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Once Upon a City
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Once Upon a City
  Nairobi Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton ...

I hardly qualify as an expert on Nairobi -- my visit was very brief -- however, here are my observations.

Nairobi seems to me in a state of confusion. Cars parked everywhere and anywhere -- I felt I was risking my life just crossing the street. The fact that the vehicles were going left instead of right was very discombobulating. (British driving rules apply). I walked several blocks out of the way to get to a corner that had a street light and even then I was uneasy. Actually, walking on the sidewalk is dangerous, too. The two-foot concrete tiles covering the walks are broken and chipped and uneven. Entire chunks of pavement are missing and barricades or warning signs around wide cracks and deep holes are non-existent. You break a leg? You break a leg. Nobody seems to worry about lawsuits.

The city must have been attractive at one time. Now it looks in need of a good overhaul. The modern buildings are mostly drab gray concrete. Those with any charm or character are from the colonial days -- they at least have some design to their facades, like the carved stone rails around galleries, the massive pillars at entrances and the ornamental window sills. However, as in most developing countries, concentration is on basic day to day existence and not on face-lifts.

The majority of the people on the streets were of African descent. But, whatever race or stature, even I could tell the tourists from the locals. Tourists wore tee-shirts, jeans, khaki slacks, runners, wind-breakers, polo shirts and matching knits. Kenyan women wore long heavy cotton skirts and sweaters, cotton dresses, dress shoes, sandals or boots. Kenyan men wore wool slacks, dress shirts, jackets, polyester suits and boldly-colored knit tops. I didn't see any fancy resort or safari wear. Shorts only appeared on North American tourists.

As in most cities with high unemployment, I was prepared for pickpockets, purse snatchers and scam artists. I'm always amazed at the ingenuity of the perpetrator. I was approached by a gentleman wearing a maroon outfit like a hotel employee might wear. The exchange went something like this:

"Hello Lady", he said, stretching his hand out to shake mine. I said hello and we shook hands. "I am the cashier from the hotel you are staying at", he looked slightly stressed. " I am on my way to the pharmacy to fill out a prescription and I am short of money. Might I borrow 500 shilling (about ten US. dollars) ".

He knew I was a tourist and that I had to be staying at SOME hotel. He didn't say the name, or maybe he followed me from the Norfolk Hotel, I don't know. His suit was too shabby for a Norfolk Hotel employee.

"I will pay you back as soon as I return to the hotel, " he was almost pleading. "I'll be back in less than 15 minutes. When will you be back?"

" I am sorry ", I replied, "but I don't have any money ", which happened to be true, and he must have believed me, because he thanked me and left.

When I related the incident to the staff at the Norfolk Hotel, they hoped I didn't fall for his story.

Norfolk Hotel, a prestigious and old establishment, was under renovations when I was there. The courtyard was covered in temporary wood sidewalks and canvas coverings, and there was a lot of hammering going on. My room had all the amenities of a fine hotel: rich wall fabrics, thick towels, brass fixtures and a plush rug. The patio door led to a small fenced outdoor garden manned with a security guard. Security guards and police were visible everywhere. Most office lobbies had a guard present. Sidewalk parking was guarded. When we parked in a parking lot, my guide paid the attendant extra money to watch our van. When we parked by a restaurant he paid a street guard to watch the van.

The people in the service industry -- hotels, restaurants, tour company operators-- were very friendly and warm. I didn't feel any hostility or resentment. Most people are aware how important tourists are to Kenya's economy. At the Chic Joint, a local restaurant recommended to me by the manager of Park East, Mrs. Njuguna, the manager, leaned forward to kiss the air on both sides of my cheeks in the traditional European way and said "We hope you come back". (I should add that this floor-level bistro with sidewalk service serves excellent barbecued chicken Kenyan style).

I didn't get a chance to see any of the city's attractions, although, I was told the few that exist are under funded and poorly maintained. Don't let that keep you away, however, some of the artifacts in the National Museum are found nowhere else on earth, like the Leaky collection and the tools and weapons from Kenya's various tribes.

Money was a real hassle. I walked over several blocks to three different bank machines but all the machines were out of order. And the line at the tellers inside the bank spilled out onto the sidewalks. I ended up shopping for tee-shirts ( my stand-by gift for the kids back home) with my credit cards. Not the best option for bargaining.

Nairobi needs lots of care and attention. Perhaps, as more tourists come to see the magnificent animals that roam Kenya's plains ( spending lots of money in the process), Nairobi will become the vibrant and exciting city it deserves to be.

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