Nairobi: scams, giraffes and a very long run

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I thought I was a pretty savvy traveler, but one day in Nairobi put paid to that idea. Luckily I’m now accompanied by my friend Laurie from home, who turns out to be much less trusting than I am. Here’s what happened:

We were walking in downtown Nairobi, on a bit of a mission. Somehow I managed to abandon some key pieces of gear in my Kampala hotel room as I was packing for the flight out. Among the missing: four blank 2GB memory cards for my camera (thank God they weren’t the full ones), the mobile broadband thingy from England (it was locked to a UK carrier anyways) and – the real show-stopper - the charger for my camera batteries. I have no idea how I managed to leave this stuff behind. I tend to be diligent to the point of OCD when packing, so it’s a mystery how this stuff managed to escape. The only thing I can think might have happened is that while I was rearranging things in one of my small gadget cases I took the stuff out and neglected to put it back in. Regardless, I really couldn’t carry on without being able to charge my camera, so we were off to find a replacement charger. I was also trying to get some service for my cell phone, which spontaneously stopped doing email and internet just before I left Uganda. I should have know it was too good to be true.

Anyways, we were strolling along the street in the city centre, and got sort of accosted by a drunk guy. He wasn’t hugely threatening or anything, just sort of annoying, and he was quickly warned off in Swahili by a friendly local man passing by. We struck up a conversation with the friendly man – a tall and skinny guy with a nice face named Hubert. He was a teacher, and interested in us, and we walked with him for a ways and enjoyed his company. And then he asked if we’d like to sit for a minute and talk a bit – he was a teacher after all, and interested in learning more about us, and Canada. And as we crossed the street to the café Laurie leaned over to me and muttered, “Are we being scammed?”. I figured not – the guy just seemed so pleasant and genuine and quite knowledgeable. (Yeah, yeah, I know. But you weren’t there, so shut up.)

Once we were in the café, we sat and had glasses of mango juice, and chatted some more. Then Hubert pulled out a piece of paper that purported to be some kind of Tanzanian immigration application document. He was fleeing his native Zimbabwe as a refugee from political violence. His family had been the subject of terrible violence at the hands of government forces – some killed, some survived, all fled. The remaining family members were being taken care of by a local church, but the church was failing them, and they needed food. He didn’t want money, just food. Some rice, something. I was weakening. It’s not like he was asking for money, so how could it be a scam? Then the pitch changed. We have so much, even just a dollar from each of us… Laurie and I exchanged a glance. And Laurie was firm. “”No, sorry, we can’t do that. We’ll pay for the juice, but we can’t help you.” She turned to me, “Are you ready to go?”. And we got out of there quickly, though I still really didn’t get it until Laurie said, “That was a scam. He and the drunk guy were working together.” “Really?” I said. “Oh yes.” So there you go. The anatomy of a scam, and thank you Laurie.

Me, standing in front of a "No guns" sign. Really, how comfortable can you be in a city where it's necessary to put up signs like this?

I was not a big fan of Nairobi. On top of Mr. Hubert Scammy Scammerson, the streets were packs with touts pushing different safari tours. After a while I felt like I needed a t-shirt that said “NO THANK YOU, I’M ALREADY BOOKED ON A SAFARI.” Add to this the fact that we were chasing around trying to find the stupid battery charger (successfully, eventually), and trying to get my cell phone fixed (unsuccessfully, frustratingly), and it was a bit of a wearing day. We did manage to find zippers to fix my pants (again…), which felt like a major achievement.

The next day, though, was really excellent. We splurged and hired a taxi for half the day so we could run a few errands, but mostly so we could go to the Giraffe Centre, run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife. It was most perfectly excellent. Started in 1979 by the Kenyan grandson of a Scottish Earl, the Giraffe Centre rescues giraffes and breeds them. Apparently in the east of the country where the habitat is shrinking, farmers will often kill giraffes because they can end up eating crops. The Giraffe Centre steps in when they can to rescue these animals.

Hee hee!

It turns out that giraffes look exactly like they are supposed to, and are beautiful and totally improbable at the same time. There are currently nine giraffes at the centre, and the best part about it is that they have a tall gazebo-like viewing stand set up and they encourage the giraffes to come right over and poke their heads in. You end up eyeball to eyeball with them, mostly because they also give out handfuls of Giraffe Chow, hence they like to hang around very very much.

Laura the giraffe, approaching the platform.

I took approximately 9,528 photos of giraffes, because they really are fantastic. You should go over the Flickr and check out the set labeled “Nairobi” because it’s mostly giraffes. You can even get the giraffes to “kiss” you by holding a large bit of giraffe chow between your lips. The giraffes then use their extremely long and agile tongues to pluck the bit of food from your mouth. When I did this it was quite a tidy operation, but whenever Laurie tried it she ended up with a big slobbery kiss.

Laurie gets a big wet one from Daisy the giraffe.

We spent a lot of time a the Giraffe centre (but I still managed to leave without taking a video, which is really too bad. I’ll try to be more on the ball in future.) I even bought a souvenir at the gift shop – a small carved wooden spoon with a giraffe on the end. Laurie is a bad influence in these matters because she’s Christmas shopping, and she’s going home in a couple of weeks with a nice big bag. I’ve been pretty restrained on the trip so far, but I think that once I get to Zambia I’ll be sending a large parcel home. My camping gear will have to go somewhere, and I think I can pare down the clothing. And if a seven foot tall carved wooden giraffe makes it into the shipment, well, what’s the harm in that?

Too bad Laura will not fit in a parcel home.

So the giraffes were really excellent, and the day wasn’t over yet. We had a bit more shopping to do, and a nice lunch, and I managed to squeeze in a run with the Sunday Afternoon Nairobi Hash House Harriers (SANH3). This meant that I had to miss most of the group meeting for my big overland trip, but it was the only chance I had to chalk up another international hash (#15!), so Laurie agreed to take notes, and I got a cab to the start point, despite the disapproval of Group Leader Dave (who actually turns out to be quite

nice and easygoing).

The SANH3 is a small hash – split off from the big Monday evening run that I’d have to miss because I’d be on the bumpy road to Arusha. It was the first time I’ve run with a group that was made up entirely of locals – normally there’s a healthy portion of ex-pats , usually British and American. So I was the only pale face on the hash that day*. I met Wilson, the hare, and got my first taste of running with Kenyans when he told me that the “short” run that day would be about 7kms. The long run was supposed to be about 14kms. Clearly, these are people who are serious about their running. Right away I figured I should do the short trail, but somehow I found myself latched on to Wilson on the long trail. And it’s not like I could risk being left behind, because the run went through one or two areas that were, shall we say, off the tourist trail. It was a long slog – hot, hilly and dusty. It was also the only has

h I’ve ever run with no checks or holds or stops of any kind. Just 14km of struggling to keep up and trying to see the infrequent trail marks (Wilson claimed there were lots of marks, but I think they must have been some kind of secret ones visible only to Kenyans. Which then made me speculate that this may be why the Kenyans do so well in long distance running – it’s not that they’re so much faster than others, it’s just that they’re the only ones who actually know where the race

route is. The other runners in a marathon probably end up doing 45 or 50kms just trying to find their way…)

There was a short circle after the run, and then I had a bit of an adventure trying to get back to the hotel to catch the end of the group meeting. I thought I had matters well sorted, since I had the number for the taxi we’d used earlier in the day, and failing that there were a lot of hashers who would be driving. Then my cabbie jammed out (“I am very far. Very far. No.” Well thanks, buddy.) And the hashers were settling in for a long-ish night, and there was a lot of confusion about the location of the hotel. (In my defense, I would normally have noted the address of the hotel, but this hotel apparently doesn’t have an address. I’m not kidding.) However, the hashers came through in the end and summoned me another cab who

could be trusted because Nairobi is not the kind of town where you want to get into just any cab, especially after dark. So off I went in this supposedly safe cab, and had a short but nerve-racking ride back to the hotel, which was interrupted for a short gas stop that I had to pay for. I admit I was feeling a bit nervous about the whole business, but I did end up getting back safely.

However, when we finally pulled out the next morning I can safely say that I shed no tears seeing Nairobi fade into the distance.

* I’ve never really been a visible minority before, but boy, in Africa I stick out all the time. I couldn’t help but snort when I read this bit in the LP under the “Dangers and Annoyances” section: “Daypacks instantly mark you as a tourist.” Yup, that’s the first thing people notice about me for sure. “Hey, there’s something different about that woman… what is it? I can’t quite put my finger on it… Wait a minute! She’s got a DAY PACK!”

1 Comment:

Kathryn said...

You look SO happy with the giraffes! (I looked at all 9,500+ pics)Yay. My question, however, is: Why is that lion statue wearing an Elvis wig? Ok, and really my fav. pic is of the Rehabilitated Public Toilet. (???)

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