“Scrappy” is the word that comes to mind when I compare Kenya to Tanzania, in its makeshift, ramshackle market areas, in its more persistent and less polite hawkers, in its faster and more plentiful traffic, in its pot-holed roads in areas away from the government favored/transportation funded Nairobi area, and then, in its assertive, conversation initiating and engaging people. We very much enjoyed our tour here, even with its pitfalls. It was great to be able to speak English again and have meaningful conversations with Kenyans. Among many topics, people talked proudly about the constitutional reforms they voted for in a recent referendum that limited and shared presidential powers (using our system of checks and balances as an example). Our president, Barak Obama, and his family ties to Kenya was also a favorite subject of conversation.
Kenya’s views were stunning. My favorites were coming down out of the green highlands after Nairobi into the Great Rift Valley with its vast dry plain stretched out on either side of us, the emerald green tea plantations rolling up and down the hills and glowing in the late afternoon sun, the hundreds of camels dotting the dry landscape near Lake Turkana, and, my favorite of the favorites, giraffe families eating the leaves atop acacia trees as we biked alongside in Hell’s Gate National Park.
One memorable, but not favorite, experience in Kenya was getting robbed in Kigali, a city west and north of Nairobi. As budget travelers without a tour guide we are more vulnerable to being taken advantage of. My personal feeling is it is in this vulnerability where we have richer interactions with people and their culture, most of the interactions having nothing to do with being taken advantage of. I would not give this part of traveling up for the safer organized tour. In reality, we have many more monetary resources than the majority of the people in the majority of the countries we have traveled. In reality, also, 99.99% of people are more interested in our safety and enjoyment than are interested in stealing our monetary resources. I rarely worry about my personal safety, except from traffic on busy roads, but I always try to be aware of opportunities to “lose” my stuff to this .01% of people who might help themselves, given the opportunity. We stayed in a fairly nice hotel in Kigali. Unlike most every other place we stayed, the staff did not seem interested in us, or in our trip, or even in David’s bike (very unusual). We commented to each other on their lack of jovial interaction. In the morning, while eating breakfast downstairs, someone broke into our room through the window and stole our computer, my old camera, about $40 in cash, and my stash of earrings that had more sentimental value than real value. Because it had happened in the same room, through the same window (that looked out onto a small open area inside the hotel), in the same way three months before, the police were certain it was an inside job. They took textbook perfect fingerprints (according to the detective) on the panes of glass removed from the window and brought us and the entire staff to the station to take our fingerprints for comparison. There was lots of drama. Phone numbers were exchanged so we could call and keep track of the investigation’s progress as we continued cycling in Kenya. We were hopeful they might recover the computer (they didn’t or if they did they never informed us). I was disappointed I hadn’t locked the computer away in the lockable cabinet in the room after I had used it, a precaution we usually take when leaving our room. Even though the lock was flimsy and easily broken, at least we would have made it a little harder for the thieves. The lessons I learned from this robbery were to remember a locked door doesn’t mean our stuff is secure. Extra precautions must be a habit. I will, also, pay attention to attitudes and interactions with hotel staff. A bad feeling may be a good warning to be a little more careful.
Almost half the time we spent in Kenya was in Nairobi. I didn’t find it a particularly attractive or inviting city, although its skyline with its numerous tall buildings and its busy downtown area was the most American-like we had yet seen in Africa. In David’s blog, he talked about a Nairobi malaise. We often feel aimless and out of sorts when in large cities with too much time off the bikes. The highlight, however, was our hotel, Milimani Packpackers. The staff was exceptional, in their friendliness, their ease, and in their concern for us that extended beyond just our comfort. It was wonderful to see Bill, the American cyclist we first met in Mozambique and then again in Malawi who we knew would be staying there. Catching up with him and comparing our adventures in and our impressions of the places we had been since we last saw him was very fun. There we also met Chinese cyclists Juesheng and fiance Xouli. Juesheng, our age, a former businessman owning several coffee shops in Shanghai, is spending 7 years cycling the world. Xouli is a Chinese Literature teacher who on her vacations meets Juesheng with her bike in different parts of the world, much like I considered doing when David and I began talking about this trip. They convinced me that whatever differences there are between us as Chinese and Americans, they are very few compared to the similarities we have as cyclists. We hope to see Juesheng in the United States on that leg of his journey and perhaps Xouli will have left her job by that time to join him.