September 20, 2005

After the thrill is gone

Kitale, Kenya

OK: when exactly did Lonely Planet become Terror Planet? Excerpts from the Nairobi section of their current East Africa guide:

Nairobi, or 'Nairobbery' as it is often referred to by residents, is regarded as the most dangerous city in Africa ... never walk around downtown with a daypack, bum-bag, camera, wristwatch, mobile phone or jewellery ... carry only as much money as you need ... at night, mugging is a risk anywhere - take a taxi, even if you're only going a few blocks. Also: Most local people choose to travel via the unique transport phenomenon that is the matatu ... many are driven by madmen with no concept of personal danger ... in some cases there is no alternative, but if there is a bus, train or plane, take it.

I violated all of these strictures on my first day in town, and frquently thereafter, and lived to tell the tale with never a nervous moment. And telling people not to take matatus in Kenya is like advising visitors to New York not to take the subway. I'm not saying crime and psychotic driving aren't rampant, but come on, whatever happened to common caution rather than terror? How about "be careful, don't flash your valuables, use your street smarts, stick to well-lit and populous areas after dark, and if a matatu driver seems erratic, have him stop and immediately get out." Why come to Africa in the first place if you're just going to spend all your time huddling frightened in your hotel rom?

I only reluctantly reverted to LP to this trip, because there's no Rough Guide to East Africa. LP's been going downhill for years now; I switched to RG in part because, after comparing successive LP Australia editions a couple years ago, I realized that the new one should have been emblazoned with "Now with 20% less information, and lifeless writing!" Sigh. How the mighty are fallen. What happened to Lonely Planet as the voice of intrepid travel? You know. Back when they were coolTM.


cities are like shopping malls, you see one you've seen them all

Nairobi, I'm sad to say, is a dull and ugly city. But at least it's cool. Temperature-cool: although a mere 50km south of the equator, it perches in highlands 1600m above sea level. There are skyscrapers, banks, five-star hotels, bookstores and supermarkets and shopping malls that wouldn't look much out of place in Toronto; my contacts (I met two there) assure me it's a very nice place to live; but it doesn't have much for visitors. That said, its inhabitants are incredibly friendly; everyone from my contacts, Rasta-man taxi driver David, to two women who approached me in a bar on a dare1 and talked with me for an hour, was extremely welcoming and fun to talk to. But I was still pretty glad to get out of the place.

I have to admit, a lot of that underwhelmedness is probably eye-of-the-beholder stuff. I used to love exploring new cities. But when you've seen two dozen Third World (excuse me, "developing nation") cities across six continents, maybe you really have seen them all. I used to walk around them lost in fascination, watching and analyzing everything and everyone I saw, absorbing as much as I could; now I just wander through, jaded and a little bored. Good thing I still love the wilderness, and am still fascinated by rural areas, or travel wouldn't hold much for me. (And besides, this is a work not pleasure trip.) Really my only memorable Nairobi excursion was to the legendary restaurant Carnivore.

Vegetarians may not wish to click that link.

1Yes, prostitution is also rampant in Nairobi. This was't that.


Akamba away
Yesterday I took an Akamba bus to the town of Kitale, where I write this; a theoretical seven-hour journey that stretched into nearly ten.

The big yellow buses assemble outside their offices in downtown Nairobi, just down a cracked and potholed street just down from the ornate but beaten-down Marble Arch Hotel. Taxi drivers cluster, waiting for incoming passengers, and stalls carved into low concrete buildings sell food, drinks, mobile-phone SIM cards. A constant stream of brightly painted matatus zooms past the nearest intersection, where hawkers in traffic's midstream try to sell pink-and-brass hatracks larger than they to passing motorists, but this road is relatively quiet.

The bus itself is rusted and ramshackle but in reasonable condition. We depart almost on time, and less than half full (as opposed to matatus, which leave when full.) I have a window seat to the left, right above the luggage racks. The rest of the passengers are mostly women, a couple of them Asian2, and mostly better dressed than I. The bus groans, wheezes, and shakes, but not in worryng ways. We fight our way through downtown Nairobi's traffic, out past the parks, full of people walking and resting, through the leafy green suburbs, and into the enormous Kigale slums, the largest in East Africa, a sea of rusting corrugated-tin roofs and walls, with occasional concrete buildings. We slow down at a huge market, stalls made of branches tied together and covered by single tarps or crazy patchwork quilts of canvas. Everywhere there is orangeish dirt, green only at the outline of civilization. The piles of fruits and vegetables are bright green and orange and red, incredibly vivid against their dull colour-drained background.

Into an area where tiny farming plots vie for space with shacks, concrete huts, and occasionally houses, all surrounded by grass. And then out of civilization proper, through the grassy hills and ridges of the Kenyan Highlands. But not for long. Less than half an hour out of Nairobi, with no warning whatsoever, the road suddenly reaches the edge of the escarpment; and far below and far away, past a diminshing array of scalloped plateaus interspersed with mountains, lies the mighty Rift Valley, carved into the earth from the Dead Sea to Mozambique, from whence humanity itself emerged some tens of thousands of yeas ago.

It's quite a sight. There are various viewpoints, all of them guarded by one or dozens of curio stalls. Our bus stops at none of them. We continue through forest. I don't know much about trees, but I know that these ones are alien to me, and it's subconsciously disturbing; I can suddenly feel how far away from home I've come, looking at these foreign conifers.

The road descends. The trees change to upswept, parasol-shaped acacia thorn trees, something avian in their build, and what looks like a weird half-tree half-cactus crossbreed, among others, pockmarking wide fields of grass - savannah, really. Herds of zebras graze by the side of the two-lane highway, and a troop of baboons, Africa's biggest pests, patrols its dirt shoulder. We pass trucks and slower buses, all of them beat to hell and belching black filth as they struggle up hills, in an endless series of near-suicidal overtaking maneuvers. Occasionally our driver drag-races buses run by other companies. I'm less concerned than I probably should be. It's not my first such ride, by a long shot.

We stop in a town midway. I eat a chocolate bar and drink a Coke from one of the food stalls next to the gas station where we've stopped. Safari jackets and vests are for sale, as are wristwatches, but nobody hassles me. There's very little hassle in Kenya; touts and taxi drivers are content to take No for an answer. Onwards after a ten-minute break. Past billboards selling Faluh Ye Kenya Tea, Rhino cement, Mumias sugar, anti-tick medication, among many other products, or exhorting you to 'BE A GOOD DRIVER AND BE PROUD OF IT'. Past tiny dirt towns of tin-roofed concrete strip malls that make me think of Wild West movies. Past a dozen police checkpoints, which consist of two yellow spike strips spread across the two lanes with a gap in between, so that traffic has to slow down and zigzag between them, though they don't seem to actually stop anyone. Past long stretches of green, rolling hills, cultivated in small patches, pastoral and pretty, where men and women and boys wave lettuce and carrots and roast corn at passing traffic, hoping to make a few shillings from their crop. Past schoolchildren moving in groups from place to place, flocks of indigo and orange uniforms. Fences made of posts, close together or strung with barbed wire. Wooden houses, tin or concrete shacks (or tin-roofed concrete), mud huts with conical thatched roofs. Hunched women carrying massive bundles of firewood. Cows, donkeys, goats, a few sheep; no pigs, no horses.

Midway to Eldoret, right at a major intersection, we encounter a traffic jam; trucks are backed up as far as the eye can see, and drivers have switched off their engines and stand outside smoking - whatever it is, it's major. We weave past trucks full of rebar, of vegetables, of unidentified jute bags, and take the other route, a time-saving detour, I suppose. Through even prettier highlands. The people who live here, not accustomed to passing buses, stare at us with surprise and wave as they rest languidly in shadowy patches by the road. Settlements are marked by more concrete-and-tin strip malls fronted by dirt, painfully ugly, with crudely painted signs announcing tools, food, a chemist, a butcher. Always a butcher - Kenya's national dish is nyama choma, aka "hunks of roast meat".

We puncture a tyre. (NA readers: get a flat tire.) Conveniently, the next place to pull over is an absolutely stunning viewpoint, from which we can see once more down into the Rift Valley, through green misty hills. It's easy to see why the British fell in love with the hghlands. A stall here sells lettuce, carrots, beans, buckets full of potatoes. I'm starving - all I've had today are two pieces of toast and that chocolate bar- but I don't eat any carrots; they're all washed in local water, and my stomach isn't ready for that yet. A stile leads us over a barbed-wire cattle fence to a few crude tables and benches. Almost everyone else pulls out a cell phone and calls in their lateness to whoever's waiting for them. They mostly speak Swahili to each other, but English is common too. After half an hour the new tire is on, and we continue to the large town of Eldoret. Street kids ask for money. A man tries to sell me a set of clippers. I buy cashews and another chocolate bar, have a cup of strong sweet tea, visit a noxious fly-infested washroom, and back on the bus for the last leg to Kitale.

2Most stores and businesses in East Africa are owned and run by the relatively tiny and relatively wealthy Asian community; much like the Lebanese in West Africa, the Chinese in Indonesia, etc. I'm not sure why Third World economies are so often dominated by tiny non-indigenous ethnic groups, but they are.


Place where the spirit lives and rests

That's what itale means; I know this because it's what my father (who speaks, or at least spoke, Swahili) named our cottage north of Toronto. It's also a very pleasant, green city. OK, the market and matatu areas are the usual beaten-dirt areas of seething chaos, but the Alakara Hotel, the well-worn but comfy-enough place where I stayed last night (700 shillings or $9 US, including a big breakfast), is right across from flowering trees in which gigantic storks roost. There's a wonderfully quirky little museum, which features exhibits on British war medals in Africa, evolution-of-humanity skulls, walls full of stuffed animal heads, a desultory geology exhibit, tools once used by local cultures, a model of the Cutty Sark, a coelecanth poster, a stuffed cheetah, a snakepit, a crocodile pit (featuring a sign with the rather astonishing claim "These animals are friendly but can be DANGEROUS", probably the first and last time anyone has ever called a crocodile 'friendly'), a tortoise pit, and a 3km nature trail through muddy, bug-laden, virgin rainforest out back. And there's the Internet. Hence this post.


I've probably stayed too long here - I want to get to a lodge outside Mt Elgon Park today, so I can spend all tomorrow hiking there, and matatus are harder to catch as the day wears on - so I must get back on the road. Apologies to those of you I owe emails to. More next time.


I have to keep reminding myself to slow down. I blame the Lariam.

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