Strangers in a Strange Land

Happier times!

Yesterday marked six months in Kenya! And yet it’s only going to be next week that we move into a house with furniture that will be ours, and ideally into a house that we can feel comfortable long-term.

We’ve had a difficult time this past month, with a lack of Christmas spirit, and a forced move. I’m going to be intentionally vague because issues are still ongoing, but it’s important to chronicle the good and the bad here.

We’d gotten our original house before we ever arrived in Kenya, desperate to find a place to settle with the kitties since I had to start working the day after we arrived. And of course there are things you expect.  The house being furnished, maybe the furnishings will be fabulous, and maybe they’ll be awful.  And, as an expat, you expect to be paying more than others.

But in the last two months, it became a bigger, less funny issue.  Our landlords seemed to be trying to trick us into paying fees we weren’t responsible for, and when trying to confirm what our actual responsibilities were for things like electricity, we discovered that we were paying twice as much rent per month as our neighbors.

And it becomes really easy to go from feeling like you’re in someone else’s realm (with their furniture, etc) to feeling like you’re being taken advantage of and unwelcome in your own home.

At the end of the day, when living abroad, you’re reliant on crowdsourced information to find out what’s fair and good.  “How much did you pay for a taxi between A and B?” “Who made your furniture and how much did they charge you?”

To some extent as well you’re reliant on the honesty of your host country delegates, too. Though my interactions with my Kenyan landlord were amicable, the shock of feeling like she was dishonest at the end of our relationship was a reflection on Kenya.

It’s easy to start feeling beleaguered too; you’re not familiar with rules and regulations here. It’s not your home country, and the learning curve when it comes to serious matters feels like a real deficit. A lot of it comes down to following your gut, and if someone doesn’t seem trustworthy, it is a good idea not to give them any more money.


Our new furniture

Being emotionally unsettled is obviously a side effect of being physically unsettled.  To protect ourselves (and our finances) we had to leave our first house and move in with friends.
We’ve found a new house, and, for the first time, we’ll have furniture of oour own.  I am feeling the urge to nest and buy cushions and lamps, and hang my art properly, and try to find solace in Kenya again.


Baobob Christmas Tree

It does mean that Christmas will be odd. We’re trying to make do, and find Christmas cheer where we can.

Yesterday I went to the Maasai Market and bought some ornaments and a homemade “Christmas tree”(/earring holder?)  and decorated it while listening to Christmas music.

I feel a bit better, having engaged a lawyer and scheduled a minibreak holiday, but there’s still an element of shellshock.

In fits of self pity too, I’m upset that my old landlords spoiled Christmas, and that our rapid need for moving made me cancel holiday crafting and my Christmas caroling party.

We have amazing friends here already. I have incredible people that work for me and that I work with.

Things will improve, but the point of all of these public feelings is that there are issues you can come across living abroad that are hard to grasp, and are definitely alienating.

New house, new furniture, new year.  Bring it on, 2014.

The Expat Tax

Sushi at Furusato - not a local luxury

Sushi at Furusato – Haven of Expats

I tend to confuse people when they ask me whether it’s cheap(er) to live in Kenya. Mostly because of the relative nature of the question.

If it weren’t cheap to live in Kenya, the lady who works for me for $200/month wouldn’t be able to.

So why can’t I live on $200/month?


Sure, when you’re in the local market, you’re expecting to be quoted a higher price as an expat because the expectation is that you have more money.

What is less anticipated is the day-to-day charges you’re incurring as an expat simply by being hungry, preferring safety, and having friends.


The Blue Zone

As a UN employee, you’re required strongly recommended to live within an area chummily called “The Blue Zone” that demarcates our pretense of safety. It’s been mentioned to me that it’s somewhat foolish to lump all of the rich people together.

And I will say that I get weekly updates from the UN Security office, letting me know about the crime that happened around Nairobi, including within the blue zone. Yet here we all are, clustered together, and, as a result, paying a premium for the illusion of safety. Because residences within this zone are advertised as such and undoubtedly marked up.

To add some perspective, I pay about $500 more in rent for a 4BR/3BA house in a very safe community with a garden than I charge in rent  for my 500 sq.ft (46 sq meters) one bedroom apartment in Harlem/Manhattan, New York.

Not for Abby Normal

New York City crazy prices notwithstanding, the German School  here in Nairobi charges boarders $700/month for a shared bedroom in dormitory-style accommodations with only common-room internet, breakfast/dinner (when available), laundry, and secured grounds.

Would a native Kenyan ever pay this much money for a shared room??  Never.

Keep in mind: this charge is  3.5 times my housekeeper’s monthly salary. But for ex-pats, particularly students and interns who’ve just arrived in Nairobi, The German School is easily discoverable on the internet, it’s in a central location, and it provides those things that expats desire: ease of living and internet.

And the fact is that the huge ex-pat community in Nairobi fuels an entire market of goods and businesses that just cost more than any normal activity or cuisine in Kenya because they’re targeting a different subset of people.

Chi chi Latte from the UN Cafe

It’s not a scam to know your audience. You’re a Kenyan entrepreneur and you’re selling yoga mats and lattes. Who is your customer, and how does that dictate pricing?

In my French conversation class today we talked about cheese, and one of the Kenyans in the class admitted that most Kenyans think that cheese is really weird and gross. So if you’re starting a fromagerie in Nairobi, you’ll likely be importing a lot of your cheeses from farther away, incurring a higher cost, and charging a higher premium.

The fact is that none of these premium, luxury items are really necessary. But for many expats, strangers in a strange land. far from home long-term, having a “taste” of home is worth the additional expense. And in fact it’s perceived as ignorant lavishness by a lot of Kenyans who, rightfully, rile at the disparate classist and colonialist undertones that expat catered things engenders.

At the UN Cafeteria, there are several food stations – Mediterranean, Chinese, Sandwiches, and “African” cuisine. Typically the lunch items at any of the first 3 range from $4 to $7, whereas Jiko la Mama, the African station, is never more than $4.

Kidneys + Beans != Kidney beans

The line is longer at Jiko La Mama, and doesn’t typically have a lot of expats in it. It’s not that the food there is bad, either. It’s good!

But sometimes paying extra for food you’re familiar with (lasagna) means that you don’t order Kidney Beans and end up with kidney meat with beans. (TRUE STORY).


Your friends aren’t likely to invite you to lunch at the 50 shilling (~75 cents) chapathi stand that’s frequented by taxi men waiting for fares at the UN. They are more likely to invite you for Thai Food (expensive), Japanese food (also expensive), the only IMAX cinema in Africa (expensive), or some posh bars in Westlands (cher quand ivre).

At the market in Kinshasa – local tomatoes on discount on the left, super pricey tomatoes from BELGIUM on the right

Supply and demand. The expat tax isn’t exclusive to Kenya, or even Africa.

Is it wrong? Is it classist? I’m not the person who can deem it so.

Is it important to feel comfortable and happy, wherever you’re living? Even if it means spending $6 weekly on Frozen Yogurt? Sure she said, biasedly.

But if events like Westgate can tell us anything, it’s that safety in a foreign country can’t be bought. And extravagance is not only insensitive to citizens of our host countries, but can make expats a target.

Be savvy about what you’re paying extra for. Be safe. Eat frozen yogurt….WHILE YOU STILL CAN





A long, wild, road


A week ago, we were waiting in the airport in Cleveland, Ohio, bidding my mom farewell and loading our TEN suitcases, 2 cats, and 1 enormous squishable manatee we’ve named Reginald onto a trolley at Cleveland Hopkins airport.

We’d checked in hours before, having been picked up by an ornery taxi man at 6:30am, and the caffeine from our 6am Starbucks was already wearing off. We had chosen not to ship things for fear of huge chargers, missing shipments, and the ever-present DUTIES, and instead had opted to bring everything with us – ringing up a total of $1200 in excess baggage fees.

High, yes, but actually still cheaper when bringing 300 pounds of excess things to Kenya.

Cats are not permitted to travel in the cabin when entering Kenya, but they are allowed in the cabin for flights connecting through. So, though we could take Gandalf and Radagast with us on the plane to Zurich, once we arrived there we would have to travel to the cargo office at least 3 hours before our flight to put them into IATA certified containers, be checked into the cargo hold, and pay the sizable fees for their portage. United unfortunately could give us a maximum same-day layover in Zurich of 80 minutes, and, as the fights from Zurich to Nairobi only went every other day, it meant that, to have enough time to do the transfer, we’d have to fly in a day early and have a 25 hour layover in Zurich.

The problem, however, was that our 25 hour layover prevented the United computers from even SEEING our Zurich to Nairobi flight when we checked in in Cleveland, so they couldn’t check our bags all the way through. It meant that we would have to collect and re-check our bags in Zurich. Terrified of another round of excess baggage charges, we tried to get all the documentation and assurances that we could, but it was still very up in the air.

And so were we, cats in tow, to Newark, New Jersey, where we had a 6 hour layover until our flight to Zurich. We’d planned, we thought smartly to bring leashes and take our cats out to the pet relief grassy area that other people on the Internet had uncovered.

20130624-113625 .jpgOur boys, however, were too fat for the harnesses we’d bought, so they were relegated to their little containers for our whole layover. We were all tired, so it ended up not really mattering. And for those that know me, be surprised that I was too tired to walk all the way to the Newark Airport Starbucks, and missed what would have been my last Starbucks for some time.

I’d booked us the two aisle seats in the center block of the plane from Newark to Zurich, which meant that, for most of the flight, the cats could be in their carriers ON the center empty seat instead of under it. It was still a long haul for them, though. About 3 hours from Zurich, Gandalf decided that he had had ENOUGH of being in his carrier and started having a wriggle fit.
Of course there is nothing you can do other than stick your fingers in and pet him, but it made my desire to have my own “wriggle fit” seem at least more justified.

When we arrived finally in Zurich, no one even asked us for the cat importation permits that we had meticulously prepared. We thought we were in the clear, until we reached the baggage collection area only to find that the trolleys were LUDICROUSLY small. The check-in gate was far enough away that it was inconvenient, so we stacked these trolleys super high and perched the cats on top, perilously, and made our way to the departure area, since it was now Tuesday morning and we were within the 24 hour period to check into our next flight through to Nairobi.

I visited the United counter to confirm that we would be able to check our bags, and not have to pay again, and the representative did confirm those facts.

We we arrived at the Swiss Air special check-in, however, it was suddenly a big issue. The receipts we’d been issued in Cleveland for excess baggage did not include the ZRH-NBO leg of our flight as the computer did not even have access to it. And, though I’d been told by a United representative in Newark that she’d annotated our file to say that we had paid the full charge for the whole route, the Swiss Air representative couldn’t see that remark because of the disparity between the two carriers’ systems.

We stood at the counter for 3 hours, the poor cats still stuck in the bags, surrounded by our mountainous trolley piles, listening to this Swiss Air girl talk to someone in Dutch, with no idea whether the situation was being resolved. She called the same United guy with whom I’d spoken, but he wasn’t at his desk and there was some effort to find him within the terminal.

Maybe they thought if we got tired or frustrated enough that we’d just pay again, but MUA HAHA we didn’t even have the money to do that so waiting on the brink of tears was pretty much the only option.

Finally we were told everything was okay, though the counter girl had turned surly. So we checked our bags and took our cats and went to wait for the hotel shuttle. Thank goodness we’d been able to check them because lugging 10 suitcases in addition to everything else to the hotel would have slayed us completely.

The hotel wasn’t far away but the 3 hours we’d spent at the Swiss Air counter meant that we’d arrived at the shuttle bus station during the lunch break and there wouldn’t be a shuttle for at least 30 minutes. Poor Adam was wrecked, the cats were miserable, everyone was barely awake, and we waited.

The hotel room felt very European, but check in had been easy and my mother’s package – a cat litter box, litter, food and a blanket, was well received by the cats.

We set it up and released them into the hotel much to their relief, and then proceeded to try and stay awake to better acclimate to the time zone change.


We failed completely. Adam fell asleep face-first, perpendicularly sprawled across the bed.
I lasted a little longer, curled up with Radagast on the couch, watching Scrubs in Dutch.

We managed to wake up in time for happy hour and dinner downstairs in the hotel, though I felt more lost than hungry. We had idly speculated that we’d go and tour Zurich, but that obviously hadn’t happened.

But the cats seemed relaxed, and we were relaxed, and we needed to wake up at 4:30am the next morning to get the cats to cargo by 6:30am.

Of course I couldn’t sleep. Of course I watched a progression of mildly terrible old movies that I love anyway, like 27 Dresses and Copycat with Sigourney Weaver. Then it was 2am, and 3am, and I was watching 127 Hours which may as well have been 127 Dresses for the amount of coherency I could commit to it. I finally fell asleep at 4 and Adam let me sleep until 5 but it was a generally bad way to start the day.

20130624-115638.jpgFinding the cargo area wasn’t terrible, and they had an IATA cat carrier ready for us as requested and we put the two kitties in it and just hoped that the rest of the journey would be okay! The next time we would see the kitties would be in Nairobi.

We went into the terminal and had enough time to stop and get sandwiches and soda, a nice break from the harried pace of travel.


When we started boarding, however, we got pulled out of the line after our boarding passes were scanned, AGAIN harassed about the payment of the excess baggage. It made me resent Swiss Air hugely because what was the point of spending 3 hours the day before if they were going to persistently bring it up? Does “resolved” not mean the same thing to them? I suppose that they realized that I was irked because after I passed them our receipt, they took only 2 minutes to scan the file and then let us board.

I was anxious about the cats the whole flight. I worried too, after we had paid the cargo freight costs and the excess baggage fees, that if there were more fees that we’d be unable to pay them.

It was nice to have a pre-arranged car to meet us at the airport, however (thanks, new job), and all that remained after we collected and loaded our bags into the car was finding the cats.
HARDER THAN IT SOUNDS. The cargo area was quite a ways from the airport, and everyone we asked gave us a different answer as to where it was.

We did finally find it, and I made the mistake of entering the customs office to ask where I should go, and the only response I got was “you have to pay customs.” SORT OF RIDICULOUS.
Even more ridiculous was that, when I arrived at the right window, they told me I couldn’t see my cats until I’d paid the $100 “handling fee” for the airport that was MYSTERIOUSLY not included in the $1600 I’d paid already.
I argued for probably an hour, and did eventually cave. Of course, then we had to go over to the veterinarian office to certify the cats’ health and documents.

And we arrived there…and no one was there.

We called the veterinarian, who was home (even though the office is meant to be open 24/7) and he told us that one of his assistants was only 2km away and that we should use our taxi and go and pick him up and bring him to the office!

We had almost no options, so yea, I went to pick him up and, to add insult to injury, he wasn’t even ready and the (very considerate and patient) taxi man and I sat at this gas station like idiots, waiting for this guy.

I had him look over the documents as we drove back, trying to impress upon him that we were really ready to go HOME and were done waiting. I mean, we were supposed to have been home home by 7 and it was already creeping up on 9pm.

He said that everything looked in order, and then as he got out of the cab said that he was expecting us to take him home as well. Now, between our luggage, our bodies, and our cats there was NO space for this guy. Plus it is really not my job to take him to a job that he is already supposed to be present at. I’d done enough.

While he signed our documents he kept wheeling and dealing his way (ugh) trying to convince me to give him cab fare home of 700 shillings because he had “left his wallet at home”.
I did refuse, and he kept making a face like I was somehow being a big jerk. ME.

But after all of that, the cats were in the car! Ready to go home! And our cabbie had been so nice I gave him a really disgustingly big tip. If I’d had to deal with negotiating with him as well, I think I would have imploded.

And after a (relatively) short drive of 40 minutes, we were HOME!