Wandering wazungu

Being white in Kenya means getting a certain number of shout-outs. “Mzungu!” (muh-ZOON-goo) someone will shout from the window of a passing car or matatu (minibus). “Mzungu,” someone at the supermarket will mutter, expressing some mix of incredulity and fatalism at whatever incomprehensible faux pas I’ve committed most recently. And if you pass a group of children, particularly outside Nairobi, forget it. Choruses of “mzungu!” accompanied by excited pointing. If you make eye contact, expect shrieking and a general dissolution into giggles. It looked at me!

Mostly, mzungu is used to mean white person, though technically it translates to something closer to “wanderer” or “one who goes far from home.” (The wa- prefix – wazungu rather than mzungu – indicates the plural.) People of Asian or Middle Eastern descent also get called mzungu, though I think less frequently than Causcasian people do.

This is an actual advertisement in Nairobi’s international airport. Barclays wants everyone to know that white people are idiots with too much money.

The mzungu shout-out is a funny thing. It’s hard to imagine this exact phenomenon happening in a different cultural setting. Even visiting other places where we’ve been the only Caucasians for miles, it would be unusual to hear someone yell “foreigner!” when I walk by.

My first inclination is usually just to be like, “Yup, well spotted! I am indeed a white person. Have a good day.” So mostly when someone calls me mzungu, I answer “ndiyo” – to mean “yes,” or “it is true what you say.” Sure, “mzungu” is not intended as a compliment. But I chose to come here, and I’m here in awareness of colonial history and of how few positive connotations accompany white people’s presence in Kenya and in Africa generally. And reacting with humor feels like a way of sort of absorbing the blow gently, in such a way that doesn’t harm me or the shouter.

Some expats we’ve met, though, reeeeeaallly hate it. Because it’s rude and exclusionary, because it reflects prejudice and a general lack of effort to relate, because it makes race the most immediate and significant part of the interaction – these are understandable frustrations. And though I don’t experience the same exasperation as a short-timer, I’m sure if I were here longer I’d grow tired of the repeated reminders of my outsider status.

Also, mzungu-identification is a small problem that has some amount of overlap with several larger problems. Like: Plenty of locals regard foreign people as potential sources of cash. (For that we may have partially to blame Barclays, for their ridonkulous ad, pictured above.) This is to some extent fair enough; anyone who has enough money for a plane ticket to east Africa probably also has some money to spare. But the tendency to see non-Africans as the dollar-dripping Other has less-than-great implications for tourism, international trade, and loan repayment – so I’m not sure that it’s great for Kenya’s business climate generally.

Maybe even more importantly, focusing first on people’s ancestry is a problem in Kenya even beyond the basic black-white divide. Kenya comprises forty-something distinct tribal groups (the exact number depends on how you count), each having its own language, customs and identities. And tribal affiliation Is not some quaint archaic thing. Kenyans size up each other’s tribal affiliations – based on clues of name, appearance, accent or whom they hang out with – very rapidly, and in some ways tribal affiliation is regarded as destiny. We hear assertions like “All Luos like fish / stick together / are aggressive” with some frequency. (Some Kenyans we’ve met make a conscious effort not to do this — intentionally speaking Swahili, the country’s lingua franca, and socializing irrespective of tribal boundaries. But this attitude is regarded as pretty progressive.)

In a country in which corruption is a major, major issue and resolving legal and bureaucratic matters often requires knowing (and, sometimes, bribing) somebody on the inside, tribal networks can be a path to getting things done. And politicians often represent, or are perceived as representing, the interests of their tribes of origin more than the interests of all Kenyans. All these factors add up to an uneasy situation, in which tribal identity is for most people more important than nationality; inter-tribal tension and mistrust remain unfortunately common, and outright violence flares up periodically, as happened after the election of 2007.

These latter issues primarily affect Kenyans, and not wazungu, but it all seems somewhat related to me – related to a focus on origins, combined with a view that origins are deterministic.

All that said, I still find it hard to mind when someone calls out mzungu at me. In a way it’s the start of a conversation – and a fairly honest one, that begins with “I see you as a foreigner.” It may not be all that gracious, but it’s not fake, either. And for all that “mzungu” calls attention to a divide, it doesn’t always feel hostile. One time I was out at a local market for lunch with some coworkers, and a grubby drunk young guy popped out from behind a van. Startled, I took half a step back; what did he want? “Mzungu!” he crowed, and held out his fist for me to pound. “Mzungu!” I said back, fist-bumping him, and we both laughed. It’s weird to be greeted with a racial ID, but at least we’re talking.

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.

Funny Sights in Nairobi

It’s Friday here in Kenya, and that means it’s time for a fun post.

Thus, please enjoy a slideshow of some funny sights from the past few months in Nairobi.

The Sundowner Report, Episode 3

Much like the nightly news, except that it’s not nightly, nor news, The Sundowner Report is back. Episode 3 comes to you from our apartment’s balcony in Nairobi, Kenya during a rare invisible solar eclipse. Topics covered include Kevin, Page, and Tusker.

Trip update: FAQ

Q.: Are you sick of all your clothes?
A.: Yes. And they are much less clean than they were when we departed.

Q.: Is there anything you packed that has proven totally unnecessary?
A.: Yeah, probably a few gadgety things. The one that springs to mind is the travel baggage scale, which we got to make sure our backpacks didn’t exceed any airline’s weight limit. We made sure of this at the beginning, but haven’t needed it since. Which is good, because some button got held down and the battery is dead. Also we packed some microfiber travel towels that we have never needed. Well, I used one once to mop up wine on a train, but that’s it.

One thing — or, really, two things — that have proven to be the opposite of unnecessary is our LED headlamps. Power goes out all the time around here, and as atmospheric as candles are, a headlamp means you can keep cooking, reading or hunting mosquitoes. Invaluable.

Q.: Have you had anything stolen?
A.: No/maybe. Sometime during our jaunt around southeast Asia, my phone disappeared. It’s sad, but we’d packed a backup. We’re not sure whether it got taken out of my bag or we lost it ourselves somehow, but it does seem to be gone. Otherwise, though, nothing taken so far.

Q.: Not to be indelicate, but what is the story with your bowel movements? How has the transition from spicy southeast Asia to who-knows Kenya treated your insides?
A.: Really we’ve done surprisingly well with this so far. (I’m going to say so far a lot in this one.) Part of the reason, I think, is that we’ve been almost exclusively in cities, where a pretty high standard of living tends to be available, if not always ubiquitous. But even outside the cities, the spread of globalization makes the world ever-more standardized — and, thus, sanitized. Partly we’ve had good luck, though — there have been places we’ve visited, and even eaten at, that were near open sewers, and we’ve been fine afterward.

Getting down to brass tacks: I would say we’ve each had, on average, one unpleasantly abnormal situation per month of travel. But we’ve only had to crack into the azithromycin once so far, in Vietnam.

Q.: Is your hair really long? Page, are you still a blond?
A.: Kevin’s hair is business as usual, thanks to the relative universality of masculine haircuts. (Also his hair grows straight up, and so poses less of a challenge to an African barber than floppy white-dude hair would.) My hair hasn’t been this long since I was 15, I don’t think, but it’s not startlingly long. Just what most people would consider shoulder-length. As for the blond, it’s like dark-blond roots and yellow ends. Not my favorite look, but I’m going with the trend of the times and calling it “ombré.”

Q.: Do you have friends? Did you find Americans to celebrate 4th of July with?
A.: Yes and yes! The Kenyan inhabitants of Nairobi have seen a lot of white aid workers come and go, and establishing real connection there — beyond just basic friendliness, which is very very abundant — takes some work. But many of the aforementioned white aid workers are themselves far from home and very down to get a beer and talk about whatever. And the people we’ve met, in both categories, are great. Interesting, interested, hilarious, adventurous, inspiring. We have a bunch of approximately 24-year-old friends who are intimidatingly together and accomplished and awesome, and let us hang out even though we go home at midnight and they go out clubbing. We got really lucky on this one.

For 4th of July we went to / helped host a big Kenyan goat barbecue at the office where we both work. It was raucous and there were piffley fireworks and games of beer pong and a DJ and everything. Late in the evening, for some reason, I tied a cup of wine to my forehead using somebody’s necktie, and then my friend Rachel drank from the cup. Who even knows, man. It was not very American, but it was a pretty spectacular party.

Q.: What’s next? What’s the schedule from here on out?
A.: We’ll be in Kenya until late August, though we’ll be taking a bunch of trips while we’re here — to the Masai Mara, to Dubai, to Rwanda, and maybe one or two other places if we get lucky. Then we’ll have several weeks in Europe; we’re hoping to see friends and family in London, Paris and Rome, and maybe do a little excursion or two just the two of us. Then, time permitting, we’ll pass through New York City on our way home, and hug some people there. Back in San Francisco by the first week of October. About this, sometimes I feel so happy, and sometimes I feel so sad.

Do you have a question for Los Meanderthal? Leave your burning query in the comments and we will soothe it with the sweet rain of information.

Well, he did warn me

(Note, for the purposes of this story, that the current exchange rate from Kenyan Shillings to American dollars is around 90:1.)

Taxi driver: Almost every country around Kenya has had war. And so we have had people from those countries coming to Kenya. Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda…

Fellow passenger Danae: Tanzania didn’t have war.

Taxi driver: That’s true. But in general Kenya is the stable place. And especially now, when things are getting better.

Me: Do you find that they are?

Taxi driver: Oh, yes. The current government is much better, and so the roads are better, the police are less corrupt… it is good. Especially in Nairobi.

Me: Have you always lived in Nairobi?

Taxi driver: Yes, I was born here. It is a good place to be.

Me: Yes, it seems to be.

Taxi driver: But don’t trust anybody.

Me: Yeah. We keep hearing that.

We arrive at our destination and everyone piles out of the back of the cab. I stay in the front seat to sort out payment.

Me (looking at Kevin fishing for bills in his pocket): Did you guys agree on a fare?

Taxi driver: No, he didn’t tell me. It should be 500.

Kevin passes 300 Shillings through the cab window, a little dismissively. The guy rifles through the bills with a slight air of incredulity.

Me: Here (giving him the extra 200). Thanks. (I get out of cab and walks into the restaurant with the group.)

Kevin: What was that?

Me: I gave him an extra 200. He said you hadn’t agreed on a fare?

Kevin (exasperated): We agreed at the beginning! We agreed on 300!

Me: ...oh. Sad. I guess he proved his point, there, didn’t he?

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.

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.”