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Our October 2015 holiday


  • Introduction
  • The Country
  • The City
  • Arrival
  • Day 1: Grandparents' Day
  • Day 2: Swimming And Fun Fair
  • Day 3: Just Chilling
  • Day 4: Baby Elephants And Babysitting
  • Day 5: Beads, Giraffes And Blixen
  • Day 6: National Museum And Snake Park
  • Day 7: "Pan" And Farewell


    "Kenya: Between Hope And Despair"

    Title of a 2011 book by Daniel Branch

    Two months ago, our son Richard, his wife Emily and their daughter Catrin relocated to Nairobi in Kenya as a result of his work. He is now the Head of Strategic Advocacy for an organisation called Well Told Story [click here].

    So this week, Roger & Vee went to visit them for the first time. It may not have been the best time weather-wise to go over there - the rains were starting - but we were travelling there to coincide with Catrin's half-term. In Roger's bucket list, he has the dynamic objective of - as long as he is able - visiting as many countries as his age in years. His is 67 and Kenya is his 68th country.

    Interestingly, earlier in the year Roger & Vee had a holiday in Ethiopia, not knowing that we would so soon be visiting the adjoining nation - so that was two trips to East Africa in eight months.


    Some facts and figures on Kenya: THE CITY

    Some facts and figures on Nairobi: The best story Roger heard about Nairobi before travelling there for the first time was from a professional colleague of his who was visiting the city to do some telecommunications consultancy. She hired a taxi to take her to her meeting and, as so often happens in Nairobi, the heavy traffic came to a standstill. The taxi driver had his window open and was using the time to make a call on his mobile when suddenly a man leaned into the window, snatched his phone, and ran off.

    The taxi driver immediately jumped out of his vehicle and pursued the thief, leaving my friend in the middle of the traffic jam. Ten or 15 minutes went by as hooting from other vehicles became louder and more insistent. Eventually the driver returned - with his mobile and with the thief. He locked the young man in his boot, abandoned any attempt to reach my friend's meeting, and promptly drove them all off to the nearest police station.


    We flew from London to Nairobi on a daytime British Airways flight, so we arrived mid evening. It took just over 8 hours but, since Kenyan time is just two or three hours (depending on the time of year) ahead of British time, there was no jet lag.

    We were met at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport by our son Richard and his usual taxi driver Kennedy. We tried to obtain some local currency but half a dozen ATMs were either out of action or out of cash. Clearly this is a country where everything does not always work smoothly and Richard explained that this is a "work around" society.

    We were driven into town along the Mombasa Road. Apparently this was smartened up for the recent visit by President Barack Obama but he took a helicopter from the airport to town instead. Our accommodation for the week was the Jacaranda Hotel [click here] which is located in the fashionable Westlands area right next to the Sankara Hotel where Obama stayed.


    Our first day in Nairobi was a Friday and the last day at school for Catrin before she started a week's half term break. We flew out just before the start of half term because the Friday morning was designated as "Grandparent's Day" to quote the flyer (surely that should be "Grandparents' Day" but a school can't get its punctuation wrong, right?).

    So Kennedy picked us up from our hotel at 8.30 am. It was immediately apparent that a number of features characterise Nairobi roads: there are no pavements, there are lots of pot holes, there are lots of speed bumps, and there is tons of traffic (hence the local expression "pooh-lay, pooh-lay" meaning "slowly, slowly") with most vehicles sporting scratches or dents from minor collisions.

    At the Montessori Learning Centre (MLC) [click here], we were all welcomed at the entrance by the inspirational headmistress Mrs Ali. We were surprised at how large the school is. There are 225 children and 55 staff in classes according to age with the names (starting with the youngest): Sunshine, Ruby, Topaz, Emerald and Diamond (Catrin is in one of the Emerald classes). As well as the classrooms and administrative buildings, there are extensive grounds with lawns, trees, play areas, and a swimming pool.

    We had not seen Catrin for two months and we wondered how she would react to us but, when we arrived in her classroom, Roger received a huge hug and it was clear that she was thrilled to see us. For our part, we found a little girl of four and three quarters who was already taller, more fluent, and more confident.

    Roger volunteered to read a story to the class, so all the children sat in a semi-circle in front of him and Catrin sat on his knee. After the story, all the children sang us a song called "I have a body". As the song concluded, Catrin announced to Roger that she was going to "throw up" so he rushed her to the toilet at the end of the hall. Sadly he was not in time for the projectile vomit but he soon cleaned her up.

    Roger reads to Catrin's class with her on his knee

    Then it was time for all the grandparents to gather in front of a small stage. Although about 50% of the children at the school have parents of Asian descent, the vast majority of the attendees at this event for grandparents were of Asian descent with a few black grandparents and a mere handful of white ones. Everyone was incredibly friendly and conversational.

    Mrs Ali opened the programme with something she called "two minute chit chat". She walked round with a basket containing six slips of paper and invited grandparents to pick out a slip and talk briefly to whatever was on the paper. Naturally there was some initial reluctance among the grandparents so, in the spirit of international fraternity, Roger volunteered to take the first turn. His piece of paper read "my favourite teacher", so he talked about an English teacher who used to tell his class "Remember that the majority is not always right".

    Next we had a Zumba session for the grandparents before the children arrived from their various classes. On the stage, the children sang the national anthem, recited the school creed, and then sang several songs. The song involving Catrin and her class was sung to the tune of "You are my sunshine" with verses in which the word "sunshine" was replaced by "grandma" and "grandpa".

    Catrin ready to perform
    at Grandparents' Day

    Once the event and refreshments were over, Catrin wanted to play on every item in every play area, climb the tree with the most branches, and explore all the hidden corners of the gardens - and she insisted that granddad join her for every singe activity (which he was more than happy to do, of course). Then, around midday, Catrin's mummy Emily arrived with a picnic for us to eat on the lawn. It was a lovely 23C (twice the temperature in London) with a welcome breeze.

    After lunch, Emily drove us to their home in Westlands where Richard awaited together with their two dogs: a German shepherd called Luna and a Labrador called Harley. There was more food - the local dish called "ugali" which is boiled maize - and then thankfully the opportunity to have an afternoon nap. Suitably refreshed, Roger & Vee joined Richard and Catrin in taking Luna and Harley for a walk on the red earth by the local coffee plantation.

    Finally we all went for an early dinner at the Westgate Shopping Mall [click here] which was the location of the terrorist attack two years ago (there is no memorial to the victims) and which, following a major refurbishment, reopened only three months ago just before Obama's visit. We had a good meal at "Urban Burger" before we were dropped back at our hotel at 8 pm.


    Day two in Nairobi was Saturday and very chilled out.

    At 11 am, Richard and Catrin arrived at our hotel and we spent the next two and a half hours at the hotel's outdoor swimming pool. It was a bit overcast but warm. Vee read a book while the other three swam. Catrin loves the water and is very confident in it. She looked like a little champion in her swimsuit, swim hat and goggles. She loved Roger's trick of throwing her up into the air and catching her as she crashed back into the water.

    During all this fun, Roger noticed a security guard walking round the pool with a machine gun over his shoulder. He could not help announcing to Catrin: "Look at that guy with a gun." She responded: "What is he doing?" Roger had to think fast: "He's protecting us." Understandably she asked: "From what?" Again Roger had to think fast: "From bad guys." Catrin understood: "Oh yeh - in case someone wants to steal the water from our swimming pool."

    The four of us finished the morning with a light lunch by the side of the pool. Before we left the hotel, Roger & Vee gave Catrin one of her presents from London: a Paddington bear. She declared "I love him. He's so cute."

    At 1.45 pm, we were collected by Emily with the dogs Luna and Harley and the seven of us drove to a small shopping centre in a nearby district called Muthaiga. At this point, we split up. Vee went off with Richard and Emily to walk the dogs in the adjoining Karura Forest while Roger stayed at Mathaiga with Catrin.

    Right next to the shopping centre was a large area of land with an extensive children's amusement park and a cafe where Roger & Catrin had a break for ice cream and cold water. It was now really hot and, being so near the equator, the sun does not go round but up and then down.

    There were lots of things to do in the park but none of it was free, so Roger bought Catrin a ticket which enabled her to go on almost everything and she certainly ensured that we had our money's worth. Over the next two and a half hours, she went on various types of bouncy 'castle', various vehicles and a swinging roundabout, a climbing wall with harness, a large trampoline with harness, and even a quad bike with driver. She loved it all and did not want to leave.

    Catrin prepares to soar on a trampoline

    Catrin going high on a climbing wall

    Around 5 pm, we were all back together again and had an early dinner at the shopping centre. The venue was called the "Chinese Kitchen" which describes itself as "the best Chinese restaurant in town". Richard and Emily confirmed that it was the better of the two they have tried so far.

    Catrin must have enjoyed being with Roger & Vee because, when we were dropped back at the hotel, she cried. After all this fresh air and exercise, we all slept - but silly Roger found that he had caught too much sun on his bald patch and shoulders.


    Day three in Nairobi was Sunday and even more chilled out.

    It rained heavily in the night and was still raining over breakfast, so we thought that we might have to abandon the plan for Richard & Catrin to make a return morning visit to use the swimming pool at Roger & Vee's hotel. But the rain stopped and soon dried up, although it was cooler than yesterday morning. So, arriving about 11 am, Richard & Catrin managed almost an hour in the pool - Roger joined them - before we all needed hot drinks around the pool to warm up.

    At 12.30 pm, Richard drove us to the house where Vee & Roger distributed various items requested by Richard or Emily and some presents for little Catrin. We thought that Catrin's favourite present would be the "Frozen" wellingtons with flashing lights, but she said that her favourite was "the minties" (three packets of sugar-free Polo mints).

    We then had lunch of roast chicken and salad. At this point, Vee & Roger indulged their preferences. Vee loves to spend time with animals, so she went off with Richard to take the dogs Luna and Harley for a walk. She found the terrain tough going and slipped over once. Roger loves to spend time with children, so he played with Catrin in the garden and living room. This was not tough going at all because she is such fun.

    Catrin's new home in Nairobi

    Roger and Catrin chilling at home

    Finally the five of us went out for another early dinner. This time we went to a place called "Amaica" which serves all sorts of local food (the name means "kitchen" in the Bantu language of the Luhya tribe owner). The menu was amazing. One option was something called "tsiswa" which is flying white ants. At first, Roger was pleased to note that it was only available seasonally and then he found that, since we have now entered the rainy period, this is the time for this delicacy to be on offer. However, he declined and - like Vee - went for something called "karanga" (a type of beef stew).

    We were dropped back at the hotel towards 7.30 pm with more tears from Catrin ("Don't go!").


    Day four in Nairobi was a Monday so Richard was at work, but Emily & Catrin picked up Roger & Vee from the hotel about 10 am. Nairobi roads are pretty amazing - choked with cars, lorries, buses, colourful minibuses called "matabu", policemen, vendors walking between vehicles, and even on occasion lines of cows or goats.

    Eventually we reached our first destination: the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust [click here] which is located on a plot within the Nairobi National Park. Sheldrick was an anti-poaching warden of one of Kenya's national parks and today the organisation he founded looks after orphaned baby elephants. Visitors gather round a muddy watering hole where a handler introduces each of the elephants by name and explains how they were found and what was their condition. There are sad tales of elephants being found in snares or down wells or being abandoned by herds or attacked by hyenas or being wounded or starving.

    The current population of the trust is 32 elephants aged one and a half to three and a half years old and we met 29 of them. We saw them being given human formula milk from large plastic bottles and perhaps the funniest sight of the visit was witnessing some of the creatures feeding themselves from a bottle held in their curled trunk.

    Vee with new friend

    An orphaned baby elephant

    Our afternoon was spent at Nairobi National Park [click here] itself. This is a remarkable location: the only national park in a capital city anywhere in the world. It extends over 117 sq km (45 sq miles) and over 100 mammal species (including lion, buffalo, leopard and rhino) and more than 400 bird species have been recorded there.

    Vee & Roger have been to national parks in South Africa and Botswana and we know that what you see depends on the time of year, the time of day, and sheer luck, but we did pretty well thanks to Emily's careful driving and keen eyesight. We spotted lots of oryx and gazelle, some ostriches and baboons, a family of five giraffes, and no less than 20 or so zebra actually on the road all around us.

    An elegant oryx

    A beautiful zebra

    Now since Richard & Emily moved to Nairobi two months ago, they have not had an evening out with just the two of them because they do not have any babysitting - sorry Catrin, childminding - arrangements yet, so Roger volunteered to do the business. Once we had finished at the national park and braved the horrendous downtown traffic, we dropped Vee back at the hotel and went on to the house.

    While Richard & Emily went out for a meal, Roger ate dinner with Catrin and then gave her a bath before reading to her and then lying by her until she was asleep. He read no less than five stories from her new book "The Seven Habits Of Happy Kids". Thanks to her wonderful parents, she is a happy kid but this book teaches some life lessons in story form.


    Day five (Tuesday) of our trip was Mashujaa Day, also known as Heroes' Day ("mashujaa" is Swahili for "heroes"). This is a national day in Kenya, which is observed on 20 October as a public holiday to honour all those who contributed towards the struggle for Kenya's independence or positively contributed in the post independence Kenya. Richard still had to work but again Emily & Catrin collected us from our hotel mid morning. We drove out to the most fashionable district of Nairobi called Karen which is named after the Danish writer Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen).

    First stop was the location of the factory and a shop of a wonderful enterprise called "Kazuri" [click here] (the name means "small and beautiful" in Swahili). Founded in 1975 with just two workers, today this organisation employs 340, mostly single mothers who would otherwise find it difficult to obtain local employment. The main output is jewellery made of brightly-coloured ceramic beads, each of which is hand-made and hand-painted on the site.

    Although it was a public holiday and the factory was closed, we were given a conducted tour of the site and an explanation of the manufacture of the beads and the ethos of the enterprise which has a private clinic for the staff and their immediate family. Emily already had a number of items of jewellery from "Kazuri" and Vee & Roger bought five pieces for themselves and family.

    Check out at "Kazuri"

    Next stop was another inspiring location: the Giraffe Centre of the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife [click here] . This was founded in 1979 to protect a particular giraffe subspecies called the Rothschild's giraffe. At that time, there were no more than 120 of these beautiful animals, but today there are more than 300 with around half a dozen on display at any one time at the centre.

    The great feature of the centre is that visitors can feed food pellets to the giraffes at either ground level or from a raised wooden structure. If one is so inclined, one can hold a pellet between one's lips or teeth and wait for a giraffe to lean down and gobble it up while using its long and rough tongue to lick one's face. Catrin had done this on a previous visit and both Vee and Emily did it this time (Roger gave it a miss and just took photographs of the encounters). Vee reckoned it was the most romantic kiss she has had in years and hoped that the giraffe in question would be calling her before she left the country.

    Roger and Vee at Giraffe Centre

    Vee gives a giraffe a pellet of food and a kiss

    Vee receives a thank you lick from a grateful giraffe

    At this point, we stopped for lunch at a place called the "Karen Blixen Coffee Garden" or "Tamambo" on a site that used to be part of the Blixen coffee plantation. The English name at least proved to be a misnomer since the place was much more than a coffee shop. The ambience was delightful: we ate outside on the large, well-kept lawn at one of the many tables with a large umbrella sheltering us from the sun. The food was excellent too with a wide choice of both main courses and desserts.

    Our third and final stop of the day was to the Karen Blixen House [click here]. Sitting underneath a large tree in the extensive grounds, a guide told us the story of the house (built in 1912) and Karen Blixen (born 1885, time in Kenya 1914-1931, died 1962) before taking us on a tour of the house itself. Internationally Blixen is best known as the author of the biographical work "Out Of Africa" (published in 1937) which was made into a film of the same name in 1985 starring Meryl Streep as Blixen and Robert Redford as her lover Denys Finch. In the museum shop, Vee & Roger bought themselves a souvenir of Kenya: a wooden set of six wild animals sitting round a table having tea.

    Karen Blixen House

    Animal tea time

    We were back at the hotel at 5.30 pm where we were joined by Richard. We always need to eat dinner early because of Catrin's bedtime, so we all ate this evening at the hotel.


    Day six (Wednesday) of our trip started with a morning in which Roger & Vee did our own thing. We organised for Kennedy to drive us from the hotel to the National Museum [click here] which proved to be full of well-organised, well-labelled, and most interesting exhibits. On the ground floor, the Birds Of East Africa gallery has around 900 stuffed specimens, the Great Hall Of Mammals has dozens of stuffed mammals, and the Cradle Of Civilisation gallery highlights how the earliest humans came from the Rift Valley in what is now Kenya.

    Two of the stuffed animals in ...

    ... the Great Hall of Mammals

    Upstairs is an extensive History Of Kenya exhibition focusing especially on the British colonial period, the struggle for liberation, and the post-independence search for identity in a country of 42 tribes. Also there is an exhibition of illustrations of fauna and native peoples by the famous conservationist Joy Adamson whose rearing of the lion cub Elsa in Kenya was depicted in the 1966 film "Born Free". Vee, who is half Czech, was fascinated to learn that Adamson was born in a part of the then Austro-Hungarian Empire which is now the Czech Republic (her original name was Friederike Gessner).

    In the same grounds as the museum is a small zoo called Snake Park [click here] and we visited this too. As the name suggests, the main exhibits are snakes including the puff adder, the black mamba, the African rock python, and the Gaboon viper (with the longest fangs in the world). Other animals on display include varieties of fish plus turtles, lizards and crocodiles.

    The complex also includes a cafe, restaurant and craft shop and Vee & Roger had a light lunch in the cafe before Kennedy picked us up and drove us out to Richard & Emily's place. While Richard worked, Vee and Roger played with Emily and Catrin. They had a new children's board game called "Faireyopoly" which is described as "a magical game for little fairies". Somehow the smallest fairy of the players managed to wipe the board with the rest of us.

    As usual, we ate early and at a different place. This evening, we went to an Ethiopian restaurant called "Abyssinia" where all our dishes were served on one huge circular plate into which we all dipped with "injera" (a spongy kind of flatbread). Roger missed his dessert though so, back at the hotel, he had banana split before we went to our room.

    Roger & Vee had now said farewell to Richard. In the last two months, he has already worked in Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia and Zambia and the next day he was flying to Uganda. We have no idea when we will see him again.


    Our seventh and last day (Thursday) was a low-key affair. Richard was away in Uganda and in the morning Emily had matters to attend, so Roger & Vee chilled at the hotel, just packing and reading. We were collected by Emily and Catrin about 12.30 pm and made a return visit to the Westgate Shopping Mall.

    After a light lunch, we all went to see a 3D version of the new children's film "Pan" which offers an interpretation of what might have happened before the Peter Pan story with which we are all so familiar. Some critics have panned "Pan" but it was enjoyable enough [for review, click here].

    Afterwards Catrin visited a play area in the mall with lots of different activities to amuse kids while their parents shop. Roger talked to the member of staff who was working at the mall when there was the terrible terrorist attack of 2013. She was trapped in the shopping centre for around five hours before she was rescued by the security forces. It was clearly a terrifying experience.

    Catrin in mall's play area

    Roger & Vee returned with Emily & Catrin to the house for some dinner before our evening flight. Most of Catrin's cuddly toys are still in the UK awaiting shipment to Kenya, so we took her a Paddington bear as one of her presents and this evening we gave her a cuddly penguin as a going away present. Roger read her four stories from her new book "The Seven Habits Of Happy Kids" before Roger & Vee each cuddled and kissed her goodbye. It will be months before we see her again.

    Kennedy drove us to the airport when we encountered the first rain outside of our sleeping time. We did warn him that, following our visit to a country, there is often an issue and it maybe that the forecasts of heavy rains - occasioned by a seven-year El Niño cycle - will prove accurate.

    Our journey took us through one of Nairobi's many informal settlements (often called shanty towns or slums), a place called Majengo. Kennedy himself - like most urban Kenyans - lives in such an informal settlement and told us of his family's experience during the post-election ethnic rioting of 2007. The random shooting was so traumatic for his four children that he sent them away with his wife to the west of the country where he is from. They are still there.

    The airport was another new experience. Our hand luggage was searched not once (as in Britain) or twice (as in Ethiopia) but three times. The last time was by British Airways staff themselves (maybe they do not wholly trust Kenyan security). The return flight - an overnight affair - was the subject of even more sustained heavy turbulence than the outward flight.

    It had been a very enjoyable and fascinating trip. It was so lovely to see the family again after two months and it will certainly be longer before we see them again. For now, it's back to Skype.

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