Sunday, March 8, 2009

First stop - Nairobi


Hello from Nairobi!

One of the hardest parts about traveling to somewhere like Rwanda or Congo is that it takes forever to get there. There are few if any direct flights to this part of the world, and even when they are they are very expensive. Here are some well known but worth-repeating tips for folks considering similar journeys:
  • Use kayak.com. This site is your best friend in booking cheap travel, because it scans most of the common airline and travel sites looking for flights that meet your criteria.
  • Book your "from US" travel using a major international airport - usually JFK, LAX, or IAD will get you the best flights to/from Asia, Africa, and Europe, and Atlanta, Miami, and Houston have the best flights to South and Central America. For example if I try to find flights from Atlanta to Kigali, I'll find nothing. But searching JFK to Kigali finds some flights using British Airways, and searching IAD to Kigali finds the best deal on Ethiopian Airways.
  • Try to find which airlines serve the airport you're going to, and check their websites to find their flight schedules to the airport. For example Kenya Air flies daily from Nairobi to Kigali, but Ethiopian Air (which has the best rates from the US) only flies to Kigali 3 days a week. So if you use Kayak.com and look for a round-trip flight from IAD (Washington-Dulles), if you pick departure OR arrival dates that don't match with one of those 3 Ethiopian air flights your best rate will be $3000+. If you take the time to match your dates to those 3 daily flights you'll get a rate of under $1500, which is a great deal.
  • Layovers are unpredictable. On my trip I was able to include a 2+ day stopover in Nairobi for less than $300 extra, which was useful for me to check on Computer Troubleshooters Kenya and meet with my friend's sister. But a stopover in Ghana, which would have also been helpful, was $1400 - almost as much as the ticket from the US! Airline pricing is magical, and has nothing to do with actual costs and everything to do with the perceived value of the ticket.
  • Travel Agents are your friends. For a small fee they can do alot of the searching for you, although I find it still helps to do your own search first so you can know if what they find is really a good deal or not. And often, especially with African airlines, you'll find you cannot pay them except through a travel agent. Major African airlines - Ethiopian, Kenya Air, South African Airways, Egypt Air - do try to take credit cards via their websites, but it's not uncommon for it not to work. For my trip I did manage to successfully pay Ethiopian through their website (first time that's worked for me, out of 4 attempts) but I could not pay Kenya Air - they kept insisting my credit cards were declined, even though all 5 of the ones I tried insisted there was no problem on their side. I had to call in my friendly neighborhood travel broker to pay them through the Sabre system, and I paid them via credit card plus a $35 fee.
  • Speaking of money, examine your money before you come. US dollars printed prior to 2004 may not be accepted, nor will torn bills. I ran into this trying to buy my visa for Kenya - one of the $20's I handed the immigration official was torn, and she refused to take it. Fraud is a big problem here, so they're hyper-vigilant about some details.
  • On the bright side, most places will take US dollars, although local stores and restaurants may prefer (or in some cases require) local currency. Many places may take Euros and South African Rand as well, but your safest bet is to carry local currency and USD. Keep in mind that panhandling is very common here so keep some small bills or coins ready, and also theft is common so keep your wallet, purse, or whatever close to you. I keep my wallet in my front pants pocket here, because back pockets are too easy to "pick".
  • Go with the flow. Airports and airlines are mostly designed to be easy for novice travellers to navigate, so just follow the signs (which are almost universally in english plus the local language, or sometimes in french + local). Be friendly, follow instructions, read signs, and everything will go smoothly.
My main flight was an interesting group of people. Lots of missionaries, including a college-age group and several individuals (I think my mother, who worries about ME traveling alone, would be surprised by how many young women are on these flights by themselves, but it's really very safe). Also a singing group who were booked for a lounge show in Ethiopia, plus the usual tourists and returning residents. Ethiopian is an OK airline - I think it will improve drastically once they start getting the new 787 Dreamliners next year. Right now they fly older 767's with limited entertainment options, but the service is good and their safety record is decent.

So after 20+ hours of travel, which included a 8.5 hour flight to Rome where we refuled then continued for 5.5 hours to Addis Ababa (Ethiopian's hub, naturally) and a 2 hour connection flight to Nairobi, I finally arrived. I was very fortunate in that Vincent Njoroge, owner of Computer Troubleshooters Kenya, offerred to pick me up at the airport and take me to the hotel. All I wanted to do was sleep and take medicine (I've had a cold for about a week, which makes air travel even less fun).

I did wake up in time to take a stroll to see some local sights last night. Nairobi is a big city by African standards but would be considered a "town" back home. My hotel is right downtown, surrounded by office buildings and a sea of people (especially on a Saturday night, which is clearly "date night" here too). Adjacent to the hotel is a square where the matutus (local minibuses) all gather to get passengers. It's hard to describe the scene, but imagine 30 or 40 15-passenger minibuses all crowded onto the same street with both a driver and a hawker shouting out their destinations and trying to woo local business. Meanwhile thousands of people walk through the buses looking for one going to their destination, and dozens of street vendors walk around selling cigarettes, flowers, fruit, etc. Diesel exhaust is everywhere, and the art of walking between moving buses and traffic takes some getting used to, but the easy way is just to find someone walking in the general direction you want to go and follow them -closely!

Kenyans are friendly folks, and several tried to strike up conversations with me as I walked around. Since it was 7pm locally I was trying to find a local Nando's which was supposed to be close by for dinner (Nando's is a South African fast food franchise). No luck. But as I walked along a man named John struck up a conversation, about where I'm from, how long am I in Kenya, what do I think of Nairobi, etc. He also helped me to fend off a panhandler on one street, though I did give the guy 500 shillings (about $4), much to John's disappointment. (He said it was for crippled children, not sure if that's true or not but it's hard to pass up.) John asked where I was going, and I told him I was looking for somewhere for dinner. "Are you vegetarian?" he asked, which I thought was strange. "Because if you are not vegetarian, there is a place down there which is good local food." I asked him if he would join me, and he agreed so we headed towards the place he recommended, which turned out to be this little hole-in-the-wall joint. I like local hole-in-the-wall joints, so it looked good.

Kenya is an easy place for Americans to visit because, as a fellow former British colony, English is widely spoken and almost all written materials are in English, which included the menu in this restaurant. Still I only recognized a couple of things which were clearly Indian (Chicken Tika and Chicken Curry), but I chose something called "Beef Fry". It was served almost immediately, and turned out to be some sort of beef-bits in a gravy, with something like spinach, and a large slab of something starchy like polenta or dry grits. It wasn't bad, and I washed it down with some sort of tangerine-soda. (By the way, Coca-Cola, who distributes most soda in Africa including the tangerine thing I had, still uses original Coke formula in glass bottles here - wonderful!).

During dinner I got to know John a little - he has a wife and 3 kids, ages 22, 15, and 11. The 22 year old is a step-son. He does temporary jobs for an Indian contractor in Nairobi, but work has been slow lately. He is often surprised that I know things about Kenya. He expected me to know that Obama's family is from Kenya (and, btw, Obama signs, stickers, and books for sale are very prominent in Nairobi). He was somewhat surprised that I had heard about the violence and problems Kenya had last year. He was completely floored when I said "You mean the violence between Kikuyu and Lua?". I explained that I have many friends who are in Kenya or who have been to Kenya. He found out I was Christian and he asked me about my church, and my mission trip to Congo next week, and told me about his "born again" experience.

He also asked me about America. Does America have panhandlers like we have here? Yes, maybe not so many but we do have them. Do Americans have problems finding jobs like we do? Again yes, but maybe not as bad. Why would America elect a black president from Kenya? Because we felt he was the best choice for the job. Are black people equal to white people in America? Legally, yes, but in reality the situation is more complicated. Do Americans have malaria? No, not like Africa. Do Americans have HIV/AIDS? Yes, but not like Africa.

And then, "Do Americans realize how fortunate they are?". No, I conceded, most probably don't.

After dinner we exchanged email addresses, and parted company. John headed to find a matutu, I walked back to the Hilton. I gave him a few dollars to help with his son's school bills, and he said he would pray for me next week. All in all, it was a great way to start my month-long Africa journey.

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