Hello friends and dedicated fans! I am taking a brief hiatus from recounting my Andean adventures to tell the tale of my most recent destination: Kenya!
This trip cannot be explained without a little background information. After finishing Bowdoin a few weeks ago and preparing to embark on my next South American adventure, it only seems logical that I would jet over to Africa for a bit, right? Right…
This trip stemmed from a conversation I had with my dear friend, Kate, last fall about our mutual friend, Chase. Before I can say anymore, I must describe these two key characters.
Kate: 29 going on 16 in all the best ways. Kate works in the Study Abroad and Fellowships office at Bowdoin so gets mega credit for helping me when I studied abroad in Argentina and again with the Fulbright application process this past fall. And by mega credit I mean I actually would never be on my way to Ecuador if Kate hadn’t whipped me into shape. She is an angel and I am forever indebted to her. At some point over the past few years, Kate and I decided to be friends. Despite the weird looks we got from her fellow office mates for our student-faculty relationship, a true love was blossomed.
You might recognize her name from my post in 2013 about my stuffed traveling companion, Esteban, as Kate was the one who gifted him to me. She is also the loving wife of a fantastic gentleman from the UK and the mother of the two most adorable girls this world has ever seen (ages 2 ½ and 1). Kate can spit out any pop culture reference ever, she loves crabs (real ones and crab décor), studied abroad for half of her college career, and has amazing hair circumference when it is humid outside.
Chase: Bowdoin Class of 2012. I had the pleasure of meeting Chase during my freshman spring when he was one of the leaders of an [in]famous winter camping course with the Outing Club. Like Kate, Chase and I decided to be friends and spent the rest of the semester crossing paths intermittently. A conversation on the quad during his senior week about his future plans to teach in Kenya and my lack of Facebook to keep in touch led to a 3-year pen pal relationship filled with me trying to decipher Chase’s illegible handwriting on graph paper, my extremely lengthy letters, and often a leap of faith in the mail system. Chase is originally from Tennessee, but spent several years of his childhood in the UK and now identifies with being from New Hampshire. He is an avid traveler and outdoorsman, is interested in international diplomacy, is a Star Wars aficionado, and doesn’t like mushrooms very much. He is also a ginger. Just another detail.
And then there’s me: recent college grad always up for adventure, a serial over-thinker, lover of chocolate, and ready to take on the world one country at a time. But if you are reading this, I imagine you know me fairly well.
So anyway. Kate and I were friends. Chase and I were friends. Kate and Chase were friends. Why weren’t all three of us friends? I was in Kate’s office one day when she told me that she was planning to visit Chase in Kenya since he is leaving at the end of this year to pursue a master’s degree in London. I [semi] jokingly told her I was jealous and wanted to go too, but I felt awkward since I wasn’t technically invited and also because I was a broke almost-college grad (cue the serial over-thinking part I mentioned above). Long story short, Kate lectured me about the fact that money is for spending, a few days later I received a formal invitation (calligraphy pen and all!) from Chase, and before I knew it I had booked flights to Kenya!
And now for the actual trip! (If you are still reading by this point I promise it gets interesting.) Due to scheduling, Kate and her husband went a week before me. After a tear-filled and busy goodbye to Bowdoin (complete with a torrential downpour outside), I suddenly found myself on a plane to London’s Heathrow airport. I had a short layover there before catching my next flight to Nairobi, Kenya. The flights went by in seemingly little time and without any issues—I think mostly because I was so tired from the previous few weeks with finals, graduation, moving out, etc. that I slept or cried most of the way. Once I arrived in Nairobi, I was to meet Kate at the departures gate since her husband was flying out around the time I was flying in. Well, it was also a torrential downpour in Nairobi. My flight was late, it was dark, and I couldn’t find the international departures area. I tried to solicit help from a friendly airport employee (who kindly drove me around in his bus), but he was all sorts of confused as to why I wanted to go to departures. A semester of living in Latin America meant that I was surprisingly calm and unphased by this adventure. Poor Kate on the other hand was worried sick and frantically calling everyone she could think of until I finally emerged from the rain, soaking wet and smelling quite rancid after 20 hours of travel but smiling with excitement at our adventure ahead.
Finally reunited and exhausted, we crashed in our airport hotel (complete with what we dubbed our “princess malaria canopies” aka mosquito nets) for the night before heading back to the airport in the morning to make the short flight to Mombasa, where Chase lives. Even in the small part of the city I saw, Nairobi is a large and busy city, and Kate and I were both feeling a little overwhelmed. That immediately dissipated as soon as we landed in Mombasa. Located on the coast of the Indian Ocean and the second largest city in Kenya, Mombasa has a relaxed and vibrant feeling that had Kate and I smiling to each other the entire taxi ride to Aga Khan Academy, where Chase has worked for the past 3 years.
Chase met us at the gate (complete in a pink shirt and socks ensemble that led to many shrimp jokes from Kate and I the rest of the trip) where he kindly showed us to his ocean-view apartment (not complete with toilet paper or food. #bachelorlife). There, we showered, napped, and also met up with another Bowdoin alum Emma, who is finishing up her first year at Aga Khan. The four of us crammed into a tuk tuk (essentially a small motorcar taxi) for a fantastic lunch downtown. I found myself quietly taking it all in with a content and elated smile. It was amazing how all the overwhelming and sad emotions from the days before as I departed my beloved home in Brunswick just seemed to disappear into the humid air of Mombasa. As my dear friend Maddie would say, I was the happiest kitty.
That night, we were joined by another Aga Khaner, Anna, for dinner at another fantastic outdoor Mombasa restaurant, where we devoured trays on trays of meat sticks. And by “we” devoured, I mostly just mean that Chase devoured said meat sticks. He ate a whopping 16 that night, but as of the writing of this blog post I have been informed by my sources on the ground that he set a new record of 26 sticks. Congratulations, Chase, on your meaty achievement.
We had the pleasure of having Emma as our Mombasa tour guide the next day, and she showed us the Old Town part of the city. The area used to be fairly bustling, but it has quieted down significantly now after the shootings of several tourists a few months ago. We leisurely enjoyed some Swahili tea, browsed the shops, had a lovely lunch, and then explored Fort Jesus, which is a Portuguese fort built in 1591 to guard the Old Port of Mombasa. Interestingly, it was built in the shape of a man (from an aerial view) and thus was given the name of Jesus. While we were unable to go inside too far without paying, it was still really neat to explore this 16th century relic. After some coconut water to revive our hot and sweaty selves, we headed back to Aga Khan and geared up for our next destination: Watamu!
Watamu is a small village about 2 hours up the coast from Mombasa. Chase’s taxi guy (we learned that Chase has an absurd amount of Kenyan connections), Collins, kindly drove us. It was so neat getting to see the open landscape of the country as we weaved through small towns. We had to stop at several police check points on our way (efforts to control terrorist group al-Shabab), but they were fairly uneventful. I kept thinking how similar everything seemed to Latin America: the small shops, people milling around in seeming indifference to the slow passing of time, and the insane driving that had me thinking we were going to get into a head-on collision at least every ten minutes. But, in the advice of Chase and Emma, “you have to not care much about your life in traffic here.” (Sorry mom and dad. I clearly made it out alive though!)
Tired from the hot drive, we finally arrived in paradise. Chase had set us up to stay at the Watamu Treehouse Hotel (check it out! http://www.treehouse.co.ke/). The treehouse is built within the jungle branches and the breeze flows gently through the building, as there are no windows. Homemade glass fixtures line the walls, and the soft crash of the ocean waves on the beach, wind in the trees, and the occasional monkey were the only sounds we could hear. Welcomed with fresh juice and a fantastic room for three (because at this point our strange trifecta of friends was the most normal), we were all the happiest kitties. We spent that first evening lounging and dining on a fantastic seafood dinner before falling asleep to a full moon.
Because the moon was full, the tide was strong, so the owner of the hotel, Paul, offered an excursion of floating down a mangrove with nothing to guide us but the pull of the tide. Always down for adventure, we agreed and the next morning found ourselves walking down a dirt road lined with an interesting juxtaposition of small, thatch-roof homes and also large, gated vacation homes. We soon found ourselves at the mangrove, which was essentially a 5-7 feet wide creek, where we hopped in with our snorkels and simply floated. The water gently guided us around the twists and turns of the mangrove as we dodged branches, rolled around in the warm water, and shared plenty of giddy smiles.
After a while, Paul informed us that we were nearing the opening. We readied our snorkels and rounded the corner into a harbor-like area. We swiftly floated past fishing boats and docks as the tide pulled even stronger. We followed the shoreline for quite a while longer when Paul instructed us to get ready to swim quickly to the shore. At that spot, the tide was suddenly stronger than it had been the entire time, and we had to traverse the current in order to make it to the rocky shore. Before we knew it, we were dripping wet, smiling big, and walking on the beach.
And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, we noticed one of the hotel employees, Josephat, standing on the shore along with a table full of food. He had also brought along a floating board, so we used it as a table and sat cross-legged in the shallow water and enjoyed a fantastic snack of a Kenyan sweet bread, coconut-covered bean-type things, mango juice, and more. It was unbelievably delicious and much appreciated after a long float. We had originally planned to get a ride back to the hotel from Josephat, but the tide was going out fast enough that we decided to walk along the newly-exposed shoreline instead. We leisurely made our way back, soaking up the sun, checking out eels and crabs, and conversing back and forth as we left soft footprints in the sand.
We arrived back at the hotel to a fantastic breakfast (as if we hadn’t had enough food already!), which we devoured willingly. We had then planned to explore some nearby ruins, but instead the afternoon was spent showering, reading, and napping until we got massages. If I had been relaxed and in a fantastic mood before this day, I was surely floating above the clouds with elation and joy at the end. Just pure bliss. This post-college life is pretty great so far I must say.
The next morning, we sadly had to prepare for our journey back to Mombasa. We had a leisurely breakfast, packed, and said goodbye to our dear new treehouse friends and promised to come back if we can. Collins then picked us up again and we made the drive back to the city. It was hot outside and we kept inhaling exhaust from trucks driving in front of us, so Kate and I were kind of miserable by the time we got back to Mombasa. Luckily some food and a nap cured us, so we were feeling much better by the time we joined some of Chase’s friends for dinner.
These friends are also teachers at Aga Khan. They are probably in their 40s and have a son who attends the lower school. They are originally from India and were some of the kindest people I have ever met. Emma and Anna also joined us for dinner, so it was a table full of friends—some we had known longer than others but it all felt the same with the loving and welcoming atmosphere. And the food was absolutely mouth-wateringly delicious.
That night was spent somberly and quietly packing up, as Chase had to depart early the next morning for a school trip to Mt. Kenya and Kate and I had an adventure of our own lined up. We exchanged goodbyes to our fantastic host and friend, Chase, and before we knew it morning had arrived and we were off again.
And where were we going, might you ask? Well, when in Kenya, one must engage with the local wildlife. So we were off on a safari!
Another connection of Chase’s and safari guide extraordinaire, Salim, met us at the gates of Aga Khan as we lugged our backpacks and several bags for Chase out (these bags are important details you will read about later). We hopped in his safari van and we were off to Tsavo East National Park. The drive took about 4 hours, including a stop to help fix a fellow safari van. Salim is an endless encyclopedia of knowledge, so he spent much of the drive explaining the history and current situation of Kenya. I will spare you the details of all that I learned, but it was truly fascinating to learn more about this beautiful yet strange country we were in.
Not two minutes after we entered the park, Salim pointed to the right at about 30 elephants sauntering about the bushes. I was reminded of being in Yellowstone with the ability to see wildlife so close and so easily. We had lifted the roof of the safari van so we could stand and get a full 360 view of the landscape and wildlife. Over the next few minutes, we saw zebras, gazelles, birds, and much more. We were headed to our lodge for lunch, but Salim asked if we were very hungry. Having just consumed some Pringles, we told him we were doing okay, to which he responded, “okay, so do you want to go eat lunch or see some lions first?” Uhh…DUH we wanted to see lions! A fellow safari guide had radioed into Salim to inform him about the “simba” that he spotted. (Simba is the Swahili word for lion. I told you this was the real life Lion King.) We followed two track roads that Salim clearly knew by heart although they looked confusing to us, and suddenly to our left we saw three female lions lazily lounging beneath the shade of a tree. (In addition to the radio, Salim has an unbelievable ability to spot animals without seemingly even trying to look for them.) Salim turned the van off and we simply watched these majestic creatures for a while before leaving them to their nap and going to our lodge for another fantastic Kenyan meal.
Our accommodations included a canvas tent/cabin hybrid and an outdoor seating area with elephants grazing just yards away. Casual. We napped and got out of the sun for a few hours before going on a sunset “game drive” (as it is called) to see some more animals. We saw elephants, zebras, more lions, baboons, and so much more. I will let the photos do the speaking here.
After dinner and stargazing in a night sky that could compete with Wyoming’s (not many places can do that), we crashed for some much-needed sleep before waking up early for a sunrise game drive. The highlight of this one included watching a hippo give birth. Hippos have been doing the water birth thing forever. So hipster.
Before long, it was time to make the long drive back to Mombasa. The drive was mostly spent staring out the window and watching the landscape pass by, exhausted but very content. (Salim told Kate that I am her “friend that doesn’t speak” since I was so content just watching everything.) We made a brief stop at a wood-working “factory,” where we watched dozens of people carve intricate wood carvings of all sizes beneath the low-lying shelters of tin roofs placed on crooked logs placed in the uneven dirt. I could have spent all day there admiring the incredible craftsmanship. Salim then took us to the train station, where we planned to take the overnight train to Nairobi.
Unfortunately, our impeccable good luck so far on the trip started to take a turn at this point. I know this post is getting lengthy at this point, so I will try to condense the story. First, the station looked abandoned and several decades old. We boarded anyway and found our first-class cabin, whose amenities only partially worked at that involved going through a very narrow corridor to get to. (Very difficult with all our bags.) The “toilets” were nothing more than holes in the floor that led directly to the tracks below us. Somewhat apprehensive as it started to get dark and we began to question our decision to take the train, Kate and I tried to maintain our morale through laughter and not letting our sense of adventure slip away. And what is traveling without a few mishaps anyway, right?
The train was scheduled to leave at 7. But then they informed us it would be 7:30 or 8. Classic Kenya. No worries. We made our way to the food car to eat a surprisingly tasty dinner with the other 3 train passengers. It was dark by this point, but we tried not to worry and kept texting Salim updates, as he had become our very worried and caring adopted father at this point. It was such a relief to have a contact in the country since both Chase and Emma were out of range by this point. The departure time kept getting pushed back farther and farther because we were waiting for the engine that was mysteriously eternally “very close”, so finally we decided to just go to sleep in our very comfortable– yet very claustrophobic in the hot train car– beds.
Sometime later, I heard a loud screeching noise and felt the train jolt to a start. I glanced at my watch and read the time: 11:45 pm. Classic. Feeling relieved to be on our way and much cooler with the night air coming in through the window, I was able to sleep more soundly. Around 7:30 am, however, I awoke to the train stopped in seemingly the middle of nowhere. We made our way to breakfast where we were informed we were in Voi. We texted Salim an update of our location, and he informed us we had made it about a third of the 480 km trip. Even better? Voi is where the park entrance is that we were at the day before. Perfect :)
About halfway through breakfast, the train manager approached us to inform us that the engine was broken and that we should probably take a bus the rest of the way, as they didn’t know when it would be fixed. In a mix of laughter and low-key stress, we packed our things and lugged them all (did I mention Chase sent his heavy books home with us?) to a truck which drove us about half a mile to the bus station, where we bought a $12 ticket and waiting for the bus to arrive an hour later from the dusty bench of the small town.
Kate and I planted ourselves in the front seat and many, many hours later (approximately 6), many horrible bus movies, and insane traffic later, we finally arrived in Nairobi at 7 pm—24 hours after we had set out.
We had clearly missed all our planned Nairobi activities that day, but we were so exhausted we didn’t even care at that point. We snagged a taxi at the bus station which took us to Paul, the hotel owner’s, house. He had kindly offered us his house while we were in Watamu and found out we didn’t have a place to stay. Nairobi traffic is like nothing I have ever seen before, so it took us over an hour to make it the few km to his house, but once we got there, we were welcomed by Paul’s amazing housekeepers, a warm meal, and lovely beds to sleep on. His two housekeepers were so motherly that all the stress and exhaustion from the day seemed to disappear as we fell into the loving arms of these strangers.
Feeling (and looking) significantly better the next morning, we took on our final day in Kenya in stride. Since Kate works for the study abroad office at Bowdoin, she decided to pay a visit to St. Lawrence in Kenya—a study abroad program that Bowdoin students often attend right there in Nairobi. While looking at the map to find the place a few months ago, Kate had discovered that there was a Waldorf school right next to St. Lawrence in Kenya. Kate’s mother is a Waldorf teacher and she hopes to send her children to Waldorf School, and I am incredibly interested in this type of education, so we decided to pay them a visit. For those who don’t know, Waldorf education is a mindful approach to learning that focuses on creativity and developing the whole child—body, mind, and spirit. That is an abbreviated version, so I recommend checking out their video! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upmMD4JnCusThanks to connections from Paul, we spent the morning at the school—observing classes, talking with teachers, and learning as much as we could.
On a high from that, we spent several more hours next door at St. Lawrence in Kenya learning about their study abroad program. We then headed back to Paul’s house for lunch and before we knew it, we were off to the airport. The airport is only about 12 kilometers away and our flight wasn’t until 11:30 that night, but our taxi driver recommended we leave at 5. We were confused as to why we needed to leave so early, but we were incredibly grateful to his wise advice once we got into that crazy Nairobi traffic I mentioned. It took us nearly 4 hours to travel that short distance. If we moved, it was very slowly, but we spent the majority of that time simply stopped and waiting for an endless line of cars to budge. It was exhausting.
Luckily, I was able to sleep on the plane as a result and before we knew it we had bid the lovely country of Kenya goodbye and we found ourselves blinking ourselves awake in the morning light of London, England. Our next flight didn’t leave until that evening, so Kate and I hopped on the train and spent the day exploring the sights and bites of London. Kate lived there for several months the first time she studied abroad, so she shuttled us around like a pro. The contrast from the largely impoverished, laid-back, chaotic, and tropical Kenya to the very clean, expensive, organized, and cloudy United Kingdom was certainly startling. Reverse culture shock is a real thing. It was awesome to explore a city I have never seen for a bit, but my wallet was glad to get back to the airport at the end of the day.
A quick flight across the Atlantic and Kate and I were back in the United States of America. Oof. Thinking about it now brings the emotions flooding back for me. Coming back to a place after a trip is always so strange—mostly because that place is so familiar that it feels like you never left, yet you are not the same at all. I often struggle to reconcile that. We got back to Maine near midnight, where Kate and I said a tired and sad goodbye. The next day, I hopped on yet another plane and headed back to Wyoming at last. (Insert deep sigh here.)
There is no good way to conclude this incredible saga (both the trip and this super lengthy blog post…sorry about that). In short, my trip to Kenya was one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life. It was the absolute best way to end my college career, as it involved a continued adventure, a healthy escape from the overwhelming emotions I experienced at the end of my time at Bowdoin, and I got to spend it with two people who have been incredibly meaningful and important to me during the past few years. I am now happily home in Wyoming and very content here working, spending time catching up with family and friends, hiking in my beloved Wind River mountains, and gearing up for my next great adventure: Ecuador. I want to thank all the people who made this possible, but especially to Kate for her unending wisdom, love, and light; to Chase for his superb hosting and planning skills, patience, and friendship, and to my family for their support of my travel choices, even when they aren’t always too excited about the destinations I choose. :)
Well, folks, if you have made it to the end I hope you know I appreciate it greatly and commend you for sticking it out. I will leave you here until I take of the Andes again in just a few short months. In the meantime, I plan to “haraka haraka iena Baraka” (unsure about the spelling on that one) as the Kenyans do. In other words, there is no sense in rushing, and I plan to do just that.
Thanks again for all your support, and I will see you again from South America! :)