After our five day safari, we flew from Arusha, Tanzania to Nairobi, Kenya for a few days in the city (and another country) before heading home. Right out of the airport, Kenya was a very different country than Tanzania. The airport in Dar was somewhat formal and sleepy. Nairobi's was a hive of activity, inside and out. We jumped in a cab and lucked out with a fantastic driver, who we ended up spending the rest of the long weekend with. He enlightened us to some of the ways of Kenya. First and foremost, he informed us about how open corruption is not tolerated in Kenya (very much unlike what we saw in Tanzania). He gave us stories about how even police officers would be mobbed and beaten by angry crowds if someone called them out publicly for corruption. As disturbing as those accounts were, they were also interestingly enlightening. On one of our first stops, the Nairobi National Museum, we even found a box for folks to anonymously report acts of corruption. It was right there in the lobby.
We didn't have enough time in Nairobi, and I didn't find the few parts of it that I did see to be very photogenic. The people, however, were charming. There was a clearly successful and growing middle class, which was beautifully racially diverse. This post will not show the real Nairobi at all. I'm sad to say that it will only really show a handful of things that the typical tourist might see. I hope at some point that I'll return to Nairobi and Kenya and explore more of the city and country to get a better taste. The first was a good one and left me intrigued for more.
The Nairobi National Museum is a must see for anyone visiting the city. It houses an impressive showcase of Kenya's natural, social, and political history.
The museum also houses an incredible array of hominid fossils, including a cast model of Lucy (below), one of the closest things we know of to a "missing link" connecting homo sapiens (humans) to primates (great apes).
Africa's Central Rift Valley, a geologically tumultuous region which stretches the eastern length of the continent, is the birthplace of humanity. That is a point that the Nairobi museum takes pride in, as the Central Rift Valley cuts right through Kenya.
This elephant skeleton and model are in honor of an incredible elephant: Ahmed of Marsabit. Mount Marsabit is a mountain in Northern Kenya with forested slopes that are home to a small group of elephants. The elephants of Marsabit are known for being big "tuskers", male elephants with long and thick tusks. Ahmed was an individual male that was an especially well endowed tusker. He gained fame throughout the country and was soon granted national protection, which consisted of two personal armed guards that followed him day and night. Ahmed died of natural causes at the age of 55 and has now been immortalized in the museum. Nairobi National Museum also hosts many examples of Africa's prehistoric (and now extinct) mega-fauna, some of which would dwarf even Ahmed here.
This is just insane and a strong and devastating example of how European colonizers exploited native people. These thumb prints are from Maasai tribal leaders that were coerced, exploited, and/or bribed into signing away land to the British colonialists. Considering these people signed with a thumb print, it is highly doubtful that they were fully aware of the contract to which they were agreeing.
Such Maasai spears and shield grace the Kenyan flag.
Outside, the museum is an impressive building.
Just across the plaza from the museum lies the Nairobi Snake Park, which was small but had a wonderful and impressive array of some of Africa's most deadly serpents.
Boomslang. Don't let their name fool you; "boomslang" translates to "tree snake" in Afrikaans (and Dutch). However, these snakes aren't as innocent or harmless as their name might imply. Unlike cousins of theirs (pictured above and below), the boomslang has a potent venom, large venom glands, and fangs long enough to penetrate human flesh. Their bite can be deadly; the toxin prevents blood from clotting. Victims die from bleeding out through their own orifices. They are indeed tree snakes, and they are infamous for dropping down on people trekking through the forest or jungle; imagine that nightmare.
There are several other species that are closely related to the deadly boomslang. These, however, have less potent venom, small venom glands, and fangs too small to penetrate human flesh. For those reasons, they are kept outside in the open air at the park.
African rock python. These behemoths are one of the largest species of snake in the world and the largest in Africa. These snakes are the silent terror that lurk in rocky outcrops called kopjes on the savannas, but their range covers a larger variety of terrain than just that. These snakes rarely kill humans, but they are very aggressive.
Gaboon viper. These animals have the longest fangs (up to 5 cm) and highest venom yield (bang for your bite) of any snake on Earth. They are deadly, and they are large.
Spitting cobra. Yet another of the deadliest snakes on Earth.
This guy was reared and actually spitting at the glass; it apparently really didn't like my camera. The shots were aimed right at the lens... and my eyes. The snakes aim for the eyes when they spit their venom, which can cause blindness in the victim; large snakes can spray the venom up to just about 3 m (9 feet). This one was easily clearing a meter. All I can say is thank goodness that glass was there. I have to give it to them, the coloring on these things is beautiful.
Green mamba. Another highly venomous tree dweller is the green mamba, another snake you wouldn't want to have fall out of a tree onto your head. These snakes can be long, over 2 meters, and are very fast.
Black mamba. They darken with age, but they all have an inky black mouth, for which they are named. This is yet another of the deadliest snakes in the world and (like the rest here) also found in East Africa. Before the development of anti-venom, a bite was essentially a death sentence. These snakes are highly aggressive as well; they are known for rearing up to human head height (~2 meters) and chasing people down. Our guide in the Usambara Mountains also told us about one that chased after a car he was in... that is certainly the stuff that nightmares are made of.
Snakes... I show you bloody snakes for my first visit to Kenya. I'm sad to admit... I didn't see much of Kenya at all. I spent a few days in the capital city visiting tourist destinations with my friends under the guidance of a wonderful gentleman cab driver who got us from point A to point B reliably and with wonderful conversation. He provided us with our most detailed insights into the country and what life is like there for normal people. The rest of my pictures don't do this any justice. They are just more of the tourist destination. But the story changes from here... now I focus a bit more on reality.
Two things are glaringly clear around Nairobi: there are tremendously rich people living there, and there are tremendously poor people there too. Like so many other places in the world (South Africa, China, India, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, England, and the USA all come immediately to mind), Kenya has a glaring, in-your-face dichotomy between rich and poor. You see houses like these - walled and fortified behind their high voltage electric fences - just a few miles from the Kibera slum, one of the largest clusters of poverty in the world, where a family is lucky to have any electricity available in the home. It brings to mind a much more extreme form of how I first considered LA - with Skid Row just a few miles down the road from Beverly Hills and Bel Air. Anger and disgust. We didn't go to Kibera, but we saw its ugly sprawl from the highway; its enormity is impossible to miss for anyone willing to look up from the soul-crushing traffic or their smart phones. We did, however, go to and through many neighborhoods nearby like this one, with their affluent houses peeking out from behind high walls and security gates. We heard how children from these neighborhoods and even larger mansions further afield traveled to school via helicopter. The justification for such luxury was security... their parents wanted to avoid the very real threat of kidnapping for ransom. However, do they consider that such things may happen possibly because such wealth is a slap in the face, an outright offense, to those living at the lowest depths of oppressive survivalism so nearby?
Oh... they had very nice malls too. Those malls and the affluence have become a target, as recent history has taught us (for example, the 2013 Westgate Mall attacks). However, they are also a sign of change... there is a growing middle class in Kenya. It isn't so clear through these high walls crowned with their electric fences, but it is clear in the gentrified parts of town. There is a middle class there... normal people, racially diverse and more akin to the hipster generation than to the Kardashians. That is a wonderful thing, something I can walk away happy about.
Back to tourism now. Just read the sign.
Yes, baby elephants are adorable. Oooh, and baby ostriches aren't too bad either.
OK, but to be less facetious here, these elephants have some truly horrific stories and have been given a chance for recovery and rehabilitation thanks to this organization: the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
This is an orphanage for baby and juvenile elephants and rhinos. According to everything I've found, it is legitimate and doing an excellent job at what it claims to be doing: rescuing, rehabilitating, raising, and reintroducing (back into the wild) elephant and rhino orphans. If you're ever in Nairobi, you can visit the orphanage and meet the orphans themselves. It's an incredible experience.
The babies are marched out first. Visitors get to see the orphans at their feeding times, which they do in a large and open mud yard. The workers hand out large squeeze bottles of formula, which the elephants eagerly grab and drink. The youngest babies don't have the trunk dexterity to hold the bottle themselves, but the older elephants practically knock the workers over grabbing for their bottles. Even as babies, these animals are incredibly powerful and intelligent.
There is a bond between the elephants and their human caregivers. There is also an incredibly interesting dynamic between the different elephants.
Who doesn't like a good back scratch? Considering what some of these youngsters have been through, it's incredible that they trust being so close to people at all. Many of them were orphaned when they witnessed their mothers and family being shot and killed by poachers, or they fell down human wells where they were left abandoned by their families after days (yes, days) of active effort and agony trying to free them from the wet, dark depths. The worst we heard was about a baby that was speared multiple times by farmers who were angry about her herd moving through their fields. Yes, that's right, human farmers spearing a baby elephant multiple times and leaving it for dead because of some lost crops. I'm spoiled... I don't rely on those fields for my livelihood, and thus, I can't at all relate to that experience. However, even if I did rely on those fields, I hope I would never lower myself to that level of cruelty to such intelligent animals. The word inhumane comes to mind, but then I remember how our species treats every other species on this planet.
Anyway, these animals arrive traumatized, but they receive good care and support from the Trust. The workers here clearly have bonded with these animals. They are a true example of humane nature.
The adolescents are brought out next. These are the larger elephants that are getting close to graduating to the adult elephant center where they prepare the animals for reintroduction into the wild.
Despite being the rebel teens, these youths still get the bottle (two each technically).
Their power is obvious. If you notice, the entire crowd is being simple rope barriers. Several of these elephants walked over for petting and scratching, and several bumped past the ropes easily and unknowingly shoving ten or more people with their mass. And these elephants are only 1/4 or less of their full, adult size. They are incredible animals. Their skin is so rough... it is clear now that I've touched them why an adult is invulnerable to even the largest pride of lions. The skin is as if thick dried mud and layer after layer of dense, dry leather were to blend into some impenetrable barrier. Yet that skin is comfortingly warm, and the elephants clearly liked being rubbed and scratched. They are one of my favorite animals and I wish them all the best for existence in this mad world.
Not an elephant... a warthog in the parking lot. Despite the city surrounding us, this is still truly Africa.
Nearby to the Trust is the Giraffe Centre, offering close-up experiences with the tall, awkward creatures. Yes, that tourist is feeding one from his mouth. The giraffes will eat right from your hands... they are incredibly gentle, with soft lips and long, blue tongues.
At the center, I was pleased to have a nice and interesting chat with some young, Chinese tourists. They told me how most Chinese people loved animals and weren't contributing to poaching in Africa. I argued that the demand of even a small fraction of 1 billion people is still an enormous demand. In particular, China and several other Asian countries are fueling the demand for elephant ivory, which they use for intricate carvings. The tourists story also included the good work that Chinese businesses, enabled by the Chinese government, were doing to develop infrastructure and the economy in Kenya and many other African nations. Their story was entirely different from those of our driver and several other Kenyans that we chatted with. Their stories were much darker, telling of a Chinese new-colonialism that was a wolf in sheep's clothing scourging their nation. The story goes that under the guise of "development" and "economic growth", Chinese businesses - themselves state sanctioned by the Politburo - bribe national politicians in African nations to allow them to operate their businesses unfettered and unchecked. The business often is infrastructure development, but instead of employing locals, the Chinese development firms bring over Chinese workers, who barely contribute to the local economy. The roads they build most often lead to industrial-scale farms and mines, themselves run and operated by Chinese companies. There is no doubt that the Chinese are deeply entrenched in Kenyan business and the capital; many of the tallest skyscrapers in Nairobi were crowned with signs written in Chinese characters. The worst stories we heard were how the Chinese construction workers would often resort to poaching the local wildlife, acting as a plague along the roads they built through the countryside, wiping out entire herds of game and troops of monkey as they slaved and paved.
Nearby again is Nairobi National Park, an huge wilderness on the edge of the metropolis. It is quite the unique place considering the fact that you can view wild lions in front of a backdrop of the city skyline. Another of the park's attractions, that I would not recommend, is the Safari Walk, where you can go watch a variety of sad-looking animals in large enclosures, like the croc above and hyena below.
This rhino was probably the saddest looking creature that we saw. It was enormous, but it had an air of melancholy about it that cut to the core. It was as if it was very chillingly aware of the plight of its species, and how every one of its kind teetered on the edge of the abyss of extinction.
It is devastatingly sad what we humans have done to our natural world.
And if that hasn't put you off: after seeing so many wild animals, you can go eat many of them them. The restaurant Carnivore is a popular place and highly recommended by travel guides and locals alike. It is basically run like a Brazillian churrascaria, with a huge central grill cooking up all different types of meat and servers wandering around with huge platters and skewers of everything as it comes available. The place is all you can eat. Carnivore no longer serves any wild game, everything comes from ranches or farms. The menu is extensive, and I have to admit that I tried most of what they were offering.