one of our favorite sights

Sunday, February 24, 2013

What Would You Like With That Jam?

We traveled to Nairobi, the capitol of Kenya, last week because Michael had some meetings, we had not yet been there, we wanted to visit our old family friend Miriam Chege, and we had to take Jeannette to the airport. Although Eldoret is a fairly good sized city, it is completely different from Nairobi, both because it is not nearly as cosmopolitan and it is much smaller. Like all huge cities (population close to 3 million) Nairobi has issues despite its many positive aspects. One, there are too many people and there is a lot of poverty. However,  it is also the banking and commercial center of East Africa. Like everywhere in the world, many people move here looking for work, and that creates a lot of congestion.
matatus lined up

here's another, slower, option...the tuktuk!
 All big cities have a lot of traffic, even terrible traffic, by our standards in Ogilville, Indiana, but Nairobi, due to its limited infrastructure, numerous construction projects, whacky drivers, and all of the other oddities abundant on the side of the road in Kenya, takes the cake, for me, so far. The public transportation in Nairobi consists of buses and matatus, which are everywhere, and used quite thoroughly by most people.   Matatus are privately owned and registered mini vans which carry up to 20 people and are not particularly well behaved on the road. Their goal is to pack as many people in the van as possible, drive as quickly to their destination as possible, then drive back even more quickly, packed again, with little regard for whatever rules there might be on the road,  in order to make the most money in a given day. Since the drivers are not usually the owners, the more trips they make, the bigger cut they get. They often are stopped by police on the roads for overloading and they have a reputation, particularly on the highways, to be unsafe and cause a lot of horrific accidents. We even saw a couple being chased by police on foot, driving backwards at high speed on the highway trying to get away!
Michael drove us to Nairobi, and I must say he has proven himself to be a tenacious driver, managing  on many kinds of roads and he keeps his cool in the midst of incredible “jams.”  Michael did a lot of driving around on his own, trying to find his meetings, and picking up and dropping off his colleagues. The first day in Nairobi, we arrived around 2 and he dropped us at the National Museum. He went on to meetings with his colleagues and planned to come back to find us around 5. Well, he actually spent an hour waiting in stopped traffic, so he got us around 6. He had had enough by then, and all he really wanted was a cold beer, but unfortunately, we had to get out to Karen , where we were to stay with our old family friend, which is about 20 kms out of town.
We immediately got lost, despite what seemed like clear directions from both Miriam and the guard at the museum. We were trying to take a back road out of the city which would take us to the suburbs more easily, without getting into the rush hour congestion again. Sadly, we ended up missing some turn and landing right in the thick of the rush hour traffic downtown.  Although it was hot and we had left home very early and we were all a bit cranky by then, we could see from the line of traffic that was literally NOT moving that it was going to take a while, so we found ourselves being happily amused by the roadside entertainment.  Many vendors carrying a variety of  strange items walk up and down the lines of traffic, hawking their wares.  Everything from National Geographic Magazines, maps of the country, to peanuts and bananas, to bobble headed dogs, cell phone cords, machetes, and bubble blowers. There was even a guy selling  a blow up Spiderman!! Not all of the people in the street were hawking, some were begging and we did our best to maintain a sense of charity while roasting in our car and inhaling diesel fumes. Michael asked me at one point to find out if any of them had a cold beer, but sadly, they did not. No beverages at all. The lack of refreshments was noted a few more times before we actually started to inch forward towards the totally blocked roundabout.
Over the next two days in Nairobi, Michael had more interesting adventures while trying to maneuver through the Nairobi traffic.  Apparently, his Kenyan colleagues  thought they knew their way around pretty well but since there is so much construction and roads are closed, they managed to get their driver/colleague into some trouble with the local cops. Aside from sitting at a standstill quite frequently, at least once  he was stopped and asked to get out of the lane by a cop.  On Thursday, there happened to be a big presidential procession  so the streets were crowded with onlookers and Michael drove right into it. The cop on duty stopped him by hitting the car with his baton and then telling him to appear in court the next day! Charmer  that he is, he was able to talk his way out of that one thankfully!
The kids and I were on our own the next day, and we had the numbers of a couple of cab drivers whom IU considers “reliable.” We had been warned that Nairobi is a haven for “bandits” and that you shouldn’t get into a cab with somebody who is an unknown entity. So, I had called this fellow, Phillip, and told him that we were coming and that we would need his services. He was happy to oblige, but when it came time to come get us, the first day, he was stuck in traffic, and sent someone else.  We ended up sitting in traffic for awhile with this driver which at that point seemed to be “du rigueur.”
 Later, I called Phillip in order to get a ride out to where we had planned to meet Michael in order to get to Miriam’s house . Phillip said he’d meet us in twenty minutes in front of the City Market which  is a  bit of a tourist trap  in a very bustling area with some interesting shops and a pretty mosque nearby. After taking a stroll around the mosque ,we stopped in a shop. Phillip called while we were there and said he had arrived. He was waiting, so I sent the kids on ahead to meet him while I made a purchase. I followed a few minutes later, said hello to him, and we all got in. As we were driving, I tried to make a little conversation with “Phillip” but he did not seem very inclined and he showed zero interest in our relationship with IU and AMPATH, which was odd since they recommended him and he had driven Michael around Nairobi before. I began to suspect that something was weird, as we headed out of town.  I sat in the front seat, suspecting this person was not the right one, sweating bullets both because I was in the sun but also because I was not sure where we’d end up.
Happily, we did end up at our destination, and as I was paying this fellow, I received a text from “Phillip” which said, “still waiting for you. Getting worried. Are you coming?” I looked at this driver and said, “so, are you Phillip?” “No I am James.” He said with a grin, “Here is my contact information if you need help tomorrow.” I was so embarrassed and a little horrified that we’d ridden with an unknown taxi driver AND we’d stood Phillip up. I called him and apologized profusely and promised to use him the next day. He was not happy about it, believe me.
I did call him the next evening in order to get a ride to our hotel (we moved closer to the airport because Jeannette had a nutty flight time out).  Not surprisingly, he couldn’t come get us because he was stuck in a big jam!

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