Going to Kenya and not seeing the wildlife is like having going to a five star restaurant and leaving after the appetizer. It’s just not done. After over a month in Kenya, I still hadn’t seen any wild animals. My job had me stuck in Nairobi during business hours, but fortunately, the Kenyan capital is prepared for people like me.
Nairobi National Park is the only urban national park in the world.
Sunday morning, I met Sammy in town at 10, and we found a matatu to take us to the park. I was so excited I woke up early, so I went to the Lavington mall in search for coffee and a ridiculously good croissant au chocolat, but my normal spot wasn’t open. Maybe because it was early, maybe because it was Sunday. I went into the subpar sub shop next door. I don’t like subway sandwiches, and this place is not the best. It’s overpriced and bland, but they have real coffee and a handsome wait staff, so that makes it okay. They also have a breakfast menu with Western-style breakfasts. I ordered strawberry and banana pancakes.
“I think you will take buttermilk pancakes.”
Okay. So I got the buttermilk pancakes. I was expecting some kind of rip-off silver-dollar size pieces of bread, but I got a legitimate stack of pancakes. With syrup drizzled on top. And a strawberry. It was enough pancakes to fill me up with some left over, but not as disgustingly, gluttonously much as some American pancake houses serve. What it was, was perfect. After 29 years of life on earth, I finally found the perfect pancake breakfast in Nairobi, Kenya, 30 June 2013. So began the greatest day ever.
I walked full, happy, and on a mild sugar high to the crowd of men around the matatus.
“Welcome! Where you going?”
“Here, here. 100 shillings.” He said this very benevolently as he ushered me toward the open door of the matatu.
I turned to face him square on and cocked my eyebrow.
“I paid 50 last time.”
I don’t understand Swahili, but I understood the raucous laughter and gesturing that irrupted among the other guys.
“Okay 50,” he quickly conceded.
I was quite proud of myself. I’d eaten pancakes and I hadn’t taken any shit. It was only 9:30 am.
We made our way into town to a cacophonous soundtrack of contemporary Christian music.
I met my Kenyan friend Sammy at the stage, the area in downtown Nairobi that is the first and last stop for many matatus and buses. We walked a few blocks and hopped into another matatu. Each matatu has its own musical character. This particular one played all the songs from every American middle school slow dance that took place in 1996. They played 98 Degrees. They even played Brandy. As we sat in the infamous Nairobi traffic on our way out of town, I wondered if she ever figured out what to say or where to start.
About twenty minutes later, the matatu slowed just enough to dump us clumsily on the side of the highway, and we walked through the entrance gate where we shook hands with an armed member of the Kenya Wildlife Service. We continued on across a mostly empty parking lot through another gate where Sammy got our tickets to the animal orphanage.
When we were done at the animal orphanage, we walked to a café near the main gate to drink some cokes, then walked over to the grass where we lunched on a bag of tomato flavored crisps, some grapes, and a package of bright pink baobab seeds.
Despite being on the outskirts of Nairobi, being inside the park gates felt like being in another world, far removed from the city’s diesel exhaust stench. By the time we walked back to the gate to catch the 2:00 safari bus, more visitors were starting to pour in. We had some time to kill, so for 300 shillings, I joined hands with a group of Maasai singing and rocking back and forth. I took Erma, my plush hen, out of my backpack to join us. The Maasai pondered the eccentricity, but for 300 shillings, the chicken could dance, too. Sammy didn’t fancy a dance. Been there, done that.
Sammy jumped into our long, green bus to make sure we got a seat with a window that opened. Many of them stuck.
After we paid and got our tickets, we rolled through the inconspicuous gate separating the pedestrian world from the wilds of East Africa.