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.



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…



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.

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.

“Whole Berry est mieux” – International Thanksgiving in Nairobi


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.


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.


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:



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.



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.



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.



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!



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.