Category Archives: Blog

Safari in the city

Nairobi National Park abuts the city, so we took a half-day tour, courtesy of Tracy, a Couchsurfer and local guide. In the first few minutes I saw my first wild giraffes. In the next few minutes we got stuck in the mud:


While we were trying to use some branches to get traction and get out, a troop of baboons came into sight. Tracy had said “watch out for lions” when we first got out and the feeling reminded us a bit of the first Tyrannosaurus Rex scene in Jurassic Park, as Mike pointed out. But we had time to get into the van and close the doors and roof before the baboons arrived. They didn’t seem especially interested in harassing us. Nor did any lions appear.

After a few calls we persuaded a desk ranger to send some field-ranger colleagues to rescue us. They gamely pulled off their boots and socks and got in the mud to help us push the van back out. We returned to animal-chasing. One of the first, once we reached the savannah, was a warthog:

There were also a handful of groups of giraffes, each with two to six members.

The night of the mini-matatu

Spaniards are famous for asking, on arrival in a new place: ¿Y por aquí dónde se sale? – And where do people go out around here? In little over a week in Nairobi, we’ve got some initial answers and may have added our own little twist.

Anjali suggested a Japanese restaurant, Onami, in Westgate, a mall in the Westlands neighborhood, our first night in town. We didn’t know it then, but we’d return often to Westgate. To my sensibility at least, it’s odd going to a bar inside a mall. For Mike, it’s odd just being in a mall.

The next night, a Friday, we met with a couple of British journalists, David and Richard, at Gypsy’s, also in Westlands. It had an outdoor terrace and interior tables, a bit more like home, and we made our way through the big three Kenyan beers: Tusker, White Cap, and Pilsner. The waitstaff asked whether we wanted our Tusker, which is a lager, warm. Another little culture shock. When the hunger set it, we drove to Klubhouse – K-1 for Kenyan grilled meats (nyama choma). The place is actually a gated complex with a few bars, a giant television screens, open-air picnic table seating, and waitresses in schoolgirl uniforms. One also wandered around in a cowboy outfit carrying hard alcohol in holsters, selling shots. Our meat took forever to arrive and in the meantime a pair of women from a UN agency introduced themselves and asked to join us.

Our Couchsurfing host Ruthie, who works nearby, joined us at Klubhouse but her mind was already on the next stop of the night, a dance club. She drove Mike and me to Rafikiz in Langata where people danced between tables or lounged between dancers. After a couple songs the beat changed and Ruthie threw her rump in the air and her arms forward. Before Mike’s jaw could hit the floor, other woman on the dance floor did the same thing. Some grinded their asses into the nearest groin. Ruthie explained that the song was Jamaican, popular in Kenya, and that all the women did that every time the chorus came on. At first we thought it was just a coincidence, but the song played again just before we left later that night and the scene replayed itself. We spent the next week looking for the name of the song so we can use it’s devastating power appropriately (or inappropriately). You’re welcome:

A lot of the social scene in Nairobi, at least among the expats we’ve been meeting, seems to replay itself. On Sunday we followed a tip to go to a café that turned out to be in Westgate, and we bumped into Anjali. By Tuesday, we knew someone who was going on a date at Onami’s. Many people told us about a place called Brew Bistro, where we celebrated Mike’s birthday. On Wednesday, a couple of people independently told me they were going to Havana’s on Thursday. When we went there the next day, we recognized one of the UN women from the week before and bumped into a source we’d interviewed earlier the same day.

Our source, Joe, happened to own a miniature matatu. As we left, we decided to give Nairobi a little culture shock: Mike drove the matatu while I hung from the open sliding door banging the roof and touting the open seats. “Mbao mbao!” The rest of our group, which outnumbered the seats in our mini-matutu, clambered on board. We banged and shouted our way through the traffic and laughing crowds, careened around cops on a corner, and clattered to a stop in front of another bar.

Most of the group made it to the entrance, but we saw Joe’s silhouette back at his car gesticulating in the headlights of passing cars. Two armed figures approached him. As cars passed, we lost sight of the trio. When light hit them again, Joe was still at it. One figure stood still like a statue while the other matched Joe move for move. They fell into shadow again. When Joe emerged, he told us our little ride had made one cop mad and the other laugh, and made them both 750 shillings richer. The wealth redistribution didn’t end there: inside, someone snatched a mobile phone from the front pocket of someone in our group. But when they tried it on Mike and me we managed to bat away the prowling fingers. Call us the Madrid matatu mafia.

Life in Langata

Mike arrived in Nairobi a day ahead of me and sent a text message with his new Kenyan mobile number and the number of a driver our hostess recommended. Teddy, the driver, drove me from Jomo Kenyatta International through some smoke-clouded, dusty avenues to Langata, a neighborhood in the southwest of Nairobi adjacent to Nairobi National Park. He left the pavement while my eyes popped at the small stands where people sold fruit, fried fish, tailored clothing, and added credit to M-Pesa mobile money accounts. Teddy’s car barely made it through the mudholes and dips in the dirt road but he showed no signs of worry. He pulled up outside a fairly recent-looking concrete apartment block, pictured.

Our hostess, Ruthie, is an IT manager at a bank and has hosted lots of couch-surfers before. Already at the place when Mike and I arrived was an American couch-surfer named Ric who’d been there a while. There are guards at the entrance and until Ric insisted, there was no lock on the door. That was the first hint that security here works in a very, very different way than what we’re used to.

We’ve been using the matatus to go into town and from town out to a couple of neighborhoods we’ve been frequenting: Westlands and Kilimani. Here are some matatu photos Mike took:

A matatu tout speaks with potential passengers on a Sunday morning.

Passengers aboard a matatu.

Mzungu in a matatu.


I am on a trip to Nairobi and the region with my friend Mike. The idea is to spend a month exploring and chasing some story ideas we lined up ahead of time and find some new ones. I’ll post some nuggets of our adventures and observations along the way. For starters here’s a snap of Dubai, draped in fog:

And here is a toilet in the Vegas of the Middle East:

Finally, a canine baggage handler at in Nairobi:


On our first night in town we dined on sushi while listening to Cuban and later central African music with a Canadian colleague (whose family background is Indian) and her American colleague. As promised, Nairobi is cosmopolitan.