Tag Archives: travel

First leg – arriving in Nairobi, Kenya

I’ve moved from the ex-colonial outpost that is the Sarova Stanley to Gigiri homestead, a posh home in a bubble next to the UN HQ – not a lot I can walk to but the place and the food is nice, and for now it suits me. I am headed for Kampala on an early bus on Sunday, and hope to be thrown back into the thick of things. I’ve been experiencing quite different forms of containment since being in Nairobi (all of 2 days) while at the Sarova Stanley, downtown Nairobi, I was advised not to walk around certain parts of downtown, especially as a white girl unused to the city, so I got escorted to the bank… Now there’s simply nothing to walk to.

I was taken out last night by some friends of a friend, an Indian couple who grew up here. We speeded about in a tinted mercesdes, sure not to linger at red light for too long for security reasons. I got to see the influence of India on Nairobi – it’s everywhere. I don’t know why I didn’t expect it, I guess I was thinking more of the Arab traders. I got to feast on Kenyan/Indian food, chapatti, Mombassa mix combined with incredible rotisserie chicken and chips – the latter bit is the Kenyan/English influence. Supposedly the potatoes are far better than India or England and people regularly smuggle them out of the country…Potatoe smugglers, hmmm. The Indian influence is very tangible in the culture and society but it’s interesting that the big building works are being done by China. There is an incredible looped overpass, the first of its kind in Nairobi which means that you can never get anywhere directly – you have to pass your destination first on a highway that’s tantalising close and then loop round and under and back on yourself. We did it 3 times today, I think Francis particularly delights in pointing out our destination as we pass it by,  telling us we’ll be returning soon. I think the silliness of it tickles him.

The stories of 2 men; Francis, Austin. Francis is a taxi driver and has been driving me around Nairobi. He speaks Kikuye, Swahili and Enlish, and  comes from central Kenya, where his family is. He moved to Narobi and got a job selling tea at his uncle’s kiosk for 2 shillings a day, 60 shillings a month. He learned how to drive and started driving for a paper mill. He managed to buy his own car and now works for himself. He lives in Nairobi in a room and sends back the money he makes for his wife and two children for higher eduction. His son is a computer engineer, could have been a graphic designer but decided against. His daughter wants to be a nurse, she wanted to be a doctor but didn’t get the grades. When Francis was younger a barber managed to cut his head instead of his hair and his daughter has made it her personal mission to ensure she can look after him. He took me to his local place for food, chipati (indian influence again) and beef stew, and tea, happy days. I know this is not an unusual story, but still, it amazes me.

Austin is also a self-made man. I met him at the exchange bar of the Stanley Hotel, if you can imagine what the English colonialists would have built in 1902, I don’t think it has changed much since then – large leather arm chairs, fans…the whole gentleman’s-club-shebang. Austin hails from Aberdeen and is some kind of millionaire that started off as a butcher (he looks like he’s off to watch a game of football). His younger brother set-up in Singapore and he went out to help with a pub, it soon became a series of pubs, bars. It seems to have been a big success – he retired a number of years ago (he can’t be older than 50). And so now he travels, he drops by on his mum in Aberdeen long enough to buy her a Jaguar, and some rumps steaks, but then the cold gets to him and he has to head off for sunnier shores. To go back to the rump steak – as a butcher he knows how he likes it – he gets a 32 rump steak and gets it cut into 6 pieces, that and lemon sole, that’s all he eats… He’s bought land in an up-and-coming area in Nairobi, he doesn’t know what to do with it, but I think one day he hopes it will either make him some money or woo a wife. Yes, I learnt all this and more over a beer. I’d like to meet him again one day, his last words to me were unforgettable, “you see that’s what I believe, you use up here (he points at his head) for learning and down there (I was nervous at this point) for dancing.” I think I would like to include this in my epitaph.

Arriving in Senegal

I landed in Senegal with a guidebook and a phone number of a doctor (a distant relation of a new friend). I had called ahead and arranged airport transfer in a rare bout of forward planning. The confidence I had in my French vanished with my first conversation, I think the passport controls officer ended up kindly offering a place to stay… Falou picked me up, he worked at Poulagou hostel. The crowd of people and eager taxi drivers drove me immediately back into the arrivals hall of the airport. I found my ride by asking a tour operator to call my hostel (I had no Senegalese phone at this point) and from there he got Falou’s mobile – a sign of how unnecessarily helpful I found so many people in Senegal. Everyone in Senegal has a mobile and they all have special ringtones, loud, attention-grabbing, hip-swinging ringtones. I gladly got in the 1976 estate with Falou, the back doors and windows didn’t work, this was pretty dam good – there were no fractures in the windscreen and we didn’t breakdown once.

Falou and Khalil were hospitable, gregarious, music-loving hosts at Poulagou hostel. If it weren’t for the being on a flight path I would have happily made it my Dakar home-away-from-home. Khalil loves Rasta and Bob Marley (Bob has to be the world’s most popular musician?). A good message for a rusty traveler – we’re all the same and deserve a bit of respect.

I am not going to lie, I was scared when I arrived in Senegal. My stubbornness had led me to looking for a non-touristy, local part of Dakar, not realizing how completely different Senegal would be from most places I have traveled. Maybe not completely different, just ‘more’. More alive, more loud, more anarchic, more improvised. When I left the comforting walls of my hostel I was immediately smack dab in the middle of a busy market street with sand roads, kiosks selling anything and everything and I had no idea where to go, how to look and if I was safe. The fact that no-one looked at me twice gave me courage. The telephone kiosk sold sim cards and could do anything with a soldering iron and a very steady hand. Straight from London-town I was overwhelmed.

I ordered a beer and as I contemplated where I had landed myself, the lights and fans cut. I found out that Dakar suffers from irregular but daily power cuts. There is a lot of speculation around them and some believe it is government-controlled. I think it was then that I smiled, we got out some candles and talked, and I trundled off to bed when I could no longer keep my eyes open. The water was cold, the planes flew over head and the fans did not work, but I slept and was excited to be in Senegal.

New to Beirut

Just arrived in Beirut. Saturday night is in full swing – car horns honking, music pumping, loads of people walking down the road which happens to be the Corniche, Ein Mreisse, ‘the’pace to hang out on a Saturday night in Beirut. Groups of people are relaxing, chatting, smoking nargileh (shisha) and listening to their car radios. I have found my self in a beautiful building on the main promenade looking out over the sea. I am staying with my friend’s mum and I can’t believe my luck First meal, Persian food from the farmers market, Souk El Tayeb (note: rice with orange peel really works) I realized just how little Arabic I know on the plane over despite taking over 40 hours of Arabic classes as I was wracking my brain for a polite way to say ‘I am headed to Corniche Ein mresisse’ let alone how to pronounce Ein Mreisse. But I was fortunate because I had a cab waiting for me and even a lovely driver with my name on a sign, stylish arrival. And once I got to look at Beirut I saw the billboards with English and Arabic and realized I didn’t have a clue what the Arabic meant, but Beirut at least would cut me some slack as there is English and French everywhere. I have a steep learning curve… But it’s incredible here. We drove through downtown and I realized just how glitzy and modern this city is. My driver Bachir can speak English (as well as several other languages) and told me he left Beirut during the civil war but that he’d lost his money on a gamble in Europe. Oh? A restaurant that went belly up? A flaky European girl? No gambling, it had all gone on gambling.

My flight was fine and somehow the army of wailing babies simmered down for the flight – there was one who growled like a panther (?!) The flight was bound for Khartoum, I could have stayed on, just think of the adventure… Next time. Well hopefully next time I’ll take the train across, and a boat from Cyprus or Turkey, now that would really be stylish. Visa was really easy – think my white blazer did the trick.

Thinking Damascus might be the place to go to learn Arabic, just got to negotiate a good price. My hostess is incredible and has helped write material for the American University of Beirut – can’t believe my luck! I’ll figure out classes on Monday. Tomorrow is for exploring. I can’t believe I’m here but the honking is unmistakable.