Before diving into a recap of our recent trip to Nairobi, let’s get a couple truisms out of the way.
First, when an American tells you that they’ve heard somewhere is dangerous, it’s a lot like a FIAT owner telling you to watch out for those unreliable British cars. Perspective matters.
Second, when you live in the midwest, everywhere you travel feels friendly. Expectations need to be readjusted.
Anyways, we just wrapped up a week in Nairobi. This was a work trip for Kat, so most of the time was spent behind laptops – not a lot of captivating content for a day-by-day blog. Instead, you get this summary.
We made it to Nairobi very late on Friday night. Miraculously, our travel day was successful, despite delays out of Minneapolis and a completely chaotic Charles de Gaulle in France. The hotel we’re at is the location for Kat’s workshop, so it was selected for us – it’s a fancy hotel called the Tribe, attached to new-ish shopping center called The Village. Aside from a layout that would make M. C. Escher blush, it’s very nice.
The drive in from the airport (about half an hour) was a good chance to get a glimpse of the city. We both had a feeling of familiarity – Nairobi looks a lot like big developing cities around the world, with a mix of fancy new infrastructure, seemingly chaotic or non-existent urban planning, and huge wealth disparities.
We woke up on Saturday with our typical first-day-in-a-new-city plan in mind – get out and explore. I’d scoped out a few nearby coffee shops on Google Maps, so tracking them down seemed like a good initial destination. It turned out to be a big more complex than expected, for a few reasons.
First, Google Maps doesn’t have a totally perfect grasp of Nairobi’s streets and addresses, and addresses aren’t necessarily that precise. Second, it takes a bit to wrap your head around the security structures in Nairobi. Back home, if you come to a traffic barrier with armed guards, you think “oh well, I guess I can’t go there.” But here, owing to a rough security situation in the late 90s and early 2000s, there are checkpoints everywhere, including on streets and to enter almost any business.
A brief aside on security – Nairobi had a number of high profile terrorist incidents on diplomatic and civilian targets. It also earned a bad reputation for street crime. Today, Nairobi has similar crime levels to New Orleans, and overall a higher safety score. Just don’t be stupid.
Anyways, one happy accident from struggling to find the coffee shop – we discovered a Malaysian cafe near the Malaysian embassy. That’s always a good sign, so after an (eventual) coffee, we stopped by for some char kway teow and roti canai.
From lunch, we ventured into Karura forest, a large forest park within the city. It was a drizzly day, and Karura gave us firsthand experience with African mud. It’s the stuff of literature and media, from Martha Gellhorn to Ewan McGregor. They were not kidding. With a few steps, our shoes were caked and walking became awkward. Luckily the park had plenty of shoe scrapers around.
Our hike took as to the waterfall and caves in the park, which were swarming with school kids on holiday. They were very enthusiastic about Kat’s hair, and happy to chat. As we continued our hike, we saw some monkeys, ran into three dik-diks, and a mystery mammal. #blessed
After our forest outing, we set our sights on the mall. We’d swung through early in the morning, just to get a sense of the place, and discovered a place called “Rev” – a small shop with four racing simulators. They had a chalkboard indicating that they’d be screening the F1 sprint and race, so we knew we had to go back. It was a lot of fun to spend some time with Kenyan F1 nerds, though it turned out the sprint was nothing compared to the real race.
No, we cannot adopt a baby elephant
We got up super early on Sunday for our only scheduled activity – an excursion to Nairobi National Park, the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, and the Giraffe Center. The real motivation for booking the excursion was the Wildlife Trust – they take in orphaned baby elephants and take care of them, socialize them, and release them back into the wild. Kat has followed them on Instagram for years, so wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to visit in person. Unfortunately, the tickets for the general public are impossible to come by, so a guided visit with an excursion company is the only way in. Hence, the bigger agenda.
Nairobi National Park turned out to be a pretty amazing experience. Our guide Zach got us there as the sun was rising. The basic system is that you set off into the park, and all the guides communicate via CB radios – if someone spots something, everyone comes. Before we’d even gotten through the gate, we were surrounded by baboons. We quickly saw giraffes, zebras, and all manner of antelope-y things. Before long, a call came in on the radio about a lion spotting, so we set off in that direction. The lion was happily lounging by the side of the road, pretty unconcerned with all of us. We spent a while in awe, and then a pack of zebras came a bit closer and his attention was peaked – he wandered off, making plans.
Later, we got a similar call about a pair of rhinos, also mere feet from the road. And finally, perhaps most surprisingly of all, a cheetah, a rare sighting. We spent about three hours in the park – it was a pretty incredible experience. Then it was off to the elephant sanctuary!
Visits to the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust are strictly controlled – visitors are allowed in for one hour per day. The elephants come in in two groups and get their bottles from their keepers. Then they mill around a bit. At the end of the one hour, they head back into the bush with their keepers watching with a mindful eye. As the elephants grow up, they’re transferred to a national park and do daily outings to meet packs of elephants in the wild. Eventually, they’re adopted into a group and move on with their lives.
The elephants are cute and curious and enjoy coming up to the crowd for pets. They’re really happy, playful animals. It was pretty incredible to have such a close interaction with them.
Our last outing was the Giraffe Center. Much more like a zoo, it has a few giraffe families living on sight. They do a variety of educational programming, but the real reason you go is to feed the giraffes. And it turns out, feeding giraffes is pretty good fun. They’re very gentle but determined. We’re not normally big fans of zoos, but these guys kind of melted our hearts.
Returning home from our excursion, we went back to the mall for the actual F1 race. The place was pretty packed – they had to bring in lots of extra seating. It was a really good race, with the lead changing hands multiple times and drama right up until the last lap – everyone was on the edge of their seats, cheering on their favorite drivers and trash talking the others. A really fun experience.
And then then work started.
The rest of our visit mostly consisted of Kat participating in her daily workshops, while I sought out places to work. I found an awesome place called Pallets Cafe nearby. All of the waiters are deaf, and the whole place has a very relaxed garden vibe. I spent a couple days working there. I also walked to the climbing gym and had fun learning about the local climbing community. In the future, it’d be great to do some guided outdoor climbing – it looks like a pretty amazing place to climb.
I did get to have one fun adventure – my colleague Sam is spending July on an archaeological project in Tanzania. Their total station (a fancy measurement device) turned out to be nonfunctional. They identified a rental unit in Nairobi, and dispatched me to check it out. The guys who had it run a small survey company, and it was a lot of fun chatting with them about their work and backgrounds. The total station turned out to be exactly what the archaeologists needed, so another team member was able to pick it up as she transited from Lake Victoria down to Tanzania.
Meanwhile, Kat was on a behind-the-scenes tour of the National Museums of Kenya Nairobi Museum with the workshop attendees. They were invited into the vault to view Kenya’s greatest treasure – 4 million to 2 million year old hominin remains. If you’d like to see a bunch of paleo nerds completely lose their minds, let them take selfies with Turkana Boy. Afterward, the group wandered through the collections of giant crocodile skulls and extinct mammal skeletons before being released into the museum itself.
I’m really glad we had this opportunity to visit Nairobi and get a feel for it. In the end, I was surprised at how relaxed the city is – yes, traffic can be intense, but it doesn’t have the 24/7 intensity of a city in Southeast Asia. The people are incredibly friendly and kind, and I really enjoyed having quick conversations with folks everywhere I went. I hope we have an opportunity to return in the future, to explore in greater depth.