I booked a New Years-time overland safari as a way to see as much of Africa as I could. The idea of sitting in a vehicle for 10 hours each day might have deterred some. But the chance to take in East Africa from up high and through wide windows spoke to my inner child, a girl fascinated by the Maasai tribe and who enjoyed car and train rides to new places.

Somewhat stupidly, the animals on safari were an afterthought as I prepared for my trip when compared to the vibrant textiles of the Maasai and the chance to tour Nairobi. This made safari all the more exciting and impressive when it finally came time to visit Maasai Mara National Reserve after two days in the capital city and a day on the once-smooth, later-intrepid road.

Safari is not for the weak of heart. Maybe glamping-style safari is, but that is not what I signed up for. Our group of 14 from around the world camped in modest tents, rose by 6 am to see the animals conduct their morning routines, and spent daylight into dusk driving over rocks and ruts in a 4x4 vehicle. Minor autoimmune flairs-up aside from the grueling schedule, the time flew by. As my new friend from Singapore said, “The scenery is constantly feeding your eyes.”

At Maasai Mara, which is connected to the Serengeti in Tanzania, we saw our fair share of lions and lionesses, hippos, giraffes, zebras, buffalo, acacia trees, and one leopard prancing openly across the grasslands. The perfect symmetry of the zebra’s stripes and the elegant gait of the giraffes noted, I would nonetheless have to label the lions as the most majestic creatures in this slice of the animal kingdom. It was surreal to see these storied animals up close and to observe the same grooming patterns, laziness, and exquisite facial features as my cat “kids” back home.

The animals were generally not phased by the constant vehicle traffic and snapping of photos around them except when someone got out of their vehicle to fix a busted tire. While we feared for the driver’s life, the animals instead got spooked and ran from him!

At Lake Nakuru, we saw the remains of a zebra in its hunter’s fangs and two rhino families fight each other. It was a gift to see so many rhinos let alone one, so I was told by our guides, who were incredulous that we had such luck when so many wait days for just one spotting. Even as the government has taken pains to curb poaching, the rhino population has yet to recover. These giants live around Lake Nakuru with the city visible in the background, including an apartment complex close by from which people were watching a mother and baby. I can’t imagine looking out my window in Philadelphia and seeing such a sight, nor zebras instead of deer off of highways in the Northeast, nor monkeys as roadkill instead of squirrels.

Our group spent a night in Eldoret before the next day’s 12-hour drive into Uganda. Eldoret is known as the “home of champions” since so many of Kenya’s runners are from or train in Eldoret. Some in our group ran the famous track while others took a stroll to meet some of the local kids, who our guide explained are known to cheer on the runners and run behind them.

I asked our Kenyan tour guide if giving gifts to the young children was culturally appropriate, and I got a resounding yes. Before dinner one evening, the same friend who commented on the scenery’s nourishing abilities walked with me to hand out a modest assortment of oranges, bananas, notebooks and pencils to the kids near the track. At first, their eyes were somewhat sad at our approaching; we pieced together that they thought we were selling these items.

“No, no, we want to give this to you!” I said, at which time their countenances changed completely with smiles abound.

The good spirits of the Kenyan people I encountered contrast to their economic circumstances. Over 25% of the population lives on under $2.20 a day according to the World Bank. Anecdotally, everyone I chatted with lamented that the pandemic hurt the once-stable middle class, many of whom work in tourism. But you would never know the extent of their struggles by their attitudes. To this day, before I tell people about the animals on safari or the sights in Nairobi, I begin my retelling by gushing over the lovely Kenyan people.

However, my time in Kenya was about to come to a close. After Eldoret, we crossed the border into Uganda for my final excursion of my trip: ferrying around the source of the Nile River in Jinja.