Sunday, 23 January 2011

Kenya 2011: A visit to the motherland


Because I am the luckiest person in the world, I was invited to be a guest instructor-slash-chaperone on a conservation-oriented field course to Kenya, despite the fact that I've never been to the country or, in fact, any other country on the continent of Africa. In my defense, I do actually do conservation research, thus I was (theoretically) capable of making some sort of contribution to the education of the 50 or so Master's students on the trip.

I immediately accepted the invitation, and only later investigated details of the trip and the country. To my surprise, I found out that Kenya can actually be a dangerous place to travel to, a fact of which I had previously been unaware. As is the case in most developing countries, travelers should not be ostentatious about jewelry or gadgets (such as my beloved traveling companion, the iPhone), and should keep a close watch on their money, credit cards, and passports. I was a bit unsettled after discovering this, but then I remember that this was pretty much the same warning I was given before my high school trip to Paris, where thieving Gypsies had a reputation for preying upon members of my school's annual French class field trip group.
Kenyans may also steal from tourists in more subtle ways--vendors routinely charge "mzungus" (a slang term for outsiders of European descent) exorbitant fees for products and services, though prices can be reduced via haggling, if you are willing.

Humans are not the only danger in Kenya, of course. In a country with leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, lions, and hippos, animal attacks are not unheard of, though are probably unlikely for the average, careful visitor, who generally experiences nature from a comfy seat in a 4x4. Across all of Africa, the most common and feared animal is the mosquito, and antimalarial pills must be consumed for the duration of a visit to Kenya. Likewise, it is necessary to get vaccinations for, at a minimum, yellow and typhoid fevers; hepatitis and rabies vaccines are also recommended. Cumulatively, this requires over a half dozen (sometimes very uncomfortable) shots and a couple hundred dollars. Once in the country, additional health-related precautions are required; it is only safe to drink bottled water or water that has been boiled, even when simply brushing your teeth. Fruits and vegetables should only be consumed after being thoroughly washed (with disinfectant) in clean water, which means that the average traveler should only eat produce that has been cooked or has come from a can (a true shame in a country with such a bounty of fresh papayas, pineapples, mangoes, and plums, sold to you directly through your car window).

Even the most careful traveler may still succumb to some foreign bug or another, so most tourists are advised to pack a small pharmacy including, at a minimum, anti-inflammatories and anti-diarrhea medication. A personal supply of toilet paper is also recommended, as the bulk of public toilets are not outfitted with this particular amenity. Nor, for that matter, do most of them have seats or even commodes:

(Standard toilet found throughout Kenya; this one was at Lake Nakuru. Elsewhere in the world, this style of toilet may be referred to as a "Turkish" or "Indian" toilet, or, more generally, a "long drop." I prefer the incredibly eloquent name I gave these a young girl--"hole-in-the-ground" toilets, of which I have had a life-long fear; for obvious reasons, I was forced to overcome that phobia in Kenya.)

Surprisingly, one can become accustomed to this setup rather quickly, though ladies will likely have to take an unexpected crash course in aiming.

Since our trip was all about biology, ecology, and conservation, most of our time was spent communing with nature and sleeping in tents. This required a host of other important supplies, including sunglasses, heavy sunscreen, powerful bug spray, flashlights and/or headlamps, sleeping bags, travel pillows, travel towels, emergency first aid and sewing kits, and both warm and waterproof clothes for early mornings and late nights. It's also a good idea to have a hat, since the near-equatorial sun can really blaze down on your unprotected scalp. The length of the entire trip was 2 weeks, but space limitations required that each person bring only a single standard-size hiking backpack or similarly-sized duffel/suitcase. For the most part, this meant that everyone packed 15 pairs of undies and socks but then recycled the rest of their clothing. I was able to fit in 15 different tops, but only 4 pairs of pants, which meant that I, like most of the students, had to do a bit of in-sink laundry along the way.

Most tourists will require a visa in order to enter the country, though it is not necessary to procure one ahead of time using the conventional visit-the-embassy or send-in-your-passport method. Conveniently, travelers can simply visit the visa desk once they land in the airport (which, in my case, was in Nairobi), and purchase a visa for a reasonable $25 US (by which I mean, you actually pay in US dollars, despite the fact that the country's currency is the Kenyan shilling; go figure). The process is surprisingly quick and easy. When I went through, the only delay was associated with the immigration officer's surprise at my unusual and difficult-to-pronounce name. After having a chuckle over it, he told me he'd need to practice it for a while so he could say it better next time. Oddly, next to the immigration desk was a flat-screen TV showing news footage being broadcast live from elsewhere in the airport; the body of a deceased Kenyan national had been flown back into the country and was being picked up, in the midst of much media coverage, just a few doors down from where we stood.

The next important thing to take care of was currency. I had known that the visa would be purchased in dollars, so I entered the country with my own currency in pocket. The easiest way to get local currency is simply to visit an ATM and withdraw money directly. The only problem with this, as I soon discovered, was that I had no idea what the exchange rate was and therefore had no idea how much money I was actually withdrawing. Fortunately, I knew that there was quite a high dollars-to-shillings ratio, so I initially withdrew 5000 shillings, or approximately $60. On the transaction receipt, I saw that I had a remaining 225,000 or so shillings in my account; after doing the math, I realized approximately how much I'd withdrawn, and that it wouldn't be enough for the whole trip, so I took out another 10,000 shillings. It was nice to look at my wealth in terms of "thousands" and "hundreds of thousands" of units, however briefly and misleadingly.

In the course of locating the ATM and procuring money, I had my first encounter with what was generally a ubiquitous phenomenon during our trip: People who really want your money getting up in your face in an attempt to sell you something. In the two minutes it took me to walk from the terminal door to the cash machine, I was accosted by at least a half dozen people promising to get me where I needed to go, help me find whatever I was looking for, and insisting that I could trust them. Later on, these individuals would be replaced by people selling items rather than services. At first, it is very unsettling and uncomfortable for a Westerner, since, for the most part, we do not have encounters like this in our daily lives. However, it quickly becomes the norm and you find it much easier to firmly but politely tell people to back off and leave you alone.

Because of the timing of our flight, we happened to arrive in Nairobi at night, which was to our advantage. During the daytime it is teeming with traffic--cars, bikes, people on donkey-drawn carts, pedestrians. A haze of smoke hangs over the city, thanks to wood fires and thousands of environmentally-unsound car engines. The air is filled with the noise of vehicles, hawkers, birds, calls to prayer (60% of the population is Muslim), and whatever else you can think of. Your eyes can be as overwhelmed as your ears; buildings, clothes, animals, and plants are all found in a huge variety of intense colors and textures. But at night, the city is relatively calm and quiet, so we were able to proceed directly to our hotel, looking out the car windows at Hadada ibises roosting in the tops of trees. It's not a journey I would recommend for people who don't know where they are going and/or don't have a trusted driver. As we were to see the following day during our drive out of Nairobi, the city contains some pretty severe slums; an accidental wrong turn or a scheming chauffeur could easily land you somewhere you'd much rather avoid.

It is probably a good time for me to say that none of this really surprised me all that much, perhaps because I'd recently visited a similar developing country (Brazil), had recently read an in-depth book about the slums of Mombai, and have experienced a lifetime of images of the worst of Africa (an unfair media technique which, on the up side, makes all the normal bits of the continent seem very upscale). On one hand, as a traveler you are often tempted to compare your destination with your origin; on the other hand, there are some times when you know that these two places are in totally different categories. This is definitely the case with Kenya and, as far as I can tell from discussions with other travelers, much of Africa. Things there simply happen in a different way, at a different pace; your expectations therefore shift. The toilets are a good example. When you leave home you think a great toilet is one where you wave your hand in front of a sensor and have it flush automatically for you; in Kenya a great toilet is a long drop that has a solid concrete floor instead of a rickety wooden one, or simply one that doesn't have pee splashed around the foot rests. That's not a complaint or a judgment of the situation, but simply a fact of life.

Our Nairobi hotel room is another case in point:

(A picture of my husband's and my Nairobi hotel room. Notice the MacGyver-like jerry-rigging on the mosquito net on the right--that was necessary in order to make the netting long enough to actually reach the mattress; I was pretty proud of my problem-solving skills. Also notice the water bottle in the foreground--an essential part of the Kenya experience!)

It was, by US and UK standards, probably in the one- to two-star range, but by Kenyan standards had three or four stars--this despite the fact that the bathroom featured only a shower, which only had cold water (a foreshadowing of the following two weeks), and, like elsewhere, the water was not potable. There weren't spiders or bats or toads in the bathroom, as there were elsewhere (which, really, I would think any good field biologist should enjoy), there was a solid concrete floor, doors and windows that locked, mosquito netting over the beds (remember, this is a country where people still die from malaria because they have no netting at all), electricity with extra outlets for plugging in electronics, and even a television. I was informed by my colleagues that normally the Nairobi hotel visit comes at the end of the field course, when students more readily appreciate its humble charms since they are comparing it to the previous two weeks of camping, rather than to their homes back in the UK. As I said--one's expectations completely change.

In my humble opinion, this is, in many ways, a good thing. For one, it forces you to realize the luxuries you have back home that you completely take for granted--electricity, heating, air conditioning, a refrigerator, running water, a lack of life-threatening wildlife, etc. For another, it also forces you to realize that there are millions of people who live at what Western society would call a substandard level. You have to think about why that is the case; it's a complex mixture of biology, anthropology, history, and contemporary politics and economics. Furthermore, you have to evaluate whether that level really is substandard. In some ways, it obviously is--nobody should go without running water, or not have access to something as cheap, simple, and life-giving as a mosquito net. But in other ways, it isn't--for instance, despite the prevalence of monetary poverty (again, by our standards), the Kenyan people are miles ahead of the Americans in terms of setting conservation goals, protecting natural resources, and attempting to resolve human-wildlife conflicts--and they are both aware, and proud of, this achievement. It all comes down to what you value, and to what is actually physically necessary for a comfortable and happy life; with the exception of a basic amount of food and water that is required to sustain the human body, these things are up for interpretation and can shift throughout one's lifetime. One of the fascinating things about traveling is that, in seeing how others live, you better examine your own lifestyle from someone else's perspective.

As you may see by now, a trip to the motherland (or, as my husband calls it, "Mama Africa") can be a thought-provoking experience. But it is impossible to think too deeply at midnight after a full day of travel, which was my condition when I arrived at the hotel in the Nairobi. Thus, after having a brief buffet dinner (including some forbidden fresh fruit, because I felt like living on the wild side) and a quick cold shower, I was more than ready to sleep under the mosquito netting and gather a bit of energy for the long journey to Lake Naivasha the following day.

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