Friday, June 29, 2012

Le food

I’m thinking a food entry is finally in order. Not that I know how to rate restaurants or give a relatively objective opinion, but just so it happens that I love food and can talk about food, any day and any time.

I was considering making this a somewhat useful blog entry, rather than my usual ramble, and including some links with locations, menus and contacts. But… well, figure it out on your own. I did.

Now brace yourselves for this is a long one.


Italiano. Home-made or freshly-made pasta, whichever one we use for not pre-packaged. A rather large menu, so again picking was a problem. Good pasta.

That’s the short version. I forget what I ate (some sort of pasta with some sort of sauce, the rest is details), but I rather enjoyed the atmosphere. If it wasn’t for the high concrete wall surrounding the compound and actually being in a compound), this could have almost been the real thing. But it’s not.

Nothing really that striking about this place. It’s famous for the fresh pasta. Yet the Italians here say it’s only okay. But they say that about most places serving anything remotely Italian. 

The BBQ something place at The Mall

Right, I know. That place is actually called The Mall. Wonder if it was the first one in Nairobi? Google shows no preliminary data on the matter and I’m too lazy to look for more. It’s not that important.

So this was Indian buffet. Luckily for me, we were a group of Indian-food-loving-Fletcherites, so again there was someone to tell me what and what not to eat. That was clearly useless as I soon found that everything there was excessively spicy for me. So I moved on to the dessert with some decent flan/crème caramel (I only say decent, because I personally prefer it with a lot a lot a lot more sugar than what this one had. Otherwise it was great) and vanilla ice cream. There were also some more traditional Indian dessert – ya know, those deep fried things that are covered in sugar syrup?!

Going back to the food though, smashing diversity. This was a huuugee buffet and despite the spiciness, I tried (even if it was only a bite) several type of meat on a stick (I forget the Indian word), rice, the spinach paneer (this one I finally learnt) and other stuff. But the only thing I could safely eat without complaining and jugging down glass after glass of cold water was the naan. Good naan.

Don’t take cards, making the payment process as hard as it usually is in Kenya.

La Trattoria

So when you look up things to do in Nairobi and you browse the restaurants on Lonely Planet’s website, this restaurant comes up somewhere in the top. The world-renowned chain has come to Nairobi, they say. Ok… never heard of it, but they could be good.

Nope, they really weren’t. I have to teach myself out of eating pasta prepared by non-Italians. It’s just not worth the trouble. Delicious, but excessively overcooked. Substituted asparagus with zucchini. Common! Ain’t the same thing. I think the non-pasta dishes were a little bit better, but overall everyone was unhappy, especially the Italians! It’s their food, they are allowed to have have high standards.

A Sicilian wine made things better, until we tried to pay.

- Oh we don’t accept cards.

- Not even Visa?

- No, we don’t have a machine

That’s right Visa, hope you area reading this. For everything else there is MasterCard. Well, for this there is no MasterCard. The world-renowned-visited-by-important-Europeans-who-open-events-at-the-Alliance-Francaise-restaurant La Trattoria does not accept cards! In other news, find an ATM.


This was a small surprise. After looking it up and discovering that this restaurant prides itself on 260 dishes in the menu, I was a little wtf, this should be awful. Choosing what to order alone would take an hour. And you cannot possibly be good at making 260 different dishes!

Things were made simpler by the significantly smaller menu and the fact that it was an Indian restaurant. Without any Indian friends around, it was impossible for me to order. I went for safety. Paneer. In a corn, coconut curry. I know it sounds weird, but it was actually delicious. The food was great!

A very extensive cocktail menu made things somewhat fun since this was a birthday celebration. I was boring as usual as went for some red wine.

To top it all you can take your leftovers in a true American style. And for the lack of plastic thingies and wraps or for some other unfathomable reason, they put the curry in a plastic bag… Yeah, one of those little ones. The leftover naan in a separate one. Safely wrapped in paper and a bigger plastic bag. So when I took this out to finish it, the bag of orange curry was not as appealing as the food inside it smelled and tasted the night before.

River café

Okay, this alternation of Italian and Indian really doesn’t speak well about my culinary choices, but I had to mention River Café. It’s hidden way out of central Nairobi in a little forest area in Gigiri. So close that I even attempted to walk there, but I gave up on that stupid envdeavour quite quickly. Not the point of the story, so let’s set this aside.


Rive Café is nicely set outdoors in the forest, nice staff, they sell garden stuff as well. Quite pricey by any standard. I was at a point of my life when I was medically advised not to eat eggs. And this sounds a lot more serious than it actually was. Don’t eat eggs the doctor told me, they give allergies. I’ve eaten eggs all my life in a number of countries, doubt I’m allergic only to Kenyan eggs. But since you never know, I decided to play it safe and order what they called panini.

My oh my did my frustration with Italian cuisine in Nairobi grow! This was so remotely far from a panini that I don’t even know where to start. The form, the bread, the way it was cooked, the complete lack of cheese…. My last good experience with panini I remember well. It was in Venezia in 2009. Panini and coffee for breakfast before going off to the Murano and Burano. I remember it well for no other reason but that the bread had olives. Those that know me know how much I hate olives, but I still finished that panini. It was, simply put, amazing.

And it’s not that the River Café panini wasn’t delicious. It surely was. But why on earth wouldn’t you just go with “sandwich”. You probably couldn’t charge as much for it, but you are also not going to truly disappoint people like me who are now reluctant to go there.

For what it’s worth, good coffee. And also, if you go for any of the egg options, like Benedict (to state the best and obvious choice of eggs for brunch), you get an option of both sausage and bacon! Damn, I was so jealous!


To crown my found entry I have chosen Habesha. Truly impressed with this Ethiopian jewel in Nairobi. The place to go for Ethiopian food, this non-assuming restaurant provided mouth-watering deliciousness that I can still taste whenever I think about it. Yummmm

Habesha 1Notice the unassuming atmosphere?

Again we let the experienced one order, so I have no idea what we ate. Or at least what it was called. I know damn well what was on the plate. Big dishes for everyone to share – in a bed of injera (which I just looked up as the name of Ethiopian bread) lay two types of minced meat, some sort of beef stew, potatoes, cabbage, green,… green… well something that was green. And this might have been it or it might have not. I was too hungry to listen to the waiter who was nice enough to tell us what was what.

Rewinding a little bit, first they bring the bread. Know what it looks like for the untrained eye? Warm, white towels to wipe your hands clean. And this totally makes sense, because the one thing I know about Ethiopian food is that you eat with your hands, scooping things up with the bread. Could have been embarrassing when I asked for a towel if I were the only one asking for one.

Luck again would have it, or positioning I guess, that I would sit on the meat-eating part of the table, smack in front of the big sampling dish. In the middle they poured our meat dish – some sort of goat. And in the middle of the other large platter to share they poured a chickpea thing, which I later learnt from an Eritrean friend is called shiro. Now those two are possibly the best things I’ve tried here so far. Sorry to say, but that includes the home-made nyama choma. The goat was melting in my mouth, soft and tender, with little spices to enhance the taste. Now, I like goat, but like any other meat it has a certain smell to itself that is particularly strong in kids and hard to get rid of. Suffice it to say, none of that was in the Ethiopian goat thing. The shiro was a little overshadowed by this and the other three types of meat on the sharing dish, so I can’t tell you much about what was in it other than chickpeas. But it was a little addictive as well.

Habesha 2This plate actually has both the goat on the right and the shiro (the orange creamy thing). I’d forgotten the thing in the middle. It was a hard boiled egg in something very spice. Hence, didn’t try it, don’t know, don’t remember. Got eaten though :)

Finally, the meat-eaters demolished our plate eating most of the bread that was laid on the bottom, while the non-meat-eaters (not all where vegetarian) were a lot more what’s that word… cultured, mannered, slow? in finishing their food. Wolfing food down just happens to be the way I roll, especially when it’s the best thing I’ve tried in ages. Sorry Boston, but you don’t cut it for me cuisine-wise.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The volcano

The volcano because it is the first one I ever hiked. The extinct (or dormant, depending on the sources) volcano and the national park around it lie just 90km (or 60 km, again relying on what the Internet can provide as information) north of Nairobi.

An early start to get the most out of daylight proved quite necessary when we got lost multiple times. (In retrospect, we probably just flew by the first sign in typical Kenyan driving style). What should have been a 1 hour drive, soon started turning into over 2 hours. Off-road, dust, a phone call (whenever our driver could get signal with the limited network coverage), back on the tarmac. And again, a dusty road, no signs or directions, more phone calls. The frustrating part of course was that the mountain was right there! So close, yet so far away. We could see it looming over us, but we could not find our way to the main park gate.

By the time we made it, we had seen grazing zebras on the side of the road, random giraffes in the savannah, cactus trees (unless you are close you can’t really tell it was a cactus) and lamb hats on sticks (those came first, but I somehow missed them on the way there). We also managed to trespass someone’s private property. After convincingly arguing that we were not on private property and would just go back the way we came (we had two lawyers-to-be in the car), the guards stopped asking for cash and let us through. Fair enough, we were on someone’s private property as the signed beyond the gate informed us, but it was the first time anyone asked me for money to get back on the public road (they also asked for a ridiculously small bribe, I almost laughed)… tia

As we crossed the main gate into the Longonot National Park, the following view of the volcano beheld us.


Nothing too difficult we said and on we went. A rather steep incline took us by surprise. Caution at every step: not to slip and not to be eaten by buffaloes. Not sure how those African buffaloes react to hikers, might be very benign, but I didn’t wait to find out.


The more we climbed, the better view we got. Until we reached the breathtaking summit! I’ve never been afraid of the highest heights, I’ve done my fair share of hiking (this is probably an extreme exaggeration, but it’s my story, so take it at fair value). The view from the top of the world, I am used to. But the magnificent crater that opened up in front of us when we climbed that last hill left us speechless.


“Wow” and "”Oh my god” were most of the explanations. And honestly, if god had anything to do with this, she definitely did a good job. (Correctly spelling god without a capital G in my own non-denominational blog.)

A short snack break after we were on our way to go around the rim! A 7.2 km walk that took us from the first crater point, to the crater entry point and all the way to the summit at 2780m. And yes, you are reading right. One could enter the crater, if one is not afraid of heights and if one is a skilled climber. And one could go down to the rich forest and vegetation of the crater, if one takes his/her own risk with the fauna in there and if one is accompanied by a ranger.


At the summit of 2780m, I couldn’t help but think how this is a rather easy hike for Kenyan standards! A short ride from Nairobi, people come here to train for higher mountains. Yet, this is almost as high as things get back home in Bulgaria. Musala is just over 2900m and Vihren a little under (I’ve lost multiple bets on the precise height of both, so I ain’t gonna go into those details. If your wish is to learn more, so be it and ask Google).

Unfortunately, sooner rather than later, we made the full circle to the starting point and it was time to go back. During our descent we saw many obscure Kenyan individuals of various ages hiking in what must be the most inappropriate attire ever. Not only that, but the shoes! OMG the shoes! Sandals and platforms abounded! People were even barefoot! Mmmm there was one guy in a suit as well! As a group, we decided that many of these kids (the majority of hikers looked like teenagers) must be coming after church, which is why they were so dressed up. What other explanation could there be? Anyone?

Yet another weird Kenyan experience ensued: the kids were taking pictures with us. “Can we take a picture? Is that alright?” And I’m like… Don’t you see I’m covered in dirt and sweating as a pig. Apparently, that was not an issue, as I posed for at least 4 shots. Ending up on random people’s cameras is probably not a good idea, but oh well… who am I to judge their habits? This one, though, we could not justify. Whichever part of Kenya they come from, they must have seen white people. After all, we are everywhere. So what was with the pictures, I have no idea…

Finally, we reached the flat dusty road once again!


This is what success looks like! (And a Tusker in hand about 5 mins afterwards)

The adventure could have ended here, but we also managed to get a flat tire on the way back. We had only pulled over for about 10 seconds when 4 random men, who were just sitting on the side of the road, came to look at how our driver changes a tire. One helped, but the rest were just standing in their little group watching silently.


Afterwards, it was straight to Nairobi!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Time inconsistencies

Kenya is a country that functions in its own time zone. The traditional time-space continuum is non-existent here. Everything takes another 10-15 mins (read at least half hour, but normally around 1 hour) and nothing, absolutely nothing ever starts on time.

It’s not like I’m ever on time, but the few instances in which I manage to pull my sh*t together and arrive somewhere at the indicated time, I hate wasting my time waiting for other people. On the other hand, I think this might be one of those Murphy laws of probability, whenever I’m late, no one ever waits for me. Anyway, this is hardly the point of the story.

Meeting supposed to start at 2 PM, I leave my desk 2 mins earlier as the room is just 2 floors down. Kenyan’s, on the other way, don’t leave for another 15 min. And the email saying the meeting is MANDATORY (written in large, friendly letters as a favorite writer of mine used to say) means nada! The assistant had to drag people from their desks to the meeting. Is it rocket science to be where you are supposed to be, when you supposed to be? Guess… yes?

Conference supposed to start at 9 AM, we get there at 9:05 all in a hurry that we are late. Three people had only made it there. By 9:30 somewhat of an audience has gathered and the organizers decide it’s high time we start. “What time would you like to finish today? Democratically?” After a short discussion, everyone agrees that 4 PM is a convenient time to finish, regardless that the agenda indicates 5. All in all, we still finished at 5, but it’s nice to know that least some things in Kenya get decided democratically.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Funzi fishing village

My first day at the Kenyan coast and first close encounter with the Indian Ocean also took me to the Funzi fishing village. A 700 yard, 1200 inhabitant settlement in the middle of the mangroves of Funzi Island (which by the way looks more like a peninsula on the map, but who am I to dispute proper location names). 

Our group was greeted by our tour guide Jamal, a native of the village. At the beach, he told us the history of the village and how the first settlers came from Iran. Because of Indian Ocean winds they had to stay for 6 months at a time and wait for the winds to turn so they could go back to Iran. It would take the many geography classes I skipped in high school to say more about ocean winds here or to replicate the story completely. Anyhow, eventually, as history and live go, the Iranians hooked up with the locals and decided to stay. (I’m really hoping Evelyn does send us the article she’s going to write about this village. With a voice recorder in hand, she’ll be able to write something a lot more decent than this.)

The path from the beach took us to the local Muslim school. Kids of all ages learn to read the Koran here. Clearly, the word “school” is an exaggeration, but that’s as good as it gets here and of course thanks to foreign help. More about that later.

IMG_0049Jamal leads the way

You’d think school is out for the public holiday (Madaraka Day, something like half or full independence, unclear despite all my questions), but it’s not. All the kids aligned waiting for us. And what’s that, they want to sing us songs. Sure, that would be fun. They go through three song, more yelling rather than actual singing, but it was fun nonetheless, before our kind hosts informed us that now we either have to sing them a song (with five nationalities in the group it’s obviously impossible to all know the same song) or give them a gift. But it’s fine if we don’t have anything. It’s not necessary or expected. Well, yeah, but it’s damn awkward with all the bulging eyes staring at you in expectation (no, but really, it’s not expected). Lucky for us, and as we all know luck always plays a huge role in such situations, a guy was selling crappy overpriced notebooks that probably get taken away and repackaged the second we step off the island. Regardless, giving the kids notebooks made them happy.


On we go to the only/oldest baobab tree on the island. Details here escape me as I not only saw a cute African kid (I know it’s strange when out of all people I say kids are cute, but these were quiet and not annoying, hence cute) lying on half-buried-in-the-sand car tires and I had to take multiple pictures,

IMG_0063 2

but also a kitten (nothing special, so skipping the photo shoot of the cat). So apparently the baobab trees are quite awesome and useful in sooo many ways. Their fruit is used to make different types of things one of which is pretty good hair moisturizer or something like that. African hair is tricksy. Especially, Kenyan hair which is like nothing as I heard one of the girls complain. Another use is to make candy:


which I tried and later purchased from Nakumat at a rather acceptable price. They are also called upside down trees, and a number of variations of this, because they don’t have their leaves for most of the year and their branches look like roots.

Continuing to the market, which is at like the main square?/plaza?/clearing? and which also holds the only water source in the village:


Until recently, the well had no pump and was just an open whole in the ground, clearly an occasional problem. Thanks to a British journalist who goes by the name of Ashley Peatfield this changed (he also helped with setting up a clinic on the island and the school as well as a foundation for donations Kids and women are the ones carrying water to the houses. There is no running water system. On top of that, the water in the well is saline. Don’t know how it was done back in the day, but now they add various water cleansing tablets to make the water more drinkable.


The market is also run by women. The sarongs are brought from Mombasa and resold to tourists. The village is quite the tourist destination as one of the most expensive hotels, if not the most expensive hotel, in Kenya is here (KES 40,000 per night, i.e. $450-500 and that ain’t all-inclusive). The women from the village also weave a variety of hats, bags, baskets and table coasters. None of them were too fabulous to be worth the time it would take to bargain a price that’s not a complete rip off.

Hurry through the pagan sanctuary, we are wanted at the sandbar. I couldn’t tell you much about the sanctuary any way because I was too busy justifying why anyone in their right mind would call that place a cave rather than listening about human sacrifice and stuff. Nothing excessive though, no voodoo in East Africa. Now everyone in the village is Muslim and we all know how successful Islamic communities have been in eradicating other existing religions (read, very successful, I’m not being sarcastic).

Thus, our visit concludes. We awkwardly scramble some small bills and coins to tip Jamal and thank him for the visit. He did tell us a lot after all.

Boat, short ride, sandbar = beautiful ending of a long day.


Wednesday, June 6, 2012


Mombasa for a night! (read crappy downtown Mombasa as opposed to the north side where all the cool stuff is ). Great city vibe – British colonial and coastal. You can see it in the old buildings. You can almost smell the ocean of it wasn’t for all the trash. But, the businesses, the noise, the dirt – definitely Indian.

Many of the Indians came almost a century ago or so to build the railroad and never left. For what it’s worth though, they brought some good things with them.

For one, Gujarati food (as if I had no Gujarati friends that I had to go all the way to Africa to have this food. Hope you are reading this Samit, I want some home-cooked food!). Quite nice though. The soupy/creamy/curry thing with the cheese and peas was very good. If I could only remember the name of anything Indian I eat, I could almost order without assistance. But clearly I can’t.

For two, chapatis – regional staple. We ate it all the time! Or at least I did because I happen to find them amazing. The fattier, greasier and more deep fried, the better. Fat women are indication that their husbands take good care of them. Hence all the food made to make you fat! And probably why men and women get the same sized portions for lunch at the UN.

For three (the more I keep going with this weird numbering, the more awkward it gets, but I should be done soon, Indians are not famous for that many things), tuk-tuks:


Loud and not very comfortable, these semi-legit taxis are everywhere. Pro – breeze, con – they almost flip over on U-turns. I rode one for the sake of having done it and because you can’t walk 500 meters alone at night when you are a white woman in downtown Mombasa. Well you could, but not even the locals would strongly advise for it.

Called it a night after dinner though; early wake up to head down to Funzi!

Monday, June 4, 2012

En route to Mombasa

Off to a good start with the long weekend - some nice UN security guards called me a taxi whose driver decided he’s going to charge me only 2/3 of the tariff (yeah this one actually had a price list). Sounds good I said. Why argue when I’m already getting a sweet deal.

An hour later I check in at the smallest terminal ever! (doubtful, but let’s go with it) In about 10 minutes I made it through 2 security screenings of questionable quality (and apparently, allowed to carry any liquids I want), check in, toilet and airport bar (espresso only as people at airports seem incapable of grasping the idea of keeping beer in closed fridges).

I take a seat at my non-existent gate (just a sign indicating boarding direction for Fly540) and stare out the window. People come and go through the door walking straight on the tarmac. A plane is parked about 20 meters away from the door and people just walk on. Which isn’t ideal by any standard coz there ain’t no driving rules at JIKA – if you can make it through, the road is yours.

Eventually, a man yelled “Mombasa” (it was more of raising his voice than actual yelling, but that’s just details) and I figured that must be my flight. He walked me out the door and pointed at my plane. “That one over there”. Gave me the aircraft health documentation to hand to whoever I’d like at the plane…. TIA? Down the runway, up the stairs, 10F – well now, there’s no row F, so why not have a seat wherever. Yes!

Kenya turned out to be quite interesting and beautiful from the top. Someone definitely knew how to paint.

IMG_9991The shadow of my plane


IMG_0005The red soil

IMG_0003Probably as close as I would ever get to Mt Kilimanjaro.

Palm trees. Karibu Mombasa!