words & images jenna pacitto
“The trip is planned and I don’t want to go alone. All you need to do is cover your airfare.”
This offer marks the beginning of my first excursion out of North America and the best gift I’ll ever receive: A couple of weeks halfway around the globe in Kenya with one of my oldest friends. We’re to graduate college in two short months.
The next few weeks are a laundry list of milestones muddled together: final exams, visas and vaccinations, graduation, packing, moving, and packing again. I blink and we’re seven thousand, three hundred, and fifty-four miles away. Trudging away from our seats after twenty- three hours of flying and heading for baggage claim, the first thing we notice upon arriving in Jomo Kenyatta Airport is our own excitement. With everything going on, we haven’t had much time to discuss the trip besides the absolute necessities, and after the long layovers and sleeplessness experienced in the last day, we are suddenly wide awake and acutely aware that we are in Kenya. Our phones buzz from somewhere deep in our bags as they switch on, mimicking the hum of anticipation that fluttered through us.
“Karibu!” A voice says, grabbing my attention. The airport attendant waves me forward and stamps my passport. “Welcome to Nairobi. Your bags will be that way,” she says, smiling, gesturing behind her. Less than five minutes later, as we wait for our bags, both of our phones are vibrating again.
When I pull mine out from an overstuffed backpack, it’s crawling with texts from the US Embassy: "VIOLENT PROTESTS IN NAIROBI. U.S. citizens are urged to avoid State House Road and to exercise caution around any large gatherings." And another one: "U.S. Embassy Nairobi wishes to remind U.S. citizens of the continued threat of potential terrorist attacks in the country. The targets for these attacks could include hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, shopping malls, diplomatic missions, transportation hubs, religious institutions, government offices, or public transportation. The Embassy also wishes to remind U.S. citizens that crime is rampant, indiscriminate, at times violent, and happens in all parts of Kenya."
Although I know she’ll open these messages soon enough, I don’t tell Danica. It’s not the greatest thing to discover while in a crowded airport in the capital of a foreign country, knowing no one. Both of our parents repeatedly expressed concern for our safety in the weeks prior to our departure, warnings that we brushed off as overprotective and slightly ignorant to the relative stability of Kenya among neighboring African countries like Somalia and Sudan. We had made sure we were well-stocked with snacks, DEET-drenched bug spray, and sunscreen, but there was nothing we could really do to prepare for messages like this.
We find our bags in sleepy silence, drowsiness creeping back into us, and turn around to see a well-dressed man holding a sign with our names on it and the tour company’s logo.
We wake up in our Nairobi hotel room the next morning and head to the lobby, where we are greeted by a spread of pancakes, eggs, bacon, fresh fruit, juices, and the most delicious coffee on this planet. We spot Zeke, who ushered us from the airport yesterday and will be our guide for the next eleven days, eating quietly in the back. We offer him a seat at our table.
“So, you are both twenty-two, correct? I’m only a couple years older, twenty-four. So you can view me as an older brother, or a friend, you see?” Cheers. We clink our mango juices, and he assures us that we are in for an unforgettable adventure in a beautiful country. He has a gentle voice and smiles often, and we like him immediately.
Throwbacks, Toyotas, and Cheetahs
While the Jeep accelerates up the hilly countryside and makes risky passes around lumbering tractor-trailers, Zeke, Danica, and I sing loudly. The radio is a time capsule of American hit songs from the past ten years, scattered with upbeat reggae and R&B tunes that Danica and I have never heard. We laugh and shout the lyrics to 50 Cent, Nelly, Usher, and Destiny’s Child, the windows down, dry heat comfortable in the light breeze. I breathe in nostalgia, reminded of high school dance playlists and the early days of my friendship with Danica. When the radio turns to fuzz, we quiz each other on song titles and sing only if we all know the lyrics.
Zeke drives the whole long, grueling way from Amboseli to Samburu, Nakuru to Maasai Mara. Our trajectory resembles a large, lumpy diamond around a country roughly the size of Texas. We experience mountain highlands, wetlands, desert, and the Great Rift Valley through the windows of the Jeep. Danica and I are sprawled in the roomy back seats, taking it all in.
Living in New England my whole life, I had not expected to find rolling green mountains so far from home—especially not within only eight hours of arid lowlands coated in red clay dust. We play it safe, wearing our seat belts and keeping our valuables close to our bodies, and are coated in a layer of bug repellent and sunscreen. I am all too aware of our naiveté, occasionally wondering if Zeke thinks all Americans smell this terrible. Instead, he is busy being our guide, pointing out all the things we were wont to miss.
“Only Toyotas at the last rest stop, and a Toyota in front of us—do you see? All Kenyans drive Toyotas. I do not know why; it must be one of our Kenyan mysteries,” he concludes cheekily.
After driving to our destinations, we drive some more through the national reserves. A sense of quiet drapes over everything the moment we roll through the park gates. There are only distant bird calls and the ambient hum of our vehicle; the sing-alongs have concluded for now. Zeke is very attentive. When we want to see a cheetah, he spends hours surveying the plains for signs of the wildcat, sitting very still, sometimes with binoculars and sometimes without. He points far in the distance and asks if we can see the cheetah cubs. All I see is crisp, sun-scorched grass, but gradually I learn to trust his hunches.
The Jeep bounces over the dirt path, Zeke driving as fast as possible within the reserve, and soon enough, we’re parked right in front of a cheetah mother with three cubs. We watch the family for hours as they lick their paws clean of dried wildebeest blood and slink through the grass. My heart flutters. Clichés aside, I am struck by how much life exists away from future plans and anxieties, from constant movement forward.
The mother cheetah sits with eyes closed in the sun and her offspring do the same, recuperating from what may have been a recent kill. We are lucky enough to be there during the Great Wildebeest Migration and food is abundant. From Zeke, we learn that killing during this season is occasionally done for sport rather than nourishment due to food security. Receiving the US Embassy texts yesterday seems like a lifetime ago. How could such brutality happen in a place with this palpably expansive silence?
“Watching Planet Earth doesn’t come close,” Danica says, snapping a picture, the strap securely around her neck. I wonder why there is no human-focused episode of that nature show, or any nature show for that matter.
For the most part, this is how our days go. A long drive to our destination, discussing the details of our lives and singing, stopping in small villages for gas and bathrooms. When hawkers approach us, Zeke speaks to them amicably in Swahili, and sometimes they leave. We are led to the rest stops with clean toilets and greeted with strangers’ enthusiasm, excited that we’re American and eager to mention their friend who’s related to Obama grandmother’s cousin. After each greeting, we hear “Lala salama, please visit again!” or “Tell your friends about beautiful Kenya!”
It’s clear that, as tourists, we receive a certain amount of protection and hospitality that we wouldn’t have otherwise. The responsibility for this fulfillment rests on the shoulders of the hotel staff, travel agencies, and guides, who go out of their way to be accommodating. I am all too aware that we stand out like a couple of sore, white thumbs, but it is an invaluable experience for my first time abroad. I am learning what my traveling preferences are—and I don’t wish to be so visible next time.
Depending on the length of our travel time between points A and B, some days we experience up to three game drives, parting ways only to sleep at night. If it is after nightfall, guards walk us to our room, more for our peace of mind and a tip than for our safety. Occasionally, we make lodge-friends. During a stay in the mountains (unexpectedly reminiscent in scenery and temperature to Vermont, where I lived), we meet three young Australian women who were traveling from a wedding in Mombasa, a large coastal city.
Together, as the three friends rave about the beauty of the coast, the Indian wedding they attended, and their game drive earlier that morning, we watch a cackle of hyenas slink around the bushes below the balcony, surrounding a lone rhino. The rhino below doesn't seem to be aware of the hyenas, but, for some reason, they don’t attack, perhaps moving on to find an easier take-down.
The next morning, my phone and Danica’s buzz simultaneously. "Mpeketoni hit by al-Shabab raid, 48 dead." Looking it up, we see that Mpeketoni is a small town on the coast near Mombasa. Our minds flash back to the Australian wedding goers who we’d chatted with the night before. They had been so carefree and excited, never mentioning the attack, seemingly oblivious to the conflict nearby. Did they know what had happened, or were they protected, too?
By the trip’s end, we have seen every species of big cat, rhino, and giraffe that dwells in Kenya. Zeke proves himself to be a font of knowledge about each animal and even the seemingly infinite number of colorful birds. When he’s unsure about something, we pore over his various dog-eared encyclopedias stashed in between the Jeep seats in search of the answer. I try to write everything down, eager to remember at least a portion of what he was teaching us about the diverse wildlife.
On our last day, we arrive in Nairobi early with time to kill before our flight. Zeke decides to show us the Westgate mall, the largest shopping center in Nairobi. To us, it is essentially an average-sized mall, but we are curious about Nairobian fashions and other material goods. The stores are filled with people sifting through colorful dresses and electronics, and shoppers pause to admire a red sports car perched on the ground floor.
Zeke points out a leather shoe store, and we help him choose which shoes would be best for an evening of nightclub dancing, which he will be going on his weekend off before the next guided trip. He scrolls through pictures on his phone to give us a taste of his style outside of the khaki work uniform. We talk a lot about what we would do during our hypothetical “next” visit: see Nairobi’s nightlife and dance, go on a hike at Thompson’s Falls.
Later, back home, I’ll read Kenyan news articles and blogs, reminiscing almost immediately, and curious to know more about the country, about other experiences. One internet search will lead me to learn that about a year prior to our visit, the very same Westgate shopping center was overrun by terrorists who harmed or killed one hundred and seventy-five people in a violent three-day occupation. Amid our revelry, we never asked Zeke about this catastrophe, and he never mentioned it.
While it’s understandable to not want to rattle off gruesome events to tourists, it seems like these attacks are treated as flaws to be hidden or understated, when really they are terrible atrocities that Kenyans have no control over. Juxtaposed with the country’s beauty and culture, it is easy, as a visitor, to overlook the acts of terror staining Kenya’s past and present. When the media reports on a country’s turmoil, tourism drops and visitors avoid it for their own well-being.
This rings true for the rest of the world, too. Kenya should not be defined by these events, just as the United States should not be defined by mass killings, or as Egypt should not be defined by current societal upheaval. We need to listen to these stories without blame or judgment, without willful ignorance, with some context.
When it was time to head to the airport, we gave Zeke a letter written the night before, his tip, and a long hug good-bye. Although we had gotten along so well, I was somewhat surprised to see that we all had tears in our eyes, Zeke hastily wiping his away. We took pictures together for the first time, wearing our safari hats—gifts from the travel agency—in jest. We all promised to write and then reluctantly parted ways.
A year later, we have written back and forth a few times, rarely scratching through the superficial surface of catching up. On one occasion, Zeke mentions that business isn’t doing so great, quickly turning to ask about my job and life. I don’t know what to say, but I listen and share unhelpful, positive responses. I tell him that I encourage all my friends to visit, and that by the next time I visit Kenya, things will be different.