86 condoms and still I catch a virus ...

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April 29th 2009
Published: June 5th 2009
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The bus from Isiolo has allocated seating and leaves on time. It's not the most comfortable ever and I have to stick my legs in the aisle in order to find room for them, but it's still a vast improvement on anything functioning in Ethiopia. It can hit 80km/h, possibly faster, and there's tarmac as far as the eye can see. A grin appears on my face without me even realising. A young local woman with enormous eyes and flawless skin smiles back as I amuse her baby with my mzungu gurning.

My neighbour is friendly and doesn't stop talking the entire way to Nairobi. He runs some murky export business to India, which he says he doesn't want to talk about before I can even open my mouth to ask. We cover a vast array of topics, ranging from gay marriage to terrorists to the availability of fresh meat in Kenya. He seems keen to enhance my enjoyment of the trip by pointing out sites of interest along the route, such as Mount Kenya and old colonial ranches. He says he has been mugged 5 times in Nairobi but that it's safer than it used to be. South of Mount Kenya we cross the Equator, a sign that - latitudinally speaking - I'm about half way through my journey.

The bus drops us in Eastleigh, a part of Nairobi that's home to a large community of Somalis. The roads in Eastleigh look as though they've been laid by the same people that did the Moyale->Isiolo stretch. My neighbour performs a final service for me by negotiating the local taxi fare to the centre of town and soon I'm in the Nairobi traffic, a slow-moving stream of tooting vehicles.

The safety of Nairobi has been a nag at the back of my mind for some time now. After my Quito incident, I'm hypersensitive to anywhere described as "dangerous", even though I now take extreme precautions to either avoid crime or to mitigate its effects. I choose a hotel that is metres away from an ATM, a supermarket, and an Internet cafe. They have also thoughtfully provided no less than 86 condoms in the bathroom cabinet, so it will be touch and go if I can get through a 5 day stay without a resupply.

Compared with Ethiopia, Nairobi feels several decades in the future. There are ATMs everywhere, and the enormous Nakumatt supermarket across the road contains delights I haven't seen in a while, including favourite brands of chocolate, and is open 24 hours - even Easter Sunday. A sign in the fruit and veg section asks for you not to pluck off bananas and instead to ask for assistance. I also see a fruit juice flavour called cocopine, which I'm assuming contains coconut and pineapple even if my brain first thinks of porcupine. Twice at the check-out I try to help the cashier by giving them money that will enable a nice round figure for my change, and twice they totally ignore the extra and I have to argue to get it back.

But there are also armed guards and police all over the place and I read a recent online article about the ten mugging hotspots in the city. The favoured MO seems to be to whack the victim over the head with a stick first and then frisk them. I also read some slightly surreal stories of mob justice. One concerns a gang of bank robbers who attempted to escape the scene of their crime via motorbike - one robber had crashed his bike and had then been beaten to death by members of the public. Another story describes the sad tale of a man who, in a dark carpark, had mistaken someone else's car for his own and had tried to unlock it - several friends of the real owner had seen him and had then killed him, thinking he was a car thief.

I don't stray far from the hotel in the evenings, mindful of the city's reputation. Fortunately there's a faux English pub in the shopping centre opposite that shows Premier League football and has an awesome 80s/Italo mix on Tuesday nights. A sign exhorts the ladies to "drink until he starts to look cute". The slogan for Tusker, Kenya's most popular beer, is "Makes us equal, has no equal". There's a massive interest in English football here, probably more so than any other African country I've seen so far, with Arsenal and Manchester United the people's favourites.

Barack Obama is also popular here, which I guess isn't too surprising given his grandmother lives in Kogelo in the west of the country (where the local Senator brand of beer is now commonly called Obama). However his influence hasn't been only for the good - in the slums of Nairobi, one of the main gangs that has been preventing landlords from collecting rent is called Yes We Can.

It appears that Kenya is suffering because of a lack of tourists (tourism supposedly contributes a fifth of the country's GDP). This started in the wake of the post-election violence a year ago and has continued to the present due to the general global economic downturn. Not to mention that it's low season anyway. The halving of the visa cost is one measure that's been taken to combat this decline, though frankly it's unlikely that anyone's decision about whether or not to come to Kenya would hinge on saving $25. I don't see many whities in Nairobi, which unfortunately for me means that the many touts and scammers that walk its streets converge on me with wearying frequency. Coupled with the reduced tourist income has come a spiralling in food prices that the local newspapers are all up in arms about, with tales of people starving because the price of a bag of meal has more than doubled in a year.

Corruption is a hot topic in the papers, with that being fingered as a major reason behind the food shortages. The government, a horrendously dysfunctional coalition that doesn't seem to have pleased anyone, comes to a groundbreaking conclusion as to the culprits for this corruption - married couples in which both the husband and wife work in the same government department. Couples are given six months to decide which one of them will resign. I can see that this will save the country potentially hundreds of shillings. The parking attendants in Nairobi have "Corruption is evil" emblazoned across the back of their uniforms, and I'm pleased to see such a nefarious occupation trying to clean up its act.

I'm no different to most other visitors to Nairobi in that I intend going on a safari so I visit several companies. A private tour will be prohibitively expensive for just one person, so instead I hope to find an existing group and tag along with them. This also turns out to be a problem due to the low tourist numbers. None of the reputable companies appear to have any imminent departures so I have to resort to some of the cut-price outfits that operate out of cramped booths in buildings in the city centre. I can't find any reviews, positive or negative, about them on the Internet, but they're the only ones with any departures so I have little choice but to throw in my lot with one of them. While I'm debating which option to go with, I'm amazed at how often representatives from these companies will pop up when I least expect it and ask if I've made my decision yet. In fact, the level of hassle that I get on this front is so great that my gut reaction is to not use the services of any of these companies, however that would just spite myself.

From Nairobi, I do a safari to Masai Mara National Park and Lake Nakuru National Park (both blogged separately), before returning to the capital for a few more days. I had originally wanted to see Amboseli National Park to the east, but my drivers on the safari had both said that the animal life is no different there than the Masai Mara - it's just that it has Kilimanjaro in the background. This doesn't seem like several hundred dollars' worth of excitement, so I scrap that idea and start researching my path west to Uganda.

Unfortunately something else comes up to occupy my time instead. Though Nairobi's Internet access is hardly brilliant on an absolute scale, in contrast with Ethiopia it's amazing. I'm shocked to see a couple of wifi places but they are truly hopeless, meaning I have to resort to machines in Internet cafes. This is when I get an unpleasant surprise, as I find out too late that all the cafes I visit are riddled with viruses and I pick up a real nasty on my flash drive that subsequently cripples my laptop (not much use disabling Autorun if you then absent-mindedly double-click on a dodgy file). I look for the Nairobi equivalent of Tottenham Court Road, hoping to find some techies who I can discuss the problem with, but all the places I go to are populated with salesmen rather than geeks and their only solution is - predictably - to purchase a full antivirus suite. Online research seems to indicate only a Windows reinstall will help, which I don't have the disks to accomplish here, and the connections are too slow for me to download any tools. This means I face any IT person's worst nightmare - actually having to pay for some software.

I extract a promise from the saleswoman that I will receive a full refund if the product doesn't fix my problem. Sadly, the product doesn't live up to its billing that it can be installed on an infected system, by refusing to load - only the manager can give a refund, so the saleswoman tells me to come back the following morning when the manager will be there.

I return the next day to learn that there has been a change of heart and the refund offer is now off the table - instead, they want to format my hard drive and then install the antivirus. This is not an acceptable option as all my software disks are at home so I won't be able to reinstall anything, plus I have zero confidence in the antivirus software, plus we had agreed a refund. The saleswoman says I will need to speak to the manager, who apparently will be in the office at midday.

I return at midday and still no manager. The saleswoman calls her and tells her that I am now waiting at the shop. She says that she is coming over. At regular intervals, with no news about any impending arrival, I remind the saleswoman that I am still there and ask for the location of her manager. I am repeatedly told that she is on her way. One hour, two hours, three hours go by, and I am livid. This is now beyond a simple argument regarding a refund - it's a disgraceful piece of customer service that shows zero respect for my time. I leave my name and hotel address, together with an ultimatum that if I haven't received my refund within 24 hours then I'll be visiting the police.

24 hours go by and there's still no word from the shop. Though the money isn't a whole hill of beans, I'm trying to become a more principled person these days so I proceed to the police station to register my complaint. The station stinks of BO but the staff are courteous and helpful. The officer I speak to agrees that I have a point, and gives me the phone number of a beat colleague to contact. I call him and can not understand a word he says, even though he's speaking in English (on a related note, my own English seems incomprehensible to a surprising number of people here). I had been told at the station that he would meet me at my hotel but it seems he doesn't want to. I eventually have to text him as his English is unintelligible over the bad line, and then have to consult a map in order to find out where he is.

I end up at the police station with two saleswomen and five police officers. The head guy looks like Dave Chappelle. Everything the saleswomen say is taken as gospel. My side of the story - that the software doesn't work as advertised on the box, and that I'd been promised a refund if it didn't - is summarily dismissed, via a series of quotes/lies from the saleswomen combined with half-truths and irrelevant details from the police. It seems as though there is no-one in the room impartial in this discussion.

For only the twenty gazillionth time in my life, I get the suspicion that honesty is rarely the best policy.

Though I'm sure there must be a Nairobi equivalent of the Better Business Bureau, or an ombudsman, or some sort of consumer complaints association, the head guy slowly shakes his head when I ask about the existence of such bodies. In short, I've been shafted and there's absolutely nothing I can do about it bar moaning on Internet forums. But if anyone wants a copy of Kaspersky Antivirus 2009 then I have one going cheap.

As I leave, I see the two saleswomen chatting and laughing with a crowd of policemen. I guess I was on a hiding to nothing with this from the beginning. I return to the shop in the wee small hours and burn it down*.

My one other piece of technical admin in Nairobi also involves arguing with a shop assistant, this time about the price of a local SIM card, which magically rises in price by 250%!b(MISSING)etween my asking its cost and handing over a large bill for which she gives me inadequate change. I'm then astounded to find that, in this phone store, no-one knows what the international access code is, but they're in good company because the WLP doesn't either (it's 000, not 00 as the WLP claims).

Speaking of mobile phones, the uptake in Kenya has been astonishing. There seem to be at least two phone stores on every street, and all kinds of different businesses sell the prepaid top-up cards used by the majority of the population. With many people not having bank accounts, there has been a boom in services that enable one to transfer money between phones. Even so, call rates are quite high and it costs me 50c per minute to contact the UK.

I'm shocked to find that, in total, I spend 2 weeks in Nairobi with very little to show for it. It has not been a good stay - though being mugged zero times has definitely exceeded expectations, I have an infected computer, some useless antivirus software, and a painful sense of injustice to take with me. It is a blessed relief to start heading west. Though I had originally planned to visit Hell's Gate National Park, one of very few in which you can walk or cycle rather than have to sit in a minibus, the BS I've had in Nairobi has put me off spending any more money or time in the country. I engage in some soul-searching - am I reacting like this because I'm simply fed up with travelling, or am I just becoming too sensitive as time goes by, or is my reaction a legitimate one? I don't know the answer but, whatever it is, I'm tasking Uganda with the job of reinvigorating me.

* Joke

Dull but possibly useful info
i. The bus from Isiolo to Nairobi left at 6:30AM, took 4.5 hours, and cost KSh500. I used the Isiolo Star company, who are apparently the best of the three (?) as their buses are more powerful.
ii. A taxi from Eastleigh to the centre of town cost KSh400.
iii. I stayed at the Terminal Hotel in the centre of Nairobi, paying KSh1600 for a room with double bed and en suite bathroom. It got a little stuffy during the hotter parts of the day and the noise from people wandering along Mokhtar Daddar street at all hours of the night meant few nights of uninterrupted sleep. Hence it generally seemed overpriced and, as I write this, I'm wondering why on earth I stayed there for so long.
iv. I couldn't get a taxi to any of the other suburbs, e.g. The Junction, for less than KSh650. This is no doubt partly due to my appalling bargaining ability, but also due to taxis in Nairobi being stupidly expensive.
v. You shouldn't need to pay more than KSh1 per hour for Internet - the more expensive places seemed no better. I don't think I found a machine that didn't have a virus on it. The couple of places I tried that supposedly had wifi (i.e. some of the branches of Nairobi Java House, and Coco Lounge downtown) were a joke.
vi. Don't give any custom to Karok Computers as they are staffed by lying (bleep)ers who are full of (bleep).


5th June 2009

Don't use windows mate.....
Use Linux. There are no viruses or spyware. Hence no anti-virus or anti-malware to run. It'll even run off a usb thumb drive, or you can use it to run an anti-virus clean up of your windows install. Oh, you can have both installed, just use one of them at a time. There are even distros with a very small download size. Email me if you want some more info. Best of luck.......
9th June 2009

Clicked on a random entry as I was about to log on, and was very entertained by your post. Keep up the good work!

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