We left Ottawa mid-day, on a dry, clear and cold day at the end of December 2004. Peter's wife, Martha, and Ewart Tempest, a very dear friend, both took time out of their days to drive us to the airport in Montreal (trip planning resulted in a too-late booking time for good flights out of Ottawa). Thank you so much, both of you!
Excitement was just around the corner, as, once inside, Peter could not find his passport! Tension and anxiety rapidly grew as he frantically rifled through his bags. He called home to Ottawa and got his two kids to start searching the house, and we sketched rough plans on how Peter could get 200km to Ottawa and back before our plane left.
And then, he found it, in his jacket pocket. Crisis averted.
Peter and Yi arrive in Montreal
Potential Passport Disaster
The rest of the evening was pretty boring, as we had to wait many hours before our flight left.
Tiringly waiting for my flight
Across the Atlantic in a 777
British Airways Fare
Our entire flight was with British Airways, from Montreal to London, and then from London to Nairobi. Nairobi! A well-known exotic locale, at least for a northerner like myself. I'd never been to Africa, never been to the 'third-world', so it was all an unknown and exciting quantity for me. Anyway, back to the flight. It was... well, uneventful, except that the food is actually pretty good, even in BA's economy section.
On the internet at Heathrow
Heathrow airport internet-terminal, I made the first of my ‘real-time
online dispatches’ to my web page. I’d set up a
remote-access web-update function prior to leaving, and I
planned to update it myself while I had internet access, and
via Brian on the Satellite phone when I did not (I had rented
a Satellite phone for the duration of our trip). A full record
of all of the entries in that trip log is available here
Watching Europe crawl by as our flight from London winged its way southward, I couldn't help but think what a transition we were going through. Staid, proper England lay behind us, and something quite different awaited us - I just didn't know quite what, even with all of the writings and warnings in travel literature. Interesting how fear of the unknown grabs humans. I was very careful to secure my money belt before leaving England (and this is the first time I had ever worn one). I brought 50lb 'gorilla' fishing line along with climbing carabiners, with the objective of fastening all of my expensive camera gear to my body in the hopes of avoiding an unpleasant end to a hit-and-run mugging. Humans are so instinctively paranoid! But, I thought to myself, was it really like that?
I watched as the northern coast of a new and strange continent glided past. Vistas of tan-colored desert stretched endlessly in all directions, and I saw how enormous the Sahara really is. What is also striking is how little evidence of man's hand there was down below. Very rarely were there any semblances of tracks or roads. Dusk falls, then night, and I saw not the lights of well-ordered towns and villages, but the angry orange crescents of some sort of wildfires. On the moving map display in the plane, I could see as we crossed the equator. Suddenly, I'd gone from winter to summer - and to a hemisphere that I had never been to before.
The group on the way to Nairobi
Sahara Star Dunes
Finally, we descended towards Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. I saw real lights below, and, as we got close to landing, we crossed a major highway - with actual cars running and headlights and signs...and for some reason I was mildly surprised. I don't know what I was thinking; maybe that I was going back in time to some prehistoric age. Ridiculous, really. I guess the mind will fill the unknown in with the most absurd ideas. A good lesson in not making too many assumptions!
Now, it soon became apparent that there _were_ some major differences here with respect to England and Canada. One was the fact that even though we arrived on a Boeing 747-400, the largest passenger airliner in existence at the time, no jetway was available for us. We descended via two portable airstairs into the pleasant open air of an African night. Also different was the watchful eye of the airport staff, who immediately discouraged even quick snapshots of us descending out of the plane.
The airport was large but a little 'different'. Maybe a shade of dumpiness, hard to explain. Maybe it was all of the wood paneling at the customs gates. Seemed out of place for a modern place like an airport.
Entering the country was no hassle - I already had my visa and my papers were cursorily looked at. And no one even bothered looking at my vaccination cards. After a long wait for the luggage, we met up with a group taxi that I'd previously arranged over the internet. Our destination was the 680 hotel in Downtown Nairobi (excellently suggested by Pu). It was at this point that we experienced our first taste of the getting-stuffed-into-a-toyota-minibus phenomenon that turned out to be very characteristic of East Africa.
The ride to the hotel was interesting. Everything seemed slightly different: driving on the left, being the minority, winter become summer, and roundabouts (why we don't have them in North America is beyond me!). Also, we were 10pm on new Years' eve, and the streets were alive with activity. Was this normal, I wondered, or were we seeing something special because of the holiday? Hell, I didn't even know if New Years' eve was a big holiday around here! My ignorance was boundless!
After what seemed like a twenty-five minute ride, we pulled up in front of the Hotel 680. I was wound-up and ready for someone to pop into my face, pawing at me and trying to sell me something or swindle me, but no, none of that occurred. Instead, a couple of eager hotel staff busily started to unload our bags. Later I would learn that anyone eager to move your stuff around expects something in return! Across the street, a bar was pumping out lots of loud music and new years' revelers were bustling inside. The atmosphere was one of festivity and exuberance.
The hotel 680 is a relatively modern place with little details that remind you that "you're not at home". For one thing, there were a lot of security folks around. Each floor had a guard stationed at the elevator, and they wanted to know my identity to make sure I was ok to be on the floor. The rooms were nice, but somehow slightly... I don't know, I guess old looking, even though the building itself looked pretty new. And even though I was on the eigth floor, we could fully open the windows and stick my head out. (not only that, but the next morning I discovered that you could walk on the outdoor stairwell right onto the roof!! Something that would definitely not be possible in a modern North American Hotel!)
680 Hotel Room on New Year's
The group got together for a little New Years' toast in my room. Afterwards, we watched as the city outside celebrated with impromptu vehicle parades and lots of shouting. Seemed like a cheerful place, really.
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