Backpacker

A few months ago, when I walked up to a household bookshelf in Kigali coated with dust, I didn’t expect to read anything. I scanned across the titles of a robust German novel, a threadbare Harry Potter sequel and a piece on African warfare. None of the reading material caught my attention. Until, mixed in among a row of Rwandan travel guides, I saw a Lonely Planet guidebook that said: “Kenya.”

I snatched it with an idea, perused a few chapters, and after a few hours my idea morphed into an elaborate plan.

Kenya for the holidays, I thought.

I had the expendable cash, time off and the gung-ho mindset to explore the continent. I also had a travel partner, in Liz, who asserted she’d back me every step of the way. She was brave enough to trust me, a remarkably inexperienced travel agent, to plot an improvised “vacation.” Yeah, I knew this before and I know it now, I was a clueless young drifter. My plan: traverse an unfamiliar African nation during Christmastime. Me, a wanderer, in Kenya — chockfull of national parks and shining beaches.

Why not?

Here’s only a taste of what we encountered in Kenya:

I landed at Nairobi Airport the day before Christmas Eve with wavering eyelids — it was 5:00 AM. My first impression of Kenya was through the lens of a ratty cab window. The Nairobi outskirts were a collection of districts with crumbling infrastructure. Empty bottles, torn paper, overgrown weeds and dust lined the roadways. Cars, motos and pedestrians weaved through potholes and speed bumps without a care in the world. A scene of controlled commotion.

Our first overnight was in a borough 15 minutes from the heart of the capital. It was not for expatriate stay. It showed. Neighboring storefronts were caged shut. Flaming trash and mud gushed side by side in the alleyways. An adjacent high-rise building was built ground up, but walls were busted out and no roof enclosed the remaining floors as if the contractor simply ran out of funds. I didn’t book for a five-star resort, but this was interesting. Let’s just say some pictures in the Airbnb preview were… left out.

Thankfully, downtown Nairobi was slightly more put together. Order wasn’t restored on the roads as more cars and jaywalkers intersected. Countless times I cringed thinking I’d hear a scrape, but the drivers scoffed, jostled, raged and squeezed. They didn’t crash. At nearly every other block, a wide-eyed toddler followed me begging for spare shillings in the only English they could form.

The city wasn’t all unsavory, however. Any residents we approached were generally kind and English-speaking. At the city center, I deposited some pocket change to rent rollerblades and took off in circles around a lush parking lot. Liz and I bargained — to no avail — within a beautifully-crafted tented maze that was the Maasai Market. To top the day off, I had my picture taken on the helipad rooftop of the 28-story Kenyatta International Conference Center.

The highlight of the trip, though, came the following day. We scheduled an Uber for 5:30 AM to drive us an hour and 45 minutes northeast to Hell’s Gate National Park, the site that influenced the main setting for Disney’s The Lion King. We rented creaky bikes to navigate our eight-kilometer trek down the clay path. We cycled alongside cliffs so ostensibly chiseled and picturesque they looked sculpted by hand, not naturally formed. Since we arrived early, we were lucky enough to witness wild animals scattered on the grassy plains beside the track. Our appearance agitated packs of wild hogs, antelope, zebra, African buffalo, baboons and a lone giraffe eager to gallop across the road.

The Gorge at Hell’s Gate rounded out the adventure. I’m not a battle-tested climber. Nonetheless, we opted for the “long hike” inside the valley separated by antique rock walls and volcanic columns. Our local guide was 30 pounds lighter and five inches shorter than me, but he supported my free weight whenever I slipped. We snapped stunning panoramas at the peak of the gorge. Our shoes were muddy and soaked, but remarkably, our bones were intact.

Over the next three days our journey was lulled by transportation. We took the most efficient way to get to the coast — a six-hour express train from Nairobi to Mombasa, a seaport city overlooking the Indian Ocean.

At our arrival, Isaac the cab driver hounded us at the station. He demanded to take us to our destination, Diani Beach, a touristy area an hour and a half south. Isaac’s price was fair, so we accepted. His temper and insistence on government corruption, though, wasn’t worth the rate. We rolled to an entrance for a ferry system transporting cars and citizens across an inlet. A bridge seemed more appropriate, but alas. Isaac’s taxi was halted by troops. After some uncomfortable arguing, he was harshly guided into the police station. We were seconds from ditching the backseat when he stormed outside and plopped back behind the wheel. He muttered under his breath, and then loudly to us, “The police just want my money,” and “I don’t have the money they want.” Luckily, he had a “friend” on the force who managed to nix the ticket claiming faulty registration. We rode on. The unexpected length of the trip, the heat with no A/C and our eccentric chauffeur felt like a cruel joke.

Keen to pay Isaac and leave, I was happy to smell the beach again as I swung the door open in Diani. We were just in time for a seafront Christmas dinner assembled by an easygoing Canadian hotel owner named Wayne. That night, I drank my first Tusker Lager and rode in my first tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled taxi wagon resembling a slightly larger painted golf cart. Two Kenyan staples. The next morning, we took off on a matatu (bus) to Malindi, up the coast. I pressed into the back-left corner. The floorspace was taken by the heightened frame made for a rear wheel. My knees never felt worse after I stood up from the three-hour ride so fast and erratic it was as if the driver snoozed and dropped his resting foot on the gas pedal the whole way.

At the minuscule Malindi Airport, security and check-in were a breeze. Liz and I sat to play cards while waiting for our departure. A staff member was practicing his English over intercom announcements for the upcoming flights. He wasn’t loud enough for anyone to decipher a full sentence and he left the microphone on for a while, generating static interference. Oblivious to his faults, he innocently asked customers, “How did my message go?” No one had the heart to give him a truthful review even though they barely knew when their plane was taking off.

Our final adventure (Thank God, by air): Lamu. A small island, Lamu is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the oldest Swahili settlement in East Africa. A motorized kayak picked us up at the airport with our luggage — a backpack each — and sailed toward the dock in front of our hotel, Petley’s Inn. I stepped onto the boardwalk-turned-main street and thought I had traveled centuries back in time. There were no vehicles, only donkeys. The buildings were crafted of stone or dead coral. Hundreds of cats, from starving to bloated, loitered in the backstreets.

We spent a day relaxing by the Inn’s pool, but we couldn’t leave the following day without completing a Lamu-tourist rite of passage. A dhow trip. We scheduled a morning sail with captain “Hakuna Matata” and his right-hand man “Barack Obama.” They collected us and freshly-caught tuna at the dock. We sailed off in a wooden ship with masts, lounge cushions and trailing flags supporting Brazilian and Dutch national soccer.

The dhow floated to Manda Island. We hopped overboard to explore the white-sand and coral-strewn beach where conquering nations and rebels clashed in bloody naval battles years ago. Our captains cooked a hearty meal on the boat, which I devoured. We sailed back with the current and took in the sun’s rays, reggae tunes and one final whiff of coastal antiquity.

All that was left of our journey after Lamu were returning nights in Mombasa and a New Year’s Eve stay in Nairobi. In Mombasa, I yearned for shaded bars with Premier League soccer over torched beaches. Heading back to Nairobi, the six-hour train ride — probably the entire journey too — took its toll on me. I was beat. Exhausted. I lost any sort of urge to celebrate 2019 with strangers in a crowded city. My final night in Mombasa was spent on the couch with delivery food and cable. The next morning, we had plane tickets to Kigali in hand. Our expedition — I wouldn’t call it a vacation — was over.

Kenya was a beast. I pedaled alongside animals I thought I’d only ever see in a zoo. I gazed beyond the surf into the vastness of the Indian Ocean. I ate Oxen testicles. I scaled the valley of the shadow of death. I spent more shillings than I ever thought I’d need to. Kenya chewed me up and spit me out, but it showed me some spectacular things along the way.

A few days ago, I returned the Lonely Planet guidebook to its unmoved slot in the bookshelf in Kigali. Perhaps a few other travelers will look at the spine the same way I did months ago.

I hope they’ll know what they’ll be getting themselves into.

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