Sunday, December 30, 2007

How Rough Can It Get?

I was a little apprehensive about the driving we would have to do on our 4 day holiday. We did have a four-wheel drive vehicle from work, but it didn't feel all that large and hardy to me. Leaving Nairobi, we drove about 2 and a half hours on fairly good roads. Even though we had three maps, the roads aren't marked every 20 meters with signs indicating what road it is or what direction you are going. We had a couple of 'are we still going the right way?' moments including 'I didn't see a sign that said we were supposed to turn there, did you?' So I was always happy when we knew we were on the right road, going the right direction.

We reached the town right above the Tanzania border where we would turn to head towards the game park. The road was dirt and REALLY rough - little dips everywhere. I was driving and pretty nervous about it - I worried about the car getting hurt, sliding accross the road, etc. Stephen wanted to get there by lunchtime and thought I could drive faster so we switched positions. After seeing how the car could handle it, I felt more comfortable when it was my turn to drive again. I was expecting bad roads in the game park, just not 50 kilometers of bad road before we got there.

It rained while we were out on one of our game drives. The land was so dry it definitely needed it, but this meant that the roads - which were flat and often no taller than the surrounding land - got flooded. I had some hairy moments driving through puddles worrying about flooding the engine and such. But we managed through that, too.

Leaving the first park to go to the second, we had to drive 100 kilometers on bad roads. We were both SO happy to get back on a paved road - and it was a GOOD paved road so we were able to go a decent speed.

You know in the U.S. when they are doing roadworks on the highway they often pave another road alongside the road being worked on? Well, they create a new road here - but it's not paved and really horrible to drive on. There were several streches on our way back to Nairobi where we had to detour onto these really rough roads. We wondered if we were ever going to get home.

I was also nervous about driving in the dark in areas we didn't know - the rough roads, no streetlights make for uneasy going in my opinion. It took us 6 hours to get home and we didn't make it before dark, though we didn't have to drive in the dark for very long. I was glad that Stephen was driving that last stretch. We both found it pretty nerveracking, I think.

Other interesting tidbits - when we got on the good road going to the second park, we wanted to get gas as there aren't many possibilities. The first two stations that we came across (about a 20 minute drive in between)had no gas. They mentioned a town further along where there would be gas - we made it there and there was gas. Thank goodness!

On the main highway between Nairobi and Mombasa, you see plenty of goat and cattle herds (and sometimes have to stop for them to cross the road). We also had to come to a complete stop for a herd of zebra! Guess many of you don't have that problem regularly. We also saw a giraffe by the side of the highway which was neat.

And a little piece of local road etiquette: when passing someone, you turn on your blinker the whole way as you pass them in the other lane. If you are trying to see if it is ok to pass the person in front of you, they will turn on their signal to let you know. If they turn on their left turn signal, the way is clear; the right signal indicates that someone is coming in the other lane.

Playing at the game parks

We spent the last few days vacationing at the opposite end of the spectrum from the majority of people in this developing country in which we now live. Soon after we arrived here, we made plans to go away during Christmas week, as Sarah had the week off work and we didn’t have any family here to spend the holidays with or anything else to do. I visited a travel agent, and we agreed to visit a couple of game parks. She choose some luxurious places for us to stay.

Early the morning after Christmas Day, we set out in the car and drove first in the direction of Mombasa (southeast from Nairobi) and then south toward Kenya’s border with Tanzania. The first place we visited was Amboseli National Park, which boasts Mt. Kilimanjaro as its close neighbor right across the border in Tanzania. We saw the peak’s top only on the last morning we were there, but we didn’t get to see the “icing on the wedding cake” – the mountain’s familiar cap of snow. Most of the time, the rain clouds hid the top of the mountain.

We stayed at a tent camp on the far edge of the park, which meant we had to drive across the length of the park to get there. Even on that drive, we saw a couple of giraffe, some elephants and some water buffalo. There are a handful of places to stay in this park, and most of them are lodges – five-star hotels that have traditional rooms and that are the ultimate in luxury. Our accommodations, however, were in tents, which was a lot of fun. It felt more like we were roughing it (but not so badly) and out there as explorers conquering the bush.

Each “room” was its own separate, large canvas tent (big enough for you to stand up in) under another, more sturdy (thatch) roof structure. Inside the tent was a double bed, and the back third was divided off and had a real working sink, toilet and shower (with hot water only in the morning and evening at scheduled times). In front of the tent was a small stone porch where you could sit. All of our meals were eaten buffet-style in a dining hall/restaurant building behind the main building. There was also another building that was the bar. The camp even had a swimming pool, but the water was cool. Because every meal is a buffet, and there are many dishes to choose from, you eat very well at these type of places and stuff yourself at each meal. The trouble is, however, that much of your time is spent in a sedentary state, or else you’re riding around the park in a vehicle, so you don’t have much opportunity between meals to get hungry or burn off the full meal.

At these sort of places on up to the luxury lodges, hotels and resorts, as soon as you step into the lobby area (usually an open-air area), they give you a glass of fruit juice (usually with chunks of fresh fruit in it) and a small wet towel to wipe your face off. When we arrived there on the 26th, it was just in time to eat lunch. One usually takes an afternoon game drive before sunset – when it gets cooler in the day again for the animals to come out and eat. The other good time to go out on a game drive is in the cool of the morning at sunrise. So this was our routine, following the daily schedule of the animals – wake up early and immediately go on a game drive, return to the camp and have breakfast and shower, then nap, relax, read, go swimming, eat lunch and do all the same in the afternoon before going out again around 4:00. When we returned around sunset, we enjoyed sitting in the bar as it got dark and hearing the crickets start their nighttime noises.

In this game park, if you drive yourself there in your own car (an SUV or 4x4 is really needed), although many people (tourists from overseas) fly there, you can then drive yourself around the park yourself to see the animals and come and go around the park as you please. Otherwise, people hire vehicles to take them on the regular, scheduled drives, and this gives you an expert guide who knows how to find the animals and is sometimes told by other guides via the radio in the car good places to go to see animals. But the trick when you drive yourself around is just to follow the guided tour vehicles, which is okay with them. So we went out on our couple drives a day. The park has a varied landscape. In addition to the above animals, we saw plenty of impalas and other similar deer-type animals, plenty of wildebeests, warthogs, a hippo, plenty of baboons, and we think we saw a leopard, although they’re hard to spot during the day. The birds in these parks are also amazing to look at. During one afternoon game drive, on the way back to our camp, we came upon a small herd of elephants, and there were a handful of vehicles parked on the road watching them. The elephants crossed the road and went among the other vehicles, very close to them. We in our car several yards back watched these elephants with both fear because they can be very dangerous animals and with fascination at getting so close to them.

We stayed at this tent camp two nights, which was plenty. On the second morning, we headed out to another game park – actually a small(er) privately owned game reserve surrounded by the country’s largest game park. After driving all morning, we arrived at our second place, an oasis of luxury in the middle of nowhere practically (although we did pass through some very poor and run-down small towns getting there, which makes the luxury at this place and even greater contrast). This place was a lodge – more of a traditional luxury hotel. Our rooms were all in one building that surrounded a beautifully kept garden with ponds and a swimming pool. As at the last place, the meals were buffet and were full and wonderful – every lunch and dinner is a four- or five-course meal.

Because we were too tired of driving all morning, we didn’t go out on an afternoon game drive at the second place, but we waited to go on a nighttime drive, which isn’t allowed in the government-run game parks. We left at 9:00 and were back at 11:00. We didn’t see any big animals on this after-dark drive (except for a sick elephant that was lying on the ground), but we did see a tiny bush baby (it was funny how quickly it could climb around a tree and then how far it could hop on the ground), plenty of impalas, foxes and a serval cat. The guides kept us out a half hour later trying to find some real game, but there was none out for us to see.

We had similar difficulty spotting the game the following morning when we went out ourselves. This second park is in a very hilly area, and the vegetation is so much greener and denser. At one point, a guided vehicle passed us on the road as we were driving slowly and just about to give up on spotting anything. The driver motioned for us to follow, and we quickly headed off in one direction, most of the time going well over the speed limit of the park. Toward the end of this frantic wild goose chase, as we actually left the private game sanctuary and went past the sign the said “No trespassing”, we came to a place where a handful of other vehicles were clustered. And there, in the distance, we saw a large lion, a lioness laying over to the side, and near them, two cubs. We all sat there for several minutes looking at them, simply in awe. Seeing a lion in the wild while on a visit to a game park is the biggest prize – and it was an even bigger bonus to see the whole family! And on another late-morning game drive, trying to find some giraffe, we stumbled upon a family of elephants.

I had been “on safari” at other game parks in other African countries before, and Sarah had visited the famous Masaii Mara game reserve on her first trip to Kenya last year. So both of us had seen the wild animals of Africa before. We enjoyed going to these parks and getting outside Nairobi to see other parts of the country. And we enjoyed the luxury of the accommodations. But this gave us a good chance to evaluate what Kenya has to offer (a lot of parks like this to visit) and what types of places we’d like to visit while we’re living here. We like very active vacations and would prefer to visit a city where we can be out doing things and seeing places all day over the large amount of time one spends just relaxing at the camp/hotel when one goes to a game park. But now we’ve been there and done this in some of the best, nicest and most luxurious places and parks.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas and election fever

It has been strange to arrive in Kenya in late November in time to experience the full Christmas season. I had spent one Christmas in Africa before - in Zimbabwe when I was an exchange student there. That was a strange Christmas too, and I knew a bit what to expect this time. The strangest part is the weather. Moving here during the northern hemisphere's winter months and being dropped into a tropical climate is bizarre. I think I have worn short sleeves and sandals every day since our arrival here and have enjoyed the warm air and sun. But to me, Christmas means cold and winter - Christmas is defined by that season. So it has been hard to get in the Christmas mood.

However, the stores have been filled with Christmas sights and sounds for several weeks. There have been a lot of sales. We attended the Christmas party a few weeks ago for the staff of Sarah's office. And we bought at a craft market a small nativity set made of banana leaves and put it up on our mantle. So, aside from the weather, there are certainly signs of the season.

We went back to Nairobi International Lutheran Church for the second time on Sunday for a joint service of the English- and Swahili-speaking congregations, although the service was 95 percent in English. But the real reason we went back was to see their annual live nativity, which is supposedly the only one in all of Kenya. After chai (tea) and Christmas cake following the service, we all trotted out to the busy road that runs in front of the church for this display. The organizers had borrowed a couple of goats, a cow and even two handsome camels. Members of the congregations dressed in robes to play all the parts of the people. There was even a choir of angels (with tinsel halos) of a good 35 or 40 people. Those of us not in the display stood on the sidelines and helped to sing Christmas carols. The congregation uses this as a witness to the community.

Today we will go over to the Methodist Guest House near us, a popular spot for church meetings here, where they will have a barbecue and short program. We bought tickets for this lunch, of course. They are also opening their pool for lunch guests to use. Another part of a strange Christmas - having an outdoor barbecue lunch and going swimming on Christmas Day.

Later, we will listen to the annual Christmas Day message of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, on the BBC website. Now that we live in a former British colony and a member of the Commonwealth, we are subjects of the queen and will dutifully listen to what our sovereign has to say.
Last night for Christmas Eve, we attended the 6:00 p.m. service of lessons and carols at the Anglican cathedral downtown. To me, nobody "does" Christmas better than the Anglicans (specifically the Church of England, so the Kenyan Anglicans weren't absolutely everything I like). Unlike Sunday mornings, when we've attended worship a couple of times at the cathedral, the congregation was mostly mhuzungus (white people) last night. It seems most of the white community here are Christmas and Easter Christians. This will be a topic for a future blog post (living in the minority). The choir sang quite a few songs, most of them English and American ones.

However, it seems that the Christmas ambiance is all overshadowed this year in Kenya by a different kind of fever. On Thursday and Friday this week, the election for the country's president will be held. Since we have arrived, the newspapers have been filled with all sorts of tracking of the campaign. Everywhere you go, there are posters and billboards hung for all the major candidates. We hear and see vans and large trucks driving around all the major roads blaring out campaign messages for particular candidates. And there have been rallies around town.

Just to show you how important this election is and how it is foremost on people's minds: Last week, on Friday morning, I went to meet with the bishop of the Kenya Evangelical Lutheran Church about doing some communications work for the church starting in January. The bishop himself had suggested I come to meet him on Friday morning, even though it was a shorter work day for him with the office closing for the holidays at noon. We kept our meeting short and agreed to speak again next month. I asked him a question or two about himself then indicated I should get going, saying I recognized their shorter work day and the importance of their upcoming break to celebrate Christmas. The bishop then proceeded to tell me that Christmas wasn't as important to them (the church) as the election was. He said they are concerned about the peace and further development in the country.

The U.S. embassy has warned Americans to be careful and vigilant during the election days, but don't worry about us - we're escaping to a remote area and visiting a couple game parks, so we shouldn't be exposed to any election violence.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Museums and getting around

Wednesday was an unexpected holiday. The government decided the week before that Id (a Muslim religous holiday) was going to be a public holiday. Not good time for accountants trying to wrap up the year, but what to do?

Stephen thought we shouldn't just sit around the house, but we should go out and do something. So we went to the National Museum of Kenya - or tried to. When I had come to Nairobi a year ago September, I also tried to go to this museum; it was under renovation. Even though today the building looks done, it is STILL under renovation. So we went to the neighboring Snake Park instead. There are lots of things besides snakes at this place - crocodiles, turtles, fish, lizards: things in the replite family. Lexi wasn't all that interested in most of the things, but the fish cauhgt her attention. I assume because they were moving around rapidly. If you are a resident it is cheaper to get into things like national parks, game parks, etc., but we don't have that official paper yet so we pay the full price.

We had to skirt the edge of downtown to get there, but the traffic wasn't horrible. The traffic lanes downtown aren't well marked. It gets a little crazy in the roundabouts as well because they have traffic lights! Sort of defeats the purpose of a roundabout we think. But we made our way home using a route we hadn't driven ourselves so we are slowly figuring out how things connect.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Time flies..and things change

It is hard to believe that we have been here 3 weeks already. The time is going fast. Our home is almost into shape. Hopefully, we will get the rest of the furniture we need from my predecessor’s place this Monday.

The electricity going out is a common thing. It maybe happens once every other day or so. To date, each outage has not lasted too long. Tonight, it has gone out twice and hasn’t really come back on full strength. The lights are pretty dim and we have no lights at all in the kitchen. Stephen checked the fuse box but nothing seems to have been tripped.

I am still trying to clean up a few things relating to Geneva – final payments and refunds, etc. It’s just as difficult to do long distance, but I think I will get it sorted out soon. I just haven’t made them a priority. Sometimes, it’s hard to think back to when we lived in Geneva. Everything has changed so dramatically: from the weather to the size of our home.

Where’s Alice (from the “Brady Bunch”) when you need her?

Now we know how rich people feel when they say, “You just can’t find good help these days.” Well, that’s not totally our case, but something that’s totally new to us here is hiring and having house help. It’s another learning experience for us, and we’ve found that the American ways of hiring people, whether at a company or organization or as a contractor in your home (such as a plumber or a housekeeper), don’t really apply here.

The previous occupants of our house were an American couple as well. He worked for LWF in the same office as Sarah. We agreed to take over their house as well as, perhaps, their housekeeper, Jane, under the condition that we could interview her first, find out what she was capable of (including child care), and have a chance to decide for ourselves if we wanted to keep her or find somebody else.

Our first week here, we tried her out for four days. The first day - the first hour - she went around the kitchen with me, which was empty at that point, and told me what went in each cupboard. Then she saw a hat rack that we had placed near the front door and moved it to the other side of the living room, to an empty space near the bottom of the stairs. She told me – no questions asked – that it belonged in this new place, “not near the entrance.” After several days of thinking about how to handle this, we simply moved the hat rack back near the entrance, where it has since remained.

Also that first week, we had some people from Sarah’s office bringing furniture for us and helping us get it in the rooms where we wanted it. I instructed one of them, Luca, to put a crib that was brought from the apartment of the man Sarah replaced in the room that we had decided would be Lexi’s. Because the doorways up to and on the second floor of our house are quite narrow, this crib needed to be partially dismantled in order to be put there. Luca and another person were very helpful in getting everything they brought in place, including taking apart and putting back together this crib.

Later on the day the crib was brought and put in place, Sarah heard Jane instructing Luca to move the crib into our bedroom instead because she believed the baby needed to sleep closer to her mother. Luca obeyed, which meant he had to partially dismantle the crib to move it, and then reassemble it in our bedroom. Sarah asked Jane why she did this and told Jane that she would discuss it with me. Sarah and I immediately decided that the crib would not remain in our room and would go in the room originally intended for Lexi (I was not even going to consider Jane’s reasoning for this but was more determined that we show her who was really in charge in the house). The trouble was, we couldn’t move it back without – you guessed it – taking it apart first. Sarah ended up moving the crib back herself a day or two later.

Because of these things, Sarah initially described Jane as “bossy.” We told her that her primary responsibility is to look after Lexi, and in between that, she is to do cleaning. She is very good with Lexi and knows the needs of a young baby and is attentive to Lexi’s personality – the fact that she likes to be held and receive lots of attention. So for these things, it is good to have her. However, Jane still does have her own theories about how and when Lexi should be fed (breastfed and/or the bottle; Jane says one or the other, while we say both), and after a couple weeks of Sarah working, she still hadn’t caught on to Sarah’s schedule of feeding Lexi before work and coming home at lunch to do it. And in terms of remembering and following instructions, Jane had some more to learn as well.

In some ways, I’m not surprised by much of this. Hugh, the one who lived in the house before and employed Jane, told us that the more specific we can be with instructions, the better. I will always remember the story I heard from another exchange student while living in Zimbabwe: His host mother, before leaving for work in the morning, told her housekeeper to “put a chicken in the freezer for dinner” that night. When the woman came home from work, she opened the freezer to discover a chicken that had been feathered – but was still alive!

As far as compensation, that has been a learning experience for us as well. We agreed to pay her 6,000 Kenyan shillings a month (a little over US$97) for working Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., which, granted, is very cheap for this type of help (including so much child care!). Hugh employed her only three days a week with only occasional child care but paid her the same amount. We stuck to this amount for her salary because of what Sarah’s predecessor was paying his house help. In the negotiations, Jane told us that she assumed Hugh had told us about her situation (implying that we should be generous with her salary) – that in addition to her own children, she has taken in a few children who are not her own and who are AIDS orphans. I know this is more the practice here, but in the U.S. with any job, an employer would say that an employee’s compensation has nothing to do with one’s personal situation – what one chooses to spend one’s salary on is one’s personal choice and should not be used to influence one’s salary. This is what we’re used to, so it was strange to hear this sort of request.

Then the requests for additional “benefits” came. She said she expected to have tea and biscuits (cookies) for breakfast when she arrived every morning and to be able to make her native dish – ugali – in our kitchen with our dishes and with us supplying all the food for her. Sarah granted this request, although now it seems to be more trouble to shop for groceries for an extra person. I’d rather just give her a weekly food allowance and have her purchase and bring what she needs and likes, but it doesn’t seem to work this way. She also asked for a daily transportation allowance of 30 Kenyan shillings (49 cents) each way. There was some negotiation over transportation costs at various times of the day (a question of whether it’s more expensive during rush hour) and on days when it’s raining (Jane says it’s more on these days; Sarah found out this isn’t true).

It’s just so hard to get good help these days!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Trying to fit In

Friday night work had a goodbye to my replacement, hello to me and Christmas party all rolled into one. Stephen and Lexi came along. It’s interesting to attend these things and see who sits with who, etc. The locals and the expats don’t really mix – all the expats sat together – or were seated together. I’m not sure if it was because we were the outsiders or if it was more a respectful way to treat the higher-ups.

We went to an Anglican church service this morning. The music was much better than that at the Lutheran church though no one greeted us after the service in this place either. It was a large congregation and we weren’t the only white faces, though there were only a handful of others. It is an interesting feeling to know that you are so different looking – we don’t blend here like we did (or thought we did!) in Europe.

For work this week, the management team is going on retreat to Mombassa which is on the coast. As we will there 2 nights, Stephen and Lexi will come along. The retreat is at this resort that I have been to before for a finance meeting. It’s very nice. We will be meeting most of the time though so I anticipate very little free time myself. We will fly down there – it takes about an hour and then you take a ferry to the hotel – that drive takes about 2 hours. So even though we won’t leave the country, it’s a lengthy trip.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Getting to know the neighbors and socializing

Last Friday night we were invited to drop by #7 in our compound, where Sarah and Ed, a British couple with children, live (we live at #3). Ed is Tony Blair. He works for the International Federation of Red Cross Societies (I have to say that all properly because we lived in Geneva, where that's all based and know there’s a difference between that and the Red Cross/Red Crescent.) Sarah (not my Sarah - this other woman at #7) had invited over a few friends for drinks and finger foods. One of the friends is an American woman, Laney (sp?) who also lives in Nairobi and who was so excited to meet us and have more Americans in town to know. And Laney had a close friend who was visiting her who was also there. The friend is from Washington, D.C., and lives on the 4400 block of Connecticut Ave. NW (the same street and nearly the same block where my Great Aunt Ingrid lived for many years).

Laney’s youngest baby, Max, is 13 days younger than Lexi. Cute little guy. She also has a daughter, Ruth, who's about 4. The youngest of the British woman is Freddy, who's 6 months. Lexi's still too young to be playing with other babies, but in a few months, we can all get together for them to play.

It was basically a moms group gathering, but then Ed (Tony Blair) came home from work later in the evening. They're really nice people. They've lived in this compound only since May. They lived in a much smaller house and with another baby on the way, they needed more room. Ed's employer (Red Cross) was very particular about where they could live because of security, and there were many places in the city that they would not let him live, but they deemed this compound/neighborhood safe. So that should make us and you feel better - this place has the Red Cross seal of approval for its staff as being a safe place to live. And Sarah says the RC is very strict about its safety rules for its staff.

Finding good places to eat and shop at

Last Saturday while looking for the international Lutheran church we planned to attend on Sunday, we discovered another small shopping mall just down the road from us, near the church. It’s new and modern and is like any small mall you’d find in the U.S. At this mall is a fantastic coffee shop that serves full meals as well, including breakfast all day on weekends, so we had brunch there after church on Sunday. I love to have post-church brunch. They serve pancakes and French toast and all the eggs-potatoes-toast-bacon breakfasts. This is a popular chain of coffee shops in Nairobi (the Starbucks of Kenya?), and since then I have discovered that at the small shopping center closest to us (a 2-minute walk away), there’s the same coffee shop/restaurant, so I’m delighted.

All the stores here are open on Sundays, which is strange to us after living in Europe, but then we were able to do some shopping after church. Also down the road the other way from this church are the exact opposite type of shops - more primitive wood-working shops. They make beautiful furniture (big and small things - beds to small tables) by hand out of solid mahogany. We ordered a bedside table and a small table for the lanai. It will kill me not to be able to bring these items back to the U.S. at the end of our time, but maybe we can find a way.


Last week, my sister asked me in an e-mail if we felt totally safe here. Here’s my reply, slightly edited:

Well, being here just a few days, I think we're still ignorant, but we're learning what we need to do.

In our house, there are locks on everything from the fridge to drawers in the built-in closets, from the gate on the front door to an iron gate at the top of the stairway from the first to the second floor (fills the whole doorway). They bought huge, strong padlocks for us to use on the two main gates to the house - front and back. These are iron gates outside the regular doors. They say to lock them up at night. There are iron bars on every single exterior window - to prevent theft, they say.

We also have that panic button to call the security company.

Yes, in some ways it feels like a prison, but I'm not surprised in a way (I knew it was a dangerous city and expected things like this).

We would like to get the real scoop from our neighbor at the end of the compound - she's an expatriate too (a Brit) and lives in the neighborhood, so she should be the best to tell us how to behave. We want to ask her if the locks on the fridge and other places inside are because you can't trust the house help.

But every day I've walked to the grocery store 10 minutes away. One man told me not to wear my watch when I do this (shows that I have money or it’s something tempting to steal off me) and to drive this short stretch at night (it's open 24 hours). He also said to pay attention to your rear-view mirror and if you feel someone is following you in your car (as if it's common), not to go home but to change your route and go to a gas station or somewhere else.

Another telling example: A driver from Sarah's office took me out furniture shopping last week. We were in the city center, a place they say is more dangerous than other residential neighborhoods. We were on a busy street with slow-moving traffic. I opened the car window because it was warm and rested my elbow on the door. He asked if I had a watch on, which I did. He said someone could come buy and snatch it off my arm. This made me nervous to get out at the furniture shop he dropped me off at with my backpack or that someone would pickpocket my wallet.

So that's the story now - the partial picture. I was told I should read the newspaper and that would tell me what type of crimes are being committed and then I'd know what type of things happen so I can protect myself better.

A stressful test

I took the foreign service exam (to work for the State Department at a U.S. embassy overseas) for the second time yesterday. The test went well; it was all on a computer this time, unlike last time, when I took it in Bern, and when it was done on paper but scored by computer.

It was getting to the test at the U.S. embassy that was more stressful than the test itself. Sarah had arranged the day before to have a driver from her office pick me up at 8:00 (the man she is replacing said this was okay and for us to do this because the embassy is clear on the other side of town and I would never get there by myself). The test was to begin at 9:00, and Sarah told the driver I needed to be there at 8:45. At 8:00, there was no driver at our place, and I waited until 8:15, at which point I marched down to the corner where there’s a taxi stand. There was no taxi there, but when I mentioned it to a few men who were loitering there, one man said he had his “taxi” in a nearby compound. I didn’t care at that point what got me there. He drove a van for a safari company – he’s probably an in-town driver who does airport transfers for tourists.

Indeed, it was a long way across town, but he got me there just before 9:00 – what a relief. I went to the closest entrance. There were two lines of people – one short and one long – and they all looked like Kenyans. Being an American going to my own embassy (my experience had been similar before – that citizens can usually go ahead of other people in line) and having an important test to get to, I walked to the front ahead of all of them (and got some stares) and talked to the guard. After telling me to wait a few moments to the side, I was taken inside the building. The guard inside was a little confused about why I was there, but I asked him to just call someone to find out where I needed to go if it wasn’t that place. He told me it was the other – the main – entrance.

So I went back out and back to the main entrance. Like at the first entrance I went to, there’s a guard at the head of the walkway who looks in your bag and wands you for any guns you’re carrying. Once I got inside the building at this entrance, there was a little explaining again about why I was there and then more inspections of the contents of my bag. They kept my passport there as well as my cell phone, snacks I had brought for during the test (two donuts and a banana) and breath mints (no food allowed inside by visitors). Then they sent my bag through the X-ray machine. From there I had to walk up to the embassy building. In the entrance to that one, there was another guard who looked inside my bag and wanded me too! Then he told me to have a seat in a lobby area. At this point it was probably 9:12. A woman from human resources came out after a few minutes and got me.

I had to sign a paper in a conference room, which took a few more minutes before I was whisked into a computer training room where there was a computer on, waiting for me. I sat down and immediately started the test. It didn’t appear to be a problem to any of the test administrators that I was late. There were three other people there taking the test, and at no point did I even see their faces – we all did the test on our own and privately on the computer.

The test was in four parts, all of it on the computer, so I got tired of staring at a screen all morning. The final part was an essay question, and we had 30 minutes to write it. Last time we had a choice of topics, but this time there was only one – basically what are the most important criteria voters should use in judging which candidates are fit to be president. That’s fairly easy to form any opinion on. What they test you on is how well you can present an argument in writing.

I left the room shortly after 12:30. I had wanted to take care of some other business while I was there – renewing my passport – and one of the human resources ladies took me to her desk so I could print out the form (must be on 8 ½ x 11 paper, which they don’t use outside the U.S.). So I got to see slightly more of the building, which is a very nice place. I felt like I was in any office building in the U.S., as opposed to an office like Sarah’s, which definitely feels African and a bit pieced together and not well-laid out, which is typical. This was the compound, you recall, that was one of the African embassies bombed by al Qaeda in 1992, killing 212 people. Across from the embassy is the U.N. compound. But this is why there are so many levels of security. And throughout the building are big plaques saying what you should do when you hear different types of alarms.

When I was finished there, I called the man who had brought me there to take me home. He said I could pay when he brought me back. He knew I was an American – a rich white man – so I know he charged me way more than the standard. So I got taken for a ride – in more than one way. But I wasn’t in any mood to argue with him after the stress of getting to the test and from the weariness of taking the test.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


I started on Tuesday and so now have 4 days under my belt. Since I am familiar with the organization, that makes it a lot easier than if I was starting from scratch. I know the lingo and general work; it's just a matter of learning some more specifics and how things are done here.

Tuesday morning, a driver picked me up for work, but when I went home for lunch, I successfully drove myself! That felt like a huge accomplishment - I not only remembered the route, but managed with a car I wasn't familiar with where I have to drive on the left side of the road. It takes me about 10 minutes or so from home to work which is a lot shorter than most of my colleagues. Road signs aren't always visible and the markings for speed bumps also are very sporadic. You also have to deal with avoiding potholes, pedestrians, hand pulled carts and the public transport buses that tend to drive like crazy.

I still have one more week with my predecessor learning the ropes. We have other courtesy visits to make to get me introduced to people I need to know and on Thursday, I am flying to Kampala, Uganda for the day for a meeting. Friday night we will have a leaving/welcome party for my predecessor and myself.

Then the following week one day is a public holiday and the rest of the week we will be in a retreat in Mombassa - on the coast, beach resort - very nice! Stephen and Lexi will come with me.

Our arrival and first day here

Welcome to our new blog about our new adventures of living and working in Nairobi, Kenya. This blog is our second and will be focused on our lives in general in Africa. We will keep our other blog - Baby Abroad - about our adventures in parenthood and a chronicle of Alexendria's growing-up years. You can find a link to the other blog in the list at the right.

Below is the first message I sent out, on November 26, following our arrival in Nairobi. I like to write, and I appreciate details, and with no other "entertainment" options on the day of our arrival in Nairobi, I wrote more of a journal entry about our trip here and our arrival in Nairobi mostly so I can remember it all myself, but I'm sharing it with all of you so you know that we got here and are doing well in the setup of our new lives.

It was a long journey to Nairobi – nearly 48 hours. It really started Friday morning when we left Sarah’s parents’ place in Chariton, Iowa, at 9:30 a.m. We drove north for several hours and arrived at Brian and Jen’s in New Brighton, Minnesota, at 3:45, having made good time, even after sitting down and being served for lunch at Bennigan’s along the way. So we had a long car trip that day to get back to Minneapolis. We visited for a little while and had a simple dinner with Brian and Jen and left for the Minneapolis airport at 6:15. After returning the rental car, getting our luggage together and to the check-in counter, which took some effort and time, we purchased a temporary membership in the Northwest Airlines lounge and arrived there shortly after 7:00. They started boarding our flight for Amsterdam an hour before departure, and we got on the plane at about 8:50. We left the gate at 9:35, probably considered early for the 9:30 scheduled departure time, but the flight wasn’t full and everybody was on board. As soon as we pushed back from the gate, I snagged a pair of seats in the row behind us so I could stretch out and sleep on the flight. In the airline lounge, Sarah finally got her request granted by the airline for a bulkhead row, which allowed us to put Lexi in a bassinet in front of us. We had the middle four seats in a row to ourselves, so Sarah also got to stretch out across the two seats the armrest went up between and get some sleep. The flight to Amsterdam was about 7 ½ hours and was uneventful.

We arrived in Amsterdam around the noon hour local time and were able to go into the KLM lounge at the airport, where we were each able to shower and where they served enough light food that we could get our fill for meals over the several hours we were in there. We just hung out there until the evening. We were able to check e-mail for free, and all of us were able to nap some.

Our next flight to Nairobi left at 8:45 p.m., and of course they started boarding the plane early too. In the airline lounge in Amsterdam, Sarah was told that the flight to Nairobi was actually overbooked, so there was no chance of us getting seats in the bulkhead row again, meaning we were looking at Lexi sleeping on our laps on an overnight flight. But when we got to our assigned seats, a woman was in my seat and had the same numbered seat on her boarding pass. After informing a flight attendant, she disappeared and after a few moments miraculously led us to a bulkhead row right behind the entrance to the plane. This also meant Sarah and I had extra legroom too, so God was really looking out for us. Unfortunately, this flight was packed, so we couldn’t lie down across any empty seats. But Sarah and I did sleep some, although Lexi did not sleep for any long stretches of time. Fortunately, she was not the noisiest baby on the flight. There was a family with three young children just across the aisle from us and another child in a family next to them who screamed all night.

The second flight from Amsterdam was uneventful as well, and we arrived in the early morning, just before 7:00 a.m. in Nairobi. In the last hour of our flight, the sun was rising to our left as we headed south, so the entire western horizon was a blaze of orange that faded into an azure blue and into the dark blue sky of night, a fitting welcome to our arrival in Kenya. After we waited a while for our luggage, we found that the main stroller (which we brought as checked luggage) did not arrive, although the car seat did. So we filed a claim for that at the luggage desk, and hopefully it will show up in the coming days. Lexi was starting to relax and sleep as we waited for our luggage to come out on the conveyer belt, but then as we drove to the house, she was alert again. But since our arrival at the house, she has definitely shown signs of confusion over what time zone she should be in.

The house: It’s very large, but we will do quite well in it. At the moment, there is hardly any furniture in it. Njeri, one of the finance people in the LWF office, picked us up at the airport, along with a driver of a bigger vehicle for all our luggage, and after we saw the house quickly, she took us to the large supermarket a short drive down the road to get some basics – food for a few days and a few household items like bath towels, dishes and pots and pans. After looking in the kitchen cupboards a bit more when we got back from the shopping trip, we discovered some dishes were there already as well as some appliances – a coffee maker, a tea kettle, a blender and a microwave. The stove and fridge were here as well. Anyway, there is a little bit of living room furniture and two beds upstairs.

As we anticipated, the house is basically a townhouse but does not actually share side walls with other houses – there is a narrow passageway between each house. And it is in a compound behind a guarded gate. The compound is called Oasis Villas. It’s on a quiet residential street just off a busy thoroughfare.

The layout is thus: You walk in the front door, and there’s a small entryway, and you step down slightly to a large living room in the front of the house. Opposite the windows, which span the entire width of the living room, is an enormous, tall fireplace, and to the right of its chimney, which rises quite high in the living room, you have sort of a balcony – the upstairs hallway/stairway among the bedrooms up there. Passing under that on the first floor, going toward the back of the house, you can duck into a half bath with a toilet and sink, or else you come to an enormous dining room. To the right of that through a door is a large kitchen with a large walk-in pantry tucked away on one side. One entire long side of the dining room is an enormous sliding glass door that leads out onto the lanai, and beyond that, of the same size, is another patio, which is fully outside. I hope we can get some patio furniture for each of these two spaces. The lanai, at least, should be a lovely place to eat breakfast while reading the paper and drinking coffee, assuming the weather in the morning is warm enough. Behind the enormous fireplace is a big stairway. On the second floor is a good-sized master bedroom in front of the house with an en-suite full bath. Then there are two other bedrooms, one smaller and one medium-sized in the back of the house with another full bathroom between them. In order to sleep on the same floor as Lexi, Sarah and I decided to make this front bedroom ours, and Lexi will sleep in the smaller of the other two bedrooms. We’ll use the other bedroom as the office/computer room. Because there are two full bathrooms on the second floor, Sarah will use the en-suite one, and I will use the other, and so we won’t get in each other’s way. Both bathrooms also have a shower stall and a bathtub, so you can see how spacious even the bathrooms are. Continue up the stairs to the third floor, and there’s another fairly good-sized bedroom up there with its own full bathroom too! This could be the master bedroom for the house, but that would mean a lot of trekking up and down the stairs, and we wouldn’t be close to Lexi then. So this will be the guest suite, which is nice because it’s private on that floor, guests would be alone up there, and they would have their own bathroom. They can shut the door up there and be all on their own. In each bedroom there is abundant built-in closet space. So overall, the house is very big and roomy. The floors almost throughout the house are dark wood parquet, and it’s clear that just before we arrived they were cleaned and polished nicely, although there is a strong smell everywhere from the oil they used to polish them.

In back of the house, on the outside wall from the kitchen sink, is a little washing area with an outdoor sink, and just behind that is a little house – the servant’s quarter. It’s got a small room for a little living/sleeping area and, separately, a bathroom with a basic shower stall, squat toilet and sink. There is a small yard/garden next to this and behind the house, but with a lanai and outdoor patio, there really won’t be much use for this small patch of grass. It does have a length of clothesline, so we can hang our laundry out there.

Sarah and I spent part of the day deciding what each room would be used for and starting to unpack a bit, although there is little furniture in each room, so we can’t put all our stuff away and get very settled. After getting back from the grocery store, and after our rides from the airport left us, we ate some breakfast food quickly and then took a nap. I fell asleep right away. Lexi needed some coaxing to take a nap but then slept. We set an alarm for 2:00 to give us an hour before people were due to come back. I could have continued to sleep deeply, and after I woke up, I realized the few days of travel had finally hit me. My body was really feeling it. I just feel drained, and for a few hours, I didn’t know what I needed to do – eat or sleep some more. And it was clear Lexi was feeling it too – but feeling mostly tired. She was mostly sleeping no matter what we were doing – carrying her in the sling around the house or just putting her down in the crib, which the LWF staff guy went out and bought for us.

The grocery store we went to when we arrived is very large and appears to have everything we need. It’s really more of a superstore – a grocery store with additional sections with everything else you need for your home (or think of it as a department store with a full grocery store). It’s three stories high, and on the third floor are all home furnishings (beds, couches, chairs, etc.), and the second floor has everything from clothing to bicycles, from towels to books. So we can probably find literally everything we need there, and it’s only about a 10-minute walk away, so we will probably buy a lot there, although I do like to shop around and find good prices on some things. Before we came, I was totally prepared mentally to live more simply in terms of food – in terms of what I thought would be available here. I learned during our four years in Switzerland how important a wide variety of foods (especially in grocery stores) are to my comfort and happiness (especially when I have time to bake and cook my favorite foods). So I was expecting Kenya to be a step down from Switzerland in terms of what grocery stores would have available. But in fact we have probably gone back to the level of food availability of the U.S. From our quick trip to get some basics to get us through the next few days, I saw a lot of the stuff and the same array of choices that you can get in the U.S. I was even able to buy rusks from South Africa – one of my favorite snacks! The grocery section alone had all the usual parts – produce, meat, a whole aisle of cereal, etc. (a real test of a grocery store for me is if they stock Froot Loops, and indeed, this one does). Plus around the fringes are other little shops and kiosks – cell phone stores, electronics stores, etc. And – get this – it’s open 24 hours a day! So again, we will be just fine and will actually do quite well food-availability-wise and will feel in that way that we have left our limited choices in Geneva to return to the U.S. But wait – there’s more. This superstore is in a shopping center that has a health club, movie theater, pet shop and several other small stores in it. What a deal. Sometimes agreeing on a place to live before you’ve seen it is risky, but in this case, we chose a good place, at least in terms of what is close by.

This afternoon the neighbor from the last house in the row stopped by to meet us. Her name is Sarah as well, and she sounds like she’s from the U.K. It sounds like she has kids as well. She seems to be in her early 40s. She invited us over to chat over a beer or tea right then or anytime later in the week. We will certainly take her up on her offer. I’m sure she’ll be able to fill us in on what else is in the neighborhood.

This afternoon we also heard a call to prayer at a nearby mosque. From what I can tell, it’s not far behind our house. We’ll see if we can hear the call to prayer at dawn and if it will bother us.

This afternoon, when one of the guys from the LWF office was here getting a bunch of things for us together, along with the guy who is installing curtains, I asked him a bunch of questions about the house. Here was one of our conversations:

Me: Hugh [the American guy who lived in the house with his family and who was working for LWF] told us there were switches around the house near the light switches that called the security company in an emergency.

Jack: Yes. (He knew what I was talking about and proceeded to walk around to find the switches. After thinking he had identified one near the outside gate, he pushed it. Then he found one in the kitchen and pushed that one as well.)

Me: Is it okay to push them, even if you don’t have a real emergency?

Jack: Oh, yes. It’s fine.

Me: Are you sure?

Jack: Yes. It’s good to test them.

Me: Who comes? The guard at the gate?

Jack: No, someone more armed than him. The security company sends some guys in a truck. They’re supposed to be here in minutes.

Me: But is it okay for them to come now? Isn’t it bad to raise a false alarm?

Jack: No, it’s good to see if the service is working.

Me: But don’t they charge you for every visit they make, even if it’s not for a real emergency?

Jack: No, you they are paid anyway, and when they come, we will just tell them we’re testing the buttons and say that everything is okay.

About 10 minutes later, two guys showed up at the door, having driven here in their truck from the security company. They didn’t appear concerned at all by the alarm call.