By the time my bus reached Nairobi, light fever had kicked in. My head was spinning, body was aching and I felt like throwing up. The infections on my leg had flared up further, so much so that I was having trouble walking. If that was not enough, I now had to find my hotel. Out of energy, I hired a taxi, gave the driver address of my hotel and slumped in the backseat. I badly needed some rest and couldn’t wait to crash on a comfortable bed.
To say that Starehe Hotel was a shady place will be a mammoth understatement. It was in the middle of a busy market full of shops selling drums made of animal skin; loud garages; trucks, cars and motorcycles jammed the road leading up to the hotel, their drivers honking like mad men; Men carrying heavy bags on their backs, yelling their way through the crowded roads and loading them on to trucks. And all this at 7 am. This was only going to get worse during the day.
“Do you want me to take you somewhere else?” My driver asked, as he saw the look of horror on my face. A dirty set of stairs led up to the third floor, where the hotel was at.
“No. It’s okay.” I was too exhausted and nauseated to go hotel hunting. I desperately needed to lie down and sleep for a couple of hours. I limped up the narrow staircase with my bag and reached the reception.
“I need to check your bags.” The lady at the counter told me after she checked my booking, passport and visa. I would have asked a few questions, but I was feeling too sick. I resigned to a seat and watched her rummage through my bag.
The room was nicer than I thought it will be. It was clean. A nice big bed. Mosquito net. Air conditioned. A TV with two channels. And my very own bathroom! Quite a luxury after weeks of very basic accommodation. I took a Paracetamol and tucked myself in.
The nap helped and by afternoon, after a nice long shower, the fever seemed to have subsided a bit. I had a horrible cup of coffee and some stale sandwiches at the hotel café and went down to the reception to ask if there were any money changers around.
“There is a bank across the road.” The lady said, without looking up from the computer screen. I hadn’t noticed it before but the reception had a strange smell. Something I imagine hidden dead bodies will smell like. And though it was sunny outside, the only source of light was the bluish light bulb behind the reception.
“Is it a policy to check everyone’s bags at the time of check-in?”
“Yes. Government rule.”
The bank branch was a strange place. A waiting area with a wall mounted TV showing some news piece on Kenya’s villages and a screen that showed token numbers. No staff members, apart from the chain smoking guard, were around. The branch itself looked like it had recently been hit by a tornado and everyone had evacuated in a hurry; papers lying about, broken furniture, paneless windows, a thick layer of dust on everything and that strange smell from the hotel reception. I watched as people walked down a dark corridor and into a dodgy looking room, when their token number was displayed on the screen. The door automatically closed behind them with a loud creak.
Thankfully, my turn came soon enough and I managed to exchange some of my USDs for Shillings.
“Welcome to Kenya.” The lady said as she handed me the money.
My first stop was the Nairobi National Museum. I think the management knew how unimpressive the museum is, so they built a small snake park inside the complex as a sideshow. After an hour at the museum, I sat outside the tortoise and crocodile enclosures, wondering what to do next. The fever was returning and my leg was starting to hurt again.
I decided to fight the pain and explore the surroundings of the museum a bit. Walking from the museum towards the business district was one of the most boring walks I have ever taken in Africa. Just cars, box shaped buildings, dust and smoke.
Thinking a delicious lunch may lift up my spirits, I walked into a decent looking restaurant and order a “safe dish”. Chicken curry and rice.
“Sorry, no rice. Ugali?”
“No, just a bullet to the head will do at this point.” I wanted to say.
After a disappointing lunch, I decided to head back to the hotel and rest. Nairobi was getting on my nerves. I returned to my room, and fell asleep watching a football match.
I woke up at dusk, to find that the football game had ended and a match of beach volleyball was on. Even though, I had locked the door and windows, I could hear the frantic yelling and honking from the market outside. I stared at the TV blankly for a bit and then got ready for a walk but by the time I reached downstairs, my leg was paining so much that the idea of walking went out the window.
I limped to a shop to buy some water and suddenly, this man, with messy hair and dirty, torn clothes, started yelling at me. I don’t know if he was begging or was upset about something, but he started following me around, yelling continuously.
Too sick and in pain to deal with all this, I returned to my hotel café, had a plate of tasteless lamb curry while watching Balika Badhu (a fuck all Indian show) at the hotel cafe.
I decided I needed to check out the next day and go somewhere else. I did not want to end this amazing trip in this horrible place.
Next morning, I asked the receptionist to book me a cab to Karen Camp and Hostel where I had booked the night before.
Karen, which is a suburb Nairobi, was such a respite from all the noise, pollution and yelling strangers. There was greenery around and the people seemed a lot more relaxed and friendly. It was home to a lot of western expats as well, who jogged in the mornings and took leisurely strolls in the evenings before returning to their posh, gated bungalows with sprawling lawns and fancy cars.
Here, I met Amos, a middle-aged cab driver who regularly came to the hostel to see if any of the guests needed a ride. On my first day, I booked him for a ride to the Karen Blixen Museum, which was a 10-minute drive from the hostel. (I normally do not take cabs but the infections had seriously restricted my movements.)
Karen Blixen, in case you didn’t know, was a Danish author on whose life the movie “Out of Africa” was based. The museum was her former home. Visitors can take a guided tour of her home where she and her husband lived and entertained guests. The dining area had some beautiful portraits and old age Victorian furniture. There is a closet in her bedroom that had the clothes that Meryl Streep and Robert Redford wore in the movie. In her kitchen was a bulky machine to ground coffee. Pretty fancy house.
“And outside, right here in the porch, is where she used to sit and smoke a cigarette before going to bed every night.” My guide said as he pointed to a seat made out of a tree trunk. It overlooked the beautiful garden with trees of various kinds.
“I find this place boring.” Amos remarked as he drove me back to the hostel after my visit. “You should have gone to the Giraffe Centre.”
“Will you give me a good price?”
“I always give good price.” He laughed.
Next day morning, Amos drove me to the Giraffe Centre, which is home to some endangered Rothschild Giraffes. I got to attend a presentation about the conservation project and feed pellets to the giraffes. It was easily the most fun I have had in the last few days.
After that, we drove to the Elephant orphanage inside the Nairobi National Park. About a hundred of us gathered around the 12 rescued baby elephants, watched and took pictures as they played around in the mud. An ostrich was there too, trying very hard to fit it.
“When is your flight tomorrow?” Amos asked as we drove back to the hostel after a fun day.
“In the evening.”
“How about I take you to the Nairobi Safari Walk in the morning and then drive you to the airport?”
In hindsight, Amos, apart from being a good driver, was also a pretty good salesman.
There was not much to do around the hostel at night, apart from watching TV or browsing the internet. You couldn’t be in the garden area for long because of all the mosquitoes. There weren’t many guests to chat with either. I would watch football matches with the staff and see them react to every move on the field.
“Are you okay, man?” The receptionist asked me, as I limped into the TV room that night.
“My leg hurts and I think I have fever.”
“Oh.. did you take meds?”
“Yes. But the fever returns every evening.”
The guy arranged for a delicious bowl of soup for me that night even though it was not in their menu.
“You should have told me. I would have taken you to a doctor.”
“It’s not that bad.” I said as I had a big spoonful of the soup. “I’m leaving tomorrow anyway.”
The next morning after a hearty breakfast, I put my backpack in the backseat of Amos’s car, checked my passports and tickets for the last time and headed off to Nairobi Safari Walk.
Nairobi Safari Walk is what a zoo would be if it let out a few monkeys, baboons and birds while keeping the bigger animals in enclosures. A wooden walkway will take you through the park, giving you the illusion, on very limited occasions, that you are on a safari.
But if you have been to a real safari before your visit, the place will just depress you. More so, if you are scheduled to leave Africa in a few hours.
I saw a bored Bongo and a couple of lazy cheetahs. A barbed wire fence and a trench separated us. I watched a lion sitting under a tree in its cage and remembered the rush we had felt when we saw a couple of lions in Uganda, out in the wild.
As I walked on the wooden ramp, I reminisced about the trip. From Addis to Kigali, then on to Gisenyi, Kampala, Murchison National Park and Jinja. And this is where it ends. Nairobi.
The thought that few days from now, I would be back in my home, catching up on my TV shows and eating regular food, was sad and comforting at the same time. I was going to miss being on the road. Seeing new things. Meeting new people. Eating new food.
As I watched a zebra covered in the red soil, strolling in the enclosure it shared with ostriches, giraffes and deer, I remembered Sam, our guide from the safari.
“Are there zebras here?” I had asked him as he drove through the park during our game drive.
“Sorry. There are no zebras in this park. But we have lots of giraffes!”
Watching the zebra strutting around, the realisation set in that my Africa trip was now at an end. It has been my hardest, most memorable and adventurous trip till date. I was going to miss the gruelling overnight bus journeys and the exhilarating boda boda rides. I was going to miss the red soil and all the smiling faces.
Before the trip, people had warned me that Africa wasn’t safe. Especially if you are travelling alone. And in a sense, they were right.
I had been robbed. I had been sick. I had even been lost. But I had also seen the most gorgeous sunsets and slept under the stars. I had laughed and had provided amusement to hundreds of curious eyes. I had made friends with whom I am still in touch with and hope to meet again someday.. somewhere in the world.
And though I have only seen a very small part of this amazing continent, I now know that there is so much more to it than just hunger, civil wars, poverty and hopelessness, like they show on TV.
I am glad that I did not chickened out of the trip. I have made memories here that are going to last forever.
“Will you come back to Africa?” Amos asked as we drove into the airport complex that afternoon.
“I can’t wait to come back.”