Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Daily Life - Yet More Impressions Before I Go On Mission

As I am about to leave for a while, I thought it might be fun to have a few
final shots of the neighborhood where I live - or, in this case, where I
walk each day.

I am about to go away on business for six weeks or so (or, as they say at
the U.N., I'll be "on mission"), and since people ask about my daily life in
Nairobi, here are a few comments.

Life is very different from life in New York (for one thing, there are far
fewer people, even though Nairobi is a big city by African standards, with
about a million people).

In the section of the city where I live, with several embassies and official
residences - the High Commissioner referred to in the sign here is the
Pakistan High Commissioner - and with the United Nations and the U.S.
Embassy right in the middle of things (hence not so many photos - it's not
allowed), you have a sense of a very nice, upper middle class - perhaps even
posh - neighborhood. And the shopping center - the Village Market - is a
very muzungu market, sort of a Kenyan version of Madison Avenue in the 60s
or Upper Connecticut Avenue in Washington. The houses are nice, as you can
see from the gates along the way, shown in these views.

Work at the U.N. can begin early, and since the sun rises and sets at the
same time each day - we are very near the Equator - I like the walk to work
early in the morning. I'm usually out of the house by 7.00 am.

The U.N. has very nice food services, and I have my coffee and a chappati (a
very nice flatbread which I would love to learn to make but I'm told it's
not easy to do) before I go into the office. As I've said, it's about a
two-mile walk, takes about 35 minutes all told (with about ten minutes after
I've entered the U.N. compound) to get to my office. Lunch is either a nice
hot meal from the African section of the U.N. restaurant or (sadly too
often) a quick sandwich purchased on the run and eaten at my desk. The U.N.
restaurant also has a section with Mediterranean cuisine, one with Indian
food, another one I haven't been able to quite figure out yet, and a section
where one of the nicest ladies in the world makes me a delicious sandwich
when she sees me coming. A little ham, some cheese, some tomato and
cucumber, and then some of the most beautiful roasted vegetables you've ever
seen, all piled up together. Great.

Each of the office blocks has a coffee stand with very helpful people
providing the service. During the day, I'll take a couple of mugs of coffee
back to my desk or, as often happens, a colleague and I (or three or four of
us) will have one of our discussions at a near-by coffee bar.

Work at the U.N. is generally scheduled from 8.30 to 4.30, with early
"closing" on Fridays at 2.00 pm. Most of the professional staff work much
longer hours, though, and it's not unusual to find quite a few people at
their desks when I get to my office block about 7.45 or so.

When I can, I try to leave between 4.30 and 5.00, so I can have a snack and
a coffee in one of the shops at the Village Market. For dinner I usually eat
a light meal at home if I've had a good lunch, but if it's been a "sandwich"
day, I walk up past the American Embassy a little farther to visit a
wonderful African restaurant. It's not open for dinner, so often at about
5:30 or so I'm the only customer. So I'm given the royal treatment!

The food's great and, yes, there are washbasins in a couple of prominent
places in the main dining room and, yes, I eat my meal with my hands (it's
African food, after all). A typical meal is a main dish of some sort - often
a chicken or goat stew, but not a real "stew" because it's been cooked to a
nice moist consistency but doesn't have a lot of sauce - accompanied by a
chopped vegetable salad (tomatoes and onions and cucumbers especially but
usually lots of other stuff, too), a cooked green vegetable - kale is very
popular and I love the way it's fixed here - and a big helping of ugali, a
kind of cooked maize flour and water combination the consistency of
cornbread (but not crispy like cornbread).

Most food is cooked on top of the stove - not baked - and either fried
lightly in oil or boiled. My two favorites are irio - a sort of mixture of
boiled vegetables - and the one I really want to learn to cook (which
everyone says is the easiest food in the world to cook), fried cabbage.
Apparently it's just chopped cabbage sautéed lightly in oil, not too well
done so it's very crunchy, and, well, I could live on it. It's the one dish
that when I see it on the menu at the U.N. restaurant (or in any African
restaurant), the decision to have an African meal is made for me.

This is sort of a typical day, but of course there are many variations, as
when, for example, I'm called to a meeting at the City Centre, or at one of
the local universities, or a group of us from work goes out for a meal
(either lunch or after work). Lots of eating together at the U.N. -
especially for lunch - and my take is that lots of major decisions get made
around a table at one of the U.N. restaurants (in addition to the one I
described above, there's a second one, a little more distant from my office
but very spread out under the trees and just lovely). You're usually under
an umbrella at your table, the weather is beautiful (the skies pictured here
are typical of Nairobi), and it's a pleasant way to confer about this or
that topic.

Evenings are quiet, usually spent at the laptop or reading (unless I am
going out with friends, which happens about once a week, but mostly on
week-ends - when I'm not on safari looking at the animals!). Don't watch
television, and entertainment events (shows at the theatres, etc.) haven't
happened yet, but I'm told by my friends that we'll be doing that when I
return in April. So evenings are quiet, with lots of reading and just taking
it easy. Playing with the blogs, some studying, e-mail correspondence (the
post is very difficult here - you don't bother to post anything because it
will never arrive - if it's really urgent you might try to get it into a
diplomatic pouch).

Not a very exciting life, I suppose. Very work and friends focused (and,
yes, I miss my Metropolitan Opera and all the wonderful evening events in
Manhattan) but since this work is - as I've said to anyone whether they've
asked or not - probably the most intellectually stimulating job I've ever
had in my life - I'm not minding the tradeoff.

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