Travel Weekly reporter Michelle Baran has completed a 10-day trip to Kenya. Her final dispatch follows.
Day 9, Masai Mara National Reserve to Nairobi: It's our last day in Kenya and everyone, myself included, is getting a bit emotional.
We've had quite a journey. Before leaving the U.S., all the veterinarians in the group, and the spouses and friends they brought along, had doubts about the situation here in Kenya. So did I.
Many were reading and watching the news closely until just days before their departure. Between news reports of borderline ethnic cleansing and the tourism industry's counter of peace and calm, few knew just what to make of the reality on the ground. To calm their fears, Paul Elmstrom, president of the Corporation for Professional Conferences, which organizes these professional group tours, came to Kenya ahead of the pack to investigate the situation and report back to concerned travelers.
Many told me that Elmstrom's visit sealed the deal for them. Most said it still didn't quiet fretful family and friends.
Looking back, relaxing poolside with a Tusker beer after a long day on safari, we laughed about how worried our loved ones had been.
"Our friends and family are suffering, and we're having a blast!" one of the vets said jokingly.
Overwhelmingly, almost everyone in the group expressed relief and gratefulness in having decided to come for what many in the group have called, cliche or not, a trip of a lifetime.
This trip has been about so much more than the current crisis in Kenya, but about visiting a country so rich and yet so poor. Poor economically, in infrastructure and equality, yet so rich in music, culture, food, landscape, wildlife and personality (including those beautiful, bountiful Kenyan smiles).
We've visited underfunded animal shelters and veterinary clinics, driven past mansions in Nairobi, then slums on the outskirts of the city. We went to see a hopeful women's self-help facility of spinners and weavers in Nanyuki, a town between Mount Kenya and Nairobi. We've been paraded through a traditional Maasai village, complete with homes made of cow dung and children with flies invading their faces.
We've seen a local government-funded school, where 42 girls sleep on the concrete floor in a large room, because if they return home chances are they will be married off and have no opportunity to further their education. Or so we were told.
And yes, we've also chased wildlife, in between decadent meals of chicken, beef, lamb and pork ... and rice and salads and fruit. We've hopped from exotic property to exotic property. We've roughed it in the bumpy safari vans for days on end, sweating it out under the Kenyan sun. We've supported each other through various short-lived illnesses, stomach problems and the flu.
But at the end of the day, it was all very well orchestrated. We got a flawless tourist experience, complete with mini-dramas and connections, real or fleeting, with local Kenyans that have made this expedition particularly moving, and consequently very successful.
But we were never given an opportunity to even look off the beaten path, let alone go there. We were escorted everywhere we went, protected by an army of experienced drivers and tourism industry workers. Some people fell in love with our little Kenyan utopia, while others remained skeptical and curious, even up until these final hours, about what lay further round the bend.
I'm not sure that any of us will every truly find out.
To contact reporter Michelle Baran, send e-mail to [email protected].