19: The Giraffe Near the Airport…
…was my first real clue that I was definitely in Africa. I thought at first it was fake, like a big “Welcome to Kenya” sign, until it started grazing a tree. And most pilots think pigeons on the runway are a problem!
That first National Geographic image of Africa soon gave way to the noisy streets of Nairobi, clogged with colorful “matatus” – minibuses that serve as bus transport throughout the country. The locals call them “matatas”, meaning in Kaswahili “problem” or “trouble”. Lonely Planet warns against riding in these matatas, citing the Grand Prix speed at which the drivers careen over semi-paved, always pock-marked roads and the dangerous overcrowding that puts circus clown cars to shame. They are designed to seat about 22 people; we saw one that topped 35 and was listing dangerously to the left.
Lonely Planet also calls Nairobi a “cosmopolitan” city – guess I missed the cosmopolitan part because it did not impress me. Rather it made me and every other tourist I met rather nervous. There was a bad vibe there. Like barely suppressed aggression that could erupt at any time. It’s kinda hard not to be concerned when even the locals who run the safari companies are warning you. As we stood on the wrought iron fenced rooftop of the company I used, the owner (who was mugged later that week in front of the office), pointed out the dangers below.
“See this street right below us, that’s okay, until it gets dark… then don’t even go a block without a taxi. And that next street over, don’t go there at all. You’ll get mugged. And the matatas, stay out of them, you’ll get pickpocketed. And take off any jewelry, watches, etc., they’ll get snatched.” And so on.
Later that night a group of us decided to risk going 2 blocks to a local hotel for drinks. We were so elated to arrive there and back safely, you’d think we’d spent a night running across the Serengeti with raw meat tied around our necks!
But Nairobi is the jumping-off point for safaris around the country and further south. If you want the best deal, this is where you need to go.
I’d hooked up earlier with some Canadians who, with characteristic Canadian cheer and some Rockies gusto, decided to not heed the warnings and go to a local nightclub. They returned a bit less enthusiastic than when they left. Besides being the only non-locals in the club, apparently the place was filled with hookers. Once the women figured out the pair weren’t together, the girls were on this Canadian bloke like vultures on fresh kill. He found it funny at first, until one tried to pick his pocket and the girl he was with almost got into a fight when she burned a working girl’s clothes with her cigarette.
Since the club was only a few blocks from the safety of our prison – I mean room – they decided to chance walking it at 2 a.m., only to have every shadow lurk threateningly at them. I was happy to remain where I was, that is until I was almost thrown out.
A tout we’d met at the airport took us safari-shopping, and one of his pitches was that we could stay free at the safari company’s offices until our trip. He dropped us off and ended up helping me book a safari with Planet Safari… which turned out later NOT to be the same place he’d dropped us off to stay. For some reason, in all the confusion I didn’t realize I was staying at the competitor’s, and when the owner arrived later that night he told me that I either needed to cancel my trip with Planet and rebook with him, or to get out. Of course, it was too late to cancel the other safari and I certainly didn’t like the idea of being essentially blackmailed into booking with them. But no manner of explanation was going to sway him. I tried logic, playing stupid, negotiation and stubbornness and finally had to go to the very last thing in my arsenal: tears.
Yup, I admit it. It’s not something I’m proud of, it’s not a tactic I think I’ve ever employed before, but the situation was desperate. Here I was at midnight, backpack, daypack, food, 15 litres of water – and being told to get out. So tears and US$3 allowed me to spend the night. In the end though, I think he got some kind of sick satisfaction out of threatening me for an hour, because I’d offered to pay him at the start of the discussion.
So, the lesson in this was: never trust a tout. Be sure you know exactly what’s going on. Luckily for me it wasn’t an expensive lesson to learn.