Tall Matt's Travels

Matt - Fri May 11, 2007 @ 09:44AM
Comments: 2

"Nairobi's well-worn nickname of ‘Nairobbery' is sadly well-deserved, although walking around the main city centre during the day is generally pretty safe.  The key is to carry nothing of value (not even a bag) and to wear no jewellery of any kind (not even a cheap watch).

The chances of being pick-pocketed or having a bag slashed in central Nairobi seem to double when you enter the area east of Tom Mboya St, so take extra care when walking around this part of town. After dark, don't go anywhere in the city on foot - take a return taxi, even for short distances. The cheap hotels around River Rd, traditionally the haunt of backpackers, are now becoming a somewhat false economy - this area is notorious for violent robbery after dark."

- Lonely Planet: Africa on a Shoestring (2004)


So, you may be asking, "Matt, why the hell would you even go there?" A valid question and one I asked myself more than once. In the original planning stages, I had bounced around the idea of attempting an ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, as well as figure out a way to join a true safari somewhere in east Africa. As it's easily the largest city in the area, and proximal to the Masi Mara and Serengeti National parks, as well Moshi and Arusha just across the border, it seemed logical to make a stop here. And, as you well know by now, I didn't bother myself with pesky details like "safety" or "comfort" in January.

However, after talking to a few people about the pros and cons of climbing Kilimanjaro, it seemed my money and time were likely better spent on a decent safari, and a few road trips around east Africa. The unwanted side-effect of this change of plan was the necessity to spend more time traveling in and out of Nairobi - something that didn't seem bad until I actually read the guidebook and started talking to a few other travelers.

The day before my flight to Kenya, I asked the well-traveled owner of a pretty nice hostel in Cape Town if he could recommend a place to stay in Nairobi. If the look on his face wasn't enough, his reply definitely made my "Oh-Shit-O-Meter" climb a few notches:

Me: Hi there.  I'm heading to Nairobi tomorrow, and I was wondering if you could recommend a decent hostel.  I've heard it can be a little rough around the edges, and was hoping you might have some advice.

Him: You're actually going to Nairobi, huh? You know, Nairobi is one of the few places in the world that still scare me. It's about ten times worse than downtown Johannesburg.

Awesome. Again.

I'll spare you the story of how I finally found what looked to be a decent place online, how I arranged for an airport pickup which ended up being an hour late, my first experience in Nairobi traffic, the baffling conversation with the driver or passing a huge building called "The Integrity Center" lined with signs advertising it as a "Corruption-Free Zone". Just know there have been few times in my life when the sight of a tiny dorm room bunk bed looked so incredibly safe.

Nairobi is neither a particularly beautiful or clean city. There's not a whole lot to see - there are surprisingly few landmarks or monuments of interest.  The downtown area is pretty boring, and even the "nice areas" in the suburbs are pretty suspect. It's easily the "roughest" city I've been in to date. Again, the description in the guide book is fresh in my mind, was surprisingly accurate:

"Your impression of today's Nairobi will depend on whether you've just slogged in overland from the wilds of Ethiopia, Tanzania or Uganda, or whether this is your first stop in Africa. If you've come from the sticks, Nairobi can seem like a welcome injection of first-world razzmatazz with its shopping malls, supermarkets and cinemas. If, however you're fresh off the plane, it may seem like a seedy, scruffy city with an air of barely controlled violence and scenes of shocking poverty. In fact, both pictures of Nairobi are true."

And they are true... to a point. I saw much of "the best" Nairobi has to offer - the Sarit Centre, the Ya Ya Centre (both semi-modern shopping malls), and the chaotic hustle and bustle of Kenyatta Avenue. While semi-impressive, it pales in comparison to any city I visited in South Africa, and for most of South America for that matter. Even La Paz, Bolivia, for all its pollution and poverty seems like Paris in comparison.

Here's an example: To get to the nearest ATM, you are advised not to go downtown (even in the daytime), but instead to a gas station about two kilometers away. Getting to this gas station is the fun part. You leave the refuge of the hostel (hand-drawn map in hand), walking through a narrow door in the large green front gate. You then walk over a semi-paved but crumbling road to an open area of mud and dirt where 12-15 young guys are hand washing an assortment of old cars. It's warm - about 85-90 degrees, but actually a little cooler than I had expected. High trees tower overhead, creating a bit of a canopy, buffered by tall green bushes and small shrubs bearing blooms of bright purple flowers. The ground is riddled with large rocks and potholes, dirty water running down into ditches on either side of the "main" road, filled with aging trash - plastic bags, cardboard, cigarette packages.

After weaving through the car wash you start up a narrow, curvy mud/dirt/rock path winding about 200-250 feet through the dense green overgrowth of an open lot. The path is wide enough for just one person, and is usually populated by two or three at any given time. The tall bushes and bends in the path make it an ideal place for an unwanted ambush - which I expected every time I went through, but was happily spared.

Once out of the bush you hang a right and proceed up a narrow street, walking not on sidewalks, but heavily worn dirt paths on either side of the road. After passing the high grey cinder-block walls and rusting barbed wire of the Russian consulate, you turn left, under the shade of tall leafy trees, continuing on worn dirt trails following the "shoulder" of the road. The path meanders around telephone and power poles, descends into ditches, and in many cases merges into the road itself. Fortunately most drivers are conscious of the pedestrians and will make a little room.  Most that is.

After a while, an actual paved sidewalk appears, a welcome sight for both nerves and feet. On the right side of the road a small white and green mosque is bordered by a small but tidy cream-colored house with a wire fence around its small yard. A woman in a blue robe and a white head-wrapping is out mowing her yard... with a machete. She's very proficient - making good contact and taking big swaths out with each swing.

The cars that pass by are of all types and varieties, and plentiful in number. Beautiful new Mercedes-Benz followed by a black exhaust-spewing 1950's era truck with wobbly wheels. Small Fiats, large buses, flatbed pickups and late-model BMW's all trudge or zip by.  Some of the older, louder vehicles are apparently equipped with smoke-screen emitters which would make Albert R. Broccoli proud. These face-fulls of exhaust while made me thankful for the 583rd time I no longer wear contacts (thanks Wilder). And then there's the Matatus. Pronounced "Mah-tah-toos", these little white vans buzz around the streets of Nairobi like flies. They are everywhere, and are in various states of repair.  Nissan and Toyota must have sold about a million of these things just to residents of Nairobi. They all supposedly have routes around town, and are incredibly cheap - like around 25 cents a ride. They are also extremely dangerous, packing in as many people as possible, and have little regard for rules of the road.

Finally, the Shell station comes into view, and I make my way to the ATM, located outside the attached convenience store, and guarded by a rent-a-cop with a dark blue uniform, a black baton, and a navy blue headpiece which looks suspiciously like a repainted baseball helmet.

Like many ATMs in Kenya, I find this one to be out of money, which seems to amuse the seated "security guard". So, I walk across the busy street, dodging cars and eliciting a few honks. Thankfully, the "Pesa Point" ATM actually has cash, and after ensuring none of the three dudes just hanging out by the ATM seem to be staring directly at me, I head out, back along the same route to the hostel. Fun stuff.

But this is Nairobi - and Kenya for that matter. It's simply the way it is. An experience if nothing else, right?  Of course, as with anything, it's the little things that leave the strongest impressions on me - like the fact that I'm actually getting used to people driving on the left-hand side of the road; that the man-hole covers in Kenya are shaped like the home plate of a baseball diamond; that unlike the US, nearly every car that passes has more than one person in it; that like in South Africa, all the gas stations are full-service; that there aren't any SUVs.

The highlights of my visit in Nairobi was actually the hostel. If you do find yourself heading to Nairobi and are on a budget, do yourself a favor and head to Nairobi Backpackers. The owner, Ken, is a great dude, and the French couple taking over the day to day management is pretty cool. The whole place runs on the honor system. You have a sheet with your name on it where you mark down your consumption of the always-available water, sodas and beer. They even have cooks to fix you breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Outside of that, they'll work to make your stay in Nairobi as tolerable as possible.  I ate at a recommended restaurant one night called "Pampas".  It's a Brazilian-themed place that serves a variety of meats on skewers. In one meal I had pork sausages, grilled chicken, rump roast, top sirloin, tenderloin, roast lamb, roast goat, and even some camel. Mmmm... Camel.

 I also took a day tour with a group from the hostel - one which showcases a few of the lesser-known aspects of the city.  We first visited an elephant orphanage, where baby elephants come right up to you and want to play. The first time an elephant wraps its trunk around your arm - it's something pretty memorable. We then went to a giraffe sanctuary, where you can hand-feed giraffes from a tall platform.  Again, being able to stand face-to-face with a giraffe and watch it take food right out of your palm - pretty special.

 I'd love to sum up by saying, "Well, all in all, Nairobi isn't that bad," but I won't. Even as cool as the hostel and its staff were, Nairobi itself is just not a fun place to be. I met a lot of locals later in my trip that swore they'd never go back to Nairobi as they'd been robbed themselves. If you're heading to Kilimanjaro or wanting to do a proper safari, a trip is probably unavoidable. My only recommendation is to spend as little time in the city as possible. I didn't have any major issues, but I consider myself pretty lucky.

Comments: 2


1. Jason B.   |   Thu May 24, 2007 @ 12:10PM

Interesting perspective, Matt. Certainly reminds me why we (and most embassy families) had security and locked gates on the house. Over three years there we did make it through a bombing in the city and a coup attempt. At the same time, it was incredible enough that we extended our time there an additional year. Can't wait to talk about Nairobi and Kenya when you return. We'll compare my memories as a 10 yr old with your recent visit. Very happy you had a chance to see some wildlife! Travel safe!

2. Ally  |  my website   |   Thu May 24, 2007 @ 03:12PM

Hi Matt - found your blog through a pal of mine from Cerner. Beautiful stuff.

I went to Nairobi last summer for 2 weeks, and I think your details about the experience is pretty right on, especially the part about traffic chaos. "Hakuna matata," right?

I wish you would have had more time with the locals. The people are the redeeming part of Nairobi...especially the people in the slums. It doesn't sound like you had a chance to go into one, though I wouldn't have recommended it without a Kenyan guide.

Looking forward to reading about the rest of your travels. Be well. Stay safe!

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