I fell asleep in my Nairobi hotel room trying not to worry about the Coronavirus. The Kenyans I’d met seemed untroubled, at least so far. But the international news was filled with reports of the virus ravaging China and spreading rapidly in Italy. It wasn’t difficult to imagine that it might interfere with my 14-day overland tour through Kenya and Uganda, which started early the next morning, March 9th.
In the midst of a rising global pandemic, my selfish, near-term concerns were – of course – trivial. I simply wanted to be able to complete a trip that I was incredibly privileged to be taking in the first place. For many others the Coronavirus was literally a matter of life and death, a generation-defining event beginning to cast its shadow over the entire world. I tried my best not to lose sight of the bigger picture.
At breakfast the next morning I met the others in my tour group: Karina and Danielle, sisters from Australia; Jill and Ron, an older Canadian couple; Florian, a solo German; Michelle and Hamish, an Australian couple; Justin and Stuart, a British couple who’d switched their trip to Africa when the Coronavirus thwarted their plans for Vietnam; and Daniel and Brian, an appropriately American-sized father and son from Philadelphia.
Having four Australians in our group made me happy. Later I told Danielle that almost every traveler I’ve met from Australia and New Zealand has turned out to be good company. “Relaxed, fun, roll-with-the-punches, good senses of humor – and very comfortable with sarcasm,” I gushed. “Aussies and Kiwis always seem to make a group better.”
“I shouldn’t say this,” Danielle admitted, “but we feel the same way.”
The company running our overall trip was Nomad Tours, but for the first few days – safaris in Kenya’s Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru – they were passing us off to a local operator. We’d meet up with Nomad again in Lake Nakuru before crossing over to Uganda to see chimpanzees and mountain gorillas.
After breakfast and a short briefing we split into two white safari vans and began the six-hour drive to the Masai Mara. At our first stopping point, an overlook of the Great Rift Valley, I managed to catch one of my favorite African birds, a bee-eater, actually eating a bee.
For the next two nights we’d be staying at a permanent tent camp just outside the Masai Mara. When we arrived that afternoon we dropped off our bags, ate a late lunch, and headed out to visit a nearby Masai village. I have mixed feelings about those kinds of cultural experiences. The Masai are fascinating, and I appreciate learning more about them. But it feels wrong when proud tribal people perform their rituals for tourists and then hawk handicrafts. I understand the need to earn money and I don’t have any solution for how tribal people can best adapt to the modern world. Nonetheless it makes me sad when the son of a Masai chief pressures me to buy a bracelet.
From the Masai village we entered the park for a late afternoon game drive. The sky, mostly clear during my earlier visit, had turned dark, and rain fell sporadically throughout the rest of our time in Kenya.
“Is this your first trip to the Masai Mara?” Jill, the Canadian, asked me. She’d already been in Africa for more than a month, mostly on other Nomad tours, but her friendly and quirky husband Ron had only recently flown in to join her. A big Africa trip had been a lifelong dream of Jill’s and I admired her for making it happen.
“Well I was just here in the Mara yesterday,” I said. “And now I’m back for another round.”
Jill, who never seemed to be short of words, fell momentarily speechless. “I don’t even know how to respond to that,” she finally said, genuinely perplexed. Was it really so difficult to understand someone wanting to spend extra time in a place like the Masai Mara? Everyone I told about my repeat visit looked at me like I’d lost my mind.
We spent the next day searching for wildlife. Our plan was to have a picnic lunch by the Mara River, but one of the safari vans developed a mechanical problem that forced us to eat by an entrance gate while we waited for repairs. Our food attracted a very large type of antelope called an eland. When our guide chased away the supposedly wild animal it casually sauntered over to the park’s entrance-fee window to let the cashier scratch its muzzle. I couldn’t resist patting it myself. I know it’s problematic when wild animals become habituated to humans, but the chance to give an eland a scratch overcame my better judgment.
Storm clouds began gathering that afternoon, both literally and figuratively. A heavy downpour drove us to take shelter at a fancy lodge inside the park. As we killed time sipping beer and coffee on leather couches, our guide James received a call from an agent at Nomad Tours wanting to speak with Florian. Apparently the Ugandan government had just announced that any incoming traveler from a country considered high-risk for the Coronavirus – which at that point included China, South Korea, Italy, and Germany, among others – would be forced to quarantine themselves for 14 days at their own expense.
The color drained from Florian’s face. He looked dazed. Two days from now, instead of crossing the border to Uganda, he’d have to return to Nairobi. According to Nomad there was also some question about the status of British citizens, raising alarm bells for Justin (whose partner Stuart, a little freaked out by our bumpy drive to the Mara and concerned about the overall safety of the safari vans, had chosen to skip the game drives and stay back at camp).
At dinner that night we did our best to make Florian feel better while combing through the latest news and trying to predict the chances of the rest of us making it to see the gorillas. “If they’re already blocking Germany,” I asked Justin and Stuart, “how long before they add England and the US to the list?” I also read that some Ugandan officials believed that mountain gorillas were likely susceptible to COVID-19, raising concerns that visits from infected tourists could put the gorillas at risk.
The next morning we left the Masai Mara and drove to Lake Nakuru, another Kenyan park with incredible wildlife. At lunch in the surrounding town, before entering the park, I struck up a conversation with a plump middle-aged Kenyan woman sitting on the porch of our restaurant. “Where are you from?” she asked.
“The United States.”
“Oh America!” the woman said, throwing up her hands and smiling. “It is a dream of my life to visit one day. We call it Green Pastures, the place where everything is better.” She pointed to the sky and said that her earlier big dream had been to fly in a plane, which she did for the first time just a year ago. “I flew to Mombasa with my church group,” she explained. In Mombasa, on Kenya’s coast, seeing the ocean had been another first for her.
The woman whipped out her smartphone and proudly showed me photos documenting every aspect of her trip – boarding the plane, arriving in Mombasa, the church she visited, her swim in the ocean. “So I did that,” she said quietly. “And one day I will make it to America, too.”
I couldn’t have asked for a better way to put my relatively insignificant travel concerns into perspective. The nature of what I consider a problem from my privileged position is basically a joke, I thought. Do I really have so few genuine problems that the thing I’m most worried about right now is the possibility that – after visiting all 50 US states, every US National Park, and more than 50 different countries – on this particular trip I might not be able to see mountain gorillas in Uganda for a second time!? Really?
We had good luck with wildlife sightings at Lake Nakuru that afternoon, spotting waterbucks, vervet monkeys, baboons, buffaloes, flamingos, two adult rhinos with a child, and a lion pride resting in the brush at sunset.
That evening at our hotel I found a CNN article that said Uganda’s new travel restrictions included US citizens. My stomach dropped. Hoping the article was mistaken, I located the website for Uganda’s Ministry of Health and read their latest press release. It confirmed that the US and the UK had just been added to Uganda’s list of restricted countries. The Australians and Canadians were still OK, but Justin, Stuart and I had missed our window to cross the border by one day.
I told our Nomad guide, who verified it with his office, and someone broke the news to Justin and Stuart. Four of our group members – Danielle, Karina, Daniel, and Brian – hadn’t planned to continue on to Uganda anyway, so Justin, Stuart, Florian and I would be joining them in returning to Nairobi the next morning. After dinner that night we all met at the hotel bar to toast what had been a truly memorable trip.
The ring of my phone woke me up at 4:30 the next morning. It was Marie, calling to warn me that Trump had just announced a ban on flights to the US from Europe, starting in two days. If it wasn’t already obvious that it was time for me to get home, that did the job. I found a flight to San Francisco leaving Nairobi that night, with a layover in Germany. Daniel and Brian found a better flight – direct from Nairobi to New York City and then on to San Francisco from there – so I switched to that instead. The one-way ticket was expensive (twice as much as my original round-trip ticket) but not outrageous.
Our guides drove us back to Nairobi, where I said goodbye to the rest of our dwindling group. Justin and Stuart were trying to figure out whether or not to continue their vacation, including some previously-planned beach time in Zanzibar. It was difficult to predict how the situation would evolve. They decided to press on and play things by ear.
Nomad did their best to be helpful. They refunded me for the part of the tour I couldn’t complete (including the expensive gorilla permit) and offered to help arrange other excursions in Kenya or Tanzania. But it was time to head home. Given the recent news, it didn’t take much effort to envision a scenario where I became stranded overseas.
That night my nearly-full plane took off from Nairobi and 15 hours later landed at JFK in New York. “Have you been to any country other than Kenya on your trip?” the customs agent asked.
“OK welcome home,” he said, waving me through. And just like that I was officially back in the US. No health screening, no questions about symptoms. Nine hours later I landed in San Francisco, where Marie picked me up.
Eventually I learned that the Australian and Canadian couples (Michelle, Hamish, Jill, and Ron) successfully made it to the mountain gorillas. According to a message from Karina: “They saw the gorillas after a 2.5 hour trek. They saw a big silverback and also a baby amongst others so they were super excited… The tour was then cancelled as it became abit dangerous in Uganda. They were angry with westerners/Europeans bringing the virus in… Michelle and Hamish had a hard time getting flights though. They ended up in Amsterdam and then a few more flights were cancelled and they arrived home out of pocket approx $10,000 aus. They were totally over it by then. I think we were lucky to head home when we did to be honest.”
At the start of my trip I’d felt a little foolish for being anxious about the Coronavirus. In hindsight I wasn’t nearly anxious enough. As of today (April 5th) the virus has killed more than 65,000 people, upended the global economy, and fundamentally altered the daily lives of billions.
Marie had been thoughtful enough to plan a trip for us to celebrate my 50th birthday in mid-April. She kept our destination a secret to surprise me. It turns out we were headed to Italy – of all places – and Ireland. The trip would have been amazing, unquestionably, but of course it can’t happen now.
In the grand scheme of things I feel incredibly fortunate. So far, at least, Marie and I and our families and friends have avoided the virus. There’s every reason to believe that before too long the tide will turn on the global struggle and the world will begin moving back towards normalcy. We may never be quite the same again, but the current crisis will pass. And when it does, Uganda, Italy, Ireland, and the rest of the wide world will still be out there.