After a flight from Mumbai over Saudi Arabia, the Red Sea and the Pyramids of Giza, we made our way to Nairobi. Arriving at 4 am was a daunting thought given the terrible reputation that the Kenyan capital has earned. Nicknamed Nai-robbery, many tourists feel nervous about walking the streets. However, once our jet-lag wore off, we ventured into the centre of the capital and also attended a barbecue in the suburbs without incident. Perhaps we were lucky, but our initial paranoia about the city seemed misplaced.
Although we have only been here a short time, we have been fascinated by the complexity of Kenyan society; we have learned volumes about tribes, dowry practices, the environmental problems which face the country, distrust of Chinese investment and opinions on Obama. In Kenya debate is everywhere – on TV, in the newspapers, on supermarket radio broadcasts and in taxis.
From our room we had spent a couple of days gazing out across the urban landscape to the distant hills in anticipation of the nature which Kenya is so famous for, so when it came time to leave for Naiasha at 8 am on Monday morning, we were more than ready to ‘get truckin”. Our drive took us along the southern road through the Rift Valley, past some of the most breathtaking scenery we have seen this trip.
Once in Naivasha, we met three more members of the group we will be completing the expedition to Capetown with (the other seven will join us in a week), we then set off for Elsamere. Where we spent the afternoon visiting the house and property of George and Joy Adamson, who became famous as a result of Joy’s international bestseller Born Free, which tells the story of their unique relationship with a lioness, Elsa, whose mother was killed while she still a cub. It was amazing to see how much commitment to conservation in Kenya Joy and George had and to see what a contribution Joy made to the pictorial record of Kenyan anthropology and horticulture. Sadly Joy and George both met grizzly ends: Joy was killed by a disgruntled house servant as a result of a dispute about pay and George was murdered by poachers when he was out in his Range Rover, ‘The Nightinagale’.
Naivasha is a beautiful place, however the flower farms, which provide 70% of local jobs are wreaking havoc on the area’s delicate eco-system. The farms attract migrant workers from all over Kenya and export flowers to Europe and beyond, making them an integral part of contemporary Naivasha. However, much of the run-off from fertilizers and insecticides ends up in Lake Naivasha; locals told us that a few years ago people started noticing large numbers of dead fish floating on the lake. Apparently, in the last dry season, the lake also receded 2km from the shore because so much of its water was being used for flower farming.
Stocks of the delicious Tilapia, which was once abundant in the lake, have dropped drastically in recent years, prompting protests by local residents and a government investigation. However, the money which the farms make for their owners (many of whom are Dutch or wealthy Kenyans) may make it easy for them to bribe government officials. Locals complain that attempts by local environmental groups and proposals made by the WWF along with the government’s offer of 2 million Kenyan Shillings to purchase fish to restock the lake with will be futile in the absence of a thorough investigation into the cause of the problems which have lead to the degradation of the lake’s fragile ecostystem.
How the capital of Cambodia has changed in the last decade! It is surprising to see how the city has mushroomed; SUVs are everywhere, crowding roads and hogging pavements. Western-style supermarkets have sprung up, where NGO employees, diplomatic staff and tourists can shop in air-conditioned comfort for imported goods from all over the globe. We even saw a Mango (the Spanish clothing retailer) shop being built! Yet it became increasingly clear that the ‘trickle down effect’, which should theoretically accompany this newfound wealth (from tourism, donations from foreign charities and NGOs), is not being felt by all.
In the backstreets of the city, about 10 minutes from the main bus station and the shining new shopping mall, which is too expensive for many locals (we only saw expats and a couple of nuns wearing the blue-trimmed white robes favoured by Mother Teresa), we were confronted with the grim reality of life for the street children of the capital.
A group of boys were huddled together, sheltering from the sun, like a pack of mangy dogs, sniffing glue from plastic bags. They were absolutely filthy and so lethargic between sniffs of glue that they did not even attempt to approach us or beg for money. They seemed resigned to their fate. On another corner more boys were trawling through huge piles of fetid rubbish, looking for whatever that they could salvage.
In Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is located, beggars seemed to be everywhere. Given the huge number of NGOs in Cambodia, which claim to be doing everything from supporting women to increasing literacy, rehabilitating prostitutes and employing amputees, it was hard to understand why there were so many people still going without.
Was it the result of corruption or misappropriation of funds? Was the sheer number of people in need so large that charities could not cope? Were all of the beggars genuine? Probably not. But every evening dinner was punctuated by constant requests to give money, buy postcards and purchase trinkets. Over time it became frustratingly difficult to distinguish the needy from the greedy. Was the best policy to give nothing, no matter who was asking, or should one make a snap judgment based on how disheveled the beggar looked? Should one buy postcards from the school girl in a grubby uniform, or the child in a tattered T-shirt with matted hair? What about the man crawling on the floor, who has had all but one limb amputated?
Once we had paid the hefty $40 dollar visa fee to enter Laos, Martin and I needed to find transport to Vientiane. It was dark and a light rain was beginning to fall, so avoiding the tuk tuk touts, I walked over to what I thought were minibuses waiting to pick up locals. Walking up to two men seated at the front of one vehicle, I asked the driver if he could take us into town. He shook his head and responded in a way that was unintelligible.
I took a few Thai Baht bills out of my pocket and then proceeded to ask again. He and the other man looked nervous – I realized that they had not seen Martin, and that perhaps they were nervous about taking a lone woman into town at that time of night. Motioning Martin over, I repeated the request to be taken into town only to be told “No taxi.”
Finally the driver relented and it was only when we were pulling way from the border that we realized that he was not a taxi driver; we had actually scored a lift with a local who was just minding his own business, talking to his son in the front seat of their family van.
“Where you go?”
I was having trouble remembering the names of any landmarks or roads from the Lonely Planet, but as I had been in Laos less than a year before, I thought I remembered the name of the big shopping centre in the middle of the city.
“Please take us to Talat Sao.” I said.
“Ah Talat Sao.”
He started up the car. Martin and I were on the edge of seats, realizing that we were entrusting ourselves to these two men, in a country we had only entered minutes before. We watched impatiently, fearing we might be robbed, or that the guy might demand double the money he had been shown. Did he really know where we wanted to go? Had I pronounced it right?
Half an hour later, we arrived at a building festooned with blue fairy lights, which was in fact Talat Sao. The car stopped, the driver got out to open the boot, so that we could get our luggage. I tried to pay the driver and instead of grabbing the money, he shook his head humbly to indicate that no money was necessary. He didn’t want any money for his efforts, he had simply taken pity on us and done what we had asked. In the end we forced him to take the money, departing with numerous thank yous. We stumbled, jet-lagged, toward the backpacker part of town, discussing the amazing welcome we had received reflecting on the fact that this would never have happened in our home countries.
For more pictures please check out the link “Pics – Laos” in the upper right hand corner of the page.