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Jambo Bwana 1: A Week With Elephants


Oh papa, don’t you say I can’t
I just want to see the elephant

-James McMurtry

Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Karen Blixen Cottages
Nairobi, Kenya

It is overcast and a light rain is falling as we arrive at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. It’s 6am local time. Stumbling off the plane, I see Robert is there holding the Bustani Safari sign, and though we are dead tired, confused and jet-lagged, he shepherds us through customs, and we sign some forms, hand over our cash and obtain our Kenyan visas without hassle. We hook up with Nancy King, one of the six other members of our tour group who was on our flight and is also spending the first two nights at Karen Blixen Cottages. It’s misty and grey, but the breeze is warm as we step outside the main terminal to wait for the car that will take us to the hotel. It’s winter in Kenya.

Stanley, a smiling, 30-ish Kenyan with dreadlocks partially covered with a safari hat, is our driver, and we pepper him with questions as he patiently negotiates the intense lines of traffic on the four-lane boulevard in and out of the airport. It reminds me of the congestion in Denver and Boulder except that in Kenya, a former British colony, they drive “on the wrong side of the road.”

Actually, in Kenya, they drive everywhere. There are no middle lines or shoulders, and cars, trucks and motorcycles are turning in front of each other and switching lanes, much as we do here, only backwards. It’s really crowded, and some vehicles pull out behind us, drive slowly past us on the non-existent shoulder and then pull back in front of us. Drivers taking incredible chances to get one car ahead. Motorcycles are dashing in and out of traffic from all directions. Just chaos. But somewhat amazingly, even though people are doing irrational things, nobody is honking. Stanley is the personification of driving patience.

To our left, just outside the craziness of the vehicle traffic, we get quick glimpses of Nairobi National Park in the gloomy mist. I have imagined, in my almost total ignorance, that this 43-square-mile national park, Kenya’s oldest, established in 1946 and located just a few kilometers from the city center, would be a jungle. Of course, it is nothing of the sort. It is a savannah, a grassy plain with a few trees, and the mist and the fence make it look even more exotic. Nairobi guidebooks say there are more than 400 species, buffalos, giraffes, lions, leopards, baboons, zebra, wildebeest and cheetah, out there in the grassland gloom, and they showcase dazzling photos of giraffes silhouetted against skyscrapers. But we see neither buildings nor animals this misty morning.

Somewhere in the park, just two and a half months ago, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta set fire to huge pyres, turning a total of 105 tons of elephant ivory, 1.35 tons of rhino horn, exotic animal skins and other products such as sandalwood and medicinal bark into billowing smoke and ash, an in-your-face protest against ivory poaching, which is threatening the wild future of both elephants and rhinos. Ten percent of the entire world’s supply of ivory was torched that day, the fourth such event in Kenya since 1989. Kenya is serious about ending the murder of elephants for their ivory.

Stanley is explaining that sometimes giraffes and lions come up to the fence along the road. Recently, he added, a lion made it across all four lanes of this airport highway and into the city. It’s not an uncommon event. We see no wild animals, but we do notice large numbers of pedestrians walking along muddy paths on the sides of the road and crowding the occasional pedestrian overpass. Sidewalks are non-existent. Mostly, there are just paths worn down through the shoulder weeds. Sidney says that people are going to work.

It takes about 45 minutes to reach the Karen Blixen cottages, a small group of one-story duplexes in a lush, tropical setting. The cottages are located in the midst of one of the oldest formal gardens in Kenya, once part of Blixen’s huge estate, and the grounds are thick with well-established, huge jacaranda, candelabra, cactus, bottlebrush and other trees.

This was just outside our suite at Karen Blixen cottages.

Just before we walk in, I notice a wonderful statue of an eagle on the surface of a tiny pond in front of our suite. Inside, there is a gift bag on the bed for each of us from Bustani Safari, our Kenyan shepherds/hosts for the week, that includes bottle openers, small flashlights and safari hats for each of us and a card welcoming us to Kenya and the cottages. A nice way to start to unwind and get ready for this adventure.

The Karen Blixen Cottages guidebook tells us they were designed after the Swedo House, a hunting lodge built around the turn of the 20th century on the property, and each duplex features Scandinavian-style hi-beam ceilings and fireplaces and stone floors, indicative of the early structures built by Europeans who settled in Kenya.

The Karen Blixen Cottages were a wonderful place to land after a series of cattle-car flights to Kenya.

As we check out the place, Billie notices lots of photos and paintings of cheetahs on the walls, and indeed, we find that we are staying in the Cheetah Suite. We stow our gear, and notice that breakfast is still being served on the grounds in an open-air area with a roof. We stroll down and are treated to an omelette with sausage on the side and a table with all kinds of breakfast goodies, including an abundant fruit plate that has fresh papaya and mango slices, two of my favorite foods, among the offerings.

Soon we are eating and talking with Nancy and admiring the gargantuan plants on the cottage grounds. It’s like they’re on steroids. It’s misty and cloudy but nice, but there are a few well-placed portable fire pits that are moved around to ward off the chill. Much-needed showers in our beautifully tiled bathroom, and then we sleep.

Waking up in early afternoon, we are confused. We join Nancy and meet Renae and Angel, two other members of our eight-person safari, and as we’re all walking up to the main building talking about this, we run into Jambi.

It’s one of the best moments of the trip. Here is the person with whom we have been corresponding by e-mail for months, our safari contact on the Kenya side, and she immediately eases any and all of our concerns. We come up with a plan for the afternoon and evening. Her smile and demeanor are instantly comforting, and from that moment, I completely trust Jambi, which turns out to be the right thing to do. All we have to do for the rest of the trip is show up.

This is what all the roads we traveled in Karen were like. No shoulders, narrow pavement and people walking in the dirt along the side of the roads.

Brian, another likeable young Kenyan driver, is there with Jambi, and we head off to exchange money and visit the Karen Blixen house, now a museum, where we spend about an hour touring the grounds. The home is in wonderful shape, and it includes many of the personal items and furniture that Blixen brought with her.

Karen Blixen, aka Isak Dinesen, a Danish baroness and author, is best-known for Out of Africa, a memoir of her time in Kenya, where she lived, running a coffee plantation here beginning in 1912. The autobiography, especially her affair with Denys Finch Hatton, was featured in a film of the same name that starred Meryl Streep and Robert Redford.

Inside her home were lots of personal items Dinesen brought with her to Kenya.

At one point, we see, neatly folded on a hangar in a closet, the actual trousers that Robert Redford donned in his role as Hatton in Out of Africa. We know this, because, as it turns out, Nancy’s husband teaches tennis, and Redford plays at the same club and they are good friends. Nancy had found out that the trousers were here, and when she told Redford, he couldn’t believe it. There is no photography allowed, but when she asks for an exception to get a shot of the pants for Robert Redford himself, the guide acquiesces, watching the door to make sure nobody sees her taking the photo. It’s a funny moment, one that will never go viral on Facebook or Twitter.

Then we hit Utamaduni Craft Centre, a cool, local marketplace nearby with a dizzying array of small, high-ceilinged rooms filled with artists’ work, clothes, trinkets, books and souvenirs of all kinds. I manage to grab a guidebook for the animals of east Africa, which I figure might come in handy, but I lose it in my luggage and never find it again until we get back home.

It’s been misty and grey all day, and I’m thinking we are going to need the rain gear we brought. The drivers are all complaining about the “cold.” Located just below the equator, Nairobi’s winter season feels almost exactly the same as the late spring/early summer weather we just left Boulder on Sunday. Highs in the 70s, lows in the 50s. Nice. Winter.

By late afternoon we have driven all around Karen, a suburb of Nairobi which is on the higher end of the city’s economic scale, though it wouldn’t be considered that here. Some say Karen is named after Blixen because much of the area was once part of her coffee plantation, but there is some disagreement about that assertion that’s not worth getting into here. The dominant color is green, the vegetation varied, thick, dense, moist and pungent.

We see a lot of semi-modern apartment buildings, and many of the private residences and properties are large, and all share high stone walls with barbed wire strewn across the top. Almost all businesses and apartments have gates and gatekeepers. Dozens of tiny, make-shift businesses in tin-roofed shacks line the main intersections, where you can buy everything from fast food to cell-phone accessories during the day.

We pass the famous children’s orphanage and a hospital that Jambi says is pretty high quality for Nairobi, but we also see people walking everywhere along the sides of the road. A line of motorcylists crowds the corners of every major intersection and little shopping areas at cross streets looking for riders.

Brian tells us they are boda boda, motorcycle taxis common in east African cities like Nairobi that have sprang up as alternatives to Uber and Lyft for Kenyans. The Chinese have invested in cheap, rather garish-looking motorcycles and selling them at low prices on credit to Kenyans, and like cannabis in Colorado, it’s given young people another way to make a living and, he says, a way to show off for their friends and girls, too. The motorcycle carriage business is also, for the most part, unregulated, and traffic accidents involving boda bodas are reportedly on the increase. We saw some that seemed to be carrying enormous, off-balance loads on that back, others that had girlfriends hanging on to the driver for dear life as they darted in and out of traffic. Babe magnets, those motorcycles.

There isn’t much speeding because the roads are so clogged, and it’s difficult to go very fast. Quite often, especially around schools and public buildings, there are really hard-assed speed bumps. These aren’t the kind like in Boulder meant to slow traffic in neighborhoods that most cars can glide over at 10 or 15 mph without much trouble. These force you to a complete stop and then a gentle plop over before starting up again. There are three or four bumps every 50 feet to negotiate in some places, like the hospital, which slows everybody down considerably.

The infrastructure is especially primitive. If you think right-sizing Folsom Street in Boulder was a nightmare, you wouldn’t believe Nairobi. In neighborhoods, there are only two-lane roads, no paved shoulders, nary a bike lane in sight, and we never saw a stop light and just a few stop signs in Karen. This means cars and trucks and garish motorbikes and bicycles are crossing in front of one another in outrageous ways, especially at the many roundabouts and intersections.

But again, this insanity goes on without the frenzy or indignation of Highway 36 commuters, and our drivers show a restraint that I immediately feel I should emulate when I get home instead of getting frustrated and screaming in traffic. Not once do any of the Bustani drivers show any propensity for irritation or annoyance.

And we get into the first of many conversations about the Chinese influence here. Besides motorbikes, China is invested heavily in Africa, building roads and even a major railroad that will link Mombasa, the country’s second-largest city on the Indian Ocean south and east of Nairobi, with the capital. (Later in the trip we will see parts of this ginormous construction project.) The country is investing in, to environmentalists’ consternation, Kenya’s first coal plant. China does $200 billion in trade annually with Africa, and many people, including all Kenyans we talk with about it, are very skeptical and afraid of China’s pledge not to interfere in politics or internal affairs. For them, it’s like the 21st-century Chinese version of The Ugly American.

We stop for a bite to eat after driving around all afternoon in the Blixen Cottage bar, where I get a smoked-salmon appetizer and Nancy and I enjoy our first Tusker, a Kenyan pilsner stronger than but much like Beck’s or Heineken, and perfect for my beer palate—Billie got me a Tusker t-shirt at Utamaduni. Though it is chilly – it’s winter, remember — there are those little portable coal pits that staff keeps moving around that keep things quite comfortable. I think I’m going to like it here.

The Karen Blixen Cottages were once part of Dinesen's huge gardens.

We freshen up, do a little internet through the Blixen Cottage server, which is slow enough to remind of the days when you twiddled your thumbs waiting for the dial-up to happen, before Brian picks us up for dinner at Jambi and Peter’s house. They are an interesting couple. He’s American, just a couple months older than me and retired; she is Kenyan, from an old family near here, and they live in Berkeley half the year and spend the other half here in Nairobi, where they run Bustani Safari, among other things.

We all have a great time talking and eating in an outside area just off the main house with colorful banners on the ceiling. All our safari companions are here together for the first time, and we get acquainted with Lois, our host, and the other members of our group, too. A chef has prepared lots of steaming, wonderful Kenyan dishes, a kind of first-class introduction to what we’ll be eating all week, but I’m still too jet-lagged to fully appreciate the feast.

Still, we are all sitting on couches in this little outdoor area decorated with large, colorful quilts. The air is chilly, but a firetender in one corner stuffs an oven with branches that helps keep us all clear of the chill. I’m listening to Peter explain why he, like everyone else who can afford it, has a large water tower just opposite the house. He explains that the city only supplies water from a line on their street once a week, so each residence has to have a water tank to store its water, a precious commodity that we take somewhat for granted in Boulder. And meeting their five dogs briefly is a real treat before Brian drives us back. We’re in bed early, my dreams of jet lag and confusion amidst gigantic plants in lush gardens.

Part Two continues here. Watch videos of our elephant journey here.

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