One of my best friends is bumming around Europe for the summer. Just because. Check out her blog and join me in my envy. It’s ok to hate her, just a little bit.
And of course, when I say “bumming around Europe” I clearly mean “eating her way across the continent”:
It’s freezing cold, but the snow finally arrived with two days to spare, so I will stop complaining about wanting a refund.
There have been a multitude of high points, and I still have more than a week at home. All the regular sappiness: family and friends, warm homes and hearts. But also:
And of course, the joys of fast Internet connections, to bring us gems like this:
“PONIES?!?!” (via Goulet.)
Yesterday was winter solstice — time to celebrate the return of the light. Happy holidays to you and yours.
I love houseguests. Aside from an excuse to cook big family dinners (accompanied by more wine than usual), hosting friends is the push I need to stray from familiar stomping grounds. Kristy was visiting from Mombasa over the weekend, and she soldiered through some “slight malaria” to have some serious fun.
Saturday was a trip to the National Museum. I head there regularly to stroll around the botanical gardens, but this was the first time I laid out the shillings to actually go inside.
The museum has an extremely extensive collection of birds, as well as some interesting art, exhibits on the origins of mankind and the development of Kenya, and the requisite hall of taxidermied animals.
On Sunday, we saw animals that were actually alive. And when I say saw, I mean got hipchecked by a baby elephant and got covered in giraffe spit.
The David Sheldrick Trust is an elephant orphanage located on the outskirts of the city, near Nairobi National Park. Elephants are fiercely loyal and family-oriented, so the only time a baby elephant finds itself alone is when its mother is dead or severely injured. The trust rescues and raises young elephants that have been orphaned by natural causes (unlikely), human greed (likely), or animal-human conflict (also likely), such as farmers killing elephants that encroach on their land. The elephant-keepers raise the orphans, socialize them, and then after a few years they begin the years-long process of reintroducing the young elephant into the wild at Tsavo National Park.
There is a fantastic episode of The Nature of Things about the Sheldrick Trust, here. It’s equal parts heart-warming and fascinating, as is attending the 11 am feeding at the trust.
After the elephants, we headed to the Giraffe Centre. It’s run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, in an effort to protect the Rothschild giraffe. They have an info centre, walking trails, and a raised platform where you can come face-to-face with the giraffes that live at the centre.
When I reached the top of the stairs and emerged onto the viewing deck, I was momentarily paralyzed. A giraffe was staring right at me, and — not going to lie — I let out a little shriek of joy.
Giraffes are way cool. Their faces feel just like a horse’s. Their little antennae might look soft, but they’re actually fur-covered horns. Their tongues are huge.
When we cleansed ourselves of giraffe spit, it was time for lunch in Westlands. Gorgonzola cheese, avocado, pesto, bacon on a baguette — as if the day couldn’t get any better. Plus, bonus: it barely rained all weekend.
My food strategy is simple: eat real. I don’t go for a lot of packaged or processed foods. No shame, friends. It’s just that I like to cook. I think it’s fun. I think things taste better from scratch. And I think it’s a good way to challenge myself. However, “real” foods are not always low-calorie. Such as… butter… cream… maple syrup… cheese… almost-mooing ribeye. Just a few of my favourite things.
Cooking (ok, fine, eating) gives me a sense of stability, so I tend to do it more when I travel. I also find myself wanting to sample all the new snacks I come across, much of which are far from diet food. Examples in Kenya: bhajias (battered, fried potatoes w/ cilantro and tumeric), battered and fried sausages, fried samosas, fried tilapia (head still on!), fried chicken (head removed – thankfully), mandazi (fried dough… theme?). Also the local pizza chain makes a killer Hawaiian.
Gaining a few extra pounds is no big deal, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, right? Normally, yes. However. I’m going home to Canada for Christmas, and it is entirely possible that none of my jeans will fit. Somehow I don’t think my forgiving Kenya wardrobe — skirts, dresses, wraps — will be so useful in a Canadian winter.
Therefore I am making a few last-ditch tweaks: less wine/fat/carbs, more water/vegetables/lean vegetarian protein. Strangely, what’s keeping me going with the health-craze is perusing recipes for disgustingly rich holiday treats… the kind that only North Americans can dream up. (Such as my personal favourite LeBreton Flats, made entirely out of Breton crackers, melted chocolate, butter and brown sugar. I also came across a recipe today that involved baking mini chocolate bars into globs of cookie batter and then covering them with frosting. YES.)
So, in the meantime…
Spiced Lentil Rice
This makes enough for a decently-sized dinner for two, if you add some other dish (stir-fry, curry, big salad?). Or just scale it up. In my sad little case, it made dinner for one + leftovers. Awwwwwwwwwwwwwsadface.
Add to a medium saucepan, over medium heat:
- a splash of olive oil
- 1/2 c lentils (I used green)
Saute the lentils for a minute or two, then add:
- 1 + 1/2 c water
Simmer for 10-15 minutes, until lentils are beginning to soften. While the lentils simmer, dice:
- one medium red onion
- 3-4 green onions
- half a head of garlic
Heat in a skillet over medium heat:
- a blurb of olive oil (so precise)
Then add your onions and garlic. Saute until soft, then add:
- 1-2 tbsp garam masala (or a cumin-ish curry-like spice mix sort of thingy… yeah)
- chilli powder, salt, and pepper to taste
Once the spices seem to be getting a little toasty (you may need to add more oil to prevent sticking/burning), add:
- 1/2 c raw brown rice
Toast the rice for a minute or two, then add the whole mixture to the lentils. Be sure to scrape in all the good stuff that stuck to the pan. Add water to cover. (A little too much is better than not enough, you can always boil it off.) Then add:
- 1 medium tomato, chopped
Simmer for about 30-45 minutes, or until the rice is cooked. When you think it’s close to being done, add:
- a whole ton of fresh cilantro, chopped… or less, if you’re not obsessed with it like I am. (It’s 12 cents per bunch here! I can’t stop! Someone get me help.)
- optional: more spices/seasonings, to taste
- optional: I made mine too spicy so I added 1 tsp raw cane sugar to counteract the mouthfire. Tomato paste would also do the trick.
If everything’s cooked and soft but it seems a little soupy, either boil off the excess water or just remove from heat and let it stand for 10 minutes. I had it with kale burgers (recipe tomorrow maybe, still tweaking) and salad… but I’ve also eaten it on its own, with just tamari (and an episode of The Wire).
Zanzibar. Just the name evokes images of spice traders, slave ships, Arab sultans, and palm trees shading white sand beaches. These are all accurate — or were at one point in time.
Zanzibar has been on my life list for years, and I finally crossed it off last week. I had an amazing time there… although surprisingly not because of the beaches. I don’t know if it was just because I visited in the rainy season, but I was underwhelmed by the shoreline of Unguja, the main island in the Zanzibar archipelago. Don’t get me wrong, it was absolutely beautiful, but I wouldn’t say the beaches I saw were a cut above Kenya or Sierra Leone.
Stone Town, however, blew my mind. Navigating the maze of alleys, shaded from the sun by crumbling coral stone buildings, it feels like a slave trader or Persian prince might be right around the next corner. Breathing deeply, your lungs fill with hundreds of years. I spent hours just getting lost and found in the narrow streets.
Second highlight: I gorged on seafood. Lobster, tuna, shark, octopus, squid, king prawns…
My second night in town I had a memorable birthday dinner at Swahili House, a rooftop restaurant on one of Stone Town’s tallest buildings. As the sun sank over the ocean, we could hear children playing in the streets and the call to prayer echoing over the rooftops. There was a warm, dusky breeze and a full moon. I’m still not convinced it was real.
My friend/guide/host in Stone Town gave me a trip to Prison Island for my birthday. The giant tortoises who live there are pushing 150 years old, which made me feel better about slipping another year closer towards infinity.
I also took a spice tour. I thrive on making a mess in the kitchen, and I tend to be heavy-handed with the seasonings. Learning about spices in their raw forms gave me a whole new layer of enjoyment when I pop the lid off a jar of cinnamon.
My last afternoon in Zanzibar, I rode out the rains in the slave chambers at the old slave market. After the abolition of slavery the British built a church on the site of the market, but a couple holding cells remain. Although few Zanzibaris were sold into the trade (their labour was needed on the island), Stone Town was a hub for the East African slave trade.
After a glorious week, I flew out just as the sun was sinking on the horizon. As we cruised north-west at 31,000 feet, I had a perfect view of Kilimanjaro almost directly below my window.
Zanzibar was wonderful, but descending into Nairobi’s web of light pollution (you can see the traffic jams from a remarkable altitude), I realized I really missed this city. Yeah we don’t have white sand beaches or the catch of the day, but there’s something to be said for reliable electricity, grocery stores and, most of all, the sleeping temperatures at 5000 ft.
I got really quite horrifyingly ill last week. I will spare you the details, but it involved undercooked chicken and the digestive tract equivalent of Fukushima Daichi — your personal experiences with salmonella poisoning can fill in the rest.
As I laid in bed on Wednesday contemplating the sweet release of death, the sky outside my window increasingly darkened. A huge clap of thunder shook the walls, and then it started hailing. Yeah. Like, ice falling from the sky. Pea-sized chunks of frozen water pummelled the earth, mixed with rain and general atmospheric chaos. Keep in mind Nairobi is just a few latitude south of the equator. It’s supposed to be summer here.
I stared in disbelief out the window. Then I thought about the plague infesting my body… and all I could think was, “Yup. It’s the apocalypse.”
Talk about pathetic fallacy. I managed to struggle out of bed and get my camera soaking wet, just to document the moment — for future proof that I hadn’t been delirious. In the end, I was spared a hospital visit by my travel medicine doctor in Montreal… more specifically, the little bottle of miracle antibiotics she prescribed in May. This was not the first time I’ve found myself deploying 1000 mg of cipro-fury on a stomach bug, and I never cease to be amazed at the effectiveness. I may name my first-born Ciprofloxacin.
Anyway, don’t feel too sorry for me. I’m better now. And a week from today I’ll be waking up here. Jealous? Distract yourself with this crazy story [via Goulet]. Or this awesome element of American society. (The whole rice and curry thing is getting old. I could really go for some grippachos or alligator jerky.)
It’s been (dare I bring it up) more than a week since the last attack in Nairobi, and the new reality is becoming routine. Military guards stand sentry outside hotels and malls, cradling semi-automatics. Entering a grocery store or nightclub requires a swipe of the metal detector, although the screening seems a little selective. If you’re a muzungu trying to get into the popular downtown bar Simmers, the staff just waves you through. (Guess they figure white people are the targets, not the perps.) I think it’s a lot like airport security — it’s there to make the patrons feel safe, rather than serving any real purpose against a serious attack. For example, Simmers is an open-air club, bordered on three sides by sidewalks… not exactly difficult for a pedestrian to lob in a grenade.
The initial panic seems to have subsided, but I don’t know if that’s a return to logical thinking or a false sense of security. I ask my taxi drivers what they think of al-Shabaab and they shrug them off as hooligans. Some Kenyan blogs are covering how to survive a grenade attack. Others are even brazenly going as far as making fun of the whole situation. (Both via Paige.) But I honestly don’t know what to think.
Despite the new reality of living in Nairobi, life goes on. I have a new story in the Nation today. Gathering the material for this piece was really enjoyable — it reminded me of home. I’ve only recently begun to get my fingernails dirty, but I grew up on a diet of vegetables grown in my own front yard, and it’s nice to see people trying to bring some of those same techniques to an area that so desperately needs an agricultural revolution.
It was also just great to get out of the city — Gai’s farm is on the edge of Nairobi National Park. Canadians have squirrels and deer in their backyards. Gai has giraffes and cheetahs. And also a generally gorgeous home.
Also — I finally went to the coast. And I approve.
But it’s not all coast and cocktails. Next up for me? Some dangerous women are showing Nairobi’s rapists the meaning of the word no. Aw, hell yeah.
“Our greatest fears lie in anticipation.” — Balzac
Last night’s second grenade attack killed one person and injured eight. And the news keeps getting worse: yesterday, two victims of the nightclub bombing succumbed to their injuries. That makes three dead in 24 hours.
Al-Shabaab hasn’t claimed responsibility for the attacks. News articles are clear on that fact, but the situation in Nairobi is still being framed as part of Kenya’s war with al-Shabaab. I wonder, though. The grenades were detonated in crowded areas downtown, but they’re not areas that foreigners frequent. So far, only Kenyans have been injured or killed. That, combined with al-Shabaab’s silence on these attacks, makes me wonder where the attacks are actually coming from. Al-Shabaab swore they would destroy skyscrapers and target foreigners, which hasn’t happened so far. These attacks could just be a rogue element within al-Shabaab who’s decided to take matters into his (her?) own hands, or just some crazy person with access to grenades.
It’s business as usual in Nairobi. Sort of. On my walk to get groceries today, a rifle-wielding soldier stood sentry outside the posh colonial Norfolk Hotel (alongside the hotel’s regular private security), watching the ex-pats come and go. I wondered if every loitering car had a trunk full of explosives. I usually just buy a day or two’s worth of food at a time, but today I stocked up on as much as I could carry — if everything goes to hell, at least we’ll be well-fed for the first week.
I’m touched by the number of friends and colleagues who’ve gotten in touch over the last 24 hours to ask if I’m okay, wish me well, and tell me to stay safe. I’m not going to lie that I’m unsettled by what’s happening here, but the fact remains that I am incredibly fortunate: if things get worse, either the Aga Khan Foundation or the Canadian government will get me up-on-outta-here in a hurry. I can’t say the same for the millions of Kenyans who call this country home. I hope for their sakes — and selfishly for mine, as I really don’t want to leave this otherwise fantastic city — that it doesn’t come to that.
I especially feel for the Somalis living in Kenya (and abroad) who have nothing to do with al-Shabaab but get lumped into the same camp. No doubt they’ll be taking the brunt of some Kenyans’ anger over the coming weeks.
Aside from the regular warnings I receive from the Canadian government, Nation Media has started sending “Security Bulletins” — complete with emergency numbers and evacuation procedures. I’ve already stored the numbers of multiple private ambulance companies in my phone, as well as the emergency response number for the Red Cross (1199, if any Kenyans are reading). Other than that, there’s nothing I can really do, aside from avoiding crowded areas, following my instincts, and hoping for the best.
Being in a situation like this changes your perspective. My biggest complaint about life here used to be pollution and traffic, but yesterday I found myself flipping through my medical insurance policy to find out what kind of coverage I have if my legs get blown off by a terrorist. Sirens are no longer background traffic noise — my mind immediately jumps to grenades, carnage and debris.
When I accepted this contract, I weighed the risks and benefits… and in terms of personal safety, I wasn’t too concerned. Nairobi is known for being a crime-ridden city — but that means robberies and car-jackings, which are unpleasant but don’t usually end in death or mortal injury. There are diseases too, but that’s more of a risk outside Nairobi. There’s no malaria in the city, and there’s good sanitation in the areas where ex-pats live… plus some of the best hospitals on the continent. So, when I told people I was moving to Kenya, I was overly flippant in response to widened eyes and is-that-safe-be-careful. I never imagined that the city would become a war zone. Two low-casualty grenade attacks are not on the same level as the devastation and horrors of places like Somalia and Afghanistan, but things are definitely not heading in a peaceful direction here. Even the Amurrrrrrcahns are admitting they may get involved (in fact, I would be surprised if they’re not already on the hunt).
In the meantime, I’ll be here on my balcony filing stories with a mug of tea and a watchful eye on Nairobi’s skyline. I may be in more danger than friends and family back home, but when you take a good hard look at the grand scheme of global poverty, violence, rape, fear, and torture, I’m still incredibly fortunate. I just have to hope that luck holds.