If the rest of Kenya is quintessential Africa wild, untamed, al fresco then Nairobi is its cosmopolitan visage sophisticated, cultured and sassy.
PHOTO: NEETA LAL
EXOTIC: Pick up textured crafts with African motifs.
I AMBLE out of Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta Airport one of the busiest in east Africa into the megapolis' swirl. Traffic, noise, people. The air is nippy, spiked with the fragrance of frangipani that bloom extravagantly along the airport's tarmac. Past a phalanx of police, a few parked cars and I sidle into a vehicle that will transport me 10 km down to Norfolk Hotel, one of the city's finest accommodations.
The vehicle cruises over a sliver of tar called Langata Road. To my left is the Nairobi National Park, home to savannah vegetation and orphaned animals. Smoke-spewing factories sprawl to my right while up ahead looms Isaak Dinnesen's favourite African panorama the misty blue-grey knuckle profile of the Ngong Hills, made famous by the film "Out of Africa". More skyscrapers, a large cemetery a posthumous enclave of Kenya's colonial history and then the city a twinkling web of neon lights, concrete and willows.
Nairobi's limits stretch from the Embakasi plains in the east up the wooded slopes of the Great Rift Valley in the west; from the Ngong Hills in the south to the foothills of the Aberdares in the north. But despite its proximity to jungle, the city has an urban ethos. If the rest of Kenya is quintessential Africa wild, untamed, al fresco (evident from my safari), then Nairobi is its cosmopolitan visage sophisticated, cultured, sassy even. It has an international dimension (headquarters of bodies of the U.N.), is east Africa's economic hub, its commercial core, its wining and dining playground, its cultural and artistic base and a prime tourist centre.
Sure, political stability and the economy have both taken a beating in recent times. Obvious, even as we drove, from the dilapidated buildings, half-finished construction and downed shutters. But despite this, the city's character shines through in its mosaic of pulsating night clubs, casinos, multi-cuisine eateries, newbie cafes, cinema houses, flower-decked parks, golf courses, sports grounds, squash courts and the loveliest race course in the Commonwealth.
Not to mention its multicultural ethos. For Nairobi is nothing if not a polyglot mix of nationalities and races. The Italians, the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, the Indians, the Mexicans, the Germans, the Japanese, the Africans you'll find them all here. Blending seamlessly and ceaselessly into the city's demographic profile. Gurudwaras in the city stand next to mosques; the two face a temple, all within sight of a Catholic cathedral and an Anglican church and only a walk away from the city's synagogue.
A taste of India
To get a taste of India, I amble down to Biashara Street, an offshoot of Moi Avenue, the pivot around which all Nairobi seems to flow. Most establishments here are owned by Indians and offer boutiques, eateries, souvenir shops and loads of atmosphere. Window gazers strolling, shop clerks on lunch break, street vendors peddling trinkets, boys on bicycles and throngs of tourists taking it all in. You can pick up bolts of textured fabrics with African motifs from here, go souvenir hunting, choose from beautifully sculpted wooden collectibles, African masks, soapstone wares or weaver baskets. In fact like Singapore's "Little India" exotic, microcosmic and glowing with energy this is Kenya's ersatz avatar of the same.
Close to the shopping area, Nairobi's skyline seems dominated by the 33-storey Kenyatta International Conference Centre. This leviathan of a building has a pleasant and politically correct facade a mix of architectural styles from ancient Rome and rural Africa. After the vertical landmark comes Nairobi's famous horizontal stretch the Royal Nairobi Golf Club. Acres of green turf carved out of a forest glade. It is said that during the early 20th Century, the club's members occasionally ended up as a meal for lions and cheetahs! Not any more though. For now, with the forest shaved, the course hemmed in on all sides by serried rows of maisonettes and its premises raided by the city's designer set, the club rocks.
... and the real wildlife
Not far from the club is the Nairobi National Park, a sanctuary for wildlife. It houses the headquarters for Kenya's Wildlife Conservation Management Department and the Nairobi Animal Orphanage caring for laggard beasts who're nourished here before being repatriated to the wild. The most threatened species in Africa the rhinoceros and the elephant however, were cared for by renowned author and conservationist Daphne Sheldrick.
It's dusk by the time the park's gates swivel shut behind me. And time now to head for "Carnivore", Nairobi's haute eatery. This Michelin-starred restaurant has pulled in the punters since the early 1980s for its excellent cuisine and dιcor which is a curious mix of the folksy and the fabulous. "Carnivore" offers a simulated African veld set, dim lighting, wooden furniture and tops it up with the tastiest game meat this side of the equator. Its flamboyant chefs toques in place skewer haunches of game meat (the rhino, the giraffe, the zebra, the wildebeest, the hippo, the crocodile, the deer, the ostrich!) over slow fire in its show kitchen. Their gestures automatically become a tad theatrical if they know you're watching or snapping photos. My meat arrives sizzling, napped in spices with a halo of crunchy greens around it. Assorted breads, piquant sauces and fine African wines accompany it.
Needless to say that all those who capitulate to "Carnivore's" wicked culinary temptations exit from the restaurant with an additional, near-discernible layer of adipose! As if I cared!
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