My life in Nairobi
Jambo! For the past two months, I’ve been living in Nairobi doing consulting work for an international travel company. Which means I get to spend my days researching trips around Africa for work. A perfect gig for me! My office is in the wealthy suburb of Karen on the outskirts of Nairobi and, with no amenities around us, we are provided with lunch. Hence I’m getting more than my usual share of local Kenyan food – lunch is ugali (a tasteless cornmeal paste with polenta–like consistency), sukuma wiki (collard greens) and cabbage. It’s not too bad with lots of Tabasco, but Tuesdays are now my favorite day as we get dahl and chapatis! It amuses me that we also get morning and afternoon tea – a boiled egg here, a sweet bun there, three plain pieces of bread. All these meals are delivered to me on a plate at my desk. My Kenyan colleagues are lovely and delight in teaching me a new phrase of Swahili each day.
Not far away, my home away from home (where is home?) is the Wildebeest Eco-Camp. Popular with travelers of all ages and those who regularly visit Nairobi for volunteer or other work, it’s always filled with interesting people and the communal dining and pool table mean it’s also very sociable. Not to mention the great staff. The spacious grounds are beautiful and I wake to birdsong and eat my dinner al fresco with frogs croaking in the ponds and crickets chirping around me in the dusk. After happily living out of a suitcase for the last 14 months, I’m also ridiculously excited about having an actual clothes rack.
I have managed to venture out of my suburban bubble a few times and spend some time out downtown. Nairobi is a very cosmopolitan city and some of the bars and restaurants wouldn’t be out of place in New York or London. Although the chaotic mass that constitutes Nairobi’s downtown bus and matatu (minibus) stations is another matter. I’ve been navigating those stations with regularity – to get out of town on the weekends. There are lots of places to visit close to Nairobi and I’ve managed to go hiking practically every weekend that I’ve been here – flamingo filled Crater Lake, the remote Mt Essakut, the Menengai Crater north of Nakuru (one of the biggest calderas in the world) and the amazingly close Ngong Hills.
One of my favorite excursions was to Lake Naivasha and Hells Gate National Park, not far from Nairobi. The lake is gorgeous in the dawn with abundant birdlife and chattering monkeys. Kayaks are available – a big attraction since I love to kayak – but, having observed the electric hippo fence and multiple “watch out for hippos” signs (hippos kill more people in Africa than any other wild animal), I was doubtful about the safety of doing so. But, really wanting to kayak, I set out anyway, hyperaware of dark spots on the water and strange sounds. After about 30 minutes of kayaking, I decided to venture down a beautiful channel with lots of birds. Not far in, the birds suddenly rise and I see a bloated grey shape emerging from the water. Let’s just say I set speed records paddling out of that channel!
The next day my up close and personal encounters with wildlife continued as I rented a bike in Hell’s Gate National Park – one of the few parks where you can cycle or walk with the wildlife. Having arrived early in the morning, I had the Park to myself and pedalled through herds of antelopes and zebras grazing mere metres from me – surrounded by imposing rock formations and cliffs reflecting the morning light . I was truly moved at the wonder and magic of it all but the smile was wiped off my face when I turned a corner to discover a herd of buffalo crossing the road in front of me. Buffalo are the only dangerous animals in the Park – but I had not thought to ask what to do if I came across them. Carefully I stopped pedalling and waited patiently. But the thing about buffalo is that they like to stare at you – and they have a very evil eye. It’s extremely unnerving when you just have a little bike for protection. I have to admit that at one stage one of the staring buffalo moved a couple of steps towards me and I turned high-tail and dashed back the way I had come. That seemed to satisfy him though as the herd moved further from the road and I quickly scuttled past.
My adventures turned more cultural when, after hiking through the Ol Njorowa Gorge, I learnt my guide was about to head to the local Masai church. I quickly remembered that I’m technically a Christian and invited myself along. The small shed was filled with people singing and dancing – oscillating between joyful movement and literal sobbing onto the dirt floor. My arrival caused quite a stir and they rustled up an interpreter so that I could give a speech. I didn’t stay for the whole four hour event but it was an altogether joyful and unexpected experience.
Back in Nairobi, I visited an orphanage on a work community day, toured Nairobi National Park (it’s right in the city and watching rhinos silhouetted by skyscrapers is quite surreal), tried crocodile at Carnivore restaurant and snagged myself a ticket to the African session of the World Travel Awards (the Oscars of the travel industry). This black-tie event challenged my backpack wardrobe but I managed to find a $30 LBD (little black dress for the uninitiated). But perhaps the most fun was had at the Kenyan Rugby Sevens. Motorbike riding grandmother Eliza led the way for a very social day out complete with matching Kenya t-shirts. Although watching Kenya thrash Australia in the grand final wasn’t so fun. Eliza was just one of the great people I met at Wildebeest. Michael, Jess, Madoc, Kira, Pete and kids – so fun to hang out with you all. Michael’s happy pants yellow farewell party was a fitting end! And to all my friends with kids, check out Kira and Pete’s National Geographic Traveller of the Year profile – truly inspiring.
Of course, there were lowlights too and none more disturbing than the awful Westgate terrorist attack which lasted four days and in which 72 people died. While I live far from there, it is an area I frequently go out in and it all felt very close to home. Security is very tight all throughout the city now and Kenya is still mourning, but the people here are resilient. Media attention has turned to the fact that the President and Vice President are both facing trials for crimes against humanity at the ICC (International Criminal Court) related to inciting fatal violence after the 2007 elections when they were with opposing political parties. It is the only time sitting politicians have been brought to trial so an important precedent. And I thought Australian politics had gotten crazy…
Speaking of the Kenyan people, one of my favorite things about Kenya is the ease of interaction between cultures. With a large middle class and a highly educated and professional English speaking workforce, it’s very easy to get to know Kenyans and my hikes always included a mixed group of expats and locals. Not to mention the Kenyan men who have a confidence and directness that’s quite unique! Nairobi is the bustling business hub of East Africa with a vibrant start-up community and a lot going on socially. Bright young things are flocking here to take advantage of the opportunities as Africa becomes the next growth market. While the traffic can be mind-numbing (I was once driven 20km the completely opposite direction I wanted to go because it was faster), I’ve found it a very easy place to live and am sad to leave.
But the road calls so I’ll soon be on a plane to Sudan. More updates from there in a few weeks…
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