Most travelers will tell you that many of their memories are made at a dining table or roadside stand with food in their hand. It’s impossible to separate travel from the food we consume. When you’re on another continent, that experience is bound to contrast one’s own lived experience somewhat.
The first thing many folks tell you when traveling to a “developing” country is about the water quality. Specifically, to avoid the tap water at nearly all costs. This was my first experience in a country where that recommendation was active. Of course, this recommendation is far more impactful than just drinking bottled water. Wait, you’re telling me we shouldn’t have salads and unpeeled fruits? What about handwashing and showering – why is that OK but drinking the water not? And in a tropical country you have to be careful of iced beverages?
Most incongruous of all is working under these recommendations in an urban area, where people are clearly surviving on the municipal systems. Is it overly protective? Is there truth to the guidance? We were staying at a very nice historic hotel, so while they did provide bottled water they didn’t recommend we avoid the tap – I think it was filtered. Still, I was a dutiful traveler and stuck exclusively to the bottles. Either way, it’s important not to read too much into the guidance. It says nothing about the sophistication of the culture or the people. They are just in different circumstances.
Of course, things were quite different out in the Mara. It was clear a few hours into our drive that running water wasn’t even going to be widespread. It appeared that most villages survive by taking potable water from large black portable tanks. Some of the villages near our camp took fresh water from streams, but I suspect there’s some built-in immunity they get from having done that for so long. We continued our bottled water and juice marathon during our time outside the city. (Though the running water at the camp for toilets and showers was very much appreciated!)
On most of my travels thus far, eating out at a variety of places has been a big part of experiencing the culture. The only real exceptions would be Greece (since we ate in people’s homes several times and spent most of the rest of our money on gyros) and now Kenya.
During our week at the iHub, it became evident that most folks were either far too busy to worry about lunch, or in some cases couldn’t afford it on an entrepreneur’s budget. Without folks to come out with us, lunch was either quesadillas at the building café, pastries at the coffee shop, or nothing – we didn’t feel confident enough to wander the streets looking for other options. (We had only just mentioned how Mexican seemed the least likely food to encounter in Africa when we ran into that little Mexican-and-coffee shop on our first day. Wonders never cease.) As I stocked up each morning at the hotel’s breakfast buffet, I discovered Kenya’s love for sausages and breakfast beans, and the nod to Indian cuisine with a token curry and rice pairing offered in every breakfast buffet. Omelets were also a common staple.
We did eat at one local restaurant near the building – introduced to my coworker by one of her contacts. The juices there were fantastic. The food was my first taste of what appear to be Kenyan staple foods – fried chicken, collard greens, rice, a cabbage dish, and chapatti (a flat fried bread). A whole plate was only 350 shillings (about $4.25). Our hotel’s food, on the other hand, was just as pricey as you’d expect from a Fairmont in the States.
Our most interesting meal was our outing to Habesha, a local Ethiopian restaurant recommended by friends of friends that we met for dinner. I’ve only had Ethiopian food one other time, but this blew it out of the water. (Of course, perhaps I was just starved for veggie dishes with the water restrictions limiting my options – I was in love with those veggie sides.) Ethiopian food is eaten without utensils – it is served on and with injera, an incredibly absorbent spongy flatbread that is torn and used to scoop the food. That meal was also interesting in its attendance – through my colleague’s friend’s friend, we ended up with an all-lady group: 2 Americans, an Australian, and 3 Italians. Most of them worked for NGOs and had interesting stories about visiting Rwanda and other local distressed countries.
For the second half of our trip, on safari, I’ll admit I was a bit worried about the camp food. In the end, it turned out to be some of the best food we’d had the entire trip. Much of it was in the style we encountered at the local lunch café – our first lunch was nearly identical, with chicken, rice, collard greens, chapatti, and potatoes. Dinners usually consisted of one or two meat stews with either rice or noodles, cabbage or another veggie side, and much fruit for dessert. Breakfasts were plain crepes, veggie omelets, beef sausage, homemade beans, juice, and occasionally a surprise entry like French toast. Safari picnic lunches were baked chicken, a hardboiled egg, a tomato sandwich, a citrus fruit (African citrus seem to be a combination of an orange and a lime, strangely), a banana, and a juice box. Like a school lunch, only eaten in view of zebras and strange blue birds.
Long story short, I found the food strangely familiar and welcomed the lack of culinary stress. We were encouraged to visit Carnivore, the most popular restaurant in Nairobi, but we declined due to the cost and due to the fact that it’s essentially a Brazilian steakhouse. I’d rather keep sampling the local staple food, personally.
If you’re going to drink in Kenya, it’s probably beer. Spirits are popular too, but wine is a strange and unappreciated Western taste. We mostly stuck with Tusker beers – very drinkable, and they come in very large portions.
One of our more surreal memories comes courtesy of Tusker. Our safari driver suggested we stop for a beer in the local village on the way back from the first day of our safari. We passed several goats when walking the 5 feet from our van to the door of the establishment, which certainly added to the je ne sais quois. It’s not a place we would have visited without several escorts, but we were welcomed and only temporarily accosted to buy more beadwork. The bar itself was tiny, a single room not larger than my living room, with thick concrete walls and the alcohol locked away in a corner; yellow cracked paint festooned with safari company vehicle decals. Inside, we sat with our guides and several local villagers in various combinations of modern clothing and Maasai garb, who were generally welcoming and smiling. To accompany our second round of Tusker beers, they decided to put on a country western CD (perhaps in our honor) and before long the entire bar was singing along with “The Gambler” on repeat. What a strange cross-cultural mélange… I’m not even a big country music fan, but it was impossible not to get swept away in a moment like that, lost in time and space, singing along with Kenny Rogers in Africa. As you do.
You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,– Kenny Rogers, as heard in a bar outside the Mara
Know when to walk away, know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table,
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.