I can’t see a damn thing.
My head is tangled in a mosquito net, my eyes sting from the DEET sweating out of my forehead as I wake. Wake is a pretty loose term as I’m not even sure I fell asleep. Jetlag.
Somehow I free my arm from the netting to grab my headlamp, the darkness exists beyond even the interruption of ambient light. With the headlamp on, I start to free myself from this Gordian knot, and I can’t help but to feel like a dolphin resigned to the fate of chunk light in a small can on a grocery store shelf in Naperville, Illinois.
Sleep at this point is hopeless. I haven’t had more than three hours of sleep in the last two days…but my body is convinced that it’s time to be awake. Actually, I am quite pleased with the room compared to what I expected in Nairobi. But at this time of morning nothing seems luxurious.
I spend a few minutes writing by headlamp before taking a cold, confined shower holding my breath for fear of breathing in droplets of water destined to turn my intestines into diarrheic super highways. I’m normally neurotic, but with a climb of Kili coming in the next two days I’m triply neurotic to avoid sickness. As I dry off, the first blue tones of dawn slowly start to brighten the room.
This is my first daylight look at Africa.
I arrived late, probably just a few hours earlier, after something absurd like 30 hours in transit. I say absurd, but the reality of the matter is that I traveled around the world from Phoenix in the amount of time it not too long ago took to get to Los Angeles.
The flight out of Phoenix was a reminder of why I needed to leave. The guy sitting in front of me, we’ll call him Delta Don the Listener, was subjected to a three-hour diatribe regarding the state of the American insurance industry from Delta Doug the Talker. They were leaving a conference in Phoenix, which typically is the case through the winter months. I can’t lie here: I was in awe of Delta Doug the Talker’s ability to continue talking through almost the entire flight to JFK. Beverage and meal cart (meal cart? Who am I kidding this is an American carrier) service only briefly stopped the talking. This is impressive because Delta Doug the Talker wasn’t even seated near Delta Don the Listener, so he stood in the aisle to continue this conversation. And to be honest, Delta Don the Listener may not have really been listening.
This is what I had to get away from, this absurd dance of success and status. Delta Doug the Talker wasn’t talking to enlighten Delta Don the Listener, he was talking to establish his place as a successful, busy man on this flight. He was spraying his territory. And there was no escaping that musk in this tin can…even with headphones.
But in the moment it kept me distracted from the nervousness that I didn’t want to admit was there.
Am I ready for this?? The question loomed large in my mind as we flew over the snowy mountains of my native Pennsylvania. Kilimanjaro was item number one on the itinerary, that combined with traveling to a place rawer than I’ve ever been had me on edge. I was afraid of Africa.
In New York I was riding a tarmac shuttle to my KLM flight to Amsterdam.
“Are you going to Africa?” the question came from behind me.
“Yeah,” I said turning, a bit of confused. After a minute of awkward silence, “Why did you think I was going to Africa?”
“Oh, well I saw the book,” he said pointing to the copy of Dark Star Safari in my right hand. “My girlfriend’s reading the same book.”
As we rode the tarmac shuttle we talked about the book and made introductions. They were Brian and Amy, a 30ish couple from Miami flying the same leg to Amsterdam but then going on to Mombai. They run a non-profit in Kenya, and were looking into opening another one in India. I was intrigued by this couple traveling like me, but with a deeper mission. Once it came to boarding the plane they found their seat in business class and I kept on walking to my cozy economy seat. The conversation was polite, but I didn’t really expect to talk to them again.
I had planned on sleeping across the Atlantic, instead I was wide awake…the question nagging on the fringes of my consciousness, Am I ready for this??
Arriving in Amsterdam, I struggled to come to terms with my existence on the time space continuum. I was bleary-eyed and sleepless. My plan was to find a cozy corner at the departure gate and sleep for a few hours. But as I walked off the plane I passed Brian and Amy and we started talking again, which led to sitting down for coffee.
For me, this would go down as a providential chance meeting. For them, it’s probably something that faded into the background. They had an easy manner exuding a contagious energy. They both had a supreme passion and confidence that only bolstered my spirits. I tried not to let my nervousness show, but I’m certain that my face and demeanor was a highway billboard of trepidation. And yet, for every fear and concern I raised they had an anecdote to make me realize that my fear was irrational and unfounded. They were phenomenally better traveled than I, but it wasn’t held as a badge of superiority—as is the common custom along the backpacker routes.
“Don’t get me wrong…you will definitely have a moment where you’re like, ‘Holy Shit!! I’m in Africa!’ enjoy it,” Amy said with a glimmer of passion in her eye.
We continued talking about Africa, Coachella, Burning Man and whatever else came up for the next couple hours, until their flight to Mombai was called for boarding.
I needed that.
I needed that final push of confidence to vault me from trepidation to exhilaration. It allowed me to focus more on my individual state, rather than letting my mind run away with worries and doubts. More immediately, they made me feel better about Nairobi.
This was the exact moment that my African adventure began.
Sitting at the table, alone, watching a thousand people scurry through the airport, I became aware. None of these people in Amsterdam know me…and when I land in Nairobi I will be officially off the grid in the most faraway and remote place I could think of. I was excited.
On the plane I sat next to a Dutch businessman who seemed a bit shifty. He filled every inch of his middle seat, spilling over into mine. I’ve never seen someone sweat so much doing so little. I woke from a short nap to his elbow jabbing into my side as he ate dinner. After tracking down the stewardess, and getting my meal, we competed for elbow territory, this is the plight of being left-handed. He started talking to me, mid-chew, about my vacation plans. He said he flies into Nairobi once a year, only to get back to Europe as quickly as possible.
“There’s a reason they call it Nairobbery,” he said, I felt ten icy stares rain upon our row. I decided to end the conversation by replacing my headphones and looking back out the window.
The Saharan sea of sand drifts underneath the plane wing as the sun disappears on a second day of travel. My arrival in Nairobi was nighttime.
Walking off the plane the atmosphere was heavier and hotter, even hours after sundown. The mildewed piss-tainted swimming pool smell of the developing tropical world washed over me. Jomo Kenyatta International Airport is locked in 1967 with the baby-food-carrot oranges and apricot beiges offsetting a healthy crop of duty free shops, of which there are two for every traveler…just in case you forget your Toblerone at home.
Lining up to pass through customs I’m immediately aware of every mosquito in the airport, the buzzing of their tiny little wings flapping fervently in hopes of offloading their parasitic contents upon freshly arrived hosts. Every slightest itch of my skin brought certainty of a malarious future. I dig into my carry-on bag for my 10,000% DEET and apply while waiting in line, only to find out that indoor application repels humans as effectively as bugs. My hands are greasy, I applied enough to keep a village on the White Nile mosquito-free for years, and the ink from the plastic bag I’m carrying melts off onto my palms, which is then inadvertently applied as I wipe the imaginary mosquitoes away from my forehead. By the time I get to the Kenyan customs official I’m half in blackface, my palms greasier than an oil rig mechanic. It’s a miracle I wasn’t detained.
The Great DEET Debacle(as it shall be known henceforth) was enough to keep me occupied through most of the hour I stood in the customs line. One guy behind me kept cursing under his breath, pacing about hands on hips breathing deeply only to exhale loudly through his clinched teeth. Clearly he had something important to do…at 10 pm. Eventually he hit his limit, and with a loud agitated grunt he stomped away from the line never to be seen again.
As I waited the voice of my friend Julie circulated in my head, “Everything in Africa takes for-ev-er. If you can accept that you’ll be OK.”
And so I accepted it. Although I was nervous that the ride I had organized wouldn’t be so patient. I passed through easily enough, collected my bags and walked toward the exit (or more appropriately the entrance). As I walked through the door there were a hundred people pressed up against the ropes marking the exit walkway. Most of them were cab drivers shouting for business.
“You need taxi!”
“Come with me, I take you to hotel.”
“I take you to Nairobi!”
They crawled upon each other undulating like oceanic waves lapping forward for a fare. Somehow through this madness I saw a skinny man standing smiling earnestly holding a sign that said “Ankarlo”. I pointed to him and gave him a thumbs-up and like a flash he was next to me grabbing one of my bags. I was apprehensive at first…this was Nairobbery after all—getting robbed, ripped off, mugged, assaulted, killed or raped was an eventual certainty, at least according to Trip Advisor.
Afrifact #346: 95% of what is said on online forums is b.s.
My driver, Frederick, introduced himself as we walked to the car, I reached for the door handle.
“That is my door, you must get in on the other side,” Frederick said pointing to the passenger side, which I assumed to be the drivers side.
“Sorry about that, I forgot you guys drove on the left side here,” I said sliding into the car, an early-90’s Toyota.
“No problem, no problem. So where do you come from?” Fredrick asked while pulling out of the parking lot.
“Aaah, Obama! Obama! Do you like Obama?”
“Yes, Obama. And yes I like him very much, do you?”
“Aaaah, yes. Obama is a cool guy, you know. I see pictures of him smoking cigarettes with a lot of hair when he was young and I think he is a cool guy!”
Leaving the airport the traffic is bumper to bumper.
“There is only traffic when these planes come in…so many people. Every night KLM and British Airways land together and there is traffic,” Frederick said.
It was apparent we were moving slower than usual as Frederick craned his neck out of the window shouting to a driver ahead in Swahili.
“The gate is broken, that is why it takes so long. It happens sometimes.”
After a few minutes traffic started moving again and once we were past the broken-now-less-broken gate we started moving fast. I rolled down the window to inhale the dense African air. High barbed-wire fencing sectioned off wide tracts of empty land on both sides of the road.
“Look closely maybe you see zebras, they come here sometimes at night,” Fredrick said, explaining it was part of a game reserve adjacent to the city. I was overwhelmed…zebras, really…just like that?!?.
A few miles down the road we began passing some hotels. Frederick pointed off to the right.
“That hotel has ice skating…the only place in Kenya. That is where the pilots stay,” then he pointed off to the other side of the road. “And sometimes they stay there, that’s where the Americans stayed after the embassy bombing.”
The embassy bombing…it was an event I had admittedly and embarrassingly forgotten about.
“Yes, that’s right. That happened here. Is there anything where the embassy was? A memorial?” I asked.
“There is not much, we can drive by there if you want,” I nodded and Frederick excitedly added. “And I can show you the Obama tree, he planted a tree when he was here.”
I said sure and away we sped into downtown Nairobi. We drove by Uhuru Park and Frederick pointed into the darkness at the tree. Actually there were many trees, and I had no idea which one he was pointing to so I just said, “Ah yeah, now I see it! Cool, thanks.” And we drove off.
“There is empty space between these buildings, that is where the embassy was,” Frederick said pointing to the left. In the darkness it was impossible to see anything. The streets were mobbed with people walking without regard to traffic.
“Do a lot of people get hit by cars here?”
“Yes. Because people don’t pay attention and walk in the street, and other people drive too fast. It happens,” he said, the streets becoming more choked with people. Clubs on both sides of the street seemed to be billowing people with every beat.
“It’s the first weekend of the month, everyone has money so they get drunk,” Frederick said.
Two blocks later the sidewalks darkened and emptied. Garbage piled on both sides of the road, and only shadows dared appear. Frederick pulled up to the hostel and issued a warning.
“You should not leave the hostel after dark,” he pulled my luggage out of the trunk and opened the security gate. I tipped him and arranged for a ride the next morning.
Inside the hostel was a different planet to outside, well lit, clean and orderly. I got my room key and walked up to my room dropped my bags and climbed to the rooftop bar. I took my first sips of a Tusker beer staring out on the Nairobi skyline digesting my first contact, my initial reactions.
Holy shit, I was in Africa.