A bit of traffic

I’ve been warned about how bad traffic is in Nairobi, but its was quite hard to fathom what it’s really like until you’ve had to experience it first hand.

First comes the rain. This is never a good sign for the commuter. When the heavens open up, Nairobi comes to a stop.

The plan was to travel across town for a welcome dinner with the other volunteers already stationed here. It was 4pm, when we watched helplessly as the drops of water hammered down onto our roof. It wasnt till 6pm till the vehicles arrived to pick us up.

The first thing we noticed as we hit the road was the flooding. The street was a torrent of brown water gushing out from overflowing open canal drains near the footpaths. This is when gumboots would come in handy, a kiddies puddle paradise for grown ups, who didn’t look like they were quite as excited water. Ahead of us, three vehicles had already collided and that didn’t help us move anywhere soon. After a few aggressive manuevers onto oncoming traffic our car finally arrived at the mainroad. We inched forward meter by meter, each move being a victory of sorts.

It seemed that in the midst of frustration, the industrious Kenyan makes the most opportunity out of a captive audience. Men wander around to each vehicle in the slow traffic, flogging everything from apples, nuts, pillows, Scrabble board games, dvds, statues of rhinos and even inflatable Miffy pool toys. One can do all their shopping out of their car window, like a drive through plaza where the merchandise come to you. We used them to practise our Swahili, especially the word ‘harpana’ (no). By the roadside, lines of Kenyans stood helplessly stranded at the matatu (the Kenyan version of a mini-bus) stand, desperately trying to get home on the overcrowded vehicles.

We attempted to take a short cut but eventually came to a stand still. On the radio, a program called ‘Busted!’ was being streamed, where frustrated partners expose their cheating spouses live on air to the rest of Nairobi. We listened on as a hapless woman was trapped into admitting that she didn’t know who the father to her baby was. To relieve our boredom, we started a series of car games. After trying to name different types of chocolate bars, African countries, human organs and beer, we moved on to a competition on who can bring the most items to a picnic. By 9.30pm, our vehicle had only moved a few meters, so we turned off the engine, got out of the car and made our own party by dancing and singing on the streets along to the hits of Tina Turner, Lionel Richie and Kci and Jojo blasting out of the car radio to the bemusement of onlookers. Love ballads from the 90’s are big in Kenya, I dont know why, but its seems like the city is locked into a perpetual world of Richard Mercer’s Love Song Dedications.

Besides gaining a healthy appreciation of ‘African time’, I also observed how different driving is on Nairobi roads. Whereas in Sydney, we would be locked into our cars like a sanctuary from the world outside, Kenyan have their windows down to chat to fellow commuters and passer bys on the street to get news of the situation ahead, to ask to be let in, or scream at not being let in. Verbal communication plays a much greater role on roads full of pot holes, water, and where lanes have no meaning.

So, after passing out a few times in awkward positions and being unable to goto the bathroom (I was glad I hadn’t had a drink before the the ride unlike the other volunteers), somehow we eventually made it to the restaurant at 11pm, closing time.

Total distance: 8.7km, Total time taken: 5 hours

Touch Down in Kenya

After so many months of anticipation, I’ve finally arrived in Nairobi. And it’s great to finally be here!

As you may already know, I’ve never had a special affinity with airports so it didnt surprise me even in Sydney, I was ‘randomly’ subjected to a explosives test and pat down before boarding. I haven’t figured out quite what is so suspicious looking about me but it seems to happen without fail everytime I’m at an airport, even now without the dreads. At least this time, I was complemented for my fashion choices by the security girl swabbing my clothes down. It’s probably some ego reinforcement trick she has mastered to soften the humiliation. But it doesn’t bother me too much, I’ve learned accept and just go along with my fate.

Hence, on arrival to Nairobi it was no exception. Our flight had been already been delayed for a few hours from Dubai and everyone was pretty sleep deprived and tired and were dying to hit a bed. As we touched down, the plane shuddered as it descended into a lush green city blanketed by dark clouds seething with rain. Taking in the majesty of the vast plains gave me a sense of excitement for the adventure ahead. Stepping out, the airport itself was humble, peppered with dark ruby tiles, a coat of deep green and yellow paint on its walls and dark grey carpets. It looked like a dilapilated mall thats had its day, awaiting its next facelift that just never came. I hadn’t seen a single Ak-47 yet so I was quietly optimistic.

After surving the questions from the stern-faced officer in the immigration line and then triumphantly picking up my luggage which was still in one piece, I carted my belongings towards the customs officers for my final test. But then suddenly, I was interrupted. Two men dressed in blue came over to chat and asked to see my passport. They were very friendly and polite, told me not to worry as they were policemen indicated by their badge. They welcomed me to kenya and said they just wanted to examine my baggage. So I nervously followed them down a narrow corridor into a small room round the back.

As I opened my suitcase onto the bare examination table, while they politely questioned me on my plans. The tone and attitude was more conversational rather than interrogative and we even joked about some items in the suitcase while they played with some of my koala souvieners. In fact they didn’t seem all that interested in what I had brought along and tried to make me as comfortable as possible.

Finally as I was closing up my suitcase, one of them asked with a smile “Do you have something for me?” while rubbing his thumb and fingers together in a circular manner. Somehow, I already had a feeling this was coming, so I feigned ignorance and just smiled nervously. A lady came into the room and seeing my dumbfoundedness, clarified the situation in more detailed terms, ‘Its raining outside, can you give them something to get coffee?’. Again I just laughed and continued to load my suitcases back onto the trolley. Clearly, my mention of being here to volunteer for an international anti-corruption body didnt seem to register with them.

They gave me back my passport and got me to sign their book and telling me to add a remark in one of the columns. I just wrote “No comment”, seemingly to their dismay (no idea what they had expected me to write!). They pressed a few more times in a non-hostile manner about whether I had something to give them (maybe they were just particularly fond of the koala plushies I brought along) while I continued to smile awkwardly. Eventually they saw that they weren’t getting far with my stupidity and let me go, even helping to load my luggage back as I struggled to get it through the door in my rush to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I pushed my trolley out.There was still the last customs check to get through, where an unhappy looking man rifled through my luggage, his tone of questioning contrasted greatly with the friendly service I had just received. In fact I’ve probably never had better service at an airport before! When I eventually came out to rejoin the rest of the volunteers, I surprised them with the news of my first cultural awakening in Nairobi.

Off to more adventures!