Sunday, July 25, 2010

Kitengela glass factory

This morning a very kind colleague took me along with her to the Kitengela glass factory, about an hour outside of Nairobi.  She had told me you could see them blowing the glass there, and then you can buy glass stuff.  And I have to admit, I thought, "big deal, we have glass blowing at the Appalachian Center for Crafts not far outside my hometown."  So I was expecting shelves and shelves of vases and other glassware, which were indeed there:

But she didn't warn me at all that this place is like a fairytale hobbit-land with art!

Also it reminded me a bit of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.

And to top it all off there was beautiful scenery.

Excellent field trip!  You can see more pictures here.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Ostrich riding!

Today I went on an embassy-organized trip to an ostrich farm about two hours outside of Nairobi.  Apparently ostriches are pretty curious animals, but I think they look mean.

Turns out they are fun to ride though!

The ostrich was making angry noises when I got off:

Also, we had ostrich stir-fry for lunch - tastes like beef, but the texture is a little different.

Overall, a fun day, but I think I will stick to horseback riding.  You can see more pictures here.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Trip to northeast Kenya

This past week I traveled up to northeast Kenya (around Garissa and Wajir if you want to look on a map) with several colleagues to monitor a project OFDA funded to rehabilitate boreholes (really deep wells that require pumps to pull the water up) and truck water to villages with insufficient water during the drought last year.

So for several days we drove over bumpy dirt roads (I started to feel like I was getting Shaken Baby Syndrome from all the bouncing around) from one settlement to the next, asking the people living there, who are mostly nomadic but some settled, ethnic Somalis about their boreholes, water quality, and the health of children and animals.

Used as I have gotten to the very formal, long-winded West African way of doing things, our quick interviews with the Somali-Kenyans felt strange, but we did get a lot of good information.
In one settlement after the next, we were told that they need another borehole, a new generator, and often that the water coming from the existing borehole was too saline.  In one village the water was so saline that the animals are dying, because drinking the salty water just makes them thirstier, so unless the people force them away from the water, they keep on drinking until they swell up and die.

So things are tough.  If we had had more than 30 minutes to spend at any one site, I would have wanted to have a more frank discussion about priorities and needs - if they did get another borehole, it would probably just deplete the groundwater even faster, leaving them in even more of a fix in ten years or so. And if there's any increase in water availability, then people will just get more animals, and more families will move into the area, and the people will end up right back where they are now, with the bare minimum of water required to survive. And the generators are always breaking down, and getting the equipment and expertise to repair them is expensive and takes a long time, and the fuel to run them is expensive, so overall it's just not very sustainable.  The problem is, what's the alternative?

So I don't have any big answers after this trip, but I at least was able to get an idea of what life is like out there, which I think is important.  And on the fun side for me, driving around out there was like being on a safari.

We saw giraffes (which I hadn't been expecting), antelope, dik diks (which are tiny antelope the size of small dogs, and for some reason every time I saw them, I thought "Ooh, I bet those taste good!"), warthogs, baboons, and one roadkill hyena.  And to accompany the sights, our driver told us stories about his village boyhood adventures hunting giraffes with arrows (they have the tastiest meat!) and fighting pythons.

Overall, a very good trip.  Now back to the office to pay the price for all my fun with a week of mind-numbing training.

You can see more photos from my trip here.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

I am not suffering here

Yesterday I went to the grocery store for my first real shopping trip.  (My social sponsor took me just after I arrived, but I was jetlagged and didn't want to take up her time so I just grabbed a few quick things and we left).  But yesterday I took my time, wandering around and checking out everything.  And they have pretty much anything you could want, from Kellogg's cereal to Heinz ketchup to at least five different brands of milk to choose from.

I liked this one, just because its name strikes me as an oxymoron.  And also, tigers live in Asia, not Africa (but maybe they are marketing to the Indian/Asian population here).


Kenya is a big horticultural exporter, and there are lots of beautiful flowers all around, even now during "wintertime".  This one is in my backyard:

These were in my house when I moved in, and a week later they still look great:

Someone told me you can buy a dozen roses for about 300 Kenyan shillings, which is a little less than $5.  Nice deal for the husbands and boyfriends!

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

...And now I have internet at home!  Just need to get my wireless router and it will be perfect!

First day at work

Had my first day at work today - starting at 7:15am!  But at least I get to leave at 4:30, and 12:30 on Fridays.

The OFDA team I'm going to be working with had my cubicle all set up and ready for me, which was nice:

It was a good, busy day, mostly spent meeting people and doing paperwork.  But I found out I'm going on a trip next week to northeastern Kenya to visit one of our partners' projects, which is very exciting!  And it sounds like there will be lots more trips and interesting work to come, so I'm very happy.

Now if I can just get internet at my house, and maybe some food in the fridge... (please note that internet is the higher priority).

Monday, July 05, 2010

Hawkers' Market

This morning a colleague (new friend?) took me to Hawkers' Market, which is a big outdoor/covered market with lots of individual vendors selling vegetables, fruits, etc, just like I was used to shopping at in Senegal.  It made me so happy, especially as I'd been feeling weirded out by how patron/expat-y my life here is so far.  The market wasn't crowded at all, and was a lot more laid-back than they ever were in Senegal, so that was nice, but my colleague said it was just because we went early on a Monday.  So we'll see what it's like next time (and maybe I will take some pictures).  But in any case, I'm much happier having found that place.  Now I just need to find a special favorite vegetable lady like I had in Senegal.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

2nd day in Nairobi

This morning I went to brunch with some other DLIs (new USAID staff like me).  Everybody was really nice, and I may be on my way to making some friends!  Then my social sponsor took me around town a bit more - I am really liking Nairobi so far, except have I mentioned it's freezing cold?  The last two days have been very gray like it's about to rain, and I'm wearing a shirt, a sweater, and a jacket.  Weird to come from America to Africa and have to bundle up more.

Still working on unpacking and fixing up my house, but I'm not being very diligent about it - the internet is so much more interesting!

Friday, July 02, 2010


Just a quick post because I'm jetlagged and I'm supposed to be unpacking:

I got in to Nairobi airport last night around 8pm.  The airport is much bigger and nicer than Dakar airport, so that was nice.  I got to go through the "fast lane" at passport control (finally my dip. passport was good for something!), but then I discovered that that was pointless because that just meant I had to wait longer at the baggage carousel for my bags to come.

The Embassy "Expediter" met me at the bag carousel (apparently she'd tried to meet me before passport control, but I didn't know to look for her there so I didn't notice her) and then helped me get through customs.  There I was met by a woman from the OFDA office (where I'll be working) who bargained with the money changers to get me a good rate on Kenyan shillings, and then we hopped in the OFDA (right-hand side drive) car driven by an official driver, and they drove me to where I'll be living.  They said that even late at night traffic can be bad and sometimes the trip will take several hours, but we got lucky and it only took 15-20 minutes.

Then we arrived at my house!

The OFDA people soon left, but my "social sponsor" who is another new-ish USAID employee like me came over and showed me around the house.  It's very weird having a kitchen big enough to fit my entire DC apartment inside it; I started getting a little tired of it today while I was unpacking - in DC if I needed something, no matter where I was it was only about 3 feet away.  Now I have to walk all the way upstairs/downstairs to the other side of the house.  But I'm sure I will get used to it!

Today I am just hanging around, unpacking/being jetlagged while everyone else deals with official 4th of July celebration preparations.  Hopefully soon people will start to get back here and maybe I can start making friends.

On the road again…

The past month has been crazy.  Somehow it ended up that my annual employee evaluation, the paperwork for the student loan repayment program, and all the paperwork and other errands for getting ready to move happened all at the same time.  So I’ve spent a huge chunk of the past month just doing paperwork and stalking people in our HR department to make sure that everything was moving along as it should be.  I got in a little “real” work as well, but not much.

But all the stress and running around and craziness finally paid off.  Monday last week the movers came to my apartment and packed everything up to have it shipped to Nairobi for me.  They were supposed to show up at 8:30am and finish within about three hours, but of course instead they didn’t show up until 11:30 and then didn’t finish for seven hours.  But it got done, which is all that really matters, and I was able to turn in my apartment keys and stop worrying about whether I would really get moved out of my apartment by the end of the month before the management threw my stuff out in the street so the new resident could move in.  Yay!

I stayed in a hotel for ten days, courtesy of the government (thanks, taxpayers!) to make moving out of my apartment easier.  I had looked forward to it, thinking it would be like being on vacation except that I would still have to go to work, but as it turns out I prefer sleeping in my own bed and having my clothes on hangers in the closet rather than rumpled in my suitcase.  Maid service was still nice, though.

Finally, Tuesday was the big day.  I went to the airport early, lugged my three suitcases to the Delta counter to check in, and then was told I had to go check in with KLM, Delta’s “partner” for this flight.  (Apparently this partner stuff is how they get around the Fly America Act which requires flights paid for with government money to be on US carriers).  So I lugged my three suitcases across the airport to the KLM counter.  The KLM check-in woman told me my suitcases were too heavy, so I would have to move some things out of the checked luggage, which gets weighed, to my carryon bag, which doesn’t get weighed.  This doesn’t make much sense to me since the same amount of weight is going to end up on the plane, but fine.  I rearranged things, got my boarding pass, got through security, and finally made it onto the plane.  Yippee!

The flight to Amsterdam was fine, no incidents.  The landing was super smooth, prompting some of the passengers to break out into applause, which I thought was funny but kind of sweet.  I’d hoped that there would be a line at passport control for diplomatic passport holders, just for fun, but no such luck.  But I made it out of the airport hassle-free, and then went to wait for the 5 euro airport shuttle.  It was 8am in Amsterdam, which equaled 2am in D.C., and I was exhausted.  After about 30 minutes I finally gave up waiting for the shuttle and went to get a taxi.  I was staying at the Marriott airport hotel (thanks again, taxpayers!), so I figured it would be close by and the taxi ride wouldn’t be expensive.  Big mistake – the 10 minute ride cost 30 euros, and my regret was compounded by the shuttle arriving just five minutes later.  But you live, you learn, and my five minute head start put me at the head of the line for getting a room as soon as the maids finished cleaning one (an hour later). 

I’d hoped I’d have the energy to go out and do some touristing around Amsterdam, but I ended up sleeping til 4pm, so I only went for a short walk in a residential area around Central Station.  But it was a nice way to get an idea of what it would be like to live in Amsterdam – live on a houseboat, ride a bicycle everywhere, hang out at cafes – in short, European heaven, except that there isn’t enough sun for me, so I’m still be glad to be heading back to Africa.

This morning it was back to the airport for me for my flight to Nairobi.  I tried to check in at the automatic kiosk, but it gave me an error message about my flight status requiring me to check in with a real person.  So I waited in a long line to speak with a real person, and then she told me that my suitcases were too heavy, and she also weighed my carryon bag and said that was too heavy.  Also, apparently the flight was overbooked and so I was going to be bumped to another flight – maybe in the evening, and maybe not til tomorrow.  Not good news, especially when I am jetlagged and haven’t had any coffee.  So I rearranged my luggage, this time taking everything heavy out of my carryon and putting it in a checked bag, and then I still had to pay a 100 euro fine.  Boo.  I guess the overnight stopover in Europe wasn’t such a good idea after all. 

The check-in woman gave me a standby boarding pass so I could get through security, and then I was supposed to talk to the airline staff at the gate to see if I could get a seat or if I would have to get bumped.  I got ready to use my very best African bargaining skills to try to get on the plane, and I even considered trying “I’m holding a diplomatic passport and I’m on government business” to see if that would get me anywhere.  (Amsterdam is nice but I’m ready to get to Nairobi and get settled in).

But before I had to pull out my African bargaining skills, the woman at the gate gave me a real boarding pass with a seat assignment.  Yay!  And then as I boarded the plane, the flight attendant directed me to my seat “upstairs” (it’s one of those giant planes with a small upstairs cabin).  So I hauled my suitcase up the little stairway, and discovered that they gave me a seat in business class – awesome!  (Definitely worth the 100 euro luggage fine).  I don’t think it’s because of my diplomatic passport since none of the check-in people looked at the cover that says it’s a diplomatic passport.  They just went straight to the picture page with my information on it.  So I guess I just got lucky, and I will have to see if the diplomatic passport has any power some other time.

I’m sorry to say that business class airplane food still tastes like airplane food, even though they put a little tablecloth on my tray table and serve the food on real dishes.  

The reclining seat with the footrest and the nicer pillow and blanket are much appreciated, though, as are the better headphones (movie selection is the same as for the proletariat).  All in all, I have to say I wouldn’t mind flying business class again someday! No more unnecessary overnight stopovers, though – getting real sleep is nice, but not really worth all the hassle of having to check in and go through airport security again.

Next blog post: from Nairobi!