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Nairobi’s Best-Kept Secret

Nairobi’s Best-Kept Secret

On Valentine’s Day 2015 my friend Kirstin and I met George out the front of the Hilton Hotel in downtown Nairobi.  It wasn’t some kinky Valentines arrangement, but rather a very informative and entertaining walking tour of Nairobi’s CBD.

From the Hilton, we walked to Kimathi Street where a statue of the war hero General Kimathi stands.  When this statue was being erected, there was significant controversy about whether Kimathi was worthy of a statue or not.  After one year of deliberation he got his place.  Kimathi was a leader of the Mau Mau rebellion which has been viewed by some Kenyans as the great rebellion that gave Kenya its independence and by other Kenyans as a group of rogues who caused needless trouble while more formal efforts were taking place.

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Next we headed up to Kenyatta Avenue where the impressive Sarova Stanley Hotel dominates.  Inside the hotel is the Thorn Tree Cafe where an acacia tree used to stand.  The acacia tree held a message board where colonial settlers left messages for one another.  Nowadays, you may have heard of Lonely Planet’s online travel forum dubbed “Thorn Tree” – that’s where the name comes from!

Also at this intersection, a statue of Lord Delamere used to stand.  It marked the division of Nairobi – to the west of Delamere was the side of the city for the white colonialists and to the east was the rough and tumble of Indian merchants and Kenyan vendors.  Still today you can see the difference between the east and west sides of the city.

Along Kenyatta Avenue, we stopped to admire Cameo.  Not because it’s a popular night spot, but because it is the oldest building in Nairobi at over 100 years old.  Ironically Nairobi’s newest store is located inside – Subway, the sandwich chain has made a foray into the Kenyan market.  Next door is the Bank of India which has had quite a history.  It has been the Parliament House, before the current Parliament was built, and also the National Archives before those too were relocated to their current home on Moi Avenue.

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Turning off Kenyatta onto Wabera Street we found the McMillan National Library.  It’s not hard to find anything if it’s address is Wabera Street, as the street is only 100 metres long!  Next to the library is Jamia Mosque and continuing alongside the mosque to the end we arrived at Chai House and the City Market.  The market sells everything from meat and fish to vegetables and souvenirs.  Despite all the shops though, the market was empty of customers.  Outside however, the rose sellers were doing a booming Valentines trade!

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Our last stop was the Kenya International Conference Centre (KICC), the tallest building in Nairobi at 28 floors.  The second floor from the top was a revolving restaurant, but the large empty space was today a place for young couples to hang out.  On the roof is a helicopter landing pad and for a fee you can walk around for 360 degree views of Nairobi.

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On weekends there is an open air market that George offered to take us to for some souvenir shopping.  But it had started to rain and Kirstin and I figured this wouldn’t be our one and only chance to buy souvenirs, so we skipped it and went to a cafe instead.  Over a cup of tea we learnt more about George who had been taken in by Mathare Children’s Fund (MCF) when he was a child and received support from the community organisation to complete school.  MCF also provided him with the training to become a city tour guide, facilitated by the National Museums of Kenya.  George is also attending university, studying economics, and the guiding allows him to earn some money to help him through school.

MCF have trained several young people to be guides on city walking tours.  Even though I have lived in Kenya for over four years, there was a lot we saw on the tour that I had never noticed before (even if I had walked past it a dozen times!).  And things I had noticed, I hadn’t known about.  The tour lasts two hours (not including the cup of tea at the end!) and costs 1000 Kenyan shillings (approximately US$10) per person plus 400KES to go to the top of KICC.

Covering three of Kenya’s lesser-known game parks, OTA’s 6 Day Northern Trails Safari heads up to the arid north of Kenya.  Before the safari, you have the opportunity to explore Nairobi on one of these walking tours.  If you are interested in joining this trip in October, please get in touch: tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

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Bac Ha – On being about the Journey, not the destination

I’ve been doing a few guest posts for another travel blog.  They are not necessarily about Kenya, so they might seem a bit off topic.  But the blogger I’m writing for takes amazing photos that I want to share.  And it might be interesting for you to hear about other places outside East Africa as well.

The Friendly Cafe was where I met Sasha and Neil on my first day in Sapa and where our adventure was concocted.  We decided to hire motorbikes and ride to Bac Ha for the Sunday market.  We hired two bikes for three of us as I didn’t know how to ride and thought I’d be quite happy on the back.

Fog entering the valley, near Lau Thi Ngai coll, Bac Ha Mountains, Lao Cai province, mountains of Vietnam near the border of China, OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Fog entering the valley

After half a day I was ready to drive.  What fun!  Lesson one covered dirt roads, potholes, gravel, mud, river crossings and night driving.

As evening approached we realised we were lost.  It was dark and cold so we stopped in a village to ask for help.  We negotiated for someone to lead us to the nearest guesthouse and soon we were retracing our route along the potholed dirt roads and over rivers.  But this time, Neil fell in.  He must have hit a rock; the bike went over.  Fortunately he and the bike were OK but he was drenched and we still had another thirty minutes ride.

Hmong women in rice fields, Bac Ha Mountains, Lao Cai province, mountains of Vietnam near the border of China. OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Hmong women in rice fields

At last we arrived at a guesthouse where an extraordinarily rude hotelier greeted us.  But the rooms were clean, the price reasonable, and we would have settled for anything.

Next mission: dinner.  Sasha and I found a restaurant across the road where, instead of trying to figure out what we wanted, the old woman simply put the knife in one of Sasha’s hands and a tomato in the other and indicated “here’s the kitchen, go for it”.  It was wonderful!

The following day we got to Bac Ha.  What a sight greeted our eyes: everywhere we looked were colourful H’mong in bright traditional dress.  With a magnificent temple in the background, mounds of vegetables for sale on the street and women with large basket backpacks, it was a visual spectacular.  Breakfast was something we could not identify, but it was good.  For the rest of the day we munched on sugar cane.

The market extended over a large area, divided into sections.  The animal market was an open dirt patch with each seller’s offerings harnessed together.  There were donkeys, sheep, cows, water buffalo and dogs (which we hope were being sold for pets, not food).  Local liqueur was being sold from jerry cans.  Customers had to bring their own bottle into which the liqueur was poured through a funnel.  It seemed somehow incongruous to see these older H’mong women in their beautiful costumes dispensing local alcohol in this way.  My favourite section was clothing where I was sorely tempted to buy a lovely traditional H’mong skirt.

The photos for this post were supplied by Alberto Mateo.  More of his work can be found at  www.albertomateo.com  and www.thelastfootprint.com

Hmong men playing snooker, Bac Ha village, Lao Cai province, mountains of Vietnam near the border of China, OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Hmong men playing snooker

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