I can’t tell you how many uncomfortable, awkward, and outright ridiculous situations I have been in while traveling. Remember when a guy in Mombasa thought my husband had beaten me? Spending 5-1/2 months living in East Africa, I was bound to come across these moments, but some totally caught me off guard. When my roommate and I got into an argument about whether or not the police station would be open on a holiday, he said, “Remember when I tried to call the police emergency line and it went to an answering machine?” Things abroad don’t always run like they do back home, and often times, incidents leave you in shock. And then others are just those random moments, small moments, that make you laugh. Here’s a list of some unforgettable moments from my stay in Kenya.
11. Driving past gunfire
I have been on three bus rides between Kenya and Rwanda (via Uganda) and all three have been highly eventful (including a crash that shattered the windows, a guy stealing shoes on the bus, and the police cutting off our license plate). On my trip in March, we approached the Uganda border from Kenya around 9pm at night and suddenly I heard gunshots. I peered out the window to see throngs of locals running down the street in the dark. My first instinct was, of course, to duck when I heard more gunshots. Turns out a truck had overturned and police were scaring off looters. We just happened to pass between the truck and the police. None of the locals on the bus seemed concerned- apparently it’s not that uncommon, especially near the border where all of the big trucks pass.
10. Blood gushing from a man like a volcano
That’s the best way I can describe it. I was on a short matatu ride to a coffee shop in Nairobi and we pulled up to a stop in front of a little outdoor shopping center. I saw a man lying on the side of the road with blood spewing out of his mouth. Literally. Everyone got off the matatu and the conductor was speaking rapidly in his tribal tongue to the driver, and I actually thought they were stopping to help (foolish of me, I know), so I hopped out. Then they drove off. I walked over to the man gushing blood and saw a car pulled over in front of him. I thought he had gotten hit by a car so I asked the driver about it. He said, “Don’t worry, he is fine.” Wtf? How is a man spewing blood on the side of the road, unconscious, ‘fine‘? I was freaking out. People all around were staring but no one did anything! Then I went into panic mode. I thought of hailing a taxi to rush him to the hospital, but there’s no way a taxi would take him all bloodied. I thought it might be a prank, since I had been caught in the midst of two previous pranks from a show that gets televised on a nationally broadcast tv station. But when I looked around, I didn’t see anyone with a camera. I had to do something. I ran up to the nearby grocery store and grabbed the security guard out front. I said, “Excuse me, can you help me?! There is a man dying on the side of the road.” He skeptically believed me and slowly strolled out to where I said the man was lying, on the side of a busy road. When we got there, a young man had stopped to help him. He had the man sitting up and was trying to clean him, using the bloodied man’s shirt to wipe the blood out of his eyes. When I say it was spewing, it had run all over his face and into his eyes. I had a water bottle that I gave him. He took a sip of water and tried to hand it back. I insisted he keep it, and he used the remaining water to wash his face. A nurse walking by stopped at this point and took over from there. Apparently, this has happened before to the man. It took me days to get over this incident, as it really rattled me! I’ve seen a dead body in the road in Egypt, and I really didn’t want to stand by and watch a man bleed to death on the side of the road in Nairobi.
9. Begging for my keys at gunpoint
When I was robbed at gunpoint, I did everything they told me to do. I didn’t scream, I handed over my purse, and I let them search me. But for some stupid reason, I begged them for my keys. Over, and over again. I know. So stupid. The keys don’t matter. And they cost my landlord $2 to replace, as I later found out. Had I known that two people on my street had been shot just two weeks earlier, I probably wouldn’t have said a peep. So much for hindsight.
8. Paying for a police report
When my apartment was broken into, my neighboring police station gave me a police report, free of charge. After moving and being robbed at gunpoint, I had to report to a different police station. At this one, they required you to purchase the police report document across the street at a restaurant. Yes, I’m serious.
7. Dora the Explorer socks on my security guard
I always greeted my security guards in the morning. One morning leaving my apartment, my guard was sitting on the edge of the guardhouse. As I was saying good morning, I noticed his pink Dora the Explorer socks. Amazing and unexpected to see a security guard in Dora socks!
6. A mouse crawling by my feet
I was in my brass artisan’s house in the slum. Barefoot. We were having our final meeting and discussing his future with Amsha and a timeline for upcoming work. As I sat there on the couch next to Fred (our business manager), I noticed something dart out near my feet. I looked down to see a little white mouse and shrieked! Of course that scared the mouse back under the couch, but Fred and the brass artisan were doubled over with laughter. I was freaking out and tucking my feet under me on the couch. Too flustered to continue conversation, they thought it was the funniest thing they had ever seen. Neither are afraid of mice (of course they do live in a slum where they see them daily) but I reminded them how afraid they are of chameleons which I find ridiculous (Kenyans are superstitious about chameleons). The mouse creeped me out and when it was time to leave, I leapt out of the house to avoid walking near the mouse.
5. Peeing in a group. In the open. At a gas station.
When my friend Lauren and I traveled through southeast Asia in 2010, we never forgot a bathroom in Vietnam that was literally just a cement slab with a hole in the back wall. I never realized how difficult it was, even behind a door, to just squat and pee on a floor. I ran into this same style bathroom at the Uganda-Rwanda border this past trip, but oh, it gets so much better than that! Before I tell you about this incident, I want to mention that I am quite comfortable taking bathroom breaks in fields and the great outdoors. When you overland through Africa by bus, you learn to take advantage of just about any type of bathroom break you get. And I learned to enjoy the outdoors and cherish the ‘natural’ bathrooms that smell much better than drop toilets.
But on the bus ride from Kenya to Rwanda, I met my match. After Kampala (capital of Uganda), it’s a good six hour drive to the border of Rwanda and there is only one stop, at a gas station, during that stretch. One would think that if you are stopping at a gas station, your bathroom options won’t be that bad. Actually, one might assume that they are better than the pee troughs you come across at some bar bathrooms in Africa. And then one might be oh so wrong. I followed the locals off of the bus to go behind the gas station. I saw a bathroom building off to the right. I started to head there but realized it was all men. All of the women were headed to my left. And that’s when I saw the horror. Some women were just squatting right there on the cement sidewalk behind the gas station. Eww. Others were peeing in the ‘official’ women’s bathroom: behind a metal sheeting wall that was 3′ high with a concrete slab behind it that angled down to a hole in the ground. When you gotta go, you gotta go. I peed, along with other women, on this concrete slab in a group. Do you stare at the ground, at the sky? It’s awkward. Then you have to avoid other people’s pee when departing from the slab to get back around in front of the metal sheeting. I got back on the bus, horrified, to tell Fred what I had just done. He bragged about the men’s bathroom being perfectly fine, and I think I held a grudge for a good 30 seconds. Honestly though, who would give men indoor toilets and give women a concrete slab out in the open? Oh right, Uganda would.
4. Really truly believing you are going to die
Since I have already written about my I thought I was going to die moment here, I won’t rehash. But let me just tell you that no one has ever told me what to think in the moments before I believed my plane was going down. I guess you can’t really be prepared for it, but some protocol would have been nice.
3. Seeing other people get robbed
I have seen other people robbed on the streets in broad daylight in Nairobi. It freaks me out every time. I used to think, oh that poor person. Now after having my own pickpocketing and robbing incidents, I just freak out and cling to my belongings and then moan and groan about the police officer who saw the incident unfold and barely made an effort to catch the guy.
2. Seeing a child get beaten
It made me physically ill to witness and just mentioning it now makes my stomach churn, but domestic & child abuse are rampant in Kenya. The statistics, and reality, are horrifying. I think it made it worse that I saw locals laughing about this incident, as if to think ,’What did that stupid girl do?’ As one who takes a stand against child abuse in Kenya, this moment really shook me. A few weeks later, however, when we rescued some children from an abusive situation, it healed my heart a bit. No one had prepared me for that moment either and the overwhelming emotions that come with it. I can’t say much, as it’s a high-risk situation, but it took months of planning and pretty much consumed all of my non-work time in Kenya. Despite the nerves and the stress, it is a moment I will carry with me forever. Those smiles, words of thanks, clinging hugs, and sheer joy, from kids near and dear to my heart, will be etched into my mind forever.
1. Taxi drivers are friends
I had two taxi drivers in Nairobi that I used regularly. While I mostly took public transportation, I took taxis when it was evening or for certain security situations when it wasn’t safe for me to travel somewhere by public transport. One of them, in particular, was my driver for an area on the opposite side of the city, so there were multiple occasions when we had two or three-hour rides together for me to get home (traffic in Nairobi = horrendous). And when you are in the car with someone that long, you get to know them quite well. At almost $20 a pop, those across town rides weren’t cheap but they were worth every penny. I really enjoyed our conversations, as we talked everything from family life and personal struggles to politics and how much we love/hate Nairobi. I miss those rides together, as it was almost therapeutic.
Clearly, Kenya keeps me on my toes. Daily life is intense. Most days, you just have to laugh about it. And some days, you just have to cry. All I know is that when someone asks me to tell them about the funniest, scariest, or craziest incident that’s ever happened to me on my travels, I have no shortage of tales to tell.
Disclaimer: This is in no way intended to be a “negative nancy” post. Despite crime & corruption in the city, Kenya is a very beautiful place with wonderful people, and what I have mentioned above are only small facets of my life as a foreigner there. Don’t send me hate mail, please.