29 September 2008

Why is this matatu going backwards?

In one of those days where everything that can go wrong, will go wrong, here are some of the challenges of working in Africa.

Before starting work, we walked over to the nearby mall to run errands and get some cash out. Unfortunately, Rob's bank seems to think he is a "fraudster" and for the third time in as many weeks declined his transaction. So while Rob starts about a twenty minute chat with his bank, we walk down to the main road to grab a matatu (basically public minivans that run regular routes - ours is the 23) into work. We tell the guy where we are going, he nods, we agree on a price (about 14 cents), hop on board and everything seems fine.

The guy drives off a bit slowly, but honestly with the way these guys generally drive, slowly is not something to complain about. And then we stop, which is fairly normal, matatus stop (or at least come to a slow roll) to pick up people all the time. And then we start driving backwards. Which is decidedly not normal. Even with the way these guys generally drive. We reverse for a good minute or so, end up behind where we started and load up with a few more people. Then the matatu starts off again, going in the right direction for almost a full three minutes before it randomly turns left, stops and tells us to get out. Wonderful. So now, five minutes later, we are back on the main road, about a 100 yards closer to work and trying to catch another matatu.

We make it into work and have a reasonably productive day, our meeting starts late (as tends to happen) and runs an hour or three long (as tends to happen) so lunch is something slightly less than delicious from the gas station across the street. We head back to the apartment to start our evening conference calls (morning in the US) using TurboCall which at 8 cents a minute is downright cheap.

GROUP IMG_1365 Unfortunately, today the quality is downright cheap and keeps breaking up, usually right when someone is answering one of my questions or saying something that (I assume) is really important. So Rob heads back to the nearby mall to make his call from the internet cafe which seems like a good idea until Skype refuses to connect. I get a text, start up his call, and have been talking for about five minutes when Rob bursts into the room, huffing and puffing from a sprint back from the mall. Then for our third and final call, we decide to go with the plain old cell phone which works really well except that at 35 cents a minute, right when Rob says "and now I'm going to give it over to Steve", we hear three beeps telling us we've run out of money and the line goes dead.

But hey, a bad day in Africa is still better than a good day in the office.

20 September 2008

The Rhmyenoceros, or, Disaster Averted

After taking on both the Masai Mara and downtown Nairobi in pop-top safari vans, we decided throw caution to the wind and go after Lake Nukuru on our own little self-drive safari. The allure of wandering wherever our hearts desired in our own decked out land rover was too much to pass up. The reality of waking up inconsolably hungover and squeezing five people into a Toyota Carrola to fight Nairobi's traffic was less alluring.

But no worries, we hit the road and within no time were in Nukuru town. After stopping for some petrol (we call this foreshadowing) and kuku (chicken) we arrived at the lake, paid our entrance fee and spent just enough time walking around for a monkey to run up, steal the drink box out of Salvador's hand and taunt him with it from a tree. Then we were completely free to explore the park on our own, drive wherever, stay as long and take as many pictures as we wanted (which turned out be about 400). The freedom was great, as was the general lack of other tourists (at least compared to the Mara).

PICT0068 The lake is home to thousands and thousands of pink flamingos, storks and probably a thousand other birds, plus its shores teem with gazelles, water buffaloes, zebras, elands (some weird cow thing) and rhinos. We drove right down to the shore, got as close to the rhinos as we dared (with most of us hiked halfway out the windows) then headed up to a lookout to enjoy our gourmet bush lunch of chicken and soggy chips. We met two Swiss guys who had the biggest fucking cameras I have ever seen, they were honestly three feet long and apparently had 1000x magnification. Serious zoom lens envy. We cruised back down from the picnic site (only bottoming out like 7 times), swung by the south of the park to check out some giraffes and then headed to our guest house.

PICT0079 And what greeted us at the guest house? A troop of elephants or maybe some leopards? No such luck, but we did stumble upon a solid menagerie of about 50 middle school kids running around blasting electronic dance music (Mr Green?). After about 5 minutes trying to find someone in charge, at one point actually telling people that I need an adult, we finally found the carekeeper who had (pretty wisely) locked himself in a little hut. He explained that we were at the Wildlife Club of Kenya Youth Hostel and that the Wildlife Club of Kenya Guest House was just up the road. Disaster averted.

Unfortunately the guest house didn't serve food, so we drove to Sarova Lion Hill Lodge which offers rooms from $250 a night. We watched an 'authentic African culture show', made fun of all the white people (because we are so wise and experienced) and had a thoroughly mediocre dinner. As we were driving back (through the park, at night) and just after someone said we should be looking for eyes to cheetahs, we started hearing a nice rhythmic thumping sound which we correctly recognized as a flat tire. So we limped back to the hotel, tore the car apart looking for the spare and the jack and the iron and lug nut key and got the tire changed (and some brownies too). Disaster averted.

PICT0254 PICT0124

The next morning we got up at the crack of dawn and watched the sun rise over the flamingos on the lake. We spent a good thirty minutes watching two adults and two baby rhinos slowly grazing, then spotted a tower of about fifteen giraffes (also slowly grazing). After a quick stop at little waterfall, we (really I) decided the main 'road' wasn't doing it, so we took off down a little double wide dirt trail. We headed into a big grassy area, saw a bushel of about 50 baboons running (galloping? loping? what do baboons do?) across the road, then promptly got stuck in the mud. Got out, dodged a lion or two, pushed the car to dry ground and we were off. Disaster averted.

From Nukuru we headed to Lake Naivasha where we enjoyed another fantastically mediocre meal in which they managed to mess up every single order (it was actually amazing, you would have to actually try to do a worse job). And then we realized we were twenty miles from the nearest town and had approximately zero gas. Rather than do something sensible like go back to town, we continued on and luckily the first guy we asked about a gas station told us he had some spare petrol, ran inside and hooked us up with a few liters. Disaster averted (or was it...).

PICT0313 PICT0277

Got into Crater Lake which is a really nice little lake (in a crater) with no predators. So while you can't spot a lion or leopard, you can get out and walk around with wild zebras and giraffes which is about the coolest thing in the entire world. Generally the animals just slowly walk away from you, though some zebras got spooked by a car and started stampeding which was equal parts awesome and terrifying. We also saw some giraffe courting which was equal parts romantic and awkward.

PICT0382 And then we got lost. Like random dirt paths in a national park lost. Like "hey does that tree look familiar to anyone" lost. Like our gas light is back on lost. So found some random Kenyan biking through the national park with a bunch of firewood (true story) and he pointed us to the main gate. We got to the nearest village and they pointed us to the next market where there was a gas pump. But of course gas is a little imprecise and there was in fact only a diesel pump. But after about ten minutes we found that there was also a generator and we convinced whomever owned it to give us a liter of whatever fuel she used in it. We made it back to Naivasha town, the 2nd gas station we tried had petrol(no comment) and we made it home, safe and sound, to Nairobi. All together now... disaster averted.



P.S. Aaaargh, its international talk like a pirate day!

13 September 2008

¡Viva Mexico!

Contrary to popular culture, American tv and thousands of Mexicans cruising up and down Federal, Cinco de Mayo is not actually Mexico's national day. That honor belongs to September 16th and last Friday night found us celebrating at the Mexican Embassy (technically the third country I've been in in Africa, if you count an illegal little jaunt into Tanzania up in the Mara).

IMG_7138The party was pretty espactular, they probably got two hundred people out ranging from ambassadors to nuns to military attache's to my personal favorite, Kenyans in Sombreros handing out Coronas. After some hors' devours, the Mexican ambassador gave a flag waving (literally) speech interrupted by copious "Viva"s  then opened a fantastic buffet featuring probably the best chicken mole I've ever had (no fajitas, burritos or sour cream as apparently those are American inventions). Of course, the real highlight was the open bar with Coronas, Margaritas and Caballitos  (shots) de Tequila. Lots of Caballitos. Somewhere in the next four hours, after hobnobing with diplomats, hablaing en espanol, the ambassador falling asleep and us running around in sombreros, we realized pretty much everyone else had left (probably a good thing given the Caballitos), hopped in a cab, butchered a version of Closing Time and called it a night.

Next stop Saudia Arabia Day on the 23rd (I believe their national drink is intolerance. Was that intolerant of me to say?)

10 September 2008

A Business Safari

Business Safari We've had a pretty nuts week so far, an East Africa chapter meeting with ~15 clients, some fun 11pm meetings, two visits to Carnivore (more below) and today's adventure: a twelve hour business safari. Since there are five of us out here right now and the cabs, which are not that cheap, will only take 4 folks, we had our trusty Masai Mara guide break out the pop top safari van and take us around all day. And since we were meeting with people today, everybody was wearing suits (everyone except me since the closest thing I have is an apron from Carnivore) while we cruised through downtown Nairobi hunting for our big business 5: prime minister, permanent secretary, indian witchdoctor, futbol player and illegal dvd peddler (we went 3/5).

Started by fighting the absolutely horrendous Nairobi traffic to get downtown for a launch meeting of a study on Kenya as a BPO center. Honestly the most interesting part of the meeting was watching the formality and protocol of introductions: the facilitator introduced the CEO who introduced the Chairman who introduced the Permanent Secretary (tick: 1/5) who proceeded to acknowledge everyone who had introduced him and all the 'distinguished ladies and gentlemen'. After the introductions there was a break for tea and we hit the road for the next spot.

Continued fighting the absolutely horrendous Nairobi traffic through an industrial part of the city. It was actually fairly interesting (my favorite was a sign for a welding company with a welder wearing sunglasses while the three people watching held proper welding masks) and with the crawling pace, the slum out the window and Jessica's camera it was really tempting to open the roof and start taking pictures. Showing a shocking amount of moral restraint, we did not and got to our meeting after a good hour long game drive (my guess is it was 7 miles away).

The meeting was good and we headed off to lunch. To avoid fighting the absolutely horrendous Nairobi traffic we took a detour on a dirt road that went right next to Nairobi National Park, so we literally had a safari. Then at the restaurant I was greeted by this Indian guy in a turban (not that theres anything wrong with that) who didn't introduce himself, took us to our table, sat down and ordered two bottles of wine. Turns out he was the chairman of this company but for about half the lunch I thought he was just a crazy Indian witchdoctor (tick: 2/5). Also turns out he owns some really nice hotels in Kenya, is involved in some pretty interesting charities/work, and was popping off at 4 for his weekly sauna, massage and bottle of whiskey. Not such a bad guy.

Headed back down to the industrial area (they have tax-free zones there, so the outsourcing companies we were speaking with are located there) and, you guessed it, fought the absolutely horrendous Nairobi traffic. Had another good, though really long, meeting and finally headed back home over 12 hours after we left. Surprisingly, traffic was not that bad.

(tick: 3/5)

08 September 2008

A Photo Cross Section

Had a nice, relaxing weekend down here in the Robi. Went to a nice bar called Mercury that could probably even pass for a trendy lounge, went to the National Museum which had some decent exhibits on human pre-history and some excellent photos of Kenya and went to Carnivore which is a Brazillian steak house in Kenya that used to have all sorts of wild game meat but thats been pretty well curtailed and all we got was some crocodile, ostrich and a sweet ass apron.

Anyways, here's a few quick photos that I think show some of the interesting contrasts of Nairobi.

A local market area in WestlandsThe Artcaffe in Westlands

03 September 2008

The Masai Mara, or, In and Out of Africa

Abridged version: Had an incredible weekend out at the Masai Mara which is Kenya's extension of the Serengeti. Wildebeest, lions, lions eating wildebeest, baboons, zebras, giraffes, hippos, elephants, hot air balloons, champagne, ostriches, monkeys, water buffalo, hyenas and the cradle of humanity. Full set of pictures here and here.

Long version (but with pictures!): Last Thursday, the two remaining members of the team arrived here in Nairobi. Unfortunately Jessica's luggage didn't make the whole trip so we spent Friday morning picking up the necessities: pants (trousers for you cheeky brits), t-shirts, random Kenyan snacks (Chevda and Bhusu - pretty tasty, kinda like African chex mix), Tusker Beer, Two Keys Whiskey and Yatta Kenyan Wine (in a box - Kenya is not exactly Argentina in the vinology department). We headed out in early afternoon, driving through some pretty luxurious burbs before entering the Rift Valley (which from above looks a lot like South Park, CO) and into pretty full on Africa. Our driver, George, seemed to prefer the dirt shoulder to the paved, though painfully potholed, road as we cruised past villages that weren't much more than a few wood and corrugated iron shacks, busses packed to the brim with people and supplies (blue chips anyone?) and more than a handful of Masai people wearing bright red tending to their cattle.

We got to the Flamingo camp just before sundown, unfortunately the tree house was already occupied so we got these permanent "tents" complete with showers, mosquito nets and enough room to easily stand up. Had a pretty good dinner and were enjoying our boxed wine when we met Ndolo. Ndolo is one of those people you can instantly tell you don't really want to talk, but since we were the only people in the dining tent (and he had more wine) you end up spending three hours with. Three hours filled with wild tales of meeting Tony Blair and Bill Clinton (after hitting on Chelsea in a bar), plans to run oil for the Libyan government and finally that all Kenya needs is all westerners to "get the fuck out and stop raping us" (cause it worked well in Somalia), and I was ready for bed. Luckily we had Masai guards to keep out the lions, cheetahs and annoyingly drunk Kenyans.

The next morning we packed up our tricked out minibus with a pop up roof and headed into the park. Its hard to describe, the Mara is 585 square miles of rolling grassland dotted with awesome African trees, the occasional watering hole and a shitload of incredible animals. We started out the day with some water buffaloes and giraffes from a distance, but this was really just a warm up to spotting a lion eating its kill. 

Pretty amazing, the lion was about fifteen feet from the road and could not have cared less about the people (or minibuses) slowly inching closer. From there we checked out the first (of many) massive herds of wildebeest and zebras roaming (and randomly running single file) through the park. From July to October is the great migration when about one million come up from the Serengeti, I reckon we saw most of them.

We continued driving through the park seeing a bushel of baboons, a parade of elephant and a crash of hippopotami, all before lunch. Stopped next to the Mara river for lunch which we enjoyed with a kodak of tourists and a troupe of monkeys (who kept trying to steal Rob's lunch box). Took a quick walk down the river and ended up in a little clearing full of animal carcasses, not the best smell after eating. After lunch we kept cruising around, spotting more herds of wildebeests, zeals of zebras and an ostentation of ostriches. I think the most impressive for me were the towers of giraffes casually munching trees and elegantly walking through the Mara.* Thats right, I said elegantly. We also had a nice bonding conversation about our porn star names, look for Aaron Bellaire in the upcoming In and Out of Africa flick. Just kidding.

After about nine hours tromping through the park, we headed off to one of the "pubs" (rooms with beer in the corner) in the Masai village. Shared some beers with the Masai chief who explained lion hunting, stealing cattle and then offered us 50 goats for Jessica (against my better judgement we declined). Then back to the camp, set up my hammock, ate passionfruit fresh of the vine, had dinner, played cards and avoided Ndolo. 

Sunday morning we got up early, like pitch black early, for our hot air balloon ride. It was incredibly incredible, we took off as the sun was rising and once we were air born it was like we were floating (because, ya know, we were floating). It was also amazingly quite and smooth, a welcome change from the bumpy roads and diesel mini-bus of the previous day. We saw the huge vastness of the Mara, mile long lines of wildebeests stretching to the horizon, impalas sprinting off as we passed over, spotted hyenas wandering the grass and more giraffes amongst the trees. It was really an amazing perspective on the park. And the 5-star, champagne breakfast complete with made-to-order omelettes and pancakes wasn't a bad touch either.

Following the balloon ride we dropped people off at the Kerokok lodge, a proper safari lodge (like it has a pool and internet) in the park, saw our last two lions hanging out in the road and headed back home. We slept most of the way (as much as you can sleep on the roads here), got back to Nairobi in the afternoon, picked up an illegal DVD with like 15 disney movies and capped off the weekend by ordering pizzas and watching The Lion King.

Hakuna Matata,

* Seriously, these are the collective names of the animals [1]. Ok ok, an ostentation is really for peacocks. And the credit for a Kodak of Tourists goes to Rob.