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!

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.

Normal Fruit and Luxury Fruit

After being in SE Asia for a few weeks, I’ve learned something interesting: all fruit is created equal, but some fruit is more equal than others.

By that, what I mean is that in SE Asia, there (as far as I can tell) are two classes of fruit: fruit, and luxury fruit. Fruit is composed of just about what you would expect: all the fruits you have heard of, and many other types of tropical fruit that we don’t get in the states much. Pineapple, mango, starfruit, orange, green orange, papaya, apple, rose apple, dragonfruit, coconut are all examples of “normal” fruit.

You’ll see normal fruit all over the place: market stalls, street vendors, etc. Particularly, you’ll see normal fruit at fruit shake vendors, who just have a little stand with a blender, ice, and racks of fresh fruit, and the’ll juice-slash-blend whatever you want to order. (Yum.)

But then, there’s Luxury Fruit.

Luxury fruit includes durian, mangosteen, jackfruit, and often lychee. Luxury fruit is kept separate from the normal fruit. You will see street-side vendors selling these fruits, but often the vendor will be dedicated to just one of these fruits: just selling durian, or just selling mangosteen. If they sell multiple types, the “luxury” fruit will be kept separate from the rest of the fruit, usually in its own reverent pyramid. You’ll never seen a fruit shake vendor with any of these fruits.

So why the separation? Well, it’s probably pretty obvious: cost. The luxury fruits cost a lot more, perhaps 5x-10x as much as the normal fruit. (I’ll try to do some quantitative analysis next time I’m lugging a 20kg bag and pouring sweat down onto the sidewalk.) The normal fruits have different costs, but as far as something like a fruit shake go, they basically have one cost: pretty cheap.

The other reason for separation, I think (which relates to cost) is seasonality and freshness. The class of luxury fruits spoil very quickly, I believe, and fresh vs. not-fresh ones are tremendously different. So it makes sense to dedicate your business to these products.

This second reason is also the reason why you almost never see any of these fruits in the US (with the occasional exception of lychee).

And this has been your extremely concise introduction to the Periodic Table of Luxury Fruit.

No Absolutes

When traveling, there are rules you are supposed to follow. There are certain things you are supposed to never do.

  • You shouldn’t let touts talk to you, or lead you around. But then you are in a big market in a strange city, and some guy asks where you are from, then leads you round the market, and then helps you find where the bun bo hue vendors are hidden, and joins you for lunch. In the end, he doesn’t ask for anything.
  • You shouldn’t let someone approach, then take your picture, as it’s probably a scam. But sometimes it really is just a little girl on a school trip who wants her picture taken with some white folks, and afterwards, in perfect English, thanks you and shakes your hand solemnly.
  • You should have a quick rule for for finding a hotel in a new city so you don’t agonize over it, something like “always get the 'Our pick’ of the Lonely Planet midrange hotels,” or “always choose the affordable option from the Luxe Guide.” But none of these rules work all of the time. Sometimes one of the hotel options is great, and sometimes one is way wrong and the other great. But both of them are sometimes the wrong choice.

When you are in a strange place, dealing with a lot of unknown things, you want to be smart. You want to close yourself in, follow specific rules, be careful, stick to a plan and simple rules.

But in reality, travel doesn’t work that way. What you actually need to do is have guidelines, but not rules. You have to approach each situation with a careful mind, but an open mind, and see how things unfold.

Learning how to have this approach, and not deal in absolutes, has been a challenge for me.