Tuesday, October 20

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Nairobi adventures

Nairobi is not a tourist town. Which is rather unfortunate because that is where Demetra and I escape to when we need to really be away from work and the center and the kids. You see, you can't just lock the bedroom door and ignore people when they come knocking because they don't stop. Either they refuse to believe that we really aren't there and keep knocking, or they look through the considerable crack between the door and frame to prove it. They can be tenacious in this regard. Coming back from Nairobi last time we found an eye-sized hole poked through our plywood wall to give the children a wider view of our room and pretty definitive proof that we were not just not answering.

But I was talking about Nairobi and how it is not a prime tourist destination. Kenya itself may attract a significant number of tourists to Africa and they may land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, but they only stay in Nairobi long enough to board their safari buses. The city is too young, only founded in the mid-nineteenth century, to make walking through the different eras of development a joy like that of wandering through Paris or Istanbul. There isn't much for easily accessible culture either as museums and theaters and the like are in short supply. Really, the majority of cultural events are held by the Goethe Institut and Alliance Fran├žaise, which are great for what they are and offer but when you are looking for something uniquely Kenyan, they leave you more than a little wanting. And I'm leaving the best for last. The capital's nickname is Nairobbery. Upon hearing that I walked the streets alone while Demetra spent the mornings working on her applications to med school, one of my fellow directors, the one who used to live there, sat straight up and asked, “Seriously? That's dangerous. You shouldn't do that.” This woman worked in one of the largest slums in world and was still scared of Nairobi's streets.

Not that she was entirely wrong in this belief. My mission on Saturday morning was to find City Stadium, home of Kenya's national team. Before leaving our hotel, I checked a city map and memorized the names of the major roads I would have to walk along. I know it's not the best plan, but it's worked for me in the past, and I'm too cheap to just buy my own. Anyway, it started well. I found Tom Mboya Street and the second no problem. Then my shoes come undone. It happens. I kick my foot up against a short fence and start tying. This man drops his ballpoint pen just a foot or two from me and goes to bend and reach out and pick it up so slowly that I finish the first foot and the second by the time he straightens back up. At this point, I kid you not, I think Are you kidding me? Couldn't you be just a little less obvious about this?

I start walking, and like I expected, he follows. I'm not worried about being mugged at this point. The streets are just too crowded. I'm not particularly concerned about pickpocketing either since I can still feel my wallet in my pocket. But I do not want this guy following me to a place I've never been to before. I push through thick crowds to put some distance between us. He walks faster. I walk near walls and cars to scrape him off when he pulls up to walk abreast of me. He walks right behind me. I make sudden stops when he's too close and goes past. He waits until I pass him again. I walk on the wrong side of the sidewalk so others knock into him. He pushes through. I run across a four-lane highway to scare him off. He follows even when I make eye contact to let him know I know what he's doing. I double back when I'm convinced that I missed my turn and lose him for a few moments, but when you stand three inches taller than the average Kenyan and have an explosion of red-blond hair, it doesn't take long for anyone to find you again. I may as well have a bounty of my head for how persistent he is.

I miss the the street to City Stadium again and decide to go take an alternative route that's approximately three times longer than the way I hope to go. It's not the best plan, but I don't want to keep walking the same three Nairobi city blocks looking for this street because it's going to look odd to anyone paying attention to me. It's a very stupid reason especially when it turns out this alternative route goes through Nairobi's industrial section and the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds slim to isolated groups. Still, this guy does nothing, says nothing and makes no move to pull a knife or try to pick my pocket. I occasionally glance over at him. Everytime I find him reading something different. Once it's a loose page of The Daily Nation. Another time it's a child's lost school notebook. The edge of immediate fear dissolves, and I'm near convinced the guy is harmless, just mentally ill and means me no ill. By this point I know I'm walking generally in the right direction toward City Stadium but the right road still eludes me. I find a cake shop and ask the woman sweeping outside for directions. My companion looks up from the torn sheet of cardboard he's inspecting to repeat the question. She gives him a look but points me in right direction, the same way I was walking on. I thank her and we continue on, asking directions one or two more times until we find it. Mission accomplished after ninety minutes. Now I'm thirsty. I go into the Ukwala Supermarket and he follows me right inside, past the drink cooler and through the check-out. I manage to find the road I was originally looking for and follow it back to my hotel, making the return in a much brisker thirty minutes. My companion stops to pee along the road and greet some friends but sticks with me the rest of the way. Once we make it back to the district my hotel is in, I make some half-hearted attempts to lose him in some stores but ultimately just walk back in. He's only stopped at the security checkpoint on the second floor. He tells the guard he's with me, and I disagree. The guard believes me and sends my companion of the past two hours and ten-odd kilometers to the police. An atypical start to the day. The rest is more pedestrian and mostly involves eating or visiting Parliament and the Judiciary.

This wandering and those that preceded it have begun to form the foundations for plans for future visits to Nairobi. The aforementioned City Stadium is on this least for Kenya's final World Cup Qualifying match against Nigeria or the CECAFA football tournament. Carnivore is on the list as well. The restaurant's name may not be the most persuasive to this vegetarian, but I'm willing to ignore that for a night for a place which has twice been voted among the world's fifty best restaurants. Then there's the village market and Nairobi National Museum with its cheaper rates once my application for a resident alien card is processed. And when I get to the point where I can't stand the city anymore either, there's still Nairobi National Park. That ought to be enough to keep me busy for the next nine months or so.

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