This post is long overdue, because those safari posts took a while! And, I’ve been happily very busy with work. So we’re now closer to the end of our four-week stay in our Nairobi Airbnb than the beginning. Nairobi was not as easy to settle into as many other cities, but we’ve managed to find our groove and have been enjoying our time here. This post will cover some of Nairobi’s pros and cons.
Pro – Access to Urban Nature
We chose our apartment based on its proximity to the Nairobi Arboretum and we are so glad we did. The arboretum is a wonderful oasis of nature in the middle of the city, lying between our neighborhood, Kileleshwa, and the one just to the south, Kilimani. Chad has finally been able to start running again and the dirt paths of the arboretum are perfect for this. And it has monkeys! We don’t see them every visit, but maybe a quarter or a third. Although there is a small fee to get in (65 shillings, which equals 44 cents, payable only by credit card or Mpesa), they let you make a bulk purchase that is tracked in a notebook, which definitely saves time. We go to the arboretum for Chad’s run nearly every day and at least once a week also enjoy a picnic there.
The monkeys in the arboretum are sikes monkeys but we also have vervet monkeys on our street that we sometimes see when walking to or from getting groceries. Both species are very cute and fun to watch.
The other wonderful nature we found is Karura Forest just to the north, near the Gigiri neighborhood (which is where the US Embassy and UN Africa Headquarters are both located, right across the street from one another). It is much larger than the arboretum with tons of hiking paths through different types of woods. We’ve gone twice for extended weekend hikes followed by walking to Gigiri for date night.
Con – The Necessity of Uber
Nairobi has public transit via the private buses called matatus, but they seem pretty chaotic and confusing. Chad has fallen in love with their colorful designs and themes and they’re fun to watch, but I think we’d struggle to find the right one to get where we want to go. Still, we plan to ride at least one before we depart Nairobi, just for the experience. But for general getting around, the matatus don’t seem right for us.
Unfortunately, Nairobi is also not a very walkable city because the traffic is horrible and drivers are not very safe. I can’t tell you how many cars and motorcycles I’ve seen speeding through red lights. Even when we have a green light on the pedestrian crosswalk to cross Ring Road to the arboretum, we look carefully for cars barreling toward us. It’s very unpleasant. Plus, due to all the cars, the Nairobi streets are fairly polluted. And even if it were more pleasant to walk, there’s nothing really to see because everything – stores, lodging, restaurants, office buildings – is behind walls for security. So each sidewalk just follows along a series of walls.
We learned quickly that if we want to venture beyond our immediate neighborhood (which luckily includes the arboretum, a bar, an excellent vegetarian restaurant/cafe, and the Kasuku Center strip mall that meets our grocery needs), we need to take an Uber. On the upside, Uber is incredibly inexpensive here and frequently the ride is less than $2. I almost always add a tip equivalent to the base fare because I don’t see how the drivers can pay for gas and upkeep on what the app charges. Gas prices here are about the same as in the U.S. and rides tend to involve a fair amount of sitting in traffic. But we’re grateful to have the option of Uber for getting around.
Pro – Yummy Food
Nairobi is a very cosmopolitan city of over 4 million people, so it is no surprise that we’ve found some excellent food here. We’ve eaten twice at a great seafood restaurant in Gigiri called Gropper that is part of a complex of makeshift eateries and bars made mostly from shipping containers right next to the Gigiri Craft Center (a tourist market). We had a fabulous vegetarian dinner out in the neighborhood of Westlands at a fancy courtyard restaurant called Beit e Selam. We tried local food right off the bat on our first date night at a place called Dada Swahili, where they went right on cooking when the power went out and we ate by the light of our phone, which felt very African (we’ve lost power twice in our apartment as well, though our building has a generator).
But our best food experience was having a local chef come to our apartment and prepare a Kenyan meal for us. This was arranged through our Airbnb host company, and one of their representatives, Paul, accompanied chef Rex. We had a great time talking to both men for several hours while Rex prepared the meal and learned so much. It was the first time we’ve done something like this but it is definitely something we’ll look for in the future. We enjoyed ourselves so much the only photo I took was a quick one of the meal after they let. Rex made samosas (not pictured), beef curry, mokimo (mashed potatoes with peas and corn), sauteed managu greens (a local veg that is very healthy), and kachumbari salad. It was interesting to learn about the Indian influence on Kenyan cuisine due to their shared colonial history and lots of immigration from India to Kenya during that period.
Con – Limited Cultural Opportunities
Without that experience, learning much about Kenyan culture would be pretty challenging. There are far fewer museums and cultural venues than we typically experience in a city this size. The main museum is the National Museum of Kenya, which we visited early on in our stay. It was definitely informative and worth the time, but not very big and heavy on natural history. Also, the entry fee (reasonable at 1200 shillings per person for non-residents, or less than $10) had to be paid on the government website, which seemed odd and I had to pay it on my phone because the museum lobby was in a power outage. We enjoyed our visit though and parts were very thought-provoking.
The other museum visit we’ve done so far was to the Kenya Railways Museum. There’s a famous quote about the railway essentially creating the country of Kenya (a pretty colonialist point of view, though possibly accurate). It must be true that the building of the rail line in the late 19th century and early 20th was incredibly impactful on Kenya’s development. Learning about that history was interesting, as were the old photos on display, and it was fun getting to play on the old retired trains in the museum’s courtyard. Definitely worth a visit.
We followed our time there by walking to the Kenya International Convention Center (KICC) to go up in its 28-story tower. The view of the city from the rooftop helipad was worth the modest admission and interesting to see KICC’s mid-century architecture (the rumor we were told by Kenyans is that the tower was designed to resemble a certain part of a donkey’s anatomy).
Pro – A Really Nice Apartment…
One saving grace of Nairobi that we didn’t have in other large overwhelming cities (looking at you, Istanbul and Bangkok) is a really nice home. Our apartment is on the 13th floor of a large complex that includes a gym and 24-hour security with a great view. We have two bedrooms and two bathrooms (a luxury for us). The rooms are spacious and the furniture is very comfortable. The wifi is just fast enough to make video calls work as long as Chad isn’t downloading anything. There are occasional power outages, but they’ve been of short duration and the building has a generator that keeps us mostly connected.
And of course, the location is perfect being right across from the arboretum. We were too sure about shopping at Kasuku Center at first, because it is a strip mall with specialized stores rather than shopping in a single supermarket, but we have grown to love the routine of that too. We get our main groceries at Trolleys and Baskets, then go next door to Green Grocer for fresh produce, and on the rare occasions we buy chicken or fish, there is a butcher and fishmonger a few doors down in the other direction. It feels kind of old fashioned and they don’t have many products from home (like microwave popcorn, which I made a special trip for up to the larger supermarket, QuickMart), but we’re enjoying the difference.
Our host is a small company that has 16 listings on Airbnb, which we didn’t realize when we chose this place (usually I like more independent hosts) but has worked out very well. Their listings are spread throughout the city and there don’t seem to be many other Airbnb guests in this complex. And they’ve been very accommodating, including arranging the chef experience referenced above and providing drinking water delivery for a very small fee.
Though Nairobi lacks many of the amenities we look for in cities (walkability, charming neighborhoods, historic architecture), it has been very interesting being able to spend some extended time here. Chad and I agreed if we’d just come for a few days before and after safari, we’d have endured the traffic, kept mostly to ourselves, and left with a pretty negative impression. That is one of the great benefits of long-term travel, staying long enough for a place to grow on us. Nairobi certainly has and we’ve got a lot to look forward to in our remaining time here.