|Day 1, 2 July 2010: Welcome to Nairobi
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
I didn’t have much luck on the flight from Heathrow to Nairobi. My TV didn’t work and the only breakfast on offer contained a plethora of button mushrooms, which I detest. Fortunately, I had come armed with an array of books and magazines. I was also able to sleep for a few hours. The bloke, Duncan, Liz and I disembarked, dazed and blinking, clutching the laborious landing card and visa forms we’d had to fill out. We joined the chaotic queues. I was heartened to discover that the Kenyan single-entry visas are large and ornate, as I’d hoped.
We collected our luggage and emerged into the terminal to be collected in turn by Tarn. Tarn turned out to be an alert, chain-smoking Australian with an abundance of sinewy energy. He’s spent most of the last five years in the bush in Tanzania and Kenya. He led us to his bashed-up rental Mitsubishi. We loaded our suitcases with a chorus of thank-yous that he brushed aside. We loaded ourselves into the truck.
Before we even left the parking lot, we got into a fender-bender. This is not unusual in Nairobi. We were struck by a matatu - one of the brightly-coloured minivans that function as the city’s public transport system. It says something for the construction of the Mitsubishi that we scarcely noticed the slight bump of the collision, while the matatu was left with a big ugly black streak down its side. The driver stepped out to inspect the damage mournfully. He looked at us shaking our heads at him and decided not to pursue the matter further.
We wove into the city at a fair clip. The dust and clouds gave it an aura of twilight, though it was only 9 AM. Three lanes were marked on the asphalt, but only loosely obeyed. Pedestrians walked along the side of the road and the central reservation. They crossed at will, dodging vehicles moving in excess of 80 kph. (Accidents are frequent and often fatal.) Ancient lorries belched black clouds of diesel. We passed a construction site. It was difficult to tell if the massive structure on it was being erected or torn down. No one wore hard hats, only high-vis jackets and handkerchiefs over nose and mouth to keep out the omnipresent dust.
Tarn entertained us with a steady flow of tales interspersed with instructions. Don’t travel in a matatu after dark unless you enjoy being pickpocketed. The museum is worth seeing. Never leave the house with more than the cash you need for the day.
From bottom left: Liz, Tarn, bloke, Duncan, Anne
We pulled up at George and Anne’s place in Hurlingham, in the southeast section of the city. Two sets of security gates swung open to admit us. A very tanned George met us in the car park and led us into the front garden, which was filled with comfy chairs and lush green things in pots. Anne came out to meet us, dressed for work. Before we flopped down to have a cup of tea, the bloke emerged from the house carrying two eight-week old kittens. They and their mother had recently adopted George and Anne.
Naturally, I had to get out the camera to capture the KAYOOT.
Mama and babies
Dis is mah sad face
Leg taste funneh
So does sofa
We refreshed ourselves with showers and food. (Papayas, samosas and omelettes. Try it before you criticise.) Tarn gave us elaborate directions to the village near his camp site in the Maasai Mara, where we were to meet him on Monday. The directions don’t quite match the map. We agree uneasily that it should all be pretty obvious once we leave Nairobi because no one wanted him to go through the directions again.
Tarn dropped us off at a supermarket so we could recycle George’s impressive empty bottle collection. The supermarket had a stand selling fresh popcorn out the front. Abruptly, I decided that I could live here after all. We walked back through the dusty streets. I took quick glances around while performing the tricky business of navigating potholes and gutters full of suspicious liquid and trying not get hit by cars or matatus. I was struck by the ornate communal stairwells and balconies in the apartment buildings. The apartment exteriors were mostly rather plain. High walls guarded most such structures. Though they span a range from well-kept to decrepit, the overall impression is of a new city. Flowers - morning glory, bouganvillea, canna lilies - decorate most of the roadside, alleviating the weight of noise and dust.
We popped briefly into a bar called G-Pot (um...yeah). We sat around one of the big round tables to have a beer and watch the birds. Small bright finches with yellow breasts flitted through the bushes. A buzzard perched atop telephone pole to survey the scene. Suddenly, a group of sacred ibises descended, flapping gracelessly, onto the lawn. Their dirty feathers and ruthless scavenging make a mockery of their name.
We returned home to collect Liz, who opted for a nap instead of a beer. We ate more samosas. The kittens frolicked adorably. At the appropriate time, George led us to his packed local to watch Holland-Brazil. I cheered for Holland, not just because I drew Holland in the office sweepstakes but because seeing Brazil win again would be boring. Unexpectedly, the scrappy Dutch team beat the Brazilians 2-1. The excitement I felt was soon eclipsed by my underlying exhaustion. We moved to a restaurant to eat nyama choma (roast meat) served by the kilo with potatoes and kale fried with a hair-curling quantity of garlic. I didn’t have the energy to watch Ghana-Uruguay, so I was walked home before I passed out standing up. The screaming and the vuvuzelas woke me briefly when Ghana scored.
It occurs to me on reflection that my first day in Nairobi involved very little interaction with Kenyans, except in a customer service capacity. What service we received was unremittingly surly. With limited knowledge of Swahili, it’s difficult to have a conversation, of course, but the usual reaction to the presence of a group of wazungu (white people) seemed to be to stare momentarily and then ignore. I also found myself getting slightly resentful about being classified as mzungu simply because I have pale skin, until I considered that wazungu is a term that probably applies to most non-blacks.