Elephants, pancakes and breaking the law: Nairobi early days

When we first arrived in Nairobi, I wasn’t sure how to be. Here’s what Lonely Planet says: “Nairobi is vilified as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, so you get a bizarre sense of satisfaction after spending a month there without so much as having your wallet lifted.” This was certainly something to look forward to. But what to do until then?

I found it very difficult to assess the actual menace. What is the relationship between most dangerous in the world and most dangerous you can imagine? Walking the shade-dappled lane from our hotel to the nearest ATM, I couldn’t figure out if I was reasonably safe carrying the money back to our room, or if I was being a total idiot. (Some people – many of them concerned Kenyans – warn tourists never to walk anywhere, ever.) When Kevin and I got lost on the dusty streets of what I now know to be one of Nairobi’s more upscale neighborhoods, my heart pounded as we strode around unfamiliar corners, trying to look purposeful. Was someone going to, like, leap out and stab me in the face? Remembering that tight sense of panic embarrasses me now.

Unfortunately, my tension showed: On a lunch outing during my first week of work, a friend of a coworker asked how long I’d been in Kenya. Three days, I said. “Ah, I can tell,” he replied. “Your colleagues are at ease, but you are…” and he mimed looking around nervously. “Welcome to Kenya,” he went on. “Be at home!”

Mortified and apologetic, I tried my best. We got a furnished apartment; after a month with heavy backpacks, it was pretty heavenly to unpack. We each went to work and found we liked our work environments, and people went out of their way to invite us to do things. We cooked modest meals.

There was the occasional hiccup: One night, riding in a cab with a broken seatbelt, an oily cop with an AK-47 intercepted us at a makeshift checkpoint and successfully intimidated me into bribing him about four dollars to avoid being arrested. (Which he had no grounds to do, I know now, but at the time I wasn’t quick-witted enough to ask for evidence of the applicable traffic law.) Was I falling in with local practicalities, or proving my own gullibility and weak moral fiber? I still feel slimy with guilt, thinking about it.

We offset the occasional discomfort with some fun things. Some of which are shown in this motley little set of photos from our first couple of weeks. Months ago, when I promised photos of baby elephants and regular giraffes? Finally finally, here those are.

Aaagggghhhh, I know! So cute!

The unsurprising punch line is that I have learned to be at home. It took me a little longer than it took Kevin, but these days, I really like it here – in the staunch, outsize way we tend to like things that require a fair amount of effort. There are dangers and inconveniences, but they’re OUR dangers and inconveniences. And while I feel foolish thinking of my anxious early days, I’m also a little proud: I was terrified, but at least I hung in for the reward, you know? And now, when our friends say “you’ll be back,” I think they may be right.

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.

So today I rode on an elephant's neck, NBD

We couldn’t decide whether to schedule an elephant ride. What if it seemed exploitative, or just tacky?

Obviously, we went for it. There’s a sustainable-tourism outfit in Luang Prabang that centers around a sanctuary for former logging elephants, so we went out there. The elephants seemed to be treated very affectionately, and we learned lots of interesting facts: elephants can carry almost half their body weight; they eat hundreds of pounds of food and drink dozens of gallons of water a day; they gestate for about two years and elephant calves are milk-dependent for three years after birth! We also got to view a comparison poster contrasting Asian and African elephants — apparently Asian elephants are “wrinkly” and African elephants are “very wrinkly.” We’ll report back.

The guides kept suggesting that, in addition to the standard thing of riding in a little basket tied to the elephant’s back, we could also climb down to the elephant’s neck, which is usually where the guide, or mahout, sits. We tried to convey how very appreciative we were of this opportunity while politely refusing. This approach… was not successful.

I would say that sitting on an elephant’s neck is exhilarating, somewhat terrifying, and a fantastic inner-thigh workout.

Also, in a group of basically docile animals, our elephant was mutinous and badly behaved. Everybody else would be walking politely in a line and our elephant would try to overtake on the narrow path, or swing abruptly over to some especially delicious-looking bushes and start ripping them apart with her trunk and eating them. This was occasionally alarming but also pretty adorable.

Post-ride, we got to hang out with the elephants and feed them. Elephants have poor eyesight but fantastic sense of smell, and they knew exactly where the bananas were at all times. We’d stand there and these huge fleshy hoses would rear toward us, and we’d hold out an unpeeled banana or even several, and they would snorf them up with the wet toothless mouths at the ends of their trunks, deposit them in their actual mouths, and then immediately reextend the trunks for more food. MORE FOOD NOW! I felt a strong urge to hug them, but I mastered myself.

In the post-game recap over some Beers Laos, we got all grandiose about Luang Prabang, envisioning coming back with our hypothetical 10-year-olds some years hence. Who knows, but it’s definitely high on the list of places to return.