Tuesday, December 15, 2009

High Alert

Our first morning in Nairobi, the breakfast buffet is complete with a cook who makes custom omelets. This is our one splurge for this part of the trip. Our room is about $140. a night, but since we arrived late at night, we wanted comfort to start the trip. 

To get to our room corridor, we need to use our room card key and then again to get into the room. Ron went back to the room to get something, but when he did not return, I went looking for him. He bend the wrong way and put his back out. This slowed our day a bit. When we did start our day's adventure, we noticed what passed us by the night before. We need our card key to leave the hotel, plus we need it again to leave the premises. High security for sure. Outside the hotel is a barrier at both entrances for cars coming and going, manned by guards toting machine guns. Our hotel has a pricier sister hotel at the one end of the road. In front of it, is a "Happy Security" sign and area with a strange roundabout, where all cars have to stop to be inspected before they are allowed to go through. It was not until later in the day that we found out that the Israeli Embassy is directly across the street, hence the high security.

What may be cause for celebration for some is that Kenya is a non-smoking country. It is illegal to smoke in public except in designated areas, which are few. I will either cut down on my smoking or have nicotine withdrawal headaches. We shall see.

What we did not take into account is the cost of taxis. Over 50% of Nairobi is slum, constituting 2.5 million people. The safest way to get around is by taxi. The fact that our hotel is in a better neighborhood also means it is not in the city center, thus a major hike via unsafe roads and areas to get to the center. Today alone, we spent about 30 euros, not dollars on taxis.

Being dropped off in the downtown area, we were told it is very safe, because armed guards are everywhere. They are too. We were used to this in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, but there seem to be even more here. To say the city is not pretty is like saying that a cold sore has appeal. It is close to downright ugly with only a few interesting, but not yet not attractive buildings scattered here and there, seemingly by accident rather than by design.

The streets are like migration times in the plains. Each block has what seems like thousands of people pushing through trying to get somewhere other than where they are, all at varying speeds. Interesting shops are rare to non-existent on most of the streets we were hustled through. Traffic jam has an all new meaning. It could be described as traffic molasses after a deep freeze or the speed of an Artic snail. If they can move 2 feet every ten minutes, they consider it progress. Thankfully, the taxis are not metered. You arrange the fare ahead of time, but hotel taxis have their fares regulated by the hotel. 

We did manage to get to the African Archives, where what we found was one man's collection of artifacts from throughout Africa. His sole concern was that the cultures throughout the continent were vanishing, so he wanted to preserve them as best he could. The guard turned into our guide, giving us a vibrantly interesting history of numerous things as we stopped to look at a piece of history. He is an asset to his community for his vast wealth of history. The only time I wanted to run screaming was when he defended female circumcision as being illegal, but "some tribes still consider it necessary to curb a woman's hot nature for sex". I could have forgiven him, but he continued alluding to his personal agreement with the idea. After listening to it for five minutes, I had to change the subject or scream "That is really called female genital mutilation and it only causes physical and mental damage." Once we moved on to a different subject, I was able to look him in the face again, but he did not get a tip at the end.

We had been downtown for about 2 hours by this point, but we had only seen one other white person, creating some strange feelings. We literally hunted for a place to sit and have a drink and snack. Most of the places we passed were stand-up only. Ron spotted a place on an upper floor, so we went there, receiving curious looks from all of the other patrons. Since we were allowed to smoke there, we probably stayed even longer than we normally would, but there was not a lot to go running off to do anyway. 

The one stop we did make was the US Embassy Memorial garden where the US Embassy was bombed in 1998. More than 250 people were killed in the blast. They now have a visitor's center with a memorial plaque listing the names of the victims in the center of the park. We relaxed on the greens in the park; all benches were filled. After I took a picture of the memorial, a guard came over to make sure I was not doing a video. He then admonished us for not visiting the center to watch the video of the historic day's events. We said perhaps another time, but it seemed rather depressing.  The ambassador must have had warning; she was on the top floor of the bank building next door 'in a meeting'.

Kenya only gained complete independence in 1963. That is not all that long ago when you think about it. We walked over to the Parliament, which offers tours by appointment, but did not pursue it. Many of the government buildings have signs stating "This is a no bribe zone. Anyone attempting to bribe an official..." I wonder how that is working out. The youthfulness of the country does help to explain the infrastructure. The roads are in incredibly poor condition. Most of the buildings downtown were built after independence and for utility, not beauty.

After a taxi ride back, we went to our sister hotel for a beer, checking menus at its 5 different restaurants for dinner options. If not there, it would mean another taxi ride to and from another place. We did return for dinner at the poolside restaurant, but it was so busy, we nary got a peek at the poolside. Dinner was magnificent. I had a Kenyan chicken dish; Ron had red snapper. Presentation is everything with food and they have it down to an art.
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