I’m in Nairobi, Kenya.
It’s a strange place, at least for a traveler, or more specifically, at least for me.
From what I’ve gathered, most travelers visit Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, for one or two days, maybe three at most, either before or after their safari experience in other parts of the country (which I’ll be doing this weekend). I chose to spend the past week here, mainly because I like to travel slowly so that I can combine working and traveling – work a few hours in the morning, head out in the afternoon to explore – but I can see why some would prefer a shorter stint here.
First, I’m staying at the Khweza Bed and Breakfast, perhaps the best budget hotel in this expensive city and a place that I’ll write more about soon. It has a great location, very affordable rooms and a rooftop restaurant with excellent food at reasonable prices (and a great view over the city). I’m definitely happy I found this place.
When it comes to the city itself though, let’s see…
The Central Business District is only 1 kilometer away from the guesthouse and I’ve been down there a couple of times now. The more upscale Westlands neighborhood is also just a short ride away and I’ve spent an entire day there too. But after several days out in the city now, I must admit that I’m still lost as to what this city is all about.
To begin with, many people, starting with the driver who picked us up from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, are fond of talking about the endless activities going on in this city but when pressed further, nobody has been able to give me something specific to do. The conversation usually ends with, “right now is not a good time, not much happening today”. And that is perfectly fine, but it is slightly odd after hearing how this city is 24 hours of nonstop activity time and time again.
The restaurants we’ve eaten at have been okay (K’Osewe in the city center was quite good, as is the restaurant at Khweza Bed and Breakfast!). The markets we visited were an experience that I don’t need to repeat any time soon. Walking into a market here involves what might be the most intense version of market ‘brokers’ following you around and trying to pressure you (quite aggressively I might add) into buying things at inflated prices. A simple “No, thank you” doesn’t work and despite my experience in intense markets – from Delhi to Kabul to Cairo to Mexico City to San Salvador to Manila – I honestly have never seen anything like what I witnessed here in Nairobi.
Go to the Maasai Market in the CBD and I doubt you’ll be able to take it for more than 10 minutes. That’s about how long we lasted before we got out of there.
As for safety, a topic on every visitor’s mind here, almost every local I meet tells me the city is very safe but then they follow it up with “but don’t go here, don’t go out at night, carry your backpack on your front, make sure everywhere you go has good security” and so on. I’ve walked around a decent amount now and I haven’t felt unsafe at any time, not even for a minute. But constantly hearing how important it is to watch yourself and your stuff definitely makes you think twice.
The traffic is endless too. It can take 30 minutes to travel 1 kilometer. And the roads are in poor condition at best.
Okay, don’t worry. I haven’t turned into a grumpy traveler. I’m just having a hard time finding my groove as I visit Nairobi for the first time. Sometimes you find it, sometimes you don’t. Maybe I’m just tired after spending the past few weeks in India, I don’t know.
Oh, but wait!
Here’s The One Reason You Should Visit Nairobi
This is the one thing that instantly makes me forget everything above and allows me to go to bed at night with a big smile on my face, feeling good and happy about being here in Nairobi…the people.
Visit Nairobi and you’ll find a city full of outgoing people who are ready to greet you with the warmest of smiles, the grandest of welcomes, the most open of conversations and the most energetic of high fives and handshakes. It’s not everyone but it does happen often, on the streets, in the restaurants and cafes, in the guesthouse, in the shops, while stuck in traffic and so on.
These sincere smiles are really out of control. They provide an instant boost of happiness and an instant cure to any frustrations. You forget about the traffic, you forget about any safety issues and about the thick exhaust pouring out of the matatus as you walk behind one. You forget about the dizziness and headaches from the malarone and the high prices for everything you need to purchase as well.
All you want is to be in the presence of more smiles, more people whose kindness and positive approach to life is contagious.
Whether it’s the waiter at K’Osewe who, with a little extra bounce in his step, goes out of his way to make our experience positive or the man on the side of the road that gives our taxi driver directions and welcomes us to the Karen neighborhood with a beaming “Karibou!” or the female soldier who can’t stop smiling at us as she checks our bags before we climb to the 28th floor of the convention center for a view out over the city, you can’t help but smile back or give another high five or simply feel damn good every single time it happens.
Even watching people interact with each other, it’s something else. There’s this calm, fluid method of communication where you can call out to anyone (street vendor to driver, driver to driver, bus passenger to passerby, etc.) and start chatting and laughing and debating as if you’ve know the other person for decades. And it almost always ends with two big smiles as well.
To me, when you visit Nairobi, it’s all about the people.
Forget about the sights – whatever they may be – and just come here to soak up the vibe from your interactions with the matatu drivers on Moi Avenue, the mango vendors downtown, the security guards at the Westgate mall, the general store owner in the CBD, the cashier at the Java House Express cafe, the man selling jeans at the intersection of Ngara and Murang’a Roads and beyond.
Who cares if you’re stuck in traffic at a roundabout for an hour or aimlessly wandering around the city center with a backpack on your chest or sitting on a rooftop all day not knowing what else to do when you are engulfed by such positive energy almost every time you interact with someone who calls this city home?
I’ll take it, that’s for sure. How about you?