A Couple Days in Cairo

Cairo is one of those cities that you can love…if you have the luxury to avoid living in it. My native Egyptian friend left Cairo and Egypt altogether and can rant about his pure loathing for the city.  At first I thought it was only his pessimistic nature, but I quickly learned from other locals that Egyptians generally hold great disdain for Cairo; they only live there to work. The city is exhilarating and fascinating as much as it is dilapidated, filthy, and inefficient, and if you have a tolerance for such chaos plus a few days to spare then a visit to Cairo is worthwhile, eye-opening, and even enjoyable.

Naturally, as first-timers to Cairo, we followed the tourist route with visits to the notorious Egyptian Museum off of Tahrir Square, Islamic Cairo with the famous Khan el-Khalili souq and the old gate of Bab Zuweila, and the churches and monuments of Coptic Cairo. (We planned to visit the Salah El Din Citadel, only to discover of its closure every Friday. Whoops!)  Although all these sites deserve a visit, our most memorable and enjoyable activities in Cairo were simply exploring. Had we not wandered without a plan or itinerary, we never would have experienced pure Egyptian friendliness and hospitality nor tasted the most amazing falafel we’ve ever consumed.  As the largest city in Africa and the Middle East with a population of roughly 12 million people, there is no limit to the number of twisting alleyways that beg for exploration. In addition to visiting the main attractions, wandering the streets is a must and possibly our highlight in Cairo.

Staying downtown is a no brainer for first timers to Cairo–the plethora of $13/night hotels, cheap and tasty eats, and vicinity to all tourist sites and shopping cannot be surpassed. Upon checking into our budget hotel, we immediately made our way to the pink-colored Egyptian Museum.img_7405

While this poorly curated museum would better serve as a warehouse of ancient treasures, a good half-day should be reserved for the museum. Thousands of artifacts (sarcophagi, mummies, scrolls, jewelry, weapons, facades, sculptures, paintings, chariots, and more!) are on display, and even more remain drearily unsorted, hidden in dark corners, and await to make a public appearance.

Tahrir Square at night:img_20161211_191658

Downtown Cairo to Islamic Cairo is not a far walk, but with the obscene traffic, “creative” parking jobs, and crumbled sidewalks, it probably took us about 40 minutes to walk to Islamic Cairo. Taxis most likely wouldn’t have saved us any time due to the traffic, but more importantly, a taxi would have prevented us from experiencing an authentic Cairo.

First, a walk down the street to Bab Zuweila, one of three remaining gates of Old Cairo. img_20161212_094849

Climbing up the minarets for panoramic views of Cairo is a must.img_7435pano_20161212_101337

The souq of Khan el-Khalili was no more fascinating than the souqs of Fes or Marrakech. As travelers who never purchase junk souvenirs, we didn’t spend too much time wandering the souq’s aggressive tout-filled alleyways.

Fortunately the neighborhood offered more than just souqs.  The Islamic architecture and mosques were photographic as well.

As we wandered back to our hotel in downtown, we kept an eye out for lunch. What did the locals eat? Where did the crowds gather for food? Soon enough we noticed the most popular dish: round serving trays topped with small plates of vegetables, mashed beans, and local pita bread. One after the other, we observed tray deliveries to local shops and random people sitting on the sidewalks. Who were these tray delivery guys, and where did they come from?

Finally, we caught the attention of one food deliverer on a busy road, and we pointed at the tray. He immediately understood our request and motioned us to follow him. We darted through a narrow maze of residential alleys and found that the food deliverer was serving food from a neighborhood food cart! We received plenty of stares, smiles, and welcomes, and the cook happily served us the local bean dish of ful medames for 5 LE (25¢) each. This ended up being one of our fonder memories from Cairo.img_7485img_7486

Coptic Cairo, which consists of a handful of ancient and modern Christian churches within a walled fortress, ended up being more interesting than I anticipated. Although the Coptic Museum receives much praise, we skipped the museum and chose to simply spectate the notable structures of the area: the oldest church, mosque, and synagogue in Cairo. We even took the metro there from downtown to avoid the horrendous traffic.

Upon exiting the Coptic Cairo fortification, we ended up wandering the labyrinth of streets filled with the awakening of a typical, busy weekend market. Colorful displays of fruit and vegetables, outstretched hands, shouts of haggling, irritated donkeys and goats, and endless energy filled the scene. Oh, and plenty of cats and dogs too.img_20161223_123024

As the market crowds thinned out, the stench of donkey and horse feces slowly developed into the wonderful aromas of Egyptian street food: shwarma and my favorite, falafel.img_7796

One particular sidewalk crowd caught our eye.  We didn’t know what people were lining up for, but we figured it would be worth joining the crowd.img_7792

Turned out it was the most popular falafel shop in the neighborhood.

A giant paper cone of freshly fried falafel cost us 5 LE (25¢)! Wow. img_7795

To top off the wonderful balls of fried yumminess, we also devoured a cup of cocktel, my favorite dessert/snack/breakfast in Egypt, which is essentially a fruit cocktail. These could be found all over the streets of Egypt for 5-10 LE. img_7789

Cairo requires patience and energy not for the faint of heart, but once you learn to appreciate the noise along with the culture clash, you can appreciate the insanity of the world’s largest Arab city. It is easy to be overwhelmed with Cairo at first, but during my stays in other Egyptian cities and towns, I found myself surprisingly longing for the “clusterfuck” of Cairo. I’ve always believed that greater rewards are given to those who can endure more headache, and that is especially true when exploring Cairo.

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An Independent Pyramid Tour

Considering how far the Great Pyramids of Giza are from Cairo, I thought, “Why not spend a couple nights in Giza and check out the sites from there?” After all, the pyramids are one of the main reasons why people come to Egypt. Plus, staying in Giza not only allowed us to leisurely explore the Great Pyramids but also other less notable pyramids in the area.

Then I discovered a couple of budget hotel options in Giza that sealed the deal. Can’t beat this terrace view for $30 per night, right?img_20161212_163812

Sound and light show in the evening from the terrace:img_20161212_200859

We checked out of our hostel in Cairo in the late afternoon and took an Uber to Giza. It’s no wonder everyone recommends Uber. For the 50-minute drive through traffic, the ride came out to less than 40 LE (about $2!). Wow. Way better deal than dealing with annoying taxi drivers. Giza’s Great Pyramids looming into view from the backseat:img_7488

And we soon enjoyed sunset over the Giza pyramids from our hotel terrace.img_7511

That night we wandered the local streets for dinner and quickly discovered that tourists rarely venture the streets of Giza. With most tourists shuttled around by bus and large groups with set meals at specific restaurants, locals rarely see independent travelers, especially at their food joints. Children waved shyly at us, and even adults welcomed us as we passed by. Those with decent enough English did not hesitate to strike up a friendly conversation with us.img_7597

For dinner we chowed down on kushari, the national dish of Egypt, for 5 LE (about 25¢).img_7516

Early the next morning we stepped out of our hotel and were immediately greeted by camel touts.img_7519

We ended up on a tuk tuk for 5 LE that dropped us off about a 15-minute walk from the main entrance/ticket booth. In a once-filled parking lot by 8:30am was a vast, sparse lot with only a couple of tour buses. Unlike other worldly sites such as Machu Picchu in Peru or the Acropolis in Athens, purchasing a ticket and getting through security was quick and stress-free. Once again the lack of tourists was remarkably evident.

With the crisp December air and the panoramic viewpoint only about a 30-minute walk from the entrance, we decided to stroll along the paved road that took us to the panorama. Two giant tour buses scurried ahead, and persistent touts tried to convince us to ride a camel since the viewpoint was “a far walk.” Why is it that in so many countries people consider 1-2km to be a far walk? It wasn’t far at all, and we enjoyed walking at our own pace, stopping to take photos, and having the road all to ourselves. img_20161213_084200-panoimg_7521

We arrived to the panoramic viewpoint just after 9am. It wasn’t too crowded—yet.img_7533

By 9:15, we saw more buses approaching from the main road, and we left before the viewpoint was swarmed. Although plenty of touts offered us camel rides to the Great Sphinx (3-4 km), we again preferred to walk. Thankfully we did, because we managed to snap a few more iconic photos that the bus tourists couldn’t stop to enjoy.img_20161213_091913

The Pyramid of Khafre all to ourselves:

We finally gave in to a camel ride from the Khafre Pyramid to the Great Sphinx because it was a short ride and only 20 LE for both of us. The camel tout earned extra in tips for taking cheesy tourist photos.

Finally, the Great Sphinx. As everyone says, its size compared to the Great Pyramids is slightly underwhelming. Still, I was shocked that the majority of the bus tourists crowded at the front, snapped dozens of photos, and left. They never even walked to the far end of the Sphinx to observe a different perspective! Oh well. Their loss.

After 3 hours of exploring the Great Pyramids of Giza by foot, we set out to our next destinations: the Bent, Red, and Step Pyramids near the village Saqqara. These lesser-visited pyramids are about an hour’s drive south of Giza, and I read that most people venture there by hired taxi/private car. We figured we’d hire an Uber car and wing it. Our Uber driver didn’t speak any English but enjoyed taking us to these pyramids; he had never seen them before and took pictures of them while he waited for us at his car. The ride down, back to Giza, and the wait time all totaled to 3.5 hours…and about 150 LE (~$7). We tipped him 100 LE in cash and that clearly made his day.

The Bent Pyramid looks…bent…due to the late discovery of the steep-leaning stones’ instability during its construction. Halfway during the construction the builders were forced to reduce the steep angle, which gave the pyramid its appearance and name.img_20161213_121104

Just a kilometer or two north from the Bent Pyramid stands the Red Pyramid, the only pyramid we entered during our time in Egypt. I read that it cost 200 LE (~$10) to enter the empty Great Pyramid of Giza in addition to the entrance fee of 80 LE, but the cost to enter the Red Pyramid is included in its entrance fee of 40 LE. Due to its remote location and scarcity of visitors, we literally drove up to the pyramid and parked next to it.img_7583

Then we climbed up the pyramid. Luckily it was only a short climb.

The descent down into the Red Pyramid surprisingly challenged us; having to squat, hover and make our way down 60 meters through a narrow tunnel is not easy. Oof. Like all pyramids, the Red Pyramid’s treasures have been removed. The only real novelty is bragging rights for entering an ancient Egyptian pyramid.img_7579

Finally, we concluded our tour of the pyramids with the Step Pyramid of Doser, the world’s earliest stone monument.

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After a full day of multiple pyramids, our quench for pyramids was exhaustively satisfied. I can’t imagine how much more overwhelming the self-guided tour would have been if there were thousands more tourists and exponentially higher temperatures. Thanks to spending a couple nights on the grounds of the Giza Pyramids, we were able to tour the Giza Pyramids completely on foot and spontaneously hire a Uber driver to Saqqara. First visitors to Egypt should definitely spend at least a couple nights in Giza rather than spend all nights in Cairo.

Gazing at a full moon over the pyramids from our hotel terrace was also icing on the cake.img_20161214_044016

In a nutshell, here is my advice for independently touring the pyramids:
1. Spend at least a couple nights in Giza, making it your base.
2. Arrive to the Great Pyramids when they open at 8am.
3. Go NOW (2017) while tourism is still down.
4. Visit in the winter when the weather is cool.
5. Bring plenty of water, snacks, a guidebook, and a smartphone with Uber installed.
Now you’re golden. Have fun!

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Before Going to Egypt

For an incredibly foreign country, I can’t imagine any tourist or traveler arriving to Egypt without having done any prior research.  Upon my homework, I repeatedly came across the same information:

1. Since the revolution of 2011, tourism in Egypt has been decimated. Once the top tourist destination in the world, Egypt’s hotels, restaurants, and tourist districts now struggle under pathetic despair. Egypt’s notorious temples and iconic sites that once saw mass tourism and rapid deterioration can now be enjoyed without anyone else in sight. As an independent traveler, it’s easy to think, “This serenity is wonderful!” but second thoughts immediately become heartfelt pity to the local citizens who feel this impact. Looking around in a solemn Egypt of December 2016, I often said aloud, “This is high season Egypt.” Fortunately, 2016 saw an increase in tourism from 2015, and 2017 looks more promising as previously suspended airline routes from EU countries to Egypt are expected to resume.

2. More than once I’ve seen people dub Cairo as one of the most exhilarating cities in the world, but to be honest, I didn’t think it was any crazier than Marrakech in Morocco, or Nairobi in Kenya, or Dhaka in Bangladesh, or Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Of course, that is not to undermine the boisterous life of the city; we still enjoyed dodging cars and buses between juice cart vendors and hardware supply carts, held our breaths every time a bus spurted black fumes in our faces, stumbled into human traffic jams on trash-lined sidewalks, exhausted ourselves with the “art” of rip offs bargaining, and grimaced at the sound of broken speakers on full blast during the calls to prayer.

It is still difficult to encourage people to come to Egypt due to the list of tourist-targeted attacks and uncertainty with current politics and economy.  More recently, the Egyptian pound (LE) was devalued in November 2016. Sure, this meant that we practically got double the LE to the dollar and costs decreased by about 40%, but it could have led to increased instability and perhaps another uprising. The bomb on December 11, 2016 at a Coptic church in Cairo that killed 25 occurred on our arrival day to Egypt, and only 1 km from us too! We can’t blame people from currently avoiding Egypt.

Indulging in typically biased, mainstream media isn’t an activity I actively participate in, which means filling my limited free time searching for reasons not to go to Egypt was never a part of my itinerary. Out of curiosity Chris and I compared the statistics of deaths by gun violence (mass shootings) in the U.S. to deaths by terrorism in Egypt and saw that we were still statistically safer in Egypt! Naturally, our friends and family closed their ears to those facts and preferred us not to go to Egypt at all, but to each their own.

Despite all the disruptions, we have spent 3 weeks in Egypt during what typically would have been their high season.  We have no regrets. Not only were the world famous sites mostly vacant of obnoxious tourists, we felt that we were able to contribute to their slipping economy. What was once the world’s most advanced civilization with great pharaohs is now a heartbreaking state that begs for tourism to return.

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Maasai Mara

Any online search for 3-day/2-night Maasai Mara safaris in western Kenya will show luxury options upwards of $800-$1,000 per person. Searching for budget options still resulted in $450-$500 trips per person. Seriously? What the hell.

Fortunately while volunteering in Kenya my program manager told me that past volunteers had been able to tour the Maasai Mara National Reserve for $300 per person. Then I befriended a foreigner who knew of highly recommended locals that plan safaris to national parks all over Kenya. This agency is Safaribook Evolution. For $300 per person, Chris and I got picked up from our accommodation in Nairobi, were taken to the Maasai Mara where we took 2 game drives, received full board and accommodation for 2 nights at the lovely Mara Sidai Camp, and got dropped off at our accommodation upon our return to Nairobi. While tours accommodate up to 7 people, we were primarily a group of 4, which gave us plenty of space in the open-roof van. We also visited a nearby Maasai village near the camp for an extra $20 per person, which we paid the Maasai village directly. This was wonderful since every other tour agency quoted $30, which I assume the agency takes a $10 cut. I’ve always loved Kenyans for their kindness and hospitality, but the organizer and driver from Safaribook Evolution exceeded my expectations; it was Kenyan hospitality at its finest.

Okay, now for the details of the trip.

Upon the morning pick up, we made a quick stop at a viewpoint overlooking the Great Rift Valley. This valley apparently stretches from Lebanon all the way down to Mozambique!img_7294

After a long drive through smooth pavement and rough roads, we finally made it to Mara Sidai Camp in time for a late lunch. People who prefer a more luxurious hotel would probably squirm at the camp’s safari tents, but I loved them! Because of the word “camp” I had actually pictured a wilderness camping tent, sleeping bags, and shared bath. Nope. This was glamping. Each tent not only had a large, comfy bed, they also came with a private bathroom with a hot shower! This even might have been a step up from my own room while volunteering in Kenya…

At 4pm we set out for our first game drive—a sunset game drive. Beware of all the local Maasai women shoving handmade jewelry for sale through open windows.img_20161208_161505

As wild animals tend to be more active in the morning, we didn’t see much in the late afternoon. Fortunately, the animals we did find were big cats!img_20161208_173440

The full day of game driving the following day was unforgettable. We saw more animals than I expected to see, even herds of elephants and groups of giraffes. Thankfully our experienced driver of 6 years knew where to find the animals and even brought binoculars to enhance the experience. Toward the end of the day we even grew tired of seeing herds of elephants and lions. Seriously. A collection of my favorite photos are below.

Yes, we were THIS close to the wild animals.

Lunch time in the shade. Our driver kept guard from the van for large animals.img_7342

On our final day before returning to Nairobi, we made a quick trip to a nearby Maasai village. To my surprise, a number of them spoke English fluently. They knew the national languages of Swahili and English, and their tribal language of Maasai. Upon our arrival they performed a traditional welcome dance, followed by their jumping demonstrations. The higher they jump, the fewer the cows they need to offer as dowry for a bride.img_7358

We were given a quick tour of a traditional Maasai home, which is a hut made of mud and cow dung. Inside their homes were small bedrooms for members of the family and a small “kitchen” that consisted of a tiny open fire.

Naturally, the Maasai village tour ended with the souvenir “shop”, an outdoor display of jewelry and souvenirs sold by the Maasai women and children. Chris and I are never keen on purchasing souvenirs, especially when they involve killing a lion (plenty of lion fur and teeth for sale!), so it wasn’t difficult for us to turn down offers.img_7380

This Maasai eagerly took his photo with Pen Pen, Chris’ traveling penguin. After the photo, he suggested a trade for Pen Pen for his wooden club. Another Maasai pointed at my watch and offered a trade of a Maasai blanket for it as well. We regretted donating all our gifts to the Githurai community. My advice to anyone visiting the Maasai village is to bring supplies, toys, small stuffed animals, watches, anything you can think of. They’d be happy to trade!
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I’ve heard of countless positive remarks regarding tours to the Maasai Mara. Now I understand why. Many tourists conduct 4 or even 5-day tours in the Maasai Mara, particularly during the wildebeest migration season, but our 3-day/2-night tour was incredible despite being short. We recommend anyone visiting Kenya to take a budget tour with Safaribook Evolution to the Maasai Mara. Pictures cannot convey the epic adventure.

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Coffee and Tea Plantations

According to worldatlas.com, Vietnam is the world’s 2nd largest producer of coffee, and the world’s 7th largest producer of tea. Also in the list of top world producers is Kenya, the world’s 15th largest producer of coffee and 3rd largest producer of tea.  Looks like Kenya and Vietnam have something in common! =) (While both countries are the world’s top producers of coffee and tea, Kenyans primarily drink diluted milk tea while the Vietnamese passionately consume plain tea and black coffee.) Because Nairobi’s neighboring towns of Kiambu and Limuru are surrounded by coffee and tea farms, I knew I had to take a tour on each plantation.

With its rich, acidic soil sitting at roughly 6,000 ft. elevation along the equatorial zone, the British who arrived to Kenya in the early 20th century found the environment most favorable to farm tea and coffee and introduced the crops to the country. Today fields of lush green leaves can be found sprawling across the Kenyan landscape just outside the chaotic city center. I spent one morning touring a small coffee plantation near Kiambu at Fairview Coffee Estate and another day touring a small tea plantation near Limuru at Kiambethu Tea Farm.

In order to tour the coffee estate, I rode the matatu from Githurai to Muthaiga and transferred to another van to Kiambu. I hopped off at the Kist bus stop, and walked the 1.5 km to the coffee estate. Total cost for both rides was 70 shillings. The return trip is straight forward as well; plenty of buses run along Kiambu Road. img_7070

Tours with coffee tastings are conducted daily from 10am-12pm and 2pm-4pm for 3,000 shillings per non-resident.  Non-residents also receive a 500 gram bag of freshly roasted coffee upon leaving. (Tip: If you prefer whole beans instead of ground, make the request at the beginning of the tour!) Because I prefer my coffee buzz in the morning, I chose the morning tour.  The estate not only has a small coffee plantation, but also a vegetable garden, banana field, and dairy farm for local consumption, a manicured garden with wild flowers that can be reserved for wedding receptions, and nature trails.

The tour guide walked us through all their details of coffee production: farming, picking, skinning, fermentation, roasting, auctioning, exporting, and drinking.  Unlike many farms, Fairview Estate completely produces their own coffee from plant to roast. They employ farmers and factory workers for the machines. Although most of the coffee is produced for export, they do have a small staff of roasters and coffee brewers to make coffee for their limited number of visitors.

Close up of coffee leaves, flowers, and beans:img_7080

Fresh picked coffee beans, with skin:img_7086

Machines for coffee bean skin removal:img_7088

Bean drying:img_1103

Dried beans, with the final coffee bean (pre-roasted) out of its dried shell in my hand:

Three stages of coffee bean (from light to dark): separated from red skin, processed, and dried; separated from dried bean shell; and roasted and ready for grind.img_7100

Roast!img_7103

Coffee aroma exploration over different grades of coffee:img_7101

Coffee time!img_7105

Because I had never toured a coffee plantation and production plant, I thoroughly enjoyed my tour of Fairview Estate. Despite not being an avid coffee drinker, I found the production and business of a Kenyan coffee company fascinating and educational.

However, in the following week I toured another plantation–a tea plantation at Kiambethu Tea Farm–and my adventurous journey there and the tour itself turned out to be more memorable than the coffee tour. I rode the matatu from Githurai to Muthaiga and transferred to another van to Kiambu, just like my trip to Fairview Estate for 70 shillings. This time I rode the van all the way to Kiambu, and transferred to another van at the Kiambu bus station for Limuru for 100 shillings. I was a little surprised that the van diverted from the main road and ended up driving along an unknown road, but the rolling hills of tea plantations made for a gorgeous ride.  Luckily my maps app allowed me to track my location, and by keeping an eye on the road, I was able to see a small group of motorbikes sitting on the very corner I hoped they would be.

I hopped off the van between rolling hills of tea leaves and approached the motorbike drivers. They knew where Kiambethu Farm was located (only about 3-4 km) and it cost me 150 shillings for a ride.  The bumpy dirt road down and over the hilly tea plantations is a ride I’ll never forget. img_7220

Local children smiled, waved, and chased after us.img_7221

Finally I arrived to the tea farm for my 11am tour.  Tours cost 3,200 shillings per person and include a marvelous buffet lunch using vegetables grown from their garden. Fiona, a British woman born and raised in Kenya whose grandfather was the first to grow, make, and sell tea commercially in Kenya in the early 20th century, currently runs the farm plantation and conducts daily tours.

The plantation house, where talks are hosted and tea and lunch is served from:img_7227

Fiona walked us through her small tea plantation and talked about the process of tea farming. img_7249img_7239

After the lecture in the tea fields, we returned to the house where we comfortably sat and listened to another lecture about tea production over freshly brewed tea and homemade cookies.img_7246img_7245

Because the tea farm is not a factory, they send their leaves over to a tea factory for drying and processing. I learned that production is FAST–the leaves can go from bush to cup within 24 hours! No wonder tea is so much cheaper than coffee. Luckily for me, I love tea.

Once the lecture concluded, we followed a local guide outside for a short nature walk for a brief introduction to local medicinal trees and plants.  And finally, we returned to the plantation house for an incredible buffet lunch.  Having been in Kenya for over a month, I thoroughly indulged myself in the Western dairy luxuries of butter, cheeses, and even ice cream for dessert! img_7251

Before leaving the plantation, I also marveled at the wild African flowers, plants, and birds.  I had never seen these before!img_7255img_7242

Just when I thought the day couldn’t get any better, I scored a ride back to Nairobi from a nice group of Britains. Saved me the time and hassle of waiting for and taking multiple buses! From Nairobi it was an easy peasy ride back to Githurai.

If time permits, a tour and tasting from some of the world’s largest producers of coffee and tea are definitely worthwhile from Nairobi. Not only is it educational, it is a beautiful and pleasant break from the chaotic city.

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Nairobi: Elephants & Giraffes, Oh My!

Full day tours of Nairobi cost about $100, with the highlights being the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and the Giraffe Center. However, visiting both places independently will cost less than $20 and requires only a half day. Traveling by bus in Kenya is incredibly cheap and easy!

The elephant orphanage is only open to the general public from 11am-12pm on a daily basis.  During this hour, visitors can spectate the endearing site of bottle-feeding and mud-bathing elephants and listen to a quick introduction to the orphanage’s family of elephants.  Many elephants are rescue elephants and are later reintroduced back into the wild–yay!

From the heart of Nairobi I walked toward the central train station in search for the buses and matatus.  Sure enough, at the roundabout of Haile Sellassie Avenue and Moi Avenue, I became overwhelmed with the plethora of unmarked buses, clouds of pollution, uncontrollable traffic, and noisy touts. Luckily Kenyans are extremely helpful and as soon as I told the first tout I wanted to go to the elephant orphanage on Magadi Road, he stopped ushering people into his van and walked me over to the right van. “Elephant orphanage? Magadi Road?” I asked the new tout. He nodded, I hopped into the packed van, and we immediately set off.  The cost? Only 30 shillings, or 30¢.

Twenty to thirty minutes later I hopped off at the entrance to the elephant orphanage along Magadi Road. It would have taken maybe 15 minutes to walk the 1 km or so to the orphanage, but within the first minute of hopping off the van, a sedan appeared and stopped in front of me.  Peering in, I saw a solo female traveler with a private driver.  She had hired an Uber from Nairobi. “Mind if I hop in?” I asked. She happily told me to come in. Saved me 10-15 minutes! I noticed that between 10:30am-10:45am, car after car headed for the elephant orphanage; I assume hitching a ride from the main road at this time wouldn’t be difficult. To my luck, she had also planned on visiting the giraffe center after the elephant orphanage, so we quickly became friends and continued our day together.

When we pulled up to the orphanage, we were literally surprised by a baby giraffe roaming the parking lot. Didn’t know the elephant orphanage had a giraffe. Or perhaps it was a wild giraffe.  The elephant orphanage was after all located at the edge of Nairobi National Park!img_6934

At exactly 11, the doors opened to the public. It cost 500 shillings for non-residents. For the next hour, visitors (mostly non-residents) oohed, aahed, awwed, and photographed the adorable elephants.  They eagerly trotted out for feeding time, slipped and slid in the mud, played with each other, and splashed in the giant pools of muddy water.

After 12 we set out for the giraffe center. We walked to Magadi Road, crossed the street, and waited for a bus or van. In less than a minute, a van pulled over to the side of the road and a tout beckoned us to enter. “Galleria?” I asked.  He nodded. We hopped in and each paid 50 shillings. The plan was to ride to Galleria Mall, hop off, and transfer to another bus to Hardy.  From Hardy we’d walk the 1.5 km or so to the giraffe center.  And we did just that.  Vans awaited us at Galleria, and we each paid 30 shillings for the ride to Hardy.

It took about 20 minutes to walk to the giraffe center, and we each paid the 1,000 shilling admission fee (~$10). Unlike the elephant orphanage, the giraffe center is open to the public everyday from 9am-5pm.  There is a small cafe, gift shop, and modest museum showcasing the variety of giraffes in Africa.  We quickly learned that the giraffes at this particular center are the Rothschild’s giraffe, the most endangered of giraffe species.  The center is actually a breeding center to increase the Rothschild population! Best of all? Visitor interaction with the giraffes! Visitors can simply observe the gorgeous creatures from up close or afar, feed them, and even kiss them!

Once our hearts were filled with content, we walked the giraffe center’s nature trail, but it was nothing to rave about. It took another 20 minutes to return to Hardy, and from there I asked a local woman how to return to Nairobi. She pointed at a parked bus and said, “City bus.” We made our way to the bus, paid 80 shillings (I think we were ripped off…but whatever), and arrived back into the heart of Nairobi within 30 minutes.

Number of buses/vans: 4
Total cost of transportation: 190 shillings, or $1.90
Total cost of admission fees: 1,500 shillings, or $15
Total cost for a half day adventure of elephants and giraffes: $16.90

Sure beats a $100 bus tour any day!

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Why I Won’t Visit Kibera, Africa’s Largest Urban Slum

The idea of touring a neighborhood simply for photographing and gawking over a community’s appalling living conditions has never appealed to me. I mean, how would you feel if the top 1% came to your neighborhood, your home, and took pictures of your children playing in local parks or of you preparing meals, knowing that they feel great pity for your lifestyle and plan on showing their photos to their 1% community? It’s…demeaning.

Sure, the high costs (roughly $25) of a tour supposedly go toward the local community to help pay for infrastructure, schools, and so on. The intent there is to make tourists feel philanthropic. And it works. The marketing and the pitch truly work.

But with all well-marketed products or places come with plenty of support—so much support that…well…it becomes of questionably authenticity. Kibera is Kenya’s notorious slum neighborhood within Nairobi as it is home to roughly 1-2 million citizens, making it the largest urban slum in Africa. Quite mind blowing if you think about it. With that fame, many people know of it, and with all those people curious about Kibera, several companies even offer “tours” to the neighborhood. Outside of Kenya, a surplus of NGOs and nonprofits all over the world pour supplies and aid to Kibera, which has led to a problem similar to what we have in America.

Moochers. Welfare exploiters. People who deliberately choose this lifestyle so that they don’t have to work.

As a volunteer in Kenya, I worked with an organization in Githurai, a small city of approximately half a million people composed of slums and low-income housing. My program manager was born and raised in Githurai and knows people who live in Kibera. After his fascinating insight into Kibera, I came to the conclusion that Kibera was sadly…fake.

My neighborhood in Githurai:img_7055

“They receive SO much help, SO much money,” he told me. “I visit my friends who live in Kibera, and they all have refrigerators!”

“WHAT?!” I exclaimed. In Githurai, where running water is a luxury for many, I hadn’t heard of anyone with a refrigerator.  I only drink water because all the juices and sodas for sale in the neighborhood are lukewarm.

“They have stoves…they have microwaves!” he went on. I should mention that a number of people in Githurai still cook over open fire because they can’t afford gas.

Our kitchen in Githurai:img_6344

“They have big TVs, big speakers. Bigger than mine. The people there have much better living conditions than here.”

“Why are you even friends with these people?” I had to ask.

“I met them when I went to school,” he explained. “At the university, and several community groups. They have my phone number and call me sometimes to hang out. I’ve been to Kibera many times.”

And that’s the thing. Kibera’s fame shines under the world’s spotlight. Kenyans have flocked to Kibera to grow the slum community in order to receive welfare. And the hundreds and thousands of “real” slum communities throughout Kenya are basically unknown due to the lack of marketing. They don’t receive the aid Kibera receives, but they need it more.

“There was a NGO that provided better housing for them,” he continued, “so that some of them didn’t have to live in their tin metal shacks. But you know what they did? They rented them out for money, because if they moved into the apartments, they wouldn’t receive anymore free money.”

That all sounded too familiar. Ever see the movie Million Dollar Baby?

“They are rich!” he exclaimed.

Well, I wouldn’t go as far as saying that. But I would definitely agree that Kibera was more of a fabricated slum for locals to exploit welfare.

“It’s a fake slum,” I concluded.

“Yes. It’s fake.”

And that is why I will never visit Kibera.

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