“What are the odds the Coronavirus messes up my trip?” I asked Marie, wondering if the anxiety I felt was an overreaction. It was late February, and I was about to fly to Atlanta and then on to East Africa.
There’s definitely some risk, we agreed, but everything would probably be just fine.
A couple of my long-time friends from business school – Brad and Craig – would be in Atlanta that weekend, and one of my best friends from high school lives there, so I decided to stop by on my way to Kenya and Uganda, where I planned to spend a few weeks photographing wildlife.
I lived in Atlanta for several years in the 1990s and really enjoyed it. Two of those years were spent in business school, and during the second year I shared a house with Brad, Craig, and two other friends. We lived just up the street from Smith’s Olde Bar, which quickly became our home away from home. Our academic performance likely did not benefit from the ability to walk five minutes to a dive bar with pool tables, relatively cheap beer, and a surprisingly good live music venue.
My plane landed in Atlanta on Friday night and I went straight to Smith’s. Brad and Craig were already halfway through a plate of buffalo wings, and it immediately struck me how nothing had changed. The look and feel of the bar, the vibe, the crowd – all the same. It was a time warp. We half expected Stephanie, our favorite waitress from back in the day, to walk up and take our order.
Brad, Craig and I spent the next couple of days walking around happily, catching up, and waxing nostalgic. On Saturday night Laura, one of my closest friends since high school, and her husband Jeff met us at Smith’s. It was awesome to see them both and so pleasantly strange to be in that still-familiar place with those particular people after so many years.
On Monday Laura was kind enough to give me a ride to the airport. “I’m getting a little worried about the Coronavirus,” I told her.
“Ah, it’s no problem,” she said reassuringly. “We’ll just get you some hand sanitizer and some Clorox wipes, you’ll be all set.” But my increasing concern wasn’t about catching the Coronavirus, it was about the potential for systemic problems. I hoped I could get to Africa and back before things took an ugly turn.
After a short layover in Paris I arrived in Nairobi on Tuesday night, March 3rd. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary at the airports. I was able to buy some hand sanitizer in Paris, and only a handful of people were wearing masks.
It felt great to be in Kenya again. I first visited almost ten years ago, during my year-long around-the-world trip, and I loved the country so much – especially my safari to the Masai Mara – that I’d always wanted to return for another round.
Nairobi itself was less appealing to me. During my first trip I’d been able to cover a lot of ground there – the Karen Blixen house, the Giraffe Centre, the Sheldrick elephant orphanage, Nairobi National Park – and the only place I decided to re-visit was Sheldrick. Seeing baby elephants run down the hill for their daily feeding and mud bath is not the kind of experience that gets old.
The locals in Nairobi didn’t seem concerned about the Coronavirus, and there were still no confirmed cases in East Africa. Both of the tours I’d booked – a four-day visit to the Masai Mara and a separate 14-day overland tour that included the Masai Mara as well as treks to see chimpanzees and mountain gorillas in Uganda – were still a go. I felt encouraged that everything would work out fine, and I couldn’t wait to leave for the Masai Mara the next morning.