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Brian Oh: {food, travel, photo}

Africa (iv): Life in Nairobi

Life in Nairobi during the week was not altogether that different from a normal week at home in the sense that most of my time was spent at the office. Save for the fact that going out after dark was discouraged, I did get a chance to see a bit of what Nairobi had to offer. My temporary apartment was on one of Nairobi's main thoroughfares, Ngong Road, and right next to a popular mall, The Junction. It was also across the street from the science campus of the University of Nairobi and the street right outside was the site of a major riot one of my last nights there. There was little I could find in the news about it, but it had something to do with a professor's death. Gunshots rang for most of that evening. It was quite alarming, but I spent some time on my 5th floor balcony watching the student protestors attack cars and clash with police. Both in the moment and in hindsight that was probably a terrible idea, but here I am.

My apartment was a large two bedroom with way more space than I needed. It was nice though and I suspect I lived in much greater comfort than the vast majority of Kenyans. A little bit of cognitive dissonance there. One of the beds has a mosquito net and the other doesn't. I slept in the one without a net the first night, but I quickly learned an important lesson: even if you don't see any mosquitos, that doesn't mean they won't devour you in your sleep.

There is a famous market called the Maasai Market where vendors sell souvenir goods like fabrics, carved figurines, jewelry, and other miscellaneous curio. It rotates locations every day of the week and on Thursdays it's held in the parking garage at The Junction. I stopped by to pick up some souvenirs after work one day. The vendors there are extremely aggressive. They would say things to me like, "I've been waiting for you all day, rafiki!" while putting their arm around me and trying to forcibly lead me to their station. I wasn't really sure what demeanor to adopt - too amiable and I'd be a target; too combative and maybe they'd rob and murder me. I mostly just ignored everyone. As I bought a few things, I haggled the best I could. One lady started at around $60 for three small bracelets, which is ridiculous. Although the fact that she started there probably means some poor fool actually paid that much. I got her down to around $8, but I still probably paid way too much.

I also managed to make it to a couple of nyama choma restaurants (nyama choma translates to basically "roast meat"). One was little more than a tourist trap, while the other was with one of my drivers at his local spot on the outskirts of a slum. The first, Carnivore, is a famous restaurant and frequented by all manner of travelers and was once known for serving exotic game like lion and giraffe, but this has since been banned. It does still offer less exotic meat like crocodile and ostrich. Carnivore insists that you start off with their famous "dawa" cocktail (Swahili for medicine), which is simply vodka, honey, and lime. Not altogether dissimilar to what Ingebor introduced me to in Zanzibar. It's set up as a Brazilian barbecue where men with meat laden swords come around and carve off slices of meat so long as your flag is raised. It was a fairly enjoyable meal (I did try crocodile, ostrich, and zebra - all of which were just slightly gamey versions of their respective meat families), but it felt manufactured. I wanted something more authentic and not have to sit next to a giant table full of German families. I was also accompanied by what I was told was one of over 30 cats that live there. He sat next to me the entire time while I fed him small morsels of the menagerie on my plate.

My second nyama choma experience was much cooler than Carnivore. I'm skipping ahead a bit to after my trip to the game park, but it follows logically. On the way back from Lake Nakuru, I told my driver, Gedion, that I wanted to try some real nyama choma. So he took me to his local spot on the outskirts of a slum that he frequents. We parked on the dirt lot outside and he led me inside passed the sunlit dining room, down a narrow corridor, and to a dimly lit room in the back. This room was filled with hanging carcasses of several different kinds of animals from which men in butchers coats hacked. I had read that goat was a popular choice, so I watched as one of the butchers removed the limb from the goat and presented it to me for inspection. I didn't know what I was meant to say, so I simply nodded and gave a thumbs up.

Gedion and I returned to the dining room and waited for our goat leg. Nyama choma involves roasting the meat for 30-40 meats with no seasoning except basting with salt water. Goat tends to be particularly tender, so this results in a dry, but soft mound of flesh. As we waited, we had a couple of beers. The server asked me if I wanted mine cold or warm. I'd been asked this before, but I never gave it a second thought because, of course, I wanted mine cold. I mentioned this to Gedion and he explained that Kenyans, and presumably all Africans, don't handle cold beverages well. His wife even gets nosebleeds when she drinks something cold. It does make a bit of sense when you consider how little Kenyans encounter things that are cold. Half an hour later, our goat was ready. A server broke the leg down to small morsels and, with a small mound of salt, we ate it with our fingers. It was tender, juicy, and delicious. Simple, unembellished, and a much more authentic experience than was Carnivore. I'd have gone to these places a lot more if it had been safer for me to go on my own.

I do wish I had more time to explore Nairobi and become more accustomed to navigating on my own, but for what I was able to do, I think I got at least an introductory feel for it. Next time I'm going to stop worrying about getting murdered and do more things. It was an interesting first experience in Africa. Hopefully not the last. I have one, maybe two, more posts for Africa. Most of them will involve wild animals.