We are indeed, out of Africa. And I am writing about Africa out of order because our short stays in Nairobi, Kenya and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia both deserve a few words before I write about our Serengeti Safari in the next blog.
We now fully understand what Chris, our safari consultant at Wildland Adventures in Seattle meant when he said, rather emphatically, "People don't go to Africa for the cities!" Cape Town being the exception. But we always spend time in the capital cities of the countries we visit and we committed to do the same in Africa.
In South Africa we really did enjoy four weeks in cosmopolitan Cape Town, but we also spent time in Johannesburg, and Durban - each city becoming more unsafe and unsavory than the one before. We also spent time in other rough-around-the-edges burgs including Stone Town in Zanzibar, a brief stop in Dar Assalam and Arusha on the Tanzanian mainland, and Kigali, Rwanda (another lovely exception). We finished our three-month African extravaganza with a week in Nairobi and a few days in Addis.
We were somewhat misdirected in thinking that by spending time in these cities we would get a flavor for the country. Especially the last two. There is nothing of the magic of Out of Africa in the center of Nairobi (often called Nirobbery). And we didn't catch a whiff of what Ethiopia is truly about because we didn't get to the far corners where apparently its beauty lies.
What we saw for the most part in the cities where we stayed - and these two in particular - was sprawling poverty, neglected infrastructure, mounds of garbage and grinding traffic. Overall they seemed to be magnets for the poor fleeing rural hardship, and mostly unwelcome immigrants and refugees - all looking for work that isn't there. Contributing factors like recent and ongoing conflicts and government corruption added to the fray.
Of course there were parts of every city that matched the postcard version and we had good experiences with our hosts and others that showed us the best their home town had to offer. And, we purposefully choose to stay in cities - for better or worse. Mostly because it fits our goal of learning the history of a country and to follow our interest in post WWII politics by having access to media, museums, and places that are in the news. That and we rarely rent cars - and from what we witnessed, no sane person would get behind the wheel in Africa.
By searching for Airbnbs in the center of a city we can also be assured of umpteen attractive listings to choose from that are close to public transportation, fresh food markets so we can cook at home, and cultural venues. This worked really well for over three years in Europe where sometimes things were so perfect we felt like happy actors in a Rick Steve's travelogue. But when we began to go deeper into Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Cuba and Mexico things became more difficult. The Airbnb's starting losing their charm and so did some of the cities. Certainly that was the case in Africa, and our final two cities in particular.
Nairobi was a clanking, polluted, concrete, traffic congested monster of a place. Yet, we were able to see some beauty in the architecture and pockets of green space. Our Airbnb was comfortable, and walking distance to a mall that would have fit nicely in any American suburb, and our host, Oscar was one of the most gracious we've ever had.
We started our exploration of the city with a walking tour of the center. Nothing very enlightening to be seen there. But we were very happy with three excursions just an Uber ride away. First up, The Giraffe Center where I was able to pet, and even kiss my favorite animal in the world. Next the renowned David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage - equally wonderful, and perhaps best of all, a sunny afternoon spent at Karin Blixen's home touring the sprawling grounds and the house where my favorite movie of all time, Out of Africa was filmed. I could picture so many memorable scenes it was like being on the set.
From Nairobi we headed to Tanzania for almost two weeks of serious animal gratification (details to follow in the next blog post). Fast forward to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia where we would spend just two nights. If we were honest, this stop was really about eaking-out one more African country before heading to Beirut, Lebanon. We were fairly worn out from our safari, and mentally on our way to the Middle East, so it was tempting to just enjoy a real bed and hot showers while we were there. However, these Senior Nomads know that "attitude is everything" so we committed to learn what we could about the city and Ethiopia during our short stay.
Two things worked in our favor - we took a half day tour with an enthusiastic young guide from Go Addis Tours that showed us all the city had to offer. We sipped the best coffee I've ever tasted at Tomoca Coffee, Addis' first coffee shop, and then we were off to an exotic spice market and bazaar. We visited three museums including the national museum where we saw "Lucy" - the famous 3.2 million year old human skeleton found here in 1974. In two of the museums we were surrounded by dozens of adorable primary school children on field trips, and they found Michael and I far more interesting than the dusty bed chambers of expired Kings and scraps of fossilized bones. The day ended with a tour of the Red Terror Museum (apply named) which told the story of the bloody military coup by the communist Derg regime, which ruled from 1974 to 1991. Afterwards, we sought refuge in the bar of the lovely Sheraton hotel and regrouped with a light meal and and live piano music.
But the highlight was a delightful dinner with a friend's cousin who lives there. We met up with Kris and her husband David and their youngest of three sons, Colin. They treated us to a delightful dinner at one of Addis' oldest Italian restaurants, Castelli (Ethiopia was occupied by Italy from 1936 - 1947). As a family they have lived in India, Switzerland and now here in Ethiopia where David works at the US Embassy. Kris works for USAID an American NGO dedicated to food assistance, and Colin is off to Tufts University next fall. It was fascinating to hear about their various assignments, especially this one under the Trump administration. But beyond the lively political discussions, we discussed living in third world countries, and our impressions of Africa.
They agreed that massive cities in places like India, China and Africa can tear at your spirit. You have to get away to the villages and beyond to find natural beauty and regain some equilibrium, and weren't we fortunate to have been able to do both?
That was exactly what I needed to hear, and it pulled me just short of describing our in-city stays as something to suffer through. Instead, I realized just how blessed we are to have spent time in Africa's "urban jungles" as well as it's natural ones, and that we were indeed, fortunate to have the time, the good health and the gift of curiosity to explore the world the way we do.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads