Vacation in Kenya (A year late)

We spent Christmas 2018 in Kenya with family and friends. It was the first time traveling together with my people on a transcontinental trip. It took a lot of planning to make it work. Alaska is far far away from Kenya.

We planned to a T on how we would travel and be back before our son turned 2. It’s not cheap to travel from Alaska to Kenya. So with a lap baby and the two of us, it was manageable financially. We spentย  a month in Kenya and it just flew by. We had initially booked a ticket arriving in Nairobi on 2nd Jan 2019 but after much thought we threw caution to the wind and re-booked arriving in Nairobi on Dec 20, just in time for Christmas.

The planning phase for this trip was a pain in the behind. The amount of paper work required to travel to a country the military ranking considers too close to terrorism related activities is unbelievable. Kenya is ranked together with Somalia and other troubled countries like Libya. You need approval from a Brigadier General(O-7) to travel. This approval is on a case by case basis. I was born there so there is an exemption. The closest high ranking officer up here in Alaska is a Lieutenant General. A 3 star General approving my travel to go on leave. That was just one part of the puzzle. The actual approval comes from Stuttgart, Germany which is the Africa Command Headquarters. They consult with the American Embassy in Nairobi and approve or deny your request to go home. I know, it’s not easy.

We traveled from Anchorage to Seattle, Washington. Sat at the airport for 5 hours then took a night flight with Virgin Atlantic to London Heathrow. We spent another 7 hours there before boarding a Kenya Airways overnight flight to Nairobi.ย  All this with a baby, infant who cried for a couple of hours on the Seattle London flight. It was not easy but we made it.

It was so good to be back home for the first time in 2 years for both of us and for the first time for our son. He got to meet his cousins and had a blast. He was walking everywhere. There is not much walking in Anchorage or America unless you make an effort to do it. There is dust everywhere and the dude just loved it.

We landed on a Thursday and drove to Eldoret (a city 5 hours NW of Nairobi) the next day. My wife’s cousin had a traditional wedding ceremony and we could not afford to miss. We were jet-lagged but we made it. Had a great time with family down there.

We traveled to Gilgil to see dad and my sister. They met the little guy for the first time and Grandpa was so happy to hang out with him. It hasn’t been easy for him since mum left us. He misses her lots. You could tell seeing him for the first time since mum’s funeral in 2016.

We spent Christmas and New Year with family. It was the first time I was spending both holidays in Kenya since I relocated to the US. It felt great to see the celebratory mood all around as compared to the US where you don’t really feel it as much, especially if you are not shopping.

NB..

This first part has been sitting in draft since April 2019. I just realized it’s been a year since we were in Kenya. Life happened. We were in Kenya for nearly 6 weeks. Time flew by so fast. We also did so much while we were there. The weather was great too, a perfect break from the winter conditions in Alaska.

The highlight of the trip was a balloon safari ride in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. It was great seeing wildlife from above. It was also my first time visiting the Maasai Mara. It’s true of what I’d heard. You most likely will get to see the Big 5. It’s a common Safari term. Big 5 were the most difficult animals to hunt on foot back in the day. They are Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Elephant and African Buffalo. We were able to see all except the Rhino which we’d seen at different national parks.

The Coast was also great, it took some getting used to with high temperature and humidity. It was a great to enjoy the break in January after all the Christmas/New Year mad rush and crowds that is the Kenyan Coast. My wife even got to sky dive by the beach in Diani, South Coast.

The young guy got to meet his people and had so much fun. He got to go on his first flights. Too long for him but hopefully as he grows older he’ll appreciate it more and have fun.

The hustle of getting approval from work made me decide not to travel to Kenya for a while. It’s so stressful and the possibility of leave being cancelled is high. This means losing tickets and money. I didn’t want to take a risk. For my wife and son, they don’t need any permission to fly to Kenya. They just get on a plane and fly. As they just did..They are currently in Kenya to see family.

2019 was a hectic year to say the least, the pilot license I’ve been working to get finally came to fruition. I passed my checkride last week and I’m now a private pilot. My dream became reality. I cannot express how happy I am. I’m still processing it all. There are still other licenses to get to fly commercially but for now it’s a celebration of a big achievement. The American journey continues..

Below are some pictures of our trip to Kenya last year.

The first part is from Lake Nakuru and Lake Naivasha both in the Rift Valley.

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The next part is Nairobi National Park in the Capital

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Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi

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The Maasai Mara Game Reserve

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The Coast (Mombasa and Diani)

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Off course being an aviation enthusiast, I had to do some planespotting while in Nairobi

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Knee Surgery Waiver (USAF)

I’ve noticed many searches leading to my blog for Knee surgery waivers. This mainly comes from those who are looking into joining the Uniformed Services i.e. Army, Marines, Airforce, Navy, Coast Guard.

I had knee surgery in Kenya in 2010 and I didn’t think one day that decision would help me in the process of joining the US Air Force.

I was cycling when I felt something give way in my knee. I didn’t think much about it. I thought it was a pulled ligament that would heal. I tried cycling a few days later and my knee locked up. Walking became a problem.

I went to the ER to have it looked and the doctor I saw thought it might be something more serious. He called an Orthopedic Surgeon Dr. Kagoda Byakika for a second opinion.

I saw him and he requested MRIs. After examining them he told I had torn my right knee Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL). I had two options, undergo physical therapy for life with a possibility of early arthritis or undergo surgery to repair the ligament. Luckily I had medical insurance courtesy of my job then.

I chose surgery. Checked myself into Nairobi Hospital a week later, the surgery went well. I chose the epidural so I was half awake to see and hear Dr. Byakika and his team working on my clamped knee. He even allowed me to see inside my knee to see the damage on a screen as he worked with a small camera through a hole in the knee.

I was in hospital for a few days as I started my long physiotherapy journey which would come into play years later. That went on for months until I was able to regain full use of my knee. I went back to cycling and that was that.

I got a chance to emigrate to the US in 2014 and started the process of joining the US Air Force as soon as I got here.

Then came the big hindrance, if I’d ever had surgery I needed all the paper work to submit all the paperwork to show I regained full motion on my knee.

It wasn’t easy getting all the paperwork in Kenya but I did it and submitted it to my recruiter down in Houston. He submitted the waiver to the Surgeon General of the Air Force and it was approved.

The rest as they say is history. If I could do it as a newcomer to this country you can too.

I’m glad I did the ACL surgery as I don’t do too bad on my Physical Test (PT) even as an old 35 yr+ cat. My 1.5 mile run time is decent enough. 2 Sub 10s and a 10:20 in BMT has been my slowest. It’s doable. It takes time, is a pain and takes a minute to go through but be patient. If this foreign guy did it so can you.

Useful Resources for Kenyans in Diaspora

I’ve been here since July 2014 and it’s been a roller coaster of sorts. Having moved thousands of miles from Kenya it hasn’t been hard to move often. So far I’ve lived in Houston, Texas for a year before joining the military and after joining I was in San Antonio and Wichita Falls in Texas for training before being posted to Goldsboro, North Carolina. I was there for a year before my wife joined me. After 6 months we moved to Alaska where we have 3 more years left before we move again.

The one thing that I have maintained is some connection to Kenya. I still use my Kenyan Safaricom SIM card 4 years on. I use my M-Pesa when I need to send money home. It hasn’t been hard. I have a 2nd phone with the Kenyan line. I don’t use it for voice calls as it’s expensive. You are charged to receive calls too. In case you are wondering how I load airtime on my line, I use another app to transfer money to my line then..voila

There is a calling service called Reltel which gives you 86 minutes of mobile calls to Kenya for $10. You can also make calls to other countries for cheap. I use it to call the people who are not tech savvy enough to have whatsapp on their phones.

Whatsapp is the universal diaspora chatting and calling app ๐Ÿ˜Š๐Ÿ˜Š. Most of my my American colleagues have never heard of the app. I don’t think there is an immigrant from Africa out here who doesn’t use whatsapp.

The other important app I use is Wave. You can send money to East and their exchange rates are not too bad. I use it to send money to Safaricom M-Pesa.

A year in Alaska

We’ve been in Alaska for a year now and to be honest it hasn’t been that bad. I’m glad we made the move up here. We experienced our first winter and that was interesting to say the least.

First we had to get studded tires for our cars which are allowed from mid October to May. They make a difference with traction especially on days when the roads are slick.

Military life has been easy too. Monday to Friday 7-4 is not exactly a difficult back breaking gig. I have 3 more years before I’m done. They should go by fast.

My wife has been working on base for the past year or so now and there is availability of jobs too compared to North Carolina where we were stationed before. The little guy is growing fast and he’s quite a handful dealing with. He goes to daycare and being with other age mates has helped in his development so far. He’s at a stage where ‘No has become his favorite word. Anything and everything you tell him is met with a No..interesting times as we hope he outgrows this stage soon. Did I say daycare is not cheap in America. It’s not. He goes to daycare on base here, the rates are subsidized according to one’s rank. The rates downtown are through the roof.

There are a tonne of things to do in Alaska. We have hiked, we have driven the through nearly all of Alaska’s roads. There is so much wildlife up here. We’ve seen Moose, Bears, Caribou and many other little creatures. Wildlife has right of way here on base, you don’t mess with them, give way and they’ll be on their way.

I tried fishing too with a friend of mine on a river a couple of hours from Anchorage. I didn’t catch anything but it was fun.

My brother and his wife came visiting from Kenya during Summer. We took them around the state and they had a good time. The most shocking thing for them was the sun being up at nearly midnight during the height of the the season. We took them on a cruise out in the Gulf of Alaska and to 2 other port cities ; Valdez and Whittier and they had a blast.

I’ve taken up a planespotting photography hobby since I’ve been up here. Anchorage is a big stopover for cargo airliners coming from Asia on their way to what we call ‘Lower 48’ or Continental United States. As an aviation enthusiast it’s been fun seeing all these jumbo jets up close. I hope one day I’ll be piloting one of them.

It’s officially Fall now and the colors outdoors have been amazingly beautiful. We’ve driven around and introduced the young guy to the outdoors and he loves it.

As we prepare for another winter, we are losing light fast. We’ll see how it treats us.

Below are some pictures of Alaska.

Seoul, South Korea

I’m stationed in Alaska and we are part of the Pacific Air Forces, meaning our area of operations extends across the Pacific. South Korea is a big part of our life here.

We were back in South Korea a couple of months ago, but it wasn’t without drama. We missed a connection in San Francisco and had to spend the night at the airport. The next day we got rebooked through Los Angeles and onto Seoul. Unfortunately our bags didn’t make it.

We made it to our final destination without the bags and for some of us without uniforms. We worked for a couple of days in our civilian attire. The bags made it 2 days later..pheeew.

We did what we were supposed to do and in about 10 days we were done. I had taken 2 days of leave to sightsee the capital Seoul before heading back to Anchorage.

Seoul has a population of about 10 million people. It has a very good public transportation system too. I had booked a hotel in the middle of downtown close to the train station. I found a luggage storage facility at the airport as taxis are very expensive and I didn’t want to be lugging around 3 bags of gear.

I used the Incheon to Seoul train. It’s a distance of 27km and they even have a direct non-stop one. I missed that and used the regular one making frequent stops along the way.

Seoul is hilly, I figured that out fast after checking in to my hotel then setting off to explore the Namsan Seoul Tower. One of the ways to have a birds eye view of Seoul.

The pictures above are of the “rural” Korea, the views of Seoul landing back at domestic Gimpo Airport and the Seoul Tower.

The following day I took a regular train tho the Lotte World Tower which is even higher than the Seoul Tower. It has fantastic views of the city. The next stop was the Gwangjang market, famous for street food. It’s easy to move around using trains or buses. I found the market and the food was as interesting as it gets. I wasn’t as adventurous as I had flights to take the following day and having a running tummy wasn’t something I wanted. I went with pork, some vegetable pancakes and fruit salad. They had all kinds of seafood, soups and meats. They even had seafood omelettes. The food section is inside a market with stalls selling clothes, food and all kinds of second hand stuff.

After the market tour I took a bus and toured the city including the Itaewon part of town popular with the military, university students and Americans. There a is a nearby Korean War Memorial nearby show casing all the military gear used by Americans and the Koreans. A walk around other parts of the city was tiring as it’s quite hilly around Seoul. It’s a great vibrant city full of life. It reminded me of Nairobi but more technologically advanced with very good infrastructure.

I spent the last night experimenting with night photography of the Seoul skyline. It was trial and error but I got some nice shots.

The next day I took a train back to Incheon airport and headed out for the long flight back home via San Francisco and Seattle.

I’ll be back to Seoul sometime. I didn’t barely scratch the surface of what the city has to offer.

Arizona

Last month I got a last minute temporary training assignment to Florida and decided on a whim to take a few days of leave en enroute. It was worth it but in hindsight I should have brought the family along.

The training trip to Florida went well. Slept in tents with air conditioning. Sometimes the Air Force gets the butt of the jokes in military circles for such luxuries. Air condition in a tent in the bunduz. The Army wishes they were us. I was not complaining though. The Meals-Ready-to-Eat or MRE’s were not too bad but most of my colleagues hate them. It usually consists of a pre -prepared meal that only requires heating to eat. There is a powdered drink, snack and some dessert of sorts. You warm it with a heating pad activated by adding water.

We played in the field and got some time on the equipment that we would use of we were to deploy.

After Florida I flew to Houston for a day to see my ‘family’ there. As you know I call Houston my American home. It’s where it all started. One of my friends was diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. So it was good to see him and hang out with him and his family. The warm weather was a welcome break from the coldish spring in Alaska. I also got to restock on some Kenyan food as there are Indian and Pakistani stores that sell ndengu aka green grams and tea. They also stock chapati flour. Another Kenyan delicacy.

My next stop was Phoenix, Arizona.I got a rental car at the airport and spent a night there then headed north towards Flagstaff. Flagstaff is a high altitude area in Arizona popular with elite runners. It’s more like Iten in Kenya. I stopped in Sedona and hiked in the Red Rock State Park. It’s a beautiful park with red rock formations. The nearby Sedona has the same rock formations and had a popular Catholic Chapel of the Cross built on the side of the red rock. It’s an architectural masterpiece.

I spent a night in Flagstaff which was my base for two nights. I had made reservations for the Page Canyon about 2 hours north. It’s one of the most photographed canyons in the world. It was formed by flooding erosion over the years and it’s now about 90 feet into the ground at its deepest point. It has steep ladders going down into the canyon. Once you are inside, you get to see God’s creative hand at its best. When the sunlight hits the canyon the colors are magical. It is on Navajo tribal land who benefit by charging a fee for guides. It was totally worth the hike and takes about an hour and a half to complete.

There is the Horseshoe Bend nearby which is an overlook of the Colorado River. It resembles a horseshoe. It’s viewed from a steep cliff 1000ft (300m) above the river. It’s a 1.5 mile hike to the overlook from the road. They have float raft tours down below where you navigate the river or from the Air in small planes. The hike was well worth it.

From there I headed to the Grand Canyon which is about an hour away from Page which is home to the canyon and overlook. The Grand Canyon is too big to explore in a day so I checked in, hiked for a little bit then then headed back to my base in Flagstaff before dark and came back the following day. There is so much to do there from biking, to hiking to helicopter tours to camping. I was able to explore and it’s a marvel of nature that has taken millions of years to form. The trick is to get there early which I did on the second day. Hike, explore the less popular viewpoints before human crowds become overwhelming and parking space becomes scarce. I loved it and even got to see some weird looking mountain elk.

From there I had a 5 hour drive south back to Phoenix. It’s a beautiful drive from the high mountain areas of Flagstaff to the desert down in Phoenix. Traffic is horrible there, reminding me of my Nairobi days.

I had made an appointment South of Phoenix in the Sonora desert to go and see the plane graveyard diem there. There is an airport in the middle of the desert called Pinal Airpark Marana where commercial planes land and for some making their last flights, for some the owners store them there due to the ideal dry desert climate which mitigates corrosion of the aircraft. It’s owned by the Pinal county and the airport economic development director takes people on tours if you coordinate with him in advance. It was formerly an Army Airfield during WWII where they trained pilots and later on a CIA off site for covert operations.

I drove down to the desert the following day and for an aviation enthusiast like me it was heaven. They all the Delta airline’s retired jumbo jets and so many other types of aircrafts being stripped of parts, others in storage awaiting new owners and some eye down there for maintenance. The is a big facility on site. I loved it seeing all the planes up close on the tour of the facility.

My fight back to Alaska was delayed as I drove back to the airport in Phoenix to drop off the rental car. Luckily I was rebooked through Los Angeles then onto Seattle and finally on the final leg to Anchorage arriving back in the wee hours of the morning. LA was great as I had a longer transit time so I was able to check out more interesting airlines from around the world like Aeroflot from Russia and Air New Zealand which of never seen before.

Travel is addictive as I always say and once the bug bites you, you are hooked forever.

Below are pictures from that trip starting in chronological order from Florida to LA.

Japan & South Korea

I got to visit South Korea and Japan and I have to say I have a new favorite country and city..Tokyo, Japan is my favorite city to visit for now.

I can confidently say both countries live in the future. They are so far ahead technologically and socially and it was a marvel to see.

Unlike some countries I’ve been to. They didn’t bother with you or even stare as a foreigner. They were immersed into their phones and gadgets on the trains and subways. It felt good to just go about your business without worrying too much even though I kinda stood out.

At the airport at Incheon, Korea you can rent a pocket Wi-Fi instead of getting a local SIM card. It costs about 5 bucks a day and I had booked one online before I got there. I just stopped by their airport stand, showed them the confirmation email. They hooked me up with the mouse-sized device, turned it on, set it up and I had instant Wi-Fi. It was fast and reliable whenever I went. It comes with a USB charger too. I loved it. I just dropped it off on my way out of the country and that was it. They even deliver it to your hotel if you land at crazy hours of the night and they are closed. Living in technological future and customer care.

One thing I noticed around South Korea was every available space is used for greenhouse farming. That was interesting. They farm by hand and also use machinery around and in the green houses. They utilize small parcels of land to grow wheat, fruits and vegetables. Very innovative.

The food was also very interesting. They had make-your-own-barbeque where they gave you raw beef or pork and you barbecued it on gas grills on the tables. Then they served more than 5 types of vegetables to accompany the meats.

Their common alcoholic drink is a very potent spirit served in a small soda bottle called Soju. It’s mainly made from rice or other starches and it’s alcohol content can vary from 16-50% alcohol content. I saw many Koreans having the drink with meals and shared the drink in shot glasses. I tried it and can attest to it’s potency.

The subway system is very advanced with local and intercity lines. The same with their road network with a lot of tunnels in mountainous areas.

They offer hot beverages vending machines. They had hot coffee & chocolate. I loved it.

Did I tell you they serve beer at KFC in Korea. Go in and order just beer, mko chicken. Yes, that was one of my highlights there.

I downloaded an app which I used to communicate with Koreans, you just wrote or spoke in English and it interpreted and translated making ordering for food and asking for directions that much easier.

It’s a 2 hour flight from Seoul to Tokyo. In Japan, it was another futuristic nation. I got to the airport at night. Cabs are ridiculously expensive in Japan. They mainly use trains and subways. Since I had luggage that I needn’t need in Tokyo. I found out you could lock your stuff in lockers at the airport for a fee. You got a receipt with a password for unlocking.

I used google maps for directions and they had attendants at all train stations to help with how to pay and where the platforms were. They had about 8 different train operators. Some shared tracks and for others you had to exit a station, cross a street and go into a different station. It was quite a challenge at first but I got the gang of it after a while.

It was easy to navigate and I had a great time in Tokyo. It is my favorite city thus far. They have train attendants to push people into the train cars for the doors to close during rush hour..it was funny to watch๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚

I took an organized trip to Mt. Fuji, 2 hours southwest of Tokyo. It was a beautiful drive through the forests and tunnels through the mountains.

Drove past the Maglev train test site tracks in Yamanashi prefecture. The train has hit speeds of upto 374mph (603kph) during tests. The train doesn’t use tracks but a set of magnets and kinda floats with no friction. It’s launch is planned for 2027. That futuristic Japanese stuff I was telling you about ๐Ÿค”๐Ÿค”

It was a clear day and we were able to clearly see the top of Mt. Fuji, drove up to the Fifth station viewpoint, had Mt. Fuji shaped cakes and checked out the souvenirs on offer. Then had lunch at Lake Kawaguchi at the bottom of the mountain. Drove to Lake Ashi and took a cruise to the Hakone Komagatoke ropeway. We had a beautiful view of the nearby Odawara city overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Japan is an island and the nearest neighbors are Russia and Korea.

We ended the day long roadtrip with a ride on the Shinkansen bullet train back to Tokyo. With speeds upto 320kph the 2 hour drive took 40 minutes.

For some Kenyans who ‘shrub’ or have a tribal accent they would blend in so well as Japanese really mix up their ‘l’s and ‘r’s..๐Ÿคฃ๐Ÿคฃ๐Ÿคฃ

There is so much to do in Tokyo, I barely scratched the surface but I was able to check out a few things. A cat themed cafe.. yes, a cafe full of cats where you just chill, have coffee or food as you pet cats.. random..i know. They also have Owl, Rabbits, Dogs, Snakes, Parrot themed restaurants. Interesting stuff.

For some of the fast food restaurants you pay into a machine outside the restaurant, got your receipt and change and only went in to grab your food.. no cashiers.

At one of the busiest intersections in the world at Shibuya there are over 1,000 people crossing at a time during peak hours at this intersection.

Japanese dress up in suits and their laptop bags, very official looking and they have some unwritten rules. When going up escalators they stand on the left side, those walking up or down use the right side. It’s interesting to watch especially during rush hour.

You don’t tip in Japan, if you try they get offended and will chase you down to give back your tip. Very interesting. Some off them also wear mouth masks which come in interesting designs. It was explained they are worn by many due to allergies brought about by certain tree pollen especially during summer. Masks are also worn to prevent spreading diseases due to the close personal space especially on public transport.

I did a bit of shopping at the famous budget friendly Japanese mega store Uni-Qlo. With 5 floors it was quite the shopping experience.

On my way out at the Narita airport, they had one of the biggest shopping areas of regular stuff I had seen. None of that duty free perfume and chocolate you see at most airports. It was more of a big market with local Japanese merchandise and Japanese tech stuff from outdoor gear to cameras. To crown it all they had an upstairs aircraft viewing deck. As a planespotterand aviation enthusiast there was no better place to be taking pictures of landing and departing aircraft. I nearly missed my boarding time snapping away.

I loved loved Japan and will be back to explore soon. It’s only 8 hours away from Alaska.

Komsa-Hamnida , Arigato… thank you in Korean and Japanese.