Kultural konnektions: 10 funny things about Nairobi

Nairobi is a big cosmopolitan city, where many residents – and all Western expats – enjoy a pretty high standard of living. Running water; access to fresh fruits and vegetables; the occasional rooftop bar with blue Star Trek lighting, martinis, and lounge furniture. Most apartments come with some level of daily housekeeping – ours is considered fairly minimalist, but two ladies come in every day except Sunday to make the bed, wash the towels and wipe down the surfaces. So we’re hardly roughing it. And yet, there are frequent cross-cultural surprises. In no particular order, here are 10 points of interest in our Nairobi life:

1. Despite the size of the city and the volume of its traffic, there are few stoplights. This is sort of surprising, for a place that looks like this:

How does it work? … you may wonder. And the cynical answer is that it sort of doesn’t. Traffic is awful, and driving conditions often resemble a game of bumper cars in a dry riverbed. But the practical answer is: roundabouts. In fact, most of the few stoplights Nairobi does have are auxiliary, generally ignored guidance devices adorning a roundabout. Sometimes, in addition to the usual flow of the roundabout and the metering attempts of the lights, there will be an additional traffic cop directing the flow, often in contradiction of whatever the lights indicate. But, anyway, there are very few lights. Considering how unreliable the power is, though, the absence of traffic lights sort of makes sense. If traffic depended on the lights working… I hadn’t really been trying to think of ways to make the city’s traffic worse, but I think I just hit on one. Anyway, here is the surprising thing I’m building to: In Nairobi, tow trucks just hang out at intersections, waiting for business.

2. So, plenty of tow trucks. What we hardly ever see are fire trucks or ambulances. Not never, but very rarely, and we have heard a siren maybe twice since we got here. Also: specialty service vehicles like ambulances and school buses are often just white vans labeled “Ambulance” or “School bus” on the hood.

3. Supermarkets here are very much on the model of supermarkets in the U.S. Less fancy, but large, and with diverse inventory. The two markets within walking distance of our place comprise smaller electronics and furniture stores, for instance, and you can buy lots of kinds of pots and pans, glassware, etc. there too. The merchandise isn’t of particularly high quality, but the stores themselves are pretty comprehensive and one-stop shop. At Nakumatt, the slightly fancier supermarket, you can even buy camel milk. (Friends of Kevin Gibbs will be unsurprised to learn that he’s trying to arrange for a group tasting.) But it’s clear that we in the U.S. benefit from a ton of packaging research and optimization that is not at work here. The plastic packaging on stuff here is so flimsy that the bag containing our sandwich bread rips when we pick up the loaf. And things that would be re-sealable in the U.S., like cereal boxes, are not re-sealable. Also, within the packaging, product quality really varies. We bought a bug zapper that just didn’t turn on. And this week we bought some butter that proved to be riddled with gray spots and carrying a strong odor of cheese.

4. Speaking of which, let’s talk about cheese. NOT a thing here. Almost all the cheese brands are waxy and terrible. We asked a Kenyan coworker if he ever ate cheese, and from his reaction (“No. NO! No.”) you might think we’d asked if he regularly ate horse anus. If you come to Kenya, here is the reasonable brand of cheese: Brown’s. That’s it. Of course, there are plenty of societies in the world that do not enjoy cheese, but the local aversion is interesting because a) British colonial influence is evident in other areas of Kenyan culinary life; there’s tons of tea drinking, and affection for pastry and meat pies. And b) Kenya has huge dairy production! I have never seen so many kinds of yogurt available. So it’s not dairy that’s the horse anus. It’s cheese.

5. Also, cereal! Not popular with Kenyans, we’re told, and as a possible consequence, it’s a strange facsimile of the breakfast cereals we’re accustomed to. The oddities vary: some corn flakes we got are merely bland and thick, but I got some Rice Krispies-style cereal that has a strange oily quality. Two bites, and the roof of your mouth is coated with a thin layer of what feels like cold Crisco.
So I guess points 3-5 have all been the same point: Our shopping has been hit-and-miss.

6. Recycling! Perhaps unsurprisingly, recycling is not particularly big in Kenya. Not that environmentalism is unknown here – nearby Rwanda has banned plastic bags, and checks you at the border to make sure none enter the country. But there isn’t really the infrastructure to support a comprehensive recycling program here. I mean, there’s barely mail service. So we were excited when we learned we could return beer bottles – not wine bottles, not water bottles, but at least beer bottles – to the less-fancy local supermarket, Uchumi. But then it was explained that we could only return as many bottles as we were buying. Something to do with planning the proper stocking of crates? So there is not actually bottle return, but there is one-to-one bottle exchange. Huh.

7. The teenaged grocery bagger who kindly explained to me about the bottle exchange was, at the same time, trying to put my groceries into plastic bags, while I was trying to politely direct my purchases into the reusable cloth bags I’d brought for the purpose. (Even bringing your own bags only does so much good, because each individual produce purchase has to be put in its own plastic bag and sealed with its price sticker. This makes me itchy, but them’s the rules.) The bagger obliged me for my regular purchases, but pushed back when it came to the big jugs of bottled water. He pointed out that these would not fit in my bags. I pointed out that the jugs have handles. He was unimpressed. I said I already had enough bags at home. And then he smiled knowingly. “Ah,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows. “En-vi-ron-ment.” I laughed. “Yeah, OK, you got me. Environment.” He clearly thought I was nuts, but we had a nice moment.

8. We are staying in a nice furnished apartment. The décor is a little weird, but overall it’s a nice place by any global standard. A few of its features – the little washing machine in the kitchen, the excellent super-high shower head, the wide built-in window seat – are actually improvements over our usual standard of living. But there are no smoke alarms. And if this worries you, we definitely shouldn’t tell you about how the front door can only be locked and unlocked with the key – meaning that we have to lock ourselves in, and in an emergency would have to find the key in order to get out.

9. Also, refrigerators here come with locks. We’re not sure whom these locks are intended to bar – one’s children, one’s maid, oneself? This has not been explained.

10. Here’s a nice one. In the building where we both work – which is a one-level U-shaped building around a central courtyard, surrounded by lush overgrown gardens containing hibiscus bushes and a guava tree – Baraza, the kind of office support-staff dude, makes big carafes of Kenyan tea with milk twice a day, and everyone crowds into the kitchen for a mug. There are sodas available in the fridge for about 30 cents. And every day around 10, a woman from a nearby canteen comes by to sell delicious hot chapattis, meat samosas and unsweetened doughnuts called mendazi. Mendazi and chapatti cost about a penny and a nickel respectively, while the samosa is about 30 cents. We may not get out of here with our pants fitting, but I will really miss the Convivial Cheap Tasty Snack portion of Kenyan office life. By comparison a vending machine just seems sad.

The cumulative effect here is that I swing back and forth a lot in my enjoyment of Nairobi. Sometimes I’m really tickled by the surprises, appreciative of the warmth and patience of the people, and feel just massively grateful to be having this eye-opening experience of living in another country and being racially in the minority and adjusting to a slightly unfamiliar set of customs. And then sometimes I think that the second I get back to the U.S. I’m going to go to, like, Home Depot, and lie down on its flat clean* floor among its satisfaction-guaranteed wares and hug the ground. The good news is, the latter feeling doesn’t really interfere with the former – even when I’m uncomfortable and long for familiarity and ease, it’s clear that coming here was the right thing to do, that I’m going to be greatly the better for having spent time here. So on the whole I think it’s a win.

* Oh yes it is.

Malacca! /Pictures of us eating stuff

We had a hot and lovely time in the rich-in-history, colonized-by-everybody Malacca (sometimes called Melaka). Malacca has interesting architecture and museums, but that didn’t stop us from spending most of our time there eating. You know how, when it’s really hot, you don’t really want to eat? I think that doesn’t happen to us.

Peep all the Malacca photos here. Then, quick like a 6-hour bus, we are over into Singapore for another installment of The Sundowner Report, and then we’ll finally be in Nairobi in earnest. Just 6 weeks after our arrival!

Favorite song

Based on the music we hear in taxis, at the supermarket and flowing out of the open windows of passing cars, here’s who’s Big In Kenya:

• Chris Brown
• Bobby Brown
• Michael Bolton
• Rihanna
• Dolly Parton
• Whitney Houston
• Celine Dion
• Bruno Mars

But also, there is this local guy Jaguar. This song, which is my favorite, is everywhere. Apparently it’s about backstabbers — which is rather borne out by the themes of the video — but I still dance around. I am considering trying to learn it as a boost to my (paltry) Swahili, so that by the time I leave I can complain about all the people backstabbing me and how fierce my Beemer is.

Things you cannot transport on a scooter: revisited

Strike one thing from the list:

  • a cow.

What it's like to live in Nairobi

Page and I have now been living in Nairobi for a little over a month. Over that time, I’ve been writing down some notes: about what things feel different in Nairobi, and what details give insight into what it’s like to live here.

I do want to say, from the top, though: I like it here. Nairobi has a lot of ups, and a lot of downs, but ultimately Nairobi feels like the underdog that you can’t help rooting for.

One month in, here’s how Nairobi feels to me:

  • People. In my day-to-day movements, I think I interact with more people here than at home. Even in my first few weeks here, I found that most days I’d greet and have a short conversation with: our security guard Jeffrey; our apartment-building manager Marion; our cab driver Amos; and our office support staff Njambi, Izeka, and Braza — on top of everyone I directly work with daily. On a typical day in SF, I might talk only to 5-6 people in my office who I work with directly, and that’s it. Now, there are two factors playing bit roles here. One is that in Nairobi, we’re wide-eyed visitors, trying to meet people and understand Kenya better, so of course we’re chatting with people more than we might back home. And the other thing you can’t miss is the radically lower cost of labor here. It very often makes sense to hire a live-in security guard, cook, and house cleaner here, because the cost is low, and you’re providing someone with a job. Similarly, most restaurants we go to have a ton of waitstaff. So it feels like there are a lot of people to talk to everywhere you go. With all of that said, though, I still think that the culture is a little different here. People by and large are kind, friendly, and believe in saying hello. Without fail, every person in the office comes by and shakes my hand each morning — which is the standard Kenyan greeting for someone you know, rather than a hollered out “Hello” or a wave. (A wave is even a little bit offensive, I’ve come to understand.) Here, I feel surrounded by people, and that nobody is a face or a neighbor that I just politely ignore each morning.
  • Thinner margin for error. Fast cars zoom by you while you walk down a tiny dirt shoulder-sidewalk, with only 2 inches to spare. This is normal. Everywhere you go in Nairobi, it feels like things are running much closer to the redline than we’re used to. Cars drive within millimeters of each other, and swerve rapidly once every few minutes or so. Concertina wire might be coiled inches from your face — don’t trip! Once you’re used to it all, it feels safe, and not terribly problematic or even something you think much about. But you need to keep your senses honed a bit sharper than you might in the U.S.
  • Middle class. White is the minority here. Almost no place you go — the airport, the fancy mall, a nice restaurant, anywhere — is it entirely white. That feels good. Nairobi has a large Kenyan middle class, and this contributes a lot towards Nairobi’s feeling comfortable to me. You don’t feel like you’re in an expat bubble when Kenyans are rubbing elbows with you at the nice brunch place and the Lebanese restaurant. If all of us do-gooder gringos, Chinese embassy attachés, and multi-national management consultants left, daily life in Nairobi would go on, largely without skipping a beat. By contrast, visiting post-apartheid South Africa (which we did — more on this soon) felt radically different. There, I instantly felt like the oppressor. In Kenya, though, I feel like a visitor, and like I can have interactions as an equal — a relationship that feels reciprocal with how it would feel if a Kenyan was visiting my work in San Francisco.
  • Tunnel from place to place. It’s really not that easy to get around in Nairobi. The distances are too far too walk, usually, and often impassable for pedestrians. And after dusk, it’s not safe to walk much of anywhere, even if it’s only a few minutes away. Driving, conversely, is not for the faint of heart. (As a side note, I’ve never seen drivers more aggressive than Nairobi drivers— not in Boston, not in Vietnam, not anywhere.) So, the outcome of all of this, is that you take a lot of cabs in Nairobi. A lot. There’s not really any other way to get around. Because of that, it feels a bit like everything in Nairobi is connected by a series of underground tunnels. The tunnels are not that hard to take, but they aren’t scenic (you can’t see much out of the tinted windows), and they take some planning (a cab usually takes 20 minutes to arrive, and 30 minutes to take you where you’re going). For the first few weeks, I think these taxi tunnels made me feel a little trapped. “I just want to go down the street! It’s going to take an hour! I’m stuck here!” After the third week, though, it started to feel normal, and acceptable. But now I understand why people in Nairobi talk wistfully about being able to walk at night.
  • Trust. Trust is different here. Some Kenyan coworkers have explained to me that by default, people here are assumed to be not trustworthy, until proven otherwise. They see this as the opposite from how we think in the U.S., where we tend to be open and trust people easily, until we see something questionable. The example they cited was the process of applying for a job: When you apply for a job in the U.S., they might call your references, but often they won’t. And no one will expect you to bring a copy of your diploma with you to an interview, whereas here apparently that’s common. At the same time, here in Nairobi, when someone decides that they do trust you, they trust you far more than we would in the States. As an example, take the place where we get lunch, a little canteen near the office where most of the local office and NGO workers go. If you’ve been there a few times before, and you don’t happen to have enough to pay for lunch, they don’t bat an eye, and tell you to pay next time. They’re not taking any notes, and I’m sure they’ve forgotten once you walk away. But they trust you’ll pay. Similarly, when we rented our apartment here, in a building where another co-worker of mine also lives, our landlord let us move in, and then gave us a lease to sign later. She never bugged us about it. We gave it to her a few weeks later.

I love Nairobi. It’s not perfect, and in many ways, it’s not comfortable or easy. But it has a lot of heart. It’s a real, successful African city — by Africans, for Africans, and you can feel that when you are there. It’s large enough to be a proper city. It’s prosperous enough to have basic and high-end services, and to not be completely stumped by poverty. Of course, plenty of people here do live in poverty, in slums and peri-urban areas. But it feels like the government is likely stable and functional enough to allow the city’s prosperity relative to grow and continue.

So, in the final analysis: Page and I are doing just fine. We even like it here. And, perhaps more importantly, we have a guest room. Come visit!

And now for a public-service announcement

Based on the public-service announcements we heard on English-language radio, here are things that concern Malaysia: lateness, and toilet flushing.

On our drive from Kuala Lumpur to the old port city of Malacca, we heard an American-style rap encouraging listeners to be on time. I wish I could remember the specific rhymes, but the basic message was, be realistic about how long it will take you to get to your appointment! If you’re traveling at rush hour, assume there will be traffic! (Sidebar: It is true that traffic in Malaysian cities is formidable. Upon arriving in Malacca, it took us about an hour to travel a mile and a half.) Most importantly, if you’re going to be late, be honest about it! Call ahead! The best bit was at the end, when Generic Imitation Rapper rapped, “This has been a punctuation rap by Super Fly G.”

So, that’s interesting, I thought. Malaysia not only has English-language radio, but English-language radio has enough listeners that someone is making PSAs for that market. Also Super Fly G (or whatever his name was) may need a punctuation vs. punctuality explainer.

But THEN: toilet flushing. Apparently this is a problem. We’ve seen signs reminding people to flush the toilet pretty frequently on this trip, but Malaysia is escalating the campaign to radio. So here’s the pro-flushing ad, as best I can recall and transcribe.

<<_Sound of peeing. Sound of peeing concludes._>>

Announcer: OK, now go! You can do it!

Whiny girl: I caaaaaaaannnnnn’t!

Announcer: You can!

Whiny girl: It’s too haaaaaarrrd!

Announcer: If you can do it at home, you can do it here! Come along now!

Whiny girl: Hmmph. Oka-ayyy… uuuuUUUUUUUNNNNNNNHHHHHHHH!!!!!

<<_Sound of a toilet flushing._>>

Announcer: Way to go!

Whiny girl: Whew! <<_Sound of a small fart._>>

Really! Squeaky little fart noise!

I have no idea what this is about. The flushing bit I get. Maybe polls indicate that perceived difficulty is the reason people don’t flush public toilets? Surprising, but OK. But why is the passing of gas included? Why are we poking fun at the bodily functions of someone who has just done what we asked them to do? It seems like negative reinforcement. Though it is memorable.

Speaking of social norms, intestinal gas, and Malaysia — who knew we had so much material here? — Kevin also read a local newspaper editorial exhorting people to move away from other people if they need to pass gas. Don’t fart next to your friends! Go downwind!

It’s funny, because we were in Malaysia when Osama bin Laden was killed, and, because Malaysia is a Muslim country, we wondered if there was going to be a ton of news coverage, or outrage, or something. And there was some news coverage, but probably about as much as there was everywhere else in the news-having world. All the fart coverage made a more lasting impression.

Here are our pictures from Kuala Lumpur! Most of them are of food, but none of them is of anyone farting.

When in doubt, go to the Irish bar

Seeking out the familiar is not really the point of travel. Obviously. New sights, unfamiliar foods, bewildering cross-cultural Learning Experiences — this is what we should be after. On the other hand, sometimes you have to take it easy on yourself.

For us, this last point is sometimes hard to remember. Our time in any place we’re visiting is finite by definition, and there are always things we wish we could have squeezed in. On our month-long scamper around southeast Asia, this is especially true, since we’re spending only two nights on average in each city or town on our trip. It’s a survey course; we’re getting the broad strokes, but inevitably there’s a sense of having half-assed it, having failed to find all the things that really sum up a place. Even when we’re tired, and hungry, and sweaty, with blisters, it feels like we probably should walk another half-mile to that really authentic bone-marrow popsicle place we read about on that one food blog.

Cut to Kuala Lumpur, where, in what is fast becoming a trademark move, we’ve rolled up just in time for an unforeseen national holiday that has many businesses closed. After some confusion and minor extortion with a cab driver, we’re left on a nearly deserted block, where the coffee place we’d been hoping to try is shuttered. A 7-Eleven employee tells us that this holiday happening tomorrow, too — oh and also they can only sell SIM cards on weekdays and non-holidays.

Alrighty then. Back around the corner to the one place that’s open: A kind of Indian Muslim buffet with a local clientele. They appear to have coffee. The Farenheit temperature and percentage humidity are both hovering just below 100. We are disappointed and perspiring and in need of caffeine. So we do the hesitant-tourist shuffle: Do we just sit down, can we figure out who’s in charge of seating people, will we be successful in requesting two chairs and some coffee? No matter how many times we do this, and no matter how much I know it’s silly for me to feel this way, I always feel conspicuous and mortified.

But the proprietors welcome us very warmly and usher us to some chairs. Our attempt to just order coffee is confusing to them, so we line up and select from a buffet of various mystery chunks in various curry sauces. Surveying my plate of things like Organ Meats in Spicy Brown Sauce, a fried egg, tiny dried anchovies, Eggplant with Meat of Some Kind, and another curry I’m calling Maybe Fish?, I look at Kevin very seriously and make the pronouncement I am issuing with some frequency these days.

“You are very lucky.”

He smiles around a mouthful of something he’s identified as Possibly Mutton? “I know,” he says cheerfully. “I married the perfect woman.” This is a man who knows when to mollify.

We continue making lemonade from our lemons. DIY architecture tour! The landmark mosques are closed, but still lovely from the outside. Historic Merdeka Square is closed so they can set up for a holiday celebration, but we can still glimpse the polo field and colonial-era buildings from the periphery before being shooed away by security. There are row houses along the riverfront, some Art Deco landmarks falling into disrepair, and a well-restored market building that’s not only open but air-conditioned. After 45 minutes of sweaty haggling at a streetside phone kiosk, Kevin gets a SIM card. It doesn’t entirely work, but at least he got them to sell it to him on a Sunday. We find an open food court selling good versions of a lot of Malaysian specialties, which all goes very well until I go to get some cendol and get cut in line by a group that then orders — I am not exaggerating — 50 cendols to go.

As usual, we don’t have any arrangements made for the next city on the trip, so we hike back to our hotel, weaving our way along the thin margin between numerous construction sites and rapidly oncoming traffic, for another round of Train or Bus?, followed by the gauntlet of Does This Cheap Hotel Look OK? We will not miss this part of seat-of-our-pants traveling.

After more time than it would seem like this should take, we’ve made arrangements and it’s time to stroll out for a drink and some dinner. Except, is it maybe raining a little? I figure we can walk, but Kevin opts to spring for a taxi. And it’s a good thing, too, because by the time the taxi lets us off near our destination, it is raining harder than either of us has ever seen the sky rain. God has aimed His mighty fire hose directly at our heads. We run laughing from the taxi into the nearest establishment, where we arrive looking half-drowned. Kevin: “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten so wet in only seven steps.”

And here we are: in the Irish bar. It’s totally Sheleighleigh O’McLanahan’s, and the scarred wood tables were probably mass-produced at a plant. But it’s raining so hard that the bar’s TVs can’t even show soccer — there’s too much interference to get satellite signal. After the slightest guilty hesitation, we collapse onto the path of least resistance. Bar stool? Thanks. Beer with name we recognize? Don’t mind if I do. Occasional soccer interrupted by static and error messages? Best programming I’ve ever seen. I’ve scarcely ever been so happy to be anywhere. Sometimes a guilty pleasure is the best kind. Sometimes you gotta just go to the Irish bar.

Bangkok Part 2: Bangcockier

After a surprisingly restorative stop in Chiang Mai, we headed onward to Bangkok, to fit in one more day of that highly modern, mildly impenetrable city, before going further south to Malaysia and Singapore. To shake things up a bit, though, we travelled by train, since we tend to love trains, and they are a good way to see parts of the countryside you might otherwise miss. Plus, people are weird as shit on trains.

Since the ride was going to be an overnight train, though, we first made a Cultural Excursion to the local supermarket, something I always enjoy. Maybe in another 10 years seeing the combination of undiscovered-to-me types of local green vegetables and the weird consumer food products each country invents will get old, but not yet. And until then, I’ll have me some Red Skin Peanuts Larb Flavor, thank you very much.

After Page handled some uncomfortably aptly named custard apples (100% like a fleshy foam-rubber children’s toy), we lugged our stash to the train station. The day before, in a soulful, cultural-sharing mission, the kind train-agent-policeman helped me understand my extremely meager booking options for our upcoming train ride. Whoops! After I made Page’s hair stand on end by breaking the language barrier hundreds of times, like a blowfish thrown repeatedly at a taut membrane composed of the station agent’s patience, the two of us managed to work out that there were two sleeper seats on the second-class, non-express 3:30 PM sleeper train the next day, and not much else. I’ll take it! (I mean, seriously, I spent 45 minutes hectoring this poor guy as he navigated a VT100-based terminal interface in Windows 2000 literally connected to a 9600 baud modem. Which failed 4 times during our negotiation, each time causing the poor guy to have to get up, cross the room, and flip a metal toggle switch hooked up to some jury-rigged plastic box. Man. I do not want this guy’s job.) Most of our conversation during this negotiation was some broken-record repeat of: “Oh, sorry, but, could you check train 23 again? On Tuesday? Yes, Tuesday? <wait 3 minutes> Oh, I meant first-class. Sorry. <wait 2 minutes> Oh, how do you tell if the seats are together again? <cranes neck to look inside metal bars of window>”.

Regardless, it did get sorted out, and the seats were totally fine. How this world holds together sometimes, I do not know.

The journey itself was mostly pleasant, but with a side of mild disappointment salad. I think I was hoping to see a bit more pretty stuff as we went, but the windows were dirty and dusty, so you couldn’t see a whole lot. The train was comfortable enough, but quarters were a little close, and there was some not-friendly jostling for places to put your luggage with the local folks, and accompanying mild glares. All in all, the trip was harmless, with occasionally nice (blurry) sights, and had no problems, but it wasn’t really a highlight.

And then: Bangkok. This time we stayed in a designer-y hostel that has some private rooms with private baths available, and it was actually perfect: clean, modern, fun, and directly adjoining the Skytrain. (Lub.d Siam Square, $66 per night.) Because we’d been traveling a lot, and we were still going to be traveling a lot more, we resolved to take it easy and just enjoy the day (Success Quotient: 4d / Mild).

The first thing we did, and probably my highlight of the day, was to go to the OTK Market. The market (real name is Aw Taw Kaw / Or Tor Kor, depending on phonic preferences) is a large, sort-of-high-end open air fresh market, and is reputed to be the nicest market in Bangkok, and where restaurant chefs shop for their daily haul. What I can tell you is that it was awesome: super clean, super fresh, amazing produce, and amazing food court. I think the best touchpoint I can provide is that it is like a much, much larger, more serious Ferry Building Farmer’s Market with Asian produce and foods. Rad.

So, that was fun. Then, in no particular order, we went back to Ruen Nuad for an amazing $5 massage, went to a not-so-great Museum of the Multimedia Here Is What It Means To Be Thai Except We Sorta Tapered Off Sorry, and then watched the Royal Wedding at the hostel bar. Then, Pager had the brilliant idea that we should go to a movie, since it would be relaxing, A, and B, because Bangkok has crazy-insane high end VIP movie theaters that have bars, private lounges, crazy recliner seats, and let you eat crazy food and noodles while watching the film.

Done! We had the crazy free green cocktail and mega-reclined to the smooth stylings of Source Code. And that’s how Bangkok leaves you feeling: weird.

( See all Bangkok redux photos. )

The Sundowner Report, Episode 1

Inaugurating a maybe occasional feature, in which we talk at you, watch the resulting video, and post it in spite of the fact that it’s excruciating to watch yourself on video. Page would like it known that she is sending away for a new voice and head. Also that she has never been to either Nantucket or Manchester, England. Anyway: Coming to you not-live, from Chiang Mai, Thailand!

Nairobi, week 1!

Oh, blogging. Here is our account of our trip, limping along on its way back to Bangkok, and meanwhile we are in Nairobi, settling in, learning the ropes, consorting with entirely different elephants. I’m going to break chronology again and describe our first week in Nairobi.

(We did not take this picture.)

So, we’re here, on the fifth continent either of us has ever visited. It’s exciting! And entertaining and jarring in the way that new places often are: some things are so different, and of course many things are familiar, just your basic Big Global City attributes.

I wish the first thoughts that came to mind when trying to describe what Nairobi is like weren’t about safety. But, they are. I think, though, that that’s mostly due to advance press. In our admittedly limited experience, even people who live in and enjoy Nairobi usually lead off any discussion of the city with a mention of its unflattering sobriquet “Nairobbery.” Crime rates here are high, and foreigners are easy targets for pickpocketing and mugging. Having been warned about this, we weren’t sure what to expect, and to some extent we still aren’t. Every time we try a new thing, that experience helps orient us and build confidence for the next time, but all the warnings we’ve received make even small events like going to the grocery store feel kind of epic. We can try to follow instructions – walk only on busy roads, and only in the daytime; keep the phone numbers of cab companies you trust; keep close track of your belongings at all times – while trying not to be too limited by the need for these sensible precautions. But it’s difficult to know when we’re being too cautious and when we’re not being cautious enough.

Our initial landing has been substantially eased by the estimable Nat, an American expat who’s the head of the company Kevin is working for. On the Friday night that we arrived, he sent a taxi to the airport to get us and take us to the hotel he’d recommended. On Saturday morning, another cab arrived — preceded by a text from Nat, saying “your cab will be blue” — to take us to the rental apartments he’d arranged for us to check out. He made restaurant recommendations. In addition to being CEO of a complex and thriving business, he volunteered to serve as our temporary concierge.

And in truth, without this help I think we would have felt pretty overwhelmed. Even as it was, I think we felt pretty overwhelmed. But we’re doing our best to be patient with ourselves.

First week — the good: Sunday visits to the elephant orphanage and
giraffe center, where we watch BABY ELEPHANTS play and feed giraffes handfuls of kibble. (Pictures coming.) We each start work, and people are nice and helpful, as well as smart about and committed to their work. We’re working in separate companies that happen to share a building. As convenient as that sounded from 10,000 miles away, it feels like a lifesaver now that we’re here. We have some tasty Indian and Ethiopian meals. There’s a happy hour out at a bar on Friday, and we drink local beer and meet a bunch of people. The city is lush and green, full of trees, plus hibiscus and bougainvillea and lots of flowering bushes and trees we don’t yet know the names of. We’re getting lots of sleep, and the presence of the hotel gym is a huge boost to the Rockwell Stability Index.

First week — the speed bumps: Kevin has a cold and feels crappy. The apartment we decide we want is no longer available. There’s another one available in the same building, but not for another week. Debates about what to do in the meantime feel weirdly high-stakes and fraught. Transportation is a constant negotiation – as much as we’re officially reconciled to being lightly fleeced by the local cab drivers, it doesn’t feel great. Considering the distances covered, taxis are expensive, and the roads are rutted, dusty and hazy with black petrol smoke. You know that thing when you’re in a place where the air quality isn’t great, and there are faint cruddy rings around your nostrils at the end of the day? That’s happening. As we have been warned, traffic is formidable — not enough roads to meet demand, those roads that there are two-lane and unpaved, without traffic lights — and obviously dangerous. Work-wise, we each feel fairly stressed-out — are we on the right track, is this donation of our time helpful to the world? And, as much as it’s prudent to be constantly alert to our safety, it also makes us feel like jerks. It’s all natural settling-in stuff, but we’re each emotional and tense.

First week — points of interest: The biggest bill in local currency is 1000 Kenyan Shillings, or about $12. It’s a predominantly cash economy, so making a deposit on an apartment, say, requires a breadbox full of bills. We do frequent pilgrimages to the nearest ATM, stockpiling. Also, there are all these road blocks around our hotel, which we had initially taken for a standard security measure. But then, what was that building down the road with the extremely serious wall and even more serious razor wire, and the sign saying “photography forbidden”? Eventually we learned: it’s the Israeli embassy. Ohhhh. Much becomes clear.

Thanks for tuning in with us! We miss you guys. We’ll circle back soon with retrospective reports on Thai night trains, Malaysian public-service announcements, and the world’s best chicken wing. FOR REAL.