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Welcome to Nairobi (2 of 2)
(from the journal of a reluctant visitor)

     Paying for another night back at the Greton, I get an interesting lesson at the hotel desk in taking things nice and slow. I paid for the second night, which came to 700 shillings and pulled out two 500-shilling notes. The girl at the desk wrote up the receipt, took the notes, and then said she had no change. "But I need change," I said. She turned to a friend and they chatted a while casually in Swahili, then she turned to me again, having appearently agreed that they had no change. Then she gave me a look that transparently said, "If I wait long enough, American, you might just say ‘I’m in a hurry—keep the change’..." But I just stood there, looking perfectly happy to stand there all night. Finally she shrugged, got up, very slowly wandered upstairs to the bar and came back down with the change.

     I pocket my change and saunter upstairs into the bar for another Tusker and a chance to write quietly in my journal. The color TV in the corner of the L-shaped room was awfully loud but a narrow door leads out to the balcony and several tables under an awning. The beer is half the price charged in the restaurant.

     It’s started to rain in the street and under the awning the air is moving just enough to send a few drops of water into my ear and bring the pungent and nutty smells of the street up to the balcony. At the next table are two men and a woman in their twenties speaking mostly Swahili (I guess) but occasionally lapsing into fragments of English. The woman keeps smiling over at me, raising her glass and saying "Cheers!" Now they seem to be speaking some French patois. The one with his back to me turns around and offers me some kind of herb. No thanks. Cheers again, though.

     The rank of dilapidated taxis just sits in the street with the drivers chatting with the hotel guard, leaning on the opposite wall with the shoe shine guy and the corn cob roaster and eyeing the hookers as they parade from the busy corner in their red dresses and white running shoes. The rain stops after fifteen minutes. One taxi driver told me it rains a little like this every evening but probably the days would be clear. We’ll see.

     As I put my pen down after finishing the last sentence and went to finish my last inch of Tusker, the fellow at the next table with his back to me who had earlier offered me the herb says "Join us!" So I do.

    The herb man’s name, he says, is Anderson—from Addis Ababa. He wears a broad smile and open countenance with just the hint of a moustache. Both his friends are also Ethiopian, which instantly explains the woman’s radiance (though she radiates more later but that’s entirely due to brandy and Coke). Her name is Asha. Her male friend, with a long face and a brow often furrowed as he searches for an appropriate English word, is Alex. We exchange pleasantries and talk about the world as best we can with the common language we can devise.

     After another round of Tuskers and some brandy delivered in portion control packets like ketchup, I am treated to Asha trying to con the waiter out of a good percentage of the bar tab. They negotiate and argue for ten minutes over a couple of bucks with him sticking to his guns as she tries every transparent feminine wile she can pull out of a repertoire clearly learned from watching B-movies. I laugh out loud as she finally settles up with a beautiful pout and an "I won" glance beamed sideways at Alex.

     The herb turns out to be khat, the Ethiopian/Somali natural organic amphetamine that you just chew and get high and wired. Asha and Anderson chew away on little sticks of khat he keeps producing from his breast pocket. They tell me it’s called ‘minaa’ in Swahili and is grown quite widely and apparently legally in Kenya.

     The general merriment of the bar tab negotiation now attract an Arab-looking guy sitting alone at the next table. He joins us, introducing himself as Jamal. Jamal is Yemeni but had worked for some time in Winnipeg and speaks fine English as well as Swahili. Asha admits that her mother was Yemeni, then sings a snatch of a song in Yemeni Arabic. Very nice, too.

     Conversation skitters every which way with Asha getting drunk enough to be pouty, and unambiguously impatient whenever she isn’t the center of attention. The fact that I unwilling either to marry her or to sponsor her emigration to the United States does not improve her mood. Alex enjoys a rare chance to use all the English cuss words he knows. Jamal tries to debate religion. Asha declares, "No talk about God!" Finally after about an hour we go our separate ways. I return the cheery "Hi!" from the whore on the landing and climb alone to my room above. I never see the same guard twice at the security gate on the third landing. This must be the local answer to full employment.

© 1995 Danny Carnahan

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