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Wonderful Nairobi - Things For travellers

 article about Wonderful Nairobi - Things For travellers
2005-05-24 05:54:35
Nairobi itself has had something of a bad reputation recently, which it only partly deserves. Despite serious efforts to clean up the centre of town, the old nickname of Nairobbery has been difficult to shift. But be honest now, there are parts of any city in the world that you would be scared to walk around in, aren't there? Even parts of your own home town. Nairobi is a bustling modern city with almost every convenience you can think of (OK, only "almost"), with a wonderful African ambiance. It has developed a lot in the time I have known it, and especially over the past year or so, with the new wave of confidence brought by the change of government.

I hate cities, and yet I love Nairobi. I loved the edge that it had when I first went there, and which, despite the fact that it is generally a much safer place now, it still has (or is that just wishful thinking?). Anyway, these days one hardly needs to go into the city centre that often, as there are a wide range of shopping centres and supermarkets in the suburbs. If, like me, you are an aficionado of supermarkets (have you ever realized just how much the culture of a country is reflected by its supermarkets?) you really should check out the old-style Uchumi supermarkets before they are all closed.

Places to stay range from US$5 a night guest-houses on River Road to the top hotels like The Norfolk (which celebrated 100 years in business last Christmas Day), The Stanley, and the Fairview, and all varieties in between. There is something to suit everyone. To go for the cheap River Road options you either have to be a back-packer seriously strapped for cash and after ‘real experiences', or a nutter. Guest-houses are not always brothels, but a very large number of them do rent rooms by the hour. Incidentally, the Gracia Guest House behind the Yaya mall in Hurlingham is a nice, quiet, Christian-run place that I would recommend without hesitation.

On the subject of places of ill-repute: if you have heard about Buffalo Bill's – sorry, it has closed and is now the marble-floored foyer of a rather more superior class hotel. Something wonderful (if irredeemably seedy and rather depressing) has gone from the city. The Bavaria has gone too – maybe that's why one of my former colleagues has decided to head for Bangkok. Not all "progress" is a move forwards.





When you do go into town, or even stay in the suburbs, Nairobi has a range of entertainments to suit everyone (although one of my favourite bars is now a Friends style coffee house, and another has been yuppyfied, and lost all its character – ah well). Film? There are nearly twenty cinema screens in town – and they usually get the new Hollywood movies sooner than they arrive in the UK. Theatre? There are plays every week: at the National Theatre, at the Professional Centre, the French Cultural Centre, and at the Braeburn School theatre; Art, Literature? All there for the taking. Music of all types available at all times (great local band at Roasters, Thika Road, especially at weekends) … if you can't have a good time in Nairobi you are already dead. Food of all varieties and from all countries is readily available everywhere – one can be spoiled for choice.



Oh, and I am told that the sporting facilities are good too. If you like that sort of thing. I don't.

A good place to go at the weekends is one of the local ‘resort' clubs. Basically bars and nyama choma joints, they are places Kenyans take their whole family on Sunday afternoons after church. They will have a band, maybe acrobats, face-painting. Nyama choma is literally ‘roast meat' – a big plate of char-grilled goat, chicken or beef, with a side-order of ugali (a stiff maize-meal porridge) and katchumbari (tomatoes, onion and chilli) is a standard treat for the weekend. Roasters has long been one of my favourites, but there are any number to choose from – Kati Kati in Hurlingham is another good one (out of many).

No tourist should leave Nairobi without a visit to Carnivore on Lang'ata Road – on the list of Top 50 restaurants in the world. The three-kilo mixed game-meat platter is something everyone should experience at least once in their life. Unless you are a vegetarian, obviously. A friend once innocently asked a waiter "what do vegetarians eat here?" The casually terse reply was "they don't".

Maybe the Kenya National Museum isn't the place it could or should be, but it is definitely worth half a day. The exhibits on the development of early man are good (and one of the tableau figures looks exactly like a boy I used to teach in Essex). There is a Snake Park next door that displays snakes, fish, and crocodiles – my four-year-old daughter and her friends like it. Ignore the signs on the snake displays that say things like "deadly neurotoxin" – common in Nairobi area. It's not that they are not true – quite the opposite in fact. That's why it's best to ignore them – too disturbing otherwise. Mind you, the number of times I've actually seen a snake in Nairobi could be counted on the 'fingers of one finger'. And that one was dead.

The Railway Museum on Haille Selassie Road is definitely worth a visit. It has been quite run down over the past few years, coinciding with the brief period of privatization. It's now back in the hands of Kenya Railways, and things have improved. There are ten old steam engines to scramble over; and you can even see the railway carriage in which, on June 6th, 1900 Mr C.H.Ryall, having told two companions that he would keep an overnight lookout for a reported man-eating lion, fell asleep himself. The lion had seemingly been keeping its own lookout, and slid open the carriage door, climbed over one of the sleeping men and grabbed Ryall by the head, and dragged him (one hopes he was already dead) off into the bush. On the other hand, given that Kenya as a country would not exist at all if it were not for the railway (even a brief explanation of which would take a whole article in itself - indeed several whole books), it really should be given a huge revamp to make it the museum the "lunatic express" really deserves.

For a visitor there are more than enough places to buy souvenirs – ranging from the truly awful, to exquisite and unique works of art. Get away from the hotel gift shop as fast as you can. The original Maasai market above Globe Roundabout is still there, but they hold markets at Village Market, Gigiri, on a Friday, and at the Yaya, Hurlingham, on a Sunday. The same people selling, but they are better regulated (one doesn't get the ‘helpful' young men who have made the Globe Roundabout site a very stressful experience for any but the thickest skinned). You will be expected to bargain them down from the first asking price – try to get them down to about 30-40%. Money no object? Get out to Utamaduni in Lang'ata – a portion of the money you spend goes to support environmental projects. For basic souvenirs you will pay much more than you would spend in one of the street markets, but it is a great place to get unique items of very high quality (and they will even ship them home for you).

There is also a little market at the Bomas of Kenya, also in Lang'ata that is little frequented, but can offer some surprisingly good stuff. Some people find the Bomas a bit naff, but again, you really should pay a visit – I used to go nearly every weekend when I first lived in Kenya, and was a five-minute walk away – and they also do good basic food. In a huge rendition of a traditional round hut a professional company of dancers put on a two-hour show every afternoon of the week. They have a repertoire of about thirty-five dances and musical items, and do about eight or nine per show. They also have a great acrobatic troupe of the type very popular in the coast hotels. The bomas themselves – traditional houses and compounds from a variety of tribal groups – that were intended to be a living museum of tribal culture are still there, but getting a bit shabby. Again, like the railway museum, it is something that needs money pumped into it – and the money just isn't there.

Oh, and I haven't even told you that the Nairobi Game Park is a fabulous place to spend a day – the only thing you won't see are elephants. It's only a twenty-minute ride out of town, and has one of the finest restaurants, in town, Rangers, just by the main gate.

And the horse racing in the season out on Ngong Road …

What are you doing still sitting there?

Gareth Evans







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