Thursday, May 18, 2017


I visited Nairobi in 2013 to attend the International Water Association's Water and Development Congress. As luck would have it, a friend and colleague at my university is from Nairobi and was gracious enough to let me stay with his family. Their hospitality was truly unforgettable, and I wasn't even allowed to help wash the dishes although I did try to pitch in when no one was looking!

My favorite part of visiting Nairobi was staying with my friend's family and spending time with them chatting around the kitchen table while preparing the day's meals, with Mexican tenovelas playing in the background. I remember one day, my friend's mom made this amazing vegetable dish using fresh coconut milk (sidenote: my friend's family are from Mombasa so coconut probably featured more prominently in the food they made than in other parts of Kenya), homemade chapati and fried fish marinated in chili and lemon juice. I was in food heaven. I later mentioned this to another colleague who was also attending the conference, and he was definitely a little bit jealous since he didn't get to stay with a family or get treated to such wonderful homemade meals. I've realized that as I get older, while I do enjoy "seeing the sights", the memories that usually stay with me are those personal connections and the rhythm of everyday life in another country.

My least favorite part was the traffic. You need to have a lot of guts to drive around Nairobi. Traffic lights are just a suggestion, and on the highway, due to the horrible traffic jams, off-roading becomes not a past-time but the only way to make it to your destination on time.

An aerial view of heavy traffic jam along Outer Ring Road in Nairobi. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE
Photo Credit: Jeff Angote for Nairobi News

Despite the traffic, I loved my experience in Nairobi. It's such a vibrant, fast-moving, rapidly changing city, and an economic and political hub for the entire region of East Africa. I say this with the utmost admiration, it is a city of and for hustlers in the best sense, in that almost everyone that I encountered had some kind of side business going or was seeking an opportunity to start one. An example of this was showcasing some local designers at a fashion show, a first for me at an academic conference. I liked the idea and the designs, especially the patterned fabric:

Fashion show at the conference gala dinner (October 2013)

My visit occurred shortly after the Westgate attack so people were on high alert and there were additional security measures in most places we visited. We had to go through metal detectors before entering shopping malls or hotels. Unfortunately, the attack deterred several participants from attending the conference and probably a number of other would-be visitors. While that wariness is understandable, it also highlighted to me some of the double standards that we apply to our notions of "safety" or "safe places". Many "developed" western European countries and Asian countries have unfortunately also been targets of terrorist attacks, but they do not generally experience wide-spread cancellations of travel plans as a result or get classified as dangerous unruly places. A similar response happened after the Ebola outbreak in many countries in West Africa. People coming or going to any African country were suspect, even though countries like South Africa which is thousands of miles away from the outbreak, never had any reported cases during that period while the US and Europe had multiple. As many of my friends would like me emphasize, Africa is not a country! On that note, I would highly highly recommend visiting Nairobi and other parts of Kenya which has so much to offer. Unfortunately, I only got a small taste of it during my two week visit so I'll have to go back for more.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Netherlands

Delft, Netherlands

Back in 2012, I visited the Netherlands as the first stage of my PhD journey as part of a multi-year multi-institute project on Sanitation for the Urban Poor in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia (quite a mouthful)! It was led by UNESCO-IHE which is based in Delft. I didn't have much time to go sightseeing as we were holding a week-long project kickoff meeting, but I do remember a few highlights. My first impression on walking around was that I had suddenly entered a land of GIANTS. Given that I am only five feet tall, and Dutch men and women rank as the tallest and second tallest in the world respectively that is not surprising, but I really felt a bit like Gulliver in Brobdingnag at times. 

Some of the things that I really enjoyed during my week-long visit were bicycle friendly infrastructure, beautiful architecture, maatjesharing and polite people. Bicycles are a very common mode of transport in most of the Netherlands it seems. Roads are designed with dedicated bicycle lanes and traffic signals, and drivers are very conscious of cyclists. There are also bicycle racks everywhere and plenty of places to buy bicycles, parts and accessories. Even in the rain many of people could be seen cycling, with groceries in side hanging pouches and children in tow.

Photo credit: Amsterdamized on Flickr

The Dutch architecture with row houses and lovely little detailing around the roof was also very charming, particularly given that the city was built around a canal.

Photo credit: Planetware
One fun experience that we had as a research team was getting one of my fellow PhD students, Sam, to try maatjesharing (soused herring). He had never had raw fish before, and was a little bit squeamish about it, but in the end he tried it and even ate it the "Dutch way".  Unfortunately, I seem to have lost all of my photos from that trip between changing phones and my external hard drive failing on me, but it looked something like this:

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Everyone we encountered was unfailingly polite and spoke impeccable English. I'm not sure if this was a factor of being so close Den Haag (The Hague) where the UN holds the International Criminal Court, but people definitely seemed used to encountering people from all over the world. 

My main complaint, which is more of an observation, is that like most of Western Europe, the Netherlands was very expensive. Fortunately, I received S&T from my university while I was there, and my flight and accommodation were paid for. Otherwise, it would have been a very expensive trip for anyone on a student budget to make. My favorite kind of travel is when someone else pays for it ;o). 

Places I've Visited or Lived in the Last Five Years

Places I've Visited Or Lived in the Last Five Years

I've been meaning to write about some of my travels for a number of years, but some how just never got around to it. (Sound familiar?) I've been really blessed to have the opportunity to visit many cities/countries in the past five years through my research and through personal connections. So I think I'll feature a post on each country chronologically and wrap up with some of my thoughts on why I love traveling so much. Just for some background, I grew up in the US, but have lived on and off in South Africa for the past seven years.

Indonesia (Bali)
South Africa (my home base from 2012-2016)
United States