What am I doing? Is this a bad idea? Maybe I should change my plans. Thoughts raced through my mind in the weeks leading up to my trip to Africa. Let me be clear that I have traveled alone many times. Usually it does not phase me. But this time was different.
I had made plans months before to climb Kilimanjaro then go on a safari in Tanzania with friends. I have a goal to travel to every country in the world, so I thought it would be cool to stop in Kenya alone for a couple of days on my way back. Without doing much research, I booked a two night stop in Nairobi. Sometime close to my trip, I became aware of the political turmoil going on in Kenya. Elections had been held and there were allegations of unfairness. The country invalidated the elections and rescheduled them for shortly after I was to be leaving Kenya.
At that time, I started to do more research. The US State Department warned of the political unrest and advised against travel to Kenya. News articles covered the protest. I remember reading one article saying that Kenya is likely heading towards a civil war. Am I stupid?!, I thought. How could I have planned something so dumb. But, as I typically do, I tried to take my focus away from my fear. I didn’t want to cancel my trip, so I figured I would be careful and hope for the best.
Despite my efforts to quell my fears, my anxiety rose in the days before my departure. Things changed quickly during my Kilimanjaro trek. I’m not sure what it is about being in nature and challenging myself physically, but it always seems to put things in perspective and make me feel strong and capable. After all, maybe Western media was exaggerating the dangers. The few Tanzanian locals whom I told I was going to Nairobi didn’t seem to think anything of it. Phew. I felt better.
I landed in Nairobi at night. The hotel I was supposed to stay at was going to send a driver to the airport for me. I went through immigration and customs, got my bags, and walked outside. I was instantly harrassed by about 20 taxi drivers who wanted to give me a ride. I politely declined and walked over to the pickup area. I looked for my name on a sign. Nothing. Ugh. I waited for 30 minutes. I had free wifi for an hour, so I emailed the hotel then sat down next to some of the drivers. I started to get worried that I didn’t have a ride and I didn’t feel comfortable getting in a taxi alone at night. I had about 20 minutes of wifi left. The sign next to me read “Intercontinental Nairobi”. Okay, I thought. I’ll use this last bit of wifi to book a room at the Intercontinental so I can drive with this guy. So that’s what I did. When I got to the hotel, I had to step out of the car and put myself and my belongings through a metal detector. Maybe this place isn’t so safe, I thought.
I felt quite safe once I was in my room. The next morning, I woke up and thought about what I should do that day I usually like to experience new places by going on adventures and checking out the natural attractions. However, I had just spent a week on a safari in Tanzania. I didn’t have time to go to Masi Mara and the parks in Nairobi seemed less exciting than what I had already seen. I went downstairs to talk to the concierge, and ended up deciding to walk around the city. I was given a map. I asked whether it was safe to walk around alone and was shown the areas where it would be safe to walk. I was told to avoid talking to anyone. I shouldn’t let anyone be my tour guide and I shouldn’t allow conversations to last more than a few words.
I left the hotel. A tall, blonde, American female. Walking alone. I stuck out like a sore thumb. I saw one other white person the whole day, and it was an older man sitting in a coffee shop. I walked assertively with my head up. I didn’t want to look unsure of where I was going. My passport and wallet were in the waist of my pants, not visible. I wanted to see the area, but I didn’t want to look around too much and make it more obvious I didn’t know where I was. Everyone stared at me. And I mean everyone. I acted like it didn’t phase me. Some people talked to me. I responded confidently and tried to keep conversations short. When anyone asked how long I had been in Nairobi, I said either three weeks or a month. It was enough time to seem pretty knowledgeable, but not too long. People believed me. A young girl hit my arm and said “Give me water, sister.” I ignored her. She demanded that I give her water again. I tried to walk by, but she stood in front of me. Other children joined, putting their hands out. I ignored them too. It’s not that I’m against helping people, but I am against parents training their children to beg like that. I went to a market. Everyone tried to talk to me. I might as well have been a walking dollar bill. I repeatedly said that I had no money and was just on a walk for exercise. People tried to sell me stuff anyway. Several people tried to “guide” me around the market. I walked around the market then left to continue my walk.
I walked farther, and soon realized I was past the area where the concierge had told me to stop. Whoops. I saw a parking lot where people were skating, so I sat down to watch. Several people came up to me and asked whether I wanted to try. I said I had no money. I was just there to watch. One man told me I could go for free and said I was wearing the right clothes for skating. He was right. And I did want to skate. But I had my passport and wallet in my pants, and I didn’t know whether I should trust anyone, so I declined. I watched everyone skate around for about an hour then started walking back to the hotel.
I stopped at a coffee shop on my way back. I’m a vegan and I don’t drink coffee so I asked whether the shop had soy milk then asked the barista to make me a smoothie with bananas, ice, soy milk, and vanilla syrup. I’m pretty sure I was the most complicated customer they had ever had. When she handed me my drink, she warned that she had no idea how it would taste. It was actually quite good.
I walked to the park I had been warned to avoid because of theft. I stayed on the outside and walked back to my hotel. When I got to my room, I saw a newspaper. The front page was about the elections.
That night, I thought about what I would do the next day. I had done some research on the Giraffe Center and animal orphanage. Both helped rescue and rehabilitate animals. They weren’t zoos, so I was ethically okay with them. Maybe it would be fun to go. When I woke up, I went back to the coffee shop and ordered my complicated drink again. The barista remembered me.
More people talked to me on my way back. I noticed that race was a popular topic of conversation. I guess that makes sense considering I’m a white female from America, which now has a reputation for racism (Thanks, Trump). One man asked me “Trump or Obama?” I responded, “Obama” and he gave me a high five. Another man asked how we treat blacks in America. All I could think of is…we’re all people, aren’t we? I was embarrassed. I felt bad. I didn’t want to be associated with racism, but that’s the reputation Americans have these days. Ugh.
I wasn’t sure how long to let conversations go. I did want to talk to locals, but I was unsure of their intentions and I had been warned by the hotel. One man told me that the best way to learn while traveling is to talk to people. I agree, but I questioned why he was saying that and why he was so eager to talk to me. I still kept my conversations short. I’m not sure whether I should have.
More people begged for money from me, especially children. One girl followed me asking for money for “the baby”. I felt terrible. I wanted to help. I used to give old clothing to people like that. I don’t anymore. This trip I gave my clothing to my Kilimanjaro guides and porters and hotel staff. Maybe they don’t need it as much, but I don’t want to encourage people using their children like that. I hate it.
I got back to my hotel and asked about the Giraffe Center and animal orphanage. It was about $60 to go. After having spent a week on a safari, I just didn’t feel like spending that kind of money. I headed up to my room to check emails and get some work done. An hour or so later, I heard a few booms. I ran to the window and saw smoke rising on the sidewalk. People were yelling. It was a demonstration. Shortly after, police with tear gas arrived. The demonstrations were on and off. They didn’t seem violent, so I decided to go take a walk.
I walked. I felt safe despite the demonstrations. I remembered how nervous I had been before I came and laughed. The demonstrations were relatively small, but I felt like I was learning a lot by being there. Even though I just spent the weekend walking around Nairobi doing not much of anything, it was one of the more impactful trips I have taken. I left feeling stronger, more sure of myself, and a little more empathetic.