A series of unfortunate events led to an unforgettable holiday
Numb from hours of sleepless flight, I sat on a creaky bench in the dusty office room, bare of any trappings of occupation, except for said bench, an empty desk, and a framed photo of Jomo Kenyatta peering down at me from the wall opposite. A pair of plain-clothes policewomen prowled before us like hungry lionesses, the taller one sporting a zebra-printed jacket and a glorious confection of cornrows and long braided hair, and the well-muscled squatter one in a chic leather jacket in oxblood and close-cropped hair. This is it. This is how I end up in Nairobi prison. I chewed on my lip, trying not to let my fear show.
The Husband announced that he had a cousin residing in Nairobi, who was planning to move elsewhere soon, so if we wanted to check out Kenya, there was no time like the present. As if we really needed more incentive than that. And so we began to plan.
One big incentive – aside from the allure of natural beauty, and the thrill of visiting a new country – for a Bangladeshi visiting Kenya is that a visa is easy to come by. You apply for it online, pay the fee, and get a printable e-visa, et voila! You’re ready to go. The flights took a little more back and forth, since, as of yet, there are no direct flights between Dhaka and Nairobi. For accommodation, we decided to save a little money and opt for an Airbnb rental, in order to get the “authentic” experience. All of this, in addition to packing, took more than a week to put together, since this was also a busy season at work.
It was sheer dumb luck that literally three days before we were to fly out, I happened to run into a friend who works in development and therefore had had the Nairobi experience. He advised us to get the yellow fever vaccination done. Even though Bangladesh isn’t a yellow-fever endemic country, and certainly not on Kenya’s “at-risk” list, he said it was better to err on the side of caution, and get it done. Taskin Rahman, if you’re reading this: thank you!
On the day of the flight, we turned up at the airport, three hours early as advised, only to hear that our booking for the connecting flight had never been confirmed. Through sheer Providence, we got that rare helpful airlines official who rebooked it for us without any further ado. After that momentary scare, we were finally off.
Hours of flying in cramped economy seats later, we had a mercifully brief and uneventful immigration, and passed flyers with the yellow fever warning (as we had expected, Bangladesh was not on the list) to arrive at the baggage carousel, when the two policewomen came flashing badges and asked to see our papers, and our yellow fever cards. And that’s when the Mentos hit the Coke.
That’s how we ended up in a makeshift interrogation room, being threatened by the two sassy, burly policewomen giving us the good-cop/bad-cop routine of threatening to quarantine us for the remainder of the trip, and suggesting maybe we could come into an “agreement”. That’s when it became clear that this was really an extortion attempt. Long story short, we managed to argue our way of it, and with a little help from our local guardian, whom we called, and soon we were sitting in our taxi, listening to the driver complain about Nairobi’s finest. The more things change…
The shopping – Mall fever hasn’t quite hit the city the way it has in ASEAN countries. For your everyday essentials, and touristy shopping, there are a few shopping centres, such as the Yaya Centre, Junction Mall, and Westgate, all modest even by Dhaka standards, but definitely cleaner and quieter! You won’t find too many luxury brands, but you’ll definitely be wowed by the rich tradition of crafts.
The dining – Traditional Kenyan cuisine has a lot of corn, maize and meat – you want to give ugali (cornmeal cake not dissimilar to our bhapa pitha) and choma (meat curry) a shot for a taste of the local flavour. Mama Oliech’s fried fish is definitely worth a shot. There’s a lot of Indian cuisine, a result of the huge Indian diaspora residing in the country. With the economy growing, you’ll see a number of foreign food franchises planting their flags in the capital city. The African chains worth a visit are the coffee-led restaurants Java House (whose coffee is to die for). For a more hip dining/nightlife experience, head over to the Ankole Bar and Grill for some great food and live music.
Getting around – There’s no tourist-friendly mass transit system in place. The locals use a bus service called the City Hoppa, and, after listening to horror stories from some of our local friends about the rampant pick-pocketing, this isn’t something we’d advise. Luckily, Uber is operational, safe, and reliable.
The sights – In lieu of shiny malls and fancy buildings, you have a game park with lions and elephants smack in the middle of the city! Added to that is the giraffe park, which has a very small entry fee, an elephant orphanage, where you can bottle-feed the baby pachyderm, and a lot of other animal adventures. Our personal favourite? A jog over the walking trails in the lush green Karura forest, followed by lunch there at the River Café.
If you’re all natured out, take a walking tour downtown, where you can do some shopping, visit the slums, or check out the financial district. These tours are relatively affordable, and can be booked online and customized according to your preferences.
The people – The first thing that struck yours truly was the fashion. Kenyans love colour and print, and they are not afraid to show it! Hair in every colour and style, and killer fits, a stroll through the streets of the city feels like stepping into an avant garde fashion magazine.
The second thing that became quickly apparent is the sheer number of schools. Kenyans are a real believer in the power of education, and they are not afraid to invest in it.
They’re also a really chilled out people, which is why you can sit in a traffic jam for an hour and not hear any horns honking, something that’s unthinkable in Dhaka.
One thing that took some getting used to was the daytime culture. You had to be back indoors by sunset, or stay out at your own risk.
We’d heard rumble about the crime in the city, and our airport experience proved it was more than hearsay, but every other Kenyan we came into touch with, from our host Robert and his friends, to the house help Louis, to the various Uber drivers, guides and service folk, everyone was warm and friendly.
Films to watch about Nairobi/Kenya
Out of Africa – Sydney Pollack: This chronicles the life and love of famous plantation owner and animal rights activist Karen Blixen, a very important historical figure in Kenya
Nairobi Half Life – David Tosh Gitonga: This fast-paced thriller provides keen insight into crime, class-based politics and street life in Nairobi
Traveller’s tip 1
While this is a good policy for any trip, it particularly holds true for travel to Kenya. Even if you have the e-tickets in hand, get your travel agent to re-confirm your bookings, at least 24 hours before you fly, because an offline glitch could easily cancel your trip without you realizing it.
Traveller’s tip 2
ICDDR,B has a Travel and Immunization Clinic in Mohakhali. Just call and make an appointment, turn up early in the morning, and get your shot and card. The wait lines aren’t very big.
This trip may not have had the rosiest of beginnings, but it definitely ended on a good note, and we left with many wonderful memories of gorgeous vistas, great food, and colourful personalities.