letters from nairobi

Bread, Birds, and Brunch
May 22, 2012, 11:17
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Hey! Hi! Hey there! Remember me?

Contrary to appearances, I haven’t disappeared into the Kenyan wilderness, eking out a prehistoric hunter-gatherer existence in the savannahs of Tsavo with only my wits and the friendship of sympathetic caribou to guide me. If only.

Nope, I’ve been here, in Nairobi, rapidly aging in what seems to be a twisted version of progeria – six months ago, when I arrived in Kenya, I was full of vim and vigor, ready for adventure. Safaris! Tiny airplanes! Road trips! Baby elephants! And now?

I spend an inordinate amount of time baking bread, hanging out with birds, and amusing myself by conjugating nonsensical sentences in Swahili.

Sad, isn’t it.

To be honest, it’s a shift I remember from when I moved to Nicaragua, and I assume it’s inevitable that novelty becomes routine after a certain point. This isn’t to say that my life in Nairobi consists solely of geriatric pursuits – I am planning a white water rafting trip for this weekend as we speak – but that things have settled down a bit. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Every weekday, I wake up to morning sunshine, take my dog for a walk, and brew a French press of Kenyan coffee. I spend most of the day out on the balcony, working, while dozens of rainbow-colored, chirping birds flit around, munching on sunflower seeds and building nests. In the afternoons, I practice Swahili, walk my dog before the clouds darken, and read or watch a rented HBO series as the sun begins to set. I cook dinner while listening to music and drinking wine, and after N. comes home from work, relax and watch a movie with a curled up, snoring dog and the sound of thunderstorms. On weekends, I cook elaborate meals with friends, take afternoon naps, and water the garden. On Sunday nights, N. and I make pizza from scratch and drink overpriced red wine.

It’s not always an adventure, but it works. And living here is, finally, beginning to feel like home.


on time
December 9, 2011, 14:08
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As of tomorrow night, I will have been living in Nairobi for one month.

The way time moves when one relocates abroad is peculiar. I remember experiencing the same warping and stretching of the days when I moved to Peru and, a few years later, Nicaragua.

The first hours are a blur. Jetlagged and weary of waiting in lines (at the airport, on the plane, in customs, through passport control), you are grateful simply to have arrived at your destination. The scent of the air is different, you notice, but before long, you’re in the backseat of someone’s taxi, watching the scenery roll by as if fixed on a looping cartoon background. I’m here, you think. And that’s enough.

You wake up in an unfamiliar bed to unfamiliar sounds. All your senses are heightened, and you’re overwhelmed with one thought: not home.

The first few days are when time slows most dramatically. Every minute is new and shining; moments become Polaroid snapshots, the mundane as striking as the exceptional. Later, you will remember the strangest details: the color of the earth, the froth on a beer being poured, a barefoot boy dragging a stick through the dirt. There is no hierarchy: a lilting birdsong holds equal place with your new house. Everything is illuminated by the fact of its mere existence.

Hours stretch impossibly long in those first few days; the time between daybreak and dusk spans eras.

You begin, slowly, to orient yourself by recognizing a few fixed details: the billboard of two young women laughing, holding yogurt spoons; the bend in the road that follows the river; the light switch in the hallway; the stray cat that spends its days curled up on the grass in the sun. These things become landmarks, as unchanging as the slope of the hills or the position of the stars.

Later, when the billboard changes, or the cat finds another patch of grass, you will feel an inexplicable sense of betrayal.

As weeks pass, the hours begin to contract. At this early point, though, they are still elastic. A new experience – walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood, learning the names of the children playing in the courtyard, sipping the juice of a fruit you’ve never tasted – will cause time to stretch, coming to a standstill to engrave the snapshot on your memory. A lightbulb in a darkened shack, Madeline and Jennifer, tangysweet. You will remember these moments.

The days will begin to move more quickly as your surroundings become familiar and recognizable. You will stop noticing how purple the bougainvillea flowers are, the shrill sounds of circling hawks calling to one another, the way dusk casts a pinkish glow over the acacia trees. These things have become part of the background of daily life. Now, you notice only what deviates from the norm – a new neighbor, a sudden rainstorm, a missing tree branch.

It is close to one month after arriving in a new country when you realize that time has begun passing swiftly once again, the hours blurring into days and the days into weeks. What did I eat for dinner last night? you ask yourself. Did I visit that neighborhood yesterday – or was it the day before?

When’s the last time I bought milk?

There is no way that I know of to alter this process, to make time stretch and bend at will. I believe it’s necessary that the days begin to pass as before – it would be maddening to live each day as if it was your first, with nothing recognizable to anchor you.

At the same time, the space between familiarity and monotony is small, and it’s only a matter of time before the comforts of home become stale and colorless. And then what? There’s only one solution:


on being a hermit
November 16, 2011, 21:26
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One conclusion that you, loyal reader(s), might be able to draw from previous posts regarding the trials and tribulations of dog walking and various “views from…” snapshots that happen to be taken from inside my apartment is that I have been spending quite a bit of time holed up inside.

And you would be correct.

Although the subject matter is undeniably riveting, it should be mentioned that my intent in moving halfway across the world was not, in fact, to spend more time chasing feral cats with sticks and running on treadmills.

Unfortunately, as I have come to find out, living in Nairobi is not quite as simple as one might imagine.

For the past few days, I have been able to venture outside the apartment complex only a couple of times a day: when I take Franklin on long walks down Rhapta Road, which is a straight path lined by luxury apartment compounds, each with its own handful of guards peering out from behind iron gates, and for dinner, after N. gets off of work and has use of the shared company car.

The rest of the time, I am pretty much relegated to the apartment complex — which, although lovely, isn’t exactly thrilling.

Adjusting to this circumscribed geography has been frustrating. My first course of action when moving to a new city — not to mention continent — is to wander, aimlessly, for hours. I set out with a vague approximation of what direction I am facing, get lost, find my bearings, and head back, venturing out in ever-widening circles until I feel confident that I have an understanding of the city’s landmarks, intersections, and general layout. It is one of my favorite ways to pass time — an invaluable introduction to the place I am choosing to call home.

However, much to my chagrin, I haven’t been able to spend my first few days wandering. The fact is, as much as I would like to ignore it, Nairobi is not a safe place to explore alone, especially as an obvious foreigner.

It’s possible, of course, for me to leave the apartment complex, provided I have a specific destination in mind. I have been admonished not to use the public transport system of mutatus — sardine-packed vans that careen wildly down unmarked roads, their frequent fatal accidents earning them named wards at the hospital and morgue. But I can call a “Jim Cab” (“Jim” standing for “just in a minute”) to pick me up.

The problem is: where to go?

I’ve asked several people for recommendations, Kenyan and non-Kenyan both. Museums? Parks? Cafes? Downtown?

The answer I always get is the same:

Go to the mall.

Apparently, the shopping mall is a defining point of life in Nairobi. There are far more malls than one would think necessary, with each large district boasting its own collection of the same chain stores, fast food stalls, and groceries. Even when giving directions, the points of reference are always malls.

“Go to Village Market and turn left…”

“It’s near Westlands Centre. On the other side of the roundabout.”

“Which green grocer — ABC Place or Yaya?”

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