Welcome to Nairobbery. Please fasten your wallets.
“They call Nairobi “Nairobbery”? Well, it’s better than “Nai-rape-y, I suppose,” mused my friend John before I left the States. I didn’t plan to spend more than two nights in the notoriously dangerous city—one on the way into Rwanda, and one on the way out. Advice from fellow travelers and friends had made me very cautious.
“Money belts are no good. Thieves know exactly where they are and if you’re wearing one.”
“If someone puts a gun in your face, give them everything you have.”
“Someone took my cell phone when I was in the bus by holding a knife to my side.”
“When you go out into town, don’t carry your bag. Put some money in your pocket like the Kenyans do.”
“Walk with purpose. Thieves won’t bother white people who look like they live here.”
“Don’t walk around after dark.”
I decided that my evening in Nairobi would be spent confined to my hotel. When I arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, I went to Kenya Airways, where I bought a ticket to Rwanda for the following morning. Then I got into my hotel’s shuttle, which brought me to the Hilton Nairobi, where I ate dinner in my room at 10 pm. In the morning, I left for the airport.
Phew, I had thought, I survived one night in Nairobi without being robbed.
Wrong. I wouldn’t find this out until two weeks later, when my parents sent me an email telling me that my credit card information had been stolen. American Express said that I took a roundtrip flight on KLM between Nairobi and Amsterdam five days after my arrival in Rwanda. And that I shipped $1000 of cargo on a flight. And that I had purchased two Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) test registrations. Initially they didn’t believe me when I denied these charges, because I had forgotten to tell them that I would be in Africa—but I don’t know why the TOEFL tests weren’t a dead giveaway. The card was canceled.
And just like that, I only had one credit card left. I am of the sentiment that credit cards are like insurance. If something goes wrong, it’s a parachute. But now, I only had one—which meant that, theoretically, if the card information were stolen, I would lose my last parachute. I guarded my Visa with my life. I would add one more cautionary rule to the above list: “Pay for everything with cash.”
I only used my credit card twice in Nairobi—once at the Kenya Airways desk, and once at the Hilton. Given the charges, I am convinced that it was the woman behind the counter at Kenya Airways.
I eventually went to Zanzibar, which, while I had to pass through Nairobi, had not required my leaving the airport. Until our Kenya Airways connection refused to wait for us and forced us to stay the night. At least Kenya Airways puts you up in the hotel of your choice (and gives you a meal voucher). This happens surprisingly frequently, which can’t be good business practice. Word to the wise—if you get screwed this way by Kenya Airways, pick the nicest hotel you can.
On my way back from Zanzibar, Kenya Airways was so kind as to lose two of my three bags, leaving me with nice paintings and no underwear for an undetermined number of days. Sometimes bags showed up on the next flight, and sometimes they just disappeared into the ether. Just to make things easier, they don’t ship the bags to your house, and the Kigali airport doesn’t have a record of which bags have arrived. Therefore, if you want to see if your bag has arrived, you have to go to the airport. I was lucky that I was in Kigali for several days after my return.
My bags arrived three days later.
“I love Nairobi,” my friend Shafi defended. Shafi was half-Rwandan and half-Belgian who was raised in Nairobi, where he had attended the American school (and acquired an American accent and a New York attitude). He would rave about March Madness and we would butt heads about baseball (he loved the Yankees, I loved the Red Sox), and I considered him the only other American in Gisenyi. (He was also called a muzungu, and hated it even more than I did, because he was actually part Rwandan.) “Nairobi has clubs, and restaurants, and music….” He would go on and on and on about Nairobi’s virtues. When I asked about the crime, he said, “People have stolen stuff from me, sure. But Nairobi’s not that bad. You just need to know where to go, and be with someone who knows the city.”
That would imply that it’s not great for the average tourist.
Shafi did concede that carjackings were frequent. He recounted a time when he was sitting in his car at a stoplight and a gun was shoved in his face through the window. Looking up, he found that the would-be carjacker was a friend of his from elementary school. “Baba, it’s me, Shafi,” he said. The robber, surprised, smiled. “Oh, hey, Shafi, what’s going on?” He put his gun down.
“I’m not gonna steal your car,” he said. “But help me find one I can steal.” The guy got into the passenger seat.
They drove around for a while, until Shafi decided he wanted this guy and his gun out of his car. “How about that one over there?” he asked, indicating a nice SUV. The guy agreed, jumped out, and pulled the same stunt on the SUV’s driver, an older woman.
The woman was left standing on the road as her car sped off. Shafi picked her up and took her to the police station.
“That’s Nairobi,” he said.
* * *
I did end up spending a day as a tourist in Nairobi, on my way out of Africa. It wasn’t bad, but I did follow all the rules—I didn’t carry a bag, just some cash in my pocket. I took a taxi out to the Giraffe Center, a sanctuary for Rothschild giraffes. For the price of entry, you can feed the giraffes with food pellets, either at ground level (it’s amusing when they bend over), or at their head level, a second-story observatory. They extended their long, black tongues and expertly retrieved the pellets from the hands of giggling visitors, young and old. The truly brave could put a pellet between their lips and get a giraffe “French kiss.” I was not among them.
They weren’t too keen on being petted, and one of them had the tendency to head-butt if you were standing in front of them without any food to offer. I named her Zidane.
No first visit to Nairobi is complete without dinner at Carnivore, one of the top 20 restaurants in the world. Happily, it’s only $30 for dinner, which I find very reasonable. Their specialty is (you guessed it) meat, and they have lots of it, regular and exotic. Over an enormous round red grill, they cook tens of different kinds of meat on long metal skewers. When the meat is ready, they bring the long skewer around to the tables, carving off pieces of meat for those who want to try it.
That night, they featured lamb chops, roast beef, ostrich meatballs, ostrich patties, pork sausages, chicken, crocodile, pork loin, camel, and more. They have a vegetarian option, but I don’t know why anyone on earth would order it. (I think you get a salad or something.) I was stuffed as I headed to the airport.
Finally, during my last time in Nairobi, I had enjoyed myself.