I thought I would have seen a lion by now. I’ve been in Kenya for six weeks, plenty of time to have an African safari moment—encounter a giraffe, elephants, maybe a big cat. I have, however, seen lots of traffic. And the insides of malls.
A move isn’t a vacation. It’s the first lesson you learn as an expat—that despite the international travel, relocating from New York to Nairobi isn’t the same as passing through. It starts with all the tedious, taxing work that comes with uprooting oneself: finding an apartment, buying furniture, getting a cell phone, having Internet installed. “Starting a new life in Kenya” sounds fresh, exhilarating, transformational, like a birth. It’s also difficult and sometimes messy—also like birth, I suppose.
I moved here for work and love: A long-time desire to be a reporter abroad, full time, was finally made real by a partner whose own career took him to this big, bright continent. The fact that it was a boyfriend who made me feel brave enough to leave New York for Nairobi feels embarrassing and anti-feminist, and I still get squeamish talking about it. At a party in New York, a woman I know asked why I was moving. I sputtered through a too-long explanation of loving East Africa and wanting to try something new—and also my boyfriend had to move for work so it seemed like the right time. She interrupted and said, kindly, “When people ask you why you’re moving, just say, ‘Because I can.’
So I moved here because I could, and because I wanted to—when the idea came up, “yes” felt visceral and immediate. Less thrilling: several trips to the embassy in Washington, D.C. to sort out the right visa (a business visa, good for two years), only to be told at the airport that I have to leave Kenya and come back every three months for reasons no one has been able to explain. The apartment hunt ended up being a little more adventurous, like arriving in a new country without a place to stay: We initially stayed in a pre-furnished one-bedroom my partner found by asking a taxi driver, “Do you know anyone who is renting out flats?” We joined an expat Facebook group where realtors list apartments, went and saw a dozen in a month, and settled on a modern two-bedroom with sweeping views (and, like most apartment buildings in Nairobi, a very loud construction site next door). The process was shockingly slow—the realtor didn’t seem to be in any hurry to close the deal or take our money, and so we were the ones chasing her down to could give her our deposit and sign the lease, which seemed to annoy her.
When it was time to furnish the apartment, back to the Facebook expat group we went. My partner and I bought a large L-shaped pallet couch and matching coffee table from a Kenyan sailor and his Swedish girlfriend who were relocating to the coast, and a mattress from a local department store. The Kenyan sailor and his girlfriend recommended their fundi, or carpenter, a sweet and extremely talented guy named Alex; I scoured Pinterest for images of wooden beds, tables, chairs, desks, dressers, and bookshelves, and we put in our order. Six weeks later, we had one beautiful bed, but otherwise no furniture (hand-carved wood takes longer than an Ikea run).
‘This is not like New York,’ I often find myself thinking…’
We eventually met a couple who lives in our building, and they took us on a hike up Mt. Longonot—a 9,000-foot stratovolcano. We walked up to the peak and then around the gaping crater, the interior of which was overgrown and verdant. Once on top, we ate soggy sandwiches in the middle of a rainstorm, then dried out in the sun as the clouds cleared and revealed nearby Lake Naivasha and the seemingly unending Great Rift Valley. On the drive home, up the winding, two-lane road packed with trucks brazenly passing each other like they were playing a game of chicken, we stopped at one of the many men selling wooden tchotchkes and animal skins from a stand on the side of the road, and left with nearly a half-dozen pungent cow and sheep hides. With virtually no furnishings in our apartment but animal skins all over the floor, it was sort of like we were living in a modern, hyper-minimalist hunting lodge. (We still are.)
That unfinished-ness has been the one consistent narrative of my time here. I have a phone, but I can never remember my phone number. I know the street I live on, but I still haven’t figured out how the roads and neighborhoods connect to one and other. All of that brings with it a pervasive sense of helplessness, and then, vulnerability. I know this, like my unfurnished apartment, is temporary; that right now, I happen to exist in a fragile and blessedly time-limited crucible of conscious ignorance, where I know there are a million things I don’t know, and that I won’t know what they are until I know them. Still, while I realize I am technically an “expat,” that word, and the new life that goes with it feels like a distortion of the truth.
There’s much to get used to the drive home from Habesha, arguably the best Ethiopian restaurant in town, with an amazing vegetarian platter (plus zilzil tibs) and the kind of economical dry wine that comes standard in Kenyan restaurants, can be excruciating in traffic. In this vast city of a little over 3 million, things happen on their own time, which is a polite way of saying “slower than I thought humanly possible.” This is especially true inside a car—which is almost always the case, thanks to maniacal drivers and crumbling sidewalks (where sidewalks were even attempted in the first place) that make walking a daily challenge.
“This is not like New York,” I often find myself thinking as I enter a taxi from inside my barbed wire–trimmed apartment compound, where at least two guards wheel the gate open. This kind of security is standard for both expats and the Kenyan middle and upper classes living in a city nicknamed “Nairobbery.” Crime here isn’t as bad as it was a few years ago, locals say, but I still hear about the occasional car-jacking, and we carry enough extra cash at night to satisfy the average mugger.
“This is not like New York,” I repeat as I have a glass of wine on my roof while the sun sets over Kenya’s Ngong Hills out in the distance, an improbable number of hawks swooping perilously close to my head, monkeys hurling themselves between the green trees down below.
“This is not like New York,” crosses my mind once again when we hike those very hills one of my first weekends here, after an outdoor brunch at Talisman, a culinary and aesthetic mix of Kenyan, Indian, and Asian, that was so good it was tempting to stay for dinner. We took a taxi to reach Ngong Hills, squeaking past brightly painted matatus, the small, privately owned buses that fill Nairobi’s streets and often advertise the owner’s favorite piece of contemporary Americana—Sean John jeans, Prison Break on Fox—and then suddenly, out of the city and its surrounding towns. We drove up, up, up past wind turbines and herds of cows to the side of a giant hill, where we were unceremoniously dropped; there wasn’t much to do from there but walk. From the top of one hill, I could see a half-dozen other peaks; each time I stopped to look around, I swore the hills were their most majestic from right there. Every five minutes was worthy of another long pause, another photo, another moment of, “I can’t believe I live here.”
New Yorkers get a reputation for arrogance because we think New York is the center of the universe. The reputation is earned, but to some degree so is the arrogance. New York actually is the center, or at least a center, of many universes—finance, media, fashion, nightlife, culture—and when you go anywhere in the world, including Nairobi, and say you’re from New York, people nod in recognition and occasional desire.
And so seeing my new home city as it is, rather than searching for points of comparison to the place I left, is particularly difficult for me (and I imagine, for other New York exiles). At Juniper Kitchen, a popular foreign correspondent and expat hangout with cheap beer and a big light-strung backyard, reminds me a little of a Roberta’s in Bushwick, except at Juniper we sit on boxes in the warm night air and no one comes here for the food. Drinking outside to the pulsating beats of local DJs spinning at the Alchemist is what a Brooklyn warehouse party would be like if, if you substituted warehouses with large weedy lots, flanked on one side by a colonial-style house and on the other an abandoned bus. While downing six-ingredient cocktails after a perfectly spicy Thai meal at the DusitD2 hotel, I note the men, in slim jeans paired with impeccably tailored blazers and calculated facial hair, resemble the best-looking guys in the now-rich parts of Williamsburg. I picture the women, knockouts in their bandage skirts and crop tops and red lipstick and platform Louboutins, tripping over cobblestones in Manhattan’s trendy Meatpacking District.
I also do my best to bring pieces of my old life, in my old home, here. It was at the suggestion of one of my Brooklyn yoga teachers that I started attending class at the Africa Yoga Project’s Shine Center, located in a mall called Diamond Plaza which also, conveniently, houses some of the best Indian food in Nairobi. It’s here that I devote myself to the usual yoga things—to presence, to grace, to let go—but also the only place I let myself touch the bottom-most spot in the well of loneliness that lives in anyone who has left a place she loved, even for somewhere she is delighted to be. After each class, I try to let a wave of gratitude wash away the persistent little ache I feel at wanting a community but still being enough of an outsider that I don’t know where to look for one. I squeak out “bye!” to whatever stranger is at the front desk as I walk out the studio door.
This practice and the hunt for community recently led me and my partner to the Kenyan archipelago of Lamu for a yoga festival. A ticket on a discount air carrier and a one-hour flight from Nairobi later, we walked off the plane and onto a boat that motored us over to the island—a beautiful working town crowded with fishing boats. Attacks from the terrorist group Al-Shabaab and the resulting travel advisories from the British and American governments put a dent in tourism here, but in the evening, the visitors willing to ignore them board creaky dhows and head out on the Indian Ocean, the boats’ sails silhouetted spectacularly against the flaming orange sun.
It was a relief to be a tourist for a moment, and I settled comfortably into the role, ignoring email for what felt like an indulgently long weekend, opting instead to sink heavily into the sand, go for long ocean swims, and practice yoga. It wasn’t until I got back to Nairobi that I returned to that awkward in-between space of visitor and resident, feeling like I’m doing both incompletely.
And so that’s where I am now: I still haven’t been on safari, but I have gotten inappropriately drunk at Havana—one of the few bars where expats and locals seem to mix easily, and where the name is Cuban but the food is a Kenyan approximation of Mexican. I have taken long walks through Karura, a user-friendly urban forest where black-and-white Colobus monkeys screech, young couples walk hand-in-hand, and dads teach daughters to ride their bikes down dusty footpaths. I have sat at the River Café, on a patio overlooking the area, a restaurant with a little backyard decorated with life-sized bronze giraffes, and with a glass of good rosé in hand, found I didn’t have to compare it to anything at all—except to think that real giraffes might be a nice upgrade.