Saturday, October 15, 2011

An oasis in Nairobi

After spending a few days in western Kenya on a trip for a group that advocates for more global health research, I returned to Nairobi last night for just 24 hours. I went out with some friends to dinner and a nightclub, where we saw things we had never seen before. There was dancing that left little to the imagination, a big woman who gyrated her hips in such wide circles we were awestruck, and gumby-like men dancing with gumby-like women.

I didn’t expect to run this morning. But I did, joined by my colleague Michelle and her friend Natasia. The day was beautiful. Blue skies, 70 degrees, a light breeze. We drove to an oasis in the middle of the city, the Arboretum. 

Nairobi is traffic hell. A six mile ride can take two to three hours.  Buses and minibuses emit black smoke. But in the midst of these horrible road scenes is a protected forest with dirt pathways. One path around the circumference is two kilometers, or about 1.25 miles.

We set off under a canopy of mostly eucalyptus trees, an invasive species brought in years ago from Australia. The path was wet clay and soon we were running with inch-thick mud caked to our running shoes. But it felt great to be in a forest in Nairobi, almost euphoric, and we went down hills and up hills and along a roaring brook.

A monkey ran in front of me and scampered up a tree. It joined a family of monkeys and they all looked down on us as we ran under them.   We ended up running four laps, eight kilometers or five miles. We saw several other monkeys, red birds, orange birds, yellow birds.

I had to get back and pack my things for the plane ride home. I’m taking chunks of Kenya with me, clay caked to the bottom of my shoes. I packed them in plastic bags, and know that when I clean them at home I will get a good whiff of a side of Nairobi that I didn't expect.

Hippo Point, and Kisumu's wildlife

Runners love routine. They may have a variety of routes, but most run just a handful. I think it’s because sticking to a routine means there’s one less thing to think about. And there’s a lot to think about on a run.

So running while traveling often adds a degree of difficulty; it means finding a new route. I just traveled to Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city. It is in the western part of the nation, sitting on the shores of Lake Victoria. I had spent a few weeks in Kisumu a couple of years ago for research on my upcoming book, A Twist of Faith, and that meant I already had a running route.

I headed out to Hippo Point at first light. You can’t go earlier here. A motorcycle or bike or car or truck might hit you. There are also deep holes the size of car tires in the sidewalks. You could fall in and never crawl out. You can’t go much later either. Then the mixed traffic is a nightmare to navigate. Just when it seems safe a biker is flying right at you.

After a mile on the main road, I headed toward Lake Victoria. All downhill and dirt. My memories of the run started coming back to me: the old Sunrise Hotel, which now looked empty; large flowering bushes in front of large homes behind security walls; and the Kisumu Impala Park. A small herd of impalas, most with antlers, stood right by the fence and I stopped a few feet away. They were a little jumpy, but curious, too.

I ran around the park and came to the front gate, which was open, and I ran in a few yards. A sleepy park officer stopped me. He wouldn’t let me enter. The park has a leopard and a hyena in cages, and only the impala and a zebra or two wandering around. Next time.

Less than a mile down the road was Hippo Point. All the way, I ran through swarms of dragonflies. There were tens of thousands of them, hovering like helicopters about 15 feet in the air all the way to the ground. It felt almost like I was running inside a black cloud of insects. They maneuvered around me, not touching me once. I didn’t enjoy it, though.

At the point, hippos are said to come into the shore here, but I did see any. Instead, several fishermen readied their boats, and two gigantic black ibises cried out high in one tree.

The run is an out-and-back, and so I ran through the army of dragonflies, past the beautiful impala, up the hill, and on to the main road, where I avoided bikes, motorcycles, cars, trucks and large holes in the sidewalk. All is well in Kisumu.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Birthday run in Kenya: Crows and first steps

I turned 52 today. I arrived in Nairobi after a 19-hour flight from Washington. After I walked into my hotel room in downtown Nairobi, I laid down on my bed and surrendered. I slept for two hours, and knew I had to get up. It was late afternoon. I had to run.

Birthdays are important and birthday runs must happen without exception. There is something in the joy about being able to run, period. There is something about staying fit, no matter your age. But best of all, there are the sight aches and pains in legs and joints afterward that remind you that nothing happens without effort.

I ran to an old Nairobi standby: the Nairobi Club, an institution that started in 1901 and still has the feel of being in a place at the turn of the 20th century. You can almost imagine British colonial aristocracy sitting on chairs around the edge of a large green, oval-shaped field, politely cheering on the cricket teams.

Around and around the field I went, eight times in all, two minutes, 30 seconds a lap. African crows swooped over my head. A family of olive thrushes hunted for food nearby. The most impressive sight, though, was of a determined father and one-year-old son as the boy tried to walk on his own.

The boy had the look about him of a miniature Mr. T, the old TV show character. He was chunky for a one-year old, and his hair was cut in Mr. T's trademark thick Mohawk fashion.

Every lap I saw the boy walk a little farther. The father laughed and laughed, and encouraged him with each step. He even smoothed out the bumpy grass a half-step ahead of the boy. Still, the boy keep tipping, sprawling, nose-diving into the grass. Still, he pulled himself up and kept trying. He even laughed at his falls. I couldn't tell who was more determined: father or son. It made me think back to earlier birthdays, my 33rd, 36th, and 38th, when we had one-year-olds learning to walk and how completely astounding that whole experience was.

There were some parallel moments today on the Nairobi Club's cricket fields: a boy learning to walk, a birthday boy shuffling around him. A boy taking all the time in the world to learn to walk, a birthday boy taking forever to complete a few laps. It brought back memories of earlier time when first steps were the most glorious thing in the world.