323. I laughed when I saw the key to my room, because it's the same as the address at the house at which I mostly grew up. After a painfully early morning (the sun wasn't up when I entered the airport) and a pleasant flight, the shock of Nairobi hit like it always does. Skyscrapers, an efficient airport, paved roads, real shopping malls - this is still Africa, still the same latitude, even, but it's another world from the chaos of Congo and the sleepiness of Kigali. Even on Sunday, there's traffic and people are out and about.
I hung out in my room for the morning, sorting my stuff into "take to Lusaka" and "leave in Nairobi" piles, trying to stay warm (August is the dead of winter here), and reading Harry Potter, then took the guesthouse's taxi (which is a tiny white van, a la Mma Ramotswe!) over to the closest branch of Nairobi's hipster coffee shop, Java House. Of all the things that have happened to Nairobi in the last ten years, the advent of a western-style coffee shop that not only makes excellent capuccinos, but that also has quesadillas, is perhaps my favorite. It was So. So. Good.
After that I headed out to Wayaki Way to catch a matatu down to the mall, where there's a grocery store with bottled water and a fast internet cafe. When I studied in Nairobi, in 1998, I had to cross Wayaki Way (which is a four-lane highway into town) every day to get to my internship. It was terrifying then and it's terrifying now, although the fact that the road has been repaved helps considerably. I made it to the other side, to the bus stop in my direction, and waited for a matatu, Nairobi's famous minibuses that are most people's main means of transport.
The 105 raced by, without giving me a second look. I just laughed. The 105 was my matatu back in the day, that or the 30, which stopped to pick up someone else a minute later. Every day after work, I'd catch one of the two down to Nairobi's train station, where I'd change to a matatu that would take me home. The train station is across the street from the old U.S. embassy, which in 1998 had just been blown to smithereens by al Qaeda, killing 12 Americans and hundreds of Kenyans, most of whom were just passing through that busy intersection. The matatu stage is in front of the train station, but that year, all the buses had been pushed to the side to make room for the rubble from the blast site. The matatu touts at the train yard used to fight to get me to ride on their bus - very few wazungu were riding the buses then (or now for that matter), and I guess my presence made the ride marginally more interesting.
A matatu finally stopped today, and my fellow passengers and I scrambled into our seats. The matatu was only carrying 13 passengers, because now there's a law (an enforced law, no less!) that says the matatus can only carry as many people as they have seatbelts. It's a far cry from 1998, when I often found myself packed into a minivan with 30 other people, holding someone else's child or luggage, or riding on the outside of a matatu (don't ask). What hasn't changed is the matatu's love of blasting music (usually either hip-hop or gospel) at top volume. It's Sunday, our matatu was listening to gospel.
Nairobi has become cosmopolitain so quickly; democracy came in 2002, and prosperity followed. There's a real middle class here, buying homes and cars and shopping in shiny Nakumatt supermarkets. Many people hate Nairobi for its traffic and crime, but I have so many memories of this place that I can't. I love it here.
Tomorrow I'm off to Lusaka, then on to Livingstone, which borders Victoria Falls. More from Zambia!