Sweetness: A Day Trip to Nairobi
(Fair warning: This is a REALLY long post.)
I told myself and a few others this would be the trip of a lifetime for me. And it was, in many respects, just that. Sadly for me, there were a few negative aspects, not the least of which was the duration. What was to be a weeklong vacation with my African girlfriend, who I call Sweetness, turned into an expensive day trip.
That happened in the middle of trip, however, so I am getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the beginning.
Prologue: Long Distance Love Affair
A few years ago, I met a girl at Walmart who I shall call Jamba. That’s a feminization of “Jambo,” which is the Swahili word for “Hello.” Jamba taught me this word, and whenever I would go to Walmart and she was there we would greet each other with it. She became my favorite Walmart clerk in short order and we became friends.
Jamba was married, so there was never a chance for romance. It turns out, however, she has a few sisters in Kenya, where she was born and raised. She and her husband managed to win an immigration visa in the Electronic Diversity program commonly known as the Green Card Lottery.
In May of 2012, Jamba gave me the email address of her sister, Sweetness, with Sweetness’ permission. We exchanged a few emails, started texting each other, and even called each other on the phone once or twice. We hit it off right away and, from 9000 miles away, fell in love.
Sweetness tried to get a visitors’ visa in July, but the US state department is, to say the least, very shy about giving those to people, and so she was denied. I would have gone to visit her (it’s easy for a US citizen to get a Kenyan visa), but I could not get a passport at the time due to owing a bit of back child support.
Fast forward to this year. I paid off my child support in February. Sweetness and I made Plan A for me to go visit her in May. However, red tape made it a pain to get my passport restriction removed, and it was mid-May before I got my passport. Plan B was for July, but then Sweetness got a new job and would not be able to take time off until September.
Plan C was for the end of September. A coworker of mine has a sister working for an airline and had promised all year long to get me an extremely discounted ticket. This fell through, and by the time it did it was too late for me to get the ticket myself.
So Plan D was formed for me to fly out on November 18 and…I bought the ticket! I got my shots done and I got my Kenyan visa. This was a nervous affair as I had to send my hard-won passport to the Kenyan embassy in Washington, D.C., and wait for it to come back. It took a little over a week, and was much less worrisome than I made it out to be.
Part 1: Going There
In early November, my car, lovely beast that it is, developed mechanical trouble. No worries, I decided I would take a Super Shuttle to the airport and a friend would pick me up when I got back. My car is operational, but I am trying to keep the use of it to a minimum until I can have it repaired.
I packed my stuff up on Friday, November 14. There were a few things I had to add to my luggage on Tuesday morning, when I left, but I was pretty much ready to go. The Super Shuttle was right on schedule and came for me at a little after five in the morning. There was one other person on the shuttle, and we had a pleasant chat until about three-quarters of the way to the airport when I suddenly realized I had left my passport at home.
Yes, I did that. The single most important thing was still at home. I could have walked into the airport naked and holding my passport and, legal issues with nudity aside, I could have checked in made my trip. I left the single most important thing at home. Net result is my car made the trip to the airport and back, right when it would have done so if I had taken it had I not opted for the shuttle. My roommates brought me my passport and I was off.
I checked in. I had three windows seats all lined up. I got on board my plane and window seat number one, for the flight to JFK in New York…was over a wing. Not the best view, but I could kinda see stuff. The flight was smooth and I arrived in NYC about thirty minutes ahead of schedule. This was the pattern for the trip: Three planes, three window seats over wings, three times arriving about thirty minutes ahead of schedule.
The second leg went from New York to Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, I was hungry and anxious to taste some foreign cuisine, so I had breakfast…at McDonalds. No, I am not kidding. Two egg McMuffins and I was good to go.
Amsterdam airport security is tighter than what we have in the U.S., at least for international flights. I had to go through a security checkpoint at the gate and give up the bottle of water I had. (They did let me drink the water, so technically I gave up only the bottle.)
The Nairobi airport is an interesting affair. The flight attendants gave us forms to fill out prior to arrival which we handed into the customs people after picking up our baggage. Then we were at the airport exit. Had there been a connecting flight, I would have had to re-enter the airport.
Part 2: Sweetness in Nairobi
My beloved Sweetness was delayed getting to the airport by a traffic jam. No worries; I had not eaten much on the plane and was starving. I bought a “sausage roll” (think oversized pig in a blanket except it may have actually been a beef sausage) and some bottle water. It was quite tasty.
Sweetness arrived and we started texting, trying to find each other. It was very crowded and noisy. A cab driver found me and was ready to take us wherever when we did find each other.
Then the moment came. There she was, there I was. I can’t describe the happy feeling at seeing her, embracing her, touching her for the first time. It was one of the most joyous moments of my life, one I had probably worked harder for than any other.
Sweetness already had a cab waiting, the one which brought her to the airport, so we got in and headed for the hotel. We were all smiles and hugs and hand holdings all the way.
The hotel was the Mirema Service Hotel and Apartments. We checked in under her name because that was less expensive. I needed a shower, but the room they gave us only had cold water. They let me use the shower in the room next door and all was well. We were both tired and went to bed.
Before we went to sleep, however, Sweetness gave me a little gift. She put a beaded bracelet on my wrist. Normally, I am not a fan of wrist things—I don’t like wearing a watch, for example—but this was a gift of love and it is not the least bit uncomfortable. It didn’t fit very well over my big fat hand, but we got it on.
Breakfast the next morning was tasty. It was now I learned my sausage roll was probably not pork as I expected, as the hotel’s sausage was beef sausage. Sweetness does not eat pork, and made sure of this before ordering some. We had planned to leave for Nakuru (a beautiful lake town somewhere northwest of Nairobi), but Sweetness had signed a contract with a new job and they told her she needed to be ready to go see them or something if they decided to hire her. This was a misunderstanding, but for the moment it meant we would stay in Nairobi an extra day.
I have seen traffic in the busiest US cities. I have driven in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. These places seem like quiet little suburbs compared to Nairobi. The phrase that keeps coming to my mind is “competitive driving.” A little bit of honking and a lot of dangerous driving.
The best…or worst, depending on your point of view…were the drivers of the matatus. A matatu is a minibus, something quite common in Nairobi. They go all over the place. Each has a driver and a guy who collects money, both of whom are insane in their own way. The driver weaves in and out of traffic, honking frequently and narrowly avoiding everything. They were poor drivers for having so many near collisions and amazingly fantastic drivers for failing to actually hit anything.
The guys who collect the money are also the salesmen. They encourage people to get on board, shouting for folks to climb on, shouting out prices (the same price as all the other matatus, but they try to make theirs sound cheaper), and generally making sure their vehicle stays close to capacity at all times.
At one point we were going down a highway in one of these minibuses. Up ahead there was another one of them (there were lots of them pretty much everywhere, actually) and the money collector guy was swinging out over the road and back into his minibus, holding on by one hand. This should give you an idea of the level of insanity these guys had, as we were probably doing forty or fifty miles an hour at the time. Traffic was heavy, although there was plenty of open space around where this guy was doing the swinging bit. If he fell, however, he would have barely had time to hit the pavement before he got run over.
Anyway, we walked around downtown Nairobi. It is a very busy town with lots of foot traffic. I was the only white guy around, possibly the only one in the entire city (or at least it seemed that way), which was an interesting experience. I did not feel uncomfortable or threatened, but I was definitely an oddity. If you walk down any city street in the U.S., you’ll certainly see minorities but usually there’s more than just one of whichever minority you happen to see. I was the only minority, and I was a minority of one.
We had lunch at a little restaurant, and here I found another difference from the U.S: Here, every restaurant bigger than a hot dog stand has a place to go potty. Not so in Nairobi. There are public restrooms, but (1) you gotta pay for them, something Sweetness told me after I had done my business and paid for it at the booth outside and (b) the one I used was unpleasant. It wasn’t filthy, but it wasn’t clean, either, and you had to squat in the stall because the toilet was built into the floor. Also, there was no toilet paper; Sweetness had a guy bring some into me before I was able to go into a stall.
I can’t say I liked Nairobi’s downtown, but I don’t think that’s the fault of the city. I am not a fan of heavily urban environments. The only such place I ever liked was Times Square in New York; everywhere else I could do without.
From downtown we went on another crazy matatu ride to Kenya National Park. This…this was my kind of thing. I was jet lagged, tired, exhausted, hungry wandering around downtown with Sweetness, but a short distance into this nature preserve and I was suddenly awake, alert and feeling very much alive again. It may have helped they had a decent (and free) toilet a short distance into the park, but I think mostly it was the open naturalness of the place.
I got close pictures of quite a few wild animals, including the monkey things (I don’t know the exact breed(s) I saw) which had free reign. A few were in a cage, but most roamed without restriction. I saw lions and cheetahs from a few yards away (behind fences; it was safe). I came within touching distance of a gazelle fawn. It was beautiful. The couple of hours I spent wandering the park with Sweetness were amazingly wonderful. I took over two hundred pictures.
There was group of school children visiting the park. The boys all wore little suits and the girls wore…well, I don’t know the name for it, but it covered them from head to toe except for their faces, which were left fully exposed. When we first encountered these kids, several of them came over and stroked my arm. Many of them, both then and when we encountered them later, shook my hand. I was almost certainly the first white person they had ever seen. It was unique and interesting experience for me. I was friendly about the whole thing; it didn’t bother me at all.
On a side note, the park was the only place outside the airport where I saw another white person besides myself. Seriously, I was in a minority that makes any minority in the U.S. seem like a huge crowd by comparison.
We finally left hopped aboard a matatu. The trip back to the hotel would require two matatus. I had no idea how to navigate these things, but Sweetness knew what she was doing. On the first one, disaster…unbelievably bad catastrophe…struck.
Sweetness is a nurse. She’s been working at the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, close to the Sudan border. Working conditions are bad and living conditions worse. So she applied for a new job, trying to get something in Nairobi. Finally somebody asked her to sign a contract. The contract said she agreed to leave at any time; the job would not necessarily be in Kenya.
On Thursday afternoon, on that matatu from Kenya National Park to downtown Nairobi, she got a call from this new employer. She was to go to Istanbul. They had bought her plane ticket and she was to fly out at close to five in the morning on Friday.
She called them up and I even spoke with them, but they were unyielding and unsympathetic. They didn’t care that I had just flown in to spend a week with her. They would not push her start back by a few days, much less a whole week. They said when she got there she could talk to her management and maybe get a day or two off to come back to Nairobi, but the turn around on that would maybe have given us two days more together. Maybe.
There was not an option for her to say no. She had signed a contract. If she failed to show up, she would be in breach of contract, which would mean legal trouble that might include her getting arrested. Our weeklong vacation was suddenly a day trip.
Part 3: Going Home
I could have stayed in Kenya, of course. But I had done no research into what to do on my own. I did not want to stay in Nairobi; the busy downtown was not my cup of tea. The hotel was nice enough and even had free wifi, but there was no easy place to set up my laptop. On top of this, I decided the money I brought for my time with Sweetness would, at this point, be better spent on demanding bills back home.
Sweetness had to hurry about and make arrangements, print documents and so forth, for going to Istanbul. We got a couple of hours together, mostly spent sleeping, before she was off at about one in the morning local time. She took off in a bit of a hurry and accidentally left a hat behind, but she was sweet enough to remember to give me two gifts for my daughter, Shoes, and one for my son, Spiff.
Then she was gone and I was alone.
Delta airlines was kind enough to move up my reservation to Friday night without charge. The only problem was…it was moved up to Friday night. Check out time at the hotel was ten in the morning, the flight left at 10:40 pm. I did not want to drag my luggage all over Nairobi (again, not my cup of tea to begin with), so I went to the airport. My first flight was on KLM, which has two or three flights out of Nairobi, all of them at night. This means their check in desk did not open until four or five hours after I got to the airport. I did not have access to the inner airport, so once more I was alone and hungry.
While I waited, I got my luggage shrink-wrapped. This turned out to be an extra good thing because of the weather in Austin when I returned (see below), but at the time it was more of a curiosity and an act of boredom. It only cost me a few Kenya shillings and left my luggage in a funky shape until I freed it after I was home.
I finally checked in (I think they may have taken some sympathy on me and opened a few minutes earlier than they would have) and went into the airport proper. I bought a meal: Two sausage rolls (yum) and two bottles of water. I knew I couldn’t take the water to the gate (Nairobi gates also required individual security checkpoints), so I was careful to drink it all before I was ready to board.
I finally had a window seat not over a wing. However, this was a night flight and there was nothing to see. Mostly I slept and watched movies on the little screen on the back of the seat in front of me. I lost count; between the two longer legs to Nairobi and the two going back I watched seven or eight movies I had been wanting to see. Nice, free, but on a tiny screen and in the case of the return trip not what I wanted to be doing with my time that day.
When I checked in at the Nairobi airport, they could only give me one boarding pass. This was due to some trick of the relationship between Delta, who I booked with, and KLM airlines, who provided the actual transportation for that first leg. It was really arranged, as I understand it, with KLM, but legs two and three were on Delta, so it got very confused.
I had eight hours in Amsterdam. I didn’t really want to exit the airport anyway, but even if I had wanted to the kiosks did not want to give me a boarding pass. The change I had made in my reservations had probably confused things further than they were to begin with. I finally found there was a place with people who could do boarding passes, and they figured out what the machines could not. However, they could only do one boarding pass. Sigh.
As a further bit of badness, somewhere in the Amsterdam airport I lost the wrap-around-the-neck head cushion I’d picked up at the Austin airport on my way out. It got a little warm at times, but I would have much rather have continued to have it.
Meanwhile, I knew my connection was going to be tight. I had, in theory, a ninety minute layover in Atlanta. Had I been traveling in the U.S., this would not bother me. I would have time to grab a quick meal and go potty. However, coming from Amsterdam meant I would go through customs, collect my baggage, go through a thing called Agriculture, and then re-check my luggage before having the opportunity to go to my gate and get my final boarding pass.
Then it was posted that the flight to Atlanta was delayed by twenty five minutes. Deciding this made an already chancy connection even more risky and wanting to make things even more confused, I called Delta.
Let me say at this point I love Skype. I could not call toll free numbers in the U.S. from overseas—I was lucky to make any call from outside our borders—but I installed Skype on my phone and was able to call them first from my hotel’s crappy wifi and then from the Amsterdam airport’s 30-minute time-limited but otherwise good wifi. They added me to a later flight in case I missed the earlier one.
Getting on board the flight to Atlanta from Amsterdam was the worst boarding experience of the trip. It was a pretty full flight, especially for the big plan that it was, and they got all backed up in the bridge leading to the plane or something like that. So we got all stopped up at the security checkpoint waiting for things to clear.
That checkpoint, by the way, was a minor nightmare. Many of our electronics, to include cables, had to be put in plastic bags. Also our keys and belts. This meant I was without my suspenders for about a half hour (yes, the wait was that bad at a security checkpoint leading to the waiting room for getting on board), not to mention my other Stuff. I did not travel light, especially as far as cabling is concerned. I filled three of these plastic bags, and could have done with a fourth bag.
Eventually, we were through and on the plane. This was a day trip over the Atlantic Ocean. The view was probably beautiful. Naturally, this was the one flight I did not have any kind of window seat; I was in the middle of the middle aisle.
I got to Atlanta, got through customs, got my bag, got through Agriculture, checked my bag…and found my gate was in concourse B and I was currently in concourse F. The train goes from A to F and back again. So I had to pass nearly all of the concourses before I reached the right one. One minor stroke of luck finally: My gate was relatively close to where the train let out. I arrived and it was nearing the end of the boarding process.
Next problem was that there was exactly one Delta representative there, and she was boarding people. She had me come over and she multi-tasked, helping me, a woman trying to change her seats so she and her brood could sit closer together, and checking people onto the flight all at the same time.
I was the problem child, of course. It took her some effort to find my reservation for the flight, but I still didn’t have a seat. She called for help, but help was hard to find. Finally, somebody came over and I got a seat.
My phone was dying by this point. I was too busy worrying more than I needed to about getting on my Amsterdam to Atlanta flight to get it fully charged. I used a little juice to text my friend who was to bring me home from the Austin airport, letting her know I would be on time. Said friend had a medical issue which stopped her from driving, so I texted home that I need the car to be limped to the airport to pick me up.
Austin decided last night was the night to have the nastiest thunderstorm I have seen since I moved here. The rain was coming down hard, the winds were terrible, and it generally a mess. Coming in for a landing, the plane at one point slid left and then right really hard, one of the worst moments of turbulence I have personally ever experienced.
We pulled into the gate, got off, and the airport had a “ground closure.” This meant nobody’s luggage got off the aircrafts due to the weather. There was an announcement while we waited (for over an hour before I finally got my luggage) that another arrival was diverted to Houston because of the weather. I have to wonder if our little side-to-side slide had anything to do with that.
The roads were horrible. We did a little slippy-slide on the way home. We took the toll road as, according to my roommates, the water on the frontage road was up to a foot thick in some places. Given that my car already had mechanical trouble, I accept the tolls I will have to pay for this.
Finally, I arrived home. Total time from the moment I left the hotel to when I arrived home was around forty-four hours. Yuck.
Epilogue: The Future
The hours I spent with Sweetness, especially in Kenya National Park, were pure joy. This is the woman I love, and who I want to spend the rest of my life with. I was in love with her before I went to Nairobi for this rather expensive, exhausting day trip, and now I am even more so. There wasn’t much time for romance, but if this trip has taught me anything, it’s that there’s more to love than romance. I will not forget my first sight of her, or the feeling of her hands in mine.
The trip was much shorter than either of us would have liked, but we technically accomplished our mission. We want to get her a K-1 fiancé visa, but that requires physically meeting and evidence of that meeting. We now have that. It will take me a month or two to be able to afford the application, but I will manage it. It will take six to nine months to process it, but once that’s done, she will have a visa and she will come to the U.S., where we’ve wanted her to be for over two years now, and we won’t have to be apart again. I love you, Sweetness.