Friday, December 31

7AM local time finds us at Heathrow Airport, where we have a three hour stopover. First, we have to go through a huge, slow lineup for a security screening even though we are staying inside Terminal 4.

Andrew uses an internet kiosk (with an awful all-steel keyboard) to post the first of his web updates. We go for a leg stretcher walk down the length of the terminal, which is huge. It seems like a kilometer-long shopping mall. This is a big airport.

Sunset at 37,000 feet
Then we are off on the 8 hour flight to Nairobi. I manage to remain conscious until we fly past Paris or so (as shown on BA's nifty moving map displays), then I doze off until the Po river valley in the Alps. Then the food comes.

The Sahara is big. Really big. You realize this when you look down and you see sand, nothing but sand, flying for two hours in a Boeing 747 at 850km/h at 37000 feet, and you look at the map display and realize that this strip of sand goes right across the whole continent. It's big. By the time we're finally starting to see green again, the sun is setting.

In the dark, we see brush fires - long, jagged strips of brilliant orange. At one point I see four or five of them at once. There are no other lights visible.

I go into a washroom and change into light synthetic clothing.

At Nairobi airport, we exit the huge airplane on old-fashioned stairways and walk across the tarmac to the terminal building. I realize that this is goodbye to our familiar civilization for a while. I don't know yet what to expect from this continent, where everyone is black and we white folks are a tiny, visible ethnic minority.

Naturally there is a huge delay until our baggage comes out on the carousel, and the flight itself was late as well. I wander out to look at the crowd waiting for the flight, and there is someone there holding up a sign saying "Andrew Lavigne". Good work, Andrew. I signal to the man that we are here and he signals back that he has seen me.

When we finally have our bags and have gone past the customs person without so much as a word spoken, we are bundled into a Toyota "Hi-Ace" minivan (I don't know yet just how common this type of vehicle is here). That's the driver and his assistant, all six of us and all of our bags. If you squeeze really hard, you can get the doors shut. At least one of us ends up sitting on luggage. Hakuna Matata - that's Kiswahili for "No Problem", and it describes the attitude of this whole country. The driver and his buddy chatter cheerfully as the rest of us gaze out the windows at this alien land, with its palm trees, with cars driving on the wrong side of the road, armed police checkpoints, and the warm humid atmosphere (back at home it is, of course, winter).

Thumping music and crowds greet us in Nairobi. It is New Year's Evening. We are decanted at the 680 Hotel, right downtown, and a swarm of bellhops / security types comes out and takes our bags inside. Speaking of the bags. Among much anecdotal information I received about Africa was that your bags would likely be stolen from. So I put those tiny travel padlocks on the zippers. No worries. The padlocks are still there.

The hotel takes cash. This turns out to be typical. Credit cards are only barely trusted in a sophisticated place like Nairobi, and everywhere else, wads of cash rule, local currency or U.S. dollars doesn't matter.

The turn of the new year finds us in our hotel rooms, and we toast each other with a little wine, and lean out the window to observe an impromptu parade of a fire truck or two and lots of cars with their horns honking. In the distance, some fireworks crackle.

Sleep would be nice after 36 hours of travel. But directly across the road is a very loud drinking establishment. The music they are playing sounds very African, even though I once recognize the tune from "Ay la Bamba", but played in the local style. I'm jetlagged and suffering sensory overload and can't sleep. So I go down to the hotel's internet access room, where for a measly 2 Kenyan shillings per minute (amounting to less than a dollar per half hour) I have the use of a Windows machine with instant messaging and everything. I make a phone call to my parents just to enjoy the novelty of calling across an 8 hour time difference. For them it is still 2004, and not even dark yet.

When I go back upstairs, I am greeted by the floor security guard. There are a lot of security guards here in Nairobi. They're like paid loiterers, they're always standing around, I guess to deter the unpaid and potentially troublesome regular loiterers. All have smart uniforms and none of them are armed. The real serious ones have a baton and maybe a pair of handcuffs. The only people here with guns are the cops and the military, and they don't fool around, they typically have assault rifles if they have anything.

I ask the floor security guard when the noise from the establishment across the road can be expected to stop. Oh, about daybreak he says. Great.

All pictures for this day

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