We Didn’t Get Robbed in Nairobi

30 11 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 9.15.08- 9.21.08

At some point Nairobi, Kenya earned the nickname of Nai-robbery. We personally talked to two different sets of travelers who had been robbed during their stay in the capital city. Needless to say, we were worried when we arrived. We had pre-arranged a safari to Masai Mara National Park, so our tour company picked us up from the airport and dropped us off at our hostel. (We would recommend our tour company and guide, Tom. To contact then email Edwina at Info@africatravelwaves.com)

dscn4278We left early the next morning for a five hour drive to the Masai Mara. Each year the wildebeests migrate between Serengetti National Park in northern Tanzania and the Masai Mara in southern Kenya. While the Masai Mara is not as beautiful as the Ngorongoro Crater where we had our first safari, the rolling green hills dotted with thousands of wildebeests and hundreds of zebra is an amazing sight.

A tribe of Africans known as the Masai lives near the park where they shepherd goats and cows. The tribe members are easily distinguished by their stretched ear lobes and their bright red cloaks, which they wear as a warning to predatory animals. While they are not technically allowed to herd their cattle within the park, the park officials look the other way when water is scarce.

I guess one of their cows wandered off and died or was killed in the park. A few minutes after we passed the park gate, we saw a group of vultures fighting over the fresh carcass of a cow. Those vultures, who were not strong enough to fight their way to the meat, sat with their wings outstretched to warm themselves in the sun, others flew overhead in the circling flight pattern that always indicates death. I can now say that I’ve seen a vulture pecking out an animal’s eyes, and it’s not a pretty sight.

dscn4425When the wildebeests migrate, the lions generally follow. A few minutes after we left the cow carcass, we saw a lion and a lioness. Our guide, Tom, explained that they were on their “honeymoon,” a seven day period when they leave the pride to mate…an average of once every 15 minutes. Sure enough, fifteen minutes after we started watching them, the pair started to mate. I realized that in our first two stops in the Masai Mara we witnessed the beginning of life and the end of death. We ended up seeing a good bit of both during our two day safari.

copy-of-rscn43561We found a lioness guarding a half eaten zebra. She sat panting in the dry heat. Tom explained that the lion would normally drag the kill into the shade to give her relief from the sun and to deter other predators from attacking. However, we were in a wide expanse of flat grassland and there were no trees within dragging distance, so the lioness sat suffering in the heat while flies buzzed around her blood spattered head. A few minutes after our jeep arrived, the lioness walked over and plopped herself down in the shade of our jeep. Tom quickly rolled up his window as she approached. Chris and I peered out the pop-up roof of the jeep and looked at the lioness who was sitting only a few feet below us. She barely glanced at us. “Anyone need a bathroom break?” our guide joked. dscn4345We sat for a few minutes getting some close up shots of the lioness and her kill before our guide turned on the engine. We wanted to stay longer, but Tom

 told us that the lions sometimes crawl under the jeep. They don’t move when you turn the engine on, so you are stuck until they decide to leave.

We passed a zebra sitting on its own, no herd in sight. We watched it attempt to limp away as our jeep drove closer. “Lion food” our guide commented as we drove past. “That zebra won’t make it through the night.”

When you are on a safari, you are sometimes driving across the savannah and you look to the horizon to see grassland, clusters of trees, and the occassional giraffe neck moving across the plains. Other times, you will see a cluster of jeeps in the distance. Some of the companies have two way radios, so they are able to obtain up to date animal locations from other guides. Most guides just look for groups of jeeps.  Another car spotted a cheetah with a wildebeest kill. The scene quickly turned into an 18 jeep traffic jam. One inconsiderate guide drove too close to the animal which hissed and backed into the tall grass.


After spotting a few more pairs of lions, a herd of elephants, and a family of warthogs with six little baby warthogs, we headed back to Nairobi.

Walking around the city during the day, we were very careful. We left most of our money in the hostel each time we went out. At night we only took taxis, even if we were going a half mile down the road. From our point of view, the city seems to taken steps to curve its negative image. Armed guards stood on many corners of the city and happily helped us find safe taxi companies. A guard outside the Ethiopian restaurant near our hostel escorted us back to the hostel one night after dinner.

dscn4464As we explored Nairobi, we realized how much it had to offer. We visited a Baby Elephant Orphanage where we got to pet three-month-old elephants.  We watched the one-year-old elephants get fed with a bottle and then play in a mud hole. I tried to listen to the elephant keeper as he explained the process of reintroducing them into the wild, but it was so hilarious watching 12 baby elephants splash in a mudhole, that I didn’t learn much more than baby elephants are incredibly funny and playful.


Nearby the Elephant Orphanage, we visited the Giraffe Sanctuary, where climbed a gazebo so we were eye level with the giraffes and fed them pellets. You hold the pellets in your hand and the giraffe reaches it’s long purple tongue to eat them. While the elephants form attachments to their keepers, the giraffes will only let you touch them if you have food in your hands. Chris got a little too close to one as he was taking a picture. He watched through his camera lens as the giraffe almost head butted him. Don’t worry, the camera is fine.


Apparently it was a Field Trip Friday at the giraffe center because a group of a hundred school children in uniforms were lined up waiting to feed the giraffes. The giraffe keeper was having a hard time handing out food pellets and warning the children to keep their fingers together and away from the giraffe’s mouth. I immediately went into teacher mode, grabbed a pail of pellets, and started putting them in the outstretched hands of the school children. I was impressed that each child thanked me (in English) as I made my way down the line.

Nairobi also has an animal orphanage attached to the city’s national park. Unlike the elephant orpanage and giraffe sanctuary programs, the animals here are not able to survive on their own and will never be released into the wild. Most of the animals are found by park rangers in the national parks. They are monitored for a few days to make sure they are actually abandoned before they are sent to the animal orphanage. We arrived at feeding time and watched as chunks of meet were thrown over the sides of the cage. I stood in sickened amazement as the hyena crunched through the bones of it’s dinner. I quickly walked back to watch the warthogs and crowned cranes.


So, this is Africa and money creates and bends rules. We had heard from other travellers that you could bribe the zoo keepers at the animal orphanage to allow you to pet the animals. We slipped one of the zoo keepers a few dollars and found ourselves in a backroom with two baby cheetahs. The cubs were only two months old and were so cute. They clung to our shirts with their tiny claws and made chirping noises. Even Chris, who doesn’t normally use the word “cute” to describe anything small, agreed that they were cute. We were only allowed to hold them for a few minutes, but holding the spotted ball of fuzz was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. While many travellers still cringe when talking about Nairobi, we found it to be one of our favorite African cities.




The Island of Lamu

24 11 2008

Posted by: Laura

Travel dates: 9.10.08-9.14.08

Women in black burqas float along the narrow alleyways in clusters. I can’t help but to glance at them and they can’t help but look back at me. I can see their eyes follow me. You don’t have a lot of peripheral vision in a burqa, so their heads turn as I pass.

I am on the island of Lamu, a devoutly Muslim community off the coast of Kenya. The alleyways only allow pedestrian traffic, so donkeys provide the main form of transportation. They carry people and goods: bags of corn, grain, firewood, and building supplies from one side of town to the other. They look better fed than most domesticated animals I have seen in Africa. However, they litter the stone streets with their droppings. As you walk through town, you have to keep one eye on the ground to dodge the donkey landmines.

It is the month of Ramadan. During this time, Muslims fast from sun up to sun down in order to practice patience, humility, and sacrifice. For tourists, that means that only two restuaruants in the whole town serve food during the day (and one is closed on Sundays). But we didn’t come to Lamu for the cuisine, we came to see the culture.

As we walk down the main street of town, I sneak furtive glances through the arched doorways of the mosques, which I am not allowed to enter. Since Muslims pray on mats and not from pews, the men roll their mats out and nap in the afternoon heat as they wait for sundown. If you walk through the main plaza in front of the Old Fort, men and young boys gather around tables and play a local game that looks similar to backgammon.

As sundown approaches, the fasters wait patiently. They hold food wrapped in aluminum foil. As soon as the megaphones cry from the minarets scattered throughout the town, they break their fast. The shops close for thirty minutes or so as the shop keepers join the rest of the town in the streets. People roll out straw mats and share food. We buy fried balls of dough, potatoes, and samosas from the food stalls and eat in the streets with the rest of the town.

As I watch the festivities, I notice that only the men are participating. A few women sell food in the main square, but very few women are in the streets. I generally see groups of women shopping at night, when I am walking back to the hotel after checking email. Each time we pass a group of burqa clad women, I stop to wonder. The thin layer of cloth covering their faces can either be a personal decision or a prison.

When I visit predominantly Muslim communities, I wear long skirts and long sleeved shirts, even if it’s a million degrees outside. As a woman traveler, I have a different experience when I walk around town with Chris than I do when I walk alone. I have never felt threatened, but when Chris is not with me, I notice that mens’ gazes linger. They approach me more often to ask if I need to charter a boat, a city tour, bus tickets, or any other number of things a traveler could possibly need. They simply start conversations. As soon as I mention that I’m in a relationship, they stop talking to me as abruptly as they started. When I walk around town with Chris, it is like I don’t exist. Any business transactions are directed at him, even if I’m buying the  item. I have to admit, I have taken advantage of the situation. When touts try to sell me a tour or take us to a hotel, I simply point to Chris and say he handles all the financial decisions. I walk happily down the street, while Chris is swarmed with people trying to earn commission off us.

Some women choose to cover their faces and hair because of the freedom they feel. After travelling through Africa, I understand the freedom on annonimity. While I struggle to understand the burqa tradition, I am not naieve enough to think that my culture is any better. Western women spend hours obsessing over their bodies, scrutinizing their flaws, and wondering how other people are judging them.  As a teacher I become saddened and frustrated as I watch my students grow from fifth grade to twelfth grade. Their shorts get shorter and their necklines reveal more.  Parents often support uniforms because they say it brings a level of equality. Many Muslim women support burqas for this same reason.

Travel often creates more questions than it answers. I can’t ask these women why they wear a veil. They seem unapproachable to me. When I see them looking, I smile, but I have no idea if they smile back. They float through their lives as I wander through mine, but throughout the day we all dodge the same donkey shit.