Nairobi

Nairobi at Night

I tried one more time. Nairobi at night. This time with the help of two GAP guides, one being my future leader across Tanzania and the game reserves. They escorted me back to Ranalo Foods to educated this rusty mind on eating with your hands in East Africa. Grabbing ugali (corn flour and water boiled down to a squishy solid) by the fingertips, they molded a wad to fit the width of their hands, ending in a spoon-like shape near the thumb. Then, they went for the meat or greens, pinching the food together to the ugali and taking it all in with a large, meaty bite. It took me a few attempts to look as thought I eat like this all the time. Of course, I still got some stares and was probably looking quite silly, but having those guys accompany me gave me the confidence I, for some reason, lacked the night before.

And then we went out for drinks. People were pumped to get on the dance floor, but most of the time, it was a floor full of gyrating men.  The guys explained most men are pretty afraid of girls because the majority of the women surrounding us were quite obviously "ladies of the night." They danced with an eye behind them, seeing who was watching and hoping to entice someone.

The bathroom was for refueling, to smoke and primp among the puddles. Standing in my simple, modest attire, the ladies and I had a moment of pausing to observe the other. All faucets were covered with bags, so a massive tank of water took up the majority of the open space, and a small bucket bobbled in hopes someone would want to be clean. A woman in front of me couldn’t stop moving to the music outside and gyrated by the toilet stalls. I loved it. I wanted to join her. The other woman next to me, one of the few ladies that wasn’t working that night, handed me some toilet paper. I was much obliged.

The curtains by the dance floor parted on a band led by a great Congolese singer, and immediately the place exploded with energy. The music pulsed to a heartbeat or a quick breath, to the natural bounce of the joints, all about the hips, shoulders, and head, which usually looked down to see how the rest of the bod’ was doing.

At one point, a man collapsed "dead" on floor in a game to get money. He rose after the efforts of a few very dedicated and drunken men (giving money and pleading to the gods) and came alive…alive enough to strip down to basically a full spandex onesie and about twelve pairs of colorful or slinky underwear. Once he got down to nothing but a G string over his black shiny get-up, he proceeded to do a headstand fit with impressive hip gyrations.  A couple audience members were quite enthusiastic to have me contribute to his medical school fees or whatever he was dancing for, but my boys had my back and gave me a backbone in the vulnerable situation.

The dancing king of the night, a.k.a. the Masai Matisyahu of sorts, told me to get up and dance. I mimicked the popular moves and fit in nicely. Then he asked me to be at home (that's nice) and feel free (oh ok...) to make another Obama if I felt like it (since I’m an American woman…in Kenya...wait, WHAT?). It was the second time someone said this to me in two days. At first it struck me as hilarious. Then I realized with the inauguration of our new president, the entire country of Kenya had a fresh new joke for the tourists that they all found as comical as they did the first time.

Bottom line: Get a local perspective on Nairobi nightlife, and you'll walk away pleased...and possibly swervin'.

Take my Taxes and Bribes but not my Smiles: Day 35

I made a friend while lounging at the hotel pool, Samuel, who comes from Kenya and beams with helpful information for the interested tourist. Since I feel like I’m cheating or lazy to only hang out at my hotel when abroad, I used his knowledge to develop a safe plan to see the city. Good man…though he fell in line with so many passing East African men I’ve met and asked me about my marriage status, but he stood as representation of a city I feared but without the malicious intent. While reading at the pool early on the second day, he cheerfully began another conversation with me that casually went into detailing his evening in jail. Since I had seen Samuel the afternoon before, he had been picked up by the Kenyan police and held in a cell, jammed in like a tin fish, and released on a bribe in the wee hours of the morning. He spoke with a smile and a near giggle throughout this story of corruption and dishonesty. This was his second time being detained, and his offence…not having his I.D. on him while waiting for a matatu (taxi bus) on his way home.

I took narrative exaggeration into account when he said 2,000 other suffered the same fate, but that would still leave a helluva lot of citizens at the mercy of the hired officials who supposedly “keep them safe”.  Samuel informed me Kenyan police are the most corrupt on Earth, and considering Obama refused to come to Kenya recently due to its seedy government, its easy to take his story in and develop a healthy fear of Kenya’s system.

Tours start here based on airport convenience, and besides a quick shopping trip to Karen, a few animal activities, and spit grilled meals, there’s little else here that justifies time spent among the corruption bookends of government and criminality. I know the people who live here are lovely…it’s the search for them throughout the city that will do you in.

But the wonderful thing is, as soon as you leave the town limits, its nothing but love, gyrating hips, and carnivorous animals in Kenya.

Move. Just Do It: Day 34

I hit up a local joint in Nairobi on my first night: Ranalo Foods. The night involved my failed attempts at eating without utensils and a staring problem aimed at all the moving bodies on the dance floor. This is what I observed. “The body is constantly swerving into different 'S' curve forms, snaking and rolling and making dance a public display of their private spirits. Moving like they're underwater, yet unable to abandon the rhythm. The smaller the moves, the better; slow, deliberate gyrations all with the smooth coat of style. It's 'own world dancing'...no one is self-conscious. And it's all in the joints with hips gliding, shoulders throbbing, and all eyes looking down to the work being done by themselves and the handsome one nearby.”

I rarely am intimidated by the dance floor, and even if I'm in a new country, I usually take the stance that if I make a fool of myself, I'll see none of these people again in the future. But, I didn't dance this time. I wanted to so badly, to test my skills at mimicking this underwater, snaking, gyrating dance of East Africa. I thought I could break the barrier between myself and the rest of the crowd on that Saturday night. Oh, but I was alone, and I didn't want to be a spectacle.

I added this first night at Ranalo Foods to the list of moments I regret. I could have given a nearby soul my camera to record whatever failed or successful attempts I made to assimilate into the dance culture. I could have smiled and gotten so far, making new friends who would dictate the way I should move.

And why am I writing about that one time when I didn't dance at a restaurant in Kenya? Because it could have enriched my Nairobi experience to unknown heights, and I'd rather you not make the mistakes in your journeys that lead you thinking later..."That would have been really cool if I had been ballsy enough to do that." I didn't show those boys in the bar in Cambodia the Soulja Boy dance, and I didn't swerve to the music of East Africa. I still remember the things I missed. They're small, but they could make all the difference.