Wood Smoke and Diesel

It’s only about a week until I leave for Nairobi. I have to say, it’s one of my favorite cities. This is the first time I will be going to Kenya for the sake of going to Kenya. I’ve always visited there on the way to somewhere else. This time I’m going just to see Kenya, and my wife is coming with me.  So what is Nairobi like? I will answer this question as much for my wife’s benefit as for anyone else’s.

Nairobi is the smell of charcoal fires with a bit of underlying diesel smoke as you get off the plane. Most people (at least that I’ve met) still cook with charcoal, even in their homes. Most vehicles run on diesel, because fuel is very expensive and diesel will get you farther.

Nairobi is a city of contrasts. You have expensive homes, gated communities, shopping centers, Mercedes Benz dealers, immense slums, destitute people, the highly educated, the uneducated, skyscrapers and tin shacks, motorcycle taxis, movers and shakers, and the hopeless. It’s street merchants and professional beggars. All of these are thrown into a blender and spread evenly. Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, is right across the road from entrance to the trendy restaurant, “Carnivore”.

Nairobi is leaving the airport and seeing giraffes over the fence on the side of the road. It’s seeing a warthog running down the side of Langata Road. Nairobi is eye candy. The people walking down the street wearing 25 hats that are for sale, or bunches of bananas for the hungry motorist- these are the things you see as you drive down the road. It’s the brightly painted metal fences and the students in uniform as they walk to class. Nairobi is the political signs that literally wallpaper everything that isn’t moving (and probably some things that are) during election time. There is always something to look at in Nairobi.

A man paints a metal fence in Nairobi.
A man paints a metal fence in Nairobi.


Most of all Nairobi is the people. They are very friendly. If traffic in the United States was like it is in Nairobi, road rage would be rampant. But there it works. Drivers look for the hole in the traffic and take it. No one gets upset about it. You don’t drive on the right or the left side of the road. You drive on the good side. Surprisingly there are few accidents.

Nairobi is the small shacks on the side of the road that look like nothing, but contain the most amazing cultural artifacts. If you want to come home with a piece of Kenya, avoid the huge markets and try these little places. Want a 100 year old Rungu? (a weapon the Maasai carry made out of the root of a tree.) You’ll find it there.

Want to get a couple miles down the road? Don’t call a taxi. Thumb down a matatu, or a small bus. It’ll cost you about 50 cents and it will be a cultural experience, along with about 15 of your new “friends”.

A food market in central Nairobi.
A food market in central Nairobi.

Try the local foods, especially the fresh fruit juice. Just avoid unpeeled vegetable and fruit. (see my previous blog on staying healthy). Try the sukuma wiki, or the meat pockets. If you’ve come this far, don’t go to Kentucky Fried Chicken. You can have that at home. Sit at the Nairobi Java house and have a really good cup of coffee, or go to a local restaurant and have fresh Tilapia that came out of the lake that morning.

To sum it up, Nairobi is an absolutely amazing city. It’s modern, but different from anything you’ll find in America or Europe. It’s a pleasure for me every time I go.

A panorama of Nairobi from the water town on top of a hotel.
A panorama of Nairobi from the water town on top of a hotel.

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