Saturday, January 07, 2017

driving through nairobi

We are picked up at the airport by Moses and driven through Karen, the neighbourhood named after Karen Blixen. This is where she had her farm, he tells me, but the explosive growth of the city has now absorbed the former farmland. It’s now mansion after mansion, high green hedge, gates, country clubs, golf courses and the homes of diplomats and magnates. He drops us off at the Giraffe Centre, where the admission fee is used to introduce Nairobi schoolkids to the animals they’d otherwise never get to see. We climb up fifteen steps to a walkway circling a little round building. We are at eye level (about 17 feet up) with the graceful, gentle giraffes. We are given a handful of pellets (a bigger version of what comes out of the vending machines at the petting zoo) and instructed how to feed the giraffes — by holding the pellet between thumb and index. Hands held out gingerly, the giraffe sticks out its amazingly long, purple, sticky tongue to scoop it up. The dark colour apparently protects it from sunburn as the giraffe has to have it out a lot to collect 75 pounds of greenery a day. At 18 inches long, they use their tongues to reach around thorns to pull leaves off the acacia trees and also to clean out their nostrils. I don’t think people at the centre knew this when they were putting the pellet in their mouth and getting the french kiss of a lifetime.

We head over to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust where baby elephants whose mothers have been poached are reared before being rereleased into the wild. We are all directed to stand in a line along one side of a trail and to wait. We all look toward the brush in anticipation and suddenly out comes a parade of one adorable little elephant after another — home from their day of foraging. They bolt past us and are impossibly cute. Dumbo times thirty. Each elephant has its own little stall and a dedicated keeper who sleeps in a little bunk suspended from the stall’s ceiling, feeding the baby from a comically massive milk bottle at three hour intervals. Apparently when the baby is hungry he reaches up with his trunk to gently shake the man awake for his feed. One of the calves either has trouble finding or is refusing to go into his stall and he stomps around trumpeting through the crowd. He crashes into the blind rhino’s cage in confusion, no doubt trying to avoid all these strange onlookers. He might be a baby but I sure am happy none of us is in his way.

The driving in Nairobi is a bit manic. The road is often not quite wide enough for two cars. A constant game of chicken. And the speedbumps! We call them sleeping policemen, Moses says. I ask him about what happens when there is an accident. Noone wants an accident, he tells me. We try to sort it all out before the police come. What happens if you can’t? Then you have to fill out a report and tell the insurance company which is very expensive and could cost me a job as a driver. Can you convince the police not to file a report? Yes, but you have to pay and it costs between 50 and 100$. How many days’ pay does is that? I ask him. 5 to 10 days. Nairobi is a tough place to make a living, he says. He rents a one-bedroom flat with his wife and six-year-old son and it costs him 150$ a month. So you spend half your month’s salary on rent? Yes. You have to be very careful about how you spend the rest of your money, he says, and you have to find extra work to pay school fees and make ends meet. You can’t even get a job unless you have a personal contact and the government jobs are impossible unless you are related to someone. His home town is two hours away but there is no work there. I am Meru, he says, we are herders but everyone has too many animals and there is nothing to graze. We chat about politics and the corruption. Moses points out the house of the deputy president as we drive by, a garish castle that dwarfs everything around it. It must be easy to buy votes in a country where one person can afford a house like this while others make 10$ a day, I say. Oh yes, they show up in poor neighbourhoods with bags of money, he says.

Nairobi has so many of the elements I remember from the big cities in Mexico. We drive down a long boulevard, the wide shoulders of the road occupied by craftsmen plying their trade. Jewakali, we call them, “hot sun”, Moses says, because they do all their work outside. Bring them a picture of a piece of furniture from any magazine he tells me and they’ll recreate it for you for next to nothing. Men push open carts with a dozen jerrycans along the side of the road. They’ve filled them up at the borehole, he says. 5 Kenyan shillings for 20 litres and then they bring them further afield to sell it at a premium to save women from having to fetch the water themselves. He pulls up beside a mall where he is going to leave us for supper. The parking lot is gated and guarded by two men in uniform who ask us a few questions and chase off a little boy who comes begging beside the car. This is all since Westgate, he says. The parking lot is packed with well-to-do Kenyans out shopping or dining. We have dinner, at a pizzeria of all places, and it’s surprisingly good. We head off to the airport. This time through the city. The buses are like those in Mexico — an entirely private enterprise, each one blasting music and painted loudly as to be easily identifiable as the the one that got you there the fastest. As you can imagine, the buses are zigzagging in and out of traffic to get the edge on the competition. People stand along the side of the road and the buses race to get there first. A man jumps out before the bus has even stopped and begins chatting up the potential passengers. Before you know it he has rounded them up and is escorting them toward the door.

As we approach the airport, we pull up to what looks like a toll booth. No. It’s a security check, Moses tells us. Just leave your stuff in the car. You have to get out and walk through. I’ll pick you up on the other side. We all get out of the car in a daze, every passenger of every vehicle in the six lanes of traffic. We all cross between the cars to the sidewalk and head through a little building on the right side of the road — a crowd of very confused tourists milling around like sheep in the hot, dark night. We walk through a scanner without emptying our pockets. A little red light flashes and beeps but the bored-looking people in uniform don’t seem to notice or just don’t care. On the other side of the building we join the crowd strung out along the sidewalk watching their vehicle come through the booth, waiting for their driver to pull up to the sidewalk. The cars in the middle of the road cut across five lanes to pick up their passengers. Hugh jokes, wouldn’t it be funny if he just drove off with all our passports and bags. Moses pulls up and we all get back in the car. They’re mostly checking for bombs on the vehicle, Moses explains. Hopefully the vehicle check was more thorough than that of the passengers.

We pull up to the airport and say goodbye to Moses and our wonderful travelling companions. We go through two security checks to get to our gate. The extensive list of prohibited goods is illustrated with photos and is the size of a billboard — things like grenades, gasoline, rhino tusks and elephant foot trophies. The gate is jam packed with people waiting for the plane. A cancelled flight to Paris means that our flight to Amsterdam is now full and it’s late. We sit in the hard seats, fanning ourselves with our boarding passes in the 30+ heat. Despite the fact that it is the second of January the cheesiest Christmas music blasts from speakers overhead, interrupted only by deafening announcements in Swahili, German, Dutch, French and English about every possible gate change. For some reason everyone opts to get up and stand in line ages before the boarding is announced. The flight attendant asks everyone to please retake their seats but their seats have since been occupied by those who couldn’t find seats in the first place in this seriously hot, smelly, overfilled room. When the boarding finally begins we understand the volume of people as they announce that they’re beginning with rows 60 through 69.

Kwaheri Kenya. We will never forget you.

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