My wife and I had saved up a little extra cash for a long-overdue
vacation this year. Living in Vancouver, we wanted to get away from the
rain so we were thinking something tropical.
Both my wife and I have been travelers ever since we got out of high school so going down to Mexico or Hawaii seemed like a wasted vacation to us. Places like those tend to be very acclimatized to tourists and you don't get any culture shock at all. I like lying on the beach and drinking fruity drinks as much as the next guy but I could do that here; mind you it might be a little cold, but I could do it nonetheless. Both of us wanted something unknown and new but we also wanted to be able to feel like we could relax instead of just having to muscle through our vacation making arrangements and completing tasks so that it went smoothly.
After more than a few arguments we reached a firm decision that we would visit the continent neither of us had been to. We decided that Africa was where we wanted to go.
I know it's cheesy but after we had sort of loosely settled on Africa, I saw a little web cartoon about Kenya and it really lit the fire. The more I dug into the country, the more I seemed to like it. It had world-renowned golf courses, beaches, hotels and restaurants all in a completely unfamiliar landscape and culture. Kenya was perfect.
Our trip was incredible and it will go down in history as probably my most enjoyable traveling experience ever. It was filled with wonder, excitement, relaxation, challenges and plenty of new friends and I don't think you can get these things anywhere else in the world. Anyways, I wanted to take a look my trip and outline my 10 favorite parts about being a Canadian in Kenya
Golfing was something that I wanted to do that my wife wasn't necessarily set on. She has a set of clubs and everything but she doesn't really enjoy the activity as much as I do. We ended up trading activities on certain days so that nobody would get angry due to the compromises made. We went to the club, joined another couple from Chicago and were absolutely taken aback by the course on the first tee box.
We played the Aberdare Country Club in the Aberdare National Park because any golf course in a national park is bound to be rather beautiful. Obviously, we had preconceptions of how the scenery would look but absolutely nothing could prepare us for what we actually got. There were jaw-dropping backdrops with mountains on one side and a forest on the other. The course was incredibly groomed and the greens were very fast. The course wasn't especially challenging for me but there were definitely more than a couple holes I really wanted to play again just so that I could par them. Playing a full eighteen here was easily one of the more memorable golfing memories of my life and I dare say the next most beautiful course I've seen after Pebble Beach.
Speaking of the beach, in exchange for the golf, I agreed to spend a day in the sun at the beach during our trip. I don't think I had ever been on such a beautiful beach before in my entire life. Because we were so near the equator, the sun was very high in the sky and the water was as blue as any I had ever seen before. There were a few other people on the beach with us but they couldn't have been within 100 meters in either direction, making this beach experience really quite personal. It honestly felt like my wife and I had the whole beach to ourselves making the experience much more memorable.
While she lay in an armchair reading a book and soaking up the rays, I did much the same thing but it involved a little bit more drinking and some swimming. I had to duck back under the umbrella every hour or so to make sure that I didn't completely turn pink. That proved to be a rather wise decision. The wife kept getting mad at me for having drinks and going in the water but it was my vacation too and she could swim so I kept doing it. After all, she was basically in heaven so I was getting away with more than I normally would have been able to.
As the sun set over the landscape behind us, it threw incredibly long shadows of ourselves on the white sands in front of us. It was an incredible experience to look to the west and see the blue sky and follow it all the way over to the east where the stars were beginning to come out. The range of colors between the blue West and the black East were the most stunning I had ever seen in my life; the type of beauty you just can't capture with an image.
We wanted to go diving before we left the East Coast and Mombasa because apparently there were some pretty incredible coral reefs just north of the city. Diving is an incredible pass-time but I don't seem to be able to do it as much as I would like. Life is usually busy and making room for things like diving isn't always easy.
Granted, Vancouver has some of the best diving in the world but the ecosystem I saw when I went underwater off the coast of Kenya was nothing like Vancouver's waters. You may argue that diving anywhere is an incredible experience, and I don't think that I would be able to disagree with you. However, the things I saw in that wet suit in Kenya were so absolutely beautiful that I would have to say that it is some of the best diving in the world.
The coral reef was teeming with life and I felt like I had gone to another world altogether. I must have seen thousands of fish that day along with plenty of other plant life, crustaceans and the like. The wife doesn't really like dolphins because she says they get too much attention for how cute they are, but I really loved these creatures when I got to watch them play in the water firsthand. I really respect how intelligent they are and what they teach us about ourselves so the Dolphins were definitely a highlight of SCUBA diving off the coast of Mombasa, for me at least.
Maybe it was just the places we chose to stay but I never got a feeling quite like the one I got when I was staying at a guesthouse in Kenya. I honestly felt like an old friend of whichever family happened to be running the establishment. I really enjoyed the feeling I got from staying with these people because even though they were there to serve me, I always felt like they were my friends doing me a favor rather than doing it for money. They have an incredible way of making you feel like that and it is, in my opinion the greatest part about Kenya.
The rooms we stayed in were nice but they were far from traditional accommodations back at home. Because we mostly stayed in guesthouses, when we were shown up to our rooms, it really felt like it was our room in the house. Instantly we felt like a member of the family and that alone is something that can't be reproduced. These were by no means five-star accommodations but I would rather stay there then any other hotel in the world.
I don't think that I've ever been anywhere in the world that takes pictures as beautifully as Kenya does. Granted, anybody can shoot a sunset but just seems that Kenya's sunsets are infinitely more beautiful captured on film and than anywhere else in the world. Normally, when I go through my pictures after a trip I will end up deleting more than half of them. This was just not the case with my Kenyan vacation. Nearly every picture I took was perfect. The camera just seemed like it wanted to focus better and take pictures of everything I saw.
Every time I would ask a local if I could take their picture, I was greeted with a huge smile and some of the best portraits I've taken in my life. The people were absolutely beautiful to photograph and their clothes made our Western clothing all look the same. Depending on where we were and of which tribe, race or religion my subjects were, women would be wearing huge beautifully decorated head wraps and long wavy dresses adorned with more colors than I knew existed. Men's wardrobes were even more varied as some of them would look like they would fit in really nicely in our Western society but some were wearing huge colorful beaded necklaces and long flowing dresses to protect their skin from the intense sun. A lot of the time, however, you would see these men dressed in traditional African garb carrying a cell phone and a briefcase. It was an incredible culture shock and the pictures I took home to remember it are the best I have ever taken.
Who goes to Kenya and doesn't look for wildlife? Although I wasn't exactly expecting the Lion King, that was essentially what I got when my wife and I went on a safari in the incredibly stunning plains of the Masai Mara. Apparently, the migration that happens throughout the year is one of greatest migrations of mammals on the planet. Millions of wildebeest make up most of the numbers but millions and millions of other creatures on their search or water in the northern Plains joined them. The Masai Mara national reserve just barely squeaks its northern tip up and into Kenya. Most of the reserve is in Tanzania but when the animals migrate to find water up north, they come into Kenya.
I must have seen thousands of wildebeests, dozens of zebras and more than a few lions, all struggling to get through life in their natural habitat. I use struggling lightly because they didn't look as if life was too bad at all, but no matter what for of life you are on this planet, it is a struggle. Just having to walk thousands of kilometers a year to stay hydrated is more of a struggle than I think I have faced in all of my life so I really respected what these animals had done to survive. I had never felt more alive and in touch with life as I did then.
Seeing all these animals that I had absolutely nothing in common with made me feel like we were all connected. I know it sounds cheesy, but those are the best words that I can come up with to describe the feeling I got. Obviously, trying to describe emotions with words is a trivial pursuit so I won't take it any further.
4. Land cruisers
Traveling around Kenya you get to know Land Cruisers pretty well. At first sight, these Toyota trucks that can be anywhere from 60 years old to brand-new may not necessarily look like something you want to travel across a desert in. Once your driver and guide gets out and fixes the vehicle with nothing but a bobby pin and his belt, however, you will gain an incredible appreciation for this vehicle.
Driving through Africa is not at all like driving anywhere else in the world. I got my international drivers license so that I could drive while I was in Kenya but there is no way that I could have done it alone. The roads were barely even that. They honestly should not have been called roads because they were more like trails than anything else. Huge holes would pop up out of nowhere and an experienced driver was definitely needed to know where they were.
I learned very quickly that a 400 km journey would take much much longer than it would have in Canada. Instead of traveling in excess of 100 km an hour, you would be lucky if you got going 60 or 70 km an hour. After a solid day of being a passenger in the Land Cruiser, I asked Obuya if he wanted a break. He said he didn't but was more than happy to offer to let me drive for as long as I could handle it.
It was an incredible feeling driving the Land Cruiser across the plains and deserts of Kenya to get to our destination. This is going to sound like an advertisement but wearing a white collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up, black Ray-Ban wayfarers, my arm out the driver's window and the warm, crisp Kenyan air blowing my hair back was one of those moments that will remain frozen in my mind forever. The Land Cruiser proved to be a formidable friend, almost as reliable as Obuya.
The Kenyan landscape is absolutely jaw dropping. Whether you are on the plains of the Masai Mara, hiking Mount Kenya or in Mombasa's beautiful old city, you are sure to be caught off guard by something completely everyday to the locals but unlike anything you've ever seen before.
I loved walking through Mombasa's old town and trying to get lost in its beautifully colored and narrow, crowded streets. Looking at all the shops in the market and trying my best to ignore salespeople was a surreal experience that can't be replicated anywhere else. The Arab style houses had a significant amount of influence to the city and I can certainly say that I had never seen anything quite like it before.
Hiking up Mount Kenya was almost as tiring as it was beautiful. Every time that I thought about turning back, I would just lift my head and take a look at the scenery. Initially, I thought that this trip to Kenya would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing so I tried to take in all that I could. When I did end up realizing where I was in the middle of the hike, it always revitalized me and honestly made me happy to be alive and part of this incredible earth.
The lone trees that stood proud on the plains of the Masai Mara made for absolutely incredible foregrounds when the sun was setting. The incredible amount of wildlife that existed in this area was impossible to not appreciate, but the lands upon which they grazed was really what got me. For a moment there, I could see and feel the whole ecosystem working together to create this beautiful backdrop. Never before nor since have I ever experienced anything quite like this and I am eternally grateful form my time there.
2. The train
After bumming around Nairobi's streets, alleys, galleries and other tourist attractions for a couple days it was time to make our way to the coast and Mombasa. I had previously read that the only way to get there was by train. As I mentioned above, a 530 km trip to the coast in a Land Cruiser takes much longer than it would in Canada. Not wanting to burn an entire day dealing with the various complications of motor vehicle travel, we decided to take the train.
When I first got on, I had no idea that this would be one of the most beautiful and entertaining train journeys of my entire life. We left Nairobi just before the sunset and as we went through Nairobi national Park the sun was just finishing its descent below the horizon. The absolutely stunning park combined with the unparalleled sunset and me and my wife on a 1950s train car created one of the most memorable experiences of my entire life. The setting was out of a movie and I haven't felt anything like it since.
After the Sunset, we were fed dinner in the dining car and our room was made up while we ate. The food was incredible and we had the choice of more than just a few different meals. Service on the train was incredible; the waiters were the best we had had on the trip, which is really something, the rooms were made up when we got there for bed in the evening and even the person who checked our tickets was abnormally friendly and polite.
At first, I couldn't get to sleep. Not because of the noise or motions created by the train, they proved to be rather helpful later, but I was kept awake by the prospect of being where I was. I peered out the window as we chugged through Tsavo national Park and stared at the incredible stars above like I had never seen them before. We were awoken in plenty of time for breakfast and just as we finished, we could see the Indian Ocean coming over the horizon. It was one of the most beautiful and memorable train rides of my entire life.
1. The People
The first thing I noticed when I stepped out onto the airfield in Nairobi was just how friendly the Kenyans were. My wife and I were greeted with a huge smile from our guide, Obuya. He took my wife's bag but I insisted on carrying my own. When Obuya told me that it was his livelihood and explained that if everybody carried their own bags, he wouldn't be able to feed his family. Finally, I let him carry my bag as well and put it in the back of the truck. Obuya was an educated man and a great person to talk to about the culture and what to do. He was an absolute treat to travel Kenya with and I'm glad I got to spend a lot of my vacation with him.
Many more absolutely massive smiles were waiting for us at our guesthouse when we arrived. There was somebody waiting to pull our luggage out of the truck and after saying hello, he brought our things up to the room. Even just checking in to the guesthouse was a treat. It really felt like we were staying with a family there rather than staying a place of business because everybody was so warm and genuinely happy that we were there.
When we went out to the streets of the city during the day, there were more than a few vendors and because their livelihoods depended on it, they were quite pushy. I really felt pressured on more than one occasion to buy whatever wares it was the salesman was peddling but never once was I offended or scared in any way. I felt as if there was a mutual understanding between the salesperson and myself that they needed to do this to maintain their life and when I firmly told them no and walked away, nobody ever followed.
When we went to see the villages at the very edge of the Bush, the people were so incredibly alive that I just can't explain it. Even though they had so little, they seemed like they had it all. Everybody wore huge smiles and all the children ran up to play with us as soon as we walked in the village. Sometimes, when we were supposed to be helping out, our lazy North American attitudes got in the way. An elder of the village would poke fun at us in front of the rest of the people, which would ultimately get us to work harder. They knew what they were doing and they had seen hundreds of people just like us before but that didn't make them any less friendly towards us.
Ultimately, I learned a lot about Kenya's cultures and people and I have to say that if we Canadians were more like Kenyans in some ways, it would be a much friendlier place. The people were undoubtedly my favorite part of the trip got just one of the reasons that I plan on returning to Kenya numerous times.