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Trip 5 -- Southern Africa

Part 1: Nairobi to Dar es Salaam
7 November 2001

The suspense preceding this trip started several weeks before I actually hopped on a plane. First, there was the question whether Swissair would be flying: The airline had gone bankrupt early in October and the government was keeping it funded only until three days before I was supposed to depart. Then there was the little problem that due to recent mail delays in Washington, D.C., my passport was still at the Kenyan consulate awaiting a visa on the day before my departure, as it had taken more than a week and a half to get there from New York. By some small consular miracle, I managed to track down the guy who had it, and he sent it by Federal Express - so I had it a good four hours before my departure.

JFK Airport was virtually deserted on the 30th. There was no line at the Swissair terminal, and the flight was less than a third full - and that was after Swissair canceled its two other New York-Zurich flights that night. I had a fun 13 hours in Zurich (a truly exquisite, clean city) - I spent many of them learning about the early inhabitants of what's now Switzerland at the Landesmuseum, visiting the Clock and Watch Museum, and enjoying some good fondue.

Now on to Africa.

I actually rather liked Nairobi - there was something appealing about the maddeningly fast pace of it all, and the center of the city is easy to walk around. Highlights included a peaceful walk through the suburb of Karen, where I visited Karen Blixen's former home (now a museum); feeding the Rothschild giraffes at a giraffe center; the Railway Museum; and lunch at the Carnivore - where the fare included, more or less, the parents of whatever I'll see on safari next week. (Crocodile is especially tasty...sort of a combination of a firm fish and very tender chicken, made even better with red-currant sauce.) Nairobi's National Museum also had good exhibits on Kenyan ethnography, flora, and fauna.

I took the overnight train to Mombasa, sharing a compartment with a very funny pair of Kenyans who were leaders of a youth cultural group (the Kenyan branch of USY, perhaps?). Mombasa has much Arab and Indian influence, so there are all those wonderful spices around, and the old part of the city consists of narrow alleys flanked by Muslim homes, mosques, chickens, goats, and people selling whatever they can.

The beautiful town of Lamu, on an island reached by an eight-hour bus ride and a half-hour ferry ride, is among the most tranquil places I've been in a long time. There's a one-kilometer waterfront overlooked by a few restaurants; two interesting museums on Swahili culture; and essentially just one main street, which is really a narrow alley. There are no cars; donkeys are the main form of transport. One man calling himself Ali Hippie invited a few tourists over (he's something of an institution in that matter) for a good Swahili dinner consisting of snapper in a tamarind-based sauce, rice, shrimp, and lobster. After dinner Ali and his family performed traditional Swahili songs to the accompaniment of his not-so-traditional electronic keyboard and various makeshift drums in the form of empty plastic containers. (Ali also persuaded me to play something on his little four-octave, non-touch-sensitive keyboard, so I attempted a bit of Beethoven's "Waldstein" sonata, changing octaves when necessary and vocally popping out a high or low note every now and then.)

On my second day on Lamu, someone took me out in a motorboat to Manda island (at least until we ran aground and had to wade through a mangrove swamp). On Manda I visited the Takwa ruins, remnants of a Muslim city that mysteriously disappeared about 400 years ago.

Three other tourists and I happened to be heading to Dar es Salaam at the same time, and so we endured the grueling 18-hour bus ride from Mombasa last night, most of which was spent not actually traveling but rather stopped at various nondescript little towns and at the Kenya-Tanzania border, where everyone's luggage was meticulously inspected to ensure that Tanzania's higher tax rates weren't being circumvented. Three boxes of our cargo consisted of plastic drinking straws, which must be a hot smuggling commodity through this corridor.

Public Internet access for 55 cents an hour is really a wonderful thing.

Go on to part 2