WARNING: more ranting about Africa. Clearly my time on the continent last year was much, much better than the last couple of months have been. I like to keep a positive tone in my travel stories, but don’t worry, this is my last African post for a while, and I am writing it from Asia. Kenya is having a hard time these last couple of months, and I had a hard time there too. I am sure my opinion is biased and misinformed but, I don’t care.
I don’t remember if I mentioned this before, but I am currently traveling on a 5 months long, round-the-world ticket. It has only 2 stops, which is as many as I could get, as this is a reward flight I got with frequent flyer points. I had to pick an African and an Asian hub, so I went for Nairobi and Beijing, with the intent to travel around the two regions with flights I would later purchase. Nairobi proved to be a very bad choice. If I had researched it a little, I would have known that it has the following disadvantages:
– No decent means of transit between the airport and downtown. Taxis are not particularly expensive at $20, but close to the lengthy and frequent rush hours, they will take well over an hour to complete the journey. Their driving habits, and those of all locals, are extremely aggressive and completely unsafe. In my top 5 of the worst drivers in the world.
– There are no airport hotels at all. The closest one is halfway to downtown, in the middle of nowhere in a commercial zone, but it costs hundreds of dollars a night. Downtown hotels are also expensive.
– Visas are expensive and you can’t get multiple entry visas at the airport.
– Nairobi is a crime-ridden dump (I sort of knew that).
What I would have failed to discover because it hadn’t happened yet is that:
– My credit card would be cloned in Nairobi, used fraudulently and cancelled by MasterCard.
– The international airport was about to burn down.
– Somali terrorists were about to attack an expat shopping mall and kill dozens of people.
So I went to Kenya, and discovered that even if it is a painted on joke, I really don’t like seeing popped rivets and rust on an aircraft I am about to board. The most annoying thing is that I didn’t even visit the country. Kenya has been an established tourist destination for many decades, and the prices reflect this reality. The average tourist flies in, hides in fear in a Nairobi hotel for one night, and then proceeds on a guided safari tour in luxury lodges around the countryside. While the nature seemed to have lots to offer, in researching the things to do and see, I found nothing that I couldn’t do in the neighbouring countries for a fraction of the cost. A three day camping trip in the Masai-Mara for $650? No thanks, I will go to Uganda’s beautiful and less busy Murchison Falls National Park instead, where the animals seem surprised to see you. Two giraffes even stopped eating to stare at us! So I ended up transiting through Nairobi, 3 times!
CAVEAT: I have seen videos of the great wildebeest migration when the animals cross the Mara River and it is truly amazing. But, to see it you have to either be very patient (I mean weeks), or very, very lucky, like my Ozzy friends Sarah and Jon, who saw them cross by the thousands a couple of months ago. Perhaps luck was not the only factor; since they had been volunteering in Kenya for 3 months, maybe they had better information.
Local beer and a bible, all one needs for a good night’s sleep. During my first transit, I stayed on Ngara Road, a notoriously dangerous area. I knew it was, but it was cheap and I was just spending the night so I didn’t care. I mentioned this to some Dutch tourists in a minivan in Uganda the next week and a Kenyan tourist I had not noticed asked me where exactly I was staying. I thought I would look like the silly tourist who thinks he’ll be killed at every street corner, but when I said Ngara, his eyes popped out like golf balls and he said: “Oh, that’s a very bad area, you shouldn’t stay there”.
Knowing this, I took a taxi from downtown, about 2 or 3 km away, instead of walking 20 – 30 minutes in the street at night. Because of traffic, it took 1 h 15 min. The driver said if he has to walk on Ngara road and his cell phone rings, he doesn’t pick-up, for fear someone will steal the phone from his hand!
Three people did independently tell me the situation was improving. Apparently the police has adopted a zero tolerance approach to crime in the bad areas. What this apparently means is that if they catch people in the act, they don’t arrest them, but instead shoot them on sight. I wonder if this is true.
The airport fire and the terrorist attack also indirectly confirmed Nairobi’s well earned reputation as a giant crime zone. After the fire was put out, it was discovered the airport’s bank/money exchange counters had been looted. A few policemen were arrested. Just yesterday I read that the jewellery store at the WestGate mall had been robbed during or after the hostage crisis. I don’t know who did it, but I am fairly certain islamist terrorists on a suicide mission are not too focussed on stealing jewellery.
Since I feel compelled to say something positive about Nairobi, I will say that when I flew in about 36 hours after flights had resumed, I found things were running rather smoothly. Operating out of tents 3 days after the airport burned down, things were still much more efficient and much less chaotic than the airports in Cairo or São Paolo on a perfectly normal day. The first picture is of the immigration counter.
The arrival hall. We waited there as the luggage got lined up on the tarmac, by flight number. Nairobi residents who had planned an outdoor wedding around those dates were probably out of luck for the furniture rental.
About a month and a half later, during my final transit, international flights had been moved to the domestic terminal. On my way there, I was able to take this shot of the burned down international terminal. As far as I know, very little information about the investigation has been made public. Since the explanation is probably very embarrassing, and no tourist – or anyone else – was killed, I bet it will stay that way.
Again, sorry about the tone, but stay tuned. Tomorrow, the start of a long series of posts about one of the most mysterious countries in the world. That trip easily makes the top three of my greatest travel stories ever!