Saturday, May 26, 2012


I think this might be one of those posts that I will continuously updated with the fascinating randomness of Kenya. 

Earlier today, I was looking at some postcards (not gonna name the people that are making me go through all this trouble). Surprisingly, disturbingly, curiously, not even sure what the appropriate word might be, the majority of post cards were of two varieties: (1) animal sex or (2) asses. And yes, by sex I mean one elephant mounting another, male elephant genitalia explicitly visible (wide variety of animals, so you can take your pick). Or, more interestingly, three zebras taken from behind - all you can see is three zebra asses. That is it! Pretty zoomed in with nothing else to distract you in the composition. There were other animal pictures of course, but those made me wonder… if they are being sold and there’s a large variety of them, then someone must be buying them. Now, who might that be? And more importantly, why on earth?

Friday, May 25, 2012

The people I meet

Man: I almost fell asleep in there.

Lily: Yeah, it was pretty boring stuff. But you have to attend when you get here.

Man: If anything happens, their hands are clean. They gave you the information.

Lily: Have you been here long?

Man: 3 weeks

Lily: Yeah I just started this Monday.

Man: Where are you from?

Lily: Bulgaria

Man: Oh you must hate me then (laughs out loud)

Lily: Why? Where are you from?

Man: Libya

Lily: Yeah….

Shortly after mandatory Security Briefing to start a Friday morning


The type of experience and history some of the people out here at the UN have is pretty mind-blowing. This guy I met works for the Political Office of something (I still can’t get right all the abbreviations, acronyms and names of UN agencies, offices, desk and teams). His specialty: security. Work experience in the field: 47 years. Nationality: Somali. Worked for Interpol, back in the 70s. Visited Budapest in 1976 (the way Budapest came up in the conversation was as the capital of Bulgaria….). Must have been an interesting time, I said. Clearly, with all the socialism and communism around Europe at the time. Spent 10 years in Italy. And now advises and strategizes and so on about the security situation in Somalia.

Half the time I was thinking damn he actually comes from Somalia when it was a functioning country. The other half I was trying to wrap my mind around the idea that he has 47!!! years of work experience. That’s probably not including university education (must at least hold a bachelor’s degree to work at the UN, no?). Even if he started work when he was 20, that still makes him 67?! “That’s a lot of years working. Isn’t it time for a break?” I asked. It wasn’t is what he told me, cant give up. “My country still needs me.”

Point. Game. Set. Match.


Mary looks like she’s barely a teenager, could be younger. She was doing pedi for one of the women that work at the salon here. Child labor. Exploitation. Must be someone’s daughter. Ignore for now. I saw her the next day and I actually talked to her. Mary is here to train for a month. She travel’s every day from a neighbourhood close to Nairobi National Park to Gigiri – 2 hour commute each way. Not sure what she can learn or whether its worth the time, but I’d bet she’d have a better chance at life than most people.

Here’s to opportunities in Kenya.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The internship begins

My excitement for starting my internship could have almost died with my alarm going off at 7AM this morning. But it didn’t.

Up, shower, breakfast, email, news. Oops, running late…again. Power walking to the UN Complex, I hear hooves behind me. No way I say, this ain’t happening! Coming from where I do, I expected to see a cart . Yep, one of these:


Coz that’s what you get for living in the EU!

My, oh my, was I wrong. Less than a minute later a boy riding a horse passes me. Seriously?! With backpack on, at quarter to 9 , he looks like he is going to school! Relaxed, sitting up; knock-knock the hooves go on the asphalt. And I’m smiling like the idiot that I am to myself, in the street… Had I not been walking past the U.S. Embassy, I would have taken a picture. But it just so happened that I was. “No picture” the signs say. And there are plenty of bad-ass-looking-machine-gun-carrying security guards to enforce this rule on non-compliant residents. Let’s not risk it and be late for my first day.  I walk on, looking at the boy, smiling.

U.N. Complex line for visitors: I know people try and they want to be friendly and all… But for the last time: I DON’T SPEAK RUSSIAN! There is more than one Slavic language that uses the Cyrillic. No joke!

Let’s skip up ahead to late afternoon. Day is over at 16:30. Everyone leaves their posts. And so do I. I take my stuff, walk down the flight of stairs and through block M into the main lobby. Suddenly, I see a monkey crossing the hallway. Wait, what? Did that just happen? My eyes follow, my hand reaches in my bag and I rummaging for my camera. Never taking my eyes off the target. Gotta be quick, any second is crucial. Open, zoom, shutter:


I look up from the screen, it’s disappeared! But where did it go? I stand, I look around. 20-30 seconds. Too much. I’m conscious of looking silly, so I turn to continue. And there it is, another one! Sitting on the stairs, eating an orange! Looks up at me, bored and a little judgmental, it takes another bite of the fruit.


Distractions continue and this time I take a picture of the hedge-made giraffe.


By the time I make it back to the main entrance, all the U.N. buses are already leaving. One, two, three.. .all of them? I look at my watch, its barely quarter to 5! Good thing I can walk home.

I never saw the horse walk on the sidewalk, but as I stride past the U.S. Embassy once more, I see it. It was the smell the hit me first, it always is… horse poop.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The traffic


Traffic in Nairobi IS really horrendous. Until you actually see it, it’s hard to believe. It’s one of those things you have to experience for yourself. I already knew there were almost 4 million people commuting in and out of Nairobi daily, but never thought it could get this bad. Or maybe I  just forgot what real traffic looks like with the lack of it up in Somerville.

The new highway, Chinese-built by the way, was absolutely packed with traffic still in both directions. No movement! No where to go! It took 20 minutes to cross the bridge I took this picture from! Day turned to night. No joke! Glad to be in a taxi, not a matatu. I can only imagine this ordeal crammed with 20 people in an old van…

In the mean time, people are crossing the highway to get from one side to the other. I guess this what the “No crossing in either direction” signs were for. People are walking between the cars selling all sorts of things: from attention signs to sets of knives to weird-looking toys. Always something to entertain you while you wait in traffic.

This was a good day, it hadn’t started raining yet.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


The United Nations Office in Nairobi. Walk through the gate, bag scanned, registered, 10 minute walk to meeting location. Red carpet! Wow! “Just don’t walk on the red carpet, but proceed that way.” Apparently, I am not important enough. Finally someone told me in my face.

The Africa Human Development Report 2012 was launched by the President of the Republic of Kenya, this and that ministerial excellency, the administrator of something something and the director of blah blah. All protocols observed, as they say in Africa.

And the memories flood, after more than 18 months away from the Commission, I had forgotten how boring these events can be. For the last time, panelist number 12, we got the point. Now we know why we are here. And as usual, everyone keeps going on and on about their own problems regardless of what the meeting is about. Why not mention the stolen cattle of the Islamic Foundation of blah blah (clearly I was paying zero attention), when we are talking about farming and women empowerment. The two must overlap somewhere, but it’s so hard to focus and understand where. After all, this is the first day I woke up before noon. The only thing keeping me awake is the large number of media with video and photo cameras. You never know where your sleeping picture could end up. So, awake we stay.

Speaking of media, the expat, badass white male reporters that have spent half their lives in conflict zones are a dying breed here. Apart from 3 white women, the rest of the reporters were African man. Not that there is anything wrong with this, it’s that all my movie ideas were shattered. Just like that.

No pictures. Once I am more legit than a simple visitor, I will take some. The Compound is beautiful. Large green areas, hedges beautifully sculpted  in animal forms, clean, smoke free and quite. Now ain’t that a good working environment.

Cashless v. Cardless

The cashless v. cardless debate in Nairobi is so far non-existent. First attempt to pay by card for my pre-paid SIM card and for 2 vouchers to charge it was unsuccessful. KES 5oo minimum (about 6$). Commentary: “Why do you want to pay cad if you have cash?”. Well, why not? It’s my own damn business how I wish to pay. Yet, submissively, I pay KES 300 cash.

Attempt number 2: taxis. Taxis are not only not metered, but you can also bargain the rate like crazy. Needless to say, most of them look semi-legit and could easily be any single one of us driving a cab and charging arbitrary rates. Clearly, cash only.

Attempt number 3: pay for accommodation. Fruitless as well. After two heavy cash withdraws from Barclay’s (at least I saved on bank fees), I pay my rent:

IMG_9981The last time I saw this much money in cash in any currency was probably before the last devaluation in Bulgaria. Late 90s? Early 00s?

They just don’t have a card terminal here because blah blah blah. I stopped listening. Good thing the ATM is close by. Travel advice for Nairobi – don’t walk around with more than $100 cash, let alone $500.

So far, so good, but I have an unpleasant feeling that this cardless inconvenience is going to persist.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Day 2–A birds-eye view

Time to venture outside the Gigiri area and go to the heart of the city. Or basically go see a bunch of administrative buildings Smile 

IMG_9958Kenyatta International Conference Center

Went to the top of the tower and took some great pictures of the city. Random person working at the Conference Center gave me a personalized tour telling me what things are. Kind of awesome since, as you can probably guess, there were no signs or information boards on top of the tower. You take the elevator, the first set of stairs, then a winding set of stairs and you just end up on top of the tower, no rails, no cover.

IMG_9934The South – “The Big Ben is the Parliament”

IMG_9936A crazy white person on top of the tower

IMG_9932Kenya National Park in the distance

IMG_9940The weekend Masaai market

IMG_9941Aruni road – the busiest street in Nairobi


SmileSmileSmileCould not believe it! But saw it several more times! I think that person is angrily looking at me. All travel tips advise to ask permission before taking pictures of people. It’s his own fault he ended up in my shot.


My guesthouse has a spa/salon with four women working there. Rarely busy and possibly quite entertained by my foolishness and lack of knowledge about anything Kenyan, they are great to pick their brains about Nairobi. Arranged a taxi for me, told me where to go, what street not to cross to stay safe, they are absolutely amazing and extremely friendly.

Speaking of friendly, today a woman walked with me down the street for 5 minutes so I don’t have to walk alone. I was either somewhere I was not supposed to be alone, or she was just taking things out of proportion. Either way, apparently I look like her American daughter-in-law and we should hang out when I’m downtown. She even gave me her phone number. I can’t remember the last time, if ever, I walked down the street and thought of talking to anyone or helping them out….

Anyhoo, my spa friends have been teaching me some Swahili, expanding my vocabulary from asante and jambo, to words like tree, flower and chair (no clue how these are gonna come up in a conversation, but…). Most importantly, I learnt how to say beer and honestly, that is an essential word in my vocabulary.

IMG_9968Finally back to 500 ml bottles of deliciousness

P.S. Apparently they also celebrate Mother’s Day today.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Day 1– The borough

Trying to get over my jetlag, I wake up round noon. Quick “breakfast” at the house, while cramming another 80 pages of “Catching fire” (my first read for the summer, promising to be quite quick).

First order of business, get a SIM card. Asking where I can do that at reception, they sent Julius, who works here, to show me where the Village market is – you can get basically anything you need there.

IMG_9919Village market

20 minutes later - Safaricom number secured – 0708 587 538. M-PESA account - opened . Not exactly sure what I’ll do with it, but after a semester talking about the mobile miracle of Kenya and East Africa, I just had to get one. Of course it’s free and takes about 5 minutes. Works or any phone, so now I’m set to send and receive money, make payments and so on. And despite the fact that millions of people in Africa use it, I’m still not quite sure how to do it. I guess that something to figure out in the weeks to come.

The heat is depressing, though. It absolutely sweltering outside as I make my walk from the Village Market to the UN Compound. I want to see what it looks like, how far it is and whether I made a good location choice. On the way, I pass the US Embassy, embraced by a long white fence, you can’t see what is in the compound.

I reach the end of the street and I see the UN Compound. For some reason, I expected towering buildings, a business city type of environment. But, seriously, what was I thinking… This Compound, at least from the outside, is nothing like that. Surrounded by a regular fence, with some barb wire on top, the buildings are small, the vehicles old, labeled with the name of the agency they belong too.

I keep walking. Heat’s getting worse. Few people walk past me. And this is the first time I feel strange, like I really don’t belong here, that I don’t know what I’m doing (which I really don’t). But oh well…

I make it back to the guesthouse with a couple of Tuskers in my bag. As I sit at the porch, writing this with a beer my hand, the light of day fades away, darkness settles in and the rain continues to pour. It’s now 7:05 PM and the only glimpse remaining are the occasional lightnings and horrifying thunders.

Getting here

Finally in Nairobi! After more than twenty hours of flight time and various delays, I made it. Getting here at 11 PM is not the best time to see anything of this city. One thing’s for sure though - bad roads, no signs. It took about half an hour to get from the airport to the guesthouse, going on the new highway connecting Nairobi to northern Kenya, which is neither finished, nor easy to navigate. A closed road took us by surprise and sent us off winding through narrow, dusty roads. Resurfaced on the highway through a ditch.

Worst part of this little ordeal was in Boston, when my flight was delayed for over two hours because they loaded the wrong bags for the wrong flight…. London - delayed again…. Nairobi – no lights on the jet bridge… and that was just plain funny Smile