So here it goes… Before leaving for Nairobi, I dedicated the previous month for preparation. My arms had their share of travel vaccinations and frankly, I can do without seeing another needle for the foreseeable future. From microfiber towels, antihistamine creams to my extremely functional safari outfits that made me look like a lesbian rancher at times… I had become the proud owner of a pair of convertible shorts/pants that proved their worth more than I anticipated. There were a few anxieties along the way… Aside from the 8-day safari, the whole trip was going to be a bit spontaneous as we expected to immerse ourselves in vibrant cultures of East Africa for the whole month, avoiding the luxurious Western catered Africa experience. This meant being outside of your comfort zone a lot, on a budget. It was completely stupid of me to read copious amounts of travel forums filled with culturally deaf white tourist posts. If you are raised by a Turkish mother, hygiene is way too important and what constitutes clean can resonate different to each person, letting alone other cultures. As for me, let’s just say I like to splurge on hand sanitizers. So, I was a bit nervous. It turns out the posts I had read were extremely exaggerated for the most part; go figure! Though, I would admit now, being prepared had been the smartest thing to do. My backpack weighed around 10 kilos –so we can shove the over packing women cliché up to where it belongs– and we left our apartment with excitement…
If I were to write about all we have seen and the details of our travels, it would take pages and pages so I just wanted to share a few impressions that stayed with me… We started our journey in Nairobi, and had our first meal and coffee at Java House, which is basically the Starbucks of Kenya – only much better.
It’s exhilarating to be exposed to a completely different terrain, culture and people… And I can say this without a doubt in my mind: Never have I ever had such an educating trip. To look over the archeological sites (Olduvai) where our earliest journeys as humanoids took place was remarkable.
Eight full days of nature and animals in Masaai Mara, Naivasha, Manyara, Serengeti and Ngorongoro; some of the sights made me downright cry out of astonishment. How many other places in the world can you see a crowded group of forty elephants migrating, a hunting lion or (kick-ass female) lions having a face off with a herd of buffalos –up close? Zebras become a common sight, and Thomson gazelles really try hard to commit suicide by throwing themselves at your car. Thanks to climate change, migration from Serengeti to Maasai Mara was earlier than we had anticipated but we still managed to watch some wildebeest, crossing the river. Green crater in Kenya and coffee plantations under the Mount Klimanjaro in Tanzania were wonderful hiking locations.
Once in a person’s lifetime, Serengeti and Ngorongoro should definitely be seen. It’s some real bucket list stuff… The immediate transition from green forests to savanna leaves you flabbergasted. It gives perspective on life, beauty and diversity. The road to these parks are horrendous but it is part of the deal. We stayed at Serengeti Safari Camp the night of my birthday… It was so “Out of Africa”; I was expecting Robert Redford to creep out of one of the tents. To my disappointment, he never did.
For people who come from Western states, tribal cultures are easy to misunderstand and it is generally due to lack of information, or downright ignorance. That’s why I would recommend seeing Nairobi National Museum. The museum is rough around the edges, but highly informative. From a personal level, except for the ongoing FGM practices –imperative to mention, due to awareness campaigns, the practice is decreasing– and women’s place in their societies, hundreds of tribal cultures in East Africa were extremely fascinating to learn about. They completely transformed my perception on civil conflicts in Africa, which we frequently read about from the media. Even though there are a number of tribes that hold on to their traditions amidst the temptations of modernity, it appeared to me that a strengthened national identity is necessary in order to prevent corruption (favored tribes in politics) and inter-tribal conflicts, without the corrosion of ethnic identities. It is also interesting to see the lingering effects of heinous European colonialism. A driver we had in Kampala said: “We want to imitate the West too fast without any consideration for our own cultures”. It’s almost like being stuck with permanent gloves that will never fit.
Even though we met people from many different tribes, we only had a chance to see two villages that belonged to Maasai and Chagga respectively. Visiting such a limited number of villages, in no circumstances, adds up to an educated observation, nor a generalization about their cultures and ways of living…
The Maasai village was situated near the Maasai Mara Conservation Area where they adopted a completely new culture that revolves around tourism. At the entrance, we paid 20 USD per person and were asked to pay additional money for cultural demonstrations such as drawing the blood of a cow, etc. What was included in our fee was the welcome dance and lighting a fire with traditional tools. Then we were invited to their huts, which was quite interesting. They really love dem livestock… and it’s more like a status of wealth. Women’s place in the village feels uncomfortable to a foreigner to say the least, and it appears that they do bulk of the work. Our Maasai villager guide was overwhelmingly insisting on telling us how money is needed for notebooks and children’s education. You get highly encouraged to take pictures and are smoothly taken to a self-made gift shop where they almost force you to buy something at astronomical mzungu (the Swahili word for white people) prices, as they remind you again – for children’s education.
For me, the impression I got was that they have become accustomed to generous hand-outs from tourists, and built a not-so-sustainable business around it. When I started to think things over on a macro scale, it reminded me how ineffective most of the development aid schemes are for the developing world. Throwing money at these societies can never be the solution for inequality, lack of access to education and basic amenities, though I imagine it relieves the conscience of many privileged tourists. As travelers, we visit museums, historical and cultural sites, but rarely does it feel like a human zoo display. Especially the amount of littering around the village and the Maasai Mara reserve is a hurtful reminder of how humans are capable of tarnishing such beautiful nature. In Ngorongoro, we did not visit another Maasai village, but the littering didn’t seem to exist (probably due to the national park). It was an experience nevertheless, and I am grateful for the information and hospitality we have received.
A contrasting case: we hiked to a coffee plantation next to the Klimanjaro National Park, not too far from Moshi. From Union Café, we arranged a coffee plantation tour. One word of advice – always negotiate prices. You can decrease the price by half since you are visiting a village and not a national park, so there is no set entry fee. The lush green vegetation, massive banana tree leaves, slippery ginger soil that require a good pair of hiking boots all cohesively made up a breathtaking scenery, and the highlight was the waterfall that met us after a pleasant and uphill hike. Chagga were extremely adamant on keeping their environment clean, and telling us about their background and people, with pride. We then proceeded to the home of our guide, where he and his friends explained us how they roast and consume the coffee beans with a lot of dancing and singing. The whole demonstration was a show for tourists like us, clearly, but there was something very organic and genuine in the way they treated us.
Intriguing observation… Even though tea and coffee in Kenya and Tanzania are of excellent quality, the preparation/execution doesn’t do justice to the product in a lot of the places – except for a few establishments like Union Café in Moshi. But oh well, taste is a relative concept. After a delicious home made dish, we left the village with a lot of great photographs and memories.
Then there is the urban side of things… Nairobi is as real as it gets. Poverty, pollution and ridiculous traffic made me feel a clusterfuck of emotions. A nation focused on election campaigns*, hoping for change… From Kibera to Westlands, the class difference is stark but the city and its people are full of potential. Even though it is completely safe to walk around during the day in downtown, the same streets feel threatening at night for a tourist. To move around, Uber is quite cheap. But if you are on the adventurous side, overly pimped busses that are called matatus should be a fun experience. They are literally death machines that most locals depend on for public transportation. I don’t know what possessed me to get into it, and all the locals were kind of laughing at my “terrified but I’m dealing with it” face.
Out of all the places we have been to last month, Nairobi restaurants had the best local cuisine, hands down. You cannot miss eating an amazing beef stew or fresh water fish with some ugali, and Tusker beer (though I personally liked Tanzanian Beer Safari much better). I should mention that never once we have had food poisoning, and it’s safe to say we pretty much ate everything.
Did we not feel like walking wallets in Nairobi? We sure did… It’s generally best to keep to yourself while touring the city on foot. One person asks for money, and suddenly the number of people multiply around you. It could feel intimidating.
Kampala was my favorite city out of these three countries, and we were lucky to have an incredible family hosting us. Compared to Nairobi, the vibe is more chilled out. The word for white people “mzungu” isn’t thrown at you as commonly, except for the chaotic Owino market. Boda (motorcycle) may not be the safest option but is the best way to get around in Kampala. That was another major out-of-comfort zone decision for me. Thankfully, we were fine and I even enjoyed it while praying to any and all divine things that could protect us and our absolutely skilled bikers.
Random and inexplicable fact: Ugandans love country music. They have a radio station dedicated to it and I honestly loved their selection of artists.
As a regular tourist, it is possible to walk into the Ugandan Parliament and watch the MPs during their public meetings for draft bills, etc. They were discussing a bill to tackle child abuse at the time we crashed their meeting, but the conversations couldn’t have been more irrelevant. Politicians are universally the worst enemy of progress.
Ghosts of Idi Amin and all of his victims had a trembling presence in Kabaka’s Palace. During his rule, as our guide mentioned, he commissioned Israelis to build a secret arsenal which he later converted to a prison and torture chamber where many people were electrocuted or starved to death… Nail scratches on the walls and the whole structure echo surreal horror movies, except the years of butchering and suffering were nothing but a painful reality for Ugandans.
Jinja was where all hippie mzungu thrived with their uniformed elephant salwar pants. There wasn’t much else to do in Jinja except chilling around the Nile, rafting and some other extreme sports. Source Café was very nice to take a moment and relax, and the souvenir shop is significantly cheaper than anywhere else we have ever been to. Their prices are fixed and all the proceeds go to charity. Point zero of the river Nile is a must see.
Talking about buying souvenirs and pretty much anything else that does not have established price schemes, shameless, senseless haggling will be your best friend. To be quite honest, I hate it; I hate any conversation that revolves around money. Max and I usually do good cop (me as the naïve shopping crazy woman, ugh) & bad cop (Max as the smart and thrifty man) and it works most of the time. It is the culture there, and haggle for your life, haggle until you drop. Threatening to leave is always a good idea to see whether they are really fluffing the prices up, which they most definitely do. If they don’t try to stop you, then it means they really did their best and you went below market prices. That could also mean the sales person is a smart negotiator too, but it’s a good strategy overall.
The distances we travelled were quite widespread, and we used cross-country busses as well as domestic flights. It is weirdly expensive to fly to Uganda from Kenya, while domestic Kenyan flights are cheaper. Busses were quite ok, but it’s important to make sure the bus companies are credible and well known. Beware, the distances may feel like it takes forever; but there is nothing better than a good book and a companion to pass the time. We ended our trip at the café where everything started, and left home with so many great memories and the anticipation of our next destination.
*This article was written in August 2017, and the trip took place in July 2017.
I would be happy to help with any questions, if you are planning a trip to East Africa… just drop me a message below!