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Son of Bad Chair

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Lean back, yo

Many of you will remember some of my fond memories of my first week in the office, having been given a chair that had razor blades where armrests should go.

 

Ah yes, the Saga of Bad Chair was a classic tale of acclimating to a new environment without accidentally slitting one’s wrists, and I know you were all relieved when I informed you that Bad Chair had found a new home and a room with a view. 

I am pleased to report that now Bad Chair has made friends, a small alliance of office chairs that haven’t fit the bill but each bring to the table their own special characteristics.

As you see in the photo here, Bad Chair (in the back on the left) has befriended this poor crippled soul, who we’ll call Leany.

Leany is almost certainly the victim of the chocolate croissants in the downstairs cafe, coupled with someone’s overenthusiasm to push back from their desks and get the hell home.

Leany is working with what he’s got, though.  Bad Chair reports that, together in this haven for the broken, they are teaching one another how to Dougie. 

 

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Leany won’t let you keep him down!

Important Updates!

In the spirit of trying to make things work, we gave Leany a chance.

It didn’t turn out well.

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The Derp Safari

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A list sent to my mother before she came to visit

I’m thrilled to be getting my first NON-FAMILY guest tomorrow! This trip marks John’s first to any country in Africa, and so I figured that, in celebration of his new horizons, I would address some of the misconceptions about what’s necessary to come here.

Savannahflage?

Savannahflage?

I’ll start with the ubiquitous misconception that, if you are coming to some country in Africa for a safari, you are going to be crawling through the jungles and mud and should dress like it.

I am so sorry to tell you but even if you are on a discount safari, you will not need any sort of hiking/biking/roughnecking kind of clothes whatsoever.

You’ll go to your camp, either cement-enclosed tents where the only real roughing-it-element is digesting the food, or to your fancy hotel, where the staff spends so much time making sure your room is as non-Africa as possible, evident by the inclusion of things like AIR CONDITIONING.  Imagine the staff seeing line after line of safari-clad foreigners coming into their daintily-appointed rooms. Bizarro.

My “safari” outfit – a leather jacket, Kenyan-made jumpsuit, and platform beaded sandals.

From your room, you’re ushered into a van, where you’ll stay for the entire day. If lucky, your tour company can plan a lunch under the trees, but there will be a blanket on the ground so you’ll still never be “roughing” it.

I’d love to know one person who found a need, mid-safari, to unzip their pants at the knee. Where do you put the bottom of your pants after that? What happens if you lose one of them?

Just dress like a normal person! I promise the lions won’t find you more delicious.

Now, not all cities in African countries are as well set-up as Nairobi, but this idea that you have to bring every kind of medicine, toiletry, and lotion with you is just plain wrong.  We have several huge grocery chains here, the foremost being Nakumatt, where you can buy pretty much anything at all. Of course things that are only for Ex-Pats (like sunscreen) are a bit more expensive, but they’re still available.

The fact that my mother’s friend insinuated that there were no feminine hygiene products available made me laugh, because quite frankly, the number of expats living here would never tolerate the regular use of moss/whatever other assumed material supplants a Kotex. Which segués into…

 

Bewbs

Be culturally sensitive

Don’t pay money to your tour operator to take you to a “Masaai Village” so you can take photos of poor & dirty children.

Don’t assume because someone living in rural Kenya doesn’t have an XBOX One that they’re unable to be happy.

Don’t give small children candy/presents/money. You are teaching them that they don’t have to work and that white guilt will give them things for free. What kind of bad lesson are you teaching these children that you’d never teach your own?

Be respectful to the animals. Please stay on the paths, don’t honk at lions, don’t chase animals who are running away. You’re in a wild place, and it’s not there for your amusement. You’re a visitor.

“Whole Berry est mieux” – International Thanksgiving in Nairobi

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Bon Appetit!

It was like a holy grail-type mission.

There had to be cranberry sauce somewhere in Nairobi, and I was going to find it.

There are lots of items, many of which I described in an earlier blog post , that are clearly imported just for expats. And, while Americans are probably the least numerous here when ratios of country population are factored in, it made sense that some stores would likely order things like cranberry sauce specially.

I visited Nakumatt, the largest grocery store chain in Kenya, only to be informed that they had ordered cranberry sauce on the Monday prior to Thanksgiving, and that it would arrive by the following Monday.

Strike one.

 

Ever resourceful, I figured if there wasn’t pre-made sauce available, that maybe I could buy frozen berries, or maybe even fresh cranberries!

I should have figured that cranberry bogs are not really a hallmark of AFRICA, let alone KENYA so that route was also a fail.

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traditional carving time!

Desperate, I posted in a community Facebook group, hoping to crowdsource cranberries.  Nairobi Expat Social — where did they get theirs?

I’d describe the experience as akin to playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. One person would report having seen ONE jar somewhere — other American cranberry sauce poachers would join the thread, indubitably rushing to check on the purported jar.

Phantom cranberry rumors persisted deep into Thursday, when I feared I’d have to resort to cheap Arabian strawberry jelly in lieu of proper cranberry sauce. What was next?  Chicken in a tin as the main course?

Someone mentioned off-handedly that Prime Cuts, the expat-o-centric butcher in Village Market, renowned for their hard-to-find meats and cheeses as much as they are for their high prices, had the sauce. I called them and they told me that they’d have it delivered after 3pm, and immediately mobilized some of our dinner guests to be perched, ready, to buy it ASAP.

Juliet, our friend and neighbor within Fourways, had been at a work meeting in an odd area of town and saw a supermarket in the same plaza.  Enterprisingly, she went inside and found TWO jars, and, rather than fighting the old man going for one of them, purchased just one.  But we were going to be 12!

As we spent the moments before everyone had arrived Skyping with our parents in America, my French colleague called me from his strategic post at the butcher’s.  “They have Whole Berry and Smooth,” he said to me in French. “Hold on, Dad,” I said in English, then, in French, “Whole berry is better.”   If you’re not American, of course you wouldn’t know. But our cranberry sauce problems were solved!

One of the best parts of Thanksgivings as an expat is that you not only get foods and experiences from other countries and cultures, but you get traditions from other parts of the US! Everyone has turkey, sure, but thanks to Carlos’s demands, we also had Macaroni and Cheese, which is one of his Thanksgiving favorites.

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Plum-ish pudding-esque

Kate, our dear Australian friend, made some sort of Australian Christmas treat that was described as “like plum pudding” (which I’ve never had so cannot verify its authenticity) but it was complete with festive little “pokercandy” on the top in Christmassy colors.

All in all, we had 7 countries represented: America (of course), Germany, France, Mauritius, Australia, the UK, and India.

 

 

 

 

 

09-20131128_180913We had at least 70 stomachs worth of food represented too!

  • Mashed potatoes (2 kinds)
  • Sweet Potato Casserole with the 5 marshmallows we could find in Nairobi on top
  • Macaroni and Cheese
  • Turkey
  • Ham
  • Stuffing
  • Cauliflower-Broccoli Gratin
  • Balsamic Vinegared green beans

 

And, because it was Kate’s birthday this past Wednesday, I surprised her with cupcakes. Shockingly,  Priscilla’s delicious pecan pie, the cupcakes, and the plum puddings did not really get eaten.

17-20131128_192905While we waited for people to digest, we subjected our guests to a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Maybe we’ve been kibitzing too much during our weekly Bad Movie Club, but Charlie Brown has never seemed so funny or outrageous before.

The nicest part of the whole evening was getting to share love and tradition with my friends here in Nairobi. My family, while non-religious, always sang the Doxology while holding hands around the table.  My friends obliged me, thankfully, even though it was only Adam and I who sang.

Most of them had never been to a Thanksgiving before, or eaten a lot of the foods that we consider holiday standard.  We’re thinking maybe next year we should invite the Economist after our friends here in Nairobi ended up in the Wall Street Journal! 

 

 

 

And our food was delicious — even delicious-smelling!  The proof is this stray cat who spent most the night wanting to be inside:

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Kitties

It was a beautiful night. And, thanks to the ubiquity and ease of househelp and the fantasticness of our employee Rachael, I have not had to wash a single Thanksgiving dish.

 

Happy holidays, everyone.

Coastal Expeditions – Snorkeling in Watamu

One of the beauties of renting a house right on the Indian Ocean is that, when you mention that you’d like to see dolphins and go snorkeling, it turns out that your night guard runs a day business where a nice glass-bottomed boat will take you out on the ocean.

It cost about 2000 shillings per person (~$25) and we were out for what seemed like 2 hours but might have been less.

Dolphins!

Dolphins!

The ocean area around Watamu has a big reef, which means that people-eating things that may or may not exist outside of my imagination can’t really come close to the shore.  The water is a perfect light blue, but once you get outside the reef it suddenly feels like wild ocean.

Apparently most people who go looking for dolphins don’t see them, which I guess isn’t surprising considering that they are extremely hard to spot from far away. The movies taught me that dolphins will come right to your boat and talk to you and warn you about villains and things.

These dolphins were much more ambivalent, sadly, but they were still cute, swimming in a family pod that first looked maybe 4 dolphins big but turned out to be 15-20 dolphins all together. When backlit against the sky, they looked black, but on the opposite side of the boat they were clearly gray.06-DSCF5317

And so synchronized! And poof poof poofing from their blowholes. It was a very nice sound (though I’m sure in other contexts it would be less appreciated) and all the girls went giddy.

Also, we were the only boat there, and, like most safaris, the experience is heightened when you realize selfishly that it’s all yours.

Of course that feeling didn’t last long, and soon 2 more boats were speeding out to poach our dolphins (though thankfully not literally).  One boat clumsily ran right through the family, and they seemed to surface less once we were leaving. Either they didn’t like the boat intrusion, or they were scared of this big European dude in a tiny speedo perched on the top of his boat like some kind of hood ornament.

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We couldn’t jump in with the dolphins however much we wanted to; they were wild and we were boat-bound.

It was only a short moment back inside the reef, however, that it was time to go swimming with fishes.

The boat driver threw bread into the water and AHHHHHHHH.

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Fishpocalypse

There were SO MANY FISHES.

It was sort of Hitchcockian, being surrounded by fish, and a bit discombobulating. One of these stripey zebra fish even BIT me!

28-DSCF5439We had the liberty of the ocean, and, armed with the digital camera, I was intent on photographing everyone in our party with fishes at least once each.

You never realize until you’ve got your face in the water fulltime that you have no idea where you’re going and maybe following that last fish to the bad side of town was a bad idea.

I got completely distracted by the beauty of the coral, too. Insert requisite Finding Nemo jokes here, because while I didn’t find Nemo, I saw several Dory fish.

The rippling of the surface, the light reflective on the labyrinthine surfaces of the coral, stunning and bewitching and magical.

 

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And so many of the fishes were such AMAZING colors! Neons and iridescents!

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pre-jump!

Time flew by, and before we knew it, it was time to get back on the boat. A couple of us decided to jump off the top of the boat into some of the deeper sections, so I sorely hope I got to scare some of those fish who had menaced me in a West Side Story gang-like manner earlier.

I will confess that, in my Ginger-on-the-Equator manner, I got so wrapped up in snorkeling that I didn’t reapply sunscreen the entire time I was on my belly with my butt up in the air at the surface.

You can guess how this story ends, and now, a little over a week later, my burn still hasn’t peeled and just continues to itch furiously, so it’s fantastically professional to be scratching my bum at work.

This snorkeling experience has really inspired me to perhaps go and get my diving certification next time I’m on the coast so that I can go proper diving and have MORE fish-poking fun.

 

post-jump

post-jump

Coastal Expeditions – The Train from Nairobi to Mombasa

01-20131115_172058One of the benefits of living in Nairobi is its central positioning within Kenya, making it relatively easy to travel within country.

In fact, the coast is only an hour away by plane, whether you fly into the northern beaches or the southern ones.

How easy, right?

Well, we decided for this, the inaugural trip to the coast, that we didn’t want it easy. If there’s one thing I learned living and working in DRCongo, adversity and adventure usually go hand in hand.

07-20131115_180302With that in mind, four of us decided that we’d take the 14+ hour train ride from Nairobi to Mombasa. Hey, it can’t be called the Lunatic Express for nothing, right?

The railway was built around 1896, as part of Britain’s attempts to dominate the continent.

I’m not really sure that the railway has since been upgraded.

Visiting the station felt like a time machine. Hand-painted signs just echoed this very palpable faded glory within the “terminal” — an area that would harshly vacillate between painfully shabby and newly upgraded.

06-1384527104569 We managed to get cabins together, although the woman who’d been assigning them was apparently doing the whole allotment by hand, writing on top of carbon paper, and complained a lot before just moving one of our cabins next to the other. With whiteout.

 

 

It's a tough job, apparently.

It’s a tough job, apparently.

We’d booked 2 first class sleeper cabins for 2 each — the price doesn’t seem standardized if you go through a booking agency, because they apparently add on a fee for having collected your tickets; Julien paid ~$60. I paid $75.

08-20131115_190354The cabins were laughably small, but indeed connected! They came complete with two couch-like “mattresses” — a netting for the top bunk to keep you from tumbling in the night…hopefully.

I imagine that once, these cars were magnificent. They had in-room fans, drinking water apparati, a sink, a shelf…all leather interior…

Except that the fans that hadn’t been stolen didn’t work, nor did the drinking water nozzle, and the leather looked a little more than well-loved.

 

But we weren’t in the train for luxury…it was for adventure!
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Apparently they think hanging out of the windows is super dangerous.

13-20131115_190911 Julien doesn’t read signs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11-20131115_190541I contend that maybe he was too busy to read the sign because he was looking for toilet paper. Or Purell. Or salvation.

Oh, no worries you can just wash your hands extra well after a visit to this bathroom.

 

 

 

...

…or not. It didn’t really matter, because the bathroom sink didn’t work anyway.

Pillow soap

Pillow soap

Funnily, when they came to make our beds, where one would usually find a mint, there was instead a tiny bar of soap. Hint. hint hint hint.

There is a certain calming element, feeling the rocking motion of the train and the rhythmic clack clacking.

It makes you not really care about the long night or the tight space.

And boy was the space tight:

To obtain a special dialing wand, mash keyboard now.

To obtain a special dialing wand, mash keyboard now.

I will confess that the food was dreadful. We were thankfully 4 people so we didn’t have to share a tiny booth in the dining car with other patrons. As it was, we didn’t get to eat until the “second wave” so our dinner bell didn’t ring until nearly 9.

Dishwater puts this soup to shame

Had we been sitting with other passengers, we probably would have had to contain the bad faces we made upon seeing/eating the “mushroom soup” that was served to us. At least it was vegetarian for poor Lisa, whose other vegetarian options included boiled rice and fried potatoes.

 

 

We made ourselves gin & tonics shakily and collapsed into our awkward beds, lulled by the train sounds.

And when I woke up for the horror march to the shared toilet, what greeted me but the most extraordinary view of the sunrise across the Tsavo.

20131120-145749.jpg Was I filthy, smelling vaguely of the stale mildew odor of my bedding? Sure. Was I in desperate need of toilet paper and/or Purell? Absolutely.

But standing in the aisle and getting to see the sun crest over the horizon will be emblazoned in my brain forever.

The novelty of the train starts to wear after 12 hours, but because we’d encountered delays, by our anticipated arrival time of 10am we were still 100km away.

Spite

Spite

Coupled with sticky heat and a rapidly diminishing supply of electricity (of which there is none on the train for patrons), we played Cranky Uno. Much like regular Uno, but with more Spiteful Draw 4s.

 

 

 

 

We were halfway into Blade Runner on the iPad when the train came to a halt, and a man came by to let us know that the cargo train ahead of us on the tracks had derailed and that we would be stuck for “some hours.”

 

29-20131116_12071315km away from our destination, we pressed him for options. The train company refused to pay for a taxi for the rest of our journey, and instead offered us the price of the trip between our stopping point, Mazeras, and our original destination, Mombasa.

 

Which was a whopping 105 shillings. Approximately TWO WHOLE DOLLARS. There was a bit of maniacal joy in his face as he told us that in order to collect this vast sum, we would have to head to the Mombasa Railway Station customer service counter.  There are some battles you wage over money here, but clearly, this was not going to be one of them.

 

A town without cable -- 6 kids crowd around to watch a guy scrape shit from his shoe.

A town without cable — 6 kids crowd around to watch a guy scrape shit from his shoe.

So we piled off in this middle of nowhere town, the TOWN excitement of the year as we proceeded to be surrounded by 20-25 children and one random man who insisted on serenading us on his guitar happily, despite only knowing 3 songs, one of which was “Jambo Bwana,” which is  akin to a Swahili incarnation of <s>the devil</s> “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

Our pals who’d smartly flown into Mombasa already had a taxi, so weren’t we glad that within 1 hour, they’d come to get us.

The train sat idle as we drove away. I wonder if it ever moved.

Even despite our foibles and mushroom soup, I’m so so glad that I rode the train, especially for the fact that I don’t need to do it again.

 

Adventure!!

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Gingers in Africa

Sunday afternoon, watering the flowers and veggies after swimming for 10 minutes

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After: painnnn

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Living near the equator when you’re this pale is NOT easy

Max time in the sun was 25 minutes.

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?

EXPAT TAX.

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.

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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