Dispatch, Kenya: A tour of Nairobi

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Travel Weekly’s Kenneth Kiesnoski visited Kenya. His third and final dispatch from the country follows. Click to read his first and second dispatches.

NAIROBI — Left with a day-and-a-half in Nairobi in my weeklong stay in Kenya, I decided it would be a shame not to venture beyond the well-policed confines of my accommodations at the Tribe Hotel and adjacent Village Market shopping mall, despite the U.S. State Department travel warning about the dangers of the city.

The updated warning, released April 4, cautioned travelers about frequent, ubiquitous and “sometimes fatal” attacks, armed car-jackings, kidnappings and other crimes occurring in public places frequented by foreigners in Nairobi.

Areas to be wary of are said to include clubs, hotels, resorts, upscale shopping centers, restaurants, bus stops and places of worship. The warning advises “common-sense precautions” such as the use of well-marked taxis, locking lodging doors, carrying small amounts of cash, credit cards and jewelry, knowing emergency phone numbers and being aware of one’s surroundings.

“These measures can help ensure your travel to Kenya is safe and enjoyable,” the warning adds, briefly turning somewhat positive in tone.

It’s good advice … but applies, in my opinion, to travel anywhere in the world — even in many cities in the U.S. So I followed it. I may be a street-savvy New Yorker who has wandered around alone (perhaps unwisely but always un-accosted) on foot and by subway in places such as Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City, but in public transit-poor Nairobi it seemed best to take a different tack.

At my request, the concierge staff at the Tribe Hotel arranged a full-day guided tour of Nairobi’s highlights by private taxi with a driver/guide. Gerard, an affable member of Kenya’s ethnic Kikuyu majority and my escort for the day, picked me up at 9 a.m. and we set off to see what Nairobi had to offer.

First stop: the Nairobi National Museum, renovated in 2008 and now housing displays on Kenyan history, landscape, culture and contemporary art.

Led by a museum guide, we took a whirlwind 30-minute spin through the exhibits. Of most interest to me was the hall on human origins (Kenya is a top contender for status as the birthplace of modern mankind), which featured fossilized skulls and skeletons of our early, pre- and near-human ancestors.

The hall on Kenyan history was also informative, chock-a-block as it was with artifacts relating to pre-history, colonial rule, independence and modern times.

The last exhibit, consisting of hundreds of stuffed birds endemic to Kenya, was, well, for the birds, in my opinion, and not all that interesting in a country were you can observe living specimens all around you.

We next headed to the Peace Memorial Museum and Memorial Garden in downtown Nairobi, which sits on the site of the former U.S. Embassy, destroyed in the infamous terrorist bombing of Aug. 7, 1998.

The displays in the tiny museum were both informative and moving, especially for a New Yorker who watched the Twin Towers fall back home on 9/11.

In the adjacent memorial garden, it was hard to imagine such a serene and green space was once the site of destruction and bloodshed. I left with a strong feeling of kinship with the citizens of Nairobi and their still-lingering anguish over the attack.

Driving through the bustling and surprisingly orderly city center, past Parliament and the burial site of Kenya’s first president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, I saw plenty of pedestrians not of local descent. People of European or Asian appearance, including single women, were going about their business on the streets and seemingly unconcerned about personal safety. (I’m just saying.)

Before a short lunch break at a KFC in the otherwise upscale Galleria Mall, Gerard and I quickly popped into the elephant and rhinoceros orphanage and nursery run by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust within Nairobi National Park, the 45-square-mile wildlife preserve only 5 miles or so from the city center.

It was only 10 minutes until closing, so we got the briefest look at about six elephant calves being fed their lunch, as well as one sleepy baby rhino snoozing in a hay-strewn pen.

A peep into one of the elephant pens held a surprise: sleeping space for two, with a floor of hay for each orphaned calf and a bunk for its assigned human caretaker, who rarely leaves his charge, day or night.

En route to our next destination, I half-heartedly agreed to Gerard’s suggestion we pull over briefly at the Love Birds Curio Shop for “just a look” at the souvenirs his “good friend” peddled there.

No stranger to this sort of stop on guided tours in developing countries, I was determined to steel myself against the imminent sales pressure and inevitable buyer’s remorse. Nonetheless, I succumbed to shop owner Jorum’s persuasive sales tactics and found myself toting a bag containing a traditional knife, a Maasai bracelet, an “antique” tribal war-fetish sculpture and even a warrior shield.

The next attraction on our itinerary turned out to be a highlight of the day. The Giraffe Center, run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, is a must on any Nairobi visitor’s to-do list.

The attraction includes a nature preserve, teahouse, gift shop and, best of all, a raised feeding and viewing platform from which you can hand-feed resident giraffes.

Food pellets and leafy branches are provided to visitors free of charge by the gamekeepers. Looking into a giraffe’s doe eyes and feeling its slimy, long tongue wrap around your fingers is something not to be missed.

My day wrapped up at the Karen Blixen Museum, 6 miles from the city center at the foot of the Ngong Hills.

One of the former homes of the famous Danish-born author, who penned “Out of Africa” among other works, the museum houses artifacts associated with her, as well as a gift shop and lovely surrounding grounds.

I considered acquiring a copy of “Out of Africa” at the shop for my flight home, but opted against doing so when quoted a price of $24, outrageous even in New York for a small paperback copy.

The Karen Blixen Museum may have officially been the last planned stop for my day, but I made a sudden decision en route back to my hotel to pull over and make an impulse purchase of chewable sugar-cane chunks from a roadside peddler. It turned out to be an unexpected highlight of my Nairobi tour, an experience right up there with the giraffes.

With our windows were rolled down, I thumbed through my wallet for a 50-shilling note for two bags of the treat. A passing group of about a dozen local pre-teen boys caught sight of me and ran up to the car.

With State Department warning on my mind, I assumed they wanted money and tried to quickly put my wallet away — but not before they saw it.

However, it wasn’t cash they were interested in; rather, it was the colorful tattoo of a Japanese dragon on my upper arm.

Peppering me with questions and compliments about it, all they were after was a look-see and, with polite requests all around, permission to touch the tattoo. I obliged, and received in return a host of “oohs and aahs,” broad smiles, laughs and, as they drifted away, waves and shouted thank yous.

As Gerard started the engine and pulled back onto the road, I smiled between gnaws on a sugar-cane chunk and thought: “What a perfect ending to a perfect — and completely safe — day in Nairobi.”

Follow Kenneth Kiesnoski on Twitter @kktravelweekly.

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