Arriving in Nairobi: Mad taxis and culture shock

As we sat in traffic I noticed the minibus behind us create a unique solution. It simply left the road, onto the footpath, honking like crazy as pedestrians fled to get out of the way. begun. Luckily no-one was hurt as the bus sped out of sight leaving the taxi driver and I considering our options as we sat in traffic, motionless, chewing on the dusty pollution wondering whether it is better to bake in a car with no air conditioning or shorten our life expectancy by a few minutes through the onslaught of carbon fumes. Welcome to Nairobi, welcome to my fist ever solo trip, welcome to travelling.

I landed in Nairobi less than 24 hours before on my first ever solo travelling trip. The plan was to fly into Nairobi, out of Johannesburg with a whole lot of adventure in between. Looking back, as a first solo trip it one hell of a learning experience, particularly having lost my wallet, phone and Passport in Dubai airport, but that’s another story.

Visiting Nairobi, Kenya
Nairobi from a distance

Nairobi airport, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, is rather straightforward. You just follow everyone off the plane to the visa desk, pay $50 and pass on through. There are several options on visas into Kenya, so make certain you get the correct one. I had a simple Kenyan tourist visa, but you can also get a transit visa if you are travelling straight through and out of Kenya which I believe is $30 or a multiple entry visa for $70. If you plan to leave Kenya and re-enter make certain you get this one otherwise you will end up paying the full $50 again upon re-entry. Bear this in mind if you are considering of doing a gorilla trek in Uganda and coming back. All of these visas are available for UK citizens at the airport, although other nationalities should probably double check before flying.

After clearing immigration I gathered my bag and wandered out of the airport. As soon as I emerged I was accosted by about 15 people all crying “Taxi Taxi” – very intimidating. I didn’t want to get in the first one I came across as I wanted a bit of time to gather my thoughts so I strolled around for a bit but every other step there was someone else wanting you to get into their taxi. The first man to approach me grabbed my arm and tried to drag me to a car, he was leading me to the car park, pointing at his car. It was away from the main taxi area and seemed to be pretty beat up so I chose not to trust him and moved on, in fact, I was somewhat wary about most of them so I made sure I got into one with an official sticker on it. It dawned on me later that I had no idea what an official sticker should look like but I guess the idea was there. After picking my taxi and nearly causing a fight between the guy I chose and the first man that talked to me (apparently if you lie and tell them you are not after a taxi to try and lose them and then get in someone else’s they take offence). Anyway, safely in the cab I was on my way to downtown Nairobi.

The ride from the airport turned out to be okay. The taxi driver was a nice guy, we chatted as we sat in traffic, trying our best to stay cool. His driving was pretty erratic, but nothing compared to the aforementioned minibus, I’m still amazed that no-one was destroyed in that manoeuvre, on or off of the bus. It seems that you make your own rules here and I think that will be quite an adjustment.

Getting from the airport to Nairobi city
I was in the kind of traffic you see on the left!

I stayed at The New Oakwood Hotel, very basic and cheap but right in the middle of the city which was convenient but quite loud and unfortunately the TV only had one working channel playing some awful music. I use the term music very liberally.  

That evening I went for a walk. The aim was to find the Nairobi train station and buy a ticket for my onward train from Nairobi to Mombassa, but I got lost. As I walked I felt very uncomfortable, I was certainly not in a tourist area and I noticed that almost every shop had guards brandishing an AK-47 or a shotgun outside. Most of the people I walked past on the busy streets seemed fine but every now and again I felt myself receive a look and it just made feel uneasy. As the sun set, I started to feel very nervous, I think this was culture shock setting in, and it was a lot scarier than I expected. I decided it’d be best to head back to the safety of the hotel as I didn’t really know anything about Nairobi, and didn’t want to be out alone after dark. I spent the rest of the evening in my hotel, enjoying a meal in the hotel restaurant and the first of many Tusker beers, a rather nice Kenyan brew, while looking ahead to a fresh start in the morning.

There is currently a lot of investment in the Kenyan Capital

The next morning I thought was an ideal day to do a spot of exploring around Nairobi but I didn’t know where I was. I asked the receptionist in the hotel if they had a map, which they didn’t, but he told me of a tourist information place just around the corner where I could get a map of the city, so off I trotted.

One of the problems with Nairobi seems to be everyone wants to “offer” you something, be it a whistle to get your attention followed by calls of “taxi taxi” or just a quick chat and then ask for money. My destination was within 400 metres and as I was walked I counted three separate people offering me taxi before a guy came up to me, right outside the tourist office, and asked me what I was after. I explained that I just wanted a map and walked straight past him into the tourist office.

Once in there, the lady told me they had no maps but told me someplace else that would and pointed to the guy who I ignored outside as someone who could show me where. I thought it strange that a place advertising tourist information had no maps, but given that the hotel I stayed in pointed me this way I trusted the place and wandered off with the guy from outside and learnt his name was Charles and he would go on to become a good friend.

If you would like to continue reading about my experience in Nairobi, how to buy a train ticket and whether I survived the whole experience, please follow the link to be taken to part two and my walking tour of Nairobi. 

The blog above is based on a chapter of my Kindle book: How To Clean Your Underwear in Africa; Diary of an unskilled traveller. It chronicles my journey through Africa and the hard lessons I learnt on the way. If you would like to know more about the book and how to get it for just 99p, please head to Amazon or get a FREE pdf copy by signing up for updates and subscribing to The Travel Blogs. Free e-books, loads of great travel content, it’s kind of a win-win!

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59 Replies to “Arriving in Nairobi: Mad taxis and culture shock”

    1. It was my first time travelling solo, nothing like throwing yourself in at the deep end. I’m sure it’s not that bad, but the mix of the culture shock and AK-47s, I was scared!

  1. I love your somewhat detailed first person experience post in Nairobi. Kenya is always high on my list to visit, although this type of big city environment is not what I had in mind. You have a great way to tease people to keep following you – so now I’m eager to see some other posts that you may have on the losing wallet, as well as buying train ticket (and traveling) to Mombasa – keep up with the great post!

  2. You picked a good one for your first solo experience! I think driving rules are the one thing that I find the most frustrating and amusing to me whenever I travel. Sometimes you laugh and other times you clutch your heart! Great post.

    1. So true, I love that almost everywhere you go they have their own unique twist on what makes a good driver. I’ll never forget when a tour guide told me that the Vietnamese were the best drivers in the world. I thought he was mad, but then he said “If you not good, you dead”. I guess there is a certain Darwinian survival of the fittest thing going on!

  3. Yeah, taxi drivers are crazy in some places! When I’m traveling I don’t take taxis unless I absolutely have to – not because it’s expensive, but because it’s terrifying!

    1. You’ll adapt quickly and by the end, you’ll love it. I haven’t spoken to anyone who has been to that part of Africa and not become emotionally attached in someway, it is amazing.

  4. Sweet merciful ouch, you went to Nairobi on your first solo trip? You’re my new hero. I started off with the easy ones – English speaking Europe! But you just dove straight into the pool, nice work!

    1. Haha, thank you – hero, I like that ;). Well, being British I went to London once on my own – does that still count? I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but all worked out amazingly.

  5. What a start to an African Adventure! I am told that it is not safe to venture out after sunset but still, assault rifles? Traffic looks pretty much like in India and I should be able to negotiate this , I am sure …hahaha

    1. I’m sure it’s fine to venture out in the right places, I guess most areas can be dangerous if you don’t know where you are, the most scared I’ve ever been was actually in an area of San Francisco. But you’re right, a great start to an adventure, it was very nearly a very short one!

  6. Yeah! I know that feeling. Actually even between “offical” places you can trust, you’re still in Africa, so there is a deal between locals for anything. You can never be sure if you can trust someone even after days. And it is because they don’t make money on a regular basis and they would do anything to grab your attention. I personally like it because it feels like gambling with your luck. Didn’t stay long in Nairobi as I was transiting on my way to Tanzania.

    1. I get why you like it completely. At the time I wasn’t really ready for it, didn’t know what I was getting into but I love it now. I also went through to Tanzania, it really is a special place of the world, happy you have been able to enjoy it and thank for reading.

  7. Taxi lines are nuts! We went through something similar in Europe. A guy who looked very official started pulling us to a taxi, then someone who looked like a security guard or airport worker started arguing with him and leading us to a different taxi. It was comical because I was with my husband at the time, but it would have freaked me out a bit had I been solo. I look forward to reading more about your adventure!

    1. I highly recommend it. If you do go be sure to look up Charles, I’m still in contact with him, that’s what great about travelling, meeting those you would never meet in normal, day to day life.

  8. We have driven in some pretty mad taxis around the world too. Never been to Kenya, but I can imagine that it would have been a complete culture shock when you arrived. And your first solo trip ? To Nairobi! Thats awesome and unique to what most people do 🙂

    1. Thanks, I look back now and think it was a little mad, but it didn’t break me and now I just want to go back again and again. Thanks for taking the time to read.

  9. We have never been to Africa, but every post always interests me. You seemed to have quite the adventure coming into Nairobi. That was some pretty heavy traffic. Glad you made it to the hotel okay. The last time we took a taxi was in Cuba, and we got in a car accident. Now we tend to avoid them when possible.

    1. I think you can tell a lot about a country by their taxi drivers! Must have been pretty scary, getting in an accident in a foreign country. I can understand why you’d have a bit of an aversion to them!

  10. I haven’t been to Africa (yet), but this is good to know for what to expect! Going to a new place is always different and can have a bit of a shock.

  11. Your post takes me back to my trip to Tanzania in December. Although I did not spot AK-47 or weapon of any kind, it was still a different experience for me. I would have freaked out the very first day if I was you, hahah. I am sure had a very adventurous first solo trip :).

  12. Sounds like a very different experience! Never been to Africa before but African countries fascinates me! That was really funny that tourist center didn’t have maps.

  13. I think you did great on your first time solo traveling considering your experience was not the usual travel experience one would want.. 🙂 I hope you did enjoy the rest of your travel to Nairobi though! 🙂

  14. Whoaaa I really admire you for your bravery. You went through a lot on the airport and managed to keep calm and want to explore the surroundings. But in the end, these experiences make us stronger, so keep it up!

    1. Thanks – although there is a fine line between brave and stupid! But you’re right, it was the perfect introduction to the crazy world of travel, looking back, I loved every minute!

    1. Thanks, it was fantastic. I have three in my mind – Fly into Angola and out of Cape Town heading south through Namibia in the process. Fly into St Petersberg and out of Minsk, travelling through Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus or a train trip around Morocco. Oh, and the whole of Soth America and travelling from Bangladesh to Southern India. Oh dear, so much.

  15. Kudos to you for choosing Africa for your first solo trip!! Brave, stupid, same thing really right? 😉 This is the second of your posts I’ve read (in reverse order, with part 2 being first!) but I’m excited to read more!

    1. Haha, there is no order. If you sign up to my mailing list you can get a free PDF copy of my African Travel diary that continues the story. I will be adding more African blogs bit by bit though, so be sure to check back from time to time and if you have any questions about the area feel free to shoot me an email.

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