Nairobi is the capital of Kenya and its largest city. It’s a city with over 3.5 million people, with approximately 2 million of them living in shantytowns.
I don’t know what we were expecting of Nairobi. I knew it would be a large city, but beyond that, I didn’t know what to expect. Surprisingly Nairobi is a very green city. There are trees everywhere. It’s a sprawling city of low buildings connected by a spiderweb of roads and highways. It reminded of me Los Angeles because of the congested traffic and lack of public transportation.
Despite having spent a total of six days in Nairobi (three days before and after Tanzania), we left Nairobi with a feeling that we never got to know it at all. Whenever I visit a new place, my goal to try to get to know the city, understand it. I know that a few days is nothing and that at best I go away with knowing the place superficially; I simply skimmed the surface of what the place has to offer. Nairobi was nothing like that. I left feeling that all I had done was hovered over the city and looked at it from a distance. Nairobi is unfathomable and unknowable. This is not how I like to travel. I like being with local people and trying to see how people lived.
I found Nairobi difficult to get to know. We were staying in a neighborhood called Westlands, which is an affluent neighborhood, but it still had its share of poverty and shacks. To get around in Nairobi, you either need a car or know how to navigate the system of matatus, privately owned minibuses. A ride on a matatu is cheap, only a few shillings for a short ride. There is no map of of the matatu routes and the drivers and the riders tend not to speak English. As a foreigner, riding a matatu is advisable only when you know exactly which one to take, where to get off, and how much it should cost. In short, you need a knowledgeable local to help you.
Kenya has the “charming” tradition of charging a “rich” mzungu (Swahili for white foreigner, but generally used to describe any Western foreigner and something we heard often) more. Some of this is official. Just about every attraction has two different price lists: one for non-resident foreigners and another one for residents. Some are even more selective: one for non-resident foreigners, one for non-Kenyan residents, and another for Kenyan citizens. The non-resident foreigners pay the most. The entry free for Kenyans is often 20-40% of what mzungus pay. Some of the upcharge is unofficial. For example with taxis, if you don’t know what the going rate is, you’re going to get screwed because of the lack of meters.
We’re kind of used to being vigilant about getting ripped off as foreigners. Peru had some of this, although not nearly to the same extent that we experienced it in Kenya and Tanzania. In the beginning we used taxis to get around Nairobi. In Peru, we trusted the quoted rate given to us by the hotels. The concierge made sure that we got the local rate. In Kenya, the rates given to us by the hotels, while they weren’t as inflated as what the taxi drivers would have given to us out on the street if we were on our own, they were still an inflated price.
After talking to an American girl who was in Nairobi for a six-month long internship, we discovered that Uber existed. Uber effing saved us. Except when there was surge pricing, Uber was much cheaper. We knew ahead of time how much we were going to pay. The only difficulty was when we were at a place with no WiFi. Getting Uber to pick us up at a hotel was easy, but how to get back to the hotel when we were done was difficult. Based on our intuition that drivers (all drivers, not just Uber) were desperate for jobs, we arranged for the same driver to pick us up at a certain time. While this meant we lacked some flexibility, at least we weren’t stranded.
What Ben and I discovered was that our dependency on private cars/taxis to get around removed us from the feel of the city. We felt sheltered, in a mzungu bubble. None of this could be ameliorated by walking around in the city. For one thing, we couldn’t walk from our hotel to any of the attractions that we wanted to see in Nairobi, nor did there seem to be a central location where stuff was. Instead everything was spread around everywhere. The other thing about walking in Nairobi is that it’s not exactly the most advisable thing to do. Sidewalks are scarce. More often than not, we walked a narrow dirt path beside the roads. Crossing streets was always a bit of an epic adventure. Street lights are rare. Traffic is controlled with traffic circles, which means that cars, trucks, and buses may slow down a little, but they certainly do not stop. Ben and I ran across each street praying that an unseen car wouldn’t strike us out of nowhere. Because in Kenya, they drive on the left hand side of the road (and I never got used to this), there were many unseen cars. I relied on Ben to tell me when it was safe to cross.
While we felt safe walking around during the day (we found a couple restaurants near our hotel that we liked), we definitely felt uncomfortable walking at night. There were no street lights. We relied on residual lights from nearby businesses to avoid potholes, rocks, and debris. While we had no problems with almost everyone out on the street, there were a couple of people who accosted us. They yelled at us and got too close into our personal space, but they didn’t try to rob us. I think they just wanted to bother us. Still it was unnerving. It also didn’t help when people at the hotel and friendly locals dissuaded us from walking in Nairobi – “too dangerous” they said.
Another way that we were “in a bubble” was that the first hotel we stayed in was the Villa Rosa Kempinski, an opulent hotel by Kenyan standards. With restaurants and bars at the hotel, along with a pool and spa, it was all too easy to stay at VRK and not deal with hassles of trying to get around Nairobi. VRK was its own little world.
When we left Nairobi, we both concluded that we saw places in Nairobi, but we never got to know Nairobi itself.