2012-02-18

Africa 2012: Nairobi, Kenya

Africa. What can I say? It’s big, it’s poor, it’s rich, impressive, different, strange, crowded, empty, beautiful. I know all that and I’ve only ever seen a tiny sliver of it and even that was confined to tourist places. Six of us (Anita, Sören, Barty, Alex, Michael, Volker) went on a two week trip to Tanzania with a short stop in Kenya. The first week on a safari to lake Manyara, the Serengeti and the Ngorogoro crater. Second week climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak on the continent. A very impressive vacation to put it mildly ;-)

Due to insane airline pricing policies and us starting from different cities in Germany or, in my case, Switzerland we ended up on a crazy flight itinerary. The plan had me starting from Switzerland to Düsseldorf, wait 6 hours, continue to Amsterdam, to Nairobi and then to Moshi. Since I’ve become somewhat of a frequent flier with Anita and me in a long distance relationship I took a very relaxed approach to planning my departure. Too relaxed as it turned out. Since I’m not used to travelling with checked baggage I showed up to the airport far too late. Oops. So I took the train from Zürich to Düsseldorf instead and arrived just in time for our connecting flight.

Our itinerary called for a 12.5 hour layover in Nairobi, the capital and biggest city of Kenya. We decided to make good use of that time by exploring the city. Unfortunately Barty, Michael and Alex didn’t have yellow fever inoculation which is required if you want to cross from Kenya to Tanzania. So they camped at the airport while Anita, Volker and me bought transit visas and acquired a guide and taxi driver for the day. He’d drive us from sight to sight, pay for everything and wait for us in the car. Best deal for the short amount of time available.

We started with a snake zoo. Continued with some scenic drive along the parliament building and palace and on to the market. That was quite an experience. Our driver didn’t want to park and cruised the block while we walked the market. Or rather tried to. The only white people around for miles we were instant prey. You just have to admire African sales tactics and persistence. I only brought a single pair of trousers for the whole two weeks and intended to buy another one. The first merchants that latched on to us were in the business of selling carved figures and other tourist souvenirs. That didn’t stop them at all trying to secure me as a customer. They’d ring us, and send someone to get pants for me while others were pitching their wares in the meantime. So I ended up trying on pairs of trousers in a shop selling figurines, just below an old, crooked man sitting in a tiny cave on the shelf above me carving the wooden figurines. All the clothes they brought were far too wide for me, so they finally escorted us through a maze of tiny alleys to their source, in order I could try some on without the courier delay in between.

After finally finding a pair I liked and was willing to buy haggling started. This was fun too. I’m sure I got ripped off pretty badly compared to what locals pay - but then again, a trade is successful if both parties are happy with the result and I am. They opened by feeling the fabric of my (very expensive, new and super cool Fjällräven) shirt, commending me for it and asking its price. I had my wits together enough to lie about its real value (or should I say price?) and proclaimed a much lower value. The argument then revolved around the number of pockets which almost made me giggle. He counted how many pockets my shirt has and proceeded to show how the pants had almost a dozen more and thus must be a dozen times as expensive. Logical no? Only after I already stepped out of the shop (a 2x2m windowless room, all walls completely stacked with pants, crowded with me, three merchants and two women sewing the pants) and away from the offer did we finally close the deal.

I’d encounter this kind of aggressive selling multiple times during the trip. While it does get annoying, you can’t help but admire the persistence, flexibility, willingness and ability to improvise on the spot and don’t give up before closing at least some sort of deal. A rather mean tactic was another one: our car stops with me carelessly leaving the window open. Immediately someone would come up and start talking to me. We’d joke, he’d ask where we were coming from and where we were going. Teach me some words of his language. Then he’d offer his wares. By that point we are almost friends and I’m already indebted to him for teaching me. Guilt trip me into buying. Very hard to resist.

Just driving through the city is instructive and impressive. Life happens on the street. There are people everywhere, walking huge distances along the roads. Standing in the middle of it, offering sun glasses, newspapers, accessories, fruits, drinks, everything. Traffic lights are very few and only a suggestion anyways. Nobody cares about a red light. If you want to stop cars you need to be a police officer and jump in front of cars in death defying bouts of heroism. Intersections somehow self regulate. Cars flow around each other in dynamic and chaotic ways, honking, flashing and swerving as it suits them. Most vehicles are in a desolate state and hopelessly overloaded or overcrowded. Bicycles carrying firewood, stacked high over the heads of their riders. Motorcycles carrying a whole family of six. Minibuses designed for twelve carrying twice that many plus their luggage piled meters high on the roof. Pick up trucks loaded high so their suspensions are almost fully compressed but you still have people riding even on top of the cargo.

Most anything of value is fenced in with high walls topped with razor wire and electric fence. ATMs are guarded 24/7 by guys wielding assault rifles. Another reason some of us stayed at the airport were recent threats of terrorist attacks. We continue to a famous tourist restaurant, the “Carnivore”. We pass two security checks. The first is a road block where a guard uses a special mirror to check the underside of our car for bombs. Second is a metal gate, again guarded by people with automatic weapons. The restaurant itself is completely and insanely decadent. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of exotic meat, containing such specialties like ox balls and crocodile. Every table is equipped with a tower of dips and sauces, crowned by a small flag. While the flag is up the waiters will come around with skewers of meat and cut it directly onto your plate. They do this at a ridiculously fast pace, so you will have to put down the flag from time to time to catch up.
Of course the clientele is exclusively white while the waiters are all black. I can understand the need for security. If I was a local I’d blow up exactly this place first.

Continued in part II