After a sleepless 8 hour bus ride, in which I had the pleasure of having a business man fall asleep on my shoulder (how he managed to sleep I have no idea), I arrived in the city at 4:30am. Feeling that it was a bad idea to go wander this new city while it was still pitch dark out and reeking like a noob, I decided to hunker down in the bus station and watched the Al Jazeera newscast that was being broadcast on the wall mounted television until the sun came up. It would seem that Turkey is pretty damn crazy about their football, or so the TV would have me believe.
By 6:30am I was getting restless. The people were starting to fill the city streets and I figured my chances of being mugged were minimal, so it was time to go. While I had never been in the city before, I had done a little research on where I had to go for my meeting and decided that I could just walk to it myself. Hell, I had about 4 hours before I was to meet with the people, so lots of time, right?
The walk was fantastic. Heading up the main road, Uhuru Highway, one can walk through seemingly endless kilometers of park space, one of many park areas to be found throughout the city. It would have been much easier to lay back on the grass and enjoy the greenery if there hadn’t been a small barbed wire fences blocking off the grass from the path, but that didn’t stop many of the people who simply hopped the barrier and were relaxin in the sun. I pass by the famous Green Belt Movement Freedom Corner memorial park, which was central to some of the work done by Nobel laurite Wangari Maathai, and was now walking uphill along Ngong road.
Now, when I said that had an idea of how to get to where I wanted to go, I meant a SMALL idea at best. In reality, my mental map seemed to have run out by this point and it quickly became evident that I was completely lost. I knew that I was in the general area, but now my directions needed to be more detailed, and having no map or idea of the layout of the city was not going to help me. There is an important rule to remember when lost in a city: Don’t ask just anybody for directions. Rather, only ask those who you can likely trust. If you are going to start walking around asking every random passerby to point you in the right direction, you might as well strap on the fanny pack, hang a camera around your neck and hold up a huge sign that says “Im not from around here, please come rob me!” It’s simply just important to be precautious. Who can you ask? Security guards, hotel staff, police officers, basically anyone who is least likely to call for hired goons and to meet you down the dark alleyway they directed you to.
However, that doesn’t mean that these trusted people whom you ask for help know what they are talking about. My next hour and a half went basically like this: Ask a security guard how to find the place, points me in that direction. Walk that way, realize I’m no closer to it and ask another security guard, who points me in the other direction. Walk that way, realize that I’m no closer to it and ask another security guard, ect. You get the idea.
With 10 minutes to spare, I finally manage to find my way to my destination, entirely thanks to a man who happened to be walking there himself as well. I know, I broke the rule, but he was dressed too perfectly to be a hardened criminal and I had to take the chance. Not only did this man turn out to be amazingly nice, but he is also a writer for ScientificAfrica, apparently the author to a myriad of articles on any number of topics. We had a fantastic walk, talking about science in Kenya, until we finally arrived at the our destination.
I won’t go into any of the details of our meeting, but I tell you it was quite a fantastic conversation. Not only was I still a little dumbfounded that they had actually paid to have me come out and talk with them, which has never happened to me before, but I came out of it feeling informed and inspired. They instructed me on how to get the guest house they had booked me in, actually drawing me a map this time, and I was back on the road. Keep in mind that by this point I have more or less been awake for almost 24hours and fatigue was starting to roll over me like a thick fog. The guest house was gorgeous, a secluded piece of paradise in the otherwise urban chaos, the hotel workers were friendly and entertaining, and the room that I had been booked into was absolutely choice. I swear, if you were to take a nap on a cloud it would have been indistinguishable from what my bed felt like. Dinner, read for 15 minutes and passed out by 8:00pm.
I woke up after 12 hours of sleep and was ready to discover the city. I knew that I had to be back at the bus station by 5:00, leaving me three hours buffer before the bus leaves in the inevitable case that I am somewhere in the middle of the city trying to find my way out. First stop: Mitumba market, a huge congealment of crudely constructed stalls made from everything one can imagine. These tightly packed booths receive daily stock of used clothes, typically obtained from western states. I saw it once in India as well, but here in front of my eyes is a good looking collared shirt with the ‘Value Village’ tag still attached to it. There is something weird about going halfway around the world just to buy used clothes that could have very likely come from where I had started. The vibe in this market was electric and energetic. The market is run by a small army of men and women, likely all coming from the nearby Kibera slum, and work in a kind of unspoken partnership with one another. A person can be manning their shirt stall one minute, and then rush over to their friend’s suit pants stall to help make a sale. Keep in mind that buying pants here is not for the bashful. If you are a dude, you just drop what you’re wearing where you stand and try out your desired goods. Women are provided a small corner where their friend would hold up a sheet as you try on a new/used pair of jeans.
Oh man, and the food! Don’t get me wrong, the food back in Kakamega is tamu (delicious) and good, but my pallet is still used to my western culinary delights, and there is no better place to satisfy this craving than in Nairobi. I walk into a near by shopping center and am greeted by a food court that is a splitting image of that from back home. Lines of booths selling beautifully fried, flavored, saturated fat infused, greased-soaked-in food options are what greets me, and I become momentarily weak in the knees. I must have looked ridiculous as I walked back and forth in front of the booths again and again, fantasizing about all of the potentials, eventually deciding on a plate of sweet and sour chicken, plain fried rice and a single egg role. I swear, if that lunch were a woman I would have married her on the spot.
Now it was time to do some city exploring. The eventual goal was to get to the national museum, where I figured I could spend a couple of hours before I had to venture back to the bus, but I wanted to take the long way through the downtown area to get there. The sights and sounds were a cacophony for the senses. God I missed the big city. Shoulder to shoulder people, endless traffic, clouds of car exhaust, endless people watching, Nairobi has everything that an urbanite would desire. For the next 5 hours I literally just walked. I walked down the main roads, through the parks, into a number of shops, just trying to walk as much of the city as I can. Eventually I forget about the museum and just keep on walking. You see an interesting side road, you walk down it. You see an interesting shop over there, you walk to it. I walk for so long that soon I can feel some distinct blisters forming on my soft feet. My bag begins to pull down my shoulders from the weight, but I keep on walking.
I soak in as much as I can, relishing the energy and commotion that is all around me. If you ever get a chance to visit a major city in a developing country, that has all of the ambition and dreams as that back home but a less developed infrastructure, you would understand the feeling of controlled chaos that I felt in Nairobi. This is where anyone in Kenya that has a dream of making it big and earning their millions would go, and it seemed evidently painted on everyone’s face. Some people have apparently realized this dream, others seemed to be hopelessly far from it, but everyone has the same look, one that says “I’m here and I’m going to make it.”
At one point I see that all 6 lanes of the intersection I was at, on one of the busiest roads and during one of the busiest times of the day, were stopped and police were keeping them all in their place. What might necessitate such damaging delays to the afternoon commuters? The presidential motorcade, of course, and after about 5 minutes of patient waiting about 16 government cars of different models, intensities and velocities come racing through the intersection. I am pretty sure that I managed to catch a glimpse of the president’s car, but I can’t be completely sure of that. For some reason I have this image of the president deciding that he needed some milk and caused the whole city to stop as he went to get some.
Then, as soon as it had begun, time had run out and the bus station was calling to me. I knew where I was this time and could slowly make my way back to the station, meandering through some unexplored roads that I would pass along the way, and by 6:00pm I was back in the main lobby of the EasyCoach bus terminal. Italian soap operas were playing on the television and the place was significantly busier than what had been in the early morning of the day before.
The ride back was much the same as the first one, bumpy and turbulent, predicting another sleepless night. Perhaps due to exhaustion from the days walking, I do eventually pass out, dreaming of what the city had shared with me. I love my time in Kakamega and wouldn’t want to be living anywhere else during my time in Kenya, but I know that my heart is in Nairobi, or any big city for that matter. It doesn’t matter what country I am in, I involuntarily gravitate towards the population centers. I suppose that I simply just love humanity, and to be surrounded by as much of it as possible it is my definition of ideal. I think that I must be sure to travel to Nairobi again.