kenya: nairobi

If the retentive and reluctant tourist in you is going to emerge at any time, it'll be in Nairobi. The driver's assurance that Nairobi closes down at night and not a soul lives in the city centre isn't the relaxation tonic it's supposed to be when the armed guards are searching the underneath of your mini bus with mirrors and the heat is melting your face onto your jumper. Nevertheless it's an incredible place. Upon your first visit, the forbidden nature of it gets into your blood - the constant nag from your conscience that you really are not to leave the hotel grounds begs you to explore further, but as you settle back for a night cap in the gardens bathed in coloured fairy lights, even the faint drone of the local news announcing an explosion in the Mara (your home in less than 5 days), fails to divert your attention from your first encounter with nature; the 30 cm long, 5cm thick bright white slug that's making its way over to your table.

As you wake for possibly the most sumptuous breakfast ever cooked on a bunsen burner grill, and nod recognition to fellow travellers, you're relieved to find out that you are not the only female to get no sleep due to near suffocation after spending the majority of the night carefully manoeuvring the bed sheets to cover your face and body to prevent imminent death by mosquitoes that, in hindsight, existed only in our fragile minds.

The group gathers to settle hotels bills and frantically change currency in the belief that this is the last piece of civilization for 6 days. As we pile into the mini bus for our journey through North East Kenya to Samburu National Park, we are introduced to our driver for the week, John.

John is a young looking gentle man, who you forget has a wife and children whom he leaves behind for weeks on end to earn a wage the best way he knows how: driving tourists around Kenya. You (worryingly) soon get used to John's driving; think formula one meets Victorian cobbled Britain and you may have some indication of the comfort factor that is exclusively yours for the next week.

Road travel in Kenya is not to be avoided. Despite your long daily journeys, non-existent roads, searing heat and billowing clouds of dust, the children from the local tribes running across the scrub land, waving and eager to meet you never fails to lose its appeal. Neither does the roadside ambling giraffe, the scores of Africans on mobile phones and the bustling market atmosphere of each small town and village.

What no one can ever prepare you for is your first stop at a BP petrol station. Barely 5 hours on the road in Kenya you find yourself at Isiolo - the last outpost, and last stretch of concrete road, before your 90 minute drive to Samburu across rugged and potholed terrain. Pulling into the forecourt you are simply swamped with locals selling spears and knives that would make customs take one look at you and throw away the key. Bananas are forced though every available crevice, bangles and wood carvings tap on the windows as African voices call out to you, eager to know more about you, where you are from and what you think of Kenya. A quick bond was struck between the Scottish inhabitants of the vehicle and a local man through the instant association of "Sir Alec." This was followed by a somewhat surreal conversation about that evening's Milan football game between the locals and the Italian travellers.

As we nod, gesture and shake our heads in response to the various cries from outside, we subtly slide the windows closed, feeling incredibly uncomfortable, daring not to get our money out for fear of ambush. A far cry from 3 days later when the women proactively leave the bus to speak to and mingle with locals to negotiate use of the much valued (unclean but seated) porcelain toilets in Harambie.

The initial resistant thoughts of Nairobi are one of personal safety and necessary seclusion. These thoughts aren't tempered by one night's stay, but perhaps due to the inevitable need to acclimatise in a very alien culture. We ended up at the Jacaranda Hotel, Nairobi, which was a very fresh complex with nice rooms; the fear of divebombing mosquitoes was all to fresh from Corfu, however, and the rather distraught locks on the doors were none too encouraging. This is part of being in Africa, however, and can be seen as a favourable part; there are a plentiful supply of British hotels who have their locks bashed or shot through - they can simply afford to replace them each time. Safety is relative.

Up at 6am! God forbid, but as always in this continent, you wake up feeling entirely revitalised despite the disturbed sleep and the odd surroundings, purely because this is a brave new world. And brave you must be; the ensuing 6 hour drive to Samburu National Park was an expedition worthy of well-continent travellers alone. The six-seater minibus that was to be our home for the next 7 days was quaint in its comfort, and in its handling of the road too. That is no criticism of the bus; our driver, John, was superb and took every effort, as exhausting as it was, to avoid each and every pothole as it emerged (difficult - the roads in Kenya are in an incredible state of disrepair and it is far easier to drive on the dust/sand tracks at either side). But as an introduction to our long-awaited and long-saved for holiday, it was tempting to feel a waning of ambition setting in.

Impossible. You drive through rich Nairobi, through poor Nairobi, through poorer Nairobi, and then wonder where and whether the distinction lies. Too much of civilisation rests on the boundaries between different classes, typified by money. This is only the application that an incomer would give to Africa; the citizens have a better conquest: do what you do, and do it well. And so the ramshackle 3 foot by 3 foot huts are marked as "Peter's Bar", alongside "John's Butcher" which stands side by side with "Omega Enterprises" - an incredible conception which essentially involves two shops in one, and in the same space as one would normally occupy! The credence is obvious! But the ambition is unfailing; often you get a bar and a butcher in the same job lot; heavens behold the man who gets stoned in there too.

But what is more grounding is the realisation that these are real businesses, that operate on local custom alone; the more you travel through Kenya, the more you see of them. They are the corner shops, and they survive from a myriad of customers. Tribesmen use them; businessmen use them; tourists passing through will use them. Their exterior betrays what lies beneath - a valid and worthy supplier of necessary goods. At the same time, one is tempted to say, "and here we need not worry about whether the shop is bound to an agreement with Pepsi or Coca-Cola, that they are free and independent"; and this is bullshit. Pepsi does not exist in Kenya, because Coca-Cola does. Money is money, and the influx has been quick.

That is no excuse though. Coke is not a necessary good. It is a desirable, for one reason or another. The Maasai people traditionally live off cow's blood and curdled milk. Plenty other people have lived off water and wheat. Hell, "during the war" it was spam and bitter. It is not as though Coca-Cola has been a necessary requisite for the improvement of the Kenyan people; it has simply been an external opportunity, as always, to enliven tastebuds both with flavour, and with cost-importance.

And I won't hide it; I find it distasteful. I don't blame Kenya or Africa in the slightest, I blame the West. Our imposition of "values" on other cultures with the gift of weapons or trade relations is abhorrent and destructive. A prominent Kenyan Maasai recently wrote that perhaps it was time for the Maasai tribe to come together with new ideals and embrace them to their own ends. As a generalisation, I can see this as being a productive ideal; in the current situation, where even Westerners are rebelling against the idea of globalist integration, it should be very much deterred until the country and the continent are ready to be involved. Make no mistake: Africa is ripe to be exploited, and it is eternally sad that it is.

Given that, I feel more encouraged personally to understand and taste more of what is perhaps the evolutionary spirit of mankind - the introduction, and the continuing force that gears the societal structure. I only watched Out Of Africa recently, and the most compelling and soul-destroying aspect of the film is the idea that this is not long to be; that already, thirty or forty years ago, Africa, the dream nation of Earth, had already begun to be eroded of its spiritual, cultural, and natural values. It may be selfish, but I intend to experience, invest, and immerse in this idea. Go to Benidorm if you wish, but I advise against it, for after 6 or 7 hours driving, we entered into Samburu National Park, Northern Kenya, and 5 minutes after crossing the park line, nearly crashed into an elephant.