Travelling with kids: a safe passage through Nairobi

Christine Iyer finds that her son Calvin is more concerned with exploring the Kenyan capital than being robbed.

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The alley was empty. Gnarled trees, topped with giant, roosting marabou storks, cast black shadows everywhere. I edged closer to my husband and peered at the grubby map in my hand. Except for the muted sounds of traffic on faraway streets - and Calvin, our 11-year-old son, slurping Coca-Cola - it was completely silent.

We were in Nairobi a few months ago on our way to the Masai Mara. On an afternoon walk around the Kenyan capital, we lost our way back to our hotel, the Fairmont.

Soon the sun went down and my mind went into overdrive, replaying over and over the harrowing story of a colleague who was mugged at dusk while in a moving cab in "Nairobbery". We'd left our passports and valuables in the hotel safe but were carrying our wallets, which made me slightly uneasy. I remembered what the hotel doorman, resplendent in a black top hat and purple coat-tails, had said as we stepped out: "Get back before dark - it's not safe."

But it was hopeless. After another series of wrong turns, we found ourselves at the entrance of a musty handicraft market. It was a mistake to enter; we were immediately surrounded by touts brandishing wooden animals and woven baskets. Calvin pushed past a large Kenyan insisting we buy one of his giraffes.

"Too expensive," Calvin told the man firmly. "We have to go now."

We came out the other side into a little square with a closed supermarket - its doors swathed in thick chains and four iron padlocks - and several battered, 1960s BMWs. The boys stopped to look leisurely at the cars while I accosted the odd pedestrian with pleas for directions to the Fairmont. No one seemed to have heard of it.

"We're never going to get out of this place," I said, trying to steady my voice.

"Alive," added my husband, grinning wickedly.

Calvin finished his drink, carefully dropped it into an overflowing bin, and smacked his lips. "I'm starving. What plans for dinner?" he demanded.

Two more wrong turns brought us to a crowded KFC with a guard, a rifle over his shoulder, on duty outside. We went in, placed our orders and found a table. On the wall behind us was a sign in bold red letters: "Please note: the key to the safe is NOT on the premises".

Full of food, we ventured out into the night again, this time armed with detailed directions from a kindly waitress. After a 15-minute walk down a pitch-black, unlit road, we found ourselves in front of the hotel and were quickly ushered in by the doorman, who promptly told us off: "What took you so long? You could have been mugged."

"It's OK," Calvin assured him. "We walked around for hours, nearly bought a wooden giraffe, ate some chicken. Never felt safer. You really shouldn't call it Nairobbery anymore."

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