Monday, November 14, 2005

Peace and Love and Nairobi

Nairobi is not a warm and fuzzy destination.

But I could swear it had improved. People seemed less paranoid. No one warned me about the good parts of town, only about River Road. Or maybe they just ignored me because I wasn’t wearing a watch, carrying a bag, or staring at a map (all “come and get me” activities).

One man did address me with “Still walking?” I just laughed and said “I’ve heard THAT one before.” It’s the Nairobi prelude to the “Remember me from the hotel” scam.

I was amazed at the difference a few blocks made in the number of international tourists. The Parkside and Comfort Inn comprise a sort-of white tourist ghetto, and in the mornings three shuttles to Arusha wait nearby for travelers to board. But once I switched to the 680 Hotel off Kenyatta Avenue, the only tourists I saw were African.

I caught a matatu out to Westlands and had to laugh at the red-vested minibus conductors. They thought nothing of bending down in traffic to pick up a coin, or hanging by their fingernails from the rim of a sliding van door. The conductor in my matatu did not have change, so he leapt out to ask around. The matatu continued on, leaving the conductor to run for blocks to catch up. Conductors were involved in an entertaining game of one-upmanship, all swaggering to show that they were tougher and wilder than the other conductors within view. By comparison, Ugandan conductors were school crossing guards.

When it was time to leave Nairobi, I couldn’t face the overnight bus to Kampala. The road to the Kenyan border is pitted and cracked, and while some people manage to sleep through all the lurching, I decided that going by day meant that I could at least stare out the window instead of cracking my head against it. Plus, the night buses all line up at the Ugandan border before it opens, resulting in hundreds of passengers needing to be processed at the crack of dawn. By day, only one bus would be at the border and this one wasn’t even full.

The good bus company—Scandinavia—doesn’t have a daytime bus. I waffled between going to the border in a Peugeot or going with the Akamba morning bus. People told me that the Peugeots were not safe, because they go too fast. “It is better to get there slowly than to not get there,” said one taxi driver sagely.

I went with local advice, then cursed it for the next 12 hours. Buses really do go much slower than cars, and we stopped constantly for toilet breaks, maintenance, passenger embarkation and disembarkation. Plus the Kampala-Nairobi buses (with the probably exception of Scandinavia) have all lost their shock absorbers long ago. We lurched our way to Uganda. The Akamba bus did have one unique feature—the backs of the seats had molded plastic drink holders. They were shaped exactly like Coke bottles.

At the border, I slid my Ugandan SIM card into my phone, traded a fifty-euro note from deep in my bag for shillings, and shot the breeze with the Ugandan money-changers. They excitedly updated me on the latest news about Ugandan politics. Uganda seemed so relaxed and comfortable in comparison to Kenya. When I’d left, I doubted I’d ever come back. Now, it felt like home.

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