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My Heart is Africa

A few days ago, I received a copy of "My Heart is Africa: a Flying Adventure" in the mail from my family for my birthday. The book is by and about Scott Griffin, a Toronto businessman and private pilot who flew himself in a single-engine tail dragger to Nairobi to spend two years assisting the Flying Doctors Service, discussing his various experiences as a series of connected short stories. It is gripping reading as someone who loves flying and has made one quick trip to Africa. It is also motivating me to write short stories about an unforgettable two-week trip to Kenya I made last winter for my brother's wedding, though they don't compare to Griffin's incredible adventure.

My brother announced his intention to marry his Goan girlfriend and fellow software engineer in her hometown of Nairobi, Kenya in early '05, set for early '06. The prospect of a trip to Africa was exciting to all concerned and my brother planned the family an unforgettable two week trip, including a week long safari, to take place over the first half of February, during Kenya's dry season. This is the first installment: the trip over and my first impressions.

In the weeks leading up to our departure, I was fretting nervously about the possibility of being robbed. I had heard that Africa was a rough place, with warnings that purses or bags could be sliced right off people. I debated whether or not to bring my new digital SLR camera, not wishing to lose it to a theft. The camera is worth around three times the annual salary of the lowest working class in Kenya. I went through the trouble of getting insurance for it, and ultimately decided I should just bring it along with my smaller point and shoot digital camera. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and there was no sense having regrets.

As the date of departure got closer, I paced nervously about, anticipating this incredible trip that loomed before us, worrying about everything that could possibly go wrong. I must have driven my friends crazy. Finally, the day arrived, and the airport van arrived at my door to take us. We loaded our bags into the van and I transitioned from a state of neurosis to a kind of serene calm. We had departed, it was too late to turn back, and everything would simply go well from here on out. It just would.

It was a cold Friday afternoon in late January. The driver's company radio crackled that the 401 was clogged from Milton all the way up to highway 6, a backup that could cost us hours. We turned on to back-roads before reaching the 401 and followed them for around 40 km until popping out on the 401 beyond the end of the severe traffic, well ahead of the van that had warned us of it.

We arrived at the airport, checked our luggage, and had our boarding passes printed for both legs of our flight as the check-in desk was not busy. We moved on to wait at our gate for the Speedbird (British Airways) 777 we were to take to London to pull up. My wife and I had flown together a few times in the school plane out of the local airfield with my instructor, but had never flown commercial together before.

Our flight to London Heathrow from Toronto Pearson was not particularly exciting, taking place mostly at night. I watched the real time map display on the small screen in front of me and tried to correlate the splotches of light below with the cities we were passing. The Atlantic was pitch black, revealing nothing. Hours into the flight, the Irish coast appeared below us in the form of the return of occasional splotches of light.

We landed at Heathrow, went through a security checkpoint to get to the terminal of our next departure and found, to our annoyance, that computer screens at Heathrow only announce departure gates one hour prior to departure. An information desk employee was able to tell us what gate we would need. It was the last one at the end of the terminal. We went there to wait the three hours for our flight to Nairobi. The benches had armrests for each uncomfortable seat, making it impossible to sleep, so we read the hours away.

At around 10:00, we boarded a 747 and prepared for our 8 hour flight to Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. We departed on time and flew over Europe on our way to the Mediterranean coast. Unfortunately, most of Europe was under cloud cover, a condition not unusual for it, and we caught only brief glimpses of the continent. We crossed the Mediterranean into Libyan airspace and watched as the Libyan desert passed below, providing hours of nothing but sand six miles below.

Night fell as we travelled three more timezones east, putting us eight hours off home, and several thousand miles south. We started to see occasional urban lights, but they were different from what I was used to. North American cities, seen from above at night, have a kind of yellowish tint to them as we had observed flying out of Canada the night before. Flying into Kenya, I noticed that the lights below were both far more sparse, and a kind of dark orange colour more reminiscent of fire than of streetlights.

In preparation for our trip to Kenya, we received an assortment of mixed messages about what vaccinations we would need and what proof we would need to show Kenyan immigration officials. Most people agreed that we would need the yellow fever vaccine and malaria pills. The travel doctor we spoke to gave us yellow fever shots and a couple of other needles, and a prescription for a malaria prevention drug and some other medications we should keep handy should we need them while there. He also gave us a WHO vaccination record book stamped with the vaccinations and dates to show the immigration authorities. We later discovered that we did not even need any of the vaccines, including yellow fever, if we were entering Kenya from a country not affected by the disease. Each member of my family had received different instructions about what vaccines we would need and so each of us was protected from a different set of diseases.

Kenya has a policy of requiring visas from people visiting from any country that requires visiting Kenyans to get visas. As we landed and deplaned, this was our first order of business. We waited in the non-resident line at the immigration booth, eventually coming up to a friendly customs officer who scanned our passports into his computer and stamped them, taking the US$100 for our two visas. He asked how long we would be in Kenya. "Two weeks," I told him. "Ah," he replied motioning to my wife, "so you are definitely going on safari, she will enjoy that!" I agreed, slightly surprised, and we were free to carry on.

We worked our way down to the luggage carousel, hoping our two bags would be among the first. They were, it turned out, first -- to be loaded. We waited for a while, watching gobs of bags come through, watching the airport workers loading the carousel on the other side of a glass wall. One of them repeatedly motioned to me with a big grin that I should come help him load the carousel. We eventually got our bags and walked toward the main door, where I expected to be met by my brother's soon-to-be father-in-law, who I had met a few months earlier in Montreal at my brother's engagement party.

A man stepped in front of me and asked to inspect my ID. I looked at him, having been warned of people who pretended to be authorities for the purposes of fraud, and requested that he present his first. He was mildly surprised at the request, but readily showed me a legitimate looking police ID card, and I showed him our passports, which included the stamp and visa fee receipt. Satisfied, he let us continue.

We next walked up to a low bag inspection counter which had some inspectors at it. I wasn't entirely sure their purpose, but the inspectors were watching me, so I walked up to them, plopping my bag down on their counter. "Do you have anything to declare?" asked the inspector. "No", I said. He then indicated that I should carry on before he checked, looking at me a little oddly.

My father spotted me from the crowd around the door and he and my brother's father-in-law at whose house we would be staying came over to us. We went out to the car, where we observed my host unlock his trunk, and climb in to unlock the other doors, the keyholes for the front door locks having been long out of service.

The parking lot was very crowded with a dense mixture of cars and people. People milled about everywhere, and cars squeezed by eachother in narrow gaps that they created by asserting their positions between other cars. Locals were scattered everywhere, looking to help travellers load their bags in exchange for a tip. We loaded and climbed into the station wagon after declining several offers of assistance. Amidst a chaos of cars trying to get out of the crowded parking lot, we backed out of our spot into a hastily created gap in the traffic and slowly exited to the nearest main road, starting out on our drive to the far end of Nairobi, a hilly city with an elevation of around one mile.

Within a few minutes, we were stopped at our first checkpoint. Kenya police sporting automatic weapons stood lazily around in the dark by the side of the road. We were waved through without any trouble. We saw several more police in the half hour drive to our new temporary home as we careened around a number of roundabouts and hit innumerable potholes, eventually arriving at our destination.

We were shown to the guest house separated slightly from the main house and given a bottle of water, warned to avoid drinking the tap water. We went to sleep to the sound of complete silence, interrupted by the nearby barking of the neighbour's guard dogs. 24 hours after we had departed home, our first day was at an end, but our adventure was just beginning.

My Heart is Africa - the series

  1. My Heart is Africa
  2. My Heart is Africa - The Nairobi Railway Museum
  3. My Heart is Africa - Carnivore, and seeing the animals we ate
  4. My Heart is Africa - A cross-cultural wedding
  5. My Heart is Africa - On Safari: Lake Nakuru's flamingos and the Naivasha Highway
  6. to be continued...

Posted at 07:32 on August 10, 2006

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