Warning: this post will be full of puppy cuteness. We have gone mad with puppy love…
One cannot talk about driving in Kenya without mentioning matatus, the beat-up, barely functioning (in fact, the economic lifespan of an average matatu is only five years) minibuses that provide most of the public transportation and are responsible for the vast majority of the accidents in Nairobi. Named after the number 3, tatu in Swahili, because they used to charge just 3 shillings a ride, they are privately owned and make their money on the frequency of their trips. Apparently, the matatu industry is regulated, but as with everything else, “regulation” in Kenya is synonymous with opportunity for graft and corruption rather than with increased public safety. Typically driven by young guys pumped up on khat, matatus zoom around the city, competing with each other to squeeze in extra passengers and complete their routes in record time. Khat leaves produce an amphetamine-like stimulant when chewed, which causes euphoria and a loss of appetite, enabling matatu drivers to happily remain behind the wheel for the entirety of the day, blithely ignoring the precepts of safe driving and common decency. Read more
The one upside to Nairobi traffic – and the downtown area has some of the worst traffic in the world – is that there is usually little chance of sustaining a serious injury. The most dangerous times are when the roads are empty and people drive like maniacs (See driving woes). But if you’re crossing downtown Nairobi during waking hours, chances are you’ll spend more time in standstill traffic than actually moving. This is an ideal time to get some shopping done, as you can buy everything from fruits and flowers, to puppies and bunnies, to accessories to pimp out your car, to generic souvenirs (lovingly termed “Africrap” by one of our neighbors).
Driving in Kenya can be hazardous for your health. D claims to enjoy the lawlessness and absurdity of it all, but even during the best of times, there is no denying that driving in Nairobi is a stressful experience. As one Kenyan put it to S, “We’re selfish when it comes to driving. Even if we block off two lanes of traffic to get across an intersection, we’ll do it if we can.” In practice, this means that people frequently play chicken, driving down the middle of the narrow streets, oblivious or indifferent to oncoming traffic. Despite the fact that the roads twist and turn around sharp bends and are just wide enough for a lane of traffic in each direction, there is always someone weaving in and out to find the opportune moment to overtake the car in front, oncoming traffic be damned. And when you get out of the capital, this means that you’re apt to frequently see trucks barreling down your lane towards you as they slowly pass the slightly slower trucks in the oncoming lane.
Though planning the trip was much more stressful than actually executing the much revised itinerary, D still had a lot of work to do. For example, during Ambo’s courtesy call with local government officials, D had to juggle the camera and his notepad so that he’d have good pictures as well as detailed notes for the subsequent trip report. Even the drive time between sites offered little respite from work: calling site officers, confirming hotel accommodations, passing information to Ambo, and of course wading through the endless stream of work emails on his BlackBerry, D hardly had a chance to admire the landscape. Read more
S’s second outing with M and her sister was to Kericho, a town known for its tranquility and manicured tea plantations. Given that Kenya was a former British colony, it should come as no surprise that it is the world’s third largest exporter of tea, after India and Sri Lanka. Tea makes up 20-30% of Kenya’s export income. Even so, visiting a tea plantation or factory proved to be much more difficult than one would expect in a town that has a tea plantation every few hundred meters. After driving around aimlessly it was clear that the girls needed a plan. S suggested stopping at a building with a large sign that read Chai House. Sadly, it was just an office complex. Seeing an office for the Kenyan Tea Board, M thought it had potential and marched upstairs. S and M’s sister followed suit. M asked the secretary if she knew of any local tea plantations or factories that tourists could visit. A minute later her boss opened his office door and ushered them inside. In typical Kenyan hospitality, he called up a tea factory and asked to stop by for an impromptu visit, put a stop to his work day, and led the way to the factory, which was owned by the president, Kibaki, himself. Even without any shocks in M’s car, it was worth the 12 kilometers of jostling on Kericho’s bumpy roads to see how tea leaves are made into tea, and to learn to taste test like a tea connoisseur.
With M’s sister also visiting Kisumu, S went on a few excursions with the two sisters. They first went to Kakamega Forest, which is home to 7 species of primates, including the rare de Brazza monkey, 330 species of birds, and 400 species of butterflies. Most of this exotic wildlife is hidden under a dark veil of jungle; however, they did hear the sounds of many primates and birds, and walked through throngs of butterflies.
One of the more time-consuming responsibilities of D’s job is coordinating Ambo’s travel. Upon our return from Tsavo, D felt the full weight of this responsibility. Under normal circumstances, a control officer is assigned for each Ambassadorial trip. It is up to the control officer to plan the itinerary while D acts as backup, liaises with Ambo, and takes care of logistics. This time around, the trip was announced on such short notice that there was no control officer. So, his third week on the job, D found himself working 12 hour workdays, planning a four-day trip that, on top of everything else, included separate itineraries for Ambo and his wife.
Generally open to new experiences, there was one thing S was adamant about before we embarked on our Foreign Service lifestyle: no pets. Shipping an animal between posts every couple of years, dealing with quarantines, and potentially abandoning a pet in the not entirely unlikely event of an Embassy evacuation seemed cruel. Not to mention all the other ways that having a pet abroad complicates one’s life, such as: finding someone to look after it so that we can travel, importing pet food, paying outrageous cargo fees, etc… So imagine D’s surprise when he came home one day and S greeted him with a pleading look and the words, “can we adopt a puppy?”