December 9, 2012

Allow me to acquaint you

It’s chaos in Nairobi. 

Or, rather, it was chaos for a few days, but people seem to be moving on now.  Though that’s hardly as gripping a statement as It’s chaos in Nairobi!  And I don’t mean the everyday, predictable chaos that gives this city its flavor.  I mean something specific, something special:


Sure, they’ve already been on strike at least twice since I returned, but this time they mean business.  Or, rather, no business (…it’s a strike-related pun). 

For those who know what matatus are, you'll know how crippling a legitimate strike can be for Nairobi.  And for those who don't know what matatus are, allow me to acquaint you:

While there are also buses in Nairobi, matatus are the primary form of public transport.  They're vans with 12 seats (in 4 rows).  Based on this physical capacity, they carry 10 passengers, 1 driver, and 1 conductor.  That's in Nairobi.  In Kisumu and other areas of Western Kenya, matatus carry 1 driver, 1 conductor, and about 15-20 people.  They're no larger than the matatus in Nairobi, but they do a lot of lap-sitting, and they use wooden boards to create seats across the isle.

Give or take, matatus look like this:

That's a pretty generic looking one.  Often, they're decorated with various stickers or graffiti tags.  It's like the van your friend's older cousin used to park across from the high school and smoke weed out of during calculus class.  The inside is always battered and seats are torn.  Yet, they're often souped up with big speakers and more decorative touches.  The ceilings are padded, I assume to prevent concussions when going over bumps.  There are no seat-belts.  

From the inside.  Blurriness corresponds to bumpiness.  

Tricked out with lights, speakers, and a TV screen.

The conductor rides in back with the passengers and is responsible for collecting money enticing people into the van.  He either sits in the seat next to the door, hollering out their destination (TOOOWwwn!  TOOown!), or to be more efficient, he just keeps the door open and hangs outside of the matatu shouting at people on the sidewalk as they drive along.  

All conductors fold money the same way.  Even flapping outside in the wind.  

Conductor riding outside of the van.

So, back to the point at hand- why were the matatus on strike last week?  On December 1, Kenya implemented new traffic laws and penalty fines that are, supposedly, outrageous.  For instance, you can't "overlap," which means creating multiple lanes, where only 1 is supposed to go.  And you can't drive on the sidewalks.  Outrageous, I say!  How are people supposed to get anywhere without driving on the sidewalks??

This is supposed to be a 2 lane street.

Anyhow, they appear to have returned to work by end of last week, at least in the areas that I frequent.  But you can never really tell.  I’m told that the police are also on strike, but they keep showing up to work to get paid and avoid a governmental reprisal.  But they just stand at their post, wherever that may be, and don’t work.  For me, until otherwise informed, I can’t discern the difference between this and their normal work routine. 

So you never really know.

December 4, 2012

In the good way

If you're camping in California or elsewhere in the U.S. and you see a sign that says, "Don't leave ANY food in your tent or bears will eat you," it's not a joke.  Don't leave ANY food in your tent, or bears will eat you.

I suppose we should have paid similar heed to the signs warning us not to leave ANY food in our cabin at Diani Beach last weekend.  But we felt pretty safe, ensconced in mosquito netting and wooden slats, and hey, apples don't really smell that pungent, do they?  Apparently, yes; to monkeys they do.  Which is why we woke up on Sunday morning to a Colobus monkey sitting on the cross-beam of our roof, eating an apple, and pooping all over the floor.

Don't leave ANY food in your cabin.  Lest the monkeys consume and poop.

We also learned that politely saying, "Go on, Monkey.  You need to please leave now.  Just throw your apple out the window ahead of you and then go after it," doesn't work.  (N of 1 = proof!).

Luckily, that was the day we were leaving, so we didn't have to spend a weekend with excrement, and the rest of the time was quite lovely.

The requisite dawn flight to the coast.  Over Mt. Kilimanjaro.

At the Kenyan coast, you can be as lazy or as active as you want, and this weekend I was lazy.  So lazy the trip can be summed in 5 words: sun, sand, ships, swimming, seafood.  Or, simply, sloth.  In the good way.  And that meant that it was all about the beach:

 Splashing along the shallow tides.

 Sinking steeply into soft white sands.

We bought some wine, bread, and cheese and took it out to sea in a glass-bottomed boat, dropping anchor at a sandbar several hundred meters from shore and splashing about in the knee-deep water.  We touched and befriended huge pincushion starfish and creepy-crawly spider star-fish.  We kept wide berth from some sea urchins.  We lay on the sand reading as camels traipsed by.  We ate fresh prawns from the Indian Ocean and attended a James Bond party on the beach.

Glass-bottom boat.


 Beach bar by day.

 Beach bar by night.  

And by night, after the parties were finished and the sun long since set, we ran back into the ocean for swimming by stars.

November 27, 2012

Straps can be adjusted

When I took my safari to Amboseli, I booked it as a discount package through a Groupon-like site called Rupu.  It was a great deal (~40% discount) and a great trip, but now I'm on their mailing list.  Typically I auto-delete the e-mails every morning for all-you-can-eat steak buffets as I wait for the next great gem of a deal to turn up.  But today's offer really took the cake:

A glamorous BRA STRAP from Elegantly African.

Ladies, replace those unsightly bra straps with these glamorous bra straps from Elegantly African.  Going for a party, hang out with friends or a wedding?  Well, if you have been searching for elegant and fashionable bra straps in Nairobi, we have the perfect solution for you.

- Dazzling bra-straps in various designs
- Straps can be adjusted
- Provide ample choice to select the one that best suits a dream outfit"

Because I have no pictures today (weekend update coming soon), here are a few links to round-out your internet-browsing experience:

The votes are in, and Obama beats Romney in a western Kenyan village.

Breaking news: Obama beats Romney in Kenya even through animal surrogates.

And finally, what would people from Africa think if they were only shown this fundraising video of Norway?

November 22, 2012

It's my second

It’s my second consecutive Thanksgiving in Kenya. Last year I was eating cabbage and streaked in mud, so this year there was really nowhere to go but up.

I convinced my coworkers to take me out to lunch after telling them that Thanksgiving was based on white foreigners arriving in a strange land and being fed a feast by the locals. They asked about the subsequent killing of the Native Americans, but I said we could discuss it after lunch.

However, around 12:30 I happened to remember that my 3-month visa expired yesterday, making me an illegal visitor to Kenya. An illegal alien on Thanksgiving. So I had to rush home to get my passport and rush down to the immigration office at Nyayo House downtown.


Dept. of Immigration.

 Last year when I went to extend my visa, it took 2 trips, several hours, several lines, an alien application form, 2 passport pictures, 10 fingerprints, and $25. This year it only took 5 minutes and $25. No application, no pictures, no finger prints, no waiting... Which leads me to believe that the money was directly pocketed by the guy that helped me.

Illegal alien for Thanksgiving.

The Kenyan police have been showing up in international news lately for a variety of reasons, mostly centering around corruption and incompetence. And it's true- Nairobi is a city, if not entirely fueled on bribes, at least topping up the tank with them. And I think a fair chunk of that is due to the inefficiency of the legitimate bureaucracy. If you get pulled over for speeding, the proper procedure isn't a site-issued ticket. Rather, you are supposed to go to the nearest police station, wait through trial with all the other crimes that day, and then pay your nominal fine. It's a process that can take an hour at best, a day at worst. Therefore, anyone who gets pulled over for speeding has strong motivation to just use that money to pay off the cop directly. If the government were as efficient as the guy who gave me my visa today, it would reduce at least a portion of the corruption.

This has nothing to do with anything, but I was too afraid of the military guys with assault riffles to take any more pictures inside immigration, so I took this one outside instead.  Pretty sure that's not what "clean drinking water" actually means.

Which is all to say- Happy Thanksgiving to me! I participated in unintentional bribery and saved myself several hours at immigration and oily finger pads!

Anyway, it's a day in which most of the people I know are ticking the list of things for which they're thankful. In addition to my speedy immigration trip, I'm thankful for... just about everything.

Life feels pretty charmed these days.

November 17, 2012

What I've been up to

It's been a long time since my last post here.  Pole. (Kiswahili "sorry." pr. pole-ay).  I don't have a solid defense or any ground-breaking excuses.  Just that my boss has been in town and work is a whirlwind.  Couple that with my evening Baptist aerobics, and I'm usually ready to hit the pillow by 10pm or earlier every day.  For a while, I also thought that my camera had walked off, so I was photo-light.  But the past two weeks have been full, not only with the U.S. presidential elections, but with daily life in Nairobi.  So now that I've unearthed the camera, this post will be a simple pictorial round-up of what I've been up to over here.  More in-depth posts to come soon.

Bi-weekly (twice, not every other) Kiswahili lessons at Com Cafe in Kenyatta National Hospital on my lunch break:

Com Cafe, next to my office.  

Salsa at Brew Bistro on Wednesdays and Meridian Hotel on Fridays.  We have a standing reservation for the table next to the dance floor:

Wednesday dance floor at Brew Bistro. 

A funeral at a co-worker's house in Sultan Hamud:
Again, the only mzungu.

Purchasing produce on the side of the highway to Mombassa:
Onions and tomatoes.

Papayas and Lychee.

A day-trip to 14 Falls in Thika:
Brown falls and lots of trash... Not all of Kenya is beautiful.

Traipsing (trespassing?) through private property in Thika:
The cow is not impressed.

Watching ladies cross rickety bridges made of sticks:

Til next time... Karibu.

November 1, 2012

That I don't

Over time, I've noticed a couple of things about myself that many Kenyans tend to find baffling:
That I don't go to church, and that I don't take milk with my tea.

Finally, after 8 months of dodging awkward questions, I have found a solution on the first point.  I have found religion, and it turns out (...drumroll...) I'm a Baptist.

Or, rather, I've found a Baptist church near my work that holds aerobics classes thrice weekly, which I attend with some co-workers.

My first church.

The aerobic classes themselves are quite fun; we bounce around to Pop-y gospel songs inside a room with cartoon Jesus murals.  Shout!  For joy!  For the son of God.  He's the sa-ving one.  He's the sa-ving one!  It's like doing Kick-boxing to Lifehouse music.  I usually don't wear my glasses, so everything is a blur, and I can't understand the accents of the instructors, so I just give it my best guess and flail.  Sometimes my confusion is innocuous.  When they say "you can't swim with a muscle pull" and I hear "you can't swim with a massive ball" I just get odd visualizations of a person struggling to play with an over-sized beach ball in the ocean.  However, there's a lot more riding on the distinction between "heel-toe!" and "hit her!"

Jesus loves you workout room.

Before the session, we pray for a good work-out, and after the session we share our feelings on the music and take prayer requests for the entire gambit of human ailments (from a kidnapped child or sick family member, to a lost document and clear traffic on the way home).

But it still works!  Last night when my taxi driver asked if I also believe that God protects us all, I was able to say, "I go to the Baptist church on Ngong Rd," and awkward silence averted.

October 28, 2012

The entire day!

It turns out my dad may have been right, all those mornings growing up when he used to say that sleeping in until 9am was WASTING THE ENTIRE DAY.

I woke up at 5:45 this morning, and by mid-day I had run a marathon, invented a mango-mimosa, baked some raspberry-lemon curd muffins, and washed the dishes. 

… Did you catch that?  The “run a marathon” bit?  Although, I suppose the more correct use of quotation marks would probably be that I “ran” a “marathon,” where the "marathon" was actually a 10K road race, and the "running" was a bit of jogging, interspersed with walking, chatting, and taking goofy pictures. 

 Even the guy speed-walking with the tiny backpack thinks I’m a fool.

Today was the annual Nairobi Marathon (42K, 21K, 10K, or 4K family fun run), sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank, and staff from my work went together as a team-building event.  The theme was “Run for a Reason,” as a certain portion of the proceeds go to some sort of blindness-prevention program.  However, the theme’s subtitle is much more explicit, though it ranks at least top 5 on the list of things that really don’t need to be said. 

 “Run with your feet.  Bank with your fingers.” In case there was any doubt.

We started the 10K run at Nyayo Stadium, by “those big ugly birds that live on the way to the airport” as everyone knows them. 

Ugly birds.

It rained last night, and the streets were still retaining water, which added some sporadic obstacles to an otherwise tame course.

Goofballs are goofballs all over the world.

The best thing about the race was that they closed off downtown Nairobi to car-traffic, so we got to enjoy the city on foot without threat of getting smushed by a wayward matatu.  For those unfamiliar, this is downtown Nairobi:

Uhuru Highway.



And we ended thusly:

We have built team.  

After crossing the finish line, we came across a guy in very short shorts who was leading an aerobics class with no followers, so we joined in for our cool-down, and I think he appreciated the company. 

Show some leg!

Now stop surfing the internet, Dad; you’re WASTING THE ENTIRE DAY!

October 24, 2012

All about the elephants

They say it's all about the elephants in Amboseli, which is true, but it's not the reason they say it.  The animals you see on safaris, unlike zoos, are unpredictable, and prudent tour companies want to manage expectations to avoid unhappy clients.  They don't want to get your hopes up about seeing a cheetah that never makes an appearance.  Even views of Mt. Kilimanjaro which towers above Amboseli National Park are hedged with uncertainty: "Well... it's possible the clouds might burn off tomorrow morning... but maybe not."  

But Amboseli elephants are indeed so plentiful that you can be guaranteed all the sightings you'd want.  

Trunk swinging, tusk tusking.

Biggest, baby, bird.

Fighting?  Playing?  It's the Rorschach test of elephant interactions.

Our group got lucky.  Within 20 hours (2 game drives and an evening of campfire under the stars) we saw elephants, zebras, giraffes, ostrich(es?), hyenas, baboons, buffalo, lions, cheetahs, and Mt. Kilimanjaro.  

On the move in front of Mt. Kili.

Escorting us to our campsites outside park gates.


Not only that, but we saw elephants, zebras, ostrich(es), hyenas, baboons, buffalo, and lions cross the road without being able to generate any good jokes.  We were elementary comic failures!  

Why did the water buffalo cross the road?    

Getting to Amboseli from Nairobi is fairly painless, as far as Kenyan transit goes.  The roads are smooth and direct, about 3 hours, and you only need to make 1 stop at a random ranger station just outside of Nairobi to pay your park entry fee.  It's clear from the park's sign that it's a stop-over rather than a destination, as plaintively noted on their welcome sign.   

  Needs friends; doesn't know how to play hard to get.  

October 16, 2012

Is this plane perforated?

Everyone's familiar with the things you don't want to hear on a plane.  Things like, "We seem to be having a problem with the left engine," and "y'all should probably put on your oxygen masks now."

But to encounter something you don't want to see on a plane is much less common.  

No flight gates (or limits on carry-on items) in the domestic terminal of Jomo Kenyatta.

Approaching the plane for boarding...

And in case you need a clearer view:

Cut here.

YES, it says "Cut here in case of emergency."  
Cut it why?  With what?  Giant scissors?  A machete?  Is this plane perforated?!

If someone can tell me what exactly this all means, I'd be very appreciative.  We never got any clarification, as the plane never left the ground.  Turns out, there was a problem with the left engine and we were relegated to wait several hours in the terminal for the next available vessel.

October 9, 2012

Not a morning person

I can count the number of times I’ve seen the sunrise over the past 5 years on one hand, and I won’t even use all my fingers.  That is to say, I’m not a morning person.

There was that time I was camping resourcefully in Paros and couldn’t get back to sleep because my "bed" was a pool floatation toy and my "blanket" was covering myself with a layer of all my clean (and probably some dirty) clothes.  So I got pastries from an early-opened bakery and ate them down by the sea at dawn.  And there have been a couple early morning flights that took-off in the dark and saw the sun climb with us.  

And if there were any others, I’ve probably repressed them.  (Waking up in the dark in a Seattle winter doesn't really count as sunrise, since that’s simply a miserable part of living in the northern tundra.)  

So you may all be shocked to hear that not only was I awake for dawn last weekend, but I was even awake (and hiking uphill without breakfast) several hours before it.

Follow the head-lamp, into the dark.

Dawn on a hillside.

Naturally, there was a good reason.  I'm not that much of a fool to go stumbling around a snake and bat-ridden African forest in the dark without cause.  The sunrise over Kakamega forest in Western Kenya is reputed to be beautiful.  And, burning off the low-lying fog, it is.  

Foggy forest of rolling hills.

The Kakamega forest is Kenya's section of the once-robust Guineo-Congolian rainforest that used to span the continent continuously from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.  These days, the ancient forest is broken into smaller, disjoined tufts in each country, but the quality has not diminished.  Butterflies, birds and baboons all frolic in the elder trees.  And the tall hill-side grasses provide a soft resting spot after a several hours hike (without breakfast).

Stalking prey in tall grasses.


You can fly or take the bus to Kisumu from Nairobi, and Kakamega town is about a 1-2 hours further by matatu.  If you are planning the sunrise hike, you can sleep at bandas in the forest area and wake up ready to go.

My only tip for improving this experience: bring breakfast.