|Day 2, 3 July 2010: Nairobi nights
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
By the time we extracted ourselves from the comforts of George & Anne’s house the next day, it was nearly 1 PM. We walked through Nairobi to its heart, carefully keeping out of the ditches and watching traffic wardens make largely unsuccessful attempts to direct the mayhem at the roundabouts. Our route took us past the Israeli embassy, which had a heavily armoured checkpoint. It featured a not-very-reassuring sign, complete with disturbing purple smiley faces, that assured us it was “friendly”. Er - does anyone want to go through a “hostile” checkpoint? I think not. The Kenyan guards at the perimeter looked supremely bored. I’m pretty sure one of them was surreptitiously sending text messages on his mobile while leaning on his automatic rifle.
We continued through a large municipal park, which was clearly an attempt by homesick British colonials to recreate Hyde Park. The design was identical with the exception of the peanut-and-soft-drink vendors staged every 50 metres along the paths. We passed the forbidding yellow rectangle of the Immigration building. It is whispered that the seventh floor houses a detention area for individuals without valid visas who are held in small cells for up to two weeks before deportation.
Central Nairobi offered only a few glimpses of real poverty - tin shacks on dismal rubbish-covered heaps. Mostly we saw affluence, especially as we approached the market. We entered the Maasai market through impressive wrought-iron gates and were immediately beset by hawkers selling their wares. We evaded them, cautiously taking stock of each aisle of the long, narrow marketplace. There was a good deal of repetition in the goods on display - sandals, handbags, wood carvings of elephants and giraffes, paintings on uncut canvases (easier to roll up for suitcases) and beaded jewelry. One chap messed up his pitch by aiming a slingshot at the bloke’s groin. I almost decked him. No sale. We took one complete turn around the market before letting ourselves get suckered into transactions. The bloke bargained for a wooden bowl. I bargained for a scrap metal sculpture of a dung beetle.
Negotiating uncertain transactions is tedious and exhausting when you’re not accustomed to it, and it’s worse when you’re standing in blistering mid-day sun and surrounded by the funk of forty thousand bodies. A lot of Kenyan men seem to think that if they don’t stink, they aren’t being manly enough. The women, on the other hand, smell like a million bucks, or at least an ocean of perfume. The heady combination chokes and bewilders newcomers. We had to leave to get cool fizzy drinks from a tiny shop nearby. (You have to drink them at the shop, by the way. The bottles are taken back and reused, so you can’t take them away.)
The others joined us and we walked into the centre of town again to see the Nairobi equivalent of Tottenham Court Road. It’s said that anything electronic - as well as a lot of other stuff - can be bought there. It was absolutely manic. I thought the market was packed, but at least the people there were moving slowly. In this district, fast, erratic vehicles and pedestrians were added into the mix. Even though it hadn’t been long since our previous sit-down, we found we needed another one after emerging into quieter streets.
We found a pub to watch the opening minutes of Germany-Argentina and drink a beer. A table near the back, next to the only white people in the place, was cleared of a solitary smoking man for us on arrival. The man was black. He didn’t appear to mind, but the way the situation was handled certainly made me feel uncomfortable for the rest our time there. I was glad when we went to catch the bus home.
The bus system quickly absorbed all my attention. A well-constructed stand hosted a row of buses with conductors hanging out the side doors with small numbered signs. The conductors called out constantly, alternating between a recitation of the destinations of the bus and an urgent announcement of the bus’ impending departure. Once you boarded a bus that was only partly full, you discovered that it wouldn’t be leaving until it was. This deception was facilitated by the tinted windows of the bus. The driver conspired with the conductor to give off the illusion of imminence. They moved the bus marginally back and forth, seeming to edge into the neighbouring lanes and then retreating. The rocking motion continued until the last passenger actually boarded, whereupon the conductor leapt onto the pavement and slammed the door. Not until then did the driver yank the bus into the lanes of traffic.
Two of Anne’s work friends joined us at the house before we headed out for our evening meal at Diamond Plaza. Diamond Plaza is a central Asian enclave of shops and restaurants, gated and lavishly adorned with Christmas lights that flash discordantly. The shops sell a diverse and confusing array of items. Amongst them, we spotted vintage telephones and a fur-bound copy of A Farewell to Arms. The South Indian vegetarian restaurant, Chowpaty, served dosas as light as feathers. The bloke and I ordered a palak masala dosa, a couple of idlis and corn masala, which sounds like a curious Kenyan adaptation. It turned out to be delicious. The corn kernels popped in our mouths and their sweet juices mixed beautifully with the rich masala spices. The restaurant served no alcohol, but I didn’t care because the lassi was so good.
We wrangled another set of taxis to take us to the nightclub, Black Diamond. Taxi-wrangling in Nairobi is a non-trivial affair. Fares are not standardized, so almost invariably a tedious bargaining exchange has to be negotiated before you can go anywhere. The taxi driver tried to rip us off but quickly got shot down by Anne, who is now well-versed in these transactions and will simply get out of the car if she thinks the driver is being ridiculous. Halfway through our journey, George phoned Anne to report that their taxi driver was trying to rip them off and wouldn’t back down. Anne mentioned this to our driver, who said he’d go back and pick them up for the same price we’re paying him. He then launched into a tirade about dishonest taxi drivers who try to rip people off. We listened to this unabashed hypocrisy with amusement.
The nightclub was packed with a mix of Kenyans and Asians. Huge glass windows on one side of the dance floor opened onto an expanse of lanai. We found an empty table in a corner - once again, oddly, next to the only group of seated white people. As the club filled up, the ratio changed. The girls and I went to dance. The dance floor was almost as pungent as the market. On the positive side, the bouncers kept a close eye on it. No drinks were permitted on the floor and I saw no harassment. I experienced one collision. A large-breasted woman squeezed into a horizontally striped blue-and-white fabric tube -it really couldn’t be called a dress- decided to use me to catapult herself into the middle of heaving surge of bodies. Each of her impressive endowments hit my back individually with a splosh-splosh. She pivoted with surprising grace and rocketed into the crowd.
I was told not to bring the big camera with me when walking through central Nairobi. Snatch-and-grab thefts are not uncommon, and the last thing I wanted was to lose my gear before the Mara trip.
If you put me down I promise not to bite your toes. Really!
Big black scrawl across page in 3...2...1...
You think you’ve got it rough? Look what I have to put with!
What? We are aaangels.