Thursday, November 12

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: The Lonely Planet Guide

I can’t recall if I even flipped through a Kenyan, much less African, travel guide in anticipation of this year's adventure. I believe my attitude then was one of work first, play second. At least, I hope that's how it was. It's also very possible that I just planned poorly and figured that the locals would suggest the most interesting places. Yet Demetra and I now find ourselves in possession of the Lonely Planet Guide to Kenya. It’s borrowed from one of our fellow Kenyan directors. The Canadians who are renting his house while he works here are lending it to him. Not so sure why he wanted it in the first place. Maybe to see his country through the eyes of its visitors.

I can't deny the guide has been of some use to us. A history of Kenya beginning with those people dug up by the Leakeys. Street maps of Old Town. Directions to a cheap hotel in Mombasa. Facts about all of the diseases we can expect to catch. Some laughs at the warnings against riding in matatus.

Still, there is something about Lonely Planet that sets my teeth on edge. The tone, to be specific. It acts as though there is an opportunity for adventure in every part of Kenya, be it the Indian coast or Nairobi or the desert north or the western forests. Boxed texts give equal visual weight to the histories of dhows and the fact that Nairobi has surpassed Johannesburg as the most dangerous city in all of Africa. Even in these rare cases where the writers suggest there might be danger, they brush it off with simple warnings. Be sure to hire an armed ranger before driving down roads known to be hit by bandits around Lake Turkana. Bars described as hang-outs for prostitutes and pool sharks are presented more as little adventures than places no foreigner should get involved in. It's just so optimistic about it all.

Not that I can really fault the writers for this approach. After all, this is a travel guide. No one is going to spend $25 to be told “Do not go here.” A general warning and suggestion of similar environments is quite enough for that. These books are designed for people looking for a break from their daily lives. More than anything else, they want to be away from their mundane concerns and worries, not confronted with a host of new ones. If this book has made the reader confident that they can discover and survive Kenya, it has accomplished its goal, even if it sets them up for disappointment when it turns out the hotels that came so highly suggested have long since closed and been replaced by a clothing store.

It really doesn't bother me that I didn't look at a travel guide before arrival. The most useful part of Lonely Planet has been in identifying parks and other such interesting sites I hadn't heard about before, but really, all I need to find those is a good map and a local to tell me if they're worth visiting.

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