Cycling in East Africa – hanging out in Nairobi.
While I had arrived in East Africa for the purpose of cycling, I remember feeling overawed with Nairobi and wanted to find my way around a little; I knew I’d be returning before too long. The central part struck me as being lovely with wide straight streets (or more like boulevards) with parallel streets for car parking. Cycling around was easy, although you need to have your wits about you seeing as a white man (a mzunga) on a bicycle was something of a rarity and attracted all kinds of attention, mostly unwelcome.
Naturally there were some con-artists who tried their luck with the usual array of hard luck stories as a way of extracting money from the fresh faced and gullible tourists. I knew what they were up to but sometimes went along with it a little bit to see where the story would lead. I had been advised at the YHA to avoid downtown Nairobi after dark and that, it seemed, was an invitation to me to explore and see what they were warning against. And yet I did resist the temptation while I was looking so white, clean and fresh (later when I was more destitute looking I did sample some bars etc but that’s another story for later on).
The other advice for me was to become acclimatised with the altitude and climate. Nairobi is about 6,000ft above sea level and this might be an issue for hard cycling. Also the temperature was delightfully HOT compared to Weston-Super-Mare in a grey, damp February. So I had a few unremarkable rides over the next few days which included checking out my route out of Nairobi since I figured I would avoid the main road heading south to Tanzania or the highway to Mombasa. I explored the suburbs in all their contrasts with stunning houses occupied by white folk and this included looking up the parents of a college friend, who immediately invited me to stay for a while.
Eager for “the experience” I accepted and it was an interesting glimpse into Kenyan white life. Only one of the couple was an ex-pat, the other born and bred there in “Keeeeenya” and they were well set up with a sumptuous house, staff to include a cook, house maid, a groundsman and a lad who simply washed the cars each day. I was well looked after and treated as an honoured guest. It was fascinating listening to the complaints about others and their critical view of people wasting their lives in getting drunk and living in shacks. I resisted asking what alternatives there were for those in these situations. After a couple of days I returned to the YHA and found myself amongst more like-minded people.
I remember spending some time with George, a silver haired man from the UK with a north country accent. He shared with me how he’d lost his wife a year or so before and he was sinking in his grief. As a way of bouncing back he decided to enrol at his local college and take an evening class. By some quirk of fate he found himself in the Swahili class, which he seemed to find an easy language to pick up and travelling to Kenya was an opportunity to try out his new skill in real life. I had been in stitches when he explained his frustration at not finding any Swahili speakers in Hebdon Bridge. Others at the YHA were equally fascinating with everyone keen to share their tales from places they’d been to and soaking up advice around the places they could go to. Everyone thought I was “brave” in cycling around but the thought of using a bicycle to cover relatively short distances each day was considered a good way of getting to know a country well.
Eventually it was time to leave Nairobi and I knew the route I was taking. I planned to head south towards Tanzania but to leave via a back road through the edge of the Ngong Hills. At last my adventure was starting for real as spending time in and around Nairobi was simply a staging post, ready for the real thing.