If you want to scroll straight to things you need to know before going to Kenya, scroll to the end of this article.
Would you believe me if I told you that I felt as if I touched down in paradise when visiting Kenya’s south coast?
Would you believe me if I told you that I had the best safari of my life when visiting Kenya’s Masai Mara?
Would you believe me if I told you that my Masai guide killed a wild lion 20 years ago?
Would you believe me if I told you I had to buy 2 packs of candy bonbons for about 40 kids because that’s what a traveler does when visiting the village?
Then let me tell you a little about my Kenya trip.
“I don’t want to go to Kenya. Kenya is dangerous,” said my mom.
“Says who?” I asked.
“A guy I know who went there.”
“How long ago was that?”
“A few years maybe?”
See – that’s how many conversations I have about “exotic” (exotic for non-frequent travelers) destinations start: People have heard from their friend’s brother’s auntie’s cousin that a country is dangerous because someone they know went there when the infrastructure and the political climate were completely different than what they are now. Or maybe things were just different than in their home country and that’s why they decided to label the “exotic” country as dangerous.
And people take their friends by their word. Rather than researching for themselves or asking travel bloggers and other frequent travelers for advice or just finding out for themselves.
And this is sadly why many great trips don’t happen.
Fortunately, my mom had also read “The White Masai” (a book about a Swiss woman who left her husband after briefly meeting a Masai in Kenya and gave up her whole life to live in his village) – which sparked her curiosity about Kenya. So this trip did end up happening.
It took me a while to convince my mom to go to Kenya together, but I made it work.
Woot woot! We landed in paradise a week later.
Karibu Kenya (Welcome to Kenya)!
The air smelled of East Africa and was hot and humid. I loved it. It smelled like home to me.
As we arrived at Mombasa airport, my mom’s luggage had made it as one in six total as opposed to several hundred others that got stuck in Istanbul. Including mine. So I waited along with angry Germans who had neither chill nor a way of “hakuna matata” ( = no problem) just yet to get my suitcase registered before I joined my mother in the cab that was going to take us to our hotel.
Driving through Mombasa, we passed old colonial buildings, newer apartment complexes, as well as shacks. The streets were busy with people walking to and fro in vibrant colored clothing, some carrying things on their upright heads, crooked backs or overloaded bikes. Markets we passed offered fresh produce and caged chickens.
We had to take the Likoni ferry on which “The White Masai” met her man, which was exciting for my mom. For me, it was exciting because I saw what felt like thousands of people and cars exiting the boat in an orderly, yet chaotic way (from a German perspective).
Thankfully, we had made it just in time before the ferry would close for a few hours, and before protesters stopped ferry traffic. Just a week earlier, a mother and her child had sank to the ground of the ocean in their car, which had been on the ferry, and not found yet. I made sure to leave my window as far down as I could, which also exposed me to the exhaust of the few people who let their car run even though they were standing still on the ferry.
After about an hour and a half, we got to our hotel in Diani Beach, which was just heavenly – on first glance. But more about that later.
Our room had sea views, the breakfast buffet served fresh fruit juice, croissants, and more, and was located right by the turquoise ocean and seemingly endless white sandy beach, the garden felt like Eden, and the servers were the kindest and nicest people ever.
Thanks to my fairly weak Swahili from 3 months in Tanzania in 2017, I knew more than the average tourist and attracted the employees’ interest. On the first day, I made friends with one of the servers. His name and identity will stay concealed – more about this later as well.
Both my mom and I were burned out from this year and enjoyed the majority of our first days doing absolutely nothing other than laying by the beach. This was the first time in 2 years or so were I read a book about something other than personal development and I enjoyed the F out of it!
Day tours from Diani Beach – Mombasa, snorkeling, and swimming with dolphins
When you walk on the ocean, locals will come talk to you and try to sell you their things or have you join a boat/snorkel trip. It’s normal and most of them respect a “No thank you” if you politely decline. At first, I talked to some of them, wanting to find out their story and how life here is, but when I wanted to just walk the beach alone, I told them and they would leave me. So, just be firm and stand your ground if this happens to you. I never once felt unsafe, even as a woman walking alone.
One day, we did a tour of Mombasa, with Godfrey, whom we found on Airbnb experiences. He showed us Fort Jesus, an old fortress built in the shape of a square human, Mombasa’s new and old town, which reminded me of Stonetown Zanzibar, with its Arabic and Indian doors, tiny alleyways, spice and fish markets, and colonial architecture. My culinary highlight: fresh plantain chips from a street vendor.
My mom met one of these locals, Bacari, who had learned German and knew the most hilarious German sayings: for example, “alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei” – English translation because it’s funny: “Everything has an end, except for a sausage, it’s got two.” He convinced us to join a glass boat snorkeling tour, where he showed me one of the weirdest things I had ever seen: black sea cucumbers which excrete a liquid looking like blood out of a hole, and a sea spider. I’m new to these ocean creatures, ok 😉
Two days later, Bacari told us he would take us somewhere, where we could swim next to wild dolphins at a 100% chance. Yay! Who wouldn’t be down?
Well… The weather didn’t quite play its part. We got on a VERY … and when I say VERY, I mean VERY FU(K!NG dilapidated boat, which they sell to tourists as a dhow (a traditional Omani wooden boat). The ragged plastic cover still did its job and kept most of us dry from the tropical rains that started just as we got into the boat. One of the other tourists stepped on the wrong panel. It broke and his foot landed deep down in the hull of the boat. As the poor guy managed to stay unharmed and got his foot out of there, I noticed that his foot was wet, which assured me even more that this boat was sealed. NOT.
But whatever, I had these dolphins on my mind, right.
An approximately 17-year-old boy (maybe older, because, you know, black don’t crack – non-black people who never heard this, please look it up) from the crew started talking to my mom and I. We were on opposite ends, so maybe he didn’t know we were related, but maybe he didn’t care. He asked me if he could be my boyfriend. And he asked my mother if he could come back to the hotel with her. No and no. Poor guy had malaria. I’m just glad there weren’t any mosquitos out on the ocean and it was bright daylight. I didn’t want to get that sh!t again.
As we went out further and further into the ocean, the waves became bigger and bigger. So big that one of them crashed onto the whole backside of the boat, leaving the wet-foot guy’s bag super wet and the rest of people scared that we were going to die on this boat. I was more scared for my phone to drown. How would I show you all the pictures? Either way – we had to turn around – the sea was just too turbulent and raw.
The highlight of this trip weren’t the “100%-guaranteed wild dolphins,” but the food we were served at this cliff-side restaurant on Wasini island, an island without cars, or bikes nor electricity (just a few solar panels): coconut rice, algae, fresh fish, cassava – YUM!
After about 5 hours on that forsaken boat, we made it back to where we started – or so we thought. Because 50 m before we reached the dock, our motor failed. We sat there for about half an hour when some nice captain from another boat was kind enough to ship us ashore.
Safari time in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Game Reserve
The next day it was time for our safari. But not before we witnessed the whole damn airport celebrate one pilot’s birthday with a local band and dancers performing for him inside the airport and then outside by the field in front of a tiny plane. And not before this pilot fed his birthday cake to each and every passenger in the waiting area. How lovely?!
Sometimes, I love that my mom always wants to be first and secures her sh!t. That way, we got to sit right behind the pilots as we were flying in one of the teeny-tiny planes up the coast first, and then to Masai Mara, a National Reserve along the Tanzanian border.
Our guide picked us up and drove us to our camp. The first thing I saw as I looked outside of my room was a big ol’ fu(king massive crocodile chilling just a few feet down the hill, getting its tan on. YO! There was NO fence between me and this thing. If he wanted to, he could have crawled up the hill and into our tent. Thankfully, there were Masai patrolling with their bows and arrows. These arrows were good enough to keep the monkeys away, but would probably only tickle the crocodile’s skin who would be unphased if an arrow like this would touch it. Thankfully, the hill was not an obstacle that Mr. Croc wanted to overcome. If you walked a hundred meters down the path in front of our tent, you had the same scenario, except now there was a pool of hippos.
Hippos are so cute to look at, especially little ones, but did you know they kill more people than any other large mammal in Africa? Yikes…
But anyway, here’s what our amazing guide showed us within 3 days of safaris:
- 5 cheetahs devouring a fresh kill (a small wildebeest), when a bunch of hyenas and a tiny ass jackal, who sneaked in and disappeared with a piece of intestine, jumped them and took over
- 4 lion cubs munching on a fresh kill (a bull)
- Countless lionesses, 1 old ass lion, 1 mid-aged lion
- 2 jaguars
- Many elephant herds
- …and much more. All except for rhinos (which I didn’t mind).
What a safari!
At the end, our guide told us he was saving up to build a big house and buy cows, so he could afford a family. He was, maybe jokingly, maybe not, offering my mother some cows for me, which she politely declined. Thanks mom! I can’t see myself as the next white Masai!
Getting to see local life & homes
Because my mom and I have done a few safaris together, we knew we wanted to relax again after, and so we went back to our hotel.
Before the safari, the server had given me his contact and we arranged for us to meet outside the hotel as any staff-guest interaction was strictly prohibited. But, you know, I had to see what went on behind the tourist scenes, and get a glimpse of the locals’ lives. The first day, it was just me and him and he told me about how the hotel’s employees don’t make more than like USD 0.50 per hour. A day’s paycheck sometimes is merely enough for a boda (motorcycle) ride from the hotel and back to their village – depending on where they live. The hotel’s employees sometimes have to work crazy shifts which ended at 11 p.m. and started at 3 a.m. And so on…
The next day, he took me to his cousin’s house. As the foreign visitor, I had to buy candy for the kids in the village – something I don’t support because I hate the thought of giving processed sugar shizzle for kids, but my own opinion had to come after what was custom in the village and what would make me welcomed.
So me and him bought our first bag of candy caramel bonbons, sat in the backyard of his cousin’s house and waited for the kids of the village to come get their share. Groups of kids who had gotten word of the “mzungu” (meaning wanderer, but used to refer to white people in East Africa) in their village joined us, some shyly, some not. Some touching my hair and skin while others sang “Jambo Bwana,” a famous Kenyan pop song, for me. My broken Swahili even allowed me to sing along for a bit. Soon, what seemed like every kid in the village had found out about there being candy from a mzungu and we had to buy another bag.
Then we went to the market to buy green bananas and some other veggies. On our way back, we stopped at a house where a lady sat in front. After a quick chit chat, she opened the metal door to the inside of the house and I got a glimpse inside: 2 huge coolers that had been white at some point, but were now stained from the fish that had been going in and out for years. She cut and weighed a piece of fish for us and because we only had big bills, she told us we could pay her later.
Back at the house, the ladies cooked a meal for us.
They also dressed me with a traditional piece of fabric and gifted it to me.
Soon, the brother came with his tuktuk and dropped me off at the hotel.
It was an intense experience, also for a few things I’m unable to mention here. I was happy, grateful, and humbled to have been invited to a local’s home. For me, that’s always the best way to travel.
This was the perfect way to end my last full day in Kenya!
Now, here are some things to know about Kenya before you go:
- Kenya’s population is almost at 50 million, with its capital Nairobi being the largest city. Located at the coast, Mombasa is the former capital and oldest city of the country.
- Kenya uses Kenyan Shilling as currency. Multiply your dollar amount by 100 and you get the approximate exchange rate: USD 10 = KES 1,000. Always have smaller bills available for tips, especially when you’re staying in hotels or on safari.
- When buying souvenirs, choose handmade jewelry or crafts from locals, so you support the local economy rather than an international hotel chain and their souvenir store.
- You should not drink the tap water. In places where it’s not safe to brush your teeth with it, you will be given a water bottle.
- Kenya’s two official languages are English and Swahili, but there are a total of 44 tribes, each with their own language, dance rituals and other traditions.
- Instead of just learning “jambo” ( = hello), “karibu” ( = welcome) and “asante sana” ( = thank you very much), try memorizing a few more words, and you will strike up conversations with interested locals anywhere.
Here are some more useful words:
Mambo – How are you? (Locals will approach you so much more using this word alone instead of “jambo”)
Poa / Fresh – Good.
Asanta [sana] – Thank you [very much]
Usiku mwema – Good night.
Habari – How are you?
Mzuri [sana] – [Very] good.
Nawewe – And you?
Habari sa asubuhi – Good morning. (Which you have to answer with “mzuri [sana]”)
- The Masai are probably Africa’s most known tribe. Yes, their men used to kill lions. But there are a lot more interesting things about them and their culture. If you get the chance, witness a jumping ritual, their dances and music, or, if you’re really brave, get a burned skin tattoo.
- The majority of Kenyans are Christians (83 %), but especially in the coastal region, you will encounter more Muslims. Homosexuality is illegal and punishable.
- Hop into tuktuks or onto bodas (motorcycles) for cheapest and fastest transportation.
And here are some things to keep in mind coming to Kenya as a privileged traveler from a developed nation as well as some of my last thoughts:
If this is your first time in a developing country or perhaps African country, things will be different. Things move at a slower pace. Some things don’t go as planned. You will see a lot of poverty. That’s just the way it is. Step away from thinking you need to help and save people all the time and impose your beliefs on them. Rather get to know them and how they live. They wouldn’t come to your country trying to help you be happier or live in the moment.
Coming here for two weeks of voluntourism is not going to make a difference, especially if you work with an organization that puts financial gain before skilled workers. That means, don’t work in an orphanage for two weeks because you babysat your cousin 5 years ago. Local kids need consistency in their lives and role models of their heritage and their country. Read this perspective on voluntourism and travel responsibly.
Think before snapping random pictures or selfies of African children. Are their parents ok with you photographing them? Are you taking them for your social media? Would you take a picture of yourself surrounded by all-white kids and post it on your social media? Would you like to be photographed without someone asking you for permission? Would you like your kids to end up on a stranger’s social media? Read this perspective on the ethics of photographing children by Clio from Your Next Big Trip.
Be aware of your privilege. Fair skin is seen as beautiful. Fair skin is thought of as wealth. Power. Privilege. And so on. Some will treat you better because of your skin color. Some will want to show you their home because you are a foreigner. Some will want your money because they associate your skin color with wealth. Some will try to hustle you. Some will see you as a trophy.
This is not a generalization about Kenya, but these are all things still going on thanks to colonialism. Beware. But don’t let this deter you from anything.
Be human first. Smile. Laugh. Find common ground. Show interest. Be kind. And it will be returned. Just like in any other place in this world <3
Lastly, I want to mention that even though this hotel was paradise and I thoroughly enjoyed it and its luxuries, I don’t know if I’d visit again because of how the workers are treated and its European ownership. I think I’d rather support locals on Airbnb. What do you think? Would you support a place where you know workers barely get paid enough to live?