Saturday, February 26, 2011

Couch Surfing Nairobi, big goals, small world

Again I suck at blogging real-time, so here's a little retrospective wrap up of the last couple months crashing an ex-colonial African state:

A friend of mine recently mentioned in a blog post about how when you become more and more at home in a place it gets harder and harder to step back and remember to write about it (that's sort of how I feel about my head and extracting its contents for a graduate thesis, but I digress...). After a couple months in Kenya, I completely get what she's talking about. It only takes a few friends on top of a full-blown project to make stepping outside your tiny little universe an impossible time burden. The unique intensity and incestuous isolation of the expat lifestyle is easy to become consumed by -- a world of problems that all need fixed and an intimate social circle that does nothing but think about fixing them. If you imagine a world where all of those people were highly competent an capable, expat life would be an engineer's wet dream. An even with metza-metza on the HR quality scale, it's still not so bad.

If it weren't for this silly school detail, I'd probably still be in Nairobi and not sitting in PRET at Heathrow blogging the time away until a flight home (History suggests the only place I can consistently blog is in airports -- a truism so immutable that I now own three laptop batteries), but alas all things have their beginnings and their end; and this trip, along with the contents of its budget, has been diagnosed terminal (though I won't know which one till around 18:00 hours). Coming up to today I put a number of advanced life (and budget) saving measures in place to prolong the inevitable. After starting off at a reasonable hotel with wifi and breakfast, I spent about a week of the trip effectively homeless in an effort to save money, alternately travelling to the Flying Kites orphanage for hard (geek) labor and free room/board. As it turns out, meeting new people and sleeping in new places every couple of nights is a great way to expand your window to a city. You know you can get decent sushi (that won't kill you) in Nairobi?

In the process of lengthening and liberalising my stay, I began to realise exactly how small the world actually is. My first roommate was a Tufts grad working on "Digital Democracy". I didn't pay enough attention in my policy classes to know what that is, but SMS seems to be a major component. I met this roommate through some other MIT students who were also working in Nairobi. (much like you could get just about anything in the '90s by smoking enough Marlboros and saving the "miles", every problem in development can now be solved by sending a certain number of SMSes. I believe curing endemic poverty costs something like 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 SMS per country, but you get 25% off if you plot the origins of the SMSes on a map)*.

Not long afterward, an old MIT friend who's now a googler came through Nairobi and we went to show the locals the meaning of the word Mizungu, at Hell's gate National Park. Faced with a tourism traffic jam in one of Hell's gate's slot canyons, Christiaan decided we could bypass the crowd of locals climbing up a 12' rock face on a makeshift ladder by executing a body-jam style boulder problem on the other side (with an audience of 50).

This was done without too much difficulty, after which Christiaan was nearly pushed off the precipice by awed locals trying to congratulate him. Then I had to follow...

To complete the incestuous circle, I brought Christiaan up to the Flying Kites  orphanage where an Adventure Challenge trip was coming through that included the former Bassist of The Ben Folds Five and two contestants from the bachelor, all of whom were being shuffled around by a team that included BC grad and a ROTC cadet that trains at MIT

I finally also met the bandwidth provider for my project, who's also an MIT grad. It's starting to look more and more probable that MIT is the center of the earth, though I'm suspect the Harvardians would disagree.

To end, ever wonder where those old clothes go when you give them to charity? Now I do... (would insert photo here but my small camera disappeared before I could download it) The not-pictured t-shirt, being worn by a local in Nairobi, is from from my local fire department.

At any rate, I'm a little sad to be on the way back, simply because I can see the value that another month would add to Fabfi Nairobi, but I think Team TJN has come far enough that they might just be able to pull off the endgame with only remote support. At least I hope so.

Now anybody know how to turn all this into research?

The Two Faces of Egypt Air

I don't care how many miles you give me. I'm never flying Egypt Air Again.

It's usually to be expected that when you're trying to get on a flight at 4am in a developing country when there's only one airline desk open and the people from that airline are running the whole show that you're gonna need to push around a little graft, but the systematic and coordinated screw job operating at Jomo Kenyatta this evening was nothing short of appalling.  With the currency desk closed, all other airlines absent and no oversight to be found these two characters had the run of the departures hall, and were taking no prisoners:


Literally EVERY person getting on my flight was compelled to pay some sort of cash fee.  In my case, an airline container that has been taken on literally hundreds of flights, and is in fact designed to be airline-legal, was deemed oversize by 3cm, and therefore counted as two pieces of luggage (a decision that I successfully waited my way out of {crosses arms and blocks progress of the scheme to the next passenger}). When it was clear that I wasn't gonna go quietly, I was made to sit in Egypt Air's dishevelled, smoke-filled office while the two decided whether to let me off with the correct fee or to continue to anger the white giant (I think I was supposed to pay for one bag).

After a bit, they seem to have decided that they weren't gonna get anywhere pushing me too far, but the game was not over.  With the cashier and currency exhange closed and the ATM in another terminal, it was insisted that fees be paid in british pounds, even after being shown an official email with fees for different destinations listed in different currencies that did little more than prove that they could take any currency (presumably for the convenience of the customer?).

From the rest of the email, I suspect that the recent trouble in the homeland has pushed EA to crack down on fee collection to make ends meet, but the sheer number of people getting hassled was unreal.  There was, at times (and yes I was there for a while), a line out the door of the office full of riled travellers with cash in hand.

While the bag check was nothing less than draconian, security was another matter.  The simple act of declaring "I win! I win!" when going through the metal detector was enough to absolve me of any excess ferrous-ness and right onto the plane, where I was treated to a nearly unpalatable breakfast on an old plane with ceiling-mounted LCD screens that folded up and down randomly for the first 30min of the flight.

The part that's most remarkable about the Egypt Air experience is the about-face the company takes when you pass from the African to the European side of the route.  The food doesn't get much better or the staff much more patient, but all of a sudden you're on a nice new plane with mostly-professional acting staff that all of a sudden can take credit cards.

...And the entertainment system runs (RedHat) Linux: