Friday, August 22, 2014

Nairobi Life

When I first came to Kenya, Nairobi was a big scary city. I ventured out every now and then, but I certainly was a little timid, in part because I was brand new to Africa, and because I didn't spend very much time here.  Now, however, I'm ok with going to the park, taking public transit, negotiating a taxi, and exploring the city.  I'm cautious, of course, but it's nice to be more comfortable in the city. I'm certainly enjoying it more.  Here are some observations about the biggest city in East Africa.

(Photo shamelessly stolen from Google Images :) )
* Crossing the street. I kind of feel like I'm taking my life in my hands. For one, I am still getting used to the fact that the traffic drives on the other side of the street as at home. I naturally look for traffic coming one way, but really should be looking the other. This means that I look BOTH ways really carefully and look like a doofus checking for traffic coming down the wrong side of the street. (But hey, this is Nairobi, stranger things have happened!) Also, I have to constantly remind myself to look for piki pikis (motorbikes) that fly in between the lanes. However, a pretty sure fire trick is to cross with a Kenyan.  I have debts of gratitude to many strangers who have unknowingly helped me cross the street. Yay!

* Matatus. These are 14 passenger minivans that are a major part of the transportation network here in Kenya (when you think 14 passenger, hold that sort of loosely...).  They're a cheap way of getting around, and while you have to keep yourself really alert - pickpockets are common - they're really handy. They're also kinda crazy, though they usually pretty reliable. Not sure how my friend would agree with that after today she was told her matatu was going just down the road to the shopping center, but instead ended up on an hour long 'diversion' through Kibera slum, but hey...  Most are pretty run-down, but often are personalized with different sayings, decals, and the like painted on them.  Buses, too - whatever the owner likes is plastered ALL OVER the roof and sides of the interior - Janet Jackson, the New York Knicks, Jesus Saves posters, you name it.  And there's usually music bah-LARING. It's a party, I tell you!

People walking, pikis, matatus (with the yellow stripe), busses, lorries, and trucks with random guys hanging out in the box. Yep, pretty much a regular Nairobi scene! :)

* Greetings.  As a white woman, I get a lot of attention walking along the street.  "Hallo!" People (let's be serious, men) will call out. I usually ignore them, or just mumble a short answer and carry on my way.  But little kids are fun. The standard little kid greeting to any mzungu (white person) is, "Hawahyoo?" (sound it out, you'll get it ;) ) I'm pretty sure they think it's all one word and the mzungu  word for hello.  It's really cute, and I always answer, "I am fine! Habari yako?" (How are you?) They are usually surprised that I answer in Swahili, and look at me kind of shocked.

* Exploring. In my travelling around, I've discovered some fun things. Like today, when our taxi diverted down a back road to avoid the traffic (but encounter about a bazillion potholes), I discovered Big Mama's, a Korean BBQ restaurant just a few blocks away from where I'm staying.  Travelling out to another AIM office in Kabete, a suburb north of Nairobi, the other day, we drove past a CASTLE! Seriously - a stone, turretted, castle! City Parks. I haven't  been to any parks in Nairobi until two days ago when my friend Marlene and I headed over to... City Park. (Such a creative name, I know!) It was a beautiful park with gardens, a gazebo, a picnic area, flowers and flowering trees everywhere.... and MONKEYS! Monkeys everywhere! Monkeys that love to jump up and climb all over you! Good times were had by all - lots of laughs, and lots of photos, for sure!

* A new attendant for the public washrooms? * Marlene and the monkey
* My peanuts are all gone, what more do you want? * Pretty park
* Amenities. There are lots of things to be said about Nairobi in terms of pollution, crime, and whatever. But I feel quite safe here. I'm aware of the risks and like to think I'm smart about them. But Nairobi is also a pretty cool city. It really is a modern, global city, and there is so much to see and do here. As I've been taking different taxis around and talking to people here and there, I like to ask them, "What do you like about Nairobi?"  Most people generally answer with something like, "The opportunity. You can get anything or do anything here." I am certainly grateful that there is a place I can get what I need before heading up to Korr. And I'm grateful, too, for amazing mobile phone capabilities (not just in Nairobi, but in Korr, too!) like mPesa, a mobile money transfer system that can be used to pay at shops, send money to friends, etc, and like really, really cheap rates to call Canada. It's the same price as calling down the street! Amazing!

* Diversity. Nairobi is a city of contrasts. A short matatu ride from the slum (or a long one, depending on the diversions and traffic!) is the YaYa Center, a super upscale mall.  There is the Mercedes dealership with the traditional Masai man herding his cows among the cars. You can get gelato at the mall, or take a camel ride down Ngong road.  You can rent a paddle boat in the lake at Uhuru park or drive out of town and saddle up for an ostrich ride.  And there is a continuous roller coaster of smells that assault your senses.  One minute you are smelling the vendor selling BBQ maize, the next you are hit with the acrid smell of burning trash or bus exhaust. And then a few steps further, and back to bougainvilleas or wood-fired pizza.

All within a short walk is Toi Market - a huge second hand clothing market - Java House, and Nakumatt, the Kenyan version of Wal-Mart.
All in all, it is an amazing place to stay for this time. I'm grateful for the chance to get to know this always-changing, surprising, heart-breaking, yet exciting city.

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