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Welcome to Nairobi
(from the journal of a reluctant visitor)

     Even nominally prepared for culture shock, Kenya is utterly unlike anything I have experienced. It’s not merely a matter of gearing down to a slower speed, either. I’m the complete outsider. English, heavily accented and hard to follow, is spoken grudgingly and sparingly, though people I’ve encountered so far—mostly taxi drivers and desk clerks and guards—seem friendly enough. I repeat to myself over and over never to be in a hurry to do anything.

     I get hustled for twice the fair price of a taxi in from the airport but am too tired to fight. The taxi driver asks what hotel I want, and shakes his head emphatically when I give him the name of a hotel I’d pulled out of my Rough Guide. He tells me I’ll be much happier at the Greton and that he’ll drive me around the neighborhood to compare them and let me choose for myself. He’s right. Even at almost twice what the guide says is average for "mid-range" hotels, the other makes the Motel Los Flamingos in Guaymas, Sonora look like the Ritz. The Greton is "secure," I am assured. According to the Rough Guide, this means I am unlikely to be attacked while in my room. It’s on a side street between two wider avenues that on Sunday morning are sparsely populated and littered with randomly parked cars, many on blocks or partly dismantled. The two wider streets run from Moi Avenue, a main shopping street, to River Road, described by the guide as a virtual no-go area for people like me. If I could think of a word that meant something between shabby and decrepit, it might suit the only part of Nairobi I have seen so far. There must be an upscale quarter. I’ll look for it tomorrow.

     The Greton has a sleepy guard out in front, two sleepy desk clerks inside, and two floors up another guard at the locked gate to allow in only the guests. My $17 room would please your average ascetic monk—relatively clean but barren of all but the necessities. There is no hot water or toilet paper but I was prepared for that. The heat is stifling and there’s not much I can do about it as the window (broken lock—climb right in) opens into the common covered courtyard airshaft which also acts as an amplifier for the dozens of other guests on three levels who are chatting and singing while lolling on the railings. Even dog-tired and ear-plugged it will take a while to get to sleep.

     Being Sunday, there’s nothing for a visitor of limited means and no connections to do but wait until evening when some of the restaurants open.

     I feel very alone. Even the West African French that drifts in the window is so heavily accented I can’t follow it. No English at all. This is not a tourist hotel, that much is clear—at least not for Europeans and Americans. I recognize some United Nations Forces uniforms walking in and out. The street outside is vaguely menacing but that may be part of it being Sunday. I look forward to the bustle of a business day. I may be out of my mind but I expect I’ll feel safer in a crowd. Jesus, though, I stick out like a sore thumb.

     I venture out to an Indian restaurant for dinner. Even though I ask about taxi fares at the desk and am assured that 100 shillings will do it, the price instantly becomes 200 at the taxi. That’s five bucks. I wish I had a trustworthy guide—the street scene as glimpsed during the somewhat harrowing and completely uncomfortable taxi ride looks tantalizing and extremely hazardous. At currently quoted prices, there’s no way I can afford to ride. Tomorrow I hit the pavement and take my chances.

     As the restaurant fills with faces from all over the world, I stare at a glass of water and a plate of salad I dare not touch. I wonder about the immense amount of emotional energy I expend talking. Here in my physical and cultural isolation and linguistic limbo I can’t talk to engage the mechanism by which I reassure myself that all is well and to work out which of the available options to choose next. I mumble alot to myself but it’s just not the same.

     For a long moment I’m scared right down to the soles of my feet. I realize that here there is no safety net. One false move and I could vanish and no one would ever know what happened.

     The food is heavenly, even though the chicken within the makhanwalla sauce clearly died of old age. Marinated? It is to laugh. Vegetable koftas and a Tusker lager. The sound system kicks in with traditional Indian saxophone music, then traditional accordion, then a traditional banjo-sarod duet. The Guide warned of grit in the rice. It was right.

     The restaurant has no windows. Perhaps the view of the traffic mayhem outside would prove too disturbing for patrons. The second ingredient listed on the Tusker label is ‘corn starch.’ Also the bottle is blown with the words ‘beer only’ in relief. Should I worry? Oh, well. I never thought I’d be glad to see tourists. God help me but just sitting across the room from two slightly loud Aussies is an emotional relief.

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