Since I arrived in Ethiopia I have been plagued with visa issues. In January, Ethiopia updated its policy for issuing business visas, the only type of visa that lasts more than 3 months, thus I was granted a 1-month NGO visa ($60) when I first applied. The NGO visa is arguably the least appealing of all the visas, as one can pay $70 for a 3-month tourist visa upon arrival at the airport and $60 for a 1-year business visa (after lots of paperwork). I extended my NGO visa twice – $60 for an additional month and again at $40 for an additional 2 weeks – but eventually I could not extend my visa any more. With few options left, I took a [mandatory] vacation to Kenya in hopes of obtaining a new visa upon my return.
I bought my plane ticket to Nairobi a week in advance, and in between bouts of fever I was lucky to find a Couchsurfing host only days before my departure. For those unfamiliar, Couchsurfing is a social network of people around the world who generously offer up their couches (beds, floors, etc.) to travelers, free of charge. Each member has a profile, where they describe themself and their couch and include pictures of both. Additionally, previous guests post reviews of the host so people seeking a couch can be assured of their host’s credibility. I’ve Couchsurfed before in Germany and Iceland, and I have found the Couchsurfing network to be filled with hospitable, generous people who want to share their home and their culture with others. My most genuine cultural exchanges have been while Couchsurfing (donning a crew uniform and rowing down the river Leine in Hanover, going to a music street festival in Dresden, eating fermented shark meet with our hosts’ grandparents on Christmas Eve in Akureyri), which are my favorite part of traveling. My time with Nic and Rose, my hosts in Nakuru, was no different, and their guidance and advice proved invaluable in making my time in Kenya enjoyable.
After arriving in Nairobi, I followed Nic’s instructions to his house in Nakuru – a 30-minute taxi ride to a bus station downtown followed by a 2-hour matatu (minibus) ride from Nairobi to Nakuru, where Nic and Rose picked me up from Rose’s office and drove me to their home. Although I was initially nervous about navigating public transportation on my own, having little concept of how it operates and zero grasp of the language (Swahili), everyone helped me seamlessly transition to the next leg of my journey and many spoke English fluently. This has largely been my experience in East Africa – everyone is willing to help a confused foreigner and somehow I always end up at my destination – and I’m convinced I can get anywhere I need to go as long as I’m willing to expend the mental energy to reach out for help and the emotional energy to be comfortable with the unknown.
Nic and Rose live on the top story of a condominium building with a balcony that overlooks Lake Nakuru National Park. In the mornings I would drink coffee and eat breakfast with Nic on the balcony as we watched herds of zebra, buffalo, and gazelle roam the large field between their home and Lake Nakuru. I spent the majority of my 4 days in Nakuru sitting on Nic and Rose’s balcony reading, relaxing, and enjoying the view – mostly just thankful I wasn’t sick any longer. One day I took a matatu downtown, explored Nakuru, and visited the market in search of passion fruit (Nic introduced me to them and now I’m a little obsessed). In the evenings Rose cooked delicious, traditional Kenyan meals, I did the dishes, and a few times Nic and I enjoyed beers on the balcony. Nic helped me plan the rest of my trip and advised me that Maasai Mara National Reserve was worth my time and money if I wanted to see some giraffes (among other animals). Nic set me up with a friend who organizes safaris, and on the last morning I said goodbye to Rose, and Nic dropped me off at the meeting place to join the rest of the group. My time with Nic and Rose was exactly what I needed and I have them to thank for the countless number of giraffes and other animals I saw during my last 3 days in Kenya.
My safari experienced proved worthwhile, just as Nic said it would. I joined 7 others (from the US, Ireland, Spain, Korea, Japan, and Slovenia) in a safari van and began the 4-hour drive to Maasai Mara. Before we even reached the reserve we found wild giraffes grazing amongst the trees on the side of the road; it was an incredible sight to behold. Once we reached our camp (we slept 2-3 in large canvas tents on concrete platforms with bathrooms attached), we unloaded our stuff and took an evening drive through the park as the sun was setting. On our first day we saw herds of zebra, gazelle, antelope, buffalo, wildebeest, giraffe, and a lone lion and elephant. The whole experience was surreal, and a guidebook I read correctly described it as an “Animals of the Serengeti” poster in a 5th grade classroom, where a bunch of unseemly animal friends are hanging out together next to a watering hole. In reality it was very similar, where zebra, gazelle, and buffalo grazed together with giraffes not far off up the hill and a lone lion resting not some 100 m in the distance. There are no fences that enclose Maasai Mara – the animals are free to roam where they please and eat whom they hunger for on lands protected by the national government. We spent a whole day in the park on our second day, where we saw herds of elephants, a pride of lions, two tired cheetahs, hippos and alligators in the river, warthogs, and many more of the characters from the day before. Although our last day was supposed to include a sunrise game drive, we got a late start and ended up taking a short, uneventful ride before driving 6 hours back to Nairobi.
I spent my last night in Kenya in a quiet hostel on the outskirts of Nairobi, and the next morning I caught my flight back to Addis. Operation Get A New Visa proved successful, as I was granted a 3-month tourist visa upon arrival. In the arrival hall of the airport I was greeted with the smell of coffee roasting over charcoal stoves and spices that have come to define Ethiopian cuisine – smells which were notably absent in Kenya. Unlike my first time arriving in Addis, when Yonas drove Rudy and me back to Rudy’s house, I successfully navigated 3 minibus taxis back to our neighborhood (and even haggled over the price in Amharic), stopped to buy some bread and fruit at a nearby suuk on the walk home, and smiled to myself at the progress I have made over the past 2 months. Each day I feel more comfortable in this crazy country I currently call home.