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December 18, 2014

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An arrival in Nairobi, and how a lion taking down a zebra weighs into a safari experience

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John Katsilometes

The streets of Nairobi, Kenya at about 2 a.m. local time.

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Nairobi at night, just outside the Sarova Stanley hotel.

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The Nairobi Hilton hotel, across the street from the Saraova Stanley.

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Frankie and Ricky Moreno at the Nairobi airport, discussing logistics with a driver named Dennis.

NAIROBI, Kenya — It’ll all be worth it when we see a lion take down a zebra.

This has become the mantra of our traveling party to Nairobi, Kenya and on to Paris. All of this effort and energy is worth it, on that condition: We see a lion take down a zebra.

All the flying across three continents in a single, 24-hour period while curled into crammed Delta jets bound for Detroit, Amsterdam and finally Kenya. The purchase of safari gear, such as wide-brimmed hats and lightweight, multipocketed shirts and pants. The packing of 40-percent DEET (a high concentration, yes) insect repellent and SPF-50 sunblock. The series of vaccinations to ward off such diseases as hepatitis (brothers A & B), yellow fever (the actual yellow fever), tetanus, influenza and polio (the disease is still alive in this region) will all be worth it …

When we see a lion take down a zebra.

Oh, and striding willfully into a verifiably dangerous region. That’ll be worth it, too, when we see a lion take down a zebra. The who, what and where of this cross-global adventure is known by most folks who follow social media or even engage in social conversation. It’s a reunion of the Moreno brothers — Frankie, Tony and Ricky — along with their longtime family friend and investor in Frankie’s career, Peggy Armstrong, representing the far-off land of Houston. I term this reunion because this group toured Vienna, Austria and the Italian cities of Florence and Venice last spring. In Italy we were joined by the great photographer Denise Truscello, and the result was a series of columns and a story about the time spent in Europe for Las Vegas Weekly and the Las Vegas Sun. What fun.

The Moreno brothers cut away about once a year for an overseas trip for inspiration for their impressively prolific songwriting. Last year’s trip led to the writing, or the beginning of the writing, of five songs in a 10-day sprint. Four of those songs are on Moreno’s latest CD, “Frankie Moreno.” The song left off that release, the flammable “Angel Town,” is in Moreno’s show at the Stratosphere.

This time, the destinations for inspiration are wildly divergent. I’ve not been to either place, but Paris is not unfamiliar because it’s just such a famous city. The likelihood of being dazzled by the cuisine and architecture is only slightly mitigated by that city’s oft-reported disdain for Americans. We’ll see how true that really is on the second leg of the trip, but I do anticipate some arched eyebrows and upturned noses from Parisians who observe our traveling entourage.

But Nairobi is a different kettle of fish, or, in Kenyan parlance, a different herd of zebras. One person who has relayed information about Nairobi is violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, who told Frankie Moreno of a friend of his who recently visited the city. This guy went out alone and was stopped by a robber wielding a knife. The tourist was fleeced of his on-person belongings and suffered gashes to the bone on both arms.

So, Joshua Bell has warned us about how to conduct ourselves in Nairobi. Speaking individually, I never thought Joshua Bell would ever warn me about anything, so already we have nurtured my international traveling experience.

But the risk, vividly outlined by Mr. Bell, will be worth it, when we see a lion take down a zebra.

The plan here in Kenya is to spend five days and four nights at the Masai Mara safari at Mara Porini Camp, which is inside on the Ol Kinyei Conservatory, a 17,500-acre wilderness reserve that sits about 170 miles southeast of Nairobi near the Kenya-Tanzania border. Before we get there, after a 45-minute flight on a prop plane (urp!), we’re staying the night in Nairobi. This is Kenya’s capital and largest city, home to more than 3 million people. Nairobi has a distinct western feel, at least by observing the many English signs on such businesses as Furniture Palace, Soaring Eagle Steak House, Divine Interiors and, yes, CarMax. Everyone working at the Sarova Stanley hotel speaks English, and I am happily writing away on free WiFi furnished by the resort. I had a steak for dinner at the restaurant here, and across the street a sign bears the image of Colonel Sanders.

But it’s a little dicey outside these windows. I left the hotel for a few minutes to take photos of an the mostly empty streets of downtown Nairobi. The security officer assigned to my floor (one is assigned to each of the hotel’s five floors) saluted me as I waited for the elevator. One of the guards positioned next to the resort’s security checkpoint insisted he be at my side even though I was not actually leaving the property.

The scene at the Masai Mara safari will be very different, but alike in that there are places you should not be. Outside your sleeping quarters at night, for starters. The lodging at the camp is a half-dozen resident tents, equipped with hot running water and solar lights. This is not roughing it in the sense that you are living off the land and sleeping on dirt, but such exotic and potentially lethal animals as lions, leopards, African elements, African buffalo and Black Rhinoceros, wildebeest, topi, Thompsons gazelle and (thankfully) zebra are found in the wild on the reserve grounds.

We have been warned, repeatedly, not to wear any fragrances, don’t stray from the group and to follow the directives of the guides who lord over the camp. We have also understood that dressing one of our group in a lion costume and sending him into the wild is a really short-sighted concept (and this idea has been broached, believe me).

Our days will be filled with tours of the reserve, which is mostly grassland and riverine forest lined by batches of acacia trees. We’ll be eating dishes prepared by the chef on the reserve. Or maybe he or she is actually a cook. Can’t say yet. But we are sure that one night we’re dining at Carnivore, one of the world’s most famous restaurants, which specializes in meat, game meat, meat buffet, exotic meat and maybe even an appearance by Meat Puppets.

Some of the menu options at Carnivore: Ostrich, crocodile, camel and a delicacy known as “Ox Balls.”

We’ll order a plate — with ranch. It’ll be worth it, as long as we see a lion take down a zebra.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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