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).
Make no mistake, accidents do happen frequently even when the roads are in epic gridlock, but they tend to be fender benders. And since no one is going anywhere fast anyway, the drivers tend to immediately stop, get out of their cars and argue in the middle of the clogged one-lane roads rather than pull over to the side to ease congestion. If it is not rush hour traffic or an accident that is backing things up for mile after mile, it might be a group of protesters marching through the streets. We encountered one such group on our way back from the airport one evening and crawled behind them for a good 15-20 minutes until they mercifully turned off the main drag at a roundabout.
What about those driving joys you may ask? We tried hard to come up with enough positives to fill a post, but honestly we can only think of two: 1) Sundays – Nairobi conditions one to expect endless traffic jams, so it’s always a pleasant surprise how empty the streets are on Sundays, even during typically busy times. One can drive crosstown, downtown, or all around town on a Sunday. Those are the days we can get adventurous and drive around the city, learning new routes and back roads. 2) It’s actually reasonably easy to learn one’s way around this city because most of the streets are labeled and there is even a map book, Nairobi: A to Z, that is shockingly accurate. Most people still tend to give directions in terms of how many speed bumps you pass (For example: “After the roundabout, go over 4 speed bumps and turn right; if you get to a fifth speed bump after the dirt road, you’ve gone too far.”), but even that is a significant improvement over some of the other places we’ve lived. In Costa Rica, for example, in lieu of usable directions people tend to offer lengthy descriptions that reference antiquated landmarks.
In short, driving in Nairobi is not all bad, but it is certainly not for the faint of heart. D, with his New York roots, already has the aggressive driving down pat. Meanwhile, S is catching on and becoming a little bolder, though she still tends to drift towards the nonexistent curb when faced with oncoming traffic.