13 January 2009

Fear (not loathing) in Nairobi

Today we made our grand entrance into downtown Nairobi.  I found yesterday to have been rather shocking, today was the icing on the cake.  Sammy, our guide yesterday, was kind enough to show us around again today.  He is very detailed in his descriptions of the sites and is swift when navigating the city streets. Our journey, or should I say adventure, into Nairobi began and ended on the cities public transportation.  Our method of travel was the Matatu.  I will say at this point that I left my camera back at the house due to a fear that it would be stolen (I wish I was more daring).  I will be sure to take pictures of the Matatu's tomorrow and post them as soon as I can.  For now, I will do my best to animate through words. 

The Matatu's are pseudo busses that are half the size of American ones and are driven by men who believe that they have a Ferrari in their hands.  At the sole entrance stands a man who collects fairs.  His job is to hang like some sort of Monkey from the inside of the Matatu with one hand to steady his body as he leans out to survey the scene that is ahead.  Now to most this may seem silly, but he is a savvy business man who is looking for the next fare.  You are to signal to him as you wait on the side of the street that you intend to take a chance on his Matatu.  The driver will stop just long enough so that the last person has to get onto a moving vehicle.  When we first boarded our Matatu into the city, I was lucky enough to board a moving vehicle.  Inside, the Matatu is short and cramped.  The seats would make anyone envy the legroom of the Grandstand at Fenway Park.  'Abuzz with the spirit of the city, we enjoyed the chaotic ride downtown.  Coming home, we were treated not only to the Matatu itself, but to the wonderful music of Bette Midler belting out "You are the wind beneath my wings."  At this point it is important to note that the Matatu is a representative of the owner.  Because of this, they are painted in the most absurd ways.  For example, many would feature today's hottest musicians (Kanye West, Biggie Smalls, Britney Spears, The Rza, and so on).  As you may have guessed, Obama even found a way to get his mug onto a few.  However, he was never alone.  In fact, Obama was often seen beside important figures such as Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, and Jesus Christ.

As for the actual city.  Nairobi is a city that is consumed with a Kerouacian madness.  Order is non-existent.  There is no better example than the traffic patterns of the people within the city.  The basic rule is: as long as you are outside, you can walk wherever and however you wish.  "The roads?" you ask. Sure, between cars is actually best.  "Won't you get hit?" you wonder.  Of course you will, it happens often, but you will not go anywhere if you stay on the sidewalks.  Nairobi is essentially 1970's Los Angeles (I'm talking like Chinatown and Dirty Harry) meets the people of New York City. 

We went to the bank to make a withdraw at the ATM (success!) and to exchange money (when the teller asked for my name she typed away quickly and gave me a receipt for "Edward Marvin").  From acquired our mobile phones from Safaricom.  They actually have a great idea here.  You buy your phone and your plan separately.  I understand if this is a hard concept for you, but it is genius.  For 2.500 KSH ($32 USD), I had a Samsung phone with 250 KSH on my card.  From there I just add money to my phone and I am charged accordingly (5 KSH/min and 3 KSH/text 25 and 20 for international).

Next up was the former site of the US embassy to Kenya.  It was hit by a car bomb in 1998 by Al Queda (funny, that happened 4 years before they attacked the US directly) which killed numerous Kenyans who were traveling on the street to work.  After that, we made our last stop at Uhuru Park.  The park is well kept in terms of cleanliness, but is not maintained when it comes to the grass.  Despite that, the park was rather quaint and seemed to be a place where the local business people could rest and pray.  A pond was located in the middle of the park.  It is where we laid eyes on the first white lay people in days.  After the excitement of familiarity, we discussed how silly/sad it was to see other Mzungu's.  We sat at the fountain near the pond, enjoyed a Fanta, and checked out the birds.  For anyone, who like me, loves any sort of new animal, Kenya has thus far provided a rich diversity of animals.  Birds have been the majority of what I have seen thus far, but they are nothing like those at home.  We were able to identify, with the help of Sister Mary and her bird book when we got home, three birds: the Superb Starling, Marabou Stork, and Black Kite (check out pictures of each, they are quite unique).

I would have to say that Nairobi is a city like no other.  It is not as nearly as scary or unsafe as travel guides may want you to think.  With that said, it is not a place that I would want to wander at nighttime.  The people are friendly, and much like any US city, just want to simply get to wherever they are going.  If anyone can ever make it out here, I would highly suggest it.  Also, for the record, there are no funky smells or anything like that which would denote a lack of cleanliness of people or city.  As far as I am concerned, it is no less clean that NYC or Boston.

To finish today's post I want to share a short story.  When we boarded the final Matatu to go back to the SND house, we went in and I sat in the back left corner.  With a smile that extended beyond his ears, Sammy yelled, "you are back bitch!"

Thanks for reading.