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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.

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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.

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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.

“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.

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

 

 

 

 

WG in the DSQ

When I was a child, my mom had a cleaning lady who would come to the apartment maybe once a week to do laundry in the basement downstairs and tidy up. I remember these events clearly because there would be a rush of manic cleaning before she arrived.

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Standard Floorplan
“DSQ” is colloquially referred to as a “Skew”

There’s a real scarlet letter, even in the life of a busy, professional, successful New York woman, that you’re failing if you’re not keeping up your “domestic responsibilities.

Cleaning before a cleaning lady arrived? Does that mean that not even the cleaning lady can know you’re a busy slob?

It’s a reflection of Western culture, and the real stigma and particular association with having someone clean for you.  You’re either super rich, or you pay someone way too much to come sporadically and do the most minimal stuff.

Kenyan culture, in my estimation, carries none of this white guilt. While on one hand it seems understandable that a country with fewer white people would have less white guilt, Kenya is a former British colony, and I suppose that my time in Congo has braced me to expect some sort of fallout from the colonialist superimposed hierarchies.

But instead, cleaners are absolutely ubiquitous in society in Nairobi. And not just in expat society. In the US, the guys who wax the floor and clean out the trash cans have to do it in the dead of night like house elves, lest you see them while you’re at work.

The UN compound has cleaners everywhereall the timeThere’s a guy in our office who stands on the window ledge while window-adjacent workers are at lunch, not because he’s had enough and wants lunch too, but because he’s cleaning the top of the windows with a cloth. When I walk into the compound in the morning, there are, scattered across the grass, ladies in uniforms raking and collecting the leaves and blossoms that fell from the trees in the night. Should that make me feel guilty?

Last month, I hired a cleaning lady and cook, because anyone who knows me knows I’m rubbish at both of these tasks. If cooking was left up to me, I’d be eating tomato-balsamic vinegar and olive oil salad every night. I’d probably be really skinny, and super crabby, and probably malnourished.

My friend Moraa has a woman who cooks minimally and cleans and Mo pays her about $100/month. So when Rachael came in for an interview, I was prepared to haggle seriously.

She told me she’d been paid $180/month at her last job just doing laundry for a British family, and she’d love to now get paid $200/month, and that she’d come every day from 7:30am to 4:30pm, and make breakfast, lunch (if Adam wanted it), and prepare dinner for me to eat once I got home.

She also would do laundry; a bigger task here since no one has a dryer so clothing needs to be washed and then hung out on the line. And clean the house, which, for me, is huge: a 3 bedroom monstrosity.

I’d been prepared to haggle. TWICE as much as my friend’s cleaner! How outrageous! And then I did what I hate doing in Africa – comparing prices to the US.  In NYC, I paid close to $200 for a woman to come once a month and clean. For 8 hours.

And I couldn’t haggle. She had a nice face. She was bubbly and cheerful. She seemed trustworthy. She’d be in my house solo for a bunch of days, so these elements felt more important that nickel and diming this woman.

Because she was frank; she’d worked for a Kenyan family and made less money, and wanted to work for, in her words “a white family” and “make more money.”

…Do I feel guilty yet?

Here I live in this arguably fancy house, with ARCHITECTURAL guilt built right in. If I’m not going to hire a “domestic,” what am I gonna do with my “Domestic Servants’ Quarters?” Most Kenyans just call it a “Skew” and even apartments have them.

The issue, of course, being where do you etch the distinction when you’ve got someone in your house 8 hours a day, washing your undies and picking up your garbage and petting your kitties — for some people that’s “Mom” or “Dad.” But this person is supposed to be different? Set apart?

There’s some architectural racism built into my house, too. My hot water heater doesn’t connect to the shower in my DSQ, so please work for me and then take an icy cold shower as a reward. When I asked my (Kenyan male) landlord about it, he made a bad face as though I was so foolish, not knowing that “staff will use up all your hot water if you let them.”

There’s a back door directly into the DSQ that she has a key to, but I have the option of locking the door that goes between the kitchen and the DSQ and there’s no way she can get into the house. Yes, please work for me BUT I DON’T TRUST YOU STAY IN YOUR QUARTERS UNTIL I SAY IT’S OKAY.

At this point for me, Rachael feels more like family. I feel guilty every time she needs to ask me for things because my automatic response is guarded skepticism. Am I supposed to be open, or is that naïve? Am I overcompensating because of white guilt?

Bottom line is: she does an incredible job, and does things that I would never ask anyone to do.

At the end of each day, she takes the shoes I was wearing, marred with orange Kenyan dirt, and she washes them. I didn’t ask her to do this. I don’t even think I would have thought of it. When I told Nicole she said “Wow, even hearing that makes me feel guilty.”

Rachael meets my mom and my mom's dog Gizmo over Skype. They're both very excited.

Rachael meets my mom and my mom’s dog Gizmo over Skype. They’re both very excited.

I guess I will have to get used to the experience, because I am so busy that I cannot imagine living in the house without Rachael. Firstly, I’d starve to death. I’ve sent her to 2 different cooking classes because she gets really excited, learning new things. She’s passionate and excited to improve, so how can I stifle that? And if I never want to live without her, it will mean I never won’t have someone in my DSQ.

THE CRAFT ROOM WILL HAVE TO WAIT. I’ll have to craft my white guilt away from the living room.

Two Weeks In, And Independence Day

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been here for 2 weeks, mostly because it feels like we’ve been here longer.  It’s not a time flies kind of adage or some sort of negative thing, either. It’s that our lives are already very full, without those requisite “New In Town” nights where you’re sitting at home and wishing you had someone local to call for a beer.

If anything, the number of activities available to us is somewhat prohibitive because we obviously don’t yet have a car, so anywhere we go needs to be by taxi. Not only does it add up, but it takes away a little bit from the feeling that we’ve fully settled.

Plus we’re in that stage of moving in where you’re constantly going back to Target or IKEA because you realize you don’t have a X and how in the world can you shower/cook an egg/open a bottle of wine without it and how stupid were you to have forgotten to buy it on your last trip to the store?

My job is going really really well. Everything I’ve been given to do I feel good about doing, and, once completed, I feel that I’ve done well. I go through periods of not enough work to do, and it sometimes frustrates me, but I’m sure as I prove myself, more will be delegated to me and I’ll wish that I hadn’t lamented for more work.

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Sharing cake over Skype

I already feel, though, like I’m part of a team. I’ve got great camaraderie with the other people in the office, not only in my section, but even in the greater unit that encompasses mine. Yesterday was one of my teammate’s birthdays, and I conspired with my senior staff guy, and we planned to go and get her a cake. I brought it in, ninja-style, and another colleague snuck out to get plates and forks.

We had a staff meeting, which included a colleague in SE Asia over Skype, who obviously did not get any cake, but it all felt very cohesive. I’m super on top of my duties, and we’re all in it together.

Adam had a great meeting with some tech startup guys here yesterday at the Artcaffé, and as a result he’ll be going to an Agile Developer’s conference here in town for 2 weeks. The number of these things that don’t seem like they’d be happening in Nairobi is still astounding to me, but then again, we have friends who go every week to play ice hockey.  …in Nairobi.

Much to my surprise as well, there seems to be no US Embassy event on today, July 4th, arguably one of the biggest holidays in the US. A new friend emailed us, and is one of the few Americans we’d met, asking us whether there was a plan.

… which is how I am now throwing a party. I don’t think I’ll have fireworks because I’m pretty sure they’re illegal here, but today my mission is to go to the UN Commissary and get decorations and beer…

And then we’ll also get weenies and buns and burgers and have a proper Sousafest.

 

Honestly, the only difficult I’m having here is communicating with friends back home. I finally have a smartphone (Samsung Young), but between the time difference, and subsequent reliance on email and delayed Facebook comments, it’s hard to know what’s happening and does end up feeling isolating.

I’ve got a bunch of blog posts in the draft queue, so if work slows down today, keep an eye out for more updates.

Growing Pains

Today marks nearly a week that we’ve been in Nairobi, though it feels already that it’s been longer. I don’t know that that’s a bad thing, but certainly having full days at work since Thursday, unpacking at night, constant internet problems, well, it’s easy to feel a little isolated and sad.

And, though we had a fabulous time this past weekend, out on the town on Friday night and going to the Bizarre Bazaar craft fair on Sunday, but the day-to-day life this week, with no car, sort of trapped in our house, has felt a bit like drudgery.

Add into the mix that Adam got sort of sick on Sunday night/Monday morning, and sure, it might just be the excessive amount of chilis that he consumed at the bazaar on Sunday. Which was funny to think about.

But as he’s still not well today, and every day I’m trying to get my work done in addition to setting up my house and taking care of Adam.

I love my new job, and I’m so excited to be starting all the projects. I don’t yet have a computer, or a phone, or really a desk or a chair, so it does make it easy to feel strange and transitory all around.  I have to wait several weeks for my diplomatic tax-exempt status to come through, so I also have no car and can’t buy one for at least another 2-3 weeks, so I’m reliant on friends coming over and my taxi man.

I thankfully have a GOOD taxi man, who takes me to and from work with no issue, but if I want to do anything else on a day, it means paying more taxi fare. And apparently, we’re “far away” from a number of our existing friends here in Nairobi which makes visiting us difficult or impossible or something.

In good, non-whiny news, Moraa has been an exceptional friend during this first week. Not only did she ensure that we were set up when we first arrived with water, some groceries, and of course, house keys, but she’s invited us to all sorts of fun things and made sure that we were taken care of.

Adam has been applying to jobs here, when our home internet is not completely buggered.

My “favorite pasttime” is troubleshoot googling the errors we’ve been getting with our home network; lack of DNS server output, random iTunes authorization errors, sporadic lack of Home Sharing functions (just to do things like watch movies downstairs on the appleTV), only to discover that they’re widespread problems that no one has solutions for.

Bad internet at home isolates me from people I love in the US and abroad, which makes the fact that no one wants to come to my house to visit even harder. Of course Adam is there, and the kitties, and that is SO nice.  But I am still lonely sometimes, especially since Adam has been sick.

I don’t know why I feel so impatient. I guess my overall mental picture of us being happy in Kenya was/is several weeks down the line, and in the interim, struggling, being transport-less, having to figure out what I know how to make for dinner, trying to get work done with none of the outlets at my desk function and my chair has broken arms, it all feels hard.

I slept for 11 hours last night. Maybe I’m just worn down.

I’m sure it will improve. I just need to keep going and stay positive!

Our House

Adam (for scale) and our house!

It’s a very very very fine house!

We’re living in a relatively new development called Fourways Junction, in one of their Lilac Villas.

We have 2 half bathrooms downstairs, a lovely big living room, dining room, kitchen, laundry room and …a room we’re using to store cleaning supplies. Oh! And we have a verandah!

Upstairs we’ve got 3 bedrooms and 1.5 bathrooms, and it’s all furnished by our landlords, who are an incredibly nice couple who live nearby in Ridgeways. In the US, “furnished” I always believed to mean “with furniture” but our landlords here have provided us with a washing machine, all the plates, cups, silverware, pans, spatulas we could ever need. AND a number of handy kitchen appliances in addition to the full complement of furniture.

The compound’s interior

The community itself is still in Phase II, which means that there’s a substantial amount of construction still happening and some elements of the compound that aren’t finished yet, like the shopping mall, the hotel, and the “country club”.  It seems to be moving quickly, though.

The setting in this “northern” area of Nairobi is very tree-filled and, as a result, surprisingly cool, especially during this Kenyan “winter.” It’s about 59 degrees right now in central Nairobi, but feels even chillier here!

My work commute

It takes about 10-15 minutes to drive to the UN compound from home. It goes through a lovely (and very expensive) neighborhood called Runda Estates. My taxi driver, Pius, is gonna be taking me to and from work every day this coming week while we wait for all the documents to buy a car duty-free and find a good used car to buy! It’ll cost about 1000 Kenyan shillings/day (~$11.50). Not ideal, but not terrible!

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Shopping Nearby

We’re close to the Ridgeways Mall (about 1.5 miles) and the Aladdin Restaurant, along with the Ridgeways Guest House. Restaurants, a bar called Scotchies we’re keen to try…a huge grocery store! All relatively close by.

Security

I’m sure our moms want to know that Fourways is a gated compound, with 24 hour security guards all over the place keeping watch. Our neighbors have bikes just out on their front porch, unlocked. So it’s safe, very safe!