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!

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.


You guys, I have to confess a thing. Which is: In the time-honored tradition of blogs everywhere, our blog is behind. We have recently gotten safely to Nairobi, while our blog is still maybe in Vietnam.

This delay owes partly to some spotty internet connections, but mostly to the pace of our first month. We kept arriving in each new place without having anything for our next destination booked, and so most of our internet time was spent on onward arrangements. Consequently, we have stored up anecdotes from Laos and Thailand: Part 2: This Time It’s Personal to share with you guys! As well as reports from Malaysia and Singapore, which will consist almost entirely of food photos.

But I wanted to send up a “we made it!” flare. A mere 19 hours of travel, and we swapped swanky Singapore for a simple but nice hotel in Nairobi, where we have a window with a view of a field. Today we looked at some prospective rental apartments, had Indian food for lunch, got lost walking around looking for a shopping center (which you are NOT supposed to do, safety-wise, but nothing sinister befell us this time), and then triumphantly and with deep relief found said shopping center and made use of it for our water/newspaper/cash withdrawal/city map/cookie-purchase needs. Despite this modest slate of accomplishments I feel proud and tired, as though I had done a strenuous workout and then done my taxes with itemized expenses.

Preliminary observations:

  • It is so deliciously cool here after a month in southeast Asia. Which is to say it’s like 80 degrees. I can almost imagine wearing socks and liking it.
  • After a month on the Kevin Gibbs southeast Asian chili sauce express, I tried my jeans on today. It’s a squeeze, but they zip. So, I mean, where would I be without all those hour-long walks in 96-degree heat, right? Jeansless, that’s where.
  • It’s Swahili time! I am doing some Rosetta Stone, which means I am beginning with useful phrases like “boy under plane” and “girl with socks.” For those of you unfamiliar with the language, I can report that most of the nouns seem to begin with M or N, and most of the verbs seem to begin with A. Other than that, it’s all mvulana chini ya ndege,* dudes.
  • Each taxi we take seems to have one working seatbelt.
  • On the way home from the shopping we passed a sign for something like the Kenya Prisons Supplies Center — which, if we read the sign correctly, is open to the public? Like a showroom for incarceration aids? If we make it there, we definitely will let you know.

* Yep. “Boy under plane.”