Kenya - Round The World Tour 2003 Day 73


Saturday 24th May

Today was a bizarre and interesting day in Kenya’s capital. Since we have been forced to spend a day or two here, we decided we would make the most of it and at least try to get something out of the experience. With little else to offer given our limited budget and time frame, we decided that some curio shopping at the local markets would have to suffice. We already did some curio shopping yesterday at the City Market just a couple of minutes' walk from our hotel but there is another couple of rows of market stalls just a few minutes taxi ride away in a place called Westland Market.

When we returned to the hotel yesterday evening, we stopped and chatted a bit with one of the many taxi drivers that were parked along the street immediately outside our hotel. Many of them recognised us by now. We’ve found that it’s always a good idea to get friendly with a taxi driver or some other local as this usually yields some good inside information about the place we are staying in. The rewards can often be a lot greater than that, in fact, and such was the case this time. We had talked to the one taxi driver, Henry, about a ride to the airport for tomorrow as well as a ride to the markets and back. Our mission this morning was to get to the markets, purchase some curios, get back to town to pick up some packing materials, take everything back to the hotel where we could pack everything into a single parcel and then to get to the post office to send it before the post office closes at twelve o’clock noon. It would be a tall order and we would certainly not be able to achieve this objective on our own – particularly since we also needed to change up some traveller’s checks somewhere first.

Having got to know Henry a bit better last night, we had developed a bit of a rapport with him and successfully negotiated a reasonable fee for his driving us around all morning to secure our main objective. In effect, he would not simply be a taxi driver that transported us from A to B. He would pretty much be a personal guide that drove us anywhere and everywhere we wanted him to for a predetermined and fixed fee.

After breakfast, then, we got into Henry’s extremely old and very dilapidated vehicle in which there was absolutely nothing that wasn’t broken or falling apart. The handbrake didn’t work, the foot pedals were reduced to bare rods of metal and even the front door would not close completely. Nothing on the dashboard was recognizable and it didn’t look like any of the instruments were functional. An initial concern that I had was the fact that this car had no seatbelts. Fortunately, the traffic congestion and exceedingly sad and poor state of the Nairobi road system meant that we would barely reach speeds great enough to warrant worrying about that.

Our first stop was going to be one of the many bureau de change offices dotted around town but they had not yet opened, so we went instead to the main post office in town to see about what it would cost us to send a parcel. Since we needed to know this to know how much money we needed to change, this turned out to be for the good. The main post office is a new and modern building and is quite a contrast to almost every other building in the city, with the odd exception here and there. I was quite unpleasantly surprise to hear that the rates for sending a parcel with the cheapest, land and sea option was quite a bit more than every other country that we’ve sent parcels from. Since this was the cheapest option available, we simply had to live with it.

We spent the next hour or so trying to find somewhere to change out traveller’s checks. Several of the bureau de change offices that we tried refused to accept them. This is apparently something quite new and worked to our disadvantage since we did not have much ready cash. We eventually found a place that advertised ‘the best rates in town’, although they were actually the worst rates in town. I tried hard to bargain with the woman behind the glass screen but she wouldn’t budge on the rate even after I protested that the place just around the corner was a couple of point better (which it was). She eventually sent me into the back office where I sat and spoke with what apparently was the owner of the establishment. He was an extremely colourful entrepreneur, was very cheerful and animated and insisted that I sit to have some coffee with him. I hate coffee but I didn’t want to offend the man who was obviously very pleased at having the opportunity to talk with a foreigner. I could have waited a while until the place around the corner was open for business at ten o’clock but since we were working against the clock, I had to accept his rate, even if it meant losing out a few dollars over the €200 that I wanted to change. I presented my passport and the original receipts for the checks and the owner’s assistant was commanded off to fetch the local currency for me. This gave us a few minutes which my friendly and animated ‘brother’ took full advantage of to tell me all about his family and his son that he sent off to England to study and so on. Actually, the whole thing was quite an experience and worth the cost of admission in the form of the slightly less than perfect exchange rate. After receiving my cash, I tore myself away after a hearty handshake and was soon back in the taxi, where Henry and Sandy were by now wondering what had happened to me, and we were off to the curio markets.

A collision between a truck and an oil tanker on one of the major roundabouts meant a slight detour on the way to the markets. As we drove into this one area, Henry told us to lock our doors – which we quickly did after realizing he was quite serious. The traffic jam had apparently forced us to pass through an area that was shady and dodgy and even our local taxi driver was a little apprehensive for the next few minutes.

We arrived, however, without incident and Sandy and I soon went into ‘uninterested in anything’ mode as we passed through the narrow and winding streets that had been formed by virtue of these little wooden shacks being placed so close to each other. The shacks are no bigger than two meters square and are each crammed full of various wooden carvings, masks and other wares with just enough room in the middle to stand in and look around. A lot of the stuff is repeated in many stalls but most have something different to offer. We passed up and down several streets, taking everything in and making a mental note of what we were interested in and how we would try to convince the shop owners that we didn’t want it or that it was going to be too expensive – all part of the game.

Every shop owner is ‘you friend’ and they all have tried and trusted tricks to cajole you into a conversation with them. Engaging you in conversation is the hook and once the trap is sprung, they go to work on you. The most common trick they use is to ask you a question. It could be anything such as ‘what is you name’, ‘where are you from’, are you looking for anything specific’ or any of a number of others. Most people feel they are being rude by just ignoring a directly asked question like this and the shop owners all play on this to their advantage. Everyone ultimately begs you to just have a look even if you aren’t buying anything as looking and even touching are for free – and coincidentally the first and necessary step towards getting you to buy something. The main trigger that gives the game away that you might be interested in making a purchase is asking them what their asking price for a given item is. As soon as this question is posed, in whatever form, the negotiations have begun and the whole mood of the shop owner instantly changes. The battle has begun and it is only a matter of time before the victor is known. Since they will never sell at a loss, they will never lose the game financially but they can lose a customer and since customers are so very rare these days, what with tourism at an all-time low, they will work you over very hard to make the sale. They are all much practiced in their art and the game is mostly determined by just how much you allow them to get away with leading the negotiations. It’s all a matter of dominance in the end and the trick is to never let them get the upper hand. Their asking price is always far too high that only a fool would accept – a fool and his money are soon parted, or so the expression goes.

I’ve learned to bargain very hard and to be ruthlessly brutal even, when bargaining for curios. Curio shop owners are like Vultures in that they are soon aware that a potential victim is in the area and wandering around, even from clear across the other side of the market. Perhaps us tourist have a scent of our own that they are immediately alerted to. They watch from a distance as you slowly approach their stall and pay close attention to your demeanour and anything you and another shop owner might say to each other. They are assessing their prey and silently working out their strategy of how to bring you down. As a counter strategy, I periodically ask the price of something that I genuinely don’t want to buy (it’s more convincing to display genuine dislike for an object rather than trying to feign disinterest towards it) and offer a price that I know to be unacceptable. I then go to work at haggling to get that price even though I know it will never happen. This haggling is not necessarily very loud but sometimes takes a few minutes and is deliberately very public, just enough so that the neighbouring stall owners and those a little farther afield can hear and observe. To the onlookers, this is a sign that I am someone who is not necessarily going to give in to too much persistence and that I am quite prepared to walk away from a potential purchase.

Having made up my own mind about what I wanted, I set about instigating some negotiations, which continued for the next thirty minutes or so. At one point, I was playing three stalls against each other claiming to only have one last remaining bill that I was hoping to spend on whomever I was going to get the best deal from. The three of them were extremely frantic at one point to make the sale but my final offer was set in stone. They were buzzing around me like flies with still some more stall owners egging me into their stands so that they might at least stand a chance at making a sale if I at least saw their merchandise. It was bedlam and I was thoroughly enjoying the attention, but trying desperately hard not to show it. Since it was by now crystal clear that I was in a purchasing frame of mind and was already toting several wrapped packages in plastic bags, the heat was on and their gloves were off. Ordinarily, these people are good friends and very social with each other but when there is a buying tourist in the area, it’s every man for himself. The most successful purchaser is one that understands the dynamics of this situation and can use it to their own advantage. Having haggled right through Africa, these are the techniques that we have picked up along the way and we have been able to put them to good use in getting the very best prices that we can squeeze out of them. It’s a dog eat dog world and the spoils of victory go to those who are able and prepared to play the game the best.

We ultimately left the curio stalls having spent probably less than we had anticipated but still with a few bags of some really nice stuff. The irony of the situation was that we were genuinely working against the clock, as we still needed to somehow get everything packed and transported to the post office in less than an hour. This genuine haste also worked to our advantage as, again, it’s much more convincing when you are in a genuine rush rather than trying to pretend that you have to leave soon. The frenetic pace of the haggling increased exponentially as our time to leave went from minutes to seconds. The very best deals are to be had when you are literally just a couple of seconds from walking way and even more so when you are actually walking away. Most of my purchases, in fact, were done after having walked several meters away from the stall in question. The key is to really be prepared to walk away from a purchase, even if you really want the item.

Off we rushed, then, with our winnings through the by now chronic traffic congestion due to the earlier accident, to one of the local supermarkets to see if they had any cartons or boxes that might suit as a parcel. Henry was well aware of the ticking clock and was keen to disobey pretty much every rule of the road to get us to our destination as quickly as possible – which he did. I leapt out of the taxi before it had even stopped moving to leg it to the supermarket that we had found and emerged just minutes later with a suitably sturdy, old fruit carton and a couple of rolls of tape and we were hurriedly off again to the hotel to wrap an pack everything.

With now less than thirty minutes to closing time at the post office, we wrapped and packed the parcel in record breaking time and legged it back to the taxi with just minutes to spare. Breaking yet more rules of the road, we eventually made it to the post office and into the cubicle of the young lady that I had spoken to earlier. Phew! Once we were in, we were in, and we could relax. Even though the post office closed its doors shortly thereafter to newly arriving customers, they would at least finish dealing with those that were already inside. The very nice young woman (who actually turned out to be a very young looking forty year old) took good care of us and we parted with the $45 or so fee for the impressive six-inch by twelve-inch array of postage stamps that subsequently adorned the package. We then said goodbye to it, wondering if we would actually ever see it again.

Having met our objective and feeling quite pleased with ourselves, we paid Henry his fee and a little extra for his enthusiasm and effort. He dropped us off at one of the bookshops in town since Sandy had finished her last book this morning and would soon start to exhibit withdrawal symptoms if we were unable to replenish her supply before long. We will no doubt see Henry again tomorrow when we are ready to be whisked off to the airport to catch our flight to Cairo.

With the rush now over, we mulled around the bookshop for a while and bought some books. Sandy bought a couple of short mystery novels and I picked up a Lonely Planet guide for Egypt, our next destination. When we were dropped off at Nairobi airport, yesterday, I felt a little bit naked without a guidebook to help us with some accommodation options and we had to rely on the advice of the information desk in the arrivals hall as a result. I doubt we got the best deal available as a result since they typically will only send you to places where there is a commission for them to be earned.

The old woman manning the counter at the bookshop sent one of her staff to go with us to a place just around the corner where we had a really nice meal at a very good price. Another example of how simply chatting nicely to one of the locals yields surprisingly good rewards.

Since arriving in Africa, Sandy has become more and more interested in the art of bead crafts and was keen to pick up some beads in bulk and at local prices so we walked on a little bit farther to an area of town where there would be some shops that specialised in Maasai beads. It was an extremely busy and hectic part of town and we had to navigate a large roundabout that had practically been turned into a car park due to the traffic congestion as well as the local Matati bus terminal with hordes of people everywhere. We tried several stores before our good cop, bad cop routine eventually paid off in one particular store and Sandy was able to get three bags of beads thrown in for free with her purchase of the ten bags that she wanted.

We meandered around town for a couple more hours, trying to avoid being drawn into a conversation with any number of touts looking to sells one thing or another before picking up a stray young man that seemed pleasant enough to simply want to know about England. He was apparently a student that was going to go to England in September to study and wanted to know, amongst other things, if he would be racially mistreated there and so on. I don’t know what it was that let our guard down but we eventually chatted for a while before walking into a nearby café to sit and talk more. He seemed genuine enough and I was actually glad to assist him with his enquiries. After I bought us all a bottle of soda each, the topics of the conversation started to sound a little more like political ideology on his part and a red flag was slowly rising up the mast in the back of my head. When his pitch started to turn around to a request for money, so that he could travel to England for his studies, I was pretty much convinced that we had been had and we made our excuses to leave. He persisted for a while even after we walked down the street some more until we started to make it clear that we had no money to give. Once this message was suitably evident, he was gone again as quickly as he came. Now, he could very well have been a genuine student with genuine plans to visit the UK. He was very convincing and we will probably never know if he was a professional scrounger or not. At least we were only down the cost of a cheap bottle of soda and no harm done.

Next stop was one of the many Internet cafés to catch up on our e-mail. Since we haven’t sent any e-mails in over a week, I also called back to the UK to let Jacqueline know that we were OK. Since there have recently been some terrorist warnings plastered all over the UK and US media, it seemed like a prudent thing to do to let everyone back home know that we were OK. The first place wanted two shillings per hour but we eventually stumbled into a place that had a pretty good bandwidth for just one shilling per hour. At the two shillings per hour place, we walked off quite disgusted at the steep price but in actual fact, it worked out to just about $1.60 per hour. Even though this is extremely cheap by any definition, we still thought it was a lot of money compared to the strength of a Shilling and what it can buy locally. After a few days in any given country, we tend to automatically adjust to life with the local currency. We do reflect on the value related to the dollar or Euro every now and then to keep half an eye on our overall budget but generally, we think in terms of the local currency that we have on hand.

We picked up some take away chicken and chips on the way back to the hotel just as the light was starting to fade. They say that it’s dangerous to walk around Nairobi (especially after dark) but we’ve actually felt quite comfortable here and the most danger we’ve had to deal with, in fact, is navigating the horrendous potholes and crevices in the pavements. Even with the news reports back in Europe about the potential terrorist threats and British Airways suspending flights to and from Nairobi, there is no sign of anything out of the ordinary here and life goes on as it always has.

With nothing left to do tomorrow except for wait until our late afternoon flight to Cairo, we must somehow find something to keep us occupied after we are thrown out of the hotel so that they can service the room. We will arrive at around midnight in Cairo and we still have no idea about what we are going to do as far as our first night’s accommodation is concerned. Hopefully, we can do a little research on the Internet tomorrow morning or perhaps we can call one of the places recommended in our new guidebook.