Friday, April 24, 2009


My time here is wrapping up (Friday is my last day of work, then travels). Almost three months have elapsed since I touched down at Jomo Kenyatta Airport, and over that time I've noticed many interesting/peculiar habits of Kenyans. Sensing a blog post in the making, I started keeping a list, originally written, then mental, and now not so much of either. Below are some of these musings.

The front seat

not so much Kenyan's sit in the front seat of taxis and chauffeured cars. A pretty simple observation, but striking in it's dissimilarity with American (Western?) custom - have you ever pulled opened the front door of a cab, when there was no one in the back? In fact, many cabs front passenger seats are so riddled with newspapers, CDs, empty coffee cups and other random shit that they only begrudgingly let you into their cabin.

Here, not only do taxi drivers not mind if you sit in the front, some might actually be offended if you do not. On a recent two hour commute home from the airport (Nairobi traffic is horrible), I was seated in the back and my colleague in the front. After dropping we made the first drop-off, I remained in the back. "You can come up front," the driver said. "I'm alright," I replied, quite comfortable the way I was. "No, no, come up front" he quickly retorted, seemingly offended, and swung the door open for me without leaving his seat. Tired and not wanting to argue, I acquiesced.

Why was he offended, though, I wondered, and am still pondering. In the US, moving to the front after a fellow passenger is dropped off is customary when riding with someone you know, so that the driver does not feel like a chauffer. But when the driver is a chauffer, what does he have to be offended about? I am paying him.

Not all drivers exhibit this behavior, but almost all Kenyan passengers do; that is, they prefer the front seat, opening the back door only if the front is full. This probably has something to do with the fact that the front seat is not covered in random shit, and there is no bullet-proof separator limiting the recline/extension of the bucket seat, but I don't think that is the whole story.

Passengers converse with their drivers - not just small talk, but (relatively) substantive discussion - and it’s easier to hold a conversation from the front seat. The driver-driven relationship is much friendlier than the typical transactional one between cabbie and rider. Of course, this is partly due to the basic fact that people actually have drivers here (if not personal drivers, favorite taxi drivers, since much of Nairobi is not dense enough to sustain perpetual cab flow). I've not yet experienced daily chauffer service in the states, so I can't comment on the equivalent driver-driven relationship with certainty, but I suspect the banter - let alone anything more involved – in black cars between Wall St and the Upper East Side is minimal.

Furthermore, and more interestingly, the front seat dynamic seems in no small part due to a less pronounced class barrier between the driver and driven. Part of this is simply that there is less of an economic gap: From what I can tell, cab drivers are relatively well paid compared to their counterparts in the US (in purchasing power parity terms), and development workers, while also relatively well-paid compared to American non-profiteers, are far less affluent than the financial titans and CEOs who employ chauffeurs back home.

And in addition to, or perhaps because of, the narrower financial gap, the social division also appears less marked: besides conversation, driver and passenger also share afternoon tea and Friday night beers.

Perhaps I’m overanalyzing this, and perhaps the analysis portrays a bit of pretentiousness on my part. In any case, at the least, this points to a random but interesting difference between American and Kenyan culture.

An inconvenient package*

sauce. Soy sauce in a plastic bag. Chili sauce in plastic bag. A kilo of sugar in a plastic bag. Milk in a plastic bag. Milk in triangle-shaped Tetra-pak (similar to cardboard). Cashew nuts in vacuum-sealed plastic. Rice in aluminum foil. An oversized plastic box with no lid and a hamburger-shaped cutout for my salad.

What do all of these types of packaging have (actually, lack) in common? At least two things.

One: Resealability. This simple, amazing feature, conjured up by CPG marketing folks years ago, to get us to buy bigger and better product, is now almost taken for granted. Starting with the twist tie and rectangular-plastic-thing for bread, it spread to the tab-and-hole in cereal boxes, plastic milk and soda bottles, the Pringles can, zippered shredded cheese, and on an on. And where we don’t yet take it for granted, inventions such as the chip clip have filled the void, allowing us to enjoy a 24 oz bag of Jalapeno Crunchers for weeks not days.

Conversely, here I have to empty my cashews into an old Planters container I brought over from the States. Or I must fold the top of the pasta bag over and position it tightly against the side of the cupboard. Or I need to discard the top Oreo every time I revisit the tubular aluminum package.

Two: Useability. While resealablity is mostly germane to goods bought in the grocery store, useability is most relevant to take-away (why does no one else in the world say “take-out”?) restaurant food. American Chinese restaurants pioneered this feature with their (resealable) pentagonal boxes, suitable for vertical eating (and sharing) via chopstick. And with the boxed food comes soy sauce and hot sauce, either in small, pre-perforated packets or circular plastic containers with lids. Both make for easy pouring over food.

In Kenya? My vegetable fried rice comes wrapped in aluminum foil, immediately spilling out, ever so quietly, as I unravel the package. And the soy sauce? It’s in a 10 inch, tightly-knotted plastic bag, from which I have to pour very carefully lest it a) spill the entire 5 oz onto my food and/or b) spill all over the table.

Why haven’t these two innovations reached the African continent yet? Not sure, though I suspect there must not be enough demand. Such value-added features add a few pennies (or more) to the cost and consumers are presumably less willing to pay for these unnecessary bells and whistles. Perhaps IP-ownership issues play a role as well - Western firms own most of the innovation, and while American and European goods are available here, they are often sparse and significantly more expensive than local product.

Reading this, I’m sure you’re thinking I sound a bit spoiled. It’s true, I am. Actually, we [Westerners, particularly Americans] are. Spoiled by ever-lasting freshness, by convenience. By Pringles, by Ziploc. By 33% more free and Costco-sized boxes. By variety – which leads to firms having to innovate on all four Ps (including Packaging) in order to distinguish their products. But most of all, we are spoiled, and tremendously privileged, by our prosperity, which allows us not only to enjoy all these things, but analyze and write about them as well – in research papers, magazine articles, PowerPoint presentations, textbooks, and, of course, blogs.

Other interesting Kenyan tidbits

  • The phrase “it’s ok” is heavily used, often as an affirmation (and in many other unusual ways). Example:
    • Me: Can I have a bottle of water please?
    • Waiter: It’s ok.
  • When available, elevators are used – even if it’s only 1 flight and the car takes 5 minutes to come
  • People call each other “boss”
  • “By the way” [as a conversation starter] and “serious?” are disproportionately-used phrases

I had several others, but that’s all I can think of now…will post another list if they come to me.

*In case you couldn’t guess, facts presented have not been verified

Sunday, April 5, 2009

House party

house-party1 Last night I got a proper introduction to Nairobi’s party scene. I’ve been out to bars and clubs before, but last night, along with a couple friends, I went to a house party, staged on the lawn behind two villas in one of Nairobi’s affluent neighborhoods. Going to a house party, I think, provides a more intimate view of the city’s party culture, unrestrained by a public environment and expensive drinks, and stimulated by familiarity with the other patrons. Besides being a good time, it was by far most diverse party I’ve ever been to.

One of the friends, Peder, a Norwegian former volunteer in my organization’s Kampala office, was friends with the Italian IT consultant/Phd student/DJ whose birthday was the cause for the shindig. He’d been to a party hosted by this DJ a few years ago and said it was raging. So, along with Bosco, my Spanish coworker, we set off for the party – an American, a Norwegian and a Spaniard off to an Italian’s party. On the way back, we shared a cab with a Spanish girl and Parisian. In between, we met Japanese and Singaporean girls, Americans, White Kenyans, Black Kenyans, more Spaniards and Italians, Britons, even an Afghani.

Besides ethnicities, the crowd – which grew from about 30-40 when we arrived at 11PM to 70-80 at the peak around 1:30AM – was also varied in other respects. Expats and well-to-do Kenyans comingled (one thing that was probably not varied was economic class). Styles of dress ranged from the bland American girl with a tanktop and khakis to the Italian donning black capris with magenta-outlined pockets and a stylish top; from the European with a sweater draped over his shoulders to the presumably-gay black guy (nationality indeterminate) with his skinny jeans and tight fitting tucked-in button down; and from those with well-primmed hair to a crew rocking Yankee fitteds (who, unsurprisingly, I’d later see smoking a joint).

Libations were plentiful, for most of the night. Upon entering the garden, we soon recognized the store of alcohol, a table just beyond the fire pit, around which several of the 40 people were gathered. Guests were told to bring some alcohol as a contribution - we’d brought a couple of bottles of vodka and a six pack – all of which rested on this table: 20-30 bottles of alcohol, a plethora of mixers, and plastic cups. It was tough to make out everything given the lack of lighting, but the stock appeared dominated by vodka – Smirnoff mostly – with a few bottles/ boxes of wine, champagne, and at least one bottle of rum. A hookah also rested, dangerously, on one edge. Below the table rested three coolers stocked with beers, mostly domestics but a few Heinekens as well.

More than enough, it seemed. As the night wore on, however, the table got more and more depleted. By the time 3 AM rolled around, there were less than a handful of bottles left. (The depletion was aided by the slide of several bottles, in succession, off one side of the table and onto the earth below. How this happened is unclear, but it’s not hard to imagine several possibilities given the concentration of inebriation.) Nevertheless, the selection was more than sufficient to leave me pretty useless today, nursing a minor hangover that is only my second in the more than two months I’ve been here – for better or worse, a somewhat uncharacteristically low rate.

The music was what I call “Euro”: a mix of house, techno, trance (side note: are those all the same thing?), and pop-dance mash-up that I’ve heard many a time before, from clubs in Spain to Argentina. (Basically, I use this term to describe anything other than the hip hop which dominates the US party. Whether or not it is actually a genre, or the dominant party music in most of Europe/the rest of the world, I don’t actually know.) The crowd was somewhat into it – more and more as the night progressed – eventually filling the “dance floor” (the grass in front of the DJ table, illuminated by a multi-color strobe/party light). But the DJs were really into it – both the Italian and the drastically overweight Kenyan who manned the ones-and-twos (Macbooks in this case) pulsated as they played.

Overall, the vibe was good. It was like any other party: people were just having a good time, talking, dancing, smoking, drinking, making out. There was even a promoter: a pale white guy in his mid 20’s wearing a feather boa around his neck passed me a flyer for next weekend’s “Sex and the City” Easter Bash (9pm-6am).

Like any other party, but in a garden in Nairobi, with Euro music, and an amazing mosaic of cultures.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Hell’s Gate

On Sunday night, I twittered the following on my Facebook page:

Neel Bhargava is exhausted from mountain biking, camping, and riding in minivans with 19 people.

Add “zebras” and “European girls” to that list, and that sums up my weekend trip to Hell’s Gate* National Park.

*The park derives it’s name from a geographical point in the gorge. The narrow break in the cliffs, once caused many drowning deaths among the local Masai people, according to our guide.

Mountain biking


Hell’s Gate is the only park in Kenya where you can roam freely, unaccompanied by a vehicle, guide, or weapon, leading Lonely Planet to write “there is visiting national parks, and then there is experiencing national parks – and Hell’s Gate is an experience indeed.” I haven’t visited any other parks so far (not counting Mt. Kenya), so I can’t yet verify this claim but it was, indeed, a really cool experience.

I’ve always been interested in mountain biking*, although it’s largely been an unexplored interest. In 6th grade, I remember ordering catalogs from Trek, Specialized, and Cannondale, eager to have a cycle to match the caliber of my friend Brian’s, but was never able to acquire one of these very expensive (and unnecessary for a 6th grader) machines. Instead, I was relegated to bike around the many hills and woods of Danbury, CT on my Huffy.

When I heard that biking was the preferred method of traversing Hell’s Gate, I penciled a visit in as a must during my time here. (Walking the park is an option, but the size of the park is prohibitive. Taking a vehicle is also possible, but rarely used due to the unique lack of restrictions noted above.)

Unsurprisingly, the bikes available for rent at the park were also not quite top-of-the-line. Luckily, we were able to find mountain, rather than road, bikes; they were both old and unsophisticated, but they worked. They the gorgewere not, however, comfortable. This was apparent within seconds of sitting on the bike’s visually padded yet tactilely stiff seat, but I did not fully realize the extent of the discomfort until after re-boarding the cycle after a two hour trek down the well sculpted gorge. It was a slightly painful, and thus much longer and less enjoyable, ride out of the park and back to the campsite.

All in all though, it was great – being able to explore unabated, getting within a few yards of exotic animals, with nothing more than the hot, dusty air in between was very cool, and trekking the gorge was all very cool. It was also excellent exercise: I estimate we covered about 25-30km, which may not be much on a road, but for a novice biker like myself on rough terrain and under an 80 degree sun, it was a challenging workout.

*Mountain biking is actually somewhat of a misnomer here: the landscape was mostly flat, but the terrain was dirt and rocks. Perhaps “offroad” biking is a more appropriate term.


Camping was also exhausting, for different reasons.

lake naivasha

The campground was beautiful, situated on Lake Naivasha and covered with hundred-foot tall acacia trees, and the auxiliary facilities were more than adequate – hot showers better than that in my apartment here and a bar and restaurant with decent food. The primary “facilities”, however, - namely the tent and sleeping artifacts – left much to be desired.

When I’d called the camp to reserve space, they told me they would have a two-man tent, two mattresses and two blankets ready (for me and my fellow traveler, Bosco, a new volunteer from Spain). Mattresses? An monstrous acacia treesunusual, but most welcomed, tool for camping, I thought; maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all. I was wrong. It was. The 1 inch-thick, old, dirty “mattresses” provided little barrier between my back and the rigid earth beneath. The tent did serve its main purpose of protecting us from the rain and other elements, but did little to block the noises emanating from the bush on the other side of the electric fence – hippos, birds, monkeys, et. al.

It was sort of cool, I suppose, to be “out in the elements” and “with nature”, but any slight enjoyment this created was banished after a couple hours of lying there, continually repositioning myself thinking I would finally find a sliver of earth that was not rock-hard. In total, I laid there for a good 8 or 9 hours but slept only 3, and awoke with stiff back to complement my sore backside.

I’ll never understand the draw of camping.

Riding in minivans with 19 people

Actually, they were matatus, remodeled old VW minibuses, but I figured minivan was more understandable to the general reader. Furthermore, I underestimated the number of people. There were actually closer to 25 – my Spanish companion (who had commented on how crowded the country seemed even before this ride) pointed out that there were 5 rows of seats in the back of the matatu, not 4 as I’d thought.

large matatu Five rows, with 3 proper seats per row. No need to grab the calculator – that’s 15 seats total, plus 3 in the front, for a total of 18. So how do you get to 25? Well, for one, you simply let anyone who wants a ride climb aboard. After we’d reached about 16 or 17, I’d think, with each subsequent passenger, “that has to be the last one…they can’t fit anyone else.” And time and time again, I was wrong. People would hop on without thinking twice, and squeeze their way to the back where the bench was slightly wider than the others, or place 1/8 of themselves on a seat and somehow support the rest of their body between the 1-seat and 2-seat benches that characterized the middle rows, or simply tell a small child to get up and stand in front of them.

It was, I must say, an exercise in maximum efficiency. It was also highly unsafe. No seatbelts – in fact, no seats for some –, no airbags, and no respect for driving rules is a bad combination. But, when in Rome…

The abovementioned matatu was the first of two. The second, from Naivasha back to Nairobi was slightly less anarchic. But, after being confronted by multiple agents and bargaining our way down from 400Ksh to 200, we got duped into taking the non-express route, which became apparent only after we’d made our 15th stop in 25 kms. It took forever; luckily, I had a good seat in the front, or it would have been much less tolerable. Bosco was not quite as fortunate – he was stuck behind me, forced to clutch his backpack in his lap the entire ride, looking extremely nervous and suspicious the entire ride. Later, he asked me, with a touch of amazement, if I wasn’t also “a bit worried.” Few more weeks, I thought, and, like I did, he’ll realize that, in most cases in Kenya, discomfort is more of a concern than is danger.


Zebras were the animal highlight of the park. They were everywhere; usually not in large packs, but a few dotted the landscape every half-kilometer or so. I saw two within ten minutes of entering the park, and furiously peddled to catch up with them, not realizing how relatively abundant they were in the park. The abundance led Basco to comment on our ride back that he’d “had enough” of the referee-striped animal.

Other animals prevalent in the park were: impala, gazelle, eland, and warthogs (Pumba from Lion King). Buffalo are also common, but we missed their daily commute from one part of the park to the other. Giraffes are also usually seen; unfortunately we did not spot any, probably, said our guide, due to the heat – they were hiding themselves in the shade.

European girls

Ze Germans European girls love to bike, it seems. More so than the guys, or perhaps they just like to travel (to East Africa) more. Either way, the fairer side of the Germans and Dutch were well represented in the Kenyan countryside that day. The three German girls – two working in Nairobi, one a student visiting from Deutschland – were unaccompanied; the three Dutch girls were travelling with one guy. Who knew a bike trail in a national park in Kenya would have a better ratio than Underground on Saturday night?

Unfortunately, that’s where the story ends - they all went back to Nairobi that same day.


Check out facebook for the full album of pictures (to be posted Thursday)

Friday, March 27, 2009

On coffee shops (in Nairobi)

barista counter at artcaffe

I’m a big fan of coffee shops. Of course, I love coffee – good coffee – but, in my opinion, a good coffee shop should offer more than that: baristas that know what they’re talking about, tasty confections, interesting patrons (interesting to look at, at least), character (something unique or defining), and, most importantly, an appealing and comfortable environment to enjoy the shop’s namesake along with a conversation, book, magazine/paper, or computer (which may itself contain a conversation or reading material).

Unfortunately, in Chicago one’s options are remarkably thin. The number of “independent” coffee shops I know numbers less than the count of my fingers, although to be fair I’ve only truly explored a few of the city’s neighborhoods. In the Loop, especially, Starbucks is nauseatingly ubiquitous. As the preceding sentence implies, I’m not a fan: despite the chain’s mission to “cater to a lifestyle, not just coffee” (I made that up, but you know what I’m talking about), most of it’s shops fail to offer the abovementioned ancillary facilities, particularly the last two. (There are some exceptions, like Chicago’s expansive, always-packed North/Wells branch or the outlet fitted onto a triangle-corner in Washington’s DuPont Circle.) I still visit the establishment – frequently in fact, due to the noted lack of options – but typically in a merely transactional rather than lingering capacity.

What does all this have to do with Africa? Well there are no Starbuck’s here, a fact that, despite the paragraph above, was at first discouraging due to the oft-mentioned prevalence of instant coffee. (Side note: there are also no McDonald’s here, which is quite surprising given my past travel experiences; a quick check at confirms there are no franchises between Egypt and South Africa.) But, as I soon found out and have previously mentioned, there are indeed coffee houses in Nairobi.

To this point, I’ve visited five different outlets: Dorman’s, Savana, Coffee World, Nairobi Java House, and Artcaffe. All but the first, unlike most coffee chains in the US, are more café than coffee shop – offering a full range of food in addition to non-takeaway coffee and tea. It’s certainly not Paris or Buenos Aires, but the city’s café culture has got a leg up on Chicago. Below, are some thoughts on each of the five.

Dorman’s is the simplest of the bunch. The coffee is pretty good, but the all about the coffeebaked goods are sub-par, and the shop itself is typically very basic: a few tables with hard-backed chairs. The focus is on the coffee alone, and on that note it is not bad. But, on the broader measures of a coffee shop it falls short. (“The coffee experts” also have a plethora of packaged coffees on grocery store shelves.)

Savana is a newcomer to the scene, from what I gather. I ventured to the city center last weekend to meet a friend here. The ambience was quite nice: a covered patio with wicker furniture out front, and a loungey feel inside. My order precludes me from making a call on this place though. I ordered a “salad”, which arrived as parallel strips of raw vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions) and a side of honey mustard dressing, and a cappuccino – neither of which provide a good enough gauge on the quality of the establishments food or drink. Verdict TBD.

I learned of Coffee World after catching a glimpse of a bulletin board posting with a surprisingly familiar slogan: “March Madness”. Excited, as I thought it might be for a bar where I could watch the Michigan Wolverines make their first tournament appearance (and win) in a decade, I moved closer and then saw the words “buy one get one free on food and drink” under the headline. Even better, I thought. Then my eyes moved up and I noticed the classic coffee cup logo (mug slightly tilted with heat waves emanating above) beside the shop’s name. Wasn’t a bar I concluded, but it did seem like a good deal, so I decided to check it out one day for lunch. The décor implied that it was a fairly new establishment, but the special appeared to be working: It was prime lunch-hour (~1pm) and the place was packed. Good sign, I thought. I grabbed a seat at a table on the narrow outdoor patio and opened the menu.

Twenty minutes later, I still had not placed an order. A waiter had approached within my first few minutes there, but left and never returned after I had asked whether I could substitute a free drink, instead of a second pizza, for the buy one get one offer. I was there alone, and hence didn’t want two pizzas, plus the drink is cheaper than the pizza, I had explained. But, as has happened several times in other restaurants since I’ve been here, such an uncommon request left the man puzzled. In the Kenyan service sector, catering to the customer still hasn’t fully developed, nor has a sense of urgency; workers cling strictly to the definitions supplied by their bosses, and do not think twice about taking ten minutes to get you a bottle of ketchup while your omelet grows cold. (It’s not as bad as Rwanda though, I hear, where it is a guarantee – no matter the place, time of day, or order – that it will take an hour for your food to arrive.)

Eventually, I flagged a waiter down and ordered an espresso and (two) pizzas. The espresso arrived somewhat promptly, and was good; it was the first espresso I’ve ordered here and won’t be my last. Another twenty minutes passed, and still no pizza. The waiter assured me it would be out in a couple minutes, but by then I had to get back to work so had it packed up. Turned out to be rather tasty, but the service left a bad taste in my mouth. I’ll probably go back, but only for take-away.

Nairobi Java House it the “500 pound gorilla” in the Kenyan coffee house industry. Shortened to just “Java,” it is often referred to, in Starbucks-like fashion, almost as a synonym for café, as in, “There must be a Java somewhere around here.” Thankfully though, it’s not quite reached the level of ubiquity that allows for outlets directly across the street from each other. The coffee is very good, and they offer a broad selection of teas and espresso-based concoctions as well. Furthermore, the energetic crowd,a branch of nairobi java house comfortable seating, free wifi and in-seat computer plugs make it a good place to burn a few hours reading, or blogging. The food, however, leaves something to be desired. The menu is expansive, with burritos, veggie burgers, and pasta among the many options, and the all day breakfast, including waffles and huevos rancheros, is unparalleled. The result is disappointing, though; based on my two experiences there, both involving Mexican items, the food itself leaves something to be desired. Verdict: a great coffee shop, but get your lunch elsewhere.

Artcaffe is another newcomer to the scene, but has made a big splash. Not only is it located in Nairobi’s newest shopping mall, the pristine Westgate Center, but it occupies the mall’s premier space. Situated in the front coIMG_0971rner of the first floor, the space has a free-flowing entrance with a bakery counter jutting out from the main store into the mall’s common space. Next to this stands an old school coffee roasting machine, greeting you along with two hostesses as you enter the broad, high-ceilinged room replete with modern furniture and non-uniform seating options, the barista counter and bar, and a glass-enclosed kitchen. At the other side of the room, the café spills out onto a long, umbrella-covered terrace – the mall’s only outdoor space. If that sounds like a grand description, good; it’s supposed to.

My first visit to Artcaffe was a Saturday morning a couple weeks ago. I’d heard of it, and the outdoor terrace at Westgate always intrigued me though until then I did not know to which establishment it belonged. (I’d been frequenting Java up until that point because it was closer to my prior apartment.) Upon entering the space, I was immediately impressed by the chic-ness of the place, apparent not just in the décor but in the clientele as well. I requested a table outside, and was relegated to a high table on the fringe of the umbrellas’ coverage, as every other seat was full. Within a couple minutes I was presented the menu, which was not nearly as long as the Java House’s. In fact, there were only two breakfast options: the “Artcaffe breakfast”, consisting of eggs your way, fresh bread, and “five spreads” – butter, jam, cheeses, and guacamole, and what sounded like a granola-fruit-yogurt dish. It was the first time I’d seen a parfait in Kenya, and opted for that, along with a cappuccino.

The friendly hostess and prompt waiter were initial indicators that the service was unusually good, and the signs continued. Perhaps the most memorable indicator came a few minutes after I ordered, when my waiter came back to place my utensils and the sugar tray. He did not merely place them though, he dutifully arranged them piece by piece: first laying the napkin, straightening it, placing the large tablespoon squarely in the middle, then placing the sugar tray and shifting it to a perpendicular angle with the tip of the napkin. The process took just a few seconds, but it was most impressive, almost as if he were doing this in slow motion.

My cappuccino soon arrived. I did not see the teaspoon hidden behind the mug so instead used the tablespoon to stir in my sugar. My waiter noticed and tried to hide a puzzled look. A moment later I saw the teaspoon and realized why; two minutes later the waiter returned with a new tablespoon. The granola arrived ten minutes later, but was not what I’d expected. terrace at ArtcaffeInstead of granola with fruit and yogurt, it was yogurt with fruit and granola sprinkled somewhat sparingly. I had a few bits (sips) and decided this wasn’t for me. Despite my previous experiences with the rigidity of customer service in this country, I decided to tell the waiter. He said he’d see what he could do; shortly thereafter, a woman arrived and happily offered to take the dish back. In the States, this would be standard procedure. But in Kenya, it is exceptional, based on my experience thus far. I substituted the granola with a chocolate croissant, which was excellent. The cappuccino was also quite good.

I sat out there on the terrace for another couple hours, reading the Economist and people watching. It was definitely a great place for the latter; not only due to the other patrons, but, the more I looked around, the more I noticed that almost all the waitresses were good looking, a few strikingly so. Eventually, I ordered lunch of a caprese sandwich and pineapple-mint juice. The juice was fantastic, but the sandwich was not: the mozzarella was not fresh mozzarella, and the bread-to-contents proportion was way off. Others seemed to be enjoying their food though, and the pizza’s I saw looked very good, so I needed to give the food another shot before making a conclusion.

While people watching, I noticed a woman sitting with a French press beside her mug. Yes, the coffee here is served in an individual press; a touch of character, some might say. On my second trip (the next day), I ordered this and was not disappointed: very good – though not great –, and strong, coffee. Moreover, the Sunday shift of waitresses was even more pleasing to the eye as Saturday’s.

On my third trip, I tried the pizza, which was much better than the sandwich, and a dessert. After debating between three chocolate and coffee cakes, I settled on a warm chocolate brownie with ice cream. For some reason, the manager who had been showing me the desserts (another good looking woman) returned with the item and asked me if it was my first time visiting the cafe. No, I said, I’d actually been there yesterday. Well, either way, the dessert was on the house, she said before smiling and walking away. A fitting end to a weekend at the Artcaffe.

Verdict: Nairobi’s best café, for sure.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Good to be back

In Nairobi, that is. The city.

Back from where? Not Uganda, though I was there weekend before last. Rather, I'm referring to being back from Eldoret, a small, agriculturally-focused town (not village) in Western Kenya where I spent two and half weeks living. As I pointed out in a previous post:

I’m a city (and suburban, I must admit) boy. And Indians don’t really camp much – at least not my family. So this was a new experience for me.

eldoret on the mapLiving in a rural African town would also be a new experience for me. And it was one that I was a bit apprehensive about: what would I eat? how would I stay awake (translation: would I be able to get decent coffee in a more remote part of this tea-dominated land)? and what would I do?

Of course, living in Africa, period – urban, rural, whatever – is a new experience for me. But Nairobi – a city of about 3M, the financial and commercial hub of East Africa, and home to many expatriates like myself who demand more than a modicum of Western comforts – is a far cry from the African norm. As such, for my first few weeks here, I fared quite well against the three pivotal questions posed above.

To please the palate, I enjoyed Indian food better than most, if not all, Indian restaurants in Chicago, decent-enough sushi (that did not make me sick), pizza hut-style pizza (pan, but not exactly Chicago deep dish), and, of course, Kenyan cuisine that was certainly not bursting with flavor but sufficient, especially with some always-available chili sauce.

To please the palate and keep me awake, I discovered Nairobi Java House – after an initial attempt to acclimate to the ubiquitous instant “coffee” – on my first trip to the Sarit Center, a big shopping mall that also includes a supermarket, multi-cultural food court, multi-cultural movie theatre (English & Hindi), and an overpriced Western-style health club.

To pass the time, I walked around the city, hung out at the aforementioned Java House and mall, played ultimate frisbee and went out with other expats, and got a daily dose of news from Al Jazeera. (In addition to the less unique activities of watching 1.5 seasons of Dexter on my laptop and blogging.)

What would Eldoret hold for me? Certainly a lot fewer options, although I’d already heard, reassuringly, from a prior volunteer that there was both an Indian and Chinese restaurant in the town. That was good news. Conversely, he’d also given me a thoroughly unenthusiastic review of the hotel where I would be staying: “livable, but not nice.” (Do "-ble" adjectives ever describe a pleasant condition? Livable, edible, etc.)

His review rang true from the moment I stepped out of the lobby of the Hotel Sirikwa and into my dark, dilapidated room. The carpet was stained, the my room at the Hotel Sirikwa, Eldoret's finestsheets years – if not decades – old and definitely not Downy-soft or Tide-fresh, the furnishings spartan and retro (think dirty, un-renovated motel 6, not Urban Outfitters), and the mosquito net contained a smattering of purpose-defeating holes. It was going to be a long three weeks, I thought. But, despite my initial aversion, I soon got used to the sub-optimal conditions (aided in no small part by a move to one of the three renovated rooms in the hotel). Furthermore, the staff's eagerness and friendliness made up for an obvious lack of training in hospitality.

The food situation turned out to be a mixed bag. The hotel's buffet breakfast was quite good (most every hotel here is a bed and breakfast). I looked forward to, and now miss, my daily ration of whole-grain rice krispies, a two or three egg Spanish omelet, toast, and a selection of fruit (usually pineapple, watermelon, and a banana). In retrospect, it wasn't spectacular, but it was good and a lot better than the breakfast I typically ate in Nairobi, or Chicago for that matter. In Eldoret, breakfast truly was the most important meal.

It was the most important meal because lunch was the worst meal. For the first week I had a driver and thus could venture into town (office was located a 5 minute drive from the "city center") for lunch, but the options were few. I was saved by a popular Lonely Planet-recommended lunch joint that served a decent veggie burger and some one the best samosas I've ever had (run by an Indian, naturally). After that week, however, I was confined to the off-menu vegetarian option cooked up by the office's maid/cook. It was edible but bland, and I quickly grew tired of it.

Dinner, fortunately, was better. The Indian restaurant was quite good, definitely surpassing my expectations. In fact, I am very much looking forward to having some kadhai paneer or chicken tikka masala when I go back. The Chinese restaurant was not as good, but not bad. Problem was, along with the sub-par hotel restaurant (breakfast was their pièce de résistance), those were my only options. I would rotate between dining alone at these three spots, telling the taxi driver "Chinese tonight" or "Guess its Indian today." After close to 20 days of this, it was getting old.

To keep me awake, I was indeed forced to acclimate to instant coffee – carefully balancing, yet never mastering, the need to temper the taste with milk and sugar and my preference for strong coffee. I got used to it, but a fresh cup of Peet’s it was not. In the afternoon it was Kenyan tea, which i prefer black, not “white” as most Kenyans drink it – basically, they use milk instead of water.

Kerio Valley from one of the "view points"

The real test, though, came on the last question: what to do. I found part of the answer, randomly, a few days after arriving. Driving out of town on the weekend to take in the view of the Kerio Valley (above), my coworker pointed out that this is where "you see all ‘them’ the morning and evening.” I had no idea what she was referring to; I asked for clarification. “White guys, they come here to train. There is a college here – for running. The elevation helps.” Sure enough, we soon passed a running academy, and on the way back we passed a few mzungus in their New Balances, short shorts, and Dri-fit t-shirts. (An internet search confirms that, due to the altitude of ~7000-9000 feet and the tradition of running in the area, Eldoret is one of the best training grounds for mid-to-long distance runners.)

my track ( the "garden" at Sirikwa)

After three weeks in Nairobi without being able to work out (due to the extremely high cost of gyms and inability to run outside due to congestion/safety), this sight inspired me: I decided to start a daily exercise regimen, consisting of outdoor running and the home made workout (push ups/sit ups). It felt great to be working out again and, moreover, this was an excellent way to fill my post-work time.

Thus, the weekdays managed to go by quickly enough. The weekends, however, were a different story. I’d hoped to get out of the city and see some parks etc, but the main attractions were all about 3 hours away, making a day trip unfeasible. A weekend trip was possible but cumbersome to plan and a bit expensive without someone to share the costs with. Therefore, besides the trip to Kerio Valley, I stayed within the confines of Eldoret, and mostly within a one or two mile radius of the hotel.

the terrace at sirikwa I passed the days mostly by lounging on the terrace reading (if breakfast was the restaurant's pièce de résistance, the terrace was the hotel's). But weekend nights are when the boredom really hits. If not filled by alcohol and socializing, they burn slowly. It was Kenyan friendliness that saved me from the slow burn, and, more specifically, from finishing my pirated copy of 24 season 6 even quicker than I did.

Besides being an agricultural center, Eldoret is also home to one of the countries main centers of higher education: Moi University, named after the country's legendary, long-tenured second president (1978-2002), who hailed from the Eldoret area and showered the region with infrastructure spending. Like Americans – and coeds everywhere – Kenyan students like to drink. (A med student told me: “What do you call it – binge drinking? Yes, we binge drink.” So do Americans, I assured her.) As such, there is a (read: one) nightclub in Eldoret, Spree.

I was invited by a coworker, who went to school at Moi U a few years back and still had some friends in grad school, to Spree my first Saturday night in Eldoret. After being frisked, I entered the bar, a space surprisingly reminiscent of the Ann Arbor haunt Rick’s – basement, dingy, small dance floor, slightly elevated DJ booth. (Perhaps this could describe any generic college bar but trust me it felt like Rick’s, except I knew one person there rather than fifty).

The night started out like my previous outing with a group of Kenyans: at a table covered with half-empty and full beer bottles, stacked two or three deep in front of each person. I did not know my coworker that well, and I knew none of the four or five others at the table, but soon struck up a conversation with a couple of the med students. A few rounds later (read: at least 8 beers) I was waiting for the eclectic mix of music – random American pop, house/dance, some hip hop, bongo (Tanzanian reggae), and various tribal African music – to turn back to hip hop so that I could make my way to the dance floor. It was a fun night, but I was ready to call it a night by the relatively early hour of 1:30.

That was my lone trip to Spree, but the following weekend I was invited to dinner at another coworkers, an extroverted recent college-grad who made my time there far less monotonous. This was a really interesting experience – my first visit to a Kenyan home. I did not know what to expect. Keeping it authentic, we took a took-took (auto-rickshaw in Indian/English parlance) to her one-room apartment. This single room accounted for her bedroom, living room, and “kitchen” – a hot plate, and stack of a few plates and pots. The bathroom, which I never saw, was somewhere outside the main apartment, and shared with at least one neighbor. Despite the modest abode, she hosted myself and three others for a pleasant meal of rice, beans, plantains, vegetables, and fruit salad. A simple, enjoyable night.

That about sums up my time in Eldoret. All in all, it wasn’t too bad. I had some new, interesting Kenyan experiences: partying in a college town, a home-cooked meal. It was also relaxing to be outside the congestion and pollution of Nairobi, and not having to travel more than 10 minutes to nairobi by nightget anywhere. But, after two and a half weeks the routine – the breakfast, the two restaurant rotation, the terrace –, while comfortable, was getting a bit dull.

Even if I do not always take advantage of all Nairobi has to offer (ditto on Chicago) at least I have options. Furthermore, the innate vibrancy of a city is something I revel in.

It's good to be back.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Poverty, white water rafting, Danes, a country club, Muammar al-Gaddafi, and a plane crash (a.k.a. a weekend in Uganda)

mural painted on the gates of a Kampala curio (soveneir) shop

1. Poverty

Back in my first post, I wrote the following (emphasis added):

Now on to my second point of reference: India. As most anyone who has been to India will tell you, you cannot escape the poverty; there are simply too many people. You could step out from the one of the nicest hotels or apartment buildings in Mumbai and instantly be confronted by several beggars, often malnourished and ill-clothed children. Even in the smaller towns, you will likely pass slums and shanty towns a child relieving himself by the side of the road.

In Nairobi, you can escape. As I’ve told everyone who unfailingly asks what I think of Nairobi, it is cleaner (though not clean) and much less crowded than I expected based on my experience in India.

Children provide a particularly pungent, and horribly sad, view of poverty. Bloated stomachs, the lack of necessity to be clothed, and immodesty mean children are often the clearest sign of impoverishment. It is for this reason that I made the bolded comments above, and also why I feel as if you can escape in Nairobi.

In fact, even in my visits to rural Kenya, driving through villages where children and adults alike gazed in awe at the car driving down pathways typically traversed by donkey and bicycle, I rarely saw kids in the aforementioned conditions.

In Uganda, it was a different story. Within a few minutes of the journey from the camp to the Nile (aboard a truck full of 40 Americans and Europeans paying $125 to ride an inflatable raft down a river), I saw probably a dozen kids either malnourished, unclothed, or both. Many of the ones who were clothed wore very simple clothing marred by dirt and tears. It was quite a contrast to what I've seen in Kenya; the images reminded me more of India. (True, perhaps I haven’t been to the poorest areas of Kenya yet, but I also doubt I was in the poorest area of Uganda.)

Despite this, however, the kids appeared as carefree as any others – pausing from their playtime to wave frantically at the truck of mzungus passing by.

2. Rafting and 3. Danes

The Nile, viewed from the campsite

Jinja, Uganda's second largest city (but less than 1/10th the population of the first, Kampala), is labeled as the "adrenaline capital of East Africa" by Lonely Planet. The center piece of this is white water rafting at the source of the Nile, the only major river in the world to run South to North.

I've been wanting to go white water rafting for a long time, and I'd heard the Nile was one of the best spots in the world. So I was pretty pumped, and it did not disappoint: grade 5 rapids, ridiculously warm water, great weather, good guide, fun group. At the same time, it was also pretty intense and even a bit scary at times.

Our raft flipped and/or we were thrown off on almost every rapid. "Silverback" was the craziest of the bunch. The raft capsized, everyone was thrown off, and a couple did not make it back to the boat. I was thrown under the raft, then quickly pulled away by the incredible force of current, and periodically dragged underwater; the longest stretch under was a good 6 or 7 seconds, but felt like much, much longer. At one point, I came up and saw our raft, still upside-down but only a couple yards away. An oar magically appeared outstretched (at least it seemed magical; in actuality it was extended by one of the Danes). Relieved, I grabbed a hold. Unfortunately, my relief was short lived.; a split second later, I felt the Dane slip away and watched the raft again shrink into the distance.

Seconds later, after surprisingly finding myself in one of the (relative) lulls in the rapid, I began frantically waving the Dane's paddle toward the safety kayaks, all the while fervently treading water. After a couple seconds of this, I realized the kayak was not, or could not, moving toward me with much haste. Somehow, I managed to gather my bearings, find the raft, and swim over to it.

A minute later, all but one of our group had made it back to the boat. But not unscathed. The plump Danish English-teaching-volunteer looked flabbergasted (it was clear from the moment we boarded the raft that this guy was going to struggle). The British guitar player had one of his toe nails ripped off. And the second Danish med student was MIA. We would find him hanging on to a safety kayak an unbelievable 5 minutes or more later - he had been pulled through the entire rapid and then some, ending up way down stream.

If you're keeping count, that's 3 Danes, not all travelling together. Our group was 7 total. For a country of only 5.5M people, that's pretty strong representation on a rafting trip in East Africa.

4. A country club

From Jinja, I took the shuttle to Kampala to meet up with the some volunteers from the local TechnoServe office.

Kampala is known for its nightlife, so I was excited to hit the town. (When I asked a Kenyan who attended university in the city about this, she said: "Kenyans are serious. They like to save. Ugandans enjoy life.") Unfortunately, half the group was experiencing a bout of food poisoning (the Icelandic girl turned out to have dysentery), and the other half were tired from a big night out the day before. We went out, but not hard, and the bars we picked did not seem to be Saturday spots.

Pool and lawn at the Kabira ClubSo I didn't get to experience the nightlife of lore, but I did get to visit one of the city's nicest country clubs. After an amazing workout (first time I've lifted weights in over a month), we spent several hours lounging by the pristine pool. It was supremely relaxing and I almost spent the entire day there, but managed to convince myself I should at least see some of the city.

5. Muammar al-Gaddafi

Turns out there is not much to see in Kampala. It is a city known primarily for its safety and its nightlife. Indeed, the former rang true - I was quite surprised how we were able to walkabout so freely around the city. This would not be advisable in Nairobi.

One of the main sights is the recently built, grandiose Gaddafi Mosque, which sits triumphantly on top of one of the city's many hills. As the name suggests, it was paid for by Libya's infamous leader. The mosque itself was nice, but nothing extraordinary. The view of the city, on the other hand, was definitely worth the trip.

Kampala, view from the Gaddafi mosque

6. A plane crash

My flight back to Nairobi was scheduled for 845 AM Monday morning from Entebbe*, but was delayed and ended up leaving around 10AM. I arrived fairly early, around 730 AM. The airport was pretty empty, but I did not notice anything out of the ordinary. Besides the delay, everything went smoothly. After taking off in the first propeller plane I've flown in in a decade, I gazed over the waters of Lake Victoria. It was a pretty view and , again, I did not notice anything unusual.

It wasn't until Monday night that any of this became noteworthy. While catching up on news (using my new, incredibly fast wireless internet connection), I came across the following headline: "Uganda crash kills peacekeepers."

Intrigued given my recent trip, I clicked the article and was shocked to learn that this "crash" was a plane crash, and that it happened just a few hours - around 5 am - before I took off, from the same airport. Where was the media at the airport? Where was the search crew on the Lake?

A small plane crashes in Kansas, with no casualties, and it captivates CNN for hours (I've seen this several times). Yet here a plane, headed to the most ravaged and unstable country in the world (Somalia), where just weeks before a suicide bomber killed 11 peacekeepers, crashes and kills 10 African Union peacekeepers, and this doesn't even warrant a news crew?

I'm not really sure what that says, about CNN, the media, Africa, or Africans, but it's certainly interesting.


*Entebbe the airport serving Kampala. Kampala is too hilly for an airport, so they built one in a smaller city ~30 miles away. An otherwise obscure airport, it became infamous as the site where a Palestinian-hijacked Air France plane from Tel Aviv landed and was subsequently raided by the Israeli Defense Forces.

Monday, March 9, 2009

I just watched a youtube clip

That probably does not seem particularly exciting to many of you, but I assure you it is quite extraordinary. Here in East Africa the site is something of a luxury. Streaming videos is probably the most bandwidth intensive activity most people do online; when you combine this with the poor, sometimes nonexistent, state of broadband here, it is a rare occurrence. In fact, in Eldoret I could not even open the youtube site - I would get an error message similar to "page not found" while simulatenously able to open other sites.

In my new apartment in Nairobi, I have wireless (!) and it is amazingly fast. So much so that, after waiting a minute or two for the video to buffer - its not THAT fast - I was able to watch a great clip of Jon Stewart ripping apart CNBC. (Even better is Rick Santelli's actual, unbelievable rant .)

Anyway, I am back in Kenya from a great weekend in Uganda. Post to come tomorrow.