Friday, 5/30. Nairobi.
A spectacular day, starting with a drive to the Western end of Nairobi, to the neighborhood called Karen in honor of Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), the Danish author of “Out of Africa.” First stop is the David Sheldrick Elephant Sanctuary, a preserve for orphaned baby elephants. From 11 a.m. to Noon you can watch the babies being fed milk from bottles.
Many pachyderms are orphaned when the mother elephant is killed by farmers. If an elephant tramples a farm, the farmer can lose an entire crop and a year’s income. Would this be a problem if the elephant’s natural habitat hadn’t been so reduced to create more agricultural land?
Two groups of schoolchildren in uniforms arrive. They’re impeccably well-mannered, not a rowdy one in the bunch. When the baby elephants approach them, they’re reluctant to make contact.
We stop next at Langata Giraffe Sanctuary where, if you walk onto a large elevated deck, you can feed giraffes by hand.
The Kenyan man who greets you has a huge smile and a salesman’s manner. He offers handfuls of giraffe kibble and suggest photo poses – crossing one arm over the other and feeding two giraffes at once. The coup de grace is placing one pellet between your teeth, with one end sticking out so the giraffe gives you a big wet kiss with his prehensile tongue. Don’t worry about germs, the greeter says. “The giraffe’s saliva is antiseptic.”
We stop for lunch at an outdoor Mexican restaurant, in a district of expats and upper-income Nairobians. The restaurant and coffee bar are attached to an enormous, Western-style supermarket on steroids.
And then to the Karen Blixen home. It looks nothing like the “Out of Africa” image in my mind (remote setting, dry and untouched, looking down to broad vistas). Nairobi, which had roughly 16,000 people when Blixen arrive in 1914, grew enormously since she repatriated to Denmark in 1931. Today the city has 3 million and Karen’s farm is subsumed by a residential address.
The house became a museum in the mid-‘80s, the same time the movie was released. Originally, Blixen and her Swedish husband Blor Blixen had 6,000 acres. Today there are several acres of garden surrounding the house, which is simpler than I expected – comfortable but musty. Most of the furniture isn’t original to the house and there are costumes displayed that were worn in the movie by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Very few visitors. A woman – the guide’s wife? — sits in a corner and silently works a Sudoku puzzle.
An affable guide walks us through and when he comes to the famous 1959 photograph of Blixen sitting with Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, he identifies the fourth person as Blixen’s secretary. Actually, I tell him, that’s Carson McCullers, a famous American novelist. I don’t think he understands me.