On the morning of May 22, 1987 we made our way to the Minneapolis airport and flew to Nairobi, Kenya where the department chair, Dr. Tony Rodrigues, was waiting to welcome us to his adopted homeland–Tony is Goan and came to Nairobi in 1972 when Idi Amin exiled him, and thousands of other citizens of Asian descent, from his home in Uganda
Tony drove to our apartment in married student housing where we discovered that when he said the school would provide modest accommodations he was not kidding. It was a dreary flat with little furniture, empty walls, sagging mattresses, and bare light bulbs dangling from the ceiling. Unlike other places in the neighborhood, though, it did have a functioning western toilet, refrigerator, and counter-top cooking coil. That night my composure disappeared as I literally broke down and cried. I looked around at the accommodations and was sure that this time I had overreached. Doubts and fears crept into my mind as I wondered if this East African working vacation was all a colossal mistake. My wife had to wrap her arms around me and assure me that everything would work out for the best—much like a mother comforting a distraught child. Once more she was right as Kenya turned out to be the most extraordinary and enriching travel experience of our still short traveling lives, bare light bulbs and all.
Because of our relative newness to the working-vacation concept we had not considered the obvious solution to the problem of less than ideal housing. If the accommodations provided by the school, agency, or company are not to your liking then simply thank your hosts for what they have done, find a local real estate agent, and make your own arrangements realizing, of course, this will add significantly to your travel costs. When faced with the dilemma of substandard housing ask yourself which is more important—more money in your pocket or higher quality living space. Since we were not traveling with children, we decided we could make do with the proffered accommodations and chose to stay put.
The next morning Tony took us to the Thorn Tree Cafe, a famous outdoor bistro that is a gathering place for adventurers, big game hunters, guides, backpackers, and other assorted soldiers-of-fortune–it was people watching of the highest quality. After breakfast he helped me move into my office and introduced me to Chris and Chegge, two young African graduate students also teaching at the university. They would become dear friends and join my wife and I on remote bush trips.
In the afternoon we wandered the neighborhood and made a pleasant discovery—a local YMCA with an outdoor pool surrounded by shaded chaise lounges, a perfect retreat on a warm, sunny afternoon for Nairobi residents of all types–locals and expats alike . Even more surprising was what we found not two blocks from home: a traffic circle, dubbed by locals the “religious roundabout,” rimmed with Catholic and Protestant churches as well as the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation–a 100-year-old institution serving the 175 Jewish families of greater Nairobi. We attended services the following Friday night and joined dozens of exuberant worshippers, both black and white, in a service that could just have easily been in Minneapolis. Those nagging doubts from the previous night were already beginning to evaporate.
I know that many new travelers would not consider a working vacation in a place like Nairobi, limiting themselves to such comfortable cities as London, Paris, Florence. You are haunted by the same concern that burrowed into my head that first day–will I be able to handle these living conditions? That is a shame because the cultural adventures, educational experiences, and plain old fun of working in a place like Kenya are truly unparalleled. While it is true that the housing, shopping, dining, and infrastructure of Nairobi were not the equal of what we had in London, Jerusalem, and Sydney, it turned out to be of no import whatsoever. The things that were important–people, friendships, culture, history, scenery, and wildlife–were every bit their equal, even surpassing, those of our three earlier working vacations.
So, when planning your next working vacation, you might wish to get our an atlas and expand your horizons because, just as my own doubts, fears, and uncertainties faded and disappeared, so too will yours, replaced by superb memories and stories to share with friends and family back home.