After spending somewhere near twenty or more hours on airplanes flying from Montreal to Nairobi, I was ready for some rest when KLM’s flight landed early in the a.m. I walked down the stairway and across the tarmac into the dimly-lit Embakasi airport and immediately thought that I had stepped back into the ‘50s – or even earlier. Huge wooden fans on long cords hung down from the ceiling, and their slowly turning blades pushed the warm air down into the old, dimly-lit terminal building.
When my bag finally arrived, I grabbed it and walked out to the front of the terminal to look for something resembling a taxi. Swarmed by the usual offering to carry bags, I let one lead me to a waiting car, and I climbed in – right into the driver’s seat. Damn! They drive on the left! Eventually I got it sorted out and from then on I automatically got into the back seat of anything I was riding in.
The ride into the city was something else. First, there weren’t the city lights on the horizon that I was accustomed to seeing in North America. No big deal, I thought. We’re obviously a long way from anywhere. Second, on both sides of the highway we kept passing campfires, with barely-visible shadows sitting around the dim light, trying to keep warm in the cold night air. This is a road into a city, I asked myself? Well, apparently it was, and shortly we were in the middle of a poorly-lit downtown Nairobi.
That driving-on-the-left thing nearly got me killed the first time I tried to walk across a street mid-block. Not being the street-smart kid that I ended up being by the time I pulled out of Kenya, I looked in the wrong direction before stepping off of the curb. At the last second I saw something coming out of the corner of my eye and I pulled back, just in time to narrowly miss being smacked by a car coming from what to me was the wrong direction. After that near miss, before crossing the street I learned to look in the opposite direction to what I was accustomed to in North America.
I sat around Nairobi waiting for the Somali embassy staff to arrange my visa to get into the country and out to the Conoco project in the north. They were familiar with the project, but for some reason they just couldn’t get it together, and I languished for three weeks.
From later talking to other expats who had entered Somalia, I learned that the easiest and quickest route was through Italy. Italy had a good colonial relationship with Somalia up to the 1940s, and certain parts of that relationship had continued. I let Ottawa know, and subsequent personnel were routed through Italy without delay.
That didn’t do me any good.
I spent my three weeks waiting for the visa by exploring Nairobi and the surrounding countryside with a vengeance.
A Christmas present
While staying at the Hilton, on Christmas Day I met a girl from Haifa, Israel. I had stopped to take a look at Kenya’s version of Santa Claus performing on the Hilton’s mezzanine, and since she too was alone, I introduced myself to Irit Frakter, and we moved on from there. I later learned that Irit had lost a close friend in one of Israel’s constant skirmishes with neighbouring countries and that she was in Nairobi to take a break before a fresh start.
Irit would accompany me on my daily trek to the embassy to check on the status of my visa, and then we would spend the remainder of the day walking around Nairobi, exploring all the nooks and crannies we could find on our own in this beautiful city located almost 6,000 feet above sea level. When we got fed up with that, we rented a car and driver and toured Nairobi National Park, just south of the city, where all the African wildlife a young guy from a small town in Canada could ever want to see was available.
The Hilton was a popular place for Europeans and others to stay while in Nairobi, so when it was booked, we’d move down to the Stanley Hotel and the Thorn Tree Café for a different taste of Nairobi hospitality. The Stanley was a gracious old place that had been in existence in its various incarnations since 1903. We thoroughly enjoyed the old-Africa ambiance, different as it was from the brand-new Hilton.
Eventually, Irit and I parted company. She went on to Mombassa and then back to her home in Haifa. Several days later I received my visa.
I was bound for Mogadishu.
A little music trivia: The song Kung Fu Fighting was playing virtually non-stop on local radio stations. At that time it was the number one song in that part of the world.
Today, Nairobi isn’t so tourist-friendly and I’ve been told that it’s better called “Nairobbery”. Such freedom of movement as the two of us experienced and enjoyed in the mid-‘70s isn’t common any longer. That’s unfortunate, since Irit and I really enjoyed our time together spent wandering around in that amazing city.
Years later, when I was no longer flying, I learned that Steve Mills, formerly with the company, was residing in Nairobi. A quick Google search will turn up this 2006 bio from a South African conference on credit reporting systems in Africa:
Group Managing Director
Stephen Mills is the Group Managing Director for CRBAfrica Ltd in Nairobi, Kenya, a position which he has held since 1990. In this capacity, Mr. Mills has been responsible for establishing a network of credit reference bureaus in sub-Saharan Africa.
Mr. Mills has a varied background in aviation and humanitarian efforts. Previously, he served as Chief Executive Officer of Horn Aviation in Somalia and Sudan, operating a humanitarian airline on behalf of the European Union, from 1987-1990. Prior to that, he was company representative for Regtek Anstalt Ltd. In Kenya, responsible for aviation and oil and geological surveys (1982-1987), and earlier, he was vice president for international operations at Viking Helicopters Ltd in Canada, with operations in North America, Africa, and Middle East.
Mr. Mills began his career in the UK’s Royal Airforce, and as a Professional Footballer in Netherlands. He is a Kenyan national.