(Sorry guys, but the connection here is a bit of a pain and so there are no photos in the text. If you want to check them out though, there is a slideshow available here.)
Well, so much has happened since our last update that it’s hard to know where to begin. How about with this: we are in Kisumu, Kenya now, just a bike day and a half from the canoe to Mfangano Island where we’ll be WWOOFing. Things couldn’t be going better – we are happy and healthy and all is well.
Though actually it wasn’t always clear things would go so well – between the delicious breakfast chez Geraldine in London and our dreams of free and easy Kenyan riding, there was one little obstacle: Heathrow…
We won’t go into all the details here, I don’t think anyone wants to endure a blow-by-blow account of every day we’ve been on the road, but one bit of advice for other travelers: if you plan on bringing bikes on an Air France flight – no matter how reassuring the ‘official’ policy on bikes posted on their website might be, and no matter how reassuring the nice people you talk to on the phone might be, you’d do well to get there 4 hours before your flight – ’cause that policy, well, it’s not so much their policy… And actually that’s not half the grief they gave us, but we did eventually make it out and after a sleepless night in Charles de Gaulle Airport we were on our way to Nairobi.
We spent three nights in the city (Nairobbery as it is affectionately known) before finally mustering up the energy to escape. Honestly, we were kind of intimidated by the city’s reputation, though it bears note that we had only good experiences there – we saw no crimes and we only met kind, helpful people.
From Nairobi we biked up the Rift Valley to lakes Naivasha, Elementeita, Nakuru, Bogoria, and Baringo. Out of Nairobi, and really until we got north of Nakuru, the road was packed with trucks and even though we managed to ride comfortably on the shoulder with other cyclists (there are always other cyclists here) we were left feeling like we had smoked a pack of cigarettes by the end of the day.
All of that was over after Nakuru though, when we branched off onto smaller dirt roads and to areas less visited by tourists. We knew we were getting off the beaten path because the calls of ‘Hello, how are you?’ from every child we passed were replaced by, ‘Wazungu!’ screamed at the top of their lungs as if they had just seen Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse riding down their street on an ice cream truck handing out free candy.
‘Wazungu’ is Swahili for something between ‘Whities’ and ‘Crackers’ depending on the context and the speaker and well, we get that a lot – from kids mostly; they scream it the moment we come into sight, and then they run with us if we’re not going too fast (or sometimes if we are), even pushing Anna ‘s bike for a kilometer or so in the mountains. We can see why Kenyans are such good runners!
At Baringo we camped in a grove of fig trees where Anna spent a sleepless night defending the tent from ‘leopards’ and ‘hyenas’ and ‘boogeymen’ while Dave slept peacefully by her side. And then it was up through the geyser fields to lake Bogoria and hippos and crocs before pedaling west up into the mountains.
The Rift Valley in Kenya is in the midst of a several year long drought, and water weighed on every conversation we had through this part of the trip. It’s the rainy season in Kenya now actually – the season of the short rains – and it should be raining every night, though we have only had very small storms every few days; the shores of all the lakes we passed were far receded from past levels, and though droughts in this area are common, it is clear that much of the current problems stem from logging and deviation of rivers for irrigation.
None of this is any secret: the government has been trying recently to reclaim lands in important watersheds and replant forests before the drought worsens, but in Kenya nothing is so simple: the land to be reforested was given as gifts and rewards to politicians in past administrations as well as being sold to impoverished landless groups, and so the evictions touch on difficult issues of corruption, ethnicity, poverty, and cronyism that no one can easily disentangle.
Still, around Naivasha you wouldn’t have known about the drought even if the lake had receded a kilometer from its past shoreline: business is booming there for the flower industry. The birthplace of most of Europe’s cut flowers is here, and the area was bustling with activity from the many Kenyans who have migrated to the area for the ‘good jobs’ on offer (yes, working with pesticides in closed greenhouses does qualify for a good job nowadays).
The scale and scope of the greenhouses was really surprising, we biked for almost half a day passing them, each with its own company logo out front, each with its own set of employee housing, each with no problem that we could see getting its hands on water.
Once we got out of the Rift Valley, biking two killer hills into Kabarnet and Iten and then to the western province and Eldoret, even if land questions remained on the headlines of all the newspapers the idea of drought was hard to imagine. The landscape here was green and fertile, and when we couchsurfed in Eldoret with a Kenyan runner named Hillary, we even had to break out the sweaters the air was so cool.
From Hillary’s, we biked west and then south down to the Kakmega forest, the last Kenyan stand of a once enormous equatorial rain forest, and then down to Kisumu along the shores of lake Victoria. By this time we had got our routine running smoothly, waking up at 5:30 am (yes, Anna has been waking up at 5:30 am, and not only does she do it easily, she does it with pleasure!) to be on the road with breakfast in our bellies by 7:30. We then try to take a morning break either to eat some fruit we’ve bought along the way (mangoes, pineapples, avocados, bananas…) or to have a tea and pastry in a small cafe along the road. Lunch comes around 1:00 or so, when it is really getting hot. We can usually get some veggies here, balanced of course with either rice or a chapati (flat bread) or the Kenyan staple of Ugali – a mixture of water and corn flour with the consistency of week-old mashed potatoes (mmmm!). And then it is biking on through the afternoon to our destination, wherever that may be, usually getting there between three and five depending on the total distance for the day. We’ve been trying to ease our way into things, but we’ve still made a couple 100 plus kilometer days when we’ve been lucky with tailwinds or downhills.
And so yes, things are going well – really since Heathrow things have been even – dare I say – easy. Dave has had his continuing share of flat tires of course (5 to Anna’s 1 at last count, though we have stopped counting) but otherwise the drivers are not so bad, the dogs haven’t been a problem at all, and the food is actually not so bad as we had feared.
A testament to how nice Kenyan biking is would be the fact that we have already met two other touring cyclists over the past two weeks. One, Marcus, Swiss, was biking from southern Ethiopia (where, yes, he had stones thrown at him) through Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania on a four month tour; the other, Winnie, German, was biking for three months in Kenya and northern Tanzania. Both of them have far more experience than us (more than a hundred thousand more kilometers in fact) and it was reassuring to hear their stories and get some of their advice – particularly that of Winnie, who had had six flat tires already on his trip (Marcus had not had one in 15,000 km) – including one in the first two kilometers – finally Dave wasn’t alone!
But of course most memorable through this part of the trip have been the people we have met.
There was Moses for one, who we met in an office while we were having business cards made (yes, permacyclists are now ready to be entered into all your TGI Friday’s business-card lotteries). Moses works in the energy sector, hoping to use efficiency and innovation to bring electricity to the tens of millions of Kenyans who still live without it. He told us a good deal about his country – both its problems (‘corruption’) and its strengths (‘the people’). If all Kenyans are as hard-working as he (working around the clock to support himself and his siblings and parents and to try to remain independent – ‘a free man’ as he put it), then the country is rich indeed.
One particular idea he mentioned that stuck with us was about corruption: ‘Most Kenyans come from a background of poverty,’ he told us, ‘and so when they have the chance to sit at the table, they are going to eat until they are full, it’s human nature.’
And then there was Freddy, quite possibly the nicest human being on the face of the Earth, who we met when an ill-advised ‘shortcut’ was leading us farther and farther from where we wanted to go. Freddy came running after us through a good 3 kilometers of scrubland when he saw we’d made a wrong turn, and then he even walked with us for an hour to escort us through private land and make sure we made it back to the right route.
Freddy is a ranger at Mt. Longonot National Park and when he saw our bikes and how much stuff we had he laughed at us – ‘Why is it that Americans and Europeans always have so much stuff?’ he wanted to know. A good question – and if he only knew how much stuff we threw out over the past few months!
We met Harun at Lake Baringo, where he grew up and now works as a guide. Tours on the lake there are pushed pretty forcefully, with a mass of salesmen surrounding you when you enter town – but Harun won our business when he started speaking flawless French, and then even, upon learning Anna is from Belgium, throwing in a few words of Dutch (and of course all of this comes in addition to being fluent in Hebrew, English, Swahili, and Turkana).
Harun is a professional guide who works all over Kenya, but then comes back to his hometown when he is between contracts. In the town they have now organized a type of co-op, where local restaurants, boat guides, and fishermen work together to share the money they make from tourists and ensure that it is all reinvested into the community. Rather than competing to everyone’s detriment, they cooperate.
The co-op has dozens of members, and all of the money we paid for our tour on the lake was handed directly over to them, to then be divided up by need. Gilbert, who worked in a restaurant we ate at, gets help from the co-op to cover the expenses of his education for instance, and then when he is off from school he works in town and contributes his earnings to the community.
And of course Harun is also a snake-hunter (you know, just catching black mambas and spitting cobras and then milking them for their venom to make anti-venom – your typical superhero stuff) and an ornithologist and just about everything else you could think of – an impressive person through and through.
Patrick is a school teacher in Iten, a small town up in the mountains on the edge of the Rift Valley. We shared a Coke together (the first time he had ever had a conversation with wazungu) while looking out from our campsite on the valley. Patrick also shook his head at the state of corruption in Kenya – everyone we talked to did – and he was most impressed that we managed to save money for our trip during several years. ‘We Africans are too pessimistic to save money I think,’ he told us.
The last person we feel like we should mention was Hillary, our couchsurfing host around Eldoret. Hillary is a runner who lives and trains in just about the most beautiful place on Earth. He welcomed us to his home in the mountains like kings and we spent the day working to harvest maize with his friends (none of whom could understand why we would want to do something like that on a rest day) and then even slaughtered a chicken for dinner.
Hillary’s dream is to make it to the US to work or study (ideally to run of course), and like many people we visit was full of questions about visas and work permits and border crossings. These questions can be hard to answer sometimes – Anna for one knows well the difficulties of immigrants trying to get into Europe, and the US isn’t any better. And to hear such a desperate desire to escape this country from someone who really seems to have everything that we dream of having – a little land, cows, chickens, rabbits, and a community of friends and family within walking distance. To give that up to spend your life trying to stay out of closed centers and working for pennies a day… It’s hard to fathom sometimes.
But if we have learned anything lately it’s that you can’t tell people what to dream, you can only hope that they achieve it.
And that’s that for us I guess. Feel free to check out the photos and leave us a comment, and we’ll update again in a month or so when we’re back in touch from Mfangano Island. As always, our Google Group is the best way to know when we update the site, so feel free to sign up!
Thanks for reading this far, and happy holidays!