I have been to Nairobi twice in my life, passing through to take a plane or bus out into the great safari games parks of the Masai Mara, the Serengeti and Ngorogoro Crater. And although I was warned not to go wandering on my own, I was encouraged to dine at restaurants downtown, where I viewed a city not so much different from other well-developed capitals: clean streets, high-rise office buildings, apartment houses, taxis and buses.
I do recall being momentarily shaken my first morning in Nairobi by the sight of thousands of people arriving on foot at offices, too poor for transportation, having walked for many miles from their homes to reach their places of work. And though I was mildly moved by this, my mind was really on the upcoming safari for which I had undertaken the trip.
Then, last week, I saw images on television of one of the many giant, shanty towns of Nairobi where 1 million people — let me repeat that — 1 million people live in grinding squalor. And I realized that I had permitted myself to be shielded from reality, placed in an isolated, comfortable lodge by the operators of my safaris.
It is always thus in travel. We land in Washington, D.C., or come in to the awesome Union Station, and see an antiseptic city of gleaming office and government buildings, and all the well-dressed people who reside in or otherwise inhabit the northwest section of the city. It is only by accident that, very occasionally, we wander by mistake into the Washington, D.C., where minorities mainly live in conditions having no resemblance to the gussied-up downtown areas.
The outbreak of violence in Kenya should remind us of the conditions in which at least a third — and maybe more — of the world’s population live. And it also should remind us that fully 14 percent of our own population lives in poverty, with another 15 percent on the edge of poverty.
From now on, as a tourist, I will attempt to visit the less-favored areas of the cities I visit. And perhaps even tour companies should run visits to such places, in the same way that a New Orleans tour firm now takes visitors to the Ninth Ward there.
Such areas exist in every major city of the United States, and they are never visited by tourists. In fact, one tourist I met in Santa Fe, N.M., expressed puzzlement over whether any impoverished people actually lived in or near Santa Fe. He had never seen a person who lives in poverty, he said, and therefore wondered whether any actually exist. I assured him that a city like Santa Fe has people who wash the dishes in restaurants, change the beds in hotels, empty the pans in hospitals — and most assuredly did not live like the relaxed guests in the trendy restaurants of Santa Fe.
Someday I might do Arthur Frommer’s Guide to the Poverty Areas of America. But in the meantime, we as tourists must always remember that we are never taken to view the conditions of people less fortunate than ourselves.