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Monday, September 27, 2010

Kenya Reminiscing - Part 4

Back in Nairobi

When we arrived in Nairobi, it was just getting to be lunchtime. I guess I was feeling a bit peckish after the drive back from Mountain Lodge. As we pulled up to the Norfolk Hotel, I felt a bit mixed about being back in the city; being back in "civilization". Still, it was all part of the "overall plan" and so surely this would turn out to be interesting too.

The first thing we did after checking in was to hit the pool. My dad and I just wanted to do a bit of lounging about before we hit the buffet, so it made perfect sense. Where this plan turned out to be a stroke of genius was when we passed the buffet on the way to the pool, getting an eyeful of what was in store for us after our lounge-around. Talk about motivation! In the water, on a hot afternoon, soaking up the rays and chilling, I could very well imagine this being on a doctor's prescription. When we felt that we had gotten our fill of vitamin D, we decided to make it a complete set and indulge in a balanced healthy afternoon meal, filling our plates with assorted salads, cold cuts,  and sprouted lentils, smothered with a plethora of dressings and sauces. Plates stacked high, perhaps a little too crudely for the Norfolk -- considering English Royalty had stayed here at one time -- we made our way to the outdoor seating area to enjoy our meal 'al fresco'. Still with our towels and change of clothes, we set this stuff down first, on the chairs next to us, chairs, it turns out, that were too close to the shoulder-high boundary wall that separated us from the pedestrian traffic outside. Even before we could put our plates down on the table, an eagle-eyed waiter rushed over to warn us about how we were endangering our belongings by placing them within arm's reach of wily passers-by who were always on the lookout for soon-to-be-stolen goods. I looked at my dad, who then looked at the waiter with a confused, contorted "Really?" written all over his face. But the waiter would have none of it. He pulled up a chair and placed it in the usually-comfortably-left-empty space between my dad, who was sitting at the head of this six-seater table that we'd been shown to, and me, sitting to my dad's right. We obliged him without question, but mostly just to please the waiter and have him on his merry way. Frankly, I thought it would have taken someone like Dikembe Mutombo, plus another 3 feet of height and arm span to pluck something off the table, even if we had put it near the edge nearest the street. But, why question locally prevalent paranoia that was intended to keep tourists like us safe, although slightly freaked out. If nothing else, why not eat up while the food on my plate was still fresh.

Back in the room after a sumptuous meal, I was already halfway to "Dream Land" when the phone rang. My dad picked it up, exchanged a few yeses, oh-reallys and thank-yous with the caller, hung up and smiled at me.

"We're going to the Carnivore for dinner!" he exulted. "I totally forgot about that," he continued as he looked down, slapping his forehead for extra dramatic effect.

Still not able to respond appropriately due to a near coma, induced by ingesting my own weight in food, I mustered a feeble, "Huh?"

My dad went on to explain, in as much detail as he himself had been told, that it was a famous non-vegetarian restaurant that had exotic meats on offer. I wasn't really paying attention because the next thing I knew, it was 7pm, and I was being shaken like a rag doll by my dad, trying to wake me up so that I could get ready for dinner. It was a crunch situation. Samuel said he would pick us up at 7:30pm because the restaurant was a fair distance from the hotel, and we had reservations at 8pm. But, true to my style, I was ready to go by 7:20, giving me enough time to catch my breath, and wake up a little more.

The Carnivore

As we drove to The Carnivore, I couldn't help but notice that the city of Nairobi played it very low key in the evenings. There weren't too many people about, and some of the shops were getting ready to close. I began to briefly reflect on the trip this far. This would be our last night in Kenya. It had been a great time, travelling to pristine wilderness, well as pristine as possible, and being able to observe wild animals in their natural-but-always-human-infested surroundings. And now, that much closer to the end of this holiday, I reminded myself that this experience had unfolded before me in as nearly perfect a manner as possible.

Now, in spite of the name and the "Specials" board, The Carnivore was a place for fine dining. In fact, there was a system in place, and one that the helpful waiting staff would remind you of. Well, that's what I thought anyway, but more on that in a bit. The system was intended to aid the patrons in stuffing their faces without too many interruptions. Now, before you start wracking your brains about what sort of a restaurant interrupts it's face-stuffing patrons (it's the same thing no matter how fancy the restaurant, come on) let me tell you what I mean. Remember all those sword-like skewers I saw when I was entering the restaurant? Well, the moment one of them is ready, the meat on it is cooked to perfection, it's handed to a waiter who then walks about the restaurant offering his "wares" to patrons, announcing what he was in possession of. Now remember that there are several kinds of meat on offer, including all the exotic varieties, so it's easy to imagine that there were a steady stream of waiters, all politely offering you another delectable morsel. So, in an effort to prevent us "patrons" from having to wave away well-meaning waiters because you're in the middle of your chew-first-then-swallow cycle, The Carnivore provided each table with a long toothpick with a flag in it, which has a detachable, tetrahedron, wooden base. Sound like a strange contraption? Don't worry, it's far less harmless than your imagination would have you believe. The combined height of this little flag-pick (to give it my own name) was less than 4 inches. Now, the system was, if you found that in the course of beginning your meal and dealing with the initial flow of waiters that your plate was full, you took the entire flag-pick ensemble and laid it down on its side. This would indicate to the waiters that you were not ready to accept another morsel, or quite possibly as was often the case, that you had food in your mouth, and were too busy further stuffing your face to be able to politely decline the offer. Well, to be able to politely decline the offer without appearing to be a voraciously feeding caveman. Then, when you had eaten your fill you had to separate the flag-pick ensemble, pulling the toothpick out of the base, and laying it on its side. Overall, or in theory I should say, it was a very cool, kitschy system. The first time our seating host showed us to our table and explained all the intricacies, I was amazed. "Why don't other restaurants do this?" I thought to myself. But, let me remind you, all of this was an initial reaction. After having to point out to waiters that my plate was full and that it wasn't capable of holding an extra chicken leg, it occurred to me that the laying of the flag-pick on its side was a bit of a nonsense move. I mean, for a waiter passing by with succulent morsels of meat on a skewer trying to offload said morsels onto the plates of soon-to-be-stuffed diners (yes, the pun was intended), it would take eagle-type vision to see a flag-pick on its side, as opposed to a heaped plate of food that simply had no more room on it. In fact, in the midst of having to eat and work within the framework of the system, having to re-educate the waiting the staff, or even just having to point it out to them seemed like a cruel joke. But, and you probably knew this already, the food more than made up for the breakdown of the not-quite-a-secret-society code that The Carnivore tried to maintain.

Ah, the exotic meats. The "game meat" that was the USP of The Carnivore. To this day I can recall the aromas and flavors of all those lovely animals...on my plate. I ignored all the condiments the waiter would suggest after he served us a different kind of meat, and tried a piece to get to the real taste of the meat. Although the "antelope" and "zebra" tasted similar, you know, African herbivores who graze on the open plains, I didn't have an earlier experience to tie it to. I had only tasted beef, and these two don't quite fall into that category. I imagine they tasted more like horse, but I haven't ever eaten horse meat before. Well, not knowingly at least. Yet, the real surprise was in the "ostrich" and the "crocodile" tasting like chicken. It's easy to surmise that birds, no matter how much they are separated by size or any other feature would taste similar. But the crocodile? Well, that was a new one. One more thing about the crocodile meat, I was served a tail piece, which had a single vertebra in the centre, but the meat surrounding it looked like a translucent layer of fat. Not the most appetizing sight I had seen on a plate, but the hey-it's-exotic thought forced my hand. As I put a tiny piece into my mouth, and began the "chew" cycle, my eyes lit up! This was amazing! It looked like fat, all translucent and jiggling ever so slightly like jelly, but it tasted like flesh. That single bite bumped up the rating of this meal from 'Awesome' to 'Surreal' the best possible way, of course. And we did try some of the less exotic stuff as well, like sausages and chicken wings, but mostly just top up any empty spaces or air pockets that had managed to form in our stomachs. At the end, we didn't even bother with the flag-pick and just signalled a waiter who was passing by with an empty skewer that we were ready for the cheque. When we arrived in the hotel about a half hour later, there were no "doggie bags" to put away, no conversation about the lovely dinner, nothing. Just two well-fed gents too tired to think, and looking forward to losing consciousness the moment they hit their beds.

Back To Reality

The following morning, we ate our breakfast, making sure to pile our plates high with fresh fruits, and even sticking to the multi-various cereals on offer, keeping well away from the ham and bacon on the far end of the spread. We checked out of The Norfolk Hotel shortly thereafter, and Samuel dropped us to the airport. My dad and I gave Samuel a hug, for being an overall nice guy and for making our trip entertaining, if nothing else. My father, at the end of his hug, tipped Samuel by putting extra money into his hand. How much, I don't know, but it was just enough to make Samuel smile without counting it. He helped us find a trolley for our bags, and after he had helped us load the trolley, welcomed us back to Kenya anytime, pointing out that we should look him up when we were back next so that he could arrange to show us things that most other tourists never saw. Now that I've just written that sentence I realize how scandalous that offer sounds, but I'm more than sure Samuel meant well. With that, we walked into the airport terminal, and Samuel went back to the tours and travels' HQ.

After we had checked our baggage in, and before the Security Check was ready for us, we found ourselves just staring blankly into space and going over this past week in our heads. Well, I was staring at a poster, a Kenyan Air poster and I didn't even realize I wasn't seeing it. I pulled back and took a look at the ad, which had a Masai warrior in the pilot's seat of a plane's cockpit, with a cheetah in the co-pilot's seat, the two of them looking at each other. I can't remember what the tag line was, but I do remember the image very vividly. The juxtaposition was as humorous for me as it was the perfect, single-image summary of our Kenyan holiday. If you think about it, we did fly to Kenya to witness man and nature living in harmony even in today's world. Well, that would be until the cheetah wound up on the "Specials" board at The Carnivore anyway.
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