A long walk to the Karen Blixen Museum

I gather, from the looks that I got, that white people don't go for miles long walks in Nairobi. Also, the fact that I saw not another single white person while running and walking nearly sixteen miles suggests that it's an activity low on the list for tourists.

That's a shame, because I enjoyed both the scenery during my walk and by the people that I met along the way. (The run left me gasping and with a sore foot. I stayed focused and completed.)

Nairobi, by the way, is a place where you only rarely need to check the weather as it stays very consistently in a narrow, warm band. The sun is also abundant, leading a certain knucklehead to get burned. Sunscreen and a hat are on the list to acquire today.

I ended up taking the scenic route to Karen, named for Karen Blixen. For those who don't know, she was the author of Out of Africa, a terrific book later made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. The movie won a total of seven academy awards.

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The town, reputed to be named after Karen Blixen, is affluent, especially in relation to some of the other neighborhoods that I passed. Since I left from the mall, the route was considerably longer than if I had left from the hotel. Walking along Langata Road, the sidewalk gives way pretty quickly to an unpaved shoulder more like a single track trail than a city walking route. The early part of my trek led me through a business district and near a nursery. I found it entertaining to watch a worker from the nursery shoo cows away from the young plants and onto the road, much to the consternation of the drivers. They eventually meandered to the other side of the road and began mowing the grasses there.

The road is also populated by a number of schools, many of them religious, and all sequestered behind tall walls topped with razor wire and, as often as not, electrified wires.

This points to one of the dichotomies of Nairobi. The people are wonderfully welcoming. I've had several long conversations with complete strangers. As a Mr. Kipkiror said, "We are a very hospitable people." And they are. Hellos from weird Americans walking to nowhere are greeted with smiles and hello's back, or just a smile and 'Yes!'.

Yet the fences are real, as are the guards. Most of the upscale communities are gated and have guards, as does my hotel. The Galleria has an armed presence and they perform a security check on all vehicles entering the premises. Pedestrians likewise get screened.

The two types of security serve two different purposes. The malls and schools fear more violence that left 50 westerners dead at the Westgate shopping mall several years ago, and 147 dead students at a university in northwestern Kenya in April of this year. Both maintain high levels of visible security to dissuade possible repetitions of those atrocities.

The fences point to a separate problem. Kenya, while performing well relative to its neighbors, remains a country with considerable poverty. Property crime is relatively high, enough so that companies advertise the electric fences as a means of controlling the grounds for the house.

This became more evident as I got closer to Karen. Hedges disguised the walls and the wires but they were there, along with the heavy metal gates at the driveways. The properties morphed to estates as I made the turn down Karen Road.

The Karen Blixen Museum occupies the old homestead and grounds, while the Karen Country Club sits where the coffee used to be grown. Apparently, coffee is ill-suited to the area as the humidity is too high, a fact I didn’t know. Blixen was from Denmark rather than England and earned the ire of the ruling colonial class by treating the Massai and Kikiyu as people. She provided a degree of education and health care for her workers that was remarkable for the period.

Much of this was explained to me by an articulate young man named Ephraim. The fee for the Museum includes a personal tour which starts with a chat in the front lawn, in the shade of the trees. The tour of the house itself does not take long and photography is not permitted – having visited Monticello, I expected this. Most of the furniture is original to the home though, disappointingly, the books were donated by Universal Studios during the movie.

In a surprise, I noted two 40 foot towering cactus in the back lawn. Ephraim had already left to serve another sightseer so I didn’t have a chance to ask if they were original to the home or not. Still, they are the tallest cactus I recall having seen.

The return trip went much faster as I took the short route. On the way, I saw the signage for the Giraffe Center. Looking it up on a map, it’s within walking distance, too. I think I’ll take a cab, though, as I want to use the Nikon for pictures there.

I need to get a baggie, too. I had a very cool young lady that I used to coach ask if I would collect a sample of dirt from Kenya. She apparently has samples from all over the world. It sounded like a neat idea, so I’ll get some at the Giraffe Park. Later, I’ll get some from Iten. She’s a runner – she’ll get a kick out of that.

If you tweet, you can follow me at @paulduffau – I’ll be tweeting from various spots along the way during my trip. Also, the audiobook version of Finishing Kick is out – and already out-selling both print and ebook, which I expected.

Take care and run gently.