Nairobi, 24/7

When your older brother calls you up on a Saturday night, while you’re lying in bed, trying to sleep the drugs through your system so you can go out and do something counterproductive with your friends (although I forget what), and he says, “Hey. Wanna go to Kenya tomorrow?”, you say “Yes”. I did.

So far as I know, my brother is not, and never has been, involved in the illegal drug trade. So delivering a package for him does not entail condoms filled with smack or a World Cup trophy made from cocaine. I have the invoices to prove that what I’m saying is truth. I spent a day preparing myself for a 2-day stay in Nairobi, Kenya by asking my uncle where to stay, what to carry and then I packed some stuff in a big blue bag I could throw over my shoulder and did the action hero journeyman thing.

Joburg airport was filled with Spaniards and Spanish supporters, leaving the place by the planeload once the World Cup final had concluded. I was disappointed. Not by the hot Spanish girls patrolling the corridors of OR Tambo International, but by Holland’s loss to the most boring football team in the world (I wish the winning strategy was “play an exciting game”, not “beat them, but keep it simple”). Whatever. My flight was supposed to leave at 00:40, then 01:35, and finally popped off the ground at 02:10. The pilot decided to kick things off by assuring us that it had taken so long because the plane we were in needed to be repaired to fly. Since planes are essentially magic, and when you see one, you get the distinct impression that it should not be able to get off a runway, let alone above the clouds for 6 hours, I didn’t really need to know this. But hey, once you’re up there, your options are land or die.

Nairobi’s international airport reminds me of my childhood. I lived in Durban, a 5-minute drive away from the (now defunct) Durban airport, back before it was upgraded. It’s all browns, oranges, linoleum and the smell of sweat. The duty free stores all look like the Oriental Plaza mated with the Brightwater Commons’ flea market, and the 88% humidity was apparent the second you got off the plane. That being said, I was not unhappy to be greeted by a freshly-risen sun, some moisture in the air, and a light breeze to cool down my flowing locks. Gauteng, this was not. My taxi driver, impromptu-tour guide, bodyguard and friend, Gibson, would assure me on Tuesday that July was normally pretty chilly in Nairobi. I couldn’t see it.

I was picked up at the airport, after acquiring my “Safaricom” SIM card and I sat through morning traffic in one of Africa’s other big cities. It was a boring experience being trapped on the 4-lane (2 in either direction) Uhuru Highway, noting the ridiculous amount of billboards advertising cold drinks, cell phones, cellular networks and, I think, washing powder. There wasn’t much to do, and I was still a little nervous about where I was going to end up with my US dollars and only a handful of hotel names saved to my phone. Much to some people’s surprise, I’m sure, Kenya has buildings that are more than 2-feet-tall, and are assembled from such advanced materials as concrete and various appropriate metals. They also, however, have giant Pterodactyl-like birds that take the place of pigeons, swooping down over the highway and then banking back up to perch themselves on the trees and street lights above us, watching, waiting. I rolled my window up a bit.

I tried two fully booked hotels; the second of which, I’m certain, had rooms available. The guy at reception gave me, in my jeans, sneakers and t-shirt, the once-over and decided to deny they were even a hotel, despite all the Chinese folk walking around and the sign outside to the contrary. Eventually I got to the Six-Eighty, which was cheaper than the other two and actually in the CBD. I recommend if, for nothing else, it’s friendly service. I took to the streets, exploring and taking photos of random buildings, no doubt drawing the attention of absolutely no one, since there were Americans everywhere, walking the streets, eating Steer burgers, and generally being American-y. Nairobi is rotten with churches, a sure sign that the English were there at some point, bringing faith to the “Godless savages” while, you know, behaving like a bunch of marauding dickheads.

Tuesday was my tour day, where I got driven around the city and to the museum to look at the culture, the buildings, the people and the places. Gibson, the taxi driver, was a fun guy who also wanted to become a journalist (I say “also” as if this is my aim, when really it’s just my degree), and he was very useful in making me feel welcome in the city on my last day there. Mary, who took over from him once he’d left for his next customer, took me around to get decent local lunch, trade one-liners with heckling street market vendors, and find some Kenyan coffee I could bring back as a sort of lame souvenir. The lunch may’ve gone by different names, but it was the familiar pap I knew from home. The traders and I struck bargains, culminating in me putting a necklace on and one of them announcing, “It fits you like it was made for you”, to which I replied “You must’ve known I was coming”. Despite the general annoyance of having to fend off each individual bead and bone-peddling urchin, I enjoyed joking around with them. When I was done, and I turned down the most annoying one of the bunch, he limped off, sulking like a five-year-old with a final “Fine then, you don’t want my help, I won’t help you”.

Dorman’s (who assure you that they’re “The Coffee Experts”) is the only place I heard anything that passes for rock music, and even then it was like somebody grabbed Monster Hits 2000 and put it on a loop.

At night, when I’d roll around in my bed on the tenth floor, it wasn’t from anxiousness. I was just trying to overcome the urge to follow the music blasting from somewhere down the block, or to hail a passing taxi or talk to a stranger in the street. Nairobi is alive pretty much 24/7, and Joburg could learn a thing or two about how to be a better city from our Kenyan brothers and sisters. The streets are abuzz, the supermarkets are open 24 hours a day, and the people walk confidently past few hobos and even less trash. Kenya was an experience I’d love to revisit, except this time I’ll head for beach resort Mumbasa.

When I got back home, greeted by the icy wind and the cold stare of a customs officer, asking for my yellow fever certificate (“My what now?,” I said, and she shook her head and stamped my passport), it felt good to be back. But sometimes, at 3 in the morning, when I’m lying in bed wishing the caffeine would just go somewhere else, already I wish I could hear African drums and mismatched jazz vocals rumbling from somewhere 3 blocks away.

One Response to “Nairobi, 24/7”
  1. Ivan The Burninator says:

    Man. I wish I was there. I really enjoyed this piece, keep ’em coming. Also…where the pics at?

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