The first time I had been in Nairobi, there was an attempted coup. We had planned to stop there for a few days en route to Tel Aviv from Johannesburg during the 1982 trip I have referred to earlier. That never happened- instead, our plane was guarded on the runway by machine gun-toting soldiers long enough for us to refuel and take off again. My second trip to Nairobi was no lengthier- recall our SwissAir flight had landed there to refuel and to let off passengers on the way to Dar, sans soldiers of course. My third trip to Nairobi was completely unexpected.
Upon returning from our final game drive, one sick student had a turn of events that elevated their situation to a more alarming stage. I had the number for Dr. Frank from the clinic in Karatu and I kept dialing it but was unable to get through. I then called our traveler’s insurance company so they would be aware of our situation but, as luck would have it, my phone cut off while I was on hold with them. Checking all of our group’s phones, it became apparent that the entire Airtel phone network had gone down just at that moment. As I was waiting for the network to come back up, Colleen came up with an excellent suggestion- since there was at least 50 other people camped at the Nyani Camp, she figured that there was a chance that at least one of them was a doctor. Although I considered this somewhat of a long shot, I walked up to the group of Europeans who were camped nearby. “Is anyone in your group a doctor?” I asked. “Yes, I’m a doctor!” replied the woman I had just addressed.
After examining our patient, the Dutch doctor I had located was convinced that we should seek medical attention right away- she even got on the phone with our insurance company to let them know of her impressions. Soon after this, I was finally able to reach Dr. Frank. He wasn’t anywhere near as concerned and said we should simply stop by his clinic on the way back through Karatu. The wheels had already been set in motion, however, since our insurance company called back and insisted that we med-evac the student to Kenya the first thing in the morning since no vehicular traffic was allowed to travel through the Serengeti after dark and, under the best conditions, Karatu was a 4 to 5 hour drive away.
There was a giraffe in the parking lot of the Seronera airstrip when we arrived at 8:30 am the next morning. We waited about 20 minutes before the Flying Doctors plane appeared on the horizon, flew overhead, and made a wide turn in order to land on the tiny airstrip. I boarded the plane, along with the student, but we didn’t take off for another 30 minutes while the doctor on board attended to their new patient. Taking off over the Serengeti, I could not really make out any distinct animals below me but I was once again struck by the vastness of the dry plain below. We landed in Nairobi shortly after 9 am but then spent another 30 minutes having the airport staff secure our visas and get our passports stamped. Nairobi, on first impression, reminded me of Dar- except cleaner and more orderly. Sure there was a herd of cows crossing the modern highway that we drove into the city center on but there did seem to be more gleaming skyscrapers and less mobs of people crowding the roadside or packed onto the public transport there.
We were soon ushered inside a modern-looking hospital and then proceeded to spend the next 6 hours in a “dressing room”, a room with a bed in every corner around which a curtain could be pulled. I considered stepping out after a while to get some lunch but was afraid that our patient would be moved in the meantime and that, if things operated like they did in America, the hospital might then refuse to give me information about where they had been moved to. Finally, around 4 pm, we were transferred to one of the nicest hospital rooms I have ever been in- anywhere. The nurses soon informed me that visiting hours would end at 6 pm and would not be back in effect until 11 am the next morning. I asked Irene, one of the nurses, for a recommendation of where I could spend the night but then balked at the $180 price tag of the fancy Silver Springs Hotel directly across the street from the hospital. Irene told me about another hotel, the Olive Gardens, that was fairly close but not quite as ritzy. I settled upon this business-class hotel, whose advertised rates were $80/night. Irene insisted that I take a taxi there, however, since I was not familiar with the area. The taxi driver was helpful in finding the place, but by the time we pulled out into Nairobi rush-hour traffic, I literally could have walked there faster. About 2 miles and 20 minutes later, I reached my hotel and was pleasantly surprised that the actual charge was $55/night for residents of East Africa.
After checking into my room, I immediately left for dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant I had spotted on my slow cab ride over. I was a little leery about walking back to my hotel after dark, however. I had heard nothing but bad things about Nairobi up to that point. After all, the U.S. State Dept, had issued a travel warning against traveling in Kenya and during our visit to the U.S. embassy in Tanzania the staff there had warned us about Dar but had said “at least it’s nothing like Nairobi or Johannesburg”. Luckily, no one along the short walk back seemed to pay me any attention and I returned to my room with no problem. The next day, after my first warm shower since Karatu, I stopped by the hotel’s “business center” to check on airlines which flew to the Arusha area from Nairobi. They had two computers which were connected to the internet but neither of these had a functional mouse. I sat for 90 minutes trying to surf the net using a combination of the tab, arrow, and return keys to navigate- this predictably produced only limited amounts of success. On my way out, I suggested to one of two attendants in the center who had been watching youtube videos next to me the whole time, sans mouse, that they may want to consider investing in a new mouse or two for their computers.
I checked out of my room at 9:30 and still had 90 minutes to kill before visiting hours began- so I walked downtown and sat by a large fountain in a park and called Trudy in Tanzania. She seemed to have everything under control but obviously wanted me to come back asap. Just then, I got a text from the hospitalized student saying they wouldn’t be released until Friday. It was Wednesday morning. I then returned to the hospital for a while and later walked to a Chinese restaurant called Chopstix for lunch. The shredded pepper beef that I ordered was some of the best Chinese food I had ever had! After lunch, I checked into a hostel that I had seen during my earlier walk, figuring that, if I was going to spend another two nights in Nairobi, I wanted to be in a place that was more my style. The total cost for a resident per night came to $6. After another visit to the hospital, I ate dinner at the hostel (ham and cheese calzones) and then went to my room, which I was sharing with a beefy twenty-something Muslim man from Ghana. Since the power had been out in Nairobi since midmorning, there was nothing for me to do at the hospital (I had hoped to use the internet with a working mouse) so I went to bed exceedingly early.
The next day, following my morning walk downtown (this time to Uhuru Park), I had breakfast as the Nairobi Java House across the street from the hostel. The power was still out, which also meant that there was no running water at the hostel. Since my roommate was still asleep in the room, I grabbed my bag and sat on a bench outside to read. Just then, I received a text saying that the student was going to be released from the hospital that day! Reality, of course, meant that it was actually 11 am by the time we walked out of the hospital- upon which we immediately caught a taxi to the airport. I knew from my abortive internet research that the last flight to Kilimanjaro airport left Wilson airport in Nairobi at 1 pm, in fact all three airlines that plied that route left within 15 minutes of each other. Once we had arrived at Wilson, however, we learned that the airspace over Nairobi had been closed so that fighter jet flyovers of the nearby stadium could be performed as part of the Hero’s Day celebrations that were going on.
The first of the three airlines in question had cancelled their flights for the day, the 2nd told us their flight was completely full, while the 3rd finally agreed to sell us tickets for that day’s flight. There was only one caveat- the plane would be leaving from Jomo International Airport instead of Wilson. Luckily, Air Kenya had a few other people who had been surprised when they showed up at the wrong airport expecting their flight and they seemed ready to bend over backward in order to accommodate them. The airline offered to drive us to the other airport, about 25 miles outside of the city, for no charge. We rode in a car with a Russian photographer who was headed to the Serengeti, along with his Tanzanian guide. I felt very knowledgeable being able to share with the Russian the best place to get some wildebeest migration pictures. Once at Jomo, we were whisked though the airport by the airline staff and soon found ourselves at the boarding gate. I then took it upon myself to remind the staff that none of us had time to eat any lunch and, following a phone call, the airline arranged to serve us sack lunches on the plane for our 45 minute flight. There ended up being only 6 of us on the flight that day, an American couple on safari had joined our group at the airport. As the plane taxied onto the runway in preparation for takeoff the moment that Kenyan airspace was reopened at 2 pm, I was thankful to be headed back to my home country of Tanzania. I’m a resident after all- I have a stamp in the added pages of my passport to prove it!