Tuesday, 7 August 2012

A holiday in Nairobi

Haresh and I came to Nairobi for one of those as-they-say "much deserved" holiday. We thoroughly earned this holiday, we thoroughly deserved it and therefore, and sent ourselves on one.

Here are the highlights!

With KQ and back

Kenya Airways flies directly from Monrovia to Nairobi with a 45-minute stop over in Accra during which passengers are not asked to exit the plane which makes it more or less a seamless flight. At least there's no hassles of getting on and off the flight, struggling with hand bags and feeling compelled to shop at the airport boutiques.

The flight is around 8 hours long. It's not a jumbo jet and the passengers do not get individual TV screens with personal entertainment. The seats are also kind of old. They have those drop down TV screens which plays a programmed set of movies. Quite boring to say the least. The food is passable - like all airline food is.

The flight to Nairobi was not that boring since we were traveling with Haresh's cousin's wife, their daughter, and a friend of theirs who has two daughters. We tried to help them with the children as much as we could. We also met someone who is associated with Liberia. He kept regaling us with gossip throughout the night (after the kids went to sleep). He kept pretending that he had already told us too much but between his gin and tonics, he would pinky swear us to secrecy. I would say, "Oh gosh, really??! What happened next?" Our friend would stop and dramatically exlaim, "No, I have told you too much and you're going to tell everyone." Haresh would tell me to wait and he would spill the beans himself. This kept going on for several hours. It was quite entertaining but the passengers in the seat in front of us kept "Shshshshshs"-ing us. We felt like the unruly kids at the back of the classroom. In fact, another person in our row told the lady that she was not a kindergarten teacher and had no right to "Shshshshsh" us.

Enjoying my friend's beautiful home

My friend is a former UNDP-Liberia colleague of mine. I know her since at least 2005 if memory serves me right. We have shared some great moments together and she's always been there for me, as a friend, as a mentor and a confidante. Jenny always gave me a glowing reference whenever I needed it - for a job application and also for when I was applying for masters programmes in 2008. I used to be so surprised to see such excellent observations about me, especially since my immediate supervisor hardly seemed to care about my career. She was always there when I threw a dinner party with a nice bottle of wine or snacks. And, she was there for me when Wesley passed away. In fact, she was one of the first people to send me a message and offered me a place to stay when I heard the news in London. I remember one evening during that traumatic time when I stayed over at hers after I got back to Monrovia and was in the midst of organising the funeral: Jenny made me a delicious meal with a decadent desert and didn't allow me to get up while she mothered me. We watched a touching movie from New Zealand: "Whale Rider."

I'll always cherish her and the unconditional support she has lent me over the years. I feel like tearing up thinking about it now but how lucky are we who have loving and understanding friends. 

And of course, I love Jenny's company, and admire her sense of style and independence. There's so many common experiences of UNDP and Liberia that can keep us going for hours. 

Her house in Nairobi is in Kitisuru, a quiet and leafy neighbourhood, gated and secured. 

I have said it already but I love her sense of style: her home is elegant but also very cozy. It's mainly whites and creams. Who can pull that off except in home decorating magazines? Jenny has picked up the most stylish pieces of art and souvenirs to decorate her home. In fact, I started copying her and tried to look for the same kind of things when I was out shopping. After all, mimicry is the best form of flattery!

The house is situated in a forest and one can see birds of all colours and plumage all day long and enjoy their sing song.  There also other bird calls that one can hear from afar, echoing throughout the forest. I enjoyed just sitting on the balcony, dozing off and on on the plush pillows and cushions, and soaking up the bird concert.

The house also overlooks a magnificent terraced garden and there's flowers everywhere, the kinds of flowers one doesn't see in tropical Liberia. 

Jenny's home was full of fresh flowers and when I first got there, I kept wondering what the intoxicating and comforting smell emanating throughout the home was until I realised it was flowers! 

The air was fresh and cool and, I loved the fresh crispy cool weather, a welcome change from Liberia, where although we are in the rainy season, it never gets crisp and dry.

I also loved the windows - large ones like these overlooking a garden just give a different feel to a home.

Meeting baby elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Jenny loves animals and through her we were introduced to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. In fact, this is one of the top 10 things to do according to Time. Jenny was going to take us to the evening feeding time where only foster parents and those willing to make contributions to the work that the Trust was doing would be allowed. Jenny told us that it was really a special experience, to see the keepers bring in the baby elephants after a day in the bush, see them get fed and then fall asleep.

We got there just before 5 PM after having spent the afternoon at Kitengela. The Orphanage is located right inside the National Park in Nairobi.

We waited for the keepers to let us through the gate. While we were waiting, we kept hoping not many other visitors would come but alas, more and more cars pulled into car park and a crowd of tourists, including children, piled up waiting to go in with us.

Well, we did not let it spoil our mood or, rather, enchantment. The baby elephants were very cute, especially the littlest ones, who were less than a year old. The little blankets they had on made them look just like little babies, which they are actually. We just couldn't stop making our "Awwww's" and "How cuteeeeee" exclamations. There is something about cute babies - human or animal - which makes us melt.

We watched them being led back into their cages and rooms, each drinking bottles of formulated milk, and eat leaves. The idea was to meet all the elephants, meet the keepers and then, choose an elephant one could foster.

There was also a blind rhino who cannot be released into the wild because of its disability. He kept circling the cage.

Haresh and I decided to adopt an elephant named Kilabasi. I was close to her cage and tried to touch her trunk but she got quite annoyed. I knew it had to be Kilabasi, then!

Jenny told us that if you blow up the elly's trunk, it will remember you forever. Haresh tried to do it, but the elephant would have none of it.

Jenny was much more adept with the ellies or shall we say the ellies found her to be more of a kindred spirit!

You can read up on each individual elephant on the Trust's website. For instance, Kilabasi's history is  here.

What touched us the most was the keepers' dedication and commitment. The elephants are not left alone, in fact, the keepers sleep with them. Lest the babies get too attached to any one keeper, the keepers are rotated.g.

Jenny tells us she is so fascinated with elephants or 'ellies' as she likes to call them and reads the updates on the website with great interest. In fact, we did not need the guide at all since she could tell us something about every 'elly' herself. One harrowing story was about an 'elly' which had stepped onto a poisoned spike and in the process broke one of her hips. She was only now almost fully recovered.

We have all heard of poaching for ivory and how many elephants are mercilessly killed every year to feed human desire for these animal teeth, which in modern times should have given way to a more human treatment of animals. To hear, read and even watch on TV the horrors of poaching is compelling. But seeing victims of poaching - such as injured elephants or orphaned babies - drives the point even more home.

I wonder how much of a dent conservation and advocacy makes in what is probably a very organised crime network. But at least there are organisations staffed with passionate and committed people willing to care and nurture the victims. It is a humbling thought and should inspire everyone to still try to do something against the odds.

I really appreciate this note of admonishment against the ivory trade on the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust website:

Every piece of ivory is a haunting memory of a once proud and majestic animal that should have lived three score years and ten; who has loved and been loved, and was once a member of a close knit and loving family akin to our own, but who has suffered and died to yield a tusk for a trinket.
Every elephant that dies leaves family and loved ones that have grieved deeply, the dependent young doomed to die an agonising death in terror and lonely isolation.

It is also interesting to note what the Trust has to say about zoos and circuses: "The Trust continues an aggressive Public Relations campaign internationally to outlaw both the trade in Ivory forever also ban the cruel trade in live elephants shipped from Africa to foreign lands for exhibition purposes in Zoos and Circuses." 

I have never been crazy about zoos either since most of the 'exotic' animals displayed there are have either been shipped in or have been bred in captivity simply for the pleasure of human beings. There are arguments for zoos - that at least endangered or nearly extinct animals are given a chance to continue existing. However, it could also be said that we should instead focusing on protecting animals in their natural habitat and do whatever we can to protect them and their environments so we are more at harmony with our planet. 

I suppose I have more to read and learn about but at least it is a start. I take such an interest in politics but I also seem to get equally fired up environmental issues. I guess there's a tree hugger in me after all! 

We ended that day with a memorable dinner at Talisman Restaurant in Karen. Jenny was raving about the feta cheese and coriander samosas and said her girlfriend who had visited her a couple of months back used to want to go back only for those samosas. They were as good as promised! The atmosphere was cozy and we had a table right next to the fireplace. There seemed to be a some important match going on - possibly rugby - and we could hear excited shouts coming from the bar. Funnily enough, one of the manic sports fan turned out to be the chef himself! He later came to advise a table of Americans (they could be Canadians but they kept asking the chef whether he'd ever been to New York so we assumed they were Americans) on his personal recommendations. What ensued was the typical restauranteur - chef flirtation which went on and on for the next 30 minutes. Jenny, Haresh and I kept rolling our eyes!

The restaurant also had an exhibition of paintings by Sudanese artist Yassir Ali.  

Morning walks in the Karura Forest

I went on two morning walks in the Karura Forest: once with Jenny and again, with Haresh. Haresh had actually gone to Mumbai for a day and, Jenny and I went on a walk in the Forest the same morning he was due to be back.

The trail we took was around the waterfall and the Mau Mau caves. Pictures we took around the waterfall made for some beautiful shots. The water cascading down the rocks looks like silk!

Haresh, of course, wanted to make daring poses and here's one of him. Notice my caption.

Haresh about to be sacrificed to King Kong's sister
The caves were fascinating since pre-historic man probably lived in them. Imagine! When Jenny showed them to me, I was in awe, tip toeing around the cave and trying to picture our ancestors huddling around fires and, speaking in a language long, long forgotten. We even talked about how ancient cave paintings seem so similar  - those brushstrokes, the natural paints and vibrant colours, stick figures, bison and animals - no matter which continent.

When I took Haresh on the same walk and showed him the caves, he started imagining the chiefs and  their multiple wives in typical male fashion. He even wanted me to take a picture of him right inside the cave. He stood at the very back of the cave and as I was about to take a photo, he startled some bats and yelled, "Bats!" We both ran out!

The walk takes an hour. I was really surprised how I couldn't keep up with Jenny when I was walking with her. I walk at least three times a week in central Monrovia - these walks are at least an hour long, if not more. But, I guess I am not as fit as I think am. Haresh was also much faster than me.

Here are some more pictures of the walks:

After the walk with Jenny the first time, she took me to a delightful cafΓ© in the Muthaiga Shopping Centre where we had a chocolate doughnut and excellent cappuccinos which hit the spot. We also got some quiche and onion and cheese breads for lunch at home. I saved their flyer since it is so cute!

Haresh had already arrived home and had taken a nap by the time we got home at 11 in the morning. We had a lovely lunch on Jenny's balcony and headed off to Kitengela.

Inside an artist's studio

One face looks out from all his canvases
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens 
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress 
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens 
A saint, an angel -- every canvas means 
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him 
Fair as the moon and joyful as the light:
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
             -- Christina Rossetti

Kitengela was a magical delight. Jenny had told us about this artist's place and glass factory which she had started frequenting since she had moved to Kenya. Not only had she purchased some beautiful unique pieces but also made a few under one of the artist's tutelage, including an ostrich egg clock. Apparently, this place welcomes anyone who wants to come and learn art. They have guest houses. In fact, one of Jenny's friends visiting from New Zealand stayed out there for about a month.

Kitengela is located close to the National Park and the drive to it from Jenny's place took us about an hour and a half on a Saturday afternoon. The road was dusty and bumpy but as we came close to the place, we were met with fantastical giant sculptures of cows and camels and other creatures. You can seem some of these pictures on the Kitengela website. I was too spell bound to take photos.

The place was so eccentric and charming. There were beautiful footpaths, brightly coloured huts and outhouses, a gorgeous turquoise swimming pool decorated with a three-headed dragon and a giant blue arm overlooking a gorge, and glass ornaments dotted everywhere.

We met the artists and their studios - just how they should be! There were two galleries where you could actually buy pieces of glass and paintings, one mounted as a tree house and one right below it with a mossy pond with bright goldfish. Most of the paintings were not even on sale, though. They were part of a personal collection.

I loved the atmosphere. I felt like abandoning my business pursuits and trying my hand at art itself. Haha!

We also saw the glass factory. Their products were beautiful and I especially love their drinking and wine glasses.

We also met Nani Croze, a lady from Germany, who first started working in Kitengela and the place has since flowered into the place that is today. From what I understand, her son is the one who creates the glass pieces under the Kitengela - Anselm name. Shops with this name were dotted all across the main shopping malls we visited. We met Nani's husband, Eric, who is also an artist. In fact, the gallery downstairs had two amazing caricutures of the couple.

Nani was surrounded by dogs of all sizes, a magnificent crane and a 32-year old vulture! The grey-haired, distinguished vulture was pottering around just like old folks do, you know how Grandpa does, with his arms folded on his back and thinking deeply to himself.

Shopping, eating, movie-buffing

I shopped to my heart's content during this trip. I bought new clothes, trinkets galore, and just random items. I love the local handiwork: wooden sculptures, bead work, leather products and trinkets fashioned out of items like bottle caps. Even the furniture and rattan pieces I saw displayed by the road sides were of exceptional quality.

We spent a lot of time at Westgate Mall since it was so close to Jenny's home. We also went once to Junction Mall as well as Village Market.

My favourite buys during this trip were a painting and a pair of red boots.

The painting was part of an exhibition by Tanzanian artist, Salum Kambi, at the Banana Hill Art Gallery on Limuru Road. The Gallery is owned and run by Kenyan artist Shine.  The exhibition is also advertised on Kenyabuzz website here.

The exhibition had some great pieces in oil: very strong brush strokes, subjects ranging from wildlife to ordinary people. I finally decided on a painting which features a guy checking his mobile phone. The colours are quite relaxed and there's some very natural about this person's pose. I think the artist has captured a very casual moment and it's quite universal.

Here's a picture of the painting:

The painting did cost me a pretty buck, even after I negotiated, which to my surprise I was able to do! In fact, I was connected to the artist Shine himself on phone so I could strike a bargain. I thought about thinking it over, going through the other scores of paintings in the back again, or even come back but decided to just go for it. I do not know whether it is going to become a masterpiece in the future but it is certainly interesting. I liked it because it has amazing strong lines and it has a quiet universal appeal to it.

The reason I am singling out my red boots is they are striking and extremely comfortable. They also make a cool 'tak tak' sound and I love that.

Generally, shopping was fun in Nairobi because they have quite a few malls where one can spend the day at. There's such a variety of shops with local brand names. I loved soaking up the atmosphere, especially at Westgate Mall. It's not huge but big enough to have a nice day at. I couldn't get enough of the iced coffees from Art CaffΓ©.

I was only able to catch 2 movies at the cinema even though I had planned to watch every single movie that was playing in the cinemas. I watched the Bollywood flick "Cocktail" twice, once with Haresh and once alone. It was surprisingly very entertaining. The other one was "Snow White and the Huntsman." It was not as brilliant as I thought it would be judging by the trailer - and I'm usually very astute at judging trailers.

"Cocktail" was high energy, had some great moments and some great music including a Pakistan Coke Studio song by Arif Lohar! I think the main attraction was Deepika Padukon. Not only is she breathtaking beautiful in a unselfconscious manner but she was extremely edgy. The part where she breaks down in the night club was extremely unnerving and touching. I don't know why great cinema is made when a character disintegrates on the screen but it does. I also loved the hilarious chemistry between Saif Ali Khan's amma and mamoon: Dimple and Bomani Irani.

If I didn't know from personal experience, I wouldn't believe that a desi fresh off the boat would fit into London. But, I have seen my little pimple-faced sister fit so quickly into London life as if she were living there all her life. I remember my awkward, incredibly gawky and shy undergraduate years more than 10 years ago and I was only able to comfortably agree with London during my graduate year at SOAS much later.

Snow White played by Kristen Stewart was quite a forgettable role. Sure, she was beautiful, white as snow and all that but I was not really impressed. I was surprised by the Joan of Arc interpretation of this role and frankly it was boring. To see Snow White dressed up in armour leading an army of heroes against the evil queen seemed like a B-class rip off of medieval period films. What exactly was going on?

Snow White wakes up after being kissed by the huntsman played by Chris Hemsworth, her true love. She goes on to shriek and scream - I guess it was meant to be a rallying call for a good cause - at everyone around her and inspire them to go and fight for their freedom. What follows is a scene similar to the opening of "Saving Private Ryan", you know the soldiers crashing on shore. Well, I don't know why it reminded me of that. The scene shows Snow White leading her heroes all on horses across the beach towards the castle where they are going to fight the evil Queen. The last bit of the movie really became a Joan of Arc meets the Crusades meets Saving Private Ryan "beach scene" meets everyone is looking so dirty and gritty and depressed.

I think the best performance was Charlize Theron and her scarred brother. Charlize's evil performance was brilliant and fearful. Although, I wish she did not drag out her dialogues so much as if she were talking in slow motion.

 The cork and the wine bottle trick

Jenny had invited her neighbour, a wonderful Indian lady working with a UN Agency, for dinner the very first night we reached Nairobi. It was quite nice to meet and mingle with her and share our stories from Pakistan and India.

Well, Haresh can never resist showing people his famous cork and wine bottle trick. I was helping Jenny with cleaning up and heard him in the dining room huffing and puffing. Apparently, the trick didn't go as smoothly as it usually does. He eventually pulled out the cork but for most of the holiday, his neck was stiff, and he kept blaming me for it since I told him not to try it.

He also did another funny thing during this trip. He came back from Mumbai with a floral set of pajamas and tried to convince me it was unisex. It went into the wash after we came back to Monrovia. Catherine, our housekeeper, put the pajamas in my section of the wardrobe after washing and ironing them. Haresh was astounded!


  1. Beautiful trip. I love it! Great pics too.
    Thanks Faz for taking us to Kenya with you.
    You know what where.
    PS. I'll "chick" your other post soon ;o)

  2. Thanks - Raquel! I wish I could travel more and see more of Africa.