Friday, October 18, 2013

Road Trip: Kenya

For my birthday this past weekend, we took a trip to Lake Nakuru National Park.  But don't worry. I'm not going to foist a bunch of wildlife pictures on you. Actually, maybe you'd appreciate that more than what I'm about to do.

I am going to tell you about an aspect of taking family vacations here that gets little attention: Getting There.

Back in Chicago, it's often said that there are 2 seasons: winter and construction. Here in Kenya there is only one season.  And it ain't winter.

Most roads in our part of Kenya are either in a state of disrepair or repair.  Mainly, you are driving on shoddily constructed roads with crater-like, car-swallowing potholes and sharp unmarked speed bumps, all threatening to destroy your car and strand you on the side of the road.  Either that, or you are driving directly through road construction as it happens with only a hint of how avoid the beastly machinery blocking your way. You have to clutch the steering wheel and tell the kids to hold onto their seats as you bump along the "diversion" (read: non-road you use on while the road builders get to work.)

The dust all of this kicks up is of biblical proportions. It's caked on the car so densely you could scrape it off with a knife and you're sneezing it up all evening.
This is not out of focus.
Why the constant disrepair and repair? I've been told road construction is a big boondoggle. Apparently, a big proportion of the road budget goes to greasing palms, so things like quality cement and other important ingredients for road making get short changed. The road lasts half as long as predicted and the boondoggle starts again.

But when the road is completed it's ... well.... amazing.  Some of your journey is inevitably on fresh road, and you sail by feeling like you're on a high speed train. Like you're time traveling.  But don't get too comfortable because this is actually where the worst of the road accidents happen as the absence of potholes, diversions or speed bumps lulls long haul drivers into careless and often lethal complacency.

OK.  So the roads are no picnic.  And speaking of picnics... you better pack one, because there are no fancy roadside restaurants, drive-throughs or convenient stores. There are tons of roadside vendors, but unless you can make a snack out of a kilogram of potatoes, some tomatoes and an uncut pumpkin, you're out of luck.

OK. You can easily find a soda. But you'll have to drink it there and return the bottle.  My environmentalist heart applauds but my impatient spirit boos. 
All this said, and despite the road hazards, we actually love our road trips.  The countryside is gorgeous, teeming with people, shambas and ramshackle storefronts; and driving through it makes us feel like we are in the "real Kenya" (whatever that means). And the truth is you can find a locally harvested snack - roasted maize, pineapple slices or peanuts - if you're lucky.

Tea estate in Kericho

There are no roadside attractions, but the are plenty of on-road attractions, and I'm not just talking about the flipped over truck variety. Generally, I'm talking about a lot of improbably overloaded trucks, livestock strapped to the backs of vehicles or extended families sharing a motorbike. It's the kind of thing you found remarkable when you first moved here but now often forget to notice. Unless, of course, you're planning on writing a blog post on the topic.

Don't worry.  They're dead.

I love that despite lack of side walks and uniformly craggily roads, women around Kisumu still brave aspirational shoes. 

Just a few tweaks and this bad boy will be road worthy again.

And we always seem to stumble into some kind of misadventure.

This time we stopped in Kericho, a hilly tea-growing area, for lunch. It was at a faded colonial haunt with unintentionally ironic kitsch and intentionally gorgeous gardens.  They parked us - the only patrons at the time - in the corner of the restaurant, but by the time our food was served we were enveloped by local businessmen and politicians who descended en masse, as part of some business promotion convention.

Someone clanked a spoon to a glass, the room fell silent and the man at the next table stood up to introduce the Governor (the man with the biggest belly in the room) for some "brief remarks." In desperation, I shoved cookies in Emmet's mouth so as not to interrupt the Governor's speech with uninvited baby whining.

The guy in the grey suit: Gov'na.

Our family. Woefully under-dressed for the business conference we unintentionally crashed.

Well, I lied. I am going to give you one picture from our game drives. But Warning: this is for mature audiences only.  Or, really, immature mature audiences only.

You see, the animals in this part of the world are truly magnificent. They come in surreal colors and patterns, and near paleolithic proportions. You wonder at life's creation itself while watching those seemingly hand painted zebra stripes or stilt-like legs on the giraffe. But after watching several hundred zebra, you stop wondering and start yearning to see something besides these magnificent creatures endlessly chewing their cud.

You want some action.  A stalking and a kill. Some fighting. Some mating.  You know, the same kind of action you want from an episode of the Real Housewives of Poughkeepsie. Or so I hear.

Well, after half a dozen game drives and no ... um... "action," we finally got some.  Real animal behavior in the wild.

A baboon mating.

With himself.


  1. This is going to be one of my all-time favorite Mama Mzungu posts, Kim - made all the more interesting by the contrast with my Stateside road trip right now (where I can get anything I need along the road except African connections).

    By any chance was the party you crashed at the Kericho Tea Hotel? That's where we used to stay, in the day.

  2. Thanks Phil! And YES! It was the Kericho Tea Hotel. "faded even 30 years ago" seems about right. ; )

  3. Love this posting Kim + truly am empathic about the roads. Here in the mountains of Lesotho we feel as though we're driving over just that - mountains! But, wonder of wonders, both roads out of Mokhotlong are being tarred - properly! So, in 3 years we'll have a great road system (unitl the pot-holes start appearing of course!). Your baboon pic reminds me of when I took a Swazi friend to a zoo in UK. A bored female gorilla took a young male, carefully avoiding the gaze of the silverback, + did the very same to him before concluding with a public coupling. I was amazed + shocked! Clare (Phil's friend)

  4. Dear "Mama Mzungu", if that's what you like to call yourself in order to preserve your true identity, because you're pissing so many people off by telling lies in your ridiculous 'blog post'.

    I would just like to draw your attention to my image of Kenya, an image I'm sure I share with most of the other average Kenyan citizens and residents. Before I get into that, I'd just like to remind you that your view of our country is one of an outsider that does not understand much about us. Yet, still, you please yourself by blindly judging us and putting wrong images of this place into other people's heads.

    Yes, you complain about our roads, our kiosks, our food and just about everything that encounters you. But really, you're complaining while comparing Kenya to industrialized countries in Europe or America or wherever you come from... If you do that, obviously you are going to find yourself feeling very disappointed. To change your perspective and help you to start enjoying the country for what it really is and not for what you think it is, I suggest you bloody open your eyes and start using them!
    I get the feeling you fell asleep in the car while you were on your trip and dreamt all the BS you're feeding other people about Kenya.

    I understand that Kenya might not be paradise for most, but you made it sound like hell and I'm truly sorry, mzungu, but I will not appreciate that.
    I got very offended while reading your 'blog post', and even though that might not have been your intention, that is how it came across.

    You sounded very arrogant and came across very high and mighty.

    So next time you want to write something about Kenya, please take into consideration the feelings of the people who love the place, and re-think your puffed up attitude.

    -Yours truly, Kenya's population

  5. Nice post. Although, you should know that most of our roads are pretty damn good. We do have some bad roads here and there, but its definitely not 'construction season'. Plus, there's almost, definitely a convenient store with every gas station on every major highway in Kenya. At least you enjoy our wildlife.

    PS: the chicken on top of the van, are alive....and well.

  6. Just a can you visit such a beautiful land with so much to offer and criticise everything?.....a backhanded compliment. So wrong on so many levels. Such a shame you only saw kenya but didn't get the chance to experience our home....
    FYI.....the hen are alive. Probably enjoying the view more than you did.

    An actual Kenyan