Saturday, January 07, 2017


JJ is heading into Nanyuki for provisions and we can’t resist tagging along. As soon as the car swings through the gate manned by armed guards we’re in another world. The vegetation is still lush but the shacks, sticks held together by mud and thatch appear. We drive along the track, dipping in and out of ruts deepened by the rains, swerving around big rocks that have toppled on to the terracotta road. Small kids race to the edge of the road to wave, their palms held out flat. They shout out “howareyou?” and “sweets?” Little flocks of goats weave in and out of the bushes in the shoulder of the road followed by a young boy with a stick. The fifteen metres from the centre of the track is owned by the state and is therefore grazed by everyone with an animal but without a plot of land. As we approach Nanyuki, the Kenya National Highways Authority has marked all structures that encroach on the limits with a giant red X. Once the X appears owners are given two weeks to dismantle the building before the bulldozer levels it for a proposed road. The wooden shacks disappear but the skeletons of cinder block structures pepper the route.

We are heading southwest, slowly climbing onto the skirts of Mount Kenya. We drive by vast greenhouses full of roses and vegetables that will be shipped to Europe. As we ascend, the bush changes to conifers. The track turns into pavement, dotted with the occasional and unmarked speed bump. People take it upon themselves to build them at a spot where someone has died. According to JJ, these misguided attempts to prevent a recurrence in fact lead to all sorts of other accidents as drivers come upon the new and unexpected bump at full speed. His car, like most vehicles in Kenya, is fitted with a speed controller which whistles as you approach 80km/h. If you ignore the warning and continue to accelerate the engine cuts out. JJ says it makes for interesting overtaking as you find yourself in a lane of oncoming traffic in a vehicle with a motor that has just stopped.

We watch a pair of trucks a few hundred metres apart come at us at a clip with their high beams on. They are chockablock with khat, JJ explains. The trucks are carrying huge bags of the leaves, nature’s natural amphetamine, to Nairobi to be flown out to market. Only legal in a few countries, Kenya among them, the leaves lose their potency as they age so there is an obvious urgency in getting them swiftly to market. JJ tells us the headlights indicate to all in their path that they are on the move and that the vehicle will stop for nothing on its way to market. All the law enforcement on route know (and are presumably compensated) to look the other way as the driver drives like a bat out of hell no matter what gets in the way.

As we approach Nanyuki, the traffic picks up. Flimsy plastic bags are caught on every twig, in every bush and tree. There is almost more plastic than soil. Trucks laden with piles of straw that double the height of the vehicle look incredibly tippy. You have to be careful what you ask for, says JJ, when you buy a truckful of something in Kenya the truck will be delivered as full as it can possibly be. We pass carts being pulled by donkeys and hundreds of boda bodas, the little 250cc motorcycles that are Kenya’s taxis. Decorated in crocheted doilies and painted in vibrant colours, the drivers ply the countryside’s every little track and will ferry you and a companion or a goat for the equivalent of 50 cents. We watch a tour bus drive by filled with students on a class trip. The top of the bus is piled high with forty green mattresses tied down with coir rope. The threatening clouds have us hoping the kids won’t be sleeping on soaking mattresses tonight.

A little sign on the side of the road tells us we are crossing the equator — Nanyuki, Equator, 6389 ft. My first time in the southern hemisphere! The edges of the road are soon crowded with a string of five foot wide stands cobbled together with scraps of wood. Someone sits in the back behind baskets heaped with pyramids of potatoes, bunches of bananas hanging from the rafters, huge avocado and mango, carrots and tomatoes, cabbage. The other side of the road is full of squat, concrete shops. Men loll outside, some grinding bits of metal, painting four poster beds, putting the finishing touches on crooked little sheds.

Nanyuki in colonial days, JJ tells us, used to be lovely lines of buildings on avenues laid out for a view of Mount Kenya. It has grown exponentially in recent years, with shacks of corrugated metal & mismatched planks stretching out in all directions. Downtown is abustle with people going about their business. Ladies in long skirts and heels hustle to work, men sit in clutches at sidewalk stands, sorting out khat leaves and heaping it into bags.

We pull up to a brand new shopping mall. The guards at the gate of the parking lot scan the bottom of the car with mirrors looking for bombs. Entering the mall we are scanned with metal detectors and patted down for guns. It all brought back the horrific images of the 2013 shooting in Nairobi’s Westgate mall. The storefronts are brand spanking new and could easily blend into any mall in the world but half of the spaces are vacant. The grocery store is a weird mix of products from everywhere, the clientele mostly white europeans clutching lists — maybe shopping for provisions for their safari outfits. There is a young man in uniform at the end of every aisle. I couldn’t tell whether they were there to watch or to help clients.

On the way home JJ stops at one of the roadside veggie stands and picks up some mangoes, a bunch of mini bananas and a dozen avocado. The vendors jump up to the side of the car to bring us what we need. JJ barters, gently, in Swahili and we watch the vendors scramble to make change.

In the evening we head to a river on the other side of the property for sundowners. The kids jump off rocks into the water and we drink stiff gin & tonics. As we were settling in, a foursome of elephants come lumbering over the hill, obviously heading to the river for an evening drink. The mother, her two calves and a young male stood back and watched us for a while, trunks held aloft to pick up our scent. Eventually the mother and the two little ones ambled down, staying as far away from us as they could. The young male didn’t have the courage. We stood in awe, watching them pick their way across, stepping daintily on rocks in the riverbed and fishing their trunks in for a drink. While we watched, a herd of cows came over the ridge heading toward us. John, our guide, whistled softly to get the attention of the cowherd to indicate the presence of the elephants. The young men sprinted to the front of the herd, waving his stick overhead to try to turn them around. It's a good thing he managed, John said afterward, as the elephant would have charged the cows and sent them flying into the air like juggling balls with her tusks.

driving through nairobi

We are picked up at the airport by Moses and driven through Karen, the neighbourhood named after Karen Blixen. This is where she had her farm, he tells me, but the explosive growth of the city has now absorbed the former farmland. It’s now mansion after mansion, high green hedge, gates, country clubs, golf courses and the homes of diplomats and magnates. He drops us off at the Giraffe Centre, where the admission fee is used to introduce Nairobi schoolkids to the animals they’d otherwise never get to see. We climb up fifteen steps to a walkway circling a little round building. We are at eye level (about 17 feet up) with the graceful, gentle giraffes. We are given a handful of pellets (a bigger version of what comes out of the vending machines at the petting zoo) and instructed how to feed the giraffes — by holding the pellet between thumb and index. Hands held out gingerly, the giraffe sticks out its amazingly long, purple, sticky tongue to scoop it up. The dark colour apparently protects it from sunburn as the giraffe has to have it out a lot to collect 75 pounds of greenery a day. At 18 inches long, they use their tongues to reach around thorns to pull leaves off the acacia trees and also to clean out their nostrils. I don’t think people at the centre knew this when they were putting the pellet in their mouth and getting the french kiss of a lifetime.

We head over to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust where baby elephants whose mothers have been poached are reared before being rereleased into the wild. We are all directed to stand in a line along one side of a trail and to wait. We all look toward the brush in anticipation and suddenly out comes a parade of one adorable little elephant after another — home from their day of foraging. They bolt past us and are impossibly cute. Dumbo times thirty. Each elephant has its own little stall and a dedicated keeper who sleeps in a little bunk suspended from the stall’s ceiling, feeding the baby from a comically massive milk bottle at three hour intervals. Apparently when the baby is hungry he reaches up with his trunk to gently shake the man awake for his feed. One of the calves either has trouble finding or is refusing to go into his stall and he stomps around trumpeting through the crowd. He crashes into the blind rhino’s cage in confusion, no doubt trying to avoid all these strange onlookers. He might be a baby but I sure am happy none of us is in his way.

The driving in Nairobi is a bit manic. The road is often not quite wide enough for two cars. A constant game of chicken. And the speedbumps! We call them sleeping policemen, Moses says. I ask him about what happens when there is an accident. Noone wants an accident, he tells me. We try to sort it all out before the police come. What happens if you can’t? Then you have to fill out a report and tell the insurance company which is very expensive and could cost me a job as a driver. Can you convince the police not to file a report? Yes, but you have to pay and it costs between 50 and 100$. How many days’ pay does is that? I ask him. 5 to 10 days. Nairobi is a tough place to make a living, he says. He rents a one-bedroom flat with his wife and six-year-old son and it costs him 150$ a month. So you spend half your month’s salary on rent? Yes. You have to be very careful about how you spend the rest of your money, he says, and you have to find extra work to pay school fees and make ends meet. You can’t even get a job unless you have a personal contact and the government jobs are impossible unless you are related to someone. His home town is two hours away but there is no work there. I am Meru, he says, we are herders but everyone has too many animals and there is nothing to graze. We chat about politics and the corruption. Moses points out the house of the deputy president as we drive by, a garish castle that dwarfs everything around it. It must be easy to buy votes in a country where one person can afford a house like this while others make 10$ a day, I say. Oh yes, they show up in poor neighbourhoods with bags of money, he says.

Nairobi has so many of the elements I remember from the big cities in Mexico. We drive down a long boulevard, the wide shoulders of the road occupied by craftsmen plying their trade. Jewakali, we call them, “hot sun”, Moses says, because they do all their work outside. Bring them a picture of a piece of furniture from any magazine he tells me and they’ll recreate it for you for next to nothing. Men push open carts with a dozen jerrycans along the side of the road. They’ve filled them up at the borehole, he says. 5 Kenyan shillings for 20 litres and then they bring them further afield to sell it at a premium to save women from having to fetch the water themselves. He pulls up beside a mall where he is going to leave us for supper. The parking lot is gated and guarded by two men in uniform who ask us a few questions and chase off a little boy who comes begging beside the car. This is all since Westgate, he says. The parking lot is packed with well-to-do Kenyans out shopping or dining. We have dinner, at a pizzeria of all places, and it’s surprisingly good. We head off to the airport. This time through the city. The buses are like those in Mexico — an entirely private enterprise, each one blasting music and painted loudly as to be easily identifiable as the the one that got you there the fastest. As you can imagine, the buses are zigzagging in and out of traffic to get the edge on the competition. People stand along the side of the road and the buses race to get there first. A man jumps out before the bus has even stopped and begins chatting up the potential passengers. Before you know it he has rounded them up and is escorting them toward the door.

As we approach the airport, we pull up to what looks like a toll booth. No. It’s a security check, Moses tells us. Just leave your stuff in the car. You have to get out and walk through. I’ll pick you up on the other side. We all get out of the car in a daze, every passenger of every vehicle in the six lanes of traffic. We all cross between the cars to the sidewalk and head through a little building on the right side of the road — a crowd of very confused tourists milling around like sheep in the hot, dark night. We walk through a scanner without emptying our pockets. A little red light flashes and beeps but the bored-looking people in uniform don’t seem to notice or just don’t care. On the other side of the building we join the crowd strung out along the sidewalk watching their vehicle come through the booth, waiting for their driver to pull up to the sidewalk. The cars in the middle of the road cut across five lanes to pick up their passengers. Hugh jokes, wouldn’t it be funny if he just drove off with all our passports and bags. Moses pulls up and we all get back in the car. They’re mostly checking for bombs on the vehicle, Moses explains. Hopefully the vehicle check was more thorough than that of the passengers.

We pull up to the airport and say goodbye to Moses and our wonderful travelling companions. We go through two security checks to get to our gate. The extensive list of prohibited goods is illustrated with photos and is the size of a billboard — things like grenades, gasoline, rhino tusks and elephant foot trophies. The gate is jam packed with people waiting for the plane. A cancelled flight to Paris means that our flight to Amsterdam is now full and it’s late. We sit in the hard seats, fanning ourselves with our boarding passes in the 30+ heat. Despite the fact that it is the second of January the cheesiest Christmas music blasts from speakers overhead, interrupted only by deafening announcements in Swahili, German, Dutch, French and English about every possible gate change. For some reason everyone opts to get up and stand in line ages before the boarding is announced. The flight attendant asks everyone to please retake their seats but their seats have since been occupied by those who couldn’t find seats in the first place in this seriously hot, smelly, overfilled room. When the boarding finally begins we understand the volume of people as they announce that they’re beginning with rows 60 through 69.

Kwaheri Kenya. We will never forget you.