Whilst I am firmly in the science camp when it comes to interpreting the world around me there is one very precise and largely undisputed part of our world that makes me wonder about all the things we don’t understand concerning our universe. That thing is time. Why is it that the last 30-minutes of work on a Friday afternoon seem to last for two hours yet the first two hours unwinding at the pub after work on a Friday night seem to pass in 30-minutes? Why do Tuesday and Wednesday pass way more slowly than Saturday and Sunday? Why did 6-weeks in Africa on one hand feel like 6-months and on the other like two weeks?
I pondered this as we made the drive from our campsite just north of Arusha in Tanzania to Nairobi. The drive to the outskirts of Nairobi was only supposed to take a few hours yet openly corrupt police kept pulling us over on trumped-up charges that seemed to take forever to negotiate. At one point our driver convinced them that a fake infringement only warranted a US$20 fine/bribe. With only hours left on the trip he was running out of cash thanks to the multiple police stops in Tanzania so asked us to help out. We came up with a $20 note that he dutifully took off to the cops only to return a few minutes later to apologetically explain that they would only accept the ‘fine’ broken down into four crisp $5 notes. Sure enough there were four police outside so it was pretty obvious that they didn’t even want the hassle of figuring out how to split the bribe between them.
By now we had been in Tanzania for over a week and had spent a lot of money between us so it felt personal that the cops kept bribing us on the way out not just because of the money but because every time they pulled us over it delayed our departure. I think I’m probably right in saying that we spent half of our time getting to the border in police stops even though we hadn’t broken any rules and had spent well over to $100 on bribes by the time we got there.
The border crossing was fairly smooth and we were all happy to be in Kenya. Our Nairobi crew had left about 12 weeks earlier and had been working on the road non-stop since then so they were excited to not only be seeing their loved ones that day but also to finally show off their home country to us. Because we had become so close to them it naturally felt comforting to be in their own country too and even though we were sad to be ending our trip their excitement was too contagious for us to feel too down about it.
Before I continue I need to apologise for the lack of photos in this post along with the poor quality of the ones that I do have. My camera battery had died the previous morning in Serengeti National Park during a crucial moment when a lion was trying to make a kill that you can read about here. I only had my phone left for photos and was conserving the battery life on that. But I still managed to capture a few good moments including the time when our cook stopped at a small village to buy charcoal in order to stock up the truck for the next trip and a massive bridge project involving a lot of Chinese investment that will hook up the Kenyan port of Mombasa with important interior towns. Thankfully the last of any Chinese road works that we had to get through.
Eventually we reached Nairobi and although I spent only 24 hours there I found it to be a remarkable town. It was bustling like every other African city we had been through but had a slightly more cosmopolitan and global air than the others. We were heading to a high-end shopping mall in the affluent suburb of Westlands where the rest of the group would pick up supplies and where I would leave the trip for good. On the way there we traveled on Nairobi’s major ring road, a multi-lane highway that also borders Nairobi National Park. I can’t think of any other major world cities that have a national park as their green belt never mind one containing elephant and giraffe. Nairobi is also home to Kibera, the largest slum in Africa yet it is also the financial and diplomatic heart of the continent. It is hard to think of another city with so many contradictions in such a small area.
Image sourced from Wikipedia
As we were negotiating the last few roads of my trip we got stuck in a traffic jam. I looked out the window to find that it was in fact cows holding us up and not cars or more Chinese-sponsored road works. That pretty much summed up the rest of my Nairobi experience. Yes it is one of Africa’s most important cities and well-known around the globe but at the same time it has a distinctly rural feel about it.
Once we got to the mall we stuck together to pick up a few supplies and to withdraw cash for crew tips. As it happens the mother and step father of one of my best friends lives in Nairobi and they were coming to meet me so I could stay the night with them before I flew out the next day. First though I had to say a very sad goodbye to the four remaining tripmates and our crew. It was an odd feeling as I couldn’t quite believe I’d never see them again and to be honest I still haven’t accepted that. The seven of them that were left were all amazing people and as soon as the truck pulled away from me in the mall parking lot I felt very upset. I was fighting tears as I trudged off to a coffee shop where I was supposed to meet my friends.
A few minutes later I was failing to enjoy my first properly brewed coffee in months due to the tears that kept threatening to spill over when I got a couple of huge bear hugs from my friend’s parents. Suddenly all was well again and they whisked me off in their car on a whistle-stop tour of Nairobi that ended up at yet another mall for a much needed cocktail. That evening they took me to their wonderful and cosy apartment near the Westgate Mall where I was pampered with my own en-suite bathroom, a sumptuous bed and some of the best home cooking I have ever had. I have known these lovely people for about 15-years so it was special after spending so long with ‘new’ people to spend an evening gossiping about old friends and remembering old times.
The next morning I took a luxuriously long shower only to find that they had prepared a multi-course breakfast that rivalled any you could find in a 5-star hotel. I could have easily stayed with them for another month but I had a flight to catch so after another brief tiki-tour they dropped me at Nairobi airport where I had to say yet another sad goodbye and for the first time in 6-weeks I found myself totally alone.
For some reason I was lucky with booking all my flights in 2016. On both my San Francisco to Seoul and Nairobi to London legs I found one-way business class fares that were only a few hundred dollars more than economy class. Between that and redeeming air miles I’d collected over the years I was able to fly business class on all of my long haul flights. That is a treat anytime but more so when you have just spent 6-weeks camping in Africa. I was flying Etihad to London via Abu Dhabi and whilst the business class lounge at Nairobi wasn’t very luxurious I was still excited to be in it.
It was a 5-hour flight to Abu Dhabi on a small Airbus that didn’t offer the full Etihad experience but was way more comfortable than our truck had been so I was happy. That meant I was pretty much elated to spend my 6-hour layover in the business class lounge where I washed down ridiculous amounts of hummus with ridiculous amounts of champagne. However there was no time to get drunk because they had a salon and a spa and I was in need of some serious maintainance. I spent several hours being plucked, manicured, cleansed and massaged but the best bit was when I had my hair done and all of the salon staff crowded around to see the brown/grey mess that was Serengeti dust getting washed out of my hair and they all excitedly declared that they had never seen hair so dirty. It was an oddly proud moment.
By the time I boarded the London flight I looked more like I’d been on a spa break than a camping holiday with the only giveaway being the dust and sand of Africa embedded in my clothes. I smelt like a strange combination of an African plain and beauty products. The flight to London left at about 2am and took around 8 hours so that we arrived early in the morning. I managed to get some nice shots of the sunrise out the window and enjoyed watching video from the external cameras as we came into London. The other great thing about many business class products is that they include a limo transfer so before I knew it I was being whisked to my friend’s house where my African adventure ended.
I stayed in the UK for over a month to celebrate my 40th birthday and to spend some time with my Grandmother. I still had a trip booked on a cargo ship from Hong Kong to Auckland in December so was hoping to eek out my funds until then and get there via another trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway however they contacted me shortly after my birthday to let me know that the trip was cancelled as the ship was going in for repairs. I decided to use the money I had earmarked for that to spend one last leisurely summer in New Zealand before I had to get a job again so in October I embarked on a convoluted set of flights back to Auckland that once again enabled me to fly business class for the grand total of US$600.
I flew from Sofia to Doha, Colombo, Kuala Lumpur, Auckland and finally to my hometown of Nelson with the whole journey taking almost 3-days including 6 to 8 hour layovers in Doha, Colombo and Auckland. Needless to say I arrived fairly tired and things didn’t go too well from there. First I came down with a terrible head cold, I’d just gotten over that when Donald Trump got elected then a few days later a massive 7.8 earthquake struck near Kaikoura with the epicentre being less than two hundred kilometers from where I was. We only sustained some minor damage to our ceiling but it was a terrifying experience that took a while to get over and the next few weeks were spent frantically assembling emergency earthquake kits whilst riding out the aftershocks.
Image sourced from Stuff
When the Trump administration announced the travel ban not long after his January inauguration I was shocked to see they had included Green Card Holders of which I am one. Whilst I wasn’t from one of the nations included in the ban and US Permanent Residents were quickly excluded, the fact that this presidency had tried that in the first place shook me up. It felt like my Green Card wasn’t worth as much as I thought, a feeling that was compounded when reports started coming in that US citizens and permanent residents were being harassed at the border that included demands to see phones and laptops so that email accounts could be checked for dissent. To you it may seem melodramatic but for me the world shifted on its axis. This wasn’t the America I had come to love and had fully intended to return to.
I was already worried about paying for health insurance in the US so when the new healthcare bill passed its first hurdle I reluctantly came to the conclusion that America wasn’t a viable option for starting a new life so I will try my luck in London instead. For now I’m making the most of the last few months of my career break and will start my work life over again in a couple of months however I will continue to blog as it has been fun so watch this space for my upcoming ‘Throwback Travel’ series as well as some travel tips and tricks.