All my life I've been fascinated with the concept of a safari. To be in a country so far out of my comfort zone, driving through landscapes straight out of The Lion King with nothing but the doors of a jeep to keep me safe from Lions and Leopards, Hippos and Hyenas...
It captivated me.
As part of the adventure, I booked a 12-day safari through Kenya and Tanzania.
As the days drew closer, I got my shots from the doctor (Hep A, Hep B, and Typhoid if I remember correctly), I received my schedule from the wonderful Erik at Ewamann's Safari, and began to pack all my bits and bobs - clothes, bug spray, mosquito net, anti-malaria tablets, sunscreen, hand sanitizer... the works.
The day before I flew out, however, I began to get extremely nervous. Previously I had been to far-flung countries like India, the UAE, and Vietnam, but not like this. In India I booked an all-inclusive multi-day tour with a lovely Sikh driver called Mr Singh. In the UAE I had a travel companion. In Vietnam I joined a charity cycle with a whole team of Irish people as well as local guides and a translator. This time it was just little ol' me, flying down to Kenya to get up close and personal with some of the most dangerous animals on the planet.
Thankfully, my nerves didn't get the best of me. I boarded the plane and scooted from Dublin to Amsterdam to Nairobi with only a couple of butterflies in my tummy.
Upon arrival, I began to question my decision. My phone didn't work, every taxi driver at the arrivals area was trying to get me into their car, and the guy supposed to collect me wasn't there. Which was to be expected, I guess, considering my flight had been delayed. Waiting, I began to think I was stranded.
Here is where I learned something very important about Kenya, and about East Africa in general. It is best demonstrated with a well-used phrase called Pole Pole. In the Swahili language, which is a beautiful language, by the way, it means Slowly, Slowly. It's less a translation, however, and more a way of life. Nothing happens particularly fast in Kenya. If someone says they will be with you at 1pm, they will probably not show up until 2pm. Or later. And they won't even apologise because this lateness is, apparently, normal and to be expected.
As a native of Western Europe, this concept was alien to me. In the fast-paced, corporate, Google-driven world I've become accustomed to, we all want things done yesterday. Everything has to be ASAP, on the double, and make it snappy. In Africa, this is turned on its head. It's jarring, to say the least. But once you understand Pole Pole, once you accept Pole Pole, your time in Africa will be far easier.
For the whole month I was there, I don't think anyone either left or arrived on time. Drivers were Pole Pole, store workers were Pole Pole, and even checking into accommodation was Pole Pole.
The first place I stayed, for example, was a lovely hotel on the outskirts of Nairobi. Check in was 1pm. I arrived at 4pm and my room still wasn't ready. I had to wait in the lobby until 5pm, and I could see a lot of other people were having to do the same.
One instance of this is annoying. Two is even more annoying. But as it happens again and again... you get used to it. You accept it. Strangely, you begin to go Pole Pole yourself. You stop rushing. You stop worrying about being on time. By the end of my four weeks in Africa I actually liked Pole Pole. It was a far more relaxing way to live.
I'll probably write up a separate little post about Swahili words and phrases you should learn if travelling to East Africa, but for now I'll just mention one other phrase - Hakuna Matata. Anyone who has seen The Lion King will be familiar with this phrase already. It translates as No Worries. (Incidentally, there are many Swahili words used in The Lion King. Pumba, Simba, Rafiki etc but that's a post for another day.)
Hakuna Matata goes hand-in-hand with Pole Pole. They are, you could say, two sides of the same coin. You go slowly, slowly and you have no worries.
I guess I gave a little bit of a spoiler above, mentioning the hotel, but yes, my scheduled pick up did eventually arrive and I did eventually get to the hotel.
But, while the first half of my first day in Nairobi was a little stressful, having to deal with Pole Pole without realising, the second half of the day was a dream. The weather was nice, the hotel was fancy and inexpensive, and I whiled away the rest of the hours soaking up the sun in the rooftop pool which, incidentally, didn't close on time that night. I was not complaining.