musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

November 3 - Nairobi

"I'm sorry sir, your car is not here yet. I don't know where it is and the driver won't pick up his phone."

But I reserved it 3 weeks ago... nevermind. Do you have any vehicles available?

"We have a 4x4 for $169. Or, if you'd like, we can ask them if they have one," the tall woman in the Budget Rent-a-Car office said as she pointed to the next office over. I had completely missed this other office on the way in because, having arrived an hour earlier from Dubai, it had taken quite a while for our bags to arrive and we were losing daylight fast.
  1. I didn't want to drive in rush hour Nairobi traffic - on the wrong side of the road mind you - for the first time in the dark.
  2. We had an appointment to see Tano - the baby elephant that Lauren and I sponsored in honor of my nephew Josh - in an hour and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (Tano's home) was at least 45 minutes away without traffic.
Fine. I'll take the $169 one. You said it was ready right now... right?

"Yes, but their car is only $70. Don't you think that's a better deal?"

Thoroughly confused by now as to why Budget would be sending me to a competitor and more than a little skeptical about said competitor, I did what any irrational human being would've thought was completely normal.

I'll take the $70 one.

10 minutes later we were sputtering away in a white Toyota Corolla which I'm pretty sure was somebody's brother's car they had borrowed to make a little cash. Nevermind that though - or the suspicious-looking canvas bag in the back window - the car seemed to run and we would certainly blend in with the crowd. Nairobi is not quite known for its vast array of luxury cars apparently, and after having been driven from the hotel to the Dubai airport in a Lexus, this was quite a change.

A few u-turns after leaving the airport, I noticed something funny. Either the gas gauge was broken or we had no fuel; as in, I didn't know the dial could physically go that far past the 'E.' $40 later, courtesy of a fortuitous Shell station sighting, it became apparent that whoever it was's brother hadn't put gas in his car in quite a while.

I learned very quickly that, despite being on the opposite side of the road, driving in Nairobi was a lot like driving in Istanbul. If one simply followed several rules, one would be just fine:
  1. Never show fear. As a matter of fact, don't even look at your fellow drivers to give them the impression you're not paying attention. Sunglasses help with this allusion;
  2. If your bumper is in front of his bumper, you have the right-of-way;
  3. Red lights are merely suggestions;
  4. Mini buses will stop unexpectedly in any lane at any time. We were told later that these bus drivers have to get ~3000 paying customers per day just to break even;
  5. It's like a video game, except that if you hit a pedestrian 'Game Over - Insert Coin' is the least of your worries.
The traffic was predictably miserable and very soon we were in fully stopped traffic. Nonetheless, miraculously we inched our way to the wildlife trust mere minutes before sundown and, at long last, met Tano!

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was impressive. Although we spent less than an hour there, it was obvious that the animals were well-taken-care-of and the folks working there truly cared. Tano, a 6-month-old orphan elephant, lived in a spacious pen along with her 24/7 caretaker. This man, who's name I sadly could not pronounce and can't remember, was obviously a huge part of Tano's life. As we petted the tough skin and sparse hair on her head, she clung with her trunk to her caretaker's leg, glancing up at us occasionally through wary eyes. Finally, perhaps sensing that we had come in peace, she released his leg and 'shook' Lauren's hand with her trunk in a moment that made the entire trip worth it.

Back out in the parking lot, Lauren and I were preparing for our next adventure - finding our hotel in the dark - when a tall, nice looking man approached us.

"Are you going into town? if so, would you mind if I rode with you?"

Murderer? Con artist?

Sure, I said, hop in. I think I was led to give a ride to this complete stranger because in his hand was a $1000 camera and an even more expensive lens.

"Thank you so much. My name is Mudiari and I'm a photographer for the Daily Nation. It would've taken me forever to get back to the office by bus at this time of night. Here's my card."

It turns out that Stephen Mudiari was indeed a professional photographer on assignment for Kenya's largest daily to do interest pieces in the run up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He had been selected as one of only six people to have this honor. So what brought him out to the Trust?

"I had heard that the baby elephants play football and I had to come see for myself."

So... do they?

"As a matter of fact, they do!"

Mudiari was actually not a big football (soccer) fan, but had been selected to cover the event nonetheless next summer. I noted that not being a fan probably made him a better, more focused photographer. Not caring about the match he would be able to stay glued to the camera even in the most exciting moments.

We agreed that we would drop him off at our hotel which served a dual purpose: he would get a ride into town and we would get our own personal guide. Unfortunately, upon arriving at our hotel we found out that our reservation had been changed to another hotel without our knowledge because construction had closed several Sarova Panafric rooms - including ours. T.I.A. - this is Africa.

Deciding that food was first priority at this point, we ate at the Panafric then set out on yet another - mercifully our last of the night - adventure. Of course, it took us about 5 minutes to get lost despite the 'simple' directions and assurances from the Panafric front desk person that it was very easy to find. He was wrong, but eventually we did find Hotel Jacaranda, a nice, quiet place with clean rooms and mosquito net under which we were soon asleep.