The sun had almost completed its journey for that day. Just another one for it and an unforgettable one for me. It had nothing but the seize of a palm left to shine light and as I looked around, towards the huge umbrella acacias, I thought: if only I could stay like this forever, with my zebra print bracelet made of camel bone on the left wrist and the red beaded one from mama Masai on the right, with the image of the three lionesses resting in the golden grass, by the palm trees near the swamp, the 24 elephants crossing the path in a cloud of dust, the sleeping hyenas and the hypos in the swamp of Amboseli….
The savannah was like this: complete.
I wrote these lines a year ago, watching the sunset in Amboseli, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro with its white peak of snow, at the end of a 7 days safari in Kenya because I wanted to be able to read it after and feel what I felt then: completeness.
27 days before
A safari in Africa was always a dream that seemed to big. Or should I say too expensive. After I came back from Puglia, Italy, in August, I was wandering online, looking for my second trip of last summer. It was when I found out about an event I did heard before, one of nature’s great wonders, The Great Migration, how it’s called the world’s largest migration of wildlife. Over two million animals migrate from Serengeti, in Tanzania, to the greener pastures of Maasai Mara, in Kenya. It’s the wildebeest who set the start, followed of course by other animals. I remembered my reaction when I read on a website the animals that was guaranteed to see in each park. Lions were called abundant and guaranteed to see in Mara. It seemed a marketing line at that moment…
I bought the tickets 20 days before the departure and what followed was a marathon of emails and messages to a significant number of tour operators. Some didn’t answer, some were starting the conversation from 4000 euro for 3 days of safari, others had packages of 10-25K. I soon found out Kenia is not a cheap destinations when it comes to safari, but absolutely doable if you work enough to plan the trip. So I meet Rachel, the one that at the end of 37 emails in a week had me as her customer. I started from a 2 days safari and she got me sent the advance for a 7 days safari: Masai Mara, Amboseli, Nakuru.
The plan was done, the reservations made, my safari wardrobe bought, plus a telephoto lens for my camera, the vaccine for yellow fever checked, the visa obtained. After the 7 days safari, I planned a few days on the coast, in Diani beach, close to Mombasa, for some relaxing beach time. Kenia was already giving me butterflies like no other destination before.
After a few hours stop in a hot like hell Doha, I arrived in Nairobi at midday. The airport seemed a lot smaller than others I’ve been before in Europe or Asia. My name written on a sheet of paper at the entrance was what I was looking for. Josea was my driver from the airport to my hotel. I was so excited and talkative and we became friends very quickly and by the time I reached the hotel we had the plan for that day. He needed extra money for his girl that needed a heart surgery in India and I needed to see Nairobi with a local.
A 3m high concrete wall and an iron gate opened when we arrived. Three men with riffles came out and check the car, only after we were allowed to enter. I was going to find out that this is common in Kenia for places destinated to tourists.
– Hello sister, was the salute that made me smile so many times in Kenya. Welcome to Nairobi! First time here?
Kibera – o glimpse on life in the largest urban slum in Africa
I felt immediately as I landed in Nairobi what it feels like to feel different because of the color of your skin. As soon as I left the airport, I saw no other white people on the streets, in the cars, in the shops, in the markets. It felt strange.
Josea and I we drove on the streets in Nairobi center that looked as if it could be placed in any other country: tall buildings of offices, large boulevards, parks, fountains, busy crossroads. Then we left the central area and continue until a sea of rusty roofs appeared out of nowhere.
I was curious to see it the moment I read that there were walking tours organized there. Tours for white people in clean clothes to see the black in extreme poverty. As if we all don’t have our poors in our own cities in every single country on this earth. But as a friend who came back from Mumbai once said, their poverty is more of a poverty then ours.
Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world and the largest in Africa is home to, some say 1M, others 1.4M, Josea said almost 2M Actually, a look from the above tells the truth: only God can know.
A fact is that 60% of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, 4.4 million people, live in low income settlements, meaning slums. They occupy occupying 6% of the land. So 60% on 6%. There’s no need of Communist ideology to see this gap is too deep and too dark. And so was the life in Kibera the day I was there and all the others that followed. Poverty can’t be described and I won’t even dare to try it. It can be seen but will continue to be never understood by those who were offered more simply by birth. Because one with a full belly will never understood the one who’s starving.
I left ashamed towards the people in Kibera we drove by that day. Ashamed because it’s not fair. I didn’t leave the car and took no photos except thiese on the street we first entered the area.
After I went quiet, as the street got more and more narrow and I saw the cobweb of streets that were only accessible by foot and that went deep into the heart of Kibera, from which I stole images of faces and little fragments of life scenes. I was just a passing view of a car with a white woman that day. But for me it was a thousand of perspective changing images. The start of a lesson offered by Africa, a place it’s impossible to come back from the same as you left.
Nairobi for tourists
The Giraffe Centre, established to protect the endangered giraffe that is found only in the grasslands of East Africa, a place where you can feed the giraffes, was just closing. As we left, a warthog was crossing the little alley to the parking lot. This was my first encounter with the African wild life and got me head over flip-flops excited. Josea was amused by my reactions. Next, he had to stop the car by the road for the second encounter: a tree filled with marabou storks. I crossed a heavy circulated road just to get closer to a gate where I could see them better. It started to look like the Africa I was dreaming about.
My phantasy of visiting this place and see the giraffes sneaking their heads on the windows and chewing bites on the plates on the beautifully arranged table, stayed a phantasy. The place was accessible only for guests, which in perfectly understandable when you pay between 500-1000 $ for a room. Maybe some other time. As Josea started telling me about the fields of Mara packed with wild life, I instantly forgot about it. He took me after to a shop selling Maasai art. Those masks and mahogany sculptures were fantastic but all was very expensive. A great sculpture piece could cost up to 15k $. I bought my zebra bracelet made of camel bone there, for about 12$. The one I wore after in every single day of that trip.
Carnivore is the most famous restaurant in town. Opened since 1980 and included on the list of the best 50 restaurants in the world, the place is a heaven for meat eaters, with its all you can eat buffet and the huge round barbecue in the middle and a hell on earth for vegetarians. It used to be very exotic in terms of menu, in the past, until Kenia imposed a ban on game meat.
It was packed with white tourists wearing safari outfits and the gates kept opening and the armed guards kept checking on the jeeps bringing the guests for that night. It was nice but too Westerner for the taste of someone like me, too hungry for the Kenyan culture.
Dinner in Nairobi
Josea fulfilled my wish: we went for dinner in a local restaurant, “where he would go for good local food”. We entered a large covered terrace with white plastic tables and chairs. Nothing posh. All eyes turned to the entrance, to us. The clientele was entirely formed by locals. We stopped at the counter where a refrigerated display case was full with pieces of raw meat. I let Josea made the choice but as I saw him picking a piece of ribs with more bones then meat and not looking good at all, I started thinking that the biscuits I bought with me from home, for emergency reasons only, might be my dinner that evening. The meat was taken to the barbecue. I was so hungry… A lady came for the order and stayed for a conversation. She looked at me smiling as I was exposing all my excitement for finally being in Kenia, “to see the lions”.-
– When I see you people flying here from the other side of the world to see the lions, and I see them every day from my kitchen window! she laughed and made a move in the air with her hand while my jaw just dropped.
We talk and talk and my dinner was no where to be seen. I started reaching my eyes for it every 5 minutes. When a tall men carrying a large plate approached our table, with a big piece of meat on it that was so hot it was still frying, spreading a steam of barbecue all around, I fixed my eyes on it. He cuts it into pieces and the lady brings a few bowls with cabbage salad, tomato, pepper and onion salad and a plate with the African polenta as I named it, only their ugali is white not yellow. It didn’t look fabulous. The first bite totally changed my philosophy about food: it was the best, sweetest, juiciest, crunchiest barbecue I ever had. It absolutely confirmed all the rumours I have heard before about Africans the masters of barbecue. Those goat ribs in that evening in Nairobi were so much praised in all the stories I’ve told my gourmand friends after. We ate and talk and laughed and I knew that Carnivore couldn’t offer me that. It was the perfect start of a week long safari in Kenya.
Next: 3 days safari in Masai Mara