June 7, 1987

6/7/87 Nairobi, Kenya

A trip that started out so well, now is a nightmare. But let’s start in London.

Again, I boarded a big 747. While waiting, I also got to see a Concorde SST take off. It seemed so small when compared to the other aircraft, but it did look very fast. The 7½ hour night flight was no worse than the one from New York, mainly because I sat next to a nice fellow. He was about sixty and traveling on to Johannesburg. But unlike me, he wasn’t a tourist. He told me he had only just bought his tickets that day because of an emergency. His father was very ill in Durban, South Africa. But I thought he was handling the news of his father well, saying "I guess we all have to go sometime."

We talked about my trip and I showed him where Kansas City was on the map. He was very interested in the Iran-Contra hearings. The bad thing was that I had the window seat and I couldn’t move about the plane without disturbing the other two gentlemen sleeping next to me during the long flight. And I slept even less on this flight. Even if you don’t consider the eight hours I lost in crossing time zones, I’ve only had two hours sleep in 48 hours.

We landed at Kenyatta International Airport just at sunrise. I saw my first African animals from the plane as we taxied to the terminal. Two impala, or something like that, could be seen in the planes lights. After unboarding, passengers went first to passport control. Very cold people, no smiles, suspicious and to me, quite rude. The clerk didn’t seem to believe I’d be a tourist here in Kenya for three months. He didn’t seem to understand that I was to be traveling all over the country. He demanded to know what hotel I was going to be staying at. I think he understood, but was just being difficult. Finally, I told him I’d be staying a NOLS with their headquarters was in Naro Moru. He reluctantly accepted that.

My bags seemed to be the last off the plane, making me quite nervous while waiting. Customs was also very suspicious but they were having trouble opening my bag’s zipper, so he waved me past.

Things lightened up a bit when I changed money. NOLS suggested exchanging about a $100 US dollars into Kenyan shillings to start with. The exchange rate is 16 Kenyan shillings to the dollar. I had to sign for this and that, while the clerk seemed to want to stamp everything, including my receipts. I was just confused enough to walk away without my Kenyan money. The clerk stopped me and we both laughed.

The airport was just what I would imagine in a third world country. Bare with only the most needed essentials. Police and soldiers were everywhere. It was instant culture shock for this Midwestern guy and I wasn’t even out of the airport yet. While British Airways was regal and advanced, the Nairobi airport was poor and backward. It reminded me of a run-down bus station in a poor rural town in America instead of an international airport in the capital city of another country.

Outside of customs, it was no better. Because I was one of the last passengers from my flight, I was mobbed at the exit by taxi drivers. I picked the first kind face and asked where the Kenya Airways bus loaded at. The literature sent by NOLS said the shuttle bus to Nairobi was cheaper than a taxi. Several other drivers jumped in saying it was shift change and the bus wouldn’t be here for a while. What was I to do? I felt lost and tired. I picked a driver at random asked to be taken to the Pigale Hotel, an inexpensive one frequented by Peace Corps volunteers.

I was think I was getting used to the differences between my sheltered existence in Missouri and this African country when I got into the taxi. It didn’t shock me at all when the driver loaded my bags into a trunk with no locks, and that he had to open my door through the window because it had no door handles.

The drive outside the city was so peaceful, just after sunrise. But as we approached the city, things started not to look so good. People walked along the highway almost like zombies, no smiles, no life in their steps. The streets began to be covered in mud and dirt. I wasn’t too shocked to see Kenyans drive the same crazy way here as in England. We drove past some high-rise buildings but as we went, the city didn’t get better. As the skies became overcast, Nairobi seemed to me to be a dingy slum.

After my long overnight flight from London, this was the view
from my room at the Pigale Hotel in downtown Nairobi.

We finally came to the Pigale Hotel. Just a door on a street with a bunch of shops. The clerk was not unfriendly, just indifferent. My room was on the third floor. And to my surprise, it was clean and the bed firm but comfortable. And the bathroom was relatively clean too. I’m not sure what I expected. The view from my window was divided into three parts. You could see other tall buildings several blocks away. In front of those and most striking was a mosque. It was mostly white, thin towers on each side of several onion shaped domes with a large one in the middle. In front of it and directly below me was the alley and the rusted tin roofs of the shops, pigeons everywhere. I began to ask myself the very serious question of why I came to Africa and Nairobi.

I tried to catch up on some sleep, but after two hours, I gave up. I thought maybe a walk, some fresh air, some food perhaps would do me a lot of good. I just headed in the direction of the bigger hotels. I thought an American style meal could more easily be found in a hotel that catered to American and European tourists. I was nervous but tried to keep my fear down to a minimum. That took some doing.

It was many blocks before I saw another white face on the crowded streets. Because of some of the magazine articles I read before I came to Africa, I wasn’t surprised when a man started to walk with me. He was very friendly and asked a lot of questions about America. He finally made his pitch to be a tour guide. I thanked him but said I was already part of an organized group. He thanked me for my time and said good bye.

Almost immediately another man appeared. He identified himself as working for the government and wanted to know what I was talking about to the other man who had just left. A second man appeared, his "supervisor" he said. The both started to talk about bad political elements trying to subvert the Kenyan government. They claimed the gentleman I had been talking to was not a Kenyan, but a Ugandan. They had been following him and he was to be arrested. They wanted to talk to me about what he said. I told them what little I knew and said I was just out for a walk to find something to eat.

I don’t know if I was leading them on or me following but we kept walking. I just wanted the security of other tourists, so I just kept trying to find a big hotel. The stopped me several times to go into dark, dingy local restaurants but I said it wasn’t what I was looking for. Finally, I gave in when we found something that reminded me of Dairy Queen. Then we were joined by a third man. I was tired, weak and very confused. I didn’t really believe that they were from the police but there seemed an outside chance I was wrong. I just didn’t know.

As we talked, they began to get sarcastic and belligerent. They told me I had only two chances, pay the bail money so the Ugandan could be released and deported or I could be taken directly to the police and be brought to court with him. I thought I called their bluff, and said I wouldn’t pay. I started to leave the restaurant, but two headed out in front of me, with the other one following behind. I tried to go the opposite direction but they confronted me again.

Once outside, I tried to stop the first tourist I saw. He spoke Italian, not English. I felt trapped! Then another man joined them and I gave up. They wanted 200 shillings, about $125 dollars. I told them I didn’t have that much and opened up my wallet right there on busy sidewalk. That seemed to make them very nervous. They didn’t take all my money just about 80 shillings and $30 dollars I hadn’t exchanged yet. I said I needed money for dinner and a taxi, so they left me the rest. After pocketing my cash, they directed me towards the Hilton where I could get a traveler’s check cashed. I guess they weren’t completely heartless con-men. I walked direct to the hotel to cash a traveler’s check and to be with other tourists.

I was badly shaken. I just couldn’t stay at the Pigale Hotel or move around the city like I wanted to. At that hotel, every voice seemed to be foreign. I was probably the only American. I telephoned the Jacaranda Hotel, the meeting place for our NOLS group, and asked for a room. I got a taxi and checked out.

So not only did I loose the money to the con men but also the money I had spent for the room. I should have gone to the Jacaranda in the first place but I was trying to save a few bucks. The hotel was in the outskirts of Nairobi and in a much better neighborhood. It had a restaurant, breakfast was part of the room rates, a pool and was only $30 US dollars a night. Great start on my trip, wouldn’t you think?

Dear Mom & family,

Well, I arrived safely and all my bags made it too. London was cloudy and cool but not unpleasant. Unlike New York which was hot and muggy.

It was very hard to sleep on the plane. I've only had about a two hour nap in the last 48 hours. Not a good thing because it left me very little strength mentally.

I was totally unprepared for Nairobi. It looked like any other city from the air. First, I went to passport control, very cold people almost rude. Customs was very suspicious. Changing money was cheerful. I almost forgot to get my Kenyan money and the teller and I laughed.

Outside I was mobbed by taxi drivers. The taxi's here are in bad shape but my driver was friendly. As we drove through town, I was shocked. A fresh rain really brings out the best or worst in a place. Here it was the worst. Worse than any slum area I've seen. After I closed my eyes for a couple of hours at the hotel, I couldn't sleep so I went for a walk.

Most people didn't pay any attention to me. Never mind I was the only foreigner I could see for blocks in any direction. I was hungry but couldn't eat, and sleepy but couldn't sleep. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. I checked out and went to another hotel farther from downtown Nairobi.

Don't worry. I sincerely believe that the rest of my trip can only be better because it's outside of Nairobi. I didn't feel much when I left you in Kansas City but I miss you all a lot right now. Be happy and I'll write a lot.


Jim