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Crankin' in Kenya

When most folks think of Africa, it’s usually Kenya that comes to mind. It’s one of the most popular safari destinations and East Africa’s star country in terms of economic development and standards. However, most independent cyclists I had met did not have a lot of good things to say about the roads, traffic and crime. As always, I made every effort to dismiss the negative hype and look for the good.

I hopped over from Tanzania just after my adventure on Zanzibar with my cousin Shannon ended. My mom was coming almost a month sooner than had planned so I took an unexpected long bus from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi with only few days to get settled into crazy Nairobi before my next visitor “Mamacita”, would arrive. It would be back to back visitors from my beloved family and they came just in time to fend off a bit of traveler’s burnout that was setting in.

Poor Nairobi, with its horrific reputation in the travel community, nicknamed “Nai-Robbery”, was indeed a wild city. Lugging the immense load I carry around Africa can be burdensome in huge cities so I had my bus driver take me right to the door of the local backpackers, which was in a seedy part of town surrounded by prostitutes, busy bus stops and crowded discount stores. I knew my mom would barf if she had to stay where my budget allowed so I knew my next task would be to get to work writing proposals to the nice hotels offering to promote them if they hooked me up with a room. But it was Friday night when I arrived and I knew live music was going to be going on so I grabbed my recorder, cameras, tripods and kit and hit the town to look for music right off the bat.

My search landed me at a bar called Simmers where a premium sound system, nice stage and lights and a semi-famous performer named Salima would come together to bring some sweet tunes for my show. I got the okay from Salima and his band to record and I was able to do some dancing, filming and getting up close and personal to some truly amazing artists.

The next day I was off to find a suitable hotel for my mom who would be arriving in about 48 hours. I struck out with every hotel in town and my last shot was the 5-star Nairobi Serena Hotel. I was lucky enough to catch the general manager Mark who set me and mom up with 2 free nights! Super bonus! I moved from my seedy backpackers to a posh 5-star crib and got the staff to start preparing a treat for my mom who would be arriving the next day with no idea of the surprise waiting for her!

I was soon picked up by the musician Salima and his buddies to take me out on the town to find more music on Saturday night. We ended up recording another amazing artist Otieno Pon and grooving the night away till the wee hours meeting heaps of friendly locals. The only downside of the evening is having my phone stolen from my pocket out dancing! I was told by many locals, “you ain’t REALLY seen Nairobi unless something has been stolen from you”. So been there, done that, I suppose. Big bummer was losing tons of my phone numbers stored in the phone, which are truly priceless.

Sunday arrived and I tricked my mom telling her that I could only find us a backpackers and she should be prepared to rough it a bit. She was obviously stunned when we rolled into the Serena and even more excited to see her bed loaded with rose petals shaped like a heart to welcome her to the Peace Pedalers ride with big love! She’s done so much for this project since day one and I was grateful to greet her with as much love and luxury possible.

The next several days were devoted to me getting my other Black Sheep Tandem ready to roll again after several months of storage in Nairobi and handling the theft of several parts from it from the storage shed it was kept in. I sent mom on a safari to Masi Mara and I went to work putting on a new wheel, cables, seat post, seat and other digs. I was also working with Salima and Otieno to setup a private concert to bring you all some original music from several local artists.

The final result after mom returned from the safari were two perfectly tuned bikes and a private concert that never happened. Turns out Otieno got Malaria and Salima disappeared and flaked out. But honestly, I did not have much time to devote to the concert anyhow so it was really meant to be. My main focus was getting my mom ready for her first international solo bike tour on her own tour ready bike. So mom came back smiling after seeing the amazing animals and landscapes of the famous Masi Mara and the next day we were set to hop a bus out of the busy capital to the lakeside town of Nakuru.

I was doing my best to keep my cool and not worry about my 66 year old mother pedaling the wild roads of Kenya on her own. We arrived in Nakuru in the late afternoon and were instantly mobbed at the bus station. There were far too many shady characters with hands roaming in every direction and mom went to work policing the locals while I built up the bikes. She learned how to say “don’t touch” pretty quickly in Swahili and was not afraid to shout it out. Go Mom! We recruited a glue addicted guest rider to show us out of the busy station while his buddy ran besides my mom on her single bike.

Mom, aka Mamacita, was used to riding on my tandem with me on other trips in Asia and Oceania, but now I challenged her to go on her own so I could still meet the locals and film for the show. She had open heart surgery a few years back and was on some heart medication that keeps her heart rate from going too high and neither of us knew how that would effect her riding. She did great on the short, flat ride to the hotel and my tension eased a bit hearing her giggle and yell “yeee haaawww” behind me.

The glue addicts were banned from entering our cute hotel and we settled in for a nice meal and good nights rest. The first day of touring was a bit chaotic getting prepared but we were finally on the road out of town with the destination of Kericho for a two day warm up ride. Without the knowledge of the terrain we hit the road after picking up some snacks and water. I found a guest rider and mom pedaled out of town with a huge smile but was instantly was almost killed when she darted into the fast traffic without looking the right way—folks drive on the left side in Kenya and she forgot to look right, not left.

After my heart rate and adrenaline went down from the near death of my mother it shot right back up seeing my mom swerve back and forth on a dirt track besides a super busy road. We were on a very gentle incline out of town and she could not keep the speed up to stay on the trail. She was super winded and the first inklings of a cry were already setting in. We were not off to a good start.

We finally hit the turnoff to Kericho and were told the roads would be far less busy. This turned out to be somewhat true, but he hills came with vengeance. What I did not realize was that we were at about 6,000 feet above sea level and the altitude, combined with the affects of her heart medication, turned her into a winded mess on any kind of incline. The only solution was to take all of her weight so I strapped on an extra 40 pounds of her gear to my trailer to lighten her load. It helped a bit, but she was struggling indeed.

The first 20km was extremely slow going. We averaged about 5km/hour and the beautiful sights of Lake Nakuru down below and the rolling hills were the last thing on mom’s mind to take in. We finally hit the turnoff to the town of Elderon and we made a decision to send mom up to the Eel Hotel up ahead and let me ride the remaining 30KM solo. The gas station attendants assured me they would make sure she got on the bus and I pedaled onwards with a mix of relief and fear in my body. I decided to catch some shade at a local park and relax a bit to get my mojo going and calm down. It was at this park that I met my first Kenyan guest rider Joseph Kamau under my tree.

Like most Africans, Joseph was curious to see the long mystery bike in his little town and came over for a closer look. After a few bits of broken English I invited him to pedal the 30KM to Elderon with me and I gave the standard offer of a bus ticket back to his home town. He accepted without hesitation and I set him up with his Assos cycling duds and helmet and off we went, followed by dozens of his friends and other bystanders cheering us through the park.

We had a classic event happen when pedaling on the road as we soon saw a minivan with a bike strapped to the roof. Joseph and I hammered the pedals to try to catch up with the van and when the van stopped we slapped on the window to see my mom smiling ear to hear with an African baby on her lap wearing her bike helmet. A classic sight! She was surrounded by 15+ Kenyans and was loving the real Kenyan transport experience in a “Matatu” bus.

The ride started out blissfully with amazing scenery over rolling hills, stunning trees lining the road, cute Kenyan mud and thatch roofed houses and the smells of dinners cooking over open fires. Joseph was hammering the pedals hard out the gate so we were making great time. But he kept telling about the huge hills coming our way and doubted that we would be able to climb them. After the easy morning ride with mom I had plenty of energy and assured him we would tackle anything that came our way.

Joseph is a 24 year old man in a family of 10 brothers and sisters. He shared his dream to become an electrical engineer but also his frustration about having to drop out of school with only 2 years left of high school. His father lost his job and was unable to pay his 300 dollar per year school fees. The fact that I could put him through the rest of his schooling for just 600 dollars inspired me to start the Peace Pedalers Scholarship Fund right there on the bike. I told him I would pay his fees, term by term, assuming he kept perfect marks. He was up for the challenge and we chatted about the logistics as we shared more about life in America versus Kenya, learning about his family, hobbies and passions (he’s a huge soccer nut) and grooving to some live music I recorded in Nairobi on the Ipod.

The hills he promised did indeed come and they were as steep as I’ve ridden since Lesotho with grades reaching 16+%. But there were nothing a 34 tooth SRAM rear cassette and Race Face 20 tooth granny gear could not handle. But by the time we made it to the top of the last hill we were both cramping and being chased by dozens of giggling school kids who had no idea of the pain we were in. We finally rolled into the Eel Hotel in Elderon and Mamacita was already showered up and had befriended the entire staff who were all sitting outside ready to cheer us on as we rolled on in. It was nice having Mamacita around for many reasons, and this was just one of them. She’s an epic cheerleader!

We relaxed in the shade and re-hydrated with Joseph in the shade of a huge tree and finalized the scholarship agreement. We would send Joseph $100 to his school headmaster for the first term and pay $100 per term assuming his headmaster faxed us a copy of his perfect marks. Joseph was ecstatic and both mom and I felt optimistic about helping him move his education forward. Education is something most Westerners take for granted, including myself, and helping him out definitely gave us some warm fuzzies.

That night at the hotel we were informed that we were close to 7,000 feet above sea level and mom decided that she was going to take the next day off and take a bus to Kericho, which was down closer to 3,000 feet. The next day we found a huge cargo truck together and I hopped in for part of the journey to make sure we were all set with the drivers. Once we got the green light from them to take her to the Kericho Tea Hotel I hopped off the bus to begin my ride of about 60KM.

I was dropped off in the middle of nowhere for the most part. At first it was just me and 6 cows grazing in the green grass by the road. But, like most places in Africa, I can’t go long without some company from the locals. As I prepared the bike for the day’s mystery ride I was soon surrounded by a group of local Kenyans. There was one man who caught me eye name Richard, an older gentleman who appeared to be in his late sixties. He had stunning grey and black hair and a warm, genuine demeanor that motivated me to ask him out for a pedal to Kericho. He spoke decent broken English and, after some translation from his 22 year old son, he knew what the day would have in store for us.

Richard knew the road was steep and challenging for the first section of the ride, and then mostly downhill to Kericho afterwards. He was up for the challenge and I gave my cell phone number to his son so he could call and check on his old man as he disappeared down the road on a tandem bike with a total stranger. Gotta love this life! I decked out Richard from head to toe with Assos cycling gear and a Sierra Designs rain coat so his church duds would remain clean and ready for his return bus trip back to his village. He looked stunning—strong, confident and ready for the test.

Richard is a 64 year old father of 5 children and had recently retired from a long career as a post man. He played his cards right and bought land for him and his children and now lived with his wife and oldest son on their land. He was proud, confident and excited for our adventure together big time! The first few kilometers were down hill, but he assured me that a massive hill was coming of about 7KM straight up. And he was not kidding!

The main hill of the day was as steep as the day before but longer, meaner and full of trucks and busses spewing out rich, dark black diesel smoke in our face. Luckily it was raining lightly so that kept us from overheating and helped clean the air up a bit. I’m happy to say we made almost the entire hill without stopping—just once to do some filming. By the time we hit the summit the rain was coming down hard and we decided to catch some shelter and grab some food. We mowed down some mystery deep fried doughnut-style rock hard bread nibblets washed down with several bottles of Fanta, Coke and water and just as we finished the rain stopped and crisp blue skies peaked out of the dark grey skies.

Richard assured me the worst was behind us and he was right again. We had a few hills but the vibe was down, down, down! And the scenery was nothing short of stunning. From the high mountain pass of about 7,000 feet with pine trees and cool weather we were soon descending through the famous Kericho Tea Plantations where every hue of green imaginable seemed to come our way. Kenya’s largest tea growing area has thousands of acres of tea growing with bright white plantation worker compounds scattered amongst the fields where kids played and workers wandered between their various shifts.

The traffic seemed to mellow out now that we were going about the same pace with the long stretches of downhill but the roads were full of potholes so I knew it would be hard to capture a moving interview on the bike. I decided to put the camera on the rear mount like I did in Malawi and, just like in Malawi, the camera fell off—but this time, at full speed! It was a classic sight when we picked it up off the ground after the vicious fall and saw the big scratches and dents all over the body. Both Richard and I said our prayers out loud to allow the camera to come back on and still function. Get this! Not only did the camera still work but the wide angle lens did not even have a scratch on it! Bonus! Oh, and a lesson--scrap the bloody rear mount device. Duh!

Richard and I rolled into the Tea Hotel where mom was ready with beautiful tea and we sat outside overlooking the endless tea fields getting to know our new friend Richard. He was so proud and happy, his face glowing with a huge smile and full of oxygen from the challenging ride. After Richard changed from his cycling clothes to his church clothes it was time for him to get moving.

There was a touching moment when Richard went to say goodbye and mom and I saw tears well up in his eyes. We were both so sad to say goodbye and so grateful for the experiences we shared together. There is something so special about riding that tandem with a stranger, especially when it’s challenging ride, which builds a bond that is almost impossible to describe. But these tears assured me that my work as a Peace Pedalers does indeed make an impact in the lives of others and I was and still am extremely grateful for this project!

I was pretty spent after two days of hilly riding so mom gave me first dibs on a hot bath and I was out for the count after that and a nice meal. The next day it was time for mom to get back on the bike and give another go to the bike touring. We were now at a far lower elevation and, unbeknownst to me, mom stopped taking her heart medication that limited her heart rate. She wanted to have full power and be able to get her heart pumping properly. She let me in on that secret after we were about 10KM into that day’s ride. She sure was pedaling stronger and was almost able to keep up with me!

The only major hill that day was just outside the hotel and mom tackled that with minimal huffing and puffing, and only one fall. She dusted herself off, shed a few short tears, and was back on the bike excited as ever. We were soon enjoying rolling hills, stunning green scenery, and even passed a lovely goat butchery that was also a hotel! The weather was perfect, the traffic light and Mamacita was finally able to enjoy the wonders of bike touring and I think she may be hooked. We’ll see. We had a huge downhill to the valley leading to the lakeside town of Kisumu with endless views and on the way down we were flagged down by a group of merry Kenyans on the side of the road and we just had to stop.

There were a few drunken guys leading the flag-down efforts, but also a group of young woman in their school uniforms. Knowing that African women are usually difficult to recruit as guest riders I put my mom in the lead to chat with these gals to see if we could meet and ride with a Kenyan female rider. Since mom was all decked out in her spandex at 66 years old I think it made a special young woman named Coreen feel just comfortable enough to accept the invitation to ride with minimal skepticism. She had a busy day so told us she could only ride for an hour or two and we sent her off to the bushes with her friends to change into her cycling clothes.

When Coreen came out of the trees in her bright blue riding shirt, spandex shorts and gloves she must have been a sight to be seen as the cheers erupted in every direction! Our first Kenyan female rider was ready to rock and she handed me her school duds with a smile and I stored them in the Ortlieb panniers. She hopped right on and did not ask many questions about where we were going and was eager to add some pedal power on the downhill slope towards Kisumu. We bid farewell to her friends and were pedaling into the warm sunshine smiling ear to ear.

Coreen shared with me that she is currently in school learning to become a teacher of disabled children and was volunteering part time with children with all sorts of challenges. She was a very sweet yet shy young woman, soft spoken yet confident, and full of love and kindness. We rode only 7KM or so before we decided to stop for lunch at a local BBQ place that she highly recommended. We mowed down some grilled goat meat and cassava and had the opportunity to get to know our new friend Coreen a bit more. She was a bit too shy to add much to the video camera, and at the time I was not sure if we were really connecting with her that much. But she finally warmed up towards the end and we decided our ride was over and we sent her on her way after some nice hugs goodbye. I was surprised that she has kept in touch since that day and still says how grateful she is to have met us.

After Coreen headed home mom and I were ready to start looking for a home stay in a village for the night. The downhill trend turned flat and the rain was starting to fall. Just as we decided to start looking for a place to stay we saw a couple riding double on a single bike. I invited them to send one of them on the tandem and we would ride together wherever they were going. They were a cute young married couple named Joseph and Beeni. Beeni happily hopped on my bike and Joseph carried on his tall single speed. Off we went, pedaling together in the gentle rain.

They asked where we were heading and we said we had no clue, and that we were going to ride until we found some people who would let us set up our tent at their house. Enough said, we were invited to their place without hesitation and within 10 minutes we were at their turnoff, which was a super muddy dirt road going into the bush. We had no idea how long we would be on this road, but the mud was so sticky it was clogging up all our wheels and we had to stop often to clear our wheels and push most of the way. And it turned out to be a long way to their house. We finally made it after getting pushed by the locals through endless maize fields, river crossings and through the cute traditional villages of the Asawi region outside Kisumu.

When we arrived we were totally spent, dirty and extremely stinky. Their simple mud and tin roof house had no toilet or shower, but they soon heated up water on the fire and we both got hot bucket showers in a cute stand up shower stall to remove the layers of mud and muck from our bodies and leave us fresh and excited. Our next task was recruiting the help of their kids and friends to set up the Sierra Designs tent. Everyone got their hands on something and we must have set a record that day as we set up our home for the night under a tree near the house.

We then settled in to meeting the family and friends while they cooked us up an enormous meal of beans, potatoes, cassava and tea all grown on their land, minus the tea. Dinner was by candle light and the kids all ate on the floor and mom and I got a table, chairs and even some silverware. They were so excited and grateful to have us as guests. There was no power so there was almost no noise after dark, just the quiet sound of the gentle rain. We spent the evening chatting, playing, giggling and relaxing before we crashed out in the tent. Mom and I both felt so at peace and grateful for the opportunity to experience a slice of real Kenyan living and meet new friends where just moments before we were total strangers on the road. Before bed I planted a seed with them both by inviting them to ride with us to Kisumu the next day.

After a lovely night sleep in the tent, with rain pouring on us all night, we woke to clearing skies and big smiles from our hosts. They had more cassava and tea ready for our breakfast, and some bread they had bought from the markets the day before. We enjoyed a nice breakfast and Joseph informed me that they were going to accept the invitation to ride that day and had arranged the kids to be watched by their mother who lived next door and the neighbors as well. We were all so excited!

After they sent the kids, all dressed in adorable pink school uniforms, off to school we were ready to saddle up and ride! The mud was just as sticky and mean as the day before we got a nice workout just leaving the village. We hit the road, cleaned the bikes, and began to tackle the ridiculously busy and pothole ridden road to Kisumu. In all my almost 30 countries of riding this was one of the most dangerous days of riding I had ever done. There was no shoulder but steep drop offs to dirty, rocky paths and the traffic was fast and heavy. I felt bad for my mom but she was a champ and only fell once!

The ride to Kisumu went pretty fast, but it was tough. It was only 50KM but it felt like 100 as we kept having to go off and on the road, dodge people, cars, animals and busses, and we were pretty dead tired and hungry by the time we rolled into Kisumu. We treated Jacob and Beeni to a nice meal at a Chinese restaurant they recommended and they both got on the camera and shared their feelings about our ride and experiences to the camera, which I’m sure will be touching when we finally go to edit everything.

We sent Beeni back early to take care of the kids and I spent a few hours with Jacob helping him with a business plan he has been working on for a community center in his village. He had hit a road block getting the project off the ground and wanted some help in creating a proper budget and proposals. I sent him off with a sample business plan, sample proposals and other information to hopefully kick start him in realizing his vision.

Mom and I spent the next few days in the lovely town of Kisumu being sponsored by the amazing Imperial Hotel. They hooked us up with a lovely room, massages, and free breakfasts for 3 days while I went out to meet local musicians like Linet Alouch and DJ Admiral who gave awesome performances which I was able to record for the program. Mom was so exhausted she slept almost 24 hours! A special connection was with my new friend Toby, or DJ Admiral, as we were able to share our passions for making a difference in the world through music. He came on the back of my bike and sang a few of his more conscious songs while riding through the park in Kisumu and the footage was amazing of him singing his heart out to the people of Kenya, and the world.

Mom only had about a week or so left so we decided it was time to say goodbye to Kenya and charge to Uganda. We bid farewell to our friends at the Imperial and did a lovely ride out of town before the heat picked up and the hills showed their face again out of the valley. We then found a Matatu loaded with fun and exciting Kenyans to share our last moments to the border of Uganda where we would begin our Ugandan adventure together from the town of Busia, Uganda. Stay tuned….

Signing out from Paris, France where I’m a few hours from getting on a plane back to the African continent after a brief holiday to France with my lovely friend Kelly from the Bay Area. I’ll be in on my way to Lome, Togo by the time most of you are reading this and the West African adventure will begin before we know it!

Big Love!


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