Time slows down in Kenya while yesterday’s deadlines and the noise of the big megapolis become irrelevant and remote. After a 9-hour flight from London, I finally land in Nairobi, where the sun is scorching and a dry wind blows in my face. Throughout my trip, I try to soak it all in – the amazing landscape, which changes from savannah to green oasis and tropical flora, the sights of exotic animals and birds everywhere, and the diversity of architecture – from giant trade centres to modest huts and street mini-markets. Kenya is a colourful kaleidoscope – a mix of modernity and traditions, exotics and simplicity, different cultures and traditions. It is Africa with all its beauty and complexity and I, an Asian nomad, try to find my place in it.
Malindi: Sun, Sand and Ocean
The next day I am flying to the resort town of Malindi on the shores of the Indian Ocean, famous for its European vibe, beautiful beaches with white sand, national marine parks, and opportunities for deep-sea fishing. In the 15th century, Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama visited Malindi, which at that time as an important port city in the Indian Ocean. In the 1930s Ernest Hemingway chose Malindi as his favourite fishing destination.
Since then, Malindi has become a popular spot for many European tourists, lately Italian. In fact, Italian businessman, former Formula 1 manager and co-creator of United Colours of Benetton Flavio Briatore (famous for his affairs with top models), opened luxury hotel “Lion in the Sun” in Malindi, with his ex-girlfriend Naomi Campbell. The cheapest suite at “Lion in the Sun” costs about 200 euros per night and comes with services such as a professional spa, personalized room décor, restaurant with health conscious dining options and luxurious boat trips. Thus, the hotel sets high standards for lifestyle vacationing in Africa.
While I stretch my pale winter skin under the rays of Kenyan sun and enjoy the view of palm trees and the ocean, all kinds of business transactions take place on the beach. While some locals are selling handmade crafts or offering a ride on the traditional fishing boat (dhow), others are “selling” themselves. Yes, Malindi has become a place where middle-age European women come for good times with younger Kenyan “beach boys”. Given the reality of a small town and widespread poverty, for many “beach boys” this is a way to support a whole family back home in the village. And with some women, “beach boys” have seasonal relationships that last years.
Outside of resort walls, life in Malindi is simple and slow, and even the sight of a European tourist energizes the place. Many locals, who speak several European languages, try to earn extra money by offering tourists their guide services or, sometimes too aggressively, selling various knick-knacks.
What visitors need to keep in mind is that negotiation is key, especially before getting into a tuk-tuk (a local motorized rickshaw)! Without clear agreement on the price and route beforehand, a ride that typically costs 100 Kenyan shillings (approximately $1) may increase to 500 shillings or more. Yet, despite such small inconveniences, relaxation and rest are guaranteed in Malindi. For those looking to dine outside of the resort, I can recommend restaurants La Malendina, Old Man and the Sea, Casino and Karen Blixen. In the evenings, it may be worth checking out nightclubs Stardust and Vintage.
A Visit to Maasai
Upon my return to Nairobi there was a surprise waiting for me – a trip to a remote Maasai tribe village. Already in Malindi I noticed Maasai men, who stand out in the crowd because of their physique (they are usually taller and slenderer than other tribes), they stretched earlobes, red chequered shawls and colourful jewellery. Famous for being fearless warriors and hunters, Maasai tribe are also pastoralists and, approaching Oltepesi, I see a lonely shepherd wrapped in a recognizable red Maasai blanket ushering his herd of goats.
My friend and I stop for a minute by a church in the middle of the settlement. The children playing in the yard run up to me with amusement and excitement. Their reaction is not surprising given that cars, let alone Europeans, rarely pass by the village. With grins on their faces, they continue to touch my skin and painted bright red toe nails as though I am an art object in the museum! While I am playing with them and taking photos of a boy in an Obama t-shirt, our local contact, Richard, comes to greet us.
By Maasai standards, Richard is a happy family man and a successful businessman: he has two wives and ten children; owns a big piece of land and large livestock. His younger wife, Yunis, takes me inside the main hut, where she proudly shows me her kitchen with a fire in the middle of the room and a basic set of pots. While we chat about daily life, Yunis shows me the Maasai jewellery that she makes for the community and for sale outside of the village. As a big fan of ethnic jewellery, one piece draws my attention – a traditional Maasai choker necklace adorned with seed beads, seashell disks and metal chains with flat silvery discs on the ends, which I gladly buy for 2500 shillings (about $30). After spending a good time with Richard and his family, and enjoying their hospitality with traditional chai and chapattis, it’s time to say goodbye. Yunis changes into a traditional dress for picture time, but keeps her training shoes on. I wonder why – maybe for comfort, maybe as a sign of modern times, or maybe as a tribute to Kenyan runners, who are famous for winning marathons around the world!
Lake Nakuru Safari
What trip to Africa is complete without a safari?! Lake Nakuru National Park is in Rift Valley region (160 km away from Nairobi) and is famous for its amazing collection of wildlife. After paying the quite high entrance fees for foreigners ($75), we begin our journey across the park, where wild animals rule and humans are mere guests, thus getting out of the car is highly unadvisable. Rhinos lazily chew grass in the bushes and zebras walk leisurely along the road, elegantly swinging their striped hips, while a herd of buffalo stares at our car, making me very uncomfortable. Some lucky visitors can spot lions and leopards on their hunt early in the morning.
But my main mission here is to see one of the most amazing spectacles of nature – the biggest flamingo population in the world! The salty waters of Lake Nakuru, rich in fish and plankton, attract up to a million flamingos each year. The delicate silhouettes of these birds converge in one bright pink ribbon along the lakeshore, making it hard to distinguish between the flamingos themselves and their reflections in the water. As I approach them, some flamingos get frightened and gracefully take off, exposing bright red feathers in their wings in flight. In the sky they form a beautiful pattern and even slow-drifting clouds take on a slight pink hue.
After 11 days I find it hard to leave this amazing country. Wherever I was, be it in the slums of Nairobi or the Maasai settlement, Kenyans have always welcomed me with warmth and hospitality. Their ‘Karibu, karibu (‘Welcome’ in English) echoes in my heart. ‘Asante sana!’ (‘Thank you’), I whisper back…