Saturday, January 1

105 years ago, Nairobi did not exist. Today it is one of Africa's largest cities, with gleaming highrises and a population of 2 million people. The first thing you hear about it as a traveller is its nickname "Nairobberi" because of high crime there. So, as a first-time visitor, you heed all the advice: Don't carry your money all in one place on your body, use a money belt under your pants, never go into it in public, don't carry flashy jewelry or camera gear, travel in groups, never go out at night... not much fun, if you think about it. The reality, as always, isn't quite so clear-cut.

I must have fallen asleep eventually, because I am woken up by a loud clanking as workmen across the street dismantle the party emporium that made all the noise last night. We pull back the blackout curtain and get our first look at Nairobi in the beautiful morning sunlight. It looks like any big city from here, but the trees are different - acacias and palm trees.

First look at Nairobi from the hotel window

I see no evidence of heating or air conditioning in our hotel room. And the window opens wide, you could fall right out or drop something, down eight floors and through the glass roof of the dining hall below. Even when the windows are closed, ventilation slots in the tops of the frames are still open. There are no mosquito screens. Nairobi is at about the same elevation as Denver, Colorado (5500 feet above sea level) and has no mosquitoes and a wonderful climate year round.

We go to the breakfast buffet. Large windows open onto the street from the second-floor hall, and leafy green trees are outside and the sun filters through, and I feel like I'm in a movie scene playing in, say, Saigon, Vietnam. After breakfast, I find that the doors to the outside stairway on the highrise hotel are now unlocked and wander up onto the roof. Nobody stops me.

We set out to explore the town. I don't take anything worth stealing, just a bit of cash in a money belt inside my pants. Everything else including the camera gear goes into the electronic safe in the hotel room. Some of the others take cameras, though.

We walk around, remarking on the invitable security guards loitering everywhere. Closed stores have heavily barred doors and windows, and one electronics store that does not has several guards standing around even though it is closed.

We eventually end up across the street from a large park. I need to go to the washroom, so I direct our steps into it. A troop of men in military fatigues (but without firearms) has recently marched the same way. I think they are patrolling the perimeter of the official compound that includes the highest court and the president's residence.

The park has seen better days. The grass is scruffy, garbage is everywhere, ignored barbed-wire barriers line the footpaths. It is still early, but already families are there having a holiday. There are a lot of people selling bottled soft drinks out of cases. I buy the first of many bottles of Fanta (an orange soft drink not sold in North America) that I will have on this continent. I find the washroom structure, and it charges 5 shillings (less than a dime!) admission. I gladly pay it and it is clean inside. We continue exploring the park, walking up a hillside to take in a view of downtown Nairobi. There is an impressive lily pond, a small lake where people are rowing around in rental boats, and an open air auditorium where workers are erecting a stage.

As white tourists, we attract about as much attention here as a bunch of Masai warriors would attract in Andrew Haydon Park back home in Ottawa. We are accosted a few times by people just wishing to say hello, or take a picture, or collecting for a supposed charity. But there are six of us, so we are not bothered much. Only later do we find out that this, Uhuru Park, is considered unsafe for tourists, so a group of six of them wandering around is an unfamiliar sight.

I keep smiling to myself as we walk around in this wonderful warm summer weather, thinking how cold it is back home and how we simply got on an airplane and opted out of winter. To me this is still a great novelty.

We go into another park, where there is a strange monument to Kenya's independence. Several men loiter around with books of photos, eager to explain the significance of the structure, for a fee of course. We brush them off and so we will never know the significance of the chicken motif on one side.

On the street, most vehicles are old and belch highly visible clouds of pollution.

As we continue walking, we see our first white people. Two blonde girls. Ultimately, over the course of the entire day, I will count 14 white people other than ourselves.

Many people call out "Jambo!" (Kiswahili for "Hello, how are you?"). At first we are suspicious. Do they want to sell us something? Pick our pockets? But we learn that people are just naturally friendly here. We get wished a happy new year more times than we can count.

We attract much less attention in the downtown shopping district, which is mostly closed. A nearby square is full of people, and a speaker is agitatedly shouting into a microphone. With all the echo I can't tell whether he is speaking accented English or Kiswahili. We do not go into the crowd, as we are still fearful of pickpockets and such. Pu later determines that the commotion is religious in nature.

A trio of uniformed police or military types marches by, one of them with a machine gun.

We try to figure out where the famously bombed U.S. Embassy was but can't find it, and don't ask any of the loitering security types, thinking that they'll just want money for such guidance. We have much to learn in this respect.

We visit an outdoor craft bazaar. Caroline and Yi buy lovely wraps. The rest of us reject advances from people wishing to sell us wood carvings, paintings, Masai beadwork and bracelets. The prices are very reasonable. Spirited haggling is the rule, and the final price ends up between $5 and $10, typically.

Two street musicians are making a very compelling sound with a drum, a water bottle with sand in it, and singing. I throw some change into the hat to have an excuse to hang around and listen. Andrew tries to covertly record them with his pocket voice recorder. These are the only buskers we see all day.

We have, by now, walked a large rectangle around our hotel, 1-2km on a side. On the way back to it, Caroline spies an Italian restaurant and wants to eat there.

The restaurant seems very authentic, in the style of the building, the menu and the food. They even bring bread sticks (but they blow it by having margarine instead of the olive oil and vinegar customary in northern Italy). The restaurant has a particularly well uniformed security guard, with military style chevrons on the shoulders and a beret on his head. At any rate, $50 worth of Kenyan shillings (no credit cards accepted) buys the six of us a pasta dish each, plus drinks, bread, bruschetta and copious attention from the waiter.

We wile away the rest of the afternoon in the hotel, except for Pu, who goes out again. If you are in the vicinity of the hotel, you are constantly solicited to go on safari. The safari vehicles, which are clean and modern, are parked nearby. One could negotiate a fee on the spot and be out photographing animals within the hour.

In the evening we eat at the Indian vegetarian buffet that the hotel has. It costs about $3.50 each and is quite good.

All pictures for this day

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