Friday, August 23, 2013


A common, and perhaps overly used, phrase amongst people living and traveling in Africa is T.I.A., meaning "This is Africa". Throwing out a TIA shows your acknowledgment of all things awkward, absurd, and astonishing here in Africa.

Red roads of Jinja, Uganda

Over the last few months of trodding across the Eastern part of the continent of Africa there have been many times where a TIA would have been the correct response, for example why the power has not been connected to a building even when the cable is sitting 10 meters away or why people are okay waiting for a bus to leave 4 hours late. However, as I sit in the Entebbe airport ready to head back to the distant lands that I call home I can only think that TIAs are in fact almost always the incorrect response. It's a phrase seeped in judgement and the belief that the way things are done in the western world are better. After weeks spent on this continent I have seen; I have listened; I have learned.

Samburu students in Uasio Nyrio, Kenya
I have learned that TIA is the deep rust colored soil that stains your feet and the strong sun that deepens your skin; it is the smell of wood burning and diesel engines idling; it's the sound of Kiswahili, Luganda, Kikuyu, Amaharic, the queens English, and then some all being spoken and understood; it's the flavor of maize and beans, bananas of all sizes and colors, sweet potatoes, sukuma, and the most flavorful chicken you could ever eat. TIA is rhythm; it is dance; it is song. TIA is not feeling rushed, living in the here and now; it is family and community; it is understanding far to well that life is short. TIA is finding joy in the little things, not wasting a plastic bottle or throwing out a ratty old t-shirt. TIA is celebration, pure joy, and believing in mystical powers to explain the unbelievable.

Sukuma (kale) in Nanyuki, Kenya
Zege Peninsula, Ethiopia

And even though this continent has undergone, and still struggles with many hardships: corruption, poverty, war, disease, lack of resources; this part of the world still endures. So in one word, TIA is resilience. 

Africans make no apologies for their lives, culture, or countries, and so if you find yourself wandering around this part of the globe you either have to take it or leave it because, This, my friend, IS Africa.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Kampala by Night

"A Nile, please", I shouted to the bar tender at Steak Out, the local and popular Tuesday night haunt in Kampala. At 11pm the bar was just starting to pick up as people trickled in after a good days work. Popular Ugandan music was being spun from the DJ booth while a few danced.

The night was still young at 11pm here in this cultural Mecca. Although not widely known in the west, Kampala is a place with a vibrant nightlife. Bars, restaurants and clubs litter this city and on any day of the week offer up plenty to see and do. From reggae music, to pop African, to house, every night some where in this city is hot. 

On Tuesdays it happens to be Steak Out and so that is where I, and 8 others from across this globe, headed. An open air club with a large dance floor, pool tables and plenty of room to mingle, drink, and smoke hookahs, this joint was clearly the place to be that night. 

By midnight the bar was packed and the dance floor even more so. Ugandan rhythms commanded our attention and took hold of our souls as we literally danced the night away. By the wee hours of the morning there was no sign of stopping. People continued to pour in, presumably after working late night jobs, even at 3 am. 

After hours of dancing, and drenched completely in sweat, there was no question in my mind that Kampala is a place that rivals the nightlife of Vegas, Ibiza and Berlin and for a hell of a lot less USD.

Want to dance the night away in Kampala? Check out the local paper for what is happening each night. Mish-Mash is always a sure bet for a drink or a jumping off point. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Kampala by Day

Africa has a sound to it that is musical. Although it's a noise that to many is deafening; to Africans it is the sound of life: horns honking, boda boda's (motor bikes) revving their engines, Afro beats pouring out of roadside shacks, women selling bananas. Kampala, the Capitol of Uganda, has this unique rhythm that I instantly wanted to dance to. From the moment that I stepped off my 14 hour overnight bus from Nairobi I knew I would like this place.

Kampala, or the city of seven hills, at times has a very western feel to it. If not paying full attention you might believe you were in San Francisco or southern Italy. Although Kampala, and more widely, Uganda's past has been troubled, especially under the watchful eye of Idi Amin, it is a city that has clearly revived itself. The streets are orderly; the buildings have European accents to them; the city feels safe. 

In order to really take in Kampala I decided that I must see it from the back of a boda boda. Although riding on the back of boda boda's can be incredibly unsafe, it is fantastic way to experience and appreciate all that Kampala has to offer. Thankfully there are many fantastic (and safe) drivers to take you around and after a quick inquiry at my hostel I was put in touch with Walter at Walter's Boda Boda tours. 

Within 30 minutes Edi, my driver, arrived. He zipped up, threw me a helmet and said "tugende", Luganda for "lets go". After strapping my helmet on, and telling Edi that I was not ready to die, we took to the streets of Kampala with a vengeance. 

First stop: independence park and the "Beverly Hills" of Kampala where the streets and houses very much resemble those in Southern California. The yards were beatutifully manicured; the houses were ornate; and the views of Kampala: stunning. Home to ambassadors and dignitaries from across the globe, it is very clear why this neighborhood earned its nickname. 

From 90210 we then headed to the heart of Kampala: its city center. Markets, taxis, matatus headed in every direction, and a plethora of bars and restaurants make up this part of Kampala. Driving through the tightly packed streets here requires the attention and skill similar to a neurosurgeon. Dodging left and right we carefully (and rather thrillingly, I might add) made our way through this section of town en route to one of the worlds largest mosques and what is considered to be one of the best views in Kampala.

Taxi stand in the city centre

Completed in 2008, the Gaddafi mosque, named after the ex-Libyian dictator who donated the funds to build it, is a beatuiful building perched atop one of Kampala's 7 main hills. For 10,000 USX ($4) a guide will take you into the mosque and to the top of the spire to take in Kampala from above. Women do not need to worry about wearing appropriate dress because it is provided for you. 

From the mosque we then headed for a traditional Ugandan lunch at 2K. Located close to the mosque, this restaurant is a popular local hangout. Serving delicious traditional delicacies from goat to ground nut sauce and everything in between, it was clear why so many people flocked here: the food was fantastic and worth every bit of my 10,000 USX.

Walter serving up banana beer

With our bellies full we then made our way to the King's palace. With quick detour to grab some banana beer and roasted coffee beans, we then cruised down the "royal mile", the street that connects the government building and palace (yes, it was copied from the Scottish), to the infamous palace where Idi Amin tortured his dissidents in special underground chambers. Even through you cannot enter the palace itself, for 10,000 USX you can tour the grounds and go into the torture chambers where captives were often electrocuted. Our guide was well versed on Ugandan history and more specifically the on goings under the Amin regime. 

King's Palace

A little more somber and still full from our delicious meal we then zipped off to cleanse our souls and find enlightenment at Africa's Ba'hai temple. Situated a top of one of Kampala's outer hills, this temple is a house of worship to just over 100,000 Ba'hai living in Uganda alone. As we quietly sat and watched the sun set over Kampala it made sense as to why so many people congregate here. 

After the sun was a mere streak in the horizon it was time to head back. Flying down the streets of Kampala, with the wind at my back, I could feel the subtle rhythms that makes this city different from the other East African capitols I have visited. It is evident that culture is apart of life here and with every horn blast, engine roar, and hand wave I felt apart of the daily dance that those living here are lucky to partake in.

Saturday, August 17, 2013


As you travel the dangerous roads of Kenya your eyes will not be bored. From lush forests, to banana tree lined hills, to pineapple dotted plains; the lands of Kenya are ripe for all that visit. If you look beyond the terra cotta colored soil, there is the fascinating movement of people, animals, and products waiting to be bought and sold.

One of those products is khat: the mysterious plant that is heavily sought after in this part of the world for its amphetamin-like properties that according to scientific study causes "excitement and euphoria". Used culturally for thousands of years in the Horn of Africa and around the Arabian peninsula, khat is at the heart of many African tales. One such tale is that khat was one of the reasons why the US pulled out of Somalia. In order to stay away awake and alert while fighting, Somali soldiers chewed khat--day and night--and it is said that US soldiers were unable to compete next to the very energetic Somali soldiers and so they packed up and went home. 

Whether the stories are true or not one thing remains fact: khat is one of Kenya's most lucrative businesses. Widely grown in the central part of Kenya, this legal drug has created a business model that Walmart could only dream of. Once picked khat has a shelf life of 3 days and so in order to get it to the hands of beckoning customers growers have had to get creative, especially in the areas of transportation. Understanding not only the importance to the Kenyan economy but also to their own personal khat desires, the Kenyan government has exempted these drug runners from any and all driving rules and regulations. Khat drivers whip down Kenyan roads at terrifying speeds in attempts to get the product to the exporters before it goes off. Their trucks, piled dangerously high and often teetering from side to side, carry millions of shillings worth of plant matter bound mainly to Somalia. 

Watching these drug runners fly down the roads is an amazing sight. The physics behind it all remains a mystery and so if you find yourself on the roads of Kenya it's best advised to simply get out of their way. 

The Streets are Alive in Nairobi

A city that has become famous for its high rates of theft, Nairobi, or more widely known as "Nai-robbery", is a place of pure chaos. Most travelers fly in here and get immediately out, fearing that their precious cargo will get instantly ripped off. Not wanting to fall into that cliche, and more importantly having a desire to see what Kenya's largest and most bustling city is like, I took a leap of faith and decided that Nairobi was worth more than a few hours of my time.

Upon arrival into this bustling East African hub you can instantly see why many are deterred from coming here. The traffic here has coined its own definition of insane and although many speak of the horrors of driving here, it is not fully appreciated until you are emersed within it. As a traveler I am usually prepared for the unexpected: I carry wet wipes in case I am thrown up on; a head lamp for power outages; a rain coat for all wet things that fall from the sky (is that really water coming from the ceiling?). However in Nairobi being prepared only gets you as far as your matatu and from there your life is as predictable as the weather.

The sky decided to open up on us as I arrived into Nairobi. I already knew that I had a bit of a drive (45 minutes to an hour) from the airport to Westlands, where my guest house was located. However, I had no idea what was in store when my driver Nicholas looked at me with a worried expression and explained that because of the rain it was going to take "a little longer" to get to my hotel. Sure, no problem, I thought, sitting in the car a little longer is not big deal. Two and half hours and 5 kilometers later I now had a different appreciation for the expression "a little bit longer".

What I also came to appreciate is how Kenyans are able to maneuver in such chaos; even when roads are blocked solid with what is perceived as no where to go cars find ways to move forward. When my driver got frustrated with the stand still traffic he took matters into his own hands. Rules and regulations were quickly cast aside as the van whipped on to the sidewalk. As we cruised down the sidewalk and past the lines of cars memories of playing Grand Theft Auto with my brother flashed before my eyes. I waited for the proverbial "F*$! You" to come flying out of the mouths of those on foot but nothing came. At points where fingers would have been thrown and curse words spewed in the U.S., courtesy waves were given. People moved out of the way and in most cases even assisted with the new flow of traffic. 

The streets of Nairobi are worth the visit in and of themselves. Back in the US sitting in traffic is often a drag; in Nairobi the streets are alive and is a place where you can get most of your errands and then some accomplished. While traveling through Nairobi you can purchase a puppy, a bed, any kind of curio, bananas, papaya, and bunches of sukuma (kale) and more. America may have invented the drive-thru but Kenyans have taken it to whole new and impressive level.

Although Nairobi can feel daunting upon arrival, its tough exterior does soften. With a population of over 3 million, Nairobi is a place that has much to offer visitors of all kinds. From the diplomat to the budget traveler, Nairobi should be given a couple of days, even if you just come to haggle from your car.
Baby Elephant at the David Sheldrick Orphanage

Must See:

Nairobi National Park. Spanning 44 square miles, this national park is the only National park within a city in the world. Its gorgeous vistas and accessible animal sitings makes this place a worthwhile trip. What makes this place even more desirable is the fact that it is home to an elephant orphanage. Due to poaching, man holes, mudslides and elephant traps, this orphanage has become home to 26 elephants, ages 3 days to 3 years. As a way to raise awareness and funds for this project people can visit the elephants from 11-12 daily for 500KS. Although skeptical at first, it is definitely worth your shillings to see these baby elephants wrestling with each other over a bottle full of baby formula.

From the elephant sanctuary one should then head to the Giraffe Center where you will come face to face (and more!) with the endangered Rothschild giraffe. No matter what your opinion is of the giraffe, I guarantee that these tall beauties will not disappoint. Entrance into the center is 1000KS which includes a well versed guide and the potential for the most unbelievable kiss of your life. Have no fear, Giraffes saliva is antiseptic to protect against the acacia tree thorns so a good lickin' from one of them will cause no harm or herpes.

Masaai Market
A Masaai Market. On specific days of the week local curio sellers set up around Nairobi to sell you any and everything your heart desires. From hand carved bowls to beaded jewelery to beautiful batiks, these markets are a good place to go, get lost, and bargain (hard!) over prices. Even if you are not in the market for local crafts, it is a great place to watch the magic of negotiation.  

Got Extra Time: Check out Village Market with its fantastic food court; walk amongst butterflies at the Nairobi Butterfly Centre; eat nyama choma (Kenyan BBQ); and most importantly drink a Tusker or two.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The African Massage

In most western countries people pay top dollar for a massage. On the average Americans pay $75 to have their muscles rubbed down with essential oils, while listening to soothing rhythms from a far away land. Since the cost is high many Americans do not ever get to indulge in such a luxury.

On the other hand, here in East Africa massages are part of most people's daily ritual. And the cost? You ask seeing that most people live on only a couple of dollars a day: practically free.

Of course like all things in East Africa, a few rather minor details have been left out. The African massage does not come with essential oils. And it's not recommended that you take your clothes off. Privacy? Unlikely. Soothing music? Depends on your taste. Relaxing and rejuvenating? Probably not. 

So then what's the deal with this massage? You ask. It's quite straightforward. The African massage is simply a ride down one of the many bumpy roads that cover this part of the world and is something that I have been privy to over the last 7 weeks. 

Whether it's a van packed full of people listening to one of the best 80s dance mixes around, or a truck packed full of bikes, vegetables, 10 children, and some chickens, it's all the same: when we hit a rough patch in the road we all look at each other, laugh and say "oh, the African massage". It may not be as relaxing as the massages in the US but I can tell you that you will be hard pressed to find this good of a bum kneeding any where else. And only for the cost of a ride down the winding, dirt roads of east Africa.

Interested? Jump into any matatu, climb aboard any bus, jump on a boda boda, or joy ride on the back of any truck and you surely will find yourself enjoying one of Africa's greatest treats.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Market

We may speak different languages, eat different food, and practice different religions but across the globe there is one thing that is the same: the Wednesday and Saturday market.

Life all over this planet comes alive on Wednesdays and Saturdays as people flock to town centers in search of all things tangible. From bananas and corn to t-shirts and livestock, the market is life at its best. 

Whether I am traveling or at home, the market place is my favorite stomping ground, and not just because of all of the local delectibles, but because it offers up some of the best people watching on this planet. Want to learn about a culture? Head to the market, buy a local baked good, and just watch. 

This past week while walking the Saturday market in Nanyuki, Kenya, I learned the real meaning of "heavy duty". From a distance I saw a crowd gathering around two men, whom were both above average in height and muscle mass, that were yelling and jumping up and down. Was this a political rally? or some kind of dance troupe? I questioned. Curious about all the action that lay before me I walked forward. As I approached the crowd of energetic market goers I discovered that no, these men were not running for polical office or enthusiastically reciting biblical verses, no, these men were just selling heavy duty plastic tubs. Now where I grew up, in the good ole' US of A, heavy duty just means the product will potentially last longer but that it is by no means a guaruntee.  However here in Kenya, "heavy duty" really means that you can bang it, slam it and even stomp on it and it will not break; here in kenya "heavy duty" actually means indestructible and to prove this there is no need for an infomercial. There is no need for "as seen on TV", nope, there is no need for any of that fake, manipulated crap because here in Kenya advertising is truth. Don't believe it? Just head to the market because they will personally prove it to you. 

And so as I stood amongst the crowd, that grew by the minute, I watched two men sell plastic tubs like I have never seen before. Within minutes I was convinced that not only were these plastic tubs "heavy duty" but that I, too, needed one for jumping up and down on or perhaps just to wash my clothes.

Markets have that effect on you. They suck you in and next thing you know your basket is full of items that you might not necessarily need. Whether it a kilo of mangos or a heavy duty plastic tub, the excitement of the market is definitely a place worth spending your time and money.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Update: sleeping in NBO airport

As of this morning Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the 4th busiest airport in Africa, is forever changed. A large fire has destroyed much of the building. At this point flying (and sleeping, if needed) will not be happening until further notice.

The cause of the fire, that occurred 15 years to the date of the US Embassy bombing, is unknown at this time. What is known is that emergency vehicles struggled to get to the airport due to lack of water, lack of fire engines (that were sold off in order to make up budget shortfalls), traffic congestion, and quite simply a lack of communication between the airport and social services. 

Although many unknowns remain, the understory of this event is this: Kenyan civil servants haven't been paid in a month and social services continue to be slashed all while the government leaders receive high salaries, large mansions, at home and abroad, and expensive cars. 

As Kenyans search for the cause of the fire and assess the damages, it is my great hope that Kenyans, at home and abroad, start asking their government leaders the hard questions and demand solid answers as to why events such as this keep occurring.