Monday, June 22, 2009

Of Cell Phones, Security Guards, local beer and the New York Times East Africa Bureau

What the Hell is That Beeping Sound?

5:00 a.m. on our second full day in Kenya started with a piercing alarm from next door followed by a diesel generator and an incessant beeping sound from somewhere vaguely outside of our room at the New York Times Bureau in Nairobi. Bliss. So I guess we’re up now.

Alarms and sirens and the like are no big shakes in any city, obviously, and especially not in the third world. But as I stood in Jeffrey Gettleman’s office staring out at the flashing lights that accompanied the sirens, it did occur to me that we are 50 yards from the heavily guarded US Embassy here in Gigiri. The new US Embassy. The old one had a bit of a run-in with al-Qaeda not that long ago. And as I was standing there wondering what the alarm was all about, I remembered the headline from yesterday’s “Daily Nation” about al-Qaeda fighters causing concern for local officials as the unrest in neighboring Somalia continues.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…and obviously the middle-of-the-night alarms and power outages are pretty much standard menu items in any third world city. Back to the show:

I keep having to remind myself that next time we come here we will likely have some students with us as we make our way around. As we made the ten minute walk from the NYT (thanks for the digs, Jeffrey!) to the mega-mall around the corner yesterday I imagined the same impulse driving an outing for a larger group: we want snacks and beer. And a cell phone. And an undetermined lunch solution. What a nightmare.

Hayden and I are more than happy to head out with a vague plan and hope something works out. If Jeffrey’s very descriptive if imprecise directions had led us astray (go around the US Embassy, take a left, another left, go straight on the windy road, look for the giant waterslide, turn right) we would have figured it out. But to get a larger group to go along for that ride? I’m pretty sure someone in our future tour group would be unable to resist the urge to take a photo of the “NO PHOTOGRAPHS!- Usipige picha!” signs dotting the lawn of the Embassy. And I don’t want to know under what circumstances those dudes are authorized to take aim with their automatic weapons, thank you very much.

I know that security makes some people feel safer, but it seems like everyone in this city is a security guard, and all of them seem to work for one of three or four private companies. Accountability anyone? So far so good, though. They try to glower at us and look serious about their job protecting that random wooden gate on the road between one neighborhood and the other, but when Hayden waves and smiles and asks them the best way to get to the mall, their true colors show through pretty quickly. Hi fellas. Don’t shoot.

We did make our way to the Village Market, which is actually a mall, not a market. The difference is important because if you ask a local where the "market" is, he will say "On Friday."

This sprawling labyrinth of a mall, complete with a water park, has everything! Fake local artwork? Check. John Mayer on the flat screen JVCs? Check. Curried fried rice? Check. A $30 cell phone and SIM card for our trip. Indeed. I know the basic reasons for it, but it does still strike me as odd that the cell networks in Africa, Asia, and South America are better by far than those in the states. Everyone here has a cell phone. Including us. Weird.

A word about local beers. Imagine for a moment that the only beers available in Seattle were Rainier and Guinness. This is the basic truth of most of the third world. You get one decent local lager (and usually a second version of the same beer sold in a smaller bottle and called “light beer”) and one import that is actually brewed locally. In Belize it was Belikin, and after a week or so of that stuff, we were all ready for anything else. In fact, on the flight here there was a story about Belize in the in-flight magazine and just the photo of a Belikin Bottle on a dining table almost made Hayden ill.

In Kenya we have Tusker. A decent lager that nonetheless tastes as much the vessel it is served in as it does beer. Seriously. The canned Tusker (65 Shillings - or less than a buck - at the local market) the bottled version you get at the restaurants and cafes, taste very different. My goal is to not get so sick of Tusker that I don’t look forward to a few cold ones next time we arrive in Africa.

Luckily last night Jeffrey saved us from Tusker overload by making some champagne concoction and serving a nice red wine with dinner. We also got to hear, from his parents’ perspective, the experience of Jeffrey’s two most recent kidnappings while on the job reporting in Iraq and later in Ethiopa. Bob, Jeffrey’s dad, has an active campaign running to get Jeffrey on the much less dangerous and infinitely more exciting Hoboken, NJ beat. There doesn’t seem to be much traction for that plan.

Our current situation:

We are each sitting at different desks in the NYT East Africa Bureau. I’m poaching an Internet connection from one of the staff computers and Hayden is trying to keep from throwing our new African cell phone through the concrete wall (she’s not big on the technology learning curve, that one. She much prefers things to just work the way they are supposed to, which makes her choice to use Windows puzzling to me). The security guards arrived at their posts several hours ago, and we are heading out to Cura today for the first time. The alarms have ceased, the power is back on, and the sun is up. The two-person staff of the NYT office will arrive in an hour, so I need to stop pretending like I'm a journalist and give up this desk. We have a busy week here in Nairobi and in Cura before heading out on safari and then to the coast.


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