I like to make a blog post right when I arrive in a new country. It helps me capture my first impressions about a place more accurately. That hasn't happened this time - I got in Sunday night and waited until today (Saturday) to write this. So please join me for some week-old first impressions.
For having been here a week, I feel like I haven't seen much of Nairobi so far. The other places I've gone to are Kileleshwa (a decent neighborhood where I live), Westlands (a swanky zone where every other expat lives), Upper Hill (where I work - on a hill) and Statehouse (where I spend 30+ minutes every day mired in traffic). I have only a vague sense of where things are - it's just like traveling through random points in space. Nairobi isn't thought of as a nice place to live (e.g., - one of worst 50 places to do business as an expat: http://www.nation.co.ke/News/-/1056/592780/-/u65oaa/-/index.html), so I was suprised to find that the parts I've seen are nicer than expected: hilly, tree-lined streets, nice houses and apartments, great views (esp. from Upper Hill). The only real bummer is the lack of accessible green space, but it's not really a problem with the serengeti and ranges of hills just outside the city.
There are less nice parts of the city (whose nickname is Nairobbery). One of the most famous areas, though not necessarily the most dangerous, is Kibera, the world's largest slum. Kibera Slum is a giant area with a (human) population the size of Manhattan and quantities of small livestock to match. Like the infamous favelas of Brazil, Kibera has attracted plenty of attention from development types (who are involved in improving conditions there) and tourists (who pay locals to take them on protected slum tours). Although I find the idea of ogling at urban poverty on a tour distasteful, I'm toying with the idea of going there this weekend to check it out.
Currently topping my least favorite things about Nairobi is the traffic. I have been here for less than a week days and have already spent (easily) six hours on the road getting between home, work and dinner. My taxi drivers have repeatedly suggested that I try not to travel during rush hour, which apparently extends from 7:30 am-8 pm with occasional lulls in mid-afternoon. I'm sorry, but traffic or no traffic, I am not getting out of bed at 6:30 in order to beat rush hour. But it's not all bad; the silver lining to the dark cloud of long taxi rides is listening to hilarious morning talk radio, which divides airtime between discussing marital infidelity and government corruption. But that's a whole separate post.
My living situation is great. One of my friends hooked me up with a place that I share with two Irish expats. One's a journalist for the Irish Times and the other is a freelance photographer-slash-photojournalist. They're both laid back and fun, and it's refreshing to live with people who aren't in my line of work. It seems that the vast majority of expats my age also work in development, so I'll get enough of that socially. I see living with a professional photographer as a chance to finally learn how to improve my technical skills beyond using the Sepia and Color Swap settings on a my Canon PowerShot. For the price, the apartment is pretty good. On one hand, I sleep in a single bed, my room is a little bit cold, and the shower is lukewarm. On the other hand, the common area is nice: clean, parquet floors and semi-cheesy safari-theme furniture that I really like. Here's home:
Socially, Nairobi seems more surreal than anything. I went out a few nights this week for dinner with other expats. The places we ate could easily have been in New York or Washington (although here, prices are substantially cheaper). Over three nights, I ate at a sushi restaurant, an Italian place with brick-oven pizza, and a swank fusion brewpub. I wasn't trying to go to fancy places, but it's just where many people - Kenyans and foreigners - seem to go out around here. The area where most of the expat action takes place (Westlands) is a really high-end stretch of the city with nice cars, gleaming shopping malls, international cuisine and trendy bars. I guess the fact that there are so many creature comforts explains so many business, NGOs and international institutions have major regional offices in Nairobi. I'm happy to have access to nice things, but I'd love to spend more time at basic local places... I miss last summer's daily regime of Swahili coconut rice, brown beans, collard greens and mishikaki (grilled beef skewers).
That's all for now. Will write more soon.