Entry #012: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 (Mombasa, Kenya)

So, you may have been unable to tell, considering my last blog post was strictly about Italy, but I've actually been in Kenya for a bit now. And so far, Kenya has been...welllllll...based on my experiences thus far, I would say if you plan to visit Kenya, you should do so as a super-rich tourist. Or at the very least, have your plans set from the moment you get there to when you depart. I've tried going as a traveler (as that's been my platonic motto: "I'm a traveler, not a tourist", though who knows how true that will hold out) with the intention of winging it, and it hasn't quite worked out thus far. Let's take a look.

Let's start on a high note, though. The flight (or rather, flights) from Rome to Nairobi was, no joke, one of the best I've ever been on. I booked with Qatar Airways because it was the cheapest option on a list of potential flights, not really expecting anything. I knew nothing about that airline. Hell, I barely know anything about Qatar (and I'm pretty sure you don't either). But there were two legs to this flight - one going from Rome to Doha, Qatar; and the second from Doha to Nairobi. Both of these lasted five hours, and I was pretty sure I'd be spending the time trying to sleep uncomfortably. But man, that first leg was amazing. There were so few passengers that every single person got their own row. The well-dressed staff passed out little Jolly Rancher-style candies before takeoff. After takeoff, we got a little bag with socks, earplugs, an eye mask, and a toothbrush. Every seat had a full entertainment system, with free movies, including a number I've been meaning to watch. The dinner was legitimately good, and included a salad worth eating (a first for airline food). Really, on that first flight, the only thing to go wrong was the fact that my entertainment panel froze in the middle of watching The Hobbit. No worries, there were two more! The second leg of the flight was good, but not quite as extraordinary as the first. There was shared entertainment panels with only one movie option (luckily, it was Life of Pi, which was another of the films I had meant to see. And the breakfast, while also fairly good, included some sort of what I can only describe as a reddish vegetable matter brick alongside my eggs. It wasn't bad, it was just...odd. Regardless, after the movie, I managed to nap for the rest of the flight, and all was well. I know it's weird to spend a full paragraph talking about an airline (even for me), but I seriously mean it when I say I think this is one of the best I've experienced. So, if you have the option to fly Qatar Airways for something, do so. I wouldn't recommend going to Qatar for a vacation, though; based on what I saw on WikiTravel, it seems pretty dull.

(Tangential paragraph for my reviews on both The Hobbit and Life of Pi. For the former, I can appreciate how they wanted to stick closer to the books for this one, but despite [or perhaps because of] the extra dose of whimsy and silly humor, it seemed to lose a bit of the magic that Lord of the Rings had. Also, I don't think it needed to be three movies long; it does drag a bit. For the second movie, I do feel that the actual actions translated well from book to film, but I also feel that part of the point of that book was that you internalized everything, and reflected upon it yourself [at least, I did], which is more difficult to do with a movie. Either way, both movies, I'd say, are probably worth seeing.)

We arrived a tad late in Nairobi, and I head off the plane, ready to go. I walk to the immigration area, fill out two different forms that had pretty much the same content, and walked to one of the visa desks. The lady there checked to make sure everything was in order, and then asked for $50. "You can take card, right?" "No." I can say I honestly wasn't expecting that. I asked her where there was an ATM, because I sure as hell hadn't seen one. She told me to go back up to the terminal, take a right, and it'll be there. So, I trudge back up to the terminal area and take a right. I don't see an ATM yet, so I keep walking in that direction, through the shopping center that's in there, on and on. Finally, after about three or four minutes of walking, I see an ATM, and so quickly take out as much cash as I can (20,000 Kenyan Shillings, or about $235, give or take). Money in hand, I go back to the visa counter. "How much is the visa in shillings?" I asked. She raised an eyebrow and said, "We don't accept shillings." "You don't accept your own currency?" "No, just dollars, Euros, pounds, and francs." She pointed me back to the terminal area to go to an exchange office, where I got my $50, and then finally came, paid, and got a visa sticker put into my passport. (Fun note: this is actually the first actual visa I've gotten.)

Happy to be done with that annoyance, I continued on into the main area. A quick scan, and I saw a woman holding a sign that read "Andrew Schnorr". This was Hellene, my newest CouchSurfing host. She welcomed me (she didn't say "You are welcome", which was a relief), and when I asked how long she'd waited for, she said about an hour and a half. Whoops, I guess both the flight delay and my own shenanigans didn't help. In any case, she brought me out to a "taxi" area (quotes used because I think these were more like private cars that just drove people around, rather than real taxis, which she said were too expensive. We began driving, and before too long, the roads changed from gravel to dirt (or rather, due to the recent rains, mud). This wasn't a dirt road that leads into the great outdoors, we were going into - if you'll forgive the crude terminology - the slums. Trash littering the side of the road, bricks and stones everywhere, roadside shops that were little more than lean-to's, and some of the worst exhaust you've ever seen coming out of vehicles. And those muddy roads - Hellene said that rain just destroys the roads, and I believed her. More than once we had to change courses to avoid a particularly sunken-in section of road.

When we finally arrived at her apartment building - a gaudily painted orange-and-green cinder-block construct - she told me that I had to pay the driver 1,600 KSH. I thought it was a little bit odd that my host was having me pay, but I let it slide because, y'know what, she probably had to pay to get to me. "Welcome," she says as we go through the complex gate. We hear young voice calling, and she says, "Oh, that's my daughter." Christ, I thought, another group situation. We walk in, and there are no fewer than four people sitting down in her living room. "Welcome," Hellene says again. After I says my hellos to everyone (though not a single one gave their name), I was brought into the room I'd be staying in. "There's another CouchSurfer staying here with you," she says. I look at the main bed in the room and the backpack seems to confirm this. "Welcome." I was just about ready to punch a wall at this point. I have seriously come to despise the word "welcome". So if/when I return to the United States, please don't hang a banner claiming "Welcome Home". ("Nice to Have You Back" would work fine.)

Hellene motioned towards a set of bunk beds, and told me the top bunk would be mine. I mentioned that I was tired, so she told me to nap (a bit more forcefully than I would have thought normal), and then brought in a pamphlet for what I'm assuming was her husband's tour agency. I quickly glanced through it, and there was some interesting things, but there was also no prices on anything - which made me somewhat wary - and there were a copious amount of spelling errors - which made me nervous for the exact opposite reason. Before long, though, Hellene's four-year-old daughter, Alin (at least, I think that's what it is) had climbed up on the side of the bed and was staring at me. She was an adorable, but unquenchably curious kid, which didn't fit my tastes when she tried throwing my phone and my camera off the bed. After I moved them out of her arms' distance and out of sight, she kept pointing to the pamphlet and said "ngapi". I tried interpreting what she was saying: "Page?" "Words?" "Writing?" But everything I said only seemed to frustrate her, and she repeated louder, gesturing to a different part of the pamphlet, "Ngapi!" I tried telling her I didn't know Swahili, but still she continued saying "ngapi." I suddenly remembered that I had saved Swahili on my phone's Google Translate app, so I typed it in and saw the result. "How many?" I ask her. "Five!" She says with a smile. I politely smile back, though I have no idea what in God's name she's talking about. I try lying down, hoping that if she sees me trying to nap, she'll head out, but no, so starts making what I can only assume are motorcycle noises. I play along for a bit (after all, kids like me for some reason), but then try to tell her that I should rest. She then starts flicking the room light on and off until Hellene comes in and takes her away. She gives Alin a piece of the brownie/cookie hybrid that Kelly had baked for me to give to my next host, and then tells me to sleep.

I'm not really as tired as I was earlier, so I don't sleep much. Instead, I began reflecting on my CouchSurfing experiences. What are the differences between my good experiences and the ones I haven't enjoyed as much? I think there have been two big factors. The first is the presence of a larger group in the host's home. With my two best experiences (the Spanish ones), the hosts lived alone, and so I could engage with them on a one-on-one level, and really build a rapport. With the rest, there have always been groups, and then I am suddenly stuck trying to fit into the group dynamic. I'm fine when it's a new group, and everyone is more-or-less equally uninitiated. There, I can help form the dynamic (I'm good at that). But when it's already established, and I am just along for the ride, it's much trickier. With Anass, it was his frat-ish college buddies. With Omar, it was his very huge and unapproachable family. Jamal's group wasn't nearly as bad, though again, I think I should have stayed a shorter time. And with Hellene, having a growing family, with young kids who have needs and desires, meant that I was just an intruder. I mightbe over-thinking it, but the correlation is there. The more people who get involved, the less comfortable I get. The second factor is also a bit more of an association than a root cause, and it's general savviness to the West. Is it any surprise that the two most comfortable situations were in Europe, and the next one after that was in the apartment of a guy teaching English and planning on visiting UC Davis? Anyhoo, during this reflection, I was thinking, "Is CouchSurfing right for me?" But then I thought the better question is, "Am I right for CouchSurfing?" And I think the answer for both is, "It depends." It depends on the country, the city, the situation, and what my purpose is. I don't think I should be using it as a home base for a long stretch of time (as I was planning in Nairobi). It should be for short, efficient periods. And I should never assume that I can use it for a decommission day. All good lessons! (Also, I think there is some level of independence that needs to be taken into consideration, but I've gone too much into the subject already.)

Some other worries came about as my mind was able to wander, the main one being the fact that I was planning to volunteer at an orphanage for three weeks. Do I really know what I'm getting myself into? I'm going to be working with children - lots of them - for three weeks. Like I said before, kids tend to like me for some reason. My nephews adore me, my cousins-once-removed enjoy spending time with me, and random tots on the street at least enjoy looking at me. So I'm not exactly worried about my toll on them. I'm worried about their toll on me. Because I know kids give some people energy, but sometimes, it seems like they just drain me. So how do I plan to handle a lot of them every day? Honestly, I'm more concerned with this than I am with my Mount Kilimanjaro climb. That one is just a lot of physical exertion and some discomfort. There's no mental concerns, and there's no kids. I've already concluded that if it doesn't work out, there's no shame in walking away. Still, I don't like failure, so I hope I haven't set myself up for it.

So yeah, all these pleasant thoughts are going through my head (this is why I don't like not-sleeping), when I hear Hellene calling. "Andrew, are you sleeping?" "No, I'm awake." "Eat." Again, it was more like an out-and-out order, but again, language differences. I go out to the living room, and we have dinner. It's a fairly simple meal - white rice with a sort of thin meat-and-potato stew. It tasted decent enough, but I was more concerned with the mosquitoes trying to make a meal of me. I crushed one that landed on my arm. "The mosquitoes are just trying to welcome you," Hellene says, notably lacking a wink or smile. I reply that I'm just reciprocating with a high-five.This dinner is also where I meet Sujan, the other CouchSurfer. He was traveling from Johannesburg, moving up the Eastern coast with his girlfriend (until she had to return to Denmark), and said he was interest in settling in Nairobi, as Johannesburg was "too capitalist". I wasn't sure how this place was different - it didn't seem socialist or anything, just worse off. But he seemed nice enough, and got along well with Hellene and her kids.

After dinner, I spent most of the time reading, as my only other real option was watching Nigerian television (more on that in a bit). Then, when it was time for bed, I took a shower, which was icy cold. I wouldn't have minded this - in fact, I didn't - until afterwards, when Hellene told me that I could have gotten hot water if I flipped a switch on the hallway wall. I quipped that I could use the refreshment, and then went into my bed. I saw that a mosquito net had been set up, which was a welcome sight. So, I arranged it around the four corners of the bed, and lied down...and immediately realized that this wasn't going to work. Because the mosquito net was literally a foot above my body, it was unable to "tent" up and out, and so was draped over almost all of me, particularly my face. Now, one vivid memory I have from Mozambique was when I propped my knee up against the mosquito netting there. Because any of those little devils could just land and poke through the net to the skin next door, I woke up with 86 bites on my knee (I counted, because I couldn't walk anywhere). I did not want this to happen, so I tried to cover myself with the provided blanket. Unfortunately, said blanket was fairly small, being a High School Musical-themed child's comforter. So I had to go into a super fetal position.

So, it's a warm night, I am on the top bunk, fully dressed in clothes and socks, with a comforter over me, huddled in a cramped position. It's not long before I start sweating. A lot. I could feel my clothes dampen, but what was worse was feeling individual sweat beads move across some limb. Every time a drop passed by an arm or leg hair, it felt like a bug was crawling on me, causing me to instinctively slap. And then the buzzing began. I have no idea how mosquitoes manage to increase their volume in the night, but hearing that little high-pitched hum, coming from some unknowable direction, made me go nuts. I was covered from head to toe in this comforter; how could they get in?! Slap. Where were they?! By my ears? Slap! Slap! Why can't the attack my feet instead? Slap, slap, slap!

Itchiness, sweat, and paranoia. All in all, it was one of the worst sleeps I've had in years. If I managed to sleep at all, it was for less than an hour all night (and even that was through sheer exhaustion). However, I was awoken by Alin coming in and yelling and climbing and throwing things. Before long, Hellene came in. "Sujan, Andrew, eat breakfast." The two of us struggled to get up, and headed out for the meal. Apparently, Sujan had bought some cake the day before because that's what breakfast consisted of. Cake. And also, some white bread. I will say, with some greener-grass vision, I miss the fact that Morocco had a variety of different kinds of bread, and never your plain Wonder-style white bread.

While we ate, we watched some Nickelodeon Jr., which seems to only feature shows where cartoon characters ask the audience questions, pause, and then act like they answered them. "Do you want to go to the magic forest? ....Great, let's go!" I've never actually seen a kid answer the TV, and it almost makes me feel like I should, just to make things less awkward. Actually, what would be pretty neat is if future TV's would watch the kids and see if they respond, and if they don't, the cartoon characters start to become uncomfortable with their one-way communication. "Do you want to go to the magic forest? .......Ummm.....well, let's go anyway!" After a bit of time, though, I realized it was almost 10am. While I could understand the 4-year-old girl maybe being too young for school, there was also another daughter who was 8+. And there were other kids around the complex, clearly not at school. I was none too pleased about that.

Hellene asked how I slept, and I was completely honest with her. I also said it might be best for me to find a new place, because I could not last many more nights like that (and I had originally been booked to stay there two weeks!). So I say that I should go to a Cyber Cafe and look up some other options. Hellene says okay, and that I could go into the city. I ask how, and she says to take some of the matatus, which are like mini-buses. I ask where they are, and she says by the gas station. When I ask where that is, she says "Not far. You can take one of the small taxis there." Sujan then says he wants to go into town in order to look up the local immigration laws, so I decide to tag along with him. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be an excellent decision.

Having gone to and around Nairobi for about a week, he was able to show me around. But if there was ever a dictionary-perfect example of the word "roundabout", this was it. First, we had to walk from Hellene's house to a group of cars some distance away. The muddy road (or rather, mud road) conditions had not improved much, and so we were slipping, sliding, and sinking with every step. It turns out, this innocuous group of cars was actually a group of small taxi's. I would have never guessed. So they began driving us, but only for a couple minutes, until we reached what appeared to be a main road in the area (as it was actually paved). We then got out, and jumped onto a matatu, which took us to another commuting center, where we then got on a larger, bus-like matatu, which took us to the city center...eventually. I would say Nairobi has some of the worst traffic I've ever seen (and remember, I grew up in LA County). Most roads are one lane each way (I only remember a single road that had two lanes in either direction), and the drivers there have as little regard for the law as anyone in Italy or Morocco. Possibly worse - there were a couple times where, to pass another guy, a car would just start driving on the sidewalk. Like, all four wheels on the sidewalk. And yet in Morocco, for all the dangerous driving, you got places quickly. Here, despite all the recklessness, it was still like being on the 405 on a bad day. It's the worst of all worlds.

Being a pedestrian was about the same, I soon came to realize. Caution and confidence when crossing streets, or doing anything really. I had plenty of opportunity to practice this when we got into town, walked through some of the area, and I found an Internet cafe. I did some furious hotel searching, and found a few places. One of my big "things" when looking for a hotel/hostel/whatever is WiFi. Not just because I'm an Internet-addled junkie (although that doesn't help), but because when I am making plans, the Internet turns out to be incredibly useful. Whodathunkit? So, I like having WiFi, and having WiFi throughout the place (instead of just in the public areas) is a bonus. I only found a single place that offered WiFi everywhere - the Dafam hotel. I was a little unsure, because there were no ratings for the hotel on the website (Booking.com is my site of choice, in case you were wondering), but hey, everyone's got to start somewhere!

After that, we decided to stop somewhere for lunch. I let Sujan lead the way, and we went to a place promising "traditional food", which seems to be a big selling point. The place was called, I believe, "God's Gift" (God is also a big selling point here), which I found to be a bit boastful. I could not tell one menu item from another, so I decided to go with a "buffet", which was really more like a sampler platter with a bunch of items that I couldn't identify. And it was less than five bucks, so what could it hurt? And for the most part, it was pretty good - there were a couple vegetarian portions that tasted really good, it came with some chicken, and some of the beef was okay. But then there was...something else? Tongue? Tripe? I'm not entirely sure, but it was some form of soft meat with little...ball things(?) on them. Like, somewhere between the look of brocolli buds and taste buds. I have a firm policy not to eat stuff that looks like that (which I really only formed during this lunch), but I offered it to Sujan. He had a bite and told me I was right to leave it.

We eventually made our way back to Hellene, which was more complicated than it should have been. Sujan had been told that there was one line of matatu (33B) that went to our stop, but when we asked one of the drivers, he told us to go on 33. The driver of the 33 told us he was going where we wanted, but then later he stopped at some stop that definitely wasn't ours, but was the end of the line. We passed by countless fried fish vendors and an emaciated hobo Santa Clause dancing between two (also dancing) military men - I still regret not taking a picture - found another matatu, and...long story short, we did eventually get back. Along the way, I was discussing the situation with Sujan. He said he was also looking for a new place, because Hellene seemed too welcoming (in a forward kind of way), and that he didn't like how it was a full house, and that it was out in the middle of nowhere, and that there was no plugs, and that Hellene wasn't helpful in getting him into town, and that the kids weren't in school. Basically, all the things I was thinking. I felt an overblown sense of relief that it wasn't just me, that other CouchSurfers can have the same kinds of thoughts that I do. It made me feel better about the whole situation. (He also mentioned that he thought that Hellene was in cahoots with the taxi driver and was getting a cut of it, which I hadn't considered, but would not doubt for a second.)

Shortly after we got back, it was time for dinner. We had some cornmeal-based stuff with the consistency of Play-Dough, which Hellene tried to convince me was one of the healthiest things in the world, despite the fact that it was just cornmeal. We also had some tea. So let's discuss tea. I had heard Kenyan tea is really good. Hellene herself said it was the second-best tea in the world, right after England's (which admittedly got a chortle out of me). The problem is...it's pretty plain. It's basically a black tea that has a lot of milk in it. A lot. I actually had to ask to confirm that there was even water in there at all, it was so milk-heavy. You can add some sugar to give it some sweetness, but even then, it's a bland kind of sweetness. When comparing it with the glory of the Moroccan green tea with mint (and a grand canyon's worth of sugar), or even any of the fruity teas I drank at home, it comes up as forgettable, which is as big an insult for tea as any.

So, we had dinner, and watched some Nigerian TV shows. At least, I thought they were TV shows. They had all the trimmings of a local channel TV show in the United States - poor audio quality, actors who emoted too much, scene cuts looser than a two-year-old's shoelace, music that was just a 15-second clip on loop (or hell, unlicensed music) and that indescribable-but-unmistakable "local TV camera" look. But when I asked, "Is this a good series?", I was told that no, each of these are films. Like, feature films. Apparently, Nigeria (or "Nollywood") now makes more movies on a yearly basis than Hollywood (but still less than Bollywood). Will it take the world by storm some day? I hope not, because those 15-second music loops were annoying as hell.

So, after taking in some of the camp of these movies (which were also really short, which is partly why I thought they were shows), Sujan and I decided to do something more productive with our time - mosquito genocide. We went into our room and went nuts. Clapping, slapping, stomping, throwing books; we did anything we could to rid the room of all the mosquitoes we could. And to our credit, we did a good job; I personally crushed at least a dozen of the suckers, turning my hands into a cesspool of disease. The most satisfying ones were, as you might guess, the ones that popped into a small puddle of blood. It wasn't just murder then - it was vengeance. There were a couple we couldn't get, and I swear, they knew they were the best, because they were mocking us. One in particular kept hopping from place to place, narrowly avoiding our wrath, but it seemed to be dancing around, taunting. Still, we had killed the vast majority of them, so we were pleased. I was also hoping it would mean a more pleasant night.

It didn't. I was glad I stayed that extra night in Hellene's, because if I didn't, I'd have to worry about getting all my stuff organized that night, and then go out and try to have a taxi driver find a place in the dark and all that. But it was more because I wanted to see if it was just some kind of first-night jitters, and that maybe tonight I'd sleep like a baby. But no, despite killing most of the mosquitoes, and setting up the netting more intelligently, it because just a repeat of the first night. Sweat, buzzing, and paranoia. I felt like I had made the right decision getting out of there. Truth be told, I think the worst part was the buzzing. The bites I've gotten in Kenya thus far have been pretty mellow - they all have completely stopped itching after, maybe, five hours. So if I had put in a pair of earplugs, maybe I could have had a peaceful night sleep. Hindsight, etc.

The next morning, Sujan left for town to look for some employment opportunities in the area, and after some reading, I left 
the place myself. The taxi driver was the same one as before (which gave some credence to Sujan's theory), and when I told him where to go, it was clear he'd never heard of it before. Luckily, I had printed out the address, but unfortunately, it wasn't a real address, just saying "Off Red Cross Road". After a long drive, and several stops to ask people where the place was, we went onto some more dirt roads and arrived at the Dafam Hotel.

I was immediately greeted by a large woman, saying that she expected me. She then gave me a grand tour of the whole place, and I use the word "grand" lightly, because despite this being a quote-unquote new hotel...it wasn't a new hotel at all. It must have been an old hotel that was bought and then redone. Because it felt...not complete? I think the fact that the handles for my window were lying on the floor of my room when she showed me in proved that point. But whatever, I've stayed in dillapidated places before. I can deal. Besides, my main purpose here is just to log onto the WiFi and...wait, where's the WiFi signal. I can't see a WiFi signal. After scanning several times, I go down to the receptionist. I ask him how I use the WiFi. He tells me that the router hasn't been installed. While my internal temperature skyrockets, I maintain a calm attitude, and tell him that I'll look for a new hotel then. He asks why, and I tell him that I felt their listing was dishonest. (There were some lesser issues, like their free toiletries being just a tiny soap, and their mosquito netting being more of a privacy curtain that any bug worth its salt could just fly over, but the flagrant lie about WiFi was the big deal here.) He promises me that he'll get me a USB modem, and that in the meantime I can use a nearby Internet cafe. I go over to the nearby cafe and look at hotels. Unfortunately, anything that's going to work is going to cost, and so I conclude that if their modem works, I can grin and bear it all.

I walk back to the hotel, stopping to buy myself some snacks and a real bar of soap, when the sky suddenly lets loose a downpour. My hat proved its worth keeping my head dry, but the rest of me got reasonably wet (including, to a slight extent, my passport) by the time I got in. I hang my clothes up to dry, read for a bit, and eventually make my way down for dinner. It was a decent amount of food (chicken and veggies and fries and a banana), though none of it really good. I then go to the receptionist and ask for the modem. He says he'll bring it up to my room. He eventually does, and it installs fine, but I then see that there's a limit - 100MB. "That's not going to last long," I say. But he says we can add more data if necessary, as he has 50MB cards. Suddenly, the basic HTML quality of 90% of Kenyan websites made some sense.

The modem actually works admirably for a while, to the extent that I feel I could stay if I could get a better source of data. But then, it stops working. Well, the modem was working fine, it just wasn't sending or receiving data. There was a moment where the system thought I had a spike in data usage, so maybe I lost all my leftover data to some glitch. So I asked the receptionist to add some more data, and then I went back to my room to test it out. Still nothing. I tried troubleshooting, but nothing worked. I couldn't understand it in the slightest. But it was too late in the night, so I decided to let it slide. Maybe it would be fixed by morning. I had a decent shower (lukewarm, but definitely better when I knew I had to flip a heat switch) and, despite the fact that my already ineffective mosquito next wouldn't even close all the way, leaving a two foot gap in protection, I slept really well. (For all it's faults, that place was good on the mosquito front for the most part.)

I woke up and had my complimentary breakfast, which like the dinner, was sizable: a banana, cereal, eggs, sausage, bacon-esque meat, and toast (well, bread). But the thing is, everything that could be cooked was just cooked so poorly. I felt more pity for the cook than anything. I then went back to the receptionist and told him about my issues. He got the hotel's manager. Lemme just say, God bless these two guys - they went out of their way to try to help me. I know that it's partially because I was their only customer at the time, and because I was the first white customer the place has ever had and they wanted my caucasian seal of approval for other whiteys to come in, but still. They were great. So the manager let me use his laptop, which I did to try to do some more troubleshooting, but all to no avail. We decide I should just go to the local Safaricom shop (yes, their telecom company is called Safaricom), and try to figure it out there. So, they send me out with a taxi driver named Joseph (and I really don't know if I should be calling these guy taxi drivers; they all just seem to be guys who just drive their own personal cars; I don't know if any of them are licensed), and we go out to a nearby minimall-like place. Despite the fact that it's less than 10 kilometers away, the drive takes over an hour to get there. I get into the Safaricom shop, and then Joseph starts talking with everybody, trying to explain the situation, since he knows Swahili. I try to tell him to let me explain, but he ignores me. After one of the representatives speaks with him, they say, "Okay, let me see your phone." I then explain in English that it's actually a computer problem, and they try troubleshooting. After almost another hour with no success, I suddenly have a revelation. The previous night, I had tried installing a program that would turn my computer into a WiFi hotspot, so I could get Internet on my phone. Despite the fact that the modem stopped working the second I finished installing the program, I didn't put two and two together. So, not telling anybody what I was doing, I uninstalled the program, and like magic, everything was working. I felt like a moron.

I decided to buy a couple small items in this mall, not the least of which were some data cards for the modem. I wanted to get something that would absolutely not expire on me, so I sought to get a 25GB bundle, which was 11,500 shillings. (This is about $140, which I didn't like paying, but I looked at it as the same kind of price I'd be paying if I went to another hotel instead of staying here.) When the rep told us this, Joseph said, "11,000 shillings, okay." We walked to a cashier, and I start talking, but Joseph puts his hand up. "11,000 shillings," he says to the cashier, and she gives me a stack of cards. I should have counted them immediately, but I later found out that these were 11 1,000KSH cards, which were 1.5GB each. That is to say, because Joseph didn't let me speak, I ended up paying almost the same amount for 16.5GB instead of 25GB. It ended up being fairly irrelevant in the long term, but I was quite annoyed at the time. Still, because Joseph had taken time out of his day to stand around with me, and not get paid (by me, at least), I offer to buy him lunch. On the way back, we get a pizza to split (I didn't want pizza, but he insisted it was good), and then ate it at the hotel's outdoor eating area. (I'm pretty sure that most of the hotel's business comes from locals who use it as a hang-out spot to get food, shoot pool, and drink. There's nothing else in that area for diversion.)

While eating, we decide that we should make plans for the next day for me to do things in the area. We decide that Joseph will pick me up in the morning, and then we can go to the elephant orphanage, and then to the National Park, and then for dinner, I could go to this place called the Carnivore. "How much will it cost me?" I ask. He says I'll have to worry about the admission prices for myself, him, and his car. Fair enough deal, I felt. Our plans made, Joseph leaves, taking the rest of the pizza with him. I was going to protest, as he was getting more than 2/3 of the thing, but decided to let it slide. It was a treat from me, after all. After having a conversation with the hotel manager, I go up to my room, eager to use the bandwidth on this modem. Everything seems to be working, but before long, I notice my computer's battery is low. I then realize the plug doesn't seem to be working. In fact, the lights aren't either. When I go down to ask the receptionist, he says the power in the building is out. I laugh about how everything is working to keep me offline, read a bit, and take a nap.

When I wake up, the lights are on, so I'm able to get everything working properly. I go online to make sure my plans for tomorrow are squared away, and then try a different, less well-known program to give my phone WiFi access. It works, and so I'm able to finally get some valuable maps and information on my phone. Let me say, what a difference WiFi makes when you have no idea where you are or what you're doing. Having that ability to look something up can be such a confidence booster. I didn't want dinner, but was in the mood for some tea, so I went down to the restaurant and ordered it. When they were serving, I realized I would rather be up in my room, so I asked if I could bring it up. They start taking the teacup away and say they'll send somebody. "Can't I just bring the cup up myself?" Nope, apparently. I should have really insisted, but instead just went up to my room, and about 20 minutes later, the receptionist entered with the tea. He pours it and leaves. I foolishly ask how much I owe, knowing that the tea cost 30KSH. He seemed like he didn't realize I had to pay, and then said, "100 shillings". I crinkled my nose and gave him the money. I don't know if that 70KSH was for room service, but to be honest, I think he was just trying to squeeze me a bit. Again, I should have said something, but instead let it slide. That was the one black mark on the receptionist's record.

I think the recent rains had brought out some new mosquitos, because I did hear some buzzing that night. Not enough to ruin my sleep, but enough that I decided the next morning to change rooms to one that had a more traditional (and effective) mosquito net. Of course, this new room also had a literal mushroom growing out of one of its walls, but I figured that I wasn't really going to get away from things like that here. I go down for breakfast, and then at 8am, Joseph drives by to pick me up. Our first destination? The gas station, as he picked me up with an empty tank. "It's 2,500 shillings. You're going to pay, right?" I ask him about overall costs, and he tells me what the admission prices to the parks is, so I figure that I'm still okay on overall price for this. I give him the money, he fills up, and we're on our way.

Our first stop is at the national park animal orphanage. This was different than the elephant orphanage I wanted to go to, but I figured I'd make the most of it. It cost a surprisingly high price to get in (somewhere between $15 and $20), but thankfully, the price I paid for Joseph was lower, as he was a resident. The orphanage itself was...disappointing, in a number of ways. First of all, it was super small. I tried to saunter as leisurely as possible (ignoring Joseph's attempts to make me hurry), because I wanted to get the most out of my money. But even at my slowest, the place barely took up an hour. Secondly, this place didn't seem to be any more than a low-quality zoo. Reading the signs that accompanied the animals, some of these guys had been in the orphanage since 2006 or so. Brought in because their parents were killed, and then...kept in? Not rehabilitated and let back into the wild? Just left in these cages for the rest of their days? It actually seemed pretty wrong to me, and I was a bit perturbed that I had given them money.

We later found out that the elephant orphanage was relatively nearby, but only open to the public for an hour. So we drive over there, and then waited for said hour to begin. It was there that I met an older couple from Arizona. And I realized that these were actually the first white people I had seen since leaving the airport, all those days ago. I didn't really go into it, but there was a definitely an out-of-place feeling I had during my entire Nairobi excursion. I'm not going to say I suddenly understand the minority experience, but I definitely have a better sense of what it's like when people are looking at you like you're definitely not from around here, when you're different from everyone else. I suppose I either have just been staying and commuting in areas where tourists don't normally stay, or most tourists in Nairobi just stay in their hotels until they get on a safari, and then fly immediately back home. In any case, I had a nice conversation with this couple (I always hit it off with the older crowd for some reason), and before long, we're brought in to watch the elephant feeding and bathing. It's a brief but adorable experience, and while it sounds cliché, watching the elephants interact and play with each other really does make them seem human. Some of them spent most of their time just trying to make it out of the mud pits, slipping and sliding with as little grace as I did in the muddy roads by Hellene's house. Joseph had me take some pictures of him by the elephants, and we had a chance to pet some of them. Now, I don't know what you think an elephant would feel like, but they have some of the roughest skin you can imagine. It's really interesting, and an altogether an enjoyable experience. If you're ever in the Nairobi area, the elephant orphanage is definitely worth the time.

Following this, Joseph and I drove back to the National Park proper, and we paid to do a driving safari (or rather, I paid). The park's navigation left something to be desired. You'd only get signposts at select intersections, with several arrows pointing down each road, each one saying something like "Lion Bridge, 3km". You'd think something like "Lion Bridge" sounded promising, so you'd go in that direction. You'd pass by another sign that said "Lion Bridge, 2km", and continue in that direction, but then you never see a sign for it again. You didn't feel like you passed by any bridges, much less any lion bridges, but there was nothing further to indicate its presence. All the intersection signs were now directing you towards other places. (At the end of the trip, we found this to be problematic, as the arrows pointing to the main entrance stopped appearing well before the main entrance. Really, if there's only one thing you ever direct people to, it should be the way out.)

I had brought along my binoculars, and they worked great...whenever we were stopped. When I saw something of interest, I told Joseph "Stop, I want to take a look at that," but the most he would do is drive slowly, which, in an off-road environment with rocks everywhere, doesn't do a lick of good for binocular use. However, whenever he wanted to use the binoculars, he'd stop the car, turn off the engine, and then open his door and stand up from his seat. I got a little annoyed by how much he was relying on my equipment, but I think it was just me being annoyed by him in general. I realize that I can't blame a person for a lack of good English skills, but his commentary on the animals got tiring pretty quickly. (Giraffes: "Wow, so tall." Rhino: "Wow, so big." Buffalo: "Wow, so big." Ostrich: "Wow, so big.") This was definitely one of the times I wished I was traveling with a friend. But whatever. As you could probably tell by my parenthetical comment, we saw a number of different animals, including giraffes, a rhino, some buffalo, a trio of ostriches, a number of different birds, some kudu (I think they were kudu) and countless antelope. Didn't get any good looks at any wild cats, though. We think we saw a lion far in the distance (like, only visible with the binoculars), but that was about it. Joseph seemed obsessed with finding lions, constantly claiming that we'd see some whenever we saw antelope, because that was the lion's meal. "The lion is a hunter," I said, "It wouldn't be good at its job if it could be seen by everyone." But still, he insisted that we should see one, and got upset when we didn't.

We probably drove around the park for about four hours or so, all the while hearing the car get banged up on the bottom by rocks. Again, there were almost no paved surfaces in this area, just a bunch of rocks and dirt roadways, which the rains had made into pretty nasty trenches. I don't know what I'd call Joseph's car, but it definitely wasn't a 4x4, and there is a reason that almost every vehicle going into the park was a 4x4. I'd assume most of the damage was cosmetic, but hey, we knew what we were getting into.

When that was finished, we both felt finished, and so we made a brief trip back to the hotel, where Joseph played some pool with his buddies, and I got some things taken care of (including researching the Nairobi Giraffe Center, which I was considering visiting the next day. When reviews said that it was a 20-minute visit, I figured it probably wasn't worth the hassle, though I do quite like giraffes.

I later found Joseph playing pool with one of his buddies. I told him I was ready to go, but he told me to wait until he was finished with his game. I stood there, silently watching, and I was intrigued with how the billiard balls were smaller than those we're used to in the US. Like, 30% smaller. Eventually, Joseph's opponent prematurely knocked the 8-Ball into a pocket, so the game was concluded, and we could leave. After another time-consuming drive, we made it to the restaurant  I went inside, mentioned my appointment, and was sat down.

Now, I've been to restaurants before. But for some reason, I had this notion in my head that because I was dining alone, I'd be able to meet and eat with lots of people. Like, there would be a communal table where a bunch of loners would sit, almost like a bar. They said the place had a fun atmosphere, after all. But no, no such thing existed. They sat me at a small two-person table, equidistant from all other patrons. I told them that if anyone else came who needed some company, they were welcome to sit with me. But no other loners came; it was all couples and groups. I'm not really sure how I convinced myself that the loner table was a thing, but oh well. I wasn't all alone, though. I kept Factoria, my stuffed travel monkey, on the table, and before long, I was joined by a very cute cat (who I later found out was named Cary). Cary remained loyally at my side throughout the entire dinner, no doubt because I was feeding her (him?) scraps. But I'll take my friends wherever they come, and in whatever form.

What? Oh, right, the dinner! So, the place is called "Carnivore", and if you haven't been tipped off, it had a lot of meat. Basically, it was a Kenyan equivalent to the churrascaria (a Brazilian steakhouse). You pay a set fee, and different servers come out with a variety of meat on swords, carving it up for you until you tell them to stop. I've done this kind of thing numerous times before, but what makes this place interesting is that they're supposed to have (responsibly farmed) game meats, stuff you're not going to find in the US, or anywhere outside of an East African country. When the meal began, I made sure to eat my salad and every single vegetable they threw at me. Helps digestion, and makes you feel a bit less like a pig. But yeah, meat. Lots of meat. And every time a waiter sliced off a piece, he mentioned what the perfect accompaniment was from a large dish of dipping sauces that adorned my table. To call it a production would be underselling it. I was a little disappointed, though, that they only had two types of game meat available that evening. I made sure to eat each like someone with a refined palette, so to best describe them to you. The first was ostrich, which I can best describe as a hardier turkey. The word that kept coming up in my mind was "Christmastime". It's a very Christmas-y bird, that's for sure. The second was crocodile. This, I can only describe as the toughest, saltiest fish you've ever eaten. I probably could go into further detail about what kind of fish, but to be honest, I cannot tell one fish from another, save tuna. But I can say that aligator tastes like a non-tuna fish. Both items were definitely god and interesting in their own right, and worth trying, but I wouldn't pay a premium for them myself.

After finishing off with a cup of tea, a slice of pineapple pie, and passion fruit sorbet, I gave Cary one good last pet, and then called Joseph to pick me up. It being fairly late, the traffic cleared up quite a bit, and so we made good time back to the hotel. When we parked, he said to me, "Okay, so are you going to pay, or is the hotel going to pay?" I cocked my head curiously, "Pay what?" He fidgeted in his seat. "Well, I was thinking 12,000 shilling, but we can just go with 11,000." I was livid. "Why didn't you tell me about this when I asked you for the price?" He didn't really have a good answer for me. I asked him if I could subtract the gas I paid for from the amount. He told me no, because I "knew where I was going", or whatever that means. I looked in my wallet and found only 10,000KSH. My good humor gone, I stuffed the money in his hand. "You'll pay the other thousand tomorrow?" he asked. I stepped out of the car. "We'll discuss the other thousand tomorrow," I replied, and then knowingly slammed the door. I walked back up to my room.

Now, let me explain my position here. I don't mind paying people for their work. However, I had done some research, and found that hiring a taxi in Nairobi for the day should be somewhere between 6 and 10,000KSH (depending on a variety of factors), inclusive of gas and other costs. Not only was this guy asking for more than this, but he was doing so after I paid to fill up his empty tank, and after I paid for him to go into each of these parks and get the same experience I did. I didn't need him to be in that elephant orphanage, but I paid for him. I took pictures of him that he could show his kids. He even admitted that this was his first time doing a lot of this stuff, and yet, I was paying for him, because he had led me to believe that that was the payment for his services. Which is the real heart of the issue. If I had known what his price was beforehand, I may have been fine paying it. I probably would have hired a different taxi, but hey, he also drove around the park, so maybe I could factor that in. But I asked him three times how much I'd have to pay him, and each time he told me that I just had to worry about the admission costs. So that's why I was upset, and went to bed conflicted - angry mind, happy tummy.

Luckily for your tired eyes, I didn't do much the next couple of days. Most of my efforts were spent online, making preparations for my future travels, (and thinking that I might want to spend as much as a month in New Zealand), seeing if I could book any Everest base camp climbs, and doing some reading. There were only two real items of note on Saturday. First, I did complain to the hotel, because Joseph was associated with them in some way, or else he wouldn't have been brought to me to begin with. The receptionist brought Joseph to me, and I explained, calmly and thoroughly, why I didn't appreciate his business practices. He tried to tell me that he didn't quote me a price because I wasn't sure where I was going (as evidenced by the fact that we took a side tour to the elephant orphanage). This was a lie, as we mapped out a precise plan the night before and he didn't give me a price then. When I called him on it, I think he realized he was stuck, and so told me that I didn't have to pay the last 1,000 shillings. We parted then, and I didn't see him for the rest of my time at the hotel. I later found out that the manager was so upset by Joseph's actions that he told him not to come back, as he was reflecting poorly on the hotel. Did I mention I liked the cut of this manager's jib? The second item of note also related to getting overcharged. I ate dinner in the hotel's restaurant  and asked for the menu. I order a very inexpensive (and surprisingly good) beef stew, which came with a side of veggies and fries. I asked to hold on to my menu, because I wanted to have the price by me at all times. Finally, the waitress gives me the receipt while simultaneously taking the menu away. I look at the price, and it comes out to more than twice what my meal cost. I asked the waitress how the price was broken down. She told me to wait one second, and then disappeared into the back, and I didn't see her again that night. After waiting five minutes, I asked a different waitress about it, pointing the menu price out to her. She apologized and gave me a new receipt, which I happily paid. Now, to be honest, this was for $3 instead of $6. It was chump change, especially compared to the taxi, and the food was worth $6, but I was tired of people trying to wring out my money. Like the hotel manager told me, "The lighter your skin, the more the dollar sings show through." (No joke, he said that to me.)

Sunday was also very non-active, save for a trip to the local mall (to which I was taxi'd for free, courtesy of the manager). I did a bit of shopping - I needed to get some supplies for future travels, as well as a couple snacks and fruits for myself. I also enjoyed the general walking-around feeling this place had. Nice, stress-free environment  I decided to have an early dinner at a KFC in the mall. I did this for two reasons. First, this was the only American fast food place I had seen in Kenya, and so it felt like a natural extension of my "Try the local McDonald's" plan. (It turned out to be very uninteresting. Aside from a couple chicken sandwiches - called burgers in such a way as to betray an utter lack of knowledge about the word - the menu seemed like a normal, but severely limited, KFC menu. Some chicken, mashed potatoes, fries [not potato wedges], and that's about it.) The second reason I went was because I was still a bit upset about being overcharged at the hotel. (This also backfired, as I didn't realize until after I ordered that the prices were actually significantly more than what you'd find in the US. A small combo came to almost $10. It would have been much cheaper to eat at the hotel, even if they did overcharge me.)

And then, after leaving the KFC, I saw it - a self-serve frozen yogurt shop. After traveling for over a month, with the express plan to try every self-serve frozen yogurt place I could find, I finally found one! Oh, happy day! I rush in and get some. Their selection, while relatively small, was still good enough to get a variety of flavors, and I was almost upset that I had eaten a sandwich already. That is, until I saw the price. Now, if you're familiar with self-serve frozen yogurt shops, you'll know they're pay-by-weight. This place was 16KSH per 10g. That takes a bit of conversion, but it's roughly 60 cents an ounce, which is way more than the 34-cent average I'm used to. I was thankful for my small, only partially full cup, and savored that stuff. No matter what the price, frozen yogurt will always be good.

Monday morning was my last in Nairobi. I woke  up, ate my final overcooked breakfast, leisurely got my bags packed, and checked out. Unfortunately, the hotel's credit card machine was broken, and so I had to give them the last of my cash (which not only denied me my bonus reward points, but made me penniless). Thankfully, my favorite manager saved the day yet again. Still trying to make good for the troubles with Joseph, he said the hotel would pay for my cab ride to the train station. So, I said my goodbyes and left. 90 minutes later, we finally reached the train station (which was only 8k away). After grabbing some more cash and my tickets, I checked how much time I had. Five hours. Huh.

I decided to make the most of it by visiting the local railroad museum, which, coming from a town famous for its own train museum, I felt duty bound to explore. I actually spent a good two-point-five hours going through the different decommissioned trains in the yard and the exhibits in the museum proper. There was not a single word that I left unread. Of particular interest (to me) was a story about the man-eating lions of Tsavo, which I encourage you to look up. (They mentioned that one of the films about the topic, The Ghost and the Darkness, was an Oscar-winner, but neglected to mention that this was just for sound editing.) There was also a train museum art gallery, which had absolutely nothing to do with trains. While I enjoyed walking through and looking at the different pieces, the curator walking up to me and trying to push me to buy one of them soured the experience a bit. Following this, I looked around for a place to have a quick and cheap lunch. However, one thing I've noticed in Nairobi is that just because something is on the menu, that doesn't mean they have it. Three different places I went to, each with a menu of two dozen items, and each one having less than four available, usually the higher-priced ones. I eventually settled for a 75-cent soup, which was enough to keep me occupied for a few minutes.

I then returned to the train station, still with nearly two hours to go. I spent the first half of this time reading, and the second half doing something I hadn't had a chance to do since leaving - practice with my harmonica. The general loudness of the area actually worked to my benefit, because no one could really hear me well enough for it to be a bother. But man, it felt good. And with my hat on and my feet on the table, I like to think I looked like just some mysterious stranger to the passers-by.

Finally, I hear a whistle, and see my train approach. I go to the track, find my cabin, and then step inside, leaving Nairobi behind, ready to head to a new stomping ground known as Mombasa.


  1. Sounds like you're having a rather interesting time of it. Also, perhaps buying your own mosquito net would be a good investment?

  2. Sounds like a bit of a rough time in Nairobi. But hey, you can't let the bad over shadow the good. Still, if nothing else, sounds like it pays to be on your toes while traveling abroad. Cool running into that train museum! I remember watching The Ghost and the Darkness at a camping trip when I was much younger. And yes, the Lomita Train Museum is still, in my opinion, something to be proud about.


    P.S. Glad you were able to get to a frozen yogurt place. Just be sure it's not being made with "Malk". The Vitamin R is not worth the rest of it.