qatar Airways flight, I was amazed how splendid and green the land below us was. Africa… It’s a continent one would associate with droughts, famine and deprivation; yet rolls upon rolls of luscious green fields spread out in their abundance all around us; worthy of its nickname as ‘The Green City in the Sun’.
I must admit, when I booked our 6 day tour around Kenya, I was a little tentative about staying in Nairobi for one night. Trawling through Tripadvisor and numerous travel blogs, one thing seemed clear – ‘DO NOT VENTURE OUT AFTER 6PM’. It sounded like something out of ‘Gremlins’… Must not feed after midnight, must not get wet… I hate to think what might happen after 6PM.
At a very tired looking airport building, we dutifully filled in our arrival forms and then proceeded to wait patiently for 45 minutes at Passport Control where we paid $50 for a visa.
‘Put your thumb on the scanner’ a stern looking local woman barked at me.
This was disconcerting… Through no choice of my own, my fingerprints would be on the system to god knows what – corruption? I had vaguely read somewhere that this was a dirty, corrupt city where bribery was rife. It was an alien concept to me having lived my life so far in relative passiveness – thank goodness. ‘Best behave myself’ I made a mental note to myself.
Looking for our luggage was challenging…
‘Arabia! Arabia!’ a mad, cheery man yelled at us from fifteen metres away ‘Come, come, come!’
We walked towards him, his hands motioning excitedly to a solitary bag circling around the conveyor belt. We looked up at the LCD display… ‘Abu Dhabi’… Hmmm… it was Arabia alright but not the right Arabia. We traipsed back off in to the other direction with the screeching man crying out ‘Arabia, Arabia’ again. No joy. Spotting a familiar face from the flight, we walked back towards the madman again who now looked at us with disdain. Bingo! Our bags were lying In a discarded pile among other identical black suitcases.
‘See! Arabia!’ he muttered to us shaking his head.
Now to find our guide Martin Mungo from African Veteran Safaris… When I was organising our trip we had emailed each other regularly but I had no idea what he looked like. We walked through the automatic doors, in to the busy airport concourse, and searched for our names among the other placards.
‘Anna’ and ‘Jim’ one card flashed up. Was that me? I was now two people?
‘Marting Mungo?’ I asked hesitantly.
‘Ah! You must be Anna’ he cried cheerfully, ‘And you must be Jim!’ he said shaking my friend Anthea’s unquestionably female hand ‘Jambo! Jambo! Welcome to Kenya!’
‘Actually this is – ‘ I began to explain but Martin was now introducing us to our driver Richard, a small man who even at my pixie 5’2” I towered over.
‘So Karibou,’ Martin began, once we were seated in a white minivan and bags were slung on one of the five unoccupied seats. ‘Welcome. We will take you to your very nice hotel in Nairobi where you can relax and enjoy. And then tomorrow Richard will pick you up at 8AM where you will head to Lake Naivasha.’
I felt like the discarded girlfriend at hearing Martin would not be joining us for the tour. We had emailed each other regularly and as two girls travelling alone in Africa, it was important to feel like we were in safe hands. On the other hand, Richard seemed to have a bit of promise in him as reggae suddenly boomed out of the speakers. Anyway, having had very little sleep on the journey, I was looking forward to ‘relaxing and enjoying’ at our apparently ‘very nice hotel’.
It was a bit of a contradiction – or a very poor description. The Comfort Hotel in Nairobi was BASIC. We checked in over a sticky counter where two women eyed us suspiciously. ‘Fourth floor – you can take the lift!’ one of the ladies grunted to us and threw the keys and breakfast tokens in our direction. The porter made up for the lack of friendliness though. He lurked in our 8 foot by 8 foot room showing us in detail the obvious – two single beds with mosquito nets, a table, a lamp, a rickety old wardrobe, and the sorry excuse for a bathroom…
Once we informed him we had not exchanged our US dollars for Kenyan shillings yet, he left our room penniless and disappointed. We quickly bolted the door. There were three locks in total… and worryingly a catch where you could padlock yourself in. If the 3 locks on the door were to keep us locked in, I wondered what would be on the other side of the door.
It was 3.30PM now. We were good for another 2.5 hours until the foreboding 6PM. We strapped our back packs to our fronts, put our passports and money deep inside a compartment, and sprayed ourselves with so much DEET, the room was no longer habitable.
I was quickly aware that there were no other tourists around, but despite sticking out like a sore thumb, the locals left us alone, scurrying past us in their business suits in a hurry to get to wherever.
It was a wonder to look up at the architecture as we strolled around. Many of the buildings were built-in the 1930’s… Original crittal windows were still in tact, a reminder that this was once a British colony until 1963, when Kenya finally became an independent state. They were run down now though, cloaked behind precariously looking scaffolding and green netting. In among the dilapidation rose a modern apartment building of steel and glass; a sign of Kenya’s new wealth.
Despite our stomach’s calling for food, we ventured in to a small alley where open stalls tempted tourists with African curios… wood carved masks, intricately carved stone animals and colourful batiks…
‘Come my friends!’ hollered a man who was now steering us towards the direction of the first stall.
At the first sign of tourists, other vendors raced towards us, arms laden with identical mementos… more of the same ghostly looking masks, limestone carved animals and colourful, bohemian stone necklaces. I was tempted to buy a sculpted wooden mask but on seeing my interest, an older, toothless gentleman picked it up, put it over his face and started wagging his tongue through a small opening that represented the mouth. There were eight or so men surrounding us now and the fun was fast beginning to fade. We marched away from the disappointed faces and back on to the safety of the main road.
With the 6pm curfew looming ahead, we gratefully fell in to The Thorn Tree café – a pavement style bistro, part of the 5-star Sarova Stanley Hotel. It boasts of high profile guests like Ernest Hemingway but today the bistro was full of tourists and a healthy number of well-to-do locals. I gathered that its name – ‘Thorn Tree’, was given because of the one solitary tree, covered entirely in yellow post stick notes from tourists all over the world.
Ready to sample some local dishes, we ordered the recommended dish ‘Ugali’ with beef stew, and a couple of bottles of ‘Tusker’, the local beer. The Ugali when it swiftly arrived looked like solidified porridge, a ground up mixture of maize and water. It was pretty tasteless but it tasted good with the stew and the rewarded beer.
‘This is my sort of place’ I thought peering through the glass roof that covered part of the courtyard and up at the tower where I imagined inviting, spacious hotel rooms with fluffy white towels and bottled shampoos.
Our 6PM curfew approached quickly… A band were setting up in one corner of the courtyard, tempting us to stay for one more Tusker beer, but night was beginning to descend. Under the fading light we quickly made our way back to our hotel where the only source of entertainment was a Man United game screening in the only bar. Men, both tourists and locals, sat around the screen, Tusker beer in hand, serious expressions on their faces.
At 80p a bottle, our empty Tusker bottles were growing – and so were our party spirits. Perhaps it was foolish but feeling the desire to sample a bit of Nairobi night life, we decided to head back to the ‘Thorn Tree’ again where we hoped the band would be in full swing now. It was only 7.30pm – too early to go to bed… Throwing caution to the wind, we stuffed our belongings in to one rucksack, strapped it to the front of my belly and wrapped my black cardigan around myself. There, people would just assume I was fat – not a handbag in sight.
We searched for a tuk tuk outside our hotel but no such luck. Not a single taxi either. The Sarova was only two blocks down from our hotel… There was still the bustle of office workers striding off in the direction of home so chancing it, we decided to walk the ten minutes, staying under lit street lamps, wits about us.
We didn’t make it to the Sarova though… At the next intersection, we discovered a lively little quarter at the foot of the tall Ecobank building. The smell of barbecue meat beckoned us to enter inside a row of white marquees. ‘No harm in looking’ I thought and stepped under the canopy. Live music lured us past the glowing orange barbecue coals; kebabs and sausages sizzled and hissed at us as we past… and then we were in the throngs of a wild party.
Men and women dressed to the nines gathered around the bar and stage where a group of random men, performed to rich African sounds… reggae… music from the Congo… Now and again when a popular tune came on, people got up from their chairs and started dancing. One woman even strode up to the stage and absent of any self-consciousness, danced in what I can only describe as a frenetic frenzy to a cheering crowd. There were none of the judgmental glances you would find in a London bar. Everyone was at ease here, intent on letting their hair down after a hard week.
We stuck out of the crowd of course, but the locals pulled us on to our feet, welcoming us in to their pulsating party. Our waiter-cum-bodyguard who had served us all evening, checked in on us every fifteen minutes to ensure we were fine.
I wasn’t fine having used the facilities however. I had my fair share of hole in the ground toilets when I lived in Hong Kong for a year. Some of them are even kind enough to give you a foot imprint in case you need some guidance on how and where to crouch and aim. These were imprint-less though and as a result the floor was now one big pool of wee. Not advisable to wear flip-flops or open toe shoes as we quickly discovered.
It was 11pm now, way past our curfew and we weren’t going to risk the walk this time. Our waiter aka bodyguard led us through the busy crowd and back on to the roadside, leaving us to fend for ourselves once more. A lady from behind one of the barbecue grilles put down her tongs and came to our aid.
‘Do you need a taxi?’ she asked kindly.
‘Let me find you one. I know a nice man who can take you. It’s not safe for a woman to walk alone around here. This is Nairobi!’ she laughed.
All in all, I had heard a lot of negativity about Nairobi… We have our last night and day to spend here again and admittedly the prospect isn’t enticing… But there was one thing that warmed me to this place…the people. Whatever corruption the people of Nairobi had endured, it had certainly not marred their good spirits. To the people of Nairobi… Asante San!