Arriving in Nairobi


I arrived in Nairobi after a grueling 35 hours of travel and transfers, including 2 night flights. Sleepy-eyed I searched for my driver, Brian, among 50 others holding signs with people's names on them. I scanned the crowd slowly and finally locked eyes with the smiling young man with the "Kim Carpenter" sign. I nodded his way and he sprinted around the crowd to grab my bags.

From his white-toothed, wide-awake smile I heard, "Jambo, Kim!" My first Kenyan welcome and music to my ears.

After hearing stories of dangerous attacks and kidnappings in Africa, I eyed the locals to see if I sensed any danger. Neither did I feel any, nor did I sense that anyone was interested in me at all. I was just another mzungu (white person) arriving at this very international airport.

Brian escorted me to our very nice, modern, clean car and walked around to open the door for me. Forgetting that the drivers seat was on the other side, I totally missed the cue and opened the other door for myself. I heard him say "oh" in surprise, leaving me embarrassed for not accepting his hospitality. First little mistake in a string of many I was sure to make here. Figuring out cultural norms is part of the learning in foreign travel.

"Sawa sawa. It's ok," he said. Both of us trying to make the other feel comfortable.

Brian explained that we were to meet my friend Mercy at a coffee shop before heading out on the 4-hour drive to Meru. So my journey began, hitting the streets of Nairobi driving on the "London" side of the road, traffic weaving in and out crazily the way only developing countries seem to be able to do completely proficiently. We'd kill ourselves if we drove like that, but they seem to have a 6th sense that keeps them narrowly missing motorbikes, pedestrians, animals and other cars. We whip in and around roundabouts, past billboards, a cow, many brightly colored and painted buildings and towering skyscrapers. Brian points out all of the attractions until we arrive at Java House in an area that seems full of hospitals and medical specialists.

Java House could have been a Pete's in San Francisco by the way it was laid out. Perfectly manicured hedges surrounded outdoor tables with clean, bright new umbrellas. I ordered a delicious latte and decided to scrap my "no gluten" rule and cave in to the scrumptious almond croissant calling my name from under the perfectly polished glass case.

Was this Africa? Where were the flies and mosquitos and dirty feet?

I sat down to sip my coffee. Amazingly good. And bit into the buttery almond croissant. Delicious. I'm happy. I've arrived!

Now, I had already heard about "Africa Time" from my friend Linda, so I reminded myself to let go, enjoy the moment, and remember that I had nowhere to be but... Here. Now. It's best to wing it when you're traveling abroad. Especially in developing countries. Things often happen in their own time and if you try to fight it, your trip will likely frustrate you to no end. It's best to just chill.

So we wait for Mercy and my driver, Brian, would just have to suffer through my probing coach-like questions until she arrived. I don't think he'd ever been asked so many personal things within 15 minutes of meeting someone. Poor guy. I asked him all sorts of things about his life and upbringing. He finally blushed when I asked his age so I first volunteered mine. "I'm 44.” "I'm 30," he said. His shyness strung around him like a sandwich board in front of his chest. I decided to let him off the hook for the moment, and focused back on my croissant.

Mercy showed up in a flash of cool dark sunglasses, jeans, sneakers and a printed grey hoodie that made me feel like an underdressed country girl. I didn't know it but she was just off the plane from London. I was told to bring clothes that could get really dirty, so I had a bag full of Target t-shirts and Old Navy cotton pants, old running shoes that I was about to throw out and a pair of pink crocks for kicking around the hut. Not exactly fashionista.

Was this Africa? Where are the women in bright colored mumu dresses and head wraps?

One of the best things about traveling is getting to be wrong about things. I knew from that first hour in Nairobi that I was in for a treat!

Just wait until I tell you about dinner with the Kenyan "Sex & The City" ladies, as I call them...