Kenya: Nairobi to the Masai Mara, Part I

A 3 hour bumpy van ride, a short flight in a tiny plane, a 5 hour layover, then we glide onto a large runway….Nairobi! At last….Kenya. Much more developed than any city I have seen in Tanzania, Nairobi is still a long way from a sophisticated metropolis. The Kenya leg of my journey did not include a volunteer assignment or any other activity that would immerse me in the community. I would be a tourist for this week. So unlike my usual blogs, this blog will be about accommodations, sights, and safari.








After my two weeks of basic lodging in Tanzania, I splurged on upscale accommodations in both Nairobi and the Masai Mara. In Nairobi I stayed at the beautiful, relatively new (completed in 2012) Eka Hotel. It’s a clean, modern hotel situated about 7 miles from Jomo Kenyatta Airport. As with most hotels that cater to tourists, the Eka is highly secure. Guards ran a mirror under my driver’s car to check for explosives (yikes), guests walk through a metal detector at the entrance, while bags are run through a scanner. Assuming I haven’t scared you off, let me say a few things about security risks in Nairobi. The airport-like security at hotels is primarily the result of terrorist bombings (US Embassy in 1998, Westgate Mall 2013). Below is an excerpt from the UK government website on Kenya:

There’s a heightened threat of terrorist attacks in Nairobi and the coast and resort areas of Mombasa and Malindi, and northern border counties. The Inspector General of the Kenyan Police has called on the public to adopt a higher level of vigilance and report any suspicious people or activity straight away. Attacks could be indiscriminate in places frequented by foreigners including hotels, bars, restaurants, sports bars and nightclubs, sporting events, supermarkets, shopping centres, coastal areas including beaches, airports, buses, trains and other transport hubs. Places of worship including churches and mosques have also been targeted. Be particularly vigilant in these areas.
On 14 March 2018, the Inspector General of the Kenyan Police reported that a major terrorist attack, targeting Nairobi, had been prevented by Kenyan police in February 2018.
Six British nationals were killed in the September 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.

But this should not deter you from visiting Kenya. Really. I have learned to consider government advisories as part of my travel planning, but I don’t let them scare me off. For many travelers to Kenya, Nairobi is just a stopover on their way to safari. I chose to spend 2 ½ days in Nairobi because I wanted to visit Karen Blixen’s house (author of Out of Africa), the Sheldrick Center for Wildlife, and the Kenya National Theater. I just follow my savvy traveler rules to carefully see what is important to me. There are other reasons to be safety conscious in Nairobi. Unemployment is high and street crime is a fact of life. As I do frequently, I was traveling alone after my time in Tanzania, so I worked with Go2Africa to arrange a driver/escort (Jeffrey) who picked me up at the airport, drove me everywhere I wanted to go, waited for me, and delivered me safely to the airport on my return from Safari. This is Africa, however, and not as expensive as it sounds.

If you have seen the movie, Out of Africa, you will recognize Karen Blixen’s house as you walk across the lawn to the front porch. The vision in my mind of Meryl Streep as Karen and Robert Redford as Denys Finch Hatton, standing on that porch gave me a moment of bliss. The interior of the house still contains Ms Blixen’s personal items and furniture. Her farm, however, is now a development of luxury, gated homes, so there are no views of the coffee plantation she labored over.








Just down the road, on the site of Karen Blixen’s original farmhouse, is the restaurant Tamambo. Here I enjoyed a delicious (but expensive by Kenya standards) lunch in the garden. A cold Kenyan beer, white tablecloths, and fragrant trees add to the ambiance. The food, the setting, and the connection to Karen Blixen make the splurge worthwhile.








My next stop was the David Sheldrick Wildlife Center, where their primary mission is the rescue and raising of orphaned elephants. The center performs vital work that supports the declining elephant and rhino populations, but I would skip it frankly. Entrance tickets include watching a parade of six or so baby elephants marched into a circular pen where mahouts bottle feed them. That ticket money supports the center and their work…a good thing. But the show feels contrived, and the crowds are daunting. And after all….you’ll be going on safari and see elephants in their habitat, without being squeezed in by crowds.




The Giraffe Center in Nairobi requires just a short visit. There is not a lot to see. Giraffes, and a few other animals roam the grounds near the visitor viewing area (a raised covered platform). The attraction here is that some of the giraffes walk right up to the platform where you are provided lettuce to feed them. So you can be really up close…touching, feeding, being licked! Kids will love it.








On the night before my flight to the Masai Mara, I asked Jeffrey to drive me to the Kenya National Theater. They were putting on the musical, Sarafina, a story about students in South Africa during apartheid. Jeffrey seemed surprised by my request. You won’t find anything about the Kenya National Theater in tourist brochures. I had to do some digging and expressly ask Go2Africa about it because I like to see live performances when I travel. It was worth the effort. This rousing, sad but inspiring, musical was excellent. The cast was talented and engaging. It was clear that I was one of just a few non-locals in attendance, but people sitting near me, as well as members of the cast made me feel welcome.




I should mention that during my travels in both Tanzania and Kenya, US dollars were widely accepted. Still, I always stop at an airport ATM and pick up foreign currency upon arrival. However, by the time I went to the theater I had used all but a few of my Tanzanian shillings and prepared to pay in dollars. This was the one and only time in Kenya I was told they couldn’t accept dollars. What to do?! Luckily Jeffrey carried cash for just such emergencies and he lent me the 1500 shillings ($15) for the show.
Early the next morning, I bid Jeffrey goodbye at Wilson Airport, Nairobi’s domestic airport. Most safari flights leave from Wilson, but rarely leave on time. This is Kenya after all.

Next….off to the Masai Mara.

Tanzania – It Takes a Village

Africa….what is it about this continent? After I lived and volunteered for two months in South Africa in 2015, I knew it would not be my last visit to this special part of the world. In early 2016, I toured Morocco for a month, and in early 2018 I travelled for two weeks in Egypt. Of course, these two North African countries are not what we envision when we think of Africa, but they are examples of how diverse the continent is.
During a chance conversation last year while I attended a workshop in Paris, I learned about Global Volunteers and the work they are doing in Tanzania. Bingo! Of course! That would be my next destination, and it didn’t hurt that Tanzania is next door to Kenya, a country I have come to love from afar through books.
The bonus to all of this is that Global Volunteers’ efforts in Tanzania are having a real impact in the villages they serve and I wanted in on that. GV assigned me to work in the little village of Mkalanga, which is a short drive from our living quarters in the village of Ipalamwa. If I had to list just two surprising things about this place they would be….it’s colder than you think, and asphalt is not to be taken for granted. This is the second time this year that I have misjudged the chilliness in a foreign country. The difference in Israel was…I went to a store and bought an extra sweater. In Mkalanga, there are no clothing stores. The roads are mostly dirt and rocks, which means long, bone jarring rides. On those rare occasions when we happened onto a paved road, we cheered with excitement.

The things that didn’t surprise me were the kindness of people in the villages, the dedication of the volunteers and local caregivers, and the beauty of the country when viewed through the lens of openness and understanding. The human spirit is an amazing thing. The people in Mkalanga live simply in basic shelter, don’t always have enough to eat, have no running water or disposable income, work with babies strapped to their backs, and walk miles for medical care. And yet, their smiling faces and generosity were evident every day. A mother with three young children offered us a stalk of sugar cane after we labored over installing her hand-washing station. A mother of four who had lost her husband last year had nothing to offer, so she went with us to other homes and helped us dig the holes for the stations…with her one year old snuggled on her back, and a big smile on her face. Everywhere we went, the littlest children, too young for school, followed us. I greet them in Swahili which causes them to erupt in surprised gales of laughter. They are dressed in raggedy clothes, not warm enough for the chilly weather, but they are still joyful, intrigued by us, the strange visitors to their village.
The school age children would run to greet us outside their schools, often serenading us with happy songs in Swahili. They cajoled us into singing American songs, and danced the hokey pokey with us. The village children have no toys, don’t really know what toys are, so these interactions with the strange visitors are a welcome and exciting distraction.
GV employs Tanzanian citizens as part of the Reaching Children’s Potential program. The caregivers, young single women, have bachelors or masters degrees and live in the village. They have left their cities and towns in order to dedicate themselves to the families they serve in these remote villages. Almost everyday I worked with Elkana, who has a Masters in Social Linguistics and hails from the town of Iringa. She was part interpreter, social worker, laborer, and facilitator and I came to admire her for her kindness, work ethic, and intellect. My fellow volunteers would offer the same praise for the other six caregivers with whom they worked. You don’t make progress like GV has in Ipalamwa and Mkalanga without hardworking, dedicated people.
So, what was a day in the life of a volunteer in Mkalanga like? During our first few days in Ipalamwa, we were awakened every morning by the roosters…at 4:30 a.m! Eventually the rooster crows faded to background noise and we slept through them. After coffee and breakfast, the volunteers and our local leader, Winnie, had a brief morning meeting, reviewed our assignments for the day, and headed off to villages and schools. About six of our group of 17 volunteers taught in the local primary and secondary schools. Others conducted workshops for the women participating in the RCP program. And the rest of us spent our days visiting women and children in their homes, getting updates on the children, and installing hand-washing stations. We returned to our living quarters at the end of the day, gathered in a sunny outdoor spot with a cold beer or glass of wine, and shared the stories of our day.
Our evening meeting was followed by dinner at 7 PM. Our dining room serves many purposes: meals, meetings, and classroom for the workshops. None of our buildings are heated, so there would often be a roaring fire in the dining room fireplace at dinner. There is no television of course, nor internet, so we entertained ourselves with getting to know each other, playing games, and an occasional discussion with a local expert on Tanzanian culture. Volunteer housing included comfortable beds, attached bathrooms, running water, and electricity.
On weekends, we went on safari at Ruaha National Park, participated in local church services, visited the city of Iringa, and star gazed at night.
We can look at pictures on the internet or the news, or in books and see an image of a faraway place. But visiting, meeting, helping, learning, living in that faraway place turns the image into an understanding of real people and their very different, but very real lives. Those rocky dirt roads I bristled at on day one looked very different to me later on. What I now saw, as the sun lowered in the African sky, was this hauntingly vivid burnished red road amidst the beautiful banana trees and sunflowers, with the occasional rooster crossing, and a stream of human life walking by – lives that have no need for paved roads.