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Africa Days Thirteen through Fifty

Part One: Nairobi

(Friday January 28th, 2000)

Finally! Not only has it been a long time since I have been able to get Internet access for any significant length of time, but it has been a long time since I have been able to write. So many things have happened since I last wrote that I don’t really know where to begin…I have a laundry list of excuses with which I won’t burden you. You’ll have to take my word that at least one or two of them are actually valid.

The most exciting development here in Kisumu is that we have finally moved in to the Miami Vice House. While I have taken Pictures, I am not sure how soon I will be able to post them, as I have run out of room on my web server and am waiting for an expansion from As soon as they tell me, I’ll either post them or get another web site.

We moved in on the 15th, as planned. What was not planned was moving two additional times after returning from Zanzibar (which I will get to at some point here.)

I think that the only way I can manage to do this is to break it in to five segments that are somewhat more manageable: Nairobi, Zanzibar (parts one and two), Powerlessness and Moving to Miami. Given the sheer amount of information that I wish to impart here, and the time that has passed since some of these events occurred, I apologize if the quality is somewhat lacking this time around.


So…when we last left Gerard and Kim they were scurrying to get ready for yet another vacation, the first stop being a day and a night in Nairobi.

Although I had just been to Nairobi not three weeks earlier, I had not really been to Nairobi, just the airport. I mentioned the taxi driver assault I experienced the first time I came off a plane in Nairobi. They really are amazing. Twenty to thirty guys swarm around the exit from the baggage room, all shouting “Taxi?!? Taxi!?!” The last time was much easier, as I was able to just say “No, thank you” over and over again as they followed me like a comet tail through the terminal. This time, since we were in need of them, it was much more difficult.

As Kim has done this sort of thing before (she has been through Nairobi five or six times previously), I was more than happy to let her make the arrangements. We went to a taxi “company” located in the terminal and tried to negotiate with one of the men there. They tried to tell us that the price to Nairobi was three or four times what the price actually was supposed to be, and if Kim wasn’t there I’m sure that’s about how much I would have paid. The negations were some what hampered by their insistence on showing us the “Standard” prices that they had printed in their tourist book and the presence of five or six drivers who had followed us all the way across the terminal from the baggage room and who may or may not have been affiliated with the taxi company. Kim and the man settled on a price, closer to the actual price then the tourist price (she is really good at negotiating) and the man turned to one of the other, probably non-company, drivers and foisted us off on him. I imagine that if we had taken the first price they had given us, as I would have done, then we would have gotten one of their normal drivers.

There are multitudes of ways to be robbed in Nairobi.

One of them is to get into a taxi.

One of Kim’s friends was in a taxi on the way from the airport when her driver pulled over to the side of the road saying that he was out of petrol. He leapt out of the car and “went to get petrol.” A couple of minutes later four or five guys came out of the bush on the side of the road and tried to get in to the car. She rolled down the window a little bit, took out all of her money and threw it out the window. Fortunately, they left it at that.

So it’s important to get a driver that someone can be at least a little bit responsible for if something like that happens.

We got in to the taxi and started in to town. It is a strange road that borders on being a freeway in the British style, that is, it’s a divided road that has a traffic circle placed inexplicably every couple of miles. The highway is called Uhuru Highway and it’s one of the most dangerous and crowded roads in Nairobi. Traffic is stop and go, favoring the stop. None of the traffic lights work, so there is a big pile up at every traffic circle despite, or maybe because of, the presence of several traffic cops. The streets are very crowded, both with people and cars. There is a steady stream of people walking from across the street, winding their way between the bumpers of the stopped cars. And there is an equally large stream of people walking between the lanes of traffic begging for change, selling radios, newspapers, food, and cassette tapes. Warned by Kim’s stories, I about broke my neck looking for people coming out of the crowds to rob us. I don’t think that I am built for sustained paranoia. It’s exhausting.

As we came into downtown, we passed the site where the American Embassy once stood. I had forgotten, until we were right by it, that one of the Embassies that was bombed two years ago was the one in Kenya. I don’t even remember where the other one was now. If we hadn’t driven by it, I’m not sure that I would have remembered that it had happened at all. There is nothing left of the building at all; they’ve cleared the whole site. The buildings in the immediate area are still standing, but are in pretty bad shape. The building directly to the left of the Embassy is a large thirty story building shaped like the old Atari symbol. All of the windows were blown out and there is a lot of damage to the structure of the building. It is deserted. The building behind, only visible because the Embassy isn’t there any more, still has broken windows and scarring on its side. The fact that an entire building (the Embassy) was between it and the bomb illustrates how large an explosion it was.

Not a very pleasant ride.

When we arrived at the hotel, the Dolat, we made arrangements with the driver to pick us up the following morning to take us back to the airport. He wrote it on a little slip of paper and drove off. We checked in to the hotel, which Kim had stayed at the last couple of times that she was in town. “A good hotel,” she said, “but in a bad part of town.” We’d be O.K. as long as we didn’t venture out after dark.


And by some standards, it was a nice place. We had two beds, a sink, a wardrobe, and a toilet room with a shower. I know that you would usually say bathroom with a toilet, but African bathrooms are unlike Western ones. You have a small tiled room with a toilet and a showerhead. The entire room is meant to get wet when you shower, preferably with shower sandals to protect your feet from whatever is being cultured on the floor. We also had a window with a spectacular view of warehouse with a vast corrugated metal roof.

Since Kim had been robbed one of the last time she and her friends left their bags in their hotel room (a different one she assured me) in Nairobi, she decided that we should leave our bags with the management. We passed through a couple of prison-like steel barred doors and left them with the manager (the same manager, surprisingly, she had met on a previous visit).

So, we were settled in Nairobi. It was early afternoon, it was the day before Christmas Eve, and we had nothing to do until early the next morning. So went to get some pizza and then went to the movies. Not only did we go to the movies, we went and saw a bad movie. Not only did we see a bad movie . . . after a short break . . . we went back and saw another bad movie. It is amazing how low my movie standards had dropped in two short weeks. The movies? “The World is Not Enough” and “Runaway Bride.” I couldn’t have been happier. They had a phenomenal sound system, one of the best I’ve ever heard. The prints were clean. The projection was mostly all right, a little bit of an aperture plate shadow on a couple of sides, but not bad. They also had a longer than necessary intermission between the trailers and the feature film while they changed reels. The trailers were prefaced with the Kenyan National anthem, a short film soliciting contributions for a relief fund for Kenyans hurt in the bombing of the American Embassy, ads for Kenyan products and stores, and one or two trailers for upcoming movies. Overall, a very pleasant experience . . . that could only have been improved if Denise Richards, Dr. Christmas Jones, hadn’t opened her mouth once. She was somewhat less than credible as a nuclear weapons specialist. Intergalactic pilot saving the Earth from bugs, yes. Teenage femme fatale, yes. Genius Ph.D. side-kick/love interest to James Bond, no. It didn’t help that she was an American in a cast of Brits. Poor, poor Americans. We never sound nearly as sophisticated as the British.

We emerged from the theater into the cool evening of Nairobi (it’s much cooler here than Kisumu). It is usually pretty disorientating to come out of any theater when the sky has changed in any way. You know the feeling. You go in to a theater when the sun is out, you sit in the dark for two hours, come out . . . and it’s night and it feels a little strange. Or you go in when it’s clear out, leave the theater . . . and there is a foot of snow on the ground. It’s very slightly unsettling, as if you have missed out on something, or as if you have entered another, alternate world. To leave “Runaway Bride”, which is set mostly in a little town in the Midwest somewhere, and to step out of the theater into the dark in Nairobi is that same feeling multiplied by a thousand.

We walked to a nearby hotel restaurant, had a nice dinner, and took a taxi back to the hotel. Driving through the city at night was an even scarier experience. I have been thinking about how to describe this so that the experience comes across properly. Imagine these things: there are no street lights so the only light comes from cars, trash fires on the side of the streets, and the windows of heavily barred stores and buildings. The dust and smog are thick enough to create something like fog in terms of visibility. The roads alternate between potholed pavement and potholed dirt. Traffic is dense and Darwinian in nature, meaning you play chicken with on-coming or crossing traffic constantly. And the crowds! There are people everywhere. You can’t really see them clearly without much light, through the dust. They just appear and disappear in the headlights of the taxi and the other cars. When the taxi stops at an intersection to let a larger or more aggressive car through, you can see the people crowding the sidewalk, going home after work or waiting for a matatu, or, as I became increasingly paranoid, waiting for mzungu to drive by so they could rob and/or kill them. You know you should be at least a little paranoid when the taxi driver locks his own door.

We did, of course, make it to the hotel safely. Although we did have a minor car accident about twenty meters away from the door. Neither the cabbie nor the on-coming driver wanted to give much room on the tiny dirt street we were on, so we drove very slowly past each other getting closer and closer until we finally scraped rear quarter panels for a foot or so. The driver leapt out to inspect the damage, but the other driver was already past and gone. We paid our driver and got into the hotel as quickly as possible before he thought to charge us for the damage.

We retrieved our bags and went to bed. I’m not sure how we fell asleep. The beds in Africa, and this one in particular, leave something to be desired. They don’t have proper mattresses, but rather thin foam pads, usually on a sheet of plywood. This one was supported by horizontal pieces of wood a fraction of an inch wider than the gap they were supposed to span. The bed broke as soon as I sat on it. We were somewhat used to these mattresses from staying at the guest house, and the bed wasn’t so bad that we couldn’t sleep, but then there was also the noise. We were not on the side of the hotel facing the street (not that that prevented us from hearing the noise from the street, mind you), but we were, it soon became apparent, on the side facing the disco. At some point we must have fallen asleep because I distinctly remember waking up when it started to rain. It was raining hard. It wasn’t so much the sound of the rain that woke me as the sound of the rain hitting the enormous corrugated metal roof of the warehouse next door. It was like a forty by eighty meter cymbal being pounded by a million drumsticks every second.

It was a long night. Fortunately we could not hear the prostitutes coming in with their “clients” all night long, as Kim did the last time she stayed there, so there were some things that went our way.

I was not in the best shape when we came downstairs in the morning drizzle to get the taxi we had arranged for the day before. It turned out to not be the same driver, rather someone we hadn’t seen before, not even in the office of the taxi company from the airport. He did, however, have the little piece of paper with our name, the name of our hotel and our pick-up time. So, we were now three steps removed from a source of accountability in case anything went wrong, but we decided to go ahead with him anyway.

I know I go on and on about the cars here, but this one was particularly bad. It didn’t really look like it was road-worthy. Most of the dashboard was missing, wires hung in loops under the place the dashboard was supposed to be, and on and on and on. I can’t list how many things were wrong with it, and the only thing that was right about it was that it still seemed to function in a car-like manner, despite all appearances. We rumbled, gasped and roared through Nairobi heading out once again on the dreaded Uhuru Highway.

The little morning drizzle remaining from the night’s storm gained some steam and turned into rain. It became clear that one of the problems with the car, previously unnoticed, was that the windshield wipers didn’t work. As we drove along, the dust that covered the car mixed with the rain and made it increasingly difficult to see. I was in the passenger side rear seat and had a perfect view of what he tried to do next. Kim, in the passenger seat next to him, couldn’t see what he was doing and could only tell that the engine was starting and stopping and that the car was wandering to and fro on the road. I could see that he was trying to drive and re-wire the car simultaneously. He was systematically disconnecting the wire to the ignition and attaching it to some of the other wires dangling under the ex-dash. He would disconnect them, the car would stall, he would attach the wire to another wire, try the wipers, disconnect that wire, reattach it to the ignition, swerve out of the way of oncoming cars for a couple of seconds and then try the whole thing over again with another wire. It seemed as if only one electrical device could work at a time in the car and he just had to decide which one he wanted it to be. This went on for a couple of minutes and then he gave up and went to pull over to the side of the road. Kim, whom I thought knew what was going on, but actually didn’t, asked him repeatedly what he was doing. To which he didn’t reply. As the car rolled to an un-powered stop in the shoulder by a strand of suspiciously tall waving grass, he honked the horn once.

I thought for sure at that point that he had faked the whole thing and that a gang of robbers was going to come out of the nearby tall grass. It was a perfect example of taxi driver-robber collusion, eerily similar to the story Kim had told about her friend. I wouldn’t say that I was panicked at this point; but I was now resigned to the idea that we were going to lose all of our money and clothes, and I was at least a little bit excited and curious as to how that process would unfold. I guess I just sort of assumed that we wouldn’t get hurt at all, that getting robbed would be more of an inconvenience than anything else. I suppose that if it had occurred to me that we could get hurt, I would have been a little bit more anxious and somewhat less curious. I don’t know if I said anything at all, or if only Kim was saying it, but we communicated to him that we really wanted to get going. Now! He rolled down his window, smeared the mud around on the windshield with a little rag for an agonizingly long time, rewired the ignition, and, without any incident at all, we were on our way again.

Even today I kinda think that it was a setup, but his buddies screwed up somehow. Maybe they had the time wrong or the wrong strand of suspiciously waving tall grass in mind when they planned it…I don’t think I would have been quite as paranoid if it weren’t for that single honk…

So we made it to the airport, with the only damage to my nerves. I have to admit that that the only time I enjoyed myself in Nairobi was when I was very busy in the theater pretending that I wasn’t in Nairobi. It was just very tense. It is hard, as I said, for me to maintain such a level of concentrated paranoia for any length of time. I was very relieved when we were checked into our flight and I could relax in the airport terminal.

‘Cause nothing bad ever happens there…does it…